Dialogue between Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams

I’m a bit late to the party on this, but Richard Dawkins recently dialogued with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. You can watch the exchange here. Their discussion ranged widely over a number of issues and was moderated by agnostic philosopher Anthony Kenny (although he participated to greater extent than most moderators). Here are a few scattered thoughts of my own on the exchange.

I was quite happy to see a different, less strident side of Richard Dawkins. I thought he comported himself in a gentlemanly way. The Archbishop was, as ever, polite to a fault, but some genuine disagreement managed to emerge. I liked Williams’ strategy of talking about what kind of universe it would take to produce intelligent, conscious beings. In other words, what kind of properties must be inherent in the material world for it to produce intelligent life? This seemed to me to be a much more fruitful approach than arguing that God must intervene constantly in order to achieve that end. Williams resisted the impulse that many Christians seem to have to make God into a micro-manager. However, that approach left him somewhat vulnerable to Dawkins suggestion that if the material universe is capable of producing such extraordinary effects, God becomes superfluous. But Dawkins seems to think that any God worthy of the name must be the sort of God that science could detect directly; a tinkerer God. A telling difference between the two protagonists emerged at the end when Williams commented that, for him, God is not something that has to be shoe-horned into the natural world after the fact, at which point Dawkins confessed that that’s exactly how he views the issue. It’s fascinating that these two are separated by what might be called a theological difference!

They discussed consciousness and free will, which Dawkins acknowledged do pose hard problems for naturalism, but expressed confidence that these would be solved by some combination of neuroscience and computer science. Whether consciousness could be produced in ‘hardware’ other than brains is a fascinating question and I don’t rule out the possibility. Williams didn’t seem to rule it out either, suggesting an emergent view of consciousness. I appreciate that he resisted the move — made by many Christians — of describing the soul as a supernatural add-on to material beings. It seems to me that physicalism with respect to human persons is a growing view among Christians. However, if the Christian view is to be believed, there is a metaphysical dualism at the root of reality, namely between God (spirit) and the world (matter). Therefore, a Christian might expect a priori that we would find substance dualism with respect to human persons as well. Moreover, one might expect evidence for physicalism to be evidence against theism. I think that these are important issues that need to be addressed by theistic philosophers and expect to see a growing intersection between philosophy of religion and philosophy of mind in the near future.

As usual, the problem of evil, the wastefulness of evolution, and design flaws came up for discussion. These issues were more problematic for the theistic perspective. Dawkins led with his usual argument that evolution, and the suffering it entails, is exactly what we would expect on naturalism. Unfortunately, Williams didn’t get a chance to say much on this point and what he did say was more pastoral than apologetical. He reiterated the point about divine micro-management being unlikely given his particular view of God. He also drew out some disanalogies between what it means for a human to design something and what it might mean for God to create (he shied away from the term ‘design’) a universe. I do think there are some legitimate theological challenges for the Christian who accepts evolution. I’m not sure if the Archbishop accepts this view, but some theistic evolutionists claim that we ought to expect evolution on theism. In other words, the fact that evolution, rather than special creation, is true, is of no evidential value for the atheist. Of course, Richard Dawkins would reject this view! For Dawkins, the fact of evolution is powerful evidence for atheism. But Dawkins isn’t the only one who thinks that evolution has some evidential value in the debate between theism and naturalism. Paul Draper has argued that evolution is more probable on naturalism than on theism. Also, Alvin Plantinga has said that we cannot know a priori that God would choose evolution; special creation would seem to be a live option. Therefore, I think the theist needs to do more than show mere compatibility between evolution and theism; one needs to take into account the probability of evolution vs. special creation on theism.

They discussed the origin of life next. Dawkins was quite candid that the origin of life is another tough problem, since the mechanisms of mutation and natural selection that are so successful in explaining evolution are not available at the level of pre-biotic chemistry. However, Dawkins suspects that there must have been something like a proto-genetic self-replicating molecule. He briefly discusses the ‘RNA world’ theory which suggests that RNA originally performed the replicating function later performed by DNA. Since I don’t know much about the science, I’m assuming that RNA is a simpler molecule than DNA and would be easier to account for in naturalistic terms. But Dawkins is quite measured in his statements, claiming only that ‘RNA world’ is only the most fashionable theory currently. On the probability of life arising, Dawkins admits that it is fantastically improbable, but that it only had to happen once. Since there are billions of planets, there are many opportunities for life to arise. This version of the anthropic principle, however, ignores the fine-tuning argument that states that unless the initial conditions of the universe are finely tuned, even stars would not have formed, much less planets. Williams suggests that whatever else we can say about the universe, it certainly seems to be an anthropogenic universe and what he calls an informational universe. He sees these features as being more at home in a theistic account.

Anthony Kenny then asked Dawkins why he is an atheist rather than an agnostic. Here, Dawkins said that he doesn’t, strictly speaking, know that there is no God. But the term agnostic implies that there is a 50/50 chance. Dawkins thinks we can assign a much lower probability to theism, and therefore is justified in calling himself an atheist. He also repeats his “ultimate Boeing 747” argument from The God Delusion: any being who could do what God is allegedly able to do, would have to be very complex, much more complex than the so-called ‘specified complexity’ he is invoked to explain. At this point, both Kenny and Williams responded that theologians have always maintained that God is simple, i.e. not composed of parts. Dawkins argument assumes that God is in some sense a creature. I would agree that Dawkins presupposes materialism in his argument. He claims that minds are products of brains and thus arrive very late in evolutionary terms. And since brains, and consciousness, are the most complex things we know of in the universe, there’s no way there could be something like a mind at the beginning of the process. But this reasoning is just plain question-begging.

They finally did get around to discussing fine-tuning versus the multiverse theory, but didn’t say anything new. Kenny queried whether multiverse was any less metaphysical or any more parsimonious with what we know than the theistic hypothesis. Dawkins responded that physicists invoke the multiverse theory for reasons other than explaining away fine-tuning. I actually think there’s a lot more to be said on this issue, but perhaps I’ll leave that for a future post. All in all, I enjoyed this dialogue although there’s little here that one familiar with these issues will not have heard before.

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