Monday, April 02, 2007

Dawkins' God

PZ Myers has become one of Richard Dawkins' champions in the whole religion dust-up. Here he jumps into a pretty dull and pointless exchange between Orr and Dawkins-defender Daniel Dennett:

H. Allen Orr and Daniel Dennett are tearing into each other something fierce over at Edge, and it's all over Orr's dismissive review of Dawkins' The God Delusion. It's a bit splintery and sharp, but the core of Orr's complaint, I think, is that he's unimpressed with Dawkins' 'Ultimate 747' argument, which is basically that postulating an immensely complicated being to explain the creation of an immensely complicated universe doesn't actually explain anything and is self-refuting — if you need an intelligent superbeing to create anything complex, then the superbeing itself is an even greater problem for your explanation

Orr: Dawkins clearly believes his argument is much more than this [more than a parody]: it's a demonstration that God almost certainly doesn't exist. Can Dennett really believe that some facile argument about the probability of correctly assembling all of God's parts by chance alone is anything of the kind? Does he really believe that God is (necessarily) complex in the same way as the universe, just more so?

I think Orr is looking at it in the wrong way, and part of his problem is a failure to define the god he is talking about. If we are talking about something that is not necessarily complex like the universe, that is basic and fundamental and that we derive in some way from something as essential as the laws of existence, then we are not addressing the existence of the god worshiped by almost any religion in existence. Sure, we could equate "god" with simplicity, but that's Einstein's or Spinoza's god, which are not a problem. Dawkins clearly lays out his terms and states his position:

Dawkins: Let's remind ourselves of the terminology. A theist believes in a supernatural intelligence who, in addition to his main work of creating the universe in the first place, is still around to oversee and influence the subsequent fate of his initial creation. In many theistic belief systems, the deity is intimately involved in human affairs. He answers prayers; forgives or punishes sins; intervenes in the world by performing miracles; frets about good and bad deeds, and knows when we do them (or even think of doing them). A deist, too, believes in a supernatural intelligence, but one whose activities were confined to setting up the laws that govern the universe in the first place. The deist God never intervenes thereafter, and certainly has no specific interest in human affairs. Pantheists don't believe in a supernatural God at all, but use the word God as a non-supernatural synonym for Nature, or for the Universe, or for the lawfulness that governs its workings. Deists differ from theists in that their God does not answer prayers, is not interested in sins or confessions, does not read our thoughts and does not intervene with capricious miracles
Deists differ from pantheists in that the deist God is some kind of cosmic intelligence, rather than the pantheist's metaphoric or poetic synonym for the laws of the universe. Pantheism is sexed-up atheism. Deism is watered-down theism.

Dawkins explicitly divorces his argument from the idea of god as impersonal primal force, which the 'Ultimate 747' argument does not address, and instead focuses on the kind of god-concept we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis in the real world — not the abstraction of theologians, but the capricious, vindictive, meddling magic man of the churches and the weekly prayer meetings and the televangelists.
The metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists is light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs and rabbis, and of ordinary language. Deliberately to confuse the two is, in my opinion, an act of intellectual high treason.
I wouldn't go so far as to call it treason, but it certainly is intellectual foolishness. I like Orr's work, I usually greatly enjoy his reviews, but I think in this case he is, perhaps unconsciously rather than deliberately, confusing the pantheistic cosmic force he is unnecessarily defending from Dawkins' argument with the righteous anthropomorphic bastard that is actually refuted.
And yes, I know it is the nature of religion that everyone who believes will automatically state that their god sure isn't the complicated caricature of the Bible or the Torah or the Koran and will retreat to the safety of the Ineffable (but Simple) Cosmic Muffin until the bad ol' atheist is out of sight, and then they will pray to Fickle Magic Man for the new raise or that their favorite football team will win, and they will wonder if Righteous Bastard will torture them for eternity if they masturbate. Until that atheist glances their way again … then once more, God is Love, can't get much simpler than that, man, your arguments against that silly version can't touch my faith. It's familiar territory. Get into an argument with someone over Christianity or Islam or any of these dominant faiths, and you'll see them flicker back and forth between the abstract and the real god of their religion — their only defense is to present a moving target.
I think Orr would be better served by putting up a clear statement of what god he is defending, rather than shuttling back and forth. I suspect that if he did so, he'd either find himself agreeing with Dawkins, or finding his choice of god bedeviled with a very pointed criticism, one he can't dismiss so easily.

