Richard Dawkins’ scientific fallacies April 17, 2012

Some recent internet discussion raised the question as to Richard Dawkins’ scientific knowledge outside of his own narrow field. This wouldn’t matter, of course, if he didn’t claim to have such wider knowledge, but he does. The following lengthy extract from “Who made God?” explores the way he manages to mangle physics in an attempt to support his highly debatable claims. The extract is the opening section of Chapter 11 of WMG.

11. Over the moon

‘For we say that all portents [miracles] are contrary to nature; but they are not so. For how is that contrary to nature which happens by the will of God, since the will of so mighty a Creator is certainly the nature of each created thing? A portent, therefore, happens not contrary to nature, but contrary to what we know as nature’.

St. Augustine, The City of God, Book XXI, Ch. 8.

‘The miracles in fact are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see. Of that larger script, part is already visible, part is still unsolved’.

C. S. Lewis in God in the dock; essays on theology and ethics (Eerdmans, 1994) p.29

‘Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle,

The cow jumped over the moon;

The little dog laughed to see such fun

And the dish ran away with the spoon’.

British nursery rhyme, 1765.

Isn’t life strange? You look in vain for a good quotation and then three come along together! Unlike buses, however, you don’t have to choose which one to take; you can use all three. And that’s just as well because we are going to need as much help as we can get as we turn from the laws of nature to consider things that appear to violate them — miracles.

You don’t believe in miracles? That’s a pity, because Richard Dawkins does.           You didn’t know that Richard Dawkins believes in miracles? Yes, really, though he would prefer to call them ‘extremely improbable events’ rather than miracles. But don’t take my word for it, read what he says himself[i]. Dawkins writes:

‘A miracle is something that happens, but which is exceedingly surprising. If a marble statue of the Virgin Mary suddenly waved its hand at us we should treat it as a miracle, because all our experience and knowledge tells us that marble doesn’t behave like that’[ii].

He continues, ‘In the case of the marble statue, molecules in solid marble are continually jostling against one another in random directions. The jostlings of the different molecules cancel one another out, so that the whole hand of the statue stays still. But if, by sheer coincidence, all the molecules just happened to move in the same direction at the same moment, the hand would move. If they then all reversed direction at the same moment the hand would move back. In this way it is possible for a marble statue to wave at us. It could happen. The odds against such a coincidence are unimaginably great but they are not incalculably great. A physicist colleague has kindly calculated them for me. The number is so large that the entire age of the universe so far is too short a time to write out all the noughts! It is theoretically possible for a cow to jump over the moon with something like the same improbability. The conclusion to this part of the argument is that we can calculate our way into regions of miraculous improbability far greater than we can imagine as plausible’[iii].

We’ll come to the cow in a moment. Let’s first examine the hand-waving. RD seems to be under the illusion that marble is a gas in which molecules move around randomly and can finish up anywhere they like. Unfortunately for his miracle (‘It could happen’ he says), marble is not a gas but a crystalline solid composed of calcite, aragonite and/or dolomite crystals. The atoms or ions that compose these crystals are not free to wander where they will but are locked into the crystal lattice and vibrate about their mean position at a frequency that is typically around 15 Teraherz — that is 15,000 billion times per second. Any atom that tried to set off on the long-range journey envisaged in Dawkins’ miracle is going to be hauled back to its starting point in short order (exceedingly short order).

But let’s suppose for argument’s sake that the all the atoms in the statue’s hand did suddenly move in the same direction. What would happen? As soon as they had moved less than their interatomic separation (let’s say a hundred millionth of a centimetre or four billionths of an inch) the boundary between the moving hand and the stationary arm would experience a sudden outward pull. Since every action produces an equal and opposite reaction, the unmoving arm will restrain the hand from moving further and will, in fact, pull it back to and beyond its original position — creating an oscillation that would travel throughout both hand and statue as a sound-wave. You might hear Dawkins’ miracle but you certainly wouldn’t see it.

