05 / 06

Response to Richard Dawkins book, The God Delusion

William Lane Craig speaks with University of Florida professors

Time : 00:31:25

William Lane Craig speaks to professors at the University of Florida responding to the central arguments of author Richard Dawkins book "The God Delusion"


INTRODUCTION: The following is an address by Dr. William Lane Craig at the University of Florida. He is speaking to the professors in attendance responding to the central arguments of author Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion. Following the address, Dr. Craig will take questions from the audience before concluding. Please enjoy the presentation. This presentation is copyrighted by Dr. William Lane Craig.

DR. CRAIG: Thank you very much, Rick. For this morning’s talk we have a handout on each table, so if you will distribute those that will enable you to follow along with my remarks this morning.

Rick gave us a nice brief survey of the principle authors in the so-called New Atheism, and certainly Richard Dawkins is the enfant terrible of this movement. His The God Delusion has been a best seller and exerted tremendous influence. [1] On pages 157 to 158 of his book, Dawkins summarizes what he calls, “the central argument of my book.” This is the centerpiece of his case against the existence of God. If this argument goes, the book is hollow at its center. And so what I would like to do briefly with you this morning is to look at this central argument of Dawkins’ book to see if it is a logically sound argument.

It basically has six steps. It goes like this:

1. One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect has been to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises.

2. The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself.

3. The temptation is a false one because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer.

4. The most ingenious and powerful explanation is Darwinian evolution by natural selection.

5. We don't have an equivalent explanation for physics.

6. We should not give up the hope of a better explanation arising in physics, something as powerful as Darwinism is for biology.

Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist. (Those are his words.)

Now the argument is jarring because the atheistic conclusion, “Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist,” just comes at you suddenly out of left field. You don’t need to be a philosopher to realize that that conclusion does not follow from those six previous statements. In fact, if we take these six statements to be premises of an argument leading to the conclusion, “Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist,” then Dawkins’ argument is patently invalid. There are simply no logical rules of inference that would permit you to deduce this conclusion from those six premises.

So perhaps a more charitable interpretation of this argument would be to take the six statements, not as premises of an argument leading to a conclusion, but perhaps as just summary statements in Dawkins’ cumulative argument for his conclusion that God does not exist. But even on this more charitable construal, it still doesn’t follow that the conclusion, “Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist,” can be derived from those six statements, even if we concede that each one of those statements is true and justified.

What does follow from the six steps of Dawkins’ argument? Well, at most all that follows from these six statements is that we should not infer God’s existence based upon the appearance of design in the universe. It is basically an argument against a design inference as a basis for one’s belief in God. But that conclusion, of course, is quite compatible with God’s existence and even with justified belief in God. Maybe we should believe in God on the basis of the cosmological argument, or the ontological argument, or the moral argument for God’s existence. [2] Maybe our belief in God isn’t based on arguments at all. Maybe it’s based on religious experience or divine revelation, or maybe God wants us to believe in him simply by faith. The point is that rejecting design arguments for God’s existence does absolutely nothing to prove that God does not exist, or that belief in God is not justified. In fact, historically a great many Christian theologians have rejected arguments for the existence of God without thereby committing themselves to atheism. So Dawkins’ argument for atheism is a failure, it seems to me, even if we grant that all six of its steps are true.

But, moreover, in fact I think several of these steps are plausibly false. In steps (5) and (6), what he is talking about there is the discovery over the last forty years or so of the incredible fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life. It has been discovered by physicists that the initial conditions simply given in the Big Bang are fine tuned for the existence of intelligent life with a complexity and delicacy that literally defy human comprehension. And this cannot be explained in evolutionary terms because these are initial conditions. And so steps (5) and (6) basically is just expressing a hope that perhaps someday we’ll be able to come up with some sort of theory that will be able to explain the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life. I’m going to be speaking more about that a bit this evening, but I’ll just leave that point aside this morning.

Take step (3) for example: the temptation is a false one – that is the temptation to infer design – because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. Dawkins’ claim here in step (3) is that you are not justified in inferring design as the best explanation of the complex order of the universe because then a new problem arises; namely, who designed the designer?

It seems to me, however, that this rejoinder is flawed in at least two ways. First of all, in order to recognize that an explanation is the best, you don’t have to have an explanation of the explanation. This is an elementary point in philosophy of science concerning inference to the best explanation. For example, if archeologists digging in the earth were to come across artifacts resembling hatchet heads and pottery shards and arrowheads, they would be justified in inferring that these were the products of some unknown group of people rather than the results of the chance processes of sedimentation and metamorphosis, even if they had no explanation whatsoever who this unknown people group were or how they came to be there. Similarly, if astronauts were to find a pile of machinery on the dark side of the moon, they would be justified in inferring that this was the product of intelligent design even if they had no idea whatsoever who manufactured this machinery and how it came to be there. In order to recognize an explanation is the best you don’t need to have an explanation of the explanation. In fact, requiring that immediately launches you onto an infinite regress, right? So nothing could ever be explained and science would be destroyed. So, oddly enough, Dawkins is actually enunciating a principle here which would be destructive of natural science itself. So in the case at hand, in order to recognize that intelligent design is in fact the best explanation of the appearance of design in the universe you don’t need to be able to explain the designer.

