Nagel’s Review Of Dawkins’ The God Delusion

Nagel's Review

Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, a book that attempted to expose logical faultiness of religion and its’ cause of much suffering in the world, is the most read atheistic literature in our times. In this series of articles, I explored different prominent atheists and agnostics’ reviews of The God Delusion.

If you missed my first atheist reviewer, evolutionary geneticist H. Allen Orr, I welcome you to read: Dawkins The Missionary. Second in line of atheists’ reviewers is an American philosopher Thomas Nagel. His review, “The Fear Of Religion”, appeared in The Republic on October 23rd 2006, page 25-29. I explored Nagel’s length review in two parts.

The God Delusion: World-flattening Defensive Reductionism

Thomas Nagel correctly remarked that Richard Dawkins “is the most prominent and accomplished scientific writer of our times”. Dawkins, observed Nagel, view religion as the enemy of science. In The God Delusion, a book that aimed to “both dissuade believers and to embolden atheists”, Dawkins assemble all arsenal to tear down religion.

As a result of Dawkins attacking religion with all the weapons at his disposal, Nagel pronounced The God Delusion as “a very uneven collection of scriptural ridicule, amateur philosophy, historical and contemporary horror stories, anthropological speculations, and cosmological scientific argument”.

Unlike The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, and Climbing Mount Improbable, Nagel noticed that Dawkins was swimming outside his field, and as a result “The God Delusion lacks the superb instructive lucidity of his books on evolutionary theory […]”

Commenting on the foci of The God Delusion, “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God”, where Dawkins’ gave his central argument of his book, Nagel wrote that “Dawkins sets out with care his position on a question of which the importance cannot be exaggerated: the question of what explains the existence and character of the astounding natural order we can observe in the universe we inhabit”. Two explanations sided by Dawkins, observed Nagel:

On one side is what he calls “the God Hypothesis,” namely that “there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.” On the other side is Dawkins’s alternative view: “any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution. Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it.” In Dawkins’s view, the ultimate explanation of everything, including evolution, may be found in the laws of physics, which explain the laws of chemistry, which explain the existence and the functioning of the self-replicating molecules that underlie the biological process of genetic mutation and natural selection.

Nagel sighted that the topic of Dawkins’ central case is not institution religion “based on scriptures, miracles, or the personal experience of God’s presence”, but the reflection on natural theology namely the existence and nature of God.

“[W]ith contemptuous flippancy”, explained Nagel, Dawkins shelve away the tradition arguments from existence of God presented by Aquinas and Anselm. Nagel wrote,

I found these attempts at philosophy, along with those in a later chapter on religion and ethics, particularly weak; Dawkins seems to have felt obliged to include them for the sake of completeness.

Nagel rightly detected Dawkins’ true concern is the design argument because it there were the religious belief clashes with atheism. Which view is “most plausible explanation of the observable evidence” is  where the clash is.  Dawkins argued, explained Nagel, “that contemporary science gives us decisive reason to reject the argument from design, and to regard the existence of God as overwhelmingly improbable.”

Nagel expounded the William Paley’s type of argument from design which contends that some organism are irreducibly complex that “could not have come into existence by chance, but must have been created by a designer”. Nagel expounded,

The two inferences seem analogous, but they are very different. First, we know how watches are manufactured, and we can go to a watch factory and see it done. But the inference to creation by God is an inference to something that we have not observed and presumably never could observe. Second, the designer and the manufacturer of a watch are human beings with bodies, using physical tools to mold and put together its parts. The supernatural being whose work is inferred by the argument from design for the existence of God is not supposed to be a physical organism inside the world, but someone who creates or acts on the natural world while not being a part of it.

He explained that the “first difference is not an objection to the argument.” He explained,

Scientific inference to the best explanation of what we can observe often leads to the discovery of things that are themselves unobservable by perception and detectable only by their effects. In this sense, God might be no more and no less observable than an electron or the Big Bang.