A second problem is that a spontaneous movement of the statue’s hand would violate the laws of conservation of energy and linear momentum (the velocity of a body in a straight line multiplied by its mass). Prior to the Dawkins miracle, the hand has neither linear momentum nor kinetic energy (the energy of motion). Suddenly the atoms all move upwards in the same direction and the whole hand takes off towards the ceiling. It now has both linear momentum  and kinetic energy, neither of which it had before. Two basic physical laws of conservation have been broken and Thomas Huxley’s chess master wouldn’t like that at all.

It’s no use saying that the new momentum and energy come from the motion of atoms within the hand. Before the miracle, the collective momentum of the assembled atoms is zero because the atoms vibrate randomly and their movements cancel out. So if the hand moves and acquires linear momentum, this momentum has appeared from nowhere. Likewise, the kinetic energy of the hand cannot come from the vibrational motion of the atoms, because this energy simply reflects the temperature of the solid and is not available to move anything.

We’ll leave aside other naivities — such as the implication that marble, if not exactly gaseous, is at least made of plasticine so that the statue’s wrist can flex without snapping off — and get to the point. Dawkins says ‘it could happen’ but he is wrong. It couldn’t. The idea that the internal motion of atoms in a lump of crystalline rock could somehow cause that lump to move from here to there is scientifically ridiculous. Harry Potter it may be, but science it is not. Which brings me to the moo-cow and the moon.

The kinetic cow

Can the cow really jump over the moon? According to Richard Dawkins, yes, it can. ‘It is theoretically possible’, he avers, with more solemnity than I can muster on the subject. Personally, I’m with the little dog in the nursery rhyme, so let’s have some fun (‘sport’ in the American version of the rhyme). Let’s begin by giving credit where it is due. Even without the help of Harry Potter, Dawkins has at his disposal three possible lines of argument — bootstrap-elevation, the bovine wave-function, or telekinesis. Let’s take a look at all three.

We have already seen one fine example of bootstrap-elevation (picking yourself up by your bootstraps) in the strange case of the waving statue. Let’s try another. I’m sure Richard D and I can agree that the cow’s unaided muscle power couldn’t propel it over a haystack, let alone the moon. So how does our bovine astronaut acquire her kinetic energy and achieve escape velocity without the services of NASA? Ah, you might reply, consider an equatorial cow. Being located on the surface of the earth at the equator, it already has a huge velocity, travelling through space at more than 1000 mph due to the rotation of the earth. Could this not launch the cow into space by a kind of slingshot effect? Well, hardly. If it could, we would all be over the moon (as they say) along with the cow. But even worse, the moon itself would be travelling away from us as fast as we could approach it. There’s something called gravity that keeps both cows and speculations in their place (and moons too).

How about an appeal to quantum mechanics (QM) then? Perhaps this is what Richard Dawkins has in mind (he doesn’t give much detail about his moo miracle). If electrons and photons can have wave-functions, why not cows? You will remember from Chapter 2 that sub-atomic particles behave in strange ways that can only be explained by assuming that they are not located in a single place but only have a certain probability of being somewhere. This probability is specified by the wave-function which varies in strength from place to place but exists everywhere — so there is a non-zero probability that the particle could be anywhere in the universe.

If we apply this idea to the cow, then her presence beyond the moon, though highly improbable, is not impossible. Furthermore, QM actually does teach that each and every object has a wave function that spreads throughout space. Wow! Perhaps RD really has hit the bullseye (or the cow’s) this time? Sadly, no. We’ll let his friend Victor Stenger put him right: ‘quantum mechanics changes smoothly into classical mechanics when the parameters of the system, such as masses, distances, and speeds, approach the classical [large-scale] regime. When that happens, quantum probabilities collapse to either zero or 100%, which then gives us certainty at that level’[iv]. Stenger is here referring to a phenomenon in QM known as ‘decoherence’. For reasons not well understood, quantum particles that exhibit wave-function behaviour when isolated from other particles (or when coherent with them), cease to do so when they interact with the environment[v]. If there are too many particles of different kinds knocking around, all their wave functions get nervous and ‘collapse’ — meaning that instead of having the freedom to turn up anywhere, each particle decides where it wants to be with 100% certainty. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, as we saw in Chapter 2, you only have to look at a quantum particle to make its wave function collapse in this way.

