More of Nagel’s Review Of Dawkins’ The God Delusion

Nagel's ReviewRichard 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.

This article is a follow up of my second  atheists’ reviewer, an American philosopher Thomas Nagel, whose review, “The Fear Of Religion”, appeared in The Republic on October 23rd 2006, page 25-29. If you have not read the first part, Nagel’s Review Of Dawkins’ The God Delusion, I will dearly recommend you to do so before reading this closing remark of Nagel’s review of Dawkins’ popular book, The God Delusion.

Nagel’s Third Alternative: No to God Hypothesis And No to Physical Naturalism

The tension between “Dawkins’s physicalist naturalism and the God hypothesis is a disagreement over whether this end point[of what best explain the origin of life] is physical, extensional, and purposeless or mental, intentional, and purposive” correctly observed Nagel. Both views, according to him, fail to explain the grand explanation. “ The God hypothesis does not explain the existence of God, and naturalistic physicalism does not explain the laws of physics”.

Adding my own remark, I believe Nagel here missed or failed to understand the aim of  design argument, the God hypothesis, which does not step forward to explain the existence of God. The argument from design simply attempt to argue for the existence of a designer. The grand explaining for the existence or the nature of this designer is a totally different matter.

Nagel offered the Aristotelian view as another possible possibility. He expounded that “there are teleological principles in nature that are explained neither by intentional design nor by purposeless physical causation— principles that therefore provide an independent end point of explanation for the existence and form of living things.”

The positive part of Dawkins’s argument, commented Nagel, is that “Darwin’s theory of natural selection offered a way of accounting, [which is not a result of design nor hopelessly improbable chance], for the exquisite functional organization of organisms through physical causation”.  The Complexity that arises, which gives an appearance of design without design, can be radically reduced by the theory of heritable variation and natural selection “purely on the basis of a combination of physical causes operating over billions of years”.

Even though most this story’s detail can never be recovered and that there are also  evolutionists’ internal issues on how the process works, “[t]here are also skeptics about whether such a process is capable, even over billions of years, of generating the complexity of life as it is.” The direct analogy to Dawkins’ “Who made God?” explained Nagel, is that,

The theory of evolution through heritable variation and natural selection reduces the improbability of organizational complexity by breaking the process down into a very long series of small steps, each of which is not all that improbable. But each of the steps involves a mutation in a carrier of genetic information—an enormously complex molecule capable both of self- replication and of generating out of surrounding matter a functioning organism that can house it. The molecule is moreover capable sometimes of surviving a slight mutation in its structure to generate a slightly different organism that can also survive. Without such a replicating system there could not be heritable variation, and without heritable variation there could not be natural selection favoring those organisms, and their underlying genes, that are best adapted to the environment.

Darwinian explanation hangs on the prior existence “of genetic material” with have outstanding properties, which preconditioned the possibility of evolution. Nagel explained that “since the existence of this material or something like it is a precondition of the possibility of evolution, evolutionary theory cannot explain its existence.” He went on,

We are therefore faced with a problem analogous to that which Dawkins thinks faces the argument from design: we have explained the complexity of organic life in terms of something that is itself just as functionally complex as what we originally set out to explain. So the problem is just pushed back one step: how did such a thing come into existence?

According to Nagel, an  obvious difference between Darwinian explanation to that of God hypothesis is that only the former is observable. “But the problem that originally prompted the argument from design” explained Nagel, is “—the over whelming improbability of such a thing coming into existence by chance, simply through the purposeless laws of physics— remains just as real for this case. Yet this time we cannot replace chance with natural selection.”

In The God Delusion, Dawkins response was “pure hand-waving” at this difficult by claiming it was a one-time event and that given billions of planets in the universe that may permit life, it is likely that a DNA could be formed. Nagel expounded,

Dawkins is not a chemist or a physicist. Neither am I, but general expositions of research on the origin of life indicate that no one has a theory that would support anything remotely near such a high probability as one in a billion billion. Naturally there is speculation about possible non-biological chemical precursors of DNA or RNA. But at this point the origin of life remains, in light of what is known about the huge size, the extreme specificity, and the exquisite functional precision of the genetic material, a mystery—an event that could not have occurred by chance and to which no significant probability can be assigned on the basis of what we know of the laws of physics and chemistry.

Nonetheless it happened and this, according to Nagel, is the reason “why the argument from design is still alive, and why scientists who find the conclusion of that argument unacceptable feel there must be a purely physical explanation of why the origin of life is not as physically improbable as it seems.”

Since time cannot replace chance with natural selection, Dawkins, with “a desperate device to avoid the demand for a real explanation”, invoked “the possibility that there are vastly many universes”. Hence giving chance more chances to create life.

