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Dawkins’ Faith in Foam

John on October 23, 2006 at 4:10 pm

British zoologist Richard Dawkins offers a new religion-bashing essay today at the Huffington Post. The real cause of this present discourse is to pimp his latest book The God Delusion. I haven’t read the book itself and don’t intend to for two reasons. One, I’m not keen on giving Dawkins any of my money. And two, the book hasn’t exactly won rave reviews, even from sympathetic outposts like the NY Times. If I want to have my cherished beliefs insulted I’ll pick up Voltaire or J.S. Mill, men who really knew how to bash!

Dawkins latest begins with the great man comparing himself to Churchill. The mark of a Churchillian atheist, according to Dawkins, is that he is unwilling to compromise with any theist, even those that are superficially reasonable. He goes on about this for 4 or 5 paragraphs. Aside from writing his own commendation, it’s worth noting that Churchill’s name is an appealing one because of the specific history it recalls. He was the British leader who stood up to Adolph Hitler and the Nazi’s. So, while he doesn’t say it outright, I don’t think it’s too much of a strech to say that Dawkins is insinuating Christians, Jews and theists of all stripes are Nazi-like. This is the sort of clear-thinking produced by the scientific outlook.

The rest of this piece is devoted to laying out his case for atheism, or rather against theism. I suppose this is representative of the sort of argument found in the book. He begins, ironically, in agreement with Aquinas:

Either Jesus had a father or he didn’t. The question is a scientific one, and scientific evidence, if any were available, would be used to settle it. The same is true of any miracle – and the deliberate and intentional creation of the universe would have to have been the mother and father of all miracles. Either it happened or it didn’t. It is a fact, one way or the other, and in our state of uncertainty we can put a probability on it – an estimate that may change as more information comes in.

Fair enough. Dawkins continues:

Accepting, then, that the God Hypothesis is a proper scientific hypothesis whose truth or falsehood is hidden from us only by lack of evidence, what should be our best estimate of the probability that God exists, given the evidence now available? Pretty low I think, and here’s why.

First, most of the traditional arguments for God’s existence, from Aquinas on, are easily demolished.

Show us, how:

Several of them, such as the First Cause argument, work by setting up an infinite regress which God is wheeled out to terminate. But we are never told why God is magically able to terminate regresses while needing no explanation himself.

Perhaps that’s because it’s intuitively obvious to most people why God can terminate regresses. It’s not that this argument allows one to define all of the characteristics we call God, it just that when one looks at an infinite regress and looks at God, he seems a likely candidate for the job.

The God of the Bible has certain characteristics. His Old Testament name is “I am that I am.” Long before the infinite regress argument postulated by Aquinas, His nature was described as being eternal and without cause. Secondly, the Bible describes him as willing or choosing to create the world. In the parlance of crime fiction, God has both motive and opportunity to be first cause or prime mover. Dawkins continues:

To be sure, we do need some kind of explanation for the origin of all things. Physicists and cosmologists are hard at work on the problem. But whatever the answer – a random quantum fluctuation or a Hawking/Penrose singularity or whatever we end up calling it – it will be simple.

Yes. I think we all agree that the Hawking/Penrose singularity — the one that uses imaginary time to forestall the necessity of a genuine beginning of time — is simplicity itself. For the record, Hawking’s theory doesn’t solve the problem, it cleverly avoids it.

Complex, statistically improbable things, by definition, don’t just happen; they demand an explanation in their own right. They are impotent to terminate regresses, in a way that simple things are not. The first cause cannot have been an intelligence – let alone an intelligence that answers prayers and enjoys being worshipped. Intelligent, creative, complex, statistically improbable things come late into the universe, as the product of evolution or some other process of gradual escalation from simple beginnings. They come late into the universe and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it.

Did you get that last bit? Intelligence is the product of evolution, ergo intelligence can not be a first cause. This is a beautiful example of assuming the thing you’re attempting to prove. One could break it down this way:

  1. Intelligence is a product of evolution.
  2. Evolution is a strictly material process.
  3. Therefore, intelligence can not precede material processes.

See how simple that is? If you grant Dawkins strict materialism, Dawkins can turn right around and — quick as you can say “Hawkins/Penrose singularity” — prove strict materialism. Brilliant!

What Dawkins offers here is a rather stupid circular argument. He does go on to make hay of Aquinas “Gradation” argument, which was a variation of sorts on Anselm’s ontological argument. I don’t think this particular argument has a lot of fans today. Dawkins is essentially setting fire to straw men.

Finally, Dawkins turns to the teleological argument, aka the argument from design. Here, you would think, he would have his best lines. After all, this is the drum he has been beating since the 1980s if not earlier. In fact though, Dawkins merely returns to his circular reasoning:

Design is a workable explanation for organized complexity only in the short term. It is not an ultimate explanation, because designers themselves demand an explanation. If, as Francis Crick and Leslie Orgel once playfully speculated, life on this planet was deliberately seeded by a payload of bacteria in the nose cone of a rocket, we still need an explanation for the intelligent aliens who dispatched the rocket. Ultimately they must have evolved by gradual degrees from simpler beginnings. Only evolution, or some kind of gradualistic ‘crane’ (to use Daniel Dennett’s neat term), is capable of terminating the regress.

First of all, you said that already. Second, Dawkins reference to Crick and Orgel’s alien rocketship is deceptive. At the time it was written, there was no suggestion whatsoever that it was meant to be a “playful” explanation. On the contrary, it was a completely serious attempt to get around a problem. Dawkins understands the problem well enough:

The origin of life on this planet – which means the origin of the first self-replicating molecule – is hard to study, because it (probably) only happened once, 4 billion years ago and under very different conditions from those with which we are familiar. We may never know how it happened. Unlike the ordinary evolutionary events that followed, it must have been a genuinely very improbable – in the sense of unpredictable – event: too improbable, perhaps, for chemists to reproduce it in the laboratory or even devise a plausible theory for what happened. This weirdly paradoxical conclusion – that a chemical account of the origin of life, in order to be plausible, has to be implausible – would follow if it were the case that life is extremely rare in the universe. And indeed we have never encountered any hint of extraterrestrial life, not even by radio – the circumstance that prompted Enrico Fermi’s cry: “Where is everybody?”

How unlikely was it?:

Suppose life’s origin on a planet took place through a hugely improbable stroke of luck, so improbable that it happens on only one in a billion planets. The National Science Foundation would laugh at any chemist whose proposed research had only a one in a hundred chance of succeeding, let alone one in a billion. Yet, given that there are at least a billion billion planets in the universe, even such absurdly low odds as these will yield life on a billion planets. And – this is where the famous anthropic principle comes in – Earth has to be one of them, because here we are.

I think Dawkins estimate is far too generous. At present astronomers have discovered just north of 200 extrasolar planets. Thus far nearly all of them are gas giants which, because they probably lack liquid water, are incompatible with life. In addition most of the planets so far discovered have had wildly ecclectic orbits, which once again would make them unlikely candidates for life. So there may be a billion billion planets in the universe but so far it seems vanishingly few could possibly support life of any kind. As Dawkins says, we have no support for any such claim at this point. It’s purely supposition.

But even if we accept Dawkins numbers, what does it get us? According to him the fact that we’re here arguing about it is all the proof we need that humanity is one of the lucky freaks, holder of the cosmic Wonka ticket. In other words, we’re here so that proves the impossible happened. Let’s diagram that:

  1. Life originates by chance material processes.
  2. We’re here.
  3. We originated by chance material processes.

Well. I’ll give Dawkins this much, he’s consistent. If you grant him materialism he can explain the whole thing as the result of materialism. He doesn’t seem to see this as circular reasoning. On the contrary, he revels in his own sophistry:

The beauty of the anthropic principle is that, even in the teeth of such stupefying odds against, it still gives us a perfectly satisfying explanation for life’s presence on our own planet.

Dawkins then returns to cosmic beginnings, using the anthropic principle as a kind of materialist panacea:

Physicists have suggested that the laws and constants of physics are too good – as if the universe were set up to favour our eventual evolution. It is as though there were, say, half a dozen dials representing the major constants of physics. Each of the dials could in principle be tuned to any of a wide range of values. Almost all of these knob-twiddlings would yield a universe in which life would be impossible. Some universes would fizzle out within the first picosecond. Others would contain no elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. In yet others, matter would never condense into stars (and you need stars in order to forge the elements of chemistry and hence life). You can estimate the very low odds against the six knobs all just happening to be correctly tuned, and conclude that a divine knob-twiddler must have been at work. But, as we have already seen, that explanation is vacuous because it begs the biggest question of all. The divine knob twiddler would himself have to have been at least as improbable as the settings of his knobs.

God is improbable. So here’s what Dawkins thinks is probable:

Again, the anthropic principle delivers its devastatingly neat solution. Physicists already have reason to suspect that our universe – everything we can see – is only one universe among perhaps billions. Some theorists postulate a multiverse of foam, where the universe we know is just one bubble. Each bubble has its own laws and constants. Our familiar laws of physics are parochial bylaws. Of all the universes in the foam, only a minority has what it takes to generate life. And, with anthropic hindsight, we obviously have to be sitting in a member of that minority, because, well, here we are, aren’t we?

Foam. Foam is science.

Richard doesn’t offer any of the hard evidence for foam, and I can tell you why. There isn’t any. Foam (the multi-verse, string landscape, etc.) is a theory or group of theories that exist for one reason: To give materialists the probabalistic resources to avoid thinking about God. Foam is mathematical speculation which in all likelihood can not be proven or disproven. In other words, it is a kind of faith. But you don’t get that sense reading Dawkins’ triumphalist conclusion:

We explain our existence by a combination of the anthropic principle and Darwin’s principle of natural selection. That combination provides a complete and deeply satisfying explanation for everything that we see and know. Not only is the god hypothesis unnecessary. It is spectacularly unparsimonious. Not only do we need no God to explain the universe and life. God stands out in the universe as the most glaring of all superfluous sore thumbs. We cannot, of course, disprove God, just as we can’t disprove Thor, fairies, leprechauns and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But, like those other fantasies that we can’t disprove, we can say that God is very very improbable.

Whenever you hear a raving atheist like Dawkins pull out the list — Thor, fairies, leprechauns — just remember that his own explanation for our existence rests on something which is every bit as unproven, unprovable and unlikely. Dawkins says it very well. Materialism rests on “foam.”

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