There He Goes Again

I said this in The Big Questions and I’ll say it again: Richard Dawkins is an international treasure and one of my personal heroes, but he’s got this God thing all wrong. Here’s some of his latest, from the Wall Street Journal:

Where does [Darwinian evolution] leave God? The kindest thing to say is that it leaves him with nothing to do, and no achievements that might attract our praise, our worship or our fear. Evolution is God’s redundancy notice, his pink slip. But we have to go further. A complex creative intelligence with nothing to do is not just redundant. A divine designer is all but ruled out by the consideration that he must be at least as complex as the entities he was wheeled out to explain. God is not dead. He was never alive in the first place.

But Darwinian evolution can’t replace God, because Darwinian evolution (at best) explains life, and explaining life was never the hard part. The Big Question is not: Why is there life? The Big Question is: Why is there anything? Explaining life does not count as explaining the Universe.

Ah, says, Dawkins, but there’s no role for God there either:

Making the universe is the one thing no intelligence, however superhuman, could do, because an intelligence is complex—statistically improbable —and therefore had to emerge, by gradual degrees, from simpler beginnings

That, however, is just wrong. It is not true that all complex things emerge by gradual degrees from simpler beginnings. In fact, the most complex thing I’m aware of is the system of natural numbers (0,1,2,3, and all the rest of them) together with the laws of arithmetic. That system did not emerge, by gradual degrees, from simpler beginnings.

If you doubt the complexity of the natural numbers, take note that you can use just a small part of them to encode the entire human genome. That makes the natural numbers more complex than human life. Unless, of course, human beings contain an uncodable essence, like an immortal soul—but I’m guessing that’s not the road Dawkins wants to take.

Now I happen to agree with Professor Dawkins that God is unnecessary, but I think he’s got the reason precisely backward. God is unnecessary not because complex things require simple antecedents but because they don’t. That allows the natural numbers to exist with no antecedents at all—and once they exist, all hell (or more precisely all existence) breaks loose: In The Big Questions I’ve explained why I believe the entire Universe is, in a sense, made of mathematics.

So while Dawkins believes that complexity can arise only from simplicity, I believe that complexity arises from even greater complexity. I’m not sure I’m right, but I’m sure he’s wrong.


55 Responses to “There He Goes Again”

  1. 1 1 Ben Alexander

    n fact, the most complex thing I’m aware of is the system of natural numbers (0,1,2,3, and all the rest of them) together with the laws of arithmetic. That system did not emerge, by gradual degrees, from simpler beginnings.

    If you doubt the complexity of the natural numbers, take note that you can use just a small part of them to encode the entire human genome. That makes the natural numbers more complex than human life.

    I don’t doubt the complexity of the natural numbers, not even a little bit, but the complexity of human beings is not just the genome. If I told you I made a photocopy of the human genome (as a sequence of A’s T’s G’s and C’s) and so I’ve created human life (or something as complex), you’d think I was being trite. And so I, you.

    In addition, the system of arithmetic as we know it DID develop in degrees from simpler beginnings. Reasonable people may disagree on the nature of mathematics (is it ‘discovered’ or ‘created’ by mathematicians?), but there’s no denying that our (all of humanity’s) understanding of that math has grown over time, from simple beginnings, growing fiercely or slowly over time, sometimes lost and rediscovered, sometimes lost forever. Dare I say that it has evolved over time?

  2. 2 2 Philip Potter

    Very interesting article; I am familiar with Dawkins’ arguments and have never heard this rebuttal.

    I would argue, however, that he is saying complexity emerges from simple roots. The system of natural numbers is based on a simple set of axioms which anyone can understand. The complexity only emerges from these simple beginnings. Different sets of axioms lead to different outcomes, some with great emergent complexity and some without. The important thing about emergent complexity is that noone was required to design it; it is the result of simple beginnings interacting through simple rules.

    To assert that the universe was created by God, however, is not an example of emergent complexity that I am aware of. There is no set of simple rules which govern God’s behaviour, or simple beginnings from which God emerged. (The “omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent” definition of God is not an acceptable simple set of axioms for God, because they are contradictory.)

    Then it becomes even more difficult to explain where God came from than it was to explain where the universe came from.

  3. 3 3 Daniel Kirk-Davidoff

    I think you need to be more clear about how you’re estimating the complexity of a thing.

    I would say that the system of natural numbers is a simple thing (it involves a pretty small number of rules and assumptions) that produces complex behavior, exactly the sort of process Dawkins is talking about. For instance (but using rational numbers), the equation x(n+1) = a*x(n)+(1-x(n)) is a very simple “thing” that, for a>3.5 or so, and for 0<x(0)<1, produces really complicated behavior, if you plot out x versus a for a large number of iterations at each value of a.

  4. 4 4 dr. phil


  5. 5 5 Dave

    Dr. Landsburg,

    Are you familiar with H. Allen Orr’s review of The God Delusion? He’s a Professor in the Biology Department. I advise you to read it.


