On Dawkins, God, ET and the nature of reality

I just listened to a talk given by Richard Dawkins.

For those who do not know him, he is the most influential “new atheist” (anti-theist) whose deepest wish would be to rid the world of all religions. Besides that, he is a very gifted evolutionary biologist and writer.

Given his track record and his habit of constantly lumping together all Christians and Muslims and his failure to appreciate the historical and religious contexts in which the Bible and the Koran were written, I expected a highly biased presentation of the facts.
I was pleasantly surprised by his (relatively) moderate tone and even ended up enjoying his show.
The same cannot be said of his followers and the person who titled the video. As we shall see, Dawkins did not “debunk” deism and the “simulation hypothesis”.
At best, he only showed that some arguments for these views are flawed.
In what follows, I want to offer my thoughts about several things he said, albeit not necessarily in a chronological order.

The origin of life and intelligent design

origin-life
Dawkins recognises that at the moment, we don’t know how life originated. There are several theories out there but they all have their problems and no consensus has been reached.
Of course, our current ignorance cannot be used to argue that no natural phenomena could have been responsible for the appearance of the first self-replicating system.
Dawkins is ready to seriously consider the possibility that life has been seeded on earth by space aliens, which shows a certain mind-openness.
But he is adamant that such creatures could only have evolved through a slow process because the probability of their being formed spontaneously is extremely low.
This begs the question against people holding a religious world view who would say that the creator(s) of life are God(s) who always existed.
This also doesn’t fit in with his beliefs about the origin of the universe, as we will see later on.

Extraterrestrial intelligences and  Fermi’s paradox

Dawkins endorses the principle of mediocrity which stipulates that we shouldn’t suppose there is anything special about us.

Thus, since we know there is (advanced) life on earth, we should assume it is widespread across the whole universe.

While being still popular among mainstream scientists, the Principle Of Mediocrity (POM= has grown more controversial over the last years.
Philosopher of science John Norton wrote an article entitled “Cosmic Confusions: Not Supporting versus Supporting Not” where he shows the problems related to the POM.
Basically, the principle of mediocrity is justified through the principle of indifference (POI), according to which if we know nothing about a situation, we should attribute the same probability to each possibility.
I explained what I consider to be fatal objections to the POI here and here.
As Norton demonstrated, the principle of indifference conflates the difference between knowledge and ignorance and very often leads to arbitrary results (depending on the prior probability distribution one uses).
There is a fundamental distinction between
Situation A) We know that life on earth wasn’t the result of a fluke but that of non-random natural processes
and
Situation B) We know (almost) nothing about this.
Dawkins went into a paradox mentioned by nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi.
If advanced life is so common in the cosmos, why don’t we see any trace of it?
Several explanations (such as the near impossibility of interstellar travel, the short duration of technological civilisations or their reluctance to interact with such primitive beings as we) have been offered to solve the paradox.
To my mind, while these may be plausible reasons why ten or even hundred extraterrestrial races never approached the earth, they seem extremely far-fetched when applied to millions (let alone billions) of civilisations.
Therefore, I believe that Fermi’s paradox strongly calls in question the conviction that the universe is teeming with advanced life forms.

The fine-tuning argument and the multiverse

fine-tuning

Physicists have long since been puzzled by the fact that the constants of nature must lie in a very narrow domain in order to allow for advanced life to exist.

Many theistic philosophers reason like this

  1. All sets of parameter values must have the same probability of being true (applying the Principle Of Indifference mentioned above)
  2. Therefore, the probability of their belonging to a small region is extremely (if not infinitely) small.
  3. It is very unlikely that we are the products of purely natural processes not involving God.

While mainstream cosmologists agree with steps 1 and 2, they then go on to postulate the existence of a (nearly) infinite number of parallel universes covering all intervals of parameter values. A natural consequence of this is that the appearance of a universe such as ours is bound to happen even if no supernatural creator intervenes.

Dawkins considers this the most plausible explanation of the problem.

I have come to the realisation that the whole concept of a fine-tuning problem is misguided because of its reliance on the principle of difference.

The fallacy of doing so has been demonstrated by Norton.

Miracles in an infinite multiverse

According to Clarke’s law, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Dawkins believes there are probably creatures out there who are so superior to us that we could only regard them as gods if they were to visit us. But he insists that they would have been created through evolutionary processes and would not be supernatural beings.

But this means that in order for him to dismiss out of hand the testimonies of witnesses of paranormal events and miracles, he would have to either show that they violate the laws of physics or give us plausible reasons as to why such creatures would not visit us.

