Thursday, February 01, 2007

The God Delusion Delusion

Maybe the Nobel Prize went to his head. By the end of his career, Erwin Schrödinger, one of the most accomplished scientists of the last century, started saying science had, well, boundaries:
"I'm very astonished that the scientific picture of the real world around me is very deficient.. gives a lot of factual information, puts all our experience in a magnificently consistent order, but it is ghastly silent about all that is really important to us. It cannot tell us a word about red and blue, bitter and sweet, physical pain and physical delight, it knows nothing of beautiful and ugly, good or bad, God or eternity. Science sometimes pretends to answer questions in these domains but the answers are very often so silly that we're not inclined to take them seriously"
That quote is listed here (or if you prefer audio here), along with other scientists who understand the limits to their expertise.

But still, walk into Borders or Barnes & Noble, and there it is - the shiny silver book that claims to disprove God. But simply put, intelligent people are failing to take The God Delusion seriously. So I'd better post about it again before it becomes as dated as peg-leg jeans

Not that I would disregard my earlier advice, that religious people shouldn't bother themselves with debunking Dawkins. This of course because people with no overt claim to faith seem to be doing a fine job of it already. First professional Marxist Terry Eagleton went to town at the London Review of Books. Now biologist H. Allan Orr over at Fundamentalist Christian Weekly, I'm sorry, I mean the New York Review of Books does the same: Continue...
"Dawkins has written a book that's distinctly, even defiantly, middlebrow... 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.

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.

...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?

...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...

...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?).

...his modus operandi generally involves comparing religion as practiced - religion, that is, as it plays out in the rough-and-tumble world of compromise, corruption, and incompetence - with atheism as theory. Fairness requires that we compare both religion and atheism as practiced or both as theory. The latter is an amorphous and perhaps impossible task, and I can see why Dawkins sidesteps it. But comparing both as practiced is more straightforward. And, at least when considering religious and atheist institutions, the facts of history do not, I believe, demonstrate beyond doubt that atheism comes out on the side of the angels. Dawkins has a difficult time facing up to the dual facts that (1) the twentieth century was an experiment in secularism; and (2) the result was secular evil, an evil that, if anything, was more spectacularly virulent than that which came before.

The God Delusion is not itself a work of either evolutionary biology in particular or science in general. None of Dawkins's loud pronouncements on God follows from any experiment or piece of data. It's just Dawkins talking."
Well it is silver though. And shiny! Maybe I should end on a positive note. Said R.R. Reno, "Give me the ardent atheism of Richard Dawkins any day over the pseudo-mystery and easy spiritualism of Paul Tillich."