Thursday, April 25, 2013

Grayling on the Grill II: an overall critique.

I just posted the following critical review of philosopher A. C. Grayling's new book, The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism, on Amazon.  Judging by blowback to date for critical comments of Grayling there, despite Grayling's talk about listening carefully and living with magnanimity, I don't expect too much love from this admittedly harsh (but detailed) review.  We'll see if anyone addresses my arguments. 

I will probably also focus on specific claims Grayling makes (or assumes) in later posts.  (See here for my initial impressions, which turned out to be precient.  Although Grayling does define "religion," his definition does indeed turn out tendendious.)

If you like or dislike the review, feel free to express your thoughts here, or on Amazon, where voting gives other readers a chance to see a useful review, or you can consign one soundly to the rubbish bin of history.   

(For a more sympathetic critical review, read what Keith Ward makes of this "bad argument.")

In the second half of this book, A.C. Grayling sets out to describe his moral principles, and those he thinks he shares with the humanist community in general. Among these are "magnanimity," which Grayling takes the trouble to give in both Latin and Greek (154), and being "informed, reflective, alert, responsive, eager for understanding . . . a good guest at the dinner table." This includes means acting towards those one disagrees with, paraphrasing Plutarch, as "a good listener, who hears what his interlocutors say (not what he thinks they have said) . . . "

Sounds reasonable.

Now let us see how Dr. Grayling actually deals with Christianity, and those who espouse it (and other theistic faiths) in the first half of this book. First people, then ideas.

In his introduction, Grayling thanks a number of "colleagues and fellows in the cause" of secular humanism, including the New Atheist barbershop quartet (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens [DDHH}) along with Paul Kurtz and others, and naming Victor Stenger as another valued ally. He then explains that his first task in this book will be "to deal with what religious apologists say in defending themselves from the arguments of those just listed."

I happen to be the author of one of the first, and I do think among the best, rebuttals of DDHH. So naturally I turned to the back of the book to see if Grayling mentioned me, or more likely, on which of the bigger-name Christian writers he concentrated his fire.

Marshall? No. John Lennox? Nope. Alister McGrath? Nyety. Dinesh D'Souza? Tim Keller? David Hart? No, no, heck, no.

So with whom does Grayling argue? Page after page, he keeps mentioning these "religious apologetics," as if they surrounded him like the ether, and he could read their minds. So who are these people, and what do they say? Where are the quotes? Which books has he read? Grayling is a philosopher, so maybe he wants to argue with philosophers. And indeed, Grayling does promise to deal with two well-known Christian philosophers, Blaise Pascal and Alvin Plantinga.

After 90-odd pages of painful nonsense (details later), we finally get to arguments from actual "apologists." But there are few quotes, and one has to wonder if he has actually read even Plantinga or Pascal!

Plantinga, he accurately notes, argues that faith in God is warranted, even without evidence. (Though I think blowing off the fine shades of Plantinga's argument.) But then Grayling makes this statement: "It would seem that Alvin Plantinga has abandoned attempts to show by argument that it is rational to hold theistic beliefs, because he now argues that there is no need to provide such arguments . . . "

I can imagine Plantinga's wry response to that gross non sequitur. This is like saying, "Marshall argues that peaches are not necessary for human health, so there must be no peach trees on his property." Well they are not absolutely necessary, but I do have them anyway. Of course the fact that evidence is not necessary (to Plantinga), in no way means there is no evidence. Plantinga thinks there is lots of it, and says so, as his actual readers know. A professional philosopher should not be so sloppy.

Pascal gets treated even worse. "The most celebrated such argument is Pascal's wager. Pascal said that because the existence of a deity can be neither proved nor disproved . . . by rational argument . . . " Again, "Pascal says that as long as the probability of a god's existence is non-zero . . . "

This is rubbish. Has Grayling actually read Pensees? In fact, Pascal offers several lines of rational argument for Christianity, which he thinks (and I generally agree) is compelling. The Wager in no way concedes that the evidence for Christianity is weak. In fact, it is addressed to practical issues: even given all this positive evidence for Christianity, that Pascal has been discussing, what if one still suffers doubts? How in practice should one deal with those doubts? (Note: see further brief discussion in the comments section.)

