Dawkins needs to show some doubt

By Stephen Unwin, the author of The Probability of God (THE GUARDIAN, 29/09/06):

I greatly enjoyed Joan Bakewell’s review of Richard Dawkins’ latest book, The God Delusion (Judgment day, September 23). “He takes on all comers,” she says. “Aquinas’s five ‘proofs’, Pascal’s wager (meant as a joke, surely), even Stephen Unwin’s probability of God, whose use of Bayes’ theorem to demonstrate the probability of God Dawkins scathingly dismisses as ‘quite agreeably funny’.”During my unhurried descent from the elation of being targeted in such company, I realised that, as the only one of the three still alive, it fell upon me to respond. It is clear that on the question of God’s existence Dawkins comes down firmly on the side of certainty. His dismissal of Pascal’s wager (which is that, given the uncertainty, one has everything to gain and nothing to lose by belief in God) is a stark indication of his commitment to certainty.

This is hardly shocking, as certainty is the position of almost all participants in the God debate. What perplexes me about Dawkins’ particular affirmation of this almost universal position is that Bertrand Russell’s observation – that the fundamental cause of problems in the world is that the intelligent are full of doubt while the stupid are cocksure – is clearly inapplicable here.

It is worth remembering that Dawkins originally entered the God debate in the fiery tradition of zoologists – confronting the unfortunate position held by some of faith that the principles of natural selection are insufficient to explain the biological world, and that arguments of intelligent design need to be invoked.

On this argument the zoologists should win. Had some religion claimed that cars were designed by God, the onus would have been on car mechanics to take up the fight – and I would have been fully behind them.

However, such base debate should surely not be at the heart of the question of God’s existence. Unlike, say, theoretical physics, neither the zoological nor automotive sciences tend to operate near the limits of materialism, and I have indeed found that physicists tend to show greater humility than their colleagues in the less fundamental sciences on the question of completeness – or the prospect of completeness – of a wholly materialistic world-view.

As for Dawkins’ assertion that moral behaviour for believers is simply “sucking up to God”, or that morality doesn’t need faith, I feel that such observations miss the more fundamental question of why we have moral or aesthetic values at all – such as the ones by which Dawkins, myself and others venerate rational analysis. This is among the questions that, to my knowledge, no science is on the verge of answering compellingly. But on this matter I am fanatically uncertain.

Bakewell points out that here in the early 21st century, religions seem to have “the secular world running scared”. I agree. However, I would be as loth to put this down to religion itself as I would be to attribute the many secular atrocities of the 20th century to atheism.

Respect for uncertainty has been central to both my faith and my career in science. I am aware, however, of the astonishing unpopularity of this position, which I must put down to the formidable dominance of the certainty meme – that social equivalent of the gene to which Dawkins introduced the world.