The Dawkins/Williams debate

(Second try…)

I am currently listening to the audio recording of the “debate” between Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams. Actually, debate is hardly the word for it. One person who attended the event described it more like “afternoon tea and muffins”. It was really more like a polite conversation on erudite matters between a couple of Oxford dons – which it was, I guess. Dawkins can be very polite when he is talking to someone he doesn’t think is a dolt, or at least has the sense to realise that most people don’t think is a dolt.

The topic was not your usual “Does God exist” debate. It was on “The Nature of Human Beings and the Question of Their Ultimate Origin” – which is interesting because I am currently reading Fr Brendan Purcell’s “From Big Bang to Big Mystery”, which is on the same topic. Fr Brendan actually once entered into debate on the matter with Professor Dawkins on English television – you can read a transcript here.

Williams seems to have taken the tack of trying to persuade the eminent atheist of the rationality of belief in God by presenting “God” in rather erudit terminology: “Let’s call him a combination of love and mathematics,” or an “unconditional creative energy”. Which is all very well until you ask yourself just how the good Archbishop believes he is able to offer prayer to such an entity, or what is actually happening when he does.

Unfortunately there isn’t a simple transcript of the conversation, but you can read about it here, or here, and you can listen to the recording by clicking here.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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18 Responses to The Dawkins/Williams debate

  1. Mary H says:

    I think Williams is starting at the very beginning – the rational reason to believe there is a “something” we can call “God” that is responsible for the creation of the universe. You’re right – we can’t pray to or have a relationship with such an entity, if the definition stops there, but I think Williams is right that he has to start there. Dawkins hasn’t struck me as being very learned on rational arguments for God, so it makes sense that Williams is getting “back to basics” so to speak.

    Only once Williams gets Dawkins to concede that it is reasonable to believe that such an entity exists, can he continue on to talk about what characteristics such an entity must have, rationally. That still won’t bring him to the Christian God.

    To get to the Christian God, you need to eventually bring in revelation, and discuss the reasons to believe the evidence we’ve been given.

    • PM says:

      I agree with Mary here. The relationship of philosophical theology to revelation is complex, but philosophical theology can’t be written off as a pagan excrescence: as Benedict XVI has said, their conjunction was providential.

      • Schütz says:

        Rabbi Sacks had some intersting things to say about the Christian union of Greek thinking with Hebrew thought in his interview on Big Ideas – see the link in the post above.

  2. Stephen K says:

    David, I have been listening to the discussion and would like to make a couple of observations, if I may. Firstly, I am happy for this to be described as a “debate” because I think that if more debates were held like this, we would have a better chance of progressing and advancing rational and considered thought than what we are often exposed to. I found it refreshing to listen to all three men, because they each put forward their reasonings in accessible language. I do not think, personally, it is accurate to characterise Rowan Williams’ approach as a strategy to persuade Richard Dawkins to a version of the topic that is expressed as simply “erudite terminology”, which I think may be your euphemism for suggesting that Rowan is trying to get Richard to agree to an unsatisfactory half-way house of ideas which effectively is not Christian. To begin with, I thought Rowan was using the language that is very understandable and reflective of a person who has spent a long time thinking about how he might better understand his own faith and mindful of his own intellectual limitations.

    Moreover, the fact that Richard came across as polite, and as polite as his opponent, demonstrates, to me, not that he is guileful, as I thought you might be implying, but simply that politeness and reflectiveness is as capable of bringing out the best in him as it should be for any of us. Rowan is not a “dolt” – and in my view, there is no question that he should never be suspected of being one – and if Richard recognises that, then that is credit to him. Richard’s impatience with other opponents would simply reflect, I guess, his view that they are, whatever a dolt precisely is for him. The main problem I think pertains in this area is that he, Richard, like many of us at different times, may fall into the fallacy of thinking that dolts are simply those with whom we disagree or whom we dislike because of their style. I think we should all be prepared to admit that that is often how we feel or react. Sometimes the person with whose view we disagree may be a dolt on any terms, but not because we disagree with him or her – after all the fact that he or she may be a dolt does not prevent us from being a dolt as well!

    No, I think we have to continually apply a brake to ourselves: we so easily and frequently switch-off when we hear a name of a person who represents a position on a particular ideological spectrum and thus often miss any ‘truth’ they present. I do it and in my view, everyone does it – but polite exchanges like this greatly assist in humanising, civilising the process and overcoming the tendency.

    Somewhere I opined that I thought Richard Dawkins’ arguments in “The God Delusion” were not persuasive, but I was approaching his line of thinking from the standpoint of someone who has done some, and is more comfortable with, some philosophy and theology, both as an insider and one who is somewhat agnostic about various things. The thing that struck me about the RW-RD-AK exchange is that one could be left with quite a number of teasing conceptual threads to explore further, if one was so inclined.

