Tag Archives: Dawkins

Materialism vs. Science

science-vs-pseudoscience_box-300x125“Now they [DNA molecules] swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence.”

– Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

“Now they are trapped in huge colonies, locked inside highly intelligent beings, moulded by the outside world, communicating with it by complex processes, through which, blindly, as if by magic, function emerges. They are in you and me; we are the system that allows their code to be read; and their preservation is totally dependent on the joy we experience in reproducing ourselves. We are the ultimate rationale for their existence.”

– Denis Noble (in response to The Selfish Gene)

The point Noble was making, and one which even so staunch a materialist as Dawkins was willing to concede, is that there is no scientific test to decide between these two views. These both speak to the facts as they stand, and no amount of extra empirical data could alter this situation.

Unfortunately, Dawkins seems to have missed the larger point here.

That is, this shows that there are at least some (and probably a great many) questions that are about subjects other than science. Like many (but by no means all) scientists, Dawkins tends to assume that only those methods he’s personally comfortable with and trained in is the only means of getting at truth.

He seems to have no idea that this assumption is, itself, a philosophical (rather than scientific) position.

This is the basic contradiction of scientism: that it is, itself, not established by science. But there is another point to be made here. One that is, in my view, much deeper and more significant.

For those that know a bit about metaphysics, Noble’s description of genes is vaguely aristotelian, whereas Dawkins’ is basically cartesian. This is significant in that it illustrates, contrary to popular opinion, why talk of aristotelian teleology isn’t answered by appeals to science. Science simply has no way of testing whether or not teleology exists in a particular system.

That is, whether or not a thing in the universe “points toward” something else (say, a match pointing to the creation of fire or a day-dream pointing toward Paris) is basically ignored when doing science. It has never been genuinely ruled out as a possibility.

But I say “basically ignored” rather than simply “ignored” because science (at least as it has been practiced in the last four centuries) tends to presume teleology in the same way that it presumes math and logic.

That is, as David Hume pointed out, the modern materialist has no basis whatsoever for believing that science works. Inductive reasoning is, to such a person, simply a kind of magic that has created all the wonders of the modern world.

Induction, and therefore science, assumes that there are patterns to reality: that like situations will produce like results. This is perfectly explicable in terms of teleology: all things have particular effects that they “point toward”.

The idea that science opposes teleology (and the rejection of materialism it implies) is more an accident of history than anything like a rational argument. Like so many things, it enjoys credibility by a vague association to the mythos of science without actually having been supported by evidence.

And when people begin to assert that teleological systems (such as our minds and wills) can be explained away by science, the fact that scientism is being confused for science becomes all the more obvious. Dawkins is simply a relatively recent example of those who have fallen into this trap.

What is less obvious is that this would be science “explaining away” its own foundations. And, for this reason, real science will never do this. Science is, and always has been, anti-materialist.

The Enlightenment’s Unskeptical Disciples

“The only way, really, to pursue a godlessness in good conscience is to forget history.”

– David Bentley Hart

In context, I found this a deeply penetrating statement about the condition of the current discussion between theists and materialists. What is that context? I highly recommend the full talk, but it can be summarized as follows:

The claim was never true, but it was (in some ways) understandable that Enlightenment thinkers would believe that a society liberated from all belief in transcendence would achieve new heights of prosperity and morality–that enough education, or the right social programs, would do what religion could not.

Now that we are living in the wake of the bloodiest century in all of human history, it takes a deep lack of curiosity (or downright willful ignorance), to believe that a godless society is the unqualified good to be zealously pursued that so many proclaim it to be.

Hart points out that Nietzsche’s fear of the “last men”–of those who have no deep truth to speak, no rational basis for morality, and therefore no meaning in their lives–now seems rather quaint. This idea has gone from a horrific and seemingly wild proclamation to a banal, almost tedious, observation the facts.

The fact that so many, from the New Atheists to an all-too-large group of theists, have such a distorted, shallow view of what it is that Christianity actually claims is only the most recent evidence that ours is an age which has become so used to living without transcendence that far too many of us don’t even understand the meaning of the term.

