• True Reason: A Further Response to Tom Gilson

    A few weeks ago I began posting my responses to each chapter of the book True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism (Patheos Press, 2012) and one of the authors, Tom Gilson, has responded to my critique of the first chapter, which he authored.

    While we had a brief exchange in the comments of my critique of the first chapter, Tom has more fully responded on his blog. I will do my best to sort out the obvious confusion on this issue. First, I would highly encourage readers to read my initial critique of the chapter, then Gilson’s response, and then my response to him so you can get caught up on the exchange so far. Second, I’d like to note up front that I did indeed misread Gilson’s chapter, but I think once this mistake has been pointed out and I point out the reasons I interpreted the chapter in the way I did, it should clear up the confusion and it will also be clear that Gilson is the one who actually made a logical error.

    Let’s begin. I will quote from Gilson’s blog post in its entirety (minus the first section on my spelling of God with a lowercase “g”). When he quotes me I will place those quotations in bold. He writes, quoting me:

    First, I was not “responding to Dawkins’ case against god-guided evolution.” Yes, Dawkins focuses on his area of specialty, biology, but his case was against design in general. This is evident in the book’s subtitle: “why the evidence … reveals a universe without design.” The book’s first chapter opens by discussing the complexity of living organisms, and moves directly in its second paragraph to, “Biology is the study of complex things that appear to have been designed for a purpose.” The whole first chapter, which sets the stage for the whole book, is commentary on that.

    AA anticipates my response there and writes,

    Yes, it’s true that Dawkins’ book only addressed the belief of god-guided evolution, but evolution is Dawkins’ main area of expertise and he wanted to address this specific claim. And this is what he means by “design.” He’s not referring to all design arguments, but only the specific subset dealing with biological design. If someone writes a book with the intention of covering a single topic I think it’s unfair to criticize it for failing to address other related topics.

    I don’t know where I made that error in my chapter, although in my more recent response to AA I did say,

    Again: suppose evolution happened as he supposes: does that reveal a universe without design? Once you get done with studying evolution, there’s still a whole lot of universe left over! There’s cosmogony, cosmology, fine-tuning, the rationality and explainability of reality, and the full panoply of as-yet-unexplained human characteristics including consciousness, rationality, free will, and worth, which Dawkins didn’t touch in that book (as I recall), and of which no evolutionary account has given an adequate treatment. So in that sense he made a large and fallacious logical leap, too.

    I didn’t, however, criticize Dawkins primarily for failing to address other related topics. I criticized him for committing a rather obvious logical fallacy. (This was the whole point of that section of my chapter in True Reason, as well as much of the rest of the book: the fallacious logic so frequently displayed by Dawkins and other New Atheists.) He drew his conclusion — a universe without design — without having demonstrated it. He didn’t even try to demonstrate it, except in one limited set of phenomena, biological evolution.

    Had he succeeded in showing design was unnecessary in the case of life, that would have revealed a biosphere without design, not a universe without design. But no, actually, it would only have revealed the scientific and logical possibility of a biosphere without design; which is why I wrote in True Reason that Dawkins disappointed me. He drew the conclusion, there is no design, after arguing a case that could only lead to it is possible there is no design. Alvin Plantinga pointed out the same thing, as I noted in True Reason.

    When reading my response to Gilson’s chapter it should be pointed out that I quoted him accurately. He wrote about The Blind Watchmaker:

    I picked up the book because of its subtitle: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. I had no idea how he – or anyone – could make a case for that, but I had heard good things about Dawkins as an author, and I was rather hoping he could bring it off. I was looking for a serious challenge, and if he had a way to disprove design in the universe, I wanted to test my mettle against it. […] But it was his argument against design I was looking for, and although he touched on it here and there, he never really landed on it until near the end of the last chapter: Evolution, he says, makes God superfluous, thus there is no design in the universe. That’s his argument. There is a way nature could have come about without design, therefore it came about without design. (True Reason, p. 2)

    When I read Tom’s chapter of True Reason it appeared to me that he properly understood the argument Dawkins was making in The Blind Watchmaker. However, in response to my chapter in the comments section, Gilson appeared to make another, separate argument that, to me, contradicted what he said in his chapter in True Reason.

