|Most recent first|
Orr would be better served by putting up a clear statement of what god he is defending, rather than shuttling back and forth between the supernatural being Dawkins is addressing and the innocuously ideational metaphysical force that no one is crucifying.
P.Z. MYERS [3.27.07]
H. Allen Orr and Daniel Dennett have been tearing into each other something fierce, and it's all over Orr's dismissive review of Dawkins' The God Delusion. The exchanges are a bit splintery and sharp, but the core of Orr's complaint is that he's unimpressed with Dawkins' 'Ultimate 747' argument, which is basically that postulating an immensely complicated being to explain the creation of an immensely complicated universe doesn't actually explain anything and is self-refuting — if you need an intelligent superbeing to create anything complex, then the superbeing itself is an even greater problem for your explanation. Orr considers Dawkins' argument practically a facile parody, and is incredulous that he hasn't considered that perhaps God is much simpler than the universe.
Dawkins goes so far as to accuse those who conflate Einstein's abstraction with the the kind of personal god worshipped by hundreds of millions of people of "intellectual high treason." I don't quite agree with that, but it certainly is intellectual foolishness. I like Orr's work, I usually greatly enjoy his reviews, but in this case he is, perhaps unconsciously rather than deliberately, confusing the pantheistic cosmic force he is unnecessarily defending from Dawkins' argument with the righteous anthropomorphic Supreme Being that is actually refuted.
And yes, I know it is the nature of religion that everyone who believes will automatically state that their god isn't the complicated caricature of the Bible or the Torah or the Koran and will retreat to the safety of the Ineffable (but Simple) Pantheistic/Deistic God until the challenge from the atheist subsides. Once the critic is safely out of earshot, though, then they will pray to the fickle deity for the new raise or that their favorite football team will win, and they will wonder if the cruel Old Testament God will torture them for eternity for transgressions against antique laws of propriety. Until that atheist glances their way again ... then once more, they will describe God as an abstraction, as Love, as something so nebulous that it is safely removed from any specific attack. It's familiar territory. Get into an argument with someone over Christianity or Islam or any of the dominant monotheistic faiths, and you'll see them flicker back and forth between the abstract and the real god of their religion — their only defense is to present a moving target. Dawkins made a sharp distinction in the opening chapters of his books between a non-specific metaphysic and the operational association of religion, the supernatural, and a discrete intelligent entity who personally cares for individual human beings; would that his critics would be equally clear in their definitions.
Orr would be better served by putting up a clear statement of what god he is defending, rather than shuttling back and forth between the supernatural being Dawkins is addressing and the innocuously ideational metaphysical force that no one is crucifying. I suspect that if he did so, he'd either find himself agreeing with Dawkins, or finding his choice of god bedeviled with a very pointed criticism, one he can't dismiss so easily.
Can Dennett really believe that some facile argument about the probability of correctly assembling all of God's parts by chance alone is anything of the kind? Does he really believe that God is (necessarily) complex in the same way as the universe, just more so? And just what metric of complexity does Dennett take to extend so readily from the natural to the supernatural? Does none of this trouble Dennett? Are things really so neat as Dawkins says?
RESPONSE TO DANIEL C. DENNETT [2.21.07]
Daniel Dennett seems to think that the author of any review he doesn't like is obliged to spend the rest of his days debating him— even if the review in question was of someone else's book, not his. The sort of extended exchange Dennett now seeks can grow unproductive — especially when the discussion devolves into ad hominem attack — and, given this, I'm less than enthusiastic about continuing it. I will, though, briefly address Dennett's main points here. And then that's it for me.
Dennett makes three main points.
1) He rejects my claim that Dawkins failed to grapple seriously with religious thought in The God Delusion in the same way that he grappled with evolutionary thought in The Selfish Gene. Dennett's first argument, from his letter to The New York Review of Books, is that the quality of religious thinking is so poor that one needn't bother with it. This is such a bizarre way to defend a book about religion that it's hard to know what to say. But surely we can agree that if one's conclusion is that religion is indefensibly stupid it's probably best not to start from the premise that religion is indefensibly stupid. Dennett's second argument, from his new letter, is that my comparison to The Selfish Gene is all wrong: Dawkins spent his time in that book explaining sound theories of evolution, not what he considered nonsense.
Well, no. What Dawkins actually did in The Selfish Gene was precisely what I asked of The God Delusion: careful analysis of both sides of the relevant debate. While Dawkins claimed that natural selection acts on genes, he devoted considerable time to presenting and refuting those (e.g., Wynne-Edwards) who championed the opposing view, that selection works on individuals or groups. Had he merely told us that those who favor group selection aren't worth considering, I doubt we would've been impressed.
