Tuesday, 14 July 2009

An invitation to any religious believer

Criticisms of atheists (new, militant, pantomime or plain) by the religious tend to revolve round claims that atheists are strident or divisive. They never seem to address whether the atheists are wrong.

I would like to address this. If you are a Christian or a follower of any other religion, and you have evidence for God's existence which you think that the atheists have missed, then I invite you to tell me.

So that we have a common understanding of the task, let me describe what I'm talking about when I use the word God. I'm not going to use my own definition, but instead quote that used by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion.

The God Hypothesis as described by Dawkins is as follows:

There exists a superhuman supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed the universe and everything in it, including us.

If your concept of God does not involve any supernatural element to it, then that is fine - you don't believe in God as commonly understood by Christianity or any of the other main monotheistic religions, and we therefore have no major point of disagreement on the subject.

Just to make sure there is no misunderstanding. Dawkins added the following.

This is as good a moment as any to forestall an inevitable retort ... 'The God that Dawkins doesn't believe in is a God I don't believe in either. I don't believe in an old man in the sky with a long beard.' That old man is an irrelevant distraction and his beard is as tedious as it is long. Indeed, the distraction is worse than irrelevant. Its very silliness is calculated to distract attention from the fact that what the speaker believes is not a whole lot less silly. I know you don't believe in an old bearded man sitting on a cloud, so let's not waste any more time on that. I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.

The fourth chapter of The God Delusion is titled "Why there almost certainly is no God". Taking Dawkins' definition as quoted above, explain what evidence he has missed or what error of reasoning he has made which renders his conclusion invalid.

Brief contributions can be made in comments, or if you feel that the explanation will take more words than can be accommodated in a comment, send me an email (the email link is in the "View my complete profile" on the right) with your explanation. For emailed contributions, if what you say contains any evidence at all, I will post it here for comment. I may post the better contributions that make a serious attempt at describing something, even if in my view what they describe doesn't amount to evidence.

So we can avoid simply going over the old ground of logical fallacies and cognitive illusions, I suggest that before commenting, you read through my articles in Cif Belief which describe several such. I'm interested in evidence, not wishful thinking masquerading as evidence.


  1. Well done for this Jonathan, and congratulations on an interesting, informative and well-written blog. I got to it via a link on one of the CIF threads which, to be honest, are most often rather read than participated in. More often than not, I can do without the redundant arguments under Andrew Brown. But I read them anyway. And fully agree that militant/nasty/new/old/recent/whatever atheist criticism revolves almost entirely around personality generalisations. Not facts.

    Hell, never facts.


  2. Hi Jonathan

    Sorry to see that you will not be contributing to CiF in the future.

    I have not forgotten my promise to contribute something on Chapter 4 of The Book. Work and family life kept me away from it so far.

    In previous threads we have discussed and not totally seen eye to eye about what counts as evidence. But I could certainly say what in my opinion "he has missed or what error of reasoning he has made which renders his conclusion invalid."


  3. Hi nikias1
    with regard to what is meant my evidence, I'll repeat something I said to Edenderry1 in my final thread on CiF.

    "I think that you can understand my point of view that a phenomenon can only be regarded as evidence of a specific cause if all the other plausible causes have been ruled out."

    So a phenomenon can only be regarded as evidence of some supernatural cause if all the plausible natural causes have been eliminated. Otherwise you get into the kind of confusion that gyukoshu was suffering from, where he took the view that my existence was both evidence for and against the idea that the moon is made of green cheese. My existence (although irrelevant to the question) was equally consistent with both proposition, and therefore in his mind was evidence for both.

    I'm not talking about that kind of evidence. I'm talking about something which is consistent with a particular proposition and no other, and where if the evidence were different it would be inconsistent with that proposition. In other words, on that evidence, would a jury convict?

  4. Hi Jonathan –

    Thanks for your reply. I’m not sure again that I understand your view about evidence – you would need to explain a little bit about the way that you are using your words, especially “specific cause” and “supernatural”. I think possibly that your illustration of a jury conviction does not help your case – a jury could legally and validly convict someone of a crime even if there were an alternative, plausible explanation – and even more so if there were an alternative explanation which was merely conceivable.

