Dawkins versus the ‘ultimate ground of all being’

In God and the New Atheism, John F. Haught describes what he sees as the big question facing Richard Dawkins and Intelligent Design (ID) theists, respectively: “how to explain the incredible complexity and diversity in living organisms and cells” (88).

ID proponents see the hand of a “master intelligence” making order from chaos, or complexity of simplicity. Dawkins cuts out the theological middle man by sticking to a naturalistic, Darwinian account summed up by Haught:

“All the scientist needs…is the simple evolutionary recipe consisting of three ingredients: random variations or genetic mutations, blind natural selection of survivable variations, and an immense amount of time” (88).

Dawkins then one-ups the ID proponents, noting that if they “are going to use God as an explanation of living complexity, then they have to take the next step and explain the existence and ‘complexity’ of God (whatever ‘complexity’ might mean as an attribute of God)” (90).

Dawkins objects to ID’s initial assumption that a personal designer (God) already exists in order to account for the creation of other complexities. Thus, Dawkins’s assumptions about what God must be include: “(1) God, if God exists, is an instance of complex design; and (2) like any other instance of design the existence of God requires an explanation, such as the Darwinian one, in which complexity arises gradually out of physical simplicity by way of cumulative small changes over an immense period of time” (90).

Haught’s theologically-grounded objection to these assumptions may seem foreign to many Latter-day Saints:

“The God of theology is not an instance of complex design in Dawkins’s sense of a composite put together over the course of time out of simpler components. Rather, God is the ultimate reason that there is the possibility of any complexity at all….What Dawkins is demanding is is that theology agree to drop its timeless understanding of God as the ‘ultimate ground of all being’ and substitute for that understanding one in which God–if God exists–needs an explanation just like every other instance of complex design. That is, God would have to come into existence gradually out of a primordial simplicity” (91-92).

Like other responses to new atheism before, God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens invokes an absolute view of Deity to overcome evolutionary objections. Some Later-day Saints will feel such a response does not resonate with them and wish for a more specifically LDS response. In that regard I recommend Steven L. Peck’s “Crawling Out of the Primordial Soup: A Step toward the Emergence of an LDS Theology Compatible with Organic Evolution” (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 43.1 [2010]: 1-36). Peck relates some reasons why a move to invoke God as the Absolute or rational ground of all being  might not be adequate to an LDS view of God.

Who’s down with the “ground of all being” defense? How well does it overcome Dawkins’s objections?

23 Replies to “Dawkins versus the ‘ultimate ground of all being’”

  1. Blair, can you give a reader’s digest version of Peck’s hypothesis for those of us without the intellectual rigor to approach it academically?

    As to the “ground of all being” argument, I think Mormonism could take a quasi-approach to this, but with God expanded to mean all eternal intelligence/spirits. It definitely requires more nuance, and would be very different than Haught’s argument, as it would have to account for eternal progression.

  2. i wont be able to do that today, i was barely able to plunk out the post TBH. but in the meantime people ought to forge ahead. you can skip to the header “Atemporal Theism” which seems more directly relevant to my questions though. does that help? 😀

  3. This is a fascinating issue and I think approaches it in an interesting way. As I see it, the question is whether Mormon anthropo-theism is an asset or liability in solving theological problems. I’ve gone back and forth on this. There was a time when I though Spinozan theology as the basis for panentheism was really the only credible theological position, and that Mormons should embrace those aspects of our theology. Now, I’m more agnostic on the issue, but I see the problem that Dawkins raises as a legitimate one facing Mormons, even if he doesn’t understand traditional theological claims to God’s simplicity.

  4. TT: “There was a time when I though Spinozan theology as the basis for panentheism was really the only credible theological position, and that Mormons should embrace those aspects of our theology.”

    You have got to be kidding.

  5. Classical creatio ex nihilo atemporal theism has strengths and weaknesses all its own, but that really isn’t an option in Mormonism. In Mormonism, there are three basic views: (1) God suspends any and all natural laws at will (2) God is natural, and the natural is mechanical (3) God is natural, and the natural is more than mechanical.

    Assuming a temporal God, option 1 is mystery theology, not particularly subject to rational analysis. Option 2 is essentially Dawkins metaphysics with God and men alike as mechanical automatons. Option 3 is a world equipped with things uniquely spiritual – notably libertarian free will.

    You can barely have a theological argument about option 1 with a temporal God, let alone a scientific argument. That is why classical theism is universally atemporal. Option 2 is run of the mill naturalism – nothing spiritual worthy of the name. Option 3 is where I think all the potential is, a subject of ongoing professional debate in philosophy of the mind, and yet doesn’t really register in the Dawkins vs. religion debates.