2) Dennett asks me to identify some allegedly serious thinkers on religion. I named two in my review but am happy to name them again: William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein. I chose these two as both wrote after Darwin and had training in science or engineering; both were, then, presumably in a position to recognize the challenges posed to religion by science. One may or may not find convincing James's attempt to discern whether religion is possible in an age of science or Wittgenstein's interpretation of religious practice. Indeed I myself have reservations about their claims. But I find it shocking that someone writing at book-length on religion would fail to discuss, or even mention, their views or those of their intellectual equals. What, for instance, does Dawkins think of Wittgenstein's picture of religion? Does he reject Wittgenstein's idea that believers sometimes use language in a way that differs from (and is incommensurable with) how we normally use language? Would he even count Wittgensteinian-style religion as religion? And, if not, is it still child abuse? Is it evil? (For more on Dawkins and Wittgenstein, and from a bona fide philosopher, see Simon Blackburn's superb review of Dawkins's earlier book, A Devil's Chaplain (The New Republic, December 1, 2003).)
The bottom line is that Dawkins, by ducking serious thought on religion, made things far too easy for himself. One result is that the naïve reader of The God Delusion can walk away from the book wholly unaware that serious post-Darwinian thinkers have wondered if religion is really so simple as Dawkins pretends.
3) Dennett claimed originally that Dawkins had no interest in theological or philosophical niceties and was interested instead only in demolishing views that "waft from thousands of pulpits every week". I reminded Dennett that the heart of The God Delusion was Dawkins's own attempt at philosophy, his Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit. I also noted that Dawkins's argument hasn't fared so well. In his new letter, Dennett demands to know just what arguments against the 747 gambit I find compelling. At the risk of sounding self-aggrandizing, I must remind Dennett that my own review featured two arguments against the gambit, which I won't repeat here. It will come as no surprise that I find those arguments pretty compelling. (Dennett will surely explain why I shouldn't.) As for other reviewers, I found Thomas Nagel's argument against Dawkins's gambit equally compelling (though I question some of his comments about life's origin). Dennett assures us that Nagel's attack on the 747 gambit involved "dismissive remarks" not "arguments" but, without a whiff of irony, he offers only this dismissive remark, not an argument.
Frankly, I find it astonishing that Dennett thinks the 747 gambit accomplishes much of anything. If Dawkins had offered his argument as a parody of those admittedly puerile philosophical proofs of God's existence, I'd laugh along. But Dawkins clearly believes his argument is much more than this: it's a demonstration that God almost certainly doesn't exist. Can Dennett really believe that some facile argument about the probability of correctly assembling all of God's parts by chance alone is anything of the kind? Does he really believe that God is (necessarily) complex in the same way as the universe, just more so? And just what metric of complexity does Dennett take to extend so readily from the natural to the supernatural? Does none of this trouble Dennett? Are things really so neat as Dawkins says?
In the end, my assessment of The God Delusion is unchanged. Long on colorful anecdote and short on rigorous argument, it does much to reveal Dawkins's hostility but little to convince that he's thought deeply about the object of that hostility. It's one thing to express one's impatience with fundamentalist nonsense; it's another to think that one has accomplished significant intellectual tasks— like showing "Why There Almost Certainly Is No God."
— H. Allen Orr
H.ALLEN ORR is an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Rochester where he holds the Shirley Cox Kearns Chair of Biology. Most of his research focuses on the genetics of speciation and the genetics of adaptation.
When I explained then in a private letter to you what I had meant, you conceded to me in your private response that you had not seen my point in the light I intended, and that my claim was not in fact the blunder you had said it was-but of course you never chose to recant your criticism in print, so your uncorrected accusation stands to this day. Such a gentleman and a scholar you are! But times have changed. We now have blogs, so this time you can readily respond in public to my open letter.
LETTER TO H. ALLEN ORR [2.12.07]
You claim Dawkins ignores the best thinking on the subject. The Selfish Gene, which you rightly admire, doesn't waste any time rebutting Teilhard de Chardin, or any of the perennial would-be defenders of Lamarckism, or even—I might add—many of the murkier claims made by Richard Lewontin over the years. Do you object that he thus "ignores the best thinking on evolution"? No, you say he "wrestled with the best thinkers." So you must have in mind some neglected gems on religion: what arguments and/or thinkers on the topic of religion ought Dawkins to have tackled in detail? What in your opinion is the best thinking on the subject?
I hope that you don't mean the recent reviews. Some of them did indeed "shred" Dawkins' 747 argument, if by that you mean they scoffed and hooted and clawed at it. Did any of them, in your opinion, rebut it soundly? Tom Nagel made some dismissive remarks-not arguments-in passing. Do you count that? I'd really like to know which published critique of the 747 argument you endorse, so I can explain to you, a non-philosopher, what its shortcomings are. Maybe there are some good ones I haven't seen, but I'll lead with my chin. I myself think Dawkins has made some excellent improvements on the standard arguments, improvements any philosopher would be proud to have composed. As I said in my own review, in Free Inquiry:
I'd be interested to see the 'shreddings" that persuaded you otherwise.
And you say that C.S. Lewis "had already dispensed with" one of Dawkins' claims. Am I to take it that you are now endorsing the quote from Lewis as an adequate rebuttal or pre-refutation of Dawkins?
You misconstrued my NYRB letter in several ways. I didn't say you held Dawkins' book to too high a standard; I said you imposed a goal on the book that was not Dawkins' goal. I didn't say or imply that Dawkins' book was "merely a popular survey" and I didn't say or imply that you were "disturbed by Dawkins' atheism." I said you adopted a double standard-like many atheists, I might add-and were attempting to protect religion from serious criticism, for reasons I am curious to know. These misconstruals do not strike me as unintended, but perhaps you read with a broad brush.