The outcome of all this is that every particle — electron, quark, atom and so on — in our long-suffering cow (or any other massive object) knows exactly where it is, even before we look at it. It’s right there in the cow and nowhere else (which is what we mean by classical or non-quantum behaviour). But if all the constituent parts of the cow know they are localised in a field on a farm in (say) Filey or Farnborough, it is evident that neither the cow nor any part of it will be found on the other side of the moon. There really is no such thing as a cosmic cow.


OK; how about telekinesis? Telekinesis or psychokinesis refers to the alleged movement of solid objects by pure thought. Could Richard Dawkins be trying to think the cow over the moon — or simply wish it there? I believe this could be the answer to the conundrum. But why would he want to do that? The answer takes us to the heart of his thinking.

The problem for Richard Dawkins and his fellow atheists is this. They face serious difficulty in explaining the ‘miracle’ of the origin of life in a purely materialistic way. Indeed, the problem appears insuperable, as we shall see in the next chapter. But let’s just accept for the moment that atheism currently has no answer to the riddle. The careful atheist will not appeal to as-yet-unknown scientific discoveries for an explanation, because he recognises that such an argument is a mirror-image of the God of the gaps theory he so despises. So what can he do? His first strategy is to ‘prove’ that even the most bizarre events imaginable — like marble motility or bovine ballistics — could conceivably occur by natural causation. Of course, his explanations fail miserably at the scientific level, but that will not worry him unduly as long as he succeeds in planting in our minds the hazy idea that any ‘miracle’ may have a natural explanation.

But then comes the tricky bit. He now needs to make an agile leap from ‘miracles may have a natural cause’ to ‘miracles must have a natural cause’. This he attempts to do using our old friend ‘probability’. Specifically, he advances the thesis that everything imaginable in the physical universe will surely happen by natural causation if you wait long enough, provided only that its mathematical probability is not zero. And this sounds plausible because, having rejected the old Newtonian idea of a deterministic universe, we can rule out nothing in principle. But although plausible the thesis is false, because mathematical probabilities bear no necessary relationship to physical possibilites, as we saw in Chapter 1. It is mathematically possible to build an infinitely tall tower of bricks but it is physically impossible to do so, because sooner or later the weight of the tower will crush the bottom brick to powder and the whole (non-infinite) tower will collapse. Before mathematical probabilities can be applied to the real world they have to be passed through the twin filters of logic and physical reality.

The fact is that we can imagine very few physical events that are mathematically impossible. ‘Impossibilities’ arise in the physical universe not from mathematical constraints but from the laws of nature (such as the non-infinite compressive strength of bricks). It’s not mathematics that prevent statues waving or cows jumping over the moon, but the stubborn facts that energy and momentum must be conserved and that QM wave-functions decohere in massive objects.

[i] We are indebted to Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wilker for drawing this Dawkinsian purple passage to wider attention in their book Answering the new atheism; dismantling Dawkins’ case against God (Emmaus Road Publishing, Ohio, 2008) pp. 10-13.

[ii] Richard Dawkins, The blind watchmaker; why the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design (New York, Norton, 1996) p.159. See also The God delusion (Bantam Press edition, 2007) p.419.

[iii] Richard Dawkins, The blind watchmaker, pp. 159-160.

[iv] Victor Stenger, God, the failed hypothesis (Prometheus Books, 2007) p.125.

[v] Brian Greene. See Chapter 7 of The fabric of the cosmos (Alfred Knopf, 2004) for an extended discussion of quantum decoherence.