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Hewitt v Dawkins

October 24, 2009

Hugh Hewitt interviewed Richard Dawkins last week about Dawkins new book The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution.  The whole interview is fascinating, read the whole thing here.  I was particularly interested in a exchange regarding the quality of design apparent in nature and its implications for the belief in God.

HH: It’s Hugh Hewitt with Richard Dawkins. Professor Dawkins’ brand new book is The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution. It’s linked at Professor, I have one last question, it’s very important for me to ask this, because I just kept coming back to it. You argue in the book at one point that the retina is so poorly designed, that it argues against the idea of a designer, because it’s such a messed up job. Conversely, though, if the object of the designer was to create a world in which faith was possible, but also disbelief, in order to make faith a choice and not an obligation, wouldn’t then you have to say that the world was wondrously constructed to that end, to preserve free will and the choosing?

My understanding of Dawkins’ argument based on Hewitt’s summary is that Dawkins argues that the design flaws in the retina council against the belief that the retina was the result of a design process.  If so, Dawkins’ argument is against the notion that the retina was specifically and independently designed and not that the retina was intended.  In other words what Dawkins is saying is that because the retina has obvious design flaws, it likely was not the result of any process that would result in a locally optimized retina design.  But Dawkins’ argument leaves untouched the possibility that the whole process of evolution (or indeed the whole universe) was itself designed.  If the whole process of evolution were designed then one would not expect the retina (or any other individual design element) to be individually optimized.  Rather one would expect the results of the process as a whole to be optimized.

Hewitt seems to be making a similar point when he asks “if the object of the designer was to create a world in which faith was possible […] wouldn’t then you have to say that the world was wondrously constructed to that end […]?”  Here Hewtitt uses the word ‘designer’ to mean the designer of the “world.”  The notion that the whole world was designed is quite different from the notion that the retina was specifically and independently designed.  Hewitt, however, uses the word ‘designer’ to refer to both ideas in the course of challenging Dawkins’ argument against the independent design of the retina.

I think Hewitt might be conflating these two uses of the word ‘designer’.  Hewitt appears to be arguing that because Dawkins’ observation that the retina is badly designed is irrelevant to the question of whether the world is designed, therefor Dawkins’ observation about the retina is also irrelevant to the question of whether the retina was specifically designed.  But of course that would be a non-sequitur.

Now perhaps Hewitt wasn’t making that argument at all.  Perhaps Dawkins, in his book, had argued that because evidence from biology undermines the plausibility of the existence of a designer of individual sub-systems (such as the retina) that therefor the Universe itself couldn’t have been designed, and Hewtitt was only pointing that fact out.  If this is the case, then Dawkins is the one committing a non-sequitur, not Hewitt.

I can’t tell which party is conflating the two types of design at issue because in their subsequent conversation neither Hewitt nor Dawkins makes any distinction between the two types of design.

RD: You mean that God deliberately made mistakes so as to deceive us?

HH: Not mistakes, that God created a world in which faith was possible by an order of its complexity, to allow for the Richard Dawkins of the world to exist, and be completely, absolutely convinced that He did not, that that’s the only situation in which faith is real.

RD: So in order to make that the case, God said well, now let’s make the eye look like a botched up job so that…are you saying…

HH: I think you understand what I’m saying, and you’re saying no, you don’t believe that, that it would not in fact fit that, a giant…for example, have you read the Harry Potter novels?

RD: No.

HH: Do you read any fiction at all?

RD: Of course.

HH: What’s the most complicated bit of fiction you’ve read? Like War and Peace?

RD: Yeah, what’s your point? What point are you making?

HH: That complexity in design, and counterintuitive steps, et cetera, don’t disprove the idea of genius at work. Genius at work often works through complexity and through misdirection.

RD: I think that what you’re kind of saying is that God made the world look as though it had evolved in order to test our faith, when it didn’t evolve.

HH: No, not test our faith. I’m saying that the world has been made as it is to allow for faith, because if it was made too easy for the simple-minded, it would simply be routine, and everyone would believe, and then there would be no faith.

RD: That would be a pretty unpleasant sort of God. I think, I would say you’re welcome to believe in a kind of God who would do that, but it’s not the kind of God that would appeal to me.

Hewitt seems to be consistently referring to a designer of the whole world, and Dawkins to a hypothetical designer of specific structures such as the retina.  What strikes me as so remarkable about this is that both Hewitt and Dawkins seem to assume that the one concept implies the other.

I find this to be a common theme in the debate over evolution: that atheists try to link atheism to the theory of evolution so that the empirical strength of the latter lends credence to the former, meanwhile creationists try to link atheism to the theory of evolution so that the philosophical poverty of the former undermines the later.

But what if evolution and atheism have nothing to do with each other?  Then each idea would have to stand or fall on the basis of its own strengths and weaknesses.

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