Monday, 10 September 2007

Alister McGrath II

There's an amusing interview with Alister McGrath in the National Catholic Register (via Merlijn de Smit and PZ Myers - entirely incidentally, there is a great advert for a college on the NCR webpage with the line "What are you seeking? got monks?", I mean wtf?).

I've made my views known on McGrath's 'devastating' critique of Dawkins, but I was interested to see how he talks when addressing a friendly audience ("How has that background helped you, in a practical sense, to refute Dawkins’ theories?" (my emphasis)).

McGrath's approach in this article is similar to before:
"I think Richard Dawkins approaches the question of whether God exists in much the same way as if he’d approach the question of whether there is water on Mars. In other words, it’s something that’s open to objective scientific experimentation. And of course there’s no way you can bring those criteria to bear on God. I think Dawkins seems reluctant to allow that God may not be in the same category as scientific objects...

A second point, which clearly follows on from this, is that Dawkins clearly believes that those who believe in God must prove their case and atheists have nothing to prove because that’s their default position. But I think that’s simply incorrect and it’s obviously incorrect.

Really, the only obvious position is to say: We don’t know, we need to be persuaded one way or the other. The default position in other words is: not being sure.

Therefore I think Dawkins must realize that he’s under as great an obligation to show that there is no God..."
Previously he argued that you can't disprove God as some kind of intellectual triumph, but interestingly this time he also argues for the existence of God:
"One of the most commonly encountered patterns in scientific development is seeing a pattern of observations and then saying, in order to explain these observations, we propose that there exists something that is as yet unobserved but we believe that one day will be observed because if it’s there, it can explain everything that can be observed.

Of course, if you’re a Christian you’ll see immediately that that same pattern is there in thinking about God. We can’t prove there’s a God but he makes an awful lot of sense of things and therefore there’s a very good reason to suppose that this may, in fact, be right."
Now I won't start on just how unconvincing the evidence is for the existence of God (which is rather the atheist position), but concentrate on something PZ Myers points out:
"Whoa. What happened to "of course there's no way you can bring those criteria to bear on God"? What about "God may not be in the same category as scientific objects"? One moment he's claiming you can't study god like you would the possibility of water on Mars, and next he's claiming the validity of using observation and theory to justify the existence of the remote and directly unseen. How … inconsistent."
How come McGrath gets to argue from experience to the existence of God when the atheist can't argue for His complete improbability because "there’s no way you can bring those criteria to bear on God"? Merlijn de Smit thinks that PZ Myers is wrong in this objection:
"Except that he's not. McGrath was talking here about an inference to the best explanation, or about what Peirce called an abductive inference - which by itself is only half the scientific method. The explanation would potentially fall within the domain of science if the explanandum could be observed and studied in an empirical fashion. But in the case of God, the kind of explanandum you'd be dealing with are not scientifically observable things but things which are the preconditions for us making any (scientific) observation at all - the existence of laws of nature (if indeed they are laws of nature - which in itself is not a scientific question); the problem of universals; the existence of mind, etc."
But I just don't buy it. McGrath is a Christian, an Anglican, he accepts the Nicene Creed, he believes that Jesus (the Son of God) was resurrected - I don't quite see how he's deriving this from the existence of minds Merlijn! - in fact all he has are a few oral traditions and some pieces of paper. As PZ says:
"McGrath was adamant in insisting that atheists need to prove the nonexistence of god, but what I'd like to see is one scrap of evidence for any piece of the exceptionally silly Nicene creed — not proof, but just some rational reason for me to believe one single line of this dogma that McGrath accepts."
Talk about complete asymmetry in standards of evidence. Fundamentally, like most or even all the anti-atheists attacking Dawkins (the atheist Pope, if you slay him all our power will be gone!!!) McGrath does not have a consistent position because he isn't trying to be intellectually and logically consistent - he simply wants an argument, any argument, that he can say proves Dawkins wrong. At base, McGrath wants to believe in God, in Christianity, in the Nicene Creed. Now that's fine, but to pretent that it is supported by reason and is intellectually coherent - that's just plain deluded.

I'll finish on this little gem:
" someone who has studied the history of science, I am very much aware that what scientists believe to be true in the past has been shown to be wrong or has been overtaken by subsequent theoretical developments.

One of my concerns is that Dawkins seems very, very reluctant to concede radical theory-change in science. In other words, this is what scientists believe today but we realize that tomorrow they might think something quite different...

So my question, therefore, is: How on earth can Dawkins base his atheism on science when science itself so to speak is in motion, in transit?”"
Uh huh. Because science could have certain things wrong we ought to believe in something that we have essentially no evidence for - and let us not for one minute think that in its history religion may have ever got anything wrong. As PZ says:
"Well, heck, how can anything be based on science, then? I'm listening to the stereo right now: if the physics and electronics and materials engineering behind that widget are scientific subjects in constant flux, how can it possibly be working?"
And I wonder how McGrath's new almost post-modern radical skepticism about science manages to avoid generalising to any other area - what is so unique about science that it needs to be doubted? Why does religion come through unscathed? Hell, is the Nicene Creed more indubitable than the laws of physics? Well I guess it isn't "in motion, in transit", it is quite nicely fixed in the 4th Century.
"I believe in the Nicene Creed...because I’ve looked at it very closely and I believe it to be right...I think one has to say that the process of questing for truth might actually arrive somewhere, and for me that’s a position where I’ve actually arrived. I hold it...with conviction...and I am very happy to defend it in public and would, of course, if shown to be wrong, to have to rethink everything."

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