Discussion: What is Richard Dawkins wrong about?

I got the idea for this post a couple weeks ago, before the debate over Bart Ehrman’s book. Now it feels sort of unnecessary; in fact I’ve thought the opposite may be true. But here it goes anyway: 

Most of the criticism I see of Dawkins is ludicrous. And seeing how much crap he gets for completely unfair reasons has done a lot to make me more sympathetic to the man. But I wonder if this makes me too inclined to ignore actual mistakes he’s made. So I’ve decided to have a thread for people to  tell what Richard Dawkins is wrong about. I won’t necessarily agree, but I’ll listen to what you have to say.

The truth is, though, that even on careful reflection, it’s very, very hard for me to think of things I think Dawkins has gotten wrong (whether you’re talking about religion or biology). For example, I just reposted a blog post where I defended Dawkins’ treatment of Aquinas, which Dawkins . Also, when I first read The God Delusion, I remember being a bit peeved at Dawkins’ use of “absolute” to refer to non-utilitarian morality, but now I think it’s silly to worry about that kind of word-definition issue.

I am, however, still uncomfortable with what Dawkins has said about religion and child abuse, namely:

What can it mean to speak of a child’s ‘own’ religion? Imagine a world in which it was normal to speak of a Keynesian child, a Hayekian child, or a Marxist child. Or imagine a proposal to pour government money into separate primary schools for Labour children, Tory children, LibDem children and Monster Raving Loony children? Everyone agrees that small children are too young to know whether they are Keynesian or Monetarist, Labour or Tory, too young to bear the burden of such labels. Why, then, is our entire society happy to slap a label like Catholic or Protestant, Muslim or Jew, on a tiny child? Isn’t that, when you think about it, a kind of mental child abuse?

I’m personally very reluctant to call anything non-physical child abuse. But then that means I’m reluctant to call turning your daughters into pro-Nazi pop stars child abuse. And even though we might not call it child abuse, I think most of us would be profoundly creeped out if political groups were putting members’ children through political catechism classes.

So again: what else do you disagree with Dawkins about?

And yes, you can use this thread to talk about Elevatorgate, but please don’t use it to talk only about Elevatorgate. I already know about Elevatorgate, so if this thread ends up being only about that, it doesn’t serve its purpose.

  • JustKat

    You would be reluctant to think that someone calling a child a worthless little bastard or stupid little shit is child abuse?

    • Stevarious

      I really can’t figure out this comment. What does it mean? Where do you get that from the OP? I feel like I’m missing some context here.

      • cswella

        I’m personally very reluctant to call anything non-physical child abuse.

        • Stevarious

          I read through the article twice and somehow missed it both time. *shakes head*

        • Lori

          Yeah, that quote just jumped off the page for me. Psychological abuse is as bad as physical abuse if not worse.

      • MichaelD

        Completely off topic but is that rippy the razor blade as your image :P

        • http://peicurmudgeon.wordpress.com/ peicurmudgeon

          I’m personally very reluctant to call anything non-physical child abuse.

          As a victim of verbal and emotional abuse as an adult, I disagree very strongly with this statement. Perhaps you should be less reluctant. Having said that, it is very difficult to determine the line where indoctrination into a religion or political philosophy becomes abuse, or if indeed it can be termed abuse unless it is used to cause mental or physical abuse.

          • cswella

            Perhaps you should be less reluctant.

            Agreed. For easy examples, you need only to look at posts by Crommunist and Natalie Reed. Plenty of blog posts about the struggles people endure from verbal abuse.

        • Stevarious

          Yeah, that’s Rippy.

          I was having an argument with someone about morality once who refused to see anything I said in anything but the most conceivably negative light possible, to the point of absurdity. I figured, as long as it’s going to be assumed, I may as well look the part, and it stuck.

  • Randomfactor

    But then that means I’m reluctant to call turning your daughters into pro-Nazi pop stars child abuse.

    They discovered pot. They got better.

