Follow up to the “what is Dawkins wrong about?” discussion

Now I’ve had a chance to read the whole of the “what is Dawkins wrong about?” discussion, here are my comments on some of the main points raised.  First, let me say that I was absolutely wrong about the abuse thing. As JustKat said:

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

Yeah, my bad. Citizenghost’s comments are also worth quoting here:

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.

Next, on the ontological argument. I’ve generally agreed with Jason Rosenhouse’s comments on this one:

I have not seen any statistics on the matter, but I’d be amazed if it’s even one Christian in a thousand who could tell you what the ontological argument is. And I’d be doubly amazed if you could find very many who believe in God because they find the argument persuasive. Nonetheless, it is an argument with considerable historical significance, and one about which philosophers and theologians have spilled a preposterous amount of ink. In light of these facts Dawkins chose to give a brief description of the classical form of the argument, to explain the major problems with it, and to refer people to Mackie’s book The Miracle of Theism for a comprehensive and nuanced discussion of the matter. Seemed like a sensible approach to me, especially given that he was writing a popular exposition of these ideas intended to be read, as opposed to an academic philosophical treatise intended only to exist.

But Rick Taylor points out one line from The God Delusion he especially didn’t like:

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.

I had to think about this one awhile, but after thinking about it I agree that was the wrong way to make that point. The problem is not that Dawkins should have been more respectful of the modal ontological argument. It’s actually trivial to adapt even Plantinga’s modal version of the ontological argument to prove that pigs can fly: “Possibly, it’s a necessary truth that pigs can fly. But possible necessity entails necessity. Therefore, pigs can fly!”

No, the problem is that this quote makes it sound as if Dawkins has a problem not just with the ontological argument, but with modal logic itself. Jason Rosenhouse just yesterday wrote something else that’s relevant here. After discussing his experiences at creationist conferences and giving some example of creationist abuse of mathematics, particularly probability theory, Rosenhouse writes:

Most of my fellow audience members were true believers. The speakers were telling them exactly what they wanted to hear. Many times, though, I tried to place myself in the position of a fair-minded person lacking any formal training in science or mathematics. How would they react to these speakers, with their casual use of jargon and unflagging confidence? I suspect most people would say to themselves, “I do not have the training to understand the details of the speaker’s argument. I know, however, that I certainly wouldn’t stand before a crowd and simply pretend to know something about science . So I will give this fellow the benefit of the doubt and assume he has some decent point to make.”

It is an understandable reaction, but misguided. The creationists have no decent point to make at all. Their scientific arguments are entirely false. They are not even interesting. And that is why I say Americans need to be more cynical.

All that’s exactly right. And it applies not just to abuse of probability theory to attack evolution, but abuse of modal logic to “prove” the existence of God. But it would still be a mistake for Dawkins to have written something like, “those silly creationists had to resort to probability theory to refute me.”

I agree the “Neville Chamberlain atheists” line was stupid, as such cliches usually are. By the way, when you’re reading the drafts of my book, warn me if I say anything half that cliche, please?

On the book title “The God Delusion”: when I first read the book, I didn’t like the fact that Dawkins’ explanation of what he meant by the title probably wasn’t how a lot of people would hear it. But Dawkins doesn’t actually seem to have gotten much backlash over that. Look at the people who complained about The God Delusion the loudest (like Alistair McGrath), and you realize a lot of them were saying the same things pre-God Delusion. It’s just that Dawkins’ success helped them get more attention for themselves too.

In fact, I think choosing the title “The God Delusion” actually probably increased the number of believers who read the book. Titles like “The Blind Watchmaker” and “A Devil’s Chaplain” are clever if you get the allusions, but most people won’t. They don’t grab your attention the way “The God Delusion” does, and I think that has to be part of the reason the books with those titles sold a lot fewer copies than The God Delusion. Notice also that The Selfish Gene, whose title does grab your attention, is Dawkins’ #2 selling book after The God Delusion.

That’s all I have for now. Feel free, of course, to continue the discussion in the comments.

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  • Ophelia Benson

    That line singled out by Rick Taylor is also the one singled out by Aikin and Talisse (as I mentioned on the first thread). It does sound a bit…brisk, when singled out.

  • Kevin

    In regards to the child abuse comment, I see the criticisms as largely not what Dawkins has said. The critics usually say that Dawkins equates religion with child abuse, when he said that teaching children about hell and their possibility of going there is child abuse. This is already arguably illegal already* so it isn’t that much of a stretch. I remember looking up to see if it would qualify as a criminal threat and the significant point of contention would be whether or not the fear is reasonable**. In essence, its either illegal or believing in such theology is irrational. That’s quite a dilemma.

