World's Fair

I saw two more reviews of Dawkins’ new and widely discussed The God Delusion recently. Both were critical about the book. Both had points that I thought were very well made. One review is by Terry Eagleton, in the London Review of Books. The other is by Marilynne Robinson, in the November 2006 Harper’s (not on-line). (Interesting to the Scienceblogs community itself is my completely different interpretation of Eagleton’s review than PZ’s.) Eagleton starts by saying this:

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.

I take it as a fair point about symmetry (or the lack thereof) and the presumption of hierarchy (about knowledge-making) that’s quite common, in my experience. That is, symmetry–that, at least in this case, the same criteria for judgment and analysis and interpretation is used for both “sides” of a two-sided argument–is all well and good, all things being equal of course. But the example of Dawkins shows that if it’s science on one side, and non-science on the other, then symmetry is unncessary, the science looking down from its hierarchical knowledge-making peak with little use for the others.


The tenor of Eagleton’s point is that it is strangely okay for scientists to wax poetic on any given subject, but it is not generally acceptable for non-scientists to wax poetic on any subject outside their narrow field of expertise. It’s an asymmetry that is not entirely valid he notes, or, at least, an asymmetry that often gets assumed and then wielded, skipping past the matter of how people know the world, what kind of world they know, or what they are seeking when trying to find out about their world.

This is a long-standing issue – gaining authority in one field, then using it outside that field as if it still holds – and one I won’t pretend to summarize adequately in this post. (The sociologist Harry Collins was wading again into the issue with his recent experiment, as reported here and then discussed here and here. He’s also co-edited one of the better volumes to broach the Science Wars issues, The One Culture?, said Science Wars being the debate that usually gets brought up if someone asks about claims to knowledge between scientists and non-scientists since the end of the Cold War. Full disclosure: I actually don’t agree with Harry Collins in many respects, so this is not an endorsement of his full work.) The whole thing interests me not because science is undeserving of cultural or cognitive or epistemic authority, but because science does not lay sole claim to cultural or cognitive or epistemic authority.

So what does an avowed atheist know about religion and God? You’re kind of saying you have no part in the discussion if you claim there is no discussion to be had. (As a side point, and one on a far lighter note: this is the same thing people do when they, for instance, argue that Phish is no good, and then also claim that they ‘just don’t get it.’ Well, if you acknowledge that you don’t get it, that you don’t understand the experience, then you’ve acknowledged that you have no part in the conversation. The second part negates the first. Don’t use your admission of ignorance as the platform from which to then argue against the thing you just admitted you don’t get. Sorry. But it is a similar form of reasoning.)

What place does an atheist of the likes of Dawkins have to explain why God does or does not exist? Well, in this world of free speech, as much place as me or you or anyone else we know, in the context of open discussion. (Surely I’m not suggesting he’s not allowed to write a book about his beliefs.) But, if we go farther, and ask about what merit those discussions have, beyond parlor room banter, then you gotta ask, as a good empiricist might, what research has Dawkins done into theological studies, into religious culture, into, as both Robinson and Eagleton discuss in their reviews, Aquinas or Sainthood or the Bible or Leviticus? Apparently, not much. Or, not even empirically, but otherwise, let’s say through investigations of principles and concepts, through intellectual work and interpretations, in those forms of argument and knowledge-production, what work has Dawkins done to provide a sound basis for his claims? Eagleton and Robinson argue that the answer is ‘very little’ or ‘none.’

But is it a scientific argument, this thing about God? If not, then what kind of argument is it? And what work do we need to do to have the argument?

If it is a scientific argument, then of what sort? (For example, is genetic science the same as string theory science? If not, then what is a “scientific” argument?) And why is the God argument being pursued by thinkers who would surely demand research and evidence about their specific sub-fields but care little for such evidence when they venture beyond their narrowly defined area of expertise to wax poetic beyond those realms of authority?

