*

27.10.06

Is there a Dogg?

Richard Dawkins attempts to disprove the existence of God. Lotsa luck, Dick. Cause, y'know, 2.500 years of philosophy hasn't completely disproven the possibility of doing that.

(Hmm. I wrote the first bit, and then I got into a really long-winded argument with myself. My argument doesn't really think highly of luxuries like "coherence" or "structure", but I spent 45 minutes writing it, so I might just as well put it out there. Maybe I'll edit it tomorrow.)

OK, so he's not trying to disprove the existence of God, but he's trying to show how improbable that existence is, and for the record, I think what Dawkins is doing here is unproductive, silly and actually a little dangerous. Contrary to what you might think, I'm not particularly fond of his position, and I am very disappointed in the recent solidification of both religious fundamentalism and what is called "hard" or "strong" atheism (other words for it: "muscular" atheism, "manly" atheism, "tall dark and handsome" atheism, etc.) which is to say active disbelief in God or deities, or active attempts to disprove the existence of God. I'm personally not religious, and inhabit the nebulous borderlands between weak atheism and agnosticism. Nonetheless, I have always been skeptical of both sides of the margins of uncertainty. I remain skeptical of religious certainty just as I remain skeptical of anti-religious, secular certainty of any kind. Just because an idea happens to fit with the way we have decided the world works, doesn't mean we shouldn't be skeptical when someone actively opposes a belief system, particularly when this belief system is attached to a massive, world-wide culture.

When it comes to Dawkins, I simply cannot believe that such an obviously intelligent man could write this pseudo-philosophical dreck. Along the way in this article he makes some minor errors of logic, some major errors of epistemology and some gargantuan fallacies. This not only further muddies a debate in which there are very few actually rational voices, and quite a few people with enormous, irrational anger and emotion (because the idea is tied to key points of their own identity) invested in arguing down the opposing side.

Dawkin's first paragraph is at the same time the essay's most interesting and most flawed part. It is an attempt to attack Christianity by attacking a straw-man Christianity which happens to contain everything we don't like about Christians, and this is the first and biggest problem which continues to run through the essay. As I have argued previously about Islam, Christianity is not a monolithic entity. It is big and extraordinarily complex thing. We can easily find examples of Christians doing bad things in the name of Christianity, but this does not mean that Christianity as an idea is wrong for all cases of the world, just as it does not mean that money is wrong because we pay hired killers with it, or that being white is morally wrong because somebody kills other people for the supremacy of the white "race".

In short, Dawkins has the wrong end of the argument here. He is arguing against Christianity, when what he really wants to attack is the political results of what we may now come to call Political Christianity. These results, available in the foreign affairs section of any major newspaper in the world, are terrible. I think I am probably equally opposed to the political results as what I think Dawkins is. But there is great difference in attacking a belief system and attacking the political results of that belief system. If only, say, 5% of Christians caused political problems, would it still be right to attack Christianity? Put another way, is it just to be against Hutus just because Hutus committed the genocide in Rwanda because of a perception of race? Isn't it more interesting to look at what people do, instead of what they think?


* * *

When Dawkins finishes his essay by saying that
We explain our existence by a combination of the anthropic principle and Darwin's principle of natural selection. That combination provides a complete and deeply satisfying explanation for everything that we see and know. Not only is the god hypothesis unnecessary. It is spectacularly unparsimonious. Not only do we need no God to explain the universe and life. God stands out in the universe as the most glaring of all superfluous sore thumbs. We cannot, of course, disprove God, just as we can't disprove Thor, fairies, leprechauns and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But, like those other fantasies that we can't disprove, we can say that God is very very improbable.
...he is, of course, entirely right. If we learn anything from 3000 years of science and philosophy it is that we can't prove anything about the existence of God, and that we are in fact, after all this time, completely in the dark. He - that's a capital H - remains a leap of faith, and science remains the best way of describing the physical workings of the world. And yet, I find that this paragraph dumbs down the message in the remainder of the essay, which is: Christianity is dumb and an unenlightened position. And Dawkins is right, but not for the reasons he thinks he is right.

Dawkins is not right because he is right, he is right because he is centered in our scientific paradigm. What he is actually saying is "improbable... according to our current understanding of how the world works." And here is my problem with this argument: there is, in fact, great arrogance in taking this to mean that this is a morally superior position, because that is what he is arguing (an arrogance which is reflected, I think, in the sub-heading of his blog: "A Clear-Thinking Oasis").

This is where I believe Dawkins really goes off the rails. He believes that just because we have a way of thinking which historically is very new, but which seems to bear him out, he takes this to mean that other belief systems are wrong in something approaching an absolute sense. This is problematic, because statements and theories are only models which we use to predict and engage with the world. In fact, to any scientific statement that Dawkins would care to make, I would be able to reply: "that is, in fact, very, very improbable". Science is always "just" language, and we all know the many ways that language cna tpri yuo pu.

Also, we shouldn't forget - while we are busy undermining science - that it is extremely possible that the universe has a finite or infinite number of non-discernible phenomena contained within it. But we can't know. Nor should we ignore the possibility of the problem described by Tom Stoppard (paraphrasing Wittgenstein, I think), in Dogg's Hamlet, where two workmen are building a house together, using two different languages containing the same words, and where the differences do not matter, because both meanings lead to the construction of a house, so the workmen never realise they are speaking two different languages. Our linguistic construction may not correspond, in this sense, to the real world, but it could work. Who is to know whether or not gravity is something real, or just something which happens to describe something that happens in any given situation adequately?

