Archive for the ‘The God Delusion’ Category

Aeroplanes and beginnings

January 28, 2012

Chapter 4 of Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’ focuses on his central argument as to why ‘there almost certainly is no God’. His argues that God’s existence is highly implausible, an argument which he describes as ‘the ultimate Boeing 747 gambit’. The name comes from an illustration comparing the probability of life originating on earth as no greater than the chance that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, would assemble a Boeing 747. This sort of illustration is often used to argue that – given such an improbability – there must be a designer of life, God. Dawkins turns this argument round however and suggests that any such designer, or creator, must be more complex and therefore more improbable than the thing which has been designed.

For much of the chapter he seeks to counter the suggestion that the existence of life on earth is implausible. He argues that Darwinian evolution is a process which naturally explains how life can move from the simple to the more complex without the resort to any unlikely or improbable ‘chance’ occurrences. He then looks at other improbabilities required for life (as we know it) to exist; for example the need for water which imposes tight constraints on a planet’s orbit, how the physical laws of the universe seem finely tuned for life, and the improbability of the creation of the first cell. All of these potentially highly improbable events need only occur once, so their improbability can be balanced by the vast number of planets that probably exist around the universe, or a plethora of universes in a ‘multiverse’. Hence, while each event is highly unlikely to have occurred on any given planet / universe, the chances of it happening somewhere are perfectly reasonable. The anthropic principle then reasons that as we are here to be asking questions like this we must be in that place where conscious life has occurred. There are no such arguments to counter the implausibility of how God might have come into existence, however. The argument from implausibility, he argues, is therefore a strong one against the existence of God.

The weakness of Dawkins’ argument, I feel, is that he doesn’t really consider properly the question of ‘beginnings’. With regards to the improbable events required for life to exist – the first cell, the right physical laws etc., his argument may be valid, or it may not. The truth is that the probabilities he talks about are far too vague and unknown to really assemble any meaningful estimate of whether the vast number of planets or universes (the multiverse hypothesis is only that, a hypothesis, without any evidence, so how you can determine how many universes it might contain?!) does really counterbalance the low probability of the events which might occur in each one. But even allowing it as a valid argument, he doesn’t address the issue of why the universe bothers to exist at all in the first place? (Something else of great complexity and therefore highly improbable that it exists by Dawkins’ argument). The best you get from his chapter is a hope that physics might one day come up with some process analogous to evolution through which a complex universe naturally arises from a simple (nothing).

We naturally think of all things as having a beginning (and end) as that is our experience in life. The world around us has a definite ‘arrow of time’ which requires all things to have a start and end. The laws of thermodynamics, for example, insist that as time progresses all things move from an ordered to a less-ordered state and hence could not have just been there forever. But God is not part of the physical world around us, and hence does not need to have had such a beginning. Indeed the Bible tells us that he has always been around, without any such ‘starting point’. Arguments of improbability are only valid when considering how something might have come about from what was there beforehand. They have nothing to say about one who has always been there.

Dawkins seems to believe that God is postulated as a bad explanation for the mystery of why life exists – and now science has come up with a better, far more plausible answer. This is not true, however. I believe in God, not because I need an answer to the mystery of how I’m here, but because I know him personally. His existence is not an implausible hypothesis but an inner reality.

Science and experience

May 10, 2011

In the third chapter of “The God Delusion”, Richard Dawkins spends his time dismissing the most common arguments in favour of the existence of God. I don’t have a problem with much of the chapter if I’m honest. Many of the arguments he covers are indeed somewhat feeble, and a poor basis for a belief on which to base your life. I would also say, however, that my faith is not ultimately based on a convincing intellectual argument about God’s existence, and I think most Christians would confer with me on this.

There are two points that I would quibble with however . The first of these is his dismissal of ‘The argument from scripture’. This is a big topic and I don’t intend to go into it in great detail. I would merely say that as I read through and meditate on the Bible, its authority, consistency and relevance – thousands of years after it was written – is striking.

