Monday, November 13, 2006

God Almost Certainly Does Not Exist

At least that's what atheistic Darwinian Richard Dawkins tells us in this article excerpted from his new book The God Delusion. Dawkins bases his certainty on several surprisingly weak arguments - I say "surprisingly" because he invests so much confidence in such thin ice.

His assurance that there almost certainly is no God is derived firstly from his belief that God's existence is highly improbable. This is a peculiar claim given that it's very difficult to see how one could know that God's existence is highly improbable. Dawkins argues that God's improbablity follows from the fact that there's no evidence that God exists, but how does an alleged lack of evidence makes God's existence highly improbable?

If there's no evidence for something then it might be argued that there's no reason to believe it, but that's not the same as saying that the existence of the thing is "improbable". There is no evidence for the existence of other universes or other dimensions but that by itself doesn't make their existence improbable. There's no evidence for the existence of life on other planets either, but Dawkins is at pains in this essay to convince the reader that, even so, extra-terrestrial life is another "almost certain" fact. Why are ETs almost certain to exist even though we have no evidence of them, but God is almost certain to not exist for the same reason?

What, secondly, of this claim that there's no evidence for God's existence? What is Dawkins' support for it?

Accepting, then, that the God Hypothesis is a proper scientific hypothesis whose truth or falsehood is hidden from us only by lack of evidence, what should be our best estimate of the probability that God exists, given the evidence now available? Pretty low I think, and here's why.

First, most of the traditional arguments for God's existence, from Aquinas on, are easily demolished.

This is an unpromising beginning. The assertion that the arguments for God's existence are easily demolished is simply false. It's the kind of claim made by someone who doesn't have any idea what he's talking about. Dawkins is evidently unaware of the wrestling matches among experts on these arguments over the last 1500 years. He's unaware, too, of the contemporary work of people like William Lane Craig on the Cosmological argument and Alvin Plantinga on the Ontological argument. These people, and the hundreds of philosophers like them, may be wrong, but if anything is certain it is that the arguments they present are not "easily demolished".

Dawkins continues to embarrass himself:

Several of them [arguments for God's existence], such as the First Cause argument, work by setting up an infinite regress which God is wheeled out to terminate. But we are never told why God is magically able to terminate regresses while needing no explanation himself.

Surely, though, Professor Dawkins understands the concept of necessary existence. A necessary being has no need of explanation, only contingent being needs be explained. If God exists, he is a necessary being, i.e. he is the ultimate cause of all contingent beings, and thus, not only does he not need a causal explanation, there can be no causal explanation.

To be sure, we do need some kind of explanation for the origin of all things. Physicists and cosmologists are hard at work on the problem. But whatever the answer - a random quantum fluctuation or a Hawking/Penrose singularity or whatever we end up calling it - it will be simple. Complex, statistically improbable things, by definition, don't just happen; they demand an explanation in their own right. They are impotent to terminate regresses, in a way that simple things are not.

God, of course, is not something which "just happens". God is. He is not an event like the Big Bang. He is the cause of all events, the cause of all contingent entities. Moreover, we need to ask why Dawkins thinks that ultimate causes must be simpler than their effects. What principle leads him to this conclusion? Couldn't we just as easily argue that the sufficient cause of X must be at least as complex as the effect it produces? Thus the cause of the universe would have to be at least as complex as the universe itself.

The first cause cannot have been an intelligence - let alone an intelligence that answers prayers and enjoys being worshipped. Intelligent, creative, complex, statistically improbable things come late into the universe, as the product of evolution or some other process of gradual escalation from simple beginnings. They come late into the universe and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it.

This is a marvelous case of begging the question. The creative cause of the universe cannot be intelligence, Dawkins avers, because intelligence is part of the creation, not its cause. But whether the cause can be an intelligence is precisely the point at issue. Dawkins decrees by fiat that intelligence cannot be the cause because it is the effect, but this is ludicrous. If humans ever succeed in creating artificial intelligence (AI) in computers shall we conclude that intelligent humans couldn't really have been the creators because intelligence only comes along later in the scheme of technological development, when AI appears? It's a bit irregular to try to neatly define things so that one wins the argument, but this is what Dawkins does. He stacks the deck by stating as a premise the very thing he wants us to conclude.

The only one of the traditional arguments for God that is widely used today, sometimes called the Argument from Design .... is surely one of the most superficially plausible bad arguments ever discovered - and it is rediscovered by just about everybody until they are taught the logical fallacy and Darwin's brilliant alternative.

And what precisely is the fallacy? Dawkins explains:

Even before Darwin's time, the illogicality was glaring: how could it ever have been a good idea to postulate, in explanation for the existence of improbable things, a designer who would have to be even more improbable?

I've already pointed out that Dawkins' assumption that God's existence is highly improbable is pure flummery. Apparently fond of circular reasoning he assumes a priori that the chances of God's existing are exceedingly low and goes on, then, to argue that none of the evidence for God's existence, obtained through the argument from Design, can really be evidence for a God because he's already demonstrated that God is too improbable to actually exist.

Suppose life's origin on a planet took place through a hugely improbable stroke of luck, so improbable that it happens on only one in a billion planets. The National Science Foundation would laugh at any chemist whose proposed research had only a one in a hundred chance of succeeding, let alone one in a billion. Yet, given that there are at least a billion billion planets in the universe, even such absurdly low odds as these will yield life on a billion planets. And - this is where the famous anthropic principle comes in - Earth has to be one of them, because here we are.

Here he underminines his own argument about God's improbability based on the lack of evidence by claiming that it is probable that life exists on billions of other planets even though we have no empirical evidence that there are billions of other planets and certainly no evidence that there is life on any planet but our own. He also shows here that he either hasn't read, or is deliberately ignoring, works like Rare Earth, Privileged Planet, The Fifth Miracle, Nature's Destiny, Ancient Faith Modern Physics, all of which emphasize the uniqueness of earth as a habitat for life, the numerous factors which have to be just right for a planet to sustain life, and the sheer unliklihood that other planets, even if they number in the billions, would possess more than a few of those necessary properties. In other words, Dawkins' argument that there are billions of planets in the universe capable of supporting life is about thirty years out of date.

The book from which Dawkins' essay was excerpted, The God Delusion, has been widely panned by philosophers and scientists, both theistic and atheistic alike. Judging from the arguments he offers above it's little wonder.

Keep Hope Alive

Ed Whelan at The Ethics and Public Policy Center argues that despite Democratic control of the Senate President Bush still has a good chance of getting a quality nominee onto the Supreme Court should an opening appear. Getting judges approved for the Federal Court of Appeals looks much more difficult but then it has been difficult for the last six years even with the Democrats in the minority.

The core of Whelan's case is this:

...the high-profile politics of a Supreme Court nomination enhances the case for confirmation of a strong pick. Opponents can't rely on obscure procedures to block the nomination. They need to make their case openly, and in the Internet age, unlike with the 1987 nomination of Judge Bork, their distortions won't go unanswered.

More importantly, the conservative case against liberal judicial activism has powerful public appeal across a broad swath of the political spectrum. Opponents of a strong nominee will have to be ready to pay a high price for their opposition. Plus, President Bush, having appointed two white males to the Court, still has the diversity card to play, so a nominee who is a committed proponent of judicial restraint and also a female or a minority would have added political punch.

Forty-one of 45 Democrats voted against Justice Alito's nomination. But the four Democrats who voted for him -- Byrd, Conrad, Johnson, and Ben Nelson -- would be decent bets to vote for the next strong conservative nominee. To be sure, the votes of Byrd, Conrad, and Nelson may have been influenced by the fact that they were up for re-election this year. But since their re-election prospects were never in serious peril, that factor would not seem a major one.

Besides, of course, other Democrats are now looking ahead to re-election in 2008. Along with Johnson (South Dakota), Senators Baucus (Montana), Landrieu (Louisiana), and Pryor (Arkansas) will be running in "red" states in 2008. Especially if they face the prospect of hefty Republican opponents, they won't be eager to be siding with Teddy Kennedy as he rants against the nominee.

Senator-Elect Casey of Pennsylvania is an eighth Democrat whom the White House could reasonably look to for a "yes" vote on confirmation. Casey might as well dance on the grave of his father (a hero of mine) if he would vote against a nominee who could provide the decisive vote to restore abortion policy to the democratic processes.

In sum, a high-quality conservative nominee with a good public presence -- and with the support of the broader conservative coalition that coalesced around Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito -- should be able to hold all, or virtually all, the 49 Republicans and to pick off the one or more Democrats needed for confirmation. Vice President Cheney's tiebreaking vote shouldn't even be needed.

He might have added to the mix that Jim Webb(VA) will be likely to support conservative judges and Joe Lieberman (CT) is not a safe bet to toe the party line set down by the Kennedy/Leahy/Kerry cabal. Another wild card is Hillary Clinton who will probably wish to appear moderate and reasonable in preparation for her presidential run in 2008.

All in all, things may not be quite as bleak as they seemed last Tuesday. There is a likelihood that at least one of the current liberal justices will step down now that the Democrats have captured the senate. Justice Stevens is 86, Justice Ginsburg is 73, and one or both of them may have been waiting until this election to retire with the expectation that a Democratic senate would prevent President Bush from nominating a conservative to replace them. We'll see whether or not they're calculation proves correct.

Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing, Baby

Gary Varvel explains why the Republicans got a "thumpin'" last Tuesday:

If the voters are given a choice between Republicans who act like Democrats or Democrats just being themselves, Republicans can hardly be surprised that the voters decided to elect the real thing.