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The Divine Comedy: Dawkins’ Disco Inferno

Richard Dawkins has got himself in a bit of a pickle and, in an effort to wash off the brine, now appears to be lathering up mountains of foam. In an article in the LA Times (see here), he is at pains to distance himself from remarks he made in the newly released movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Toward the end of the film, in an interview with Ben Stein at the British Museum, Dawkins confesses he has no idea how life originated on earth — nor does anyone, he admits — but, as Nobel laureate Francis Crick once theorized, it could well be explained by having been seeded here by an alien intelligence. Of course, he demurs with great gravity, this alien race would itself have evolved elsewhere in the universe by Darwinian means.

In other words, Dawkins recognizes that blind evolutionary processes seem an insufficient explanation for how life originated on earth — no one knows how it could have happened and intelligent design is a real possibility — but miraculously enough, he asserts, elsewhere in the universe under conditions we have no access to and can’t really imagine, blind evolutionary forces are completely sufficient to the task! After all, we have to terminate the regress somehow and we can’t possibly terminate it with God.

You see the problem. No wonder Dawkins is a bit embarrassed and trying to dance around these frank admissions. So let’s turn up the heat on this disco inferno: what’s he saying now? It turns out that he has decided to have a go at philosophical theology. Unfortunately, he appears to have even less talent in this arena. He rehearses in short compass an argument offered in his recent book, The God Delusion: God can’t be the explanation for design because he’s too complex, and therefore statistically improbable, and as we all know “statistically improbable things don’t just happen spontaneously by chance without an explanation trail.”

I see. That sounds rather like a design argument. As Alvin Plantinga — a formidable intellect and the world’s foremost analytic philosopher of religion — remarked in a review of Dawkins’ book, “You might say that some of his forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that would be unfair to sophomores” (see here).

Let’s take a brief look at Dawkins’ “God is too complex to be the explanation for the design we observe” polemic. His suggestion is that entities capable of designing anything must be complex, and God, if he existed, would be a designer par excellence. But what does Dawkins mean by “complex”? He does not care much to define terms in his op-ed — undoubtedly a strategy to his advantage — so we must look elsewhere among his writings for enlightenment. In The Blind Watchmaker we find his declaration that something is complex if it has parts “arranged in a way that is unlikely to have arisen by chance alone.” Indeed. This sounds rather like Michael Behe, but with less precision and far less discernment. Behe, no doubt, would recognize that applying such a characterization to God would constitute a category mistake. God is not a material object, he is an immaterial Mind, in consequence of which he has no parts. Not having parts, therefore, God certainly doesn’t have parts that are “arranged in way that is unlikely to have arisen by chance.” Given Dawkins’ understanding of complexity, then, God is neither complex nor statistically improbable.

But perhaps we are being ungenerous, so let us concede, for the sake of argument, that God is complex. Perhaps we think that the more a being knows, the more complex it is, and since God is omniscient, he must be highly complex. This seems a fair interpretation of Dawkins’ claim that beings capable of designing things are complex. But how is this supposed to make God improbable? As Plantinga points out, if one were a materialist and thought that the only way a being with great knowledge could exist is if he were made up of elementary particles arranged in such a way as to constitute a being with great knowledge, then perhaps God might seem improbable. But one can hardly argue that God is improbable by assuming materialism, for materialism logically entails that God does not exist, and this would beg the very question at issue.

What reasons are left for thinking that God is improbable? By the lights of classical theism, God is a necessary being in the sense that it is not possible for him not to exist. Such a conception certainly seems logically coherent: it is logically possible, is it not, that the necessary existence of a transcendent personal being of consummate greatness (God) is possibly exemplified, i.e., that the concept is logically consistent and therefore exemplified in some possible world? But a being that exists necessarily must exist in every possible world, and since the actual world is a fortiori possible, we may conclude, without qualification, that God exists. As Plantinga points out, if Dawkins wants to maintain that God’s existence is improbable, he owes us an argument that there can be no necessary being with God’s attributes, an argument that does not start with materialism as one of its premises. No one has ever provided a decent argument to this effect, but Dawkins doesn’t even seem to be aware that he requires one.

Lastly, Dawkins takes exception to the idea that God had no beginning, arguing that “if you are going to resort to that facile cop-out, you might as well say that flagellar motors were always there.” Again, his ignorance of philosophical theology and his lack of talent for philosophical argument are on display. Dawkins would surely admit that space-time, matter and energy came into existence with the beginning of the universe, or perhaps, if he’s a fan of avant garde cosmology, the multiverse. Regardless of which scenario you choose, the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem demonstrates that the universe/multiverse has a beginning in the finite past. Prior to the universe, therefore, there was no time, and God, who is logically and ontologically prior to the universe, was therefore not temporally prior to it. Before the universe was created, God existed timelessly and so had no beginning; his relationship to time began with his creation of time. So Richard, please take note: there is a fundamental difference between the claim that God had no beginning and the claim that flagellar motors were always there.

Dawkins’ disclaimers and his invective will no doubt continue. Theists may look on his performance benignly and with a sort of amused sympathy. Dance, Richard, dance: perhaps one of these days you’ll recognize that you’ve tripped and God has caught you.

Bruce Gordon

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Bruce Gordon holds degrees in applied mathematics, piano performance, analytic philosophy, and theology, as well as a doctorate in the history and philosophy of physics from Northwestern University. He is the author of numerous articles in professional journals and edited collections, the editor of two books, and co-author of a third. He has taught at the University of Calgary, Northwestern University, the University of Notre Dame, Baylor University, and The King’s College in New York City. He is currently a professor of the history and philosophy of science at Houston Baptist University, a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute's Center for Science & Culture, and the President and CEO of