Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Nagel on Dawkins

I feel I must post the beautiful article below. Thomas Nagel is of the best contemporary philosophers and, while an atheist, is unafraid to take independent positions on sensitive subjects. His words below deserve to be read carefully for he chooses his words carefully, and they have implications beyond the immediate subject under discussion.

Published on The New Republic (

The Fear of Religion

* October 23, 2006 | 12:00 am

Thomas Nagel teaches philosophy at New York University. His books include The
View from Nowhere and The Last Word (Oxford University Press).

The God Delusion

By Richard Dawkins

(Houghton Mifflin, 352 pp.,$26)

Richard Dawkins, the most prominent and accomplished scientific
writer of our time, is convinced that religion is the enemy of
science. Not just fundamentalist or fanatical or extremist
religion, but all religion that admits faith as a ground of belief
and asserts the existence of God. In his new book, he attacks
religion with all the weapons at his disposal, and as a result the
book is a very uneven collection of scriptural ridicule, amateur
philosophy, historical and contemporary horror stories,
anthropological speculations, and cosmological scientific argument.
Dawkins wants both to dissuade believers and to embolden atheists.

Since Dawkins is operating mostly outside the range of his
scientific expertise, it is not surprising that The God Delusion
lacks the superb instructive lucidity of his books on evolutionary
theory, such as The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, and
Climbing Mount Improbable. In this new book I found that kind of
pleasure only in the brief explanation of why the moth flies into
the candle flame--an example introduced to illustrate how a useful
trait can have disastrous side effects. (Dawkins believes the
prevalence of religion among human beings is a side effect of the
useful trust of childhood.)

One of Dawkins's aims is to overturn the convention of respect
toward religion that belongs to the etiquette of modern
civilization. He does this by persistently violating the
convention, and being as offensive as possible, and pointing with
gleeful outrage at absurd or destructive religious beliefs and
practices. This kind of thing was done more entertainingly by H.L.
Mencken (whom Dawkins quotes with admiration), but the taboo
against open atheistic scorn seems to have become even more
powerful since Mencken's day. Dawkins's unmitigated hostility and
quotable insults--"The God of the Old Testament is arguably the
most unpleasant character in all fiction"--will certainly serve to
attract attention, but they are not what make the book interesting.

The important message is a theoretical one, about the reach of a
certain kind of scientific explanation. At the core of the book, in
a chapter titled "Why There Almost Certainly Is No God," Dawkins
sets out with care his position on a question of which the
importance cannot be exaggerated: the question of what explains the
existence and character of the astounding natural order we can
observe in the universe we inhabit. On one side is what he calls
"the God Hypothesis," namely that "there exists a superhuman,
supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the
universe and everything in it, including us." On the other side is
Dawkins's alternative view: "any creative intelligence, of
sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only
as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution.
Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in
the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing
it." In Dawkins's view, the ultimate explanation of everything,
including evolution, may be found in the laws of physics, which
explain the laws of chemistry, which explain the existence and the
functioning of the self-replicating molecules that underlie the
biological process of genetic mutation and natural selection.

This pair of stark alternatives may not exhaust the possibilities,
but it poses the fundamental question clearly. In this central
argument of Dawkins's book, the topic is not institutional religion
or revealed religion, based on scripture, miracles, or the personal
experience of God's presence. It is what used to be called "natural
religion," or reflection on the question of the existence and
nature of God using only the resources of ordinary human reasoning.
This is not the source of most religious belief, but it is
important nonetheless.

In a previous chapter, Dawkins dismisses, with contemptuous
flippancy the traditional a priori arguments for the existence of
God offered by Aquinas and Anselm. I found these attempts at
philosophy, along with those in a later chapter on religion and
ethics, particularly weak; Dawkins seems to have felt obliged to
include them for the sake of completeness. But his real concern is
with the argument from design, because there the conflict between
religious belief and atheism takes the form of a scientific
disagreement--a disagreement over the most plausible explanation of
the observable evidence. He argues that contemporary science gives
us decisive reason to reject the argument from design, and to
regard the existence of God as overwhelmingly improbable.

