Monday, December 6, 2010

Blogging my Homework: Dawkins vs. Plantinga

Posting something I wrote for class seems kind of lame but I thought y'all might like it.  I was required to read an excerpt from The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins and the essay The Dawkins Confusion by Alvin Plantinga.  My assignment was to analyze the writing of both men and decide which one is the superior philosopher.  Due to the narrow scope of the reading material and the assignment, this is not a comprehensive critique of Dawkins but I think that I manage to address his core claim.  Anyway, here it is:

The Probability of God: Dawkins vs. Plantinga
            In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins claims that the existence of God is highly improbable.  Dawkins’ argument rests on the proposition that God is at least as complex and therefore as improbable, as His creation.  Alvin Plantinga answers Dawkins by denying that his complexity premise can be applied to God.  If Plantinga’s refutation is sound, then Dawkins’ case against the probability of God falls apart.
            Dawkins states that complexity is intrinsically linked to probability.  He writes, “Any intelligent, decision-making calculating agent, is complex, which is another way of saying improbable” (Plantinga 3-4).  Dawkins asserts that God is such an agent.  “However little we know about God, the one thing that we can be sure of is that he would have to be very very complex and presumably irreducibly so!” (125). 
Dawkins relates the analogy made by Fred Hoyle, that “the probability of life originating on Earth is no greater than the chance that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrap yard, would have the luck to assemble a Boeing 747” (114).  The improbability of terrestrial life made a theist out of Hoyle, but Dawkins turns the argument around in an attempt to prove the improbability of God.  Dawkins seems to concede something to theism when he states, “Anything from a molecule up to the universe itself – is correctly extolled as statistically improbable” (113).  In fact, Dawkins is establishing the first premise in a syllogism designed to prove the improbability of God.  His second premise is the fact that the creator or antecedent of a particular thing must have at least the same complexity/improbability as that thing.  Dawkins concludes that as the creator of all of the improbable things in the Universe, God must be highly improbable Himself.  In Dawkins’ own words, “God is the ultimate 747” (134).  
In his essay The Dawkins Confusion, Alvin Plantinga argues against Dawkins’ claims that God is complex/improbable and that complexity necessitates improbability in the case of God.  Plantinga declares, “according to [Dawkins'] definition of complexity . . . something is complex if it has parts that are ‘arranged in a way that is unlikely to have arisen by chance alone.’  But of course God is a spirit, not a material object at all, and hence has no parts. . . .  Therefore, given [Dawkins’ definition] . . . God is not complex” (4).  Plantinga argues that Dawkins errs by imposing the laws of the material or natural world on the immaterial or supernatural world.
Plantinga goes further in this line of reasoning.  He supposes for the point of argument that knowledge makes a being complex and that God is extremely complex because He is omniscient.  That complexity would only make God improbable if He were a material being.  Plantinga posits that “Given materialism and the idea that the ultimate objects in our universe are the elementary particles of physics, perhaps a being that knew a great deal would be improbable. . . .  Of course we aren't given materialism” (4).  Plantinga goes on to point out that because God is not a material being, He is not merely improbable but completely impossible in a materialist universe.  Plantinga writes, “materialism logically entails that there is no such person as God; but it would be obviously question-begging to argue that theism is improbable because materialism is true.”  If materialism is true it would serve to make Dawkins’ probability estimates moot.  If on the other hand, materialism is not true, then Dawkins’ thesis is unsound because it assumes materialism.  According to Plantinga, Dawkins must prove that materialism is true or at least probable in order to make a sound argument against the existence of God.               
Dawkins’ arbitrary assumption of materialism is the central focus of Plantinga’s critique.  “If Dawkins proposes that God's existence is improbable, he owes us an argument for the conclusion that there is no necessary being with the attributes of God—an argument that doesn't just start from the premise that materialism is true. . . . Dawkins doesn't even seem to be aware that he needs an argument [that proves materialism]” (4).  In essence, Plantinga is telling Dawkins to take a giant metaphysical step back to a position that truly considers the possibility of supernaturalism. 
Richard Dawkins has brilliantly proved the improbability of God.  That is, if the god in question is an Epicurean material god.  After handily defeating the obscure theology of Epicures, Dawkins claims to have done so much more.  He claims to have decisively demonstrated that the God of Abraham and Isaac, and all other deities worshipped by men, are intrinsically improbable.  The existence of a nonmaterial God may very well be improbable but nowhere in his writing does Dawkins come close to proving this.  Dawkins fails because all of his arguments rest on a massive logical fallacy.  Dawkins begs the question of materialism.
In his defense, Dawkins might point out that he does not explicitly assume materialism, and he is obviously trying to prove the improbability of a spiritual God such as the one worshipped by Christians.  However, it is clear that Dawkins implicitly assumes materialism because his objections to the probability of God can only be applied to a material thing and not to a spiritual being.  Something has complexity and therefore improbability because it is composed of material, whether that material is matter, energy, or some yet undiscovered substance.  Theists the world over profess a belief in a nonmaterial God.  Dawkins simply cannot prove the improbability of a spirit using the laws of material complexity.
Dawkins’ central claim is that the existence of God is unlikely because as the hypothetical creator of a complex and improbable universe, God must be highly improbable.  As Plantinga points out, Dawkins’ argument is invalid from the very beginning.  By applying the laws of the material universe to the spiritual realm, Dawkins assumes materialism.  He then engages in the pointless exercise of arguing against the existence of a God who is impossible in a materialist universe.  Dawkins bases his argument on an unproven assumption and utterly fails to prove that God is improbable.


