Sunday, July 01, 2007

Atheism, Religion, and Science Redux

In which I expose the intellectual sloppiness (or chicanery) of strident atheists in general and Richard Dawkins (noted scientist and virulent anti-religionist) in particular.

UPDATED 07/02/07 (addendum at the end of the post)

I posit this range of possible positions about God (from "Atheism, Religion, and Science"):
A. I believe that there is a God; that is, an omniscient, omnipotent being who created the universe, and who remains involved in the events of the universe, including the lives of humans. (Theism)

B. I believe that there is some kind of force or intelligence created the universe, but that force or intelligence has since had no involvement in the universe. (Deism)

C. I believe that there is no God, force, or intelligence of the kind posited in A or B. (Strong atheism)

D.1. I choose not to believe in a God, force, or intelligence of the kind posited in A or B, even though His or its existence cannot be proved or disproved. (Weak atheism)

D.2. I choose to believe in a God, force, or intelligence of the kind posited in A or B, even though His or its existence cannot be proved or disproved. (Weak theism or deism)

E. I take no position on the existence of a God, force, or intelligence of the kind posited in A or B because His or its existence can never be proved or disproved. (Agnosticism)
None of those statements implies a position about religion; thus:
A. A theist need not adhere to a religion. A theist might, for example, believe that religions have their roots in myth, superstition, power-seeking -- or some combination of these -- and that they too often foment evil. But a theist may nevertheless believe that the existence of the universe and (at least some) documented events or natural phenomena are consistent with the possibility of an intervening Creator. Such a theist would be a "believer," even though not affiliated with an organized religion.

B. A deist need not adhere to a religion. A deist might, for example, believe that all religions have their roots in myth, superstition, power-seeking -- or some combination of these -- and that they too often foment evil. But a deist may nevertheless believe that the existence of the universe is owed to an intelligent Creator. Such a deist would be a "believer," even though not affiliated with an organized religion.

C. Strong atheism and religious adherence -- seemingly contradictory positions -- can be found in the same person under certain circumstances. Such a person doesn't accept the religious doctrines that proclaim God's existence or demand that he be obeyed and worshiped. Such a person does believe, however, that certain religious traditions are valuable socializing influences which should be perpetuated; that is, his reasons for adherence might be called "non-religious."

D.1. A weak atheist, like a strong one, may adhere to a religion for "non-religious" reasons.

D.2. A weak theist or deist, like his strong counterpart, might be a "believer" while rejecting organized religion.

E. An agnostic might adhere to a religion because he is "hedging his bets" or because he, like some atheists, values the "non-religious" benefits of religion. Contrarily, an agnostic might spurn religion because, like some theists and deists, he believes that religions have their roots in myth, superstition, power-seeking -- or some combination of these -- and that they too often foment evil.
It should now be obvious that one's views about God and one's views about religion are entirely separable.
Atheists -- like some theists, deists, and agnostics -- may reject religion because it is founded on myth, superstition, power-seeking -- or some combination of these -- or because it too often foments evil. But the rejection of religion neither proves nor disproves the existence of God. God exists (or not) regardless of the origins of religion, its value, or one's beliefs about the existence of God.

Think of it this way: An atheist who rejects the idea of God because he rejects religion is (unwittingly perhaps) guilty of making this kind of circular argument:
  1. There can be no God if religion is based on myth, superstition, power-seeking -- or some combination of these -- and is sometimes conducive to evil.
  2. Religion (in the atheists' view) is based on myth, superstition, power-seeking -- or some combination of these -- and is sometimes conducive to evil.
  3. Therefore, there is no God.
Yes, the conclusion follows from the premises, but only because the conclusion is assumed in the first premise. Such reasoning is a type of logical fallacy known as "begging the question." One's disbelief in the existence of God or the possibility of God's existence does not disprove God's existence or the possibility of God's existence.

There are multitudes (e.g., many theists, even more deists, and most agnostics) who -- preferring not to beg the question -- accept the existence of God, or the possibility of the existence of God, even though they reject religion. They understand (perhaps intuitively) that the atheist who rejects God because he rejects religion is guilty of begging the question.

There are, nevertheless, strident atheists (strong, vociferously virulent atheists) who believe that their arguments against religion somehow bear on the question of God's existence. Christopher Hitchens -- a non-scientist -- is an exemplar of this brand of strident atheism. Hitchens and his ilk disdain religion for one reason or another (sometimes validly), which (invalidly) leads them to pronounce that there is no God. They simply adopt atheism as a matter of faith. Atheism is their religion.

What about scientists who are strident atheists, and who claim not to be "religious" atheists but scientific ones? An exemplar of that breed is Richard Dawkins, a noted British ethologist, evolutionary biologist, and popular science writer who holds the Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. In spite of all that, Dawkins is guilty of the same kind of unscientific (and illogical) thinking as that of non-scientists like Hitchens.

Dawkins -- like Hitchens and his ilk -- is virulently anti-religious. But Dawkins tries to deny his "religious" atheism by asserting that the question of God's existence is a scientific one.

Dawkins expresses his hostility to religion in A Devil's Chaplain (inter alia), where he latches onto "Russell's teapot":
The reason organized religion merits outright hostility is that, unlike belief in Russell's teapot,["] religion is powerful, influential, tax-exempt and systematically passed on to children too young to defend themselves. Children are not compelled to spend their formative years memorizing loony books about teapots. Government-subsidized schools don't exclude children whose parents prefer the wrong shape of teapot. Teapot-believers don't stone teapot-unbelievers, teapot-apostates, teapot-heretics and teapot-blasphemers to death. Mothers don't warn their sons off marrying teapot-shiksas whose parents believe in three teapots rather than one. People who put the milk in first don't kneecap those who put the tea in first. [Quoted here.]
* A hypothetical, undetectable object in space, the existence of which cannot be disproved. The teapot (in Russell's view) is analogous to God: ED.
Dawkins, like other strident atheists, is guilty of citing instances of evil committed in the name of (but not necessarily because of) religion, and then generalizing from those instances to the conclusion that he wishes to reach: Religion is evil because it is the cause of much evil. Dawkins, like other strident atheists, simply chooses to ignore all the good that is done in the name of (and even because of) religion (e.g., the humanitarian works of myriad Christian groups through the ages; the rescue of Jews from the Holocaust by many Christians -- including Pope Pius XII). Or perhaps Dawkins -- unscientifically -- assumes that the evil outweighs the good. In any case, Dawkins's anti-religious prejudices are evident.

Dawkins attacks religion because religion is founded on God -- if not by God -- and Dawkins simply doesn't want to believe in God. His "faith" consists of a unfounded disbelief in God -- and he admits it:
I believe, but I cannot prove, that all life, all intelligence, all creativity and all "design" anywhere in the universe, is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection. It follows that design comes late in the universe, after a period of Darwinian evolution. Design cannot precede evolution and therefore cannot underlie the universe. [Emphasis added.]
But Dawkins never ceases in his quest to disprove God "scientifically." Here are some relevant passages from a recent colloquy between Dawkins and eminent physicist Lawrence Krauss ("Should Science Speak to Faith,", June 19, 2007):
Dawkins: ...I agree with you [Krauss] that it might be surprisingly hard to detect, by observation or experiment, whether we live in a god-free universe or a god-endowed one. Nevertheless, I still maintain that there is a cogent sense in which a scientist can discuss the question. There still is a sense in which we can have an interesting and illuminating scientific discussion about whether X is the case, even if we can't demonstrate it one way or the other by observation or experiment. How can I argue this and still claim to be doing science?

In The God Delusion, I made the distinction between two kinds of agnosticism. Permanent Agnosticism in Principle (PAP) is exemplified by that philosophical chestnut, "Do you see red the way I see red, or might your red be my green or some completely different hue (‘sky-blue-pink’) that I cannot imagine?" Temporary agnosticism in practice (TAP) refers to things that we cannot (or cannot yet) know in practice but nevertheless have a true scientific reality in a way that the 'sky-blue-pink' conundrum does not. Bertrand Russell's hypothetical orbiting teapot might be an example. Some people think the question of God’s existence is equivalent to ‘sky-blue-pink’ (PAP), and they wrongly deduce that his existence and non-existence are equiprobable alternatives. I think we should be TAP agnostic about God, and I certainly don’t think the odds are 50/50.