Final Remarks: Fear Of Religion + World-flattening Reductionism

As “an outsider to religion”, Nagel believes, unlike Dawkins, that deciding which one, the God hypothesis or Darwinian evolution, offers a best explanation of what we observe is a tough question to put to rest. He suspect there could be other unthought-of solutions than that offered by these two.

A brilliant observation was made by Nagel when he contended that “[t]he fear of religion leads too many scientifically minded atheists to cling to a defensive, world-flattening reductionism.” He went further,

Dawkins, like many of his con- temporaries, is hobbled by the assumption that the only alternative to religion is to insist that the ultimate explanation of everything must lie in particle physics, string theory, or what-ever purely extensional laws govern the elements of which the material world is composed.

The problem in this reductive view,  “the world with all subjective consciousness, sensory appearances, thought, value, purpose, and will left out.” Going against this view, Nagel contended that “ [w]e have more than one form of understanding.” He expounded,

Different forms of understanding are needed for different kinds of subject matter. The great achievements of physical science do not make it capable of encompassing everything, from mathematics to ethics to the experiences of a living animal. We have no reason to dismiss moral reasoning, introspection, or conceptual analysis as ways of discovering the truth just because they are not physics.

He also point out that anti-reductionist view also have  “very serious problems about how the mutually irreducible types of truths about the world are related.” It is true that we are physical organism. How do we deal with thoughts, emotions and value, if not mere complicated physical states of organism, asks Nagel. “What is their relation to the brain processes on which they seem to depend? More: if evolution is a purely physical causal process, how can it have brought into existence conscious beings?”

Nagel’s verdict on Dawkins’ famous book could be packed in a single sentence. The God Delusion is “a very uneven collection of scriptural ridicule, amateur philosophy, historical and contemporary horror stories, anthropological speculations, and cosmological scientific argument” and contemptuous flippancy when dealing with the classical arguments offered for the existences of God.

Next: Simon Watson: Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Atheist Fundamentalism

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.

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.

Atheists’ Reviews Of Dawkins’ The God Delusion

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.

My first reviewer is an  evolutionary geneticist H. Allen Orr. His review, “ A Mission To Convert” , appeared on The New York Times on January 11th 2007.  I also included Daniel Dennett’s response toward Orr’s review and Orr’s reply to Dennett. In the next articles, I will go through an  American philosopher Thomas Nagel, New York Times reviewer Jim Holt, culture editor Jonathan Derbyshire, and last the Guardian reviewer Andrew Brown take on Dawkins’ The God Delusion.

The God Delusion: Here Comes A Missionary To The …

Orr correctly observed that Dawkins’ mission in The God Delusion is to convert. Dawkins “is an enemy of religion, wants to explain why, and hope thereby to drive the beast to extinction”.

“Dawkins is not concerned with the alleged detailed characteristics of God”, reviewed Orr, “but with whether any form of the God Hypothesis is defensible”. Dawkins’ answer is “almost certainly not”.

Reviewing the first few chapters of The God Delusion, “which are given over to philosophical matters”, Orr wrote,

Dawkins summarizes the traditional philosophical arguments for God’s existence, from Aquinas through pre-Darwinian arguments from biological design, along with the traditional arguments against them. In a later chapter entitled “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God,” Dawkins himself plays philosopher, presenting the chief argument of his book. The God Hypothesis, he tells us, is close to “ruled out by the laws of probability.” Dawkins’s demonstration involves what he calls the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit. This is his variation on a standard creationist argument. By tweaking that argument in a clever way, Dawkins claims it now leads to a conclusion that’s the opposite of the traditional creationist on

Expounding creationist argument, viz., the absurdity of irreducibly complex biological system arising by natural means “without the intercession of a designer mind” and comparing the probability of assembling Boeing 747 from a tornado-ed junkyard to that of life assembling itself spontaneously, which is a popular illustration given by creationists, Orr explained that Dawkins responded to design argument with a “judo-like move” in which he turned creationist’s logic against itself.

Quoting Dawkins, “[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.” Orr wrote,

In short, only complicated objects can design simpler ones; information cannot flow in the other direction, with simple objects designing complicated ones. But that means any designer God would have to be more complex—and thus even more improbable—than the universe he was supposed to explain. This argument, Dawkins concludes, “comes close to proving that God does not exist”: the God Hypothesis has a vanishingly small probability of being right.

Turning his guns towards Dawkins’ own Ultimate Boeing 747 argument against God which Dawkins “is suddenly uninterested in criticism and writes that his argument is “unanswerable”, Orr asked,

So why, you might wonder, is a clever philosophical argument for God subject to withering criticism while one against God gets a free pass and is deemed devastating?