    Dawkins is mostly attacking option 1 with an atemporal God, which is ironically a uniquely defensible position, scientifically speaking, as Aristotle (who more or less originated this position) well knew. His arguments are meaningless against option 1 with a temporal God, because all arguments are. It is like all the weaknesses of scholastic Calvinism minus the possibility of theological rigor. The metaphysical issues with option 3 are well known in the philosophical literature, what is a more serious issue theologically speaking is how any being or beings seriously considered to be the one true God can inhabit the universes of options 2 or 3. I believe both require admitting some radical theological alternatives that are not necessary in option 1, radical divine pluralism mostly.

  6. This discussion reminds me of a recent interview where Terryl Givens was asked: “What’s your opinion of the possibility of a naturalistic interpretation [of Mormon doctrine]?” Givens’s response was essentially that you don’t have to try very hard to make the connection. He said:

    “Well, I do think that Mormonism is never going to lose its emphasis on Christ as the portal through which all humans move upward into salvation. But having said that, I’ve always believed that Mormonism has, in some ways, more affinity with secular humanism than it does with Evangelical religion, in so far as, in Richard Dawkins, one of the arch-atheists of the day has purportedly said, “Now I could believe in God if by ‘God’ we meant some kind of a super advanced human, or intelligence.” And that’s effectively how Mormons are thinking about God through the King Follett heritage. And so in that sense, Mormons are thoroughgoing naturalists. One of Joseph Smith’s most radical pronouncements early in the 1830’s was that matter is eternal, matter can’t be created, and then later he said that there is no such thing as immaterial spirit, that all spirit is matter, it’s just more refined. Now there have been a number of monists throughout in history. William Blake would be another example of somebody who didn’t believe that the universe was divided into the spiritual and the physical, if by spiritual we mean non-physical. So what this means is that everything, everything in the universe, spirit and matter, is subject to the same set of natural laws. So that’s a pretty thoroughgoing naturalism, and their idea about what constitutes ‘God’ is somebody who has put himself into perfect alignment with the nature of those laws and wants to show to the human family the same path to progress and exaltation that he pioneered so to speak.” (part 2: audio marker 6:35-8:25).

  7. aquinas,
    that is a fantastic quote. i’ve been saying that kind of thing privately, and a few other LDS folks I know have too, but I hadn’t seen anyone make that argument so explicitly publically before. especially good coming from givens…

  8. I loved that part of the Terryl Givens interview, and it’s generally what I believe. The philosophical and theological arguments being made here are way over my head, as my background is in anthropology, but I can’t resist a post on Dawkins. I had tickets to see his presentation at Caltech last month but had a professor announce an exam that night so I had no choice but to miss it. I did however see him speak back in 2006 when he was doing publicity for The God Delusion, and it was interesting because the crowd was full of people who were completely disinterested in his new book or the new atheism. They all wanted to discuss memes. Eventually they got it back on track and someone managed to back Dawkins into a corner on the possibility of the existence of “a god” much like what Givens quotes above. Then he went on to trash religion in general, but his concession was something that’s stuck with me over the last 4 years. To what extent are the mechanisms of creation inherently tied to nature in Mormonism? It’s something I think about quite often.

  9. I have problems with a naturalistic God (unless of course it ends up that he is naturalistic, then it will be in my interest to get used to it real quick), –of an evolved god who was brought into progression by previously evolved gods, etc…backwards through the eternities. I’d prefer the Creed before that sort of program.

    Also, an evolved, non-transcendent god just does not seem powerful enough for me to feel good about it. If God is in someway a product of the natural universe, to what extent can we say that He/Them are really in charge, have everything completely under control? Can the product of a system completely control that system? And if not, how can things like eternal life be guaranteed?

    So that’s my main comment, but here’s a couple random thoughts I’ve pondered at different times. I think we make a mistake in saying spirit matter is just like matter, but “just” finer. What if this “stuff,” is really fundamentally different than what we know as matter and doesn’t follow the same rules as the matter in our observable universe? What if it exists outside of time and space as we know it, and is therefore somewhat like the God of creedal Christianity? An intelligent field of energy that combine with and animates our natural matter to make things like stars and planets and gods?

  10. What if this “stuff,” is really fundamentally different than what we know as matter

    That may be the case, but that would not mean that it is not “natural”, but rather that the natural comprehends more than we understand at present. Talmage wrote about this with reference to miracles – arguing that they were not violations of natural laws as such, but rather in accordance with higher laws that we do not understand.

    The question is whether this extra stuff has a “nature” and is constrained by natural laws of any kind. If it isn’t, it is more like magic than matter, or energy, or anything else one can reason about.

    The real debate here is “Is God a magician?” If he is, and he is a temporal being, then the only possible theology is “Stockholm Syndrome theology”, where we trust God not because is is good, but because whatever he does is good by definition. Good evil, evil good, whatever.