The argument from design is deceptively simple. If we found a watch
lying on a deserted heath (William Paley's famous example from the
eighteenth century), we would conclude that such an intricate
mechanism, whose parts fit together to carry out a specific
function, did not come into existence by chance, but that it was
created by a designer with that function in mind. Similarly, if we
observe any living organism, or one of its parts, such as the eye or
the wing or the red blood cell, we have reason to conclude that its
much greater physical complexity, precisely suited to carry out
specific functions, could not have come into existence by chance,
but must have been created by a designer.

The two inferences seem analogous, but they are very different.
First, we know how watches are manufactured, and we can go to a
watch factory and see it done. But the inference to creation by God
is an inference to something that we have not observed and
presumably never could observe. Second, the designer and the
manufacturer of a watch are human beings with bodies, using physical
tools to mold and put together its parts. The supernatural being
whose work is inferred by the argument from design for the
existence of God is not supposed to be a physical organism inside
the world, but someone who creates or acts on the natural world
while not being a part of it.

The first difference is not an objection to the argument. Scientific
inference to the best explanation of what we can observe often leads
to the discovery of things that are themselves unobservable by
perception and detectable only by their effects. In this sense, God
might be no more and no less observable than an electron or the Big
Bang. But the second difference is more troubling, since it is not
clear that we can understand the idea of purposive causation--of
design--by a non-physical being on analogy with our understanding
of purposive causation by a physical being such as a watchmaker.
Somehow the observation of the remarkable structure and function of
organisms is supposed to lead us to infer as their cause a
disembodied intentional agency of a kind totally unlike any that we
have ever seen in operation.

Still, even this difference need not be fatal to the theistic
argument, since science often concludes that what we observe is to
be explained by causes that are not only unobservable, but totally
different from anything that has ever been observed, and very
difficult to grasp intuitively. To be sure, the hypothesis of a
divine creator is not yet a scientific theory with testable
consequences independent of the observations on which it is based.
And the purposes of such a creator remain obscure, given what we
know about the world. But a defender of the argument from design
could say that the evidence supports an intentional cause, and that
it is hardly surprising that God, the bodiless designer, while to
some extent describable theoretically and detectable by his
effects, is resistant to full intuitive understanding.

Dawkins's reply to the argument has two parts, one positive and one
negative. The positive part consists in describing a third
alternative, different from both chance and design, as the
explanation of biological complexity. He agrees that the eye, for
example, could not have come into existence by chance, but the
theory of evolution by natural selection is capable of explaining
its existence as due neither to chance nor to design. The negative
part of the argument asserts that the hypothesis of design by God
is useless as an alternative to the hypothesis of chance, because
it just pushes the problem back one step. In other words: who made
God? "A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity
because any God capable of designing anything would have to be
complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own

Let me first say something about this negative argument. It depends,
I believe, on a misunderstanding of the conclusion of the argument
from design, in its traditional sense as an argument for the
existence of God. If the argument is supposed to show that a
supremely adept and intelligent natural being, with a super-body
and a super-brain, is responsible for the design and the creation
of life on earth, then of course this "explanation" is no advance
on the phenomenon to be explained: if the existence of plants,
animals, and people requires explanation, then the existence of
such a super-being would require explanation for exactly the same
reason. But if we consider what that reason is, we will see that it
does not apply to the God hypothesis.

The reason that we are led to the hypothesis of a designer by
considering both the watch and the eye is that these are complex
physical structures that carry out a complex function, and we
cannot see how they could have come into existence out of
unorganized matter purely on the basis of the purposeless laws of
physics. For the elements of which they are composed to have come
together in just this finely tuned way purely as a result of
physical and chemical laws would have been such an improbable fluke
that we can regard it in effect as impossible: the hypothesis of
chance can be ruled out. But God, whatever he may be, is not a
complex physical inhabitant of the natural world. The explanation
of his existence as a chance concatenation of atoms is not a
possibility for which we must find an alternative, because that is
not what anybody means by God. If the God hypothesis makes sense at
all, it offers a different kind of explanation from those of
physical science: purpose or intention of a mind without a body,
capable nevertheless of creating and forming the entire physical
world. The point of the hypothesis is to claim that not all
explanation is physical, and that there is a mental, purposive, or
intentional explanation more fundamental than the basic laws of
physics, because it explains even them.

