Questions on the strange philosophical positions of Richard Dawkins



If the alternative that's being offered to what physicists now talk about - a big bang, a spontaneous singularity which gave rise to the origin of the universe - if the alternative to that is a divine intelligence, a creator, which would have to have been complicated,[1] statistically improbable, the very kind of thing which scientific theories such as Darwin's exists to explain, then immediately we see that however difficult and apparently inadequate the theory of the physicists is, the theory of the theologians - that the first course was a complicated intelligence - is even more difficult to accept. They're both difficult but the theory of the cosmic intelligence is even worse. What Darwinism does is to raise our consciousness to the power of science to explain the existence of complex things and intelligences, and creative intelligences are above all complex things, they're statistically improbable. Darwinism raises our consciousness to the power of science to explain how such entities - and the human brain is one - can come into existence from simple beginnings. However difficult those simple beginnings may be to accept, [2]they are a whole lot easier to accept than complicated beginnings. Complicated things come into the universe late, as a consequence of slow, gradual, incremental steps.[3] God, if he exists, would have to be a very, very, very complicated thing indeed. So to postulate a God as the beginning of the universe, as the answer to the riddle of the first cause, is to shoot yourself in the conceptual foot because you are immediately postulating something far far more complicated than that which you are trying to explain. Now, physicists cope with this problem in various ways, which may seem somewhat unconvincing. For example, they suggest that our universe is but one bubble in foam of universes, the multiverse, and each bubble in the foam has a different set of laws and constants. And by the anthropic principle we have to be - since we're here talking about it - in the kind of bubble, with the kind of laws and constants, which are capable of giving rise to the evolutionary process and therefore to creatures like us. That is one current physicists' explanation for how we exist in the kind of universe that we do. It doesn't sound so shatteringly convincing as say Darwin's own theory, [4] which is self-evidently very convincing. Nevertheless, however unconvincing that may sound, it is many, many, many orders of magnitude more convincing than any theory that says complex intelligence was there right from the outset. If you have problems seeing how matter could just come into existence - try thinking about how complex intelligent matter, or complex intelligent entities of any kind, could suddenly spring into existence, it's many many orders of magnitude harder to understand. Lynchburg, Virginia, 23/10/2006

[1]I'm really curious as to what exactly the area of statistics can say about the existence of God, improbable according to who and what exactly? Even if you are to believe his assertion as true, does improbability exclude things from the existence or can improbable things also happen?

[2] How does this exactly work that the complexity of a thing has any bearing on whether it exists, I don't see it. And how is evolution a less complicated explanation anyway?

[3] I'm sure being hard or impossible to understand does not have all that much to say about whether things exist.

[4] You will excuse me if I don't take your word on it, not so self-evident to me.

He sure has some oddball assertions and I wonder where he gets some of his ideas from, I don't know what kind of logic is at work here but it does not sound to me like the good kind.

Neil Meyer

Posted 2020-01-08T11:31:25.947

Reputation: 2 161


  • agreed: the idea of God Dawkins is speaking about seems to be a sort of "scientific" God-like thing, to be evaluated according to scientific procedure. The idea of God of e.g. rationalist "classical" philosophers (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz) is not "statistically improbable".
  • < – Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2020-01-08T11:51:32.360


  • in the same vain, if we look at evolutionary biology or thermodynamics, "simple" facts/creature are less complex than later ones. This is true for the phisico-biological world; why must it apply also to an omnipotent/omniscient/eternal being ?
  • < – Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2020-01-08T11:52:57.023

    In conclusion, the author is an atheist (it's ok) scientific-minded (it's ok) that is trying to "prove scientifically" that the idea of God is "contradictory/absurd" etc. (which is impossible). – Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2020-01-08T11:55:21.037

    @MauroALLEGRANZA How do you define biological complexity? – Cell – 2020-01-08T14:18:00.740

    @Cell - a mollusc is less "complex" than an ape. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2020-01-08T14:31:11.780

    @MauroALLEGRANZA But you used complexity in the context of time: "less complex than later ones" but molluscs and apes are existing concurrently. – Cell – 2020-01-08T14:38:29.903

    @MauroALLEGRANZA Also molluscs have more or less the same organs as humans; heart, stomach, gonads etc. For organs that we have that they don't, molluscs have their own unique tissues/organs so it's not easy to see how you define complexity. – Cell – 2020-01-08T14:41:05.647

    @MauroALLEGRANZA he's arguing here against a specific conception of God, as an explanation of complex intelligence in place of evolution [which surely is self evidently very convincing] – None – 2020-01-08T14:41:51.597

    1@Cell Biological complexity is defined in terms of measurement. Humans have more cells than molluscs; humans have more differentiated systems than molluscs; humans have organs that are larger and more articulated than molluscs; the behavior of humans is combinatorially larger than molluscs. In no sense is the A&P of a human equivalent or simpler to that of a mollusic. – J D – 2020-01-08T17:12:17.953

    @another_name Making your own definition of God only to debunk it? Wouldn't that be a less convincing argument? – christo183 – 2020-01-09T05:58:51.300

    he's just opposing god to evolutionary explanations, what is difficult to understand? – None – 2020-01-09T11:33:06.160

    To assume that human intelligence, still in a stage of cosmological infancy, has developed far enough to be in a position to appraise, let alone even consider adequately, the formation of the universe is a bit much. Nothing wrong with surmising about events beyond our current capability but a bit of realistic appraisal of what we can really understand might be in order in a discussion of this magnitude. With each day that passes, some scientific truism is overturned. The discovery of a black whole in our solar system just now, is a prime example. CMS – None – 2020-01-09T13:20:02.387

    @JD Some cephalopods have more cells than humans, larger organs, and their eyes and brains are known for structural complexity. Their muscle control, senses and navigational skills are arguably superior to humans'.

    – Conifold – 2020-01-10T00:37:37.377

    @Conifold That some species are physically larger (more cells) and/or outperform humans in some or any specific skill (use of senses or body) is non-controversial. Measures of complexity are somewhat normative, particularly in regards to structure, so there's wiggle room. I only reject that clams "have more or less the same organs as humans". The A&P of a clam and a human have marked differences, and the claim is clearly a false equivalence. The nerve chords of a clam are not "more or less the same" as the CNS/PNS of a human. When cephalopods develop GPS, let me know. – J D – 2020-01-10T07:58:04.033

    @Conifold I did want to thank you for inspiring me to drop downward causation (and perhaps supervenience) of mind over body. Still reflecting on your argument regarding math depending on the universe. – J D – 2020-01-10T07:59:51.410



    After having read a lot of Dawkins, I would put the following gloss on the big overarching argument he has developed over the entirety of his oeuvre:

    • P1 - The only argument for God worth taking seriously is as the intelligent designer of the complexities of life.

    • P2 - The complexities of life are better explained by evolution than by God.

    • C - Therefore there is no argument for God worth taking seriously.

    He spends a lot of time on P2, but tends to take P1 as self-evident and therefore not requiring support, which is, to say the least, controversial.

    The piece you quoted is a more fine-grained argument parallel to the coarser one:

    • P1 - In general, things can only be created by things that are more complex than themselves.
    • P2 - The one exception to P1 is through the process of evolution.
    • P3 - The more complex something is, the less probable it is that it could come into existence without an adequate explanatory process.
    • P4 - God must be maximally complex in order to have created the universe
    • C - therefore God must be maximally improbable.

    P1/P2 and P4 strike me as the controversial premises here.

    It's worth noting here that Dawkins' reputation is higher outside the philosophical and scientific communities than within them. It's generally understood, even among philosophers sympathetic to his conclusions, that his arguments are not particularly rigorous. His role in the world of ideas is as an influential popularizer of religious, philosophical and scientific concepts.

    Chris Sunami supports Monica

    Posted 2020-01-08T11:31:25.947

    Reputation: 23 641


    You're missing his point: which is that scientific explanations of intelligent life are better explanations than 'God'. So when you say

    I'm really curious as to what exactly the area of statistics can say about the existence of God

    You've glossed the statistical probability of 'evolution' -- and his claim that "complicated things" need to be explained via gradual changes -- with atheism.

    Of course he is also an atheist, but it does you no favors.


    Posted 2020-01-08T11:31:25.947


    There is no scientific explanation of intelligent life. There is an explanation of evolving complexity, but this is not the same thing. , – None – 2020-01-09T13:08:14.863

    @PeterJ [Evoutionary psychology] deals thoroughly with the origins and nature of intelligent life, and cognitive science even more broadly. You may reject their explanation of intelligent life, but that doesn't make it not an explanation. – J D – 2020-01-13T01:21:41.203

    @JD - Do you have a reference? I wonder how they explain intelligence without explaining consciousness, and what exactly is meant here by 'explain'. I wasn't aware they'd even explained why anyone bothers to survive. – None – 2020-01-13T11:55:15.183

    @PeterJ Blackwell's Companion. Chapter entitled "Explanation", p. 127. For intelligence, a good start would be Gardner.

    – J D – 2020-01-13T17:59:45.203

    Intelligence is not only a phenomenon, but actionable; see any introductory work in organizational psychology or educational psychology.

    – J D – 2020-01-13T18:02:17.690

    Metaphysical mumbo jumbo might serve emotive needs, but in the end, if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, es un pato. Any attempt to rationally refute intelligence is obviously disingenious in it's demonstration of intelligence. – J D – 2020-01-13T18:03:01.393

    @JD If it's anything like the 'Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics' it'll be nonsense. I'll never again buy a Blackwell guide to anything. – None – 2020-01-14T11:37:14.567

    @PeterJ Well, sure! It's written by professional philosophers. What do they know about philosophy compared to the self-declared experts of the Internet? – J D – 2020-01-14T14:22:48.647

    @JD - If you look you'll see that professional philosophers make no claim to understand philosophy and none are able to formulate a global theory, As for Blackwell, you might like this . .

    – None – 2020-01-15T11:09:38.470

    @PeterJ Your article is well received and hardly surprising. See Ernst Mach for a preview of the current state of affairs. As for the feigned ignorance and humility of experts ("The only true knowledge consists of knowning that I know nothing"), it's just a strategy for not alienating the incompentent. Intelligence and expertise exists, even if 90% of thinkers are idiots. (See Sturgeon's Law). Knowledge is real, and having it pays handsomely in a variety of dividends; any other view is a clever self-deception.

    – J D – 2020-01-15T17:29:04.090


    I'm not particularly a fan of Dawkins, but it's worth the time to consider his position fairly. His argument boils down to this:

    1. Complex things are developed from (and thus come after) simple things
    2. God (should God exist) would seem to be an exceptionally complex thing
    3. Therefore, God cannot come before the less complicated things that compose the universe.

    There's a confusion of physicalism and metaphysicalism here, as though we can blithely measure the complexity of a putative god on the same scales and dimensions that we measure the complexity of material substances, but it's not a horrible argument on the face of it. I take him as using the word 'probability' in the loose colloquial sense of 'likely' or 'unlikely,' not in the analytical sense of statistical measurements. Given his presumptions, then yes, it would seem odd that a highly complex entity would exist before even the simplest particles are formed. It's not a question of God being hard to understand; it's merely that God would have to be capable of function on a scale of complexity far beyond anything we imagine, at t-minus-nothing.

    And again, given his presumptions, Darwin's work does appear self-evident. Darwin posits an adaptive world, in which creatures complexify themselves over time to face and overcome new environmental challenges.

    To a certain extent, Dawkins is guilty of pseudoscience. He makes these broad, grand assertions without operationalizing them, defining his terms, or bothering to provide evidence. For instance, it is not at all clear how he is measuring 'complexity.' Genetically speaking, trees are far more complex than human beings, yet trees existed long before we did. Is that a problem? There is — oddly enough — a kind of quasi-religious concept of mankind as the pinnacle of creation lurking in Dawkin's work, which I think really gets at the root of Dawkin's ideology. He wants to assert that mankind if the pinnacle without God, not because mankind is a reflection of God.

