Rebutting an atheist argument against theism

The purpose of this post is to give a rebuttal to one atheist argument against theism. This argument was suggested by Richard Dawkins in the book The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design and in the book The God Delusion. The argument was also repeated by my friend Bennion in the comments of my previous post. The argument goes something like this:

Any attempt to explain the astonishing variety of life by a hypothesis involving design is misguided because any being able to create life would itself have to be just as complex. In other words, one cannot explain life by invoking a designer or creator, because that does not explain the life of the creator. In The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins puts it this way:

Organized complexity is the thing that we are having difficulty in explaining. Once we are allowed simply to postulate organized complexity, if only the organized complexity of the DNA/protein replicating machine, it is relatively easy to invoke it as a generator of yet more organized complexity…. But of course any God capable of intelligently designing something as complex as the DNA/protein machine must have been at least as complex and organized as that machine itself… To explain the origin of the DNA/protein machine by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer.

Bennion echoed a similar point:

If you posit, for example, that life was created by God, that doesn’t solve the problem at all because you haven’t explained how God came to exist, and that problem is far bigger than how life came to exist, because God is so much more complicated than a simple chain of self-replicating chemicals.

I will offer rebuttals for this argument from the perspectives of traditional Christianity and LDS theology (Mormonism).

Point 1
Dawkins’ argument makes the mistake of trying to discredit one explanation for a particular manifestation of life by saying that it doesn’t give an ultimate explanation of life in general. Alvin Plantinga illustrates this point with the following thought experiment.

Suppose we land on an alien planet orbiting a distant star and discover some machine-like objects that look and work just like a 1941 Allis Chalmers tractor; our leader says “there must be intelligent beings on this planet—look at those tractors.” A sophomore philosophy student on the expedition objects: “Hey, hold on a minute! You have explained nothing at all! Any intelligent life that designed those tractors would have to be at least as complex as they are!” No doubt we’d tell him a little learning is a dangerous thing and advise him to take the next rocket ship home and enroll in another philosophy course or two.

The point is that the leader was not trying to give an ultimate explanation of organized complexity. He was only trying to explain one particular manifestation of it—the tractors. In this context it is perfectly reasonable to explain one manifestation of organized complexity with another. Similarly theists are not trying to give an ultimate explanation for all organized complexity (including God) when they invoke God as an explanation for organized complexity.

Point 2
Well, what about that ultimate explanation? Wouldn’t Dawkins’ argument apply to a theist’s ultimate explanation of God? What is the explanation for God?

There are certain questions that are simply incoherent to ask. For instance the question, “What is the proof for rationality?” This question is incoherent because any argument for rationality must already presupposes rationality. One cannot say that science proves that rationality is valid because science already uses rationality to assimilate evidence and come to conclusions. Also, the question, “Why is there something instead of nothing?” is incoherent because all explanations already presuppose that something exists. All explanations end in existence. There just can’t be any explanation for it. It just is.

Similarly, the question “What explains an eternal being?” is an incoherent question. If God exists then there couldn’t be any ultimate explanation for God because God is an eternal being. Atheists likewise don’t have any explanation for elementary particles or the laws of nature. They must simply take it for granted that all explanations eventually bottom out in brute facts. The God hypothesis does not explain the existence of God, and naturalistic physicalism does not explain the laws of physics.

Point 3
Dawkins’ argument is circular because it assumes what it is trying to prove. Dawkins simply starts with the assumption that nature is the way he thinks it is, then tries to show that nature is the way he thinks it is. He assumes that nature is such that any being that exists would have to be created according to the physical laws as he sees them. Then he uses that assumption to show that any explanation for life cannot invoke God since God would have had to be created according to the physical laws as Dawkins sees them.

Dawkins’ argument does not apply to theists because he arbitrarily assumes that God is created. Therefore, theists do not believe in the God that Dawkins is calling into question. His argument does not apply.

In this blog post, I have attempted to rebut one of Dawkins’ primary arguments against God. I have argued that it confuses an explanation for a particular manifestation for life with an explanation for an ultimate explanation of all life (including God). I argued that Dawkins’ argument is trying to address a question that is not coherent. And I have argued that Dawkins’ argument is circular.

Richard Dawkins’ laments the fact that roughly 40% of Americans do not believe in evolution. I share this concern since it seems to me that the science behind evolution is quite solid and has been useful making medical advances and understanding the history of our beautiful planet. When I personally study about evolution and the variety of life, I feel a sense of awe at the beauty and wonder of nature. Sometimes, I feel closer to God when I study the theory of evolution. So I am concerned that many American’s are missing out on this understanding and experience.

Dawkins is a wonderful biologist. I have read his book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution several times. I own the audiobook and the hardcover. I highly recommend it. Dawkins’ descriptions of orchids, bats, moths, and fish are just a delight to read.

While Dawkins is a very good biologist, he is a poor philosopher. Dawkins pretends that his arguments are scientific when they are really philosophical. The subtitle of Dawkins book, The Blind Watchmaker says that the purpose of his book is to show how evolution reveals a universe without design. Dawkins inevitably fails because the theory of evolution has nothing to say about the existence of God or a designer.

I believe that one of the reasons why many people don’t believe in evolution is that they are constantly told by the “experts” like Dawkins that evolution shows that God doesn’t exist. I think these pronouncements by the atheists like Dawkins are harmful for 3 reasons. (1) They confuse philosophy and science, (2) they cause many well-meaning religious people to close off to scientific claims about evolution, and (3) they cause many well-meaning people to close off to atheists in general—many of whom are quite reasonable and have important things to say. If more theists understood that evolution does not threaten their faith, but can possibly enhance their faith, then more people would embrace the theory of evolution.

Discussion5 Comments Category Human Nature, Logic, Metaphysics, Religion, Science Tags , , , , ,

About gavitron

Philosophy, money, design

5 Responses to Rebutting an atheist argument against theism

  1. I’m glad you’re devoting some blog posts to this topic, because this is a central argument of modern atheists, and is worthy of consideration. Your ideas are very interesting, and you’re a great writer. So I’ll get right to my response:

    In “Point 1″ you suggest that God is not an ultimate explanation, just a proximate explanation for complexity. Then, in “Point 2,” you disallow asking for an explanation for God’s existence. So, if there is no further explanation beyond God, then wouldn’t that make God the ultimate explanation?

    If we’re talking about a religious God who intervenes in human affairs, answers prayers, and forgives sins, then that seems to entail some complexity, making Him vulnerable to Dawkins’ argument.

    On “Point 3,” I don’t think Dawkins’ argument is circular. His conclusion (God’s existence is unlikely) is different than his assumption (natural laws apply). I agree that he is making an assumption here, but I think it’s a very defensible assumption, and I’ll provide a couple of arguments for it.

    First of all, throughout the history of science, the more we’ve learned about how the world works, the more we’ve been able to ascribe to natural laws. The whole trend has been towards more and more evidence for a naturalistic worldview. We haven’t observed anything scientifically that requires postulating anything supernatural. If all of the life and intelligence we have ever observed follows or is explained by the laws of physics, then what are the chances of life and intelligence existing that is of a nature that is totally different than everything we have ever observed? I’d assign that a low probability, especially when there are decent historical, psychological, and evolutionary explanations for why the concept of “God” exists.

    Secondly, there are some sound reasons for some of the laws of physics and why they exist. I’m going to summarize a bit from “The Comprehensible Cosmos” by Victor Stenger. In order for a physical law to exist, it must be applied identically regardless of the point of view of the observer. With this single assumption, point-of-view-invariance, many of the great laws of physics like the Law of Conservation of Energy, Newtonian mechanics, and the theory of relativity, arise from this simple assumption alone. In other words, not only in our existence, but in any form of existence governed by law, these laws must apply. They did not come from God, and were not created by God, but are innate in existence.

    So there are some reasons why I think Dawkins’ assumption is reasonable. It’s not proof, but given the incredible nature of the claims about God and His abilities and actions, and the very questionable and shaky evidence that is presented for His existence, I conclude that He almost certainly doesn’t exist.

  2. So let me first address these comments as if I was a tradition Christian philosopher. Then I will address it as a Mormon. I think it is important to address Dawkins’ argument from the perspective of tradition Christianity because that is presumably what Dawkins is more familiar with.
    TC=Traditional Christian

    TC1: In point 1 and 2, I am trying to express the thought that no one is trying to explain why God exists because it is not coherent to explain the existence of something eternal. And I am trying to show that it is appropriate to invoke God to try to explain organized complexity even though that same explanation does not explain God himself. God is the ultimate explanation for everything—except for God himself.

    TC2: God would only be subject to Dawkins’ argument if God was a created being that somehow emerged based on the laws of physics as we understand them. Since God is an eternal being by definition, then the thought that God is complex is irrelevant. Again, it just doesn’t make sense to ask for an explanation for something that is eternal.