  6. 6 6 Trevor

    You state: “In fact, the most complex thing I’m aware of is the system of natural numbers (0,1,2,3, and all the rest of them) together with the laws of arithmetic. That system did not emerge, by gradual degrees, from simpler beginnings.”

    I should say right off the bat that I do not know whether this is true or not, but it strikes me as a claim in need of support. Did not early civilizations develop numerical systems different from our current one. They were subsequently improved upon or abandoned. Did we not have integers before the “zero”? The number 1 was also not considered a number in some early Greek writings (Wikipedia cites Book 7 of Euclid’s Elements on this point).

    In any case, I think all concepts in mathematics can trace a long history of gradual development. Am I missing something here?

  7. 7 7 Seth

    Does evolution answer “Why is there life?” I thought it only answered how life changes over time. If evolution can answer why there is life, I’m always eager to learn. Please fill me in.

  8. 8 8 Snorri Godhi

    Is not the whole of atheism simply an instance of argumentum ad ignorantiam? if so, why bother to debate the details of atheists’ argument?

    In this specific case, suppose for the sake of argument that complexity necessarily originates from simplicity (and I have my doubts, considering the second law of thermodynamics). Now why cannot there be a simple God developing into a complex God Who then creates the Universe?

  9. 9 9 Greg B.

    Trevor…I think his point is that even before we understood mathematics, it existed. We have only discovered it, not invented it.

  10. 10 10 anon

    What does it mean to say that the system of natural numbers and the laws of arithmetic “emerged.” Emerged into what? Existence? I think there’s a lot of people who would say that these things don’t “exist” in the same sense that, say, the universe exists.

  11. 11 11 A reluctant analyst

    Dr. Landsburg

    The complex system of natural numbers has been created by the human brain, which has emerged from simpler beginnings, innit true?

  12. 12 12 Steve Landsburg

    I’m chiminng in here to respond to Ben Alexander, Trevor, the Reluctant Analyst and others who appear to believe that mathematics is a human invention that did in fact develop gradually over time.

    I believe it’s much closer to the truth to say that arithmetic was always there—in all its glorious complexity—and that humans gradually discovered (and are still discovering it) over time.

    Of course that puts two burdens on me: One is to say exactly what I mean by this, and the other is to offer some evidence for it.

    I’ve tried to tackle those problems in The Big Questions. I’m sure I haven’t settled them definitively, but I hope I’ve at least succeeded (there, not, alas, here) in explaining why I’m pretty sure of this.

    For one thing: The consistency of arithmetic (which is something we all intuit) is, I believe, strong evidence for something like an independent existence as opposed to a human invention.

    There is much more in the book. I hope you buy it. :)

  13. 13 13 JGreer

    His position appears to be ‘if evolution exists, then god does not’. That’s as big a non sequitur as I’ve ever seen. By the same logic thousands of scientists and programmers working on creating complex, self-modifying systems do not exist either.

    I’ve always wondered why both pro-god and anti-god people choose to revolve their arguments around evolution. Why a religion would oppose evolution is beyond me. Why not simply view it as yet another miracle/mystery from an omnipotent god? For those who believe god does not exist, explaining a single natural process proves nothing, except the function of that particular natural process. Both positions appear exceedingly lazy to me.

  14. 14 14 Sam Grove

    Would anyone suggest that the ratio of the circle’s circumference to its diameter was ever not what we call Pi?

    IAC, perhaps intelligence will become god in order to create the beginning.

  15. 15 15 Dana H.

    “Is not the whole of atheism simply an instance of argumentum ad ignorantiam?”

    No. Atheism is simply the absence of a particular irrational belief. The onus of proof is on the theist, not the atheist. An atheist may refute the arguments of a theist. But atheism as such requires no argument; it is the default position, given the lack of evidence for religion.

    Argumentum ad ignorantiam better describes the theist criticism of evolutionary theory based on “irreducible complexity.” In essence, the argument is: I cannot imagine how such a complex organism or organ could have evolved from something simpler; therefore it must have been divinely designed. (Dawkins amusingly but accurately calls this, “The argument from personal incredulity.”)

  16. 16 16 Snorri Godhi

    “No. Atheism is simply the absence of a particular irrational belief.”

    I respectfully suggest that you look up the dictionary definitions of atheism and agnosticism.

    “But atheism as such requires no argument; it is the default position, given the lack of evidence for religion.”

    This is the same as saying that absence of evidence is evidence of absence, ie argumentum ad ignorantiam.

    “Argumentum ad ignorantiam better describes the theist criticism of evolutionary theory based on “irreducible complexity.””

    Replace “better” with “also” and you are spot on. The atheist says: there is no evidence for God, therefore God does not exist. The creationist says: God exists, therefore there is evidence for God. They are two sides of the same coin.

  17. 17 17 Shannon Love

    Mathematics is wholly an artificial construct. It in no way depends natural law. Instead, it is a language we use to condense the information captured in measurements to something individual human minds can grasp. As such it can’t tell us anything about how natural systems originate or evolve.

