H. Allen Orr and Daniel Dennett are tearing into each other something fierce over at Edge, and it’s all over Orr’s dismissive review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion. It’s a bit splintery and sharp, but the core of Orr’s complaint, I think, is that he’s unimpressed with Dawkins’ ‘Ultimate 747’ argument, which is basically that postulating an immensely complicated being to explain the creation of an immensely complicated universe doesn’t actually explain anything and is self-refuting — if you need an intelligent superbeing to create anything complex, then the superbeing itself is an even greater problem for your explanation.
Dawkins clearly believes his argument is much more than this [more than a parody]: it’s a demonstration that God almost certainly doesn’t exist. Can Dennett really believe that some facile argument about the probability of correctly assembling all of God’s parts by chance alone is anything of the kind? Does he really believe that God is (necessarily) complex in the same way as the universe, just more so?
I think Orr is looking at it in the wrong way, and part of his problem is a failure to define the god he is talking about. If we are talking about something that is not necessarily complex like the universe, that is basic and fundamental and that we derive in some way from something as essential as the laws of existence, then we are not addressing the existence of the god worshipped by almost any religion in existence. Sure, we could equate “god” with simplicity, but that’s Einstein’s or Spinoza’s god, which are not a problem. Dawkins clearly lays out his terms and states his position:
Let’s remind ourselves of the terminology. A theist believes in a
supernatural intelligence who, in addition to his main work of creating the universe in the first place, is still around to oversee and
influence the subsequent fate of his initial creation. In many theistic
belief systems, the deity is intimately involved in human affairs. He
answers prayers; forgives or punishes sins; intervenes in the world
by performing miracles; frets about good and bad deeds, and
knows when we do them (or even think of doing them). A deist,
too, believes in a supernatural intelligence, but one whose activities
were confined to setting up the laws that govern the universe in the
first place. The deist God never intervenes thereafter, and certainly
has no specific interest in human affairs. Pantheists don’t believe in
a supernatural God at all, but use the word God as a non-supernatural synonym for Nature, or for the Universe, or for the
lawfulness that governs its workings. Deists differ from theists in
that their God does not answer prayers, is not interested in sins or
confessions, does not read our thoughts and does not intervene
with capricious miracles. Deists differ from pantheists in that the
deist God is some kind of cosmic intelligence, rather than
the pantheist’s metaphoric or poetic synonym for the laws of the
universe. Pantheism is sexed-up atheism. Deism is watered-down
Dawkins explicitly divorces his argument from the idea of god as impersonal primal force, which the ‘Ultimate 747’ argument does not address, and instead focuses on the kind of god-concept we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis in the real world — not the abstraction of theologians, but the capricious, vindictive, meddling magic man of the churches and the weekly prayer meetings and the televangelists.
The metaphorical or pantheistic God of
the physicists is light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God
of the Bible, of priests, mullahs and rabbis, and of ordinary
language. Deliberately to confuse the two is, in my opinion, an act
of intellectual high treason.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call it treason, but it certainly is intellectual foolishness. I like Orr’s work, I usually greatly enjoy his reviews, but I think in this case he is, perhaps unconsciously rather than deliberately, confusing the pantheistic cosmic force he is unnecessarily defending from Dawkins’ argument with the righteous anthropomorphic bastard that is actually refuted.
And yes, I know it is the nature of religion that everyone who believes will automatically state that their god sure isn’t the complicated caricature of the Bible or the Torah or the Koran and will retreat to the safety of the Ineffable (but Simple) Cosmic Muffin until the bad ol’ atheist is out of sight, and then they will pray to Fickle Magic Man for the new raise or that their favorite football team will win, and they will wonder if Righteous Bastard will torture them for eternity if they masturbate. Until that atheist glances their way again … then once more, God is Love, can’t get much simpler than that, man, your arguments against that silly version can’t touch my faith. It’s familiar territory. Get into an argument with someone over Christianity or Islam or any of these dominant faiths, and you’ll see them flicker back and forth between the abstract and the real god of their religion — their only defense is to present a moving target.
I think Orr would be better served by putting up a clear statement of what god he is defending, rather than shuttling back and forth. I suspect that if he did so, he’d either find himself agreeing with Dawkins, or finding his choice of god bedeviled with a very pointed criticism, one he can’t dismiss so easily.