Tuesday, 18 December 2012

An atheist creed

Ancient evidence by california artist nancy eckels abstract contemporary modern art painting 3ab3ad12d3d6cababf2ad2ad61347a7f

I have finally read Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and I highly recommend it: if, like me, you consider “faith and reason [to be the] wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” then this book will give you an (albeit laboriously gleaned) insight into Dawkins' views and the insults directed there at you will be good practice for charity and compassion. If, on the other hand, you are among those religious fanatics whom Dawkins most vehemently attacks, then you are unlikely to be reading this anyway and anything I say will have about as much effect as Dawkins' words themselves. The category of reader for whom Dawkins' book is probably of least value are those who are genuinely seeking to understand the questions he addresses, as they will find far more chaff here than wheat.

While I have heard Richard Dawkins speak on several occasions and have also read various articles of his, I have always come away with a feeling of not knowing what his position is as opposed to what he attacks (the latter having always come across crystal-clear). “The God Delusion” has certainly helped me here and I will try to share my understanding of it next. If you are thinking of reading the book yourself (and I do encourage you to) - just a word of advice: gloss over his attacks on religion and focus instead on those sparse passages where he exposes his own views.

I believe Dawkins’ philosophy is most succinctly expressed by the following needle of a quote from his book:
“An atheist […] is somebody who believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world [… and i]f there is something that appears to lie beyond the natural world as it is now imperfectly understood, we hope eventually to understand it and embrace it within the natural.”
In other words: a belief in nothing existing beyond the physical and a hope for an understanding that vindicates such a belief. As an ontological position this is vanilla-flavor materialism and not worthy of further comment. What is more interesting though is not the ontology of this view, but its being posited in terms of “belief” and “hope.” Dawkins (implicitly) acknowledges that atheism is a position that (like all other ontological positions, including religious ones) cannot be held on purely epistemological grounds. Whether there is or isn't something beyond the physical, sensible is by definition of what counts as evidence beyond its scope (since no sensory, empirical data will ever derive from it). Holding beliefs about nonexistence is more complicated still, thanks to the challenges of evidencing absence,1 which Cowper puts beautifully by saying that “absence of proof is not proof of absence.”2 The presence of hope is also noteworthy since it suggests that this ontological position is not held dispassionately, but that Dawkins cares about its truth value. While not being a religious position by any means, it nonetheless exhibits two of the three key aspects of Christianity: faith and hope, with love also being of clear importance to Dawkins. This is in no way a “gotcha,” but simply a realization that Dawkins’ atheist beliefs share features with my Christian ones and I don't begrudge him this.

While Dawkins’ hope for and belief in only the physical existing are not derived from evidence (there being no evidence for the absence of non-physical existence), he happily challenges those who hold religious beliefs for making assertions “for which they neither have, nor could have, any evidence.” In fact, he goes even further by mounting an argument for a particular entity not existing in this non-physical void: God.3 Here Dawkins' argument against God's existence is the following:
“The argument from improbability states that complex things could not have come about by chance.”

“However statistically improbable the entity you seek to explain by invoking a designer, the designer himself has got to be at least as improbable.”
It is ironic to see what Dawkins does here. He takes a weak cosmological argument for the existence of God (that many have torn to shreds) and “leverages” it for his own ends, while inheriting (even amplifying) its weaknesses. In essence this argument - a favorite among Creationists - is that the world is so complex that it couldn't have come about by chance or from simpler entities and that a designer or creator had to be its source. Dawkins then comes along and thinks he is trumping them by adding that the presumed creator must be more complex still and therefore even less likely. Far be it from me to defend the original cosmological argument, but it is disappointing to see Dawkins attempt its use as an argument for the almost-non-existence of God. The irony is greater still since it is Dawkins' own scientific work that has contributed to illuminating how it is that greater complexity comes about from simpler origins …

My final takeaway is a deflated “oh …” in the face of the naïveté of Dawkins' position. First, for his schoolboy materialist creed and, second, for his clumsy attempt at offering an argument for the statistical non-existence of God. Is this the best that atheism has to offer intellectually? Before writing this piece I have tried to think about whether I could offer a better atheist position, but I have to admit that I have failed. Atheism just does not make any sense since it is at its core an oxymoron: the belief in an entity's non-existence. Agnosticism is another matter altogether. It is a position I don't hold, but one that I have great respect for and that I have seen stated convincingly and with a great sense of honesty.

UPDATE (19 December 2012): I have just read the following, illuminating comment on this post on Google+:
"I could very elegantly be an agnostic, which is the rational stance, and save myself some problems. But I actually have this belief inside, my gut bets that there is NOTHING else out there. So I have to be honest about that."
This is the kind of atheist position I was trying to (but failing to) intuit before writing the post. It is an atheism that to me sounds ultimately honest and is very much like my own Christianity: it holds a belief about what there is beyond the empirical. There is a clear difference in what that belief contains, but the nature of the belief and its relation to evidence and rationality are, to my mind, equivalent. I now feel that I need to look at atheism in a new way and I hope to learn more about it.

UPDATE (9 January 2013): This post is fast becoming one of the most popular on this blog and it has certainly triggered a lot of discussion both on- and off-line. For coverage of some of its aftermath see the following post.

1 For a very well presented analysis of this point, and with reference to Dawkins, see Brian Garvey's paper.
2 This dictum is not without challenge and I hope to return to it in a future post.
3 Dawkins goes to great lengths to be clear that he doesn't mean an “Einsteinian God” or a God of the laws of physics, but a personal God like that of the Abrahamic religions. From my perspective this only amounts to a display of a profound misunderstanding of how Christianity sees God (displayed with particular virtuosity when discussing the Trinity).