Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Framing Faith

Matt Nisbet really wants Richard Dawkins to hush:

As Dawkins even admits, he is a strategic liability to what he sometimes condescendingly refers to as the evolution defense lobby. Indeed, the association in the public's mind between evolution and atheism is only likely to grow stronger with the media campaign to promote Dawkins' next book, Only a Theory, for which he reportedly received a $3.5 million advance.
The mention of the $3.5 million paid to Dawkins -- is that some kind of elitist charge leveled at Dawkins? Are we now in a realm of discourse as childish as that? Could we not instead, perhaps, divine something about Dawkins' appeal as an author from the magnitude of the cash advance? (Would that be considered good framing, I wonder?) But I digress.

Once again, Nisbet has belabored the point that Richard Dawkins represents a walking, talking, book-writing black eye on the face of science because he has criticized religion forcefully and in public. Once again, this criticism elides the fact that Dawkins' The God Delusion is expressly a book about, well, the delusional nature of belief in god. It is not a book that sets out to popularize zoology only to clumsily blunder into questions of religion; it is a book that directly challenges faith-based truth claims.

In The God Delusion and in assorted other writings and speeches, Dawkins frames faith as a deficient means of arriving at reliable truths about the world, and does so brilliantly. This is not to say everyone likes it -- far from it, as Dawkins is the first to admit.

It seems clear that Matt Nisbet doesn't like writings that frame faith, but Nisbet fails to spell out why this argument is not worth engaging; and beyond that, Nisbet has given no reason to believe that this argument can succcessfully be wished away. It's not clear why it represents "good strategy," either in the long or short term, to pretend that science and faith are just two indistinguishable peas in an epistemological pod, differing only in subject matter. That is not their actual relationship, and no one on either side is distracted or deluded enough to believe it is.

But getting back to the particular nugget of wisdom quoted above: now that Dawkins has been so outspoken on the non-existence of god, Nisbet declares him a "strategic liability" for science who should go silent on evolution. For those of you keeping score at home, this means Nisbet has officially told Dawkins to shut up about god's existence and to shut up about evolution.

Is there anything Dawkins is allowed to write about? Presumably he shouldn't participate in any more documentaries or give any more speeches, either. May he go outdoors during daylight hours? Without a disguise? May he use sign language if he limits it to practical matters (e.g., we are out of toilet paper, I would prefer the fish, my tooth has an ache)? If he enters into a vow of silence and keeps it until his death, may he choose the words to appear on his tombstone? Or would that pose a strategic liability to science?


Where have my round spherical toys gone? said...

I think the problem lies with the fact that people take one side or the other. If you took all of the knowledge in the universe, and figured what percent we actually have, how much would it be? 50%? I doubt it! 10%? Even that is beyond what I would believe. But whatever the %, it is just pure arrogance to assume that you can or cannot answer this question with a finite mind. Let the atheists have their say, let the scientists, Christians, and Mulsims, and etc. speak too. Then let the public make a choice. I think we all have a lot to learn from one another. But to not listen or to shut the mouths of those who want to speak only makes us more ignorant.

BTW, I did respond to your post on my site. Thanks for your comments.

George Junior said...

@ spherical toys

Applying percentages like that to knowledge doesn't make sense to me. Do we know 800% more than the Romans and a 1000% more than the Greeks?

But seriously, I'm puzzled. You seem to be a person of strong belief, yet when you say (with reference to the existence of a god) "it is just pure arrogance to assume that you can or cannot answer this question with a finite mind" it makes me wonder why you yourself are not then an agnostic on the matter.

Where have my round spherical toys gone? said...

According to MY experience, God does exist. I believe that He is real and active. But I am not in a place to say that because that is where my experiences have led me, that you must go there too. THAT is where the arrogance comes in. What I believe, and that is all that I can attest to, is based on my experiences. I would not choose to belittle another because their current life experience has led them to decide otherwise.
I whole-heartedly (at least as much as I am able) seek to follow in the footsteps of Christ. I don't see him condemning, I see him speaking the truth in LOVE, not in arrogance or intolerance. To say that you cannot answer the question of God's existance simply confirms the message of the Bible, that such matters must be taken on faith. And no matter which side you take, you do so on faith. Christians (at least honest ones), take it on faith. Agnostics have faith that their ambiguity on the matter is the best they can do, and even Darwins's followers cannot conclusively prove his every theory. That is where the idea of us being finite comes into play.

