Go with a smile!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Riposte to Dawkins part 1

Since Richard Dawkins published his attack on religion, "the God Delusion" I've been very disappointed, firstly at the inability of this previously respected popular science writer to understand just what he's criticising, and the incredible number of people who have come out in support of his bullshit.

I read an article that one of the great physics theorists, Peter Higgs, has come out to criticize Richard Dawkins for being “embarrassing”. I put that up on facebook, and then another friend of mine put that up on facebook. Then a lot of Dawkins' supporters then came out of the woodwork. Since I had always wanted to blog about this topic, I decided to engage them, knowing that over the next two weeks, I would probably have a blog entry that could be formed by editing the whole dialogue.

I still find that every time somebody starts an atheism / religion debate, you will get a lot of vociferous defenders of Dawkins, they declare simply, “there is no God”, and it stops right there. It was probably a very hotly debated topic 1000 years ago, and it is still a very hotly debated topic now. I stated at the beginning that I don’t like Dawkins. I can appreciate that he did a lot to promulgate the understanding of evolution in his works on popular science. I can appreciate that he feels that it is his public duty to quash crackpot theories of creationism that are found in the Bible. But his constant attacks on religion itself are starting to wear pretty thin.

He still has very vocal supporters in this regard, and I have just decided to answer some of his points.

“Does God exist” is not an important question.

One of the first things that Dawkins will tell you is that God does not exist, and they would stop right there, as though the debate has already been decisively settled. There are some things that the church will insist that you believe, which is that Jesus is the son of God. I don’t believe that. I don’t believe in the supernatural, and I don’t believe in spirits. But I believe in the human spirit. I believe in human spirituality.

Somebody called me an agnostic, and that is probably right. But unlike a lot of Dawkins' followers, and a lot of Christians, I find the existence of God to be not only unimportant, but also profoundly unimportant. And of marginal relevance to the rest of religious teachings.

For me, properly understood, it is an abstraction or a framework. The equator does not exist, does it? There is no line running on land and on sea across this planet. So why is there that line drawn on every map of the world? If I say that Singapore is 1 degree north of the equator, do I get an idiot yelling at me, "the equator does not exist!"?

If people want to talk about religion, they need to invent a language to talk about it in a meaningful way. "God" is merely part of that language. This is something that Dawkins will never ever understand. Human spirituality is something that is highly abstract and complex. Any discussion that involves human spirituality will necessarily involve the invention of terms to describe a lot of abstract phenomena. Even in Buddhist scriptures, there are passages describing the “oneness” of the cosmos, which is an idea that is so close to the monotheistic concept that if you were to substitute the word “God” it would change the meaning very little.

According to science, there is little doubt that human spirituality exists. Science says, "If I hook up the brain of a praying monk to an MRI, I can see one specific part of his brain light up". But religion discusses the nature of this spirituality in greater detail and specificity than science could ever do.

Higgs also invented a kind of language that helps us understand this abstract concept, "mass". Is "mass" real? I don't know. But it definitely helps me to understand the universe, so I'll take it.

People have rejected God on the basis that there is very little material evidence for its existence. But you don’t see people rejecting the existence of thoughts and feelings on a similar basis. Why not? Anyway, it is an abstraction. You don’t talk about the existence or the non-existence of an abstraction. It is simply a categorical mistake.

Science cannot answer a lot of the questions posed by religion.

Religion asks and attempts to answer questions that are outside the realm of science. What is the nature of consciousness. What is the right way to behave. Modern scientific approaches such as game theory and behavioural economics have yet to attain the level of sophistication that is found in the arguments of religious texts. The questions posed are precisely the ones that are not easily answered by science, and also the ones most likely to confuse a scientist. In this respect, religion is closer in nature to engineering, the social sciences, the humanities and philosophy than to science. It demands a different method of proof.

Building a ladder will get you closer to the moon, but it will not get you any closer to the moon. How about some "easier" questions that is hard to answer by science? Like "Did the stimulus work?" (no consensus among economists), or "what should Hillary Clinton have said at XXX summit?" (cannot be tested) Will science answer these questions? Will it eventually answer these questions? Or will it never answer these questions because it is not an intellectual method that is suited for tackling these issues at all? How about questions like "should I get the red one or the blue one"?

