Towards A Good Samaritan World

Friday, January 26, 2007


Another dismissive, contemptuous review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. (Hat tip: Brothers Judd.)

Until recently, western atheism had waited patiently, believing that belief in God would simply die out. But now, a whiff of panic is evident. Far from dying out, belief in God has rebounded, and seems set to exercise still greater influence in both the public and private spheres. The God Delusion expresses this deep anxiety, partly reflecting an intense distaste for religion. Yet there is something deeper here, often overlooked in the heat of debate. The anxiety is that the coherence of atheism itself is at stake. Might the unexpected resurgence of religion persuade many that atheism itself is fatally flawed as a worldview?

That's what Dawkins is worried about. The shrill, aggressive rhetoric of his God Delusion masks a deep insecurity about the public credibility of atheism. The God Delusion seems more designed to reassure atheists whose faith is faltering than to engage fairly or rigorously with religious believers, and others seeking for truth. (Might this be because the writer is himself an atheist whose faith is faltering?) Religious believers will be dismayed by its ritual stereotyping of religion, and will find its manifest lack of fairness a significant disincentive to take its arguments and concerns seriously. Seekers after truth who would not consider themselves religious may also find themselves shocked by Dawkins' aggressive rhetoric, his substitution of personal creedal statements for objective engagement with evidence, his hectoring and bullying tone towards "dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads," and his utter determination to find nothing but fault with religion of any kind...

Space is limited, so let's look his two core arguments -- that religion can be explained away on scientific grounds, and that religion leads to violence. Dawkins dogmatically insists that religious belief is "blind trust," which refuses to take due account of evidence, or subject itself to examination. So why do people believe in God, when there is no God to believe in? For Dawkins, religion is simply the accidental and unnecessary outcome of biological or psychological processes. His arguments for this bold assertion are actually quite weak, and rest on an astonishingly superficial engagement with scientific studies.

For example, consider this important argument in The God Delusion. Since belief in God is utterly irrational (one of Dawkins' core beliefs, by the way), there has to be some biological or psychological way of explaining why so many people -- in fact, by far the greater part of the world's population -- fall victim to such a delusion. One of the explanations that Dawkins offers is that believing in God is like being infected with a contagious virus, which spreads throughout entire populations. Yet the analogy -- belief in God is like a virus -- seems to then assume ontological substance. Belief in God is a virus of the mind. Yet biological viruses are not merely hypothesized; they can be identified, observed, and their structure and mode of operation determined. Yet this hypothetical "virus of the mind" is an essentially polemical construction, devised to discredit ideas that Dawkins does not like.

So are all ideas viruses of the mind? Dawkins draws an absolute distinction between rational, scientific and evidence-based ideas, and spurious, irrational notions -- such as religious beliefs. The latter, not the former, count as mental viruses. But who decides what is "rational" and "scientific"? Dawkins does not see this as a problem, believing that he can easily categorize such ideas, separating the sheep from the goats.

Except it all turns out to be horribly complicated, losing the simplicity and elegance that marks a great idea. For instance, every worldview -- religious or secular -- ends up falling into the category of "belief systems," precisely because it cannot be proved. That is simply the nature of worldviews, and everyone knows it. It prevents nobody from holding a worldview in the first place, and doing so with complete intellectual integrity in the second. In the end, Dawkins' idea simply implodes, falling victim to his own subjective judgement of what is rational and true. It's not an idea that is taken seriously within the scientific community, and can safely be disregarded.

The flaw in atheism-- or, more specifically, physicalist reductionism-- is that it consists at its heart of a groundless ontological claim: that nothing exists but "force and matter," matter and energy, stuff intelligible by physics. God, souls, ideas, thoughts, are all either denied or asserted to be reducible to a physicalist basis. This ontological claim is not usually justified, and how could it be? It is awfully hard to prove a negative, to prove the non-existence of something.

The best reason that can be offered is Ockham's razor, but there are two problems with this. First, Ockham's razor isn't very strong, it's just a sort of rule of thumb. Just because Mr. Plum, with the wrench, in the drawing room, is the simplest explanation of Mr. Boddy's murder doesn't necessarily mean that's what actually happened. Second, in order for the simplest explanation to be preferred to more complex ones, it has to be an explanation. But nothing like a complete physical-reductionist explanation of our world and experiences has been offered. That is, rather, promised as something that science will eventually achieve.

At this point, it's clear that the physical-reductionists are nothing but "faith-heads."


  • As you point out, it's hard to prove a negative. Thus, one shouldn't bother - if one wants to oppose a negative claim, then one cannot just say the negative is unproven. The only true counter is to make a positive claim "X exists" and back it up with some sort of evidence.

    That said, methodological considerations justify a priori physicalist assumptions without being in themselves sufficient basis to dismiss all positive claims to the contrary. If you want to say soulstuff exists, I can't dismiss it because physicalism doesn't allow for it. Instead, I have to attack your evidence for its existence.

    Incidentally, from a certain perspective there are many physicalists (Dennett is one) who reject reduction as a comprehensive explanation of certain veridical phenomena. See Matthew Elton's explication here.

