Wednesday, 24 September 2014

The Yeti view of religion - sine qua non of 'New Atheism'

In his four Yale "Terry lectures" (2009), Terry Eagleton gives repeated reminders of the extremely narrow platform from which so-called 'New Atheists' so confidently pronounce on the falsity of religion. It is their frequently asserted, or implied, and automatically assumed concept of "Religion" (singular) as faith in the existence of a supernatural being. Daniel Dennett's definition of religion (from his book "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon") is often cited as typical:
"social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought".

Eagleton refers to this as the "Yeti view of religion".

The typical view of New Atheists, and, he stresses, many Christians, contained in this definition, is that God exists rather as the Yeti exists, or Ley Lines or the Loch Ness Monster. The enlightenment-rationalist Dawkinses then, having taken up this view of religion as all that religion is, find that all that is needed to demolish Religion is lack of evidence in the sense that we should be able to use the same techniques to prove the existence of God as we would use to prove the existence of necrophilia or Justin Bieber.

It is nigh-on pointless to try to persuade anyone (particularly of the Dawkins-stripe) who takes this "Yeti view of religion" that they might be missing something. This is because he will most probably insist that only what is rational to believe is scientific. The moment one attempts to engage with him from the starting point of science and empirical evidence (for example to question, as William James did, and so as did Karl Popper in a different way, that "evidence" may not be completely free of human interests) one has already given some tacit confirmation that his Yeti view of religion has some traction, that it presents a real challenge. But having begun to engage in that way, the onus will be very great indeed to bring the discussion, and the skeptic's attention, to consideration of philosophical aspects of science, and hence to metaphysics, which could show up religious thinking as containing any reason at all. (A great onus simply because philosophising is difficult and not everyone likes it or is prepared or motivated to enter into it). Put this kind of discussion on a stage, with a live audience, and the temptation to resort to rhetorical performances and knock-down arguments will often be too great, and the result will be "opponents" talking-past each-other with little or no communication.

The best of these live discussions, in my view, was that between Richard Dawkins and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, moderated by (Agnostic) philosopher Anthony Kenny, which took place in 2012.
In this discussion, in my view, Dawkins' limited view of religion shows up in what he does not say, and (together with this, and just as importantly) the way he does not say it.


One good thing about this discussion is that, at around 18m30 (in answering Dr Williams's query that Darwin's theory and science in general does not do well in addressing the phenomenon of consciousness) Dawkins asserts his commitment to philosophical materialism. This is a great help for anyone who wants to try this engagement via philosophy, because materialism has certain consequences and counter-arguments that can be addressed. And note Dawkins's prior statements to the effect that he has faith in the idea that all complex things can be explained as the result of the interaction of their simpler parts.

At around 29m, Anthony Kenny queries Dawkins' belief that there is no free will and asks him to comment on the "gene determinism" that his readers often attribute to him. As Kenny acknowledges, Dawkins rejects "gene determinism" (that not just all our development but all our actions are genetically determined), but he queries how Dawkins' squares his rejection of gene-determinism with his belief that there is no free will. As Kenny puts it "Usually, being a determinist means not believing in free will".
Dawkins responds that he rejects "gene" determinism, but maintains determinism in general. He says (in that characteristic tone of authority, which seems so out of place, especially given that he's talking to a philosopher) "You can be a determinist without being a genetic determinist." (!?)

It seems to me that this begs the question that genes are part of the universe: if determinism holds in the universe, then are genes not determined along with the humans in whose cells they are found?

Dr Williams comes in here, and asks of Dawkins "Does it [determinism] mean that in principle every decision is predictable?" (If the universe - including human subjects - is wholly determined, and one has confidence in knowing how all the matter in the universe interacts, as strong scientist-materialist-determinists claim, then one might well be led to take on the belief that all decisions are predictable. So this seems a fair question).
Dawkins replies that he is hesitant over decision-predictability "because of quantum indeterminacy", but he quickly adds (as if this is the alternative) "but I don't believe you can get away from determinism by postulating that there is a ghost inside that takes decisions which are somehow independent if physical reality".
(This is an example of Dawkins' Cartesian view: there is material, physical reality and then there is immaterial spirit. He takes over this philosophical dualism without question.)
Dr Williams responds: "I don't think that believing in free will commits you to a ghost taking decisions independent of physical reality".

