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On the one hand, Dawkins is a rather vocal exponent of evolution. Evolution, to me, appears to hold that greater complexity can arise form lesser complexity (unless we want to argue that the causes conspiring to increase the complexity of a particular part of the universe are summa summarum greater in some sense than the effected increase in complexity in the organism, which isn't obvious to me).

On the other hand, Dawkins requires that God be incredibly complex if he is to be a legitimate cause of the universe, that is, he must be complex enough to produce something like the universe. To him, this contradicts the Christian, or at least Catholic belief, that God is irreducibly simple, composed of no parts, and so on.

Dawkins is not particularly well known for his philosophical erudition, but if we take his claims and evaluate them on their own merit, are there problems between these two positions?

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This reminds me of Descartes' assertion in his Meditations that the causer is like a boulder, and the caused is like a piece chipped off the boulder. It's certainly not an alien concept, but Dawkins' phrasing seems a bit odd to me. –  commando Nov 20 '12 at 23:15

4 Answers 4

I don't think Dawkins' point is based upon the nature of God but on the mechanism by which God created the universe. As an intentional process, as opposed to a random one, God apparently had to decide on all sorts of things (including forming some sort of internal model of how things would go to be sure they'd end up the way He wanted). A being that can predict how a universe will behave and then create it is in some sense at least more complex than the universe itself (or the foresight would not be assured of working). Since evolution is not posited to have foresight of anything, you can have very simple starting conditions and rules that yield very complex (but completely unpredicted) consequences.

If Dawkins' point was that if X creates Y by any means and any reasonable definition of "creates", then X is more complex than Y, I agree, he's in trouble. I just don't think that's a sensible interpretation.

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Dawkins brings up this point while arguing that God is a poor explanation for the existence of the universe because, by his reasoning, God would need to be as complex as the universe in order to have caused it. His argument is most certainly about the nature of God in that he wants to show that the Designer cannot be the God of theology. What bothers me is that he admits, in a tacit kind of way, that a cause must be greater than its effect where greater is more complex. If that is so, then he shoots himself in the foot by accepting evolution IF evolution is "effect more complex than cause". –  Robert LeChef Nov 21 '12 at 21:40
@RobertLeChef - I haven't read the passage in question in a while (though I have read something along these lines, I believe). Can you quote verbatim in your question, and include enough of the context so we can avoid a misreading? I agree that it could be a problem, but I think you are reading uncharitably rather than trying to understand Dawkins' meaning. Anyway, even if he made a silly mistake, it's a silly mistake, which I have rectified above. It doesn't detract from any other points which do not contain that particular silly mistake. –  Rex Kerr Nov 21 '12 at 22:03
I have returned the book to its owner. I am not arguing that all of his arguments are wrong even if this particular one may be off. I googled around, and it appears the canonical form of his argument (which I admit could use some clarity) may be arguing that a designed universe would need a cause at least as complex as the universe, but an undesigned universe would not. If that is so, then his argument doesn't appear to be susceptible to the counterargument. However, that argument seems to have passed the question onto the causal status of laws in relation to their effect. See Amazed below. –  Robert LeChef Nov 23 '12 at 21:50

Dennett talks about this as "Skyhooks" vs. "Cranes"

A Crane is something which can build great complexity, but it rests on simple, fundamental principles. This is like evolution.

A Skyhook (a crane hanging from a helicopter) is something which can build great complexity, but it rests on no firm foundations. This is like creationism.

Some of the criticisms you bring up have been brought up by others who say that Dawkins doesn't differentiate well enough between these two in his Boeing 747 Gambit. He may not have presented the argument perfectly, but others have made it more rigorous.

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I'm not sure I much like the metaphor because its philosophically troublesome, and as you say not very rigourous (it does me no good saying it could in principle be made more rigourous if a relevant and coherent intuition doesn't even present itself that could be made more rigourous). In any case, the fact that epistemically simple principles can be thought of producing higher complexity itself poses questions about the metaphysical nature of these principles. To say that certain biological processes are observed or corroborated is one thing, but Dawkins is going far beyond them. –  Robert LeChef Nov 21 '12 at 15:30
I apologize - I did not mean that they could be made more rigorous in theory, but rather that Dennett and others have given (to my mind) a more sound definition. –  Xodarap Nov 23 '12 at 14:44

The fundamental distinction between the hand of Natural Selection and the hand of God(s) is intent.

The Theorum of Evolution states that Natural Selection is non-random, but is absent intent, will, or consciousness. Natural Selection is the expression of natural laws in biology and ecology. In contrast, a creator deity requires an intelligence complex enough to encompass the entirety of existence. Evolution arises naturally from the observed laws of the universe; God does not.

The modern concept of Evolution posits that life began on Earth a simple molecule that was able to imperfectly replicate itself from widely available compounds in its environment. Errors in replication which are beneficial (e.g. slightly longer claws, the ability to metabolize oxygen, etc.) allow one variant branch to thrive while those who lacked that variation die out (or evolve along a different path that is equally beneficial. )

Give this excruciatingly slow process enough time (in our case, about 4 billion years) and you find that the creatures that survived the hundreds of trillions of reproduction cycles are very well suited (i.e. adapted) to the environment they developed in.

So, complexity of life doesn't need a creative will; all it needs is time and resources. The eyeball did not appear perfectly formed at once (God creating complexity), it arose over eons because those individual life forms with better light-detecting cells tend to survive and everyone else gets eaten or starves (nature selecting beneficial traits).

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Can you elaborate Evolution arises naturally from the observed laws of nature; God does not. a little. –  user2411 Nov 21 '12 at 9:14
@wingman Simply put: DNA. We can observe the molecule of life, watch it replicate itself and note how errors occur. We know that errors can have dramatic effects (or none at all.) Evolution predated discovery of DNA by more than a century, but lines up exactly with what we observe in DNA. There is no such evidence for divine creation, however Evolution does not address the creation of the Universe or the origin of DNA itself. –  Andrew Lambert Nov 21 '12 at 9:24
You appear to have missed the point of my question. I know very well how evolution proper, biologically, works, and I do my best to avoid the teleological language many use. My question is metaphysical and concerns the mutual coherence of Dawkins' two positions. I was asking whether his acceptance of evolution as something that proceeds from lower complexity to higher complexity necessarily means his rejection of the principle that cause is greater than its effect. Perhaps this means drawing a distinction between "complex" and "great". –  Robert LeChef Nov 21 '12 at 15:05
Also, I can't parse the idea that God would arise from simple principles. That would make God not God, but a product of something more basic, and it assumes that complexity requires explanation while simplicity does not. –  Robert LeChef Nov 21 '12 at 15:27
@Amazed - That's clearer, thanks. Trivially, especially if you're an engineer, it sounds fine: higher complexity is achieved through a concatenation of simpler things using simple operations. But now I've only dug myself in deeper, involving the nature of "laws" and their causal status and in relation to the effect which I suppose is beyond the scope of this question. –  Robert LeChef Nov 23 '12 at 21:45

From you: “a designed universe would need a cause at least as complex as the universe, but an undesigned universe would not”. You did know the answer of your question, but you “only dug myself in deeper, involving the nature of "laws" and their causal status and in relation to the effect”. You “dug yourself” in obscure metaphysics that only you understand: “a cause must be greater than its effect.” In which obscure meaning the cause of a nuclear explosion or avalanche is greater than its effect? If "greater" means more complex or has more order, this principle is not a nature law, because the reduction of entropy is a characteristic of the evolution and life:

Wikipedia summary:

Some people think that life, contrary to the general tendency dictated by the Second law of thermodynamics, decreases or maintains its entropy by feeding on negative entropy. But the principle that entropy can only increase or remain constant applies only to a closed system which is adiabatically isolated, meaning no heat can enter or leave. Whenever a system can exchange either heat or matter with its environment, an entropy decrease of that system is entirely compatible with the second law. Living organisms preserve their internal order by taking from their surroundings energy, in the form of nutrients or sunlight, and returning to their surroundings an equal amount of energy as heat and entropy. The apparent paradox between the second law of thermodynamics and the high degree of order and complexity produced by living systems has its resolution in the energy that enters the biosphere from outside sources. Entropy reduction is a general characteristic of life.

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This is about the coherence of Dawkins' arguments, not the truth of them. In the case of Jesus, the response would be that Mary did not produce Jesus (Jesus is God), she only bore him (after all, the belief is in a virgin birth wherein God caused the conception). Now we have to be careful what we mean by greater. I am identifying it with complexity in this case. Nuclear explosions don't contain anything more than what was in the bomb in the first place. In fact, entropy increases which would imply a certain diminution of complexity. Ditto for avalanches. –  Robert LeChef Nov 23 '12 at 0:13
I understand that entropy can decrease locally while entropy increases globally. That's in fact what I hinted at when I said that your examples (nuke, avalanche) are bad ones. What I'm talking about is how complexity can increase at all in a universe if we adopt the aforementioned principle which Dawkins seems to do in some way. P.S. Your responses on SE could benefit from the use of a little less snarl. This is not a place to vent your arbitrary religious frustrations, especially when they're not related to the question at hand. –  Robert LeChef Nov 23 '12 at 21:02
I'm not sure if somebody understands your questions. But it seems that you already know the answer you want receive. You use for example obscure metaphysical medieval or neoplatonic principles and terminology to speak in entropy/complexity. By doing so, do you want a straw man argumentation? As seen by your comments, you only accept answers that assume your religion, otherwise you use ad hominem intimidating argumentation. This is not a place of hidden agendas. –  Ricardo Nov 24 '12 at 1:41
Sorry to disappoint you, but you've severely misjudged my position as I am an atheist. I just happen to be an intellectually honest one who wants to understand and verify the arguments regardless of their origin. Just because an atheist gives me an argument, doesn't mean I'll accept it uncritically, or make it a hobby of mine to troll religious people. My atheism is a result of my search for the truth, not the other way around. And actually, others have understood what I mean. You may not realize it, but you come off as the stereotypical New Atheist fanboy, judging by the aggressive tone... –  Robert LeChef Nov 24 '12 at 10:06
...of your responses, the anti-intellectual derision ("obscure", "medeival" or "neoplatonic" principles, as if that dismissed the validity of their arguments in some grand gesture of chronological snobbery; perhaps what is at fault is your ignorance of them, my friend), and the use of the all-time favorite recourse of the fanboy, the "stawman". And all the while, you miss the point. It is you who appear to be erecting strawmen to vent your bizarre anger. Ad hominem? Intimidating argumentation? Agendas? That's your baggage. That describes your responses, not mine. My responses have been... –  Robert LeChef Nov 24 '12 at 10:07

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