Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Logic, Dawkins and "A Meaningful World"

When I reviewed "The God Delusion", I pointed out that in actual fact you don't need to read the whole book. In one chapter, Dawkins argues (in quick precis) that God is so improbable that his existence can be discounted. The entire rest of the book - that people who believe in God are deluded - is effectively founded upon this argument.

The problem is that if the premise is wrong, then everything that is built upon it is unsound as well. That is a simple matter of logic. And it turns out that the premise is wrong. This is demonstrated in "The Devil's Delusion", by Berlinski, "The Dawkins Letters", by David Robertson, "Darwin's Angel", "The Dawkins Delusion", and probably in other books and articles as well. The idea that "God is very improbable" firstly is flawed in itself - Dawkins' argument doesn't demonstrate this at all. And secondly, even if God is improbable, that has no bearing on whether or not he exists. Life, Dawkins also argues, is improbable - but it still exists. As opponents of ID are keen to point out in their misrepresentation of the idea of specified complexity, a particular sequence of cards dealt from a pack is improbable - but it still happens.

There may be other ways of demonstrating that the idea of God is a delusion, but Dawkins has not done so. Therefore the rest of what he says has no logical force.

What a waste of paper.

The only interaction I have found with "A Meaningful World" by Witt and Wiker consists of one paragraph being labelled "absurd" by Panda's Thumb (there's a link in an earlier post - I can't bring myself to add unnecessary links to their site). Here is the paragraph.
Strange though it may seem to neo-Darwinists, Darwin’s assumption that the terms species and variety are merely given for convenience’s sake is part of a larger materialist and reductionist program that undercuts the natural foundation of counting and distorts the natural origin of mathematics. To put it more bluntly, in assuming that “species” are not real, Darwinism and the larger reductionist program burn away the original ties that bound the meaning of mathematics to the world and instead leave it stranded on a solipsistic island of the human imagination.
Now, if you read any paragraph out of context, particularly if the context is a complex argument, you will a) think that the paragraph doesn't make much sense and b) fail to see how on earth the writer could possibly come to that conclusion. It can hardly surprise one to be told that this is what the context is actually for. (Doh!)

So I am not bothered by the fact that this paragraph looks absurd, quoted like that. We need a new verb. "Quote mining" is when you pick a quote and use it to support your argument, against the wishes of the author or speaker. This is a specialised version of quote mining - picking a quote and misusing it to discredit the author or speaker.

I think firstly that in the context of the chapter (which is about the interaction of scientific ideas with philosophy) the worst you can say about the paragraph is that it is polemic, but in actual fact is probably fair. And secondly, unlike the foundation of Dawkins' book which was that God probably isn't there, I think that the issue addressed here is secondary to the thesis of the book. The thesis is that the universe is full of meaning and significance. You don't discredit a book by looking at how it deals with secondary issues; you discredit it by dismantling its main argument.

So the challenge still stands. How about a serious attempt to address the issues that "A Meaningful World" contains from an ateleological perspective?