And we can’t, of course, correct the problems sparked by the naivety of the Enlightenment thinkers simply by insisting that their view of reality was perfectly correct. And, whether they realize it or not, this is exactly what Dawkins and his fans are doing–unreflectively buying into Enlightenment propaganda as if it were a new and established truth they’d discovered themselves. So far, we’ve seen no sign that this group is even remotely aware of the connections between their own ideas and the mass slaughters of the twentieth century.

I, for one, think there are very good reasons to dismiss materialism as false. But, if it is true, it is a catastrophic truth–a bearer of death and oblivion. Those who speak as if it were, in some unspecified way, a glorious triumph have simply ignored the facts.

The Atheist Dogma

pope-dawkinsOverwhelmingly, the most common defense of atheism is the (false) claim that atheism need not be defended at all. It is confidently stated that atheism is simply a “lack of belief in any gods”, as opposed to the belief that God does not exist. It is then said that one need not defend a simple lack of belief.

And, personally, I agree on that last point. A lack of belief need not be defended. But there are two very serious problems with the logic of this approach.

First is the reason why no defense is needed. It is not because atheism is somehow true by default. Rather, it is because (by this rather questionable definition) it is simply not a position at all. Anyone who isn’t claiming the non-existence of God, but simply lacks belief, isn’t advancing inquiry–or saying anything at all. Rather, this is simply an attempt to halt any attempt to discover what the truth might be.

Second is the fact that those who take this approach, just as much as the rest of us, have working answers to life’s big questions. Redefining atheism to mean “a lack of belief” doesn’t change this fact. Really, it simply insulates the atheist’s position from challenges.

Nearly always, the hidden position is materialism: the belief that matter and energy are all that exist. So, if the atheist wants to refute theism, he has to do more than attack theism (or, as is very often done, a horribly distorted straw man version of theism). We need a reason to think that materialism (or some other position) is more likely to be the case.

But, often as not, I encounter “refutations” of theism that would do as much damage to materialism. The “no evidence for God” argument is merely the prime example. While there is evidence for God, the point is that I’ve never encountered anyone who uses this (poor) argument that can offer evidence for materialism when asked for it.

As such, I hope it is becoming clear to more people why claiming to simply “lack belief” is (whether intentionally or unwittingly) an attempt to stack the deck in favor of the atheist. It halts inquiry instead of advancing it.

By all means, let us discuss whether or not it is more reasonable to think that God exists, or that the materialism of atheists popularizers is valid. But let’s examine both of these ideas, rather than pretending that the latter is somehow immune to being questioned or challenged.

That is, after all, just another form of dogmatism.

The Homogenous Group with Nothing in Common

picture-of-molly-ringwald-emilio-estevez-judd-nelson-ally-sheedy-and-anthony-michael-hall-in-the-breakfast-club-large-picture-650x453If one engages in discussion with a self-identified atheist, it isn’t likely to be long before one is told that atheism is simply “a lack of belief in God or gods”. In general, one will be told that each atheist is as unique as a snowflake, and that it is silly to criticize secular philosophies as if that has anything to do with atheism.

In the past, I’ve criticized this view for its over-simplicity; it falsely assumes that the uniqueness of individuals means that there are no general statements to be made about a group.

I’ve also been bothered by the fact that the group seems to lack these scruples when it comes to religion, which is spoken about as if all theists believe the same things, and that these are the things Richard Dawkins thinks we believe.

What I’ve not done yet is point out how limited a view of atheism is held by such people. Many who push the idea that atheists are all different often have no idea how different atheists really are. Such people tend to think that a lack of respect for religion and a belief that there is such a thing as a “scientific” approach to life somehow automatically follows from atheism.

Perhaps the fastest way, then, to convince the New Atheists that they have particular beliefs (which, according them, ought to be supported by evidence) is to point out the things they say that other atheists patently reject.

Let’s start with Micheal Ruse. As an avowed atheist, he had this to say about Dawkins and his fans:

Humanism in its most virulent form tries to make science into a religion. It is awash with the intolerance of enthusiasm. For a start, there is the near-hysterical repudiation of religion.

