Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Still reelin' in the years...

Prior Aelred sent me this some time ago, but I haven't had a chance to address it until now. For some reason I had forgotten Richard Dawkins' connection to "selfish gene" theory, and I also thought that the "selfish gene" idea had found its Wittgenstein, and already been as discredited as thoroughly as Wittgenstein and Godel discredited logical positivism.

Obviously, I was wrong.

I worked out a fairly coherent argument against the "selfish gene" theory when I first heard of it, and seem to remember reading most of my points among criticisms of the idea, which is why, I think, I considered it a dead issue. It is, by and large, premised on a reductio ad absurdum not too different from Daniel Dennett's approach to religion, and since they keep company it is tempting simply to drag out my tar brush and proclaim guilt by association. It would be easier than resurrecting a tedious argument of insidious intent, and besides, Dennett is as poor a philosopher, in my humble opinion, as I am a poor musician. I say that partly because of what I've said before (here and here); partly because I've skimmed Dennett's book (Breaking the Spell) and find it very weakly reasoned (and very clearly written for a popular audience, which is not a back-handed brief for academic philosophers, but technical language serves a purpose of clarity and Dennett's more "accessible" prose masks a number of unsubstantiated assumptions and a great deal of sloppy reasoning); and partly because I agree with Michael Ruse:

Even more reckless, Ruse put on the net an email exchange between himself and Dennett in which he accused his adversary of being an "absolute disaster" and of refusing to study Christianity seriously: "It is just plain silly and grotesquely immoral to claim that Christianity is simply a force for evil." Dennett's reply was an opaque one line: "I doubt you mean all the things you say."
That opaque line, by the way, is fairly consistent with Dennett's method of "argument" in his latest book. Ruse's critique is an argument I've made myself, many times. Most critics of Christianity don't have the passing acquaintance with it a teenager acquires from sitting stolidly in a pew for the first 18 years of life, and yet they proclaim their expertise in their superiority to that about which they know next to nothing. My critiques of science come from my study of it, not from my blank ignorance. It is that ignorance of the subject that makes critics of religion like Dennett and Dawkins little different from the fundamentalist Christians who blast science even as they remain clearly ignorant of scientific reasoning.

Madeline Bunting's argument, by the way, is a bit bizarre itself, which perhaps reflects the difficulty we still have with squeezing religion into a box small enough that we can dismiss it easily. If, indeed, "religion has outrun its evolutionary advantage," (if, indeed, religion is all about providing "evolutionary advantage), then it will wither away on its own, not via the battering of intellectuals. Indeed, it is the reaction to such battering that produced American fundamentalism. And a similarly dismissive attitude toward religion has fueled radical Islam in certain parts of the world. Wittgenstein's observation that we are simply talking about different things, not the same things in different terms, is still the most valuable one. We don't, in other words, need to "demythologize" religion; we need to set aside the claims of "reality" v. "mythology."

In most religious circles, we simply call that "ecumenism" and "tolerance."

"The things that pass for knowledge I don't understand."

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