    And the point of it all, it seems to me, is that we should be exploring and considering further. In my view, this exchange was very unlike the previous one you linked, the one with Stephen Fry etc. This one, in contrast, presented much more clearly and appealingly some of the thinking informing an atheist and a Christian theist on some threshold questions. If we approach this sort of exchange with an expectation that we want to see blood on the floor, that we will be unhappy unless one of the protagonists articulates everything we think should be said etc, then I think we inhabit a narrow and ultimately non-transferable intellectual space.

    • Schütz says:

      Yes, I agree with you, Stephen. I found that the “debate” was very well moderated, and kept to the topic and to the time allotted, which did mean that a lot of “tantalising” threads were thrown out, which I wish could have been explored at greater length.

  3. Peregrinus says:

    I’ve podcast it, and am in the course of listening to it. I haven’t got to the end yet, but I’m enjoying it greatly. Thanks for the heads-up, Davic!

    Couple of thoughts:

    “Actually, debate is hardly the word for it . . . more like a polite conversation on erudite matters between a couple of Oxford dons – which it was, I guess.”

    I confess I like this aspect of it. In a debate of the more robust, confrontational kind which is generally thought to make good television, too often the participants talk past one another, either igoring one another’s points or picking them up only to refute them. This kind of debate generates more heat than light, and each participant’s contribution tends to appeal most strongly to the people who already agree with him. Nobody’s mind is changed and, most of the time, nobody’s understanding is deepened.

    Here, though, a lot more can happen. At one point, Dawkins rates the certainty of his belief that there is no God at “6.9 out of 7”, and I’ve noticed this being picked up and discussed with wonderment in a variety of blogs and forums, both by fans of Dawkins and by opponents. In fact there’s nothing new here; Dawkins has always said that his position on the existence of God is a matter of belief, not knowledge, and if I recall correctly he was responsible for the “probably” in the atheist bus campaign slogan, “there’s probably no God”. But a lot of people are treating it as something new, a shift in his position, that Dawkins is no longer an atheist but an agnostic, etc, etc. And what that says to me is that, though Dawkins has said something like this many times in the past, it hasn’t registered with them. This is the first time they have heard him say it. And I suspect the tone of this dialogue has enabled them to hear things that are filtered out in the noise of a best-of-three-rounds-type debate.

    Secondly, I think in this more convivial atmosphere people do drop their guards a little, and say things that they might otherwise defensively avoid saying. At one point Dawkins cheerfully concedes, in response to a point from Anthony Kenny about determinism, that he is no philosopher, and can’t really address some of the issues that are coming up. That’s a very significant point, it seems to me; Dawkins is effectively conceding the main point of Terry Eagleton’s criticism of his views (which is, basically, that when it comes to theology he has no notion of what he is talking about). I don’t think, in a more confrontational discussion, Dawkins would have said something like that. More usually, he tries to avoid Eagleton’s critique by insisting that the existence of God is a scientific question, not a philosophical one.

    “Williams seems to have taken the tack of trying to persuade the eminent atheist of the rationality of belief in God by presenting “God” in rather erudit terminology: “Let’s call him a combination of love and mathematics,” or an “unconditional creative energy”. Which is all very well until you ask yourself just how the good Archbishop believes he is able to offer prayer to such an entity, or what is actually happening when he does.”

    Well, in fairness, having agreed to take part in the discssuion, Williams has to address the set topic, which is “the nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin”. In this respect the truths of Christianity are relevant in what they have to say about humanity, but less so in what they have to say about God. Where they are relevant Williams doesn’t hesitate to assert them; he has no difficulty, for example, in saying that God is intelligent – and so, implicitly, that God has a mind and in at least that respect can be thought of and spoken of as a person. But he doesn’t go on to draw out those implications and make them explicit- not, I think, because he’s shying away from them, but because in doing so he’d be moving further away from the topic that he is addressing, and has been asked to address. This would be (a) bad manners, and (b) a bit of a cop-out, and (c) it would look like a cop-out; Williams trying to get away from the awkward question he has been invited to discuss, and instead talk about something more familiar.

    Secondly, I suggest that this way of talking about God is an important corrective to Dawkinsism. Eagleton makes the point that Dawkins completely misunderstands “creation” as a characteristic of God. Dawkins speaks as if the Creator is like a manufacturer, only a really, really able and efficient one – able because he can make anything he wants, and efficient because he doesn’t require any raw materials. Whereas in fact when we say that God “creates” things, we mean that he holds them in being by a loving act of will. God is not a manufacturer. It’s much more profound that that; he is the fundamental condition without which existence is not possible.

