Monday, September 26, 2011
In some ways, almost any absolute claim about "what is not," in a cosmos that includes at least one universe as vast, unexplored, and perhaps unexplorable as our own, would seem premature. There are no pink unicorns? Did you check the meadow behind the hop shed? OK, have you checked every meadow on every planet in all 200 billion visible galaxies?
Recently a skeptic told me, "miracles don't happen." How does he know that? This is an entirely different kind of claim from, "Jesus changed water to wine," for which there may be positive evidence. By the nature of things, one can only know that miracles have never happened, either by being God, and knowing all that has or has not occurred, or having some "inside baseball" understanding of the nature of reality.
The main texts of the New Atheism, books by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens, are sometimes even lazier than Loftus' books. At least many of Loftus' authors have studied the subjects they're writing on. Dawkins scoffs at the very idea of learning about Christian theology -- and as I and others have demonstrated, his ignorance on a variety of topics, from the history of communism to Medieval philosophy and American society is, indeed, profound.
In some ways, Truth Behind the New Atheism was the easiest book I've written so far. I didn't have to learn any new languages, or study ancient worldviews. Nor did I need to wait for other contributors to send chapters in, as I am presently doing with our new book.
The Four Horses of the New Atheism were inspiring, as a Hun invasion is inspiring, or the sudden appearance of any barbarians who trample centuries of civilization underfoot. After plucking Dawkins' The God Delusion off the shelf in Oxford, a town replete with history of which Dawkins seemed oblivious, I wrote ninety pages of response in a few days. Of course, the actual book required rustling old volumes, refreshing memories, checking facts, even some original research. But on most of the questions Dawkins and the other the New Atheists address, we seemed to have the home court advantage. Responding seemed as natural as rushing to the gates of one's own castle, and pouring oil on the savages carrying the battering ram Grond down below. ("Grond" being Mirkwook orcish for "scientism," I believe.)
Reviews by people I respect, and whose disapproval would hurt, Christian and skeptic, were, I was happy to see, quite positive. But attacks on the book also taught me something about the nature of the New Atheism.
A mild example is Victor Stenger's critique of my chapter on faith, in his book The New Atheism. Dr. Stenger's critique is not mean or unpleasant, but it seems distracted. It is as if Stenger simply skimmed the chapter and picked out a dozen or so passages to quote for his own purposes. Stenger apparently did not feel the need to really read the book, still less think through its arguments: when preaching to the choir, quote-mining is more than enough.
A more personally-motivated response came from Hector Avalos, which I discussed in earlier blogs, here and then here.
One cannot accuse Dr. Avalos of laziness in the normal sense: he studies his targets in detail. But opposing arguments are things to be defeated, and opponents people to discredit: it is as if he were playing a game of ping-pong, in which every point that lands wrong is a point lost. "Must storm castle! Must conquer Gondor!"
An ad hoc band of amateurs also attempted, some with great fervency, to discredit The Truth Behind the New Atheism. These folks are well-represented in reviews on Amazon.com: one critic posted some 14 one-star reviews under various names! (Several since deleted.) Most of these reviews give the impression that the "reader" has also simply gone through the book and looked for things to object too, often by taking the original quote badly out of context, or "paraphrasing" it to death. Stronger critiques would have been more interesting.
A few days ago, criticisms of my last book also appeared on P. Z. Myers' popular Pharyngula web site. This was my fault -- I stuck my nose into the hornets' nest. But again, most of the hornets seemed surprisingly indigent.
PZ had compared the New Atheists favorably to their allegedly uncool, dim-witted critics:
"(Atheism) is not cool at all. It’s the domain of nerds and geeks and sciencey weirdos with beards and snarky women who are way smarter than the guys chasing them. It’s not the coolness of atheism. It’s the lameness of religion . . .
"Look at me. I’m moderately popular, and I’m a schlubby college professor at a small college. I’ve got a beard and I wear nerdy ties. I’m nobody. But stand me next to a priest, or a creationist, and the contrast makes me look white-hot and super-cool, even though I’m not. It’s been my cunning trick for years.
"So the problem for Williams isn’t that atheism is cool at all — it’s that our cool/lame quotient rockets to stratospheric heights whenever we’re in opposition to old geezy wankers who are chanting antique gobbledygook about magic rabbis and dead people. And those apologists trying break into our schtick? All they are doing is making us look cooler."
I responded in a tone to match:
"I think the true secret of your success is you’re FUNNIER than the opposition . . . Yeah, Lennox, Hart, and McGrath are real dim bulbs, so slow they can barely catch a cold.
"Dan Brown was mildly good-looking, but that doesn’t explain the popularity of his schtick, either. The real difference between The God Delusion and The Truth Behind the New Atheism, is that I know what I’m talking about. When talking about religion, Dawkins is Dan Brown with a British accent.