Ruse goes on to argue that the New Atheism has quite a few of the same characteristics it criticizes in religion. This is not new; many have made such observations. Yet many of Dawkins’ fans have, after reading this, expressed serious doubt over whether or not Ruse is actually an atheist.

If he “lacks belief”, I often ask, what is the problem?

The problem is that he doesn’t, so the New Atheist line of thinking goes, properly understand how “scientific” it is to hate religion, how demanding evidence has shown theists to be silly and deserving of ridicule, or how religion is the real source of suffering that merely looks political and social.

And this strikes me as pure dogmatism. Even if these things were true (they aren’t remotely), anyone wanting to insist that Ruse is less an atheist, or less clear about what his atheism means, than Dakwins is claiming that there is more to atheism than “a lack of belief”.

That being the case, those that do so need to defend that “more”. They need to show, not merely assert, that religion is terrible or that there is a real conflict between science and religion (as opposed to the much more bland claim that certain theories conflict with certain understandings of certain religions).

That is, the group can’t be both sensational about their atheism and insist that it is “merely a lack of belief”.

In fact, if this isn’t a group that has enough continuity to speak of as a group, then it doesn’t deserve recognition in the public sphere. “A place at the table”, after all, is reserved for views popular enough to bother considering on a national level. If atheists agree on nothing to do with policy, then public discourse should ignore them.

And this is one of the main reasons why, traditionally, atheism has been ignored–it isn’t a political position. Certainly, it can affect one’s political position. This is precisely what the New Atheist insists upon in demanding “a place at the table”, but then denies when he demands that theists ought to be willing to vote for openly atheist representatives.

Atheism, traditionally understood, is the belief that there is no god. This is a clear position that is neither political, nor without content. And it is a clear regression to attempt to strip the word of any theological content (i.e. “merely a lack of belief”) while, out of the other side of one’s mouth, assuming that atheists are a united group which has a common set of opinions that need to be considered.

Personally, I sense the pressure turning up on atheists to chose one narrative or the other, and am curious to see which will turn out to be the more popular among them.


Nagel’s Knowledge vs. Dawkins’ Ignorance

UnknownIn my opinion, more than enough has been said to show that the New Atheists, when it comes to most of the topics they like to discuss, have no idea what they are talking about. They essentially state this themselves–in that Dawkins, Krauss, and Co. admit ignorance of both philosophy and theology.

It, therefore, makes no sense at all for anyone to listen to them as if they knew what they were talking about.

That said, what is the situation for those that actually do know what they are talking about? Where is the debate over things like theism and materialism among professional philosophers?

The short answer is: heading back toward theism.

For the long answer, I want to get into the recent controversy surrounding the eminent philosopher Thomas Nagel. For those who aren’t familiar with him, Nagel is one of the most well-respected philosophers in the english-speaking world. He is a professor at NYU, and a brilliant man without (so far as I can tell) so much as a hint of arrogance. He is also an avowed atheist.

And he has attacked the materialistic view so beloved of the New Atheists.

His most recent book “Mind and Cosmos” purports to show us “Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False”. To anyone who agrees that what most believe today is largely based on what university professors were teaching their students yesteryear, this is a very important book.

As such, it’s worth it to spend a few posts on him, and the best place to start is by dealing with the straw man that keeps being put up in place of Nagel’s argument.

That is, many people think that they can refute Nagel simply by throwing out the standard evidence in favor of evolution. But the argument isn’t with evolution as a scientific theory–it is with the idea that a purely physical theory (like evolution) can ever explain the whole of life.

Judging from how many people have accused Nagel of ignorance about evolution, this can’t be stressed enough: He isn’t arguing that current evolutionary theory can’t explain this or that feature of living organisms, and is therefore false. If that were his argument, it would make sense to give the classic “scientists are working on it” response.

But it doesn’t make sense here. The argument is about what science can, even in principle, ever discover. Nagel has offered good reasons to think that science can’t possibly explain things like consciousness–unless we make some fairly serious adjustments to the scientific method.

That is, we would have to remove the “methodological naturalism” stipulation that is the basis of most vague assertions that science (in some unspecified way) backs materialism.

Without this move, so argues Nagel, science pursued for all eternity could never explain consciousness anymore than painting something red for all eternity could ever make it green. Science, as it currently exists, is simply not the correct method for explaining certain things (such as consciousness).

