Holt on Dawkins

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.


More like this

I've noticed in all of these reviews (the ones you're reviewing) that the number one skill all of Dawkins' detractors so far have in common is the strawman argument. Take that final quote from Holt, for example. Where did Dawkins ever say that naturalistic explanations for religion would prove religion false? I saw that nowhere in the book, but apparently Holt did.

The second most frequent tactic I've seen is that of the red herring. Much like Terry Eagleton who complains that Dawkins hadn't given sufficient thought to the finer points of dogma from historical theologian x, y, and z. Why does it matter? If there is no evidence for God, we don't need to discuss the details. I don't need to know differing theories among Pagans of fairy wingspan to dismiss the existence of fairies.

By Tyler DiPietro (not verified) on 01 Nov 2006 #permalink

First of all, let me come out and say this. God spoke to me the other day and wanted me to let everyone know that he's pissed off about all the controversy over this book. He also wanted me to tell everybody he doesn't exist.

Ok, now that I got that off my chest...

The proper term, I believe, would be cognitive dissonance reduction. You can either a) factor in new information that you recieve and alter your worldview to accomodate the change in information; or b) devise a clever ruse to convince yourself that the presented information is false and therefore disregard the aforementioned data. Of course, one cannot have this discussion or any other type of academic discussion with the true believers. What proof can one offer to a person that would proclaim that all knowledge is presented by revelation from deity? I'm sorry, I just cannot argue with that mentality.

Let's face it Hume killed this god off long before Dawkins great-grandparents were ever born. He was just too big a sissy to publish the work in his own lifetime. I am glad to see you discussing the various reviews of Richard Dawkins new book here. I haven't had the time to read it yet. Sadly, I'm stuck sifting my way through The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, so it could be a while before I can undertake this book; but it is on my list of books to read soon.

I have had the opinion since I started reading your blog that you were of the crowd that believes we should somehow appease the religious types and not make waves about how Darwinism has eroded the likelihood of their god's existence. I'm beginning to think maybe I had you all wrong.

When I see that ornate writing style in anything that is trying to pass as peer review or research, I pretty much tune out. I will leave it to you to poke holes in her elaborate drivel, I am busy fighting the good fight on other (more mainstream) websites. I'm a supporter of Dawkins and am just interested spreading the message of science/evolution. At one point in my life (childhood) I believed in God, but now find the notion highly improbable (99.99% against)

For what it's worth, Spinoza disposed of the ontological argument (OA) almost incidentally about 330 years ago. According to the OA, as neatly summarized by Jason, since it is possible to conceive of a perfect being (defined as something than which nothing greater can be imagined) and since that perfection must include existence, that perfect being must exist. But Spinoza comes along and gently points out that since the universe (the universe defined as all that is) in its totality must perforce be greater than any being contained by the universe there is no necessity for an individuated 'god', but rather 'god' is all of the universe itself, or as Spinoza felicitously puts it: Deus sive Natura.

You'll find it in proposition XI in the first part of the Ethics. The language is dense and his references to God may be misleading, but remember that he was writing at a time and place when outright atheism could still get you killed (kind of like it can in parts of the Muslim world today) and his own unconventional views had already led to his exclusion from his own community (Amsterdam's Jews) leaving him an exile from a community of exiles. Not referencing Spinoza, doesn?t make Dawkins' dismissal of the OA any less right because he's bang on, but pointing out his dismissal's philosophical provenance to grandstanders like Holt, Robinson and Eagleton might slow them down a little.

Thomas Nagel reviewed The God Delusion in The New Republic. Thomas Nagel seems to be a well known philosopher interested in Philosophy of Mind, and might be associated with something called New Mysterianism. The review shows an atheist with anti-reductionist views. That seems an interesting review to review.

By Gerdien de Jong (not verified) on 02 Nov 2006 #permalink

I second the call that you review Nagel's review. Nagel is a real philosopher. Good stuff.

Your comment about God being lonely reminded me of an Asimov story I read as a kid. I forget the name, but the premise was that God designed the universe in order to create intelligence in order to discover a way for God to commit suicide. It was interesting.

By Chris Bell (not verified) on 02 Nov 2006 #permalink

@Chris Bell:

The name of that Asimov story is "The Last Answer" (1980), which you can find in the collection Robot Dreams. It is not one of Asimov's most remarkable stories — it can hardly stand up beside "The Last Question", which I suppose is its logical counterpart — but it conveys the central ideas clearly and memorably.

I read the Holt review a few days ago, and was a bit baffled by his references the OA. The familiar formulations (Anselm's and Descartes) have some pretty obvious flaws, the biggest for me being simply the semantic emptiness of phrases like "greatest being that can be conceived". That doesn't mean anything specific enough to base an argument on. The question (in the case of the Descartes formulation) of whether whether "existence" is a property of an entity, and whether an entity that exists is more perfect than an entity that doesn't, is secondary to the bare fact that a "perfect entity" is again something that really doesn't mean anything.