All of this, by the way, still brings me to understand Dawkins’ anger at fundamentalism, in a way Eagelton also finds helpful:

In its admirably angry way, The God Delusion argues that the status of atheists in the US is nowadays about the same as that of gays fifty years ago. The book is full of vivid vignettes of the sheer horrors of religion, fundamentalist or otherwise. Nearly 50 per cent of Americans believe that a glorious Second Coming is imminent, and some of them are doing their damnedest to bring it about. But Dawkins could have told us all this without being so appallingly bitchy about those of his scientific colleagues who disagree with him, and without being so theologically illiterate. He might also have avoided being the second most frequently mentioned individual in his book – if you count God as an individual.

But it does no good to carry forward with a weak dichotomy – yet again, and really Ann Coulter-like – that it’s either liberal Godlessness or conservative fundamentalism. What’s Dawkins up to then? Why does what he has to say about God matter for anything? Scientists, as evidenced over at Pharyngula, run full force to ask just the opposite – who is Terry Eagleton to criticize Richard Dawkins? – but I wonder just the opposite of that.

Comments

  1. #1 James Hrynyshyn
    October 22, 2006

    Ann Coulter-like? Please.

    I can’t think of any element of Dawkins’ book that bears any comparison to Coulter’s drivel. And I think Dawkins makes his case for an either/or choice quite well. Indeed, much of the book is aimed squarely at those who would argue in favor of some degree of moderate theism.

  2. #2 GH
    October 22, 2006

    I find your argument particuarlly weak.

    The tenor of Eagleton’s point is that it is strangely okay for scientists to wax poetic on any given subject, but it is not generally acceptable for non-scientists to wax poetic on any subject outside their narrow field of expertise.

    The difference is that in science we have real knowledge. Of course it helps to understand various religious ideas and philosophies but one can be knowledgable about theology without theology being verifiable. This is not the case in science.

    So what does an avowed atheist know about religion and God?

    What does a priest or preacher, rabbi, shamn, or mullah know about God? Why should the atheist be precluded from this discussion and just how do the other men ‘know’ more?

    then you gotta ask, as a good empiricist might, what research has Dawkins done into theological studies, into religious culture, into, as both Robinson and Eagleton discuss in their reviews, Aquinas or Sainthood or the Bible or Leviticus? Apparently, not much.

    You really are disappointing here. His arguments are directly in relation to these topics and frankly it is clear he understands them quite well. He simply doesn’t see any value in discussing sainthood and why should he? Why should anyone?

    And why is the God argument being pursued by thinkers who would surely demand research and evidence about their specific sub-fields but care little for such evidence when they venture beyond their narrowly defined area of expertise to wax poetic beyond those realms of authority?

    ahhh because so many people use irrational ideas based on faith to make decisions that may be dangerous to the society around them and it’s high time to start questioning the basic premises underlying this type of thought.

    What’s Dawkins up to then? Why does what he has to say about God matter for anything? Scientists, as evidenced over at Pharyngula, run full force to ask just the opposite – who is Terry Eagleton to criticize Richard Dawkins? -

    Oftentimes those outside of something see it for what it really is. His views on God share the same value as that of the pope. Except Dawkins admits there is no evidence and the other goes on to allow dogma to permeate a portion of society.

    Why do you not question the pope on how he knows about God?

  3. #3 Julia
    October 22, 2006

    Interesting post. Thanks.

  4. #4 JD
    October 22, 2006

    “Why does what he has to say about God matter for anything?”

    Who, exactly, has a better understanding of god than anyone else? The Pope? Bin Laden? South American shamen? I judge Dawkins’ book on it’s words, not his credentials.

  5. #5 MartinDH
    October 22, 2006

    J. H. F. Kerist on a pogo stick. Not only does Eagleton claim to have intuited the teapot orbiting Jupiter but is insisting it has a willow pattern and a chip on the spout.

    Don’t you get it Mr. Cohen? Theologians, priests, rabbis, pastors and imans can make it up as they go along without having to provide evidence, or even (in some cases) logic, to support their claims.

  6. #6 Flaky
    October 23, 2006

    It may be that Dawkins lacks certain theological sophistication, but I find that, for the most part, it is irrelevant in the debate between religion and reason, as the other side hardly ever reaches any high peaks of thought either.