He also faces another problem stemming from his belief in an infinite number of parallel universes.

In an infinite space, any event which is physically possible is bound to happen somewhere.

This has led physicists to consider the possibility of so-called Boltzmann’s brains which would pop into existence because of random fluctuations.

Bolzmann-brain
Bolzmann’s brain

While physicists disagree about the frequency of their appearances in a vast multiverse, they all think they will at least exist somewhere.

Actually, to the best of my knowledge, nobody has been able to convincingly demonstrate they would be very rare.

Anti-theists like to mock Christians by comparing their belief in God to the belief in a flying spaghetti monster. flying-spaghetti-monster

But if we truly live in an infinite multiverse, flying spaghetti monsters too will necessarily exist somewhere.

What is more, physically very improbable events (such as the resurrection of a man from the dead) are also going to happen somewhere through random processes.

 

As a consequence, the atheist can no longer say “your belief in the miracles of the New Testament is silly because they violate the law of physics”.

The best he could say would be: “While such events really occur somewhere, their relative frequency is so low that it is unreasonable for you to believe they really took place.”

This is no doubt a weaker position which has its own problems.

 

The simulation argument

Actually, Dawkins discussed the so-called simulation argument elsewhere.

According to it, it is more likely we live in the simulation of a universe than in a real one.

Far from “debunking” this possibility, Dawkins recognises he cannot show it to be very unlikely in the same way he thinks he can reject the existence of God.

I think another interesting thesis can be formulated.

Consider the following proposition:

“We live in a simulation run by unknown beings who created everything five minutes ago and gave us false memories of the past.”

Brain in the vat: "I'm walking outside in the sun!"
Brain in a vat. My thought experiment here is far broader than that and includes the possibility of being part of a simulation of beings radically different from everything we can conceive of. Or being fooled by a deceitful demon about whose abilities and psychology we know almost nothing.

I don’t doubt that this idea sounds emotionally absurd to most of us.

But can you show it is very unlikely to be true WITHOUT smuggling in assumptions about the real world?

I have searched the philosophical literature but could not find any demonstration which does not beg the question.

I think that you can only reject it pragmatically through a leap of faith that does not rely on reason and evidence.

Consequently, I also think it is impossible to justify all our beliefs through evidence and logics.

We all walk by faith.

 

The atheist in front of God’s throne

Finally, I want to go into how Dawkins considers the possibility of being judged by a God he didn’t believe in.

Dawkins says he would react like the late British philosopher Bertrand Russel:

“Confronted with the Almighty, [Russell] would ask, ‘Sir, why did you not give me better evidence?’

This assumes that God would be mostly offended by Dawkins’ and Russel’s unbelief.

I have argued elsewhere against the notion (held by fundamentalist Christians) that atheism is immoral and that people dying as atheists will be punished because of their unbelief.

I think it is incompatible with the existence of a supreme being which would necessarily be more loving, just and gracious than any human.

But what if the dialogue between God and Dawkins went like that:

Dawkins: So, you really exist after all! I did not believe in you because I couldn’t see enough evidence.

God: Fair enough. The universe I created is ambiguous and it leaves people the choice to  develop a solid moral character or not. I won’t condemn you because you did not believe in me. Yet, we do have a score to settle.

Dawkins: What do you mean then?

God:I gave you a conscience and the knowledge of good and evil. You knew in your heart that you ought to treat your neighbour as you would like to be treated. But you often disregarded this principle. You and your followers have frequently bullied, mocked and ridiculed respectful opponents. You even loudly proclaimed this was the right thing to do.

Of course, this conversation is completely fictional. I don’t know the content of Dawkins’ heart and cannot rule out the possibility he will be in heaven.

Conclusion

I find that this video of Dawkins is really intellectually stimulating.

I did not feel challenged in my faith/hope there is a supreme being.

On the contrary, this strengthened my belief that atheists cannot confidently assert that “there are probably no gods and miracles.”

Of course, I must recognise there are many atheistic philosophers who are far more sophisticated than Dawkins out there.

But it is worth noting that Dawkins’ books (especially the God delusion) caused many people to lose their faith.

I think that their conversions to atheism are due to his rhetorical skills and not to the strength of his arguments.

