Pharyngula

You must be kidding, Mr Unwin

Here’s another review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). It’s unbelievable, as if the critic hadn’t actually read the book. Here’s the hed/dek:

Dawkins needs to show some doubt
Scientists work in a field full of uncertainties. So how can some be so sure God doesn’t exist? asks Stephen Unwin

Uh, what? Two things immediately come to mind: certainty isn’t a claim Dawkins makes anywhere, and…Stephen Unwin???!? Unwin is a remarkably silly man, as anyone who has read his book, The Probability of God will know. Unwin goes on with some very strange inferences.

It is clear that on the question of God’s existence Dawkins comes down firmly on the side of certainty. His dismissal of Pascal’s wager (which is that, given the uncertainty, one has everything to gain and nothing to lose by belief in God) is a stark indication of his commitment to certainty.

Pascal’s Wager, one of the worst arguments ever for the existence of gods, is not rejected because atheists are “certain” that god doesn’t exist, but because it says nothing about a truth claim (I have “everything to gain and nothing to lose” by believing a million dollars will fall into my lap today, but that does not mean there is cause to believe it will happen), and because it presumes a different kind of certainty—that you will be rewarded for believing without evidence in unsubstantiated claims. What if God exists, but he looks exactly like James Randi, and casts all the woo-woos into hell for their refusal to use their brains? There are a multitude of possible variations in the godly reaction, and claiming that we should gamble without information on your interpretation rather than mine is baseless.

But otherwise, it’s as if Unwin hadn’t even bothered to read as deeply as the chapter titles in the table of contents. Case in point: chapter four is titled “Why there almost certainly is no God” [my emphasis]. Dawkins discusses at length why there is no certainty, and points out that there is no reason or evidence given for supporting any one particular, peculiar religious belief.

And what of Unwin? For those fortunate enough to have so far gone through this life without being subjected to the awesome foolishness of Unwin’s Bayesian analysis, here is Dawkins’ criticism of his book:

Unwin is a risk management consultant who carries a torch for
Bayesian inference, as against rival statistical methods. He
illustrates Bayes’ Theorem by taking on, not a murder [Dawkins has just used the board game "Clue" as an example of logically working through to a conclusion from evidence], but the
biggest test case of all, the existence of God. The plan is to start
with complete uncertainty, which he chooses to quantify by assign-
ing the existence and non-existence of God a 50 per cent starting
likelihood each. Then he lists six facts that might bear on the
matter, puts a numerical weighting on each, feeds the six numbers
into the engine of Bayes’ Theorem and sees what number pops out.
The trouble is that (to repeat) the six weightings are not measured
quantities but simply Stephen Unwin’s own personal judgements,
turned into numbers for the sake of the exercise. The six facts are:

  1. We have a sense of goodness.
  2. People do evil things (Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein).
  3. Nature does evil things (earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes).
  4. There might be minor miracles (I lost my keys and found them
    again).
  5. There might be major miracles (Jesus might have risen from
    the dead).
  6. People have religious experiences.

For what it is worth (nothing, in my opinion), at the end of a
ding-dong Bayesian race in which God surges ahead in the betting,
then drops way back, then claws his way up to the 50 per cent mark
from which he started, he finally ends up enjoying, in Unwin’s
estimation, a 67 per cent likelihood of existing. Unwin then decides
that his Bayesian verdict of 67 per cent isn’t high enough, so he
takes the bizarre step of boosting it to 95 per cent by an emergency
injection of ‘faith’. It sounds like a joke, but that really is how he
proceeds. I wish I could say how he justifies it, but there really is
nothing to say. I have met this kind of absurdity elsewhere, when I
have challenged religious but otherwise intelligent scientists to
justify their belief, given their admission that there is no evidence:
‘I admit that there’s no evidence. There’s a reason why it’s called
faith’ (this last sentence uttered with almost truculent conviction,
and no hint of apology or defensiveness).

I can see why Unwin might be motivated to respond to Dawkins’ book, but alas, I don’t see any reason why anyone should regard Unwin as anything but yet another goofy crank.

Comments

  1. #1 Brian Coughlan
    September 30, 2006

    What I really love about having read Dawkins book, is that everytime I see the word “faith” it jars. It has been completely redefined for me, from something mystical and laudable to something pitiable and even a little depressing.

    What is valuable about “believing” something, indeed anything, without rational reasons, or worse still in spite of rational reasons not to beleive?