As I write this message, I am reminded of your earlier trashing, more than ten years ago, of my book Darwin's Dangerous Idea, first in Evolution, which does not permit rebuttals from authors, and then, slightly enlarged, in the Boston Review, which does. You leveled very serious charges of error and incomprehension in that review, and when I challenged them, you responded with a haughty dismissal of my objections (in an exchange in the Boston Review). Quoting an example, dealing with the speed of evolution: "Now I've been in the population genetics business for some time and, frankly, I have no idea what Dennett is talking about. And-I can find no polite way of putting this-it's hard to escape the conclusion that Dennett has no idea what he's talking about either." (1996, p37) Now that was rude-even ruder than your reply this time. When I explained then in a private letter to you what I had meant, you conceded to me in your private response that you had not seen my point in the light I intended, and that my claim was not in fact the blunder you had said it was-but of course you never chose to recant your criticism in print, so your uncorrected accusation stands to this day. Such a gentleman and a scholar you are! But times have changed. We now have blogs, so this time you can readily respond in public to my open letter.
Note that I have not yet claimed that you have no idea what you're talking about; we philosophers try not to jump to conclusions. I have however asked you, twice now, to tell us what you're talking about. Please.
I await your reply.
— Dan Dennett
DANIEL C. DENNETT is University Professor, Professor of Philosophy, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. His latest book is Breaking the Spell.
'THE GOD DELUSION' by Daniel C. Dennett, Reply by H. Allen Orr
In response to A Mission to Convert (January 11, 2007)
To the Editors:
H. Allen Orr, in "A Mission to Convert" [NYR, January 11], his review of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion and other recent books on science and religion, says that Dawkins is an amateur, not professional, atheist, and has failed to come to grips with "religious thought" with its "meticulous reasoning" in any serious way. He notes that the book is "defiantly middlebrow," and I wonder just which highbrow thinkers about religion Orr believes Dawkins should have grappled with. I myself have looked over large piles of recent religious thought in the last few years in the course of researching my own book on these topics, and I have found almost all of it to be so dreadful that ignoring it entirely seemed both the most charitable and most constructive policy. (I devote a scant six pages of Beraking the Spell to the arguments for and against the existence of God, while Dawkins devotes roughly a hundred, laying out the standard arguments with admirable clarity and fairness, and skewering them efficiently.) There are indeed recherché versions of these traditional arguments that perhaps have not yet been exhaustively eviscerated by scholars, but Dawkins ignores them (as do I) and says why: his book is a consciousness-raiser aimed at the general religious public, not an attempt to contribute to the academic microdiscipline of philosophical theology. The arguments Dawkins exposes and rebuts are the arguments that waft from thousands of pulpits every week and reach millions of television viewers every day, and neither the televangelists nor the authors of best-selling spiritual books pay the slightest heed to the subtleties of the theologians either.
Who does Orr favor? Polkinghorne, Peacocke, Plantinga, or some more recondite thinkers? Orr brandishes the names of two philosophers, William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein, and cites C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity, a fairly nauseating example of middle-brow homiletic in roughly the same league on the undergraduate hit parade as Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ (1998) and transparently evasive when it comes to "meticulous reasoning." If it were a book in biology—Orr's discipline—I daresay he'd pounce on it like a pit bull, but like many others he adopts a double standard when the topic is religion. [...more]
H. Allen Orr replies:
Daniel Dennett's main complaint about my review is that I held Dawkins's book to too high a standard. The God Delusion was, he says, a popular work and, as such, one can't expect it to grapple seriously with religious thought. There are two things wrong with this objection. The first is that the mere fact that a book is intended for a broad audience doesn't mean its author can ignore the best thinking on a subject. Indeed it's precisely the task of the popularizer to take this best thinking and present it in a form that can be understood by intelligent laymen. This task is certainly feasible. Ironically, the clearest evidence comes from Dawkins himself. In his popular works on evolution, and especially in The Selfish Gene, Dawkins wrestled with the best evolutionary thinkers —Darwin, Hamilton, and Trivers—and presented their ideas in a way that could be appreciated by a broad audience. This is what made The Selfish Gene brilliant; the absence of any analogous treatment of religion in Dawkins's new book is what makes it considerably less than brilliant.
The second thing wrong with Dennett's objection is that it's simply not true that The God Delusion was merely a popular survey and "not an attempt to contribute to ...philosophical theology." Dennett has apparently forgotten that the heart of Dawkins's book was his philosophical argument for the near impossibility of God. Dawkins presented his so-called Ultimate Boeing 747 argument in a chapter entitled "Why There Almost Certainly Is No God," branded his argument "unanswerable," and boasted that it had stumped all theologians who had met it. I can see why Dennett would like to forget about Dawkins's attempt at philosophy—the Ultimate 747 argument was shredded by reviewers—but it's absurd to pretend now that The God Delusion had no philosophical ambitions. [...more]