    Terry Eagleton paints a picture of Jesus as some kind of a hippie bringing a message of love. That may be fine and well, but the truth is that a sizable portion, perhaps the majority, of Christendom do not share such beliefs. Time and again we are reminded how the blood of Jesus will wipe away our sins, that we are to accept the sacrifice of Jesus or suffer the eternal torment of Hell, a sacrifice, which Eagleton portrays as a mere unfortunate turn of events, and not the culmination of God’s plan to save people, from what I can perceive only as, himself.

    Also, I find it curious that Eagleton should remind us that “Yahweh tells the Hebrews that he hates their burnt offerings and that their incense stinks in his nostrils”, when it is specifically mentioned in Genesis 8 that God finds the smell of burning flesh, offered by the slaver Noah, pleasing.

  7. #7 BRC
    October 23, 2006

    These are interesting replies, which I take charitably.

    GH, you say: “The difference is that in science we have real knowledge. …[O]ne can be knowledgable about theology without theology being verifiable. This is not the case in science.”

    I would question both your deference to “real” knowledge — how do you know what real knowledge is? A matter of faith, it would seem, on your view of it — and the presumption that science is science becuase it is verifiable knowldge. Everyone’s favorite Popper showed the flaws of “verificiationism” long ago.

    Also: “Why do you not question the pope on how he knows about God?”

    I most certainly do question the Pope on the exact same subject. Nowhere in my post do I indicate that there is one way to know God. I question all ways. In fact, I am fighting the reduction of over-simplified dichotomy, that it’s one way or the other. I’m with JD on this one, judging “Dawkins’ book on it’s words, not his credentials,” and finding them born of problematic assumptions.

    And Flaky, my concern is that the argument Dawkins presents will not help in a debate against fundamentalists, who, you rightly infer, have unleashed untold degrees of hatred and violence on humanity over the centuries.

    As with Eagleton himself, and Marilynn Robinson in Harper’s, I too disagree with the approach of Dawkins. My post here is meant to say that I disagree with Dawkins’ approach not because I’m not in sympathy with what he wants to do — again, as with Eagleton, I agree with the the direction of Dawkin’s points — but because he makes his case with the presumption that scientific diagnoses will resolve the issue.

    I just don’t think a scientific analysis of God will get us much. And I think this is what Dawkins wants to do. And, since he wants to do that, and since this is a science blog, then I read a lot of defensiveness in the replies above. You make good points, firey points, above, but I don’t see them as points responding to my concern.

  8. #8 gengar
    October 23, 2006

    Bearing in mind I haven’t read the book (yet), I think Dawkins’ would argue that, rationally, you cannot support the God hypothesis (in the sense of the Abrahamic God); and that most theological arguments tacitly acknowledge this, because rather than trying to deduce the nature of God from observing the Universe, they are mainly composed of convoluted special pleading as to why the personal, loving, prayer-answering God we’d all like to exist does in fact exist, in the absence of any evidence that this is the case.

    Dawkins is therefore addressing the underlying cause of theology, rather than theology itself, and applying Occam’s razor.

  9. #9 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    October 23, 2006

    I just don’t think a scientific analysis of God will get us much.

    And what other sort of analysis will get us much? “Making **** up” is not effective epistemology, and that is all theology has to offer. Faith is not effective epistemology.

    So what does an avowed atheist know about religion and God?

    This is utterly ridiculous. The distilled argument here is that the discussion of religion and god(s) should include only believers. Perhaps you should think about that for 3 or 4 seconds.

  10. #10 CCP
    October 23, 2006

    see, this is the whole POINT of the book: what happens if I, Dawkins, a trained scientist, apply my science toolkit to the question of God(s)? It’s not an aesthetic difference of opinion (I, for one, grok and love Phish), it’s not Dawkins saying you think this but I think that. I’m with PZ on this one.

  11. #11 BRC
    October 23, 2006

    Mustafa, We discourage the tone of your reply at this blog. Please post elsewhere if you feel you need to denigrate views other than your own without engaging with them. I won’t remove the reply, but I will note that it is out of place — not in content, but in tone. Ben

  12. #12 Jonah
    October 23, 2006

    Great post. Really thought-provoking and exactly right.