Dawkins made the same mistake about Pascal. One would hope that, as a professional philosopher espousing the values of listening well, Grayling would correct his ally and say "No, Pascal does not at all concede that the evidence against Christianity is either irrelevant or poor." Instead, Grayling falls into exactly the same trap, with less excuse.

Now let's go back to Grayling's moral values, again. He praises magnanimity, but he is seldom magnanimous towards Christians. He almost never praises those he disagrees with or gives their arguments the benefit of the doubt. He generally doesn't even bother to read them. In fact, if anything, Grayling appears to have read even less of those he purports to be disproving than Dawkins -- Dawkins at least quoted McGrath and Swinburne, and pretended to argue with them.

So how is Grayling "informed, reflective, alert, responsive, eager for understanding," such that even towards those he disagrees with, he proves himself "a good listener, who hears what his interlocutors say (not what he thinks they have said) . . . ?"

In fact, Grayling is just the opposite. He gets almost nothing about Christianity right, because he has not bothered to read or tried to understand what we really believe about practically anything. He doesn't quote actual Christian thinkers, he quotes nebulous "religious apologists" who appear to be little fairies roaming around the inside of his own thick skull. (Pardon the heat, I am feeling it after wading through this junk.)

Want more examples? I'll give some, but bare in mind that Grayling is here repeating common cliches in the skeptical community. If you're a skeptic, you'll probably nod your head at times, because responsible parties like Dawkins and Grayling are too intellectually lazy to do their homework, and even let you know what we say is the other side of the story -- whether we're right or not. So even if you think these cliches are true, you should recognize that it is Grayling's self-confessed responsibility to listen, as he promises, and as his own best moral values commend, to what we actually say, not to what he imagines we say, and to get our arguments right.

* "By 'faith' is meant believe held independently of whether there is a testable evidence in its favour, or indeed even in the face of counter-evidence." (19)

Heavens, no. That is almost never what Christians have meant by faith. I have given long strings of quotes, from the 1st Century to the 21st, and am collaborating with other scholars on a book on this very subject coming out next year, showing that this is NOT at all what Christians mean by "faith."

* "When the evidence is not merely insufficient but absent or contrary, how much more wrong to do as Doubting Thomas was criticized for not doing . . . to believe nonetheless." (102)

Thomas was not criticized for believing without evidence. He was criticized for, having witnessed Jesus' many miracles, heard Jesus predict his resurrection, and then heard multiple reports of that resurrection from people he had known and presumably trusted for years, refusing to believe in the face of that already excellent evidence.

This understanding of the Thomas story is assumed throughout John especially, who is attentive to such evidence, and throughout the narrative parts of the New Testament.

* "Most religious people do not, of course, subscribe to their religion because of arguments in favor of it . . . In the great majority of cases, people belong to their religion because it is the religion of their parents."

The word "because" is tricky here. One might be a Christian "because" one was raised a Christian, but also "because" it makes sense, you have examined and tried to live it, perhaps listened to its opponents and found their arguments unpersuasive. Ironically, Grayling speaks of believing without evidence, but gives no actual evidence to back up his claim about why people believe. A survey by the skeptic Michael Shermer shows that most believers do seem to cite rational reasons for their faith. (I did a similiar survey, and found experienced Christians cite evidence even more often.) So Grayling is asking us to "just believe," not only without evidence, but in the teeth of the evidence, on why Christians believe.

* "Explaining something by something unexplained amounts, obviously, to no explanation at all." (77)

Obviously not. "Where did my dolly go?" "The dog took it." "Well where do doggies come from?" "I don't know!" "But that's no explanation at all!"

