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Richard Dawkins has a new book out – for kids no less – and Casey Luskin is on the case. Luskin, you’ll recall is the Disco. ‘tute’s chief pettifogger (in the classical sense), and his tendency to work himself into uncanny heights of excitement over every new creationist argument has earned him the affectionate nickname “fainting dachshund.”

Dawkins’s book is about myths, how we tell stories to explain things, but that sometimes those stories aren’t true, and how science offers a way to tell stories that are true, and how kids can tell the difference. It’s got lovely illustrations by Dave McKean, and there’s an excerpt of The Magic of Reality available at NCSE’s website.

Casey has many objections, but perhaps his most entertaining charge is that the book is simply too scary even for nominal grownups like himself:

One odd aspect of the book is its apparent obsession with occult-style images. A friend and I went through The Magic of Reality and together we counted over a dozen pages with pictures of demons, devils, and the like. The one above [a dragon merging with an airplane -JR] is pretty tame compared to other stuff in the book. These aren’t cute cartoony-devils — they’re probably enough to give the average kid nightmares. And I say this as someone who loves sci-fi / fantasy media and has a pretty strong stomach for this sort of thing.

Depending on your ideological leanings, right now you might be thinking either “Sweet!,” or “Uh, that’s a little weird.” As much as I enjoy science fiction and fantasy, I’m definitely leaning toward the latter end of the spectrum. After all, if you wanted to give your kid a fun book about science, why would you want it to be full of creepy pictures of demons and devils? I’m also left wondering: Why is Dawkins apparently so obsessed with occult topics and iconography?

I had a copy of the book at hand, so I checked it out. Unless you count a drawing of a fairy godmother and some Norse and African gods, I can’t see how you’d say there are demons or devils on over a dozen pages. I counted 4 pages with devils on them, and those were fairly tame. Why does Dawkins include drawings of deities and spirits from other cultures? Because he’s writing a book about myths, and deities and spirits are central to most myths.

If anything, the drawings of people are scarier than the drawings of the mythic beasts. The magicians Penn and Teller are shown in the midst of their famous bullet-catching trick, with smoke still rising from the gun in Penn’s hand. The Amazing Randi is shown riffling a deck of cards, with a glint in his eye that would give Old Nick shivers. But these are humans, and indeed quite friendly ones.
I don’t know what science fiction Casey reads or watches, but a bit of scary imagery is par for the course. The Lord of the Rings books involve orcs and sorcery and Balrogs and elves and the Nazgûl, and a higher density of gruesome death than anything Richard Dawkins has offered.

Indeed, I’d file Casey’s claim to be a science fiction/fantasy fan alongside his previous claims to love Snoop Dogg, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, etc. Not as wrong, necessarily, but as irrelevant. I’d guess his reading (and perhaps his “friend”‘s) runs more in this vein:

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Complaining about the “demons” in The Magic of Reality makes as much sense as attacking “satanism” in Harry Potter.

There’s another aspect of Casey’s essay that’s worth noting, which is that he basically cuts the legs out from under Discovery Institute Senior Fellow Bill Dembski.

Casey complains that Dawkins “simply assume[s] that miracles don’t happen,” then quotes Dawkins:

Hume didn’t come right out and say miracles are impossible. Instead he asked us to think of a miracle as an improbable event — an event whose improbability we might estimate. The estimate doesn’t have to be exact. It’s enough that the improbability of a suggested miracle can be roughly placed on some sort of scale, and then compared with an alternative explanation such as hallucination or a lie.

And Casey replies:

Of course it’s good advice not to simply accept without investigation every claim of a miracle. But under all other circumstances you can think of, you would consider the testimony of a sane, credible witness trustworthy. Why not about miracles too? Dawkins wants us to disregard the testimony of such a credible witness, and hold miracles to an unreasonably high standard of proof — a standard unknown in any other human discipline of truth seeking.…

Dawkins’s method similarly assumes the untruth (read: insane “improbability”) of miracles before the inquiry even begins.…

“At least,” the skeptic may respond, “Dawkins admits the possibility of miracles. He’s just trying to be logical.'” Not so. … Dawkins’s parting wisdom to kids is that it is never, under any circumstances OK to accept a miracle. Kids must adopt the faith of scientism, which always denies even the possibility that miracles or the supernatural might be real.