  13. #13 Dave
    October 24, 2006

    What I find enlightening every time this subject comes up is that many people will make arbitrary, dogmatic statements of truth in order to show how arbitrary and dogmatic other people are. Once you realize that you can’t beat some sense into the other guy, you can’t shout him down, you can’t have him arrested, and you can’t have him executed, it kind of forces you to either whine about how stupid he is or just shut up and respect his opinion.

    Am I talking against fundamentalist religious bigots or rational, reality-based atheists? Well, you decide for yourself who is more self-righteous and insulting.

  14. #14 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    October 24, 2006

    I will give it one more try, but I’m not sure I can meet your standards. If not, I won’t bother you anymore.

    But, if we go farther, and ask about what merit those discussions have, beyond parlor room banter, then you gotta ask, as a good empiricist might, what research has Dawkins done into theological studies, into religious culture, into, as both Robinson and Eagleton discuss in their reviews, Aquinas or Sainthood or the Bible or Leviticus?

    Would I have to be familiar with the entire history of [astrology], along with all the variants in belief and technique that have developed over the millenia, in order to voice a rejection of it? Is all that necessary to know that astrology is not true? Is it not enough to point out that there is no legitimate basis for it, and that in fact it does not work as claimed? Obviously then, substitute a different word for astrology.

    But is it a scientific argument, this thing about God? If not, then what kind of argument is it? And what work do we need to do to have the argument?
    If it is a scientific argument, then of what sort? (For example, is genetic science the same as string theory science? If not, then what is a “scientific” argument?)

    Just exactly what I was getting at in my earlier post. We are talking about whether something is true or not. This falls under epistemology. What are legitimate forms of epistemology? Logic and science. Both fail to support the existence of any deity. Do the theologians have any other forms of legitimate epistemology to offer? Personal revelation? I think not. Otherwise we’d have to believe in alien abductions and every other thing that gets discussed around the mental ward of the local hospital.

    And why is the God argument being pursued by thinkers who would surely demand research and evidence about their specific sub-fields but care little for such evidence when they venture beyond their narrowly defined area of expertise to wax poetic beyond those realms of authority?

    Was that directed at Dawkins? If so, just what “evidence” are you claiming he “cares little for”? The lack of legitimate evidence is the very basis of his position.

    Given that there is no convincing evidence, do you object to the “presumption of disbelief”, and why?

  15. #15 bob koepp
    October 24, 2006

    I’m really glad that Mustafa thinks logic might have some “legitimacy.” One branch of logic, usually identified as modal logic, investigates the function of such operators as ‘necessary’ and ‘possible.’ Some recent versions of the so-called ontological argument framed in terms of these operators can be stated in a way that makes no reference to theological notions, even if their application in that domain is obvious. Logicians with no theological axes to grind take these arguments very seriously.

    A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

  16. #16 BRC
    October 24, 2006

    Mustafa, My point of disagreement is with this:

    What are legitimate forms of epistemology? Logic and science.

    For one thing, and in an uncontroversial way, I don’t think logic and science have a monopoly on legitimacy; for another, I think it’s far more difficult to establish what it means to be “legitimate,” and whatever answer we give has to be understood within cultural and historical contexts.

    Note that I didn’t say science and logic have no value, or that I don’t recognize their role of legitimacy in our society, but that there’s more to it.

    And I would repeat as well: what do you mean, “science”? Which science? Whose science? When? Where? “Science” is not a singular thing. Nor is scientific epistemology.

  17. #17 MaxPolun
    October 24, 2006

    I’m really glad that Mustafa thinks logic might have some “legitimacy.” One branch of logic, usually identified as modal logic, investigates the function of such operators as ‘necessary’ and ‘possible.’ Some recent versions of the so-called ontological argument framed in terms of these operators can be stated in a way that makes no reference to theological notions, even if their application in that domain is obvious. Logicians with no theological axes to grind take these arguments very seriously.

    I’d be interested in seeing this, but nonetheless I think it is rather irrelevant: the fact that you can form a consistent logical argument that is equivalent to one argument for god does not seem to be evidence for god. It is certanly not empirical evidence, and though interesting, is no more theoretical evidence than the making of the argument in the first place.