It seems to me that, for the most part, later work on the Ontological Argument is motivated simply by the desire to investigate the logical posibilities. Is it possible to dismiss all ontological arguments using logic (i.e. is there some sort of knock-down argument that enables you to dismiss all ontological arguments out of hand)? How could other forms of logic (e.g. modal logic) be used to formulate an ontological argument? That's, to me, the main reason why 'ink has been spilled' on these arguments over the years, not as a serious attempt to justify theism. Which means that Holt either misrepresents or misunderstands the arguments when he chastises Dawkins for dismissing them. Of course, perhaps Dakwins is being a bit narrow when he expresses bafflement at why Bertrand Russell spent time on them: after all, Russell *was* a logician.

I have a copy of Nagel's review on my desk, and I plan on discussing it in some future blog entry. Sadly, it doesn't seem to be freely avialble online, which means I'll actually have to transcribe paragraphs by hand. Nagel's review was one of the most substantive and interesting of the ones that I have read, but I think he also gets it wrong in certain places.

I have always found ontological arguments a great solace in my travels on the Net. They demonstrate, for example, that the perfect Wikipedia article must exist, because among its many superb attributes, it must have the attribute of existence.

The fallacy in the OA is in the assumption that the attributes of a perfect being necessarily include existence.

Consider the "interesting numbers" argument: If you try to create two lists of numbers, those which are "interesting" (for example, 2 is interesting because it is the only even prime; 4 is interesting, because it can be made from 2+2, 2*2 or 2**2; 15 is interesting because it is a triangle number; 28 is interesting because it is the sum of its own factors, and so on) and those which are "uninteresting", then the "uninteresting" numbers become "interesting" by simple virtue of the fact that they have no "interesting" property!

If a perfect being would somehow be less perfect simply by virtue of existing in fact (perhaps because the existence of a perfect being would automatically do some sort of harm to imperfect beings -- proof of one's own imperfection might well be deleterious to some -- and a perfect being would not be able to do any harm), then such a being could never exist in fact.

Besides which, the iterative process (imagine a being, remove its imperfections to imagine a more perfect being and repeat from step 2) is still an infinite one and may not even converge.


My point exactly.

Compare the old Calvin and Hobbes story in which Calvin adds an "ethicator" to his duplicator machine, producing a duplicate of only his good side. Of course, it doesn't work out very well: "He could only be perfectly good as an abstraction. In his human manifestation, he wanted to throttle me."

The ontological argument is pure mental masterbation, as AJS's post amply demonstrates. It serves only as the answer to the question of how the perfect being kept from getting so bored all alone...

AJS: ... 28 is interesting because it is the sum of its own factors...

2+2+7 = 28 ?

My math studies ended when I was thrown out of trig class in 11th grade (for non-mathematical reasons), but I have to agree, that's "interesting". What have I missed here?

... the "uninteresting" numbers become "interesting" by simple virtue of the fact that they have no "interesting" property!

Um, aren't they just members of an "interesting" set (the set of interesting numbers thereby would include all numbers, no?)? (Spinoza may have covered this, if there's a gimmick for making numbers out of gods...)

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 04 Nov 2006 #permalink


The factors of 28 are 1,2,4,7 and 14. Notice that we have 1+2+4+7+14=28. Technically, 28 is also facotr of itself, so technically AJS should have said that 28 is the sum of its proper divisors. :)

Mathematicians refer to numbers of this form as “perfect numbers.” Another example is six, since 1+2+3=6.

The factors of 28 are 1,2,4,7 and 14. Notice that we have 1+2+4+7+14=28. Technically, 28 is also facotr of itself, so technically AJS should have said that 28 is the sum of its proper divisors. :)

Hmmm...couldn't we say that -1, -2, -4, -7 and -14 are also proper divisors? Maybe AJS should have said that 28 is the sum of its positive proper divisors. :)

Jason -

Okay, but by allowing the 1 without the 28, it seems to me there's no reason you can't add as many 1s as needed to satisfy a wide range of puzzle requirements. Still, 28 is "interesting" by not requiring such a cheat, I s'poze.

It must be frustrating for mathematicians to see "10" used to represent a "perfect" score in gymnastics, sex appeal, etc.

Is 15 a "triangle number" because 15 bowling pins can be arranged in a triangular pattern, or just because it can be considered as 3 equal sides of 5 units? Are 3, 6, 21, et seq just as "interesting"?

As for divinely derived numbers, I'd be amazed if theonumericists haven't advanced beyond numerology, kabbalah, pyramidology & Book of Revelations calcs by now. Once cosmologists come up with solid figures on the totality of the universe, any useful work with Spinoza's God+Universe>Universe formula will require values for G: perhaps a pinhead-sized array of angelfoot microsensors or a technique to calculate the remaining lives of Schrodinger's cat could be helpful. Is the Faith-Based Initiative funding lab grants yet?

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 05 Nov 2006 #permalink