(That last paragraph didn't really belong anywhere, I just felt like putting it in there somewhere since I'd written it)

* * *

Later on in his essay, Dawkins gives an excellent account of in what ways a universe without a God differs from one with a God, and in the process explains some quite wonderful things about how life got started. What he suggests might be the proper explanation for religion: the rational mind trying to understand how something as contrary to everything that helps it to survive - the ability to predict, of probability, of likely outcomes - must be the necessary precondition for its own existence. But then again, it might not. Dawkins, scientific-minded that he is, should be able to see that one sensible explanation for what he calls the ramp up to the complex, evolved organism (which, incidentally, is hysterically unlikely, as he admits) can be a God.

God is a perfectly possible, perfectly elegant and reasonable solution (btw, who says solutions have to be elegant and reasonable? These are aesthetic demands, and the universe might not follow them. It could easily be unreasonable or inelegant or quite silly) to the problem of the unlikeliness of human existence. As Dawkins should know, "because here we are" doesn't quite cut it on Occam's Razor. God may just be twiddling with knobs and turning levers in some metaphysical boiler room somewhere. We never know. We're defined by the fact that we can't know. And that's one of the big locked rooms in the house of experience. Me and Dawkins both happen to think that the room is empty, but I think he's foolish in insisting so loudly that he can predict what's on the other side of a locked door.

8 Comments:

Anonymous S said...

If you want people to comment your posts you shouldn't write things that are so easy to agree with. Except it worked now. Won't again, mind you. No way. Never.

October 27, 2006 9:36 pm  
Blogger MGL said...

Hee hee.

But, dude, that's like the most controversial thing I've written in years.

October 28, 2006 3:19 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n20/eagl01_.html

October 29, 2006 12:33 pm  
Anonymous tony soprano said...

putter du ikke et ganske sterkt sannhetsbegrep på det dawkins sier her da? ut ifra det du siterer fra han, er det vanskelig å se at han opererer annet enn pragmatisk.
det kan virke som han egentlig er enig i og allerede har sagt alt du sier,men at dette ikke kommer fram fordi han fortolkes som en som "taler sannhet". men da er han jo innenfor et sannhetsparadigme, som jo virkelig er typisk kristent, og som han da grunnleggende epistemologisk sett ikke aksepterer gitt sin pragmatiske holdning.

October 29, 2006 1:26 pm  
Blogger MGL said...

Anonymous: Thanks! What an excellent critique. Terry Eagleton writes so well. Based on what he says here, my critique of the essay extends to the rest of the book.

Tony: Nei, tvert imot. Jeg er irritert på Dawkins fordi han vet bedre. Fordi han burde, som en god vitenskapsmann, ha forstått en del ting om hvordan epistemiske utsagn og vitenskapen fungerer. Min kritikk, selv om den er litt løs, har tre punkter:

1) Dawkins bruker sitt eget paradigme til å forklare noe som ligger utenfor det paradigmet, og det mener jeg er ekstremt uinteressant. Som å bruke litteraturvitenskapelige begreper til å forklare hvorfor lys både er partikkel og bølge. Man kan vel faktisk gjøre det, men det er ikke spesielt interessant eller nyttig i noen forstand.

2) Dawkins bruker en stråmannskristendom (noe Eagleton i URLen over er ganske tydelig på) til å komme med stråmannsargumenter som fremhever det vitenskapelige paradigmet på en nesten fundamentalistisk måte, uten å akseptere de epistemologiske problemene som ligger i bunnen av all vitenskapelig undersøkelse, og i øvrig (som jeg prøver å påpeke over) faktisk gjør det helt umulig å undersøke Gudsbegrepet med rasjonell vitenskap.

3) Han prøver å angripe et politisk problem med en ideologisk kritikk som er upresis og rammer ufattelig mange som den ikke angår. Man blir ikke kvitt Bush ved å prøve å angripe kristendommen. Det er rett og slett for enkelt. Gud kan være så mangt, og ateisme og rasjonalitet likeså.

October 30, 2006 2:14 pm  
Blogger haiku cafe said...

BIG WHEEL BLUES [CHRYSALIS OF ALL SOULS WALTZ]

p-pa
Ra
dimes


Dawkins (we went to Oxbridge together--Mr Nice was in the same debating group as what we was) earns good pay in his selected niche--all power to his tennis elbow.

BUT.. We all need our cargo cults (for example, my mate M. regards new forms of experimental ideation as insane--an old Gulag chestnut that one--and thus avoids an issue).

It would seem to us that there is only one question to answer (for these mysteries are, obviously, intrinsically insoluble in limited [THE BOX] dialectic consciousness)

What is this archetypal query?

it may be this dear reader..

IS THE GESTALT OF THE COMPLEXITY--BENCHMARKED AGAINST NOTHING[ness?]--SELF-AWARE AND PURPOSEFUL?

Hologram
reflect ions
mirrors


, Faith, of course, is mechanically thermostatic and not helpful in this debate..

..or, i-is IT?

who cares really? we play our favourite tunes on our reality-filter i-pods

and

drift

a

God bless 'im:)

October 30, 2006 4:08 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

faery snuff

October 30, 2006 7:32 pm  
Blogger Gaute said...

This changes everything.

November 13, 2006 6:45 pm  

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