Myers' sycophants, as usual, have nothing but praise for anything that seems to be hostile to religion, but his post doesn't make any points at all.

1. On the complexity of God. First off, this is a pretty stupid argument over a pretty stupid argument (Dawkins Ultimate 747), but even arguing over a completely artificial issue, Myers leaves everything hanging. Does he really think that God, as described in the Old Testament, say, is more complex than the entire known (and unknown) universe? Does he believe that people who believe in God MUST believe their Gods to be as Myers or Dawkins takes their God to be depicted in scripture? Does Myers believe that an argument that is ineffective against an "impersonal primal force" can possibly be effective against a personal God? How? Does Myers honestly believe that the only alternative to some uber-complex God is Einstein's God (which is no God at all, really)? Does Myers believe that he (or Dawkins) knows what "the kind of god-concept we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis in the real world" actually is? I wonder if we can have a detailed description with sources (not religious texts, sociological research) cited, because Dawkins God does start to look suspiciously like "the stupid, cruel, impossible God Dawkins and Myers would have you believe in, as it makes it easier for them to argue against you." Does Myers believe that a relatively complex thing cannot emerge from a relatively (not absolutely!) simple thing?

Myers seems so utterly out of his depth in this argument it isn't even funny. He seems completely oblivious to any arguments Orr makes, but most especially to the fact that Dawkins has a real problem defining the God and the religion he's talking about, and that treating religion scientifically means your research agenda has to extend beyond finding outrageous quotes from fundamentalists. Even people who revere the source of an outrageous statement DO NOT NECESSARILY BELIEVE THE STATEMENT in a simple, direct and obvious sort of way. And what are we going to say about the folks who don't revere the particular source of outrageous commentary? Western Christianity, for instance, has largely become an a la carte affair. In fact, most religions may have always been more or less a la carte affairs. Figuring out what God is and how religion works is complicated work that extends far beyond finding out where people stand on certain hot-button doctrinal issues.

This is the kind of lesson that people studying cultural phenomenon have long since learned but which has apparently not quite penetrated into certain scientific discourses.

2. On what God we're arguing about. The big question is not what God Orr thinks he's talking about, the question is what God Dawkins thinks he is arguing about. We know it is not the deists' God (though I don't see why not) and it's not the pantheists' God (ditto) and it's not Einstein's God (I know why not here: Einstein didn't believe in God, he believed in high-sounding rhetoric). But what God is he talking about?

I don't think he can just say "the Bible God" or "the Koran God," because I've read the bible, and what God is exactly isn't particularly clear to me--sometimes he just seems like some cranky old guy with supernatural powers, sometimes he seems like something else. And if you ask people what they think God is--that is the God we have to deal with on an everyday basis--what you get is a lot of different kind of answers, and none of them are mind-blowingly complex.

The whole complexity issue seems to me AT BEST no better than the old Carl Sagan argument: if you ask "Where did the universe come from" and you answer "God," the logical next question is "where did God come from," and we know even less about how to answer that. At worst it is a red herring that does nothing but prove clever-looking but stupid arguments aren't the sole province of creationists.

The issue here isn't that Orr doesn't limit himself to the same God that Dawkins does, it is that Dawkins wants to choose the argument of his opposition as well as his own. If Dawkins wants to disprove that God exists (yawn) and to demonstrate that religion is useless and, in fact, pernicious--all stated aims of the book--then he has to argue against God as he is believed in and religion as it exists and functions in real people's lives. He doesn't get to choose the easiest God and the easiest religion to argue against.

The question is what does Dawkins think "God and religion as they are believed in/function" is? And does it have much basis in reality? Or is it a radically incomplete and distorted vision?

Orr has not written a book about God, so it isn't up to him to define what the God under discussion actually IS (rather than is not). My impression is that his notion of the God to be reckoned with falls somewhere between deism and brain-dead literalism. My feeling is that Dawkins' notion of religion and God are what he imagines a brain-dead literalist must believe and that his book is essentially an extended argument between Dawkins and Dawkins conveniently limited image of his enemy.

This just isn't particularly interesting. Which is essentially Orr's point.