In his book Indiscrete Thoughts, mathematician Gian-Carlo Rota spoofed a certain style of book reviewing:
The bane of expository work is Professor Neanderthal of Redwood Poly. In his time, Professor Neanderthal studied noncommutative ring theory with the great X, and over the years, despite heavy teaching and administrative commitments (including a deanship), he has found time to publish three notes on idempotents (of which he is justly proud) in the Proceedings of the American Mathematical Society.
Professor Neanderthal has not failed to keep up with the latest developments in noncommutative ring theory. Given more time, he would surely have written the definitive treatment of the subject. After buying his copy of T. Y. Lam’s long-expected treatise at his local college bookstore, Professor Neanderthal will spend a few days perusing the volume, after which he will be confirmed in his darkest suspicions: the author does not include even a mention, let alone a proof, of the Worpitzky-Yamomoto theorem! Never mind that the Worpitzky-Yamomoto theorem is an isolated result known only to a few initiates (or perverts, as graduate students whisper behind the professor’s back). In Professor Neanderthal’s head the omision of his favorite result is serious enough to damn the whole work. It matters little that all the main facts on noncommutative rings are given the clearest exposition ever, with definitive proofs, the right examples, and a well thought out logical sequence respecting the history of the subject. By judicious use of the U. S. mails, the telephone, and his recently acquired fax machine, Professor Neanderthal will make sure that the entire noncommutative ring community will be made aware of this shocking omission. He will send an unsolicited review of the book to the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society in which the author’s gaffe will be publicized.
In a comment to Wednesday’s post, DS suggested that I should not be so dismissive of the philosophical and theological criticisms levelled at Richard Dawkins and The God Delusion. After pondering the matter for the past two days, I’ve decided the issue desereves a post of its own.
Why am I generally so dismissive of the critical reviews of Dawkins’ book? The short answer is that I believe most of the critics, especially among the philosophers and theologians, are behaving like Professor Neanderthal. They are offering criticisms not from a genuine desire to refute any major point Dawkins is making, but instead out of a desire to burnish their own credentials, or to huff and puff over some trivial omission.
For the longer answer, let us examine specifically Michael Ruse’s review, published in the academic journal Isis. After a few introductory paragraphs, Ruse writes:
Whatever may be the case, it is not that the atheists are having a field day because of the brilliance and novelty of their thinking. Frankly-and I speak here as a nonbeliever myself, pretty atheistic about Christianity and skeptical about all theological claims-the material being churned out is second rate. And that is a euphemism for “downright awful.”
Strong words. Let us see how Ruse backs them up. His first counter point is this:
A major part of the book involves ripping into the chief arguments for the existence of God. I confess that it is the first time in my life that I have felt sorry for the ontological argument.
For “ontological argument&rdquo read “Worpitzky-Yamomoto theorem.”
I have not seen any statistics on the matter, but I’d be amazed if it’s even one Christian in a thousand who could tell you what the ontological argument is. And I’d be doubly amazed if you could find very many who believe in God because they find the argument persuasive. Nonetheless, it is an argument with considerable historical significance, and one about which philosophers and theologians have spilled a preposterous amount of ink. In light of these facts Dawkins chose to give a brief description of the classical form of the argument, to explain the major problems with it, and to refer people to Mackie’s book The Miracle of Theism for a comprehensive and nuanced discussion of the matter. Seemed like a sensible approach to me, especially given that he was writing a popular exposition of these ideas intended to be read, as opposed to an academic philosophical treatise intended only to exist.
Notice that Ruse doesn’t really think the ontological argument has any merit. He wants it to be perfectly clear that he puts no stock in it, and that he doesn’t think a Mackie-like treatment of the argument would have altered any important conclusions Dawkins is drawing. Yet he makes this his lead-off point in his condemnation of the book. Curious.
Here’s Ruse’s next point:
More seriously, Dawkins is entirely ignorant of the fact that no believer-with the possible exception of some English clerics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries-has ever thought that arguments are the best support for belief. Saint Augustine, one of the greatest thinkers of Western civilization, devoted but one paragraph in the City of God to the proofs. Saint Thomas was categorical that the proofs are second to faith.