    TC3: God by definition is a necessary being. That means that in every possible universe, God exists. Therefore the probability that God exists is exactly 1. This point isn’t meant to be an argument for God’s existence; it is simply expressing the thought that Dawkins’ argument doesn’t apply to the Christian concept of God.

    B: You gave 2 reasons why you thought that Dawkins’ assumptions were reasonable.
    • The first is that Dawkins’ naturalistic assumptions match up with what we observe according to science. I have a lot to comment about this, but I won’t write it here (though I started to). I will just say that naturalism is a not a scientific hypothesis. It is a vague philosophical assumption that means different things to different people. Saying that one believes in naturalism is kind of like saying that one believes in World Peace. I do not think it is well defined at all. In any event, this addresses a different argument than the one I was specifically trying to address in my blog post. I’d like to write more about this topic in the future to allow for a more thorough conversation about this specific point.
    • The second reason you gave in support of Dawkins’ assumption is that there really is an explanation for the laws of physics. I don’t think the (admittedly brief) explanation you gave does explain the laws of physics. It only explains an assumption that is necessary to comprehend the laws of physics. But let’s set that aside and suppose that there could be an explanation for the laws of physics. Let’s call that explanation “X”. Then we still have the same problem. What explains “X”? Eventually all explanations have to stop somewhere—for Traditional Christianity all explanations stop in God, for atheists they stop in the laws of physics (or X if X explains physics), for Mormon theology they stop in BOTH God AND the laws of physics.

    This reply is getting too long so I will stop here. I will finish the Mormon version of the story in a new blog post later this weak.

  3. Ok, I think I should come at this from a different angle. I’m going to change my position slightly, because I think it will clarify Dawkins’ argument. I’m going to change, at least temporarily, from naturalist, to skeptic, meaning “accept what there is solid evidence for, remain skeptical about what there isn’t.” I think there is evidence for naturalism, but let’s put that aside for a moment.

    How does a skeptic determine how much evidence he ought to demand before believing a theory? Well, if he’s fairly convinced of the basic conclusions of science, then he probably believes in the big bang, the laws of physics, and evolution. If he reads a scientific hypothesis in Scientific American, how much evidence should he demand before he believes that hypothesis? If it fits in very well with other scientific theories, maybe not very much. If it contradicts some point of previous scientific theory, he ought to demand more evidence. If it contradicts the theory of evolution, he ought to demand a great deal of evidence before accepting that hypothesis. If the hypothesis is extremely complicated, relative to an alternative hypothesis, that would serve to increase his skepticism.

    Now, let’s evaluate the God hypothesis. God, hypothetically, can see everyone’s thoughts, relates to humans, cares about human affairs, intervenes in human affairs, hides his own existence (a little, but not all the way), wants people to believe in him even though he doesn’t want to give too much evidence of himself, and is eternal. Does His being eternal, according to the hypothesis, decrease or increase the skeptic’s demands for evidence? I’d think it would increase the skeptic’s demands for evidence. What about the concept of faith, which almost seems made up to protect a weak hypothesis? I’d think that would also increase the skeptic’s demands for evidence.

    So maybe, according to the God hypothesis, we cannot ask for an explanation of where God came from. But I think this only serves to strengthen Dawkins’ point: that a very, very large amount of very strong evidence ought to be demanded to substantiate God’s existence. Or, equivalently, that God’s existence is inherently unlikely.

    To try to add clarity, I’m going to quote from William Paley:

    “In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there.”

    The laws of physics are like the stone: for all we know, maybe they have always existed, and how they are is the only way they can be. But God is like the watch. He is much more complicated than the laws of physics, and as the more complicated hypothesis, more evidence ought to be demanded before belief is accepted.

  4. To couch in this response in the terms we were previously using, I am now arguing that maybe Dawkins’ argument doesn’t depend on naturalism (yes, I realize I’m contradicting myself here, I’m changing positions a bit). One possibility is that God is subject to the laws of physics. But that means His intelligence and abilities are the result of incredible physical complexity, making His existence less likely, or in other words, making it reasonable to demand a very large amount of evidence to substantiate belief. The other possibility is that God is simple, and His intelligence and abilities don’t come from complex structure. This possibility is further from anything we’ve ever observed, because all intelligence we’ve ever observed appears to come from complex structure. So that possibility doesn’t alleviate the amount of evidence that needs to be demanded, but only increases it further, in my opinion.

    Sorry for multiple long posts, it’s just been on my mind.

  5. Thanks for the stimulating comments.

    I do not believe that you have clarified Dawkins’ argument. You have introduced a new argument—one which I will gladly engage with. However, I would prefer to engage with it in subsequent blog posts.

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