(Continued from Part 1)
The argument for God’s existence from design in the universe has a biography of vertiginous highs and lows. Its roots travel as far back as Socrates and the ruminations of ancient thinkers such as Cicero, who wrote in De Natura Deorum; ‘What could be more clear or obvious when we look up to the sky and contemplate the heavens, than that there is some divinity of superior intelligence?’ Since its early forms in ancient philosophy, the argument held particular favour through the middle ages and the modern world before it fell victim to the metaphysical blade of David Hume and the evolutionary theory in the twentieth century. In more recent times, with deeper scientific insight into the elegance and reliability of the laws of nature and the finely tuned physical constants necessary for life, the argument has been recovered and even responsible for swaying some of its most ardent critics (I’m thinking particularly of the intellectual conversion of Anthony Flew, one of the twentieth centuries most esteemed atheists, well-known for popularising the invisible gardener challenge against the design argument).
Many opponents however remain unconvinced. Richard Dawkins, zoologist and chair at the university of Oxford, has expended significant effort to undermine the credibility of the design hypothesis. From his 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker to his more recent writings, Dawkins has contended against the Intelligent Design movement and those that see a divine mind behind the beauty and regularities of the cosmos.
Christian philosopher, William Lane Craig, at a public lecture at the Bible College of New Zealand, addressed Dawkins’ discussion of the design inference and his chief objection against belief in the existence of God. Craig demonstrated that this argument, found in Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, simply does not succeed in its aspirations; its form is invalid and its failure; catastrophic.
Craig extended his assessment further and, after considering some of the other weaknesses of the syllogism, narrowed his focus to Dawkins’ third premise (“the temptation [to view the appearance of design as actual design] is a false one because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer”). Craig saw this as the most problematic step in Dawkins’ reasoning. He argued that, first of all, it was false for Dawkins to claim that one must explain the designer in order to accept the design explanation. When assessing the strength of a theory, the only test is whether the explanation is the best one.
Craig was also critical of Dawkins’ claim that the design hypothesis offers no ‘explanatory advance’ because of the supposed need for greater complexity on the part of the designer. In theory assessment, Craig maintained that simplicity is only one criteria that is used to judge an explanation. Other considerations include: explanatory power, explanatory scope, degree of ad hoc-ness, and plausibility. In certain cases, simplicity can be jettisoned when these other criteria are satisfied to high degree.
Finally, Craig argued that Dawkins most fundamental mistake was his assumption that a divine designer is comparable in complexity to the design in the universe. Craig demonstrated that this, however, is an unwarranted assumption. As a non-physical mind, God is uniquely simple and not composed of parts. What might be considered parts: self-consciousness, volition, rationality, are all essential to what makes a mind a mind. Its very nature requires all its parts to be what it is (in comparison to features of the universe which are contingent).
Craig’s discussion of the argument went for no more than fifteen to twenty minutes. The rest of the evening (an additional hour and a half) was left open for questions, which drew out some useful comments.
Understandably, most of the discussion was on Dawkins and many of his other opinions about Christianity. One member of the audience asked how the Oxford professor is viewed by present atheistic philosophers of religion. Craig mentioned in response that, those atheists he had contact with, confessed that they do in fact see Dawkins’ arguments as weak but that they are attracted by the positions that the biologist defends. Such atheists view Dawkins as a catalyst for the discussion of religious issues in popular discourse, even if they are squeamish about the incredibly sloppy arguments he employs.
Another question concerned the popularity of Dawkins and the New Atheists: given that their arguments could be refuted so easily, why were they so well received? Craig surveyed some socio-cultural considerations he believed were relevant to why the movement has had so much impact. He explained that Harris, Dawkins, and others appealed to a climate of anxiety that surrounded events of terrorism in the West. Through their exaggerated claims, the dangers of extremism and fundamentalism have became dangers that are associated with all forms of religion. And when all of religion has been cast as promoting violence, intolerance, and ignorance, the idea of eliminating religion not just from the public square, but from the private sphere becomes very attractive.
It was also asked: if Dawkins has not raised any original or particularly strong arguments against belief in God, does Christianity therefore face an even greater challenge? Must we now go beyond merely responding to individual arguments but addressing the climate the allows such opinions to flourish and find footing? This was a great question, and Craig answered it at great length, explicating the importance of apologetics and the pressing need for the church to recapture the life of the mind. This, he believed, was where the church had failed and marginalized itself.
He made the easily misinterpreted statement that the most important institution shaping society is not the church but the university. For Craig, the university is where future decision-makers and leaders are trained and taught. The university is where lawyers, journalists, and artists subsume and develop their understanding of reality, ethics, and truth. The church must see the university, therefore, as the beachhead of change. If the church truly wants to regain its influence on culture – it must first regain its influence at the university. He emphasized that Christians must look beyond mere piety and realise that the gospel will only be heard, understood and believed when the plausibility structures of society are open to Christianity as an intellectually viable option.
This led to questions about Christian engagement and the perceived conflict between science and Christianity. Craig handled these questions well, also devoting considerable time to queries surrounding evil and suffering, the land conquest of Israel in the Old Testament, and how best to mobilise the church to reverse the subculture of anti-intellectualism.
Craig’s discussion of postmodernism I also found interesting. He admitted the possibility that New Atheism was perhaps more than a challenge to the post-Enlightenment mood and could even be the early reverberations of its death knell. He argued that postmodernism has never in fact been the dominant view in society and that this is rather a “myth perpetuated by Christian youth leaders”. Scientism and verificationalism cast a long shadow over our society and Dawkins and others stand firmly within this tradition. If it was true that we live in a postmodern society, Craig argued, Dawkins’ book would never have had the positive reception that it has had.
Craig did not pull any punches on the night. His commentary on Dawkins was clinical and unsparing. He showed how the British zoologist has shirked any real investigation of the debates in the current literature and just how insubstantial his actual arguments are. Craig’s subsequent survey of the church and contemporary culture was equally sobering and really galvanized my own thinking. He is right: if the church listens to those commentators within it who say we should abandon rational presentations of the gospel, the witness and influence of the Christian community will become “utterly impotent”.