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How to respond to a young friend who has come under Dawkins’s spell

Neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield makes an interesting critique of “scientism”

By on Friday, 30 November 2012

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I have recently been in email conversation with a young friend. He is a bright chap but to my dismay he seems to have become an ardent disciple of Richard Dawkins and his kind. He has become quite convinced that “science” has solved the question of “God” – that irrational and improbable deity dreamed up by people long before science came along to enlighten them and to explain to them how the brain works. I have tried to get him to see that the (entirely legitimate) pursuit of science is a different activity from that of theology; there is no reason why they should clash rather than offer mutual, though independent support. He is having none of it: it seems the creation of “Hamlet” is simply the result of lots of cells composing the grey matter being in a happy conjunction; indeed, he thinks the sorrows of the great apes are not far removed from our own. I am simplifying his argument but this is the gist of it.

For this reason, it was good to read “What science can’t answer”, an interview in The Tablet last week between Jack Valero, communications director of Opus Dei in Britain (and co-founder of Catholic Voices) and Baroness Susan Greenfield, a neuroscientist at Oxford University. Lady Greenfield is neither an atheist nor a straightforward believer; but she accepts there are questions which are outside the competence of science to answer. She rejects “scientism” which she describes as “this unshakeable belief, which is as strong as any religious belief, that science is the only approach to understanding the world around you.” She recognises that people can have an experience “that is above and beyond the material.”

Greenfield admits that she has not had this experience – yet. “I have a sense of the spiritual and glimmers of it from time to time, but I cannot say I am a believer in the sense of subscribing to any particular religion.” In 2008 she accompanied Valero and a very sick friend and his wife on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. This was Greenfield’s idea, though she is not sure where it came from. Believers might call it the unconscious prompting of the Holy Spirit. At any rate, the experience did not deter her, as it does some outside the Church, who notice all the souvenir shops full of religious kitsch and conclude the whole place is riddled with superstition and mere trade. Greenfield was deeply impressed by the fact that “sick people were the norm and that…everybody was a volunteer.” She adds that she was also greatly moved by, “the amount of love and altruism and removal from the normal things…people being kind to each other, rather than witty or hostile or defensive”.

In general she robustly rejects the idea that science and religion are in contradiction as “intellectually bankrupt”, mentioning scientists such as Francis Collins of genome fame, who “speaks freely and openly…about being a Christian.” She points out that much of science is not strictly logical but is approached by “a hunch and an instinct”. Science answers some questions but not others “such as the meaning of life, or what is love.” Of course, people might describe love as “when you have a rise in the hormone oxytocin ” – but this does not invalidate or detract from the subjective state.

Apart from her pilgrimage to Lourdes, Greenfield has been on a three-day retreat at Ampleforth. She told the monk looking after her that “I truly don’t know why I’m here”. This didn’t bother him; I suspect he might have heard that remark before, even among supposed believers. When she got home Greenfield felt “super-charged and super-detoxed…bursting with energy and positive.”

I am going to refer my young friend to this interview and see what he makes of it. To be or not to be a chimpanzee; that is the question.

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    This chapter has contained the central argument of my book, and so, at the risk of sounding repetitive, I shall summarize it as a series of six numbered points.

    1. One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect, over the centuries, has been to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises.
    2. The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself. In the case of a man-made artefact such as a watch, the designer really was an intelligent engineer. It is tempting to apply the same logic to an eye or a wing, a spider or a person.
    3. The temptation is a false one, because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer.

    Is this really the same chap who said earlier in the same chapter of the same book: ‘I [insert own name] am personally unable to think of any way in which [insert biological phenomenon] could have been built up step by step. Therefore it is irreducibly complex. That means it is designed,’?

    Sorry, I’ve repeatedly described this as the “argument from complexity”, while Dawkins calls it the “argument from irreduceable complexity”.

    The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable. We need a ‘crane’, not a ‘skyhook’, for only a crane can do the business of working up gradually and plausibly from simplicity to otherwise improbable complexity.

    And what does the claim of improbability rest on? “Any entity capable of intelligently designing something as improbable as a Dutchman’s Pipe (or a universe) would have to be even more improbable than a Dutchman’s Pipe.”

    Yes, it is just an assertion.

    4. The most ingenious and powerful crane so far discovered is Darwinian evolution by natural selection. Darwin and his successors have shown how living creatures, with their spectacular statistical improbability and appearance of design, have evolved by slow, gradual degrees from simple beginnings. We can now safely say that the illusion of design in living creatures is just that — an illusion.