For sheer ivory-tower cluelessness coupled with familiar academic arrogance this statement is hard to top. It is all the more bizarre given Ruse’s history of work among creationists. Let us begin with the obvious. C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, one of the most famous and beloved works of Christian apologetics ever written, devotes his first chapter to how a process of armchair ratiocination (based on the universality of basic moral principles) led him to a belief in God. He goes on to discuss how it was reason that persauded him of the truth of the Christian scriptures. So much for Ruse’s absurdly absolutist statement.
Suggest to any Christian fundamentalist or evangelical that theirs is a religion based on blind faith and watch how quickly they bristle. They will inform you that, on the contrary, theirs is a faith backed up by reason. They will tell you that reason can’t actually prove that God exists, but it can make the proposition seem so likely that a rational person should accept it as true. They say things like, “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist!” which is their cheeky way of saying that invoking the deity is the only way of making sense of the facts of life as we know them. I would add that this is also the official view of the Catholic Church.
If Ruse’s intention is to hide behind his proviso that no believer thinks that arguments provide the best support for belief, I will still want to know how he backs up his statement. In my experience it almost never happens that a religious believer will tell you he believes in God because he has faith, and that is all. Instead they nearly always invoke the argument from design. Frequently they tell me about personal experiences they have had that have persuaded them. I have also had several people tell me that they decided to read the Bible simply out of skeptical curiosity, but were so overwhelmed by the force of the writing that they quickly came to believe. Dawkins is quite right to devote a few pages to each of these (more than a few in the case of the argument for design), and to several others besides.
So Ruse’s heroic attempt to downplay the importance of rational arguments in the religious life of believers is utterly laughable. Even worse is the simple fact that Dawkins never said that religious believers regard rational argument as the best support for belief. He said simply, in effect, “Here are some arguments that are commonly thrown at atheists in support of God’s existence, and here is why they are not very convincing.” I don’t know how Ruse is drawing his inference about Dawkins’ ignorance.
We have seen the first two planks in Ruse’s case for the awfulness of Dawkins’ book. The first is the trivial one that Dawkins gave short shrift to the ontological argument. The second is based on a blatantly false statement about the nature of religious belief, coupled with an equally blatant falsehood about what Dawkins is claiming. But Ruse is not finished:
Dawkins misunderstands the place of the proofs, but this is nothing to his treatment of the proofs themselves. This is a man truly out of his depth. Does he honestly think that no philosopher or theologian has ever thought of or worried about the infinite regress of the cosmological argument? If God caused the world, what caused God? The standard reply is that God needs no cause because he is a necessary being, eternal, outside time. Read Saint Augustine’s Confessions. Just as 2+2=4 is uncaused and always true, so is God’s existence. Now, you might want to worry about the notion of necessary existence. But at least you should know that it is something to worry about. And if you are going to reject the notion, then you must yourself address the key question behind the proof, the question that Martin Heidegger said was the fundamental question of metaphysics: Why is there something rather than nothing? If not God, then what?
Once again Ruse is distorting Dawkins’ argument. Dawkins’ ruminations about the designer regress are not found in his discussion of the proofs for God’s existence. They are found instead in a different chapter, in which Dawkins discusses the argument from design, and explains why the progress of science has made the existence of God seem very unlikely.
I am referring to Chapter Four of his book. This chapter is 47 pages long. It is a tiny portion of this chapter that is devoted to the idea that invoking God to explain complexity leads to the problem of infinite regress. It is quite a reasonable thing to point out, considering that so many religious believers (I am basing this both on personal experience and on the arguments I see laid out in books on Christian apologetics) seem to think that invoking God to explain complexity is some sort of explanation for free. Dawkins’ point in this chapter is that invoking God is an exceptionally poor sort of explanation, and one of which we have no need given the much better explanations science offers.
And to show that Dawkins’ is out of his depth with this entirely common-sensical argument, Ruse excoriates him for not mentioning the argument that God is a necessary being. If you are not familiar with that particular piece of theological sophistry, suffice it to say it is yet another example of an a priori argument. That is, it is an attempt to prove that God exists by logic alone, as opposed to doing so via an appeal to the facts of the world as we know them. As such it is closely related to the ontological argument and the first cause argument (both of which are discussed by Dawkins). The basic idea is that every fact about the universe, including its existence, is contingent in the sense that we can imagine it being otherwise. If this is the case something must exist necessarily to bring all of these contingent facts into being in the first place. That necessarily existing entity is God.