    *Only applies to children who experience sustained fear from it.
    **Considering the court dismisses spectral evidence, I would suspect that they would say a reasonable person would not believe such threats, but they may take the victim’s indoctrination into account and say that it was reasonable for them to be in fear from the threats. IOW, I have no idea how they are defining reasonable. However, the point remains that the critics believe it is reasonable and in order to remain consistent, they would have to argue in court that it satisfies the element for a criminal threat.

    In regards to the ontological discussion, I think its in poor taste to publish something when you have admitted to have forgotten the details and are scant on the recreation of the event. Also, I agree that dismissing Modal logic (although I would dismiss it for other reasons) seemed off-topic and was not the appropriate target. So I am in agreement that that part should have been excluded. Either that, or include the premises for proving that pigs can fly and showing how it is analogous to God.

    I don’t take anything Alister says as merit worthy. He doesn’t seem to understand anything Dawkins has said, which is laughable considering he wrote a book specifically targeted at Dawkins. As its been covered before, Alister didn’t know that Dawkins considered himself an agnostic atheist even though it is explicitly detailed in his book. I also remember Alister not understanding what a meme was and trying to use the concept to criticize atheism. Him criticizing the title of the book seems on par for his usual contribution to the discussion.

    • sailor1031

      It wouldn’t be a complete surprise to me if the reference to modal logic to refute the ontological argument wasn’t actually an oblique, tongue-in-cheek, allusion to Alvin Plantinga supposedly using modal logic to refute an ontological argument from Norman Malcolm.

  • joep

    “…warn me if I say anything half that cliche, please?”

    using the noun ‘cliche’ as an adjective has gotten to be something of a cliche. ‘cliched’ is an adjective.

  • josh

    While I agree that Dawkin’s “I really stumped those unnamed philosophers with a remark I can’t remember” isn’t his best work, I do think there are probably some major problems with modal logic, at least as used by some philosophers. Basically, as a formal system you can write out some rules for symbol manipulation with the symbols we identify with Possibility and Necessity. That’s unambiguous and its just some algebra that was long ago classified by mathematicians. Exactly what those rules are varies, since you can add in various axioms and they give you formally different systems.

    The problem, as usual, comes in when philosophers decide they can interpret those symbol manipulations as saying meaningful things about the world. For one thing you end up with philosophers choosing their axioms in order to arrive at the conclusions they want. But moreover, it’s not clear that possibility and necessity are really always that helpful or rigorous ways to think about the world. Really they seem to be about HOW we think rather than some extrinsic properties of the universe at large. E.g., perhaps it’s not possible that there is a world where the speed of light in vacuum is a different number than in ours, but our manner of thinking/modeling allows us to partly imagine such a world. But then what is possible/not possible depends on the state of our mind, what we think we know and how flexible our imagination is, which isn’t a very solid basis for deriving anything interesting about the world.

    I’m sure some philosophers have covered similar ground, but to read apologists like Plantinga is to tear your hair out.

    “There exists some possible world where…”
    Me: “Wait wait wait! If it’s only possible it may or may not exist! You’re already confusing terms and I know you’re going to abuse the confusion later.”

    • Notung

      “There exists some possible world where…”
      Me: “Wait wait wait! If it’s only possible it may or may not exist! You’re already confusing terms and I know you’re going to abuse the confusion later.”

      Saying “there exists some possible world where…” is perfectly acceptable and indeed common among philosophers. The idea is that possible worlds ‘exist’ in some form or another (this is moot – David Lewis held that possible worlds are real, concrete things. Plantinga sees them as ‘states of affairs’).

      There is no contradiction between ‘exist’ and ‘possible’. The actual world is a possible world, and that exists!

      Plantinga’s argument briefly is that possibly necessarily God exists. There’s an axiom that’s hard to deny – that if something is possibly necessary then it is actually necessary. After all, if something is true in all worlds in at least one world, then to avoid contradiction it has to be true in all worlds! So necessarily God exists.

      I’m an atheist so I don’t buy that conclusion at all, but the argument is a fun one! I’d probably want to deny the premise that possibly necessarily God exists. It seems that its a claim we have no warrant to make.

