Saturday, January 24, 2015

Delusions of Godhood...again

I can be fairly accused of worrying too much about the ignorance of Richard Dawkins, but Thought Criminal sends me in search of Marilyn Robinson's review of The God Delusion.  The original is behind a paywall, so I have to link to a pirated version.  I promise to take only a few bites:

The odd thing about Dawkins’s work, considering his job description, is that it does not itself seem the product of a mind informed by the physics of the last century or so. A reader might find it instructive to start with his last chapter, in which he does acknowledge the fact of quantum theory and certain of its implications. This chapter is an interesting lens through which to consider the primary argument of the book, especially his use of physicality and materiality as standards for determining the real and objective existence of anything, along with his use of commonplace experience as the standard of reasonableness and — a favorite word — probability. He does this despite his awareness that the physical and the material are artifacts of the scale at which reality is perceived. For us, he says, “matter is a useful construct.” Quoting Steve Grand, a computer scientist who specializes in artificial intelligence, he offers these thoughts on the fluidity of matter: “Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made. If that doesn’t make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, read it again until it does, because it is important.” Earlier, Dawkins attributes the origins of the illusion that we have a soul to the persistence of a childish or primitive tendency toward dualism — “Our innate dualism prepares us to believe in a ’soul’ which inhabits the body rather than being integrally part of the body. Such a disembodied spirit can easily be imagined to move on somewhere else after the death of the body.” Yet the image of deeper reality invoked by him here suggests a basis for the ancient intuition of the persistence of the self despite the transiency of the elements of its physical embodiment.

I do not wish to recruit science to the cause of religion. My point is simply that Dawkins’s critique of religion cannot properly be called scientific. His thinking is reminiscent of logical positivism. That school, however, which meant to carry out a purge of language it considered meaningless, specifically metaphysics and theology, by subjecting statements to the “scientific” test of verifiability, plunged into all sorts of interesting difficulty, as rigorous thought tends to do. Dawkins acknowledges no difficulty. He has a simple-as-that, plain-as-day approach to the grandest questions, unencumbered by doubt, consistency, or countervailing information.

I don't disagree with Robinson's point, but there is nothing innate about dualism.  It is a Platonic concept, and rather peculiar to Western thought.  Perpetuated by the Church (as was Aristotle, who wouldn't have been keen on it.  When Aquinas folded "the Philosopher" into Catholic doctrine, he was writing at a level beyond the ken of almost everyone else in the Church at the time.  So much for "liberal" Christianity and the "true" Christianity found only among the people), it found renewed expression in Descartes' ventures into philosophy.  But Descartes' dualism was later derided as the "ghost in the machine."  Because dualism is not innate, it is cultural and philosophical. Language can be fairly said to be innate; we do seem to have, in Stephen Pinker's words, a "language instinct."  Dualism is a cultural artifact.

This isn't that hard to learn about.  Critiques of dualism are not new, and they aren't arcane.  Dawkins teaches at Oxford.  And yet he's completely clueless on the subject that is his current claim to fame.  Too bad I can't get tenure so I can spout nonsense and make money on it.  P.T. Barnum was right.

“There is something breathtakingly condescending, as well as inhumane, about the sacrificing of anyone, especially children, on the altar of ‘diversity’ and the virtue of preserving a variety of religious traditions. The rest of us are happy with our cars and computers, our vaccines and antibiotics. But you quaint little people with your bonnets and breeches, your horse buggies, your archaic dialect and your earth-closet privies, you enrich our lives. Of course you must be allowed to trap your children with you in your seventeenth-century time warp, otherwise something irretrievable would be lost to us: a part of the wonderful diversity of human culture.”

Dawkins is writing there of the Amish.   Robinson precedes that quote with a paragraph about Dawkins' apparent ignorance of "the history of modern authoritarianism."  Really, for an Oxford professor, Dawkins seems singularly uninterested in the subjects he writes about.  It isn't really hard to find out the Amish give their children the choice of staying in the community, or leaving.  They prefer members of their community stay voluntarily, not by force.  It may not be a choice you want to make, but it is one freely made by the children themselves (as free as any choice is made).  If Dawkins had a child would he begrudge the child's decision to, say, take monastic orders?  Again, these things aren't hard to find out, or too complicated to consider from more than one point of view; but it is all clearly beneath the research efforts of an Oxford don.

Call it breathtaking condescension, if you will.


  1. I read somewhere that many of the professors at Oxford were opposed to him being named to that chair the computer jillionaire, Charles Simonyi, established at Oxford because Simonyi stipulated that it would go to Dawkins (if, as rumor has it that Dawkins put him up to creating it for him, I can't attest to) and so Dawkins wasn't officially an Oxford professor because that requires the participation of the faculty.

    He is remarkably uninterested in even the most basic level of responsibility for a scholar to have actually put some scholarly effort into researching topics he writes about. I'm still amazed he was able to pass off his "first bird to cry out" tripe which is incompatible with mathematics, Darwinian theory and, arguably, the physics of the speed of light and sound. Not to mention it's based on his writing desk imagination instead of actual observation of birds in nature. Yet it's part of the common received "knowledge" that is current among both totally ignorant sci-rangers and, I'll bet, those who teach science at our most august institutions.

  2. That would explain why he's at Oxford at all. Frankly, the more familiar I am with his thought, the more I wonder who he bribed to get a job.

    The man is ignorant in both science and philosophy/religion. He's a stupid man's idea of a smart person, through and through. He even revels in his ignorance.

    I'll retire to Bedlam.....

  3. I've talked to, if memory serves me well, a couple of university level biology instructors and one geneticist who have said he's laughably ignorant of current developments in the field, not to mention such people as Richard Lewontin who has noted his concept of evolutionary genetics ignores the last half-century of development in that field, the one he's supposed to be an expert in.

    I knew that, contrary to the romantic view of science that it is as open to all, and I do mean all of the vices of any academic or intellectual field before looking hard at the Sociobiology - evo psy junk - there is Max Plancks remark about progress in science being measured in funerals instead of publication - but I didn't realize how truly apt they were to violate even their most basic pretenses of rigor until looking into Dawkins.

    One of the biology faculty, I believe an instructor who was waiting for someone to retire before becoming a professor at the time, was the one who answered my question, "Who's P.Z. Myers". Just to show you what a mover and shaker he is not.

  4. Never heard of Rumspringa, either.

  5. "He has a simple-as-that, plain-as-day approach to the grandest questions, unencumbered by doubt, consistency, or countervailing information."

    In short, he's a Fundamentalist.

    Going after the Amish, is he? Talk about using a bazooka to attack...a butterfly. [Yes, SOME Amish have some of the same cultish Fundamentalisms as other cultish Fundamentisms. Including those @ Oxford. >:-/ ]