    For example, the mathematics we currently use to describe space all depend on the concept of the point which is an utterly dimensionless “object” with absolutely no physical analog. Likewise, our mathematics assumes that space is infinitely divisible whereas some results of quantum physics suggest it might not be. And don’t get me started on the square root of -1.

    The math we actually use and declare “TRUE” is just a subset of a functionally infinite set of mathematical systems that are all logically rigorous but that start with different axioms. For example, we could define simply division not by the number of pieces we end up with but by the number of division or cuts that we make. In that kind of system dividing by 2 would give 3. Dividing by 1 would give 2 and (a great boon for programmers) dividing by 0 would give 1. Such a system is perfectly logical and consistent we just don’t use it.

    Even the basic act of assigning a number to a physical object is a kludge. I might have 4 “apples” but how do I define “apple”? Does and apple have to be picked or can it be on the tree? Do they have to be ripe to count? Can it be a single cell fertilized zygote in the flower? This seems contrived but real scientist face these kinds of quandaries. For example, ecologists often have to wrestle whether to include immature or even eaten organisms in their ecological models.

    In the end mathematics evolved from a very simple tool to a very complex one by the progressive addition of more abstractions that proved useful. It perfectly parallels biological evolution.

    Having said that, Dawkins is in my opinion a religious zealot. It was wrenching to see one of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century crank out dreck like the God Delusion. It was like seeing an elderly loved one suddenly develop Alzheimer’s.

  18. 18 18 Dana H.

    “This is the same as saying that absence of evidence is evidence of absence.”

    This is a common claim made by agnostics and theists, but it is wrong. The issue here is the burden of proof. Because it is impossible to prove a negative, this burden lies on the person making a positive claim. For example, suppose someone asserts that there is a race of Elvis Presley impersonators living under the surface of Mars, yet offers no evidence of this. It is not rational to be “agnostic” on the issue simply because you cannot prove that the alleged Elvis impersonators do *not* exist. The rational position is to dismiss the claim out of hand. Mere agnosticism in the absence of evidence for a claim, whether about Martian Elvises or gods, is not an intellectually defensible position.

    The only reasons the claims of religion get more respect than the claims of Elvises on Mars are history and number of adherents. But these claims are equally worthy of dismissal. Given that atheism “is the absence of belief in the existence of deities,” (per Wikipedia) there is no requirement that the atheist prove that deities cannot or do not exist. He merely must be able to refute any argument that they do.

  19. 19 19 Stanley Nemeth

    Philosophy, Aristotle tells us, begins in wonder. Wonder is the area, in my view, where Dawkins inadvertently reveals his greatest shortcoming, his failure at the outset to be bowled over by the astonishing fact that anything exists at all. As a scientist he’s properly caught up in proximate causes, but why these rule out an interest in, much less the existence of, first causes are matters he fails to address in any depth.

  20. 20 20 D. Watson

    Not having picked up your book, I can’t respond to your full discussion. I find myself agreeing and disagreeing with you.

    Y’see, part of the problem both you and he are bringing up is what we mean by “create.” There is stuck in Western thought since the councils that create must mean “ex nihilo”. There is no Biblical support for that. The better term for what Genesis speaks of is “organize” rather than “produce from nothing.” That is, in fact, the sense we usually mean when we talk of creating anything: we take the parts that are already there, physical and mental, and combine them to form a new thing. “In the beginning … the earth was without form” not “In the beginning there was no matter.”

    Joseph Smith, some one hundred years before Einstein said the same thing, claimed that matter “was not created or made, neither indeed can be” (Doctrine and Covenants 93:29). Mormon/LDS theology has long accepted the eternal, ‘independent existence’ of God, the universe with all its matter, mathematics, and all of us. It’s still not proof there is no God. It’s eternal, self-existent nature is in fact one more type and shadow of Him.

  21. 21 21 D. Watson

    Make that: its eternal, self-existent…

  22. 22 22 Walt

    Arithmetic, and the universe, rests upon unprovable assumptions.

  23. 23 23 Philip E. Graves

    I think many of the respondents (and Steve) might get a kick out of what I call my “God paper,” though as a mere economist I am unqualified to write such a thing. It was recently published in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Research on Religion and Science. Here are two links to the paper:
    Blog away on what you think of the ideas!
    Best, Phil

  24. 24 24 Dave M.

    Dana H., who was Jesus? He did exist because people lived with him, ate with him, learned from him, and died for him, as he first died and rose from the dead for them. Witnesses wrote about their time and experiences with him, what he did and why he came. So who was he Dana H.? Now, if you say he did not exist, thus, you have no need to refute anything, you are just hiding behind your lazy atheism. You do need to prove he did not exist. You need to refute his witnesses.

