I must confess that I’ve always thought the phrase, “There’s no such thing as a dumb or bad question” to be a bit silly. Admittedly, patience with ignorance has not historically been a strength of mine. In high school I was that guy who would groan audibly at silly answers given by my classmates at times. I blame this almost entirely on my arrogance. (Occasionally it was probably merited, but that’s no excuse.) Still, arrogance aside, I always could think of a number of questions that were foolish to ask given any situation.
Now, I’ve mellowed a bit since my high school days, become more aware of my own intellectual failings, and expanded my definition of what counts as a good question, especially in a teaching situation where I myself have come to use the phrase to encourage those shy students. And yet, I still find myself wincing a bit when I hear that phrase uttered or when I come across a particularly silly question.
Which brings me to Richard Dawkins.
For the last couple of weeks I’ve been trekking through the New Atheist canon in preparation for an upcoming teaching series. First it was Harris, then it was Hitchens, and now I’ve finally made it to Dawkins. I was unsurprisingly unimpressed by the first two given that there really wasn’t much in the way of an actual refutation of Christianity or even theistic belief forthcoming. Well, unless you count some unhelpful platitudes about reason and faith. I came to Dawkins’ God Delusion though, expecting a bit more since he, among the 4 Horsemen, has the reputation of being most interested in giving serious arguments against God’s existence. I can’t say I was expecting much in light of some criticisms I’d read beforehand. Still, looking at the table of contents and noting that it includes a decent-length chapter on the traditional proofs for the existence of God, I allowed myself to be somewhat hopeful. “Maybe it’s not all that bad. Maybe it’s not as painful as they say.”
I won’t bore you with all of the details of that 35-page train wreck except to say that my forehead was a nice bright pink at the end of the ordeal given the frequent face-palming I was doing. There were many delightful turns of phrases, misleading but amusing analogies, arrogant snark enough to last for months, and questions on par with “Could God make a martini so big that even HE couldn’t drink it? Ha! He’s not omnipotent!”
It was beautiful.
The one piece that irked me most was what he touted as the most damning response possible to the argument from design. The design argument is something like:
- Where there is design, there must be a designer.
- The universe exhibits unmistakable signs of complexity and design. (Insert various examples from physics, biology, the existence of salsa)
- The conclusion is that there must be a universal designer.
Now, what is Dawkins’ grand damning response to this? “Who made God?” (109, a question which apparently occurs to all “thinking people”) and “Who designed the designer?” (158) I swear, I am not making this up.
This, as you can tell, is what got me thinking about silly questions. For a 5-year old or even a 15-year old to ask, “Well, who made God?” is fine; nothing dumb or illegitimate about that. For an Oxford professor to trumpet this as his damning argument against God’s existence is just sad.
Now, some of you might be thinking, “Hey, wait a minute. There’s got to be more to it than that.” And, in a sense, you’d be right. Dawkins has an argument here. In fact, this is his grand argument against God’s existence. As he puts it, “However statistically improbable the entity you seek to explain by invoking a designer, the designer himself has got to be at least as improbable.” His point is that a being that can create something complex like the universe, would have to be incredibly complex: at least as complex as the universe itself. The more complex something is, the less likely it is. In which case, whatever created the universe would have to be extraordinarily complex, and therefore even more improbable which is why God probably doesn’t exist.
If that weren’t bad enough, apparently, the whole exercise is silly because in any case, since the whole point of the argument from design is to explain complexity or statistical improbability, introducing a statistically improbable, complex being to explain complexity explains nothing. (158)
This can sound convincing at the surface level. To explain why this actually isn’t, I’d like to call in an expert witness: Alvin Plantinga.
Plantinga lays the Hammer down
You’ll be hearing about Alvin Plantinga from time to time on this blog. Suffice it to say for now that he is probably THE SINGLE-MOST BRILLIANT ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHER ALIVE. In his very humorous and instructive review of Dawkins’ book, he points out a number of problems with this argument. I’m only going to excerpt a couple, but you’ll want to go read the whole thing.
First, Plantinga points out that Dawkins is confused as to what it means to speak about complexity with regards to God:
Now suppose we return to Dawkins’ argument for the claim that theism is monumentally improbable. As you recall, the reason Dawkins gives is that God would have to be enormously complex, and hence enormously improbable (“God, or any intelligent, decision-making calculating agent, is complex, which is another way of saying improbable”). What can be said for this argument?
Not much. First, is God complex? According to much classical theology (Thomas Aquinas, for example) God is simple, and simple in a very strong sense, so that in him there is no distinction of thing and property, actuality and potentiality, essence and existence, and the like. Some of the discussions of divine simplicity get pretty complicated, not to say arcane. (It isn’t only Catholic theology that declares God simple; according to the Belgic Confession, a splendid expression of Reformed Christianity, God is “a single and simple spiritual being.”) So first, according to classical theology, God is simple, not complex. More remarkable, perhaps, is that according to Dawkins’ own definition of complexity, God is not complex. According to his definition (set out in The Blind Watchmaker), something is complex if it has parts that are “arranged in a way that is unlikely to have arisen by chance alone.” But of course God is a spirit, not a material object at all, and hence has no parts. A fortiori (as philosophers like to say) God doesn’t have parts arranged in ways unlikely to have arisen by chance. Therefore, given the definition of complexity Dawkins himself proposes, God is not complex.
Translation: First, by definition, both those of classical theology and Dawkins’ own definition as laid out elsewhere, God is not a complex being. Given that God is a simple, spiritual being God does not demonstrate physical complexity or design in a way that allows Dawkins’ question to even make sense. Therefore, Dawkins’ argument fails.
The next part is where he shows how Dawkins’ question completely misses the point and responds to his idea that introducing God as an explanation for complexity explains nothing:
In The Blind Watchmaker, he considers the claim that since the self-replicating machinery of life is required for natural selection to work, God must have jump-started the whole evolutionary process by specially creating life in the first place—by specially creating the original replicating machinery of DNA and protein that makes natural selection possible. Dawkins retorts as follows:
“This is a transparently feeble argument, indeed it is obviously self-defeating. Organized complexity is the thing that we are having difficulty in explaining. Once we are allowed simply to postulate organized complexity, if only the organized complexity of the DNA/protein replicating machine, it is relatively easy to invoke it as a generator of yet more organized complexity… . But of course any God capable of intelligently designing something as complex as the DNA/protein machine must have been at least as complex and organized as that machine itself… . To explain the origin of the DNA/protein machine by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer…”
Here there is much to say, but I’ll say only a bit of it. First, suppose we land on an alien planet orbiting a distant star and discover machine-like objects that look and work just like tractors; our leader says “there must be intelligent beings on this planet who built those tractors.” A first-year philosophy student on our expedition objects: “Hey, hold on a minute! You have explained nothing at all! Any intelligent life that designed those tractors would have to be at least as complex as they are.” No doubt we’d tell him that a little learning is a dangerous thing and advise him to take the next rocket ship home and enroll in another philosophy course or two. For of course it is perfectly sensible, in that context, to explain the existence of those tractors in terms of intelligent life, even though (as we can concede for the moment) that intelligent life would have to be at least as complex as the tractors. The point is we aren’t trying to give an ultimate explanation of organized complexity, and we aren’t trying to explain organized complexity in general; we are only trying to explain one particular manifestation of it (those tractors). And (unless you are trying to give an ultimate explanation of organized complexity) it is perfectly proper to explain one manifestation of organized complexity in terms of another. Similarly, in invoking God as the original creator of life, we aren’t trying to explain organized complexity in general, but only a particular kind of it, i.e., terrestrial life. So even if (contrary to fact, as I see it) God himself displays organized complexity, we would be perfectly sensible in explaining the existence of terrestrial life in terms of divine activity.
Translation: We are not trying to explain organized complexity in general. The argument from design is dealing with one instance of complexity: the universe. As an explanation for that, a universal mind like God’s works even when granting complexity, (which we’ve already seen is unnecessary).
Now, we’ve seen why this question “Who designed the designer?” and Dawkins’ further elaboration of it into an argument against God’s existence is confused and a bit silly. The thing that makes it truly silly though, is the arrogance with which he wields it. In the mouth of a truly inquiring child, teenager, or even adult, it is perfectly legitimate question that can be answered honestly and without any condescension or arrogance. In fact, most answers should be given that way. In the mouth of a snarky professor who should know better, it becomes very silly indeed, and is safely ignored as a serious threat to belief in God.
To wrap up here are a few things to keep clear:
- Apparently a Ph.D. in biology doesn’t do much for your philosophical chops. So, next time you hear a biologist or a chemist pronouncing confidently on philosophic and theological issues beyond the remit of their chosen discipline, remember: they’re only scientists, not philosophers. That doesn’t mean you should listen and weigh what they say, but it also means you should take it with a grain of salt.
- None of this necessarily proves that the design argument “works.” It just means that Dawkins’ response to it doesn’t. Nobody needs to get freaked out by the question, “Who designed the designer?”
- At the same time, if you’re a believer, realize that there are legitimately thoughtful atheists who have good questions and serious doubts who should be taken seriously and lovingly answered. Pointing out the silly things that one of them has written should not cause us to think they’re all that silly and smug.
Disclaimer– I’d just like to point out that even though I’ve called attention to some intellectual problems with Mr. Dawkins’ arguments, this in no way denies his prodigious abilities as a biologist or is meant to imply that I consider myself smarter than him. Consider it an exercise in God using the foolish to shame the wise. (1 Cor 1:27) Or rather, God using the foolish (me), using the wise (Plantinga), to shame the wise (Dawkins.)
1. Go read the whole review by Plantinga that I linked above.
2. Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism by Alvin Plantinga is his definitive work on the problem of theistic belief, science, and naturalism. I highly recommend this work.
3. A Shot of Faith to the Head: How to Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists by Mitch Stokes is Plantinga’s awesomeness written for everybody. I’ll be reviewing this book soon.