What is his argument? What are the consequences for theism? For materialism? And what has been the response?

I’ll address these questions in future posts. But, for now, it needs to be made clear what the answer is not: the unreflective and ignorant materialism of people like Dawkins and Krauss.

We Don’t Need to Defend Our Case

CL_062313_stop_avoiding_criticism_329296110At long last, we’ve reached the end of Chris Hallquist’s“William Lane Craig Exposed”. Hallquist decides to close this chapter with a commentary of Richard Dawkins’ refusal to debate Craig.

This issue has become something of a bygone matter, and I doubt that there’s much more to be said about it. Even Hallquist struggles to add anything to the discussion–simply repeating Dawkins own statements, and implying that it was Craig, rather than others (including many atheists), who accused Dawkins of cowardice for not debating.

But I see no point in beating that drum. Any chance of the debate happening is gone, and we all know how it would have gone. An actual debate would have simply been a formality, and the fact that Dawkins refused, I think, turned out to be a bigger victory than a debate would have been.

This is because it showed so clearly that both Dawkins and his fans can pretty consistently be found attempting to insulate themselves from the same sort of criticism they are quick to fire at others, in spite of the fact that Dawkins lists being open to criticism in his own revision of the Ten Commandments.

He refuses debates, his fans refuse to defend their views:

For instance, very few of Dawkins’ supporters will defend his Boeing 747 argument. Nor will they support the materialism they passionately embrace. Even the term “atheism” has been redefined by them as “a lack of belief” in order to avoid having to defend it as a position. Personally, I can’t think of any argument in The God Delusion that the New Atheists are still willing to defend.

This leaves me to wonder why they are still following him.

Really, the only thing that the New Atheists are as consistent about as their hatred of religion is their refusal to offer a logical defense for any actual claim. This seems odd coming from the self-proclaimed champions of reason and science–who complain that religion is holding back the advancement of knowledge and insist that one should have evidence ready on demand for anything one claims.

Not that they don’t make claims. Dawkins publicly maintained that raising children Catholic is child abuse for more than a decade before someone finally asked him for supporting evidence. The best he could do was to say that it was “intuitively very reasonable”.

If these are the kinds of defenses we hear from a man who demands overwhelming support from the opposition, it’s no wonder that neither he nor his intellectual disciples are eager to put their position forward for careful examination.

That being the case, I feel it best to move on from the New Atheists, and interact with a more reasonable opposition to Christian theism. To fail to acknowledge that there are more sophisticated atheists than them is to make the same mistake they make about theists.

As such, I’ll be moving on to some more serious thinkers in my next series.

Richard Dawkins Informs Us: He’s Gentle on Religion

funny-cat-monkey-funny-fightThat strikes me as the sort of thing that, if you have to say it, it isn’t true.

But Dawkins is saying it anyway–in an interview last week. Usually, I don’t think of the kinds of things that Dawkins says as news (or anything like it), but to hear that his words have been gentle was definitely news to me.  Personally, I seem to recall Dawkins telling his fans to mock theists, saying that religion needs to be “ridiculed with contempt”.

But perhaps this idea of mine: that ridiculing someone with contempt is something less than gentle, is simply part of my “God Delusion”?

Speaking of The God Delusion, whether or not Dawkins thinks it appropriate to open the book with a rant about how repulsive he finds the Judeo-Christian God, his grasp of the English language is very weak if he thinks he can call his words “gentle”.

Part of me suspects that what’s going on here is an attempt at damage control. Dawkins and the New Atheists have received a great deal of attention by being as vocal, controversial, and ungentle as possible. Now, it seems that they are trying to avoid some of the negative consequences of that attention. It’s not hard to imagine that Dawkins and others are getting tired of being accused of taking a shrill, mean-spirited approach.

But if he really wants to set the record straight about this, he should start by telling his fans that he was wrong to say that we should mock religious people, then go on by admitting that it was hypocritical to claim that raising a child Catholic is abuse based purely on hearsay. He may even want to consider admitting that throwing around the term “child abuse” isn’t exactly gentle speech in the first place.

Dawkins confesses that it was “a bit mischievous” of him to use the term “faithheads” in reference to religious people, and that he was deliberately trying to evoke images of crackheads. But, apparently, he wants us to please keep in mind that this comparison of religious people to crackheads was “gentle”.

It’s hard to imagine what would not be considered “gentle” by Professor Dawkins. It’s also hard not to wonder if there’s a bit of a double standard here. If a theist claimed that raising children as atheists was child abuse, referred to atheists as “nothingheads”, and claimed that the label of “atheist” was as deadly as any tribal division, would Dawkins take offense? Or, would he simply say “Well, I obviously disagree, but I appreciate that he’s being gentle.”?

Somehow, I doubt it.

But it’s possible that what Dawkins thinks he’s saying is not so much that he’s actually been gentle, but that he’s been more gentle than religion deserves. Given his (ignorant  and prejudicial) understanding of what religion is, this makes much more sense. The main problem here is that he’s not remotely backed the claim that religion really is so terrible as he thinks. And, in any case, that’s not what he said. “I’ve been more gentle than I might have been” would have been a very different statement.

But what makes this significant isn’t that theists should be particularly bothered by Dawkins’ ignorant rants. We should care because mockery is the recourse of the weak-minded. It needs to be made clear that these statements are uncivil, not so much because of hurt feelings, but for this reason:

When Dawkins and his fans try to put their statements into civil language, the lack of angry rhetoric makes it obvious how shallow the content really is.

Mockery and Reason Are Different Things

flat,550x550,075,fIt’s amazing how many seem not to realize this.

As a case-in-point, I’d like to offer Richard Dawkins.  Following up on discussing Chris Hallquist’s failure to offer a secular moral theory in the face of the moral argument for God’s existence, I’ll respond to a recent interchange involving Dawkins making the exact same mistake.

And why he needs to learn more about the reason he claims to cherish.

Dawkins was confronted with the issue of a basis for morality in a recent interview. He launched into a series of attacks on religious traditions. And, as one who knows something about Dawkins, this was unsurprising to the point of tediousness. When asked for a secular basis for morality, Dawkins can be counted on to sidestep the issue and launch in to a gripe about (his deeply uninformed understanding of) the Bible and the Koran.

I mention it, however, for two reasons:

First is the fact that it has become so monotonous. Dawkins has had ample time to come up with a more substantial response than cheap mockery. If he wishes to rant about religion, that is his right. But one would expect him to either present an alternative for examination–or admit that he’s simply emoting without any real case to make.

After all, it is remarkably easy to play the critic (particularly against straw men); the difficulty comes in offering something better.

And Dawkins fails completely in this regard. He not only doesn’t do better, he doesn’t even try. He seems to systematically avoid putting his own concept of morality up for consideration–and that’s a little like challenging someone to a boxing match, but only on the condition that he’s not allowed to throw any punches.

Second is the aforementioned fact that he completely misrepresents theism. But I’ll not spend much time on this, because I think the fact is obvious to any who care to look. Rather, I’ll quote Dennis Prager in his response to Dawkins.

“Dawkins and his supporters have a right to atheism. They do not have a right to intellectual dishonesty about atheism.”

And that is what these rants from Dawkins, Hallquist, and the bulk of their fans seem to be:  a dodging of the question and a gripe about a version of theism that almost no one actually believes in. And that is exactly the kind of response one would expect to hear out of a group that has trouble understanding the difference between mocking a position and answering its challenges.

What it is not is a rational defense of secular morality.

Nor would it defend Dawkins to say that he’s sincere. Personally, I believe that he is. I’d imagine that he’s so focused on inventing clever and vitriolic statements that he’s personally never noticed that he hasn’t answered the question being asked.

If so, then he’s more interested in what feels true (and making something feel true to others) than in what actually is true.

And this is always where I find myself in considering the New Atheism: for all the bluster about reason, they seem much more interested in mockery and other emotional tactics. The fact that Dawkins can’t offer even a single reason in defense of his moral theory hasn’t slowed him down one bit.

And that leaves me wondering how much he really cares about taking a reasonable view of life in the first place.

