8

Richard Dawkins said

It is often said, mainly by the 'no-contests', that although there is no positive evidence for the existence of God, nor is there evidence against his existence. So it is best to keep an open mind and be agnostic. At first sight that seems an unassailable position, at least in the weak sense of Pascal's wager. But on second thoughts it seems a cop-out, because the same could be said of Father Christmas and tooth fairies. There may be fairies at the bottom of the garden. There is no evidence for it, but you can't prove that there aren't any, so shouldn't we be agnostic with respect to fairies?

I am wondering what point he is trying to make?

He asks "shouldn't we be agnostic with respect to fairies". I have two problems with that question:

  1. First of all, his tone suggests sarcasm, and that he doesn't think we should be agnostic towards fairies .... but, even if we were agnostic with respect to fairies, ... so what? That does not seem like a major problem, does it? If I say I do not believe in fairies at all, but I am not 100 % closed to the possibility of them existing, then am I being irrational? Am I being silly? Am I being illogical? Am I standing in the way of science? The answers are no, no, no, and no, so what's Dawkins' problem?

  2. My second problem is that he seems to be comparing two things which are not entirely equal. Tales of fairies are a made-up story by humans. It is likely to be false because there's no reason for it to exist other than it being a cute story to tell kids. But that is not the case with a god. The belief in god exists, not because we like to tell stories, but because people find god explanatory of universal phenomenons, of their personal feelings, etc etc. So it does not seem comparable to say that belief or agnosticism with respect to god is equivalent to belief or agnosticism with respect to fairies. The same could be said for the spaghetti monster argument: the spaghetti monster is less likely to exist simply because it's an intentional mockery made up by humans, and not something "universal" such as the concept of god.

  • 2
    Your second point is not a good argument. There are tons of religious scholars, philosophers, etc. who argue that mythology is precisely just story telling (definition of "myth"). Look at how certain stories about great kings end up deifying that king and giving them godlike powers (Gilgamesh). People like telling stories and mythology, religion, etc. are some of the oldest stories we tell. – Not_Here Sep 15 '17 at 18:11
  • 1
    Also, given what we understand about the history of the idea of faeries (which is exactly what you point out in your point 2) you are explicitly being irrational, silly, and illogical if you believe in them. You can't have it both ways. If you are admitting that faeries don't exist and we know that because they were just stories we tell kids then you can't also claim that an agnosticism about their existence is rational. – Not_Here Sep 15 '17 at 18:12
  • 3
    @Not_Here You're wrong, because you're not understanding my argument. God is not mythology. The story of Odin and Valhalla is a mythology. The story of a bearded naked white man in the sky who's the father of Jesus is a mythology. But the concept of god, the concept of a creator of things, is not a mythology, that's an explanation, and hence not comparable to mythologies such as Odin or fairies. – dududududu Sep 16 '17 at 11:08
  • 3
    Oh man. Dawkins has not a clue. The issues are far ore subtle than he understands. He does not seem to have studied religion prior to writing his book. I'm afraid I have no wish to discuss his silliness at any length. . – PeterJ Sep 16 '17 at 12:15
  • 6
    dawkins may be a great biologist, but he's a comically horrendous philosopher. – user20153 Sep 16 '17 at 19:46
4

It is a fallacy. It is known as Appeal to Ridicule. The link presents a very close example:

Example #1:

It takes faith to believe in God just like it takes faith to believe in the Easter Bunny -- but at least the Easter Bunny is based on a creature that actually exists!

Explanation: Comparing the belief in God to belief in the Easter Bunny is an attempt at ridicule and not a good argument. In fact, this type of fallacy usually shows desperation in the one committing the fallacy.

Any serious philosopher of religion would agree that the study of the existence (or not) of a Judeo-Christian inspired God (which is in many cases the key target of Dawkins' writings) is in no way comparable to the study of the existence of fairies or Father Christmas. The former has a degree theological, philosophical, cultural, political, economical, and sociological sophistication that any comparison to the latter is non-sense.

