Jim Holt wrote the review of The God Delusion for The New York Times. He is described as a regular contributor to the New Yorker and the The New York Times Magazine, and is apparently working on a book on the puzzle of existence. The review has a few good points to make, but mostly misses the boat.
Holt begins with this reasonable summary of Dawkins’ book:
Dawkins’s case against religion follows an outline that goes back to Bertrand Russell’s classic 1927 essay “Why I Am Not a Christian.” First, discredit the traditional reasons for supposing that God exists. (“God” is here taken to denote the Judeo-Christian deity, presumed to be eternal, all-powerful, all-good and the creator of the world.) Second, produce an argument or two supporting the contrary hypothesis, that God does not exist. Third, cast doubt on the transcendent origins of religion by showing that it has a purely natural explanation. Finally, show that we can have happy and meaningful lives without worshiping a deity, and that religion, far from being a necessary prop for morality, actually produces more evil than good. The first three steps are meant to undermine the truth of religion; the last goes to its pragmatic value.
Yep, that about sums it up. Sadly, this is pretty much the high point of the review.
Holt goes off course shortly after his introduction:
He dismisses the ontological argument as “infantile” and “dialectical prestidigitation” without quite identifying the defect in its logic, and he is baffled that a philosopher like Russell — “no fool” — could take it seriously. He seems unaware that this argument, though medieval in origin, comes in sophisticated modern versions that are not at all easy to refute. Shirking the intellectual hard work, Dawkins prefers to move on to parodic “proofs” that he has found on the Internet, like the “Argument From Emotional Blackmail: God loves you. How could you be so heartless as not to believe in him? Therefore God exists.” (For those who want to understand the weaknesses in the standard arguments for God’s existence, the best source I know remains the atheist philosopher J. L. Mackie’s 1982 book The Miracle of Theism.)
The ontological argument for God’s existence refers to a collection of arguments that try to establish God’s existence by logic alone. Not the Christian God per se, but rather some vaguely defined, perfect being. The argument was originally formulated by Anselm of Canterbury, and boils down to the idea that it is possible to conceive of something than which nothing greater can be imagined. But the mere fact that we can conceive of such a thing implies that it must also exist, for a perfect being that existed in reality would be greater than a perfect being that existed only in our minds. QED.
Some of the more modern formulations manage to avoid being quite that stupid, but all of them amount to trying to define God into existence. I am aware that some very clever philosophers have spilled a lot of ink discussing the ontological argument, but I am with Dawkins in finding this inexplicable.
That said, Holt’s characterization of Dawkins’ discussion is way off base. First, Dawkins is perfectly aware that there are formulations of the ontological argument more modern than Anselm’s. He says this specifically on page 80. He also refers people to Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism, just like Holt, for a more complete discussion of the argument. As for the parodic proofs of God’s existence Holt mentions, those come only after a five-page discussion of the ontological argument. They are clearly intended simply as a humorous way of closing the section, not as part of a serious discussion.
Discussions of the more modern forms of the ontological argument require a consideration of some difficult ideas from logic, and the subject tends to get technical in a hurry. I suspect Dawkins’ editors would have balked at the idea of including so arcane a discussion in a popular level book. Given that, it was perfectly reasonable for Dawkins to expose the absurdity of the argument’s classical version, and refer people elsewhere for further details.
Holt next turns to a discussion of the argument from design. He summarizes what Dawkins has to say on the subject, and then gives us this:
Dawkins relies here on two premises: first, that a creator is bound to be more complex, and hence improbable, than his creation (you never, for instance, see a horseshoe making a blacksmith); and second, that to explain the improbable in terms of the more improbable is no explanation at all. Neither of these is among the “laws of probability,” as he suggests. The first is hotly disputed by theologians, who insist, in a rather woolly metaphysical way, that God is the essence of simplicity. He is, after all, infinite in every respect, and therefore much easier to define than a finite thing. Dawkins, however, points out that God can’t be all that simple if he is capable of, among other feats, simultaneously monitoring the thoughts of all his creatures and answering their prayers. (“Such bandwidth!” the author exclaims.)
Of course, there are no “laws of probability,” not in the sense implied by common uses of that phrase at any rate. Dawkins was wrong to use that phrase and Holt is wrong to fault Dawkins for including his assumptions among these fictitious laws.
More to the point, Dawkins discusses various attempts by theologians to argue that God is simple. He shows convincingly, from pages 147-151, that they are just misconstruing what it means for an explanation to be simple. He is perfectly aware that theologians may not agree with his premise, but he provides good reasons for why they are wrong to disagree.
Holt’s next point is a bit strange:
If God is indeed more complex and improbable than his creation, does that rule him out as a valid explanation for the universe? The beauty of Darwinian evolution, as Dawkins never tires of observing, is that it shows how the simple can give rise to the complex. But not all scientific explanation follows this model. In physics, for example, the law of entropy implies that, for the universe as a whole, order always gives way to disorder; thus, if you want to explain the present state of the universe in terms of the past, you are pretty much stuck with explaining the probable (messy) in terms of the improbable (neat). It is far from clear which explanatory model makes sense for the deepest question, the one that, Dawkins complains, his theologian friends keep harping on: why does the universe exist at all? Darwinian processes can take you from simple to complex, but they can’t take you from Nothing to Something. If there is an ultimate explanation for our contingent and perishable world, it would seemingly have to appeal to something that is both necessary and imperishable, which one might label “God.” Of course, it can’t be known for sure that there is such an explanation. Perhaps, as Russell thought, “the universe is just there, and that’s all.”
There are several problems here. It seems inescapable that in explaining the universe we must accept that there is something that has always existed. But why should we hypothesize, in defiance of everything we know about the world, that the something in question was an omnipotent, intelligent designer?
Everything we know about agents with intelligence and creative ability tells us that such entities are invariably the result of a long evolutionary process. By positing God as the something that has always existed, we are simply concocting, from nothing, one intelligent agent exempt from the rules by which all other intelligent agents must play. There is no principle of logic preventing us from doing this, but it is wholly unjustified by any rational contemplation of the world.
Modern cosmology has made it seem increasingly reasonable to suppose that the basic laws of physics and a quantum fluctuation or two are adequate to get the whole game going. The possibility of a multiverse, speculative but supported both by inflationary cosmology and by string theory, explains the fine-tuning of our universe for life. Matter can indeed create itself “from nothing.” And the nice thing is, we know that the basic laws of physics and quantum mechanics exist.
So our choices are to explain the origin of the universe in terms of the simplest things we know about that actually exist, or invent from nothing an intelligent agent with mind-boggling powers to get the ball rolling. These are not hypotheses of equal worth.
(As an aside, I would mention that a single eternal, omnipotent intelligence poses other conceptual problems. How does He keep from getting bored? How does He keep from getting lonely? What meaning can He find for His own existence, given that absolutely nothing is challenging for Him?)
In a trivial sense we might say that the second law of thermodynamics forces us to explain the present in terms of a less probable past. I might say that the arrangement of water molecules in an ice cube is less probable than those same water molecules arranged in a puddle. So by explaining the puddle as the result of a melted ice cube, you might say I am explaining the present in terms of a less probable past. But that hardly seems relevant to anything Dawkins is talking about.
There is one final point to discuss. Holt describes Dawkins’ attempts to provide a naturalistic account of religion. He then writes:
Perhaps one of these hypotheses is true. If so, what would that say about the truth of religious beliefs themselves? The story Dawkins tells about religion might also be told about science or ethics. All ideas can be viewed as memes that replicate by jumping from brain to brain. Some of these ideas, Dawkins observes, spread because they are good for us, in the sense that they raise the likelihood of our genes getting into the next generation; others — like, he claims, religion — spread because normally useful parts of our minds “misfire.” Ethical values, he suggests, fall into the first category. Altruism, for example, benefits our selfish genes when it is lavished on close kin who share copies of those genes, or on non-kin who are in a position to return the favor. But what about pure “Good Samaritan” acts of kindness? These, Dawkins says, could be “misfirings,” although, he hastens to add, misfirings of a “blessed, precious” sort, unlike the nasty religious ones.
But Dawkins would not deny that explaining religion naturalistically does not imply that religious claims are false. Remember, though, that this section of the book comes only after Dawkins’ lengthy dissection of the various rational arguments for believing in God. Dawkins had already devoted many pages to showing why religious beliefs are likely to be false. The problem was then to explain why, in the face of all his ratiocination, religious belief remains popular nonetheless. In arguing that Dawkins’ ideas could be applied to ethics, Holt seems to have missed the point.
Some of Holt’s remaining points have merit, and I recommend reading the whole review. He manages to avoid most of the snideness that has plagued so many of Dawkins’ critics. But in the end we see, once again, that Dawkins has rather the better of the argument.