    Having read The Blind Watchmaker I knew it was about debunking the argument for biological design, and I had assumed, with his having read the book, that Gilson was aware of this. So, when he writes in his chapter in True Reason that Dawkins did not successfully address the design argument I assumed he was referring to biological design, and not design in general. But, as Gilson makes clear in this reply, he believes Dawkins’ book was supposed to be about rebutting the argument from design, in all its forms, apparently, thus disproving the existence of god. This was where the confusion on my part came in and this is why I thought he was contradicting himself because I was under the impression that Gilson rightly understood the topic Dawkins was addressing, which is biological design in his chapter, and when he responded in the comments, arguing that Dawkins’ goal was to rebut the design argument in its entirety, thus disproving the existence of god, I was very confused, leading me to believe he had contradicted himself. But now I see what Gilson was arguing. Unfortunately, this fact does not help his case since his entire argument is based upon a strawman. Dawkins’ book addressed the issue of biological design only and Gilson had no effective response to it.

    Regarding my comment about “god-guided evolution,” as I noted in the critique of the chapter, I was trying to figure out the reasoning behind why Gilson would argue that Dawkins’ argument is illogical and does not disprove there is purposeful design in the process of evolution. Most Christians, while they accept evolution, discount that these natural processes are enough to take god out of the picture entirely, and they believe that god acts to guide evolution in some way. Since I assumed Gilson properly understood the book’s goal, I assumed he was referring to biological design and was trying to sneak god in through the back door as Christians often do, to avoid the obvious conclusion that with the facts of evolution by natural selection, god has nothing left to do. This was the reasoning behind my remarks. But now that this issue has been sorted out, it should be obvious that, despite my misreading, Gilsons’ argument still fails because he did not address Dawkins’ argument, thus creating a strawman because of his misunderstanding.

    Now that this issue has been cleared up, I will continue to respond to Gilson’s blog post. Gilson writes in his blog post in response to me:

    Second, I did not argue that I “agree that Dawkins did successfully argue that point.” What I said was,

    So suppose that Dawkins was completely successful in demonstrating that evolution happened as he described. I doubt that he was, but that’s another matter, and for now we can take it for the sake of argument that he did succeed. Suppose he even demonstrated that God was superfluous to the natural history of biological creatures.

    That’s a far cry from agreeing that Dawkins was successful!

    I’m sorry for the misunderstanding but I was not responding to that quote. I was referring to the quote where Gilson appears to agree with Dawkins’ thesis. He wrote: “You are defending Dawkins for ‘rebut[ting] the claims of Creationists and Intelligent Design advocates who argue that some feature of evolution could not possibly have occurred naturally.’ I agree with you that Dawkins did not fail to address those sets of claims.”

    Gilson continues,

    Third, AA denies that Dawkins’ intention was to disprove the existence of God. Now, that ties in with other things AA wrote in his response to me:

    You say nothing about the very existence of god in your chapter, which is not even addressed by Richard Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker, so why you seem to be changing your argument from one purely about god-guided evolution to one about the existence of god confuses me.


    He [Dawkins] said nothing of the kind, that there is no god.

    and also,

    Once again, Dawkins wasn’t arguing in that book that god does not exist. He was only discussing god’s alleged role in the evolutionary process.

    At this point it’s a challenge for me to maintain decorum; that is, it’s hard not to burst out in laughter. To argue that the universe is without design, while also maintaining that the design argument is “always the most influential of the arguments for the existence of God,” is indeed to argue against the existence of God—whether or not one says, “I am now commencing an argument against the existence of God.”

    Let’s see just how Dawkins viewed his arguments in relation to the existence of God. On page 4 of The Blind Watchmaker, in the 1996 edition I’m reading, Dawkins writes,

    The watchmaker of my title is borrowed from a famous treatise by the eighteenth-century theologian William Paley. His Natural Theology — or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Appearances of Nature, published in 1802, is the best-known exposition of the ‘Argument from Design’, always the most influential of the arguments for the existence of God.

    Two pages later, he writes,

    An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: ‘I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn’t a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one.’ I can’t help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.

