Sunday, 29 June 2014

Not Very 'New Atheism'

Even if the sense fades of there being something to oppose in the posturing of scientistically-minded writers on human nature, or the learned ignoramus in one's midst, one can still be grateful for writers and thinkers who have done this most effectively.

Here is the opening paragraph from a 2010 piece by Edward Feser in "The American Magazine", entitled "The New Philistinism".

"I once heard a fundamentalist preacher “refute” Darwin by asking rhetorically: “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” He didn’t elaborate. But he did chuckle disdainfully, and since his audience of fellow believers did the same, no elaboration was necessary. They all “knew” that he had just posed a challenge no Darwinian could possibly answer, and that was enough. None of them had ever actually readanything any Darwinian had written—and I highly doubt the preacher had either—but never mind. What would be the point? They “already knew” such writers could not possibly have anything of interest to say, in light of this “fatal” objection to evolution."

Feser's piece exposes the tendency, in the rhetorical performances of certain 'New Atheists', to avoid thought by appealing to a concept that is assumed (consciously or otherwise) to be true and already shared by the audience. (See footnote).

What can irritate is the opportunism of certain of these para-scientific writers, when performing, to meet criticism with such appeals to, say, "common-sense", with a complacent self-assurance which rests on their knowing the audience is already with them, and they have no further work to do.

As Melvyn Bragg said in his address to the Sydney Institute in 2012, "they are using religion as an excuse and a camouflage because it aggrandises what they do".  

Or as J S Mill wrote of Jeremy Bentham (in his essay 'Bentham' in 1838):
"The bad part of his writings is his resolute denial of all that he does not see, of all truths but those which he recognises. By that alone has he exercised any bad influence upon his age; by that he has, not created a school of deniers, for this is an ignorant prejudice, but put himself at the head of the school which exists always, though it does not always find a great man to give it the sanction of philosophy: thrown the mantle of intellect over the natural tendency of all men in all ages to deny or disparage all feelings and mental states of which they have no consciousness in themselves."

Or as Marilynne Robinson said in her address to the RSA in 2010, referring to an article in a science magazine on the imbalance between "matter" and "anti-matter",:
"a theistically minded person reading that thinks 'That's really amazing'; a scientist reading that thinks 'That's amazing'; I think a New Atheist reading that thinks 'Well, we answered that question'."

For me, the motivation not just for New Atheist noise-making, but for much in the way of disparagement towards things that claim assent that are yet not science, emerges from a desire to dispel lack, our not feeling what is given by esteemed others to be felt.

As I have written elsewhere, not as well as I would like, I think Karl Popper's is the philosophy addressed to a scientific community (in his case the Vienna Circle of scientist-philosophers) which shows science to be not self-supporting. His work is an appeal for modesty. What a pity he couldn't give as much effort to examining how we judge the value of work that is non-science.
But he gave an amusing and robust Darwinian response to Edward Feser's fundamentalist preacher's question about the chicken and the egg: "an earlier kind of egg".

Staged debates between 'New Atheists' and their critics are rarely anything except farcical. The crowd anticipates a clash, and the opponents split apart and see in their adversaries only a comforting caricature.
In Dr Dr Feser's article, he points out the common New Atheist rhetorical device of appealing to some already-accepted idea, or truth, as a kind of argument, or as a stand-in for argument.
But here, one might think of what Stefan Collini has said (Guardian, 16th August 2013) about the criticism FR Leavis made of the 1959 Rede Lecture by CP Snow. Collini points out that Leavis would often appeal to a value judgement with the mention of  a name of a writer, or a term such as 'Life''. This appears very like the tactic of Dr Feser's preacher criticising Darwinism. The difference is the implied work that has been and is being done to enact the value judgement. Collini writes:

"[By] the very fact of his critical writing [Leavis] is tacitly assuming that there is an audience capable of recognising the truth of his critique, so the power of cliche, though great, is not invincible, the system not entirely closed."

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