Friday, October 27, 2006

On the Origins and Purposes of the Universe. You Know, For Fun.

Richard Dawkins' latest book, The God Delusion, which I've posted about recently, is getting the widespread review attention I figured it would. Dawkins is, to use a scientific term, a smart and respected dude. It's not easy for me to criticize details without having read the book, but I do feel quite familiar with its core argument, having read many philosophical arguments against God when I was forming my own atheistic stance. But I've become more comfortable as an agnostic, and since I'm unsatisfied with the idea that science can tell us everything we need to know about how and why to live, I have a feeling Dawkins goes too far for my taste. Jim Holt reviewed the book last weekend in the New York Times Book Review, and Marilynne Robinson has a review in the new issue of Harper's. (Both have their criticisms of the book, but Robinson's title and subtitle, "Hysterical Scientism: The ecstasy of Richard Dawkins," betrays her stronger take.)

I thought I'd share a few excerpts from each, and since this is my blog, they're the excerpts to which I found myself nodding most vigorously. First, Holt:
It is far from clear which explanatory model makes sense for the deepest question, the one that, Dawkins complains, his theologian friends keep harping on: why does the universe exist at all? Darwinian processes can take you from simple to complex, but they can’t take you from Nothing to Something. If there is an ultimate explanation for our contingent and perishable world, it would seemingly have to appeal to something that is both necessary and imperishable, which one might label “God.” Of course, it can’t be known for sure that there is such an explanation. Perhaps, as Russell thought, “the universe is just there, and that’s all.”


But the objectivity of ethics is undermined by Dawkins’s logic just as surely as religion is. The evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson, in a 1985 paper written with the philosopher Michael Ruse, put the point starkly: ethics “is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate,” and “the way our biology enforces its ends is by making us think that there is an objective higher code to which we are all subject.” In reducing ideas to “memes” that propagate by various kinds of “misfiring,” Dawkins is, willy-nilly, courting what some have called Darwinian nihilism.


Despite the many flashes of brilliance in this book, Dawkins’s failure to appreciate just how hard philosophical questions about religion can be makes reading it an intellectually frustrating experience. As long as there are no decisive arguments for or against the existence of God, a certain number of smart people will go on believing in him, just as smart people reflexively believe in other things for which they have no knock-down philosophical arguments, like free will, or objective values, or the existence of other minds.
Robinson makes an obvious point, but makes it well, which is that Dawkins is pitting religion against science without allowing himself to acknowledge science's capacity to do harm:
...we know the terrors of all-out conflict between civilizations would include innovations, notably those dread weapons of mass destruction, being made by scientists for any country with access to their skills. Granting for the purposes of argument that Dawkins is correct in the view that the majority of great scientists are atheists, we may then exclude religion from among the factors that recruit them to this somber work. We are left with nationalism, steady employment, good pay, the chance to do research that is lavishly funded and, by definition, cutting edge -- familiar motives of a kind fully capable of disarming moral doubt.
I think it's brilliant the way she stresses that Dawkins himself would agree that religion plays no role in most scientists' motivations. Thus, it's easy to set up a dichotomy to prove a point, even if that point is that science is capable of bad results, too. That alone doesn't make a case for religion, but such a case doesn't seem to be Robinson's ultimate goal. She appears content to point out the most glaring contradictions and omissions in Dawkins' argument. She continues:
That both (religion and science) can do damage on a huge scale is clear. ... To Dawkins’ objection that Nazi science was not authentic science I would reply, first, that neither Nazis nor Germans had any monopoly on these theories, which were influential throughout the Western world, and second, that the research on human subjects carried out by those holding such assumptions was good enough science to appear in medical texts for fully half a century. This is not to single out science as exceptionally inclined to do harm, though its capacity for doing harm is by now unequaled.
And two more passages that develop different arguments, because they're too good not to cite. (A friend of mine likely edited this review by Robinson, and I can only hope she isn’t going to sue me for violating fair use. JS, remember, ASWOBA is a not-for-profit venture...solidarity!!)
Dawkins cannot concede, even hypothetically, a reality that is not time-bound, that does not conform to Darwinism as he understands it. Yet in an earlier book, Unweaving the Rainbow, Dawkins remarks that “further developments of the (big bang) theory, supported by all available evidence, suggest that time itself began in this mother of all cataclysms. You probably don’t understand, and I certainly don’t, what it can possibly mean to say that time itself began at a particular moment. But once again that is a limitation of our minds...” That God exists outside time as its creator is an ancient given of theology. The faithful are accustomed to expressions like “from everlasting to everlasting” in reference to God, language that the positivists would surely have considered nonsense but that does indeed express the intuition that time is an aspect of the created order. Again, I do not wish to abuse either theology or scientific theory by implying that either can be used as evidence in support of the other; I mean only that the big bang in fact provides a metaphor that might help Dawkins understand why his grand assault on the “God Hypothesis” has failed to impress the theists.
The importance of doubt seems to enter the picture here, to my mind. For quite a while now, Andrew Sullivan has been trumping for doubt as an essential part of any religious vision that won’t become dangerously fundamentalist. In order to avoid life-or-death struggles with those who believe otherwise, one has to be willing to grant the possibility that a belief is not unassailable Truth. So perhaps doubt isn’t the right word; it’s humility. It would seem to apply equally here to religion and science. Creationists should have the humility (not to mention common sense) to see that in the face of certain scientific facts we can conclude that some key parts of religious texts are to be read, at most, as metaphorical. This shouldn't have to destroy the value, or even truth, of those texts, unless one thinks that literal facts are the only way to express value and truth (which would mean that any fiction created is useless in terms of its potential to enrich or explain the human experience; a stance that I don't think any of us can comprehend, much less endorse).