Religion is a method by which people get in touch with their instincts to help them answer these questions for which pure intellect is of not much use. Not the only method, but the way of dealing with uncertainty in your life. In spite of everything we know about science, the number of things that cannot be proven by science still far outnumbers those that can. Insurance companies and bookmakers will never ever go out of business.

Somebody argued: “The reasoned approach has broken through those barriers and furthered our understanding of the universe in testable, provable, quantifiable ways that neither religion nor philosophy ever will.”

We can be too much like the man with the hammer thinking that everything is a nail. The issue is not "can religion answer questions as well as science can answer their own questions". It is "can science ever answer these questions at all?" And the answer is no. Why no, because the scientific framework is quite unsuitable to answering such questions. You don’t use a bike to go up a flight of stairs because that is not what a bike was built for. Simply because the answer is no, that is why religion exists and will do so for the forseeable future.

My detractor said: “We think all this stuff is true, but we can't prove it." or more concisely "We don't know" - and I fail to see how that is helpful or preferable to trying to find out for ourselves.

Let's go through the 10 commandments. "you shalt not steal, you shalt not murder, you shalt not commit adultery, you shalt not commit perjury". Do you want to obey them or do you want to "test" and "find out for yourself"? Fact is, religion is a means by which we benefit from other peoples’ experience. Not the only means, but an important means of transmission.

Science is at fault for a lot of the ills of the world today.

I went on a novel approach. I didn’t bother defending religion to the hilt. After all, it is a creaky system of beliefs and learning, and a lot of it is not worth defending. So I went and attacked science instead.

Communism was based on a misappropriation of science because it was justified on the basis of a more "scientific" conception of man. As you know, millions of people died in those regimes. The Nazis used the theory of evolution to justify putting a lot of people in death camps, and to conduct eugenics.

Doesn't change the fact that in the 20th century more people died in the name of "science" than in the name of "religion". Doesn't change the fact that the three big threats to humanity - overpopulation, global warming and environmental damage have come as a result of scientific progress. It's pretty cheeky for a scientist to say that religion is the great problem of our time!

Somebody took the bait and replied to me, “Kinda strange to put science and religion on the same line, when they have completely opposite purposes: science tries to explain reality, not to dictate behavior.”

That’s when I showed my hand: Science and religion are so different that I wouldn't trust anything a scientist has to say about religion. Somebody elaborated: it's easy to make scapegoats of either science or religion, depending on which side of the fence you sit, but neither stance is terribly accurate, nor helpful and only serves to expose our preconceived biases. The ideologies behind both religion and science can be abused.

Well this sums up exactly what I don't like about Dawkins! When I bring up the parallels between science and religion the point is not to attack religion, or to attack science, but the point out that many of the attacks that science makes on religion per se (or vice verca) are totally unwarranted. I'm OK with Dawkins attacking creationism. But then he goes on to attack every thing related to religion and that goes too far.

If you think that it's kind of stupid if I were to say, "scientist X invented mustard gas and therefore he is responsible for death of millions", it is equally stupid to say "prophet Y wrote a tract on religion and human nature and therefore he's responsible for the death of millions who died in religious wars afterwards".

Another two interesting points were brought up earlier: science tries to explain reality, not to dictate behavior. To a certain extent I disagree with both. Science may not dictate behavior, but it influences behavior in such profound ways that is not different in practice from dictating behavior.

Science has produced overpopulation, global warming and environmental damage in this way. Scientific progress has caused rapid population growth by increasing peoples' material wealth and decreasing infant mortality, not through propaganda or other more direct mechanisms. The role of scientific advances in this is subtle but extremely profound.

Scientists care a lot about obtaining “the truth” and there is some psychological comfort in how they can “further our understanding of the universe in testable, provable, quantifiable ways that neither religion nor philosophy ever will." But this psychological comfort comes at a higher cost. It is a marked tendency for scientist to relegate discussion about the impact that scientific discoveries have on society as something of secondary importance.

I, too, used to think that a topic like “science and technology studies” was of secondary importance to the actual science. Now my position has been more or less reversed. New scientific discoveries are not as important as understanding the full extent of the impact that current science has to humanity. Not as important as managing the impact of scientific advances on our planet.

The other point that I take issue with will be addressed in the next section. Religion IS about explaining reality. It just depends on what you mean by “reality”.

Religion is about conformity.

This has been asserted a few times: "Conformity to a set of ideals is at the heart of organised religion."

