57. Thinking about Religion: 1. Richard Dawkins, God, and Science

  • Do you believe then that the sciences would have arisen and grown if the sorcerers, alchemists, astrologers and witches had not been their forerunners; those who, with their promisings and foreshadowings, had first to create a thirst, a hunger, and a taste for hidden and forbidden powers?  Yea, that infinitely more had to be promised than could ever be fulfilled, in order that something might be fulfilled in the domain of knowledge? Friedrich Nietzsche

It is no longer Christmas. But I am still thinking about it.  More specifically, Christianity, religion, and atheism.  I focus on Christianity because it is the religion of my childhood and the one in which I have the most knowledge. In my last post, I argued that religion, in terms of charitable giving and volunteering, represented a social good.  So, to be fair, I thought I should give atheism its due.

In doing so, I decided to reread Richard Dawkins’ book, the God Delusion (2006). The first time I read that book several years ago I remember beginning it with great anticipation.  However, with each passing chapter I became more and more bored and, finally, I skimmed it to reach the end and be done with it.  I recall it did not grab me in a meaningful way. (If you are not familiar with Dawkins’ book, you can find a detailed summary of it in on RationalWiki.)

And I have never been able to put my finger on exactly what the problem is.  So, I decided to ponder.

Dawkins begins with the observation that acceptance or rejection of God is not a strict dichotomy but more of a continuum that possesses a wide range of belief.  At one end is strict theism — the complete certainty that God exists.  At the other end rests strict atheism — the complete certainty that God does not exist.  In between rests the majority of people who may have some belief in the presence of God or, at the very least, do not feel that they have sufficient knowledge to reach a conclusion one way or the other.  I assume it is to those people in this vast middle to whom Dawkins is primarily pitching his argument.

57. Probable Range of Theism

The tone of Dawkins’ argument toward God is one of skeptical doubt.  Skepticism regarding the presence of God, or events attributable to God, has a long philosophical history meandering through Nietzsche, to Hume, and Sextus Empiricus.  Dawkins’ twist on this theme, however, is to move the question of God from a strict philosophical argument to one of a scientific exercise.  Dawkins imagines God as a hypothesis and, in doing so, suggests that we can use the scientific method to investigate whether empirical evidence supports such a hypothesis.

According to Dawkins, no empirical evidence, as of yet, has been found that would strongly support the hypothesis of God — at least in terms of the origin and creation of organic life.  On the contrary, strong evidence has been marshaled to support evolution (specifically, natural selection) as the more likely candidate for the complexity of life.  Therefore if God, as a hypothesis, is empirically weak and natural selection is empirically strong, then a rational person should move toward rejecting God as an explanatory force and accept evolution as the more likely alternative hypothesis.

Dawkins’ book is meant to be an introduction into general questions regarding God and whether alternatives to God may explain the natural world.  His style is somewhat conversationalist in tone and it is easy to imagine Dawkins engaged in a mock debate with an imagined foe.  His use of God-as-hypothesis is primarily a literary device intended to assist the reader in imaging the question of God from a different perspective.

What his book is not, however, is a primer on how the scientific method works.

In the most pure form of the scientific method, we test a hypothesis through experimental manipulation.  An experiment typically consists of introducing a small change or tweak to one event (the experimental condition) and then comparing its outcome to an event that we did not alter (the control condition).  This form of analysis is simple yet powerful.

Despite its simplicity, the experimental method can go astray and lead us in the wrong direction.  Our experimental tweak may not be potent enough to effect any noticeable change and may suggest that our hypothesis is false (when, in fact, it is true).  Or, by mere chance, our experimental and control conditions were unequal prior to our manipulation and the outcome is biased.  And, all too often, we may achieve a positive outcome in an experiment but then be unable to repeat that success in a subsequent replication.

Although the experimental method is procedurally straight forward, achieving positive and robust results is difficult.

Keep in mind, the above only applies when we can actually achieve some control over the presence or absence of a phenomenon of interest.  When we turn to more complex entities that we cannot manipulate for either practical or ethical reasons, the scientific method becomes much more muddy and we are left relying more heavily on observational methods.  As our ability to control or manipulate events weakens, so does our confidence.

Both God and the process of natural selection are difficult to test.  Both tend to rely on historical events as their strong base of argument.  Excluding the fundamental and deeply personal connection that many people feel toward the idea of a higher directing power, proof of God relies on the existence of miracles and supernatural events.  Evolution and natural selection relies on the geological record.  Although natural selection can be manipulated and assessed under controlled conditions, it is often difficult to witness this process in natural occurring populations. (In fact, one argument stemming from the theory of natural selection is that among those species that are optimally fit we should not see any generational change.  That is, we know that natural selection has operated in the past because there is no evidence for its operation currently.  It makes sense when you think about it hard enough.)

History and time present significant procedural and statistical problems in the scientific method. Controlling for, or statistically removing, time is not easily done. Yet, time is interwoven into not only our concepts of God and free will but the structure of evolution and natural selection as well.  Debate continues in both philosophy and physics over the nature of time.  If we cannot yet achieve a consensus on time, how can we reach a definite conclusion on more complex concepts in which time is intricately embedded?

Sometimes it is important to retain a position of uncertainty — to defer one’s decision until all the information is collected.  To be, at least, somewhat open-minded and to sit uncomfortably in the middle.

You know, that place exactly where Dawkins does not want you to be.