Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Some points from Alister McGrath's "The Dawkins Delusion. Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine."

I will be picking out several quotes to do with surveys about how many scientist consider themselves atheists, the relationship between faith and science, and questions of meaning and purpose.

Here is a link to Alister McGrath's book "The Dawkins Delusion".

There is available also a video dialogue between McGrath and Dawkins here, in 15 short segments.


I have often wondered how Dawkins and I could draw such totally different conclusions on the basis of reflecting long and hard on substantially the same world.  One possibility might be that, because I believe in God, I am deranged, deluded, deceived and deceiving, my intellectual capacity having been warped through having been hijacked by an infections, malignant God virus, I believe in God.  Both those, I fear, are the substance of the answer I find in the pages of The God Delusion.

This may be an answer, but it's not particularly a persuasive answer.  It might appeal to die-hard atheists whose unbending faith does not permit them to operate outside the "non-God" box.  But I hope that I am right in suggesting that such nonthinking dogmatists are not typical of atheism.  Another answer to my question might be to repeat the same nonsense, this time applying it to Dawkins.  (Although in this case, I suppose that we would have to posit that his mind had been hijacked by some kind of "no-god virus.")  But I have no intention of writing something so implausible.  Why insult Dawkins?  Even more important, why insult the intelligence of my readers?

The beginnings of a real answer like in some wise words of Stephen Jay Gould, whose sad death from cancer in 2002 robbed Harvard University of one of its most stimulating teachers, and a popular scientific readership of one of its most accessible writers.  Though an atheist, Gould was absolutely clear that the natural sciences--including evolutionary theory--were consistent with both atheism and conventional religious belief.  Unless half his scientific colleagues were total fools--a presumption that Gould rightly dismissed as nonsense, whichever half it is applied to--there could be not other responsible way of making sense of the varied responses to reality on the part of the intelligent, informed people that he knew.  

This is not the quick and easy answer that many would like.  But it may well be right--or at least point in the right direction.  It helps us understand why such people hold such fundamentally different believers on these matters--and why some others consequently believe that, in the end, these questions cannot be answered with confidence.  And it reminds us of the need to treat those who disagree with us on such questions with complete intellectual respect rather than dismissing them as liars, knaves and charlatans.

Whereas Gould at least tries to weigh the evidence, Dawkins simply offers the atheist equivalent of slick hellfire preaching, substituting turbocharged rhetoric and highly selective manipulation of facts for careful, evidence-based thinking.  Curiously, there is surprisingly little scientific analysis in The God Delusion.  There's a lot of pseudo-scientific speculation, linked with wider cultural criticisms of religion, mostly borrowed from older atheist writings.  Dawkins preaches to his god-hating choirs, who are clearly expected to relish his rhetorical salvoes and raise their hand high in adulation.  Those who think biological evolution can be reconciled with religion are dishonest!  Amen!  they belong to the "Neville Chamberlain school" of evolutionists?  They are appeasers!  Amen!  Real scientists reject belief in God!  Hallelujah!  The God that Jews believed in back in Old Testament times is a psychotic child abuser!  Amen!  You tell them, brother!

When I read The God Delusion  I was both saddened and troubled.  How, I wondered, could such a gifted popularizer of the natural sciences, who once had such a passionate concern for the objective analysis of evidence, turn into such an aggressive antireligous propagandist with an apparent disregard for evidence that was not favorable to his case?  Why were the natural sciences being so abused in an attempt to advance atheist fundamentalism?  I have no adequate explanation.  Like so many of my atheist friends, I simply cannot understand the astonishing hostility that he displays toward religion.  Religion to Dawkins is like a red flag to a bull--evoking not merely an aggressive response but one that throw normal scholarly conventions about scrupulous accuracy and fairness to the winds.  While his book is written with rhetorical passion and power, the stridency of its assertions merely masks tired, weak and recycled arguments.

I am not alone in feeling disappointed here.  The God Delusion trumpets the fact that is author was recently voted one of the world's three leading intellectuals.  This survey took place among the readers of Prospect magazine in November 2005.  So what did this same magazine make of Dawkins's book?  Its reviewer was shocked at this "incurious, dogmatic, rambling, and self-contradictory" book.  The title of the review?  "Dawkins the Dogmatist." (pp. 10-12)

End of this quote from the Introduction.