    • David Hart

      I’m not convinced that we want better nazi pop stars :-P

  • sc_ca57841e22812b05a6cb5fbed66bb5cd

    Ugh. Generally speaking, “is x child abuse?” is not a very useful way to start this discussion, because the term “child abuse” carries a slurry of connotations with it – illegal and losing one’s children to the state, to name a few. Why not ask the more basic questions?

    Does x cause children more harm than good? If so, how much more harm?

    Does x pose a substantial threat to the child’s health, safety, or sense of well-being? If so, how can the threat best be mitigated?

  • cswella

    I do disagree with his comparison between calling labeling kids politically and naming them religously.

    From the perspective of the parents, the child’s religion is a matter of more than life/death, since it will determine they go to heaven or hell. Political affiliation isn’t so important.

    If I was a believer and had a kid, I would do the same thing. Labels on a child that aren’t explicitly abusive aren’t abuse. eg: Calling a kid “idiot” is abuse, whereas calling a kid “christian” isn’t.

    However, the people who would call their kids “christian” can bring in alot of other elements that would constitute abuse. Abstinence education, creationist/ID ideas, Fear of hell/reward for being a decent human being, etc. The abuse is correlated with the label, but not the cause.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels/ Ophelia Benson

    There’s an example that Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse give in their book Reasonable Atheism – [pause to find it] – that seems convincing: a rather cavalier dismissal of the ontological argument on p 84 of TGD. [p 82 of Aikin-Talisse book]

    • Andrew G.

      It is impossible to be too cavalier when dismissing the ontological argument.

      • Rick Taylor

        I disagree and wrote about it below. But I have to say, that is a great line.

      • sailor1031

        I agree. It is so obvious that the ontological argument is bogus that I don’t even need to think about it.

        • David Hart

          Although, as Dawkins himself notes, it’s easier to intuit that something must be wrong with it than to spot exactly what it is that’s wrong – the circularity is cunningly disguised.

    • http://www.hyperdeath.co.uk hyperdeath

      Dawkins’s treatment of the ontological argument was the only thing that made me think “oh dear”. He started off with a strange fictional conversation between schoolchildren, which did little else but mock. Then again, once this was over, he entered into a sensible subject that covered most of the standard counterarguments.

      (Actually there was one other thing that made me think “oh dear”. When he compared the god worshiped by most theists to rarefied deistic concepts of god, and described the deliberate confusion between the two as “intellectual high treason”, I thought “you’re going to regret saying that”. I thought it was going to become a standard quote mine, to be shadow-boxed with everywhere. I needn’t have worried. Firstly, I was making that false assumption that his critics would generally read the book. Secondly, a large fraction of his critics rely upon that confusion, and so they would never acknowledge any such clarification.)

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Dawkins’s put-down of accommodationists as equivalent to Neville Chamberlain (and NC’s blunders in negotiation with Hitler at Munich) failed both as analogy and rhetoric, and was duly denounced even by vociferous anti-accommodationists.

    And his proposal (along with others – Dennett among them, IIRC) to take up “brights” as atheists’ self-label also collapsed under a pile of well-earned derision.

    Then we have the Josh Timonen scandal, followed by the Second Josh Timonen scandal. Clearly, no one who picks such incompetent and conniving henchpersons merits a strategic role in the Evil Atheist Conspiracy to Take Over the World.

    Maybe someday we’ll get the full story about why Dawkins and his camera crew were abruptly ejected from Ted Haggard’s church grounds after an apparently cordial (at least on RD’s end) interview with TH.

    Finally, RD’s talk at the Rally for Reason this year, for all that he called the RfR a world-changing historic event, came across as a cobbled-together collection of his standard material, hardly suitable for an event of the magnitude he declared it.

    • sailor1031

      Not to get too far off-topic but, to be honest, Neville Chamberlain had nothing with which to negotiate at Munich – an army of < 700,000 (including all reservists and territorials) and a RAF with 39 squadrons of fighters (including all RAFR and RAFVR). That extra year he got improved the situation dramatically

    • sailor1031

      Sorry, meant to add that Yes Dawkins got the comparison between NC and the accomodationists quite wrong.

