07 January 2010

Oops - Luke misses the point...

Oh dear. I have a great deal of admiration for Luke over at Common Sense Atheism. In particular, he has a very interesting philosophical approach to the whole question of atheism and in countering the arguments of the likes of William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga. I will be honest though – sometimes high-end philosophical chinstrokery leaves me a bit cold, and it can vanish down rabbit holes that are fairly irrelevant.

Luke's (uncharacteristic, it has to be said) banana skin here is in trying to take on Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion on William Lane Craig's terms. That should have been a red flag. A short synopsis of Dawkins' central argument in TGD:

Theists look at this extraordinarily complex and beautiful world and assume that since it is so complex, the best explanation must be a designer. Dawkins correctly (and despite some rather bizarre retorts to the contrary) points out that for this to be an explanation for complexity, the designer must be more complex, and therefore even more in need of explanation than what it allegedly created.

Luke contends that if you had to explain the origin of everything before it can be considered an explanation for anything else, you would never be done – you would enter an infinite regress of explanations. An example would be if you found a carefully crafted arrowhead - to explain that you would invoke humans. But then you would have to explain humans (such as via evolution). But then you would have to explain evolution and planetary formation and the Big Bang etc etc. This was Craig's way of missing the point, and I'm disappointed to see Luke swallowing it. The reductio ad absurdum really should have told him something was wrong.

So here we go. Dawkins was writing a (hugely popular) book for the mass market, not for high-end philosophers. Most people got what he was driving at. Some philosophers and theologians (notably Terry Eagleton and Karen Armstrong and Alvin Plantinga) got their knickers in a twist over Dawkins' failure to apply esoteric philosophical jargon in his arguments, as opposed to some straight talking. But that is of no import - these commentators have plumbed new depths of silliness that need no further comment from me.

But let's look at Luke's key objection to Dawkins here. Is there really an infinite regress of explanations? The answer of course is NO. Let's have a look at why that should be the case. In the case of the arrowhead, you invoke humans as your explanation. Fine. Now you have to explain humans. Exhibit B. Humans. All over the place. There ya go. The point here is what you are ULTIMATELY trying to explain is the arrowhead, and you've done that. The humans by this stage are a given.

This is manifestly not the case for a "designer", and Dawkins is quite correct to point out that if you disallow the complex coming from the simple (as some people still do, despite proper mathematical proof that they are wrong), then you are necessarily positing a more complex designer than the thing designed, which means you have even more heavy explanatory lifting to do to get yourself past that hurdle.

So why has Luke made this mistake? It is actually fairly simple - he has forgotten what we are trying to do with our explanation. Maybe it is a philosopher thing. Scientists, on the other hand, are well used to working with "black boxes" - we interconnect them, analyse their inputs and outputs, and try to infer their internal states. Where we can, we carry out experiments whose data help us open and unpack black boxes, to reveal...

...more black boxes inside. However, we can still explain the black boxes at one level if we know the system at the next level down, if we can verify and work with that.

In the case of the origin of the universe, that is a black box. However, theists propose that INSIDE that black box there is a BIGGER black box that you are not ALLOWED to open. That is a big claim, and no philosophical piddling is going to justify that - what is needed is EVIDENCE.

So was Dawkins right in his argument? I would suggest YES. I think Craig and Luke have got this wrong; they have lost the train of what the explanation is for in this context, and switched tracks mid-argument. Sorry boys - try again!


  1. Hey Answers in Genes,

    I'd like your input on my response to Luke here:

    Just leave me a comment telling me what you think.

  2. Thank you. This post reflects my feelings on the matter exactly. I too am quite dubious of philosophical arguments that really seem to have air supporting them...lovely (or not so) castles in the sky. They seem to get befuddled in their own semantics.

    Hmmm. An atheist Irish doctor who cycles around the holy land raising money for Nazareth hospital. Okay.

  3. Also, Luke defers to WLC because he aspires to his position...famous professional philosopher, public debater, and so on. No crime there; it's an admirable position to shoot for.

  4. No bad thing at all, and despite his tender years, Luke is up there with the best of them. He's really VERY good at this philosophy lark. If I have any criticisms on this issue, it is that he is misrepresenting Dawkins' argument.

    I would also perhaps zing a little shot across the bows in regard to this entity "Philosophy of Science". Any jackass can set him or herself up as a "Philosopher of Science" without having half a clue about science and scientists. It is not adequate to read a bit of the philosophy of science literature. I would suggest one needs to spend some time in a lab and go to a few scientific conferences. Some of what passes for Philosophy of Science is just postmodernist drivel.

    This is not to put people off, but when people like Mary Midgley, John Lennox or Alvin Plantinga like to crow about being philosophers of science, it might be appropriate to regard Herod the Great as a philosopher of community child health.

  5. Jeepers Jimmy, that is heavy stuff. But I get the gist. One caveat to which an intellectual like yourself might pay little attention is that however clear our rational arguments, we are all still human. This introduces bias to our most forensically inspired opinions through the ethereal, inescapable filter of our human emotions.
    To substantiate this statement I borrow from one of the most successful option traders of our time. And a darned smart one too. In his book "Fooled by Randomness" (brilliant, by the way. He also more recently wrote "The Black Swan") he says "The epiphany I had in my career in randomness came when I understood that I was not intelligent enough nor strong enough, to even try to fight my emotions. Besides, I believe that I need my emotions to formulate my ideas and get the energy to execute them"
    Jim, this guy is no slouch and I like the touch of humility as well.

  6. Hi Willo,
    Humility is neither here nor there. If an argument is set up, the appropriate thing to do is kick the bejaysus out of it, and show no mercy. It's not personal, and yes, we can be wrong - but the clever thing is that if we ARE wrong, we can be SHOWN to be wrong. The dude that came up with continental drift had to face an enormous barrage of criticism from his peers. What did he do? Cry into his beer? NO - he went out, got the data, refined his arguments and blasted away the objections. More than that, however, the objections actually helped strengthen and refine the hypothesis into the much more powerful theory surrounding plate tectonics.

    It's not enough to just be a heretic - a voice crying in the wilderness (to misquote the bible) - you have to listen to objections and deal with them. In that sense, Luke does a good job here, and his objections are interesting in and of themselves, although they hit on a straw man. They address an argument that Dawkins is not actually making.

    And humility is all very well, but too much humility means that good ideas get lost. If Galileo had been humble, we'd still be stuck in the middle ages.

    Cheers, dude :-)

  7. Hmmm...... Don't feel like I am orbiting yet! In fact I think you accidentally or deliberately missed my point. It is that rationality is not the whole deal - even for Dawkins, Hitchens, Mckee, Galileo etc etc. None, none can escape the emotional filter. Not even you Jimbo!

  8. Of course. But you need to do better than just point that out - address the specifics of the argument! Play the ball, not the man.

    "I can have ye yet!" ;-)

    [Here, I need to drop some more comments on your blog too!]

  9. You are asking me to address the point of your argument. Frankly I don't have the grey matter to do that. But I do have the right to propose that in your argument - which insofar as I understand it, I actually agree with! - that you consider my proposition that there is a real dimension, emotion, that you totally ignore. Weakens your point ol fella!

  10. Willo, emotion is fine when emotion is relevant. Emotion makes no difference to whether Hawaii is there or not; to the value of Pi; to how your computer works. It may make a difference to what some people *believe* about these things, but not to the reality of the things themselves. Which is an important distinction. We need to strive to remove irrational bias.

  11. But Jim, In human terms reality in all forms is "skewed" by the perceptions of the viewer. Your absolutist stance ignores this important fact and does not permit any view of reality to exist if it has any variance from that of fundamentalist ayatollah-like reductive reasoning. Is there not something in the process of debate concerning the "winning of hearts and minds"? I think there is, because if not, all it amounts to is a zero-sum game where winner takes all and future dialogue is ended.We don't know all the answers yet!
    Wise old Willo

  12. Willo, we may not have all the answers, but we do have a lot of partial answers, and we know that a lot of attempts at answers were wrong. This is not an absolutist stance, but one that appreciates that there is a reality out there to be understood, and better and worse ways of approaching that.

    Don't go all PoMo (postmodern) on me, Willo, because that's a load of cabbage. Check out what the late great Isaac Asimov had to say on the subject: http://chem.tufts.edu/AnswersInScience/RelativityofWrong.htm

    Far from ignoring or discounting the "hearts and minds" aspect, I recognise it, as well as its limitations. Epilepsy, for example, is not caused by demons, no matter how many people used to think so - such superstitious "emotional" beliefs can be actively harmful; recognising emotional bias does not mean we are forever shackled with an inability to answer straight questions.

  13. mmmmm............ Think I'm gettin through! Demons indeed! I'm not going into postmo whatever that is. Indeed I'm not even getting into ping pong argument.
    Think we need a new subject.

  14. Me too. Right. I win. Time for another post. (Not post-modern).

  15. Hi Shane,

    Just discovered your blog. Good to meet you the other night, it must have been hard work to listen to a bunch of pissed up philosophers! Keep in touch; maybe we can get a drink sometime. (You should be able to find my blog from my profile).

    P.S. I studied MSc Philosophy of Science at the LSE, but I can assure you that our textbooks, e.g. Quantum Logic in Algebraic Approach, weren't POMO! :-)

    Never read Midgley & Lennox -- indeed I've barely heard of them -- but would Plantinga, who is a recognised philosopher, really claim that he is a philosopher of science?

  16. Hi Paul, Great to hear from you - that was a fun evening, and I think PZ is still recovering...

    Mary Midgley, funny enough, has just put out a review of what looks like a really silly book by Jerry Fodor, in which he re-issues his complete ignorance of biological evolution. Midgley, of course, collaborates that - since her hopeless review of "The Selfish Gene" over 30 years ago, she has made an industry out of completely failing to grasp evolution and natural selection.
    Lennox wrote "God's Undertaker" which is probably in a similar vein, and its treatment of biology is frankly ludicrous. It is worrying to see so many people who *should* have an ounce of intelligence slipping over themselves in an unseemly logical train wreck.

    As for Plantinga, well, maybe I'm being a bit mad calling him a philosopher of science. He also likes to comment on natural selection from time to time, and like our pals above, should really stick to things he knows something about, like... like... er...