Underlying the agenda of The God Delusion is a pervasive belief that science has disproved God.  Those who continue to believe in God are simply obscurantist, superstitious reactionaries, who are in complete denial about the victorious advance of the sciences, which have eliminated God from even the most minuscule gaps in our understanding of the universe.  Atheism is the only option for the serious progressive, thinking person. 

But it's not that simple--and just about every natural scientist that I have talked to about this issue knows this.  We have already noted Stephen Jay Gould's rejection of any brash equation of scientific excellence with an atheist faith.  As Gould observed in Rocks of Ages, based on the religious views of leading evolutionary biologists:  "Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs--and equally compatible with atheism." As I pointed out in Dawkins' God, his point is fair and widely accepted:  nature can be interpreted in a theistic or in an atheistic way--but it demands neither of these.  Both are genuine intellectual possibilities for science.

The fact that America's leading evolutionary biologist would make such a statement outrages Dawkins.  How could he say such a thing!  Dawkins dismisses Gould's thought without giving them serious consideration.  "I simply do not believe that Gould could possibly have meant much of what he wrote in Rocks of Ages."  This creedal statement is Dawkins' substitute for a response.  It simply will not do.  For Gould has simply articulated the widely held view that there are limits to science.  The same view, much to Dawkins's irritation, is found in Martin Rees's admirable Cosmic Habitat, which (entirely reasonably) points out that some ultimate questions "lie beyond science."  As Rees is the president of the Royal Society, which brings together Britain's leading scientists, his comments deserve careful and critical attention.  

The fundamental issue confronting the sciences is how to make sense of a highly complex, multifaceted, multilayered reality.  This fundamental question in human knowledge has been much discussed by philosophers of science, and often ignored by those who, for their own reasons, want to portray science as the only viable route to genuine knowledge.   Above all, it pulls the rug out from under those who want to talk simplistically about scientific "proof" or "disproof" of such things as the meaning of life or the existence of 
God.  The natural sciences depend on inductive inference, which is a matter of "weighing evidence and judging probability, not of proof."  Competing explanations are evident at every level of the human endeavor to represent the world--from the details of quantum mechanics to what Karl Popper termed "ultimate questions" of meaning.

This means that the great questions of life (some of which are also scientific questions) cannot be answered with any degree of certainty.  Any given set of observations can be explained by a number of theories.  To use the jargon of the philosophy of science:  theories are underdetermined by the evidence.  They questions then arises:  what criteria ca be used to decide between them, especially when they are "empirically equivalent"?  Simplicity?  Beauty?  The debate rages, unresolved.  And its outcome is entirely to be expected:  the great questions remain unanswered.  There can be no question of scientific "proof" of ultimate questions.  Either we cannot answer them or we must answer them on grounds other than the sciences.  (pp. 33-35, chapter 2)


In a sophisticated recent critique of the philosophical shallowness of much contemporary scientific writing, particularly in the neurosciences, Max Bennett and Peter Hacker direct particular criticism against the naive "science explains everything" outlook that Dawkins seems determined to advance.  Scientific theories cannot be said to "explain the world"--they only explain the phenomena that are observed within the world.  Furthermore, they argue, scientific theories do not and are not intended to describe and explain "everything about the world"--such as its purpose.  Law, economics and sociology can be cited as examples of disciplines which engage with domain-specific phenomena without in any way having to regard themselves as somehow being inferior to or dependent on the natural sciences.

Yet most important, there are many questions that by their very nature must be recognized to lie beyond the legitimate scope of the scientific method, as this is normally understood.  For example, is there purpose within nature?  Dawkins regards this as a spurious non-question.  Yet this is hardly an illegitimate question for human beings to ask or to hope to have answered.  Bennett and Hacker point out that the natural sciences are not in a position to comment on this if their methods are applied legitimately.  The question  cannot be dismissed as illegitimate or nonsensical;  it is simply being declared to lie beyond the scope of the scientific method.  If it can be answered, it must be answered on other grounds.  (pp. 36-37, chapter 2)


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