We’ll set aside Casey’s gross misdefinition of scientism to get to a more interesting slip.

Readers familiar with the work of ID creationists may see something familiar in that passage. Bill Dembski’s arguments against evolution has long centered on an “explanatory filter,” by which one would assume biological structures (or indeed the entire universe) were designed unless the probability of those structures coming into existence by random chance exceeded some absurd probability threshold.

Critics objected that Dembski was assuming the untruth of evolution by letting “design” be the default state, they objected that his probability arguments set an insane threshold for justifying non-supernatural explanations, and ultimately to his holding evolutionary explanations to a higher standard of proof than any other human endeavor.

The difference between those charges against Dembski and Casey’s essentially identical charges against Dawkins are that Casey is wrong and Dembski’s critics were (and are) right. It’s good that Casey recognizes that the form of the argument is appropriate, he’s just chosen the wrong target. Dembski is setting up an undemonstrated concept as the default explanation for anything, and requires extraordinary levels of evidence (so extraordinary no one has ever carried out the computations for any realistic system) before he’ll accept any non-design explanation for anything.

While I disagree with much of Dawkins’s theology, the issue Casey takes with Dawkins is a nonstarter. Miracles are definitionally events that would be impossible within the natural laws we all know about and operate within. It’s hardly unreasonable – let alone scientism – for someone to say so, and to note that they are inherently extraordinarily rare. By granting them nonzero probability under normal conditions, Dawkins is actually granting more leeway to miracles than I – or traditional Christian theology – would do. And not to nitpick, but eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable, so being dubious of eyewitness claims that run counter to everything else we know is not an insult to the eyewitness, it’s common sense.

At the end of the day, miracles are inevitably in the eye of the beholder. Miracles that can be put to rigorous testing have always wound up having natural explanations, and since miracles are by their nature one-time events and are (as the Catholic Encyclopedia says) “the direct opposition of the effect actually produced to the natural causes at work”, there’s no way to test them in any reliable way. If you believe in miracles, you believe in miracles, and you do so not because of evidence, but because of faith. Faith, as one of Casey’s holy books explains, is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” To demand proof that miracles are supernatural is, if not sacrilege, at least missing the point. There’s a reason that the god Casey worships says to Doubting Thomas: “because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”

All of which raises an important question: if the Discovery Institute wants us to believe they are a nonreligious organization dedicated purely to scientific investigation, why are they so keen on defending belief in miracles and the supernatural?

Comments

  1. #1 Russell
    December 14, 2011

    Miracles are definitionally events that would be impossible within the natural laws we all know about and operate within. It’s hardly unreasonable – let alone scientism – for someone to say so, and to note that they are inherently extraordinarily rare.

    For something to count as a miracle, I would suggest it needs to have a god as an explanation for it. Events that merely point to holes in current theory are the stuff for which grad students live and dream. My own suspicion isn’t so much that they are rare, as hard to find, because for the most part we look where other people already have looked.

  2. #2 RBH
    December 14, 2011

    Quoting Casey:

    But under all other circumstances you can think of, you would consider the testimony of a sane, credible witness trustworthy.

    In fact, knowing what we do about the (un)reliability of eyewitnesses, there are damned few circumstances under which I’d consider the testimony of a “sane, credible witness” to be trustworthy in the absence of corroborating physical evidence.

  3. #3 Sinjin Smythe
    December 14, 2011

    I bought “The Magic of Reality” for my children as a Christmas gift. It is a lovely book and one I’m sure they will treasure. Just the perfect Christmas gift.

  4. #4 robertm
    December 14, 2011

    All of which raises an important question: if the Discovery Institute wants us to believe they are a nonreligious organization dedicated purely to scientific investigation, why are they so keen on defending belief in miracles and the supernatural?

    My thoughts exactly. Does the DI have any sense of self awareness or have they dropped all pretense of being a scientific organization? Furthermore Luskin decries a children’s science book discussing the scientific method, something often overlooked in children’s science education. And insults an important contributer to the philosophy of science while he’s at it.

