Sunday, April 06, 2008

Alas, poor Yorick!

God Is Not Great. Christopher Hitchens. Hachette (!) Press, N.Y. 2007.
The God Delusion. Richard Dawkins. Houghton-Mifflin, 2007.
And, in rebuttal: The Devil's Delusion. David Berlinski. Crown Forum, 2008.

I've been dipping into the atheists recently, and I must say, it's quite an experience. In the old days our forebears meditated on how everything passes by contemplating a skull - Alas, poor Yorick! But today the image of the skull is appropriate in a new way. It is for us to contemplate the passing of reason, the death of reason in a long whine of offended pride: God, how dare you!

Mr. Christopher Hitchens' book, a hatchet job published by a press suitably titled (names are omens) subtitled, "How religion poisons everything," is certainly not worth reading. I predict, in fact, that in the not too distant future, Mr. Hitchens will go mad, although the disease may be diagnosed as premature senility and the once-famous author will be retired to some expensive nursing home, there to dribble away his miserable hours in fretful complaint.

After disposing of Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonides and Newman, e.g., "These mighty scholars may have written many evil things or many foolish things, and been laughably ignorant of the germ theory of disease or the place of the terrestrial globe in the solar system, let alone the universe, and this is the plain reason why there are no more of them today, and why there will be no more of them tomorrow... We shall have no more prophets and sages from the ancient quarter, which is why the devotions of today are only the echoing repetitions of yesterday, sometimes racheted up to the screaming point to ward off the terrible emptiness."

That was only on page seven, after which I felt little inclination to continue to read every word of this treatise. It is odd the way he frames this little paragraph: did these thinkers write evil and foolish things or did they not? The construction, "may have," is most confusing, and leads the reader to expect that the author might put in a good word for them in the end. This little grammatical point may seem to be a minor issue, but it puts me in mind of those words -"Qui verbum Dei contempserunt, eis auferetur etiam verbum hominis" -- They that despise the Word of God, then shall the word of man also be taken away -- words flung out by the departing Merlin in C.S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength. Recall this was the last moment of coherent speech in that room, the prelude to incoherent babble.

Mr. Hitchens' hatred is indeed impossible to distinguish from incoherence. His main beef against religion is that it is "man-made." How is it possible to analyze this complaint? There is simply no analytical tool in his repertoire; it is the cry of a man outraged to find himself forced to live in history, along with so many undesirable and gullible people. Does he expect God to reveal himself to him? - a point brought up by the more civilized John Derbyshire, who once complained that he had had no personal attestation as to the validity of religion, and it might be nice if God would condescend to speak with him.

Modern men expect God to do everything for them, including being saved without effort. That this is a perversion of a Christian theology that was already corrupted, I will agree. And if Christopher Hitchens had written about this corruption of theology, he might have written something of a valuable book. On the contrary, he revels in the very corruption he thinks he is exposing.

God Is Not Great in this sense doesn't have anything to do with religion. What it exposes is modern man's touching faith that to revel in corruption is to reveal it.


Mr. Richard Dawkins presents a more highly polished facade, a more educated, at least stylistically competent surface, along with an impenetrable glassy and gassy self-belief in his own righteousness. (To jump ahead, Berlinski comments somewhere that Dawkins has as much openness to criticism as a black hole.) Like Hitchens, he is a cultural Marxist, in that he has an implacable hatred for history and the human past, although Dawkins at least tries to discuss Thomas Aquinas, whereas Hitchens is too busy sneering to bother with discussing anything. Dawkins, while attempting to dismiss the various Thomist arguments for the existence of God, manages to miss the supreme achievement. The demarcation of the spheres of Faith and Reason as elucidated by Aquinas was inherently non-totalitarian. It left a free space for society and liberty to unfold - unlike our modern scientistic overlords, for whom Science (as they define it) is the Only Way to Be. One Ring to Bind them all...

I got a little farther in The God Delusion (p. 31) than God Is Not Great (p.7) before being stumped. Mr. Dawkins writes on page 31 that there could not be a Creator God because "any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution. ... [These words are italicized to make sure we get it.] Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it."

I imagine to myself what pride Mr. Dawkins felt when he came up with this stellar piece of question-begging (petitio principii). I can just feel the gloating in those italicized words, the shimmers of heat lifting from the page. What a marvelous idea, and to think that nobody before Richard Dawkins had ever thought it before! One may note a somewhat anthropomorposizing tendency to equate the creative intelligence of mankind with the creative intelligence of godkind - however, we will let this pass, although both Dawkins and Hitchens are vehement on the anthropomorphosing tendencies of religion. Likewise, although fulsome in their praise for Modern Science ("the germ theory of disease," etc.) it has apparently never occurred to either of them that religion might be an antidote to the chief infection of human beings, the tendency toward pride. Like any antidote, it can be over-used, mis-used, or not used at all. But I doubt that either Dawkins or Hitchens has ever worked himself up to a pondering of human nature sufficient to weigh in the factor of pride. I suppose Darwinian evolution has rendered thoughts of pride superfluous, along with every other term in the moral or intellectual vocabulary of man.
The impoverishment of human thinking is certainly evident in these two books. It used to be that the rules, forms, and evidences applied to the cognitive process carried some constraints to the expression of human egotism, some brake upon sweeping generalizations, logical fallacies, historical errors, and the like. In our day even that fragile barrier has been swept away. For us, the melancholy replacement to contemplation of thoughts of mortality is the shrill babble of Egotism Unbound.

P.S. There was a touching footnote in Dawkins' book on p.215: "I was mortified to read in the Guardian ('Animal Instincts,' 27 May 2006) that The Selfish Gene is the favorite book of Jeff Skilling, CEO of the infamous Enron Corporation, and that he derived inspiration of a Social Darwinist character from it...I have tried to forestall similar misunderstandings in my new preface to the thirtieth-anniversary edition..." It's certainly amazing that it took twenty-nine editions for Dawkins to get an inkling of the idea of intellectual responsibility.

For the record, I also want to recount a little story in Dawkins (p. 367) about Wittgenstein. Dawkins has just been making an extended paean to Darwinism, how it "let in a flood of understanding, whose dazzling novelty, and power to uplift the human spirit, perhaps had no precedent - unless it was the Copernican realization that the Earth was not the centre of the universe." Then he writes: "'Tell me,' the great twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once asked a friend, 'why do people always say it was natural to assume that the sun went round the Earth rather than that the Earth was rotating?' His friend replied, 'Well, obviously because it just looks as though the Sun is going round the Earth.' Wittgenstein responded, 'Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as though the Earth was rotating?' " Dawkins comments: "I sometimes quote this remark of Wittgenstein in lectures, expecting the audience to laugh. Instead, they seem stunned into silence." I find this anecdote, and Dawkins' comment on it, very revealing. Wittgenstein was a real thinker. The audience, at least, in their reaction of "stunned silence," showed an appropriate reaction to a genuine thought. Dawkins, whose complacent self-assurance is as apparently immobile as the formerly immobile Earth of classical astronomy, was surprised. Which leads one to suspect that Mr. Dawkins has never encountered a genuine thought, but only reflections of himself.


David Berlinski's book is a very witty account of "atheism and its scientific pretensions" (the subtitle). He is quite right to chide the atheists Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett et al (why do these names all sound like the names of butlers?) for remaining stuck in the materialism of the 19th century. "The advantages of materialism as a doctrine is that it sanctions an easy argument for atheism...[But] whatever the merits of this argument, the world of matter revealed by the physical sciences does not serve to endow materialism with a familiar face...Depending on how things are counted, matter has as its fundamental constituents twenty-four elementary particles, together with a great many fields, symmetries, strange geometrical spaces, and forces that are disconnected at one level of energy and fused at another, together with at least a dozen forms of energy, all of them active." (p. 54) And this is only to start. The two greatest scientific achievements of the 20th century, general gravitation and quantum mechanics, are irreconciliable -- "They invoke different languages, different ideas, and different techniques of calculation." (p. 115)

Mr. Berlinski does a great job in demolishing the "scientific pretensions" of atheism. Remarking on the promiscuous nature of modern theory - megauniverses, string theory, Anthropic Principle, etc., he comments suggestively that "The willingness of physical scientists to explore such strategies in thought might suggest to a perceptive psychoanalyst a desire not so much to discover a new idea as to avoid an old one." That old idea - In the beginning God created heaven and earth -- is utterly distasteful to the modern bunch, although they can propose with a straight face that the appearance of life on earth - a "near miracle," as one of them admitted, might be due to Aliens (I believe Dr. Watson, of Watson & Crick, once proposed this idea), and that the world we know, being hospitable to life, has every appearance of being a "put-up job."

At the end of the day it is the triviality of the moral ideas of the modern scientists that has cast a long shadow over science and which ultimately threatens it. Mr. Berlinski does not go into this with the penetration that he has or with the force that he should - or could. He only remarks that "The long Galilean moment in the history of thought is coming to an end." The irony is that the suffocation of genuine religion, a sense of humility in face of the wonders of the universe, seems to be suffocating genuine thought as well. The real defense of religion against atheism has yet to be made.


Tom Blair said...

The so-called scientific method is really just one small epistemology in the history of the world. It arose in Europe during the Reformation - and it is worshipped as a secular religion today.

The people who susbcribe to reason as the only way to knowledge are people with small worldviews.

psybertron said...

Hi Caryl, I see your Meta-Q site has been relatively inactive, but only just noticed the activity over here.

On the spate of "End of Faith" books and media debates, a couple of posts of my own.

The End of Faith in What ?

And, Susan Blackmore debating "The Dawkins Delusion"

Also, follow the link in the comments to Sam (Elizaphanian) a theologian with MoQ sympathies.

Recently update my Pirsig Pages too. Follow the [Pirsig] link in the header.