  25. 25 25 Lenny

    I think you guys are over complicationg the whole issue of GOD.
    It seems to me that god is nothning more than an idea created by early man to ameliorate his fears.
    Why go on and on about it? Some ideas are correct and some aren’t.
    As humans we still rely on irrational expanations of things we can’t or don’t understand. It’s hard for many of us to admit that we just don’t know the answer to some of life’s big questions. Some of us make up things to help us feel less affraid of that which we don’t know.

  26. 26 26 Snorri Godhi


    a. Apparently, you have not yet looked up a dictionary. FYI:
    a.1. wikipedia is not a dictionary;
    a.2. the definition of atheism that I found in wikipedia at the time I looked it up is: the position that deities do not exist. To confuse this position with the absence of belief in deities is, for all practical purposes, equivalent to argumentum ad ignorantiam.

    b. you have not explained how your statement that “atheism is the default position” is different from argumentum ad ignorantiam. The concept of burden of proof is of no help to you, since
    b.1. I do not intend to prove anything (except that atheism is argumentum ad ignorantiam)
    b.2. I did not say that your conclusion is wrong: I said that your reasoning is not validating. To confuse the two is itself argumentum ad ignorantiam.

    c. I am indeed agnostic about the existence of Elvis Presleys on Mars. Why should I bother to have an opinion? what difference does it make to me? of course I dismiss the claim, but not on the ground that I know it to be wrong: only on the ground that I do not care about it one way or the other. I can’t even be bothered to think about the reasons why Elvis Presleys could not survive on Mars.

    If you used the example of a man-eating big cat lurking around in the green areas near my home, that would be different. In this case, absence of evidence is indeed evidence of absence: a big cat must eat something, and there is no suitable prey other than humans and pets around here, and their deaths would be noticed.

    You might be interested to know that I live in the country with the smallest percentage of monotheists in Europe. That is not to say that there is the largest percentage of atheists: rather, there is the largest percentage of animists, a position for which I have more respect than I have for either (dogmatic) monotheism or atheism.

  27. 27 27 yet another Dave

    I posit that both atheism and theism are faith-based belief systems, since neither can be proven.

  28. 28 28 David

    The question of why complex things exist concerns contingent things, i.e., things that need not exist. Numbers are necessary existents; no question then arises as to why they exist. The entirely true claim that complex numbers do not emerge from simpler numbers is thus irrelevant to the question Dawkins and his critics are addressing.

  29. 29 29 Mike H

    The argument summarized:
    (1) Ray Kurzweil says computers are going to become super smart.
    (2) Therefore, computers are going to become super smart.
    (3) Therefore, computers are going to become all-knowing.
    (4) Therefore, other stuff.

    (1) -> (2) seems extremely weak, while (2) -> (3) verges on absurdity.
    Sorry to be dismissive, as it looks like you have put a lot of work into the paper.

  30. 30 30 Michael Rulle

    There surely is nothing more interesting and pointless than discussing the existence or non existence of God. So it is a perfect topic for me to weigh in on. My own view is that Theism, Atheism, and Agnosticism all require an act of faith at the outset.

    First, one has to have faith one is not imagining the universe. There is no proof there is “really” anything outside myself. In fact one could say, “one’s default position” is there is nothing outside oneself. It is pure tautolgy to say otherwise. But I have faith that I exist and that you exist. I choose to believe it is so. It is the starting point of reason. I like to say that reason starts in emptiness and ends in darkness—but that all the action is in between. It is simply not possible for reason to explain anything about why we are here and conscious. Or explain why the sperm egg combo that created “you” is not the same “you” that the sperm which almost got your mother’s egg would have been. We can “know” nothing about the source or nature of our own being. Agnosticism also requires faith that reason is the only method one can use to know.

    It is also impossible to even imagine something before time or something after time. The concept of a “beginning of the universe” is itself stupid–as we cannot imagine a nothing before a beginning.
    Given that homo-sapiens came into in existence at approximately the 99.99999% mark on the universal time scale, it would seem reasonable to be more humble about what our nature is. Science exists between “emptiness and darkness”. Dawkins assumes it can step outside “time” and make judgments about “why”. Who says God must exist within the boundaries of time? Concepts of “default positions’ are a joke when contemplating such questions. There are no default positions. Just faith and questions.

  31. 31 31 RL

    Snorri: Some arguments you can conclude by looking up terms in a dictionary. Other arguments you can only begin that way.

    The words “atheism” and “agnosticism” both have a long history, and your definitional quest has been made by others many times in the past. If looked at purely on etymological grounds, atheism means “a” “theism” or “the absence of theism”. As such, it does not require the positive belief that gods don’t exist, merely the absence of a belief in god, for whatever reason. When you claim a certain argument is “ahistorical” you don’t mean that history proves the opposite of the claim, merely that the claim has no historical support.

    Atheism and theism are concepts describing belief sets; they do not specify the REASONS for the belief set. You could be an atheist because you are a newborn baby, who, having no formed concepts, in particular has no concept or belief in gods. Historically, this was once heatedly debated, and many theists claimed newborns DID have belief in God. Given that you can’t go to heaven without a belief in God and newborns occasionally die (more so in the past) this was thought an important issue. But few informed neuroscientists today would argue newborns hold a belief in God.

