Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Reactions and Responses to The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, Part 11

Dawkins spends a good many words on the anthropic principle. Dan Berger, who teaches chemistry at Bluffton University, offers this simple version of the anthropic principle: "We're here because we are, so there!" Dawkins offers a somewhat wordier version in his “planetary version” of the principle: “We exist here on Earth. Therefore Earth must be the kind of planet that is capable of generating and supporting us, however unusual, even unique, that kind of planet might be” (p. 135).

Dawkins says that the anthropic principle offers an alternative to the theory of design. Unfortunately for him and for the strength of his case, his discussion at this point becomes filled to the brim with “ifs” and “supposes.” He says that a good conservative estimate of the number of planets in the universe is a billion billion (that’s a lot). And here come the speculative assumptions. “Suppose the origin of life…really was a quite staggeringly improbable event” (pp. 137-138). “If the odds of life originating spontaneously on a planet were a billion to one against, nevertheless that stupefyingly improbable event would still happen on a billion planets” (p. 138). While Dawkins admits our ignorance about what circumstances are like on other planets, that doesn’t stop him from saying “If we now import some new assumptions into our estimate, things change” (p. 138). Indeed. And if we important the assumption of God into it, things change, too.

Dawkins’ point, though, is that it only has to be the case that conscious life could be shown statistically to arise on one planet out of a billion billion for us to have a reasonable explanation of life on earth. So Dawkins’ argument goes something like this: (1) We are here and we are conscious and intelligent; (2) therefore there is at least one planet where life can develop (because it has); (3) therefore, while the odds may be minute that such life can originate, it did; (4) therefore, there is no need to posit a creator, because, after it all, life could have developed because it did develop and we can imagine circumstances in which that would have happened without a creator.

Besides, Dawkins maintains, the odds that there is a divine creator are really insurmountably large—greater, I guess, than one in a billion billion. And so Dawkins chalks the origin of life up to—get ready now—luck (p. 141), which is to him a more satisfying answer than God. I am left wondering just how insurmountable are the odds that we could be that lucky. I think that we are back to the point that I raised in my last post. If we go back far enough along the evolutionary timeline, we finally reach a point where we simply cannot know what lies behind it; we are confronted with mystery. I suppose that were we to get to that point we could posit “luck” or we could posit “God.”

In this chapter Dawkins also says that he thinks it won’t be long until some scientist working in a laboratory originates new life. If one does, though, it will be done out of existing material. I know that it will sound like a simple question to a superior intellect like that possessed by Professor Dawkins, but I’ll ask it anyway: from where did that already existing stuff come? When someone makes something out of nothing, then I’ll be impressed!

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