Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Book Review: The God Delusion

It seems funny (to me at least) that my first book review turns out to be on something so contrary to my beliefs as The God Delusion. I was originally inspired to pick up this book because of a review written by Tim Challies, and because I read that review while I was in the library and it was easy to get. I’d also had a few heated conversations with atheists and thought reading this would earn me a bit of respect in their eyes, the equivalent of people who say they only respect opinions from Christians who’ve read right through the Bible.

Anyway, I found it quite an interesting read, had a few laughs but mostly didn’t enjoy reading something so vehemently attacking what I hold to be true. I’m most definitely still a Christian, which means that, for me, the book didn’t work out its stated intention: that “religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.”

This book is attacking religion in general, but I suspect that Dawkins mostly sees the worst side of religion, both because that’s what he wants to see and because it is often the more angry religious people who over-react in their response to him. What I’m trying to say is that the religion Dawkins is attacking tends to encompass all the worst qualities of religion, and so I actually agree with a lot of things he says of them. For example, he criticises those who create a sharp definition between the realm of science and that of religion, and disagrees that parents should teach their children what to think, at the expense of how to think. Dawkins devotes a lot of space to attacking the many evil things done in the name of religion, a criticism I would agree with.

The main thesis of the book is that “however statistically improbable the entity you seek to explain by invoking a designer, the designer himself has got to be at least as improbable.” Thus, in the words of Dawkins himself: “what matters is not whether God is disprovable (he isn’t) but whether his existence is probable.” His arguments then seek to demonstrate that God’s existence is highly improbable, to the point of being absurd. In this I believe Dawkins fails, primarily because he does not provide a satisfactory explanation for the origins of the universe.

He argues well for Darwinian natural selection, using the analogy of a crane to explain how complex organisms can come from simple forms. He juxtaposes this with the ‘skyhook’ reasoning of theism, he says “[skyhooks] do no bona fide explanatory work and demand more explanation than they provide. Cranes are explanatory devices that actually do explain. Natural selection is the champion crane of all time. It has lifted life from primeval simplicity to the dizzy heights of complexity, beauty and apparent design that dazzle us today.” Dawkins adamantly and effectively argues that natural selection is not ‘blind chance’ and as a result I have resolved not to attack it on those grounds, however I found the main problem with his argument is not natural selection but his defence of how the world and the universe came to be.

In explaining the how the many mind-numbingly precise variables for a life friendly world and universe came to be tuned so exactly, Dawkins draws heavily on the anthropic principle. In a nutshell this says there are lots of stars, so chances are one of them (ours!) must possess all the necessary qualities to support life. In the same token, he postulates that there are many universes and so at least one must consist of exactly the right physical constants and matter. This is where, I believe, Dawkins’ argument is weakest, for two main reasons.

As Tim Challies observes, the anthropic principle (especially the planetary version) rests primarily on luck. I was surprised that Dawkins himself used the word, though he quickly defends this, stating that the anthropic principle hugely reduces the odds. Even if we grant that the chance of a life friendly planet occurring is within acceptable odds, it is still precisely that, chance. I personally would be unsatisfied with an explanation that rested so heavily on luck as the catalyst for all life.

Another, bigger problem I have with Dawkins’ explanation comes from the cosmological version of the anthropic principle. Dawkins gives no real evidence for why there would be multiple universes, instead the whole section sounds very speculative and unsubstantial. Moreover, it seems counter-intuitive to me (admittedly not a theoretical physicist) that science, which only observes things in our universe, can make assertions about the existence of things outside our universe. Anyway, he defends this view as being better than the God hypothesis by saying: “the multiverse may seem extravagant in sheer number of universes. But if each one of those universes is simple in its fundamental laws, we are still not postulating anything highly improbable. The very opposite has to be said of any kind of intelligence.” However the fact is, there is something, and Dawkins doesn’t attempt to explain why there is something as opposed to nothing. So although that thing may be very simple, there is simply no crane or anything to get it there. It seems to me like trying to multiply zero with something to get one, it simply can’t work. To use Dawkins’ terminology, it is still massively improbable that even simple things could exist without anything to get them there. In this sense I think it is just as improbable that ‘simple’ universes could exist as it is improbable that God exists. In other words, if you can multiply something with zero to get one, you can multiply something with zero to get one million. I hope that makes sense.

Apart from this there is a lot of rhetoric which I won’t respond to. He tries to explain how religion originated (as a mis-fire of some useful evolutionary change), argues that we don’t need God, the Bible or religion to be moral, and devotes a whole chapter to how raising children to be religious is a form of child abuse. If you want a fuller summary of the book I’m sure there’s somewhere else on the internet where you can go, because that’s all I’m going to do.

Perhaps one of the main reasons I found this book interesting is because it caused me to think how the battle for truth is happening on a worldwide scale. I find it easy to get bogged down and concerned only with the questions and problems of people I know, forgetting that there are global trends in the way people think. This book caused me to think how I can make an impact on a larger scale than simply the people I deal with on a daily basis. In that regard I enjoyed this book.

In closing I will say, at the risk of sounding religious and unscientific, I thank God that I have found Him to be fully satisfying not just to my intellect, but also to my heart and soul. I think Tim Challies’ words are fitting: “[the Christian and the atheist] both have faith. But the Christian has hope.”

1 comment:

Dave said...

Hey Marcus - thanks for the review. I don't need to read it now :)

You might want to look at another blow-by-blow review here.