I saw on Facebook that Richard Dawkins had summarily dispatched the God of the Bible. Not only so, but he did it in under three minutes. I found out about this feat of legerdemain because Ken Ham’s answer to this elegant business showed up in my feed, and so then I went and checked it all out. Now I must admit that watching this kind of thing does make me want to have a go at it myself, but nothing here should be interpreted as finding fault with Ham’s response. It was a good sturdy response to Dawkins, albeit somewhat solemn.
So I rise to contest the first thirty seconds or so of Dawkins’ homily.
First, Dawkins announced that the burden of proof is not on the atheist, but rather on the theist. Actually, the burden of demonstration lies with whoever makes a dogmatic claim — and this is not really dependent upon whether the claim is positive or negative. If I state dogmatically that there is gold in Alaska, I may, without being insulted, be asked for my reasons. If a man does in the other direction, and insists that there is no gold in Alaska, the same thing is going to happen to him. There will be a Q & A.
And in such a time, an interlocutor might go so far as to mention to our no-gold-in-Alaska dogmatist that proofs of universal negative claims are a bit harder to come by. A positive claim might be vindicated by the first venture of panning in the first brook you came to. But to vindicate a negative claim, one would have to dig up all of Alaska, all the way down.
This is why shrewd nonbelievers, among whom we do not count Richard Dawkins, usually retreat to a form of agnosticism. They seem to thereby avoid the burden of a universal negative claim, and don’t come off nearly so bombastic. But there is usually some dogmatic theology hidden in there somewhere. As Samuel Leith once pointed out, here are three kinds of agnostics. One says he doesn’t know, but wishes he did. The answer to him is the promise of Christ. Seek and ye shall find. He won’t be an agnostic long. The next is the agnosticism of someone who spends all his time in nightclubs cruising for sex. “I don’t know and I don’t care.” This guy doesn’t require an answer. It is not an intellectual stance.
But then there is the dogmatic agnostic. “I don’t know, you don’t know, and nobody can know.” But notice that this is not really a profession of ignorance. It necessarily contains within it a dogmatic claim about the nature of God. We don’t know if He exists or not, but if He does, He is the kind of being who cannot be known by us. But how did we learn that important truth about Him? When did we learn it? What branch of theology is this? What sacred book reveals this to us? When did we find out that this was among the attributes of God?
This third kind of agnosticism makes an astonishing claim, and so may reasonably be called upon to give reasons for it. In other words, this kind of agnosticism is just atheism in camo gear. But Dawkins has no camo gear. He is out there on the plains of battle shivering in his skivvies. Plain and simple — “there is no God.” So let us make some observations.
I do want to say in passing that Richard Dawkins began his reasoning by taking quite an ungentlemanly shot at fairies. Let us in charity overlook it. We don’t want to encourage him. He’ll be after the cherubim next.
But then wham. He allows that a universe with a God would be “a very different kind of universe than one without.” In this statement, Dawkins has been striding confidently down the avenue of his unbelief, head down and arms swinging, and he has walked into a telephone pole. In my little parable, the telephone pole stands for a tall, rigid, hard, brown, and creosoted truth.
Now I am quite prepared to grant that Dawkins’ articulation of this truth was entirely fortuitous — that is to say, inadvertent. It was unintended, and by this I mean unintentional. His discovery was unplanned, unpremeditated, and unwitting. In other words, the end result of his blind flailing actually resulted in a master stroke, in much the same way that the blind genetic yearnings of some little microscopic bits of matter floating in Atlantic foam eventually wound up as a sperm whale. A lot like that, actually.
Take heed to what the gentleman has now said. A universe with a God would be very different than a world without a God. For starters, a world with a God would be one in which non-material entities — like logical propositions — could be reasonably aligned with facts in the material world, such that we could call such propositions either “true” or “false.”
In a world without God, we have no reason for thinking that the chemicals churning around in Dawkins’ brain have any relation whatever to the affairs of the outside world, any more than the clouds in my coffee are doing shrewd stock market analysis. In a world without God, atoms bang away over here in this way, and some other atoms bang away over there in another way, and so we consequently have no reason to believe that our thoughts on the matter are in any way true, which then takes away from us our one remaining solace in the fact that any atoms are banging away at all. We know nothing. We can’t even know that we know nothing, for to know that we know nothing is a species of knowledge. But then, even a blank nihilism pursued for the sake of consistency is in fact an attempt at consistency, and all such attempts are self-contradictory. But trying to stop it is self-contradictory also. Atheism is a high and demanding calling, and someone should point out that no one has ever actually attained to it yet.
Look at it another way. Dawkins picks up a banana and acknowledges that it has the appearance of design. It is not designed, he maintains, but natural selection makes it look as though it were. That is only the appearance of design, you chump. Okay, let us take that picture of Dawkins dismissing the banana and zoom out, shall we? Now we are looking at Dawkins tossing a banana on the table, and doing so as though he were actually arguing something. But is he? It seems that he is also just part of these appearances. Dawkins’ argument has the appearance of design. There is nothing to it but blind chance, right?
Dawkins might try to reply that his argument has actual design and rationality because he is the one who designed it. He framed the argument, and so it is therefore designed — but by Dawkins, not God. But who is Dawkins? Excuse me, what is Dawkins? I have just learned from Dawkins that he is just a complicated banana, only less yellow. He is not arguing for atheism because atheism is true. Given his premises, he can no more do that than the banana can.
Given his assumptions, we cannot have atheism. We can only have the appearance of atheism. If it is true, then atheism collapses under its own weight. If it is claimed to be false, and an atheist wants to argue — as Dawkins wants to argue — that his atheism is more than merely the appearance of atheism, then he must give an accounting for real design, real purpose, real rationality, real correspondence, and a real telos. And in his world without God, he cannot have any of those things. This is because, as Dawkins noted, a world without God is very different from a world with a God.
Last comment. In trying to give an account of Dawkins’ behavior here, there are only two real possibilities. One is that Dawkins grasps the force of this argument, and he assiduously avoids debating people who would bring it. This would mean that he is being disingenuous — because the argument does require an answer. If the challenge is seen, intellectual honesty requires an answer.
The second possibility is that Dawkins does not have the intellectual chops even to comprehend the argument. His training was apparently too specialized and provincial, and he has no idea that meta-premises even exist. When you point out that any claims he makes about the world would have to include the maker of such claims as part of that same world, submitting of necessity to the same conditions, he just blinks and says nothing. Some philosophy major is playing word games. That doesn’t require an answer, does it?
Oh, but it does.