    Agnosticism, another denial word beginning with “a”, deals with lack of gnosis, or knowledge. So while you can be a theist and believe in God, if you have no argument for that belief, you hold a belief without knowledge, and so are an agnostic theist. Similarly, if you are a newborn, you are an agnostic atheist. If, on the other hand, you had studied the matter closely and come to recognize all the standard arguments for god’s existence as logically flawed, you are a gnostic atheist. Even here, you need not believe that “God exists” is false. You need only believe there is no evidence “God exists” is true.

    This etymological discussion and its philosophical roots, is well discussed in the somewhat dated but still worthwhile “Atheism: The Case Against God” by George H. Smith.

  32. 32 32 Ariel Glucklich

    The idea of god (as opposed to the entity) shows remarkable flexibility throughout human history. Sometimes it becomes more complex and elaborate and sometimes it grows in simplicity. It changes gender and number too. One interesting fact though: there is a close correlation between the changes that the idea of god undergoes and the changes that its host group undergoes. The correlation is too tight to be a coincidence. No such close correspondence holds in the domain of numbers. Hence the comparison of the two cases is not very fruitful. I’m inclined to go with Dawkins, at least methodologically: large-scale social trends are best explained by looking at more elementary phenomena.

  33. 33 33 Cos

    D. Watson: In support of your point, I’ll mention that the original Hebrew word used in Genesis that’s normally translated to “create”, used to describe what God did, isn’t actually the normal word for “create”, it’s a word used *only* in that context. And, interestingly, it always has two objects, not one. Recently, a theological academic (I forget who) has published a theory that the more accurate translation of this word is actually “to separate” rather than “to create”, as in, “in the beginning, God separated the heavens and the earth”, etc. That is, it refers to re-organizing existing matter.

  34. 34 34 JFiz

    @Ariel Glucklich:
    Your point is well taken, but I think you owe Robert Wright a citation (or at least a mention).

  35. 35 35 CJ Smith

    Jumping into the ad hominem attacks -

    Both theism and atheism are fundamentally belief based systems that both suffer from the logical fallacy of argumentum ad ignorantiam (hereinafter “argument from ignorance”) – assuming the validity of a proposition from an inability to prove the invalidity of the counter proposition. Theism erroneously posits that God exists because the existence of God can not be disproved. Atheism erroneously posits that God does not exist because the existence of God can not be proven.

    Snori G. correctly points out that Dana H.’s proposition “Atheism is the default position,” is incorrect. However, by failing to also point out that the counter-proposition, “Theism is the default position,” is also incorrect, Snori G. impliedly makes exactly the same type of argument from ignorance he dismisses in Dana H. – that Dana H.’s inability to prove that atheism is the default positoin therefor makes theism the default position. There is no “default position” in the logical debate of the ontological propostion of God. Ontology does not require a presumption of existence or non-existence. Snori G. this observation led me to my own argument from ignorance – that your critique of the proposition of Dana H. meant you were a theist. If I’m wrong, I apologize in advance.

    Similarly, Dana H. correctly points out that Snori G. “has the burden of proof” to support any propositions. However, Dana H. eviscerates the validity of this point in two respects. First, by not recognizing that under logical and rhetorical analysis, both theists and atheist are proponents of disparate propositions, and thus each bears the burden of proof regarding their own proposition. Second, by failing to note that the quantum of evidence required to meet the burden of proof of either proposition or is unquantified in this instance. Is the proposition proved by a “mere assertion?” By a “bursting bubble” presumption (the proposition is presumed valid until any scintilla of evidence contrary to the proposition is produced)? A burden shifting presumption (the proposition is presumed invalid until the proponent produces a quantum of proof [undefined in this matter] sufficient to prove the proposition, at which time the burden shifts to the opponent to produce a quantum of proof [undefined in this matter] sufficient to disprove the orignal assertion? A preponderance of the evidenct? A clear and convincing amount of evidence? Or a conclusive presumption (the validity of the proposition is irrefutable by law)?

    Snorri G. does touch upon what I personally consider the strongest argument for agnosticism over both atheism and theism. In my own words and my own opinion:

    God may exist; God may not exist; why is either proposition relevant to anything?

    My somewhat haphazard for this proposition is as follows:

    1. The concept that God is omnipotent, omnipresent and/or omniscient is disproved if one beleives in the concept of evil or of free will.

