Friday, 22 February 2008

God Delusion#2

OK, so I've watched a bit more of Life on Mars and it's really great!

This is the second part of my God Delusion review. Here I cover chapters 3 and 4, which are based on arguments for God's existence and RD's argument against. I'm a bit more sympathetic in these chapters since he's less inclined to deride Christians as thickos and I like some of what RD writes when he's writing directly about Science. I'll do it as numbered points as before.
  1. Infinite regress (p101). In a sense this is RD's weakest point. The physical world really does have a problem of infinite regress because we can observe causality, we always have to posit a physical mechanism which leads us to the current situation Ut <= Pu(U(t-∂)). We can't avoid the problem of regress because we always need a function Pu to provide the 'explanation' for the universe as we see it now. Since Pu is autonomous and not self-aware, it itself is a mechanism which requires explanation: Pu <= Mv(Pu-ß). Ultimately, the problem lies with science itself, because the problem is a result of seeing things in terms of transformations and science is a means of representing transformations, i.e. it is Px, My etc. This means that the only way out of the regress (i.e. the only way to make sense of being able to see the world scientifically, i.e. as transformations) is to assume that there is something, let's call this Ω which is capable of producing Px, My etc, but can't be represented, i.e. exists outside of science. Because Ω cannot be represented scientifically, Ω cannot be a mechanism (because a mechanism is equivalent to a transformation).
  2. Dawkins makes a trivial error with his analysis of omnipotence and omniscience. That is, Being all-powerful doesn't mean he's changing history or the future, it just means he's in control. The two terms are just ways of expressing the ideas that we can be confident he hasn't missed anything and that ultimately things will go according to what he wants.
  3. I don't really care about ontological arguments, they're not biblical and don't make sense - Dawkins is right here IMO. And the stuff about argument from beauty and experience I think are circular - that is, beauty and experience are both evidences of God if you already believe in him, but if you don't it's easily explained. That is, I have God experiences, but I don't really think they're useful to anyone but me.
  4. I looked into his Argument from Scripture - in fact, the Gospels clearly demonstrate that Jesus thought he was God, but being selective with Scripture could lead you to think otherwise. Similarly, RD trots out the Chinese Whispers argument against scriptural accuracy (see post #3); his argument about Jesus' birth really isn't supported by scripture; his treatment of Jesus' geneology, New Testament Canon are really rather superficial. His argument from religious scientists I think doesn't demonstrate anything: emminent scientist Christians are a minority, but they do exist and this means they must be right or wrong or probably wrong or what?
  5. Finally, RD introduces the Baysian argument using a Christian writer (I presume). However, I've never heard of him, but RD's critique of it seems largely reasonable to me, but personally that's because I don't think it makes sense to assign a probability to God's existence. Anyway, I think he uses that section, mostly because it leads him nicely into chapter 4.
  6. Complexity. RD says: "By invoking a designer, the designer himself has got to be at least as improbable. God is the ultimate Boeing 747." In a sense RD is saying this because he's assuming God is a system made of parts, based I guess on the reasoning that we design things and we're made of parts. But this argument itself is fallacious, because it assumes our consciousness and reasoning; our will and ability to design is only due to our physical makeup. Which is only true if you're already a materialist. Furthermore, it assumes that there's a relationship between our own complexity and the complexity of things we are able to design when actually the two things are independent. See the blog Ultimate Boeing 747 Challenge.
  7. Much of chapter 4 is interesting. I really liked reading about his arguments on irreducible complexity. RD rightly critiques 'God of the Gaps' theology, but he gets the theology wrong - in reality God is God of everything, i.e. what we understand and what we don't. He's God over it all. The stuff on the flagella bacterium motor is really good and interesting. His criticism of Michael Behe, the ID proponent, is scathing in the extreme as RD bathes him in a torrent of negative adjectives in every phrase where he appears (well, maybe not that bad, but it is noticable :-) !)
  8. RD isn't a physicist (but neither am I :-D ) and he's weaker when talking about the Anthropic principle and cosmology. He guesses at the probability of life appearing on a planet that's made of just the right stuff in exactly the right orbit around a star (it's part of the Drake Equation). His conservative guess is 1/1billion, but he's not following the Drake equation carefully and totally fails to mention the Fermi paradox: i.e if life is at all common in this galaxy, it'd only take 5 to 50 million years to explore it - so why don't we see evidence of ET everywhere?
  9. Nevertheless even talking about the weak anthropic principle he still heads off into pure speculation by extrapolating from the 'billions of planets' that have bacterial life to the supposedly rare occurance of intelligent life. Yet we simply don't know the probabilities of any of this - i.e. the probability of amino acids becoming some kind of primitive dna/rna nor the conditions of the early earth to within even a vague order of magnitude.
  10. "You are so 19th Century." Dawkins wonders why he was criticized by theologians in this way. He figures it's because the 19th century was the last time someone could genuinely believe in miracles. I think he should really have asked them why they say that. Here's an alternative theory: what they mean is that Dawkins is Modernist, not Post-modernist. The difference being that Modernism assumes truth is objective, wheras Post-Modernism doesn't and it's thinking first appeared in Hegel's philosophy in the 19th century. RD is firmly in the first camp. Moreover, much of what passes for modern Atheism is really a belief-system stuck in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Some casual examples: (a) Atheists use the word religion in singular, particularly when they're referring to Christianity, except when they're referring to Catholicism. This only makes sense when you think back to the 18th century when Christianity was the only European religion going, but Protestants would frequently refer to Catholics as having a separate religion. (b) Atheists frequently state that religion is the cause of all wars. Well, that was fairly credible in the 18th century when Europe was still reeling from the effects of the religious wars in the 16th and 17th centuries, but it's largely a nonsense in the 20th and 21st centuries. (c) RD frequently talks about 'Consciousness raising', but this is really just a euphemism for 'Enlightenment', the 18th century's Atheist movement.
In the end then, chapters 3 and 4 are probably the nicest in the entire book, I just don't think they make a good case against God's existence. So, hey-ho, let's move on to the next chapters.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