Conformity to a set of ideals is at the heart of tribalism, not organised religion. Conformity to ideals is present in corporations, political parties, think tanks and dictatorial governments. Why doesn't Dawkins attack those as well? And people who try to say that conformity to ideals is "at the heart of" organised religions have to grapple with: Jesus, Mohammed and the Buddha were all rebels against the system! A crucifix representing a death sentence or a crescent representing a new religion - these are symbols of NONCONFORMITY!

In any case, any scientist should know that even though scientific revolutions take place all the time, crossing the scientific orthodoxy of the day is an extremely hazardous business. Einstein was never awarded a Nobel for relativity, nor was relativity ever considered a basis upon which to award him a PhD. At the same time, even though religious revolutions are pretty rare, the schisms that gave birth to Protestantism, Shi-ism or Zen Buddhism are quite important.

Properly understood, religion is a form of intellectual inquiry that in many ways parallels the intellectual inquiry that goes on in science. In fact, the Enlightenment was something that arose out of religious conflicts, and people warring with each other. It is not an exaggeration that religion gave birth to the age of reason.

Religion raises questions. I'm sure that any scientist worth his salt would recognise that asking the right questions is often as important as getting the right answers. It sets up a process of inquiry. Sometimes the answer is given, and sometimes not. Eventually the hard decisions fall within your reach. God is not a fairy tale. It is an intellectual framework. Is it all dogma and no reasoned approach? "Do unto others as you would have others done unto you" sounds pretty reasonable to me, and it has also been later verified by game theory has it not? Hasn't the "Matthew effect", named after a passage in the bible, also been verified by science?

One main difference is that religion makes a lot of arguments that appeal to human emotion and it is just that a lot of scientists do not like that.

Religion is a necessity for humanity, as I explained earlier. It is a time honoured system. Engineers recognise the danger of screwing around with time honoured systems. Scientists, less so. Religion is something a computer scientist would call a legacy system. Religion is not "we think all this stuff is true, but we can't prove it". Religion is "if this stuff didn't work, we'd have closed down by now". In a way, religion and science are similar because they are bodies of intellectual legacies passed down through the generations. Some tenets have been accepted, and others rejected. Some people think that skepticism is something that is totally inherent in religious belief, like what Paul Tillich wrote in his book “Dynamics of Faith”. And of course you have clowns like Sam Harris rejecting this outright, as though he understands religion better than Paul Tillich.

A proponent of Dawkins wrote: ‘One of Dawkin's often ignored but I think rather strong points is that there IS no real distinction between "fundamentalist" belief and "moderate" belief - in fact the extremists are usually the ones who take their religion seriously, whereas "moderately" believing (what does that even mean?) usually defines some sort of cherry-picking of the same scriptures, adapting old rules to a changed world and following a tradition rather than the book etc. But if you defend any such (very subjective) “degree” of believing in a specific religion – what argument do you have to condemn the ones who really take it literally and go far beyond what everybody else would define as “acceptable”? They believe. So?’

Let’s put it this way. Scientific beliefs are not accepted or rejected wholesale. And the same is true for religious beliefs. When you accept one part of a theory and reject the rest, you are not “cherry picking”. Why should you insist that any believer accept or reject everything as a single package? 90% of what Newton wrote was religious crap. Why should you put any faith in his laws of motion?

And furthermore, the other problem is that very often there is a scientific version of fundamentalism. This can take many forms, such as saying that the only valid intellectual methodology is the scientific method. Or saying that science invariably leads to progress. No: after the scientific discovery is made, it is too easy to extrapolate certain principles to other realms for which there is no basis. Our quest for economic expansion is a form of scientific fundamentalism. Should we then say, there is no real distinction between “fundamentalist” science and “moderate” belief in scientific principles? That is ridiculous.

The emotional roots of the hostility towards religion.

One important difference between the hard sciences and softer stuff like economics / politics is the degree to which uncertainty is absent. I feel that religion is something that is quite difficult for a scientist to warm to, because there is seldom any resolution. Questions are asked and left unanswered. Scientists love scientific facts because you just can’t argue about them, and let’s face it, they love the certainty. In fact they often cite this as a basis of scientific knowledge being “superior” to other forms of knowledge, while barely acknowledging that it is inherently impossible to get that form of certainty in all forms of knowledge.

