As I mentioned in my review of The God Delusion, Dawkins focuses on evolution as a supposed argument against design in the universe and, consequently, God’s existence. However, evolutionary explanations only work at the biological level- they are completely impotent when it comes to explaining other design features of the universe, such as the fine-tuning of the fundamental constants. How does Dawkins explain away this fine-tuning and maintain his view that God “almost certainly does not exist?”
Well, on pages 157 and 158 of his book, Dawkins offers his ‘central’ argument against God’s existence. Here is the argument:
1. One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect has been to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises.
2. The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself.
3. The temptation is a false one because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer.
4. The most ingenious and powerful explanation is Darwinian evolution by natural selection.
5. We don’t have an equivalent explanation for physics.
6. We should not give up the hope of a better explanation arising in physics, something as powerful as Darwinism is for biology.
Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist.
It is important to note that this is supposedly the ‘central’ argument Dawkins offers, and so it is essential to his case for atheism. Yet, the argument seems patently false. Not only does the conclusion fail to follow from the premises, but some of the premises are highly questionable. In this brief article, I want to take a look at some of the biggest problems with Dawkins’ “central argument against God.”
Perhaps the most troubling premise in Dawkins’ argument is number 3. The basic idea here is that we should not infer a Designer, because then we would need to explain who designed the Designer. Dawkins thinks that God is such a complex being that we would gain absolutely no explanatory advantage by invoking Him.
The first problem with this premise is that it makes a fundamental mistake about the nature of explanation. In order to offer a good, compelling explanation of some phenomena, one does not need to offer an explanation of the explanation. If you think carefully about this, then you may notice that we could never explain anything using the Dawkins approach. Such an approach leads to an infinite regress. Any explanation you offer would need an explanation, that explanation would require an explanation, and so on forever. It would literally be impossible to have any knowledge.
Moreover, we can see that Dawkins approach is invalid with a few simple examples. For instance, if archaeologists discover a piece of pottery, they are justified in inferring that the pottery was designed by some unknown group of people. Even if they had no idea who designed it, where they came from, or how they designed it, this inference would still be justified.
Or, suppose that astronauts found complicated machines on an extra-solar planet. They would justifiably infer that some intelligent extraterrestrials designed and created the machines, even if they had absolutely no idea what such beings were like, what planet they came from, or how they designed the complicated machines. Clearly, it would be absurd for the astronauts to say, “since we don’t know anything about any possible alien designers, we cannot conclude that these machines were designed.”
A second problem with this premise lies with Dawkins’ assumption that God is complex, and therefore cannot be invoked to explain the design in the universe. Although he constantly claims throughout his book that God is extraordinarily complex, he never actually defends this assertion. In fact, many theologians and philosophers have plausibly argued that God is actually very simple. God, as an immaterial mind, is not composed of any parts. Dawkins probably assumes that God must be complex because the human brain is complex, and God, as an omniscient being, obviously has a lot more knowledge than any human. However, God is not a brain, and so we need not assume that He is extraordinarily complex.
The final problem with Dawkins’ third premise is that, in this case, we don’t need an explanation of who designed the Designer, since God is, ex hypothesi, timeless. Since He never began to exist, there is no need to explain His existence (unlike, for example, the universe, which did begin to exist). This is not special pleading either, since atheists often claim that the universe does not require an external explanation because it has existed forever. 1
In his sixth premise, Dawkins claims that- “We should not give up the hope of a better explanation arising in physics, something as powerful as Darwinism is for biology.” Is there anything wrong with this premise?
It actually depends on how the premise is construed. In one sense, it is true that we should not rule out the possibility of a Darwinian-type explanation accounting for the fine-tuning of the physical parameters of the universe. Unless we can deduce a logical impossibility of this type of scenario, it should remain a possibility on the table.
However, this weak interpretation of the premise cannot be what Dawkins is getting at here. The meager claim that we should not rule out a Darwinian-type explanation hardly furnishes any sort of reason for thinking that such an explanation is probably true, and it certainly doesn’t allow us to reject the hypothesis that God designed the universe. Thus, I think that Dawkins is actually claiming that it is irrational for us to conclude that God has designed the universe given the possibility that a Darwinian-type explanation might one day emerge. This is the only interpretation of the premise that has a chance of actually connecting the premises and the conclusion (although, as we shall see, there is still a fatal error in the conclusion Dawkins draws).