      • josh

        Yes, I’m aware it’s common among philosophers, that’s why I’m complaining about it. ‘Exists in some form or another’ is really problematic, particularly when the goal is to arrive at a proof of ‘exists in the sense of actually exists’. To say that a possible but counterfactual world is a ‘real, concrete’ thing is close to meaningless, but IF someone wanted to defend that kind of usage you would need an extremely rigorous set of terms and limited conclusions, which, needless to say, are not evident in an ontological-style argument.

        And I didn’t say there was a contradiction, I said there was a confusion. The actual world exists and is possible in a trivial sense, though perhaps it is the only really ‘possible’ option, i.e. there are no other options. But imaginary worlds, which may seem possible, don’t exist in the sense that the actual world does. They actually exist as ideas in someone’s head, but that is usually telling you more about the head than the universe around it.

        The axiom you mentioned (S5? I don’t remember the conventional naming.) is ambiguous. Epistemically, it’s garbage to say that a possibly necessary thing is necessary. Possibly, the trillion-and-oneth digit of pi is 3. IF it is 3 then it is 3 by mathematical necessity, but it doesn’t follow that the trillion-and-oneth digit IS actually 3.

        Similarly, it doesn’t make much sense to say that something is true in all worlds in at least one world. It’s like saying that all rectangles are squares in at least one quadrilateral. So people might be inclined to accept the premise that “possibly x is necessary” in the sense that there COULD be logical proof of necessity as far as we know, but you can’t extrapolate to “there is a world where x is proved” because, in terms of ontological possibility, ‘x’ could just as easily be ‘not x’, in which case there is no world where x is proved.

        The ‘worlds’ we speak of are only abstract ideas, often with the details hazy or omitted. That’s okay when we speak epistemically, as in ‘for all I know, x is true.’ But one can’t just promote that to an ontological statement, ‘the world in which x is true exists’ except in the trivial sense that the statement ‘x is true’ can be verbalized. For one thing, the possible world may in fact be internally incoherent on closer inspection. The ‘possible’ world can’t have ‘truths’ that somehow propagate into the actual world (except in the form of bad arguments :) ).

        So one has to be extremely careful about the meaning and interpretation of terms if one wants to apply a formal modal logic to a real world question of proof, possiblity & etc. If you stick to the rigorous symbolic structure you’ll just rediscover things that mathematicians generalized long ago. If you try to draw it into a proof about the way the actual world is, you’ll probably make a hash of things like Plantinga.

  • Rick Taylor

    I’m still trying to make sense of Plantinga’s ontological argument. It’s being horribly abused on the Internet. People are saying that it proves that if you think its even possible God exists then God must exist. So if you’re going to object to the argument, you have to prove God is impossible! Philosophers have proved this! They all agree Plantinga’s argument is valid. As an atheist, are you willing to be so bold as to declare God can’t possibly exist?!?

    I’m a mathematician, not a philosopher, and I don’t understand the justification for S5 at all. To me, if it’s possible something is necessary, how can we conclude it’s necessary? It’s only possible it’s necessary, that seems to me to imply it might not be necessary, in which case why would it be even true?

    As for the possible worlds interpretation, it seems to me that every world should have a different set of possible worlds with respect to it. Why should what’s possible be the same within all worlds? Why couldn’t I imagine one world in which God was necessary, where all the possible words with respect to that world had a God, while another possible world in my world would be one in which God was impossible, where all the worlds were Godless? To me it seems Plantinga uses an impoverished model to represent possibility, and then concludes it’s impossible for it to be the case that it’s both possible for God to exist and for him not to exist because his model is too primitive to represent that very reasonable idea.

    Also, I don’t know what Plantinga means by all possible worlds. Most people on the Internet say he means all logical possible worlds; so if you deny it’s possible God exists, you’re saying it’s logically impossible for him to exist! But that can’t be what he means. It can’t mean every world you can reasonably imagine either, because I can imagine a world in which God is necessary and another where he isn’t, and he’s set his system up where both can’t be possible worlds. So I don’t know who gets to set up all the possible worlds, but it must be an important task as they exist and are the save for every reality!

    Anyway, sorry for the ranting, but this has been driving me a bit nuts. Thanks everyone for your comments which I’m studying, and thank you, Chris, for the post you wrote on the ontological argument; that did help a bit. Any help or pointers to further reading from anyone would be much appreciated! I’ve made some progress already, I’ve learned about synthetic versus analytic truth, and it makes sense to me that Kant thought mathematics was synthetic yet a priori!