Not Saussure

September 23, 2006

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Filed under: Books, Philosopy, Religion — notsaussure @ 5:09 pm

Joan Bakewell reviewing Richard Dawkin’s new book, The God Delusion. I’m not sure if her summary does his argument justice here, but it seems to me to exemplify why his evangelical mission, as it were, will only succeed with people who already agree with him:

Believers wrongly accuse Dawkins of being himself a fundamentalist, a fundamentalist atheist. He argues the difference: that given proof he was wrong he would at once change his opinions, whereas the true fundamentalist clings to his faith whatever the challenge. What he doesn’t satisfactorily answer is the sense that people of faith have of the divine, a true experience for them that encompasses love and joy and celebration – all the things Dawkins finds in the physical world. He doesn’t comprehend that for many people reasoned argument is not the final arbiter of how they choose to live their lives. They are swayed by feelings, moved by loyalties, willing to set logic aside for the sake of psychic comfort. Tell them that all this is the product of chemical and electrical activity in the brain and they will at best assert that God made it thus. For decades now we have been willing to let such diversity of unverifiable beliefs exist among a democratic tolerance of ideas. But this, the assumption of the secular outlook, can no longer be taken for granted. The clouds are darkening around tolerance.

I’d go so far as to say that no one lives their life primarily on the basis of reasoned argument, let alone with it as the final arbiter.People don’t, after all, normally fall in love with each other or decide to get married or fall out of love or get divorced because they’ve had a reasoned discussion with themselves about it. Nor do they buy houses on that basis; certainly reason comes into it — can I afford it, does it meet my criteria of size, location and so forth — but the ultimate decision is normally decided by ‘do I like it?’. Hands up anyone who plans their meals primarily on a rational basis, without ‘I really feel like a curry tonight’ or ‘I’m fed up with chicken’ coming into it? This isn’t people being irrational, it’s them being people.

Tell them that all this is the product of chemical and electrical activity in the brain and they will at best assert that God made it thus seems to me to miss the point. If I ask someone to describe what something tastes like and he gives me an account of its chemical make-up and the physiology of taste, I won’t necessarily tell him that God made it thus but I will tell him that his explanation, though doubtless good science, leaves me none the wiser about about what the stuff tastes like.

It’s just not a useful level of description for most purposes, any more than is the account of human emotion as ‘the product of chemical and electrical activity in the brain’. Yes, I know that the way I felt immediately after my wife’s death was the product of chemical and electrical activity in my brain because my GP was able to give some anti-depressants that altered this chemical and electrical activity so that I could function, but that doesn’t really tell you much about grief, loss and bereavement.

Nor does the fact something can’t be described in verifiable terms make it meaningless; Joan Bakewell refers in her review to the book’s humour, and I’m sure she’s correct. Even if I don’t find the jokes amusing I can accept that they’re jokes and she finds them so. But if I demanded she proved to me that the jokes were funny, and, when she couldn’t give me adequate proof they were — ‘I find them amusing’ proves nothing — concluded she was suffering from some sort of delusion that was causing her to laugh like a drain for no rational reason she could communicate to me, she’d doubtless wonder about my sanity.

The problem, I think, is exemplified by He argues the difference: that given proof he was wrong he would at once change his opinions, whereas the true fundamentalist clings to his faith whatever the challenge. Quite so, and if we were talking about a belief in the Loch Ness Monster, I’d agree with him. But here we’re talking about something that, by definition, can’t be proved or disproved. ‘Richard Dawkins is a Fellow of New College, Oxford’ is a statement that can readily be proved or disproved. The statement ‘The grounds of New College, Oxford, are very beautiful’ can’t be so proved, because it’s a different sort of statement, but it’s not necessarily an irrational view to hold; and holding the view that they are or aren’t beautiful doesn’t make you a fundamentalist of any sort, despite the fact that, quite probably, no amount of rational persuasion will change your view one way or the other.

A final point; I know she didn’t mean it this way, and I can’t believe it’s Richard Dawkin’s view either, but I must say I find

For decades now we have been willing to let such diversity of unverifiable beliefs exist among a democratic tolerance of ideas. But this, the assumption of the secular outlook, can no longer be taken for granted

slightly menacing; I do hope no one’s proposing to cease ‘to let them exist’. I tend to distrust people who know they’re right about such matters; I know what I believe, or I think I do, but since I know I can’t prove it to anyone, I’m more than happy to leave them in peace with their beliefs or lack of them. If they try to do me harm — whether it’s because that’s what they think God wants them to do or because they think reason and science dictate they should — then that’s different, but until then, live and let live.

UPDATE: You can see Richard Dawkins interviewed about his book by Jeremy Paxman (about 10 minutes) for Newsight at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/5372458.stm . They’ve also got extracts from the book and a right old ding-dong going on in their comments section. I don’t quite see what the fuss is about, I’m afraid; he’s not putting forward any strikingly new arguments or insights that I can see. It mostly seems to be stuff that’s been gone over endlessly in theology and philosophy for the last 50 years or so, though I’m not at all sure that Dawkins takes on board any of these arguments.

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3 Comments »

  1. […] Andrew, over at Definition Britain, takes issue with some of the things I said about Richard Dawkins’s new book, The God Delusion, or, rather, about Joan Bakewell’s review of it. I told him I’d expand on the subject, so here’s my latest rumination. I’ve still not read the book — I’d better do, after all this, and give my considered opinion later — but I think I can see, both from the review and the Amazon blurb” TARGET=””>Amazon blurb, where he’s coming from. […]

    Pingback by The God Delusion (II) « Not Saussure — September 26, 2006 @ 9:38 am

  2. I have not yet read the book but I am very familiar with Dawwkins’ thesis. Having just heard him being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman on the BBC Tonight programme my misgivings about his position are certainly not scientific. It is possible to argue, and many Christians do, that God has deliberately made Himself inaccessible to strictly scientific enquiry. It is not possible to argue his non-existence from the unavailability of scientific evidence. My real misgivings are rather to be found on a moral plane. When asked about “purpose” all he could say was that the purpose of every living organism, and every collection of organisisms, is dictated purely and simply by DNA. This thesis has huge moral implications. What it means is that there is no way of ascribing greater or lesser moral value to any action or behaviour (including the decision to invade Iraq, which Dawkins is rightly upset about) than to any alternative course of action. I wish Paxman had pressed Dawkins a bit more on that point. I think he got off very lighly, much more lighly than many other of Paxman’s sparring partners. The question of right and wrong cannot be decided on purely genetic grounds. Our moral conscience must have an other than genetic origin. The fact is that everyone, including Dawkins when he accuses anyone of anything and thus implies that they “ought to” thik or behave otherwise, appeals to an other than genetic moral criterion. This, more than any scientific argument, is a very powerful argument for the existence of God and I have yet to hear it satisfactorily done away with.

    Comment by Roger Maarshall — September 26, 2006 @ 1:13 pm

  3. […] Not Saussure has posted comments about a review of Richard Dawkins new book, The God Delusion. I haven’t read the book yet, but I will do. Not Saussure makes some interesting points; however, I do disagree with a few of them. […]

    Pingback by Definition Britain » Blog Archive » The God Delusion — September 26, 2006 @ 7:47 pm


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