Saturday, January 10, 2009

Wielenberg on Dawkins

A redated post.

This is a link to Erik Wielenberg's response to what is generally thought of as the main argument of Dawkins' The God Delusion. Wielenberg thinks, rightly I believe, that it is an inferior version of an argument that goes all the way back to Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Dr. Wielenberg is writing a book on Hume, Russell, and C. S. Lewis which promises to be an outstanding contribution. He asked for feedback on this section, so I'd like to hear from my commentator crew (who seem to have gotten quieter of late.


The Shogun said...

Hume argues that we shouldn’t bother seeking an explanation for teleological order because it will only lead to a regress of causes. This is, I think, Hume’s worst argument. If two archaeologists came upon some interesting designs on a cave wall, and one said, “I think this is an unknown ancient script,” we would think his partner mad if he replied, “Well, there’s no point in bothering to search for the source of the markings; it would only add to our trouble by raising the question of the origin of the source.” Philo says that he would rather leave an object unexplained than to have it explained by something that would itself require explanation. The problems here are (1) that nearly everyone in our age would rather have the explanation, provided it really explains some phenomenon, even if it raises an additional mystery, and (2) that Hume’s view completely conflicts with our understanding of a mental cause. When Michael Behe seeks an explanation for the irreducible complexity of the bacterial flagellum, his curiosity is due to the fact that a number of physical parts, which couldn’t conceivably have fallen into such a pattern by chance, function as a whole for a specific purpose. This seemingly purposeful arrangement of parts calls for a certain type of explanation, but not the same sort of explanation we would require of a designing intelligence. A child may construct a ship out of Legos, but no one expects to see the same arrangement of parts in the child’s brain.

Jason said...

Closing out accounts for the year, and busy commenting non-publicly elsewhere. {s} But I'll take a crack at this and the radio spot later this week, I hope.

Anonymous said...

There is a good argument for thinking that order must be primitive at some level. Here it is in a nutshell.

1. For natural selection to work at all, it must work upon some domain.

2. To identify any domain whatsoever in the first place, science must
find order of some kind pertaining to that domain.

3. Hence, every domain upon which natural selection is to operate must
already be ordered in some way.

4. Hence, natural selection cannot be the sole explanation of order in
nature, unless one posits an infinite unobservable--a Multiverse--which defeats the purpose of relying on natural selection in the first place, which was to explain phenomena without positing anything infinite and/or unobservable.

I.e. Some order, at some level of scientific analysis, must be
primitive. It can't all be generated by natural selection. Or else,
one must posit an infinity of some kind, which by definition must be
scientifically unobservable by finite scientists.

I have to laugh when atheists complain that God 'doesn't explain
anything' and then are driven by science itself to posit things like
infinite branes, or an infinity of universes, and maybe even an
infinity of multiverses, for heaven's sake, etc---none of which our finite minds could grasp or observe, and which are of course forever beyond empirical verification. And then they have the cheek to claim that this is less 'complex' than positing one divine mind!

The Shogun said...

It's easier than that. Natural selection presupposes life. Thus, in order for natural selection to work, life must already be present, and life (of any physical sort) is going to be extremely complex. In other words, atheists can't appeal to natural selection for the origin of life.

Smolin's multiverse theory (which is based on natural selection) suffers from the same problem. In order to get some natural selection among universes, we need some original universe-generating machine, and this would be far more difficult to explain than the order in our world.

exapologist said...

Hmmm... machine? If by this you mean some sort of natural process or mechanism, that's fine with me. But then what's wrong with that? If some order must be brute on any hypothesis, then why not stop with brute order in the natural process (which of course is one of Hume's main points).

Anonymous said...

exapolohist: "If some order must be brute on any hypothesis, then why not stop with brute order in the natural process (which of course is one of Hume's main points)."

The Ockham’s Razor principle says, 'Don't multiply entities beyond necessity.' Ok, to explain the perceived order of the universe, the proponents of a multiverse posit trillions upon trillions of additional entities---additional universes, or additional universe-regions (beyond the limits of what we observe). Theists, posit one additional entity. So prima facie theism is more ontologically economical.

Notice that both sides see the positing of something beyond what we observe as being necessary to explain the order inherent in what we do observe. Theists hold that because that order is intrinsically intelligible to mathematical reason, and because mathematical reason is essentially an attribute of rational mind, inference to an ultimately mind-like reality is more probable than either a materialist or Platonist alternative. But notice that all three worldviews posit something invisible and infinite to explain order:

1) God


2) A Platonic Mathematical Realm (which must contain at least as infinite a number of abstract entities as mathematics itself)


3) A Realm of Universes or Universe-Regions with no fixed or determinable upper limit on their number

As between these three alternatives, Ockham's Razor either cannot by itself decide since there are serious countability issues with all three, or else favors theism. (Aquinas has technical reasons to do with God not belonging to a genus or species and with God's existence being identical with God's essence, for not regarding God as a being or an entity, and therefore not being strictly speaking a countable type of reality.)

My argument in this respect in purely defensive rather than positive; that is, my argument has been not to rely on Ockham's Razor, but simply to reject the claim that it favors the non-theistic alternatives. Because it does not! In other words, if you're going to appeal to Ockham, there's no reason to think that theism does badly in that regard. On the contrary. But my argument actually doesn't rely on it, it simply says all three worldviews are either on a par, Ockham-wise, or, if anything, theism is better, Ockham-wise.

Theism also does a better job in my view because it's better suited to account for consciousness, rationality, morality, aesthetics, and religious experience. A materialist multiverse can't account for any of that if materialism in the philosophy of mind is false. I am persuaded that it is false for reasons advanced by the likes of Saul Kripke and David Chalmers . And I prefer theism to Platonism since there's no good Platonist theory of causation, whereas we know that there are causally active minds.

So theism, as an abductive inference , that is, an inference to a transcendent Mind as being the best explanation for cosmic order (as well the existence of consciousness, reason, morality, aesthetic value, religious experience and spirituality, etc), strikes me as at least as, indeed more plausible than either a mysterious realm of impersonal mathematical laws and equations, or the apotheosis of meaningless, purposeless ontological extravagance represented by the Multiverse.

But notice that all three notions---God, the Platonic Realm, and the Multiverse—are notions of an unobservable infinite.

exapologist said...

Hi Anon,

I like your reply. I agree with most of what you say. I also agree that trying to construe the multiverse as a *better* explanation might be pushing it. My own view -- and perhaps we are nearly in agreement here -- is that neither the multiverse nor the theistic hypothesis has much of an explanatory edge over the other.

However, I'm less confident about how much traffic we can get out of appeals to parsimony . D. Lewis chose qualitative over quantitative parsimony as a partial basis for his concretism about possible worlds. For my own part, I don't know how to prefer one sort of parsimony over the other, if we leave other criteria for theoretical evaluation to the side (although, again, some things you say lead me to think that we're nearly in agreement).

I agree that if you're convinced that immaterial minds exist on independent grounds (here I part company on your assessment of Kripke's and Chalmers' arguments -- although it's harder to know what to say about Jackson's argument (but sometimes Stoljar's arguments weigh heavily on me!), then you might have have a case that might lean toward a use of the quantitative construal of the parsimony criterion. Unfortunately, those arguments lack the epistemic lustre it appears to enjoy in the minds of others.

In short, perhaps we're in agreement on at least this much: given the data of apparent fine-tuning in isolation from all other considerations, data underdetermines theory -- epistemically, neither theory comes out ahead, so to speak.

Of course, this leads us to whether the data of apparent fine-tuning could legitimately function as a part of a cumulative case for theism -- perhaps construed along Bayesian lines (as Swinburne does in EOG), or as an abductive inference. I think that's perfectly legitimate. However, I wonder if theism really comes out as the best explanation once we include not only the data you mention, but also, say, prima facie gratuitous evil, religious diversity, religious ambiguity, etc. By my meager lights, it's a stretch to say that theism is the best explanation given this broader view of the data to be explained.



Anonymous said...

Hi exapologist.

I earlier wrote:

"Theists hold that because that order is intrinsically intelligible to mathematical reason, and because mathematical reason is essentially an attribute of rational mind, inference to an ultimately mind-like reality is more probable than either a materialist or Platonist alternative."

The explanandum is order in the physical world, and what physics tells us is that this order is amenable to rational mathematical understanding in a profound and systematic way. It strikes me as unlikely in the extreme that this could be so merely as a result of chance or of some other ultimately impersonal, mindless brute fact about the world.

I earlier argued that order must be primitive, which you were prepared to grant. I think it is literally unreasonable to expect the order of the world to be mathematically intelligible merely as a materialistically conceived brute fact about it, because the connections between order and mathematics, and between mathematics and mind, run too deep for that.

The existence of mathematical reason in minds now capable of understanding the mathematical order inherent in the early universe is very suspicious, as Wigner noted. Primitive order that just happens to be amenable to mathematical reason in minds now would be the brute fact that Dawkins et al are asking theists to swallow as being 'simpler' than eternal math-comprehending creative mind as brute fact. But it is far from obvious that Dawkins et al must be right about this. My intuition tells me that it's more likely that the order-math-mind nexus is far more simply accounted for by theism. It's easier to see why it would all tie together, given the truth of theism than it would given atheistic materialism.

I guess I'm saying, show me how we get reason and value and religious experience etc in a purely material world, and show me how this story is more epistemically plausible at the moment than theism as an elegant account for it all.

Anonymous said...

exapologist mentions 'gratuitous evil' as being among the data to be explananda and as pointing away from theism.

That reminded me of this bit from Plantinga:

"Many philosophers offer an anti-theistic argument from evil, and perhaps they have some force. But there is also a theistic argument from evil. There is real and genuine evil in the world: evil such that it isn't just a matter of personal opinion that the thing in question is abhorrent, and furthermore it doesn't matter if those who perpetrate it think it is good, and could not be convinced by anything we said. And it is plausible to think that in a nontheistic or at any rate a naturalistic universe, there could be no such thing. So perhaps you think there is such a thing as genuine and horrifying evil, and that in a nontheistic universe, there could not be; then you have another theistic argument."

More at

exapologist said...

Hi Anon,

Again, I don't think it's clear that theism is the best explanation of all the relevant data. I'm not particularly interesting in how well theism explains an artificially restricted range of phenomena.

I want to be as charitable as possible, so let's throw all of the data into the abductive pot that you take to be theism-friendly. But let's also throw in the data that isn't prima facie theism-friendly. So suppose we have a list of data like, oh something like the following:

D1. fine-tuning
D2. applicability of mathematics to the physical world
D3. religious experience
D4. the irreducibility of consciousness
D5. the age and size of the universe
D6. evolution
D7. the biological function of pain and pleasure
D8. the dependence of the functioning of the mind on the functioning brain
D9. billions of years of animal suffering, and lots of prima facie pointless human suffering
D10. that animals have to eat each other in order to stay alive
D11. religious diversity
D12. religious ambiguity
D13: divine hiddenness

Now suppose we have a range of hypotheses to explain the data, something like, say, this:

H1: classical theism
H2: deism
H3: finite godism
H4: panentheism
H5: polytheism
H6: some sort of dual aspect naturalism (perhaps something like Russell's version, or Spinoza's version, or...)
H7: some form of emergentist naturalism
H8: reductive materialism

Now given D1-D12, is H1 clearly a better explanation than any of H2-H8? My own view is that each one does a decent job of explaining some of the data, but they all have problems with some of the data. In fact, I honestly just *can't tell* which one is the best explanation; so I just suspend judgement.

Anon2: I think you're missing the point about gratuitous evil in this context. The issue is, would we expect the data of apparently gratuitious evil (especially human and animal suffering), given the hypothesis of suffering? Also, I'm not a relativist or non-objectivist about morality (nor am I an "atheistic materialist", as Anon1 put it). But that's beside the point here. The point is that the theism fo the sort that Christians discuss here makes claims about good and evil, and about what sorts of actions and states of affairs are good and evil. now *given this*, would we expect the sort of suffering in the world that theism calls bad or evil, on the hypothesis of theism?


exapologist said...

sorry: that last bit to Anon should read: "...on the hypothesis of theism", not "...on the hypothesis of suffering"

Anonymous said...

Well, I was thinking mainly of Dawkins. He only holds H8, and just taking your D data as explananda, it strikes me that his confidence in his preferred hypothesis is excessive, as is his confidence that H1 through H5 are false. But, you will rightly point out, that is just Dawkins...

It is hard to know for sure, but it seems quite possible that most animals have on the whole enjoyed most of their lives.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that all the evil we observe results from the operation of the laws of physics, plus free will.

Would the world be a better place without the laws of physics and/or without free will? Not at all obviously so, is my answer.

If an alternative set of physical laws is logically possible, then one can wonder whether it would have been better for God to instantiate that alternative. But a) we don't know if there is such an alternative that is also consistent with human life; and b) we don't know, if there is such an alternative, that it would produce overall less natural harm for sentient beings than the actual set produces. Only something approaching an omniscient mind could make the necessary calculations.

Suppose an omniscient mind did make the calculations, and concluded that in order to create a physical universe inhabited by rational beings capable of moral goodness, the least harmful set of laws permitting the existence of such beings would be the ones that actually obtain in our universe. Then it would not be surprising or objectionable if the laws of physics are as they are.

Most people don't commit suicide. So the subjective judgement of humanity appears to be they're glad the universe exists with its nature and with them in it, upon reflection, and all things considered. What would it even mean to say that humanity is mistaken in this?

Jason said...

Good discussion so far (though I don't know how much of it touches on Wielenberg's essay yet.)

Whilst passing through, allow me to give a correction to a point that seems to have been dropped (and just as well, IMO, but since it may still be lingering in the background...)

Anon 1 wrote, "I.e. Some order, at some level of scientific analysis, must be primitive. It can't all be generated by natural selection." And I recall another comment or two being made along this line.

Unless he has become (even) more incompetent than he used to be, though, even Richard Dawkins doesn't (or at least didn't) believe or teach that order (all or otherwise) is generated by natural selection per se.

I think this is important to understand for fairness to the opposition. Atheism (naturalistic or otherwise--and the notion that the evident field of Nature was/is produced or generated by a supervening reality or reality set of some sort, is technically a claim of supernaturalism, btw, even if still atheistic) does not have to explain _order_ per se.

Any self-consistent reality will have order--something that isn't really the opposite of randomness, btw. If Nature is the Independent Fact (per naturalism, atheistic or otherwise), it is far from surprising that it already has orderly behavior. That just means it is self-consistently real. If Nature is produced or generated by a supernaturalistic reality (theistic or otherwise), again it isn't surprising that it has order. Paradoxes can exist, pointing to a unknown (possibly supervenient) situation for the resolving link between the two truths; but flat contradictions simply don't exist (grammatic cleverness notwithstanding), and that's going to be true for _any_ actually real reality.

The upshot is that _whatever_ turns out to be metaphysically true, order is a necessary property of actually real reality and should be an expected property of derivative reality as well (even if the order turns out to be hidden.)

Natural selection, therefore, is an orderly process because Nature is already orderly--something I remember Richard Dawkins being quite firm about teaching, incidentally. And Nature is already orderly because it is a largescale system of reality, either itself the IF or else dependent for its existence upon the IF. (Mr. D wouldn't have put it quite that way, this sort of thing being really outside his expertise and competency, but I don't know why he would disagree in principle. He would simply add, perhaps dogmatically, "Yes, and Nature _is_ what you're calling the IF. And I am _too_ competent in this sort of thing, you backwoods evil/insane/ignorant creationist!" {g})

I am extremely far from being a naturalist or an atheist, either one; but I think the proponents of necessary multiverses are being unnecessarily spooked (and bluffed) by the convenient characteristics of this universe. If Nature is not itself the IF, then of course (under theism or atheism either one) there could easily be any number of equally subordinate realities with different (non-self-contradictory) properties. But they wouldn't necessarily _have to_ exist.

Similarly, if Nature is the IF, then what happens to be true is just what happens to be true. Whether it could have possibly been different or not is a moot point. That may require provisionally admitting that anthropic coincidences look suspiciously suspicious. (In the fine phrase of Mulder from the X Files, "If coincidences are such coincidences, why do they feel so contrived?" {g}) And it may require having to seriously rethink why philosophical naturalism is being proposed to be accepted as true in the first place.

But if the grounds for that proposition are (re?)examined and judged to be worth retaining on their own merits (not just to get out of anthropic coincidence {lopsided g}), then the corollary will be that whatever the properties of Nature are, just are. We can be thankful they are what they are (though not _to_ anyone if atheism is true, of course {wry g}), or be amazed that they are what they are (which amazement is honestly not neccessarily more than a feeling of confusion at trying to imagine more than we can literally image), but need not inquire further into the why of things being one way and not another. It just is how it is.

Jason Pratt

PS: while I understand the wish to avoid getting spam (despite blogger's excellent and non-intrusive spam protection {cough}{grimace}), it would be polite for Anonymous (i.e. non-registered) commenters to at least sign a name for referential convenience.

PPS: nifty thumbnail, Shogun. {g!}

Roger said...

Between Jason Pratt and the anonymous, I'd have to agree with what I see as the resulting conclusion. Playing with Ockham's Razor and reasonable explanations for what we see in nature doesn't bring one to an atheistic/naturalistic conclusion. Strong arguments can be made for theism even in those contexts - a/n is struggling to pull even. And even a successful pull of even ends up being pretty unsatisfactory (as Jason says, at that point we have to wonder why naturalism is being proposed in the first place).

And I'd like to see the anonymous post with their name, only because I'd like to read more of what they have to say if they do so anywhere else. Interesting perspective!

