This post was originally written as my comments on Richard Dawkin's book "The God Delusion" for a debate on Facebook with an atheist...
While it is still fresh in my mind I wanted to post my observations about Dawkins' main point he's trying to make in The God Delusion. This post is long already so I chose not to lengthen it with reference notations to chapter and page of the book. If anyone wants to challenge me on something I will certainly provide the appropriate book reference in the course of the discussion.
Dawkins makes two key, primary points in the book. First, biological life does not evolve by random, unguided chance. At first glance this sounds rather shocking until you realize that he means natural selection is the very competent “guide” that directs the evolutionary process eliminating the problem of “random chance”. Secondly, and related to his first point, he asserts that complexity is not irreducible and not truly as improbable as it first seems, that natural selection conquers “mount improbable” (the apparent near impossibility of the countless diversity of highly complex life forms that exist) one small step at a time. He uses the eye as an example of this point. Of course to think of the human eye coming into existence all at once is extraordinarily complex and improbable. Evolution could not be reasonably assumed to accomplish such a task…in one big jump that is. But evolution doesn’t work that way according to Dawkins. To Dawkins natural selection is an amazingly elegant “force” that guides the process in very small steps that obtain incrementally more complex organisms and organs until eventually, over ages of evolutionary time, the human eye comes into being. For instance, the eye of a flat worm can only see blurry undefined light and dark blotches. Obviously it is massively less complex than the human eye. But natural selection doesn’t move directly from the flat worm eye to the human eye but rather takes many, many intermediate steps. The next step might be the fruit fly eye, then the spider eye, reptilian eye, lower mammalian eye, higher mammalian eye, then finally the human eye. Getting from the flat worm eye to the fruit fly eye (or whatever eye that is very close to the flat worm eye) is a “rather easy jump”. So the complex human eye may look like “mount improbable” but really it is a gentle slope easily scaled one small step at a time.
Dawkins uses this concept of natural selection to rebut two major points that Christians and other creationists make. Clearly, according to Dawkins, the claim by creationists that evolution is a process of blind, random chance and therefore wholly inadequate to explain the complex world in which we live is wrong. It is wrong because creationists don’t understand that evolution is in fact guided by natural selection which is capable of “creating” highly complex life forms. The second major point Dawkins seeks to refute with natural selection is the objection that our complex world is comprised of countless highly complex “units” (like eyes and other biological organs) that could not possibly work unless they are fully intact. This is called irreducible complexity. The argument is that the human eye could not function as it does without all of its constituent components so a slow evolutionary process that incrementally constructs a human eye simply would not work. Failure is inevitable because anything less than the human eye would not survive in the natural selection process of “survival of the fittest”. Dawkins asserts that this objection is invalid because, as stated above, natural selection tackles the “mount improbable” of complex units one small, incremental, step at a time and those incremental steps (transitional forms) ARE SUCCESSFUL in their own ecosystems. He uses the flat worm as an example. The flat worm’s eye is FAR simpler than the human eye and provides vision WAY inferior to the human eye yet it works and the flat worm has survived.
To sum up Dawkins’ use of natural selection as his primary argument for the feasibility of evolution as the most plausible explanation for biological life we can say 1) It is the guiding force of evolutionary process making evolution FAR more probable as the mechanism responsible for life as we know it and 2) natural selection can produce the complexity that we see because it guides the evolutionary process from the simple to the complex in slow, “easy”, incremental steps. Nevertheless, I assert that Dawkins fails to make a compelling case against God for the following reasons…
First, Dawkins admits the biological life forms inhabiting our universe include extraordinarily complex forms that would be virtually impossible to explain by unguided, random chance. He then asserts that natural selection is the “force” or reality that makes the evolutionary process guided and non-random. He also freely admits that there is no such theory available for cosmology, but most certainly one will be found and so we should not lose hope, meaning something other than God will be found as an answer for the origin of the cosmos. Dawkins himself admits natural selection is only applicable for biology and not for physics. Therefore, even IF natural selection could be proved to be the evolutionary guide Dawkins claims, it cannot and does not explain the origin of the first life form. Without that, natural selection has no inherent power to cast doubt on the existence of God.
Secondly, Dawkins does not explain how biological forms could be acted upon by natural selection. Presumably natural selection is not in and of itself a force, entity, or any other reality with an independent existence otherwise it would simply be God by another name. Therefore biological life must contain some kind of ability or tendency that responds to conditions within their ecosystems resulting in the survival of the fittest by “keeping” useful features and functions and propagating them to the next generation AND it must enable them to not only pass those features and functions to the next generation but somehow cross species boundaries. This biological mechanism is not discussed by Dawkins and to the best of my knowledge has never been demonstrated conclusively but is thought to be the process of mutation. Molecular biologists are the experts who would demonstrate such a mechanism and so far they have not been able to prove that mutation is a sufficient mechanism to do the amazing work of natural selection. Therefore, natural selection is a concept endowed by its creator (Darwin) with amazing abilities, but the actual mechanism(s) to explain how it could actually accomplish its influence on biological forms has not been shown. Biological adaptation and mutation are certainly observable mechanisms but do not (as far as we can observe) approach the kind of capabilities required by natural selection to produce entirely new complex life forms from simple ancestral life forms through the theorized gradual, incremental steps. Dawkins concept of natural selection, like Darwin’s is uninformed by biological fact. It is a philosophical proposition utilized to explain what we see (amazing complexity) without reverting to God but it has NO molecular, biological underpinnings to show that it is or could be true.
