Dawkins on the "Design" Argument
posted on 11.06.2006 at 9:53 AM
Here is Richard Dawkins on one of the better of the arguments for the existence of God. He's a bit unfair to it: The religious position today, rather than entirely ignoring evolution, is usually that there wasn't time for something as complex as an eye to evolve. Still, I think Dawkins is useful on the subject:
The only one of the traditional arguments for God that is widely used today is the teleological argument, sometimes called the Argument from Design although -- since the name begs the question of its validity -- it should better be called the Argument for Design. It is the familiar 'watchmaker' argument, which is surely one of the most superficially plausible bad arguments ever discovered -- and it is rediscovered by just about everybody until they are taught the logical fallacy and Darwin's brilliant alternative.
In the familiar world of human artifacts, complicated things that look designed are designed. To naíve observers, it seems to follow that similarly complicated things in the natural world that look designed -- things like eyes and hearts -- are designed too. It isn't just an argument by analogy. There is a semblance of statistical reasoning here too -- fallacious, but carrying an illusion of plausibility. If you randomly scramble the fragments of an eye or a leg or a heart a million times, you'd be lucky to hit even one combination that could see, walk or pump. This demonstrates that such devices could not have been put together by chance. And of course, no sensible scientist ever said they could. Lamentably, the scientific education of most British and American students omits all mention of Darwinism, and therefore the only alternative to chance that most people can imagine is design.
Even before Darwin's time, the illogicality was glaring: how could it ever have been a good idea to postulate, in explanation for the existence of improbable things, a designer who would have to be even more improbable? The entire argument is a logical non-starter, as David Hume realized before Darwin was born. What Hume didn't know was the supremely elegant alternative to both chance and design that Darwin was to give us. Natural selection is so stunningly powerful and elegant, it not only explains the whole of life, it raises our consciousness and boosts our confidence in science's future ability to explain everything else.
An Atheist Speaks...
posted on 03.12.2006 at 11:05 AM
...on the opinion pages of the New York Times. Strange times we live in. It has taken an often intolerant religious revival (in the US and abroad) to allow a more open discussion of irreligious ideas in this country than has been seen in at least half a century. (Changes -- democratization? -- in media have also helped.)
1. When atheism first dared enter public debate in Europe, in the 18th century in France (with Holbach) and the 19th century in Britain (with Shelley), it did so with a grand claim (founded on a romantic, almost deified view of "Nature") to a higher morality -- a morality that looked a lot like Christian morality. Zizek is making a similar claim: "Today, this properly Christian ethical stance survives mostly in atheism." More on this later.
2. Zizek is also proposing a new (for me, here in the sheltered US) political analysis of the Cartoons of the Prophet situation: The Christian right initially printed the cartoons to take some digs at Islam but then expressed "understanding" for the hurt felt (and expressed sometimes violently) by true believers. The atheist liberals, on the other hand, reprinted the cartoons only in the spirit of tolerance and open discussion and had little tolerance for violent protest against open discussion. "Atheism," Zizek writes, " is a European legacy worth fighting for, not least because it creates a safe public space for believers."
3. My expertise on these matters is limited, but where Zizek refers to David Hume in the piece ("David Hume, a believer, made this point in a very poignant way, when he wrote that the only way to show true respect for God is to act morally while ignoring God's existence.") doesn't the point really fit Immanuel Kant? It is, nonetheless, an important point (discussed below) -- though more difficult than Zizek acknowledges.
posted on 03.11.2006 at 2:55 PM
The entire letters page in this Sunday's (12 March) Book Review section is devoted to the debate -- one side of the debate: Sam Harris weighs in. Hume is briefly mentioned. And there's this great letter from Tim Maudlin, a philosophy professor at Rutgers:
Leon Wieseltier writes: "You cannot disprove a belief unless you disprove its content. If you believe that you can disprove it any other way by describing its origins or by describing its consequences, then you do not believe in reason."
