Thursday, October 20, 2011

Salute to Richard Dawkins

Since Richard Dawkins claimed in this Guardian piece to take pleasure in how upset people get when he refuses to debate William Lane Craig, I assumed that was an open invitation for us all to have fun at his refusal as well. As long as we are all enjoying ourselves.

You are Richard Dawkins.

You enjoyed success at the academic level as an evolutionary biologist, and made a name for yourself producing readable books about a subject that is not always exciting. You tire and weary of religious people that don't like your work, so as a side project you decide to write more and more about how there is no God and that people who believe in God are stupid. You then write a book called The God Delusion, where you – a professional scholar – offer up arguments and ideas about the nature of religious belief.

Your loyal followers love it, but within the world of informed critics it is less well received. One of the greatest Christian philosophers of the age says that to call it sophomoric would be an insult to his sophomore class and a well known fellow atheist lambasts you for your ignorance as it pertains to religion. But you are Richard Dawkins, and you needn't worry about the opinions of critics because your dogs are out in force and they gleefully attack the character of anyone who dares question your brilliance.

There is a man that you despise, one among many. He is a fellow scholar and he debates people like you all over the world. Friends and colleagues by the dozens, respected scholars all, have met him on stage in the spirit of open dialogue and intellectual engagement. He wants to debate you, but you hesitate. “Why should I debate him?” you ask. You are famous and beloved and he is nobody. You decide to let it go. Sooner or later the upstart will disappear.

But he does not and now the pressure is mounting. You are, after all, the face of the new atheists. You are the mack daddy of doubters who sneers like no other. You have been as rude and dismissive as possible while making it clear that you are above this guy, yet the calls keep coming. And now there are articles in British papers questioning your spirit! They ask if you have the guts to take this man on! How dare they?! Don't they know you are Richard Dawkins?! Who cares if the man is coming to your stomping grounds to discuss and criticize your book, you are better than him and more famous by far. You have no responsibility to face criticism for your intellectual work in the normal academic style! You are the atheist bomb and have brought the thunder to stupid God believers for decades! PZ Meyers will back you up on that as will all of his blog commenters!

So what are you going to do? “I am busy that night.” Genius. And for good measure, you write an editorial that reiterates that you are Richard Dawkins and don't have to talk to this guy, because even though you and your philosopher friends have never heard of him – at least the ones that have not already debated him - and you do not want to engage his arguments you happen to have read some of his arguments. You characterize him as a kook and a defender of genocide. You go on Bill O'Reilly to peddle your book and then come home and cast the upstart as a shameless self promoter.

There will be an empty chair on the stage representing your absence? Well tell your followers to leave empty chairs everywhere to make the point that you are not at lots of places that night. Of course lots of places will not be hosting a criticism of your work where you turned down repeated invitations to defend your intellectual claims, but your followers will think this is cute and will not ask questions.

You are right. This will work. If there are empty chairs everywhere then the one looks less damning. If everyone else doesn't debate him, then it doesn't look so bad that you won't. So encourage everyone to not debate him and simply shun him. Good show.

You are Richard Dawkins.

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Quick Thought on Arguing the Supremacy of Science

I am currently reading a philosopher who will remain nameless. Not having finished her book, any criticism is premature without first reading her full argument. Thus far, she at once impresses with her intellect and frustrates with the gaps in her reasoning as it pertains to the primacy of scientific knowledge over what she terms “more meaningful” but less verifiable intellectual pursuits.

So here is the oft asked question in rebuttal: What type of appeals and arguments will we be forced to make in order to defend the proposition that testable scientific knowledge is superior to philosophical knowledge?

It is one thing to state an obvious fact; testable experimentally verifiable knowledge enjoys the luxury of being demonstrated again and again so as to earn our confidence. Reasonable people must accept the fact that water freezes at 32 degrees F/0 degrees C. If presented with a case where water failed to freeze at 32 degrees F, it makes sense to question the facts in order to determine what mistake was made. We are left with three probabilities: it is not water(H2O), the thermometer is incorrect, the water was supercooled so that it dipped below the freezing point before actually freezing. It must be one of these things because all reasonable people acknowledge that water normally freezes at 32 degrees F. This is the strength of this type of knowledge. Inquiry leads to trustable answers.