  18. #18 MaxPolun
    October 24, 2006

    actually I found an article on it: Logic is for tricking people. I tend to agree with the argument in the article: it’s not nessisarily the case that god is possible (which would kill the argument), and a theorum in logic only proves… that this is a theorum of logic, it only has a connection to reality inasmuch as the logic captures the vital aspects of reality being modeled.

  19. #19 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    October 25, 2006

    For one thing, and in an uncontroversial way, I don’t think logic and science have a monopoly on legitimacy;

    Uncontroversial? That statement would go over a lot better if you actually listed any other methods that you consider to be reliable epistemology.

  20. #20 bob koepp
    October 25, 2006

    Other legitimate methods of knowledge production?
    1) testimony
    2) direct perception

    (please note the absence of divine revelation)

  21. #21 BRC
    October 25, 2006

    Experience: consider the farmer’s knowledge of the land; consider the disease patient’s knowledge of their disease; consider the athlete’s knowledge of the field or the ball or the game; consider tacit knowledge; consider what you might know of yourself after a month on the Appalachian Trail, of who you are and what you see the world as; and so on…

    These are all legitimate ways to know the world, in various ways. Also consider looking at John Pickstone’s Ways of Knowing, for more discussion.

  22. #22 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    October 25, 2006

    If I could dig up some testimony from someone who directly perceived bigfoot, or space aliens who abducted them, would you believe it? I’m sure that you would, since you consider that to be a reliable form of epistemology.

    Experience: I’m not sure how any of those examples says anything about the supernatural, which by definition neither I nor anyone else can experience directly.

    I don’t like the phrase “Ways of Knowing”, since it begs the question.

  23. #23 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    October 25, 2006

    And if someone tells me about their alleged experience, that is testimony, not my own direct experience. I’ve already dealt with testimony.

  24. #24 David Ng
    October 25, 2006

    Still too much with the coffee, eh Mustafa? I’m not sure Huxley would approve.

  25. #25 bob koepp
    October 25, 2006

    Mustafa –
    Unless you’re a bona fide polymath, I expect that much of what you know is based on the testimony of people who you think of as authorities in their respective fields.

    BTW, I know it’s just a matter of labels, but ‘epistemology’ has a more-or-less standard use that just doesn’t line up with the way you use it. That doesn’t create confidence that you know whereof you speak.

    Oh yeah… you’re being sure that I would accept the testimony of crackpots — was that supposed to be an insult or evidence of your ability to know sans evidence?

  26. #26 JAR
    October 25, 2006

    Interesting thread: here are some thoughts on what some folks have been saying.

    There’s a funny use of the word epistemology being circulated here. In a general sense, the word is being equated with simply ‘knowledge’ and in other cases it takes on a more specific, nuanced sense. So, first, it’s important to recall that philosophical studies of knowledge are not necessarily the same as studies of the ways in which we know things (or, to use the reference to Pickstone’s book, our Ways of Knowing [sorry if you don’t like the term Mustafa – not sure why it bothers you, and I’m not so sure why you think it begs the question; can you elaborate?]). That is, epistemology is the study of the ways in which we, as humans (and for some philosophers, non-human as well) know things; which includes or systems of knowing (schemes for classification and demarcation; science as a system for knowing the world; religion as a way of knowing the world, etc.). Trying to answer what ‘knowledge’ is becomes an entirely different game. So, while it can be fun sometimes to simply throw the word “epistemology” into a debate in place of knowledge, it doesn’t actually accomplish as much as one might think. In fact, it can lead to an awful lot of confusion, as I think it has here.

    That being said, epistemological issues are definitely one of the major issues here (even if only because people have made it into one). For some folks posting on this thread, a simple (non-logical) connection has been made that epistemology = logic and science = legitimacy. 1) Since one of the arguments being made here is that evidence must be used to support claims, I’d like to see the evidence that this equation holds true. 2) This equation assumes that ‘logic’ (some ultimate form of logic, not symbolic of fuzzy?) is one and the same with science. Again, I’d like to see the evidence. Plenty of science seems to defy logic (can someone show me a ‘force’ or define it for me in a way that doesn’t use F=MA, which begs the question?), and yet we accept it as true (some might say contingently true; some might say all knowledge is contingently true because it always runs the risk of being falsified, a la Karl Popper and more of the tradition of analytical philosophy). 3) Legitimacy is something conferred by a group, community, society, etc. Legitimacy is not conferred by ‘nature’ ‘out there’. And so there seems to be some acknowledgement that science is somehow verified and accepted by a group. But this is different than asserting that legitimacy comes about because something is ‘true’ by its very nature. We should keep in mind that dealing with issues of justification, verification, and belief are subsets of epistemology, and not one and the same with the field