 

Thematic list of ALL posts on this blog (regularly updated)

My other blog on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP)

3 thoughts on “On Dawkins, God, ET and the nature of reality

  1. You seem to be thoughtful and broadminded, a refreshing change from most of the Christians I interact with. I’m happy you got the chance to see Dawkins in a new light. He really is a nice fellow. Full disclosure: you would, I think, classify me as an atheist, “one who sees God’s existence as being very implausible.” That is only true if your definition of “God” is what I expect it to be. If I am wrong about that, I’m sure you will correct me.

    You said, “Dawkins did not ‘debunk’ deism and the ‘simulation hypothesis’.” True, Dawkins did not so much debunk deism as discount it as meaningless. Neither the deism hypothesis nor the “sim” hypothesis answer the question of origins. Saying that a god did it is not an explanation if you can’t explain what a god is or where it came from. In other words, it is just as meaningful to say that the cosmos, in some form, always existed as to say that God always existed. That is not a disproof of God, it just means that the God hypothesis is unnecessary for creation.

    The same would apply to the “fine tuning” argument. Scientists think there is surely an answer to it, and we will likely find it. Theists say that God is the answer. That doesn’t explain anything.

    The multiverse idea doesn’t really help you with miracles. As you said, “In an infinite space, any event which is physically possible is bound to happen somewhere.” So the event has to be physically possible. Sure, you might see the kind of “miracle” that is merely astoundingly unlikely, but only a miracle that violates the laws of physics would be evidence of a supernatural force. I have never seen such an event, nor heard a credible, verifiable account of one.

    Lastly, I am always amused when people ask what an atheist would say to God on meeting him in the afterlife. What would you say to Odin after he transports you to Valhalla? What would you say to Superman’s father at the Fortress of Solitude? Why does it matter? Seriously, if I met your God, he would have a lot of explaining to do.

    “But it is worth noting that Dawkins’ books (especially the God delusion) caused many people to lose their faith.” I sincerely hope that is true. Religious faith is a terrible thing that has caused much suffering in our world. My life has been so wonderful since I lost my faith, and I consider it my mission to help others in their journey.

    I look forward to reading more of your work. There may be hope for you. At least we can have civil discourses.

    • Hi Chiefy, thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      I think I might write another post as a response but I won’t have much time to interact with you as I am currently writing two articles in order to complete a scientific project.

      I’d be glad to learn more things about your own background.

      Have you grown up in a fundamentalist family?

      How do you know that ALL faithS cause a lot of pain?
      Religious extremism is certainly the source of much suffering.
      But the same can be said about non-religious forms of extremism.

      I’m a progressive Christian and I fail to see how my “faith” is harming me.

      I’m sorry you had so many bad experiences with Christians. I know that many members of the religious Right immediately bully emotionally their opponents and aren’t interested in a civic dialogue at all.

  2. I am glad to have the opportunity to exchange views, lotharson. I grew up in a fairly liberal, pragmatic Roman Catholic family, a little old-fashioned, but definitely not fundamentalist. I read and reasoned my way out of the unreasonable beliefs I had been taught, and after many years of casting about, searching for some way of making sense of the world, I had a born-again experience and became an evangelical Christian. I now consider that to have been a delusion that I was ensnared in, and which continued to constrict my life and limit my thinking for about 25 years.

    Some time in 2010, I realized that my differences with traditional theology had increased to a point that I really had to consider whether it was right to continue referring to myself as a Christian. I believe it was 2012 when I stopped trying to accommodate that nomenclature, and gave myself permission to identify with my true beliefs, or lack thereof.

    I think it is accurate to refer to me as a naturalist, an atheist, and an agnostic. Technically, I am an ignostic: I don’t think it is productive to talk about whether gods exist if they can’t be defined. This is a précis of rather a long story; if you want more it will be in the book.

    I do not think all faiths cause equal amounts of pain. That is a conflation of two meanings of “faith.” The Unitarian Universalist faith does not require any particular faith, for instance. It is apparently true that some Christians have religious faith, yet it doesn’t seem to cause them or others any great difficulty. I also am aware that faith can be a comfort in some circumstances to some people. If all religion could be so benign, it wouldn’t be a problem.

    Perhaps your faith is not harming you. I hope not. In my experience, believing in things that are not true eventually does cause problems. Something like 40% of the population of the US believes that people are not the result of evolution. This helps lead to a mistrust of medical advances that could benefit us. I don’t have to tell you how the unscientific belief that humans are infused with a soul at the moment of conception distorts the conversation on abortion.

    Nonetheless, I have also had good experiences with Christians; even with some evangelicals. I consider them to be deluded to some extent, but that doesn’t preclude them from being decent human beings.

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