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.

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