Friday, October 27, 2006

Richard Dawkins's Presentation at Politics and Prose in DC on 24 October 2006

Dawkins at Politics and Prose

I attended Richard Dawkins’s presentation regarding his new book The God Delusion at Politics and Prose Bookstore in DC today, 24 October 2006. Overall I was glad I went. Dawkins has been infamous on my horizon as a militant and eloquent atheist and I wanted to go because I believe Christians have available a mind and a sustainable rationality which famous detractors are in the end on a simple human level, not equal to. Dawkins raised a number of issues and then answered a number of questions from the crowd which I will try to reiterate here. I found him to be overall decent enough though like a silly school boy when it came to mocking religion. He revealed in a number of points what I take to indicate a rather poor grasp of religion, his chosen topic. Nevertheless, I found him in some ways helpful to an extent in defending reason (and in some ways close to the pope in his Regensberg lecture when he affirmed reason against blind emotionalism) though ultimately he undercuts reason itself. I had two questions coming in which I noted down beforehand: Would he give a response to the recent criticism of his book by philosopher Thomas Nagel in the National Review? He did not, but reiterated the argument criticized by Nagel and others (which I will cover briefly below) so I regretted not moving to the mic to try to ask it. However, my second question was asked by another: Dawkins has been taken at times as affirming a “strong determinism” and at other times seeming to contradict this. Philosopher Daniel Dennett, Dawkins’s American counterpart, another aggressive atheist, went into an explicit discussion of this when he wrote about Dawkins’s meme theory in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and he argued that Dawkins’s statements in The Selfish Gene suggesting human freewill were lapses that Dawkins rejects in later writings. Dennett is defending “strong materialism” and the notion that our thoughts are irrational forces that colonize our minds and that ultimately all thought is reducible to just that, irrationality (which is exactly the absurdism that Husserl spotted and described about a century ago in Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy). Dawkins replied in this Q & A that he saw there was a philosophical difficulty and that he didn’t know the answer and could only say that emotionally it doesn’t feel that way and that he couldn’t stand the thought of it being that way. He suggested that if it is an inconsistency to believe that we have freewill, we have to live with. So in this case, we may assume, he believes a delusion might be acceptable. This was in perfect conformity, it seems to me, again to Husserl’s description of the naturalist, in which Husserl asserts that the naturalist refutes himself by undercutting his whole moralizing enterprise by leaving no possible philosophical ground for his values and sermonizing tendencies. I think one draws the contention from Husserl that naturalism is more importantly a psychology than an argument. (See Husserl’s statements appended at the end of this summary). I do not wish to be to peremptory in describing his points but most of Dawkins’s comments were made in the form of populist appeal to emotional response and I wish to focus as much as possible on his arguments. Points he raised in the presentation, often mockingly, were: --The Trinity is mysterious… He expressed his certainty that it was just bunk. --The Aryan heresy….the debate about whether Jesus was God seemed stupid to him --The theological usage of the term “substance” seemed stupid to him. ---He accused theology of being obscurantist. ---He specifically attacked the Catholic church and those who wish to include Mary as part of the Trinity but that is condemned as a heresy if I recall right. He also attacked the multiplicity of saints and the many different Ladies. He spoke about some event where a man was shot and it was said that our Lady of Fatima guided the bullet so it didn’t kill him and joked, “Why didn’t she guide it so it didn’t hit him at all?” ---He went to covering content of chapter seven of his book entitled “The Good Book” in which he charged that following the Bible would be morally repugnant. He discussed the event where God told Abraham to go and sacrifice Isaac and then stopped him when he showed himself willing to carry it out. He found this repugnant and could see no way this could be explained. I think that it only looks that way when one makes too many assumptions. God was prefiguring his sacrifice of His Son, His very heart, exposed to the reviling of the world. In this way God clearly put His heart into the world. Abraham, as the father of faith was called a friend of God and entered into a level of reciprocity with God through God’s initiating command by be willing to sacrifice his promised son who doubtless meant more to him than his own life to God. The Scriptures explain that Abraham reasoned that God would resurrect him. They also say that the desire for human sacrifice never crossed the mind of God. The emotional distress, mystery and fear of the situation may have appeared like cruelty to Isaac but God is not afraid to appear bad or frightening when He has larger lessons to teach His faithful than the pastures within a small conception of God. ---He suggested that the jealousy God is described as having is sexual in its overtones because He chastises Israel for whoring after other gods. I often think of G.K. Chesterton’s quip that materialism is a schoolboy’s philosophy when I encounter comments like this which seem to show its enduring aptness. Also Schopenhauer’s quip that “materialism is the philosophy of the subject who forgets to take account of himself” occurs to me. Dawkins elaborated a little on this, generally showing that he no idea of why ancient people worshipped idols in the first place and preferred simply to ridicule it and make no distinction between Greek pantheons and monotheism. ---The next point he made is one that I think is the most difficult for me. He talked about Jericho and the complete slaughter God ordered the Israelites to carry out. He said these slaughters were morally indistinguishable from the slaughter of the Kurds by Saddam Hussein, etc. Dawkins raised some important points it seems about the life of these verses in the understanding of some modern Israeli children who saw them justified when it came to Israel because of their religious commitment but unjustified if the scenario was switched so that the perpetrator was not the ancient Israelites but a modern Chinese major. Several things I keep in mind in grappling with this issue are 1) it is God’s prerogative and would be His right to finish us all. I do not see how anyone could rationally argue that a perfect God is morally bound to allow any imperfection to exist, and because we are imperfect humans, that includes us. But that really is not adequate in itself. There is an emotional response it seems with some content. 