  1. Dawkins has been using the mantra of "complexity" for years. To say something is too complex to pursue is, in effect, saying don't bother pursuing anything, be it spiritual and, yes, even scientific. He puts up artificial roadblock that hinders human endeavor, blotting out any mystery. But does not mystery, the unknown, attract scientists to pursue even more?

    Incidentally, extremely well written.

  2. Indeed, Dawkins and his fellow "New Atheists" concoct all sorts of bizarre and unfounded arguments in a desperate attempt to get away from God. Thanks for the compliment!

  3. As I was reading Dwakins, my thoughts were following similar lines to TH2's. I was also remembering my basic philosphy of God, metaphysics & simplicity. Was glad to see Plantinga went after that.

    Without seeing all from the except of Dawkins, the question arises, following his logic, man shouldn'e exist either, or anything since evenn the smallest atom is improbably complex.

    These atheistic scientists & philosphers never fail to amaze me at how they try to deny what they know is true, the existance of God.

    A comment I read the other day by Stephen Hawking is a prime example. he said that the existance of physical laws like gravity proved that the universe could have just popped into existance from nothing. My problem with his logic is that when there was nothing, there was nothing, not even a law like that of gravity.

  4. Interesting post, but there are many problems with Plantinga's argument, primarily his suggestion that a god comes from a supernatural existence. Where is his evidence for such a claim? Furthermore, Plantinga offers no evidence that a god is NOT complex; he only tries to rework Dawkins' argument into a material-only claim. Ultimately, Dawkins uses evidence and logic based on what he can experience to make his argument; Plantinga points to a belief in a supernatural universe that we cannot experience (at least in this life) to make his.

  5. Neil: First of all, thank you for your polite tone. Many combox critics of theism are trollish. I haven't provided a complete picture of either Plantinga's or Dawkins' work, just enough to write a paper on the subject. Here is a link to Plantinga's essay:

    In his essay, Plantinga points out that classical theology considers God to be both immaterial and powerfully simple. God didn't tell Moses, "We are the Borg," but "I am." It is true that we cannot prove that God is simple, but neither should Dawkins have reason to believe that He is complex. My paper was for a philosophy class and not a theology class so I do not attempt to argue that the existence of God is probable, but merely that Dawkins fails to prove that God is improbable.

    As for your Humean descriptive psychology, "Dawkins uses evidence and logic based on what he can experience," C.S. Lewis provides an answer. If human reason is truly reasonable, it must act outside of nature. If the human intellect is nothing more than an evolved series of observations, then humans cannot make any sort of truly believable logical arguments. When someone uses their reason to argue for naturalism/materialism, they are simultaneously arguing against their own point. Lewis makes this argument better than I do and I would recommend that you read his book titles Miracles.

  6. It takes much more faith to be an Atheist,..believing in God is logical.

  7. Marco - Amen!

    Patrick Button - Excellent post, lucidly and logically argued.

    Thank you and happy Advent!