But like Robinson, I don't see why science should be allowed off the same humility hook. The brightest thinkers alive can never return to the universe's origins, nor can they posit theories other than those like the Big Bang, which even if completely accurate are 1) essentially metaphorical given what we can conceive of, as Robinson points out, 2) still not adequate to allow even someone as smart as Dawkins to explain how time was "created" (see again Holt's reference above to Nothing into Something) and most importantly 3) not automatically incompatible with religious faith. Just because I "believe" in the Big Bang doesn't mean I can't be philosophically interested in (and undecided about) the notion of a god.

I've come to believe that science and art are both limited enterprises with the same essential goal, which is to help us think as ambitiously as we can in spite of the inherent "limitation of our minds" that Dawkins concedes above. As far as I can see, physicists are asking me to believe that the creation of the universe was "like," say, the arc of a curveball thrown in certain conditions, in the sense that its properties alone explain it. The less bombastic among the spiritual, though, might argue that the same creation was "like" falling in love, in the sense that its properties don't fully account for its significance.

I'll end on this next point, because I'm tired and almost certainly talking to myself by this time. Being a Militant Non-Believer for a long time (and still able to get awfully red-faced about it when I'm talking to an aggressive Bible-beater), I know that the mindset of the MNB's can create just as much arrogant (and dangerous) certainty as the mindset of the fundamentalist-religious. That, in short, where God is not allowed, powerful people will rush in to fill the void. But unsurprisingly, Robinson is more eloquent than I am about this, so I'll let her bring us home:
Finally, there is the matter of atheism itself. Dawkins finds it incapable of belligerent intent -- "why would anyone go to war for the sake of an absence of belief?" It is a peculiarity of our language that by war we generally mean a conflict between nations, or at least one in which both sides are armed. There has been persistent violence against religion -- in the French Revolution, in the Spanish Civil War, in the Soviet Union, in China. In three of these instances the extirpation of religion was part of a program to reshape society by excluding certain forms of thought, by creating an absence of belief. Neither sanity nor happiness appears to have been served by these efforts. The kindest conclusion one can draw is that Dawkins has not acquainted himself with the history of modern authoritarianism.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Take that, Dawkins!

5:07 PM  

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