quotes & notes from
The God Delusion
Richard Dawkins

These pages:The God Delusion

Preface–Chapter 4 (here)

Chapters 5–10



index pages:

I can now characterize my greatest difference of opinion with this author: He seems to think religion is for explaining from whence we came. I think it’s a means of deciding where we are going.

The God Delusion

Copyright © 2006 by Richard Dawkins


If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.

Note (Hal’s):
Let’s just be clear who is seeking to proselytize, and therefore on whom, if anyone, lies the burden of proof.

— end note

Above all, I thank my wife Lalla Ward, who has coaxed me through all my hesitations and self-doubts, not just with moral support and witty suggestions for improvement, but by reading the entire book aloud to me, at two different stages in its development, so I could apprehend very directly how it might seem to a reader other than myself. I recommend the technique to other authors, but I must warn that for best results the reader must be a professional actor, with voice and ear sensitively tuned to the music of language.

Note (Hal’s):
I am an unabashed admirer of her acting. But that leads me to ask whether “sounds convincing when read by Lalla Ward” is a suitable criterion for nonfiction.

— end note

The God Hypothesis
I am not attacking the particular qualities of Yahweh, or Jesus, or Allah, or any other specific god such as Baal, Zeus, or Wotan. Instead I shall define the God Hypothesis more defensibly: there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us. This book will advocate an 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.
The poverty of agnosticism

The point of all these way-out examples is that they are undisprovable, yet nobody thinks the hypothesis of their existence is on an even footing with the hypothesis of their non-existence. Russell’s point is that the burden of proof rests with the believers, not the non-believers. Mine is the related point that the odds in favor of the teapot (spaghetti monster / Esmerelda and Keith / unicorn etc.) are not equal to the odds against.

The fact that orbiting teapots and tooth fairies are undisprovable is not felt, by any reasonable person, to be the kind of fact that settles any interesting argument. [...] I have found it an amusing strategy, when asked whether I am an atheist, to point out that the questioner is also an atheist when considering Zeus, Apollo, Amon Ra, Mithras, Baal, Thor, Wotan, the Golden Calf and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I just go one god further.

Note (Hal’s):
The burden of proof lies with those arguing that others are wrong. Any attempt to dump it on the opponent is an outright cheat.

— end note

That you cannot prove God’s non-existence is accepted and trivial, if only in the sense that we can never absolutely prove the non-existence of anything. What matters is not whether God is disprovable (he isn’t) but whether his existence is probable. That is another matter. Some undisprovable things are sensibly judged far less probable than other undisprovable things. There is no reason to regard God as immune from consideration along the spectrum of probabilities. And there is certainly no reason to suppose that, just because God can be neither proved nor disproved, his probability of existence is 50 per cent.
The fact that a question can be phrased in a grammatically correct English sentence doesn’t make it meaningful, or entitle it to our serious attention. Nor, even if the question is a real one, does the fact that science cannot answer it imply that religion can.
And whatever else they may say, those scientists who subscribe to the ‘separate magisteria’ school of thought should concede that a universe with a supernaturally intelligent creator is a very different kind of universe from one without. The difference between the two hypothetical universes could hardly be more fundamental in principle, even if it is not easy to test in practice. And it undermines the complacently seductive dictum that science must be completely silent about religion’s central existence claim. The presence or absence of a creative super-intelligence is unequivocally a scientific question, even if it is not in practice – or not yet – a decided one. So also is the truth or falsehood of every one of the miracle stories that religions rely upon to impress multitudes of the faithful.

Note (Hal’s):
The presumption that absolute truth exists does not imply that it can be determined. No question is a scientific one unless it can, at least in theory, be tested. With respect to miracles, Dawkins nowhere offers any test other than his own dogmatic repudiation.

I concur that the two views produce very different universes, but if the difference is a matter (so far as can be tested scientifically) of point of view, then each of us in effect can choose between them, at least with respect to this particular difference. That argument is circular, but it’s the same circle as Dawkins’s argument; I just followed the circle in the opposite direction.

— end note

Compare to:

G. K. Chesterton

Nevertheless, there is something utterly special about the hypothesis of ultimate design, and equally special about the only known alternative: gradual evolution in the broad sense. They are close to being irreconcilably different. Like nothing else, evolution really does provide an explanation for the existence of entities whose improbability would otherwise, for practical purposes, rule them out.
Little Green Men
The crucial difference between gods and god-like extraterrestrials lies not in their properties but in their provenance. Entities that are complex enough to be intelligent are products of an evolutionary process. No matter how god-like they may seem when we encounter them, they didn’t start that way. [...] Skyhooks – including all gods – are magic spells. They do no bona fide explanatory work and demand more explanation than they provide. Cranes are explanatory devices that actually do explain. Natural selection is the champion crane of all time.
Arguments for God’s Existence
Thomas Aquinas’ ‘proofs’


God: proofs

If God is omniscient, he must already know how he is going to intervene to change the course of history using his omnipotence. But that means he can’t change his mind about his intervention, which means he is not omnipotent.

