Friday, September 18, 2009


On p. 142, Dawkins quotes co-conspirator Dennett as pointing out that "evolution counters one of the oldest ideas we have: 'the idea that it takes a big fancy smart thing to make a lesser thing.'"

When I read this, I couldn't believe my eyes. Hadn't Dawkins, just a moment before, said the very reverse of this? I looked back, and there it was, on p. 136: "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."

What gives here? I thought for a moment, well, Dawkins is talking about a designer God, and God 2.0 is not a designer. Then I thought, well, isn't He? What's design anyway? To design something doesn't necessarily mean that you have to sit down at a drawing-board and draw diagrams, then go to Home Depot, buy the parts and put them together. All you have to do is whatever it takes to get the thing into existence. How do believers in Genesis 1 think God created Adam? With his thumb? Or did He just say to the handful of dust, "Be a man"? Ridiculous questions that serve merely to highlight the fact that, if God does exist and creates things, we don't have a clue as to how He might go about it. So Dawkins' designation of "designer" should fit just about anything that satisfies his description of a God.

But if that's so--and Dawkins is surely too smart to get caught in this kind of trap, so I still have a niggling feeling I must have missed something, somewhere--then Dawkins has contradicted himself. If God simply set things up so that evolution took place, how does that make Him necessarily complex? Evolution did the complex stuff for him--like making us--and evolution is, as Dawkins points out, a "stunningly simple" thing. Living organisms multiply, they vary in their capacities, some individual organisms have capacities that better suit (or exploit) the current environment, those organisms tend to have more offspring than others, so the useful capacities spread through the population, and bingo! You've got evolution. Can't get much simpler than that.

Dawkins ought to have argued that God had to be complex to start evolution. I've no idea how he'd have done that. Part of the problem is that, although Dawkins is, or should be, a materialistic monist, he won't cop to it, or at least hasn't--so far.

Because, as I pointed out in the previous post, claims about complexity can only relate to entities whose degree of complexity can be observed and measured. And those entities are material entities. If there are entities that have no material existence, we have no way of knowing whether they are simple or complex, or indeed whether simple or complex would have any meaning, with reference to them.

And of course there are entities that have no material existence. Dawkins uses them every day, every hour, possibly every waking minute of his life.

Many years ago, I received in the mail the inaugural lecture of a professor who had just been appointed to some distinguished chair (of inorganic chemistry, or whatever, I can't remember except that his field was about as remote as it could be from mine). I've no idea why it was sent to me, surely by some bizarre mistake. But I couldn't fail to notice that he cited approvingly Lucretius's dictum: "Nothing exists but atoms and the void."

I wrote back thanking the professor, but asked him what he thought the words "atoms and the void" consisted of. Unsurprisingly, he never answered.

Well, what do they consist of? Take any word, the first word that occurs to you--just now, with me, it happened to be "badger". The word refers to a rather charming animal, nocturnal and striped, but it certainly isn't the animal. In fact, even its meaning is highly flexible. "To badger someone" can mean to pester them with repeated questioning or unwanted advice. "The badger game" is a criminal strategy whereby the victim is enticed into having sex with a woman, and during the act a man claiming to be her husband bursts in on them and demands money. So does the word "badger" perhaps consist of marks on a printed page? Or the oscillations of the air caused when "badger" is uttered? Or is it perhaps the neuron, or more probably cohort of neurons, that represents the word in the speaker's brain? Or is it all of the above, in which case how can the same thing be in three places at the same time?

Obviously it can't, and equally obviously, I would have thought, it's none of the above. "Badger" is not necessarily immortal--if all the brains that had retained it were dust, if all the pages on which it was written had crumbled away, if all perturbations of the air caused by its utterance had long been stilled, it would no longer exist (as, for all we know, God might not survive the death of His universe). But there's no question that as long as any of those external manifestations exists, the word "badger" will continue to exist, and it will not in any sense be a material thing.

Same goes, of course, for all the concepts that underlie words, and all the idea that ever existed, whether or not they were expressed. We are the creators of non-material entities. And what's more, those entities aren't just passive phantoms. They are causative agents in the real world. They build philosophies, religions, science itself. They are, directly or indirectly, responsible for practically everything we do.

Are there any non-material entities that we haven't created? We don't know, but why shouldn't there be? Supposing there were, would they be simple or complex? We couldn't tell. Are words simple or complex? Their meanings may be complex, or their structures may be complex, but these manifestations of words have no necessary interconnection--words with a simple structure may have a complex meaning, or vice versa. And they are, in any case, manifestations--not the word itself. At the very least we can say that however we choose to judge immaterial things with regard to complexity, that judgment cannot be the simple process it is for material things. And if every aspect of our lives is governed by immaterial entities, why should the universe itself not be governed by just such an entity? "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God." I've no idea what this means (in common with all the biblical commentators who are, however, less honest about it) but, as they used to say in the old country, it makes you think.

Please note, I am not using this argument as an argument for God's existence. My aim is much more modest. I want to show that Dawkins' arguments for God's non-existence don't go through, consequently the possible existence of God must remain a hypothesis alongside His possible non-existence. Can probabilities be assigned to either? That's another question, one I'd rather not deal with right now.


  1. I think you miss Dawkins' point. When Dawkins says, "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." he is making a point about kinds of explanations, and ultimate explanations.

    There are plenty of things in our world that require a complex designer to explain. The computer you're reading these words on, for example. But that kind of explanation is nonterminating. If that were the only possible explanation for all 'organized complexity', then it would imply a Designer for the Earth and/or universe, but then it would go on to imply that Designer needed a Meta-Designer, etc.

    Eventually, you have to switch to a different type of explanation. And by page 142, Dawkins and Dennett have - they've moved on to evolutionary accounts for many types of organized complexity. You propose a different type of explanation yourself - that causes may be "non-material". But more on that in a bit...

  2. Regarding non-material entities, I'll have to quote Dennett:

    One broad highway leading to dualism goes through the following (bad) argument:

    Some facts are not about the properties, circumstances, and relations of physical objects.

    Therefore some facts are about the properties, circumstances, and relations of nonphysical objects.

    This argument gets the business here:

  3. Ray, I'll deal with the interesting issues you raise in reverse order. Thanks for turning me on to the Unfortunate Dualist--typical Dennett (an old buddy of mine, btw) but wide of the mark here, because I don't believe we have separate souls. immortal or otherwise. All I was arguing was that there were non-material things in the world--we should know, we made them--and since such things can exist, it would seem premature (if not arrogant) to claim that there cannot be such things that we did NOT make. That's all. I'm not arguing that there ARE, let alone HAVE TO BE, such things--in fact the main thrust of this blog will be that people on all sides know far less than they think they know.

    Going back to your first post, I don't see how it resolves what I see as Dawkins' self-contradiction. He says evolution is a simple process that produces complex things. Supposing, just supposing, God simply set the initial conditions that made evolution happen. We simply don't know how complex God would have to be to do that, any more than we know how anyone would go about doing that, or whether in fact they set themselves (a possibility no more revealing than "God did it"!) What would then entail that God would have to be more complex than the most complex organisms evolution produces? Seems to me it leaves entirely open how simple or how complex such a God would be. But then, D's argument about the necessary high complexity of God does not go through...unless of course I'm missing something...

  4. You're missing Dawkins point entirely. Dawkins isn't arguing the required complexity of God. He is simply pointing out that the logic posed by the Designer argument must extend also to the designer itself. Put simply: If God MUST have designed the world, then someone/thing MUST have designed God, ad infinitum.

  5. I don't think so. The argument goes through only if we assume a God who minutely designs all the bits of something, say, a human. If God merely set things up so evolution--a simple process, as Dawkins himself said--would work (in other words, if you don't need a designer to produce humans) then I see no implication that God needed to be designed him-, her- or itself. Of course, you can always say, "Well, I can't think of any other way God could have come into existence." But this is the argument from personal incredulity that Dawkins has long (and rightly) scoffed at.

  6. The problem I see is that neither you (nor I) really have any idea how complex a god would need to be for arrange the universe so that the emergence of sentient life through evolution. And if this god came into existence, is it fundamentally any different from the 'super-intelligent aliens creating life' position?