But second point, Dawkins thinks that in the case of a divine designer of the universe the designer is just as complex as the thing to be explained. So no explanatory advance is made in postulating such a designer. [3] Now this objection raises all sorts of interesting questions about the role played by simplicity in assessing competing explanations. For example, how is simplicity to be weighted in comparison with other criteria for theory assessment, like explanatory power, explanatory scope, degree of ad hoc-ness and so forth? The fact is that many times in science we may prefer a theory which is less simple because it has greater explanatory power or greater explanatory scope. It requires skill to weigh the different factors in theory assessment against one another in order to arrive at the best explanation. You can’t always go with the simplest explanation.

But leave those questions aside for this morning. I think Dawkins’ more fundamental mistake lies in his assumption that a divine designer is an entity which is comparable in complexity to the universe. He thinks that the designer is just as, or more, complex than the universe itself. And it seems to me that this is patently false.

As an unembodied mind, God is a remarkably simple entity. As a nonphysical entity, a mind is not composed of parts and its salient properties – like self-consciousness, rationality, volition – are essential to it, in contrast to the contingent and variegated universe with all its inexplicable quantities and constants. In contrast to that, a divine mind is startlingly simple. It is an uncomposed spiritual (or mental) substance or entity that has no physical parts whatsoever. Now, certainly, a mind may have complex ideas; it might be thinking of the infinitesimal calculus this morning, for example. But the mind itself as an entity is a remarkably simple entity. Dawkins’ has evidently confused a mind’s ideas, which may indeed be very complex, with a mind itself, which is a remarkably simple entity. And, therefore, postulating a divine mind behind the contingent and variegated complex universe most definitely does represent an advance in simplicity, for whatever that’s worth.

So it seems to me that step (3) of his argument is patently false and therefore the argument again collapses, even if it were valid in the first place.

Other steps in Dawkins argument, I think, are also problematic, but I think enough has been said to demonstrate that this argument does absolutely nothing to undermine a design inference for a creator of the universe, not to speak of its serving as a justification for atheism.

That concludes my remarks that I wanted to make on this argument this morning so who has a question that you would like to raise.



QUESTION: [inaudible]

DR. CRAIG: OK, this is raising a very profound question that is very much in discussion today; namely, is naturalism – that is to say, the view that there is no God and that we are simply the products of the random interaction of chance and necessity – is naturalism rationally affirmable? Alvin Plantinga, who is probably the greatest living Christian philosopher today, has argued that in fact naturalism cannot be rationally affirmed. And the reason is the reason that the gentlemen here just gave. Namely, if naturalism is true then our cognitive faculties are the product of an evolutionary process which is not aimed at the production of true beliefs but rather aimed at beliefs that help you to survive. Our cognitive faculties are selected for their survival value, not for their truth-tracking ability. And Plantinga shows five or six different ways in which our beliefs could be survival conducive without being truth conducive. So that, on naturalism, you have a defeater for your own beliefs. That is to say, you believe that these faculties, your cognitive faculties, are not aimed at truth but merely at survival and that therefore the beliefs you hold are beliefs that you have simply because they had survival value, not necessarily because they have truth value. [4] But if that is true, then your own conclusion that naturalism is true is something that is undermined because it is not the product of belief forming mechanisms that are aimed at truth, but just survivability. So naturalism itself cannot be affirmed; the naturalist is caught here in a sort of self-defeating circle. He believes in naturalism on the basis of faculties which naturalism itself shows cannot be trusted to produce necessarily true beliefs. So I think that is a very powerful argument that is very much in discussion today. This was actually a doubt that troubled Darwin himself. Darwin said, “How can I trust a monkey’s brain to arrive at these conclusion I have arrived at? If my theory is correct, then it seems to undermine my own theory because I can’t be sure that my cognitive faculties are really trustworthy.” So you are right in pointing this out. I didn’t press that argument of course this morning, but that is a problem the naturalist has to address.

