Dawkins is not a good theory

Written by Eike Pierstorff

Slate has an interview with Richard Dawkins (if you don’t know who that is the following will mean nothing to you) who is asked the explain the criticism towards his person. He answers by alleging that “some people fear clarity”.

I’m sorry, but that is a shmuck’s answer – “they don’t like me so so they must fear me”. I cannot judge Dawkins the biologist but I have read some of the stuff he has published on atheism. I have to say I rather dislike Dawkins the atheist because he is not at all clear.

The case for atheism can be summed up in four words, “there is no god”; that’s pretty much the be-all and end-all of it [1]. The added rhetoric actually adds very little, all that “who would want to believe in the ghastly god of the bible anyway”. Duh, it’s christians [2].

It wouldn’t be so bad if he sticked to biology as his area of expertise. He doesn’t do that, presumably because that would involve rather technical arguments that people without a background in biology (such as, for example, me) would have a hard time to understand. Instead he dabbles in history, sociology, philosophy and related disciplines, and he isn’t even particulary good at it, mostly because he presents the issue as a disjointed series of smoking guns instead of carefully building his case on the preponderance of evidence.

In constrast, an extremely good example of careful reasoning is Sean Caroll’s lecture “God is not a good theory” in which Caroll explains how the idea of god does not contribute to our understanding of the universe around us. Again, I cannot judge Sean Caroll the theoretical physicist [3] but I can judge if  his is an coherent argument.

Caroll’s lecture starts with  careful defitions – what, in the scope of the lecture, is meant by “God”, what is a theory, how do we judge (again, in the scope of the lecture)  if something is good or less so. Subsequent arguments follow from, and are build on top of, prior ones. And most importantly, he comfortably stays within his own area of expertise. God is a bad theory not because Hitler paid his church taxes but because the laws of physics already explain anything that God was supposed to explain; HE is not necessary [4].

So while the outcome is the same – god’s non-existence does not depend on the quality of the arguments for it – I find Sean Carrol’s approach much more preferable. Dawkins is much more antagonizing, and however how noble the intentions these days that always end with two factions on the internet throwing shit at each other [5]. I think this is not a good approach – if all I want to do is shout at other people I do not need the pretext of scientific argument in the first place [6].

What it boils down to is that Dawkins says that religions turns people into assholes and that therefore we should eliminate religion. However since it has turned out people can be assholes without help from any religion I’d posit that Dawkins atheism does not do anything to explain general assholery; it is not necessary and hence a bad theory.  Rather than stop being believers it might be prudent for all people if they’d tried and stop being assholes instead.

  1. Please note that is not so much about atheism vs. religion and more about what standard of argument one should accept in public discussion. If you are a believer then by all means proceed; I’m an atheist, not a missionary.
  2. I’m talking here mostly about “The God Delusion”, a book that, without a prominent name attached to it would not have survived copy editing, or at least shouldn’t have. You can keep all quips about my own copy skills (spelling!) to yourself.
  3. I have read, and would recommend his books “From Eternity to Here” and “The Particle at the End of the Universe“. However I found them more entertaining than enlightening – I would be troubled to explain the physics of a boiling water kettle, so I don’t think I’m in any position to discuss quantum mechanics etc., or to be a judge if Caroll’s theories are correct. Not that the very same predicament stops other people from doing so.
  4. There is an awful temptation to mention Occam’s razor at this point. However that would be terribly unfair – “Plurality must never be posited without necessity” was meant by Ockham to be an argument in favour of the existence of god, not against.
  5. And constantly claiming victory over each other on their respective blogs and forums (forae ?).
  6. Admittedly this describes Dawkins followers rather than the man himself.

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