    Argument for atheists:
    2. Assuming for the sake of argument that God in not omnipotent, omnipresent, or omniscient, but exists at some undefined quanta below omnipotence/omniscience/omnipresence sufficient to allow for evil and/or free will:
    a. Why would such an entity require praise or worship? Why would God expect, require or benefit from the praise or worship of an entity whose power, knowledge and/or presence is so much lower than God’s? Do I expect, require or benefit from worship/lack of worship of single-celled organisms?
    b. If prayer or worship is seen as an attempt to coerce or otherwise influence God, why would it work or would anyone expect it to work?
    c. If I am given free will, but can be punished/rewarded for making choices that retard/advance God’s plan, why can’t I get a universally consistent game plan to follow?
    3. Assuming that God exists at an even lower level, such that God benefits from praise or worship, and/or can be coerced/influenced by praise or worship:
    a. By observation, God is either insanely capricious, childish, or autistic. Millions worship and pray to God (of whatever flavor, not just Christians), yet communication and responses, if any, are inconsistent if not outright self-contradictory, non-repetitive, random, limited to an unidentifiable (or only self-identifiable) few, or so lacking a causal relationship as to be non-existent.
    b. If I am attempting to influence God to action on my behalf or abstain from action against me, given the demonstrated lack of cause and effect, is there any appreciable expected return on investment?
    c. For monotheists and literalists: If God exists at a level so high above me that I can not discover or comprehend the rationale behind the what and why of God’s existence, but so low that God requires/benefits/responds to praise/worship, why can’t we get a clear unequivocable indication of what type of praise/worship is acceptable/unacceptable and which God or religion is the right one? Even single cell organisms demonstrate the ability to learn from positive/negative reinforcement.
    d. Also for monotheists/one true churchers/evangelists: If God exists at a level so low that God requires/benefits/responds to praise/worship from only a single belief system/church/sect/cult, why hasn’t that belief system/church/sect/cult become predominant, as God is looking out for only the select?
    e. Finally for monotheists: If there is only one God, why is the concept of monotheism such a relatively late cultural phenomena? No monotheistic belief system/church/sect/cult that I am aware of has existed throughout the entire span of recorded history.

    Counter argument from theists (pardon the blatant demonstration of where on the scale of theist to atheist I actually fall):
    1. Atheists might be wrong.
    2. Regardless of belief system/church/sect/cult, there exist certain broad moral considerations and teachings that underlie most religions that are consistent, among them free will, respect, love, charity, tolerance. etc. These are “God’s Words.” Use of religion in support of contrary propositions are the result of mistake/misunderstanding/intentional perversion of the moral consideration.
    3. From monotheists/literalists/one true churchers: We do have the one true faith/beleive/method of worship, we’re just hoping everyone else will get a clue.
    4. From theists in general: Accepting for the sake of argument that God is omnipotent/omniscient/omnipresent, but exists at such a high level above us that we can neither discover or comprehend God’s plan, purpose or intent – a little buttering up never hurts.

    The deciding fact for me is that I can not discern any causal relationship that even indicates to me that God has any need for, interest in, or ability to be influenced by my praise and worship. Conversely I have no personal proof that God has any need to, or interest in, establishing even a single simple unequivocable communication with me.

    Consequently, I conclude:

    If God doesn’t exist, fine. Nothing I can do or say will change that.

    If God exists, fine. God is doing whatever it is God does, without any need for my attention or assistance, and I am getting by without attention from God because God has more important things to attend to and is giving me and everyone like me a free ride “just because.”

    Which, upon reflection, may be more of an attack on religion than a comment on the existence or non-existence of God.

  36. 36 36 Greg Ransom

    Great puns using the word “exits”.

    You’ve never read Wittgenstein, I presume …

  37. 37 37 Fat Man

    I hope Prof. Dawkins has better arguments than that. Evolution of the species through natural variation and reproduction of the best adapted is, indeed, a very powerful theory. But it is not a theory of everything. It cannot explain at least three very important things, itself, the boundary conditions, and history.

    The boundary conditions include all of the physical sciences which are true and sufficient unto themselves, even in a universe without living things.

    History is even more important. Evolutionists tell us things like: “65 million years ago the a huge rock came out of the sky, hit the Yucatan peninsula, and killed all of the dinosaurs (poor babies)”.

    What would the history of life been like if that rock hadn’t arrived then? No one knows. Why that rock then and there? Not part of evolutionary theory, but part of history. And who or what ordered that rock? Is your head spinning yet.

    Dawkins and many of the commentors above make a category error when they oppose evolution and religion. Religions exist as social phenomena. Men create them to order their lives in the context of social groupings. The use of factual explanatory tropes in their teachings are seldom intended to produce useful knowledge about things, most typically, they are pointers toward things that are meaningful in the social context, and they need to be understood as such.

    As for arithmetic, Steven has taken the Platonic view, which has a long and rich history, but which cannot be accepted without faith in its truth. I tend to believe that arithmetic is human, but that geometry is the divine instrument.

  38. 38 38 Randy

    Mathematics can certainly be used to describe some of the physical world (though usually imprecisely), but it is not a component of the physical world, and all measurements we use to apply it to the physical world are measured in units of man-made origin.

    I think you both overstate the complexity of pure mathematics and wrongly imply that it’s a physical aspect. It’s a theoretical aspect, which can be used to describe the physical world.

    Unless you subscribe to the idea that Plato’s ideal forms genuinely exist, as he did. But you’d be taking that one on faith.