    Aquinas tells us that everything we can say about God, we can say only in an analogical sense. Since the truth of God is beyond human experience, so it is beyond human language; we cannot frame a language which refers to concepts that we have not experienced; hence we must speak in analogies. (So, e.g., God is my father, but not my actual father; he is my father in an analogical sense.) A corollary of this is that everything which we can say about God which is true is, from another perspective, false. (God is not my father; my father is a retired accountant who lives in the suburbs of Dublin.)

    Dawkins takes conventional Christian language about God (“God made the world”) and treats it as though it were superficially true, when in fact its truth is usually more profound. Dawkins then sets about refuting the superficial truth of these statements. It seems to me that the only way to respond to this is to reframe our statements about God so that they do not have such obvious superficial interpretations, forcing Dawkins – or anyone wishing to critique them – to think more carefully about what these statements mean. (Of course, the meaning will still be true only in an analogical sense.) But this is a challenge not just to Dawkins but to us, since we too have to think carefully about what this “erudite terminology” is saying to us, and we too may have some of our more superficial understandings challenged.

    • Schütz says:

      Yes, I was probably a little too dismissive of the conversation when I posted this. I hadn’t finished listening to the whole thing. Now that I have, I have changed my opinion of the exchange a little. However, for comparison, you might want to look at some of the recordings of the conversations between Dawkins and John Lennox, which were similarly learned discussions between Oxford dons. Lennox, however, is a little more direct in his confession of the Christian, rather than simply the theist, conception of God. For this reason, I think those discussions came to terms with things a little better than this one.

      On the “probability” of God, to which you refer, I think Rabbi Sacks has a good response in his interview with Norman Swan on ABC Radio National’s “Big Ideas”. There he points out that if probability was the measure of existence, we should not, by rights, exist ourselves!

      • Peregrinus says:

        On the probability argument, it seems to me that there is a fundamental category error happening somewhere. The probability of God existing can’t, I think, be compared with the probability of the universe giving rise to intelligent life as we know it. We understand pretty well the scientific processes by which life, as exemplified by Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams, came into being and, yes, it involves some remarkably happy coincidences and it may be that we can say that, at the outset of the universe, the emergence of Richard Dawkins was foreseeable but very unlikely. But we cannot say anything comparable about God. Far from understanding the processes by which God came into being, the Christian view is that it is meaningless to talk of such things, since God never wasn’t. Thus anyone who says that the probably of God existing is small must mean something fundamentally different from what we mean when we say that the probability of intelligent life emerging was small.

        • Tony says:

          ‘God never wasn’t.’

          Maybe this could be an idea for a ‘bus’ slogan, Pere?

          It could simply be God never wasn’t or would We believe God never wasn’t be better? Or slightly more assertively God probably never wasn’t.


          • Peregrinus says:

            If God is, He never wasn’t!

            • SonofTrypho says:

              This way Arianism lies my friends…

            • Peregrinus says:

              Then how about “God is postulated never to have not been”?

            • Tony says:

              Don’t give up your day job, Pere! Can you really imagine any bus slogan with ‘postulated’ on it?

              I mean, Arianism is one thing but obscure, multi-syllabic words on a bus slogan?

              As me Mam was oft heard to say, ‘Gawd save Ireland!’ (disclaimer: not meant as an offence to ‘Gawd’, Ireland or ‘me Mam’).

            • Peregrinus says:

              That would be a special bus providing services to SonofTrypho only.

        • Stephen K says:

          Hi, Peregrinus. I think you and I are reading Richard Dawkins from similar pages! I agree with you he that appears to make a category-error in his arguments about probability and his failure to appreciate the place of analogy in discourse about God. About three years ago, I composed an essay analysing his book “The God Delusion” and came to the same conclusion. After summarising Dawkins’ argument that the improbability of the conditions just required for our universe to be the way it is, is not explained by a factor which is equally or even more improbable, namely the theistic God, because that is not to explain it but merely to extend the problem , I wrote, amongst other things:

          “My first sense is that Dawkins may be making category-errors or conflating separate terms or separating synonyms, or something of this kind. ……….. I just do not see from his explanation how he can reject a ‘skyhook’ device as any less possible a solution than his ‘crane’. For example, if Dawkins insists on a beginning to the universe, then the fact that fossil and zoological data support the idea of the process of natural selection does not seem to me to preclude the possibility that the very initial event or primary constituent of the universe, was underpinned by a God, even if natural selection is the operating principle once the universe in germ begins………….

          “Secondly, his argument revolves around the notion of improbability and…….. I find this an elusive notion, and perhaps something of a ‘straw man’. How meaningful is it to say of something actual – like our existence – that it is ‘improbable’? To say something is improbable is to say either (1) that we would not reasonably expect it; or (2) that we would not be able to prove or demonstrate it. To say therefore that something else is even more improbable might be meaningful in a strictly relative sense, but not in an absolute sense – we wouldn’t expect the second thing either. Nor would the notionally greater undemonstrability of the second thing change the undemonstrability of the first thing. In other words, even if natural organisms are amazingly unexpectable, because they are complex and fine-tuned, this does not necessarily mean that a designer is less possible, because more complex and fine-tuned, since if the unexpectable before our eyes exists, why might not the unexpectable designer behind it also exist, even if “mathematically” less expectable?