The second difference, according to Nagel, is more challenging because the “idea of purposive causation–of design–by a non-physical being on analogy with our understanding of purposive causation by a physical being such as a watchmaker” is unclear.

Nevertheless Nagel reckoned this “need not be fatal to the theistic argument” because “science often concludes that what we observe is to be explained by causes that are not only unobservable, but totally different from anything that has ever been observed, and very difficult to grasp intuitively.”

Nagel commented that a theist holding this argument “could say that the evidence supports an intentional cause, and that it is hardly surprising that God, the bodiless designer, while to some extent describable theoretically and detectable by his effects, is resistant to full intuitive understanding.”

Dawkins offered one positive response, which had third alternative different from chance and design, and negative response, “[a] designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right” to rebut the argument from design.

Nagel believed that Dawkins negative response depends “on a misunderstanding of the conclusion of the argument from design, in its traditional sense as an argument for the existence of God.” He wrote,

If the argument is supposed to show that a supremely adept and intelligent natural being, with a super-body and a super-brain, is responsible for the design and the creation of life on earth, then of course this “explanation” is no advance on the phenomenon to be explained: if the existence of plants, animals, and people requires explanation, then the existence of such a super-being would require explanation for exactly the same reason. But if we consider what that reason is, we will see that it does not apply to the God hypothesis.

“God, whatever he may be, is not a complex physical inhabitant of the natural world” remarked Nagel. Dawkins understanding of God existence namely “ a chance concatenation of atoms is not a possibility for which we must find an alternative, because that is not what anybody means by God”. He clarified,

If the God hypothesis makes sense at all, it offers a different kind of explanation from those of physical science: purpose or intention of a mind without a body, capable nevertheless of creating and forming the entire physical world. The point of the hypothesis is to claim that not all explanation is physical, and that there is a mental, purposive, or intentional explanation more fundamental than the basic laws of physics, because it explains even them.

If I may add my own remark on top of what Nagel pointed out.  Even if we grant the incorrect Dawkins’ notions of “a designed complex” designer, since he confuse the complicity of mind’s ideas with the simplicity of the mind itself, contrary to what Dawkins believe, for design argument to succeed, it defender does not need to offer an explanation of an explanation to know that “this designed complex” designer is a best explanation. As for Nagel, “[a]ll explanation comes to an end somewhere”.

Next: More of Nagel’s Review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion

Disclaimers: I am  terribly biased and unfairly hard on Dawkins’ The God Delusion.   My aim is for us to critically examine Dawkins’ case against the existence of God. Whether we agree or disagree with Dawkins’ conclusions, I believe we ought to wrestle with strength and weakness of his arguments. As far as Nagel is concerned, he found The God Delusion’s case  particularly weak. Dawkins could and I believe can do better.

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About Prayson Daniel

Prayson Daniel is a Tanzanian, married to Lea and a father to Eloise. Reformed theology, philosophy of religion, apologetics and church history are areas he enjoy reading, pondering and sharing with a motto "when love comes first, disagreement follows at its right and proper place".

12 comments

  1. Pingback: How To Become a Pretentious Atheist; or: what I learned from Richard Dawkins. | ModTheology

  2. Roy

    I’m just a simple man. No college degree, no super brain. I read and study and can reason.

    It’s hard to follow you because of the big words and the first sentence seems like double-speak. How am I bypassing the reality of science in explaining the phenomenon of creation? If that is what you are saying.

    The second sentence is also not readily understandable to me. Creation must be stripped from being represented by God because we and the universe are ever changing? If that is what you are saying.

    metaphysical flux? I found this at ask.com

    “The branch of philosophy that studies existence is metaphysics. Metaphysics identifies the nature of the universe as a whole. It tells men what kind of world they live in, and whether there is a supernatural dimension beyond it. It tells men whether they live in a world of solid entities, natural laws, absolute facts, or in a world of illusory fragments, unpredictable miracles, and ceaseless flux. It tells men whether the things they perceive by their senses and mind form a comprehensible reality, with which they can deal, or some kind of unreal appearance, which leaves them staring and helpless.”

