Monday, September 27, 2010

Richard Dawkins, the Neo-Thomist

Of course, the title of this post is kind of a joke. A Thomist is a follower of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose arguments for God Dawkins dismisses as “vacuous” in a couple of pages in The God Delusion (pp. 77-79). This dismissal is—as I’ve pointed out in Is God a Delusion? (pp. 101-105) and elsewhere—based on a mischaracterization of the arguments. He basically attacks straw men. This is not to say that Aquinas’s actual arguments succeed in their aims, but it does say something about the care (or lack thereof) which Dawkins brings to bear on the philosophical arguments for God’s existence.

But in addition to pointing out Dawkins’ exegetical shortcomings with respect to Aquinas in Is God a Delusion?, I also note something else in passing. Speficially, I point out that Dawkins’ mischaracterization of the logical structure of the first two of Aquinas’s Five Ways is particularly egregious because his own argument against theism has the very same logical structure. Here’s how I put it there:

Just as Aquinas did, Dawkins notes that a certain kind of explanation leads to an infinite regress. He insists that an infinite regress explains nothing. And so he concludes that there needs to exist a regress-ending explanation of a different kind (p. 116).
It occurs to me that it might be useful—both for general readers of this blog and for students in my class who are examining Dawkins’ atheological argument—to lay out the parallel between Dawkins’ and Aquinas’s arguments more explicitly. Let’s begin with Dawkins’ argument against the idea that the universe is ultimately explained by an intelligent designer. Here is at least one way to formalize it:

D1. There are instances of “organized complexity” (Dawkins’ term for a complex teleological system, that is, a system comprised of parts whose parts work together to achieve a common end or to make possible a certain kind of coherent activity)

D2. Every instance of organized complexity must be explained either by (a) an intelligent designer or (b) a "self-bootstrapping crane," that is, an uncomplicated mechanism such as Darwiniain natural selection that builds organized complexity gradually. (Dawkins endorses this because he thinks organized complexity is far too improbable to be explained by chance).

D3. Any intelligence capable of designing a given instance of organized complexity must exhibit at least as much organized complexity as what it designs.

D4. Hence, nothing in category (a) can terminate a regress of explanations—and hence be the ULTIMATE explanation—for organized complexity.

D5. An infinite regress of explanations, without an ultimate explanation, explains nothing.

D6. Hence, to explain organized complexity, we must posit something in category (b) to serve as the ultimate explanation.
Now compare this argument with Aquinas’s “First Way”—the way from motion. Keep in mind that for Aquinas, “motion” is a technical term that means roughly the same as what we mean by “change”—except that the focus seems to be on what might be called “positive changes,” that is, changes in which something comes to acquire a property it had previously lacked, as opposed to losing a property it had previously possessed. While the meaningfulness of this distinction can be challenged under some assumptions about the nature of properties, it at least has some intuitive plausibility (changing from being a non-conscious thing to a conscious one seems to involve coming to possess something, whereas changing from being conscious to non-conscious seems to involve losing something). In any event, with this understanding of “motion” in mind, we can formalize Aquinas’s First Way as follows:

A1. There are things that move from being potentially something (say S) to being actually S (from “potency” to “act” with respect to S).

A2. Everything that moves from potency to act with respect to S must have its movement explained either by (a) something else that is itself moved from potency to act with respect to S or (b) something that always actually possessed S (an eternal S-possessor).

A3. Nothing in category (a) can terminate a regress of explanations—and hence be the ULTIMATE explanation—of movement from potency to act.

A4. An infinite regress of explanations, without an ultimate explanation, explains nothing

A5. Hence, to explain motion, we must posit something in category (b) to serve as the ultimate explanation.
Of course, the two arguments are quite different in terms of the substantive premises they adopt. And Dawkins’ argument requires an additional premise (D3) that, structurally, isn’t required for Aquinas’s argument. But other than the need to insert this additional premise D3 (which, by the way, is probably the primary target of critical responses to Dawkins’ argument), the two arguments share the same logical structure.

And this makes it all the more perplexing that Dawkins would fail to accurately represent Aquinas’s arguments. Because at least when he sets himself to the task of constructing his own positive argument for his own conclusion (as opposed to attacking the arguments of others), Dawkins thinks, more than a little bit, like Aquinas.

And that, by the way, is a compliment. (For other, lengthier compliments of Dawkins, see my 2009 post, "The Misguided Desire to Stifle Dawkins," which I wrote when members of the Oklahoma Legislature made a stink about the University of Oklahoma's decision to invite Dawkins to speak on campus as part of its celebration of the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species).


  1. I've not read the God Delusion, beyond some skimming, but have been deeply impressed by Dawkins' ability to communicate complex ideas in a compelling manner in the area of evolution. Perhaps, not being philosophically trained, Dawkins does fail to meet the standards of a rigorous and respectful philosophical treatment. And his natural pugilism probably encourages him to overstate his case. This does not however mean that there isn't something interesting at the heart of what he's saying here.

    The ability of evolutionary processes to create something as complex as life in all its richness, (and I'd argue in all likelihood consciousness too) out of basic chemical building blocks and what is a deceptively simple and undirected algorithm impresses many as a strong warning against assuming in advance that complex phenomena require complex explanations.