QUESTION: [inaudible]

DR. CRAIG: The question for those who didn’t hear was: in the natural world one sees features of organisms that appear to be cobbled together or don’t appear to be optimally designed. The panda’s thumb is a favorite example of that, where it is not a real opposable thumb but it is simply an elongated finger bone that he can use in a sort of thumb-like way. Some atheists or naturalists have tried to use this as an argument against design. I think the argument is flawed on a couple of counts. One is that I think it confuses optimality with design. To say that the world is designed is not to say that every organism is optimal in its design. This was a point that was made long ago by William Paley in his Natural Theology back in 1804. He said, if I found a watch laying in the heath, I would recognize that this was the product of intelligent design and that inference wouldn't be undermined even if the watch didn’t keep perfect time – if it wasn’t an optimal time keeping device but it went wrong sometimes and malfunctioned. That wouldn’t undermine the inference to design. And I think Paley is clearly correct in that. I was speaking with an electrical engineer once who made the point that in engineering, he said, all the time we make compromises on optimality and design because we have other overriding interests; for example, cost effectiveness. He said, I could design a system that would be optimal electronically but it would be very expensive. Or it might be very large, it wouldn’t be compact enough to fit in the space they want to use it in. So he says that, as an electrical engineer, we understand the difference between design and optimality and many times we will give up optimality for other factors. So you shouldn’t confuse the fact that things don’t have optimality with saying that they are not designed. In fact, when you think about natural organisms, it is not even clear what optimal design would be. For example, what would be an optimally designed bear? What would an optimally designed bear look like? Maybe he would have aluminum claws so that they wouldn’t break or something, or maybe he would have wheels so that he could go very fast in getting his prey. Well I think you begin to see that the idea may just be incoherent when you really think about it – to think about optimally designed natural organisms. All the argument has to do to succeed is to show that these mechanisms do feature design and that they cannot be explained adequately on the basis of naturalistic mechanisms. It doesn’t have to prove optimality. One last point I want to make about this question is, is that most proponents of intelligent design don’t disagree with evolutionary theory. They think that evolution certainly does have a role to play, and that therefore we shouldn’t be surprised at things like the panda’s thumb or other mechanisms because within certain parameters everybody believes that there is a good deal of evolution. So it may be that there are microevolutionary changes that produce these sorts of non-optimal situations and that would be quite compatible. [5] In other words, intelligent design isn’t incompatible with affirming evolutionary development or natural selection. In fact, you notice that the argument as I framed it in response to the last questioner wasn’t an argument against evolution, it was an argument against naturalism. But you could be a theistic evolutionist for example; it is naturalism that has come under criticism here.

QUESTION: [inaudible]

DR. CRAIG: I think you are absolutely right,. I’ll repeat the question. For Dawkins, as a materialist, the idea of an unembodied mind is just absurd. If that is the case, and I am sure it is the case, he has got to be a materialist, I’m sure he doesn’t believe in the existence of the soul or the mind distinct from the brain, he should have presented that as his argument for atheism. Because if you don’t believe in the possibility of an immaterial self or mind then you don’t need this kind of argument to prove atheism. You just say that there cannot be such a thing as God because there cannot be minds distinct from physical organisms or brains. So that should have been his argument, but it wasn’t. Instead he presents this argument. And that would then lead us into questions about mind-brain identity, and is the mind reducible to the brain or is it just a sort of epiphenomenal thing generated by brain processes? And that is, again, another large question that one might discuss.

QUESTION: [inaudible]

DR. CRAIG: OK, these are wonderful questions, very, very good! His point, I think you probably mostly heard his point, was that this lack of optimality might bespeak limitations in the designer – limited intelligence, ability, or something. Now, this is precisely why people like William Dembski and other intelligent design theorists are not being disingenuous when they say this is not an argument for God. Dembski and these others continually insist: we are not arguing that you infer to God on the basis on design, but just to some sort of intelligence. You need an intelligent designer to explain these things. And he would actually be very sympathetic to your argument. He said there is no way that, from these finite products, I would be able to prove that this is an omniscient and omnipotent being. And so, although many people have characterized intelligent design theory as creationism in a cheap tuxedo, in masquerade, I think that is quite wrong. I think that for people like Dembski and others they are being very sincere when they say, “We are not proposing this as an argument for God.” Now, that having been said, notice how the ground has shifted here significantly in reframing the objection in this way. It now becomes, in a sense, an argument that is rather similar to the problem of evil; namely, why are there these imperfections, so to speak, in the natural world if they are the product of intelligent design? And here I think what the theist will say is that although we do believe that God is the designer of the universe, he may well have reasons for having this sort of lack of optimality in the created world. And it wouldn’t be hard to think of reasons that might be appropriate for that. It might produce the sort of world in which human beings would function best, would provide a kind of ecosystem in which human flourishing could take place, and then ultimately lead people to come to embrace freely God’s salvation and to come to a knowledge of God and all the rest. I think that here we begin to get into conjectures that are completely beyond our ability to discern when we say, “What would be the best sort of world in which God might place human beings so that the maximal number of them could freely come to know him and his salvation?” It might well be a world that is suffused with natural evils, non-optimal designs, earthquakes, tornadoes, and things of that sort. And so here I think we begin to get into speculations that really outstrip our abilities.