Thirdly, although Dawkins dismisses irreducible complexity by asserting that natural selection can create complex life forms through simple incremental steps, irreducible complexity remains a serious problem for evolutionary theory. Darwin himself, as Dawkins admits, claimed that if a truly irreducibly complex unit were discovered it would devastate his theory. Dawkins goes through great pains to flesh out his “Mount Improbable” analogy to show how natural selection, rather than trying to scale to the massively improbable peak of Mount Improbable, goes around the backside of the mountain where a gentle slope exists and marches up the mountain in simple, gentle, incremental steps. As stated above he uses the flat worm eye as an example of an eye form far less functional than a human eye yet still works sufficiently to survive and propagated by natural selection. The critical hole in this argument is that the flat worm eye is a flat worm eye and STILL exists along with the completely separate human eye! Obviously natural selection didn’t enable the flat worm eye to develop on its way to a more complex human eye in a manner that the “fitter” human eye eventually formed and survived the “survival cut” of natural selection. Rather, there exists concurrently the flat worm eye and almost endless variations between the flat worm eye and the human eye. Clearly the flat worm eye “works” for the flat worm whereas the human eye works for the human and the various in between eyes work for those life forms. This means the eye for each biological form is tailored to that form and its unique ecosystem. So where is the impetus or “motivation” for natural selection to continue its “guidance” toward a better eye? Why would natural selection climb Mount Improbable if it “creates” a successful eye at “base camp”? Why does the flat worm eye still exist? Dawkins asserts that there are numerous transitional forms in the fossil record. But since the flat worm eye still exists, the simple fact that there are numerous biological forms with various functional eyes that have gone extinct provides no evidence that they are the product of “natural selection” and represent an incremental step up Mount Improbable. Rather, given the evidence of current life forms and the fossil record, why would it not be more plausible to conclude that each representative life form has the eye designed perfectly for that life form and ecosystem? My contention is the only reason one would not draw this conclusion (that of intelligent design/creation) is because one approaches the evidence from a presupposition of natural selection which in turn is based on pure philosophical materialism.
Dawkins approaches the evidence from a philosophical materialism but I certainly approach the evidence from a philosophical supernaturalism. I (and scientists who also share a philosophical supernaturalism) interpret the evidence in such a way that allows for God – or to be generic, an immaterial force or being above and/or beyond nature. Philosophical materialists interpret the evidence in such a way as to NOT allow for God. So who is right? If the evidence is not so overwhelmingly obvious one way or the other so as to close the debate (and that could certainly be successfully argued) how can one come to a settled intellectual conclusion? Certainly it begins with careful consideration of the evidence. But when the lay person examines the evidence we are dependent to some degree on the “experts”. We need to hear, analyze, and carefully consider what Dawkins, Harris, Hawking, Sagan, Hoyle, Einstein, Behe, Meyer, Craig, Zacharias and others say. In addition, we should do as much direct analysis of the evidence as we’re capable of doing. But when we depend on experts, to whatever degree that dependence, their credibility must be taken into consideration before knowing how much weight to place on their opinions. I contend that an “expert” who approaches the biological and cosmological evidence from a philosophical materialism presupposition has already closed his mind to any option outside of nature. In fact, that is the definition of philosophical materialism – there is no reality outside of the physical, material, natural world. Once the mind is closed to the supernatural option any evidence that points to the supernatural is dismissed. HOWEVER, an expert who approaches the evidence from the presupposition of philosophical supernaturalism is open to the evidence from both sides. Could the “supernaturalist” expert be biased, finding a supernatural explanation behind every rock? Sure, but this is the potential with any human scientist/expert - according to many and various biases. The human factor is a component of EVERY expert’s approach. But, a philosophical supernaturalist has a world view that ALLOWS him/her to evaluate evidence in such a way that is open to explanations unrestricted by the known, material, physical world. So, which expert has a more credible approach? Who can we trust, all else being equal, to fairly examine and evaluate all the evidence? I propose the expert who allows for the natural AND supernatural explanations. This is certainly NOT Dawkins.
For a much more thorough and scholarly treatment of the difficulties with Darwinian Evolution particularly around the doubt regarding the ability of natural selection to provide the required information to "climb Mount Improbable" see Stephen C. Meyer's book: