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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Richard Dawkins' search for a grander truth

In a recent interview in the UK based Third Way magazine, Richard Dawkins affirmed:

'I'm damn sure there's more to the universe than we understand... there may be some things that we never understand. But I think I draw the line at saying because we don't understand it, therefore some kind of theistic interpretation is therefore more plausible. I suspect that the truth, when and if we discover it, will be far grander and more mysterious than anything that theists have ever imagined.' (Third Way, 'Said the atheist to the (ex) Bishop', September 2008, p. 10.)

A few brief observations:

1) Dawkins almost sounds here like a proponent of the theological 'way of negation' which holds (rightly or wrongly) that we can only say what God is not, and not what God is.

2) While everyone seems agreed that there is indeed a bad, 'God of the gaps' form of theistic argument (at least when it is an 'argument from ignorance'), arguments in natural theology needn't be, and generally aren't, formulated along such fallacious lines.

3) The main question this quote raises in my mind is whether Dawkins hasn't come accross St. Anselm's definition of God as 'the greatest conceivable being' or 'that than which a greater cannot be thought'. Of course, since Dawkins critiques the ontological argument in The God Delusion he must have come accross Anselm's definition. How, then, can he think that any as-yet-to-be-discovered truth could possibly be greater than the greatest possible being? I can only surmise that Dawkins' (literally) doesn't understand what he is talking about on this issue.

4) Is Dawkins contradicting the values-subjectivism he elsewhere explicitly embraces by talking about the possibility of discovering 'grander' truths? If not, then how can a merely subjective 'grander' truth be any greater than God, especially when God is defined as the objectively 'maximally great being'? Dawkins is either contradicting himself or undercutting himself here.

5) Perhaps if Dawkins came to understand the meaning of the phrase 'greatest possible being' he wouldn't think of theistic belief as a 'medieval' place-holder for something grander. And if he thought more deeply about God so-defined than he does in The God Delusion (where he basically passes the ball to Hume and Kant) then he might look more kindly upon St. Anselm' ontological meditations upon that theme...

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4 Comments:

Blogger Ilíon said:

It seems to me that your critique of the Dawkins quite *assumes* that he intends to say something cogent and coherent.

Why -- and after all these years and all these comments on his part -- make that assumption?

By Blogger Ilíon, at November 1, 2008 at 6:06 PM  

Blogger Mariano said:

On top of it, he now has to explain away what he did mean not to say when he did state what he did not believe in stating that (sorry, but one hardly knows how to categorize his statements anymore), “A serious case could be made for a deistic God.”

aDios,
Mariano

By Blogger Mariano, at November 2, 2008 at 6:17 AM  

Blogger No said:

Peter, I can only surmise that you (literally) have failed to understand what Dawkins is talking about on this issue. The points you make against Dawkins assume that he means that the “truth” about GOD “will be far grander and more mysterious than anything that theists have ever imagined.” But it is patently clear, from the context, that Dawkins is referring to the truth(s) that we might, in the future, discover about the UNIVERSE.

By Blogger No, at January 2, 2009 at 3:11 AM  

Blogger No Free Pass said:

Peter, on reflection, I think your blog is slightly more complex in its misreading of Dawkins than I had previously thought (i.e, in my response above).

Observations 1) and 5) assume that Dawkins means this:
In the future, we may discover truths about the nature of God that will be far grander than anything that theists have ever imagined (i.e. about God).

Observations 3) and 4) assume that Dawkins means this: In the future, we may discover truths about the Universe that will be far grander than anything that theists have ever imagined about the nature of God.

But Dawkins is, of course, actually saying this: In the future, we may discover truths about the Universe that will be far grander than anything that theists have ever imagined about the nature of the Universe. In other words, Dawkins is echoing Carl Sagan, where he says: "How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant'."

One of your observations does read Dawkins correctly here, namely, 2). Here you suggest that Dawkins is intimating that theists generally commit the 'God of the gaps' fallacy whenever they fail to understand some aspect of the Universe. It would be helpful if you could 'fill the gap' in your response by identifying at least one or two arguments in natural theology that you think do not commit the ‘God of the gaps' fallacy?

By Blogger No Free Pass, at January 3, 2009 at 9:20 PM  

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