Sunday, May 24, 2009

"I am a Dawkins fan, but ..."

I hereby step out of comments to make an extended reply to an anonymous commenter who wrote (commenting on this):

I am a Dawkins fan, but I think your last sentence is too strong. What would you think of a man who denied the existence of sea serpents, or of paranormal phenomena generally, without troubling to find out what those things are understood to be by those who believe in them?
Frankly, the first thing I'd think of such a man is to wonder why a grown man is preoccupied with sea serpents, but on to bigger and better substance.

To such a person I would insist on the usual: sure, let's take a careful look at the paranormal phenomenon, drawing on the most reliable methods, tools, and expertise available. At the end of that, we should expect to arrive at one of three places: that it was never anything other than normal in the first place (there was either a mistake or a fraud); that it appears to be something heretofore unknown, so that the boundaries of normal are now widened (this is rare but it certainly happens); or that we still don't know enough even after the best possible assessment, so its status remains indeterminate.

In The God Delusion and in assorted other writings and speeches, Dawkins has spelled out the claims he's assessing, and they surely come with theological ramifications: that an agent existed and willed the life, the universe, and everything into existence at a particular point in time; and that a specific individual came to exist on earth in a specific place and time, performed thus and so feats, spread thus and so teachings that came directly from the aforementioned creator-entity, came to a seemingly normal death (not to say a pleasant one), but lived on to take a place of privilege beside the creator-entity in a realm beyond the earth.

This is a fair enough approximation, I think, of Dawkins's starting point -- one I've stated broadly enough to cover essential claims of all three Abrahamic faiths -- and it's not difficult to see where he gets it. Suffice to say Dawkins didn't originate this picture of reality.

Dawkins then evaluates this claim in the light of everything he knows about the development of life on earth, biology, geology, physics, astronomy, math, history, anthropology, philosophy, and other disciplines. In some of these areas, he is already an established expert; in others, he draws on the expertise of others. At the end of his analysis, Dawkins concludes it is very likely that god does not exist.

Without question, there is more theology than is dreamt of in the collected works of Richard Dawkins. Fair enough. Every critic of Dawkins is free to specify what he left out and how it impinges on the quality of his arguments and conclusions.

To be useful, this criticism needs to be specific and clear -- it is not interesting or informative merely to list books, thinkers, or schools of thought that Dawkins didn't include in his end notes.

I offer a guess. I guess that it's something along the lines of "god cannot be detected or observed by any means."

If this guess is right, I call it bullshit: unhelpful bullshit, dead-end bullshit, vacuous bullshit. If god is such that his/its existence cannot be traced to any evidence or effect in the observable universe, then there's nothing to discuss or dispute, let alone revere, love, expect love from, grovel toward, appeal to, or otherwise ponder. If god is some ineffable, unknowable, impenetrably mysterious blob -- or if god is just a label for everything we can never know -- then we're far afield of anything that sane people trouble themselves talking about, and far afield of what religious believers routinely bother to pray to. A wise man once said what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.


Anonymous said...

I am that commentator. I am an atheist, but have talked with a fair number of Christians. They do not say that God cannot be detected by any means. Often they claim to have a direct experience of him, which appears to them as a personal relationship. I'm not sure how science could adjudge such a claim. Brain scans could show that something is going on in the brain of someone claiming to have a religious experience, and I understand that often they do.

Dale said...

Anon., I read some of the news items about the 'god spot' research that came out recently. I didn't comment on it because it didn't seem to amount to anything. Here is a Scientific American piece on it.

Quoting that: pondering god produces "pretty much the same brain patterns as thinking about people you've never met such as historical figures or movie stars."

If you haven't encountered Christians who claim that god is, in principle, undetectable, then you haven't encountered very many Christians. I come across this quite a bit, but whatever.

I'm not sure what to say of something that is capable of producing a "direct experience" in people's heads that forms the basis of a "personal relationship." Unless there's more and better evidence to point to, I'd say that sounds a lot like an everyday delusion -- or a kinder word might be projection.

I can easily engage in interactions of that sort with my dead mom and grandmother, but if I'm honest with myself about it, I have to conclude that the most sensible explanation renders it nothing more than the interaction of "wishful thinking," memory, and imagination.

Generally speaking, I think people are pretty bad -- surprisingly bad, depending on what you consider surprising -- at processing and distinguishing actual interactions with actual people from imagined, projected, or otherwise made-up interactions with imaginary agencies (remembered people, historical figures, pets, literary characters, film characters, celebrities they've never really met, people they think they know from their works, e.g., artists, writers, and performers). I discussed this in a little more depth a while back here and here, FWIW.

In short, I think there are straightforwardly naturalistic explanations for "personal experiences" of non-existent deities, and that there's no reason to clutter these with supernatural humbug.