  • mnb0

    For one thing I have only read the introduction and one paragraph of The God Delusion. But the quote above also pretty much makes clear what I have against the book. Dawkins mainly makes use of rhetorical questions. And I have learned these usually serve to mask a lack of substance. In this quote this also appears the case, even if I don’t necessarily disagree.
    What Dawkins avoids is the obligation to make clear that belief systems are as difficult to grasp as economical and political ideas. That’s probably the case, but why?
    In the introduction it’s even worse. He claims that many believers deep down in their hearts are atheists, but either are afraid to admit it or don’t realize it. How does Dawkins know? What empirical evidence does he have?
    Using this method makes his book nothing but cheap propaganda.

    • mnb0

      Rephrase: what Dawkins avoids is to make clear why religious ideas are equally difficult to grasp for children as economical ideas. This is probably true, but why? Why would this be the case? After all he has written a book on evolution theory for children. And it’s possible too to tell children a bit about gravity, to name another abstract concept.
      Dawkins doesn’t address this and that’s just weak.

      • http://www.hyperdeath.co.uk hyperdeath

        You’ve completely missed his point. He has absolutely no problem with children being taught about religion, or (presumably) about economics. What he objects to is children being assigned to schools which are dedicated to teaching a blatantly partisan version of the subject. He objects to children being told “Jesus died for your sins” as if it were an uncontested fact, in the same way as most people would object to children being told “we must take money from rich people, and share it out amongst everyone”.

        Yes, The God Delusion contains a lot of rhetoric, but such rhetoric usually settles down into a proper discussion. Perhaps you should try actually reading it, rather than ineptly extrapolating from the introduction, and from an excerpt that has been deliberately singled out as being of low quality.

        • mnb0

          Have you read the entire Bible? No? Then you shouldn’t comment on it according to your own nice princple.
          What you have missed is that I actually did try to read it.
          Of course it’s possible that you’re right that Dawkins’ point was about the government sponsoring religious schools. On that I agree with him. It still stands that his use of rhetorical questions obscures that point.

          Of course it might be the case that I was unlucky and the parts of the book I didn’t read are different and much better. Alas you didn’t do much to show otherwise; at the other hand CH has confirmed my opinion.
          This quote suffers from exactly the same problems as the parts I did read. And you have not argued against that.

          • http://www.hyperdeath.co.uk hyperdeath

            Have you read the entire Bible? No? Then you shouldn’t comment on it according to your own nice princple.

            I have no such “principle”. What I was pointing out, is that your assumption of what comprises the bulk of the book, is just plain wrong. I admit that I haven’t read the Bible cover to cover, but if I had only read excerpts of Leviticus, and had gone on to assume that the entire Old and New Testaments carried on in exactly the same vein, then “try reading it” would be a perfectly reasonable piece of advice.

          • Bruce Gorton

            Have you read the entire Bible?

            I have. It was crap.

  • Rick Taylor

    I just recently started reading Dawkins “God Delusion” along with my brother. I’ve been rather hard on Dawkins in our discussions, perhaps more than is fair. He pointed out your web-site to me, so I thought I’d add to the discussion.

    To begin with, I want to make clear there are things I like and admire about Dawkins. However, you’re asking specifically about what he’s gotten wrong. As a result, I may come off as more down on him than I actually am. Please keep that in mind. Perhaps I’ll write a follow-up about what I like about Dawkins later to balance this out.

    Second, I don’t think asking what Richard Dawkins gets wrong frames the question quite right. His world view is very similar to my world view, so there’s not a lot I’m going to find that I think is actually wrong. But there are places where I feel he can be condescending and where he makes poor arguments, even for positions I may agree with.

    Take for example his argument on the ontological argument. Richard Dawkins writes:

    “I’ve forgotten the details, but I once piqued a gathering of theologian and philosophers by adapting the ontological argument to prove that pigscan fly. They felt the need to resort to Modal Logic to prove that I was wrong.”

    In the context of a casual conversation this might be fine, but in a book, it’s awful. You can’t argue your case by recounting an argument you to a bunch of specialists without at least telling the reader what the argument was. It comes across as both condescending and lazy. It makes it worse that he’s addressing a group of philosophers and theologians about matter in their area of expertise. And then the punch line: they were so flummoxed, they had to resort to Modal Logic to prove him wrong. Uh, what’s Modal Logic? I’m not entirely sure myself, but I understand it’s a version of formal logic adapted to philosophical reasoning. As such, it’s entirely relevant if you’re carrying on a discussion about whether a proposed purely logical philosophical proof is valid.

    Now, I can understand if Richard Dawkins doesn’t want to read the works of Plantinga and become familiar with modal logic just to find the flaw in an argument that kind of looks absurd on the face of it. I don’t want to do that either. But if you’re going to write a book with a chapter addressing “Arguments for God’s Existence” you have to. And if you’re not going to do that, at least don’t call attention to your omission by writing a couple lines congratulating yourself on how you totally stumped those philosophers and theists with an argument you can’t remember.

    Now, I can’t say this is something that Richard Dawkins got “wrong.” The ontological argument is surely about the least convincing argument for the existence of God. But part of the reason I’m frustrated with him is that I think of him as being on “my side,” and it’s discouraging seeing such a poor argument made for something I agree with. You can imagine how Christian apologists react to this, they point and laugh and use it to reinforce they’re view their arguments are strong and just not being taken seriously, it’s not helpful.

    Ok, another thing I think he got wrong was in the first chapter on Einstein. It started out well when he showed he was not a theist, and would have been if he’d stopped there. But I think he went beyond the evidence when he categorized Einstein as a pantheist (which he in turn classified as a kind of atheist). I don’t think he proved his case, and I don’t think Einstein’s views can be so easily classified.

    Someone else already pointed this out, but calling Michael Ruse a Neville chamberlain and a collaborationist is absurd.

    So is calling Islam “one of the great evils in the world.” (that’s from an interview, not from his book)

    • http://notungblog.wordpress.com Notung

      ‘Modal’ logic just adds the notions of ‘necessity’ and ‘possibility’ to our existing logical frameworks. There are special laws of derivation, e.g. ‘necessarily p -> possibly p’ and so on.

      I agree with you that his treatment of the traditional theist arguments was too dismissive, but I suppose in his defence his book wasn’t really ‘for’ that – I just saw it as a popular work to ‘sell’ atheism rather than to try and make academic headway.

    • http://skepticalmath.wordpress.com skepticalmath

      Sure, I agree with you in the sense that I don’t quite get the point of including that anecdote, and it’s hardly a good argument. That said, I do recall Dawkins actually providing an argument against ontological proof of any sort in that chapter (I could be wrong, I only read it the once a while ago), and modal proofs suffer from the same basic issues as non-modal proofs.

    • Richard Wein

      “They felt the need to resort to Modal Logic to prove that I was wrong.”

      To paraphrase Monty Python, if anyone ever attacks you with modal logic, just pull the lever and the 16-ton weight will fall on top of him.

  • http://www.hyperdeath.co.uk hyperdeath

    Regarding the word “abuse”, I think that the misuse is on the other side. The word is often used as a euphemism, when the correct word is “rape”.

  • http://notungblog.wordpress.com Notung

    Great idea for a post. We should always examine the arguments of people we agree with, just to make sure that our armoury is as deadly as possible! I’d go so far as to say we should scrutinise our side more than the other, since we’re much more likely to spot mistakes if we’re already looking for them.

    To answer your question:

    I really like Dawkins’ work, and I liked TGD. It’s a popular work, and I think it does a very good job of popularising atheism.

    But here’s a mistake, as far as I can see. I’ll paraphrase: “If p creates q, then p is more complex than q.” Now, I don’t think that’s certain. It seems at least possible that a genius in the future could work for years on a computer that works like a brain, only much more complex. If that is possible then it follows that something can be produced by something simpler. Even if Dawkins’ principle is right for things like humans and computers, what could justify it in the case of immaterial entities like God?

    • http://disagreeableme.blogspot.co.uk Disagreeable Me

      I think you’re right that complex systems can arise out of systems with simple rules.

      This is particularly apparent in research into cellular automata.
      Conway’s Life and Langton’s Ant are good examples as are the more recent patterns and behaviours discovered by Stephen Wolfram in his “A New Kind of Science”.