    Dawkins book is for teaching science and critical thinking to kids, but is getting treated like polemic. Probably do to bias against the author or superstitious fear of the concept.

  5. #5 Lacey Cuskin
    December 14, 2011

    You people are so MEAN to me, I mean Casey, and just because he’s not like all the other kids when he was young, and then even when he got older NO ONE WOULD LISTEN, and YOU ARE ALL GOING TO HELL, and I know I’m not very smart, and – I mean Casey is not so smart, but YOU’LL FIND OUT.!!!

    So there.

  6. #6 Anthony McCarthy
    December 14, 2011

    Hume didn’t come right out and say miracles are impossible. Instead he asked us to think of a miracle as an improbable event — an event whose improbability we might estimate. The estimate doesn’t have to be exact. It’s enough that the improbability of a suggested miracle can be roughly placed on some sort of scale, and then compared with an alternative explanation such as hallucination or a lie.

    If a “miracle” is an intentional act of a God, then it wouldn’t be possible to assign a probability to it happening. It wouldn’t be a random occurrence. It’s possible that a God wouldn’t perform miracles in anything like a random pattern. Performing miracles would be the farthest thing from God “throwing dice”. By definition a miracle wouldn’t happen regularly in the normal operations of the natural universe so it wouldn’t be possible to subject it to that kind of mathematical analysis, designed to deal with phenomena that can occur randomly. It’s quite possible that a God could withhold miracles for years, decades, millennial at a time.

    That’s not to say they happen, just you wouldn’t be able to do what Dawkins proposes to do. Which should be a surprising thing for him to propose, considering his claim to fame, though it doesn’t seem surprising to me. Comparing the possibility of a proposed miracle to a “hallucination or a lie” could apply equally to any proposed “behavior” in the Paleolithic period, which can’t be verified to even the extent that a contemporary “miracle” might, possibly be examined.

  7. #7 Wow
    December 15, 2011

    “If a “miracle” is an intentional act of a God, then it wouldn’t be possible to assign a probability to it happening.”

    It’s entirely possible, in the same way as we can assign a probability to some action done by other reasoning beings. I.e. us.

    The big problem for miracles IMO is they have to be MORE unlikely than the existence of a God itself to be a reasonable proof of that God’s existence.

  8. #8 Anthony McCarthy
    December 15, 2011

    There is no way to apply probability, which depends on the assumption of occurrences in the natural universe having a quantifiable chance of happening to the “existence of miracles”. Miracles, by definition, don’t happen as a result of the regular operations of the natural universe, they are the result of some divinity suspending the regular operations of the natural universe. If they happen, they would not happen through the very thing that probability depends on, the regular operations of the natural universe. Without that assumed regularity, probability doesn’t work. The best that can be done, sci-wise, is to see if what is alleged to have happened, happened. And that can only be done on the basis of physical evidence.

    I doubt that miracles happen, at least not in the sense that the word is commonly used. But it doesn’t seem to me to be very productive to misuse words like “probability” in ways that contradict their meaning to attack a belief in them. I’d only interfere with other peoples’ beliefs in miracles if a serious, demonstrable – as opposed to far-fetched, ideological, claim of – harm came from it.

    As I pointed out, if someone claims that a miracle happened today it might be possible to at least look at it on the basis of physical evidence. It is 100% impossible to look at the behaviors of our ancestors in the way that Dawkins and his pals are always doing, not to mention then pretending to apply science to the imaginary “behaviors”. That would seem to me to make their mockery of other peoples’ fervently held beliefs susceptible to a critique based on that fact.

  9. #9 Anthony McCarthy
    December 16, 2011

    What is the probability of me deciding to buy a candy bar today? I can say that I don’t know when the last time I bought a candy bar is though it certainly hasn’t happened in the past twenty years and more and have eaten mighty few in that period. There, a rarely done act that is the result of intention. Set out the probability of that happening.

  10. #10 Greisha
    January 12, 2012

    What is “Dawkins’s theology”?

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