On Doing Your Homework before Critiquing

Several commenters were surprised by Michael Ruse’s judgment of the overall quality of the New Atheist’s argumentation, which I referenced in a recent post.  This was the meat of Ruse’s rebuke:

But I think first that these people do a disservice to scholarship. Their treatment of the religious viewpoint is pathetic to the point of non-being. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion would fail any introductory philosophy or religion course. Proudly he criticizes that whereof he knows nothing. As I have said elsewhere, for the first time in my life, I felt sorry for the ontological argument. If we criticized gene theory with as little knowledge as Dawkins has of religion and philosophy, he would be rightly indignant. . . . Conversely, I am indignant at the poor quality of the argumentation in Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and all of the others in that group.

Similarly, Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books surmised,

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. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster.

And Roman Catholic theologian John Haught observes in a Salon interview,

My chief objection to the new atheists is that they are almost completely ignorant of what’s going on in the world of theology. They talk about the most fundamentalist and extremist versions of faith, and they hold these up as though they’re the normative, central core of faith. And they miss so many things. They miss the moral core of Judaism and Christianity — the theme of social justice, which takes those who are marginalized and brings them to the center of society. They give us an extreme caricature of faith and religion.

Rather than spelling out the details here of where the New Atheists often go wrong—at least in relation to arguments for God’s existence—I highly recommend William Lane Craig’s recent article on that topic available here.  An informative (and technical) exchange between Craig and Daniel Dennett on arguments for God’s existence is available on audio here.

Speaking in a different context, but applicable to those authors mentioned above (who are obviously intelligent and capable, but lacking in this area), Ben Witherington writes:

Might I suggest that before you go pontificating on matters about which you are ill informed, that you do a little research first? . . . I suggest you . . .  [not write] again until you have something well-informed, carefully researched, peer-reviewed, and of general value to the public to say.

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William Lane Craig Debates with Daniel Dennett

Here is audio of a debate of sorts between William Lane Craig and Daniel Dennett. Craig spends 45 minutes going over three theistic arguments in some detail: Leibnizian cosmological arguments, kalām cosmological arguments, and anthropic principle teleological arguments. Dennett responds for about 10 minutes. He seems impressed by Craig’s presentation, but objects that our intuitions (about causality for example) when taken to these conclusions, cease to be intuitive. I’m not sure that’s really relevant though, since the exposition of an intuition is never as obvious and clear as the intuition itself. At any rate, it’s obviously more plausible to affirm the principle of causality than to deny it.

He also objects to the claim that abstract objects do not stand in causal relations. He suggests they can in a sense, but the sense he describes is clearly formal causal relations. The claim is that they cannot stand in efficient causal relations, and so cannot be appealed to as efficient causes.

It ends with a couple of minutes of commentary by “Alister” who I assume is Alister McGrath since Craig’s CV includes “In Defense of Theistic Arguments” in the just-published The Future of Atheism: Alister McGrath and Daniel Dennett in Dialogue.

(HT Quodlibeta)

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First Things on Priest, Scientist John Polkinghorne

Former mathematical physicist and now Anglican priest and theologian John Polkinghorne brings a unique perspective to questions of the relationship between science and religion.  First Things gives some background and describes two of his recent books.

A great point here:

The overall message Polkinghorne brings is a crucial one: Science cannot provide its own metaphysical interpretation. As he says with typical precision, “Physics constrains metaphysics, but it no more determines it than the foundations of a house determine the precise form of the building erected on them.” This is especially true in a post-Newtonian world characterized by greater epistemological humility. “The twentieth-century demise of mere mechanism,” he says, provides “a salutary reminder that there is nothing absolute or incorrigible about the context of science.” Some questions lie “outside the scientific domain,” and here “theology has a right to contribute to the subsequent metascientific discourse.” Anyone familiar with the writings of such preachers of scientific atheism as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, or Christopher Hitchins will immediately appreciate the very different world in which Polkinghorne dwells. “The tendency among atheist writers to identify reason exclusively with scientific modes of thought,” he notes pointedly, “is a disastrous diminishment of our human powers of truth-seeking inquiry.”

That tendency, as I recently noted, is scientism.

Concerning natural theology,

As an expert in fundamental physics, Polkinghorne likes to advance a modest form of natural theology—not the older kind of argument that places design in direct competition with biological evolution and stresses “gaps” in natural processes, but a newer style of argument based on the very comprehensibility of nature and nature’s laws. The universe revealed by science “is not only rationally transparent,” but also “rationally beautiful, rewarding scientists with the experience of wonder at the marvelous order which is revealed through the labours of their research.” Why should this be so? The laws of nature “underlie the form and possibility of all occurrence,” but science can treat them only “as given brute facts. These laws, in their economy and rational beauty, have a character that seems to point the enquirer beyond what science itself is capable of telling, making a materialist acceptance of them as unexplained brute facts an intellectually unsatisfying stance to take.” The very possibility of science, in his view, “is not a mere happy accident, but it is a sign that the mind of the Creator lies behind the wonderful order that scientists are privileged to explore.” In short, “the activity of science is recognized to be an aspect of the imago Dei.”

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Philosophy Word of the Day – Saving the Phenomena

When Daniel Dennett wrote the ambitiously titled Consciousness Explained, his critics complained that the book did not appear to mention consciousness as we know it very often and that, as a result, he had simply “explained consciousness away.”

Dennett was being accused of breaking a cardinal rule of philosophy: that one must always “save the phenomena.” Whatever else a philosophical explanation might do, it must account for the way things “seem like” to us. This principle presents us with a powerful tool for criticism.

A theory of ethics, for example, is inadequate if it cannot account for our experience of moral behavior and judgment.  A theory of perception is inadequate if it cannot account for our ordinary experiencing of sights and sounds.  Any philosophical doctrine that seeks to deny these phenomena will be fighting a losing battle.

The conclusions we draw from our experience can be debated, but the very event of that experience must not be sacrificed or ignored for the sake of theoretical interest.  To paraphrase the physicist Richard Feynman: if your conclusions contradict common sense, then so much for common sense; if they conflict with received philosophical opinion, then too bad for received opinion; but if they deny the very facts of our experience, then you must consign your conclusions to the flames.

From The Philosopher’s Toolkit, Julian Baggini and Peter S. Fosl (Blackwell, 2003), 122-123.

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