"I know you’re really into this “cult of smart” thing . . . but what better explains your success, and that of Dawkins, is that you are good writers, and amuse people — sometimes, even when you mean to. That, and the fact that lies still make it half-way around the world, while the truth is putting its shoes on — we’ll win in the long run."
Most of the hundred or so responses were obscene and / or vacuous. PZ called me a "moron," and many of his mob followed that trail to the castle wall. Others accused me of "lying," even madness. Obscenities and empty scoffing were about equally in evidence.
These attacks are zombie-like becasue they do not attempt to find my real vulnerabilities. "Christians are stupid" is one of PZ's favorite conceits, and "liars for Jesus" is a default mode for many in the skeptical memosphere. Of course scoffing and obscene remarks are even more predictable and lemming-like behavior: nor were many of the insults even a little bit witty.
The movie only gets interesting when the zombies evolve beyond such predictable behavior -- and so, perhaps, will this blog.
After the initial, failed assault, movie zombies tend to evolve. Sure enough, several skeptics also roused themselves from dogmatic slumber, googled The Truth Behind the New Atheism, and were soon attempting to deconstruct my immodest claim that "I know what I'm talking about."
I explained that I was referring to subjects other than science, where I admit Dawkins has the advantage. But the attacks mostly focused there, anyway, no doubt in part because Pharyngula is a science web site, and in larger part because PZ hates anything that he thinks smacks of "creationism" with a passion, as do other members of his ashram.
So that's the context. Here are the critiques, and why, while a little research is probably better than no research, these responses remain intellectually lazy. I'll then add a few concluding thoughts (still in the way of brain-storming, not yet fixed conclusions) about intellectual laziness and the New Atheism.
The Critiques and What's Wrong with them
#1 Glen Davidson: "See especially chapter 4, where idiot David simply assumes that the liars of the DI are in fact good faith critics of evolution, rather than the frauds and charlatans that they have always proven to be."
I usually ignore Glen, who tends to talk like this. But he did the initial googling in this case (like the first Borg to partially adapt), so let's begin with him.
Davidson's claims are baldly false. In fact, I cite people on both sides of the argument, without ever "simply assuming" ID proponents are right. (Whether or not they argue in "good faith" is irrelevant to any scientific issue, and beyond Davidson's knowledge.) I encourage readers to read BOTH sides, and make up their own minds: "A better way to decide . . . is to read both sides of the debate. (Kenneth) Miller and (Michael) Behe have dueling articles online as well as in the book Debating Design . . . " (75)
Glen goes on:
"In that chapter, aside from attacking evolution over the matter of abiogenesis–when the two are only hazily connected . . . "
Nowhere in the book do I "attack" evolution. In fact, in chapter three, I argue for common descent -- which is what "evolution" is commonly interpreted to mean. Nor do I claim that difficulties with the origin of life in any way discredit, say, Natural Selection.
So Glen's claims are simply wrong. Skimming a few paragraphs from The Truth Behind the New Atheism, he was too lazy to read carefully and represent my arguments accurately, still less consider whether they might contain anything worth hearing.
#2 Anteprepo (quoting TBNA): "Chapter 3, page 55: 'All humanity came from one man and one woman,' we read….'Genetics has settled the matter in favor of Moses.'
Kel: "I really hope you’ve taken David Marshall out of context on this, because if you haven’t…. woah!"
Nigel: "It’s not out of context . . . "
What does "woah" mean here? Apparently Kel thinks I said something not only false, but ludicrous, among the words cited.
The apparent assumption is that I mean genetics has proven that humanity passed through a bottleneck of exactly one man and one woman some time in remote antiquity. Probably the name of that man was "Adam," and the woman, "Eve."
But is that what I meant? Not at all. Read the whole paragraph, and it is clear that its clear meaning is that, contrary to many alternative theories, genetics shows Moses right in maintaining the genetic unity of the human race:
"The world has often quarreled with Genesis, and gotten the worst of it . . . "
"'All humanity came from one man and one woman,' we read. Greek philosophers, Gnostics, Hindus, the Nation of Islam, and some Social Darwinists said no, people are a mixture of free and slave, of spiritual, psychic, and physical, different parts in the body of Brahma, or separately evolved species. Genetics has settled the matter in favor of Moses. Francis Collins . . . notes . . . all races on earth share 99.9% of their DNA . . . We are, he concludes, 'truly part of one family.'"
Anteprepo has not casually misquoted me. And Nigel is not just a little wrong. Anteprepo deliberatedly chopped complete sentences out of the original, changing its meaning, to produce the "woah" effect on gullible skeptics.
Such rearranging may look industrious, but like all cheating, is actually lazy. My real argument -- that Genesis got a lot right, not that Adam and Eve can be proven genetically -- is bypassed, and serious argument avoided, by the misunderstanding.
But to give him credit, at least Kel did ask. Perhaps he, at least, is not yet an assimilated member of the collective.
#3 Nigel is also one of three or four posters in the thread who do more than simply converge on the Christian fortress with bandaged forearms outstretched. Early in the discussion, I challenged PZ to a debate. Nigel offered (with good cheer) to take his place.
In a sense, this blog is a (slightly convoluted) response to that offer, and his arguments.
Nigel went on to offer the following valiant attempt to justify an obvious bit of hypocrisy on the part of Richard Dawkins:
"David Marshall and folks like him are stuck trying to reconcile their belief with their knowledge. Reading the bits of his book available linked above, he does seem to be an intelligent person. He’s just an intelligent person stuck in the unenviable position of reconciling fact and fiction.
"Take, for example, his analysis of Dawkins on intelligent design (beginning on page 63). He notes that Dawkins says in one breath, “An example of irreducible complexity would indeed be a blow to Darwin’s theories,” followed by, “A search for an irreducibly-complex organ would be unscientific.” From this, David Marshall concludes that Dawkins admits irreducible complexity is a potential threat, but then claims that Dawkins disallows irreducible complexity as unscientific."
"This is, of course, a strange interpretation. What Dawkins is saying is that, should we run across a demonstrable example of a liver evolving from nothing, evolution would be thrown into disarray. However, a search for a liver evolving from nothing is an unscientific way to approach this potential shortcoming of evolution. Which it is. And that’s essentially what Behe and his ilk attempt. This is no different than admitting finding a rabbit fossil in the cambrian would be a blow to evolution (an example David Marshall uses), vs actually searching for that rabbit fossil in the cambrian. The former is scientific; the later is ideology."
This is clever, but turns the adjective "strange" on its head, and stretches logic to its breaking point.
Science is not just the process of "running across" evidence: it is the process of actively looking for evidence to confirm or disconfirm theories. Darwin obviously saw nothing "unscientific" about searching for organs whose complexity might refute his theory. Dawkins recognizes this logic from the Master, but then forgets it two paragraphs later, to sink his teeth more deeply into ID flesh.
Did Michael Behe first notice organs that seemed anamalous within the NDE paradigm? Or did he first doubt the paradigm, and then look for the organs? Does it matter? Is one scientific, and the other not?
The assumption here seems to be that searching for evidence that Darwin himself challenged his opponents to find, would somehow be "unscientific." It is hard to see why, and the claim contradicts the plain meaning of Darwin's words.
The laziness here (of a much lesser degree) seems to involve the attempt to discredit ID as "unscientific" in some definitional way, so the evidence can be dismissed in advance.
"This is a subtle distinction, one that David Marshall exploits (out of ignorance rather than malevolence, I think) for his own end — the rationalization of his beliefs. He would allow cherry-picking of data (like Behe does) rather than a rigorous application of the scientific method: follow the evidence, wherever it may lead, and whatever sacred cows it might tip. (SEE today’s faster-than-light particles for a specific example of real science in action.)"
It is unclear why the possibility of finding evidence that disconfirms Einstein, shows that a "real scientist" should not look for evidence that disconfirms Darwin. One would think this shows just the opposite. And Darwin, as a great scientist, managed to write calmly about such attempts. Behe clearly thinks he is following the evidence.
The Lazy A
Obviously, atheists are a diverse crew. If intellectual laziness defines them as a whole (I'm still thinking this through, myself), it does so (as this discussions shows) in a variety of ways:
* If atheism is the claim that there is no God, there may be an element of intellectual laziness at its core. The beginning of wisdom, along with the fear of God, is to know the limits of our knowledge. Technically, even Richard Dawkins admits he cannot positively rule God out. But in practice, an often remarkable arrogance often tends to creep in, and the turtle in the well claims to know all of heaven.
* One can google almost anything, nowadays, which furnishes the illusion of knowing something about it. This can be dangerous.
* Skeptics are "bright," to use Daniel Dennett's term. Often even the dimmest atheist seems to accept that theoretical advantage as his birthright. This seems to make it hard for many atheists with the goo-goo-googling fingers to really listen and take seriously opposing arguments: having taken the stance that "religious" people are by definition cretinous fools, they think they can win arguments like Neil beats Mr. Smith, standing in place and lazily deflecting his blows.
* It's always easier to dismiss an opponent as a liar, a fool, or lunatic, scoff, swear, and imagine his slow, painful death, than to do real research, think matters through honestly, and debate fairly.
Is intellectual laziness the hallmark of the New Atheism? It's a question worth keeping in mind, anyway.