God Delusion#1

It's kinda inevitable that if I started to read the God Delusion by Richard Dawkins I'll end up making comments about it, so here goes. I'm basing my comments on the paperback version which includes some additional material.

I was thinking of writing a fairly pedantic response, but there's just so much there I disagree with I'll have to be far more judicious. In this post I'm confining my critique to where I believe RD is factually wrong or where he reveals nastier sides to his character. At the moment I'm only 81 pages into his incessant diatribe so there's plenty of space for me to reasses the quality of the book. However, here goes:

  1. Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot quote. Here, Sagan claims Christians argue "no, no, my god is a little god and I want him to stay that way." When in fact Christians argue on the basis of the wonder of the universe that he's exactly the opposite and that the more amazing we find the universe is, the more amazing God must be. Dawkins reiterated this quote in a TED lecture. I don't know why - Christians don't preach it, and we don't believe it.
  2. Pages 46-48: The Danish Cartoons of Mohammed(pbuh) riots. The thing that gets me here is Richard Dawkins gets it so wrong. He says the episode 'illuminates society's exaggerated respect for religion' in fact the original thing was triggered by a bunch of secular cartoons that displayed a complete disrepect towards Muslims. RD passionately defends the right of secularists to ridicule religion, but it wasn't Atheists who died from the riots, but Christians and Richard Dawkins cares nothing for them, his adjectives are 'ludicrous', 'comic', 'tragedy' for the whole episode.
  3. As you read through Dawkin's book you find that he pillories Christians at every turn whilst portraying Atheists in consistantly glowing terms. In fact he believes mockery is the best way to deal with Christians. As RD says (p55) "Thomas Jefferson as so often, got it right when he said 'Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligable propositions.'
  4. Secularism and the Founding Fathers (p60-68). Here the whole section is highly disengenious. RD starts with a false premise "It is conventional to assume the founding fathers... were deists." Is it? I'd always been lead to believe they were a mixture of fairly radical Christians of the Pilgrim Fathers kind and Enlightenment thinkers (including Deists). I found a webpage which lists the actual religious affiliations of the 56 signees and it turns out that even though the majority were Christians, RD quotes only from the 4 Deist/Unitarians.
  5. RD supposes that the reason Christianity is weak in the UK is because the UK was weary of religious wars or because it's full of ineffectual vicars (p62). He's half-right there. Actually it's easy to see why Christianity is weak in the UK, because church attendence tailed off massively after WWII, a secular war. Though it's probably true there's lots of UK vicars who see their role as having "innoculated vast swathes of the English against Christianity."
  6. Burden of proof. Strangely, RD believes on the one hand that the burden of proof rests on Christians (p74-75) and yet that it's unnecessary to read what they write (p14-p15). Admittedly, he says he'll read from credible Christians (p14), but most of the quotes he uses are from Christians I've never heard of, apart from Alistair McGrath p78pp1.
  7. Evolution as an Atheist weapon (p92). in the end RD sees the point of talking about Evolution as part of a war against Christianity "the real war is between rationalism and superstition... religion is the most common form of superstition." This is why RD isn't interested in avoiding conflict between Science and Christianity and why he's so critical of Atheists and Christians who do.
At this point I'm leaving it for now, because I'm only up to Chapter 4 and I want to watch the next episode of Life On Mars on DVD :-)

-cheers from julz @P