    Moving on to the issue which you raise about a possible error of reasoning on the part of Dawkins which renders his conclusion invalid, I think that it is perhaps best if I summarise my points here, and you or my fellow visitors to your blog could if they wished ask me to explain further or provide justification for any views that I express.

    So, let us take the proposition to be: “There is almost certainly no God” and look at it in the context of the arguments which Dawkins raises in chapters 1-4, and in particular his arguments in chapter 4. The way in which you set the task for a believer means that I do not have to establish that Dawkins is wrong (although as a Christian I consider that he is), merely that his arguments do not support his proposition.

    I would argue two basic points in relation to Dawkins’s arguments in chapters 1-4.

    The first contention is about precisely the God hypothesis which Dawkins proposes and which you quote. The problem in my view is that he does not escape from the “old man in the sky with a long beard”. I do not know of any Christian who would define God as “a superhuman supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed the universe and everything in it, including us”, or who would use such a concept as part of a broader definition. Perhaps there are indeed some Christians who would have such an idea, and indeed there may be some who have an idea of an old man in the sky, beard and all. But even if Dawkins does establish that the existence of such a “God” is unlikely to exist, he does not do so for “God, all gods”. It would be quite coherent for someone to agree with almost everything in TGD, and yet still be a believer.

    [There is a limit on the number of characters I can post at one time. I'll continue in another posting.]


  5. Hi Jonathan

    [To continue]

    The second contention is that Dawkins cannot anyway establish with his arguments that such a God as he defines almost certainly does not exist. He seems to me in his dealings with Thomas Aquinas’s “proofs” to posit a First Cause, and then to treat it as implausible in the context of the concept which he apparently prefers – and which seems to constitute an infinite regress. I do not think that he deals with any of the problems involved in an infinite regress, but deals with it as though it were self-evident. In other words, he seems to beg the question – he assumes what he seeks to establish.

    In chapter 4 itself, he makes some excellent points about the argument from design as it affects living beings, and in this for what it’s worth, I think that he’s absolutely right. Then it seems to me that when he gets on to cosmological issues, his arguments fall apart (or at least, perhaps less controversially, I cannot follow his arguments). He seems to set great store on his own consciousness being raised as a biologist. I think that indeed his consciousness has been raised, and I’m genuinely grateful for that, as he has shared his insights on biology widely and raised the consciousness of a whole lot of people, including me. However, I do not see how his arguments apply in a cosmological context.

    I think that, in his arguments in the second part of chapter 4, he presupposes what he is trying to establish – namely that there is almost certainly no God. I do not follow his other arguments for this proposition – based on complexity. This does not of course mean that they are invalid, and if anybody could expand on them for me, I would be grateful.

    Dawkins is sometimes viewed as a kind of atheist evangelist, but it seems to me to be more accurate to see him (quite understandably) as an enthusiast for the understanding of biological science as a means of personal development. His views about “God” are certainly interesting in the sense that it is often a creative act to use insights from one specialism to shed light on other aspects of human thought. In the best sense, they are a type of academic game. It is a shame though if readers treat TGD as a kind of convincing argument from authority for the propositions which Dawkins is trying to establish.

  6. Nikias1
    If God exists, he is either supernatural - existing outside the natural world of the universe and not subject to its law, or he is natural and part of the universe.

    I think we would both agree that a purely natural being isn't what is traditionally thought of when we use the word God, so let's continue with the supernatural version for the moment.

    According to all the major monotheistic religions, God is also posited as being the the creator of the universe, which is also part of Dawkins' definition. It matters not whether God set off the Big Bang and then sat back thereafter knowing that the process would lead to us 13.4 billion years later, or whether he has been more involved since. These are details which don't fundamentally affect the definition. He is all-knowing (and therefore superhuman in that sense, since we are not all-knowing), and by the same token is an intelligence.

    If you have a local definition of God which involves God as being a natural entity within the universe, then I would agree that your conception of him is not supernatural and does not fall within Dawkins' definition. Therefore you can continue to believe in such a God, and even to find evidence of him, and Dawkins' line of reasoning need not be disturbed in the least.

    Does that help?

  7. Hi Jonathan –

    Yes, thanks for your answer, and it does indeed help. If we think of “supernatural” as “existing outside the natural world of the universe……”, at first blush I would certainly have agreed that what is traditionally thought of as “God” is supernatural.

    The second part of your description of “supernatural” is “…..and not subject to its law”. I take it that by “law” you mean “laws (of physics)”.

    If I am right about this, I am still interested in exploring the meaning of “supernatural” and what you have described as “natural world of the universe” (it may be after all that according to appropriate definitions, God could be regarded as existing in the natural world – please do bear with me).

    The further question I would like to ask is whether laws of physics exist, and if so where. Do they exist within the natural world of the universe, or outside?


  8. Hi nikias1
    Yes, i do mean the laws of physics. Everything natural obeys them, so it would by definition take something supernatural not to obey them, and moreover if the universe were designed, then its laws of physics would have to be designed along with everything else.

    As for the laws of physics, I think that the best way to describe them is to say that they are properties of the universe. Yellow is a property of a daffodil - but does yellow exist? In exactly the same way, the laws of physics exist or not according to how you choose to define the question.

  9. Hi Jonathan –

    To think of laws of physics simply as properties of the universe might entail certain problems. As far as I know, most mathematicians and physicists tend to treat them as existing in order to develop further analyses. If in each such development it had first to be shown that the laws exist, it might slow things up somewhat.

    In any event, turning to Dawkins, my understanding is that he doesn’t really go in very much for the complexities of what “existence” might mean. He has an admirably robust stance: either something exists or it doesn’t. (If this were not the case, his hypothesis that God almost certainly does not exist would not have much meaning). For him, I would think, either laws of physics exist or they don’t. If they don’t, scientists are deluded. If the laws of physics do exist, they exist either in the natural world of the universe or outside. There is no First Cause for Dawkins, and so if they exist in the natural world of the universe, the laws of physics themselves must have a cause, which in turn……….(incidentally, if this is the case, what evidence do we have of the causes of the causes of the physical laws?)

    I would certainly not expect Dawkins to contend that laws of physics exist in a platonic world outside (over? under?) the natural world of the universe. He seems to contend not so much that there is a supernatural realm with no personal entity in it, rather that there are no supernatural entities at all.

    more follows……


  10. To resume………

    The basic point that I suppose I’m making isn’t that everything in TGD is wrong, or that there are no substantial arguments for atheism – it’s just that I find it difficult to get from Dawkins’s arguments to his conclusions.

    It’s as if there were another prominent biologist called “Smith” who has a similar background to Dawkins, and uses similar ways of arguing. He has seen the horrors of 9/11 and notes that many of the perpetrators had a scientific/technical/engineering background. He tries to work out why this is so, and his conclusions reinforce his previously-held prejudices.

    The basic problem in the world, Smith thinks, is that people from a scientific/technical/engineering background believe that there is a platonic world where laws of physics and mathematical expressions have a real existence. This, he thinks, tends to de-humanise them.

    Accordingly, Smith writes a book called “The Platonic Delusion”. He picks one possible representative view of what he sees as the problem: the apparent belief amongst mathematically-inclined people that the square root of minus one exists. He writes page after page of polemic. His triumphant conclusion? That there is almost certainly no square root of minus one.

    I don’t know whether you know of an author called Mervyn Peake, who wrote a book called “Mr Pye”. There is a character in this book who tries to make a vol-au-vent, which is a disastrous failure because she mixes the wrong ingredients in the wrong place at the wrong time. This seems to me to be a fair description of what Dawkins does in TGD, which is something of a disappointment (in my view) given the wonderful works he has produced in the past.


  11. Hi nikias1
    The universe contains matter, and that matter exists. That pmatter has certain properties, and those properties are described by what we call th "laws of physics" in as far as we currently understand them.

    Does mass exist? Mass is a property of most types of elementary particles. So it exists in as far as it is a property of those particles. Does mass exist independently of those particles of which it is a property? Only as an abstraction that we use in order to understand better the workings of the universe. Don't get confused between a thing (the property of a particle) and its representation (the generalisation of the concept of mass).

    As for the first cause - Dawkins says it is not clear whether there is one or not. The physicists have more work to do yet in order to find out. But what he is certain of - with a line of reasoning described in chapter 4 of TGD - is that if there is a first cause, a supernatural intelligence can't be it. It is one thing to infer the possible existence of an infinite regress (e.g. of causes) and deduce the need for a terminator for it. It is quite another, on the basis of nothing more than that deduction, to conclude that the terminator for the regress is a supernatural intelligence, and to call it God.