  • 3
    I'm downvoting as Dawkins argument is one of analogies, that he argues the belief in god is of similar level as belief in fairies regarding evidence, and therefore what gnostic viewpoint to hold for both. He is not entertaining that the question of god and fairies holds equal weight in his mind. – TheHonestAtheist Mar 16 '18 at 16:49
  • 3
    No, Dawkins is pointing out that the argument for being agnostic in relation to God is a hypocritical argument in that it does special pleading. Dawkins points out that people that people that ask that God-hypothesis shall be granted the benefit of an "open mind" at same time does not do the same for other fanciful supernatural hypotheses, such as fairies, unicorns or flying spaghetti monsters. – MichaelK Apr 3 '18 at 8:29
  • 2
    You're missing the key part of the definition of that fallacy "[...]usually by misrepresenting the argument or the use of exaggeration." it's not a fallacy to represent an argument as ridiculous if it is actually ridiculous. And you use the 'No-true Scotsman' fallacy to defend your argument ("Any serious philosopher of religion would agree...") – JeffUK Apr 3 '18 at 15:24
  • "It is a fallacy. It is known as Appeal to Ridicule." Fallacy of appeal to authority. You have no argument for why this is fallacious, you just link to a website. "Any serious philosopher of religion would agree " Another appeal to authority, with, as @JeffUK points out, a dash of No-true Scotsman the study of the existence (or not) of a Judeo-Christian inspired God (which is in many cases the key target of Dawkins' writings)" Strawman fallacy. Dawkins is not comparing God to fairies, but an argument regarding God to an argument regarding fairies. "sophistication" Argument by assertion. – Acccumulation Apr 6 '18 at 20:34
  • Fallacies, to be committed, have to be the crux of the argument. In both the example of appeal to ridicule and Dawkins argument, you can remove the ridicule and you are left with a substantive argument. Therefore, no fallacy is committed in either case. 'It takes faith to believe in X, just like it takes faith to believe in Y. Therefore if you extend faith to X, you must extend it to Y.' is the core argument and is sound. That people have negative opinions of fairies or the Easter Bunny but not God is purely a social situation that has no bearing on truth. – otakucode Apr 6 '18 at 21:39
2

Dawkins is high-lighting special pleading

Dawkins is pointing out that the argument for being agnostic in relation to a god — but nothing else — is special pleading.

Dawkins shows that is is unreasonable that the god-hypothesis shall be granted the benefit of an "open mind" when no-one does the same for other fanciful supernatural hypotheses, such as fairies, unicorns or flying spaghetti monsters. Instead it is considered obvious that they not be granted this, and the consensus is that they are imaginary concepts and should be considered as such.

Hence it is an inconsistent argument that one supernatural fancy should be given this favour when no other such fancy is given the same.

With this Dawkins implies that it is hypocrisy to grant agnosticism to the god-concept — and only that concept — instead of outright labelling it as an unproven fantasy when we do that with all other supernatural claims.

You are sort of shifting the burden of proof/argument here. It is the one that makes the claim that has the burden of proof. What Dawkins does is to say "Special pleading is not a convincing argument for a claim". That is not a fallacy.

So regarding your points:

  1. "So what?", "What's Dawkins's problem?". The issue he has with the argument for being agnostic on the god-hypothesis is that it is inconsistent and hypocritical. It is being asked that for one special case they should be allowed to employ arguments that they would never accept for anything else.

  2. "Tales of fairies are a made-up story by humans.", "But that is not the case with a god". Yes it is. Every argument ever made for the existence of fairies have as good evidence for them as the existence of any god. You just made that special pleading. "Yeah but this superficial entity is special".

There is no fallacy involved in pointing out that someone else's argument is inconsistent and unconvincing.

  • @wolf-revo-cats And the answer is: no, he does not. Pointing out a fallacy in someone else's argument is not automatically a fallacy. – MichaelK Apr 3 '18 at 15:11
  • 1
    @wolf-revo-cats and "No" would be a boring answer without expanding upon why not... – JeffUK Apr 3 '18 at 15:31
1

First of all, his tone suggests sarcasm, and that he doesn't think we should be agnostic towards fairies .... but, even if we were agnostic with respect to fairies, ... so what? That does not seem like a major problem, does it? If I say I do not believe in fairies at all, but I am not 100 % closed to the possibility of them existing, then am I being irrational? Am I being silly? Am I being illogical? Am I standing in the way of science? The answers are no, no, no, and no, so what's Dawkins' problem?

I think Bertrand Russell nailed it when it comes to how we should think about agnosticism:

I think that in philosophical strictness at the level where one doubts the existence of material objects and holds that the world may have existed for only five minutes, I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla. To take another illustration: nobody can prove that there is not between Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptic orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely.

I think Dawkins would agree with this. In fact, he does say that he does not believe with 100% certainty that there are no gods, just that he thinks it is very improbable.

So, Dawkins's "problem" is that people who defend the existence of gods by appealing to the "you can't prove He doesn't exist" rebuttal would not themselves admit that tactic as at all convincing in the matter of fairies or other evidence-less fantastical concepts. His point being that reasonable people do not find this a good counterargument to Dawkins's main point: you believe something without evidence.

My second problem is that he seems to be comparing two things which are not entirely equal. Tales of fairies are a made-up story by humans. It is likely to be false because there's no reason for it to exist other than it being a cute story to tell kids. But that is not the case with a god. The belief in god exists, not because we like to tell stories, but because people find god explanatory of universal phenomenons, of their personal feelings, etc etc. So it does not seem comparable to say that belief or agnosticism with respect to god is equivalent to belief or agnosticism with respect to fairies.