Seeing an opportunity to bring Dawkins to philosophise, Dr Williams poses to Dawkins the possibility that the distinction between mind and absolutely inert stuff is not where it is thought to lie; that the constituents of the universe do not resolve into, on the one hand, inert matter, and on the other hand, mind or spirit. If that is so then, he says: "a decision is not something that an independent homunculus inside me makes never mind what happens [but] it is something that emerges from a set of physical conditions not wholly determined but innovating".
Dr Williams offers the notion of "stuff" as active and not inert, and he puts this as a question and a challenge to Dr Dawkins' received Cartesian view.

Dawkins replies, consistent with his materist-determinism: "They [the set of physical conditions] could be wholly determined, but you would have the illusion of freedom."

Dr Williams comes back immediately with the question: "How would you tell the difference?"

At this point Dawkins recalls certain neurological experiments which revealed that actions we take over bodily movement (like picking up a glass) are decided in the brain before we become conscious of deciding them, and this is, for him, evidence that we have the illusion of free will. 
Dr Williams returns that this "less than clinching" because it desks with rather uninteresting decisions. The clinching evidence would concern the kinds if decision over who to marry, who to vote for.
Now Dawkins comes back (as if Dr Williams, or for that matter anyone who has a reasonable grasp if the significance if these issues, has not already reached this conclusion) "It's quite difficult to do experiments on that kind of..."
Exactly, Dr Dawkins, exactly.

I think these exchanges show up Dr Dawkins lack of awareness of the philosophical problems thrown up by his assumed philosophical position, and his, well, inability to philosophise.

Dawkins concedes: "Well I'm not a philosopher, that would be obvious. Perhaps you should have invited a philosopher instead" (!!)

In this way, Dawkins simply brushes of and absolves himself of responsibility for holding the beliefs he does hold. He simply gives to "philosophers" that responsibility, and carries on as if his views have met no challenge whatsoever.

This is an example, I think, of the kind if difficulty faced in trying to philosophise with the Dawkinses who hold the Yet view of religion.

There, I have said enough.

Please listen to the discussion, and tell me that you think.


No there is more here.
At about 53 m, there is a question that is being clarified by a member of the audience. The question is:
"Human beings are immensely imperfect, with so many of our potentialities unrealised. Are these failures of evolution or failures if design."
Here is a very good and insightful question. 

Dawkins' immediate response is to think of "imperfections" in terms of physiological "design", and calls up the laryngeal nerve which originates in the mammalian brain but passes around the heart before arriving at the larynx. He explains this feature in evolutionary terms, but he would not regard this (though he does not say this) as an "imperfection", because he denies any notion of "perfection" in nature. Every physical form in nature, every state of inert matter, is just as accidental and arbitrary as any other.
Dawkins acknowledges that this says nothing about "unrealised potentialities", and wonders if the questioner is thinking of this in terms of the doctrine of original sin.

Clarification is sought from the questioner. What does she mean by "imperfection" and "unrealised potentialities"?

The questioner clarifies that by "imperfections" and "unrealised potentialities" she means the occasions of tragedy in human life, such as babies born but soon dying, people not being able to achieve what they could have achieved in different circumstances, and so on. "Do we need an explanation", she asks, for these occasions of un-fulfilment?

Firstly, it is a good question, because it acknowledges the fact (and it surely is a fact) that humans require meaning in order to survive. A meaningless world is unendurable, because suffering is everywhere with us.
Secondly, It is a good question because it calls up the idea of perfectibility. There is nothing that can be thought of as imperfect unless there is something more perfect against which it is compared.
Thirdly, it is a good question because it refers directly to the competing world views offered by the protagonists: Atheism and Christianity.

On the one hand, we are offered by the materialist-determinist-atheist the prospect of blind evolution and inert matter unfolding in lawful ways throughout the universe until the end of time, in which case do I understand the meaning of the occasion of imperfection in human life and tragic things through this story and hope that evolution will move to a state where there is less imperfection?
Dr Dawkins' answer is: "No! Stuff happens!"

But notice that he adds that "Death before reproduction is what natural selection is all about, and it's tragic" (at 55m). But "tragic" is a human sympathy, a meaning, and his use of the word here is, I'm sure, genuine.

