Deconstructing the Deconstruction of Dawkins

deconstructionBelow you’ll find my critique of the arguments contained in an article written by Logan Paul Gage purporting to uncover the illogical arguments set out by Richard Dawkins, albeit indirectly through a book written by Alister McGrath. I will not address Dawkin’s arguments, nor will I comment on anything other than Alister’s own logic or lack thereof.


In this column you’ll find excerpts from Logan Paul Gage’s review of Alister McGrath’s book Deconstructing Dawkins originally printed in Christianity Today, November, 2007. Gage is a policy analyst at Discovery Institute, an Intelligent Design organization.
In this column are my assessments of Gage’s arguments.

One could hardly think of a more contrasting figure to Dawkins or a better apologist for theism than Alister McGrath. This atheist-turned-Christian, also of Oxford, is a professor of historical theology. But as a student of molecular biophysics, he possesses the dual credibility in science and religion that Dawkins lacks.
…and later…
So there is a danger in the approach of theistic Darwinists such as McGrath. He is surely right that the religious and scientific worldviews are compatible. Harmony can be found. But this is not because theism can concede a materialist origin story and escape unscathed. Rather, it is because the materialist story is false and, further, is contradicted by mounting physical evidence in physics, chemistry, and biology.
Gage sets up McGrath as a scientist with the proper scientific credentials to refute Dawkins early in his article, then rejects McGrath’s position on an issue no less than the scientifically pivotal issue of evolution that largely centers around the molecular biophysics that McGrath studied. If you invoke the favorable opinion of a judge you claim highly competent on the trivial issue of a loan you made to a friend, would it be consistent to dismiss his judgment on something more substantial?
Dawkins’s central argument is that God’s existence cannot explain the world because he must be at least as complex, and therefore as improbable, as the world itself; and such an improbable entity would also require explanation. Recalling Dawkins’s earlier work Climbing Mount Improbable, McGrath notes Dawkins’s admission that humanity’s existence itself is overwhelmingly improbable. But of course we exist. “We may be highly improbable—yet we are here,” writes McGrath. “The issue, then, is not whether God is probable but whether he is actual.”
God’s actuality is being assessed THROUGH probability arguments here. Our own actuality does not need probability arguments for its acceptance. Our own actuality has been fairly established through other empirical means, and our improbability does not diminish our actuality. If god remains outside the reach of empiricism, assessing god’s actuality through probability remains a legitimate project. To say that the issue is “not whether God is probable but whether he is actual” is a strange comment as it is very clear that Dawkins is attempting to employ probability arguments to assess the likelihood of the existence of an entity that has NOT been established through other means.
In asserting that God is improbable, the zoologist is out of his habitat. Probability theorists have developed complex equations to tackle exactly this sort of problem.
The second sentence is completely uninformative. What sort of problem? The question of the existence of God? What other problems fall into this class? What does tackle mean? Solve? Approximate a solution? What have these probability theorists concluded?
Suffice it to say that if Dawkins’s argument (i.e., God’s existence cannot account for the design of the world because his existence is improbable) is correct, God’s trial is over before it begins. In other words, Dawkins does not have to counter specific empirical evidence for purposeful design.
And how are you coming along with your trial over the existence of the improbable but possible dragon on Venus?
Yes, dismissing possible entities based on their improbability is not only warranted, but is also demanded by the constraints of time and resources. (Note that I am not agreeing with Dawkin’s argument of God’s improbability, but am only highlighting the flawed logic of Gage.)
Dawkins next proposes that evolution shaped human brains to believe religious hypotheses (even though religion is itself not evolutionarily beneficial). McGrath is at his finest here, observing that while Dawkins is a scientist writing about religion, he fails to study religion scientifically. In fact, Dawkins does not even offer a rigorous definition of religion.
Note that Gage himself does not even attempt to define the notion of “God” in his article, yet shamelessly employs this vaguest of all terms eleven times in his short diatribe.
So if Dawkins is to proffer religious belief as a byproduct of our evolution, it is incumbent on him to tell us what category religious statements belong to, what other sorts of statements religious thoughts may piggyback on, and how the brain processes them—none of which Dawkins seems aware he should provide.
If the naturalist were to grant this concession, could he then expect the theist to give an account of the mechanism by which the soul interacts with the brain? Remember, you’re jumping over the same bar you raise. (Once again, I am not necessarily agreeing with or defending Dawkin’s position.) And it would be interesting to have Gage categorize religious statements and specify their dependencies.
As McGrath rightly points out, “There is nothing specific to religion here.” All of our thoughts (including atheistic thoughts) are brain-dependent. What is worse, Dawkins presupposes a reductionist approach in which mental states have a one-way relationship from the physical brain rather than a more complex approach in which mental states—depression is McGrath’s example—have a multiplicity of causes, both physical and social.
Unless Gage has a causal mechanism that can bypass the brain, it seems clear that physical, social and all other possible external causes that affect the mind must transverse the substrate of the brain before those causes have an effect on the mind.
And McGrath can’t resist noting that while love has physical correlates in the brain, this should not be taken to prove that one’s beloved does not exist!
This is one of McGrath’s and Gage’s most blatant errors.
It is the objective existence of the referent of the physical correlate (love) and not the objective existence of the referent of the love (the beloved) which is in question here.
Finally, concerning religious beliefs—where Dawkins paints in broad strokes—McGrath admirably delves into their complexity and diversity. It may make a nice sound bite to lump Christian evangelicals with Islamic extremists. But to develop a serious scientific critique of religion, one must discuss pertinent differences in theology.
Not true. If any religion claims logical consistency, and a single instance of logical inconsistency is uncovered, the entire religion can be dismissed with extreme prejudice. This is the scientific critique that many Christians correctly employ when noting the illogicality of reincarnation in many religions. Even non-theologians may stop their inquiry at the first emergence of a logical inconsistency.
McGrath does not attack Darwinism because he views it as equally compatible with both theism and atheism. Either interpretation is legitimate, he says. McGrath cites as a witness atheist-Darwinist Stephen Jay Gould, who noted that half his Darwinist colleagues believed in God, and half did not. Therefore, thought Gould, Darwinism must be compatible with both worldviews, or half of his colleagues must be “stupid.” But of course this would not make half of them stupid; it would just make half wrong. McGrath recounts surveys showing many scientists to be theists. Unfortunately, this does nothing to establish the compatibility of Darwinism and theism. Humans hold incompatible beliefs all the time.
A fine argument.
To see why Darwinism and theism are incompatible, consider random mutations and natural selection—the two elements of modern Darwinian theory. Random mutations are, well, random. By definition, random mutations are unguided. “Mutations are simply errors in DNA replication,” according to University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne. “The chance of a mutation happening is indifferent to whether it would be helpful or harmful.” If a mutation is harmful, the organism with the mutation will leave fewer offspring; but if the mutation is beneficial for reproduction, the mutated gene will be passed to many offspring. This is the “natural” selection part. Theistic Darwinists claim that this process creates life’s diversity and is also “used” by God.