    Nothing is valuable about it. It’s a con trick, a multi generational pyramid scheme, jumped up mumbo jumbo. Thank you Mr. Dawkins for assisting in my belated flight from this tyranny.

  2. #2 Jeremy Henty
    September 30, 2006

    Unwin insinuates that because Dawkins is certain, therefore he is probably wrong, and suggests that he is more credible than Dawkins because he is “fanatically uncertain”. Hmm, I think Unwin’s incorrigible cluenessless proves something too. Just not what he *thinks* it does.

  3. #3 Greg
    September 30, 2006

    Unwin does not use Bayesian analysis.

    Not unless it has transubstantiated or something since my callow adolescence. Back then, Bayesian anaylysis involved some logical and quantified reasoning about causal connections. At the end, if the reasons and the logic and the numbers were all present and accounted, a bit of moderately challenging arithmetic yielded a number.

    The arithmetic, carelessly performed, might disconcert ones faith in the analysis. However, it is merely a restatement of the analysis. The calculation, and the number which it yields, mean nothing, of themselves, without the reasoning etc neatly listed and attached.

    Unwin (as described by Dawkins, cited by Myers, and I took a careless peek too) does not do a Bayesian analysis. The causal reasoning is, to be charitable, weak. The quantities are wholy fictitious. The arithmetic is probably accurate but, as I have said, adds nothing to the strength of the ‘analysis’.

  4. #4 goddogtired
    September 30, 2006

    The message thread contains as fine a list of breast-breating, hem-tearing objections to Dawkins as could ever be evoked, and every single one of them has been logically and beautifully put down by Dawkins many, many times.
    At this point, the “belief in a Supreme Deity” as defended by these vain dunderheads ranks as the single dumbest position a human can advance as a general, rather than an entirely personal, Truth. (And this is from a guy who, in a way, believes in fairies and elves, UFOs, and telepathy, though not in Elvis-sightings or Nessie.)

  5. #5 Peter McGrath
    September 30, 2006

    Why should Unwin write such stuff? It got him a column in The Guardian and a book plug. It’s easy to review, to criticize. It’s much harder to be a Dawkins, who led the atheist evolution charge with The Selfish Gene. The British former MP Tony Benn described people in politiss a either signposts or weathercocks (windvanes). Dawkins is a signpost.

  6. #6 Pete K
    September 30, 2006

    These debates can go on forever, and never get anywhere. Surely such bayesian analysis is silly – one either sees evidence of God everywhere, or nowhere. One couldn’t need to pick and choose in such a way. I haven’t read any of the book, so I don’t know if Dawkins defines God or gods at all…but, also, logically, neither theists nor atheists could even define god (since god is supposed to be supernatural, not natural, and therefore “beyond” human definitions).

    If God is defined as an old man in the sky with a white beard, then of COURSE god is a delusion. Maybe, people just have a deluded idea of God, like creationists have a deluded idea of what evolution really is? Also, does such honesty and rationality do much good, ultimately? People would rather believe than know, as Neitzsche pointed out. Surely, for every person “converted” to atheism and/or nihilism by Dawkins or someone like him, a thousand have been converted to a religion by their parents or an evangelist.

    Overall, people are getting MORE religious, not less. Watch the news. More people in the world are religious than are not, more people are ignorant of science than are knowledgable. And the more incidences of religious conflicts that occur, the more other religions use the to bolster THEIR religion. It’s like Sisyphus and his rock. But of course, every little helps…

  7. #7 Pete K
    October 1, 2006

    Surely, these debates can go on forever, and never get anywhere. If God underpins everything, such picking-and-choosing Bayseian analysis is unnecessary anyway: one either sees evidence for God everywhere, or nowhere. So Unwin is picking and choosng what is evidence for God andwhat isn’t.

    Does Dawkins define God or gods at any point? (I haven’t read any of the book yet…) Logically, one could not, since definitions are limited by human comprehension, and deities are supposed to be “beyond” human understanding. If God is defined as “old man in the sky with white beard”, then OF COURSE belief in God is delusional. If God is defined as SUPERnatural, i.e. above and beyond reality, responsible for and underpinning the laws of nature that he/she/it created, but deistically trandescent from them, then there’s no way of investigating God(s) scientifically, since by definition science’s aegis covers only the physical world (entities and phenonema which can be measured/quantified/observed/hypothesized and tested experimentally.) Could it be that only human IDEAS of god(s) that are deluded, just like creationists’ ideas about evolution are deluded? But then again, if science can’t explain something, nothing can, as Dawkins likes to point out.