With that "No" Dr Dawkins' intolerance shows through (also seen in the 2006 BBC film "The Trouble with Atheism"). He finds the need for meaning to be an in-eliminable human weakness - a defect which he does not regard himself as having. His "No!" carries that force. He really wants the questioner to not seek meaning for tragedy. And yet - which suggests he's not super-human after all - he doesn't stop at calling suffering in nature "tragic". (Even my perception that things are "tragic", rather than simply indifferent, presupposes my investing things with meaning - but why should we assign any meaning at all to the pure accident of forms around us, whatever they are, especially if we are also purely accidental agglomerations of inert matter?
Why then should we want to live?) The whole new-atheist-aligned talk of "illusory" self-consciousness implies, indeed their matter-spirit dualism leads us to conclude, that our reality is "really" this complete meaninglessness. Dawkins, like his fellow 'New Atheists, doesn't take God's absence seriously.

On the other hand, we have the notion of a God-designed world, in which case, why doesn't God act to make the world more perfect?
Dr Williams response is to caution against the notion of God as a designer, because all we have to understand "design" by is what it is like for us to design. He emphasises the intelligibility of the universe (and we humans the ones finding it intelligible) as part of what he means by God as an ultimately unknowable creative intelligence.

One final thing.
Towards the close, around 1hr19m, Dr Dawkins, in some exasperation, wants to know, given the very beautiful and inspiring theories of origins developed in physics and biology, why the priest wants to "clutter up your world view with something so messy as a God". Why, he asks, resort to ancient scripture for anything when we have 21st century science.
Once again, we meet Dawkins' lack of awareness of, and more importantly, lack of respect for, the dimension of meaning in life and of Christianity. As Dr Williams responds, the account in Genesis offers a different kind of account, that can and has and does (for many people) satisfy the question of the meaning of my place in time and the universe
Williams: "I don't see God as this extra thing shoe-horned in..."
Dawkins: "Well that's exactly how I see it".

No movement whatsoever. It's depressing.
I like Dawkins' accounts of evolution. He just can't philosophise. He knows he can't but he persists, hectoringly, demandingly, in challenging others, including philosophers and Theologians, to justify themselves to him, in terms, of course, satisfactory to himself.
I'll stop now.


Just to return to the part of the discussion in which Dawkins claims that there is no free will. A very great deal depends on his having assumed mind-body (Cartesian) dualism. But it requires philosophical work, which he is either not prepared or not capable of doing, to understand its influence.
Dawkins points to the experiment of the person lifting the glass and on the basis of the results of that experiment he says "You see the decision to lift the glass was taken long before the person was conscious of having taken the decision, therefore free will does not exist, it's an illusion."

Anthony Kenny: Most philosophers don't like the naive picture of free will that that experiment presupposes ... that there is a soul inside in which mental events occur that are the causes of bodily events. ... It's surprising that you [Dawkins] should accept it [i.e. accept the experiment and what it 'shows'] because it's very much the 'ghost in the machine' picture [Dawkins tacitly accepts the mind-body duality picture but denies there is a ghost]. You say, "Ah! The 'machine' works before the 'ghost' does", but I think most philosophers today believe that the whole idea of constructing mind and body like that is quite wrong."


RD: "But why doesn't it destroy the idea of free will?"


AK: "Because it only shows the order of events in an act that is undetermined may not be what you would have expected if you had the false philosophical idea."


The experiment presupposes, and 'tests for', the mind-body duality - the false philosophical idea. The experimenter anticipates mental activity giving rise to physical activity, and looks closely at the brain (where it is supposed the immaterial mind must be seated), then finding that the physical activity precedes the brain activity concludes there is no mind.

Only someone who holds the mind-body duality to be true would attempt to find evidence for mind with this kind of experiment - as if 'chopping up' the brain will somehow show "Aha! You see, there's nothing extra there!" It is very odd that one should look to demonstrate the non-existence of something immaterial by examining material as minutely as possible in order not to find it.

I find brief and sensitive - and humane - reflections on the incoherence of Cartesian dualism (and the un-knowing perpetuation of it in para-science writing) in Marilynne Robinson's "Absence if Mind - the dispelling if inwardness from the modern myth of the self". See the chapter "Thinking Again".



See essay by Dr Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, here: http://rowanwilliams.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/1211/analysing-atheism-unbelief-and-the-world-of-faiths


No comments:

Post a Comment