    Ted Wrigley

    Posted 2020-01-08T11:31:25.947

    Reputation: 9 139

    he could be applying the principle of evolution to God, but it would be a very ugly argument to apply genetic trends -- rather than universal features of 'explanation' -- to the existence of a creator God. dawkins isn't a very clear writer, it seems

    – None – 2020-01-09T11:44:07.523

    The major issue seems to be Dawkins' assumption that God was of the same 'kind' as our physical universe, following the same laws. This assumption hardly works as an argument against theists, especially considering traditions like Spinozism (God is substance, the universe only antecedent) and Tsimtsum of the Kabbalah (God created the universe out of Himself as something that is different from Him) being based on the opposite. It's like saying "God cannot be like you say He is and if He's not, He probably does not exist" without defending the first, central premise at all. – Philip Klöcking – 2020-01-09T12:34:15.483

    +1 A much better answer than mine. But where does P2 come from, and why is it necessary? P2 creates a that is easy to knock-down, and the qualification 'would seem to be' is mealy-mouthed. Okay, so God cannot be complex. This is the start of an investigation, not the end of one. – None – 2020-01-09T13:04:22.687

    2@another_name — Well, Dawkins isn't really a philosopher: more of an intelligent pundit with an axe to grind. And I don't think he's saying that God evolved in the biological sense. He's abstracting the principle of evolution to a universal tendency (in the way we might say that heavy elements 'evolve' from light elements in the furnaces of stars). – Ted Wrigley – 2020-01-09T16:55:08.450

    @PhilipKlöcking — But you have to contextualize Dawkins properly. He isn't really thinking about 'God' in that philosophical way. He's reacting to the anthropomorphic, personalized, authoritative conception of 'God' presented in conservative branches of the Abrahamic faiths, particularly in the aggressive fundamentalisms of Islamism and Rightist Evangelicalism. His work is part of a political conflict over whether civic moral authority should be religious or secular; philosophy is at best irrelevant to him, and at worst mere collateral damage. – Ted Wrigley – 2020-01-09T17:06:28.340

    @PeterJ — Dawkins is thinking about the anthropomorphic God used by conservative religious groups: a being that exists somewhere who has thoughts and capacities that are complex enough to construct the universe out of whole-cloth. You're right that it's a bit of a straw-man, but it's not a straw-man that he invented by any means. It's only a misapplication of something a lot of conservative Christians, Muslims, and Jews cling to. As I noted to PK, above, D's goal is to score a political victory, not start a philosophical investigation. – Ted Wrigley – 2020-01-09T17:21:40.073

    @TedWringley Exactly, which is why philosophically, he is hardly worth the effort. Although Islam especially and most Christian traditions I am aware of are not that anthropomorphic at all. I am all but a specialist here, but I guess theologically, his premises are equally bonkers. – Philip Klöcking – 2020-01-09T18:56:20.997

    @TedWrigley - Your summary seems correct. It's odd that he has no interest in philosophy or theology and just attacks 'folk-religion'. His approach places him in the same category as those he criticises. But I must learn not to explode whenever I hear his name and adopt the calmer approach of you and Philip. I don't know how he maintains his professional credibility in the face of his unscholarly writings. . – None – 2020-01-10T12:03:11.233

    @PeterJ — Oh, yeah, people like Dawkins irritate me as well. But I find it helps to remember that their intention is to invoke emotional reactions. There's nothing about the practice of science in his work. He wants to provoke his targets and titillate his base through broad stereotypes of 'science good' and 'religion bad'. It's populism/tribalism; you can think of it as 'Science Nationalism.' it's laughable, really, except that it causes so much aggravation. – Ted Wrigley – 2020-01-10T16:16:25.230