2) God was dealing with a people in that time and situation and He chose only through historical time to unfold His plan. To do this He could not allow His unfolding message to be mistaken for man’s attempts to reach out to God. He had to inculcate in the Israelites the knowledge of His holiness, first by separating them from the Egyptians and preventing their assimilation with the idol worshippers around them. Then when they began to assimilate the idols anyway and turned away from God and oppressed the poor God used the Assyrians and Babylonians to preserve for Himself a remnant. So He was unfolding His plan even through the evil actions and violence of the Assyrians and Babylonians. But this still seems to me a difficulty because I wrestle, not with the right of God to annihilate us all but with the accomplishing of it by commanding the Israelites to slaughter. I think Scripture offers some explanation in the story which suggests that God awaited the sending of the Israelite army to scourge away these peoples until their sins had reached a limit of extremity warranting a terrible judgment such as His judgment on the world of violence through the Flood. --He also listed off some of the things people were killed for in the Old Testament and took some time to focus on one incident where a man broke the Sabbath command by gathering wood on the Sabbath and was stoned for it. He said a few more things. This is not meant to be a comprehensive coverage. I already mentioned the one question asked him above and his answer. He was also asked whether the agnostic position was correct and he agreed that we are all agnostics in that we can’t disprove anything, such as the JuJu and the flying Spaghetti Monster and faeries but in practice most people assume they don’t exist and he equates God with faeries. One man introduced himself as an atheist and related that he had a friend who believed in evolution and was homosexual and went to a liberal church and disbelieved most of the Bible except the Gospels and believed in separation of church and state and that he was really nice. Dawkins responded by saying that he did not believe religious belief could be closely correlated with whether a person is nice or not. (I recalled statements made by Dawkins that religious parents who raised their children religiously were abusing the child and wondered if this was not a contradiction but he later made a comment which helped me to understand his point of view better which strangely enough has some affinities with the Amish and Anabaptists and Church of Christ, etc.). He did say however that we should ask if religion causes an overall trend in bad directions. One man asked if he saw religion as a means that people separated themselves from others. Dawkins apparently didn’t see this as always true but did see friction in parts of Ireland for instance where there was nothing but religion and that by becoming identified with a religious label the anger and desire for retribution is generalized toward counterlabels. He expressed his distaste and his voice changed showing he had an earnest conviction on the point that it was like child abuse to label a child from the cradle upward Catholic or Protestant. But in this I think there is some agreement at least among a wide group of Christians. I am specifically familiar from my Church of Christ background with their belief that a person could not believe until they were old enough to understand for themselves and for this reason they do not perform baptism until a person reaches what is considered the age of accountability and make the decision individually for themselves. The Amish also in their way acknowledge this reality with their coming of age custom that is covered in a well-known documentary whose name I forget. Both the Church of Christ and the Amish share Anabaptist roots. I agree with them and with Dawkins that a person must be old enough to understand and reason for themselves in order to appropriate their faith- that is I agree with Dawkins that a person should not just unthinkingly adopt any set of beliefs, though I would add religious or other, but that he should actively engage the intellect available to him. Yet Dawkins undercuts this rationality with his ‘strong determinism” and does not allude it by avoiding the philosophical issues emotionally but only earns the epithet of Schopenhauer that he has forgotten to take account of himself and demonstrates consistently through his eight or so books the correctness of Husserl’s critique who noted that application of naturalism to an account of oneself ends in absurdity by undermining itself. Dawkins said this point wasn’t related to faith anyway, suggesting that he was merely assuming that the irrationalism of all faiths. A lady, obviously a Christian believer of some kind, asked what he thought of the faith base of the twelve step programs that abound. Dawkins answered by dumb-foundingly revealing that he did not know that these programs were faith based and that he had learned something from her question. He said that it was not obviously stupid to persuade people to believe in a higher power and that even it is a good technique it didn’t matter. She said that in the Baltimore area they end the twelve step meetings with the Lord’s Prayer. He replied, “Well that is just stupid.” Another person noted the two body guards that had been provided by the store standing behind him and asked if he had ever been threatened. He replied, “I’ve never been threatened.” I thought this is interesting because religion supposedly encourages violence but in the West Christians have never threatened this famous atheist. It seems to me quite certain that he would be threatened in the Middle East but he has been focusing on Christians in the West and would like to make no distinctions between religions. Another asked him how he accounted for the doube helix and DNA and someone in the crowd yelled “Read The Selfish Gene.” Dawkins replied that it is a long story that he has been laying out in his eight books. He showed his conviction as he spoke of the “magnificent elegance in how you can get to staggering heights of complexity from a very simple process” and that once you see this your consciousness is raised to the power of science. He made the argument regarding the complicatedness of God which Thomas Nagel addressed in a recent article in The National Review. Here is an example of Dawkins making the argument from his chapter in the anthology Intelligent Thought:: ”Given that chance is ruled out for sufficient levels of improbability, we know of only two processes that can generate specified improbability. They are intelligent design and natural selection, and only the latter is capable of serving as an ultimate explanation. It generates specified improbability from a starting point of great simplicity. Intelligent design can't do that, because the designer must itself be an entity at an extremely high level of specified improbability. Whereas the specification of the Boeing 747 is that it must be able to fly, the specification of "intelligent designer" is that it must be able to design. And intelligent design cannot be the ultimate explanation for anything, for it begs the question of its own origin.” To this Thomas Nagel replies: “But God, whatever he may be, is not a complex physical inhabitant of the natural world. The explanation of his existence as a chance concatenation of atoms is not a possibility for which we must find an alternative, because that is not what anybody means by God. If the God hypothesis makes sense at all, it offers a different kind of explanation from those of physical science: purpose or intention of a mind without a body, capable nevertheless of creating and forming the entire physical world. The point of the hypothesis is to claim that not all explanation is physical, and that there is a mental, purposive, or intentional explanation more fundamental than the basic laws of physics, because it explains even them… All explanations come to an end somewhere. The real opposition between Dawkins's physicalist naturalism and the God hypothesis is a disagreement over whether this end point is physical, extensional, and purposeless, or mental, intentional, and purposive. On either view, the ultimate explanation is not itself explained. The God hypothesis does not explain the existence of God, and naturalistic physicalism does not explain the laws of physics.” Some of his statements cause one to wonder if Dawkins even knows what he is talking about when he speaks about religion. ---Another questioner raised the question of Pascal’s Wager where Pascal argued that if you don’t know whether there is a God or not isn’t it better to believe in a God in case it turns out that there was one and yo0ur not believing would make Him angry. Dawkins said that was a wonderful conundrum and that he thought Pascal was not serious when he said it but only joking and that either we believe something or we don’t. He went on to mock the idea of God caring whether people believed in Him or not, saying that made God sound insecure. APPENDIX “Characterisitic of all forms of extreme and consistent naturalism, from popular naturalism to the most recent forms of sensation-monism and energism, is on one hand the naturalizing of consciousness, including all intentionally immanent data of consciousness, including all intentionally immanent data of consciousness, and on the other the naturalizing of ideas and consequently of all absolute ideals and norms. From the latter point of view, without realizing it, naturalism refutes itself. If we take an exemplary index of all ideality, formal logic, then the formal-logical principles, the so-called “laws of thought of thought,” are interpreted by naturalism as natural laws of thinking. That this brings with it the sort of absurdity that characterizes every theory of skepticism in the fullest sense has elsewhere been demonstrated in detail. One can submit naturalistic axiology and practical philosophy (including ethics) as well as naturalistic practice to a radical criticism of the same sort. For theoretical absurdities are inevitably followed by absurdities (evident inconsistencies) in actual theoretical, axiological, and ethical ways of acting. The naturalist is, one can safely say, idealist and objectivist in the way he acts. He is dominated by the purpose of making scientifically known (i.e., in a way that compels any rational individual) whatever is genuine truth, the genuinely beautiful and good; he wants to know how to determine what is its universal essence and the method by which it [namely, that which is genuinely true, or genuinely beautiful, or genuinely good] is to be obtained in the particular case. He believes that through natural science and through philosophy based on the same science the goal has for the most part been attained, and with all the enthusiasm that such a consciousness gives, he has installed himself as teacher and practical reformer in regard to the true, the good, the beautiful, from the standpoint of natural science. He is, however, an idealist who sets up and (so he thinks) justifies theories, which deny precisely what he presupposes in his idealistic way of acting, whether it be in constructing theories or in justifying and recommending values or practical norms as the most beautiful and the best. He is after all, going on presuppositions, to the extent that he theorizes at all, to the extent that he objectively sets up values to which value judgments are to correspond, and likewise in setting up practical rules according to which each one is to be guided in his willing and in his conduct. The naturalist teaches, preaches, moralizes, reforms. (Haeckel and Oswald are good examples.) But he denies what every sermon, every demand, if it is to have a meaning, presupposes. The only thing is, he does not preach in express terms that the only rational thing to do is to deny reason, as well theoretical as axiological and practical reason. He would in fact, banish that sort of thing far from him. The absurdity is not in his case evident, but remains hidden from him because he naturalizes reason…It is manifest, of course, by this very circumstance how slight is the practically effective force for arguments based on consequences. Prejudices blind, and one who sees only empirical facts and grants intrinsic validity only to empirical science will not be particularly disturbed by absurd consequences that cannot be proved empirically to contradict facts of nature.This sort of argument he will put aside as “Scholasticism.” What is more, arguments drawn from consequences lead easily to an undesired result in the other direction, that is for those who are inclined to credit them with demonstrative force.” -Edmund Husserl, Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy, trans. By Quentin Lauer, “Philosophy as Rigorous Science”, (Harper & Row Pub., New York: 1965) pp. 80-82.

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