This week’s New York Times Book Review features a review of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion that judges the book fairly harshly:
The least satisfying part of this book is Dawkins’s treatment of the traditional arguments for the existence of God. The “ontological argument” says that God must exist by his very nature, since he possesses all perfections, and it is more perfect to exist than not to exist. The “cosmological argument” says that the world must have an ultimate cause, and this cause could only be an eternal, God-like entity. The “design argument” appeals to special features of the universe (such as its suitability for the emergence of intelligent life), submitting that such features make it more probable than not that the universe had a purposive cosmic designer.
These, in a nutshell, are the Big Three arguments. To Dawkins, they are simply ridiculous. He dismisses the ontological argument as “infantile” and “dialectical prestidigitation” without quite identifying the defect in its logic, and he is baffled that a philosopher like Russell — “no fool” — could take it seriously. He seems unaware that this argument, though medieval in origin, comes in sophisticated modern versions that are not at all easy to refute. Shirking the intellectual hard work, Dawkins prefers to move on to parodic “proofs” that he has found on the Internet, like the “Argument From Emotional Blackmail: God loves you. How could you be so heartless as not to believe in him? Therefore God exists.” (For those who want to understand the weaknesses in the standard arguments for God’s existence, the best source I know remains the atheist philosopher J. L. Mackie’s 1982 book “The Miracle of Theism.”)
In the London Review of Books, Terry Eagleton is even less kind:
LRB | Vol. 28 No. 20 dated 19 October 2006 | Terry Eagleton
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Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins · Bantam, 406 pp, £20.00
Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster. These days, theology is the queen of the sciences in a rather less august sense of the word than in its medieval heyday.
Predictably, PZ Myers doesn’t much like this:
Shorter Terry Eagleton: “How dare a mere scientist criticize theology?” The whole thing blusters on in that vein for far too long.
I’m probably seven kinds of foolish for commenting on this at all, but I think PZ misses the point of these reviews (he only comments on Eagleton, but Holt’s point is basically the same) by a rather wide margin. I’ll attempt to explain why with an analogy to a familiar scientific phenomenon.
The problem is not that Dawkins as a scientist is not qualified to discuss religion, rather, the problem is that Dawkins has committed the cardinal sin of a scientist changing fields: He hasn’t done the background reading.
(Continued below the fold.)
What’s going on here ought to be familiar to pretty much any scholar who has seen people from another discipline attempt to contribute to a field that isn’t their own. Sometimes, cross-disciplinary discussions are extremely fruitful, but all too often, they start off very badly, with the outsiders coming in and making grand pronouncements about standing problems in a given field, without any apparent knowledge that the problem in questions has, in fact, already been discussed in quite some detail.
It happens all the time. This is why people like Daniel Davies get hacked off at physicists who pontificate on economics. It’s why condensed matter physicists get snippy with atomic physicists (who they see as late arrivals to the BEC field). I’ve even been party to it myself: when we first started looking into some ultra-cold plasma physics experiments, we had no idea of the depth of the work that had already gone into what we thought was unexplored territory.
Actually, now that I think about it, physicists are really pretty much the kings of this sort of thing…
The accusation levelled by Holt and Eagleton is that Dawkins is engaged in the same sort of thing. Whatever you think of theology as an academic pursuit, the plain fact is that people have been debating proofs and disproofs of the existence of God for hundreds of years. If you intend to take up the subject, let alone claim to make a definitive statement on the matter, you have an obligation to learn about the history of that field, and the current status of the arguments therein. To do anything less is the absolute pinnacle of arrogance, not to mention rather rude.
Now, from all reports, Dawkins is a pretty smart guy, so I suppose it’s conceivable that he’s come up with some wholly new and irrefutable argument against the existence of God. Given how long smart people have been debating the question, though, I kind of doubt it. And what Eagleton and Holt are saying is that he hasn’t raised any issues that people haven’t thought of before, and that none of what he says was convincing the first time around.
Disclaimer: I haven’t read Dawkins’s book, nor do I intend to. He rubs me the wrong way when he talks about science (I wish I could find the old post somebody on ScienceBlogs did about the vapidity of the whole “meme” thing), and really gets up my nose when he talks about religion. I can’t say whether Eagleton and Holt are accurate in their assessment (though I’m inclined to believe them). All I’m saying here is what I think their actual argument is, rather than the caricature version PZ Myers is responding to.
As I said above, though, I suspect this is wasted typing on my part. A few sentences after the quoted bit above, Myers writes:
Eagleton practically snarls that Dawkins is “theologically illiterate”…which I think is a good thing. I don’t need to know the arcana of drawing up a horoscope to know that astrology is bunk; similarly, no one needs to spend years poring over the scribblings of theologians to see that their god is a phantasm.
If that’s the way you approach the problem, then there really isn’t any room for further conversation. But, at the same time, you can’t take this sort of approach, and expect to be treated as a Serious Intellectual by the London Review of Books or the New York Times Book Review. At that point, you’ve pretty much decided to be Stephen Wolfram, and deserve what you get.
(See also Ben at the World’s Fair.)