    The other point I've always taken Dawkins to be making is that an explanation such as 'God did it' should only be taken seriously if we can say something about what this God is, how it operates and how we know this. And this is where the theist case consistently loses me. I don't know how theists think they get their information about God. I may be being obstinately dim here but I know many people not brought up in a theistic tradition have a similar problem.

    I think if I could understand this point I'd be much more open to theism. I make this point simply because I'd be fascinated if someone could help me on this one.


  2. Hi, Eric & Bernard-

    Very interesting. I think the best thing that could be said is that the matter of these origins is quite mysterious, and our powers of "logic" are not up to the task at all in the absence of data. Empiricism has so often blown apart nicely formulated "necessities" that one really should be humble about cosmic affairs. Just because we wish to terminate a regress of mysteries doesn't mean we can.

    But just to keep with the critical theme, let me take a shot at A. Energy can turn into an electron, or into a proton, or into any other particle. In the A system, the physical laws that dictate how energy "freezes" into particles are the "potency" already inherent in the energy of in the universe at large. Or is it the energy itself? Hard to say. Anyway, the idea that we don't have a theory of everything because we don't yet have an account for how all these "freezing" laws work is one that physicists certainly share, so in that respect they are no different from Anselm.

    The question is whether the abrupt answer of god at the root of all this is any better than the continued searching of physicists. Does metaphysics tell us something that physics hasn't? The basic answers are no, and no, for the very simple reason that physics contains metaphysics. Those armchair physicists are pretty good at precedent and logic, after all.

    Dawkins provides some reasonable speculation, saying that empirically speaking, what physicists are looking for (and should be looking for) is simplicity, not complexity. We already have complexity, and know that as the universe turns, complexity rises naturally, even inexorably, out of simplicity. Physics has always been a quest for simplicity, perhaps more out of respect for our limited mental capacity & need for heuristics than out of respect for reality. But whichever, a great deal of simplicity has been found that accounts for far greater amounts of complexity, so it is only reasonable to follow that trend.

    One angle is to say that god is simple, as has been done quite a few times. Very well, but that makes the moral and psychological aspects of god a bit hard to support, not to mention still not allowing rational assignment of god's properties at all, amounting to the most abstract deism/pantheism.

    Basically, both Dawkins and Aquinas are both grasping at straws, as you suggest, I think. Perhaps Dawkins should have been wiser than to enter into such free speculation, which is, as Bernard notes, one of the least attractive qualities of theology.

  3. Hi Eric,

    It is true that Dawkins handles these arguments rather lightly. In fact, if I am not mistaken, he refers the reader to Mackie's Miracle of Theism on this subject. Is this a book you'd recommend?

    I believe it may be difficult for a scientist to take this kind of logical sleight of hand very seriously maybe because the scientist (and the mathematician) knows how enormously difficult it can be to prove even the simplest result. That such a short argument can succeed in proving a major truth about reality is, on the face of it, quite unbelievable. Maybe this is a reason why people like Dawkins, elsewhere very deep thinkers, can give so little credit to this line of argument.

    As for me, I am totally fascinated by the way these thinkers of the past (and moderns like Plantinga) go about making their logical arguments. Even Kurt Gödel (of the incompleteness theorem) developed an ontological “proof” of the existence of God. I don't think these arguments ultimately succeed but, as an intellectual game, this can be very enjoyable.

  4. Is Dawkins' argument really worth having your students read?

  5. Dustin,

    Take Dawkins' atheological argument out of THE GOD DELUSION, and the book would become mainly an exercise in what C.S. Lewis called "bulverism" (the practice of "refuting" your opponent by ASSUMING that they're wrong and then explaining how they could come to be so stupid). As such, his argument here is the philosophical heart of THE GOD DELUSION. If the argument works, the interest and significance of his other arguments rise in significance.

    Hence, if you're going to engage seriously with ONE thing from Dawkins' writings in a philosophy of religion course, this would be it. And while I don't think philosophy of religion teachers have an obligation to include something from him in their courses, there is some reason to do so. Whatever else might be said about Dawkins' book, it is probably the most widely read book addressing arguments for and against theism and religious belief EVER. And this means that I can expect that at least some of the students in the class will come to the class having already read Dawkins' book--and many more will have heard about it or been exposed second-hand to his ideas.

    All of that strikes me as enough to warrant including Dawkins in my syllabus--especially this argument, even if it's unsound. But beyond that, Dawkins' argument here has some philosophical interest. It's form is valid and its premises aren't patently silly. More significantly, it distills and articulates clearly what I think is one of the underlying reasons why so many people today, especially those who take science and its methods seriously, don't believe in God.

    In this respect, it is an important supplement to the atheological arguments that dominate the philosophical literature--namely, the evidentialist argument (we shouldn't believe beyond the evidence, and there is insufficient evidence for God) and the argument from evil (the existence of God is incompatible with the existence of the evil we find in the world).

  6. When you say, "Dawkins'" atheological argument, do you mean his specific argument against Anselm, or the sum of all his arguments against God in the book?

  7. Regarding the above comment: I meant Aquinas. Sorry.