Sure it is. One does not need to understand precisely how God is constituted, for "God did it" to be a rational explanation. Ultimately, none of our explanations are complete, and explanations of entities greater than ourselves will naturally be most tenous of all. As a philosopher, Grayling should be explaining such distinctions to his readers, not ignoring them.

* Grayling tries to flip the Ontological Argument on page 88 to disprove the Devil. "There is a being which is the least perfect of all beings; such a being which does not exist is -- since existence is a perfection -- less perfect than one that does; therefore the least perfect being necessarily does not exist."

Grayling doesn't seem to know he's refuting a heresy, here. The Devil is not God's opposite. He is not defined as "the least perfect being," but rather as the greatest angel, gone bad. Lewis says, "The greater something is, the worse it can become." Lewis is the most-read Christian writer of modern times, but Grayling evidently has never heard of him, certainly not bothered to read him.

* Grayling's caricature of the Moral Argument (which I do not make) is a farce.

* From the 5th to the 17th Centuries, "Religion took the view that it was right and science was wrong, and anyone who disagreed might be killed (for example, Giordano Bruno) . . . " (107)

This history is rubbish, as many historians of science have shown. (Most recently, Dr. Allan Chapman of Oxford's Wadham College.) And "magnanimous" Grayling never bothers even to mention the many historians who tie the rise of modern science directly to Christian theology.

And always the same example. If there were so many examples of Christians killing scientists, why always name the same one? This one is mistaken, though. Bruno was killed, wrongly of course, for heresy, not for espousing science.

* The "major if not sole endevour" of Discovery Institute in Seattle "is to promote ID theory."

All Grayling had to do was check the DI website to find that they have several other major arms, including (my favorite, since I live in the Seattle area) their useful work on promoting better transportation options in the Northwest.

* Grayling conflates Intelligent Design with creationists who argue that "nuclear decay rates were billions of times greater" in the past, concluding, "Such is the quality of thought in Creationism-ID 'science.'"

Whether you like ID or hate it, that is not magnanimous, that is just sleazy. Grayling should quote the specific person who made that claim, and not try to blame everyone in the ID movement for a claim some unnamed numbskull outside that movement made.

* "The Greek thinkers premised their views on the recognition that Creationist accounts are projections from the human experience of agency."

Yet Richard Carrier, a radical atheist who happens to be an expert on the origins of Greco-Roman science, points out that many ancient scientists actually did their science in honor of the Creator God. He even credits the rise of ancient science in part to the rise of Greek philosophical theism.

* Grayling tries to credit the Enlightenment, somehow, for the scientific revolution, as well as for everything else good in the modern world, even though the scientific revolution began long before most of the heroes of the Enlightenment were even born. He also downplays the fantastic early scientific revolution of the 13th Century -- check that, he hasn't mentioned it in the first two thirds of the book, anyway -- or the rich and important Medieval precidents for modern science, that historians have so explored. (Recently, James Hannam.) Grayling fails to breath a word of all this.

I could go on and on. Grayling misunderstands Confucian theology. (Which I wrote my dissertation on.) He tries to claim the Stoics for atheism, which they were not. He praises Epictetus, one of my favorites, too, but has he really read him? See my article last year in Touchstone Magazine, comparing Epictetus and Zhuang Zi. Epictetus not only believed in God, but was pious and zealous in his faith -- it permeates his teaching.

I am being harsher with Grayling, perhaps, than I would be with a popular writer, because he ought to know better. He espouses humanistic values. He ought to live by them. He ought to have read and fairly considered his opponents' actual arguments, rather than pretend to argue with nebulous "religious apologists" whom he cannot name or quote because (it seems) he heard about them second hand, and chooses to believe every disreputable rumor about those he disagrees with.

This is thus an illiberal and (in the most literal sense) inhumane book. I know atheists who really do embrace humanity, by remaining aware of the good in those they disagree with, by appreciating love, kindness, beauty, and excellence wherever they find it. But the fanatics seem to have the numbers, unfortunately. So do as Grayling says (sometimes, anyway), but not as(in this book) he does. And don't believe one part in five of what he says about "religion." (A word he defines rather tendentiously, by the way -- but that is the norm.)


bbigej said...

Pascal gets treated even worse: Grayling grossly misrepresents him. "The most celebrated such argument is Pascal's wager. Pascal said that because the existence of a deity can be neither proved nor disproved . . . by rational argument . . . " Again, "Pascal says that as long as the probability of a god's existence is non-zero . . . "

Where is the misrepresentation? Pascal himself says, "Who then will blame Christians for not being able to give a reason for their belief, since they profess a religion for which they cannot give a reason? They declare, in expounding it to the world, that it is a foolishness, stultitiam; [I Cor. 1. 21.] and then you complain that they do not prove it! If they proved it, they would not keep their word; it is in lacking proofs that they are not lacking in sense. "Yes, but although this excuses those who offer it as such and takes away from them the blame of putting it forward without reason, it does not excuse those who receive it." Let us then examine this point, and say, "God is, or He is not." But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions."

So according to Pascal, reason cannot compel us one way or the other. "Neither prove or disprove," as Grayling puts it.

This is utter rubbish. Has Grayling actually read Pensees? In fact, Pascal offers several lines of rational argument for Christianity, which he thinks (and I think) is quite compelling. The Wager in no way concedes that the evidence for Christianity is weak. In fact, it is addressed to practical issues: even given all this positive evidence for Christianity, that Pascal has been discussing, what if one still suffers doubts? How in practice should one deal with those doubts?

The Wager is found in section 3. The "proofs" aren't discussed until section 11 at the earliest (and the existence of these chapters are in no way incompatible with what Graying is quoted as saying). So what of your claim that Pascal "has been discussing" all of this positive evidence? Have *you* read Pensees?

David Marshall said...

BB: Sorry, but you misunderstand Pascal as well. Pensees is not a consecutive, finished book. It is a series of notes that were arranged in order after Pascal's death.

No one who reads Pensees as a whole can honestly maintain that Pascal thought or wanted his readers to think evidence failed to support the truth of Christianity. Pascal gives page after page of evidence. He cites prophecy, he cites typology, he cites the personality of Jesus, he argues historically and from psychological insight.

And yes, he explains this in introducing the Wager:

"Men despise religion; they hate it and fear it is true. To remedy this, we must begin by showing that religion is not contrary to reason . . . finally, we
must prove it is true." (187)

195. "Before entering into the proofs of the Christian religion, I find it necessary to point
out the sinfulness of those men who live in indifference to the search for truth in a matter
which is so important to them, and which touches them so nearly."

The passage you quote above is a dialogue with a skeptic. "Let us now speak according to natural lights." Pascal clearly does not think "reason cannot decide anything." He thinks the skeptic is blind-folded by his passions.

"'But,' say you, 'if He had wished me to worship Him, He would have left me signs of His
will.' He has done so; but you neglect them. Seek them, therefore; it is well worth it."

And then Pascal gives them, in copious detail.

It is also "well worth" reading Pascal attentively. He is a subtle thinker, and I am afraid you also have badly misread him.

Brian Barrington said...

Stoicism tends strongly towards pantheism – it does not really advocate a personal God or a transcendent God. Typically, Stoics argue that the universe is God, which is really a non-theistic position. They do not advocate belief in a personal afterlife. On the whole I would say Grayling is justified in putting them in the “atheist” camp.

If Christians are looking for pre-Christian Western philosophers who share much of their world view, I would say the Platonists are a better bet than the Stoics. Plato and Platonism are much more theistic, in that these philosophies clearly argue that there is something that exists outside nature - that there is something beyond physical reality – and also that there is personal immortality (as Socrates argues in the Phaedo and elsewhere). Also, that the soul is immaterial, and that there is a dualism between the spiritual and the material – and much else. Nietzsche called Christianity, “Platonism for the people”. We can see the connections directly in the influence Plotinus had on Augustine, for example.

David B Marshall said...

Brian: You're right that many early Christians cited Plato, especially Timaeus, and I agree that we do have common ground. But read my article last year in Touchstone Magazine, which I also posted on this site: "A Stoic and a Taoist limp into the Church:"

Next time you read Cleanthes, Epictetus (Arrian), or Cicero's Stoic in On the Nature of the Gods, pay close attention to how they speak about, even to, God.

Brian Barrington said...

On all the big philosophical questions Plato and the Platonists are in considerable agreement with Christians, whereas the Stoics fundamentally disagree. Taken as a whole there is a huge amount in Stoicism that is fundamentally incompatible with Christianity

1. Stoics tend to be determinists whereas Christians believe in free will.
2. Stoics tend to be pantheists whereas Christians reject pantheism.
3. Stoics tend to be monists, whereas Christians are dualists
4. Stoics do not have a doctrine of personal immortality. Christians do.
5. Stoicism tends to emphasize acceptance (things are as they are and they will not change e.g. slavery will not change). Christians think that things can be changed for the better.

Seneca the Roman Stoic, articulates the Stoic view of death: “Death is the release from all pain and complete cessation, beyond which our suffering will not extend. It will return us to that condition of tranquillity, which we had enjoyed before we were born. Should anyone mourn the deceased, then he must also mourn the unborn. Death is neither good nor evil, for good or evil can only be something that actually exists. However, whatever is of itself nothing and which transforms everything else into nothing will not be able to put us at the mercy of Fate.”

Marcus Aurelius says “soon you will have forgotten the world, and soon the world will have forgotten you.” He says that “one thing hastens into being while another hastens out of it … A man’s life is no more than an inhalation of the air and an exhalation from the blood.” He says that “All bodies pass through the universal substance, as it were into and out of a rushing stream; cohering and cooperating with the whole as do our physical members with each other.” Also: “Out of the universal substance, as out of wax, Nature fashions a colt, then breaks him up and uses the material to form at tree, and after that a man, and next some other thing; and not one of these endures for more than a brief span.”

We can see here that the Stoic view of death and what happens after it is the precise opposite of the Christian view.

Plato, on the other hand, is far more in agreement with the Christian view.

Brian Barrington said...

Another thing - in the Platonic dialogues Socrates consistently argue that after death there is judgement - people get what they deserve based on how morally good they were in this life - the Stoics do not argue this.

Brian Barrington said...

One more thing (I’m on a roll here!) – Christianity regards suicide as morally wrong, and Socrates argues in the Phaedo that suicide is morally wrong. In contrast, the Stoics had no moral objection at all to suicide.

David B Marshall said...

Brian: Please do read the article I recommended. As you will see, there was a great deal of agreement between the Stoics and the Christians, very much including about God, who was somewhat pantheistic in theory, but not in practice. Stoics were seeking God, and did pray to him. And Stoics proved very open to the Christian perspective, as brilliantly depicted by Luke in Acts 17. That's one reason Christianity spread.

To be sure, there were some differences. But to people who don't know about an afterlife, the Resurrection could come as Good News, new empirical data that supplemented mere speculation with astounding facts. As Luke recognized, these new facts took some getting used to or arguing about. But Socrates himself believed in an afterlife, and Socrates was the Stoic's greatest hero, whom they quoted all the time. "As Socrates said," "In this, as in everything, Socrates furnishes a model," it's all through Epictetus, and elsewhere.

Brian Barrington said...

Stoicism was the reigning philosophy of the Roman elite, and they persecuted Christians. Christians might have needed to try and show that Stoicism and Christianity were not at odds for political reasons, since so many powerful people were Stoics.