All explanations come to an end somewhere. The real opposition
between Dawkins's physicalist naturalism and the God hypothesis is
a disagreement over whether this end point is physical,
extensional, and purposeless, or mental, intentional, and
purposive. On either view, the ultimate explanation is not itself
explained. The God hypothesis does not explain the existence of God,
and naturalistic physicalism does not explain the laws of physics.

This entire dialectic leaves out another possibility, namely that
there are teleological principles in nature that are explained
neither by intentional design nor by purposeless physical
causation--principles that therefore provide an independent end
point of explanation for the existence and form of living things.
That, more or less, is the Aristotelian view that was displaced by
the scientific revolution. Law-governed causation by antecedent
conditions became the only acceptable form of scientific
explanation, and natural tendencies toward certain ends were
discredited. The question then became whether non- teleological
physical law can explain everything, including the biological

Darwin's theory of natural selection offered a way of accounting for
the exquisite functional organization of organisms through physical
causation, an explanation that revealed it to be the product
neither of design nor of hopelessly improbable chance. This is the
positive part of Dawkins's argument. The physical improbability of
such complexity's arising can be radically reduced if it is seen as
the result of an enormous number of very small developmental steps,
in each of which chance plays a part, together with a selective
force that favors the survival of some of those forms over others.
This is accomplished by the theory of heritable variation, due to
repeated small mutations in the genetic material, together with
natural selection, due to the differential adaptation of these
biological variations to the environments in which they emerge. The
result is the appearance of design without design, purely on the
basis of a combination of physical causes operating over billions
of years.

To be sure, this is only the schema for an explanation. Most of the
details of the story can never be recovered, and there are many
issues among evolutionary biologists over how the process works.
There are also skeptics about whether such a process is capable,
even over billions of years, of generating the complexity of life
as it is. But I will leave those topics aside, because the biggest
question about this alternative to design takes us outside the
theory of evolution.

It is a question that Dawkins recognizes and tries to address, and
it is directly analogous to his question for the God hypothesis:
who made God? The problem is this. The theory of evolution through
heritable variation and natural selection reduces the improbability
of organizational complexity by breaking the process down into a
very long series of small steps, each of which is not all that
improbable. But each of the steps involves a mutation in a carrier
of genetic information--an enormously complex molecule capable both
of self-replication and of generating out of surrounding matter a
functioning organism that can house it. The molecule is moreover
capable sometimes of surviving a slight mutation in its structure
to generate a slightly different organism that can also survive.
Without such a replicating system there could not be heritable
variation, and without heritable variation there could not be
natural selection favoring those organisms, and their underlying
genes, that are best adapted to the environment.

The entire apparatus of evolutionary explanation therefore depends
on the prior existence of genetic material with these remarkable
properties. Since 1953 we have known what that material is, and
scientists are continually learning more about how DNA does what it
does. But since the existence of this material or something like it
is a precondition of the possibility of evolution, evolutionary
theory cannot explain its existence. We are therefore faced with a
problem analogous to that which Dawkins thinks faces the argument
from design: we have explained the complexity of organic life in
terms of something that is itself just as functionally complex as
what we originally set out to explain. So the problem is just
pushed back one step: how did such a thing come into existence?

Of course there is a huge difference between this explanation and
the God hypothesis. We can observe DNA and see how it works. But
the problem that originally prompted the argument from design--the
overwhelming improbability of such a thing coming into existence by
chance, simply through the purposeless laws of physics-- remains
just as real for this case. Yet this time we cannot replace chance
with natural selection.

Dawkins recognizes the problem, but his response to it is pure
hand-waving. First, he says it only had to happen once. Next, he
says that there are, at a conservative estimate, a billion billion
planets in the universe with life- friendly physical and chemical
environments like ours. So all we have to suppose is that the
probability of something like DNA forming under such conditions,
given the laws of physics, is not much less than one in a billion
billion. And he points out, invoking the so-called anthropic
principle, that even if it happened on only one planet, it is no
accident that we are able to observe it, since the appearance of
life is a condition of our existence.

Dawkins is not a chemist or a physicist. Neither am I, but general
expositions of research on the origin of life indicate that no one
has a theory that would support anything remotely near such a high
probability as one in a billion billion. Naturally there is
speculation about possible non-biological chemical precursors of
DNA or RNA. But at this point the origin of life remains, in light
of what is known about the huge size, the extreme specificity, and
the exquisite functional precision of the genetic material, a
mystery--an event that could not have occurred by chance and to
which no significant probability can be assigned on the basis of
what we know of the laws of physics and chemistry.

