Tag Archives: reason

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.

Putting it All Together

Jesus_Mosaic_by_Mizun0hThough more will probably be added, I think enough has been said to demonstrate that there is more to reality than the physical particles and complex arrangements of physical particles that science studies. But, if we accept that naturalism fails, we still need to ask ourselves what else reality may hold.

Or, more simply, we know that there is something “out there”, so what is it? Tying together several of the past discussions here, we see:

1. Much, if not all, of our mental lives would be included.

2. We know that the ultimate cause of physical reality (i.e. either the cause of the big bang or the cause of the multiverse if it exists) also lies outside the bounds of science.

3. If one accepts the reality of moral truth (as most all who are not beholden to naturalism do), then these, too, would be included.

4. We also see the order of the universe, which cannot itself be accounted for by science (which simply assumes it).

Looking at this list, many will find it hard not to conclude that the explanation for all these curious facts of reality is a single, transcendent God. The suggestion, at least, strikes me as a far more elegant way to account for the facts than any alternative on offer.

And there are many alternatives, most of them complex and inelegant mixes of various conflicting theories. When all is said and done, it seems that the overwhelming response to this is either to agree, or to assert that we simply don’t know (and apparently should avoid reaching a conclusion or looking into the matter).

But simply to ignore the pertinent questions and reasoning will not do. Rather, the rational person will accept the most plausible choice as a guide to reality. What is not rational is to insist that, until theism can be proved absolutely, we should live out our days as if naturalism is true.

Why Russell was Wrong III: Along Came Science

Carina-Nebula-250x230After making the (false) insinuation that theism is based on intellectual laziness, Russell moves on to discuss the Natural Law argument from a scientific perspective, in spite of the fact that this is a category error:

Nowadays we explain the law of gravitation in a somewhat complicated fashion that Einstein has introduced. I do not propose to give you a lecture on the law of gravitation, as interpreted by Einstein, because that again would take some time; at any rate, you no longer have the sort of natural law that you had in the Newtonian system, where, for some reason that nobody could understand, nature behaved in a uniform fashion.

Einstein’s contributions to physics are, to put it mildly, immense. What they are not, however, is an answer to the question of natural law. They do not explain why the universe, contrary to what most people expected, follows natural patterns. Rather, they describe one such pattern to a very high degree of accuracy.

Russell seems here to suffer from a misconception I mentioned in my previous post, which is to envision God as essentially a proto-scientific theory of the natural world which competes with modern scientific theories. Given this assumption, I’d completely agree that God is a silly proposal.

However, the abrahamic God has never been such a concept. The transcendent God proposed by western monotheism is not a scientific, but a metaphysical, claim. It is simply not a scientific hypothesis, and should not be treated as a competitor to General Relativity (or any other scientific theory).

The advance of science, therefore, is not a reason to reject the natural law argument. Rather, it is the success of science that is the primary support for the argument. As the original metaphysical grounding for modern science, God may well be the best explanation for why science works at all.

It was David Hume who, as a non-Christian, famously pointed out that modern people can offer no logical reason why science should work – even though it clearly does. The argument from Natural Law, then, is the position that Hume would have done well to look back to the original thing that made people think science would be worth investing their lives in (before it had proved itself): belief in a rational creator of the universe.

Russell then turns to the area of science which, on the surface, offers the strongest support for his position:

On the other hand, where you can get down to any knowledge of what atoms actually do, you will find they are much less subject to law than people thought, and that the laws at which you arrive are statistical averages of just the sort that would emerge from chance. There is, as we all know, a law that if you throw dice you will get double sixes only about once in thirty-six times, and we do not regard that as evidence that the fall of the dice is regulated by design; on the contrary, if the double sixes came every time we should think that there was design. The laws of nature are of that sort as regards a great many of them. They are statistical averages such as would emerge from the laws of chance;

This really seems to simply have replaced “laws of science” with “laws of chance”. Not only is quantum mechanics much less random than this implies, but this is completely beside the point in any case. The natural law argument does not preclude the idea that natural laws are statistical averages based on the properties of fundamental particles.

It’s fairly easy to see, actually, that the fact that we get a particular average for rolling double-sixes out of a pair of dice is precisely due to the structure of the dice. What is not so easy to see is that all of nature must have had a structure that makes it either consistent or intelligible, which is what Russell should be trying to prove.

This mistake, one suspects, is due to a failure on Russell’s part to realize that he’s not arguing against the God Christian theists actually believe in. The “God” he refutes is, again, basically a physical theory – a law of nature that explains gravity in the way that General Relativity does – rather than a metaphysical explanation as to why nature is consistent enough to have laws in the first place. The God he dismisses is actually a contradiction the God of the abrahamic faiths.

The fact that it was western monotheists who developed science goes completely overlooked by his reasoning here. If God were simply an answer to avoid real inquiry, science would never have been developed by believers in God. The natural law argument, in one sense, simply points out the importance of God to the foundations of scientific thinking.

And this is one thing, among many, that bothers me about the New Atheist project. After centuries of development of natural science by monotheists, committed to the idea that God would have created an ordered universe, a group of atheists seize on science as if it had been their idea all along. Slogans declare that, somehow, the view that helped to inspire science is somehow less scientific than the view that did nothing of the sort.

None of this means that atheists cannot be great scientists, but it should be clear by now that, in attacking the infamous “God of the gaps”, Russell is refuting a god that isn’t anything like the God that thoughtful Christians actually believe in.

Nor is he addressing the challenge leveled by the argument from Natural Law and acknowledged by Hume: secular views of reality give us no reason to think that science should work, whereas monotheism does.


I’m beginning to think that scientism is not only the greatest threat to religious belief in our current society, it is also the greatest threat to our discovering any valid philosophy of life.

That is, we seem to be heading back into the late nineteenth century mentality that science will give us all truth about life.

This, of course, immediately brings to mind the reasons why such an attitude failed – as well as the fact that our current optimism seems no more prepared for those difficulties than its nineteenth-century counterpart. The limits of science, the brutality of human nature, and the uncertainty of perception have not changed. I’ve even seen a growing defense of eugenics, as if the issues of corruption and discrimination have somehow been solved.

Rather, it has been shocking to me how many people find themselves unable to seriously question the idea that all truth is physical – that any true statement can be measured by science. Of course, philosophers are quick to point out that this belief, itself, cannot be measured by science and that, consequently, it fails on its own terms.

What concerns me, however, is the speed with which many try to rescue scientism from this self-contradiction. I’ve encountered several methods, all of which are poor, but it is extremely rare that a proponent of scientism seems to genuinely question the idea. I consider this to be extremely dangerous:

“Even the attempt to escape metaphysics is no sooner put in the form of a proposition than it is seen to involve highly significant metaphysical postulates. For this reason there is an exceedingly subtle and insidious danger in positivism [i.e. scientism]. If you cannot avoid metaphysics, what kind of metaphysics are you likely to cherish when you sturdily suppose yourself to be free from the abomination?”

– E.A. Burtt

To simply believe the philosophy one absorbed from PBS documentaries and high-school science classes, rather than understanding the exact nature of the discipline of science, brings a sort of absolute certainty that allows all the judgment, ridicule, and tribalism we see in any fideism.

Rather than insist that the limitations we impose on reality are correct, or claim that the (often wild) extrapolations modern people make from science are automatically valid, let us be open to the idea that physical evidence is irrelevant to many of life’s biggest questions. Simply using the terminology of science does not make science applicable to the question.

As a professed lover of science, I’m offended that people can’t enjoy science for what it is – simply marveling at the insights it gives us – rather than feeling the need to eliminate all other forms of knowing. Is science not amazing enough until we declare our rejection of everything else? Certainly, science itself does not comment on other fields of study.

I find that, while I don’t need to believe in fairies to enjoy a garden, I can equally enjoy it without pausing to eschew all belief in anything which can’t be reduced to physical processes.