Contending with Dawkins (1)

This is a review of the first essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

Dawkins’s Delusion by William Lane Craig.

In the first essay, William Lane Craig outlines what appears to be Dawkins’ main argument against belief in god from The God Delusion. Here is the structure, as Craig presents it:

  1. There is an appearance of design in the universe.
  2. A designer is one way to try to explain the appearance of design.
  3. Positing a designer raises the question of who designed the designer.
  4. The best explanation we have for the emergence of complex things is evolution by natural selection.
  5. We have no equivalent explanation for physics.
  6. We should maintain hope that such an explanation may turn up.
  7. Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist.

Craig correctly points out that this is a crashingly bad argument. The conclusion does not follow from the premises, and point 3 in particular seems to raise the spectre of an infinite regress of explanations. But is this a fair assessment of Dawkins’ argument?

No. It ignores the very important aspect of explanations that they be simplifying. That is, you have a simpler account of things after adopting the explanation than you had before. Dawkins harps on about this rather a lot in his book. Craig may not agree that simplicity is a key virtue of a successful explanation, or that a creator god fails the simplicity test; but he really should acknowledge that this is part of Dawkins’ argument. This answers, I think, the problem of the infinite regress of explanations. What I read Dawkins as meaning is that, if your explanation fails to simplify things, then the only reason we would have to adopt your explanation if, behind it, there isanother explanation that does simplify things.

Now, I realize that this may be me projecting rather than successfully reading Dawkins’ original intent. But that doesn’t really matter. The point here is not an atheist apologetic (“What is the true meaning of the text?”) but an attempt to get the best understanding of reality. So here is my reformulation of Craig’s version of the argument.

  1. The universe exhibits the appearance of design.
  2. A designer is one purported explanation of the appearance of design.
  3. Generally speaking, appeals to a designer fail as explanations because:
    1. they fail to systematically predict actual observed phenomena and rule out phenomena we do not observe, and
    2. they fail the test of simplicity, relative to naturalistic alternative explanations.
  4. In the past, comparable design arguments have been countered by the very powerful and well-evidenced theory of evolution by natural selection.
  5. Although not yet as evidentially-supported as evolution, naturalistic explanations of the appearance of fine-tuning – such as the multiverse – are available and being explored.
  6. We therefore have good grounds for optimism that naturalistic explanations will prove more empirically successful than theistic explanations for the appearance of fine-tuning.
  7. Therefore, we should prefer the more parsimonious no-god hypothesis until substantial contrary evidence arises.

I know, it is not watertight. Nor is it a deductive argument. Like any scientific argument, it is inductive – seeking the most likely explanation of the observations available.

And despite my disclaimer, I do think that it is closer than Craig’s version to the actual arguments presented by Dawkins. (But again, I don’t want to pretend that my goal is to faithfully parrot Dawkins; please don’t attribute any of my errors to Dawkins. If you want to know what Dawkins says, read Dawkins.)

So much for the first essay in the series.


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5 Responses to “Contending with Dawkins (1)”

  1. Contending with Christianity’s Critics « Friendly Humanist Says:

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  2. Contending with Dawkins (2) « Friendly Humanist Says:

    […] we already have this? Not really. Unlike the earlier essay by Craig, Ganssle goes for a much higher-level summary of […]

  3. Debilis Says:

    This is a very thoughtful post!

    It inspired me to respond; I hope you don’t mind.

    To start, I completely agree that:
    1. The key point is whether or not there is a good argument here (as opposed to guessing about Dawkins’ intent), and
    2. This is an inductive argument, and should be treated as such.

    But, as a theist myself, I don’t find this one of the stronger arguments against theism. At best, it is a counter to Kalam-style arguments. It doesn’t address anything more than that.

    Nor am I convinced it is even good in this respect.

    First, because Kalam-style arguments are deductive, meaning that, whether or not they succeed, they can’t be effectively countered by inductive arguments.

    Second, because such arguments aren’t meant to present a designer as a scientific entity, which predicts observed phenomena (* more on an objection here in a moment).

    Third, because simplicity is not the only criterion to be considered in an inductive argument.

    Fourth, because God is simple by the standard definition used in science, which Dawkins himself gives in “The Blind Watchmaker”.

    Fifth, because the alternative views (multiverse theories) are themselves extremely complex.

    The only argument that this seems to refute is a sort of “God of the Gaps”, in which God is proposed as an inductive physical theory. While many non-experts try this approach, and it is certainly very reasonable for Dawkins to attempt to counters it, it is far too much to say that this supports a “no-God hypothesis”. That is, it doesn’t speak to God as the concept has been traditionally understood, but only to an understanding of God believed in by a vocal minority of Christians and Muslims.

    Even then, it only refutes the design arguments for this God. It does not show that such a being does not exist (though I happen to agree that this version of God is not extant).

    Really, I’d love to welcome Dawkins as an ally against what I perceive to be a silly understanding of God. But I consistently find my views lumped into conclusions to arguments aimed at them.

    Okay, that is quite long enough, I think. I hope that was interesting.
    But best to you in any case.

  4. Timothy Mills Says:

    Thankyou for your thoughts. I am always pleased when someone finds a post of mine worth responding to.

    There is a later essay in the book I’m reviewing that gives (to my mind) a better summary and more relevant response to Dawkins’ main point. I review it here.

    I should say that I do not find Dawkins to be the best defender of the no-god hypothesis. He is a biologist, not a philosopher. My favorite books from him are his biology books – The Selfish Gene and The Ancestor’s Tale and so forth – not The God Delusion. I have come across much more precise and nuanced arguments against theistic claims. This post was just about Craig’s poor critique of Dawkins.

    On the other hand, as I go through the professional apologetic books in this sequence (see here for the overview), I am no more impressed by their arguments than you are by Dawkins’. After I finish the current set of essays (Contending with Christianity’s Critics, which the above-reviewed essay is from), I still have Craig’s Reasonable Faith and Richard Swinburne’s Is There A God?. I will remain as open as I can, but so far I’m not hopeful.

    Is there an argument for (your conception of) God that you think is particularly strong, which skeptics have not been able to adequately respond to? Feel free to share it, or link to the best presentation of it you can find.

  5. Contending with Bart Ehrman | Friendly Humanist Says:

    […] * Yes, a couple of the earlier essays in this book responded to Dawkins. But they were responding to Dawkins’ philosophy […]

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