Wednesday, 9 May 2007

TIME: Dawkins vs. Collins

TIME magazine this week has an interesting discussion between Richard Dawkins, author most recently of The God Delusion, and Francis Collins, author of The Language of God. It is worth reading. Two observations:

First, I just can’t figure Collins out. Dawkins says the question of God is a scientific one for which there could be evidence.

Collins, on the other hand, says the question of God’s existence is not scientific but “outside of science’s ability to really weigh in.” That said, Collins also claims he does not like Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of NOMA where science and religion do not overlap. But then Collins uses evidence for the fine-tuning of the laws of physics to argue for God’s existence. So apparently scientific evidence can weigh in on the question of God. I’m not sure what I am missing here. But I guess the take home point is that in practice Collins does think scientific evidence can point toward design (for him, God) and away from chance.

Dawkins’s comments on NOMA are spot on. Say what you want about Dawkins, but he’s not afraid to call a spade a spade. “I think that Gould’s separate compartments was [sic] a purely political ploy to win middle-of-the-road religious people to the science camp. But it’s a very empty idea.” He thinks there are “plenty of places” where religious and scientific questions overlap. Except for the equation of Darwinists with “the science camp,” I concur.

Second, while Dawkins started off the debate claiming that the question of God was a scientific one for which there could be evidence for or against, later on, his argumentation contradicted this assertion—and Collins had the sight to call him on it. Just as noted philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote recently, Dawkins essentially eliminates a Designer for the universe not on evidential grounds but a priori. He claims that one cannot invoke God as an explanation because God is improbable (and who knows what magic calculus Dawkins is doing in his head to determine this improbability). The obvious problem, then, is that evidence for or against design doesn’t really matter. One could never be justified in inferring design—regardless of how good the evidence for it is! This is clearly a heads-I-win-tails-you-lose argument.

Collins spots this and says that science should by all means keep exploring the multiverse hypothesis and other materialistic alternatives to a designing intelligence for the fine-tuning of the universe, but he objects “to the assumption that anything outside of nature is ruled out of the conversation…you end up with a zero probability of God after examining the natural world….” One might say that Dawkins ends up with a zero probability before examining the natural world.

In other words, Dawkins says one cannot infer that the universe was designed because one cannot invoke an improbable entity like God. So the evidence doesn’t matter. Only Richard Dawkins’s calculation of God’s improbability matters; and no evidence for the design of the laws of physics is going to change this.

To see this same fallacy at work in another debate over God, check out philosopher William Lane Craig's dismantling of arguments by the popular historian of religion Bart Ehrman.

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