Divine Simplicity and Simpletons

simpleton-universityRichard Dawkins abandoned Christianity at the age of nine. And, by all accounts, he hasn’t learned anything new about what Christians believe since then.

This is to say that his “Boeing 747 Gambit” is an excellent case study in why one should read on a topic before making vast declarations on it in print.

What is the Boeing 747 Gambit? For those that don’t already know, it could be summarized as follows:

1. Because God has control over the universe, he would have to be an extremely complex being.

2. Complex beings always evolve from simpler beings.

3. The probability that something this complex could evolve is vanishingly small.

4. Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist.

I first picked up “The God Delusion” looking for a real challenge to my faith, and was very disappointed to find, among other things, this being presented as the book’s central argument. Not only are these claims dubious at best, but I had to rewrite it just to make it coherent. Dawkins’ own summary was, demonstrably, logically invalid. If this was the best the New Atheists could present, it is no wonder theologians didn’t feel that books like this one were worth attention.

But theologians should pay attention, and not only because a post-graduate student could write a doctoral thesis on everything that is wrong with this argument. By stirring up controversy, Dawkins has given theologians the perfect excuse to discuss, say, divine simplicity.

That is the problem with Dawkins’ first statement here. God has traditionally understood as a simple being (not as in “easy to understand” but as in “not composed of parts”). As spirit, this is rather straight-forward. Dawkins misses this point, presumably because he believes that God has successive thoughts like we do (rather than holding all knowledge simultaneously), and otherwise thinks that a mind’s knowledge counts has adding to its physical complexity.

But this is nonsense. The only way to say that a mind’s thoughts make it more physically complex is to assume that there can’t be a mind without a brain. But this is, of course, the very thing Dawkins should be trying to prove. To assume it here would be to argue in a circle.

This is one of many reasons why experts don’t take the argument seriously. The real debate among theologians is whether God has metaphysical “parts” (as many Protestant theologians claim) or not (as Catholic and Orthodox theologians claim).

I think many would be interested in reading “Personalists” and “Classical Theists” defend their respective concepts of God. Why think God would be simple? How is the concept of the trinity explained if God is simple? How is God’s unity described without simplicity? This is a great way to deepen one’s own understanding of the divine.

But Dawkins simply isn’t interested. He “knows” this thing called “God” doesn’t exist, so he doesn’t have to bother learning what the word “God” actually means. But, if he had bothered, he would have noticed that his argument doesn’t disprove the God that monotheists believe in, but only the sort of God’s believed in by the ancient Pagans.

I’d say that Dawkins is a bit late to be proving that Zeus doesn’t exist (and there are far better arguments, even then). Really, his “central argument” has nothing to say about a God who is above nature, rather than part of it.

In the words of Stephen Barr, “Paley finds a watch and asks how such a thing could have come to be there by chance. Dawkins finds an immense automated factory that blindly constructs watches, and feels that he has completely answered Paley’s point.”

Richard Dawkins vs. the Scientific Method


I was glad to see someone finally ask Professor Dawkins for some scientifically gathered information for his claim that raising a child Catholic is worse than sexual abuse. In my view, he needs to be asked to provide evidence far more often.

In fact, I was disappointed that the interviewer in the video asked for a show of hands. I would much rather him have asked Dawkins if he would have accepted “it seems intuitively entirely reasonable” from a religious person after requesting scientifically gathered evidence.

Dawkins has made long lists of accusations about the harmfulness of theism for years, while simultaneously insisting that one must base one’s conclusions on the findings of science. Having sifted through quite a few anthropological and sociological studies on the effects of religious belief, I can say with confidence that Richard Dawkins is not taking his own advice (or, I suppose, is simply dishonest – but I doubt that).

In fact, I’ve listened to quite a bit of what Professor Dawkins has to say, and have no memory of him ever quoting a study on the effects of religion – even in the vague sense of “studies have shown…”. It doesn’t surprise me, then, that his claims are so consistently contradicted by actual studies.

That being the case, it’s hard to see how he can claim to have a “scientific mind”, as he puts it, on this subject. The person who genuinely insists on evidence should, as a matter of fact, be completely uninterested in anything he has to say.