    I think once we can get past the (faulty) equation that links epistemology with logic and science and legitimacy, we can start to answer some of the other questions that have come up in the thread, like whether or not there are other “ways of knowing” besides what is being treated here as perhaps the generic scientific method. BRC’s mentioning of farmers is interesting, but he didn’t give enough detail. This isn’t just about witnessing, direct experience, testimony, whathaveyou as some folks have taken it, but more about what is normally referred to as “tacit knowledge” – a concept developed by the chemist turned philosopher Michael Polanyi and expanded upon more recently by Harry Collins. That gist of the argument is this: there are some things you know through action, through immersion, through experience that simply cannot be communicated through ‘traditional’ ideas about scientific knowledge. One example of this is the craft tradition (which takes the tacit knowledge link back to Aristotle at least): there is knowledge about pottery, metal working, etc that simply cannot come in any way other that doing it. Does that make it non-knowledge? No, just different knowledge. Just a different way of knowing. Why does the IAEA worry about nuclear scientists moving from one country to another? Because making a nuclear weapon is much more of a craft that it is a science. Countries can stockpile all of the materials, but without someone who knows how to do it, the materials are useless. (Harry Collins also uses the example of early laser construction to demonstrate the point.)

    I don’t want to go any further discussing epistemologies because I think this is actually just a side issue for this topic anyhow. I thought the question was: why does Dawkins get to comment on religion and dismiss it? And then: What makes him an authority? And why should we believe him? The first question was addressed in part early on in the posts. Why can’t Dawkins comment on religion? True enough. I do. Most people around me do. But we don’t in books. The question, then, is what gives him the authority to do so in public when others of us can’t (or wouldn’t be given the opportunity to do so in print to such a wide audience even if we wanted to do so)? This is less a question of epistemology than one dealing with expertise and the assumed authority and legitimacy of scientists to comment on anything they wish – science, politics, religion, etc. Tied to this is the third question of why we let someone like Dawkins tell us about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of religion. Would we accept the pope’s views on the big bang? Do we not grow angry or frustrated when evangelicals try to tell us that some of our science is not ‘true’ and should not be taught? This does come full circle of course: it is in some ways about epistemology, as Ben hinted in the original post. Why does an expert in one system belief herself to be an expert in all of them? But for me the bigger question is why we actively accept that person’s musing as somehow more ‘true’ than others. Maybe we just shouldn’t read Dawkins’ books, unless they’re on something he actually knows something about…

  27. #27 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    October 25, 2006

    Epistemology – I used this word because I wanted to make it clear that I am concerned with whether the existence of god(s) is true. I do not want someone to make the mistake of claiming that belief is a valid aesthetic choice, or that it is helpful or useful. None of those speak to the question of truth.

    I didn’t mean to equate logic and science, and I’m sorry if I didn’t express that clearly. I consider both logic and the scientific method to be reliable forms of discovering what is true. Neither one provides convincing evidence for the existence of any god(s). I hope not to get sidetracked with a discussion of “what is science”; I will propose vaguely that it is formalized trial-and-error, or hypothesis and experimentation; anyway as I say, let’s not get sidetracked in that.

    To JAR’s last paragraph then, a repeat of the “Dawkins is talking out of his field” charge that is approvingly cited as main point of the post. What constitutes expertise in theology? Do any theologians have direct experience with the supernatural? Do they have reliable methods of “knowing” about it? Do most theologians agree in their ideas of the supernatural? What evidence can be cited to establish that there is any supernatural for them to be expert in?

    Would we accept the pope�s views on the big bang? Do we not grow angry or frustrated when evangelicals try to tell us that some of our science is not �true� and should not be taught?

    We (or I, at any rate) can cite the evidence behind my scientific views.