The main thing I want to say, though, relates to his discussions on ‘The argument from personal experience’. Even in this, most of what Dawkins says is true. He cites an example of an undergraduate contemporary who mistook the call of a ‘Manx Shearwater’ for the devil, to demonstrate that a spiritual experience may have  a more down-to-earth explanation. He rightly points out our brain’s ability to read something that isn’t there into the sensations that it receives. Yes, we can easily misunderstand, misinterpret and misremember isolated events that happen in our live and to base a life-changing belief on one ‘mystical experience’ might be a flaky enterprise.

The problem with his argument, however, is that Dawkins misunderstands what Christians mean by their personal experience. While I can only properly understand my own experience, I don’t think I am unique or even in unusual in what I say. For me, while there are spiritual ‘high points’ and specific times when I’ve been very aware of God’s presence, my personal experience of the reality of God does not rest on just one (or indeed several) such isolated events. Rather my personal experience is as much the cumulative impact of being aware of God in the everyday. There are many aspects to this personal experience, for example:

  • seeing God answer prayer in both quite spectacular and more ordinary ways.
  • seeing something quite different in the lives of other Christians which I can only account for by God’s work in their lives.
  • the relevance of God speaking into the events of my life, sometimes quite directly, as I read the Bible.
  • a real sense of God’s presence, not just in spiritual high points but often in my every day life following him.
  • reflecting on my life, and recognising that it only makes sense if God is there.

There are other ways that I could say that I am aware of God’s reality in my life (perhaps other Christians reading this could reflect on how they are aware of God’s reality in their lives, and comment on some of the forms this takes?) but the point I wanted to make is that personal experience for most Christians does not come from a one-off experience, a voice or a vision, but a more common every day reality, different to but yet analogous to the way in which we experience most of the realities of our every day life.

For I think one common misconception that underlies a denigration of ‘the argument from personal experience’ is that personal experience is somewhat inferior to an argument that can be written down in a logical (and preferably mathematical) fashion on paper. My experience of my love for my family and theirs for me is not something that can be written down in this fashion, yet is no less real for that and also a core centrality in my life. Ultimately all things, even scientific facts boil down to basic truths that we accept because of the experiences gathered through our senses in our every day life.

Personal experience is powerful and a key reason why I, and others, believe in God. It could not be any other way.

Magesteria

June 7, 2010

One of the main points that Richard Dawkins tries to make in the second chapter of ‘The God Delusion’ is that science has something to say on the question of whether God exists or not. He states that

Either he (God) exists or he doesn’t. It is a scientific question; one day we may know the answer, and meanwhile we can say something pretty strong about the probability

He spends a fair amount of time criticising the concept of NOMA, or ‘non-overlapping magesteria’ as put forth by other atheists /agnostics such as Stephen Jay Gould or Thomas Huxley which suggests that science and religion look at different realms or magesteria – science covers the empirical realm of what the universe is made of and why it works that way, whereas religion extends over questions of meaning and moral value. As these two magisteria do not overlap science cannot comment on religious questions.

Dawkins, as I said, objects violently to this view – he considers God’s existence a scientific question which should be assessed using our scientific knowledge. As often, he makes some fair points. If God has and does intervene in supernatural ways in this physical world, as the Bible says and I believe, then this intervention is not outside the ability of our scientific instruments to measure and comment on. In one sense, I am not that bothered by Dawkins’ view as I do not think that the ‘evidence’ points in the same way that Dawkins does.

However Dawkins does overstate his position and ignores two significant things:

1) When God works supernaturally / miraculously in the world it is a ‘one-off’ occurrence whereas science is essentially a study of the repeatable. Few scientific studies or discoveries are accepted until they have been repeated at least once by other researchers. The basis of science relies on the world working in a consistent way so that we can repeatedly study that consistent behaviour. The normal everyday way things work which science describes are (I believe) the way they are because that’s how God has made them, but they are not what we would call miraculous or supernatural. When God however causes the world to behave differently to the normal rules that he has created it is not ‘repeatable’ behaviour – and so science will (and does) ignore it as an unexplained ‘blip’.