    Nothing to disagree with there, but his argument about the evolution of the eye is still not particularly convincing.

    5. We don’t yet have an equivalent crane for physics. Some kind of multiverse theory could in principle do for physics the same explanatory work as Darwinism does for biology. This kind of explanation is superficially less satisfying than the biological version of Darwinism, because it makes heavier demands on luck. But the anthropic principle entitles us to postulate far more luck than our limited human intuition is comfortable with.

    The central admission here is that we’ve only got boot-strapping hypotheses at the moment.

    6. We should not give up hope of a better crane arising in physics, something as powerful as Darwinism is for biology. But even in the absence of a strongly satisfying crane to match the biological one, the relatively weak cranes we have at present are, when abetted by the anthropic principle, self-evidently better than the self-defeating skyhook hypothesis of an intelligent designer.

    Assertion, again.

    If the argument of this chapter is accepted, the factual premise of religion — the God Hypothesis — is untenable. God almost certainly does not exist.

    The argument of c.4 depends on all Christians being creationists, believers in ID, or the “God of the gaps”. They aren’t: Dawkins has decided to focus on an outlier group and to treat a refutation of their position as a refutation of the mainstream. And you wonder why Christians say that he is propping up a strawman of religion?

    The argument also makes an unjustified jump to demand that a complex universe demands a designer who, in turn, also demands a designer.

    You may complain that I am only quoting Dawkins’ summary here, but I really don’t find any greater substance in the mass of anecdote that forms the rest of the chapter.

  • Peter

    Correction:

    “How does one explain each of the universes that allegedly make up the multiverse?”

    should read:

    “If the multiverse is not eternal, how does one explain the beginning of the very first universe within it?”

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    Karl,

    We are taught that devils and demons *may* try to influence the choices that we make: not that we are unwitting pawns in their hands.
    We also believe that God and his angels try to influence us too. Presumably you find such an idea equally pernicious?
    But ultimately, moral choices and moral responsibility are ours alone: irrespective of the degree of temptation to which we are subjected by the visible forces of this world or the invisible forces that may or may not act upon us.

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    This is poor stuff, Jonathan.

    You’ve already expressed your disbelief in God: you can’t explain something that you dismiss out of hand.
    And sorry, you’re the one putting words into my mouth: I’ve already told you that it’s up to Swinburne to make his own arguments – I’m not going to defend the views of someone that I’ve only just heard of.
    As I’ve set out repeatedly, the idea that *we* need to be able to explain God before he is capable of existence is a fairly daft idea.

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    Was Dawkins’ use of the word “unquestioning” entirely otiose? A bit of verbosity? A mere frippery?
    If “faith” is, itself, enough to give an opening for fundamentalists then we’re all doomed: we rarely personally see any evidence for the scientific theories that we believe and proceed upon; we take them on faith.
    Clearly, by your standard, my faith in CERN that they have found evidence of Higgs Boson should be taken as an incitement to Islamist radicals.

  • karlf

    Indeed. And that’s why I say that the Church maintains and promotes irrational, superstitious claims to causes of human behaviour, originating from ancient, middle eastern folklore.

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    Your response seems a little selective, Karl, because you seem not to have addressed the second half of my comment.

  • karlf

    Well, I would say carry on taking responsibility for making moral choices, as I do myself, but forget about the devil and demons, and instead take a more active interest in the real roots of human behaviour.

  • Peter

    The ostriches of the Dawkins camp continue to bury their heads in the sand.

    The fundamental flaw in Ch.4 of the God Delusion is that the multiverse as an array of successive  and/or parallel universes is neither infinite nor eternal.

    The first universe in the array must have a beginning in time.

    It is therefore impossible to propose the mutliverse as an explanation for existence.

    Consequently a multiverse is infinitely less parsimonious than a Creator, in direct repudiation of Dawlins’ central claim.

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    Karl

    The Church has spent generations dealing with real human behaviour, in all of its manifestations: modern social work grew out of the ministry to the poor by the Church and Protestant groups.
    What do scientific theories about the evolution of behaviours add to that? What were you trying to prove by repeatedly raising the point?

