Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Review: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

I got a copy of The God Delusion for $5.98 at one of the Half Price Books in Austin, TX. Wahoo! I love a good deal.

I couldn't decide whether I was going to blog on this book or not. I just didn't have the motivation to take detailed notes, and as I began reading it, I quickly lost my enthusiasm for it. So my review is not going to be very detailed.

Whenever I read a book that expresses a different point of view than mine, and I want to critique it, I always look for clear statements about the purpose of the book. Then I evaluate the book based on that purpose. I do that because it's easy to get sidetracked on rabbit trails that don't have much to do with the central thesis. I like to stay focused if I can. The more you can dismiss as irrelevant, the less work you have to do.

Dawkins did me a huge favour by making his purpose clear and by filling the book full of irrelevant material. That's not to say a lot of it wasn't interesting, and it may have even been useful for people who agreed with his point.

Dawkins wrote, "If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down" (p. 28). So the whole purpose of the book is to persuade the reader to be an atheist. But there are two different kinds of atheism, so I'm told. There's strong atheism and weak atheism. Weak atheism is just a lack of belief in the existence of God, and it is consistent with agnosticism. Strong atheism is the view that God does not exist. Dawkins appears to have been defending strong atheism. In chapter 4, which he says contains his central argument, he concludes: "If the argument of this chapter is accepted, the factual premise of religion--the God Hypothesis--is untenable. God almost certainly does not exist" (p. 189).

In the first chapter, Dawkins writes, "I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented" (p. 57). But he doesn't attack all things supernatural in this book. If that was his intention, I think he ought to at least had a chapter on the mind/body problem, and maybe a chapter on paranormal phenomena like witchcraft, ghost hunters, psychics, and things like that. I don't think anything in his book amounted to an argument against all things supernatural.

There are really only two chapters in this book that support his main purpose--chapters 3 and 4. In chapter 3, he responds to several arguments for God. In chapter 4, he makes his case that God almost certainly doesn't exist. The second half of the book, while interesting, doesn't address the question of whether God exists or not.

In chapter 3, Dawkins responds to Aquinas' "Five Ways," Anselm's ontological argument, Pascal's Wager, the argument from religious experience, and a few other obscure arguments for God. In the end, he said the most promising argument was the argument from design, so he dedicated the whole of chapter 4 to addressing the argument from design. There are two versions of the argument from design that he addressed--the fine tuning of the universe for life, and biological complexity.

I think that given his goal of converting people to atheism, he should've addressed some of the more contemporary arguments for God such as the kalam cosmological argument, and maybe even Plantinga's ontological argument. If you're going to write a book refuting a whole worldview, you ought to address its best defenders. I wish he had addressed William Lane Craig's kalam cosmological argument or J.P. Moreland's argument from mind. Maybe he could've even addressed Greg Bahnsen's transcendental argument.

I've never thought the design argument was very persuasive until maybe the last three years or so. I still don't think it's the strongest argument, but apparently, a lot of other people do. It seems to be the primary argument that caused Antony Flew to go from atheism to deism.

I know I'm not being very specific about Dawkin's arguments (I didn't take good notes), but there is one part of chapter 4 that I think deserves mention because I thought he made a good point. He said that "if genuinely irreducible complexity could be properly demonstrated, it would wreck Darwin's theory" (p. 151). The problem is that it's almost impossible to demonstrate that anything is irreducibly complex. He said:
More generally, there are many structures that are irreducible in the sense that they cannot survive the subtraction of any part, but which were built with the aid of scaffolding that was subsequently subtracted and is no longer visible. Once the structure is completed, the scaffolding can be removed safely and the structure remains standing. In evolution, too, the organ or structure you are looking at may have had scaffolding in an ancestor which has since been removed. p. 156
So some things can appear irreducibly complex even if it isn't, and we have no way of knowing. That makes it almost impossible to demonstrate that anything is really irreducibly complex.

Although Dawkin's meant chapter 4 to be an argument against God's existence, I don't think it amounted to any such thing. It doesn't follow that "God almost certainly doesn't exist" just because the design argument is fallacious. It could be that God exists for some other reason. Or it could be that God exists, and we don't know about it. Or maybe some other kind of god exists that Dawkins doesn't address.

The whole purpose of this book is to demonstrate that God doesn't exist, but only one paragraph in the entire 420 page book amounts to an argument against the existence of God--specifically, the Christian God. It comes on page 101. The Christian God is both omniscient and omnipotent, and Dawkins argues that the two attributes are incompatible. If they are, that would prove the Christian God doesn't exist, or at least that the Christians are wrong about the attributes of their God.

If God is all-knowing, then he knows everything he is ever going to do. If he knows everything he's ever going to do, then he can't change his mind about what he's going to do. And if he can't change his mind, then he isn't all-powerful. The problem with this argument is that elsewhere in the book, Dawkins seems to concede that omnipotence is the ability to do all things logically possible. The reason an all-knowing God couldn't change his mind is because it is logically impossible. So it isn't because of a lack of power that he can't do it.

I read the book from cover to cover, and it did not cause me the least bit of doubt about the existence of God. That is not to say I'm 100% certain of God's existence, just that Dawkins failed to diminish in the least what confidence I have. According to Dawkins, the reason I was unconvinced is because I'm a "dyed in the wool faith-head," who is "immune to argument," and my resistance to argument is "built up over years of childhood indoctrination" (p. 28). Good grief! How many people are so confident in their own arguments that they think the only reason a person will not immediately change their minds because of them is because they are "immune to argument"? Is it not even possible that maybe some of Dawkins' arguments are unsound or that he just didn't make a persuasive case?


At 4/20/2009 4:30 PM , Blogger Jessie said...

I read "The Blind Watchmaker" back in 1999 or 2000. I'd have to re-read it to remember anything, though. I do remember enjoying the book despite not agreeing with him, of course. I've wanted to read "The God Delusion" since it came out. Haven't got around to it.

Have you seen "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed"? Shawn and I enjoyed it, but it was heavily anecdotal and somewhat biased towards conservatism. Dawkins appears a lot in the film and has an interesting interview with Ben Stein at the end.


At 4/20/2009 7:18 PM , Blogger Sam said...

I got a copy of The Blind Watchmaker when I got The God Delusion, but I haven't read it yet. I expect it to be a better book since it's more of Dawkin's field if expertise than The God Delusion was. I suspect he's a better biologist than a philosopher.

Yes, I saw "Expelled." I heard that Dawkins didn't like the edit job they did on his interview. I cringed at some parts, but overall, I liked it.

I don't remember if this came up in "Expelled" or not, but one thing I found interesting about The God Delusion was Dawkins' claim that whether God exists or not is a scientific question. A lot of people have based their objection to intelligent design on the fact that since it invokes a supernatural explanation, then it's not science. Dawkins must disagree with that argument!


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