    • http://thouwinterwind.wordpress.com Winterwind

      That’s a fair criticism, but I’m pretty sure Dawkins was making this point about the standard theistic god. A simple entity could have given rise the universe, but an omnipotent, omniscient being capable of being everwhere at once, reading everyone’s minds, performing miracles, interfering in history, generating unlimited power and so on would have to be extremely complex based on our current understanding of the universe. One could argue that there might be special types of simple beings capable of all these things, but that is pure speculation, which was part of Dawkins’ point.

      • http://notungblog.wordpress.com Notung

        Yes, I agree that something with those properties does sound very complex, and possibly more complex than the entire universe.

        I’m not aware whether there are any good philosophical arguments for a simple God (I’m not concerned with theological arguments), but it does seem as though once you start ascribing the traditional properties to God then you end up with a very complex idea.

    • bad Jim

      I thought this argument was actually a biologist’s joke, turning the argument from design inside out: “Something as complex as God could only result from evolution.”

  • Jim Christensen

    One of the things that caused me to start thinking Dawkins was as prejudiced as some have said was his reference to the “Notorious” Jewish Lobby, in TGD, that he implied was the most powerful in the US of A.

    And he did it more than once.

    Yeah, and the Jews rule the banks, invented Communism and Christianity, and all the rest.

    Some would call that Anti Semitism.

    I know I do.

  • http://citizenghosttown.blogspot.com/ citizenghost


    Dawkins doesn’t say the Jewish lobby is “notorious.”

    He says “the Jewish lobby is notoriously one of the most influential in Washington.” It’s a subtle difference in meaning but a real one.

    Dawkins mistake – a common one – is imagining that there is some monolithic entity that can properly called a “Jewish” lobby. This is sloppy. But there is nothing antisemitic in observing that there are many organizations that proudly and effectively represent Jewish causes and interests. There is nothing in the book that remotely suggests anything like the cabal or conspiracies that are part and parcel of Antisemitism.

    As usual, Dawkins critics have taken his point completely out of context. Dawkins isn’t attacking the machinations of Jews or implying conspiracies – he’s lamenting the absence of any organizized efforts on behalf of atheism of the kind that do exist for organized religions.

    That’s not Antisemitism.

  • http://citizenghosttown.blogspot.com/ citizenghost

    Dawkins has caught a fair amount of flack for using the term “child abuse” to describe religious indoctrination of children.

    His more disingenuous critics (William Lane Craig, etc.) have seized upon this to actually slander Dawkins. They say that Dawkins seeks to have government authorities step in and take children from homes in order to prevent their parents from teaching them religion. After all, if religious teaching of children is “abuse” then isn’t the state required to intervene?

    They think they are being clever but there is an obvious difference between PHYSICAL abuse and various other forms of psychological abuse. Parents are not legally restrained from frightening their kids, from stunting their emotional development or from teaching them nonsense. If you’d prefer to call that something other than “abuse” that’s fine, but I’d say that’s just a tactical word choice to give critics less ammunition to work with.

    So what does Dawkins get wrong? As others have pointed out, Dawkins is not sophisticated when it comes to the philosophy. OK, but Dawkins isn’t a philosopher and if you’d like to read a philosophical defense of atheism, you can certainly find one. This amounts to criticism for the book Dawkins didn’t write, not an identification of error in the one that he did. It seems that these kind of complaints are really driven by the long-standing academic turf war between philosophers and scientists and probably also by the usual resentment of popular books by the writers and readers of more scholarly ones.

    The problem that I have is that Dawkins doesn’t much bother to study religion itself. He takes aim at the worst abuses of religion (fair enough, but also a bit easy) and he attacks religious texts as if the texts themselves define religion. But the fundamentalist approach to religion that he condemns is unrecognizable to many (if not most) people who call themselves believers.

    Dawkins has addressed this point and he notes that the fundamentalists are the reason he wrote the book. They are huge in number, they want creationism taught in schools and the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons are far more influential than any of the more sophisticated or “moderate” practioners of religion. Maybe so. But a critique of religion is of limited value if it does not examine what it is that people actually believe – and why they believe it.

