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”.
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.