Mathematics are also an extension of this. 2 + 2 = 4 is demonstrably true and reasonable people acknowledge it. (Except , of course, defenders of Fictionalism or a type of Nominalism that denies the reality of numbers and so denies that the equation is literally true, but you don't run into too many of these people at the soccer fields and in the normal work place) Combine the rational power of math and experimental sciences and we have the basis for some of the greatest accomplishments in human history.

But when you argue that experimentally verifiable scientific truth is superior to philosophical truth we are not arguing the more limited claim just discussed. Arguing that it is superior is arguing that the information in question has qualities that make it better by nature than other types of information. Uh oh. Qualities? Nature? This sounds suspiciously like philosophy to me.

Objectors tell me that they are merely stating that scientific exploration works in a way that philosophical consideration cannot. Science discovered everything that makes our life better than our more primitive ancestors. “But what do you mean by better?” I ask.

And why did we advance science? What drove the men and women to pursue vaccines, clean drinking water, stronger protective dwellings, and advanced medical treatment? Was it the idea that we ought to take care of our fellow man and limit suffering? Do our perceived obligations and duties to others often inspire the endeavors we are talking about? Certainly those motivations for exploration are not scientific by nature.

Another consideration, we can all agree that science produces useful information, but how do we assess the application of that knowledge? Zyklon B was a cyanide based pesticide. It was used to keep citrus groves, food stores, and shipping vehicles free of insects and rodents to protect food supplies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was also used by the Nazis to kill millions of innocent Jews in death camps. How do we evaluate the different applications of the same scientific principles? One – the killing of insects and rodents - is a possible good and the other – the killing of innocent human beings – is a monstrous evil. Are these judgments scientific? Nope. And if the scientific fact that Zykon B kills living things is the preeminent truth then how we use it is of secondary importance. The moral judgements of the disparate uses of Zyklon B are in doubt in comparison to the certainty of how it works. After all, we know with scientific certainty that Zyklon B kills animals while the moral judgements upon those actions belong to the realm of knowledge that we are told cannot be trusted.

But how is that possible? How can the moral applications of scientific advancement be of secondary importance to the mere fact of discovery itself?

That is the crux of the problem for the greater claim of the supremacy of scientific truth. In order to be better or superior it must explain why the truth discovered through experimentation, though more verifiable by its nature, is of greater importance to the beings those discoveries serve than philosophical truths concerning morality, duties, justice, the existence of God, or the presence of greater purpose to life. This requires contemplation on what kind of beings we are, what is best in life for us, what is our destiny, and what information will best serve us. These questions cannot be melted, burned, vaporized, frozen, or weighed. They cannot be the subject of scientific inquiry in any traditional way that empirical study is understood. In fact, they are exactly the kind of questions that the champion of the supremacy of science is trying to undermine. The arguments for the justification of the supremacy of science are undercut by the attackers own criticisms of philosophy.

Or in the words of Friedrich Nietzsche in Twilight of the Idols:

“The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one.”

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Dawkins' Wrong Answer is More Wrong Than You Think

Matt Flannagan at M & M has a great post here on how insufficient Richard Dawkins was in responding to Paul Copan during a Q & A at Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Dr. Dawkins presentation was entitled The Fact of Evolution and here is how Matt describes what happened:

In it Paul alludes to an argument advanced by C S Lewis, Alvin Plantinga, Michael Rea, Victor Reppert and also alluded to by Patrica Churchland, Thomas Nagel, William Whewell and Friedrich Nietzche. The argument is that if our cognitive faculties evolved by natural selection, unguided by God, then our cognitive faculties cannot be rationally relied on to give us truth. The literature on this argument is interesting but I won’t comment on that here.

What interests me is the comment Dawkins made in the MP3 which got the applause of the audience. Dawkins appears to not grasp the point of the argument and takes it to be asking for a reason why he supports “scientific rationalism”. He said he believes in scientific rationalism because it “works”. He then provided an example of how it “works”, it is that “science flies us to the moon, while religion flies planes into buildings.”

Matt makes a strong criticism of the response rooted in the idea that Dawkins credits science for flying to the moon, presumably because of the invention of sufficient propulsion technologies and the like, while renouncing the religious acts of terrorism that required similar technologies. In very brief summary, it was not the technology but the motivations that differentiated these two acts. Science supplied both those people dedicated to reaching the moon and the Muslim fundamentalists that killed nearly 3,000 people on 9/11/2001 what they needed to accomplish the tasks they set themselves to, but a host of other motivations and considerations governed what these people set out to do. These considerations have little to do with science. (read the post)

I wanted to add one other thing to the evaluation of Dawkins' claim. He is more wrong than is immediately obvious. Some may complain that he was merely telling a joke to score rhetorical points, but I have noticed Chritopher Hitchens likes to tell similar jokes in lieu of responding directly to arguments. As both Hitchens (who recruits every prominent deist throughout history as part of team atheism despite the fact that these are substantively different views) and Dawkins are eager to cast all negative human endeavors as symptomatic of religion's corruptive influence and claim every endeavor that required a scientific element as proof of the power of unrestrained science, it is helpful to offer corrections even to their jokes.

So did science get us to the moon? Of course. Did it do so alone? Of course not. It may surprise Mr. Dawkins that fear and distrust of atheism played its part in getting the United States to the moon.

As is pointed out in this 2009 article by NBC's space analyst James Oberg, it is a mistake to look at the pursuit of the moon as a grand endeavor rooted in proving what mankind can accomplish when we set our minds to it. This was no unfettered celebration of science culminating in a victorious and atheistic human romping on non-terrestrial soil for the first time ever. Understanding how we got to the moon, and subsequently why we have not gone back, requires putting the lunar landings into their proper Cold War context. He writes:

Three presidents, hundreds of members of Congress, and the government and private teams assigned to the project were afraid of the kind of world that would result if the United States did not succeed at the manned lunar landing.

This goal enjoyed support under three different Presidential administrations and continued to receive funding through yearly congressional votes. Imagine how hard that would be to accomplish today. I live in a county where the elected officials are so petty and self-absorbed that they cannot even leave a school schedule from the previous administration in place. When Presidents take office they immediately begin making Executive Orders to undo their predecessor's agenda. This says nothing of the incredible fights we see in the halls of Congress. So how did an expensive program like the Apollo missions enjoy enduring financial and popular support? Oberg offers one word, fear. Fear of what? He further writes:

If the Soviet Union could solidify its superiority in outer space, the symbol of the future, it would strengthen its influence on the hearts and minds and hopes of billions of people. The communist way of life would become a more attractive model for new nations.

Fear of the growing influence of the Soviet Union on the international stage drove the United States to pursue the moon in a way that could not be duplicated without that fear. It was a clash of our way of life and theirs, and we wanted our way of life to win. Important in how we drew out those distinctions was the idea that the Soviets were godless atheists who restricted freedom. It was not merely capitalism versus communism and the comparative merits of differing market schemes. There was a distinct sense that we were a Christian nation and that the battle with the Soviets was a conflict with our opposites. (In order to support this observation I offer this link to an article explaining how the atheist writer blames residual distrust of atheism held over from the Cold War on America's current distrust of atheists.)

For the purposes of this discussion, it does not matter if the fear was rational. All that matters is that it was real and a genuine psychological component of the Cold War. That is why President Reagan's use of words like “evil empire” resonated with a significant portion of our nation though it sent our more liberal press into apoplectic fit. These people believed in such things as right and wrong, moral and immoral, and Godly and godless. They faced the Cuban missile crisis, the war in Vietnam, the success of the Soviet space program, and a growing indiscriminate cultural assault on traditional values at home. (I say indiscriminate because as our nation addressed evils that needed to be expelled like the unequal treatment of black Americans under the law, other values that served us well came under similar attack e.g. sexual restraint) A sense of urgency existed during this time that included the constant threat of worldwide nuclear war and mutually assured destruction. As a child that grew up in the latter stages of the Cold War, I can well remember when all of the bad guys in movies seemed to be those godless Soviets (Rambo, Red Dawn, Rocky V, James Bond films, Stripes, etc.) We cheered the victories of the good guys over the bad Soviets, hearing stories about the evil Berlin Wall, and how people were arrested and thrown into Gulags for questioning their political leaders.

This anxiety, or fear as Mr. Oberg calls it, fueled the United States as it recklessly sought to do what seemed impossible. Being the first to the moon was important to us because it showed we could win. It sent the world a message about what culture, what system, and what people would endure these times and emerge victorious. That nation was the United States, one nation under God.

So when Richard Dawkins celebrates the victory for all mankind of reaching the moon, he needs to recognize that this feat was accomplished through the financial sacrifices and commitments of a people that sought to preserve a way of life that they deemed worth fighting for. An essential part of that way of life was the idea that we are all free beings endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights. It is difficult to imagine us overcoming the risk and actual loss of life combined with the incredible funding obstacles making it to the moon produced without that.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Marx, Lenin, and the Oldness of Hitchens's Atheism

While recently consulting Alister McGrath's Christian Theology for research on an article I came across the section detailing the gradual moving away from Christianity in Victorian England and Europe. The segment on the emergence of Karl Marx is titled “An intellectual rival to Christianity: Marxism” McGrath discusses Marx's belief that “humans make religion” in order to compensate for social and economic alienation that encourages “intoxication which renders the masses incapable of recognizing their situation, and doing something about it.” This is the basis of his famous declaration that religion is the opiate of the people.

Marx's beliefs have always seemed to me to be neither backed by any particular insight into the nature of God nor grounded in intellectual arguments against theism. They appear as outright dismissals that stem from his worldview and not arrived at independent of his economic and political agendas. Marx simply wishes to will God away with the assertion that contented people, presumably those basking in the glory of communism, would feel no spiritual desires at all. Satisfy the flesh and it will not invent the spirit.

Paul Johnson's appraisal of Marx in Chapter 3 of his book Intellectuals paints a picture that indicates this is consistent with Marx's work as a whole. He dismisses morality as “unscientific” and a regression against advancement that would possibly impede revolution. Notice he does not technically argue that morals are unreal but presumes their unreality because they cannot be empirically proven and might be inconvenient. This is terrible reasoning. As Jonathan Wolff of The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes, if Marx truly believed what he said it makes it hard to understand the grounding of his entire body of work. Why is capitalism wrong and communism better if such moral considerations are not real? In the absence of morality what constitutes injustice? Johnson quotes philosopher Karl Jaspers on Marx:

“The style of Marx writing is not that of the investigator... he does not quote examples or adduce facts that run counter to his own theory but only those which clearly support or confirm that which he considers the ultimate truth. The whole approach is one of vindication, not investigation, but it is a vindication of something proclaimed as the perfect truth with the conviction not of the scientist but of the believer.”

Johnson himself says that in relating the truth about facts, figures, and arguments Marx “can never be trusted.” Several contemporaries of Marx are quoted as saying that his views on all things, God included, were born more out of his desire for power than out of genuine philosophical and intellectual reflection. Johnson quotes anarchist Michael Bakunin, “Marx does not believe in God but he believes much in himself and makes everyone serve himself.” (In fairness, Bakunin does acknowledge that Marx seems to earnestly care about the proletariat in as much as a man as vain and fundamentally uncaring as Marx was capable.)

Karl Marx was a man of prodigious talents, but honest and objective metaphysical reflection was not among them. He was a polemicist of the first order and availed himself of the power of words as few others ever have. This all inescapably brought to mind one of my favorite contemporary polemicists, Christopher Hitchens.

Hitchens is one of the four horsemen of “The New Atheists” and, like Marx, is powerful with words in a manner that few can hold a candle to. I own a collection of his political essays and articles, his contributions to the online magazine The Slate are must reads, and I admit that I absolutely delight in listening to his commentary in interviews and debates as it relates to political history. So why does Marx bring Mr. Hitchens to my mind? As both McGrath and Johnson point out, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky took Marxism from the theoretical to the actual in the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 and the continued communist experiment was not without early supporters in the west including H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. One later true believer in the ideals of Trotsky and Lenin was a youthful and idealistic Christopher Hitchens.

In his book Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million, Hitchens's friend Martin Amis writes about their conversations concerning communism. Amis had lost his own communist sympathies early and admits that by the publication of volume one of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago in 1973 all doubts about the Soviet atrocities were coming to a close. He shares the details of what he characterizes as semi-serious debates in which Hitchens identifies himself as a Trotskyists (“only a Stalinist would have called us Trotskyites,” Hitchens joked) and sold copies of “the Socialist Worker on impoverished London high streets.” Hitchens characterized Lenin as “a great man” when asked about the differences between Stalinist Soviet Union and Hitler's Germany. Though he gave up on any hope of the actual socialism of the Soviet Union working, Amis says that Hitchens and others were holding to a hope that a return to the true revolutionary zeal of Trotsky remained possible. Hitchens himself has acknowledged that for more than a quarter of a century he admired and believed in the myth of the good Trotsky and the purity of the early revolution. (see here for a marvelous conversation with Peter Robinson and Robert Service) Amis goes on to say that he credits the fall of communism to freeing Hitchens from that lie and setting loose the fullness of Hitchens prodigious writing talents.

But when Hitchens thunders his invectives against religion and God accusing it of poisoning everything in the title of his book God is Not Great and dismisses debaters that believe in the virgin birth as being so irrational as to be incapable of being believed I hear the echoes of other atheist before him. Amis quotes Lenin to Gorky:

“Every religious idea, every idea of God... is unutterable vileness... of the most dangerous kind. Millions of sins, filthy deeds, acts of violence and physical contagions... are far less dangerous than the subtle, spiritual idea of God decked out in the smartest “ideological” costumes...”

Perhaps having loosed himself from so much that he once held dear, the remnant of the ungrounded atheism of the communist movement is all that is left. We are all of us stubborn in our own way and I have personally felt the pain of acknowledging that passionately held and long defended beliefs were in fact wrong. It is more than a mere stinging pride. I considered myself reasonable and being outspoken on a point and later proven wrong brought regret and embarrassment rooted in reflection on what I now see as poor behavior. It is a complex process moving from being stridently of one position to something new and the transition takes a tremendous emotional toll. Assuming the same is true of others, then I begin to possibly understand why someone who countenances none of what C.S. Lewis characterized as “stuff and nonsense” in his usual discourse provides such an anemic defense for his atheism.

For all the power of Hitchens prose and the swiftness of his considerable wit, Dr. William Lane Craig thoroughly demonstrated at Biola University that, to paraphrase Lincoln in a debate with Douglas, it will take a better answer than a sneer to dismiss God and religion. When faced with a debater that will not join in the polemical exchanges in which Mr. Hitchens excels and forced into discussing the academic arguments, Mr. Hithcens had little in the tank to impress. Yet the tone and nature of his arguments are thriving in the comment threads of blogs and news articles from people who claim to be intellectually evolved in the same declarative yet vacuous style. Like the other New Atheists, no amount of sunlight shined on the inadequacy of their particular arguments slows the pace of their impact in the halls of base arguing.

This is not to say that atheism is lacking reasonable defenders. It certainly is not. Men like Hitchens simply do not fill that role, and the atheism that Mr. Hitchens has to offer was seen and heard long before. He does not offer a novel view of religious belief, but seems to parrot some remnant of a larger belief that has begun to be consigned, using a phrase that Trotsky himself once coined, into the dustbin of history. His atheism is old and was once championed by people that had their chance to bring about a society built on those views of humanity and history and the world is far worse off as a result. Perhaps it is all that remains of his former passions which would explain why a man of such immense abilities shows no signs of ever relinquishing those views no matter how thoroughly he may be publicly defeated while defending his rationale. Whatever his atheism is, it is silly to continue to label it as new.

(By way of disclosure, I contribute to Reasonable Faith's ministry through addressing e-mails pertaining to sanctity of life issues and consider Dr. Craig a friend. My evaluation of the debate was shared by everyone that I have read with any credibility including several atheist bloggers and commentators)