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.