Sunday, 9 September 2007

Mark Vernon

Want to read another smug anti-Dawkins essay? Thought so - I present Mark Vernon's oddly constructed article in Philosophy Now. Parts draw on Cornwell (see how quickly a book of this kind is elevated to the status of overwhelming riposte to believers). It is constructed around the conceit that Dawkins commits each of the seven deadly sins (lust, gluttony, etc) which makes for a rather awkward structure:

1. Lust
"Dawkins has an excessive love of polemic that swamps the more subtle affections required for a serious appreciation of the nuances of truth."
This section consists of a series of claims that Dawkins has misrepresented Darwin, Einstein and others to appropriate them to his cause. This is a pretty trivial accusation and anyone interested can refer to The God Delusion where there is some discussion of Einstein's rejection of a personal god, and a section on "The argument [for the existence of god] from admired religious scientists".

2. Gluttony
"Dawkins is guilty of an excessive consumption of Enlightenment rhetoric."
This section consists of arguments about atheism and its role in Stalin and Hilter's atrocities. Vernon repeats a line from Hitler’s Table Talk where he says "The dogma of Christianity gets worn away before the advances of science." The God Delusion has a rather more detailed discussion of whether Hitler was an atheist or not (likely not) in "What about Hitler and Stalin? Weren't they atheists?", but again, as Dawkins concludes, it doesn't really matter. But Vernon is simply wrong when he says:
"his defence of Stalin’s atheism against the extreme evil Stalin inflicted on his fellows...Similarly, Dawkins blames Nazi horrors on a supposed latent religiousness in Hitler rather than on any non-theistic ideological convictions."
Yet Dawkins ends the discussion with:
"Stalin was probably an atheist, and Hitler probably wasn't; but even if they were both atheists, the bottom line of the Stalin/Hitler debating point is very simple. Individual atheists may do evil things in the name of atheism. Stalin and Hitler did extremely evil things in the name of, respectively, dogmatic and doctrinaire Marxism, and an insane and unscientific eugenics theory tinged with sub-Wagnerian ravings."
3. Greed
"Dawkins’ sin here is to opt for a materialist understanding of the world to the exclusion of the metaphysical: in other words, he is thoroughly materialistic. This has two consequences. First, it reduces all intellectual enquiry to that which falls within the domain of natural science – effectively ejecting all non-scientific approaches in literature, history, philosophy and theology....He actually imports a neo-Darwinian metaphysic as the normative explanation of everything, from ethics to art."
Now I'm not sure Vernon knows what the words he is using mean. Certainly Dawkins suggests an evolutionary explanation for morality, for instance, but that isn't normative, as in saying how things ought to be, and it doesn't undermine other academic disciplines, to take a single example, after suggesting this Darwinian origin Dawkins then talks about why we ought to be (rather than why we are) moral, and defers to philosophy:
"Moral philosophers are the professionals when it comes to thinking about right and wrong...they agree that 'moral precepts, while not necessarily constructed by reason, should be defensible by reason'."
4. Sloth
"It appears that Dawkins simply cannot be bothered to tackle the best arguments of those he opposes."
Funnily enough I've had much travel tracking down these sophisticated arguments, and it doesn't seem like Vernon is going to share them with us. He can't mean the likes of Cornwell or McGrath surely? Note that Vernon doesn't engage with Dawkins's fundamental argument as to the non-existence of God - surely the central thesis of his book.

5. Wrath
"Intolerance drives him. He is entitled to his opinion, of course. But the book appears to be motivated not so much by truth as by wrath."
Apparently Dawkins's Foundation for Reason and Science is campaigning against labelling children, as, for example, a Catholic child, rather than a child of Catholic parents, since children are simply too young to make an informed decision to commit to the Catholic doctrines. But Vernon thinks
"this encourage the kind of social engineering which would force the clumsy hand of government between parents and their children? This alone says a lot about the illiberality behind Dawkin’s proselytising brand of atheism."
Actually there is very little available about what exactly the Richard Dawkins Foundation is camaigning for in this area since it is pretty new - the only thing available on the website on this topic is this letter:
"Providing millions of pounds to schools to teach creationism is dangerous, say atheist Richard Dawkins and Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford"
Dawkins has similarly argued against state funded indoctrination of children, arguing instead for comparative religion classes, the illiberal bastard.

6. Envy
"Dawkins has maths-envy...he engages in a series of attacks against attempts to prove God, and he launches a counterattack which aims to demonstrate the high improbability of ‘the God Hypothesis’"
It isn't exactly clear what Vernon's point is in this section, he downplays the influence and significance of Aquinas's 'proofs' ("God ain’t really the sort of thing that can be proved at all – for the very good reason that God ain’t a thing in the natural object sense") but finishes on:
"A better way of proceeding is in terms of the plausibility of God...Dawkins should have reread his Bertrand Russell before indulging his maths-envy....“One of the most painful circumstances of recent advances in science is that each one of them makes us know less than we thought we did.”"
Perhaps others are in a better position than I am to fathom the distinction between the probability and plausibility of God. As far as I can tell this is Vernon's attempt to avoid dealing with Dawkins central argument (there is no god) by saying, by his oblique reference to Russell, "aahh", no, not 'aah' Vernon - what are you trying to say? Looks like your argument here is simply 'well maybe God does exist despite your arguments to the contrary' well maybe 'he' does, but you haven't provided any reason to think so have you? I suppose I should be grateful he doesn't try and argue that actually it is all metaphorical so you can't disprove it anyway.

7. Pride
"...Huxley...wrote: “In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” This is important because it expresses intellectual humility. With respect to science, this humility acknowledges that when it comes to the big questions in life, what science has established “amounts at present to very little” – Huxley’s words – compared to the wisdom of, say, history and literature. With respect to religion...
I think intellectual humility matters both to science and society at large. Science is reduced by a lust for empirical certainty which presents itself as the exclusive path of progress. The methods of science are astonishingly successful in certain parts of life but are of limited value in others"
I doubt I'm the only one to note that anti-atheists very often slip between reason and science depending on what they think will have better rhetorical force. Now Dawkins is hardly doing science when he argues against the existence of God, he may draw on science (such as evolution by natural selection) in his argument, but he is hardly operating on a plane seperate from that of philosophers, theologians, or historians. So I think I smell another bait and switch, science may well not have anything to tell us about a whole range of human endeavours - such as personal ethics as Dawkins alludes to above - but that does not mean that we have to abondon reason. Consider that quote with 'reason' replacing 'science', how sensible does Vernon sound now?
"I think intellectual humility matters both to reason and society
at large....The methods of reason are astonishingly successful in
certain parts of life but are of limited value in others"
So where is reason of limited value exactly? In love maybe, to some extent, but in philosophy, theology, and history? I think not Vernon.


potentilla said...

I found the Vernon article really annoying too - I jsut posted a long (for me) comment on Butterflies & Wheels about it.

Even apart from all the rhetorical tricks, loose argument, and misrepresentation, I think the thing I really hated was the journalistic conceit of the seven deadly sins, and the way Vernon had to shoehorn any actual argument into that format. In the daily press we're used to that sort of tripe, but in Philosophy Now???

pj said...

Yeah, I think the seven deadly sins conceit forced him to waste a lot of room making non-points. He's actually just posted over at butterfliesandwheels on the top thread.