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Dawkins on Anselm

Ch. 3: Arguments for God’s Existence

Dawkins and AnselmDawkins’ misrepresentation of Anselm is as interesting as his misrepresentation of Aquinas. Here, too, I agree that Anselm’s argument does not provide a successful proof of the existence of God (in the sense that Dawkins is discussing), so it’s not that I disagree with Dawkins’ conclusion. Nevertheless, his way of arriving at that conclusion is instructive.

Let’s get the uninteresting aspects out of the way first. Dawkins’ primary weapon is ridicule. He explains the argument in such a way that it is impossible to see how anyone could be convinced by it for a moment. He then notes that Bertrand Russell said both that it is quite difficult to work out why the argument does not work, and that he himself, in 1894, had become convinced that the argument did in fact work – though Dawkins has already made it impossible for us to see how either of these claims could be true. He is tempted to attribute the latter, in particular, to Russell being exaggeratedly fair-minded, over eager to find worth in something clearly worthless. I rather suspect that, if the quotes form Russell show us anything, they show us that the argument must be more interesting, and more complex, than Dawkins’ ridiculing summary suggests: Dawkins has again substituted derision for argument.

However, he is quite explicit about his reason for this, and that’s where the more interesting aspect of his account lies. He makes it clear that, as a scientist rather than a philosopher, he simply can’t begin to imagine that an argument that draws on no empirical data- that deals simply in words, in logic – could prove something factual about the universe. And that, I think, confirms the impression I was left with by his treatment of Aquinas: that, for Dawkins, the question of the existence of God is the question of the existence of some particular thing – one thing amongst all the things that exist: some kind of empirical reality. He is understandable unwilling to believe that a purely philosophical argument could establish, without any kind of looking the existence of such a thing.

What if, however, the question of the existence of God were more like a question about the conditions for the existence of all particular things? Would it be more plausible to think that a philosophical/metaphysical argument might be capable of establishing the necessity of something more like that? Some people have thought, for instance, that it is possible to prove philosophically that the universe could not be infinitely old; I happen to disagree, but it is, I think, easier to see why someone might think that something like that might be susceptible of purely philosophical proof, than why someone might think that the existence of the planet Jupiter might be susceptible of such a proof. What if the God that Anselm and Aquinas talk about is not best understood as a particular thing, a specific empirical reality, and instead is something that in some respects is more like a basic condition for all particular things?

Note that I am not saying that I think Anselm’s argument works – at least, not if we take it as a proof of the existence of God in the sense we’re discussing. But might it be possible down this route to see why it is interesting, and why versions of it have (however briefly) convinced people as brilliant as Russell?

Once again, we come down to differing understandings of the word ‘God’ – and to the inadequacy of Dawkins’ version of ‘supernaturalism’ to cover some of the things that ‘God’ has meant.

Dawkins on Aquinas, again

Ch. 3: Arguments for God’s Existence

Aquinas and DawkinsJust in case you can’t be bothered to work through my posts on the Five Ways (I won’t hold it against you), here’s a quick summary of what I think is wrong with Dawkins’ presentation of Aquinas’ proofs for the existence of God. It is not, by the way, that I think Dawkins gets to the wrong basic conclusion: I too think that the Ways don’t quite work as a proof of the existence of God. But I find Dawkins’ mistakes in presentation interesting.

First, the minor points. I would have liked Dawkins to have the grace to acknowledge that the mysterious Fourth Way might have made more sense in Aquinas’ intellectual context than it does in ours – and to have done the minimal research required to know that the examples he (Dawkins) gives are not the kinds of gradation Aquinas was talking about. Once again, Dawkins is all too eager to represent a religious thinker as incoherent buffoon. I would also have liked him, purely for the sake of conceptual hygiene, to note that the Fifth Way is not quite the standard design argument (it’s not about things ‘looking designed’, but about apparently purposive action) – even though it is, I think, very nearly as vulnerable to Darwin.

The major point, though, is that Dawkins simply misses one major strand of Aquinas’ argument. Dawkins’ main complaint is that Aquinas arbitrarily invokes God as the end of the regress that the first three ways point to. Whereas, in fact, Aquinas argues at great length about what would count as an end to those regresses – and Dawkins doesn’t even hint that he’s aware of that part of Aquinas’ account. Far from simply asserting, Aquinas argues, in detail and at length – and Dawkins has missed that completely. (As for his aside about omniscience and omnipotence: well, if he had read on in Aquinas’ account, he’d know that whatever the silly little argument he offers is about, it isn’t about the God discussed by Aquinas.)

Aquinas, by the way, would clearly have thought Dawkins’ own answer – that we can terminate the regress with the big bang singularity or some other natural phenomenon – quite as vacuous as Dawkins’ thinks his, and that the supposed analogy with the natural termination to the divisibility of matter was wholly beside the point. To say that we can’t, in fact, go on dividing matter for ever is not quite the same as saying that at some point we can’t go on asking Why? Dawkins, in Aquinas eyes, is giving up on the intelligibility of the universe.

Note two things. First, I think this is a place where Dawkins fails to see the necessity for philosophy. That is, he thinks that the regress is going to be answered by a scientific discovery, by some physical concept – whereas I’m with Aquinas in thinking that once we get to questions like, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing’, we are inevitably beyond physics, and in the realm of metaphysics.

The second, I think that Dawkins regards Aquinas’ argument as an obvious failure because, unlike Aquinas, he is operating with a picture of God as one particular kind of thing – one of the things that there is – which is therefore clearly just as contingent, just as question-begging as any other particular thing. Aquinas and Dawkins don’t just disagree about whether God exists; they disagree about what ‘God’ means.