Note (Hal’s):
Very cute, but it presumes God is confined to the same serial experience of temporal existence as humans, an unsustainable anthropomorphism.

— end note

That’s an argument? You might as well say, people vary in smelliness but we can make the comparison only by reference to a perfect maximum of conceivable smelliness. Therefore there must exist a pre-eminently peerless stinker, and we call him God.

Note (Hal’s):
Aquinas’ Argument from Degree deserves this parody.

— end note

The argument from personal ‘experience’

The human brain runs first-class simulation software. Our eyes don’t present to our brains a faithful photograph of what is out there, or an accurate movie of what is going on through time. Our brains construct a continuously updated model: updated by coded pulses chattering along the optic nerve, but constructed nevertheless. Optical illusions are vivid reminders of this.

The argument from scripture
A common argument, attributed among others to C. S. Lewis (who should have known better), states that, since Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, he must have been either right or else insane or a liar [...] A fourth possibility, almost too obvious to need mentioning, is that Jesus was honestly mistaken.

Note (Hal’s):
It’s pure sloth to sneer at Lewis without checking the widely known source: the argument was directed at those who claim to accept Jesus’s scriptural teachings but not his divinity. Lewis cites scriptural authority in this case because it is stipulated by others.

And just how does Dawkins conclude that a man may be “honestly mistaken” about his being divine, without being insane?

— end note


Mere Christianity

In the December 2004 issue of Free Inquiry, Tom Flynn, the Editor of that excellent magazine, assembled a collection of articles documenting the contradictions and gaping holes in the well-loved Christmas story. Flynn himself lists the many contradictions between Matthew and Luke, the only two evangelists who treat the birth of Jesus at all.

Note (Hal’s):
The Flynn article turns out to regard every difference as a “contradiction.” Only two contradictions are actually mentioned, and one of those is founded purely on Flynn’s interpretation of the absence, in one version, of an element present in another.

The only real contradiction found establishes the underwhelming point that genealogies, compiled in the late first century concerning someone who lived decades earlier, can be inconsistent. After considerable struggle, I cannot produce any better assessment than “Big whoop!”

— end note

Pascal’s Wager

Believing is not something you can decide to do as a matter of policy. At least, it is not something I can decide to do as an act of will. [...]

But why, in any case, do we so readily accept the idea that the one thing you must do if you want to please God is believe in him?

Note (Hal’s):
By "believe in him," Dawkins apparently means "believe in his existence," which misses the point.

— end note

Why There Almost Certainly Is No God
Creationist ‘logic’ is always the same. Some natural phenomenon is too statistically improbable, too complex, too beautiful, too awe-inspiring to have come into existence by chance. Design is the only alternative to chance that the authors can imagine. Therefore a designer must have done it. And science’s answer to this faulty logic is always the same. Design is not the only alternative to chance. Natural selection is a better alternative. Indeed, design is not a real alternative at all because it raises an even bigger problem than it solves: who designed the designer? Chance and design both fail as solutions to the problem of statistical improbability, because one of them is the problem, and the other one regresses to it. Natural selection is the real solution.



The anthropic principle: planetary version
The anthropic principle, like natural selection, is an alternative to the design hypothesis. It provides a rational, design-free explanation for the fact that we find ourselves in a situation propitious to our existence. I think the confusion arises in the religious mind because the anthropic principle is only ever mentioned in the context of the problem that it solves, namely the fact that we live in a life-friendly place. What the religious mind then fails to grasp is that two candidate solutions are offered to the problem. God is one. The anthropic principle is the other. They are alternatives.


Anthropic principle

This chapter has contained the central argument of my book, and so, at the risk of sounding repetitive, I shall summarize it as a series of six numbered points.

  1. One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect, over the centuries, has been to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises.
  2. The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself. [...]
  3. The temptation is a false one, because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable. We need a ‘crane’, not a ‘skyhook’, for only a crane can do the business of working up gradually and plausibly from simplicity to otherwise improbable complexity.
  4. The most ingenious and powerful crane so far discovered is Darwinian evolution by natural selection. [...] We can now safely say that the illusion of design in living creatures is just that – an illusion.
  5. We don’t yet have an equivalent crane for physics. [...] But the anthropic principle entitles us to postulate far more luck than our limited human intuition is comfortable with.
  6. We should not give up hope of a better crane arising in physics, something as powerful as Darwinism is for biology. But even in the absence of a strongly satisfying crane to match the biological one, the relatively weak cranes we have at present are, when abetted by the anthropic principle, self-evidently better than the self-defeating skyhook hypothesis of an intelligent designer.

Note (Hal’s):
The “central argument” of the book thus extends no further than the flaws of creationist/intelligent-design flappery and the comparative explanatory power of evolution.

— end note

text checked (see note) Feb 2010

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