Friday, April 29, 2011

A response to Mr. Guanpia with regards to Mr. Dawkins

Mr. Guanipa,

My father asked me to take a look at your recent article on The American Thinker, and include him on any response I thought was appropriate. Thus, with your kind permission*, I have included him in my response, and will pass on any response you make to me.

Your first stumble comes quite early in the article, when you say "if God does not exist, why spend so much time and energy trying to disprove his existence?" The answer to this should be patently obvious: in a democracy, opinions matter. As long as religious people are attempting to influence government policy with their religious claims, then their religious clams will be appropriate targets of public disputation and refutation. As long as abortion, gay marriage, evolution, etc. are attacked by religious arguments, then proponents of those policies will attack religious arguments. And obviously, the question of God's existence cuts to the very core of the religious argument.

Quoting Paul on giving up childish things was, of course, a fairly childish comment by Dawkins. Nobody can bat %100; Dawkins has been the recipient of enough disparagement that perhaps he can be forgiven for the logical equivalent of a bad pun. In any case, he had a serious and meaningful argument to advance, which he has done with plenty of seriousness in several books. His contempt for the religious inclination (please do note the difference - Dawkins does not despise religious people, he despises religion and what it makes people do) is also justified and explained in those books.

Dawkin's point is that the religious world-view is in fact childishly simple compared to the scientific world-view. Asserting that God is the author of creation requires a lot less imagination that asserting that putting simple Lego blocks together in mind-numbing numbers produces astonishing effects like life, consciousness, and logical arguments over the internet. The scientific world view is deeper, richer, and more awe-inspiring than the religious view: but to appreciate this, one must give up certain simplistic notions. "War and Peace" and "Cinderella" both tell a story; but one of them can only be appreciated by a mind that has a deep enough grasp of the complexity of life, and a willingness to surrender cherished fantasies. In the same way, much of science is learning to accept what is rather than what we want to be.

On the other hand, religion at its outset promises to protect and defend those cherished fantasies, chief of which is that we and those we love will never die. Every adult knows this is not true; indeed, understanding and accepting the inevitability of death is almost the mark of passage from childhood to adulthood. In that context perhaps you can see why Dawkins would dismiss a claim that death is not inevitable as "childish."

Next you go on to abuse Dawkins for a "willful refusal to believe despite any available evidence." This is outright character assassination. Asserting a man's complete lack of intellectual integrity should not be done lightly. Dawkins has written many books explaining why the available evidence is not sufficient; he has made his position quite clear and routinely engages in attempts to clarify it further. You have the right to disagree with his position, but you do not have the right to dismiss him as a person. He has acted in good faith on this issue; when questioned, he has responded with logic and clarity. It remains to be seen whether you can do the same. As a starter, I will throw out Epicurus' argument, for which we atheists have been waiting for a logical response for some 2,300 years:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

Please get back to me when you have a response that is logical, coherent, and simple enough to summarize in an email. Until then, given the time period which has already transpired and the generations of theologians who have simply ignored the question, perhaps you can understand why atheists might seem a little irritated at one-sided charges of "willful ignorance".

To be fair, you do offer some arguments for your position. Unfortunately all of them have already been answered long ago (some almost as long as Epicurus has been waiting).

"how much of the universe has Dawkins spanned to come to a definitive conclusion that God does not inhabit it" - Epicurus already covered this. One need not look under even a single leaf to recognize that the idea of a loving, merciful, just, powerful God is incompatible with the reality of ordinary existence. In any case we are not looking for a tiny garden gnome hiding in the vastness of the universe; we are allegedly seeking the author of creation. One would assume his signature would be everywhere, and readily accessible. Arguing that God does exist, he's just too tiny and insignificant for us to see, hardly seems like an argument you would wish to pursue.

"the melody of an encoded universe, where the slightest variation" - This is the fine tuning argument (also known as the anthromorphic principle). It suffers from one rather devastating rejoinder: if the universe were not so tuned that we could exist, we wouldn't be here to notice it! When you sit down to a game of poker, the specific hand you are dealt - whatever hand it is - is stunningly improbable; that particular arrangement of cards is unbelievably unlikely. Yet no one notices or cares, until they get a royal flush (which is no more unlikely than any other arbitrarily selected assortment of cards). This is because we don't care about a hand full of trash, but a royal flush is pretty and excites us. In the same way, the vast number of universal arrangements that lead to dull, lifeless worlds are completely uninteresting to us, no matter how many of them there might have been before or might come after (or may currently exist in alternate universes, depending on your view of physics).

"According to Dawkins, this complexity is purely random": - This is either an example of willful ignorance on your part, or an outright lie. The concept of natural selection has been successfully explained to high school students for several generations. If you are unwilling to understand it, then you are being willfully ignorant; if you are unable, then you are not qualified to comment on topics this complex; if you do understand the issue and are purposefully obfuscating, then you are simply immoral. Please advise me of which case applies.

I can prove evolution with nothing more than a box of granola. Pick up the box: observe it closely. There are large and small chunks all mixed together. Now shake the box gently, not too hard and not too soft. In a few minutes the big chunks have floated to the top, and the small ones to the bottom. Presto! Order from nothing but energy + the laws of physics. This is how natural selection works: energy + the laws of physics produces order and complexity. There is nothing random about it. Every single time you do the granola box trick, it works. That is the opposite of random.