While theists can have a variety of legitimate views on life’s evolution, surely they must maintain that the process involves intelligence. So the question is: Can an intelligent being use random mutations and natural selection to create? No. This is not a theological problem; it is a logical one. The words random and natural are meant to exclude intelligence. If God guides which mutations happen, the mutations are not random; if God chooses which organisms survive so as to guide life’s evolution, the selection is intelligent rather than natural.

This is arguably the worst argument in the article. Las Vegas slot machines are designed to make the owners money though nothing but an intelligently designed algorithm of chance. For slot machines also you can correctly state that the internal randomization engine of the slot machine is indifferent to whether the outcome is “helpful or harmful” to its owner’s bottom line. Yet it has been designed to slowly accrue profit over the long term. It is clear that a god could employ random mutations in the same way. I reject such a god, not because he is logically impossible, but on other grounds I will not discuss here.

In addition, Gage’s stipulation of the word “natural” to exclude intelligence demonstrates an egregious lack of understanding of the position of theistic evolutionists, and is so far removed from any conventional understanding of “natural” that I’m willing to venture he’s already been called on it from within his own ranks, especially by the “natural” theologians. It appears, from his stipulation, that the term “natural” has no place in a world designed by the God he envisions. Language is a product of convention, and those who commandeer terms rather than accept conventional definitions will soon be merely talking to themselves.

Dawkins’s arrogance and contempt lead him to be sloppy with his opponents’ arguments.
Won’t do it. Too easy.

Well, I’ll leave it up to you to assign Gage a grade for his logic and critical thinking skills. The flawed excerpts above are actually the bulk of his article. It has given me more to ponder as I explore what seems to be a significant inverse relationship between faith and rational thought.

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2 thoughts on “Deconstructing the Deconstruction of Dawkins

  1. Jonathan says:

    Good one, Phil.

    A critique of Dawkins which has more merit relates to his going overboard when he blames religion for problems which are indeed a product of irrational ideologies and thought patterns — but they are secular and modern irrational ideologies, not religious ones.

    For example, Dawkins blames the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other contemporary political conflicts on religion. Dawkins is out of his depth here and it doesn’t help to support his core arguments.

    The God Delusion documentary which accompanied the book was particularly clumsy in this regard – plucking religious fanatics from either side of the conflict and citing their absurd arguments as evidence of how terrible religion is.

    Modern ethnic nationalism, the actual driver of most such conflicts, sometimes deploys the symbols of religion. It also arrived on the scene in the 19th century at about the time that religion was losing its plausibility for many people, and filled the psychological gap that some argue was left after religion no longer provided meaning. (Benedict Anderson’s classic study “Imagined Communities” is the key source on this.)

    But these conflicts are not motivated by theological disputes. They are driven by competing claims to territory, military occupations, oppression, and other recent economic and geopolitical factors.

    Dawkins does a disservice to his core argument by pushing the examples too far. Modern conflicts have real-world origins and have little to do with competing versions of God — or of what God said.

    • Insightful comments, Jonathan.

      I agree that Dawkins’ arguments lack proper rigor.

      It seems to me that the causal chain is (emotions -> exclusive social identity -> war).
      Religion is just one construct along side of political ideologies that insulate the exclusive social identity from criticism, and legitimate the underlying dangerous emotions.

      So religion is not a necessary cause for conflagrations, but is a common sufficient cause.

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