Friday, May 22, 2009

A Response to the Courtier's Reply

This is a slightly edited version of a comment I chipped in at The Film Talk in an exchange ensuing from Gareth Higgins's claim that

at the end of it all, the questions of the interaction between faith and science that the film [Angels and Demons] mentions deserve a better hearing than they’re getting either in movies like this, or in the work of Richard Dawkins.
Frequent flyers in the theism-atheism debates will recognize this quick jape directed at Richard Dawkins as a version of the Courtier's Reply, and it strikes me as not enough merely to parody the Courtier's Reply but to specify exactly what's wrong with it. So this is an attempt in that vein.

Concerning Richard Dawkins:

(a) He has said many times -- and I think he has a very good point here -- that the relevance of theology depends completely on the quality of an underlying truth claim, namely that a god either does or does not exist. If god does not exist, then theology does not matter at all, as it is nothing more than an edifice of word games and just-so stories stacked on a delusion. If god does exist, nothing could be important than theology (defined here as the discipline devoted to understanding god's revelations, his will, his rules, etc.)

(b) While Dawkins has no discernible background in theology, his work in science establishes his expertise as an evaluator of fact-based hypotheses, and he insists, rightly, that the question of god's existence is question of fact. Dawkins has a strong record of winnowing what's demonstrably true from the nice-sounding-but-false, the not-particularly-nice-sounding-but-false, and the outright-laughably-false. He is explicit about his method of evaluating truth claims, and having applied it to the question of god's existence/non-existence, he has concluded it is false -- or, more exactly, he has found it very likely false. Readers of The God Delusion will recall he assigns it a 6 on a 7-point scale where 1 = 100% certainly true and 7 = 100% certainly false.

People rather vociferously differ on whether Dawkins succeeded or failed in arriving at that conclusion, and on whether his method for getting to that conclusion is properly suited to the question. But make no mistake: that god very likely does not exist is Dawkins's paramount conclusion.

I think he's right with (a) above, and that being so, he does indeed spend no time on theology. I would expect him to change on that -- I know I would -- were someone to successfully demonstrate, with strong reasoning and evidence and a supportable truth-evaluation methodology whose terms are specified, that the 6 needs to be dialed back to a lower number.

Finally, I would simply ask the critics who continue to issue variations of the Courtier's Reply whether and to what extent they have considered all the theology that they have rejected -- Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Mormon, Catholic, Protestant, Shinto, competing sects, etc.

Do they insist that every thinking person devote serious attention all the theology he/she does not currently embrace -- suspending judgment until it has all been given a fair hearing? Or do they, as I suspect tends to be the case, selectively apply this to Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, PZ Myers, and other atheists?

I continue to affirm, along with Dawkins, that questions of theology matter only after god's existence has been demonstrated.


Anonymous said...

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?

Ajita Kamal said...

@Anonymous: The issue is not in comprehending the definition of terms but in the rather lengthy sophistic debates used to defend the existence of God. You are creating a straw-man argument. There is little confusion as to the meaning of sea-serpents. Of course we can get bogged down in a Wittgenstein-like deadlock in defining terms, but then we'd get nowhere.

Sea-serpents do exist. There is plenty of evidence for them. No scientific experiment has ever demonstrated the existence of the paranormal (perhaps by definition). Therefore, the rational perspective is doubt/skepticism. Similarly, only after God can be logically proven to exist is there any sense in immersing oneself in the any one of the countless forms of the delusion.

Dale said...

Ajita, nicely put. I might have mentioned that I followed up on this anonymous comment with another post, here: