Richard Dawkins for good and for bad; Intelligent Design still fails

Richard Dawkins is an important apologist for evolutionary theory and, less deservedly, for atheism. However, I am uncomfortable with his focus on the “bad outcomes” of religious faith—say, the violence it historically engenders. How should a religious person respond to the charge that her view engenders violence? I mean, if she already has good reason for believing in God (and implicit reason to think (a) she should do whatever God sanctions and (b) God sanctions [that] violence), then what of it? Surely Dawkins would not argue that anything and everything which engenders violence is automatically illegitimate—that nothing could possibly be worth fighting for. Of course, he would clarify that it is not so much that religion causes fights but that it causes them for no good reason. But then the question becomes, Just how is religion shown to be poorly reasoned (that is, what reasons do we have for not believing in God)? I agree that there is no good reason for believing religious claims—and that, alone, is my argument. If there were good reasons for being religious, and if these legitimated violent defense or conquest of territory or whatever else, then, by God, so be it. But there are not, so it does not.

To elaborate: The “religion is violent” argument is like arguing to a man who tends to fight over his girlfriend, “Look at all the trouble your belief in her causes—she must not really exist.” At most, we would argue instead that he is right to believe in her but wrong to fight so over her. Actually, Dawkins’ argument is more analogous to a case in which some crazy stranger keeps fighting over someone else’s girlfriend: Most religious people in Dawkin’s audience probably don’t approve of the author’s examples of religious violence (that is, they would be opposed to using violence to promote their religion). Telling these peaceful believers to stop being religious because someone else thinks its OK to fight over their religion is like telling the boyfriend to stop believing in his girlfriend because some other, random guy keeps fighting over her. What does he—or what do the Crusades—have to do with me?, it will be asked.

(All of this is not to shortchange the argument that the historical wars “over religion” are always epiphenomenal on more bread-and-butter concerns—fights which then would have erupted regardless but with other pretexts. But more on this another time.)

In any case, I like Dawkins’ latest book The God Delusion for driving home an argument which may be ‘the’ refutation of intelligent design (ID) theory. ID theory is mostly the very old idea that certain aspects of the natural world (or, the whole natural world itself) are best explained as the handiwork of an intelligent, personal cause. ID is promoted as a rival to Darwinism and any other theory of an unintelligent, impersonal cause or causes of these phenomena. It seeks to show that complex, highly ordered systems can only be the product of an “orderer,” the alternative being sheer, random accident, the probability of which is prohibitively low. Crudely put, if the neatly interworking parts of a sewing machine imply a designer, no less should those of, say, biological “machines” like spermatazoa or elephants (or the finely-tuned universe embracing them as “parts” in turn).

ID’s novel aspect rests in its refusal to officially posit just who this designing agent is or what he/she/it is like—or conversely, its stress upon the point that an inference from nature to a designer does not in itself imply any particular idea of the character of that designer. I remember many years ago reading David Hume’s argument to this effect and laughing out loud: The simple inference of a designing agency does not get us to the God of Christianity; there could be a bungling designer, upset and embarassed with we, his imperfect, earthly first attempt, or perhaps a concert of twelve designers who hate and compete with each other. (As we shall see, however, ID theorists do believe in the God of Christianity and conceive the ID movement as a way of pushing this view.)

Dawkins stresses the rejoinder that the ID “hypothesis” never ultimately explains anything because the designer itself requires its own, similar explanation. This argument I take to be decisive: If all complex entities require a designer to account for their existence, then what of the designer him/her/itself—who must be at least as complex as the entities it so cleverly crafts? Either we have an “actual infinite” regress—which is probably impossible—of designers, each one invoked to explain the one before it; or the ID theorist must accept that the Designer’s existence somehow requires no special explanation. (Thus that not all complex entities must be designed.) But if that complex entity is permitted to stand on its own, logically speaking, then why not the whole complex world (or biological entities within it) itself? Why should that need a special explanation but not God?—How better then to obey Occam’s razor and minimize our explanatory variables.

Here is a paper I wrote for a philosophy of science class which treats the ID hypothesis in, I think, its strongest and most interesting form. Seeing the above weakness of the concept of “complexity,” some ID theorists have replaced it in their arguments with the qualified “irreducible complexity.” An “irreducibly complex” system might have five “parts” that work together so neatly that removing any one of them would render the whole system non-functional. The implication is that a Darwinian explanation—whereby an initial, simple entity evolves by accretion to have the second part, then the third, later the forth, and so on—is inapplicable to such a system. Nothing less than the “whole” combination of “parts” could operate (i.e., survive)—thus, nature could not have selected for the “parts” individually. And since the whole interlocking system could not have sprung into random existence fully-formed, the designer, again, must be called up to account for it.

The paper argues against the “irreducible” version of ID theory. It is long and as cerebral as a philosophy paper should be, but I hope somebody gets something from it. [n.b. The footnotes are superscripted but not live–you gotta scroll to the bottom to read them. I’m working on putting the links to the websites mentioned in the text.]

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One response to “Richard Dawkins for good and for bad; Intelligent Design still fails

  1. you can prove the girlfriend exists. you cannot prove that god does or does not exist. therefore, in my view, the fight over the girlfriend exists on a different plane than a fight over something that may or may not exist, and is unprovable either way. but to use that example, what has caused more violence throughout history? belief in religion, or belief in one’s mate? plus, what of differing takes on what violence consists of? i personally see what is done to the children in the documentary ‘jesus camp’ as a form of violence, to cite just one example. so even though there may be less actual bloodshed due to religious belief in these modern times, the enlightenment never quite took hold and the dark ages are still very much with us. peaceful believers still perpetuate this.

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