    Also, despite Dawkins’ eternal and indefatigable eloquence, forcefulness, clarity and frankness, do such honest and rational books ever do much “good”, ultimately? OK, atheists and agnostics will have more ammunition and sticks with which to beat fundies and charlatans into line (and intellectual sloppiness to laugh at). But will complacent believers think twice about their arbitrary dogma? Or even be interested in/fully understand the arguments? Surely, for every person in the world deconverted, a thousand are converted by their parents, with quick and easy answers – people would rather believe than know, as Neitzsche said. Watch the news. People are getting MORE religious, not less. MOST people are religious, MOST people know next to nothing about science. To them, believing in God is axiomatic – remember Pastor Haggard in “The root of all evil”(in the first episode, which was also called “The God Delusion”!)? “As we discover more facts, we’ll discover how God created the universe”…..HOW, not IF, God created the universe. According to people like him, the naive, traditional, creator God is already taken for granted – axiomatic , proven. Everything is of less importance.

    But of course, every little helps. Nice to see a science writer using the word “god” in his book title, in a derogatory sense – unlike some physicsts referring to a “neodeistic psuedoreligion” as Dawkins called it.

  8. #8 Brian Coughlan
    October 1, 2006

    Licknick … your comment was the intellectual equivalent of a loud fart in a silent room. Embarrasing, unpleasant but also kind of amusing.

    Everything you trotted out has been extensivley demolished by Dawkins book “The God Delusion”, which is why you got the ferocious response you justly deserved.

    My recommendation would be to do yourself a favour and read it. If nothing else, it should hone your arguments for the next encounter:-) How …. Darwinian.

  9. #9 Torbjörn Larsson
    October 1, 2006

    “What if God exists, but he looks exactly like James Randi, and casts all the woo-woos into hell for their refusal to use their brains?”

    Wow, I just had the nice feeling of a bit of cognitive dissonance being ripped out of me! For some reason (but it could simply be my hangover) I don’t remember that I ever analysed Pascal’s wager that way. If so, I’m pretty sure it was religious residuals from my early struggle to resolve one of the four big mysteries for a young person. (The most important one being girls of course, with morals and politics second.) Now the wager seems even more stupid.

    “it’s as if Unwin hadn’t even bothered to read as deeply as the chapter titles in the table of contents. Case in point: chapter four is titled “Why there almost certainly is no God””

    He refused to read the interview too. It states clearly: “Believers wrongly accuse Dawkins of being himself a fundamentalist, a fundamentalist atheist. He argues the difference: that given proof he was wrong he would at once change his opinions, whereas the true fundamentalist clings to his faith whatever the challenge.

    Similarily, Dawkins is often accused of misusing his science to found his atheism. But it seems Dawkins is agnostic regarding science: “We cannot prove that there is no God, but we can safely conclude the He is very, very improbable indeed.” ( http://www.simonyi.ox.ac.uk/dawkins/WorldOfDawki… ) It seems his atheism has other sources.

    Another refusal of Unwin is to look for Dawkins’ reasoning behind the basis for morals: “As for Dawkins’ assertion that moral behaviour for believers is simply “sucking up to God”, or that morality doesn’t need faith, I feel that such observations miss the more fundamental question of why we have moral or aesthetic values at all – such as the ones by which Dawkins, myself and others venerate rational analysis. This is among the questions that, to my knowledge, no science is on the verge of answering compellingly.”

    But the important question is indeed if one can be moral without religion, and the answer is unequivocally “yes”. Unwin’s deflection of this is akin creationists abiogenesis argument. And like abiogenesis, there are plenty of ideas how morals originate without necessarily involving religion.

    “Unwin is a risk management consultant who carries a torch for Bayesian inference”.

    Methods based on Bayes theorem have some uses. When one can ascertain that they describe probabilities, they can be used to compare and simplify models or in filters. When one can’t, they describe estimates which can be used in constrained models similar to the SETI Drake equation, but also easily twisted into unconstrained GIGO crap or woo-woo. Unwin does both. Another analysis of his argument can be found at http://scienceblogs.com/goodmath/2006/07/yet_another_crappy_bayesian_ar.php .

  10. #10 Houdini's Ghost
    October 2, 2006

    I just read The God Delusion this weekend, and I thought it was great overall. But my favorite part is in the bibilography, where Ann Coulter’s latest screed is misnamed. Dawkins has it as Godless: The Church of Liberation. Isn’t it though?

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