Dawkins’s Reason Rally speech

June 11, 2016 • 2:30 pm

I didn’t go to the Reason Rally a week ago because I was in Boston, but I doubt I would have gone anyway, for I’m beginning to tire of many of these convocations (not all of them—some include science, psychology, and philosophy talks that go beyond personal deconversion tales or rah-rah calls for nonbelief). Richard Dawkins, one of the draws—but not a “self-appointed Atheist Leader”—had to make a video for the audience, as a recent stroke kept him from traveling to the U.S. Here’s his short video for the Rally, which concentrates on the incompatibility between science and faith. I especially like the bit where he goes after theologians for asserting that God is not complex but SIMPLE.

As you may recall, in The God Delusion Richard argued that the “First Cause” argument is intellectually bankrupt, for it doesn’t explain the “cause” of a complex God who could create everything. In response, the dimmer or more mendacious theologians say that God isn’t complex at all, but simple. (Some theologians, however, just punt and say that God is the One Thing that Doesn’t Need a Cause.) It is this “simple god” argument that Dawkins takes apart halfway through the video. And, of course, even if God were simple, his appearance in the cosmos still needs an explanation. It just won’t do to say that God is the one thing, among all other things, that doesn’t need a cause. If he was hanging around forever, pray tell us, O theologians, what he was doing before he created the Universe.

Finally, physics has dispensed with the idea of causation; the discipline has no such thing as “a law of cause and effect,” and some physical phenomena are simply uncaused.

53 thoughts on “Dawkins’s Reason Rally speech

  1. What was God doing before He created everything? He was masturbating, of course. Why else would He be so concerned when his creations (in his image) continue to do that which so bored him that he felt compelled to create a whole vast Universe just for Something Else To Do?

      1. I now live in dread of the Coming of the Great White Handkerchief ….
        Hang on, that’s a H2G2-ism … but then it was snot, not jizz.

    1. Which is just what the Egyptian creation myth says – the universe is basically the product of Atum having a wank.

    2. In some ancient Egyptian creation myths,the primary deity creates through mastrubation.

      I found that all those apologetics “arguments,” such as the uncaused cause and all that, simply begged the question in the logical sense of the term — examples of petitio principii (not the way in which “begging the question is currently misused) and case closed, but perhaps I’m misapplying it. Clarification welcomed.

  2. “Finally, physics has dispensed with the idea of causation; the discipline has no such thing as “a law of cause and effect,” and some physical phenomena are simply uncaused.”

    huh? can someone elaborate on that?

    1. Check out Lawrence Krauss’s video about his book A Universe from Nothing, and se where YouTube leads you from there.

      I haven’t read the book yet, but apparently it’s excellent.

    2. Nuclear decay is an example. It is impossible to predict when an unstable nucleus (e.g. C14) will decay. All we can say that there is a 50/50 chance that it will decay sometime in the next 5500 years (known as its half life). It is strictly a random process due to quantum tunneling.

    3. The probabilities of many kinds of effect, of which radioactive decay is the easiest to understand, are accurately described by the exponential distribution. This is described as “memory-less” or “history-free”, because it can be shown in a few lines of algebra that prior history is irrelevant for predicting when the event might occur. For such events, the idea of causation is meaningless.

      1. Good point, I had forgotten about that no-history process and how it would relate to a cause-effect model!

    4. Einstein discovered that special relativity puts up problems for a cause-effect model.

      Newton’s gravity is the paramount example, since it asked for effects being instantaneously felt across the universe as you moved a a center of gravity (idealized mass). General (and special) relativity replaced that with looking how physics obey the constraint of a universal speed limit – the speed of light in a vacuum.

      Einsteinian physics replaced earlier cause-effect models with the physics of what Einstein called “causality”, how physics acted over light cones. As a side note that unified a lot of physics such as all forces and information transmission having to obey the USL/”light cone”.

      As for “uncaused” phenomena it is a lot more fuzzy. For example, you can’t say *when* a radioactive decay happens, it is a stochastic process.

      If you want to call that “uncaused” is a … well, philosophic question. It is a property of quantum particle fields (here in the form of atoms) that it can happen with some likelihood. The processes obey causality though, which is another excellent example how it unifies modern physics.

    5. Huh indeed.
      I think Jerry is wrong here.

      Hawking and Mlodinow from The Grand Design.

      Quantum physics might seem to undermine the idea that nature is governed by laws, but that is not the case. Instead it leads us to accept a new form of determinism: Given the state of a system at some time, the laws of nature determine the probabilities of various futures and pasts rather than determining the future and past with certainty.

      Lawrence Krauss said something similar at INR5 (if I remember correctly). Jerry was there too.

      1. Aren’t you performing a sleight-of-hand when you say that the “laws of nature determine the probabilities” is “a new form of determinism”? Saying the probability of B’s following A is 0.001 is not a form of the deterministic view underlying a statement like “A causes B.”

        1. It is not me that is performing the sleight of hand.

          It is Hawking, Mlodinow and Krauss that are.

          Either way … do not quantum phenomena respond to cause? Our models cannot predict specific outcomes accurately.

    6. This is a main reason why Roman Catholic appeals to Thomas Aquinas to show that science and religion are compatible are problematic to say the least. Thomist theology is heavily dependent on Aristotelian notions of causality which were actually tossed out with Isaac Newton, never mind quantum physics.

      1. I have read in several places that causality at the quantum level is an open question. From our view, the events seem uncalled but we don’t know if there is a deterministic cause at a level we’ve yet to detect. Either way…theologians don’t have a whole lot of wiggle room. The Big Bang and Evolution has long dispensed with the appeal theology had to the masses.

        1. I would be more specific and say that Greek metaphysics has very little wiggle room and that a huge amount of medieval theology is based on Greek metaphysics which is the best light they had to go on at the time.

          Some folks think quantum physics opens up a lot of wiggle room for theologians but onw would then more theologians showed they really understood it. Fritjof Capra (Tao of Physics) and Ken Miller (Finding Darwin’s God) seem to moderately understand quantum physics genuinely but Deepak Chopra and the authors of “What the Bleep Do we Know?” and other purveyers of “quantum woo” are utterly clueless.

    7. I think what Jerry is saying here is that physics, at the most fundamental level, has dispensed with causation.

      Newton’s laws of physics, which apply in the realm of everyday experience, still involve causation. Push on a wall while wearing roller skates, and you’ll see cause-and-effect in action.

  3. At 4:40, not only all of that, but “His eye is (also) on (all) the sparrow(s).” But surely the hymn writer would (could) not rationally restrict it to solely sparrows.

    1. No, they’d need to include all the other dinosaurs, including the ones that died out near the Cretaceous-Palaeogene boundary.

        1. Mental image of the Rubbles and Flintstones getting an order of Brontosaurus Ribs at the drive-through.

  4. I’m glad he’s well. He could now sport a Darwin beard proper to his furry eyebrows (or tame them a bit), but I think he never had a full beard. Why not, Richard? He looks good, though. His recent stroke and decision to lay down the tweeting sounded a bit like fading away. I am glad he continues to contribute, and doesn’t just get on with gardening!

    The whole leader-talk invented by the Social Justice Atheists is ridiculous, for those who want to pay attention to him, do. Those who don’t, are free to look elsewhere. Of all the people, those who wanted him off Twitter appear to have monitored his tweet activity the most (which is a byproduct of outrage-driven echo chambers).

    In some sense it is good Dawkins didn’t attend Reason Rally this time. The Social Justice faction complained already in strong words about Lawrence Krauss’ appearance. Greta Christina and others blamed him as one reason for the low attendance, stating that he had kept the Social Justice faction a way.

    There were maybe 3000 attendees only (certainly less than 5000). We can only speculate about the reasons. To paraphrase Maslov, when you have a hammer, you look for nails and it’s tempting to blame it on the other side. Though I also doubt that SJW are the reason for the poor numbers, as Phil “Thunderfoot” Mason and others have alleged.

    It does have to do with a change in the Zeitgeist, though, where extreme partisan politics in the USA are now more important than anything else and many are “done” with Creationism and being angry with their religious abusers. And the Colours of the Democrats Blue Tribe, where atheism is largely located, are now postmodernist-tinted in a garish hue of Critical Race Theory. This has tacitly and in many cases explicitly (“Intersectionality”) replaced the previous wave of New Atheists.

    Everything is said on Christianity. But the criticism of Islam is blocked because it is in conflict with advertising Blue Tribe membership. In addition, it is not unheard of that people in the movement (online, who care about Reason Rally) are now also critical of reason, and rationality as well, as it might be a tool of the patriarchy used against the “lived experiences” of “marginalized identities” as they say in the US secular movement these days. Why would such a movement have a “Reason Rally”.

    I doubt that Richard Dawkins would have turned the tide. He has dodged the usual drama this time. It’s my firm belief that we don’t need any more fake harmony that was kept up for about five years. It’s time that that the science-oriented, Enlightenment-based side strikes back and accept that the “Deep Rifts” with the Social Justice Critical Race Theorists, Postmodernists and Regressives are not going to heal anymore. Silverman and such people can invite PZ Myers, Aron Ra, Matt Dillahunty or Greta Christina and see how it goes.

    We need a Sokal-inspired Science War Two, and Richard Dawkins (together with Steven Pinker and the esteemed host) are in an excellent position to declare it (the other side already invaded, and are firing their shots for years now). Why not? We can all get on with gardening afterwards.

    1. The Social Justice faction complained already in strong words about Lawrence Krauss’ appearance. Greta Christina and others blamed him as one reason for the low attendance, stating that he had kept the Social Justice faction a way.

      At last! We’ve found the antidote! Can we clone Larry?

    2. Where did you get the 3000-5000 attendee number from? There was easily more than that considering how spread out the crowd was (trying to find shade). I’d put it closer to 15000, especially by midday.

      1. No official crowd estimates have been released. But even in the early afternoon, when the crowd was likely at its peak, nothing I saw suggested “15,000 to 20,000” in attendance, as the organizers told Religion News Service. I’d put the range at about half of that, but we’ll see. — Hemant Mehta

        Hemant assumes 7,500—10,000 at the peak. A representative of American Humanists, called by a YouTuber says “less than 5,000”. Other attendees have reported they thought more about above 2,000. This seems too low. I’m not overly attached to any number, the consensus is that the numbers were disappointing.

  5. Everything has a cause, therefore the universe has a cause, and the cause is god.

    So what caused god?

    Oh yes, we meant to say everything except god has a cause.

    Do theologians just make this stuff up as they go along?

    1. Do theologians just make this stuff up as they go along?

      Presumably, yes.
      Which implies that they’re incapable of conceiving of rational opposition, or that they think that any opposition is irrational, and frankly, stupid.
      You’d have thought that after several centuries of having their arses handed into them in their hats, they’d have learned better. But it seems not.

  6. Technically, the notion of God’s simplicity means that God is not composite, not made up of a multiplicity of components such as soul and body, but is an entirely unified entity, whose attributes are all inherent in her/his/its essence. (It doesn’t quite mean she/he/it is simple in the sense that a screwdriver or basic addition is simple.)

    Both Alvin Plantinga (easily the most obscurantist religious philosopher I have ever tried to read) and William Lane Craig (easily the most morally confused religious philosopher I know of) actually dispute the classical notion of divine simplicity.

    I am a tad tempted to argue ad hominem that this is a point in the idea’s favor.

    But it remains unclear why the One Thing that Doesn’t Need a Cause might not just be the cosmos itself.

        1. There is actually a chain of restaurants in the UK entitled “Grounded”, and I suspect their chocolate and raspberry fondue is quite divine in spite of being composed of multiple ingredients contrary to the classic understanding of divine simplicity.

          You’ve supplied me with a clear rebuttal to Aquinas. 🙂

  7. “…Richard argued that the “First Cause” argument is intellectually bankrupt, for it doesn’t explain the “cause” of a complex God who could create everything.”

    I personally believe that this counter-argument to the ‘First Cause’ argument is not valid, for the reason that the entire purpose of the ‘First Cause’ argument is to invoke a causeless agent. The point of the argument is that the ‘First Cause’ (i.e. God) is causeless. To argue that the ‘First Cause’ argument requires a cause for the ‘First Cause’ is simply to ignore what the argument is saying.

    With that said, I would still argue that the ‘First Cause’ argument is still invalid, for the reason that it requires a naturalistic universe in which everything is involved in a ’cause and effect’ relationship. Since, as Dr. Coyne noted, modern physics has shown this not to be the case, the ‘First Cause’ argument is invalid.

    As for the ‘simple vs. complex’ argument, assuming that the God(s) of the Abrahamic religions is apart from the naturalistic universe, would our concepts of ‘simple’ and ‘complex’ apply to such a being? In my opinion, however, whether God is ‘simple’ or ‘complex’ does not impact the fact that the ‘First Cause’ argument is invalid.

    “If he was hanging around forever, pray tell us, O theologians, what he was doing before he created the Universe.”

    Do the theologians need to know what God was doing before he created the Universe? Is that information needed for the Abrahamic religions to be true or even coherent religions? As a comparison point, I doubt that we would argue that metaphysical naturalism is incoherent since we do not know the exact mechanism for how life arose from non-life on Earth. The lack of knowledge on specific aspects of a religion do not make the religion false unless the lack of knowledge applies to a core component of the religion (ex. the Original Sin issue with Christianity).

    1. I agree with you that the First Cause argument is a waste of time. In fact I feel that way about most scientific arguments against religion. When you’re dealing with magic and miracles, what difference does it make what science says?

      But I still think most scientific rebuttals need to promulgated for two reasons–one is that the god zealots are increasing using faux science to make it sound like there is indeed hard scientific evidence for their fairy tales, and two, because there are likely to be so many on-the-border religious people who have too much sense not to smell a rat in the theological dodging and are really ready to be convinced that science is indeed right.

  8. I have had many arguments with theists about this. I ask them: if God is ultimately simple, but knows everything, where does he store and process all that data? How did he plan the creation of the universe? How does he decide who goes to heaven or hell?

    I haven’t had a satisfactory answer. I suppose there are things Man was just not meant to know.

  9. If I understand Sean Carroll and his cohorts correctly, Quantum Mechanics is entirely deterministic. It is especially so in an Everettian Many-Worlds formulation, and it is straightforward to demonstrate it as such. However, even single-world formulations remain deterministic, even if they come with barriers to means of doing the determining.

    As such, Sean would preserve the basic idea of causality, but only in the sense as it would be understood by Laplace’s Demon. Given the current state of a system and the laws of physics, everything about the past and future of that system can be calculated to within a certainty proportional to the knowledge of the initial state. Chaos might require a computer radically larger than the universe itself to actually perform such a calculation, but observation has repeatedly and overwhelmingly emphatically confirmed the computable deterministic nature of nature at its most fundamental levels.

    However, this Laplacian determinism is radically different from Aristotle’s four types of causality. Nature is instead “merely” a Rube Goldberg contraption. Pull this string here and, eventually, your toast is served — even if the cat first must pounce on the duck that was startled by the gunshot.

    Sean also points out that, superficially, some Aristotelian-like explanations can sometimes be useful in certain contexts. If you posit the proximity of a condition of low entropy, “because I want some tea” can be one of many “reasons why” there’s a pot of boiling water on the stove. It’s just that such “reasons why” are only valid in certain limited and abstract settings and only if certain other specific assumptions are valid — with all those assumptions ultimately tracing back to the low entropy of the Big Bang.

    As to why the Big Bang had so little entropy…trying to answer that is Sean’s day job. His colleague, Lawrence Krauss, has done some great work putting forth some plausible possibilities for the set of circumstances that would have inevitably evolved, Laplace-like, into the Big Bang…but nobody’s yet got a solid answer.

    Still, that our boundaries of knowledge have been pushed back a baker’s dozen billion years ago, with nary a god in sight, should not go unremarked upon….



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