  • karlf

    The Church has spent generations in ignorance of the processes which created the human mind – centuries of belief in devils, demons, witches, evil spirits and Adam and Eve (I know they are now considered to be metaphorical by most today).
    How can you know what benefits may come from the scientific inquiry into the origins of human behaviour? I believe it is right to pursue an understanding of what is real, rather than maintain ancient follies, even if they have done some good for those who believed in them.

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    I am sure that there are always benefits to be had in the pursuit of knowledge, but I’m sceptical that we will transform our understanding of how best to address that behaviour simply by looking back at its evolutionary origins. The historical record is full of failed (sometimes catastrophically failed) experiments in child-rearing and the care of offenders or the mentally ill, which were based on the prevailing scientific models for the development of behaviours (often looking to animal analogues of human behaviour). The reason that these experiments invariably fail is that they don’t address the individual and his or her needs.
    The Church has long known that we best address human beings as individuals: it’s a point that “scientific” models of human behaviour keep demonstrating by their failure.

  • Acleron

    If gravity arises from a state outside spacetime or it arises from interaction of dimensions as in Brane theory it still doesn’t require a start or a finish, it can be eternal. The only theory that requires causal creation is yours and it not only has the least evidence but directly contravenes known theory and fact.

    Both Dawkins and Krauss are as one with the ideas of some entity creating a universe, it is not impossible, but extremely unlikely. As for a personal deity, it is even less likely if that was possible. There has been absolutely no evidence for such a being. As for their being an entity which has the powers and behaviour that you describe, the probability is essentially zero because your hypothesis fails on observation.

    To try and claim that because Dawkins’ and Krauss’s are willing to ascribe probabilities to various options that makes them deists is ridiculous desperation. We don’t say anything in science is absolute, there is always a probability that a theory could be incorrect. This is why it is always laughable that anybody claims theologists are acting scientifically. They are incapable of considering they are wrong, no matter what they claim.

    BTW you seem to have left out any evidence that the universe was deterministic until approx 0.5Mya and then became non-deterministic. Is this the increase in the outcomes that have to be controlled that Occam described?

  • Jonathan West

    You haven’t read chapter 4 of the God Delusion.

  • Jonathan West

    I notice that you’re still only quoting from the conclusions, not the reasoning. I asked you to find an error of fact or logic in the line of argument that led to the conclusions.

    Is this really the same chap who said earlier in the same chapter of the same book: ‘I [insert own name] am personally unable to think of any way in which [insert biological phenomenon] could have been built up step by step. Therefore it is irreducibly complex. That means it is designed,’?

    Allow me to put that quote into context. I suspect you don’t know the context because you haven’t read the book.

    The logic turns out to be no more convincing than this: ‘I [insert own name] am personally unable to think of any way in which [insert biological phenomenon] could have been built up step by step. Therefore it is irreducibly complex. That means it is designed.’ Put it like that, and you immediately see that it is vulnerable to some scientist coming along and finding an intermediate; or at least imagining a plausible intermediate. Even if no scientists do come up with an explanation, it is plain bad logic to assume that ‘design’ will fare any better. The reasoning that underlies ‘intelligent design’ theory is lazy and defeatist – classic ‘God of the Gaps’ reasoning. I have previously dubbed it the Argument from Personal Incredulity.

    This time, try reading that chapter and picking some point in it that you think contains an error of logic or fact.

  • Jonathan West

    From an earlier exchange of comments

    JW: Are you suggesting that God can be non-contingent and yet there is an explanation for his existence?TR: No.So it seems to me that you are agreeing with Swinburne that a non-contingent God is one for which there is no explanation of his existence (not merely that we don’t know the explanation yet).

  • Jonathan West

    Not at all. By my standard, the belief that CERN has found evidence of the Higgs Boson is entirely reasonable because they are prepared to show everybody the evidence, and others will look at the evidence and see whether they got t right. There are enough particle physicists in the world that if they got it wrong the fact will be discovered eventually.

    The only thing preventing you from checking the evidence for yourself is the time and effort necessary to educate yourself in particle physics to the extent necessary to understand their results. But you could do it if you wanted to.

    But on the other hand, if you accept as a matter of principle that Truth can come from Revelation, in other word that justifiable truth claims can be made and should be accepted without there being supporting evidence, then you have no means by which you can justify accepting one claim for truth from revelation and reject another.

    So, if we acknowledge that the 9/11 hijackers genuinely believed that they had a revelation that they were doing God’s work by flying those planes into buildings, you have no means of knowing that they didn’t.

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    Jonathan

    I am familiar with the context of the quotation that I’d chosen, which is why I thought it apposite to quote it: I really do think that the argument of Chapter 4 really is little more than an argument from Dawkins’ personal incredulity.
    And I did give my reason for only quoting the conclusions: I’m blessed if I can find a more substantial rationale for his conclusions in the rest of the Chapter.
    I would have thought that by pointing out that the argument of Chapter 4 is addressed almost wholly to creationists, ID fans and “God of the gappers” (worshippers of gaps, as Dawkins refers to them), I had demonstrated my familiarity with this particular literary gem.

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    Jonathan

    I’ve already pointed out to you that I am unaware of Swinburne and his argument: I can neither critique it nor defend it.
    Be so good as to address the arguments that I have made, instead of the ones that you want to attribute to me.

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    Jonathan

    I’m afraid that we’re going to have to disagree on this: no single individual is able to fully interpret the raw data from CERN; there is a strong interdisciplinary dimension to what they are doing there and it would probably take more than one lifetime to build up enough expertise in one individual to verify the data; we’re all taking their conclusions on faith.
    And can I point out that your analogy with the “revelation” of the 9/11 murderers is flawed: we don’t go big on personal revelation in Catholicism, look at the life of St Faustina Kowalska if you’re in any doubt on that point.

  • karlf

    You may well be sceptical, and psychologists (and politicians)are always getting things wrong, but that shouldn’t hold us back from learning more about the truth of how things really are. The problems which you mention can be addressed – the problems with religion less so. I really can’t see how false beliefs in supernatural beings is the best way to control the negative aspects human behaviour in the 21st century.

  • Jonathan West

    Stripping the quote of its context makes it appear that Dawkins is subscribing to that idea, whereas he is opposing it. So what you are calling the “complexity argument” and ascribing to Dawkins is the precise opposite of what he is arguing.

    I think that is really rather dishonest.

  • Jonathan West

    I asked you whether, if God is non-contingent, there can be any explanation for his existence. You answered “No”.

    I’m remarkably unwilling to accept as fact the existence of entities for which there cannot be any explanation.

    You appear to think otherwise. I describe that as a call to ignorance.

  • Jonathan West

    You accept the revelations that St Paul described himself as having received. It seems to me that the visions at Lourdes and Fatima are regarded as authentic revelations. If St Paul, Lourdes or Fatima, why not 9/11?

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    Only totalitarians want to control, Karl. Democrats tend to wish to persuade.
    Why on earth do you think that anyone wants us to stop looking at behavioural traits? Nothing that I’ve written could lead to you attributing that view to me.
    And you’ve gone back to supernatural beings again. What part do you believe that they play in the daily experience of the vast majority of Catholics?

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    Oh, Jonathan, must you be so obtuse: the only reason that I used that quote is that, even shorn of its context it’s clear that Dawkins wants to deride the position expressed by that quote!
    When it becomes clear that a central plank in Dawkins’ own argument is based on his subjective incredulity his position looks decidedly hypocritical, dishonest even (to use your word): that’s the whole reason for my deployment of that quote.
    You would serve Dawkins better by admitting that parts of his book could have done with the attentions of a judicious editor, instead of attempting to raise it up as a sort of idol.

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    We don’t have an explanation for the existence of the universe, Jonathan, and there is every chance that science will never be able to reach an explanation for that existence: you already accept the fact that things exist for which there is no explanation and for which no explanation may be possible.

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    Because all of those revelations have been rigorously tested against the mens of the Church: we just don’t go with personal revelation.

  • karlf

    I meant for individuals to control their own negative behavioural traits.
    You seem to believe that the Church has all the solutions, but centuries of experience has shown that not to be the case – Muslims believe Islam is the solution and look what trouble comes of that.

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    Jonathan, 

    You seem to be using that accusation as an attempt to kill debate; what evidence do you have that Peter hasn’t read c.4?

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    Karl, you’re putting words into my mouth. Who said that the Church has *all* of the answers? We have accumulated a lot of knowledge about human behaviour in 2000 years; history is littered with the names of men and women who have turned their lives around through the graces that they have received from the Church, not to mention the untold millions who have lived ordinary lives transformed by love. Does the Church have all of the answers? No. Can our position be improved by behavioural theory? Probably not.

  • karlf

    So what of this Divine authority of moral behaviour?