Statements such as 'There are (or are not) intelligent aliens elsewhere in the universe’ are clearly TAP statements insofar as we are talking about the observable universe this side of our event horizon. At any time, a flying saucer or a radio transmission could clinch the matter in one direction (it can never be clinched in the other). What, though, of statements about the existence of intelligent aliens in those parts of the universe that are beyond our event horizon, where the galaxies are receding from us so fast that information from them can never in principle reach us because of the finite speed of light? In this case, at least according to the physicists I have read, the aliens would forever be undetectable by any means whatever. On the face of it, therefore, we would have to be PAP agnostic about them, not just TAP agnostic.

Yet I would resent it as a scientist, not just as a person, if you tried to rule out any scientific discussion of aliens beyond our event horizon, on the grounds that it is beyond the reach of empirical test (PAP). Suppose we take the Drake equation for calculating the odds of alien intelligences existing, and apply it to the whole universe rather than just our galaxy. Clearly it will yield very different results depending on whether we hold to a finite or infinite model of the universe. Those two models of the universe are discriminable by empirical evidence, and that empirical evidence would therefore have some bearing on the probability of alien life existing somewhere in the universe. Hence the probability of alien life is a question of TAP rather than PAP agnosticism, even though direct empirical experience of the aliens might be impossible. It is not obvious to me that gods are beyond such probability estimates, any more than aliens are. And a probability estimate is the limit of my aspiration.

What Dawkins wants us to accept is this: He is a scientist; therefore, any speculation on his part about the existence (or non-existence) of God is scientific if it is couched in the language of science (however devoid of empirical content). That is, of course, pure balderdash.

Science -- the accumulation, interpretation, and organization of knowledge -- may benefit from speculation, if speculation yields testable hypotheses. But the analysis suggested by Dawkins is nothing more than speculation. It does not and cannot advance our knowledge regarding the existence or non-existence of God. An article in Wikipedia says this about the Drake equation:
The Drake equation (rarely also called the Green Bank equation or the Sagan equation) is a famous result in the speculative fields of exobiology, astrosociobiology and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

This equation was devised by Dr Frank Drake (now Emeritus Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz) in the 1960s in an attempt to estimate the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy with which we might come in contact. The main purpose of the equation is to allow scientists to quantify the uncertainty of the factors which determine the number of extraterrestrial civilizations. [Emphasis added.]
The Drake equation says nothing about the actual possibility of extraterrestrial civilizations -- or of God -- as Krauss explains in response to Dawkins:
First, I have to say that I have nothing against trying to think about phenomena that might never be directly measurable. I do this all the time in my work in cosmology, where I consider the possibilities of other causally disconnected universes. Of course I do this to see if I can resolve outstanding puzzles in the physics of our universe. If this approach turns out not to work, then I find the issue less interesting. I also agree with you that probabilities are important, but I think your example of the Drake equation is quite relevant here, but perhaps not in the way you intended. First of all, the Drake Equation is really applied locally, within our galaxy. If the probabilities turn out to be small that there is more than one intelligent life form in our galaxy, I think most astrophysicists will not be particularly interested in worrying about the civilizations that might exist in other galaxies but which will be forever removed from us. But more important is that fact that the probabilities associated with the Drake equation are almost all so poorly known that the equation really hasn’t driven much useful research. Varying each of the conditional probabilities in the equations by an order of magnitude or so, one can derive results that either argue strongly in favor of extraterrestrial intelligence, or strongly against it. The proof is likely to come from empirical searches. As bad as this is, I would argue it is far worse when attempting to quantify probabilities for the existence of divine intelligence or purpose in the universe.
Krauss is being too kind to Dawkins. Or, perhaps I should say that Krauss skewers Dawkins politely. One can hypothesize until the cows come home, but hypothesizing about phenomena that cannot be quantified empirically is not science. It's nothing more than college-dorm bull-sh*****g with a veneer of (pseudo) scientific precision. It is an appeal to authority -- the authority of (in this case) an eminent scientist. But it is an appeal founded on two pre-conceived ideas: There is no God. Religion is evil.

There is no "probability" that God exists, as Dawkins would have it. God either does or does not exist. And the existence of God is a question beyond the grasp of science. To use Dawkins's terms, the question of God's existence is permanently agnostic in principle (PAP); intellectual sleight-of-hand cannot convert it to a question that is temporarily agnostic in practice (TAP). Whatever we might know (or suspect) about the foundations of religion and its influence on human behavior has no bearing on the question of God's existence.

Related posts:
Same Old Story, Same Old Song and Dance
Atheism, Religion, and Science
The Limits of Science
Beware of Irrational Atheism
The Creation Model
Evolution and Religion
Science, Evolution, Religion, and Liberty
Science, Logic, and God
The Universe . . . . Four Possibilities


After publishing this post, I came across a post by Keith Burgess-Jackson that led me to this article by Thomas Nagel (B.Phil., Oxford; Ph.D., Harvard; University Professor, professor of law, and professor of philosophy at New York University). Among many other things, Nagel has this to say about Dawkins's efforts to make atheism seem scientific:
The theory of evolution through heritable variation and natural selection reduces the improbability of organizational complexity by breaking the process down into a very long series of small steps, each of which is not all that improbable. But each of the steps involves a mutation in a carrier of genetic information—an enormously complex molecule capable both of self-replication and of generating out of surrounding matter a functioning organism that can house it. The molecule is moreover capable sometimes of surviving a slight mutation in its structure to generate a slightly different organism that can also survive. Without such a replicating system there could not be heritable variation, and without heritable variation there could not be natural selection favoring those organisms, and their underlying genes, that are best adapted to the environment.

The entire apparatus of evolutionary explanation therefore depends on the prior existence of genetic material with these remarkable properties. Since 1953 we have known what that material is, and scientists are continually learning more about how DNA does what it does. But since the existence of this material or something like it is a precondition of the possibility of evolution, evolutionary theory cannot explain its existence. We are therefore faced with a problem analogous to that which Dawkins thinks faces the argument from design: we have explained the complexity of organic life in terms of something that is itself just as functionally complex as what we originally set out to explain. So the problem is just pushed back one step: how did such a thing come into existence?...

The fear of religion leads too many scientifically minded atheists to cling to a defensive, world-flattening reductionism. Dawkins, like many of his contemporaries, is hobbled by the assumption that the only alternative to religion is to insist that the ultimate explanation of everything must lie in particle physics, string theory, or whatever purely extensional laws govern the elements of which the material world is composed....

It is natural to try to take any successful intellectual method [i.e., modern science] as far as it will go. Yet the impulse to find an explanation of everything in physics has over the last fifty years gotten out of control. The concepts of physical science provide a very special, and partial, description of the world that experience reveals to us. It is the world with all subjective consciousness, sensory appearances, thought, value, purpose, and will left out. What remains is the mathematically describable order of things and events in space and time.

...The reductionist project usually tries to reclaim some of the originally excluded aspects of the world, by analyzing them in physical—that is, behavioral or neurophysiological—terms; but it denies reality to what cannot be so reduced. I believe the project is doomed—that conscious experience, thought, value, and so forth are not illusions, even though they cannot be identified with physical facts....

We have more than one form of understanding. Different forms of understanding are needed for different kinds of subject matter. The great achievements of physical science do not make it capable of encompassing everything, from mathematics to ethics to the experiences of a living animal.We have no reason to dismiss moral reasoning, introspection, or conceptual analysis as ways of discovering the truth just because they are not physics....

A religious worldview is only one response to the conviction that the physical description of the world is incomplete. Dawkins says with some justice that the will of God provides a too easy explanation of anything we cannot otherwise understand, and therefore brings inquiry to a stop. Religion need not have this effect, but it can. It would be more reasonable, in my estimation, to admit that we do not now have the understanding or the knowledge on which to base a comprehensive theory of reality.