    By Blogger Nato, at 11:13 AM  

  • By the way, I think it only fair to respond to the ad-hominem - nay, call them exegetical - portions of the Oxford theologan's introduction in which he discusses the putative desperation of modern atheists (the ranks of which do not seem to be dwindling to me) by pointing out that if religion is really as preposterous and unfortunate as Dawkins thinks, then the history of theology is really just the study of a mistaken phase, like pre-heliocentric astronomy.

    Of course, I think there's plenty of grounds for dispute of both Dawkins' account of religion (hackneyed) and his understanding of the conceptual status of memes. He wrote the foreward of Susan Blackmore's Meme Machine but has never really seemed to update the language of his discussions of memes to reflect the deeper discussion pursued within the book. I haven't read his "God Delusion" because I think it's probably a self-congratulatory waste of time, but the excerpts I've seen have either left out important caveats or the guy is too focused on polemics to craft a useful argument on the topic.

    By Blogger Nato, at 11:28 AM  

  • The evidence that souls exist is simple: our psychic experience. "I think, therefore I am." I experience thought, mood, ideas, beauty, subjectivity. I call this web of phenomena "my soul." On the basis of a sort of induction-- other people have bodies like mine and resemble the external part of myself, therefore I assume that they are inwardly similar as well-- I postulate the existence of other souls similar to mine, and go from there.

    How would you "attack the evidence" for the existence of (non-physicalist) souls? Presumably, you would offer an alternative explanation of the phenomena that lead me to believe in souls. If you succeeded in this, you would be in a position to offer a fairly persuasive albeit not rigorously compelling Ockham's razor-style argument.

    But you won't succeed in this. No one credibly claims that the soul has been rigorously and exhaustively explained in physicalist fashion. Well, I guess Daniel Dennett has a book called Consciousness Explained, which I haven't read. Anyway, whatever arguments are made in that book are not sufficiently mainstream-ed that anyone is entitled to take for granted that they are valid and sufficient to render supernatural souls unnecessary for a complete picture of the world.

    Physicalist reductionism is based on a form of meta-induction: because the physical sciences have in the past been able to reduce diverse and unpredictable things and phenomena to a smaller and more deterministic things and phenomena, everything will eventually be reduced to a physicalist basis.

    The alternative is to accept, at least provisionally, a sort of fundamental ontological pluralism, something like this:

    The world has lots of different kinds of things in it, including: souls, thoughts, ideas, emotions, beauty and ugliness, good and bad, sensory impressions, and patterns in sensory impressions that we reify as "physical objects," "forces," "energy," etc. While some of the things we encounter in experience are reducible to others-- water, for example, is reducible to hydrogen and oxygen-- there is no reason to think that any of these broad categories is reducible to any other. Ontological diversity is thhe most natural explanation of the world, and we have no grounds for substituting any other.

    By Blogger Nathanael, at 11:39 AM  

  • Notes:
    "Not rigorously compelling": It doesn't need to entail the truth of monism to allow it to return to methodological supremacy. I will not attempt to prove that negative.

    "Consciousness Explained": The title refers more to what counts as a coherent explanation of consciousness than the truth of the specific proposals. The book is an attempt - largely successful - to redefine the terms of the discussion than to reach a conclusion. A good thing too, since later empirical findings have by no means shown its hypotheses to be all true. Thus it is a philosophical success without being a scientific one.

    "Ontological diversity is thhe most natural explanation of the world, and we have no grounds for substituting any other."

    Natural in what way? It would seem that it's natural to find a way to tie off the trail in infinitely regressing explanation by assigning things their own irreducable, inexplicable essence. This is not explanation but merely the subdual of the will to explain.

    Further, there are excellent grounds for attempting to reduce ontological diversity: it simplifies answers and increases explanatory power. A proliferation of specific rules shrinks into a single equation (or whatever). If you aren't trying for something like that, then you're perhaps not attempting to "explain" in the scientific sense of the term.

    Of course, if monism is false, then it's false, and so explanations will always have more than one bottom level of description. Granted the quasi-middle-ground outlined in Dennett's discussion of "real patterns," of course.

    By Blogger Nato, at 12:03 PM  

  • re: "Further, there are excellent grounds for attempting to reduce ontological diversity: it simplifies answers and increases explanatory power. A proliferation of specific rules shrinks into a single equation (or whatever). If you aren't trying for something like that, then you're perhaps not attempting to 'explain' in the scientific sense of the term."

    Well, yes: "the scientific sense of the term" "explain" is a loaded one with built-in physicalist reductionism, and having no grounds to believe in the truth of physicalist reductionism, I am no doubt less motivated to pursue a form of "explanation" which I see as a fool's errand.

    But I think here it's worth introducing a distinction between two cognitive processes: observation and explanation. Although they are complementary in the general advance of knowledge, they are opposites in one sense: observation expands the explicandum, while explanation reduces it. Someone who is keen to explain everything has an incentive not to be a keen observer.

    Relative to a figure like Dawkins, my emphasis is on observation rather than on explanation.

    It occurs to me to add a word to my previous conclusion that will perhaps clarify: Pluralism is the most natural, impressionistic ontology of the world.

    By Blogger Nathanael, at 1:40 PM  

  • You must mean that those who are keen to pretend that they have explained everything have an incentive against being impartial and comprehensive observers. Certainly we've seen scientists commit this sin-of-omission before. That said, the remedy is fairly straightforward: bring the omitted phenomena to the fore to test the power of the proffered explanation.

    Now, if you feel that science's methodological aversion to the proliferation of inscrutable essences is foolish, then I wonder what wiser alternative we are left.

    It's fine with me to claim that we must make a separate essential category for mind/soul stuff which will never reduce to physical processes. That doesn't disqualify scientific methodology - it just means that all attempts to unify the two will fail, and a separate (from physics) system of equasions and descriptors will always constitute the most powerful explanatory theories of mind/soul stuff. Really, would an "explanation" that each person's soul behaves categorically differently way than everyone else's, following none of the same rules really count as a useful explanation of anything? Maybe it's true and some things are just fundamentally inexplicable - mysterious - but labling something inexplicable is merely a more obvious way of squelching the will to explain.

    Is that really the thread here? Is the desire for explanation foolish or impoverishing?

    By Blogger Nato, at 1:31 AM  

  • re: "You must mean that those who are keen to pretend that they have explained everything have an incentive against being impartial and comprehensive observers. Certainly we've seen scientists commit this sin-of-omission before. That said, the remedy is fairly straightforward: bring the omitted phenomena to the fore to test the power of the proffered explanation."

    The distinction between physical and mental phenomena becomes important here. Again, the physical world is "the streets," accessible to everyone; the realm of mental experience is "the rooms": private. No one else can observe my mental experience, except indirectly, through what I tell them about it.

    Consequently, if there is a physical phenomenon which contradicts a scientist's theory, he may ignore it, but ultimately this phenomenon is a public fact which cannot be hidden. But if some fact of mental experience contradicts a scientist's theory-- if I tell him: No, I don't sexually desire my mother and view my father as a rival; or; I know that I have free will and choice, and since this experience is more fundamental than sensory experience that natural sciences work from-- he is not under the same compulsion to acknowledge it. Likewise if I tell him: My desires are not reducible to food, comfort and sex, or to the will to survive and reproduce; I yearn for beauty, I want to live justly, I care about the opinions even of the dead, I love aspects of Creation-- waterfalls, towering mountains, great beasts like eagles, wolves, lions, and bears-- that are of no use to me and were dangerous to my ancestors, I want to worship God.

    When it comes to the mind, the scientist has much more freedom to reject observations that expand the explicandum in ways that are unwelcome to his theory. More likely, he will come up with "error theories" to explain a widespread impression that there is-- objectively-- such a thing as ethics, or beauty. In a way, it makes no difference how absurd the error theory is, as long as it predicts that it will not be recognized by most people as true. Thus, ethics must be "socialized" in such a way that people will believe ethics consists of permanent, objective truths-- an error theory that is lent plausibility because it is, indeed, a half-truth about people's ethical attitudes. In the case of vaguer and rarer expressions, such as holiness, it is almost superfluous to come up with error theories: a person who begins thinking in physicalist terms will probably not encounter the experience of holiness.

    Although the mental realm is "private" in a way that the physical is not, we can communicate with each other, empathize, "explain." Here the word refers, not to the reduction of complex "equations" to simpler ones, but to the skilful use of words to trigger associations in other minds that will parallel our own and inspire understanding. People vary in their capacity to "explain" inward experience: to do so with great virtuosity is the distinguishing characteristic of a great poet or novelist, or (in a different way) a priest, or prophet.

    But to be receptive to this kind of explanation requires what is sometimes called an "open mind." You must apply your imagination, "put yourself in the other person's shoes," and at the same time be aware that this often leads you astray. You must sometimes allow a part of what is said to remain opaque, and wait for your own experiences or trains of thought to shed light on it. You must not be in a hurry to explain in the other sense, that of fully comprehending and persuading yourself that you have "understood." If you do, you may become obtuse.

    The scientific method, which hypothesizes boldly and holds onto its theories until they encounter a definite, undeniable counter-proof, is an excellent tool for expanding knowledge in those areas where our observation-derived explicandum is extremely rich and "public," as in chemistry, physics, and biology (not including evolutionary biology). Where the explicandum is sparse (natural history/evolution), or "private" ("human sciences") the scientific method will lead to unwarranted dogmatism and reductionism.

    By Blogger Nathanael, at 8:10 AM  

  • The evidence of biological history is sparse?

    By Blogger Nato, at 8:28 AM  

  • If the information in your inner world is so private and unavailable to the public, not to mention as you say it's fundamentally non-physical, then how come it is possible to physically connect electrodes into your brain, and by use of a complex decoding program performed by a physical computer, the images in your mind's eye can be broadcast on a physical computer monitor for all to see?

    How come NASA has had success with a program to decode and transmit spoken words from the brain of individual who have only thought the worlds, not yet spoken them?

    And other such direct brain-computer interfaces. We know computers are physical, if the brain is not, then how can the two grok via a purely physical interface?

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