I just feel that this has led to a rather spoilt and immature attitude towards knowledge in general. I feel that religion helps us cope emotionally and spiritually with doubt and fear – emotions that tenured professors are unlikely to understand.

Some people have pointed out that having one’s ideas constantly attacked by churches is something “that is what has happened to Dawkins all the time during and after his career. He cannot just stay out of the debate, whereas Higgs can easily do that.”

Well that is wrong on two counts. First, if Higgs didn’t have his ideas challenged, then what was the Large Hadron Collider built for? Secondly, having one’s ideas constantly being challenged is de rigueur for any intellectual. Yes, the attacks on evolution are often ad hominem attacks on the entire enterprise of science itself, and often more brutal than the arguments in academic seminars. But is what Dawkins has had to face more virulent than the attacks on economists by political organizations who do not agree with their ideas? The question of whether or not evolution has taken place is not of as much practical importance than the ideas of economists on how countries should be run. Why doesn’t he try being Paul Krugman for one day to see what it feels like? Dawkins is so whiny!

What I sense is that there is a great frustration that religious ideals are more successfully promulgated than a lot of ideas that are important to the human race, for example global warming and evolution. The reason for this is that religious organisations have greater insight into human nature than scientists do, and are able to tailor their messages accordingly. A lot of this hostility towards religion is rooted in this disbelief and fear at religions. Scientists are probably telling themselves, “we have the better methods, better ideas, we’re intellectually superior. But still the masses insist on believing in this religion thing, which we neither believe or completely understand.” Well, why do you find religion so difficult to understand? Wouldn’t it be better for you to actually study it and see what you can learn about human nature?

The answer is for scientists to reach across their silos towards people who might help, rather than to launch attacks on religion. This is as bad as sentencing Galileo to death for heresy. What Dawkins has to realize is that it is a very short road from what he’s doing – attacking religion wholesale – to burning libraries. A lot of attacks on religion are poorly informed. Sam Harris once said that most terrorist attacks are committed by Muslims, a statement that is looking pretty ridiculous right now in the wake of the last wave of gun massacres.

The limits of Dawkins’ thesis.

It's OK to attack bad governance, there are plenty of cases of this in religious and secular circles. It's OK to attack dogma. (As well as anybody who can utter "science" and "progress" in the same breath without bullshit detectors going off). But these are properly seen as human issues, political problems, rather than issues relating to religion per se.

A lot of people do not like Dawkins because he seems too smug about his ideas. I'm different. I don't like him because his ignorance about religion is totally appalling. One of the most absurd aspects of what Dawkins proposed is that the atheists form a new “religion” called humanism. (Except that it will just be a “spiritual movement”, not a real religion.) First, I have grave reservations that Dawkins or any of his atheist friends understand enough about what it takes to run a religious community to create a sustainable movement at all. Second, I have reservations that should he manage to get a widespread movement off the ground, that his “humanism” has anything vital or new to teach humanity that some other religion somewhere else can do better and for a longer period. Anybody who picks and chooses between secular and religious teachings on his own would be able to do so. And third, even though his new religion were to become a new and vital force in the world, I doubt that it would avoid the corruption and institutional decay that plagues so many of the other major religions in the world. Human nature is human nature and all religions are inherently imperfect.

Another person, the guy whose wall I probably defaced a little too much with my arguments, has said:

“Personally, I think that scientists can make far better use of their passion, time and knowledge doing science than ranting against faith. I find Dawkins an embarrassing and divisive figure. That's all there is to it. If I were to choose scientists who were productive with their atheistic assumptions, individuals such as Carl Sagan deserves far more respect. Even Bertrand Russell, who wrote his one helluva essay, and subsequently diverted his energies towards his pacifist and anti-imperialism ideals. They are pro-science and pro-humanism. They are not defined by their disbeliefs.

"I've never found atheism appealing or constructive as a cause. Atheists are not necessarily humanists nor are they necessarily scientific or logical. There are many things I do not believe in. Disbeliefs neither motivate nor inspire.

"Organized religion has more often won followers (at least in Asia and maybe Africa) neither through logical reasoning nor political compulsion but through its pro-social activities (ie., education, food banks, hospitals, child sponsorships, etc). If love or fear of God helps some people to be nice to others, I really don't see any need to be hating.”

These are not my points but I mostly agree with them.


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