My wife came home today talking about a co-worker who refuses to believe in a God who lets children suffer and people die of cancer. I spent part of today reading a story about reindeer in the Artic, and how they starved themselves to death because they were put on an island where they had no predators and no disease. Seems like in our system, death has a place. And whether I like it or not, I am not the determiner (nor do I want to be) of what role death has. But it does have a place. Do I want to live in a world where the God and creator is limited to act within the boundaries of MY UNDERSTANDING? Absolutely not! That would be like me coming home with my paycheck and asking my 6 year old how they think I should spend it each week! There is no way they would agree with my decisions or me with theirs. So I will leave the God choices to Him, and I will just deal with my choices. I am comfortable (somewhat) with that, and I really don't have a choice in the matter anyway!

A hundred years ago, who would have thought that

Dale said...

spherical, you seem to bounce confusingly between knowing and claiming not to. Is it a good idea to follow Jesus or not? If it is, doesn't that require some fairly solid idea of what it entails in thoughts and deeds? Or did you simply draw "follow Jesus" out of a hat and then just start casting around blindly for what to do next?

I understand you think you don't have *all* the answers -- neither do I, neither does anyone, and incidentally, the only people I know who think they have absolute certainty about Big Questions are religious people (a few famous recent examples were so certain of god's wishes that they willingly flew airliners into skyscrapers) -- but I think you feel you have a grasp of the essential answers.

To wit, you've made rather definite-sounding claims about Jesus -- that he has a message centered on love, for example. You seem to know what that message is, and what Jesus expects of you. You think, in the first place, that following Jesus is better than following Buddha, Mohammed, Zeus, or a thousand other gods I might list. You seem rather convinced that Darwin is someone that people worship, but you seem at least as convinced that he's the wrong guy to worship.

I don't beleive in god simply because I don't see any evidence to believe he/she/it exists in the first place. That, to me, is the response of humility to ignorance.

If something shows me that god exists, I will respond accordingly. Until then, I'll try to keep my wishes from driving my conclusions, because, again, as someone who tries to be reasonable, I don't expect the universe to make me happy. If god exists, I hope he'll show himself and let me know what he wants. Then we'll go from there.

Meanwhile, the world is awash in phony certainties: everywhere I turn I find someone who *just knows* who god is and what he wants.

To this noise, I answer: prove it.

I also say don't call yourself ignorant and then claim to read the mind of god. Those just don't go together.

Where have my round spherical toys gone? said...

I find it interesting that you think I bounce between “knowing” and claiming not to. Please don’t confuse my honest searching or questioning with doubt. If you are going to ask me point blank, is it a good idea to follow Jesus, I will answer no. It is not a good idea. The stuff that Jesus asks of us is difficult, if not impossible. You’d have to be crazy to follow someone like that (stay with me here, I’m not done.) But I freely confess to being an idiot. BTW, the Bible agrees with me, calling the cross foolishness for man, BUT the power of salvation for those who believe. No, it is not a “good idea” to follow Jesus. It is, however, essential according to what I understand, if you are interested in salvation.

As I delve into the world of atheists and agnostics, I keep hearing this challenge to prove God exists. As if we have the right to know for certain on our own terms. God has proven himself! The creation screams out it has a creator, yet many ignore that, choosing to put their faith in chance or randomness. Yet what if God did prove himself? What if he left NO DOUBT about his existence? Wouldn’t it follow that He could then DEMAND our all? Why would a God who removed all doubt continue to put up with us at all? The fact that you have the ability to doubt shows the mercy of God. If God were to show Himself to you, you would have no choice in what to believe, and that goes against everything that He is. He is not a dictator, although some perhaps would choose this option because it does make it easier to follow Him. Zealous Christians, who often lack an understanding of the true God, are just as guilty of this. Again, in my humble opinion.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, and I am more than willing to dialogue with others as I seek to understand my world, my God, etc. But to those who ask me to prove God to them, I offer this challenge, prove he does not exist. To merely pray a prayer and to say that He does not exist does nothing. You cannot force God to answer prayer. Even Jesus did not get all of his prayers answered as He wished. (He prayed in the Garden for the Father to take away the cup of suffering he was about to endure, and that didn’t happen!) The only way you can prove God does not exist is if you had some kind of power over God, and I don’t see that happening.

I cannot PROVE to you that God exists. I am thankful for that, because if I could it would spell the end for both of us. God could then destroy all of the atheists and He certainly would not have any more use for me either. So I guess we agree not to agree.

Lastly, if I have claimed to “read the mind of God,” I apologize. However, I do have an impression of who God is and that does shape my beliefs. I can only respond within those parameters. I understand that I may be off in some areas, and that is why I continue to search and struggle for answers, in an effort to draw closer to my creator.

kh123 said...

Absolutely, Dawkins is allowed to say or write what he likes, just as Bill Maher has the wherewithall to make docudramas about the ridiculousness of religion, how Douglas Futuyma has the (taxpayer) financial means to propagate his belief in non-intelligent (atheistic) origin stories, or how Julius Streicher had the same freedom to entertain the world with his lovable exposés on the insidious "mental virus" of Judaism in his publication Der Stürmer...

The thing that's ironic is how readily Dawkins would limit the right of free speech of whomever he opposes as soon as he would achieve High Priest of Onestate status. (He seems to have accomplished the High Priest of Darwin position after Gould's death, which isn't bad for a guy hailing from an island.)

"Keeping silent on evolution" as you say - Not at all! Scientists should be able to readily state the facts, in their own publications and in textbooks (if they weren't gagged already by the NCSE and the like): They should be able to not feel weighed down by professional fealties (as Gould put it) and freely state that macro evolution is a fairly low-grade hypothesis - essentially a belief - about the origin of complex biological features, along with its propositions about the phylogeny of organisms, the non-observable history of the earth, etc.

(Philip Skell, a professor at Penn State and a member of the NAS, at least broached the subject in The Scientist back in August 2005: "“I … queried biologists working in areas where one would expect the Darwinian paradigm to have most benefited research, such as the emergence of resistance to antibiotics and pesticides. Here, as elsewhere, I found that Darwin's theory had provided no discernible guidance, but was brought in, after the breakthroughs, as an interesting narrative gloss.”)

Ultimately, Dawkins' grand unifying vision (not his but Darwin's) about the "origin of everything" is not operational science - it may utilize certain aspects of operational science to, say, observe morphological measurements; the current status of the genetic blueprint (and how this complex machinery works); how ecological niching, stabilization, mutation, and speciation occur at present (an observation formulated well before Darwin by a creationist named Blythe, by the way)... and so on.

...But the Darwinian narrative starts to delve into that pesky thing called faith when it proposes grand creation stories about life, the planet, and history. And necessarily so: You can't scientifically observe, measure, or repeat past, one-time singularities or events. Even Dawkins has admitted as such: "But that was 365 million years ago; you wouldn't expect to see that today."...

And, considering that we can now observe via biochemistry and microbiology, that things start to turn into a NASA version of Mousetrap at the cellular and genetic level - something Darwin was necessarily ignorant of at the time of Origin (Charlie had no way of knowing about it, since the science just wasn't invented yet - a claim to ignorance Dawkins can't invoke for himself, especially considering his granted status of Lysenko Professor of Scientific Understanding at Oxford)...

So yes, one has (or should have) the freedom to state their mind on whatever one pleases, even if it is contested, belief-based, conjectural, or diatribal. (This comment alone should prove that, right?) The problem being of course is that this freedom is a one-sided privilege in the big boys' club (scientific community) at present. Dawkins apparently wouldn't have it any other way.

And that's only part of the problem people have with Dick's proposals - just on the actual scientific end of things. When he puts on his Monday best and tries to become the Grand Inquisitor... well, folks know the rest.

Dale said...

Quoth kh123:The thing that's ironic is how readily Dawkins would limit the right of free speech of whomever he opposes as soon as he would achieve High Priest of Onestate status. (He seems to have accomplished the High Priest of Darwin position after Gould's death, which isn't bad for a guy hailing from an island.)

Before that can be "ironic" as you say, it needs to be established as a claim worth taking seriously about what Richard Dawkins would do in a given scenario. As it stands, it is, like everything else you've typed here, groundless bluster.

Granted, all the talk of grand inquisitors and high priests probably garners applause at your dinner parties. I'll bet your friends consider you witty when you cut down the big bad Dawkins in that way, and no doubt that thing about Lysenko is another sly grab at that wit that makes you so charming in whatever circles you run. Who knows, maybe it will score you points with your favorite god, redeemable for extra curly fries at heaven's grill or bonus hours in the great spa beyond the stars. Neat! By all means, keep it up!

You speak of an "origin of everything" complete with scare quotes. What or whom are you quoting? At best, you seem to be assuming that abiogenesis is part of Darwinian natural selection. It is not.

Darwin did not claim that his mechanism of natural selection explains the origin of life. And then he died many decades ago. Some modern-day evolutionary biologists (e.g., PZ Myers) hold that a process analagous to, possibly identical with, natural selection can account for life's origin. Other modern-day evolutionary biologists do not.

I'm sorry, I guess, that you're dissatisfied with the predictions associated Darwinian natural selection (you might check the "narrative" of the discovery of the tiktaalik for a recent and much-discussed example). You sound downright irked that other predictions you have in mind aren't on the offer -- I gather these would be, among others, exact predictions of the course of genetic mutations and, from there, I suppose, exact predictions of future phylogenies. I agree that would be awesome.

I have to point out that I'm not really a good place to register that plea, sad or outraged or plaintive as it may be.