“Dawkins, so far as I can tell,” commented Orr, “is unconcerned that the central argument of his book bears more than a passing resemblance to those clever philosophical proofs for the existence of God that he dismisses”. Orr believe that you do not need to be a creationist to note “that Dawkins’ argument suffers from at least two potential problems.” He wrote,

First, as others have pointed out, if he is right, the design hypothesis essentially must be wrong and the alternative naturalistic hypothesis essentially must be right. But since when is a scientific hypothesis confirmed by philosophical gymnastics, not data? Second, the fact that we as scientists find a hypothesis question-begging—as when Dawkins asks “who designed the designer?”—cannot, in itself, settle its truth value. It could, after all, be a brute fact of the universe that it derives from some transcendent mind, however question-begging this may seem. What explanations we find satisfying might say more about us than about the explanations. Why, for example, is Dawkins so untroubled by his own (large) assumption that both matter and the laws of nature can be viewed as given? Why isn’t that question-begging?

Spinning towards the evils of religion, Orr correctly appreciated Dawkins for reminding us the “horrors committed in the name of God”. “No decent person can fail to be repulsed by the sins committed in the name of religion” wrote Orr.

He agreed that religion can be bad, but “compared to what?” Orr dimmed that Dawkins was unfair to treated religion as practice and atheism as theory. “[F]airness requires that we compare both religion and atheism as practiced or both as theory”.

Comparing both “religious and atheist institutions” as practice, “the facts of history do not, [Orr] believe, demonstrate beyond doubt that atheism comes out on the side of the angels”. He wrote,

Dawkins has a difficult time facing up to the dual facts that (1) the twentieth century was an experiment in secularism; and (2) the result was secular evil, an evil that, if anything, was more spectacularly virulent than that which came before.

Orr pointed out the problem, which Dawkins tends to wave away, is that historical facts shows that “latter days have witnessed blood-curdling experiments in institutional atheism”.

Orr admires much of Dawkins works, mostly The Selfish Gene (1976), which he dimmed as his best work of popular science ever written, but part way with Dawkins’ case in The God Delusion. He concluded,

Indeed, The God Delusion seems to me badly flawed. Though I once labeled Dawkins a professional atheist, I’m forced, after reading his new book, to conclude he’s actually more an amateur. I don’t pretend to know whether there’s more to the world than meets the eye and, for all I know, Dawkins’s general conclusion is right. But his book makes a far from convincing case.

Daniel Dennett To A Missionary Dawkins’ Rescue

Answering Orr, Dennett admitted that “indeed recherché versions of these traditional arguments [for existence of God] that perhaps have not yet been exhaustively eviscerated by scholars”. But Dawkins ignores them because The God Delusion “ is a consciousness-raiser aimed at the general religious public, not an attempt to contribute to the academic microdiscipline of philosophical theology”.

Attempting to rescue Dawkins, Dennett wrote,

The arguments Dawkins exposes and rebuts are the arguments that waft from thousands of pulpits every week and reach millions of television viewers every day, and neither the televangelists nor the authors of best-selling spiritual books pay the slightest heed to the subtleties of the theologians either.

Orr: Broad Audience Doesn’t Mean Ignoring Best Thinking On A Subject, Dennett.

Orr found two things wrong with Dennett’s objection viz., “The God Delusion was, [Dennett ]says, a popular work and, as such, one can’t expect it to grapple seriously with religious thought.” Orr expounded,

The first is that the mere fact that a book is intended for a broad audience doesn’t mean its author can ignore the best thinking on a subject. Indeed it’s precisely the task of the popularizer to take this best thinking and present it in a form that can be understood by intelligent laymen.[…]

The second thing wrong with Dennett’s objection is that it’s simply not true that The God Delusion was merely a popular survey and “not an attempt to contribute to …philosophical theology.”

Orr observed that Dennett forgot that Dawkins’ “unanswerable” argument which he boasted to “stumped all theologian who had met it” was indeed a contribution to philosophical theology. It is absurd, wrote Orr, “to pretend now that The God Delusion had no philosophical ambitions.” He went further,

It also won’t do to claim, as Dennett does, that Dawkins’s book was concerned only with arguments “that waft from thousands of pulpits every week and reach millions of television viewers every day.” Dawkins explicitly stated that he was targeting all forms of the God Hypothesis, including deism, and insisted that all were victims of his arguments.

Orr believed that “Dennett fundamentally misunderstands [his] review”. Orr dimmed that Dennett believed that he was “disturbed by Dawkins’s atheism and pointedly asks which religious thinkers [he] prefer instead.” Orr made it clear that he “does not have problem with where Dawkins arrived but with how he got there”

Next: Thomas Nagel’s Review Of The God’s 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 Orr is concerned The God Delusion’s case is a disappointment. Dawkins could and I believe can do better.