"But we do not arrive at these methods by accident; they mirror the order which permeates the universe we live in" - This seems to be a fairly muted argument from the existence of logic. But that argument makes no sense. Of course our logic mirrors the universe we evolved from: how could it not? Indeed, if logic were completely divorced from empirical reality, that would be evidence of God; but the fact that logic is a pale shadow of the empirical world only means that it is an approximation of reality - which is exactly the result an evolutionist would expect. As creatures of the world, so we reflect it. Sadly, that "divine spark" the theologians talk of seems rather missing - in all ways humans are seen to behave as animals, and animals approach humans in morality, in reasoning, possibly even in language. True, we are the only royal flush on the planet, but the mere fact that so many other species have aces in their hands shows that we are simply the luckiest of animals... but we're still playing the same game.

"But how does a magnificent construct like beauty arise from the random, purposeless, haphazard "blueprint" of chance" - It doesn't. Beauty arises from the human mind. The old saying is "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," and it is true. So is meaning.

What is meaning, anyway? It is the significance of a thing above and beyond its existence as itself. So a dollar bill has meaning; it is more than just a piece of green paper. Where does this meaning exist? In the minds of the two people playing poker over it. Take the dollar bill to a caveman, and it loses all its meaning - he'll just use it to wipe his hands or start a fire. From this we can see that meaning requires a mind to construct additional significance.

Now ask yourself: what significance does the entirety of existence have above and beyond its mere status as the entirety of existence? None, of course; how could it? What more is there than everything? And to whom could it have such significance? There would have to be someone outside of existence, trading in existences like currency.

While this leads us to an transcendent god, it also destroys the reason for going there: you do not worship a god who has multiple creations which have significance to him above and beyond their status as creation. Such a god is far too remote and unconcerned with human beings to serve your purposes.

"And yet Dawkins remains undeterred by this glaring inconsistency in his worldview" - Dawkins is not the only one. A billion Chinese do not believe in your God, or his purpose or meaning. Yet they love their children just the same, they suffer their heartbreaks and joys just the same, they strive and struggle just the same. They are moral and immoral, happy and sad, lucky and cursed, in exactly the same way we are, all without once ever even considering Jesus.

Human beings create their own purpose, because they create their own meaning - their own shared significance for things above and beyond their status as mere things. Loving couples often have a favorite song, which means something to them that it does not to other people. This meaning is clearly and obviously a product of the empirical world and their reaction to it (namely what they were feeling when they first heard it together). Yet would you dare say it meant less because of that?

Creating meaning is what people do. It requires no god to explain it, just as the production of children requires no divine explanation. If anything, theology is opposed to meaning as it strives to denigrate everything about this world in favor of the next one. What could be more poisonous to meaning than stating that our entire lives on Earth are merely shadow-plays, an elaborate entrance exam to the true life that awaits for us, unknowable, untouchable, hidden behind a relentlessly one-way veil? How could any person take any act on Earth seriously if they accepted that nothing on Earth (save for the trivial matter of a few words of allegiance) mattered?

"Perhaps Dawkins might do well to give the doctrinaire beliefs he clings to as an adult a well- needed rest, and boldly revisit the wonder that is to behold reality anew through the eyes of a child; or at least a man less inclined to upbraid the God whose existence he so fiercely denies." - And now you've gone and destroyed your entire argument, by asserting that your view is childish after all. Perhaps Dawkins is not the only one to make bad allegories in the midst of an argument.

In any case, Dawkins does not upbraid God; Dawkins has no conversations with or even thoughts directed at God. Dawkins spends his time upbraiding people like you; that is, people who advance the same tired arguments, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing. Answer Epicurus and then we'll talk; actually, answer Epicurus and then Dawkins himself will personally talk to you. Because you will have been the very first theologian to answer that simple, ancient argument.

Given that the bar is so very, very low, perhaps you can see why atheists seem a bit irritable (as no doubt I have seemed throughout this missive). Just give us one good answer to one old question, and we promise to smile and treat you like a genius for weeks. Well, at least until we find the logical flaw in your argument. Until then, perhaps you should be less disparaging of other people's willingness to engage in logic.

If there is anything I can clarify, please do not hesitate to ask. Although my time is valuable, it is also of value to me to live in a society where logical, rational debate can and does change people's minds. Therefore it is my moral duty to attempt said debate, whenever someone is willing, with an open mind. I assure you that if you can answer my logical objections, I will change my mind. I can also assure you that the standard of logic I expect is no greater than what you expect for yourself. Can you offer me equal assurances? Can you assert that it is possible, even conceivable, that I may sway your mind by carefully reasoned arguments? For this is the mutual requirement of a reasoned conversation: that both sides risk being wrong. If it is inconceivable to you that you could be wrong, then you cannot (by definition) engage in reasoned debate. Again, perhaps you can see why atheists always seem so sour when debating those of unshakable faith...


* Presumed; not actually obtained.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

It's nice to see that the commenters have a bit more sense.

Anonymous said...

A nice argument - have you considered submitting it to http://www.daylightatheism.org/ ?

Anonymous said...

Love most of your argument, but have to quibble about the Epicurian argument -- there are schools of thought that say God created man with free will, and it is because of that free will that evil exists, and God allows it. This theory assumes that God does not meddle with, or continually fine tune, existence, but lets it run as it will -- a rather Deist view. I'm not sure how those who believe God controls every little thing reconcile that with the existence of evil, but for those with broader religious views, I can see how it makes sense. I certainly would rather have free will than get rid of all evil in the world. Which seems to be the message of all those dystopian fictions of late. Hmmm.