Dawkins Part 1: Straw Men


A straw man argument is an argument that is set up so that it can easily be defeated. This is a favoured technique of politicians. MediaMatters.org provides some excellent examples of George W. Bush’s use of straw man arguments.

Richard Dawkins provides several arguments for God’s existence, starting with some serious philosophical justifications for the existence of God. Unfortunately, Dawkins dismisses these arguments without properly addressing them, and he moves on from sophisticated arguments to some extremely weak “proofs” that have little in common with current, philosophically challenging explanations for the existence of God. So… let’s go through Dawkins arguments one by one and see what we’re left with.

Without spending too much time on the specifics (you can read the chapter for the full outline on all of the proofs mentioned here), Dawkins does begin this chapter with noble intentions (or so the reader should assume). Dawkins highlights the three main “heavyweight” arguments for the existence of God. They are:

Cosmological Argument
God is the first “uncaused cause” of everything – Just like the Genesis account of creation, God was the first cause and he created everything that came after it. Aquinas argued this.
Ontological Argument
We have an understanding of perfection that we experience in our world. God is obviously more perfect than anything that we could possibly comprehend. Since the existence of God is more perfect than God not existing, God must exist.
Teleological or Design Argument
This is the “watchmaker” example, where it is argued that a watch is extremely complex and therefore must have been built by a creator that was more complex. By comparison, the world is extremely complex and therefore the world’s creator must be more complex.

One of Dawkins many logic flaws in this section include his argument that if God is omniscient (all knowing) and omnipotent (all powerful), then God knowing in advance that he (or she) would intervene in the world means that God is unable to change his mind about his intervention, which suggests that God cannot be omnipotent. The logic is flawed here, as the free will argument frees God from being powerless to decide upon his course of action at the time of the event. With free will, God simply knows the free will choice he will make in the future, thus freeing God from being trapped in a pre-determined decision that God cannot change when the time comes. This same free will logic is applied to us… even if we could see into the future, this would not limit our freedom to make choices even if they were known in advance. Those choices would simply be known in advance, but they would not limit our free will choices available to us.

But back to the big three: Dawkins picks a set of arguments that are rarely quoted in modern debates. Aquinas’ argument from degree and the teleological argument are debated upon from time to time, but not with much success in philosophical circles today. As for the cosmological or “uncaused cause” arguments… well… these arguments have been expanded and are still used in modern debate. Modern arguments highlight the ability for God to exist outside of our space and time and thus are used to point to that first cause. Science refers to such an event as the Big Bang. Theists lean towards calling this an act of that uncaused cause, namely God.

It must be noted that these proofs don’t in themselves offer a slam dunk case for the existence of God. At best, they do offer the need for a first cause, but the truly philosophical argument still revolves around the nature of that first uncaused cause.

Note that most of these proofs have long since been rendered logically flawed and thus, are not worth addressing here. Dawkins offers nothing new with his arguments, nor does he do much to further his argument by picking up on these “dead examples”.

It would appear that Dawkins gives up at this point. Done with his “heavy lifting”, he goes on to set up some truly bizarre examples. I have to admit that some of these examples were new to me, as they typically would not hold up as “philosophical arguments” in the true sense of the world.

The Argument from Beauty:
This is simply another version of Aquinas’ argument from degree, which has long since expired. At best, this is a straw man argument.
The Argument from Personal Experience:
Dawkins takes the view that objective scientific proof does not exist to explain the occurrence of “miracles”. Miracles typically refer to “supernatural events” that cannot be explained in ordinary scientific language. Some argue that miracles are scientific phenomena that we simply lack the ability to properly explain. Regardless of the definition, personal experience is typically not seen as a reliable witness unless the action in question is reproducible. Dawkins takes the position that personal experience is subjective at best, and psychotic or fraudulent at worst. Regardless, I don’t feel the need to argue this one. I am fine with setting it aside as neither a proof nor a disproof in this discussion.
The Argument From Scripture:
Dawkins brings up some fair questions about the reliability of scripture. He points out some inconsistencies in the New Testament gospels (Gospels = the first four books of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke & John). While he does raise some valid points about inconsistencies from book to book, this misses the main (and consistent) message that is provided in the New Testament: Jesus is the Son of God who brings a message of peace and salvation to all of us.
By picking apart the inconsistencies between the various accounts given in the Gospels, Dawkins could be seen as throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Note that these are four accounts of Jesus from four different sources. In situations like this, discrepancies are to be expected. It would make me more nervous if all four accounts were completely in sync. Think of a murder investigation: if all of the witnesses were completely in sync on every minor detail, it would make me suspicious that the witnesses had collaborated in advance. The scriptures are sufficiently clear and in sync on the message that Jesus brings to us that the relatively minor inconsistencies should not affect the overall message of the texts.
Further, Dawkins makes some critical mistakes by arguing that the official New Testament canon (the final set of books that we see as the NT) “were chosen, more or less arbitrarily”. This is incorrect. The New Testament as we see it was being circulated in its final form by around the end of the first century. This was much sooner than some of the later books that Dawkins refers to, including the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, etc. Scholarship has shown these documents to have come along much later, sometimes as much as 100 or 200 years later than the NT canon. Dawkins makes several other erroneous claims that are not consistent with modern religious study. He “guesses” at why some gospels were omitted from the final canon (I just explained above that the canon was complete long before some of these other books arrived on the scene). He also tries to compare the Gospels to the Da Vinci Code by calling them both great works of fiction. Dawkins’ “speculation” is a fatal flaw in his ability to authoritatively comment any further on the quality and content of scripture. For an academic, Dawkins is embarrassingly weak in his justifications for his claims in this regard. It would be better off if he had not commented at all in this section.
The Argument From Admired Religious Scientists:
You’ve gotta be kidding me… Dawkins suggests in this section that religious scientists are enough for some people in their belief in God. That’s all fine and good, but this in no way addressed objective proofs for the existence of God. I don’t know why he spent time on this one…

And the final two, which can be combined:

Pascal’s Wager and Bayesian Arguments
These aren’t so much proofs as they are reasons to believe in God. They’re about playing the odds, probability and hedging one’s bets. Pascal’s Wager is simply about covering your butt ni case God is real. And the Bayesian Arguments explain the odds in favour of God’s existence based on a series of subjective and poorly defined factors, none of which offer air tight arguments that do God much justice.

So that’s it… Dawkins should be issuing a refund for this chapter of the book. He offers up some age old, flawed arguments for the existence of God, combined with a few extremely weak straw man targets that he easily knocks down. And, in the rare instance where he thinks he’s on to something, he doesn’t do his homework which leaves him with a a failing grade for accuracy and authority.

Modern debate continues to circle around some of the traditional discussions I highlighted above, but it also looks at some additional ways of thinking of God. These include:

  • Faith and reason – can the two exist apart from one another?
  • Rational Theism – check out Kant’s “Religion Within The Limits of Reason Alone for an overview.
  • Evidentialist arguments – What exactly constitutes a proof one way or the other?
  • The Historical Claims of Religious Intervention
  • And many others…

Dawkins ignored these modern discussions in favour of his weak straw man choices. Dawkins offers no new thoughts here and his approach is disappointing as his attempt is akin to taking candy from a baby. It’s a weak attempt to weaken the argument for God, but without very strong ammunition. It is to his detriment as it greatly reduces the value and authority of his writing in this area.

Next up: “The Ultimate 747 – Is that the best he’s got?

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Posted in philosophy
3 comments on “Dawkins Part 1: Straw Men
  1. Dave Cefai says:

    Hmmm, not a lot of comments on this one? Seemed like a lot of theoritical debate on this one that didn’t really compell me one way or another. The only comment I have is around the inconsistencies of the bible. My only point here are the folks out there that believe in the ‘literal’ meaning of the bible, which baffles me…as if God himself wrote the bible. Other than that not much to comment on this one…

    D

  2. Kevin Archibald says:

    Look forward to the rest of this series!
    Kev

  3. D says:

    I hate to break it to you but you calling Dawkin’s logic flawed is flawed. You claim that Free Will undoes the burden of God’s intervention, however if God is omniscient, he knows what we do, creating a locked chain of events which is the opposite of Free Will.
    Free Will and Omniscience cannot logically exist together.

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