Friday, October 05, 2007

A critique of atheist Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins, of Oxford University, is a well-known critic of Christianity. Alister McGrath, also of Oxford, is becoming a well-known apologist for Christianity and critic of Dawkins. Here is the start of his critique of Dawkins:

1) Richard Dawkins approaches the question of whether God exists in much the same way as if he’d approach the question of whether there is water on Mars. In other words, it’s something that’s open to objective scientific experimentation. And of course there’s no way you can bring those criteria to bear on God. I think Dawkins seems reluctant to allow that God may not be in the same category as scientific objects.

2) Dawkins clearly believes that those who believe in God must prove their case and atheists have nothing to prove because that’s their default position. But I think that’s simply incorrect and it’s obviously incorrect. Really, the only obvious position is to say: We don’t know, we need to be persuaded one way or the other. The default position in other words is: not being sure. Therefore I think Dawkins must realize that he’s under as great an obligation to show that there is no God as, for example, a Christian is to show that there’s a God.

What do you think. Is this reasonable?


Brian said...

No, that is not the default position. I do not have to have it proven to me that Santa Claus doesn't exist in order for me to proclaim that I don't beleive in him. In fact, there is no "default" position. Theists assume that agnosticism is the default position. Not for me. I have taken a stance on the issue. I beleive that there is no god. Plain and simple. It's not about being the most logically correct position, it's about taking a stance that I feel comfortable with. I could say, well, I'm not sure if there is a Santa Claus, but it makes much more sense for me to say, there is no Santa Claus. If Santa revealed himself to me, then I would change. The problem with theists, is that no matter what, you retain the same view. It's backward, and it's dangerous.

Anonymous said...

I'd have to disagree, Bradley - without evidence that suggests the existence of a deity, one cannot reasonably assert the existence of such an entity. The burden of proof is on those who would assert the positive. I'm not going to say definitively yes or no on the issue, but I will say that without some sort of evidence that suggests that such a being exists (and by that I do not mean evidence that you could just cherry-pick to support a position, I mean evidence that speaks for itself on the issue) then it is not really worth entertaining the idea, from a scientific viewpoint.

Anonymous said...

I do appreciate your argument, but I politely disagree.

The universe is complex, this is something people of all religions and people who reject religion as irrational will agree upon. Those who believe in some theory creation (as distinguished from creationism) ultimately are saying, the complexity bespeaks of some creator. The common argument is, how can something so complex be completely random?

But I would argue this line of thought adds a level of complexity to the equation. Essentially, any argument that presumes some form of a creator envisions an existence/power that could design, create, and set into motion a universe of great complexity. Christianity, in particular, envisions an omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent existence, which is infinitely more complex (by the very existence of these divine powers) than the universe.

A person who rejects religion as irrational would say, at this point: now wait, we are not on equal footing here. My argument, says the person rejecting religion, is that the universe is what we have. Your argument, he says to the person expounding the existence of a creator, is that there is some even greater level of complexity above and beyond the universe itself. Logically, such an additional requirement, this (let's call it a divine aspect of the universe) requires additional evidentiary support in order to move from the position "the universe is what it is" to "the universe is what it is and some higher power exists that created it."

For this reason, I would argue that the exponent of religion must justify the existence of some greater power.

I hope my comment was worth your time!


S.S.Stone said...

You sure know how to stir things up on a Friday! ;)

Peter Thurley said...

There's nothing like the question of where the burden of proof lies in arguments to do with the non/existence of God.

I choose to remain agnostic on that question...

Ben Dubow said...

Good post Brad.

I think McGrath is absolutely correct, because the question is a bit more complex than just "whether God exists" (not least of which, one would need to define God, both to claim existence or non-existence; once would also need to define what we mean by "existence".)

Here is the problem that both Dawkins and McGrath are dealing with (simplified):

1. The "world" (i.e. all things that exist) exists.

2. Either with world is without cause or with cause.

3. If with cause, then by what cause?

While generally positing existence is a logical flaw, in this case positing non-existence is equally flawed.

Question one is about causality.

If something caused, that something exists. The question then becomes "what caused", where the atheist must make a positive claim for something, as does the theist.

The only intellectually honest position is agnosticicm as a starting point.

McGrath is correct that the mistake most people make is to approachthe question as primarily a scientific one. It is not. It is primarily a metaphysical (and perhaps explicitly non-science based) and epistemological question... which must get dealt with very differently.

In science we can start with a thesis... in philosophy we start from nothing and let the evidence go where it may.

3. If without cause, the world

Ben Dubow said...

Not sure why this got stuck the end: "3. If without cause, the world"

Please ignore...

Brad Wright said...

A lot of issues are raised here, and deep ones at that. Perhaps the comment I most immediately resonate with is Peter's agnosticism about the agnostic default.

Here's where I get hung up...

In some decisions, we definitely want to use a scientific approach/ burden of proof approach. Prescription drugs, for example. I don't want to pop pills for a sickness unless some scientist has shown that they work.

Other decisions are not scientific. Who we marry, for example, has little to do with scientific cause, effect, or burden of proof. (Sometimes maybe just burden, but that's for a different post ;-)

Likewise picking a career. I did it very non-scientifically.

The guiding criteria with this second type of decision is "make the best decision you can with the information you have."

Here's my question: What would be the rationale for casting religious issues as the first type of decision, and what would be the rationale for using the second.

I appreciate the polite tone of these posts... makes it easier to focus on the ideas.

Ben Dubow said...

Great question Brad...

I think clearly the question of the existence of God falls in the second category (non-scientific) simply because science cannot answer the question.

Science is premised on hypothesis testing and repeatable experiments/research etc. Science cannot answer the question of whether God exists.

This is not a knock on science, just a recognition that science, as a discipline, is limited.

It seems to me the more interesting question is whether it is rational to believe in the existence of God.

In the philosophical world—especially in the area of philosophy of religion—top thinkers and scholars have started to use the term "warranted" as a way of more precisely describing rational thought (see particularly Alvin Plantinga's excellent book "Warranted Christian Belief").

So what is the standard for what counts as rational/warranted?

The right question to ask is this: "Does the evidence indicate that a rational person can believe in the existence of God?"

This is as opposed to a second question: "Does the evidence indicate that all rational people must believe in the existence of God?"

I submit that the proper question is the former, not that ladder, and this should be the standard for discussion.

This is why I think McGrath is foundationally correct: we start from a neutral position and see where the evidence points.

The paradigm is more law court than lab, compiling multiple pieces of data from many disciplines and then saying "Yes or no" to the warrants question.

Knumb said...

How dare you question an atheist!

That's inverse blasphemy, or something.

Jay Livingston said...

What difference does it make. Suppose that Dawkins is right in the sense that the existence of God cannot be proven in the usual way that science tests propositions. Would that alter your faith? Or anyone else's?

Dan Myers said...

My view on this is very simple. No one is under any OBLIGATION to prove there IS or there ISN'T a god until they start demanding that other people act on their belief. If, however, you start trying to make me behave in ways that are derived from your sense of what god is, then you have produced an obligation to prove that your version is the right one.

Arun said...

If you want to know e.g., "Did God create the universe?", then you run into the issue of the existence of God.

If however, you want live life doing that which should be done and not doing that which should not be done, the existence/non-existence of God is less of an issue. One assumes that a reasonable person unswayed by his own emotions and narrow self-interest can come up with what to do and what to avoid doing. The religious faith comes in when you have to act as per these decisions; at times, it requires great strength, and if faith is what grants you that strength, so be it. It is no business of Dawkins or anyone else.

Gerrit said...

Hey dude,

I saw your post through Reddit. I'm agnostic, but have had a number of problems with Mr. Dawkins and his like. I thought you'd enjoy this post I wrote in response:

Drew said...

For starters, Dawkins writes extensively about both of these comments, and your "criticisms" are exactly what he addresses. If you want to move the argument forward, you would have to read what he says and criticize that.

It sounds to me, though, like you haven't read any Dawkins yourself, but have just listened to someone else summarize some of his ideas.