This is not very persuasive, to put it kindly. It simply assumes what it is trying to prove, namely that the existence of the universe is contingent. Of more relevance to the present discussion, however, is that Dawkins does discuss the notion of a priori arguments for God. He does not use the term “necessary being,” but he certainly discusses the idea, both in the chapter on arguments for God and in his chapter on the argument from design. Ruse may not be happy with Dawkins’ discussion, but he does not overlook the point.
And notice, once again, that Ruse wants it to be perfectly clear that he personally does not find the argument that God is a necessary being to be compelling. Had Dawkins stopped the action for a few pages to discuss the notion, absolutely none of his conclusions would have been changed in the slightest. Ruse raises the point as another Worpitzky-Yamomoto theorem.
Surely Ruse must realize that he is engaging in an exceptionally cheap form of argument here. It is an all-purpose response that can be used any time your views are challenged. For example, here’s a passage from Ruse’s book Darwinism and its Discontents:
But one must add at once that this kind of [literal] reading of Genesis has never — at least since Saint Augustine, around 400 A.D. — been obligatory for Christians. Indeed, Augustine himself warned explicitly against this kind of literal interpretation of Scripture. On the one side, it is bound to get you into trouble, even without evolution. How, for instance, could God say, “Let there be light” before the Sun was created. (pp. 277)
Do you think Ruse would be impressed by a young-Earth creationist reviewer who wrote:
Ruse is brazen in his ignorance of young-Earth theology. This is truly a man out of his depth. Does he honestly believe that he is the first to see the problem of how there could be light before the Sun was created? The standard reply is that God is omnipotent, and if he wants to have light without the Sun he can have it. The Sun is not the only source of light, you know. And if you are going to reject that notion you must at least answer the question that lies behind it, if God is not the source of all light then what is?
Of course he wouldn’t be impressed. He would reply that he was giving a brief summary of some important issues, but was making no pretense at being comprehensive. Ruse’s book is chock-full of places where he makes an argument without stopping to consider all of the myriad responses that have been offered in reply. Shall we excoriate him for this? Or shall we acknowedlege that editorial decisions must be made, and sometime that means leaving out the Worpitzky-Yamomoto theorem.
Mind you, it would be different if Dawkins’ were being accused of leaving out good counter-arguments. But Ruse doesn’t have any of those to offer. As we have noted, Ruse is quick to apologize for the points he does raise, and makes it perefectly clear he does not think they ultimately have much substance.
And that’s it! That’s Ruse’s entire case for Dawkins’ philosophical ineptitude and for the awfulness of his book. Not a single example of where Dawkins concluded X, but a more sophisticated understanding of philosophy or theology would have cause him to conclude Y instead. Not a single example of a decent argument for God’s existence that Dawkins overlooked.
It would seem that Ruse is just sore that in a book that was already over 400 pages long, Dawkins chose not to delve into certain bits of esoteric philosphical flapdoodle of interest only to a handful of academic fetishists. And this failing on Ruse’s part is completely typical of the angry reactions to Dawkins’ book. So many critics seem to think their job is done after listing various theologians Dawkins failed to mention or by pointing to skillful bits of theological obfuscation Dawkins chose not to discuss. They would be more impressive if they pointed to something important that Dawkins got wrong, as opposed to something he chose not to discuss.
That is why I am so unimpressed with, and am generally dismissive of, so many of the critics of Dawkins’ book.
It’s not as if Dawkins’ book is perfect. There are plenty of legitimate criticisms that can be levelled, and I certainly agree that there are places where Dawkins fell down on the job. My view is simply that Dawkins gets it right far more often than he gets it wrong, and that his book is important given the current cultural climate in America. For an example of a critic who, in a very small amount of space, managed to put his finger on both the strengths and weaknesses of the book, I recommend Michael Shermer’s essay in Science.
Incidentally, Ruse does have one additional argument to make. But we shall save it for the next post…