    “Are you in a universe which is ruled by natural laws and, therefore, is stable, firm, absolute—and knowable? Or are you in an incomprehensible chaos, a realm of inexplicable miracles, an unpredictable, unknowable flux, which your mind is impotent to grasp? Are the things you see around you real—or are they only an illusion? Do they exist independent of any observer—or are they created by the observer? Are they the object or the subject of man’s consciousness? Are they what they are—or can they be changed by a mere act of your consciousness, such as a wish?”

    “The nature of your actions—and of your ambition—will be different, according to which set of answers you come to accept. These answers are the province of metaphysics—the study of existence as such or, in Aristotle’s words, of “being qua being”—the basic branch of philosophy.”

    Seems to me the notion of metaphysical flux being contrary to a Creator is left to interpretation.

  3. derp

    It seems that in focusing on reality in terms of science, you are bypassing the very phenomenological presuppositions of the notion you want to project as necessary for existence itself, or a particular state of existence. This notion of “creativity” must be stripped of it’s crude anthropomorphisms, of which the very notion of creativity on part of a subject must be recognised as part of the metaphysical flux, rather than transcending it.

  4. Roy

    I’ve been studying the Laws of Thermodynamics in order to understand how science can point us to a firm commitment in a belief in a Creator. The first law of thermodynamics is the application of the conservation of energy principle to heat and thermodynamic processes, where the change in internal energy of a system ( the “system” being the Universe) is equal to the heat added to the system minus the work done by the system.

    To me it is so impressive that thousands of years before modern science discovers a truth, God boldly declares it in His word. God states that in six days He created the heaven and the earth and all that is in them and that on the seventh day He ended the creation process. Nothing can be added to it or taken from it.

    In a book titled Many Infallible Proofs, the following enlightening excerpt is found:

    This complete cessation of creative activity has been inadvertently recognized by modern science in its formulation of the First Law of Thermodynamics, the Law of Conservation of Mass-Energy. This is the most universal and certain of all scientific principles, and it states conclusively that, so far as empirical observation has shown, there is nothing now being created anywhere in the known universe.

    In the passage of Ecclesiastes 3:14, it said concerning God’s creation: “I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before him.” The First Law of Thermodynamics not only says nothing more is being created but also states that nothing is being destroyed, even as quoted in God’s word thousands of years before man discovered this foundational scientific truth.

    Matter can change form but it cannot be created or destroyed. Water can be frozen into a solid block of ice or it can evaporate into the air. Water can change form but new water cannot be made and existing water cannot be destroyed. It simply recycles.

  5. Roy

    Yes, size and magnitude are relative Derp, but you are right, that immense complexity is not proof of God.

    My point was simple…look all around you. Most everything around you was created by someone; your TV, phone, computer, furniture, house, watch, box of cookies, the sandcastle.

    So we then see the Sun and Moon, the trees and flowers, and us. I believe these things and more were also created by someone.

    The most plausible explanation, based on scientific evidence, examination and common sense is that the Universe, us and all it contains, just didn’t pop into existence by itself.

  6. derp

    “Proof of a conscious Creator is readily available. The simplest proof (yet one that no atheist has ever been able to counter effectively) is that a universe of this size and magnitude does not somehow build itself.”

    -Is not size and magnitude relative? Wait so a thing of relative size and magnitude, necessarily presupposes an external constitution? Or do you mean to project array of anthropomorphizations, of which in particular the error of transcendentalizing subjectivity out of it’s context as an emergent networking relationalism?

    • Hej Derp.

      I am not sure what you are asking for. I would love to correct understand your question before I attempt to answer them. Could you clarify them?

      Prayson

  7. Roy

    You might be right but I see atheists placing God inside a box, a box they create and label. It seems to me they try to place limits on the Limitless.

    “…and I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3:17-19

    “FILLED TO THE MEASURE OF ALL FULLNESS”…..

    God is unlimited, immeasurable, indescribable, unconditional. I’m not sure we will ever truly grasp how wide and long and high and deep is His love. He willingly gave His life of you and me. That’s supreme, sacrificial love!

    I don’t understand many things, but the beauty of growing older is that I am learning I don’t have to understand all things — because I have a God who does!

    Psalm 147:5 says it best: “Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limits!” (emphasis mine)

    NO LIMITS!!!

    While we are humanly limited in countless ways, we can depend on our God whose understanding of ALL things is limitless. Isn’t that a secure feeling? We don’t have to worry or fret; we don’t have to “be anxious” about anything, because our God is great and mighty. He understands it all.
    :)

  8. Roy

    Nice post.

    I think one of Nagels’ comments might be in error, “…God is not supposed to be a physical organism inside the world, but someone who creates or acts on the natural world while not being a part of it.”

    Although God is spirit there were times in the Bible when God appeared in a physical body in order to be seen by men in a form which they could perceive without danger to themselves. Because God said, “No man can see me and live” (Exodus 33:20), He chose at certain times to reveal Himself in human form. These occurrences are called theophanies (Genesis 12:7-9; 18:1-33; 32:22-30). Every theophany wherein God takes on human form foreshadows the incarnation, where God took the form of a man to live among us as Emmanuel, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23).

    Angels are spirit beings too (Hebrews 1:14), so they to do not have any essential physical form. But angels do have the ability to appear in human form. When angels appeared to humans in the Bible, they resembled normal males. In Genesis 18:1-19, God and two angels appeared as men and actually ate a meal with Abraham. Angels appear as men many times throughout the Bible (Joshua 5:13-14; Mark 16:5), and they never appear in the likeness of women.

    And what about Thomas? Thomas doubted Jesus’ resurrection and demanded to feel Jesus’ wounds before being convinced (John 20:24-29). After seeing Jesus alive again and being offered the opportunity to touch his wounds Thomas then professed his faith in Jesus. The Biblical account then reports that Jesus said, “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”

    Proof of a conscious Creator is readily available. The simplest proof (yet one that no atheist has ever been able to counter effectively) is that a universe of this size and magnitude does not somehow build itself. Believe it or not, a 5 year old child could be an atheistic scientist’s worst nightmare by merely asking him “where did everything come from if God didn’t make it?” What that child is actually asking in scientific terms is “how do we have a violation of the 1st Law of Thermodynamics by the creation of energy and matter in the closed system of the universe if there is no Creator capable of doing that?”

    Many times people who do not believe there is evidence of God have claimed that a faith in God is only a matter of faith and that it can not be proven scientifically. They say “does God exist ?….if so, prove it to me”. When confronted with this, we must fully understand what it means to “prove” something. The fact is that none of us were there when the universe came into being, so technically, none of us can “prove” what happened. We can’t “prove” God did it and the atheists can’t “prove” everything came into being on it’s own, so what we have to do is examine the evidence based on science to determine the most plausible explanation. For example, if I see a beautiful sand castle on the beach with intricate design, but no one there along with it, I can not “prove” someone made it, just as someone else can not “prove” the sand castle made itself from the wind, waves and sand randomly interacting with one another, so we have to determine what logic and reason tell us is the most plausible explanation, based on scientific evidence and examination.

    “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.” C.S. Lewis

    Peace.

    • Thank you Roy. I believe Nagel remark aimed before creation. So I believe he would agree with you that if Christian God existed He would not only be a distance designer.

  9. Gordon Divitt

    I am great admirer, and user, of parenthetical clauses but Prayson your post offends the norms of good writing; and is demonstrating a quite sad abandonment of your personal responsibility for your actions

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