Thursday, August 5, 2010

TGD: Chapter Three - Science, Gambling, and the Odds

In the last three sections Dawkins deals with arguments for God's existence that, in my opinion, aren't terribly convincing. In this post I'll try to go over all three sections so we can be done with chapter three and move on to the heart of Dawkins' argument.

In the first of these three sections Dawkins writes about the "appeal to respected scientists". The gist of this argument is that many well respected scientists have believed in God, therefore you should as well.

The argument is a kind of appeal to authority, and not a very good one. Scientists aren't in a better position to know whether or not God exists than anyone else.

In any case, Dawkins points out that these days very few notable scientists are religious in the traditional sense. Quite a few are religious in the 'Einsteinian' sense, which Dawkins decided to lump in with atheism back in chapter one.

This argument seems more relevant to the question of whether or not religion and science are compatible, but I'm not going to bring up that subject again. For now let me just say that the belief, or lack thereof, of scientists has no bearing on the question of whether or not God exists.

In the next section Dawkins discuses Pascal's wager. This isn't an argument for God's existence so much as an argument for why you should believe he exists.

The wager works like this. If God doesn't exist then it doesn't matter one way or the other if you believe in him or not. On the other hand if God does exist then you'll be better off if you believe in him than if you don't. So you should believe in God, in case he does exist.

Dawkins points out to problems with the argument. First, the argument assumes that there is only one possible God that might exist. The argument doesn't deal with the possibility that you might choose the wrong God to believe in.

Second, Dawkins points out that deciding to believe something is not simply a matter of choice, at least, not for him. In order to believe something you need to have some evidence for it. Otherwise you're just paying lip service.

I hate to pile on old Pascal, but I have a few additional problems with the argument. First, it assumes you have a traditional view of heaven and hell, which is not a belief I'm committed to (and it's certainly not a belief I want to promote for the sake of a bad argument).

Finally, the wager only works if you assume that believing in God doesn't cost anything. If, on the other hand, believing in God is something that could potentially cost you your life or your freedom, then the argument doesn't work so well. The argument certainly doesn't convince us to obey Jesus when he tells us to give up everything we have and follow him.

The final argument that Dawkins brings up is one that I've never heard of before. The argument comes from a book called, "The Probability of God". In it, the author uses Bayesian methods to determine the odds that God exists.

I am fond of Bayes' theorem, but this argument doesn't sound like a very good one. Based on Dawkins' description it seems like the man took a very informal argument for God's existence, assigned numbers to various factors that make it more or less likely that God exists, and then used Bayes' theorem to come up with a final probability.

Since I'm not familiar with the argument, I have no way of knowing if Dawkins misrepresented it, but it didn't sound very convincing to me. If you're curious, you can always buy the book. If nothing else, you'll learn how to use Bayes' theorem, which is worthwhile enough.

In any case, we're now finished with chapter three. In a few weeks I will return with chapter four.

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