2) If God (as I believe) is responsible for the world we see around us coming into being, God is not part of that creation. The created world is therefore not ‘all that there is’ to know about. To suggest that it is necessarily rules out the existence of a creator God. A study of that world cannot by definition study the God who is beyond, outside, greater than that created world – this is not a convenient fudge to move God outside of the realm of scientific study but an unavoidable implication of who we mean by God. While God may and does impinge on that physical world, the study of the world alone will always have significant limitations in what it can say about God (including about his existence).

The upshot of these two facts is that I think that science will only ever be able to say a very limited amount about God’s existence or non-existence. There is evidence, although it is perhaps more in the historical / experiential / personal realm than in the scientific one, but belief in God will always be, ultimately, a matter of faith. We will never scientifically prove God’s existence or non-existence, and I think there may be good reasons why God has made it that way – more about that, perhaps, in a later post.

Spiders

January 12, 2010
Spiders

Spiders

For a couple of months in autumn, two spiders made our front window their home. It was obviously a good home as they looked well fed! I don’t particularly dislike spiders, but did think that they spoiled the view somewhat. One day, therefore, I chopped down their webs, but the next day they were back  just as intricate and extensive as ever.

Although they did somewhat dominate the view out of our front window, having them in such a prominent position meant that we could observe their web making skills quite close up. It was quite amazing the way that they managed to build up such intricate, complex structures, and clamber along them, starting from nothing!

This is just one example of the way the world around us can provoke a sense of wonder and awe. Lookup up at a clear dark sky night never fails to amaze me, especially as I think of just how vast the small section of the universe that I’m looking at is. In the first chapter of Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’, Dawkins also talks of the awe and wonder that scientists feel as they study and seek to understand the world. Often scientists use religious language, even talking of ‘God’ as they seek to explain the astounding world in which we live. Dawkins points out however that many of these scientists are not intending to refer to a personal god, such as the God of the Bible. He quotes Einstein, for example, who says

To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflecion, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious.

Dawkins is absolutely right to point out that atheistic – or pantheistic – scientists who use religious or ‘god’ language are not speaking in favour of a Christian God, or arguing for his existence. It is wrong of Christians to use their words for such purposes when this is contrary to their real meaning. However, it is also true to say that other scientists – when they ponder the beauty and brilliance of the universe – do see behing it the work of an even more wonderful God. Indeed I’ve met many for whom this is exactly their response.

For me also, when I consider the wonder of our universe I cannot but feel that this could not have come about but for God who chose that it should to come into being and who ultimately is the cause of its existence. I’m not suggesting that this is a proof of God’s existence, but it is an entirely appropriate response.

Dawkins and Delusion

February 11, 2009

I’ve recently got hold a copy of Richard Dawkin’s book, the God Delusion. I know that I am unlikely to agree with it!, but feel it is appropriate to read the arguments of someone who argues so passionately against something which is so important to me. I hope to give it a fair reading, although it is hard for any of us to avoid bringing our bias to a subject.

Time to read is limited when you have a young child – so I’ve only read the first two chapters so far. From what I have read, though I have to say that although Richard Dawkins is clearly a highly intelligent person, and an excellent author and communicator, the fallacies or weaknesses in his arguments are not too hard to sport. For all of us (me included) a strong bias blinds us to being able to see other perspectives or possibilities. As a leading spokesman for atheism I therefore feel that his case against God is somewhat poor.

There are many others who have pointed out the faults in his books and arguments – and have done so more eloquently than I can. I am not willing to leave him unanswered personally, however, so I intend to do a series of blogs looking at perhaps one of the issues discussed in each chapter, once I’ve read them.

I’d better get a move on with the first two then!


%d bloggers like this: