Saturday, May 31, 2008

Delusions, Fallacies, Misrepresentations

I read this review of David Berlinski's The Devil's Delusion (an obvious potshot at Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion) today. I haven't read the book, so can't say how well this review represents it--when it actually talks about the book, which isn't often--but reviewer John Gray is himself guilty of so many fallacies and misrepresentations, I scarcely know where to start. Well, I guess the first paragraph's a good place.

In the 18th century, the philosophers of the French Enlightenment argued that science is the voice of reason while religion is little more than blind faith.
A)This is a simplistic reduction of a rather varied and sophisticated set of objections to religion. B)Such objections are hardly limited to 18th C France. Calling something "French" is a rather crude backhanded way of dismissing it out of hand. Maybe this wasn't Gray's intention, but it seems rather too pointed to be accidental.

Doubt has been an integral part of religion at least since the Book of Job, while science has often gone with credulity. The doctrines of dialectical materialism and "scientific racism" promoted by communists and Nazis, respectively, during the 20th century were as irrational as anything in the history of religion. Yet in the 20th century, millions of people embraced these pernicious ideologies as scientific truth.
In the narratives of religion (Job, Augustine, Donne, etc.), doubt is invariably defeated. In science pursued as science is supposed to be pursued, on the other hand, scepticism is foundational. In the Wikipedia article on the scientific method, this is addressed directly:

Belief can alter observations; those with a particular belief will often see things as reinforcing their belief, even if they do not. Needham's Science and Civilization in China uses the 'flying horse' image as an example of observation: in it, a horse's legs are depicted as splayed, when the stop-action picture by Eadweard Muybridge shows otherwise. Note that at the moment that no hoof is touching the ground, the horse's legs are gathered together and are not splayed.

Earlier paintings depict the incorrect flying horse observation. This demonstrates Ludwik Fleck's caution that people observe what they expect to observe, until shown otherwise; our beliefs will affect our observations (and therefore our subsequent actions). The purpose of the scientific method is to test a hypothesis, a belief about how things are, via repeatable experimental observations which can contradict the hypothesis so as to fight this observer bias.
That the pseudo-scientific hypotheses and policies of totalitarian regimes are "irrational" is therefore no discredit to the scientific method, but to charlatans pretending to practice science (and probably convinced by their own faith that they were doing legitimate science). That "millions of people" embraced these forgeries has far more to do with the credulity of the ignorant--millions of people also believe that Jesus Christ not only died for our sins, but was brought back to life and will return to earth again. People are irrational. Science isn't. People tend to believe what they want to believe; scientists, on good days, believe what hasn't been disproven. Science deals with falsifiable hypotheses; religion with unverifiable and unfalsifiable ones. Which is why many scientists will say that faith in God "isn't even wrong."

Writers such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris have popularized the Enlightenment view that a reductive type of materialism is the only picture of the world compatible with the results of scientific inquiry. Promoting Darwinism as an intellectual orthodoxy - a creed rather than a provisional hypothesis - these writers renew the old quarrel between science and religion. Though controversy has been intense, it can hardly be described as having made any large intellectual advance on the debate that raged in Victorian times.

Anyone who claims that Dawkins, especially, promotes "a reductive type of materialism" should read his book The Ancestor's Tale, if they haven't already. There is nothing reductive in Dawkins' worldview; there is, arguably, a great deal more room for wonder, doubt and awe than in any religious writer's work. "Darwinism"--by which I assume Gray means the theory of natural selection, as there are facets of Darwin's work that no latter day evolutionary scientists accept (because they've been proven incorrect!)--is no "creed," nor indeed is it any longer a "provisional hypothesis" because natural selection has yet to be broadly proven incorrect. If there's been little "advance on the debate that raged in Victorian times," it's precisely because the loudest religious opponents of natural selection's explanatory powers refuse to recognise an increasingly large amount of evidence supporting the detested theory. One of the parties in the debate has stood still. Guess which?

There is actually very little that is new in the so-called new atheism, whose claim to be based on science is as dubious today as it has ever been.
Well, to the best of my knowledge, the label "new atheism" has been applied by others, not by Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens or Harris. And even if it has been, they're not interested in novelty--I fail to understand how not being new is a damning critique--evidence of which is to be found in Hitchens' anthology The Portable Atheist.

Berlinski - a mathematician and well-known critic of evolutionary theory, though not a proponent of "intelligent design" - has two targets in his sights: the conventional belief that religious thought is intrinsically superstitious and the materialist philosophy that Dawkins and his fellow "brights" - as members of the atheist community fondly describe themselves - mistakenly identify with science.
A)There's no such thing as "the atheist community." B)I've never known an atheist who uses Dawkins' rather embarrassing term to describe him or herself. Dawkins suggested it as an alternative to the negatively-defined term atheism--which suggests not believing in something, rather than believing something for good reason--but I don't think the self-congratulatory and condescending label has caught on. C)The identification of a materialist philosophy with science is not "mistaken," but very well established.

The first of these targets is dispatched with in a barrage of devastating arguments. Berlinski quotes Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg as declaring "Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion." Berlinski comments on this, forcefully and unanswerably: "Just who has imposed on the suffering human race poison gas, barbed wire, high explosives, experiments in eugenics, the formula for Zyklon B, heavy artillery, pseudo-scientific justifications for mass murder, cluster bombs, attack submarines, napalm, intercontinental ballistic missiles, military space platforms, and nuclear weapons? If memory serves, not the Vatican."

A)Weinberg was almost right. Replace "religion" with "the conviction of moral rectitude" and the statement's bang-on. Religion is just one very common cause of this error. McCarthyism was another. Marxist-Leninism and Nazism are other examples. B)Berlinski's comment is hardly "unanswerable"; for one thing, he does not establish that these terrible inventions are the products of good people. For another, weapons, defences and murder (mass or otherwise) have existed since humans started walking upright. That those weapons have become more technologically sophisticated over the last century says nothing about science's capacity for evil, but rather about humans' capacity to use scientific knowledge for (arguably) malign purposes. Again, the term "pseudo-scientific" makes it quite clear that real science has not been, and cannot be, used to justify genocide. And, "if memory serves," the Vatican signed a treaty with Hitler.

Nothing infuriates atheists more than the observation that people who scorned traditional religion in all its varieties were responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the last century.

If it's true that this is infuriating, it's because it stupidly elides the point that is embedded in the phrase "traditional religion": viz., that totalitarian leaders have made cults of themselves and appropriated the trappings of traditional religions in order to form new ones, complete with iconography, worship, catechism, dogma and immortality.

Atheism was - according to the founders of the Soviet state, and in fact - always an integral part of the communist project. Despite the vehement denials of Dawkins and Hitchens, terror in communist Russia - and Mao's China - was also meant to bring about a utopian society in which religion would no longer exist.

Atheism was definitely a central tenet of Marx's philosophy. However, a state that preserves a dead body in a glass case so that people might come and pay homage to it cannot honestly claim to be atheistic. Nor can a state in which the leader is said not to produce human waste. The desire of totalitarian regimes to control and eradicate religion stems from the political competition provided by churches. (This is why Constantine first converted to Christianity, after all, a religion which, at the time, was widely regarded as atheistic for its repudiation of all other gods.) It's impossible to have total control over society when institutions independent of the government, with large popular followings, exist.

Berlinski is right to focus on the fact that 20th-century atheist states were as complicit in crimes against humanity as any religion has been in the past. He weakens his case when he argues that "The twentieth century was not an age of faith, and it was awful." Quite to the contrary, the 20th century was an age of faith - the secular faith in Utopia that produced the atrocities Berlinski rightly condemns.

Here, some scientific data would be very useful. Even with all its atrocities, the 20th C was far from the bloodiest epoch in human civilization, as Steven Pinker, another godless heathen, has pointed out repeatedly.

Lenin's Bolsheviks were not a bunch of skeptics. They were fanatical believers in a vision of a future world, more fantastic than any religious myth, which they claimed was based on science.

Exactly, they weren't skeptics, they were fanatics. Is Gray trying to make the opposition's argument for it? As for the dictatorship of the proletariat being "more fantastic than any religious myth"--wishful thinking, yes, but hardly on a par with the universe being created out of nothing and human beings from clay--to say nothing of the entire world being inundated. Again "claimed was based on science" means that it wasn't actually based on science, but on pseudo-science (which by another name one might call doctrine).

The same is true of the Nazis, who in claiming that race was a scientific category, opened the way to history's supreme crime. The atrocities perpetrated by atheist regimes during the 20th century did not come from believing in nothing. They are testimonies to the destructive ferocity of faith when it is detached from traditional religions and invested in pseudo-science.

That would be an accurate statement, but for "when it is detached from traditional religions." The "destructive ferocity of faith" has had ample play within the moral barricades of one churchyard or another and the Bible is full of genocidal cleansings.

No doubt correctly, Berlinski argues that Darwin's account of natural selection and current theories of cosmology leave a good deal that is not adequately explained. More contentiously, he suggests that these gaps in understanding may give support to ideas of intelligent design. Here Berlinski follows atheists such as Dawkins in thinking of religion as a type of explanatory theory, different from that which is presented in prevailing science.

Of course "correctly," otherwise there'd be no work for present-day evolutionary biologists, none of whom claim that all has been explained. And wait a minute, didn't Gray say earlier that Berlinski is "not a proponent of 'intelligent design'"... Richard Dawkins didn't come up with the idea that "religion [is] a type of explanatory theory"; the founders of religions did! The whole purpose of myth is to explain to people where they came from and what they're doing here. It's blatant revisionism to pretend otherwise.

The truth of the matter is that religion and science are not competitors, but fundamentally different responses to the human situation. Religion begins where science leaves off.

Wrong! They are fundamentally similar responses to the human situation. Without the religious impulse--the need to answer vexing questions about ourselves and our origins--there would be no science, just as there would be no literature. Religion is an important early step in attempting to fill the void of ignorance. However, once that impulse leads us to discover certain facts about the universe that are in blatant contradiction of the dogmas of religion and the assumptions of faith, it behooves us to abandon the dogmas as truth (while still recognizing their historical and metaphorical values) and pursue knowledge where it might actually be obtained. Science begins where religion leaves off.

Religion expresses the human need for meaning, not a demand for explanation. For those who have it, faith entails understanding the limits of the human mind and an acceptance of mystery. Even if all the problems of science are some day solved, humans will still be searching for purpose in their lives, and for that reason alone they will need religion.

Explanation leads to meaning. An abstract "need for meaning" that can be satisfied by a rote adherence to millenia-old doctrine is a pretty feeble need. I'd say it's more a need for comfort. An understandable need, but one that is too easily satisfied. I have a young nephew who drags around a dirty threadbare blanket and can't bear to be parted from it. If that blanket were to disappear tomorrow, he'd no doubt suffer some anxiety from it. But he'd get over it. If you can't find purpose in your life without religion, maybe you should, as Rilke said, change your life.


Megan said...

Thank you.

Alex said...

Hmmm. Contra Pinker:

"The hundred years after 1900 were without question the bloodiest century in modern history, far more violent in relative as well as absolute terms than any previous era. Significantly larger percentages of the world's population were killed in the two world wars that dominated the century than had been killed in any previous conflict of comparable geopolitical magnitude. . . . By any measure, the Second World War was the greatest man-made catastrophe of all time."

alex said...

Forgot to source that. Niall Ferguson, "The War of the World". Not my favourite historian, but he's pretty good with the numbers.

Zachariah Wells said...

Pinker isn't unaware of the numbers. Ferguson's statement belies the fact that there were no "previous conflicts of comparable geopolitical magnitude"--I challenge you to name one. So the (non-)comparison is as good as nonsense. I don't think Pinker challenges the idea that WWII is the single "greatest man-made catastrophe of all time." (We certainly have more reliable records of it and WWI than we do of wars before the "total war" era.) But those two extremely bloody wars are relatively anomalous in the 20th C, which, when compared with other centuries, was possibly the most peaceful and least murderous age in the history of humankind. The big difference is that the WW's were global conflicts, which makes 'em seem bloodier, but as Pinker says: "If the wars of the twentieth century had killed the same proportion of the population that die in the wars of a typical tribal society, there would have been two billion deaths, not 100 million." Which seems far more to the point than Ferguson's claim, which is probably statistically accurate, but really quite meaningless.

alex said...

I see you really like this Pinker fellow.

That there were no other wars of similar geopolitical magnitude makes the point that the 20th century took such violence up to another level. Ferguson does compare 20th-century conflicts to the Napoleonic Wars, the Thirty Years War, the War of the Spanish Succession, and other bloody struggles. All of which are dwarfed by WWs1 and 2.


"And yet, for all the attention they have attracted from historians, the world wars were only two of many twentieth-century conflicts. Death tolls quite probably passed the million mark in more than a dozen others. [Zach, had you forgotten the Nigerian Civil War of 1966-1970, the Bangladeshi War of Independence, the ongoing slaughter in the Congo?]. . . . There was not a single year before, between or after the world wars that did not see large-scale organized violence in one part of the world or another."

Yes, the two world wars were relatively anomalous in the twentieth century, but they are relatively anomalous in all of human history. They are less anomalous in the twentieth century than at any other time.

Ferguson's comparisons are both relative and absolute. The world wars did not just seem bloodier, they were. Tribal violence among some hunter-gatherers isn't really a fair comparison. It's also hard to say what Pinker means by a "typical tribal society" as there is massive variation. Does he mean violence among the Mae Enga, or the Assinboine? In any event, we're talking about pre-historical peoples here, which can hardly be used for comparison.

Zachariah Wells said...

"Such violence" and overall levels of violence are two different things. I do like Pinker. I like him because he makes persuasively cogent arguments. (More can be heard here.) More statistics supporting his line of thought are quoted in _The Blank Slate_, which I imagine will be expanded upon considerably in his next book, focusing on the subject of violence. Yeah, big wars still happen, in which many people die, but the likelihood of dying by violent means is much lower in most parts of the world now than it has been in past eras.

That peoples are "prehistorical" hardly disqualifies them for analysis and comparison. In the video I link above, Pinker does give a breakdown on different tribal societies, so he's not just drawing arbitrary generalisations (such as, e.g., "Tribal violence among some hunter-gatherers isn't really a fair comparison"). A death is a death. It sounds like Ferguson is only concerned with war-caused deaths.

Vollman's _Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence_ also suggests that violence as an ethic is far less common and certainly far less accepted now than it has been in past eras. Which is precisely why today's bellicose leaders have to use subterfuge in order to launch violent campaigns for what amounts, essentially, to the same thing as lebensraum.

alex said...

In general, with the advance of civilization violence has gone down. Perhaps we're even evolving to become less violent. This is what makes the mass bloodshed of the 20th century, even among the wealthiest and most developed nations, so striking. And by any standard of measuring these things, the 20th century was extraordinarily violent. Yes, Ferguson is talking mainly about "political" violence (wars, murderous regimes), but for many parts of the world for much of the past century, such violence has been what mattered. Maybe violent crime and murder rates are low in Afghanistan, and the people are less violent, but the lived reality of that country for the last thirty years has been endless war.

The question of whether the 20th century was the most violent ever is historical, and demands comparison with other periods (the nineteenth century, the middle ages, the later Roman Empire). It's hard to compare the 20th century with tribal behaviour because (1) such tribes, for quite a while now, have been ahistorical, unrepresentative anomalies (some still exist in the Amazon apparently), and (2) they are also prehistoric. Do you really want/need to go back to the days when homo whatever was extinguishing neanderthal man to make the argument that the 20th century wasn't so bad? That's certainly taking the long view (which may be what Pinker is doing), but it doesn't change the fact of the 20th century's mass butchery.

But really, this is just a minor point in comparison to the rest of your outrageously blasphemous post. You do realize you're going to burn in hell, don't you? Repent Zachariah! Repent!

Zachariah Wells said...


The main reason Pinker makes the comparison is precisely because so many others (journalists and academics most notably) make the comparison for the opposite purpose: to show how the modern age, fallen from nature and grace, faithless and cynical, is so much more violent than the supposedly noble savages of prehistory. Which is nothing better than Rousseauean romance.

jeff said...

Thanks Zach for a comprehensive response to the globe review. When I read that article it irked me. I think this whole "do aethiests kill more or do religious people kill more" is sort of a red herring, so I was surprised to see the reviewer become so generous to the author's seemingly simplistic approach.

If Dawkins and Hitchens have really provided some damaging arguments it's not in this idea of "religious people do bad things." If a book is going to attack the aethiest movement (diverse as it is), the real nut to crack is matters of justification of belief, since the onus is on the religious person to say why one God over a multitude of others should be accepted.

Maybe I'm missing something about the force of this "there's a prob with aethiesm because aethiests have done bad things" argument.

Zachariah Wells said...

Yes, Jeff, it is a red herring. One of the things that bugs me most are disingenuous (or ignorant, take your pick) claims that religion has nothing to do with epistemology, when it takes only a crude knowledge of the history of religion and theology to be aware that epistemological matters have always been a central preoccupation of churches and their chief spokespeople. As Daniel Dennett has said, if Stephen Jay Gould is right about religion, science and philosophy being "non-overlapping magesteria" then what's left for religion, once science and philosophy have taken their due, is incredibly small (basically, solace and community togetherness, both of which are provided outside of churches). To say that the existence of God doesn't have to be proven, only believed in, throws out not only science and philosophy as valid means of exploring divine matters, but also a hell of a lot of theology.

Roland Elliott Brown said...

When these atheism books started to emerge, I couldn't wait to see what the reaction would be, and who would react most vocally.

Of course, the "there is so a god" argument was a non-starter in the respectable media, so all we got was a handful of traditional liberals trying to muddy the waters and attribute to various atheist authors positive assertions they never made, with hopes of casting them among the ranks of the crackpot scientists of the Soviet Union and the Third Reich.

It has been pathetic to watch, actually. I think perhaps they've reacted so resentfully because they see a confident social atheist trend as a democratic society's backhanded swipe at Muslims in the political sphere (at least, I'm sure this is the case in Britain).

The irony is that a lot of these traditional liberals are atheists themsleves. They take a good-enough-for-them-but-not-good-enough-for-me attitude to religion, which is a pretty shoddy way of disguising their own contempt for the religious.

Paul (probably - maybe Liz) said...

So (broadly) in response to the challenge "atheistic ideology caused atrocities in the 20th century", you say, "that's because atheism made itself into a religion."

Well, broadly, I would agree. However, is it fair then for people to leave the charge levelled at "traditional" theistic religions, when you are including things within it which had specifically set themselves against traditional religions? You aren't doing that - I notice your comments about conviction of moral rectitude. But that is what is done by many other people. If we aren't careful with our terminology, we may end up with such muddy water that we can no longer see the bottom.

I also disagree with your assertion that doubt is ALWAYS resolved (in this life) within faiths. See "One Step Closer" for a more cross-focused perspective on Christianity.

Zachariah Wells said...

Paul, nothing we do to clarify our terminology will unmuddy these particular waters. They've always been silt-riddled.

Broadly, Paul, I'd say that atheism was not a central plank of either Leninist/Stalinist/Maoist communism, nor of National Socialism. If religions had no political manifestations (churches), totalitarian leaders wouldn't care about them. They sought to eliminate them precisely because they were competition, because they provided an alternative hierarchy to their own.