Cutting the taproot: The God Delusion, ch.4

Claim 1: Chapter 4 is central to Dawkins’ argument.

In Chapter 1, as I have argued, he specified his target: religion properly so called, which is the realm of supernaturalist belief in God, defined both negatively, as any discourse about God that is not really naturalist atheism in disguise, and positively, as belief in a supernatural intelligence.

In Chapter 2, he gave that target a definition: the ‘God Hypothesis’ is that ‘there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.’ Religion properly so called involves belief in a supernatural designer.

Dawkins finishes Chapter 2 by saying, that ‘before proceeding with my main reason for actively disbelieving in God’s existence, I have a responsibility to dispose of the positive arguments for belief that have been offered through history.’ Chapter 3 then attempts this disposal, and with Chapter 4 Dawkins turns to his ‘main reason’ for disbelieving in God’s existence. This argument is, he says at the start (137) ‘the big one’. By the end of the chapter, Dawkins is saying, ‘If the argument of this chapter is accepted, the factual premise of religion – the God Hypothesis – is untenable. God almost certainly does not exist. This is the main conclusion of the book so far.’ Given what he has said in chapters 1 and 2, I think we can take this quote absolutely seriously: Dawkins thinks that the argument of ch.4 undoes the knot that holds all real religion together. The rest of the book can proceed on the assumption that this job has been done, and that other questions about religions origins and impact can now be treated without any lingering question about whether its claims about God are true.

So, it seems fair to say that Chapter 4 is central to Dawkins’ overall argument – that this chapter is not simply an attempt to tackle some particular variants of belief in God, or some particular aspects of belief in God, but to go straight for the taproot of all real belief in God (all belief in God that is not really some form of naturalist atheism in disguise). If Dawkins’ argument here succeeds as thoroughly as he thinks it does, belief in God will be in real trouble. If his argument here fails, the whole book gets holed below the waterline.

Claim 2: Dawkins’ argument is a successful attack on creationism.

I have to admit that I found chapters 1 to 3 a very disappointing read: I disagreed with so much that Dawkins said, and had such strong doubts about the quality of the concepts and arguments he deployed, that persistent irritation overwhelmed any pleasure that the wit and clarity of Dawkins’ prose might otherwise have generated. Chapter 4, by contrast, is mostly a pleasure to read. Dawkins has returned from unfamiliar territory to home ground, and the difference in intellectual quality is astonishing: the assurance and incisiveness of his arguments is of a whole different order of magnitude. It helps, of course, that I agree with nearly everything in the chapter. Dawkins takes on creationists (including the ‘Intelligent Design’ crowd) and knocks them out of the ring: it is a real joy to watch. Dawkins’ summary of the argument, given in advance at the end of ch.3, gives the gist (‘A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right’); chapter 4 simply fills in the detail. If chapter 4 were simply presented as an attack on creationism, I’d be able to applaud, and leave it at that.

Claim 3: Dawkins’ argument misses its wider target.

Let me clarify. In a comment to another post, I distinguished various differing claims that a believer in God might make:

(1) A theologian may believe that God created the world.

(2) A theologian may add to (1) the idea that this claim offers a good explanation for some otherwise inexplicable natural phenomena, such that the existence of those phenomena, and their inexplicability on other grounds, constitute good reasons for belief in God.

For some who hold to (2), they will take it in its weak form,
(2a), where the explanatory argument is a secondary aspect of the theologian’s claims about God – such that dismissal of this explanatory argument would not do serious damage to the theologian’s belief in God or account of the nature of God, even if it damaged his or her attempts to commend that belief to others.

For others who hold to (2), it will take form (2b), where this explanatory argument is taken as a primary aspect of the theologian’s claims about God, such that his or her account of God looks like it stands or falls by the success of this explanatory argument. In the strongest cases of (2b), God is presented as an explanatory hypothesis: the theologian believes in God because of the explanatory work that the God-claim does, and the content of the God concept is primarily dictated by the explanatory argument.

Dawkins’ chapter 4 presents a strong argument against claims of form (2); I accept that happily. But he presents this as cutting to the heart of belief in God per se, so appears to be assuming (2b) as the standard form of such belief.