    Now if you follow out the implications of the divine command theory and unconstrained magical power of a temporal being to change anything and everything, I believe much of what we teach and understand will be reduced to theological nonsense. A suffering atonement for example, makes little sense, unless such suffering is necessary in some way. The plan of salvation likewise. The problem of evil, theodicy, and so on. All just the idle and gratuitous whims of a being who sees as much value in torturing us as saving us, so far as we can tell.

  11. Mark,
    Yes, I’m more in line with Talmage there, so my nod to the Creed was tongue in cheek. I’m fine with naturalism to a point as long as we acknowledge there is an entire realm of existence that transcends this physical universe and does not play by the same rules of space, time, etc… But I think we can go too far toward a naturalistic idea of God until we have turned him into a kind of super-intelligent, super moral alien, and turn heaven into a kind of advanced alien civilization on a planet far, far away. That is the sort of God Dawkins and, strangely, Givens seems to speak of. Is the mind of God really just a highly evolved brain that can somehow manipulate matter and energy?

    King Follet aside, the whole thrust of the standard works, including D&C, points to a more transcendent God part of a much deeper reality than smart beings inhabiting planets. D&C 88, for example, does not describe a being who wakes up in the morning and eats breakfast, but a fundamental reality that permeates the entire universe.

  12. I’m fine with naturalism to a point as long as we acknowledge there is an entire realm of existence that transcends this physical universe and does not play by the same rules of space, time, etc

    But what does that even mean?

  13. SL, Heaven is not an alien civilization, it is a human civilization. That is what the scriptures teach, anyway. And certainly these individuals have to be endowed with spiritual power and glory for the those teachings to make any sense.

    Now in my opinion, none of them needs to have earth shaking power in and of themselves, but they certainly need it collectively. I tend to view Heavenly Father more as the president of a heavenly republic than as some sort of dictator. I would also say that D&C 121:46 provides ample evidence of the proposition that divine power is social in nature, i.e. something that takes agreement, if not at-one-ment, to carry out.

    Many Mormons tend to be Pelagians in the sense that they believe that godhood is simply a personal matter, that once you attain that state you are fully divine in your own right. I believe rather, that no individual has ever been fully divine in his own right and never will be. Divinity is the glory of a divine society (I claim), and any individual who is cut off from that society has any divine power to speak of. That is my opinion, and I hope it is obvious why it is more like the scriptural idea of heaven than some sort of society whose power is dependent more on technology than on spirituality, and righteous spiritual power at that. Can’t say I have ever heard of a righteous technology.

  14. This thread seems to have died out, but here is a hypothetical question: If a member of the Godhead did something manifestly evil, would he lose power or not, and why?

    Three options:

    1) Divine power has little or nothing to do with personal righteousness. Just an advanced ability equally usable for good and for evil.

    2) The metaphysics of the universe intrinsically cripple attempts to do evil, so divine power can only be used to do good things.

    3) Divine power is contingent on consent and/or participation so if per chance a divine person apostasizes his divine power goes with it.

  15. Mark, thanks for responding to my comments.

    I vote for number two and three in your options above.

    I had something more to say on the original topic of the post. I agree with what you say about heaven as a human society and exhalation being a group, not an individual, project. I like this aspect of Mormon theology. I also like how Mormon theology deals with free will and the problem of evil–in ways I believe superior to classical Christianity.

    However, on the question of ultimate origins of God and the universe, Mormons do not have anything better to say than anyone else. Like other theological and philosophical traditions, we come up against a wall of Mystery.

    Christian theology says God is the ultimate source of all being. The discussion ends there. Where does God come from? What accounts for his complexity? Come is the Source, derived from nothing. God is not a complex structure. God is not a structure that required building; he is the Builder. End of story. God is mystery.

    Mormons tend to scoff at this God and the ontological distance it puts between humanity and god. But then we come up agains all sorts of sticky questions about where God came from. We say, well, God had a father, and he had a father before him, backwards to infinity. I find this an incredibly weak position, and not less incomprehensible and mysterious than traditional Christian theology.

    I have more to say here, but gotta go for now.

  16. “But what does that even mean?”

    What does it mean to say that spirit matter is “more fine and pure” and can only be seen by pure eyes as it says in D&C? Yeah, I don’t know either, but I doubt it means that the stuff is just so tiny. I’m thinking it means something like it exists in a different realm of existence and probably according to different laws than the matter we see around us. But of course this is just speculation. Again, we comp up against Mystery.

  17. Up to a point, spirit matter needs to have different properties than “ordinary” matter, or it doesn’t really serve any purpose. There are serious problems with ordinary matter (as we understand it any way) allowing for consciousness, intention, free will, moral responsibility, qualia, and so on.

    Perhaps spirit matter has the properties to allow for that, but we might also suspect that ordinary matter is not quite as ordinary as we think it is. The atheism of Dawkins doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the scientific world view that dogmatically insists that consciousness and moral responsibility boils down to determinism and random chance.

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