The Improbability of Richard Dawkins

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Although it’s been out now for 13 years, The God Delusion  by Richard Dawkins still sets the standard for 21st century atheist polemics. Both lionized by atheists and demonized by some believers, he is deserving, I think, of neither.

I’ve followed Dawkins for a while, mostly because of his particular pronouncements on the “improbability” of God. This thought intrigued me, because as someone  who has studied advanced probability (all right, I took a senior level math course in college), I was curious how that improbability was determined, and the methodology behind it.

Dawkins’s argument appears in Chapter 4, and reduces to this:

  1. The origin of life is an extremely improbable event. (on that we all agree).
  2. The history of life has been an inexorable progression from simple to complex. (conceded by most, except for young earth creationists).
  3. Darwinian evolution is the one thing we know that builds increasing complexity over time. (highly tendentious).

And finally, in his own words:

4. “The designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable.”

Elsewhere, he states (more clearly) that a cosmic designer would have to be more complex than life, so it seems [to him] illogical to explain complexity by postulating something even more complex. The latter is probably true, as far as it goes.

In a way, I was disappointed. I hoped he might have something interesting to offer on calculating the probability for or against God’s existence, but instead he merely offers a philosophical argument, and not a very good one.

In making his case, Dawkins commits three logical fallacies:

  1. Begging the question. Dawkins assumes what he sets out to prove. His thesis on Darwinian evolution assumes it happened without divine intervention. Even if we know evolution happened, which is almost certainly true on some scale, we don’t really understand how it happened. Natural selection, which Dawkins so reveres, is the black box, but inside is the biochemistry. Dawkins is no biochemist. (He’s no mathematician, either). If evolution was actively guided by the same designer, the case for improbability collapses. One has to assume it was not, which is begging the question.

2. Category error. Truly, I’ve been surprised that theologians would try to refute his argument by insisting that God is simple, not complex. How about neither? The words “simple” and “complex” as we apply them in the physical realm have no meaning with regard to an immaterial being that exists outside of space, matter, energy, and time. It’s as meaningless as talking about the “color” of God. Drop the assumption of material complexity, and the case collapses.

3. Equivocation fallacy. All Theists define God as uncreated, self-existing, and the first cause. Dawkins brushes right past by asking “who designed the designer?”This is just an unimaginative restatement of the old “who made God?” argument. A God that was “made” would not, by definition, be God. Dawkins own twist is to try and add a patina of authority by reframing it in scientific verbiage. The argument is purely a philosophical one. There is no way in the realm of science or mathematics to assign a probability to the solution.

This little discussion is neither intended as proof of theism nor a refutation of atheism. There is but one point to conclude. Dawkins’s many references to the extreme “improbability” of God amount to nothing more than an expression of personal feeling, not mathematics or science.

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Steven Willing

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4 Comments
  1. Brien

    And yet, you cannot prove any gods exist!!
    The sciences have seen no gods in any processes in Nature….

  2. Steven Willing

    Thank you for visiting. Please come back again.

  3. Jim Small

    Of course, a real scientist knows you cannot PROVE any theory, only give evidence for it. You CAN disprove a theory with an experiment or observation but can never prove it. It’s the old “Slaying of a beautiful theory by an ugly experiment.” Asking one to “prove God exists” only shows that the questioner has not really struggled with what science can and can’t do enough. (This is a problem for theists as well who think they have “proofs” of God’s existence. They have evidence, not proofs, in my humble or not so humble opinion…)

    • Steven Willing MD, MBA

      I concur. The “proofs” for God’s existence are philosophical, not scientific. So one cannot attain absolute certainty, like a geometric proof. I do think the cosmological and design arguments support His existence to a very high probability. Dawkins carefully avoids that. By his scale “7.0” is absolutely certain God does not exist, he calls himself “6.9”. I would do the same, in the opposite direction.

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