Now, pretty much all Christian theology involves some version of claim (1). Quite a bit of Christian theology involves claims of some form like (2). Creationists are among those who present those latter claims in a form like (2b), and it is no surprise to find that they are the main (though not the only) antagonists cited in the chapter. Yet I think, as I have explained elsewhere, that (2b) is and can be shown to be a misrepresentation of Christian beliefs about God (and that includes being a misrepresentation of creationists’ own belief in God).

Personally, I accept (1); I am unconvinced so far by any form of (2) in its weaker form (2a), and I reject (2b). I can happily accept Dawkins’ attack on explanatory arguments of form (2), without finding it relevant to my belief in (1): my belief in God, and a creator God at that.

Claim 4: Dawkins’ argument can be partially salvaged – but the result is less immediately devastating to belief in God.

It is possible, however – and there are some hints that he sees this – to detach Dawkins’ claims about God’s complexity from the wider argument about explanatory strategies of form (2), so as to make his argument an attack on claims of form (1) as well. The argument then would simply be that any claim that God exists is a claim that something of unprecedented complexity and power exists – and so a claim that something exists which is even less explicable than the natural world. That is, it is an argument about the inherent implausibility of theistic belief, rather than an argument about its explanatory power. Recognising this implausibility will demand from theologians a high level of justification for such belief – and (clearly, given Chapter 3) Dawkins thinks no such high level of justification exists.

In this salvaged form, however, we get thrown back on issues I’ve touched on earlier:
(1) I don’t think Dawkins does a good job of understanding what ‘God’ means for at least the strand of Christianity that I belong to – so his detailed account of the implausibility of the God hypothesis sits a little oddly with me;
(2) In particular, because he thinks so much in terms of explanation, Dawkins sees reference to ‘mystery’ simply as a hand-waving refusal to think seriously, whereas it is quite central to my account of God; and
(3) I don’t think Dawkins does a good job of understanding the kinds of justification for belief in God that make sense to me.

So, in the strand of Christian theology that I belong to, God cannot literally be described as a designing intelligence; using such language to talk about God is at best analogous. And that caveat rests upon an account of God’s incomprehensibility or mystery, which is not a hand-waving refusal to argue, but is actually a pretty central (and carefully argued) part of this tradition’s account of what the word God means. (And, yes, that means that reference to God is bound not to be a very good explanation for anything.)

More importantly, I think that the account of God-and-the-world that includes this belief in a mysterious, non-explanatory God actually provides an intellectually powerful way of making sense of the world we live in. It claim, as I discussed in an earlier post, that it provides a coherent, resilient and habitable way of making sense – and that, as I said in another post that it is a way of making sense that is thought-enabling rather than brain-deadening.

All this is to say that, if we try to salvage Dawkins’ central argument by de-linking it from explanation, there is a more interesting debate to be had – but it is not really one that, in the present book, Dawkins pursues.

Claim 5: There’s also a problem with Dawkins’ account of the ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ question.

One final aside. I still don’t think that Dawkins understands the nature of the ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ question. I don’t think that asking that question gives a proof of the existence of God, so I don’t think anything very much stands or falls by what I am about to say. Nevertheless, I think Aquinas was right inasmuch as this can only be understood as a metaphysical question, a question whose answer simply cannot be any natural phenomenon or process, and a question whose answer (if there is one) must be deeply, irrevocably mysterious (in order to be an answer). If you think ‘God’ means what Dawkins seems to think it means, then of course God doesn’t help you at all with this question – but that may not be our only option.

8 Thoughts on “Cutting the taproot: The God Delusion, ch.4

  1. Isaac Gouy on April 7, 2008 at 5:44 pm said:

    > Dawkins takes on creationists (including the ‘Intelligent Design’ crowd) …

    On that front, Philip Kitcher’s “Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design and the Future of Faith” (OUP 2007) is so much more interesting.

    > Dawkins sees reference to ‘mystery’ simply as a hand-waving refusal to think seriously

    > Dawkins’ account of the ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ question

    What passages in “The God Delusion” are you referring to?