  39. 39 39 NelsonP

    Many people when questioned on their reasoning for religious belief reply that it provides an explanation for the existence of life and the universe. I think Dawkins’ big point is that postulating a “creator” is a very poor bit of logic because it only pushes the causal problem back one step, hence God-belief fails to “explain” complexity. Dawkins other big point is to draw attention to the great harm caused by religious belief. Religion’s redeeming feature might be that it provides a basis for morality, but observation of human behaviour suggests to me there is little correlation between “morality” and religous belief.

  40. 40 40 Snorri Godhi

    RL: as a devoted Popperian, I would never claim that definitions can solve any serious debate. However, looking up a dictionary, together with an effort at clear thinking, can be useful to avoid another fallacy: that of equivocation. This thread is not the first place where I see equivocation and ad ignorantiam combined in this fashion:
    [a] atheism is the absence of belief in God (your definition);
    [b] since we have no evidence for the existence of God, then atheism is correct;
    [c] atheism is also the belief that God does not exist;
    [d] from [b] and [c], it follows that God does not exist.

    You are compounding this double fallacy by equivocating also on the meaning of “agnostic”. Of course George H Smith is entitled to make up his own definitions, but those he made up are almost guaranteed to lead to the fallacy of equivocation. A _self-defined_ agnostic (or skeptic) is not someone who does not know, but someone who knows that [s]he does not know. I recommend [re-]reading The Black Swan.

  41. 41 41 Snorri Godhi

    CJ Smith: thankfully, one fallacy that has been avoided so far is ad hominem.

    “Snori G. this observation led me to my own argument from ignorance – that your critique of the proposition of Dana H. meant you were a theist. If I’m wrong, I apologize in advance”

    You are in fact wrong, but no need to apologize. However, I’d be grateful if you could be careful with the spelling of my nom de plume, which is borrowed from a great man.

    “God may exist; God may not exist; why is either proposition relevant to anything?”

    You will excuse me for not studying very carefully your reasoning behind this, but I partially agree, for a different reason: the mere knowledge of the existence of God is of no help unless we also know much more; inter alia, we mneed to know what God wants us to do. Knowing that specifically e.g. the Christian God exists would be useful, but there is an infinite number of potential conceptions of God. (On the basis of game theory, I think it unlikely that God would want us to be as forgiving as the Christian God apparently does.)

  42. 42 42 CJ Smith

    Snorri Godhi -

    Thanks for your reply, and your much more concise summation of my argument for agnosticism. I look forward to sharing thoughts and ideas with you and the other members of this blog in the future.

  43. 43 43 piperTom

    Dr. Landsburg asks “why is there anything?” (1) It’s a false question and (2) quite beside the point, anyway. To understand why it is just a pretense of a question, try to list conditions for an acceptable answer. Having trouble? Of course you are. There is no conceivable that wouldn’t beg the same sort of question again.

    As for relevance, the subject of consideration is whether there is a god. If your answer to the question is “god did it,” then the obvious next step is “why is there God?” As always, the answer “god did it” is not an answer, but a scream: “you can’t possibly understand, so just STOP QUESTIONING!”

    Dr. Landsburg should know better.

  44. 44 44 Jim Stuttard

    Where exactly, apart from inside the human brain or represented in human writing, do the square root of minus one or arctangents exist?

    The critique of Steve Lansberg’s assumption of mathematics existing in external reality can be read in the wikipedia entry on naive realism (otherwise called platonism). Nothing new there then.

  45. 45 45 steve

    i think it was on a TED video with dawkins, but someone asked a question about the meaning of life. why are we here? (as different from How?) his response was that it was a stupid question and he explained it very well. but one of the interesting things that came up is that perhaps there are billions of universes, each slightly different (the same as cells in evolutionary biology) and it just happens that some have the conditions necessary for life. the fact that we are life, means by definition we are able to view these conditions. in fact it might just be a complete accident, similar to natural selection. it was a fantastic argument.

    to quote someone he quoted. “life is queerer than we can presume”.

  46. 46 46 steve

    google “queerer than we can suppose” and you get the video i’m talking about.

    The main point is that our perception of the universe(s) is based on our position in it. we could never be created in a different universe without the properties which create life so therefore we could never view it. (i’m a little against this argument as bad science, for the same reason religion is “bad science” but none the less I find it more convincing than religious theories).

    I wouldn’t mind your opinion Steve, or if anyone has ever heard of this universe theory before, if there is more discussion of it elsewhere on the net.

  47. 47 47 Emmet

    I believe that the infinite universes idea that’s being discussed is the cosmic anthropic principle. Such theories with different universes splitting at every possible interaction have been described as “Short on assumptions but very expensive on universes.”

    I too feel very sad about Dawkins destroying his reputation with The God Delusion. I don’t feel that he was one of the 20th century’s greatest scientists, as far as I know his main contribution to science was The Extended Phenotype – an important concept and a very readable text but not a world changing one.