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    You will need to give some context to your question, Karl, at the moment it’s a bit of a non-sequitur.

  • karlf

    Looking back to where this discussion started, I still feel I’m waiting for your defence of the Church’s claim of Divine authority of moral behaviour, and its belief in devils and demons and other supernatural creatures.

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    Karl, this conversation starts with you repeatedly asking where the Church teaches that some behaviours may have evolutionary roots, remember?
    You didn’t progress your argument beyond that point.

    Do you want to start talking about the origins of morality and moral standards? Fine, but if you want to question the Church’s teaching on morality, you’d better start by pointing out where you think it is going wrong and on what you’re basing your criticisms.

  • Jonathan West

    You’re engaging in the Auguste Comte fallacy again. You don’t know whether the universe has an explanation, and if so, whether we will discover it, but you are saying that there is “every chance that science will never be able to reach an explanation”.

    I accept that we don’t know the explanation for the universe at the moment but given the scientific advances made in recent centuries, I would not want to bet against that explanation being forever beyond us.

    It is the religious who claim that God is non-contingent and therefore by definition forever without explanation.

    While science has in the last few hundred years made wondrous discoveries beyond the imaginings of previous generations, the church remains split as to whether the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son or from the Father alone, and there appears to be no prospect of any means by which the question can be decided one way or the other.

  • Jonathan West

    So, revelations only count if they agree with what those in power in the church already believe. How very convenient.

  • Jonathan West

    His description of what Dawkins says about the multiverse is wildly inaccurate. It bears a fairly strong resemblance however to the distortions of the chapter made by various Christian writers. Therefore, the reasonable inference to make is that Peter hasn’t actually read The God Delusion, but has only read the Christian responses to it.

  • karlf

    Point 1.
    The Church is going wrong by telling untruths about supernatural creatures influencing human behaviour. It is my opinion that, as a Divine authority on moral behaviour, telling untruths is wrong.

  • Jonathan West

    If you’d wanted to point out that Dawkins was deriding that position, then you would have quoted it in context. You were doing a dishonest thing which is unfortunately extremely common amongst Christian apologists, to take the words of atheist scientists out of context to give the impression that they hold views different from those which they in fact hold.

    It’s not only dishonest but also rather stupid, in that if you are in conversation with somebody familiar with the work of the scientist in question, you’re going to get found out. Such quote-mining serves only to persuade those who are ignorant of the scientist’s arguments and determined to remain that way.I suggest we abandon this branch of the thread so you can forget about this, and if you wish you can start again at trying to find some piece of chapter 4 in which you think there is a logical or factual error which renders his conclusions unreliable, but this time avoiding the practice of quote-mining.

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    Transparent nonsense, Jonathan.

  • Jonathan West

    So you can’t find a point at which Dawkins has made an error f fact or logic. Thanks for confirming.

  • Jonathan West

    And by the way, this is the complete opposite of the scientific method. In science, theories are changed in the light of new evidence. According to you, revelations are rejected in the light of existing doctrine. 

  • karlf

    Point 2.
    for centuries the Church claimed to be the Divine authority on moral behaviour, even though it knew nothing about how human behaviour came into being – this knowledge was revealed by scientific inquiry from the 1800s onwards. Science showed us how behavioural traits evolved through the process which we now call Natural Selection – and there are no angels or demons pulling strings. Today, Catholics like yourself try to play down these ancient superstitious explanations, perhaps as a direct response to scientific discovery. Likewise, more and more of the teachings of the Church become allegorical and metaphorical.

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    Karl

    It is only your belief that the Church is wrong on those points: if the Church is teaching in good faith, then your point doesn’t make sense.

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    Jonathan, your faith in a scientific progress is laudable, but let’s not forget that our current framework for the period following the Big Bang is still only theory at this point: your position is essentially that of Micawberism, “something will come up”.

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    That seems to be what you wish to believe.

  • karlf

    Why would God condone the teaching of lies?

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    Irritatingly enough, my comment was truncated. Here is the rest:

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    Irritatingly, my original comment was truncated and someone at Disqus doesn’t like the rest of my reply.

    To put it plainly, Jonathan, your accusation of dishonesty is silly. The quote plainly aims to disparage a certain viewpoint – even shorn or its context. That is why I used it – because I think Dawkins is making the same mistake that he is condemning in others.

    You simply haven’t defended this logical pothole in his argument, I really don’t need to go searching for others.