Ilíon said...

Is there even such a thing as "the universe" (or "the earth," or "that rock over there") as Dawkins, or any atheist, means the terms?

What, exactly, *is* "the universe?" Is it not a concept, is it not a 'set,' is it not something lacking entirely any physical/material existence of its own?

Ilíon said...

Also, "to explain" means at least two quite different things; Dawkins constantly conflates these (*), but both Wielenberg and Vallicella seem also doing so in that year-old blog; though Vallicella also makes the distinction. Consider:

William Vallicella: "Why should anyone accept that organized complexity as such needs explaining? A plausible principle is that, if x explains y, then x is not identical to y: Nothing explains itself. This is especially clear if the explanation is causal. For it seems self-evident that nothing can cause itself. (I interpret causa sui privatively, not positively: I take it to mean 'not caused by another' and not 'self-caused.') ..."

To explain "the universe" as God's creation is to give a ground-and-consequent explanation for the existence of the world, it is not at all to give a cause-and-effect explanation.

(*) I think Dawkins typically does even worse than just conflating ground-and-consequent explanations with cause-and-effect explanations. He is philosophically committed to the proposition that *only* cause-and-effect explanations may exist, and he constantly asserts as much; though he does not scrupple to assert ground-and-consequent explanations at need, for instance, when he needs to besmirch "theists" in general.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Shogun said:
In other words, atheists can't appeal to natural selection for the origin of life.

What atheist has ever done that? Origins is a different topic than natural selection. Anybody familiar with the literature realizes this.

Dawkins is great. He gives the first-pass 'Here's why a really clever funny atheist with a scientific orientation doesn't buy all these silly arguments about gods and such.' He attacks the ones he heard as a kid, the ones he hears walking the streets of London when people confront him. He addresses the arguments he sees.

I imagine that, psychologically speaking, a philosophically sophisticated (which is quite rare) Christian reading Dawkins is a lot like an evolutionary biologist reading Johnson.

Ilíon said...

Shogun: "In other words, atheists can't appeal to natural selection for the origin of life."

BDK: "What atheist has ever done that?"

Pretty much all of them, at one time or another, especially the more recent ones. You know, the whole "life originated as self-replicating molecules, some of which were 'better' at self-replication than were others" spiel.

Shoot! These days, some so-called atheists are even attempting to use natural selection to "explain" the origin (and evolution) of the universe.

But I guess BDK isn't "up on the literature."

BDK: "Origins is a different topic than natural selection. Anybody familiar with the literature realizes this."

What an intellectually dishonest fool you are. What a cheap and tawdry liar you are.

There is no "biological evolution" if there is no origin of organisms. And if the origin of organisms cannot be "explained" strictly naturalistically (as it cannot), then who, really, gives a damn about 'modern evolutionary theory?'

The whole point of 'modern evolutionary theory' is to attempt to do away with God. If you pretend-atheists have to rely upon God ... or even upon "advanced space aliens" ... to get the ball rolling, then your "theory" has no point or purpose.

Still, isn't it somewhat amusing that 150 years later "Darwinists" *still* shy away from "explaining" the arrival of the fittest?

BDK: "Dawkins is great. ..."

Birds of a feather, and all that, I suppose.

Though, Dawkins sometimes admits that he's a liar (I've explained the lying, and the admission of lying, already. And if you were half as smart, or half the critical thinker, you like to image, you'd not need it to be explained).

And you "tender-hearted" fools, you "nice" "useful idiots" (as one old-time and influential atheist would have called you), you who imagine that you have standing to condemn me for how I have spoken to DBK ... where is your "tender-heart," where is your "niceness" when he (or 'atheists' in general) are behaving as he is here? Why does your "tender-heart" not give a damn that his response to Shogun is to attempt to belittle him, and to do it falsely?

Joe said...

"Aquinas claims that complexity in God is incompatible with God having no explanation external to Himself on the grounds that “every composite has a cause, for things in themselves different cannot unite unless something causes them to unite.” God cannot consist of multiple parts, physical or otherwise, because if He did, some external explanation would be required to account for the fact that God’s various parts are united in a single being."

I'm not sure I believe these "grounds." Perhaps I don't understand them. If we can believe one thing exists necessarily why not 2? If we can believe two things exist necessarily why can't they be united?

The cosmological argument is not my cup of tea. But I thought the idea was that we have come to gather various bits of evidence that the universe did come into existence in the big bang. Therefore we know it was not necessary.

Anyway how can a Trinitarian God not have parts?