    …But for me the bigger question is why we actively accept that person�s musing as somehow more �true� than others…

    You directed that at Dawkins. I direct it at the theologians. Here is a transcript of a recent address by Pope Benedict XVI in which he relates a joke about theology:


    It is a moving experience for me to be back again in the university and to be able once again to give a lecture at this podium. I think back to those years when, after a pleasant period at the Freisinger Hochschule, I began teaching at the University of Bonn…
    The university was also very proud of its two theological faculties. It was clear that, by inquiring about the reasonableness of faith, they too carried out a work which is necessarily part of the “whole” of the universitas scientiarum, even if not everyone could share the faith which theologians seek to correlate with reason as a whole. This profound sense of coherence within the universe of reason was not troubled, even when it was once reported that a colleague had said there was something odd about our university: it had two faculties devoted to something that did not exist: God…

  28. #28 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    October 25, 2006

    Here is a news story about someone who testifies to his direct experience with God.

    “It’s not a figment of my imagination that I can in fact talk to God, that I can hear his voice,” he told the jurors. “I am a prophet of God. I am even more than a prophet.”

    Do you believe him? If not, why would you disbelieve him but believe someone else offering the same sort of evidence?

  29. #29 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    October 25, 2006

    Oh yeah… you’re being sure that I would accept the testimony of crackpots — was that supposed to be an insult or evidence of your ability to know sans evidence?

    That was a direct consequence of your statement that you consider testimony to be a reliable form of evidence. Since you reject the consequence, you must then have some outside standards that you apply to testimony. How do you distinguish the crackpots from the prophets?

  30. #30 bob koepp
    October 25, 2006

    I believe I referred to tesimony as a reliable method of knowledge production. I didn’t say just how reliable, but I also didn’t say it even approximated infallibility. So your “direct consequence” is nothing of the sort. I don’t worry about distinguishing crackpots from prophets, but I do worry about distinguishing crackpots from legitimate authorities. And one thing I’ve noticeded is that legitimate authority tends to be narrowly domain specific.

  31. #31 JAR
    October 26, 2006

    “Epistemology – I used this word because I wanted to make it clear that I am concerned with whether the existence of god(s) is true. I do not want someone to make the mistake of claiming that belief is a valid aesthetic choice, or that it is helpful or useful. None of those speak to the question of truth.”

    But this is precisely my point: knowing doesn?t necessarily = true. So, the claim to be having a discusison of ?epistemology? so that you can ensure you are talking about what?s ?true? doesn?t work. What I said in the previous post still holds: you seem to be concerned with verification, validation, and truth: all subsets of discussions of epistemology. The broader discussion is about ways of knowing ? epistemologies. And so the question is still, as you point out, whether or not Dawkins? comments count for anything. But then we quickly diverge again. Your comment seems to indicate that there is one true way of knowing ? a way that leads to truth. Rather, as Bob points out, ways of knowing are often domain specific. So, one way to rephrase the question about Dawkins is this: does Dawkins? way of knowing translate out of his domain and into the domain of religion or the spiritual and still count for anything? Another way: are the domains of religion (and overly homogenized version) and science (same qualifier ? science is terribly diverse and one can [and people do] argue that there are many ways of knowing within science) different enough that knowledge from one cannot easily transition to knowledge in/of the other? This then leads to asking whether or not Dawkins, as a supposed expert in the knowledge system of the one retains his expertise and authority in the other. I think the answer is: clearly not. This is different than saying Dawkins cannot speak about these matters; it means he does so with expertise in a form of knowledge non-native to the subject about which he is speaking.

  32. #32 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    October 26, 2006

    know

    1. to perceive or understand as fact or truth; to apprehend clearly and with certainty: I know the situation fully.
    2. to have established or fixed in the mind or memory: to know a poem by heart; Do you know the way to the park from here?
    3. to be cognizant or aware of: I know it.
    4. be acquainted with (a thing, place, person, etc.), as by sight, experience, or report: to know the mayor.
    5. to understand from experience or attainment (usually fol. by how before an infinitive): to know how to make gingerbread.
    6. to be able to distinguish, as one from another: to know right from wrong.
    7. Archaic. to have sexual intercourse with.
    �verb (used without object)
    8. to have knowledge or clear and certain perception, as of fact or truth.
    9. to be cognizant or aware, as of some fact, circumstance, or occurrence; have information, as about something.
    �noun
    10. the fact or state of knowing; knowledge.
    �Idioms
    11. know the ropes, Informal. to understand or be familiar with the particulars of a subject or business: He knew the ropes better than anyone else in politics.
    12. in the know, possessing inside, secret, or special information.

