The God Hypothesis vs. Atheism:

A Response to Richard Dawkins

 By Paul Grubach 

copyright 2008

The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston . New York, 2006, 406 pages.

            Distinguished biologist and widely admired author, Richard Dawkins, is well known to most educated people.  Since his authorship of the classic book, The Selfish Gene, and other works on evolutionary biology, he has become one of the most widely read scientists of our time.  No matter what you might think of him personally, there is no doubt that he is a persuasive and gifted writer, so much so that the Wall Street Journal said his “passion is supported by an awe-inspiring literary craftsmanship.”

            In addition to being the Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, he is also a philosopher of a sort, belonging in the tradition of the “systems-builders” of the past, like Aristotle, Aquinas, Spinoza, Hegel, and Marx.  All of these thinkers built quite different philosophical systems that attempted to explain all of human existence. 

Evolutionary Darwinism is the foundation around which Dawkins built his atheistic philosophical system. He believes human existence once presented the greatest of mysteries, but it is a mystery no more.  Evolutionists Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace solved it.1  

In his latest book, The God Delusion, Dawkins explains his atheistic outlook in great detail.  “Natural Selection not only explains the whole of life,” the biologist-turned-philosopher claims, “it also raises our consciousness to the power of science to explain how organized complexity can emerge from simple beginnings without any deliberate guidance [p.116].”  In his view, the theory of divine creation has been supplanted by Darwinian natural selection, the all-embracing explanatory principle that accounts for how humanity came into existence and acquired its most salient characteristics.

The God Hypothesis and the Atheist Hypothesis

Near the beginning of his tome, Dawkins provides a working definition of the God hypothesis:  “[T]here exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us [p.31].”  He contends this is a scientific hypothesis about the ultimate nature of the universe, and deserves to be analyzed as skeptically as any other scientific theory (p.2).   

Of course, the same principal applies to his atheistic system.  It is a scientific hypothesis about the universe, which we should carefully scrutinize.

With this being said, let us examine some of Dawkins’s case against the God Hypothesis.

Dawkins’s Fallacy of Faulty Analogy: God and the Celestial Teapot   

Dawkins claims that the God Hypothesis is on the same level as the theory that a celestial teapot circles the sun in elliptical orbit between the Earth and Mars.  The theory is absurd, but not subject to falsification.  The teapot is simply too small to be detected by even our most powerful telescopes or scientific instruments (pp. 51-53).   

That is, one cannot absolutely disprove the theory that there is a teapot circling the sun, but it is very, very highly unlikely that such an entity exists.  He claims the God Hypothesis is in the same boat.  One cannot absolutely disprove the God Hypothesis, but it is very highly unlikely that the God Hypothesis is true.

This is an example of the “fallacy of faulty analogy.”  As the logician Alex Michalos pointed out, the fallacy of faulty analogy is committed when the compared or analogous things have more important differences than similarities.2   

One can build a serious case to show that the God Hypothesis is plausible and believable, but one cannot build a serious case to show that the “teapot-circling-the-sun” hypothesis is plausible and believable.  Although neither hypothesis can be scientifically disproved, one can show the former has supporting reason and evidence; the latter has no good supporting reason and evidence.  For example, philosopher and theologian Richard Swinburne has made a good case showing that a belief in God is both rational and acceptable.3  No one has built a similar case showing that a celestial teapot may exist. 

Ergo, the God Hypothesis is crucially different from the “Teapot-Circling-the- Sun” hypothesis, and to compare them like Dawkins does is to fall prey to the “fallacy of faulty analogy.”

At this time, science and philosophy cannot prove nor disprove the existence of God.  However, speaking from a strictly scientific point of view, one can show that the God Hypothesis remains a plausible scientific hypothesis, along with other rival, atheistic theories.