  2. I’ve not seen Kitcher’s book. What do you think is particularly interesting about it?

    Dawkins on mystery: in the ‘Worship of Gaps’ section, Dawkins has a contrast between a scientists approach to what is not yet understood, and the mystics who ‘exult in mystery and want it to stay mysterious.’ This is closely related, as Dawkins goes on, to the creationists love of ‘gaps’ (and refusal to see those gaps as questions to be patiently investigate). A little later, this attitude is described as the desire, when faced with a problem, ‘just [to] give up, and appeal to God’. (There’s also some stuff later on, in the list of potentially successful religious memes – sorry, I don’t have the page references to hand – about religious mysteries, where the appeal to mystery is portrayed as the resignation of reason: ‘Don’t even try to understand…’)

    Dawkins on something rather than nothing:
    Again, I don’t have page numbers to hand, but there’s a discussion of Dawkins’ attendance of a conference in Cambridge. Dawkins describes the theologians present returning time and time again to the question of why there is something rather than nothing. Any answer to such a question must be ‘the simple basis for a self-bootstrapping crane’. He speculates about where such an explanatory crane might be found, and, whilst it would be unfair to put too much weight on the necessarily speculative suggestions he makes, I think they do show how he takes the question. So he suggests that cosmological inflation might hold the answer, or a many worlds theory, or such like. Those might well have very great explanatory power, but I can’t see that they address the question that the theologians were posing: they don’t seem to me to get at the ‘why anything?’ question (rather than the ‘why this sort of thing?’ question, which is not the same thing). That point doesn’t by itself make the theologians’ attempts to answer that question plausible, of course – but it does suggest to me that Dawkins hasn’t quite grasped what question the theologians were asking (or, to be fair, hasn’t quite grasped the classical version of that question asked by theologians like Thomas Aquinas; the theologians at the conference may have been guilty of all sorts of confusion.)

  3. Isaac Gouy on April 16, 2008 at 11:03 pm said:

    > Kitcher’s book

    He at least tries to understand the issues that evolution raises for creationists, and at least acknowledges the difficulties raised by claiming ‘it just isn’t science!’

    > … God cannot literally be described as a designing intelligence; using such language to talk about God is at best analogous.

    Naïve question #4289009 – How can we make a valid argument by analogy when one side of the comparison ‘God’ is incomprehensible? (Don’t we have to show some commonalities to make an analogy?)

  4. I’ve tried to answer the question about analogy on another post – at

  5. Isaac Gouy on April 29, 2008 at 11:56 pm said:

    > it does suggest to me that Dawkins hasn’t quite grasped what question the theologians were asking

    “The theologians of my Cambridge encounter were /defining/ themselves into an epistemological Safe Zone where rational argument could not reach them because they had /declared by fiat/ that it could not.”

    “There must have been a first cause of everything, and we might as well give it the name God. Yes, I said, but it must have been simple and therefore, whatever else we call it, God is not an appropriate name (unless we very explicitly divest it of all the baggage that the word ‘God’ carries in the minds of most religious believers).”

    “The God Delusion” Chapter 4, section “An interlude at Cambridge”

    Oh! Dawkins seems to be suggesting that in the way simple physical laws play out to myriad effects, a small mystery may have played out to something rather than nothing – a mystery too small to carry all the baggage.

    Richard Dawkins’ 2003 Tanner lecture covers some of the same ground as “The God Delusion”, here’s the pdf –

    ‘Setting aside questions that science ignores or rejects, like the colour of jealousy or the purpose of the sun, are there any deep and important questions that science cannot answer? Of course there are many that science cannot yet answer. But are there any that science in principle can never answer? Very possibly. We don’t know. An example might be: “Where did the laws and fundamental constants of physics come from?” But if science cannot answer such questions, that emphatically doesn’t mean that any other discipline — for example, religion — can.’ p65

  6. Isaac Gouy on May 7, 2008 at 12:32 am said:

    > Claim 3: Dawkins’ argument misses its wider target.