You have to at least admit that Plato and Platonism are much closer to Christianity than Stoicism? As you say, Plato’s Socrates argued for personal immortality even though he had not seen or heard about Jesus – whereas the Stoics did not, as the quotes from Marcus Aurelius and Seneca above demonstrate.

David B Marshall said...

Brian: Marcus Aurelius and Seneca were Roman, upper class, and late. I'm partial to Greek, lower-middle classes, and early. So I've only skimmed Aurelius, and haven't read Seneca at all. I know I should. So you may be right about their perspective.

But no, I don't think Paul was mainly thinking politics -- I think his approach in Athens was deeply imbedded in Christian theology. I think he had probably read On the Nature of the Gods, probably Cleanthes, certainly Arratus, whom he quotes, and perhaps like Philo, found a lot to agree with.

Brian Barrington said...

I think you might be trying to make the most of a few non-representative quotes rather than looking at what Stoicism stood for overall. Plato and Platonism are very compatible with Christianity, but Stoicism is not really, if you look at the overall picture.

Btw, if I was a Christian, I’d be much more happy about having Plato on my side, since he basically invented Western philosophy and everyone agrees that he is one of the greatest, if not simply the greatest, philosopher of all time.

David B Marshall said...

Not so. Read the article! Tell me I'm wrong after you have read it.

Cleanthes was one of the founders of the school: his great hymn cannot easily be discounted. Nor can Epictetus, whom Grayling himself points to with enthusiasm. (With good reason!) Read carefully what Epictetus says about God, again and again and again -- or at least read my article!

I don't see Plato and the Stoics as being in competition with one another, on this. Clement of Alexandria explained this in terms of Pentheus, the king of Themes, whom the women of his state went crazy and tore to pieces. So, Clement said, it has been done to the great schools of philosophy: each has a piece of the truth, and fancies that it is the whole thing. But the "Dawn of Light," who is Jesus Christ, resurrects in one body the larger body of truth of which each is a part.

I think Grayling is fundamentally right about one thing: that modern atheism would benefit from drawing more on the ancient pagan philosophers. And you seem to do that, which is cool. Epicureans are harder to assimilate, but I do think Stoicism proved an important "tutor to Christ" in the classical world.

Brian Barrington said...

The Stoics disagreed with Plato on many issues - that's why they set up a separate school of philosophy and called themselves Stoics, as opposed to just calling themselves Platonists! Yes, they regarded Socrates as a hero, but all philosophers do, even if they completely disagree with all the positive doctrines he espouses in the Platonic dialogues. It's not uncommon for philosophers to greatly admire thinkers they totally disagree with e.g. Grayling himself wrote a book about Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, and clearly he admires him greatly, even though Descartes argued that God exists, that the soul is immortal, that the soul (or mind) and matter are distinct, that there is free will, that God is supernatural - all positions that Grayling completely disagrees with - and basically many of the same positions that Socrates argues for in the Platonic dialogues. Again, these are not the positions of mainstream Stoicism, which mostly takes the opposing view on each of these questions.

David B Marshall said...

Brian: You can't define "mainstream Stoicism," and leave the works I cited above out.

Brian Barrington said...

Stoics mostly hold that there is no free will, that there is nothing immaterial or supernatural, that God is the universe, and that there is no personal immortality - these views are contrary to those espoused by Plato's Socrates, by Descartes and by Christianity. Look, it's not like I have some agenda to show that ancient philosophy is incompatible with Christianity - I freely admit that the philosophical views of Plato, the most important ancient philosopher, are largely compatible with Christianity. But there are other ancient philosophies that took up opposing views - Stoicism is one of them, Epicureanism is another - and many of the Pre-Socratics, like Democritus and so on, were also monists and materialists.

David B Marshall said...

Have you, or have you not, read my article, and the works I am citing in it?

Epicureanism, I'll grant you, for the most part.

Brian Barrington said...

Yes, I read your article