Sunday, February 26, 2006

I read this in the Spectator ...

... and am glad to have found it online: Roger Scruton's Dawkins is wrong about God.

Scruton actually is a philosopher. Dawkins, a zoologist, practices philosophy without a license. Which is why so much of what he presents as logic is actually rhetoric. Here Scruton takes apart one of Dawkins's arguments by analogy. Like Daniel Dennett, Dawkins is fond of arguing by analogy, even though it is the second weakest form of argument, after the argument from authority -- which really isn't an argument at all.
Scruton, however, does know how to reason, and also how to write:
...the truth of a religion lies less in what is revealed in its doctrines than in what is concealed in its mysteries. Religions do not reveal their meaning directly because they cannot do so; their meaning has to be earned by worship and prayer, and by a life of quiet obedience. Nevertheless truths that are hidden are still truths; and maybe we can be guided by them only if they are hidden, just as we are guided by the sun only if we do not look at it.

The question I would like to put to both Dawkins and Dennett is this:
If Almighty Evolution has shaped us to believe in God, by what right do the likes of Dennett and Dawkins challenge Her designs?

Update: I have revised this post to indicate that Richard Dawkins is a zoologist, not an entomologist.


  1. I saw this cartoon on one of the science blogs (they are on a combined feed so I am never very sure which is which):

    Dawkins has turned into a one-horse race, but he used to argue better. I thought "The Selfish Gene" was one of those conceptual breakthrough books.

    But I agree, he tries the patience these days with his oversimplistic and attention-grabbing activities. (In the UK he is never out of the media.)

    I don't think he's an entymologist by training, though -- a zoologist I think. I attended his lectures when an undergraduate -- they were pretty good. That was before he was famous, but probably no connection between those two statements ;-)

  2. Actually, Frank, I have another question for you about your post on this. I hope I am not being cheeky, but you say that the argument by analogy (which I agree is weak) is "second worst" to argument "from authority".

    But isn't this saying that the people who argue against Dawkins are even weaker than Dawkins, in that they Dawkins opponents are (in essence) saying God created complexity ("authority") whereas, according to your interpretation, Dawkins is using "analogy" (weak but not as weak as "authority") to say no she didn't, it was random chance?

    I am not clever enough to get into the argument, though my instinct is randomness wins, but I am just playing a bit of a devil's advocate here!

  3. Good question, Maxine. Let me explain. The argument from authority is, according to Thomas Aquinas (who certainly had respect for authority) the weakest argument because it basically states that something is so because someone says it is. The argument from analogy is weak because things are alike in some ways, but not in others and one has to be very careful in making comparisons and to delimit them precisely. As I have pointed out here before, much philosophical thinking is grounded in insufficiently considered metaphors. To say that the world is like a machine, for instance, sounds good, until you learn that it is a machine without a mechanic -- in other words, a machine unlike any ever encountered.
    In suggesting that Dawkins's and Dennett's arguments on behalf of atheism are weak, I do not mean to suggest that their opponents' arguments are particularly strong. The ID people are themselves employing a (perhaps hidden) analogy themselves. After all, no one we know of has ever exactly designed a plant. As for randomness, my problem with it -- it was my problem with Ian McEwan's Saturday -- is that those, like McEwan, who invoke it, also tend to invoke determinism in its wake. If things are random, they're random. If they're determined, they're not random. Back in the days when I was writing religion articles, I came upon a quote from a physicist (and physicists seem more naturally inclined to a belief, it seems) about the behavior of electrons. He said that you could as easily explain it by saying that they acted as they did because they wanted to. One final problem with both randomness and determinism: No one actually lives in accordance to a belief in either. No one thinks he is doing what he is doing right now because he is helpless to do otherwise -- or that it is just a chance occurrence.
    As for Dawkins, I have heard that his specialty was arachnids (I believe A.S. Byatt may have told me that; she knows him and is a trained biologist herself. But I am not sure if that memory is accurate.)

  4. This is from Mr Dawkins profile at the New Oxford College, University of Oxford website:

    "Richard Dawkins was educated at Balliol (of which he is now an Honorary Fellow) and has taught Zoology at the universities of California at Berkeley (1967-1969) and Oxford, where he became a Fellow of New College in 1970. On election to the Charles Simonyi Professorship in 1995, he became a Professorial Fellow." "His main interests are evolution and the communication of science."

  5. Thanks, Dave. Why didn't I think to look there?

  6. Thank you for the explanation, Frank. What you say about electrons is very intersting, in terms of Schroedinger's cat, quantum computing and so on - that experiment in which one cannot predict which of two paths the quantum will take, which is the basis for recent breakthroughs in "teleportation". There have been a few reports in the past few days of a quantum computer that performed an "operation" before being activated.

    There is a lot that can't be explained by science, that is certainly true (and why many scientists are religious/don't see a conflict between science and believing in a supernatural being).

    Many concepts in biology, such as genetic drift and so on, could be said to be macro-explanations of the apparently non-random. But I think that randomness is at the core of most biologists' thinking (these days) as most of them are reductionists (with plenty of exceptions, however).

    I think you would enjoy an interaction with Henry Gee on this topic - or get him to review a book like Dennett's. He makes excellent, lucid and amusing arguments. He is also a trained zoologist ;-)

  7. It figures...the guy likes spiders...yuck!

  8. Bonnie, I really admire your succinct way of getting to the nub of the argument!
    I should take a leaf out of your book.