Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Atheists Against Scientism

It seems that in the wake of Richard Dawkins' latest book, The God Delusion, something of an internal skirmish has broken out in some atheist cirles.

Razib of Gene Expression links to a post by Chris of Mixing Memory which contains the following critique of the Dawkins brand of atheism:

I've tried several times to write posts about the post-God Delusion blog clustersomethingorother, with all the reviews of Dawkins, reviews of reviews of Dawkins, and reviews of reviews of reviews of Dawkins, along with the side debates that discussion has spawned, but each time the posts came out sounding really nasty, so this is all I'll say about it. I find it hypocritcal and, as an atheist, more than a little embarrassing that these fundamentalist, Dawkinsian, scientistic, self-styled free thinking atheists, who know jack about the history of religion, or serious philosophy and theology, feel that they can criticize religious fundamentalists for saying things about science (in the evolution-creationism debate, for example) when those religious fundamentalists are clearly ignorant of the science, but have no problem making grand claims about the rationality of religion or its practical implications. I can't help but think that they feel they're justified in this because they have a distinct sense of intellectual and, perhaps, moral superiority over the religious. This sense of superiority is reflected in the make up of the "Beyond Belief" panel, which is comprised, for the most part, of scientists who study things that are completely unrelated to religious doctrine and faith (except in superficial ways, such as the fact that modern cosmology and evolutionary biology rule out a literal interpretation of Genesis). If creationists had put together a panel of theologians to talk about the science of modern cosmology and evolutionary biology, these same atheists would write post after post about how ignorant and dishonest the whole thing was.

I firmly believe that science has absolutely nothing to say about the validity most theology, and most theology has absolutely nothing to say about the validity of science. Furthermore, I recognize, unlike Dawkins' epigones, that "evidence" is not something that exists outside of an interpretive framework, and that it's possible to rationally interpret the "facts" of the world as providing evidence for the existence of God or gods. The same is true when it comes to logical and moral arguments for and against the existence of God.

In a followup post, Chris goes on to distinguish between an aethism of rational skepticisim and an atheism of "suspicion", by which (if I understand correctly) he means a healthy understanding of the inability of one's senses and reason to get at the true reality of a situation. My issue with this sort of folded-back-on-itself doubt is that it seems so fundamentally un-useful that you need to ignore it when engaging in practical reasoning. This doesn't necessarily mean that it can't be true, but it doesn't strike me as being how the world works.

Naytheless, I fully agree with Chris's assessment of the arrogance of spouting off judgements on the history and nature of theology and philosophy when one has taken precious little time to actually learn anything serious about either discipline. There's a casual conviction that many have that theology consists of nothing more than some just-so stories and rationalizations that anyone could have thrown together. Regardless of whether one believes in a theological tradition, there's clearly much more to it than that. It speaks to the intellectual seriousness of atheists like Chris and Razib that they take the time to understand what they're rejecting rather than being swept up in Dawkins' straw man show.


Anonymous said...

Another issue is that many of the same atheists are not only ignorant of theology, many of them are also not experts in biology. Many of them do not even realise that Dawkin's ideas are somewhat on the periphery of scientific thinking about evolution.

Razib Khan said...

Many of them do not even realise that Dawkin's ideas are somewhat on the periphery of scientific thinking about evolution.

really? care to elaborate? this seems patently false to me.

Anonymous said...

I did a university paper in biological evolution last year. Dawkins, despite his popularity through books published with his own ideas, hardly rated a mention.

Darwin said...

Goodness knows, evolution is a very broad field these days, and I make no pretense of being a serious expert in it. My understanding is that some of Dawkins work is pretty foundational to certain areas of evolutionary genetics.

Where I think he goes off the rails (and strays out of since per se) is in discussioning the alleged philosophical and theological implications of evolutionary genetics.

I'll admit (and perhaps this comes in part from being a Gould fan, as far as evolutionary writers go, and also in part from the fact that I simply haven't read enough about the field) that genetics is an area of biology in which my knowledge is pretty basic. And the bits I've read of Dawkins' prose style haven't exactly caused me to want to go read any more of his stuff than the snatches I've run into incidentally.

So much to read and so little time...

Razib Khan said...

I did a university paper in biological evolution last year. Dawkins, despite his popularity through books published with his own ideas, hardly rated a mention.

what were your sources? dawkins is not an original thinker, he is a extender and presenter. his ideas derive in large part from w.d. hamilton (kin selection, inclusive fitness) and j.m. smith (evolutionary game theory, e.g., ESS), who were the heirs to r.a. fisher and j.b.s. haldane. in other words, though dawkins is not a first rate research scientist himself, he is a presenter of the british school of evolutionary biology founded by r.a. fisher, and pushed forward by others such as e.b. ford and so on. in other words

a) the ideas of fisher, smith and hamilton are central to modern evolutionary biology
b) the ideas of dawkins are derived from, or presentations of, the ideas of fisher, smith and hamilton

therefore, by definition dawkins ideas are not peripheral to evolutionary biology, they are part of the main line. you can reject my assertion by denying a), but i don't think that's really tenable. if you amended your assertion to dawkins' original ideas it would be defensible, but otherwise, no.