    I think I’ve made it clear that I’m referring to definition number 1, particularly the first part. I don’t see that using multiple definitions to give added weight to one’s viewpoint would be useful or productive.

    You continue in the claim that Dawkins is operating in a field of expertise not his own, but I still don’t see a shred of evidence that there is anything of substance that he is missing. Do most theologians agree on whether god(s) exist? There go the Buddhists and Jainists. Do most theologians agree on the number of god(s)? There go the Hindus. Do most theologians agree on… well, are there any generally established and useful results of theology, with regard to the existence of god(s)? Even after millenia of theology? Have you given me any reason to think my comparison to astrology is not on target?

    razib says:

    My own sense is that the positive reception of these reviews is a reflection of animus toward Dawkins’ aggressive evangelism of his atheist stance, as well as his lack of diplomatic tact and civility in the face of what he perceives to be absurdity. Many of the individuals who praise critiques of Dawkins have not read his book. Myself, I would have likely assumed that the reviews were spot on before I read The God Delusion because I myself harbored some delusions about the state of Dawkins’ knowledge of religion.

    Since the discussion has now reached the point of repetition, I will leave now. Shalom.

  33. #33 Silver
    October 30, 2006

    Like many atheists, myself and Dawkins included, we were indoctrinated in one faith or another since our birth. It was only in our teens that we started questioning the faith that had been forced on us. That means we should have as good an understanding, if not better because we’ve actually thought about it, then most people about the flaws of religion, particularly the one we were brought up in.

  34. #34 Sandra
    November 3, 2006

    I understand why Mustafa’s given up but I’m sorry he did. Mustafa–thank you. Your posts are bang on. This was an interesting exchange for me to read since I am, using the metaphor from an earlier thread, locked in the atheist closet here in Toronto. I have an atheist husband and one atheist friend. That’s it. Everyone else is Jedi or organized relig and forget, really just forget the possibility of having a civilized discussion on the topics of science or religion. Even identifying oneself as an atheist gets up the backs of the believers; they seem to feel it’s akin to calling them stupid.

    Mustafa is correct about the book title “Ways of Knowing”. It does beg the question, because it implies a plurality of ways, when there is only one: science, formally or informally practiced. Informal science includes what one of the commentators here describes as an experiential way of knowing. If you’re living in a forest and learning, through trial and error how to find food–say, that following fresh looking footsteps in the mud can lead you to an animal that maybe you can kill and eat–well, you’re doing informal science. You’re taking an informal hypothesis (“those tracks look fresh and small enough to belong to something I can overpower; maybe if I’m quiet I can catch up with it, and maybe it’ll be edible”) and putting it to the test. Maybe your hypothesis will stand up or maybe it’ll be disproved, but you’re definitey using the only real, and quite obviously science-based, way of knowing. Contrast it to magical-thinking inspired so-called ways of knowing: If I do a special dance, or if the stars line up just so, my prey will present itself for slaughter, and then I will eat. Is there anyone here who doesn’t agree that the latter way is more likely to lead to starvation?

    My atheist friend gave me a copy of The God Delusion, signed by Dawkins (she travelled to Montreal to hear him speak because he didn’t come to Toronto). It’s a fabulous book and like Mustafa and some others here I’m happy to defend his right (and my own) to talk publicly about the problems associated with any form of magical thinking. One needn’t be an expert in Greek mythology to know one doesn’t believe in the gods.

  35. #35 Bert
    May 8, 2007

    I’ve been whupped up side the head by fundies since I was a lad of twelve living in Dallas. I watched them humiliate my jewish friends and prayed their prayers in public school under force of authority. I’ll not quote the greeks, but rather The Dixie Chicks. “I’m not ready to make nice, I’m not ready to back down.” If my opinion is asked, Dawkins is far to kind.

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