Hello again, and sorry for the delay. The biggest reasons for it were a combination of Thanksgiving traveling and preparing for my band‘s first gig. If anyone is in the New York City area, we are lining up some more gigs in January and February and would love to see you there! #ShamelessPlug
Coming back to Dawkins (click here for the first post in the series), it’s time to tackle the next two chapters. There are four topics I’d like to hit on, and seem to be the focus for Dawkins here as well: arguments for God, natural selection as a “consciousness-raiser,” God-of-the-gaps arguments, and the anthropic principle. Obviously there is a huge amount of material you could cover for each topic (particularly for my interests, arguments for God), so I will have to be relatively brief on each. Luckily, a lot of his discussion in later chapters are very relevant to some of the material in these two chapters, so I will postpone some of what I’d like to say until then. In the end, this evolved into a long post and will probably be my longest in the series, which I think is appropriate since I’m covering the heart of the book.
Arguments for God
Dawkins starts off by excoriating all the a priori and armchair-philosophy arguments for God, such as reasoning to an Unmoved Mover and the ontological argument. I sympathize with a lot of what he says here, and I think anyone who has read ancient philosophy finds themselves feeling very suspicious of the ways philosophers try to use “pure reason” to work their way to very firm and sometimes dramatic conclusions. A lot of these “pure reasoning” arguments are fascinating thought experiments, and can lead to real results at times, but I think in our post-Enlightenment world we are all very aware how easily you can fool yourself when trying to find firm conclusions while drawing purely on your own mental world. On that note, I’m actually planning on writing a post all about epistemology as an intermission to this series, so I’ll be discussing more of this sort of stuff then.
The most famous example of this sort of armchair philosophy when it comes to arguments for God is probably the ontological argument. Just reading the argument makes me feel as though the philosopher is trying to conjure God into existence with his/her own thoughts. I don’t want to be as dismissive of these types of arguments as Dawkins is, but I don’t put a lot of weight on most of them either.
I’m not trying to write a “rebuttal” of Dawkins book, so I’m not going to lay out a bunch of arguments for God here, but I will say that I think one of the more powerful arguments is some sort of cosmological argument, like William Lane Craig’s version which he made famous.1 I think we all forget how strange it is that the universe began in a single “moment,” as it were, at the Big Bang. Until that was discovered in the early twentieth century, it was somewhat assumed, among atheists at least, that the universe had always existed.2 After all, if it began, that seems to beg a cosmic Beginner. Einstein infamously introduced the cosmological constant into his equations—a made up term to ensure his math resulted in a static, eternally existing universe—which he later admitted was the biggest blunder of his career. When you think about it, it really is truly remarkable that the universe seems to have had a beginning.
Now, there is a huge debate about what that “beginning” really was,3 and if there is a multiverse, etc, so it’s not as simple as all that, but I think it’s important to still let that the concept of that “beginning” sink in. I also think there’s a lot of power behind Craig’s philosophical argument that an actual infinite number of things cannot exist (because otherwise you end up with logical contradictions), and therefore even if there is a multiverse it seems metaphysically impossible that it has always existed. I think the beginning of the universe at least points towards a transcendent Causer that is beyond all space and time. Of course explaining the existence of that Causer is then a problem that needs to be solved, and one I think we’ll revisit later. The point is, when you put on the lens of a theist, having an absolute beginning of all of space and time makes a lot of sense (and it lines up with the traditional Jewish/Christian teaching that God created the universe ex nihilo—”out of nothing”); it doesn’t make nearly as much sense when putting on the lens of atheism.
Dawkins mentions two other arguments that are particularly of interest to me: the moral argument and the argument from scripture. There will be ample time to discuss the moral argument later, but I’ll touch on the scripture one now.
I recently read three books4 by the (in)famous skeptical New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman (I’ve gone a little crazy reading skeptical literature lately—you might even say possessed! #ReligiousPun), so I am acutely aware of all the textual problems of the New Testament. However, I don’t think starting with “is the Bible the word of God?” or even “is the New Testament generally reliable?” is the best way to go about things anyway. I think the best way to start is by studying the so-called “minimal facts” about Jesus Resurrection. These are facts that are accepted by roughly 90% of all scholars (for instance, I believe even the very skeptical Ehrman accepts all of them), and can be used to argue for the historicity of Jesus’ Resurrection.5
Now I know that still seems like a precarious foundation to stand on, since it’s an event that happened 2,000 years ago, but I think it’s still worth a look and can become powerful in a cumulative case for Christianity. On top of that, there has been somewhat of a resurgence in scholarship of taking the New Testament more seriously.6 Sure, only the most conservative types think there are literally no errors or contradictions in the strictest sense, but there still seems to be a legitimate scholarly case for general reliability at least (and when I say “general reliability,” I allow for some myth and errors). A classic on this by a respected scholar is F. F. Bruce’s New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?
Finally, while it can’t stand on it’s own as a conclusive argument for Christianity, I do think the unique character of Jesus as well as the early church needs to be taken into account. For example Jesus was the first person, in ancient Judaism if not the entire ancient world, to command his followers to love their enemies, which is particularly remarkable in the light of the brutal Roman oppression the Jewish people were experiencing.7 Jesus also had a unique self-understanding in that he made extremely audacious claims—being equal to God at least in some sense8—while also having an incredibly humble attitude and serving his disciples. That combination isn’t something you see among any other religious teachers.9 On top of that, the early church was notable among their Greek and Roman peers for being against infant exposure (the practice of discarding unwanted babies), were adamantly opposed to the pedophilia that was rampant around them (going so far as to calling it “abuse”), and had a strikingly high view of both women and slaves relative to their peers at the time. They also challenged the commonplace moral double standard by holding men to the same sexual standards that women were held to (i.e. with regards to adultery). Finally, they were the only exclusive religious group that was not tied to ethnicity; any and all were welcomed and encouraged to join.10 There is a reason that many people throughout history have become a Christian by simply picking up a gospel and reading it.
In the same way that lifelong Christians have been indoctrinated to believe at an early age, I believe skeptics have been immunized against Christianity by growing up in a culture where it is omnipresent. If you step back and read afresh one of the gospels, and especially if you try to imagine (or directly compare) what other ancient figures were mostly like, I think it’s clear that there is something quite unique going on here. And in particular, I don’t know of any other philosophy that so uncompromisingly teaches living a self-sacrificial, loving life, the sort of life definitively displayed on the cross.
In sum, I agree with Dawkins that there are plenty of textual problems with the New Testament, but disagree that there isn’t a case to be made for Christianity from the neutral historical data that we can glean from the documents as well as the more subjective experience of simply dwelling on the characters, philosophies, and claims within them.
Finally, before moving on, I want to say something brief about miracles. Dawkins quickly passes over them by mentioning Hume’s argument that you should only believe in a miracle if the hypothesis that a miracle did not occur, given the data, would be more miraculous than if one actually had occurred. I think that argument is flawed for at least two reasons, both outlined in Craig Keener’s big book on miracles:
- The argument contains an underlying assumption that we all know it’s a part of normal human experience that miracles don’t occur, so if someone claims a miracle has taken place, it should take an immense amount of evidence to convince us. However, that assumption is simply not true. As Keener shows in his book, there is a huge number of people in the world that claim to have either first or secondhand encounters with miracles. The Western world, in particular, has to come to grips that for a significant portion of the world miracles are a part of normal human experience.
- Miracles become much more likely if one has independent reasons for believing in the supernatural. Yes, if otherwise there were zero reasons to believe in the supernatural, then miracles claims would be extremely dubious. But if you do have other reasons to believe in the supernatural, that lowers the bar for considering what could actually be a miracle.
I think talking about miracles might be a separate blog post later, because I bet I just made a bunch of skeptics’ eyes roll haha. It does all sound a little crazy, right? However I think disbelieving in the supernatural or miracles is analogous to the fundamentalist Christian who thinks there are zero errors of even the smallest kind in the Bible. Both positions can only be held from afar. Once you start really looking at the data and immersing yourself, it can be bit overwhelming in the opposite direction in my experience.
Don’t worry, the next sections in this post will be much, much shorter. 🙂
Consciousness-Raising Natural Selection
In chapter 4, Richard Dawkins argues that the concept of natural selection is a “consciousness-raiser,” in a similar way that, for example, feminists helped show us that the subtle use of pronouns makes a substantial difference cumulatively. These sorts of things take a long time to take root, but once they do, you permanently see things in a new light.
I found this section really interesting, since I admit I struggle with fully understanding and absorbing the power of natural selection. I think it’s particularly hard for engineers to internalize, because the entire field of engineering is permeated with a sense of fighting against entropy and breakdown that creep in over time. At the same time, it is my own field–computer science–that has produced artificial intelligence, and I myself have programmed algorithms that “learn” over time. The more I think about natural selection, the more I would love to study the idea of emergence and how and when it happens.
Dawkins says this chapter, entitled “Why there almost certainly is no God”, is the heart of the book. He argues, along with some other “New Atheists” like Daniel Dennett, that what is needed to explain the universe and all of existence is not a skyhook (God), but a crane (natural selection). In other words, if you keep positing grander and grander structures to explain the existence of everything, you end up in an impossible infinite regress. But if you start with something inherently very simple (i.e. natural selection), then you have a bootstrapping mechanism that gets the whole show going.
I think a few things need to be said here. First, Christian philosophers have responded by saying that God is actually inherently very simple. But I’ll leave that up to the professional philosophers to argue about. I think the second and more important point to note is that even with natural selection I think there is an intuitive sense that there has to be something latent in creation to allow natural selection to work in the first place. First, of course, you need the raw materials, but beyond that, things need to be setup in a particular way so that natural selection can do its thing. Specifically, the universe (or multiverse) would have to have laws and physical constants that are finely tuned for it. We’ll get to more of that in a second, but wanted to note that here.
Dawkins passionately argues for the inherently simplicity and power of the idea of natural selection as the Great Crane that built us all, but to me it’s in the end unconvincing as an ultimate explanation because the universe seems still too pre-programmed on a fundamental level as a prerequisite for natural selection to work. I do think Dawkins makes a powerful point here though, that we are in a sense just beginning as a species to fully understand the power of natural selection, not least because of the timescale it works on. And as we understand more and more of the universe maybe we’ll see larger and more fundamental instances of it at work, explaining much of what we see and discover. I’m definitely open to this, but I have trouble seeing how it could go all the way to explain the initial conditions of the universe/multiverse. Speaking of which…
The anthropic principle
Dawkins moves on from explaining the complexity of life to the complexity of the universe, namely the improbable fine tuning of the universe’s constants. The reason this fine-tuning is a much more serious problem for atheists than the complexity of life is the fact that there is no known system of natural selection at work to “select” a universe that’s suitable for life. That’s why the move to a multiverse is very popular, since you then have potentially an infinite number of universes, all with different laws and fundamental constants and, by way of the anthropic principle, we find ourselves in one of the life-permitting ones.
While I understand there are a few potential reasons to believe in the multiverse apart from solving the problem of fine-tuning (in particular, it’s a consequence of string theory), it still seems to be a very tentative idea.11 On top of that, there are some serious obstacles to explaining a multiverse without a God: Boltzmann brains, the fact that the multiverse itself probably had to have beginning due to both philosophical reasons and cosmological findings,12 and the fact that the multiverse itself would then seem to need to be fine-tuned. Therefore you’ve simply pushed the problem back a step. Atheist cosmologist Sean Carroll recently said in an interview that the argument from Fine-Tuning is probably the best argument there is for a God (although, as a good atheist, he said he still thinks it’s not a very good argument).13
In the end, Dawkins holds out hope that a mechanism analogous to natural selection will be discovered for the evolution of the cosmos at the largest scale. It’s a definite possibility in my mind that something like that could be found, but at some point one must ask, is this not [natural process]-of-the-gaps? That leads me to the next and final topic.
God-of-the-gaps and settling for ignorance
Some of the discussion of God-of-the-gaps-style arguments ends up reducing to burden of proof debates that I discussed in my last post. Instead of going down that route, I want to take a different approach here. Yes, I wholeheartedly agree that, in general, we should look for natural processes first before resorting to the supernatural. However, there comes a point where you must choose if you will never, ever, ever allow the supernatural into the picture or if you will. And you can only ban the supernatural from all discussion based on a naturalist assumption; you can’t prove naturalism with naturalism.
My question is, what if in the end there really is something supernatural out there? If so, then we are condemned to permanently ignore it by assuming naturalism as our starting point. So it seems to me that we need to be at least open to the supernatural, even if we continually look for natural explanations in the meantime.
I understand Dawkins’ concern for “settling for ignorance” when falling back on God-of-the-gaps arguments, but I think that’s a false dichotomy. For instance, I’m perfectly happy to investigate possible natural causes behind a miracle claim, while also holding the possibility in my mind that a miracle truly occurred. To me, that seems like the only possible way of both not settling for ignorance but also keeping an open mind. A permanent, uncompromising commitment to naturalism itself, by definition, ends up being a commitment to ignorance towards the supernatural, should it exist in the end. I’d rather not be ignorant in either direction. 😉
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- Here’s a 4-minute introduction to the Kalam cosmological argument: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6CulBuMCLg0
- “In the 1920s and 1930s almost every major cosmologist preferred an eternal steady state universe, and several complained that the beginning of time implied by the Big Bang imported religious concepts into physics; this objection was later repeated by supporters of the steady state theory” -from the Wikipedia article on the Big Bang, referencing a Princeton publication
- William Lane Craig vs Sean Carroll is probably the best discussion I’ve heard on this topic.
- Misquoting Jesus, Jesus Interrupted, and How Jesus Became God
- This is a decent introduction on the minimal facts approach: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ay_Db4RwZ_M
- Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham is a great example
- I believe I got this historical tidbit from Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God
- While it’s up for debate if Jesus claimed to literally be God, it seems that most scholars at least grant that Jesus made bold claims about himself, e.g. that he had the authority to forgive sins (which is usually exclusively God’s authority).
- “This is the paradox of Jesus. His claims sound like the ravings of a lunatic, but he shows no sign of being a fanatic, a neurotic or, still less, a psychotic. On the contrary, he comes before us in the pages of the Gospels as the most balanced and integrated of human beings. Consider in particular his humility. His claims for himself are very disturbing, because they are so self-centred; yet in his behaviour he was clothed with humility. His claims sound proud, but he was humble. I see this paradox at its sharpest when he was with his disciples in the upper room before he died. He said he was their lord, their teacher and their judge, but he took a towel, got on his hands and knees, and washed their feet like a common slave. Is this not unique in the history of the world? There have been lots of arrogant people, but they have all behaved like it. There have also been humble people, but they have not made great claims for themselves. It is the combination of egocentricity and humility that is so startling—the egocentricity of his teaching and the humility of his behaviour. Why am I a Christian? Intellectually speaking, it is because of the paradox of Jesus Christ. It is because he, who claimed to be his disciples’ Lord, humbled himself to be their servant.” -from John Stott’s Why I Am A Christian
- I’m getting all this in particular from Larry Hurtado’s Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World and the section on Paul’s view of women in Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus
- See this article in Scientific American by an highly respected Christian cosmologist: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/does-the-multiverse-really-exist/
- See note 1.
- Interview on Unbelievable?: https://www.premierchristianradio.com/Shows/Saturday/Unbelievable/Episodes/Unbelievable-Does-God-or-Naturalism-best-explain-the-Universe-Sean-Carroll-vs-Luke-Barnes