Sunday, January 17, 2010

On Missing the Point

Luke over at Common Sense Atheism wrote another post ('On Changing the Subject') about our ongoing debate over Richard Dawkins' Ultimate 747 argument. So here's my response to him. Before you read this, it will be important for you to have already read the following posts (as well as The God Delusion):

Me Dawkins 747: A Response to Luke

Luke Rescuing Dawkins' Main Argument Index

Me Luke Misses the Mark Again

Luke Who Designed the Designer?

Me Re: Who Designed the Designer?

OK, so Luke begins by quoting philosopher Richard Chappell:

"Non-philosophers] seem incapable of focusing on a particular argument. They don’t realize that the only way to make progress is one step at a time. They tend to want to tackle everything about an issue all at once. So half-way through an argument, they will suddenly demand that you address some completely different point.

"…They constantly fail to understand how a point (e.g. an analogy or thought experiment) fits in to a particular argument, and instead insist on applying it more broadly – and then objecting when this irrelevant application fails!"

And Luke comments: "I feel Chappell’s pain. Which is not to say I haven’t inflicted it on others at times. But allow me my rant." Indeed, I think now is just such a time when Luke is inflicting said pain on us, as we shall see.

Luke states: "Some readers (like Ryan at AIG Busted, whom I read and respect) said my response to Dawkins was 'inadequate' because it didn’t fully engage his larger argument from complexity. But of course! In that first post I only intended to show that one of Dawkins’ assertions was false."

I responded that way because it appeared to me that Luke thought his first objection to Dawkins' argument was fatal to it. I must have misunderstood him.

Luke Again: "Later, I wrote that even when Dawkins’ argument is reformulated to be logically valid, it still misses the mark because it aims to disprove a contingent God, not a necessary one, but of course theists believe in a necessary God. So Dawkins’ argument, if successful, would disprove a God that nobody believes in. Whoopty-do.

"Ryan responded that I was 'just as wrong as he was before.' Why? Because theists aren’t allowed to just suppose that God is a necessary being. Apparently, Ryan thinks that the arguments in favor of God being a necessary being fail.

"That’s a fine critique to make, but it’s changing the subject. The point is that Dawkins attacks a God that nobody believes in. Whether or not theists have good reasons for believing in a necessary God is another subject."

I'm not sure if everyone believes in a necessary God, and this is a point I'll return to later on. For now: What I was trying to point out is that one of the response to Dawkins (God is not improbable because he is necessary) is a failure. How is it that addressing a response to Dawkins' argument is 'changing the subject'? It isn't. I interpret Dawkins' argument as showing that God has an extraordinarily low initial probability. I admit that it is possible that some being who possesses the characteristics of ominpotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence (and all the other traditional attributes of God) may also possess the characteristic of necessary existence even though we don't see how that could be. But that point doesn't help the theist out much because the mere possibility is definitely not a probability. In fact, it is a huge improbability, as I tried to show in my post here.

Luke again: "Then, even though I had explicitly defined the scope of the 'Who designed the designer?' objection I was refuting, Ryan took a different interpretation of the 'Who designed the designer?' response and then showed how my rebuttal doesn’t apply to that interpretation. Well, duh! I was refuting something else!"

Luke was addressing an interpretation of the "Who designed the designer?" question which no one holds to. When someone asks "Who designed-?" they aren't really saying that every explanation must be explained. What they are saying is that, when a theist tries to explain the human eye with God because the eye looks designed, he isn't offering a compelling argument because if all 'specified complexity' has to have an explanation then that would include God, and if some 'specified complexity' does not need an explanation then the eye might be one of those things, hence the argument isn't compelling. Asking "Who designed the designer?" is a good way to get theists to recognize that even they don't think every complex thing was designed, and hence they have no authority to tell atheists that their worldview is empty if it leaves complex things unexplained, hence the argument from design holds no weight in the atheism/theism debate.

As I said, Luke was arguing against a position that no one really holds. Is it irrelevant for me to point that out? If so, then Luke's comments about Richard Dawkins attacking a definition of God that no one believes in is just as irrelevant.

Does anyone believe in a contingent (non-necessary) God?

I think they do. Richard Swinburne is one prominent example. Besides him, I think most believers (who are not philosophers or theologians) have not explicity decided whether they believe God is necessary. The necessity of God is not (to my knowledge) found anywhere in the Old or New Testaments. In fact, "I am that I am" seems, if anything, to imply that God is a brute fact.


josef said...

A quibble:

I responded that way because it appeared to him that you thought his first objection to Dawkins' argument was fatal to it. I

I can't parse that.

josef said...

Now that I've read the whole thing; I can say I agree with about 99% of this. I may be sounding like a broken record (and perhaps you are as well) but atheists clearly hold to a plethora of explanations which are themselves unexplained. On the internet, it is near-universal that atheists paint debate as one of religion vs. science, and the science side includes postulations such as a molecular origin of life, an expanding universe, dark matter, each of which are unexplained but are not targets of atheist skepticism.

Saying that atheists, even some atheists, demand that all explanations be explained, doesn't square well with the inevitable fact that they do affirm the truth, or at least validity of many other unexplained explanations.

The point of "who designed the designer" question is to rail against the requirement, introduced by the theist, that explanation demands a further explanation, by showing that a creator only worsens the problem.

AIGBusted said...

Hey josef, I fixed that sentence. Must've been distracted when I wrote it :-)