Contrary to Reason: Richard Dawkins and the Spectrum of Probabilities

Richard Dawkins with Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury back in 2012. Image Credit: Telegraph UK

Let us, then, take the idea of a spectrum of probabilities seriously, and place human judgements about the existence of God along it, between two extremes of opposite certainty. The spectrum is continuous, but it can be represented by the following seven milestones along the way.

  1. Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung, ‘I do not believe, I know!’
  2. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent. De facto theist. ‘I cannot know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.’
  3. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. Technically agnostic but leaning towards theism. ‘I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.’
  4. Exactly 50 per cent. Completely impartial agnostic. God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.’
  5. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. Technically agnostic but leaning towards atheism. ‘I don’t know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be sceptical.’
  6. Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. ‘I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.’
  7. Strong atheist. ‘I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung “knows” there is one.’

I’d be surprised to meet many people in category 7, but I include it for symmetry with category 1, which is well populated. It is in the nature of faith that one is capable, like Jung, of holding a belief without adequate reason to do so (Jung also believed that particular books on his shelf spontaneously exploded with a loud bang). Atheists do not have faith; and reason alone could not propel one to total conviction that anything definitely does not exist. Hence category 7 is in practice rather emptier than its opposite number, category 1, which has many devoted inhabitants. I count myself in category 6, but leaning towards 7…” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. Boston, New York: First Mariner Books, 2008, Kindle Edition, pp. 72-74).

In my last post on Richard Dawkins, I discussed that minds, emotions, and moral values can’t be verified empirically in a test tube, under a microscope, or in a petri dish, yet we have “faith” that such things exist in our world and aren’t merely the result of brain chemicals and signals just colliding with one another.

Richard Dawkins claimed in the last post (see the blue link above in the paragraph immediately before this one) that he is a philosophical naturalist who believes that the physical is all that exists in the world (he quotes others, but he seems to approve of philosophical naturalism), and says that all things — including minds, emotions, and moral values — all hail from the physical, observable world. He also said in that same quote in the blue link above that if something “seems” or “appears” to be from a world outside of the physical, time would help confirm its place in the purely physical world.

And yet, when he proceeds to name things such as minds, emotions, beauty, and moral values, he’s ventured into items that aren’t “physical” in the sense that rocks, trees, grass, and concrete are. These things are more like wind: we can’t physically examine them, yet we see the outward signs or effects of these internal factors and admire them. Their effects are how they’re identified, not by a diagram, layout, or frame.

In the quote above, Dawkins pours out his seven-point scale for the Spectrum of Probabilities, but he has an interesting take on the seventh probability level: Dawkins says that “reason alone could not propel one to total conviction that anything definitely does not exist,” a claim that I find fascinating. After all, Dawkins is a scientific naturalist and a philosophical naturalist who believes that the physical world is all that exists. And yet, when it comes to the existence of God, “reason alone” isn’t enough to move someone to say that God “definitely does not exist”?

If reason alone isn’t enough, then how can Dawkins proclaim that he is a philosophical naturalist? After all, reason is prized by the scientific community. When it comes to the scientific community, what’s “reasonable” is that one uses the observable world to form convictions, beliefs, and knowledge about life in general. So, if reason alone isn’t enough, is Dawkins here saying that it takes more than reason to know that God doesn’t exist (in the mind of the philosophical naturalist)?

I think Richard Dawkins is admitting something here worth paying attention to: he’s saying that nothing can be proven untrue with 100% certainty; since this includes God, then God can’t be disproven with 100% certainty. In other words, there’s always a chance, though a small one in the minds of atheists and skeptics, that God exists. As Dawkins goes on to say in The God Delusion, “What matters is not whether God is disprovable (he isn’t) but whether his existence is probable. That is another matter” (Dawkins, page 76).

In other words, no one can say with absolute certainty that God doesn’t exist, that, as Dawkins says, “he isn’t” disprovable. So, even though He isn’t disprovable, and even though Dawkins registers his own belief on his probability scale at #6, that there’s a low probability of the existence of God. But yet, there’s still a chance that God really exists.

Though there’s a possibility, Dawkins doesn’t believe in God

Despite the “small probability” that God exists, Dawkins doesn’t believe God exists. “I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented,” Dawkins says (The God Delusion, pg. 57). And let’s look again at the #6 level on his Spectrum of Probabilities:

6. Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. ‘I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.’ (The God Delusion, 73)

Notice that there is “very low probability, but short of zero.” This alone tells us that there is some probability that God exists; and yet, Dawkins lives against the probability: “I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.” He’s leaning toward Spectrum level 7 but lives his life on Spectrum level 6.

Does this make sense, though? Not really. After all, if there is a slight probability that God exists, and someone doesn’t accept the one true living God as his or her Lord, that person’s eternal destiny and soul are at stake. Dr. Dawkins aims to follow the observable world in making decisions, and the mathematical probability, though potentially “small,” is still better than zero probability. And to choose against this small probability that could turn out true isn’t a smart gamble. It’s contrary to reason.

There’s more to talk about regarding Dawkins’s view of himself as #6 on his 7-point scale and his “gamble” against mathematical probability…we’ll get into that in the next post. Stay tuned.