Wednesday, December 27, 2006

There Is Only One Theological Argument That's Worthy Of Serious Consideration. Mine!

Seems to be the attitude of Richard Dawkins, whom H. Allen Orr takes to the woodshed:

As you may have noticed, Dawkins when discussing religion is, in effect, a blunt instrument, one that has a hard time distinguishing Unitarians from abortion clinic bombers. What may be less obvious is that, on questions of God, Dawkins cannot abide much dissent, especially from fellow scientists (and especially from fellow evolutionary biologists). Indeed Dawkins is fond of imputing ulterior motives to those "Neville Chamberlain School" scientists not willing to go as far as he in his war on religion: he suggests that they're guilty of disingenuousness, playing politics, and lusting after the large prizes awarded by the Templeton Foundation to scientists sympathetic to religion.[2] The only motive Dawkins doesn't seem to take seriously is that some scientists genuinely disagree with him.

Despite my admiration for much of Dawkins's work, I'm afraid that I'm among those scientists who must part company with him here. Indeed, The God Delusion seems to me badly flawed. Though I once labeled Dawkins a professional atheist, I'm forced, after reading his new book, to conclude he's actually more an amateur. I don't pretend to know whether there's more to the world than meets the eye and, for all I know, Dawkins's general conclusion is right. But his book makes a far from convincing case.

The most disappointing feature of The God Delusion is Dawkins's failure to engage religious thought in any serious way. This is, obviously, an odd thing to say about a book-length investigation into God. But the problem reflects Dawkins's cavalier attitude about the quality of religious thinking. Dawkins tends to dismiss simple expressions of belief as base superstition. Having no patience with the faith of fundamentalists, he also tends to dismiss more sophisticated expressions of belief as sophistry (he cannot, for instance, tolerate the meticulous reasoning of theologians). But if simple religion is barbaric (and thus unworthy of serious thought) and sophisticated religion is logic-chopping (and thus equally unworthy of serious thought), the ineluctable conclusion is that all religion is unworthy of serious thought.

The result is The God Delusion, a book that never squarely faces its opponents. You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins's book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they're terminally ill?).

Instead, Dawkins has written a book that's distinctly, even defiantly, middlebrow. Dawkins's intellectual universe appears populated by the likes of Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and Carl Sagan, the science popularizer,[3] both of whom he cites repeatedly. This is a different group from thinkers like William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein—both of whom lived after Darwin, both of whom struggled with the question of belief, and both of whom had more to say about religion than Adams and Sagan. Dawkins spends much time on what can only be described as intellectual banalities: "Did Jesus have a human father, or was his mother a virgin at the time of his birth? Whether or not there is enough surviving evidence to decide it, this is still a strictly scientific question."[4]

The vacuum created by Dawkins's failure to engage religious thought must be filled by something, and in The God Delusion, it gets filled by extraneous quotation, letters from correspondents, and, most of all, anecdote after anecdote. Dawkins's discussion of religion's power to console, for example, is interrupted by the story of the Abbott of Ampleforth's joy at learning of a friend's impending death; speculation about why countries, such as the Netherlands, that allow euthanasia are so rare (presumably because of religious prejudice); a nurse who told Dawkins that believers fear death more than nonbelievers do; and the number of days of remission from Purgatory that Pope Pius X allowed cardinals and bishops (two hundred, and fifty, respectively). All this and more in four pages. Gone, it seems, is the Dawkins of The Selfish Gene, a writer who could lead readers through dauntingly difficult arguments and who used anecdotes to illustrate those arguments, not to substitute for them.

One reason for the lack of extended argument in The God Delusion is clear: Dawkins doesn't seem very good at it. Indeed he suffers from several problems when attempting to reason philosophically. The most obvious is that he has a preordained set of conclusions at which he's determined to arrive. Consequently, Dawkins uses any argument, however feeble, that seems to get him there and the merit of various arguments appears judged largely by where they lead.

The most important example involves Dawkins's discussion of philosophical arguments for the existence of God as opposed to his own argument against God, which he presents as the intellectual heart of his book. Considering arguments for God, Dawkins is care-ful to recite the many standard objections to them and writes that the traditional proofs are "vacuous," "dubious," "infantile," and "perniciously misleading." But turning to his own Ultimate Boeing 747 argument against God, Dawkins is suddenly uninterested in criticism and writes that his argument is "unanswerable." So why, you might wonder, is a clever philosophical argument for God subject to withering criticism while one against God gets a free pass and is deemed devastating?

The reason seems clear. The first argument leads to a conclusion Dawkins despises, while the second leads to one he loves. Dawkins, so far as I can tell, is unconcerned that the central argument of his book bears more than a passing resemblance to those clever philosophical proofs for the existence of God that he dismisses. This is unfortunate. He could have used a healthy dose of his usual skepticism when deciding how much to invest in his own Ultimate Boeing 747 argument. Indeed, one needn't be a creationist to note that Dawkins's argument suffers at least two potential problems. First, as others have pointed out, if he is right, the design hypothesis essentially must be wrong and the alternative naturalistic hypothesis essentially must be right. But since when is a scientific hypothesis confirmed by philosophical gymnastics, not data? Second, the fact that we as scientists find a hypothesis question-begging—as when Dawkins asks "who designed the designer?"— cannot, in itself, settle its truth value. It could, after all, be a brute fact of the universe that it derives from some transcendent mind, however question-begging this may seem. What explanations we find satisfying might say more about us than about the explanations. Why, for example, is Dawkins so untroubled by his own (large) assumption that both matter and the laws of nature can be viewed as given? Why isn't that question-begging?

Exercises in double standards also plague Dawkins's discussion of the idea that religion encourages good behavior. Dawkins cites a litany of statistics revealing that red states (with many conservative Christians) suffer higher rates of crime, including murder, burglary, and theft, than do blue states. But now consider his response to the suggestion that the atheist Stalin and his comrades committed crimes of breathtaking magnitude: "We are not in the business," he says, "of counting evils heads, compiling two rival roll calls of iniquity." We're not? We were forty-five pages ago.

Dawkins's problems with philosophy might be related to a failure of metaphysical imagination. When thinking of those vast matters that make up religion—matters of ultimate meaning that stand at the edge of intelligibility and that are among the most difficult to articulate—he sees only black and white. Despite some attempts at subtlety, Dawkins almost reflexively identifies religion with right-wing fundamentalism and biblical literalism. Other, more nuanced possibilities— varieties of deism, mysticism, or nondenominational spirituality—have a harder time holding his attention. It may be that Dawkins can't imagine these possibilities vividly enough to worry over them in a serious way.

There's an irony here. Dawkins's main criticism of those who doubt Darwin—and it's a good one—is that they suffer a similar failure of imagination. Those, for example, who argue that evolution could never make an eye because anything less than a fully formed eye can't see simply can't imagine the surprising routes taken by evolution. In any case, part of what it means to suffer a failure of imagination may be that one can't conceive that one's imagination is impoverished. It's hard to resist the conclusion that people like James and Wittgenstein struggled personally with religion, while Dawkins shrugs his shoulders, at least in part because they conceived possibilities—mistaken ones perhaps, but certainly more interesting ones— that escape Dawkins.

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