I'm not so sure about that. Can you say with certainty that the concept of all supernatural beings--like fairies--are merely "cute stories to tell kids"? Might humankind's predilection for creating fantasy beings be an important part of how our psyche copes with existence? Isn't it more wonderful to believe in little magic people, sea monsters, genies, levitating meditation masters, flying friars, and the like? And aren't all religious texts filled with "made-up stor[ies] by humans", as you put it?

1

Whilst I agree with most of what he says, I believe that there is potentially a 'Straw-Man' hiding in here.

It is often said, mainly by the 'no-contests', that although there is no positive evidence for the existence of God, nor is there evidence against his existence.

Dawkins presents this hypothetical argument without providing concrete examples of people actually using it. It is probably no coincidence, that even if has heard the argument used, he paraphrased it here in such a way that it is perfectly destroyed by his pre-prepared counter-argument, this is a classic straw-man.

0

The comparison between God and the tooth fairy's existences may seem to be an appeal to ridicule from a believer's perspective. But from an agnostic standpoint it is in both case an assertion that is impossible to disprove, and neither of those have any verified evidence to support them.

And when discussing the probability of their existence, the degree of sophistication of the consequences of that existence is irrelevant. Unlike Luchonacho said, the degree of sophistication doesn't make an hypothesis more probable.

Now to answer your real question "what point is he trying to make ?" : his point is to say that although the agnostic standpoint is the most rational one, it is not practical in reality where decisions must be taken from our reasoning. As we are failible beings, if we wanted to be totally rational we should always be agnostic about everything, from the existence of God to gravity or the basics of logic and mathematics... as those are all things that cannot be proven with 100% certainty by failible beings. But this standard is not reallistic so we have, in order function with enough efficiency, to allow some irrationality. And not taking in account hypothesis that are not supported by any verified evidence is not a really costly choice to make in terms of irrationality... In a way it is similar to the principle behind Occam's razor : neglecting an option that can be explained in a simpler way is irrational, but again, not really costly in terms of reliability of the result.

Now that it's said, I also think that Dawkins is purposely adding a sarcastic tone. And I think that it undermines his reasoning by making it sound like a fallacious appeal to ridicule while the basis of the argument is not.

  • The comparison between God and the tooth fairy's existences may seem to be an appeal to ridicule -- just going to go out on a limb here and say it doesn't just seem so. It's clearly meant to ridicule the one belief as on the level of the other, which doesn't have much agnostic grounding (to misquote Stalin to prove a point, "how many denominations does the tooth fairy have?") – virmaior Sep 22 '17 at 3:32
  • As I stated in my last paragraph it is probable that Dawkins is willingly adding a sarcastic tone. As a debater that focuses on convincing the audience and not the opposition it's a well-known tactic. Howerver, the argument in itself is not a fallacy : the tooth fairy and God share the same attributes of being undisprovable, while not having any verified evidence supporting their existence. They are common analogies used in discussions about unfounded beliefs, even when no ridicule is involved. It's just a belief that many people can relate to, making it a good choice as an example. – Velraen Sep 22 '17 at 8:38
0

but, even if we were agnostic with respect to fairies, ... so what? That does not seem like a major problem, does it?

The passage you quote does not address belief in God or fairies, but in the arguments for them. Dawkins is not attacking the belief in God, but the belief that "You can't disprove God" is a valid argument for belief.

If I say I do not believe in fairies at all, but I am not 100 % closed to the possibility of them existing, then am I being irrational? Am I being silly? Am I being illogical? Am I standing in the way of science? The answers are no, no, no, and no, so what's Dawkins' problem?

But if you say "There's not evidence against fairies, so you should believe in them", you are being irrational and silly, and if that sort of attitude were widespread, it would stand in the way of science.

My second problem is that he seems to be comparing two things which are not entirely equal. Tales of fairies are a made-up story by humans.

Again, he's not comparing God to fairies, he's comparing an argument for God to an argument for fairies. If you said "I haven't seen any evidence disproving the existence of Jupiter, so you should believe in Jupiter", I'm sure Dawkins would consider that argument to be just as silly as the ones regarding God and fairies, even if Dawkins agrees that Jupiter exists.

-3

Dawkins claims that argue agnostic position as right just because we cant completely deny god is absurd and he show that by analogy. Then you claim that fairies and god are not the same so the analogy is not valid. Actually fairies and many other fantasy creatures born or were inspired in mythology, some of them were though as explanation of some natural phenomenon, zeus was use to explain thunders. Eventually we found that science could provide more precise explanations. Now you would probably claim that we still cant find the answer for some questions so god is still required. Thats the god of the gaps argument, so as long as science doesnt find all the answers we need god, mmmm... is just me or somethings there sounds unfair???

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.