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MagRack: Harper’s on Dawkins

October 17th, 2006 · 2 Comments

It’s not online, but the new issue of Harper’s (which I can no longer read without thinking of The Wire‘s Brother Mouzone) has a review by novelist Marilynne Robinson of The God Delusion. There are a handful of interesting but ultimately rebuttable objections, some that seem more solid (e.g. the charge that when there are multiple scholarly interpretations of Biblical texts, Dawkins chooses the most unflattering), and a few that are bizarre (the idea that religion as such, rather than extremism, is a great evil has become a “commonplace”?), but there’s one line of argument in particular I thought deserved mention.

One of Dawkins’ main strategies in the book is to flip the “argument from design” around against theism. He begins by agreeing that complex order in nature should be regarded as something improbable that stands in need of explanation. Fortunately, we have a reasonably good account of how the complex order of terrestrial life might have arisen over enormous spans of time by means of a simpler selection process operating on sucessively more complex entities. And he argues that just because complexity is so very improbable, this is just the kind of explanation we need to have a cogent account of how it could have come about. What’s really improbable, he argues, is to put even greater complexity at the start of the whole shebang, with no simpler antecedents and no hint of a process that could have slowly produced it. Robinson offers this reply:

[M]odern cosmologies generally suggest that time and the universe as a whole came into being together. So a creator cannot very well be thought of as having attained complexity through a process of evolution. That is to say, theists need find no anomalyina divine “complexity” over against the “simplicity” that is presumed to characterize the universe at its origin…. That God exists outside time as its creator is an ancient given of theology. The faithful are accustomed to expressions like “from everlasting to everlasting” in reference to God, language taht the positivists would surely have cinsidered nonsense but that does indeed express the intuition that time is an aspect of the created order. Again, I do not wish to abuse either theolgoy or scientific theory by implying that either can be used as evidence in support of the other; I mean only that the big bang in fact provides a metaphor that might help Dawkins understand why his grand assault on the “God Hypothesis” has failed to impress the theists.

There’s an old academic joke that you’ve probably run into if you’ve spent much time around a philosophy department, which goes like this: An eminent philosopher’s latest book has been subject to withering critique in one of the major academic journals, and so he pens a response. He writes: “I believe I need to clear up what is obviously a misunderstanding on my esteemed colleague’s part. He attacks my theory on the basis of several alleged counterexamples, but he clearly has not interpreted me as I had intended. For I intended my theory to have no counterexamples.” And so too, our reviewer: The complexity of life is allowed to be deployed as a reason for thinking there might be a creator, but if it’s pointed out that the same reasoning cuts even more strongly against such a creator—well, no, you see, he’s outside time, so that won’t do.

Tags: MagRack



2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Caliban // Oct 17, 2006 at 2:32 pm

    Well, that is sort of the religious person’s trump card. The person arguing against him must couch all his arguments in terms of rationality and the laws of physics. The religious person merely says “well, those don’t apply to God. In fact, the logic you are using in this argument is, by definition, incapable of proving or disproving God. Therefore you lose.”

    Dawkins, like you or I, is attempting to use logic in a debate that our opponents have declared off-limits to logic. It’s a naturally asymmetrical battle.

  • 2 Steve Sailer // Oct 21, 2006 at 7:57 pm

    Dawkins, being a zoologist largely ignorant of contemporary physics, smugly assumed that Darwinism answers all possible questions about the universe. He barely thought about cosmology until he was already a famous atheist, with his ego already committed. So he hadn’t heard of the ambivalence that is so often found among physicists and astronomers, such as Freeman Dyson, Father Lemaitre, Robert Jastrow, John Archibald Wheeler, Brandon Carter, and Fred Hoyle. Now, he’s scrambling to assemble debating points, rather like Dick Cheney’s Iraq intelligence operation.