    And the expanded typology is here:

    > Personally, I accept (1); I am unconvinced so far by any form of (2) in its weaker form (2a), and I reject (2b) …

    Well it seems like we can get to (1) simply by definition – ‘God’ as placeholder for “the mystery of how come there is anything instead of nothing”.

    It also seems like having a placeholder “????” for that mystery isn’t a problem for Dawkins, but labelling the placeholder ‘God’ is just a ‘having your cake and eating it’ way of having a ‘god’ while denying it.

    > … God cannot literally be described as a designing intelligence; using such language to talk about God is at best analogous.

    Given this is true of all the many things that strand of Christian theology seems to say about ‘God’ why would it present any special difficulty?

    Dawkins introduces “[t]he power of cranes such as natural selection” as consciousness-raisers” (preface) so how literally should we take “the simple basis for a self-bootstrapping crane”?

    > … belief in a mysterious, non-explanatory God actually provides an intellectually powerful way of making sense of the world we live in.

    I’m finding it difficult to disagree with – “The mystery which is the answer to the most profound problem of all, the problem of why there is anything at all instead of nothing, this mystery which we label ‘God’, lies far beyond anything we can conceive or put into words. Nobody who talks about God knows what she is talking about; the greatest theologian knows no more of what God is than the smallest child. We are all stretching out to a mystery far beyond our reach, far beyond anything that can be put into our words or our thoughts.” p216

    “Praying as we ought” in “God Still Matters”.

    I wonder if the most fundamental acknowledgement of that mystery is to respond with silence rather than embellishment.

  7. Re: comment #5
    I’m not sure Dawkins understands the distinctions between physical simplicity (perhaps definable as the operation on some very basic materials of some law that can be described with great conceptual economy) and metaphysical simplicity (which in this context is definable as the characteristics that a reality must possess in order not to be subject to the kinds of infinite regress that ‘Why?’ questions appear to involve us in). With the former we are in the realm of, say, Grand Unified Theories. With the latter, we are juggling concepts like ‘necessary being’. I don’t know whether Dawkins rejects the possibility of metaphysics as a real philosophical discipline.

    Re: comment #6

    > Personally, I accept (1); I am unconvinced so far by any form of (2) in its weaker form (2a), and I reject (2b) …

    Well it seems like we can get to (1) simply by definition – ‘God’ as placeholder for “the mystery of how come there is anything instead of nothing”.

    No: my comments about ‘God’ as ‘placeholder’ were simply a description of one step in a wider argument. See my comments over on the McCabe post, where I describe again two other steps. In the terms of my comment over on that post, when I say above that I believe in (1), I am very much in ‘step 3’ territory. Dawkins, I take it, rejects both step 2 (or is ignorant of its possiblity) and (obviously) step 3.

    On your final point, about silence – if you want another bit of relevant reading, I’d recommend Holiness, Speech and Silence by Nicholas Lash – which (as the title suggests) is not wholly in disagreement with your suggestion.

  8. Isaac Gouy on May 16, 2008 at 10:50 pm said:

    > if you want another bit of relevant reading

    Relevant but with worrisome passages, for example:

    – “That way of putting it, however, simply perpetuates confusion. If space and time are ‘bounded’, then the ‘edge of space’ would not be an ‘edge in space’; a ‘beginning of time’ would not be a ‘beginning in time’.” p82

    I wonder if Nicholas Lash missed the point of ‘bounded’ space-time without boundary – as though space-time were mapped to the 2 dimensional surface of a sphere, round and round without ever meeting an edge.

    – “He was creating hell for people who ask silly questions like that!” p82

    I seem to recall reading that Saint Augustine (having his cake and eating it) said others answer in that way but he wouldn’t.

    How did we get from ‘How come that there is something, rather than nothing?’ to “… God creates all things out of nothing: ex nihilo”?

    “Everything that God does that is not God, everything that God creates – galaxies and gases, promises and symphonies, bird-life and Milton Keynes – is, from its first instant to its last, out of nothing made.” [p81 “Holiness, Speech and Silence” Nicholas Lash]

    Even as description that seems quite strange.

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