    Dawkins’ argument against design is quite definitely an argument for atheism and against God.

    First of all, there is not a single quotation in the book that can be pointed to where Dawkins remotely says anything like, ‘because evolution explains biological design, there is no god.’ He says nothing of the sort in the entire book. Second, Gilson takes the first quote of Dawkins out of context. Here is the quote in full, which illuminates Dawkins actual intentions with this statement:

    The watchmaker of my title is borrowed from a famous treatise by the eighteenth-century theologian William Paley. His Natural Theology — or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Appearances of Nature, published in 1802, is the best-known exposition of the ‘Argument from Design’, always the most influential of the arguments for the existence of God. It is a book that I greatly admire, for it in his own time its author succeeded in doing what I am struggling to do now. He had a point to make, he passionately believed in it, and he spared no effort to ram it home clearly. He had a proper reverence for the complexity of the living world, and he saw that it demands a very special kind of explanation. The only thing he got wrong – admittedly quite a big thing! – was the explanation itself. He gave the traditional religious answer to the riddle, but he articulated it more clearly and convincingly than anybody had before. The true explanation is utterly different, and it had to wait for one of the most revolutionary thinkers of all time, Charles Darwin. (Blind Watchmaker, 2006; 7-8)

    Once you finish the quote it should be more than apparent what Dawkins actually said. Was he attempting to prove god does not exist? No! He cited Paley’s Natural Theology because of his excellent presentation of the argument from design, which was the topic addressed in The Blind Watchmaker. Dawkins is digressing about why he chose the title for his book that he did, and explains how he greatly admires Paley’s book. Dawkins goes on to explain the relevance of Natural Theology to his own book. Is it to one-up Paley and disprove god? No. Paley’s intention was to posit god as the reason for the apparent design in nature, while Dawkins wanted to explain that it is not god, but blind forces, namely natural selection, that is the driver of the apparent design in nature. As Dawkins noted: Paley got the reason for the design wrong. He said nothing about disproving god here.

    Let’s take a look at the second quote, which Gilson also takes out of context. Here is the quote in full, page 10:

    Paley knew that it [the organized complexity of living things] needed a special explanation; Darwin knew it […] In any case it will be my business to show it here. As for David Hume himself, it is sometimes said that that great Scottish philosopher disposed of the Argument from Design a century before Darwin. But what Hume did was criticize the logic of using apparent design in nature as positive evidence for the existence of a God. He did not offer any alternative explanation for complex biological design, but left the question open. An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: ‘I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn’t a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one.’ I can’t help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. (emphasis mine in bold)

    It should be clear from the context that Dawkins was still addressing the issue of biological design, not arguing against all forms of design. He is also not making an argument against god. What he is arguing is that after Darwin an atheist had a logical, scientific explanation for design in nature. No more did an atheist have to rely purely on Hume’s philosophical argument that Dawkins argues is ‘unsatisfying.’ After Darwin, an atheist could be “intellectually fulfilled” by this knowledge about how nature was “designed” and that this knowledge is very satisfying. This fact, however, does nothing to respond to any of the other arguments for god, and Dawkins said nothing of those. He was only addressing biological design, just as he did throughout the entire book.

    Let’s continue with Gilson’s further comments:

    Nevertheless AA thinks Dawkins’ book is only about belief in God’s role in evolution. He quotes the critical passage:

    We cannot disprove beliefs like these, especially if it is assumed that God took care that his intervention always closely mimicked what would be expected from evolution by natural selection. All that we can say about such beliefs is, firstly, that they are superfluous and, secondly, that they assume the existence of the main things we want to explain, namely organized complexity.”

    And referring to that, he reminds me,

    In fact, where you quote Dawkins as saying that “God is “superfluous” he is not referring to god at all, but a certain belief about god’s role in evolution.

    I grant his point there, except that (a) through his carelessness in logic and in the wording of his subtitle, among other things, Dawkins made it about design in general, as I already said, and (b) Dawkins believes he is poking a large and irreparable hole in any reason to believe in God.

