Another hack at a dead horse

Oh for fuck’s _sake_ “Dawkins!”:http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article1779771.ece

bq. “If, as one self-consciously intellectual critic wished, I had expounded the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus, Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope (as he vainly hoped I would), my book would have been more than a surprise bestseller, it would have been a miracle. I would happily have forgone bestsellerdom had there been the slightest hope of Duns Scotus illuminating my central question: does God exist?”

Let’s just transpose this defence of ignorance and bad faith into another key. Phillip Johnson writes a book denouncing Darwinism,. It is objected that none of his examples actually reflect what real scientists believe about the workings of natural selection and evolution. He replies

bq. “If, as one self-consciously intellectual critic wished, I had expounded the epistemological differences between Stephen Jay Gould and and Simon Conway Morris, Ernst Mayr on biodiversity or W.D. Hamilton on parasites (as he vainly hoped I would), my book would have been more than a surprise bestseller, it would have been a miracle. I would happily have forgone bestsellerdom had there been the slightest hope of Simon Conway Morris illuminating my central question: is Darwinism true?”

Such a reply would quite rightly be shredded by anyone who cared about truth or science. Of course most people who think they know about DNA or evolution will be wrong. You need only glance at the newspapers to understand that. Indeed there’s a nice example, already, in the comments to Dawkins’ piece, where some fundie is claiming %(loony)”it is a basic law of biology that ‘life comes from life’.”% But that sort of ignorance doesn’t alter the truth of evolution for a moment. It’s just that if you want to find out what evolution might really be and how it happens, you have to ask biologists.

Similarly, the overwhelming majority of claims about god’s possible nature are going to be ludicrous, wrong, and all the rest of it. But if you want to find out what might be true, you’re going to have to talk to the people smart enough to understand the questions involved. They may still be wrong. But they will be wrong in different, more interesting way, which is harder to dismiss. And if — god save the mark! — you actually believed in the power of reason to change the world, that is the discussion that might stand a chance of changing it, a little.

(today’s “Dawkins number”:http://www.thewormbook.com/helmintholog/archives/2006/10/13/in_his_mighty_name.html is 34)

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4 Responses to Another hack at a dead horse

  1. Ben says:

    It struck me, on reading TGD, that a shift in Dawkins’ underlying philosophy was what jarred most. He’s spent his life living and promoting the scientific approach, in which one poses questions, constructs theories, makes predictions and then tests them, identifying that which does not agree with the predictions and modifying one’s theories (or opinions) depending on the result: and long may he be admired for that. But the Dawkins who wrote TGD started with a *different* premise: he desired to reach the conclusion that God does not exist. Thus his arguments are constructed to support that premise, rather than to examine the evidence against it. That which would not agree with his expected results is discarded, or avoided neatly. One may admire the intellectual skill involved in it, but it ain’t science.

    And I don’t even want to get started on the whole _reductio ad absurdum_ involved in selecting the definitions of a God in which one wants not to believe…

  2. Scraps says:

    self-consciously intellectual critic

    Funny how suddenly it’s a bad, mockable thing to be a thinker when the thinking disagrees with Dawkins’s own.

  3. I agree that Dawkins’s response to Terry Eagleton’s London Review of Books piece is inadequate, but have you read Eagleton’s original piece? Incomprehensible is too kind a description. And as for the theology: it is so personalised as to be unrecognisable.

    When I read the Eagleton piece, I did wonder how many of the people who go to church religiously every week have read Aquinas and Duns Scotus, Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope. Dawkins’s book is, I understand (I haven’t read it), largely having a go at the sort of people who do go to church religiously every week without having thought about it. Why should he be expected to read all that stuff if they, unlike Eagleton, can’t be bothered?

  4. acb says:

    Yes, I have read Eagleton. I didn’t find it incomprehensible at all. And I don’t think it is that personalised — I know a reasonable number of Catholic intellectuals, including two past presidents of the Catholic Theological Association in this country, and they would pretty much agree with it, I think. Of course it isn’t what the people in the pews believe. You can prove that the equivalent of “regular pew sitters” in any ideology haven’t thought about their shibboleths. But big whoop. Dawkins’ book is aimed at the people sitting in his own pews anyway.

    Must now catch plane to Princeton.

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