          “Further, Dawkins, argues – curiously reminiscently, though as I will shortly explain not identically, of Aquinas’ proof by Degree of Perfection – that to claim the complex is designed by God means that it is designed by something even more complex, which leads to an infinite regress, or which ties up the theistic arguer in knots.

          “Again I am not sure Dawkins has not made a category-error or something like it, or has not tied himself up in a knot of his own. On the one hand, why must the complexity of the material universe be of the same character as the nature of God? Is it not true that theistic references, to Trinitarian Personhood for example, are analogous for an idea which is ineffable? That is, the idea of a theistic, no less than a deistic, God is of Being or Power from which all observable being or power, derive their particular existences or expression. Whence-ever basic matter and specifying form arise, that is surely what we mean, amongst other things, by ‘God’, and if so it is arguable that we are not envisaging an identical order of “complexity”. In Aquinas’ view, God’s consisting of the greatest degree of various perfections does not appear to be of the quantitative order but of a qualitative one: Anthony Kenny writes that Aquinas was saying that “God’s essence is to be in the same way as the essence of fire is to be hot.” Thus, according to this, God would not be merely more complex, but complexity itself.

          “In any case, we can ask whether it is inevitable that a designing God must be improbably complex. Dawkins argues that developed life is incrementally or elementally more simple than it appears. The operating principle of natural selection appears, from his explanations, to result in no more than an accumulation of simple generations, the cumulative effect alone being complex. Either this means that it could be counter-argued that if the more complex causes the more simple, God need be not very much more complex than what is essentially a simple mechanical principle, hence perhaps God is not so improbable after all. Or, it means that it could be counter-argued that if the universe is only cumulatively complex, then to the contrary the simple causes the more complex, and to the extent that God is conceived of in ineffable essential terms, God is properly ‘simple’ and/or simpler and the question ‘who designed the designer’ has no work to do………………”

          So, Peregrinus, though it’s possible I’ve misconceived Richard Dawkins’ argument, or simply failed to understand it, or that my responses are specious, I found it encouraging that someone else should independently have felt similar things about his line of reasoning here.

          • Peregrinus says:

            Hi Stephen

            To be honest, I thought I was critiquing Jonathan Sacks’ argument (as stated by David) rather than Dawkins’s.

            If we grant that the evolution of Richard Dawkins was never necessary and at the outset would have looked highly improbable, and yet we observe that he did evolve, we cannot legitimately use this to dispose of the argument that the existence of God is improbable, because we are talking about two different kinds of improbability.

            The evolution of Richard Dawkins was improbable in the bookie’s sense; the odds against it were astronomically high. An awful lot of decks of cards had to be cut at just the right place, and shuffled just so, and dealt in one and only one of a wide variety of possible sequences, for Richard Dawkins to happen. And yet he did happen. Which tells us that an incredibly long bet can sometimes come off.

            But when we say that God is improbable we don’t mean that his existence is an incredibly long bet. We cannot say that an awful lot of decks of cards had to be cut in just the right place, etc, etc, for God to happen. If God exists, he just exists. There is no process, no sequence, no chain of events which culminated in his existence, and which might have unfolded in other ways which would not have culminated in his existence. That is not what “improbable” means when claims are made of the improbability of God. Consequently the fact that an incredibly long bet can sometimes come off tells us nothing useful about the truth or plausibility or otherwise of the claim “God exists”.

            Still, I am interested in your application of the same thinking to Dawkins. Can I ask, has your essay been published anywhere that I could read it?

            • Stephen K says:

              Peregrinus, to the extent that the notion of God entails Godness uncaused, then what you say about the inappropriateness of attributing improbability derived from the unlikely confluence of culminating events seems right. I was trying to make sense of talk about improbability per se. I couldn’t quite get my head around the notion that it was meaningful to put odds on things that weren’t capable of recurring – like heads and tails – and I thought God was one of these. At any rate, I think I understand the gist of your comment and agree.

              My essay was simply a personal exercise during philosophy studies. But I have passed it on, with all its limitations, to David to pass on to you.

        • Schütz says:

          Quite right. My point was, that if you were using the same category of “probability” for God’s existence as for ours, then mere probability doesn’t count for very much, since it is possible for something to exist at impossible odds.

          Terry Pratchett always liked to say that, in any good story, if there was a thousand to one chance against something happening, the odds were ten out of ten that it would.

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