    For me, that’s the greatest weakness.

  • kraut

    “But the fundamentalist approach to religion that he condemns is unrecognizable to many (if not most) people who call themselves believers.”

    He not only condemns the fundamentalist literalistic adherents to religion, of any religion.
    He condemns religion as systems that require no evidence for the basic tenets of believe – the existence of supernatural entities.

  • david73

    I was reminded of W S Gilbert

    “I often think it’s comical – Fal, lal, la!
    How Nature always does contrive – Fal, lal, la!
    That every boy and every gal
    That’s born into the world alive
    Is either a little Liberal
    Or else a little Conservative!
    Fal, lal, la!”

    From Iolanthe

  • ‘Tis Himself

    My objection to Dawkins concerns his infamous Dear Muslima letter. He made the argument that because misogyny is worse in other places, women in western society should not complain about sexism. This struck me at the time as baffling coming from somebody complaining about religion’s privilege in the same western society. Dawkins made it obvious that he doesn’t understand how pervasive sexism is in our society and that he doesn’t care. He’s a white, heterosexual, educated, rich male and he’s happy with the privileges those attributes give him. He just doesn’t give a damn about the misogyny that women, even in western society, have to endure. It’s not his problem so it’s nothing to be concerned about.

    • http://notungblog.wordpress.com Notung

      He made the argument that because misogyny is worse in other places, women in western society should not complain about sexism.

      I don’t think that’s what he meant. If you read his third and final comment he clarifies. It is not simply that the event was not as bad as something else, but rather that it wasn’t bad at all (‘zero-bad’). So the analogy with Western religion only works if it is claimed that Western religion is ‘zero-bad’, which he doesn’t believe.

      It seems one can disagree about whether this event was really ‘zero-bad’, but I don’t think your interpretation of what he said is correct.

      I think it’s also worth noting that he didn’t say this to Rebecca Watson, but posted a comment on Pharyngula. I don’t think he was responding to her video, but rather to the reaction to it on other blogs.

      Finally, don’t forget that he is funding childcare at conferences. I think he does care about these things.

  • http://notungblog.wordpress.com Notung

    Here’s another point of disagreement (this might be controversial):

    I disagree with his reasons for not debating William Lane Craig. I just don’t think that moral outrage at Craig’s supposed defence of genocide is the real reason why he’s not debating him. He originally started out by saying “I’m busy” and that he hadn’t heard of Craig, or didn’t think much of his credentials. The ‘genocide’ defence came later after lots of pressure. It makes it look like he’s just making excuses and running scared, regardless of whether actually he is or not.

    Actually, I don’t think he ought to debate Craig, simply because he’s not the right kind of opponent for Craig. Craig makes a philosophical case which requires a philosophical opponent to make it a decent debate. Dawkins’ style is completely different, and it wouldn’t make for a great spectacle. This is a bit like Craig’s plan to debate Polly Toynbee, whose expertise lies in political issues rather than questions of metaphysics. Toynbee cited Craig’s debating style as the reason for her pulling out, and that is fair enough.

    Dawkins might just say something like that, and if people accuse him of running away from tough opponents he can just point to the fact that he debated the Archbishop of Canterbury and John Lennox!

    • Citizenghost

      I just don’t think that moral outrage at Craig’s supposed defence of genocide is the real reason why he’s not debating him.

      I agree. But this isn’t the only reason Dawkins gives – it’s just an extra dig against someone who makes a habit of slandering Dawkins.

      The main reason Dawkins gives for not debating Craig is that he’s already debated him.

      It’s true that this was a panel debate – a strange 3 on 3 format that didn’t give any speaker a whole lot of time. But how much time do you need? What would a second debate teach us about the views held by Dawkins and Craig from an another debate that we don’t already know?

      Not a whole lot.

      • http://notungblog.wordpress.com Notung

        Agreed. Nothing would be gained from the debate. I suspect that Craig and his followers want the debate to happen so they can say that Dawkins was ‘destroyed’, which isn’t a good reason to hold a debate.

      • mnb0

        In fact this already has happened. Some Dutch creationists claim that Craig has “beaten” Victor Stenger in a debate on cosmology. They don’t tell where or when and frankly I’m not very interested.

  • http://disagreeableme.blogspot.co.uk Disagreeable Me

    I think Dawkins is too quick to jump on the bandwagon, agreeing with the arguments of his friends and colleagues when they would demote the significance of religion rather than skeptically analysing the arguments on their merits.

    On The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris, Dawkins says:

    I was one of those who had unthinkingly bought into the hectoring myth that science can say nothing about morals. The Moral Landscape has changed all that for me. Moral philosophers, too, will find their world exhilaratingly turned upside down, as they discover a need to learn some neuroscience. As for religion, and the preposterous idea that we need God to be good, nobody wields a sharper bayonet than Sam Harris.

    Here I am only mildly in disagreement with him. The Moral Landscape is an interesting read and does justify that science can have an input into morality, however I believe it fails in its attempts to show that science can provide as objective a basis for morality as the concept of God (note: not holy books) claims to do.

    In particular I disagree with Dawkins in his afterword to A Universe from Nothing by Lawrence Krauss.

    Even the last remaining trump card of the theologian, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” shrivels up before your eyes as you read these pages. If On the Origin of Species was biology’s deadliest blow to supernaturalism, we may come to see A Universe from Nothing as the equivalent from cosmology. The title means exactly what it says. And what it says is devastating.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a great book, and Krauss is a great scientist and communicator. I agree with Krauss’s attitude that empirical science is by far the best method ever invented to discover the nature of the cosmos, and perhaps the multiverse beyond it.

    However, I don’t think empirical science can ever provide an ultimate answer to the question Dawkins mentions. Krauss’s description of scientific discoveries allow us to see how we know what we know, it doesn’t adequately explain why it could not be otherwise.

    For example, if quantum mechanics predicts that virtual particles pop into existence (as Dawkins mentions in his afterword), quantum mechanics cannot show why this should ultimately be the case without relying on other laws (such as the uncertainty principle) that we might also imagine could be otherwise.

    Could we not imagine a universe where an empty vacuum is just that? And if so, why is our universe like this rather than like that. Nothing that Krauss and his colleagues can ever discover through careful observation and analysis can hope to disprove the hypothesis that God created the laws of nature just so that we might exist.

    While I do think Darwin proved that life was not designed, Krauss has not proven that the fundamental laws of nature were not designed. The only way this could ever be proved is with philosophical arguments or mathematical arguments, not empirical observations.

    For the record, I do not believe that God designed the universe. I just don’t think we should crow about our success in answering these questions when theists have such an obvious retort at their disposal.

    • Stacy

      For example, if quantum mechanics predicts that virtual particles pop into existence (as Dawkins mentions in his afterword), quantum mechanics cannot show why this should ultimately be the case without relying on other laws (such as the uncertainty principle) that we might also imagine could be otherwise.

      Could we not imagine a universe where an empty vacuum is just that? And if so, why is our universe like this rather than like that.

      Haven’t read Krauss’s book, but my understanding from hearing Vic Stenger speak is that “nothing” is actually an inherently unstable state.

      The answer to the question “why is there something rather than nothing” may be simply that something is actually the fundamental, default state, and our sense that nothing is the default is simply a sort of cognitive bias.

      • http://disagreeableme.blogspot.co.uk Disagreeable Me

        I haven’t fully educated myself about Stenger’s position yet, but my initial impression from talks he has given is that I’m unconvinced. For example, he seems to be relatively alone among cosmologists in his belief that the universe is not actually fine tuned for life.

        I think the instability of nothing has to be contingent on the laws of nature that make it unstable. We could just as easily imagine consistent laws of nature which would not allow nothing to be unstable. For example, if we removed the concept of time, then no instability is possible because there would be no time in which to transition from the initial unstable state to the new state.

        Krauss also makes the point in his book that nothingness is unstable, and even speculates that time and space can spring into existence where there was no time before. I can’t accept this as I think there has to be time in the first place for any transition of any kind to take place.

