Monday, March 14, 2011

Dawkins and another Straw-Man

I was listening/watching a conversation between the celebrated Christian theologian and apologist Alistair McGrath and the grandfather of the new atheism Richard Dawkins. To be totally honest, I think in terms of the debate that Dawkins clearly got the better of McGrath, who was weak on several points. I am not an atheist. And Dawkins' arguments aren't very convincing still. But I do wish that McGrath would have done a little bit better!

One of the things that came up in the conversation was the improbability of the universe and how theists (and especially the intelligent design folks) use this argument to point to an intelligence behind the universe, namely God. Dawkins' response to that was to say that, if he exists, God must be more complex that the universe and so it follows that he is more improbable than even the universe itself! So in a sense, the atheists are throwing the argument back in the faces of the theists.

But are they? As I pondered what Dawkins said, I began to see that really the argument doesn't really backfire at all, and what Dawkins was doing was simply to build a straw-man argument and then proceed to beat up the straw-man and then to triumphantly proclaim himself the victor over all comers-on.

It is similar to what has happened around the cosmological argument for God's existence. Over the years, atheists have responded to this by saying that if everything has a cause, then God has a cause. But if God has a cause then he is not God! Pish. I say "pish" because I know of no theist who ever stated the cosmological argument in that fashion. No theist ever said that everything has a cause, therefore the universe has a cause, and that cause is God. That is not the argument. And when atheists respond to that, they are only shadow-boxing. What theists say is something rather more along these lines (stated in a syllogism):

Everything that begins to exist has a cause. (Major Premise)
The universe began to exist. (Minor Premise)
Therefore the universe has a cause. (Conclusion)

I hope you see the difference. Theists go on to say that the only adequate explanation for such an event as the universe is the Being we call God (who never, by the way, began to exist!).

Ok, how does this relate to Dawkins' argument? When Dawkins says that God is more improbable than the universe and therefore the argument for his existence cannot be based on the improbability of the universe, he is making the same mistake. When theists talk about the improbability of things, they are speaking only of things which come into existence. If something, or someone, has always existed, then it is stupid to talk of the probability of that thing/person's existence. To put it in terms of probability theory, the probability of event A, given A, is 1 (i.e. P(A|A)=1). But God by definition, if he exists, has always existed! So Dawkins' argument doesn't even make sense. It is a non sequitur. You can't take an argument which relates to things coming into existence and then turn it on something which has no beginning and no end.

So I think the argument from the improbability of the universe still stands.

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