Recall that Dennett's book attacks religion by investigating the causes, mostly in terms of evolution, of religion. Maudlin continues:
Someone tells me that he believes that the core of Mars is iron. When I ask how he came by that belief, he tells me that it came to him in a dream. This does not disprove his belief, but does show that there is no reason at all to take it seriously.
posted on 02.27.2006 at 9:05 PM
Now along with writing entries I seem to have given myself responsibility for alerting you to when an entry is important. The debate over Hume's beliefs or lack of beliefs -- begun by Dennett and Wieseltier, picked up in comments here and here , and in an entry below -- strikes me as important for a couple of reasons:
1. David Hume might have mounted -- in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and Natural History of Religion -- the most thorough and intelligent critique of religion we have seen. So it is of more than mere passing interest whether he was or was not a believer.
2. We're still struggling to figure out whether anyone was an atheist in Europe between the end of the Roman Empire and the publication, in 1770, of Baron d'Holbach's System of Nature, the first avowedly atheistic work. Some historians, as I have noted, believe it was impossible not to believe in God, given the mindset in Europe at the time. Others believe it was merely impossible to say you didn't believe. Hume provides quite a case study.
Here's a quote from his History I find intriguing and, probably, revealing:
"The conviction of the religionists, in all ages, is more affected than real... Men dare not avow, even to their own hearts, the doubts which they entertain on such subjects: they make a merit of implicit faith; and disguise to themselves their real infidelity."
My guess is that Hume hung on to some faith in his own heart -- but very, very little; very, very tenuously.
Wieseltier on Dennett III: Hume
posted on 02.24.2006 at 5:39 PM
Daniel Dennett claims to be -- and in fact is -- following in the tradition of
David Hume in using an exploration of the causes of religion to loosen belief in religion. But Leon Wieseltier accuses him of editing out one important statement by Hume -- the one in which the great skeptic admits: "The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author."
And it is true that, when pressed, Hume seems to emit a vague deism not dissimilar to the vague deism to which Wieseltier himself seems to cling (rather desperately, it seems). But the point, which Wieseltier fails to mention, is that in Hume's day one was pressed to avow belief in a deity with an insistence and consequence of a different order from anything philosophers today might confront. Just half a century earlier, a young man was hung in Scotland for rejecting religion. And Hume was afraid to publish his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion for 25 years -- until after his death.
This Scottish philosopher, who generally wanted to avoid "clamour," must have felt it prudent to display at least some plausible religious belief. Was he being insincere? We don't know. (Some of his professions of belief, such as the one Wieseltier quotes, seem inconsistent with his reasoning elsewhere; however, an unbending atheism would seem inconsistent with Hume's skepticism about intellectual certainty.) Is Wieseltier being fair in quoting, in the New York Times, Hume's avowal of belief in intelligent design without noting the pressures he faced? That question seems easier to answer.
Science and Religion
posted on 02.21.2006 at 4:49 PM
Maybe this is what is most interesting about Wieseltier/Dennett debate below:
All right-thinking blue-state people, religious or not, had lined up on the side of science and evolution, against intolerant school boards and the foolishness of intelligent design. Now here's Wieseltier -- a liberal intellectual of impeccable credentials, in the New York Times, no less -- faced with the task of resisting a science-based atheist argument. And what does he do? He resorts to charges of "scientism" and quotes, respectfully, Hume saying: "The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author."
The scary question for a percentage of those right-thinking people: Has the scientific argument against religion grown so strong that it is necessary to challenge science to refute it?
Atheist or Agnostic?
posted on 01.01.2006 at 11:41 AM
The word "agnostic" was coined by Darwin's friend and defender Thomas Huxley in 1869 to describe their less aggressive, less certain (and safer?) version of doubt.
"In matters of the intellect," Huxley wrote, "do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith."
And here is Leslie Stephen, who also prefered this "a" word to the other one: "State any one proposition in which all philosophers agree, and I will admit it to be true; or any one which has a manifest balance of authority, and I will agree that it is probable. But so long as every philosopher flatly contradicts the first principles of his predecessors, why affect certainty?"
Stephen's daughter Virginia Woolf, though occasionally prone to emitting vague mystical noises, seems more of the atheistic persuasion: "Certainly and emphatically there is no God."
This schism (Is Huxley to Atheism what Luther was to Catholicism?) makes most sense to me in terms of the two versions of Greek, Roman and then European skepticism: The Academic school believed it wasn't possible to really know anything. The Pyrrhonian school believed it wasn't even possible to know that.