    In my opinion Dawkins main contribution was as a communicator of the understanding of science. His clear and concise explanation of the mechanism of natural selection in The Selfish Gene allowed myself and many others to understand very subtle processes without having to spend years studying biology. I only wish that other scientists in other fields had produced such elucidating books.

    I recently heard someone writing him off because of TGD thereby suggesting that TSG was just as flaky. In TGD he sets up a paper tiger in order to shoot it down. In my experience each person who believes in “God” believes in something unique that they are completely incapable of defining in any satisfactory manner. For this reason there are probably as many concepts called “God” as there are believers. Most of these are discounted by Dawkins in a few sentences in the first couple of chapters as they are not disprovable. The only one he defines is the one that he thinks he can disprove.

    Personally I don’t see any value in a word that cannot communicate any sense to another person. For this reason I no longer describe myself as an atheist but as an agnostic. If anyone cares to define the word I will quite happily say whether I believe in their concept. I think though that it must be up to the believers to define it. It strikes me as nonsense for someone to say “This is what the word means, this cannot exist therefore all believers are idiots.” The idiots must be allowed to show their idiocy in attempting to define the word themselves.

  48. 48 48 David Sloan

    You write: “If you doubt the complexity of the natural numbers, take note that you can use just a small part of them to encode the entire human genome. That makes the natural numbers more complex than human life.”

    I dispute the notion that supersets are necessarily more complex than subsets. For example, the set of prime numbers is more complex than the set of natural numbers, and the Mandelbrot set is infinitely more complex than the (unfortunately named, for the sake of my argument) complex plane. The decision of which elements of a set to keep and which elements to discard can itself be a source of immense complexity.

  49. 49 49 Steve Landsburg

    David Sloan: I agree with your general point but not with your specific application. It is certainly true (as an example of your general point) that the natural numbers are more complex (in the sense I’m using the word) than the real numbers: All true statements in the first-order theory of the real numbers can be derived from a single set of axioms, but no set of axioms yields all true statements about the natural numbers. But this can occur only because the language of the real numbers is inadequate even to describe the natural numbers: There is no way, using real-number language, to state what it means to be an integer.

    By contrast, the genetic code is completely describable within the language of the natural numbers and so cannot (in the sense I am using the word) be more complex. In fact, because it’s a finite structure, it is necessarily less complex.

  50. 50 50 David Sloan

    “By contrast, the genetic code is completely describable within the language of the natural numbers and so cannot (in the sense I am using the word) be more complex. In fact, because it’s a finite structure, it is necessarily less complex.”

    I think we’re using different definitions of “complex”, so I’ll try to offer mine. I think of the complexity of a set as a measure of how hard it would be to generate that set. Generating all the natural numbers is actually very easy, if time-consuming; once you know where to begin and how to add, you can just keep churning them out. By comparison, primes (still infinite, so not yet addressing your point directly) are harder to generate; you additionally need to understand the concept of divisibility, and in addition to the work required to generate natural numbers, you have to do fairly extensive checking that any given natural number is actually prime before including it in the set.

    If that rather informal definition sounds reasonable to you, I would argue that the human genome is more complex than the natural numbers, and that the complexity lies in deciding whether any given natural number represents a valid human gene sequence.

    If you prefer a different definition, I’d be interested to know what it is.

  51. 51 51 Steve Landsburg

    The complexity of the natural numbers lies partly in the difficulty not of generating the numbers themselves, but of generating true statements about those numbers.

    The true statements of arithmetic cannot all be derived from any single set of axioms. (This is in contrast to the theory of the real numbers, where all true statements do follow from a single set of axioms.) Therefore there is more to the natural numbers than what your axioms about successors, etc. are able to tell you.

  52. 52 52 David Sloan

    “[...] there is more to the natural numbers than what your axioms about successors, etc. are able to tell you.”

    I agree, but similarly there is more to human life than the human genome is able to tell you. I don’t mean to argue for the existence of an “uncodable essence”, as you put it, but instead for the same emergent complexity that you see in the natural numbers. Our sense of fairness is not expressed in the genome, nor is this conversation. True statements of human nature cannot all be derived from our genome.

  53. 53 53 Steve Landsburg

    True statements of human nature cannot all be derived from our genome.

    Agreed. I’m betting they can all be encoded in arithmetic, though.

  54. 54 54 Nick Berg

    Your premise is that natural numbers are more complex than a human being because ACGT can be represented as the symbols 0123? By that line of reasoning blood, sweat, urine, and feces are symbols which can be similarly mapped to ACGT and therefore are equally as powerful as the symbols 0123.

  55. 55 55 Alexander

    “If you doubt the complexity of the natural numbers, take note that you can use just a small part of them to encode the entire human genome. That makes the natural numbers more complex than human life”

    That’s a non-sequitor. The human genome is not a synonym for “human life”, nor “human genome information” is a synonym for “human genome interaction”. You can encode the INFORMATION contained in the human genome using 4 natural numbers, but that doesn’t imply that you can model the interactions or evolution of that system using 4 natural numbers.

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