        Anyway, the point was that Dawkins seems to be too eager to back theses of colleagues on the basis of whether they would be convenient for him rather than on whether they are likely to be correct. Agree/disagree?

  • piero

    I think you have fallen into the euphemism trap.”Abuse” has been used for so long as an euphemism for “rape” that you have come to believe that the only way to cause suffering is through physical pain. In fact, physical pain can be insignicant compared to psychological pain.

    During the dictatorship in CHile, a common form of psychological torture was to tell some prisoners that they’d been found guilty and condemned to execution by firing squad. The prisoners involved would try their best to smuggle letters to their families, and spend three or four days in anguish. Then they’d be brought before the firing squad, all of which had their rifles loaded with blanks. The prisoner would undergo a mock execution. Some of them fainted, some pissed and soiled themselves. The nest day someone else was called out to be executed, but this time the execution was for real. Real bullets, real death. Would you say that the mock executions were not torture?

  • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

    Don’t have time to respond to all these comments now, but I absolutely agree I was wrong about the abuse thing.

  • Citizenghost

    Nothing that Krauss and his colleagues can ever discover through careful observation and analysis can hope to disprove the hypothesis that God created the laws of nature just so that we might exist.

    I think that’s exactly right. But it is not only that Krauss and his fellow scientists are unable to disprove the hypothesis that God created the laws of nature – they cannot even TEST the hypothesis or any part of it.

    Which makes it a fairly useless hypothesis. It’s simply not capable of explaining anything.

    • http://disagreeableme.blogspot.co.uk Disagreeable Me

      It’s a useless hypothesis because it’s a facile, intellectually lazy and dishonest one, not because it doesn’t explain anything. It explains existence because “God did it!”.

      The fundamental true explanation for existence will probably turn out to be empirically untestable.

      I like Max Tegmark’s Mathematical Universe Hypothesis for example. At first it seems as facile and arbitrary as “God did it”, but there are actually good arguments for why it must be the case. Even so, it’s untestable and so outside the realm of empirical science. It may well be true, however.

  • Woodbine

    The title of the book “The God Delusion” was a mistake; the line about those who don’t believe in evolution being either ignorant, wicked or insane was a mistake. Dawkins alienated as many potential religious listeners as a fundy preacher alienates potential converts by declaring non-believers tools of the devil, totally depraved, wallowing in sin etc…etc.

    Tone often is a huge factor in what are ultimately political debates and I think the whole God Delusion episode, while galvanising the secular community, has needlessly distanced those on the other side who may have been inclined to listen.

    • Pierce R. Butler

      … the line about those who don’t believe in evolution being either ignorant, wicked or insane was a mistake.

      Do you have a 4th (& 5th, etc) alternative?

      • Woodbine

        Sure, how about ‘mistaken’ or ‘wrong’?

        To exhaustively categorise the people you’re hoping to persuade as either ‘ignorant’ (which, even if technically true comes across as a slur), ‘wicked’ or ‘insane’ is dumb.

        • http://disagreeableme.blogspot.co.uk Disagreeable Me

          To play Dawkins’ advocate for a moment:

          I’m sure he would agree that most evolution deniers are mistaken, and this mistake can only be made for one of two basic reasons. 1) They don’t have all the information – i.e. they’re ignorant, or 2) they haven’t processed the information correctly – i.e. they’re dumb.

          The other possibility is that some people are deliberately lying about their beliefs, i.e. they are wicked.

          Now, as defensible as his position may be, whether it is helpful to use such insulting language to make his point is another issue.

  • Pingback: Follow up to the “what is Dawkins wrong about?” discussion | The Uncredible Hallq

  • Kelci

    I’m really thankful to everyone that posted here. I’ve been researching a paper for a religion course and it helps open up to a lot of debates about Dawkins’ ideas. What I’ve found over the internet has usually been errors not so much in the content of Dawkins’ work, but the way it’s worded, or his credentials. It mostly seems like just attacking the argument just because people don’t like what he says, or who he is. Yes, he may come off as arrogant, but that has no bearing on the argument posed. Again, thanks a lot for sharing insight!