    Now, AA is correct: Dawkins did not say in so many words, “therefore there is no God.” (Dawkins knows English well enough not to have written, “there is no god.”) I’ll accept that critique. It is a distinction without a difference, in my view; and besides that, if this is the best counter-argument anyone can successfully muster against me, I think I can stand the sting of that.

    I am pleased that Gilson has conceded this portion of his argument, and I see that after pointing out how he took this particular quote out of context, he went looking for new quotes to support his argument, which I just previously addressed. But, as we saw, he is grasping at straws trying to defend this distorted reading of Dawkins’ book. I believe he should concede defeat on this point. I’ve been reading Dawkins’ book the last week or so, double checking to ensure I wasn’t in error in thinking Dawkins does not address god, and there is indeed nothing there.

    The final issue addresses “divine simplicity.” Gilson writes,

    AA has this question to add to the mix:

    I would agree with you that theologians have often described god as simple, but at the same time I’ve never been able to understand how someone can make such strong assertions about the nature of something to which we have no evidence for. What is the basis for this assertion? It is philosophy, theology, the bible? I would be much appreciative if you could answer this for me.

    It’s a very good question, and more involved than I can address here. In short, though, its basis is in a philosophical reflection on what God must necessarily be, if God is. That is, if we’re talking about God, then by definition we are talking about God in his ontological simplicity. If we’re talking about some being that is not ontologically simple, then we are not talking about God, but (and maybe AA is right here) maybe about god, some unknown deity that no one here believes in. But I cannot go into this any further here. I will refer you to Edward Feser for more.

    I appreciate that Gilson provided me with this blog post, but I had a feeling this premise was based upon nothing but a pile of unjustified assumptions and philosophical mumbo-jumbo. If god is immaterial, outside of time and space, and “He does not ‘have’ existence, or an essence” (quoting Feser) how can this god affect this material world? We know through physics that all matter is composed of atoms and this is why we are able to interact with the world, but how could something that is immaterial, and not made of the same “stuff,” act in a material world? It would be like a ghost, another example of an immaterial entity, interacting with objects like chairs and other objects that are composed of matter, of atoms. It’s physically and logically impossible for this to happen. Obviously, a theist will argue that god is not bound by the laws of physics, and for the sake of argument I will concede that god is not bound by those laws. However, my question is how does such an immaterial being interact with a material substance and how could it act in a material world? By what processes might god use to achieve this? In addition, these attributes are logically inconsistent. Theists argue that god exists, but then he has no existence. Huh? I believe all of this mumbo-jumbo is merely a snake-oil salesmen pitch to allow god to avoid any logical or factual arguments against him/it/her, whatever. If someone is going to propose an argument, it must at the very least be logically consistent, if not something tangible, based upon the known laws of physics and other processes humans have discovered. Anything less is pointless gobbledygook.


    After going through Tom’s response I am happy that we cleared up this misunderstanding, and it is now clear to me, as it should be clear to any readers, that Gilson did in fact misunderstand The Blind Watchmaker and he did not offer a successful rebuttal since he did not grasp the topic of the book.

    It should also be clear that my misreading was an honest accident due to Gilson’s poorly worded chapter. He did not make it clear at all that he believed the book was about design in general, and not solely focused on biological design. I believe my assumption was entirely justified since most people read a book before forming a conclusion about an author’s thesis and it should be clear to anyone that book titles do not always clearly describe a book’s contents, and neither does an author often get to choose the title of their books. The publisher often decides what will be a gripping title that will grab the attention of a potential reader. And the subtitle, Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design, I think flows better than Gilson’s wordy title: “ Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Biological Design.” Most readers probably wouldn’t even know what this would mean, so they simply chose to use the word “Design,” knowing that anyone who read even the first few pages of Dawkins’ book would see it was addressing biological design, not the design argument in all its forms, which makes no sense anyway. Cosmology is outside of Dawkins’ expertise so why would he devote an entire book on the Cosmological Argument, let alone all of the other design arguments? The very idea Dawkins would do this simply strains credulity.

    Regarding the philosophical explanation (and I use that word very loosely) of god’s eternal nature. This argument is contradictory, thus logically unsound, and it is based upon nothing tangible.

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    Article by: Arizona Atheist