Dawkins’s “A Priori” Fallacy

One of Dawkins’s most important arguments is that God Himself, if He exists, would by logical necessity need something to explain how He came into existence.  Here is his argument verbatim: “Any Designer capable of constructing the dazzling array of living things would have to be intelligent and complicated beyond all imagining.  And complicated is just another word for improbable—and therefore demanding of an explanation.  A theologian who ripostes that his god is sublimely simple has (not very) neatly evaded the issue, for a sufficiently simple god, whatever other virtues he might have, would be too simple to be capable of designing a universe (to say nothing of forgiving sins, answering prayers, blessing unions, transubstantiating wine, and the many other achievements variously expected of him).  You cannot have it both ways.  Either your god is capable of designing worlds and doing all the other godlike things, in which case he needs an explanation in his own right.  Or he is not, in which case he cannot provide an explanation.”4  

His argument boils down to this.  If God exists, He would be unimaginably complex, and thus by logical necessity, there must be something over and above God which in turn would be needed to explain God’s existence.

There is a very simple refutation of this claim.  The agnostic philosopher, Bertrand Russell, once pointed out that it is within the realm of the possible that the universe just exists and needs no explanation: “I should say that the universe is just there, and that’s all.”5  

Likewise, the theist can rightly say: “I should say that the infinitely complex God is just there, and that’s all, and He needs no explanation.”  In a word, if God exists, He does not need an explanation.  For Dawkins to claim that, by logical necessity, God does need an explanation is to engage in fallacious reasoning.  Let us examine this issue in greater detail. 

As the 18th century philosopher, David Hume, showed, there are “matters of fact and existence” and “the logical relations of ideas.”  Logical necessity and proof only apply in the latter sphere.  We can demonstrate by logical necessity, a priori, that “if A is larger than B, and B larger than C, then A is larger than C” because the contrary involves a logical contraction.  That is, the proposition--“A is larger than B, and B larger than C, but A is smaller than C”—is, a priori, by logical necessity false, because it involves a logical contradiction.6

On the other hand, “matters of fact and existence” are not knowable by logic alone, but only through the various avenues of experience.  As Hume wrote: “[T]here is an evident absurdity in pretending to demonstrate a matter of fact, or to prove it by any arguments a priori.  Nothing is demonstrable unless the contrary implies a contradiction.  Nothing that is distinctly conceivable implies a contradiction.”7

Let us again read Dawkins’s statement: “Either your god is capable of designing worlds and doing all the other godlike things, in which case he needs an explanation in his own right.”  That is, by a priori, logical necessity, God allegedly needs something to explain His existence.

To make the statement—“an unimaginably complex God created and designed the universe, and He existed for eternity and needs no explanation”--involves no logical contradiction.  Contrary to what Dawkins falsely claims, God does not need an explanation.  If God exists, there is no a priori, logical necessity that demands that God needs an explanation for His existence.  He may simply be eternal and timeless.  Period.

Indeed, in regard to what brought about the universe, Dawkins admits that some type of superhuman entity may even be responsible.  In his own words: “It may even be a superhuman designer—but if so, it will most certainly not be a designer who just popped into existence, or who always existed [p.156].”

Once again, this is an a priori argument.  He is saying that, by absolute necessity, God could not be a Being who always existed.  As we noted previously, David Hume showed the fallacy in this species of argument in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.  Matters of fact and existence are not knowable by logic alone but only through the various avenues of experience.  Nothing is a priori demonstrable unless the contrary implies a contradiction.8  Dawkins is saying that God, by absolute a priori necessity, could not be a Being who always existed.  But the contrary implies no contradiction.  To say that God always existed does not involve any logical contradiction.  He/She/It could be a Being that just always existed.  Period.

This raises other issues as well.  In Dawkins’s Climbing Mount Improbable, he defined "improbability" as the probability that something very complex would spontaneously come into existence by chance.9 

Dawkins may not be able to label God as "improbable."  If He always existed, He never spontaneously came into existence by chance. Thus, he cannot label Him/Her/It as "improbable".  

Evidence Consistent With the God Hypothesis

            Centuries ago St. Augustine hypothesized that God Himself created Time as we know it; this has become a part of the God hypothesis.  The agnostic philosopher, Bertrand Russell, described St. Augustine’s theory of God and Time:  “Why was the world not created sooner?  Because there was no ‘sooner.’  Time was created when the world was created.  God is eternal in the sense of being timeless; in God there is no before and after, but only an eternal present.  God’s eternity is exempt from the relation of time; all time is present to Him at once.  He did not precede His own creation of time, for that would imply that He was in time, whereas He stands outside the stream of time.”10

            As Dawkins points out, modern physics hypothesizes that time and space had a beginning.  In his own words: “The standard model of our universe says that time itself began in the big bang, along with space, some 13 billion years ago [p. 145 ].”  This model, while it certainly does not prove the God hypothesis to be true, is consistent with it.

The God Hypothesis and the Problem of the “Infinite Regress”

 

Dawkins says that the God Hypothesis aggravates the problem of an infinite regress.  Simply stated, the theist says that God created the Universe.  Dawkins then asks: “Who or what created God?  What caused God to come into existence?”  Let us develop his argument more thoroughly.

The Universe began at some point and we posit that something must have initiated it.  Dawkins expounded that this something, which caused the Universe to form, must have had an ultimate cause as well.  If we insist on everything having to have a cause, an origin, a creator, that same dogma must be applied to God as well, must it not?  Who created God?  That logic ends in an infinite loop of “who did it?”  Dawkins concludes: “God presents an infinite regress from which he cannot help us to escape [p.109].”

 But Dawkins admits that time and space had a beginning at the “Big Bang” (p. 145).  British physicist and mathematician Stephen Hawking also points this out in his popular work on modern cosmology and physics.11

That is to say, there may have been no time prior to the Big Bang.  As David Hume pointed out in his essay on “causality,” one characteristic of cause and effect is that they must be contiguous in time and space.  That is, for A to cause B, A and B have to be contiguous in time and space.12  But if there was no time and space prior to the Big Bang, one may not be able to say that there was a contiguous cause that preceded God; there was no “before God” because there was no time dimension.

Far from aggravating the problem of infinite regress as Dawkins claims, the God Hypothesis may solve it.  If God exists, and He is timeless and eternal, and He always existed, then it solves the problem of the infinite regress.  There simply was no infinite regress.  God simply always existed, and that is all there is. This theory would be consistent with the theory of the Big Bang that says that time and space as we know it were created at the Big Bang, and there may not have been any space or time prior to the Big Bang.  Contrary to what Dawkins writes, the chain of causes that brought about the universe could end in a finite loop with God at the beginning 

Dawkins rightly comments about how our minds may not be equipped to rationally understand the ultimate nature of reality: “Our imaginations are forlornly under-equipped to cope with distances outside the narrow middle range of the ancestrally familiar.  We try to visualize an electron as a tiny ball, in orbit around a larger cluster of balls representing protons and neutrons.  That isn’t what it is like at all.  Electrons are not like little balls.  They are not like anything we recognize.  It isn’t clear that ‘like’ even means anything when we try to fly too close to reality’s further horizons.  Our imaginations are not yet tooled-up to penetrate the neighborhood of the quantum.  Nothing at that scale behaves in the way matter—as we are evolved to think—ought to behave.  Nor can we cope with the behaviour of objects that move at some appreciable fraction of the speed of light.  Common sense lets us down, because common sense evolved in a world where nothing moves very fast, and nothing is very small or very large [pp. 363-364].”

Could not the theist make a similar statement in regard to the God Hypothesis? The human mind is simply not equipped to totally rationally comprehend a Being that simply had no beginning.

Dawkins’s Most Important Argument: The Alleged “Disproof” of God’s Existence

We must now deal with the most important argument in The God Delusion, its purported disproof of God’s existence.  The reader should bear with me.  In order to perform a thorough examination of this most important claim, some of what I say is repetitious.

Modern cosmology tells us that our universe burst into existence some 13 billion years ago, and the conditions seem to have been "fine tuned" so that the diversity of life would eventually arise.  One hypothesis put forth to explain this fact is the God Hypothesis.  The universe and all life in it were created and designed by a God who had no beginning.  This hypothesis attempts to be an explanation for the highly improbable leaping-into-existence of the bio friendly universe that we find ourselves in.13  (Dawkins defined "improbable" as the probability that something as complex as the universe would spontaneously come into existence by chance.)

The God Hypothesis proceeds thusly.  God designed and created the Universe, the latter being statistically improbable.  That is, the Universe could not have arisen and organized itself spontaneously by chance.  The theist says that it was organized and created by God, the ultimate designer.  Richard Dawkins responds: “[T]he designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer.  The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability.  It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable [p.158].” 

Elsewhere, he writes “[A]ny entity capable of intelligently designing something as improbable as a Dutchman’s Pipe (or a universe) would have to be even more improbable than a Dutchman’s Pipe.  Far from terminating the vicious regress, God aggravates it with a vengeance [p.120].”  Thus, Dawkins concludes, “The argument from improbability, properly deployed, comes close to proving that God does not exist [p.113].”

British physicist/mathematician Stephen Hawking points out in A Briefer History of Time that “all our theories break down at the big bang...”14  In the same book he made a similar statement: “At the big bang and other singularities, all the laws would have broken down...”15   Astronomer Robert Jastrow notes that “The religious faith of the scientist is violated by the discovery that the world had a beginning under conditions in which the known laws of physics are not valid, and as a product of forces or circumstances we cannot discover.”16

Dawkins cannot say that the laws of probability rule out the God-Designer-Creator of the Universe Hypothesis, because the laws of science and probability were not valid prior to the Big Bang.  The theist says that God designed and created the Universe.  Dawkins says that the laws of probability rule out the theory of a God creating and designing the universe.  But this is fallacious because the laws of science and probability were not valid before the Big Bang (as modern physics tells us), so one cannot say that the laws of probability rule out God’s existence.  Thus, Dawkins’s alleged disproof of God’s existence is not a disproof at all. 

Let us examine this issue from another perspective.  The laws of probability as we know them need the space-time dimension that we exist in to play themselves out in.  But as Richard Dawkins admits: “The standard model of our universe says that time itself began in the big bang, along with space, some 13 billion years ago [p.145].”  There is no evidence that there was a space-time dimension prior to the Big Bang.  Physical probability is relative to time.  If there is no space-time dimension, then the laws of probability that Dawkins refers to cannot operate and are null and void.   

So, one cannot say that the laws of probability rule out a creator or designer of the Universe prior to the Big Bang.  This destroys a premise of his argument, and thus invalidates it.

Nothing stated in this essay proves God's existence.  What was shown, however, is that Dawkins’s attempt to disprove God's existence is plagued with serious problems, if not outright fallacies.  Furthermore, at least some of the findings of modern science are consistent with the God Hypothesis.

Footnotes

  1. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design (W. W. Norton, 1987), p. ix.
  2. Alex C. Michalos, Improving Your Reasoning (Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970), pp.109-110.
  3. Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God (Oxford University Press, 2004); Richard Swinburne, Is There a God? (Oxford University Press, 1996). 
  4. Richard Dawkins, Climbing Mount Improbable (Norton, 1996), p.77.
  5. Quoted in John Hick, The Existence of God: Readings Selected, Edited, and Furnished With an Introductory Essay (MacMillan Publishing Co., 1964), p. 175.
  6. Ibid., pp. 93-94.
  7. Ibid. p. 94.
  8. Ibid., pp. 93-98.
  9. Dawkins, Climbing Mount Improbable, p.75.
  10. Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (Simon and Schuster, 1945), pp. 353-354.
  11. Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlordinow, A Briefer History of Time (Bantam Books, 2005), pp. 69, 141.
  12. David Hume, On Human Nature and the Understanding (Collier Books, 1962), p. 216, passim.
  13. See Jim Holt’s review of The God Delusion in The New York Times Book Review, 22 October 2006.
  14. Hawking and Mlorinow, p. 68.
  15. Ibid. p.141.
  16. Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers (Norton, 1992), p. 105.