Yet we know that it happened. That is why the argument from design
is still alive, and why scientists who find the conclusion of that
argument unacceptable feel there must be a purely physical
explanation of why the origin of life is not as physically
improbable as it seems. Dawkins invokes the possibility that there
are vastly many universes besides this one, thus giving chance many
more opportunities to create life; but this is just a desperate
device to avoid the demand for a real explanation.

I agree with Dawkins that the issue of design versus purely physical
causation is a scientific question. He is correct to dismiss Stephen
Jay Gould's position that science and religion are "non-overlapping
magisteria." The conflict is real. But although I am as much of an
outsider to religion as he is, I believe it is much more difficult
to settle the question than he thinks. I also suspect there are
other possibilities besides these two that have not even been
thought of yet. The fear of religion leads too many scientifically
minded atheists to cling to a defensive, world-flattening
reductionism. Dawkins, like many of his contemporaries, is hobbled
by the assumption that the only alternative to religion is to
insist that the ultimate explanation of everything must lie in
particle physics, string theory, or whatever purely extensional
laws govern the elements of which the material world is composed.

This reductionist dream is nourished by the extraordinary success of
the physical sciences in our time, not least in their recent
application to the understanding of life through molecular biology.
It is natural to try to take any successful intellectual method as
far as it will go. Yet the impulse to find an explanation of
everything in physics has over the last fifty years gotten out of
control. The concepts of physical science provide a very special,
and partial, description of the world that experience reveals to us.
It is the world with all subjective consciousness, sensory
appearances, thought, value, purpose, and will left out. What
remains is the mathematically describable order of things and
events in space and time.

That conceptual purification launched the extraordinary development
of physics and chemistry that has taken place since the seventeenth
century. But reductive physicalism turns this description into an
exclusive ontology. The reductionist project usually tries to
reclaim some of the originally excluded aspects of the world, by
analyzing them in physical--that is, behavioral or
neurophysiological--terms; but it denies reality to what cannot be
so reduced. I believe the project is doomed--that conscious
experience, thought, value, and so forth are not illusions, even
though they cannot be identified with physical facts.

I also think that there is no reason to undertake the project in the
first place. We have more than one form of understanding. Different
forms of understanding are needed for different kinds of subject
matter. The great achievements of physical science do not make it
capable of encompassing everything, from mathematics to ethics to
the experiences of a living animal. We have no reason to dismiss
moral reasoning, introspection, or conceptual analysis as ways of
discovering the truth just because they are not physics.

Any anti-reductionist view leaves us with very serious problems
about how the mutually irreducible types of truths about the world
are related. At least part of the truth about us is that we are
physical organisms composed of ordinary chemical elements. If
thinking, feeling, and valuing aren't merely complicated physical
states of the organism, what are they? What is their relation to
the brain processes on which they seem to depend? More: if
evolution is a purely physical causal process, how can it have
brought into existence conscious beings?

A religious worldview is only one response to the conviction that
the physical description of the world is incomplete. Dawkins says
with some justice that the will of God provides a too easy
explanation of anything we cannot otherwise understand, and
therefore brings inquiry to a stop. Religion need not have this
effect, but it can. It would be more reasonable, in my estimation,
to admit that we do not now have the understanding or the knowledge
on which to base a comprehensive theory of reality.

Dawkins seems to believe that if people could be persuaded to give
up the God Hypothesis on scientific grounds, the world would be a
better place-- not just intellectually, but also morally and
politically. He is horrified--as who cannot be?--by the dreadful
things that continue to be done in the name of religion, and he
argues that the sort of religious conviction that includes a
built-in resistance to reason is the true motive behind many of
them. But there is no connection between the fascinating
philosophical and scientific questions posed by the argument from
design and the attacks of September 11. Blind faith and the
authority of dogma are dangerous; the view that we can make
ultimate sense of the world only by understanding it as the
expression of mind or purpose is not. It is unreasonable to think
that one must refute the second in order to resist the first.

By Thomas Nagel
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