Why on earth, however, should we actually think that this is the case? The mere possibility of a Darwinian-type explanation is no reason to reject the God hypothesis. It seems that the reason Dawkins thinks that we should reject the God explanation is that the God explanation has been offered and rejected in the past (concerning biology), and so we can conclude (apparently using inductive reasoning) that it will be rejected in the case of physics as well.
So, Dawkins’ argument is essentially this:
At first, it seemed that God was responsible for the design of biological organisms. This explanation was superseded by Darwinian evolution. Currently, it seems that God is responsible for the design of the physical constants that govern the universe. This explanation will probably be superseded by a Darwinian-type explanation in the future. Thus, it is irrational to believe that God is responsible for the design of the physical constants. Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist.
So, premise 6 in his argument is really relying on induction from a past case. Given that a Darwinian-type explanation overcame a Design explanation concerning biology, the same thing will probably happen with physics. What should we think of this inference?
It seems to me patently obvious that this is simply inadequate to furnish any sort of reasonable inductive case. Think about the leap of logic here. Dawkins is saying that, based on the single case of evolution overcoming a design explanation, we should assume that the fine-tuning of physics will overcome a design explanation in the near future. But it gets worse, because Dawkins is actually claiming that it is unreasonable to think that the fine-tuning of physics won’t ultimately have a Darwinian-type explanation! And this extraordinary conclusion is based off of one single example.
This would be like seeing one cat, noticing that the cat is black, and concluding that, therefore, all cats are probably black. Actually, it would be more like concluding, after seeing one cat, that it is unreasonable for anyone to believe that there are non-black cats. Such a bold conclusion simply cannot be reached on the basis of one example.
One Small Step for Dawkins, One Giant Leap for Logical Argumentation
Based on the six premises, apparently, Dawkins wants to establish the strong conclusion: Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist.
Based on the premises offered, this conclusion is frankly weird. At absolute best, Dawkins’ argument shows that we should not infer God’s existence on the basis of the fine-tuning of physics. But this conclusion does not demonstrate that God does not exist, nor does it demonstrate that it is irrational to believe in God’s existence. Wholly apart from the fine-tuning argument, one might rationally believe in God’s existence on the basis of the Cosmological Argument, Moral Argument, Ontological Argument, or Argument from Mind, to give a few examples. Theists have offered a variety of different arguments for God’s existence, and the case does not necessarily rise or fall with the success or failure of the design argument from fine-tuning.
Even aside from arguments given by natural theology, a theist might plausibly believe in the existence of God based on revelation. For instance, a believer could base her case for belief in God on the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ or on the basis of fulfilled prophecy in the Bible. Beyond this, a believer might rationally believe in the existence of God on the basis of personal experience or answered prayer.
So far, I have been discussing justified belief in God’s existence. However, it is also entirely possible that God exists even if belief in Him is not necessarily justified. Dawkins’ argument can only show that we are not justified in believing that God exists- it says nothing about whether or not He actually does. Thus, Dawkins’ conclusion overstates any inference that could be made from his premises, even if we assume that all the premises are true.
Considering that this is the ‘central’ argument Dawkins gives to support his strong atheism, it is critical for his overall case. We have seen that the conclusion completely oversteps the bounds of the argument, at best showing that the Design Argument from fine-tuning is not a good justification for belief in God. Moreover, his article relies on the dubious idea that all explanations require explanations before they can be accepted. Additionally, Dawkins bases his entire case on an inductive inference from a single example, which is clearly insufficient. If Dawkins wants to demonstrate that God is a delusion, better arguments will be required.
1. There is currently overwhelming scientific evidence that the universe has not existed forever, so many atheists have abandoned this line of thinking. Yet, even today, many simply deny that the universe had a beginning by clinging to old theories like the oscillating model or putting their hope in new theories which purport to imply an infinitely old multiverse. Both of these approaches are, I think, complete failures, but that is besides the point for the current discussion. The point is that, if the universe has existed forever, then it does not require an explanation. But if this applies to the universe, then it likewise applies to God as well.