Wednesday, October 25, 2006

God does not play dice

Richard Dawkins - who has an excellent title: Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University - offers a preview of his new bestseller, The God Delusion.

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

Another of Aquinas' efforts, the Argument from Degree, is worth spelling out, for it epitomises the characteristic flabbiness of theological reasoning. We notice degrees of, say, goodness or temperature, and we measure them, Aquinas said, by reference to a maximum:

Now the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus, as fire, which is the maximum of heat, is the cause of all hot things . . . Therefore, there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God.
That's an argument? You might as well say that people vary in smelliness but we can make the judgment only by reference to a perfect maximum of conceivable smelliness. Therefore there must exist a pre-eminently peerless stinker, and we call him God. Or substitute any dimension of comparison you like, and derive an equivalently fatuous conclusion. That's theology.

Terry Eagleton weighs in on The God Delusion:

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster. These days, theology is the queen of the sciences in a rather less august sense of the word than in its medieval heyday.

Dawkins on God is rather like those right-wing Cambridge dons who filed eagerly into the Senate House some years ago to non-placet Jacques Derrida for an honorary degree. Very few of them, one suspects, had read more than a few pages of his work, and even that judgment might be excessively charitable. Yet they would doubtless have been horrified to receive an essay on Hume from a student who had not read his Treatise of Human Nature. There are always topics on which otherwise scrupulous minds will cave in with scarcely a struggle to the grossest prejudice. For a lot of academic psychologists, it is Jacques Lacan; for Oxbridge philosophers it is Heidegger; for former citizens of the Soviet bloc it is the writings of Marx; for militant rationalists it is religion.