FOLLOWUP: [inaudible]

DR. CRAIG: Yes, fair enough, all right. I was construing the objection as being a sort of demonstration that the designer is lacking in intelligence or ability or something. [6]

QUESTION: [inaudible]

DR. CRAIG: Well, look at premise (1) of Dawkins’ argument. I think he is right in saying one of the greatest challenges to the human intellect has been to explain this complex and improbable appearance of design. So this is a question that had occupied people’s minds for literally millennia. This is one of the great challenges intellectually, and so I think it is an appropriate question to ask, and particularly with respect to the fine-tuning of the universe in (5) and (6) because there one is not involved in challenging any sort of scientific paradigm like Darwinian evolution or anything of that sort. On the contrary, one is going with the scientific data concerning the fine-tuning of the initial conditions of the universe. And what this would get you, and I don’t think this is to be diminished, if this inference is right it gets you a transcendent, unembodied mind which established the laws of nature with all of their constants and the initial boundary conditions of the universe. I mean, if anybody really believed that there were such a being as this he would be wide-eyed and open-mouthed with astonishment because it means that the material world is not all there is. There is some transcendent intelligent mind beyond the universe. Now you may not be able to infer to omniscience or omnipotence based on this but nevertheless that ought to at least raise the question, if there is such a being as this, maybe he is omnipotent, omniscient, and so forth; maybe this is the God of classical theism, you see what I mean? So I think that we should not minimize what a design inference would get you even if it doesn’t get you all the way to God.

QUESTION: [inaudible]

DR. CRAIG: If I understand the question correctly, correct me if I am wrong, it seems to me that what you are saying is, why is the dreaded notion of a God of the gaps unacceptable but the idea of a naturalism of the gaps perfectly acceptable? And I do think that there is a kind of double standard there. Certainly a God of the gaps ought to make us feel uncomfortable; this would be a god that is simply used as an ad hoc mechanism and sort of a “god of the machine” to plug up gaps in scientific knowledge. But you see the hope expressed in (5) and (6) of the argument is a naturalism of the gaps, it seems to me. There is really no basis whatsoever physically for thinking that this hope is realistic. In fact the best evidence of scientific theory that comes out of, say, string theory is that there is not a kind of theory of everything that will uniquely determine these constants and quantities that are fine tuned for our existence. Indeed it has become something of a phenom lately in physical cosmology to talk about the cosmic landscape, which is a possible range of worlds around ten to the five hundredth power – that is how many possible worlds string theory permits with respect to these constants and quantities. So there isn’t any realistic hope on the horizon that there is going to be some kind of theory of physics that will uniquely determine the values of these constants and boundary conditions. And I do think that it is a naturalism of the gaps that we see expressed here, and I think it is not bad form to point this out and to press the naturalist on this. I think you are quite right.

QUESTION: [inaudible]

DR. CRAIG: OK, I didn’t quite understand the question, you have a bit of an accent, and it was difficult for me to understand. Oh, the Ben Stein film [Expelled!]. I haven't seen it yet and so I cannot comment. But I am anxious to see it, I like Ben Stein, and I will say that I am very deeply disturbed by recent examples of what I regard as religious discrimination in this country. I think probably the most notorious of which was the denial of tenure to Guillermo Gonzalez at Iowa State University. He is a fine physical astronomer with a long publication record, and his reputation as a scientist now has been destroyed because they denied him tenure in that department because he wrote a book called The Privileged Planet in which he argued that the privileged position of our planet in the galaxy evinces intelligent design. [7] He didn’t say anything about biological evolution or Darwinism or anything of that sort; it was pure astronomy, and yet he has been denied tenure for this. And the email campaign that went on privately among his colleagues showed that this was because of his commitment to intelligent design. And yet because you can’t fire a person for holding to certain religious views, instead his integrity as a scientist had to be impugned. His record wasn’t good enough, he wasn’t a good enough astronomer to be given tenure, and as a result his reputation and career have been besmirched for reasons pertinent to his private religious beliefs which I think is just unconscionable. So while I haven't seen the film I know that there are cases such as the film illustrates which are going on in this country and which anyone who holds to academic freedom ought to take up a standard against.

Well thank you for coming this morning and I hope to see some of you tonight as well. [8]

  • [1]

    Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006).

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    Total Running Time: 31:25 (Copyright 2013 © William Lane Craig)