Sunday, January 14, 2007

Another Review of Dawkins

Here's another recent review of Dawkins' The God Delusion. This one from The New York Review of Books, January 11, 2007 edition. It's written by H. Allen Orr, a biologist, religious agnostic, and noted critic of the Intelligent Design movement.

All in all, Orr's review strikes me as a balanced one. He's got no particular religious axe to grind, which makes his sharp criticism of Dawkins all the more telling. Here are some key paragraphs:

The most disappointing feature of The God Delusion is Dawkins's failure to engage religious thought in any serious way. This is, obviously, an odd thing to say about a book-length investigation into God. But the problem reflects Dawkins's cavalier attitude about the quality of religious thinking. Dawkins tends to dismiss simple expressions of belief as base superstition. Having no patience with the faith of fundamentalists, he also tends to dismiss more sophisticated expressions of belief as sophistry (he cannot, for instance, tolerate the meticulous reasoning of theologians). But if simple religion is barbaric (and thus unworthy of serious thought) and sophisticated religion is logic-chopping (and thus equally unworthy of serious thought), the ineluctable conclusion is that all religion is unworthy of serious thought.

The result is The God Delusion, a book that never squarely faces its opponents. You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins's book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they're terminally ill?).


One reason for the lack of extended argument in The God Delusion is clear: Dawkins doesn't seem very good at it. Indeed he suffers from several problems when attempting to reason philosophically. The most obvious is that he has a preordained set of conclusions at which he's determined to arrive. Consequently, Dawkins uses any argument, however feeble, that seems to get him there and the merit of various arguments appears judged largely by where they lead.

The most important example involves Dawkins's discussion of philosophical arguments for the existence of God as opposed to his own argument against God, which he presents as the intellectual heart of his book. Considering arguments for God, Dawkins is care-ful to recite the many standard objections to them and writes that the traditional proofs are "vacuous," "dubious," "infantile," and "perniciously misleading." But turning to his own Ultimate Boeing 747 argument against God, Dawkins is suddenly uninterested in criticism and writes that his argument is "unanswerable." So why, you might wonder, is a clever philosophical argument for God subject to withering criticism while one against God gets a free pass and is deemed devastating?

The reason seems clear. The first argument leads to a conclusion Dawkins despises, while the second leads to one he loves. Dawkins, so far as I can tell, is unconcerned that the central argument of his book bears more than a passing resemblance to those clever philosophical proofs for the existence of God that he dismisses. This is unfortunate. He could have used a healthy dose of his usual skepticism when deciding how much to invest in his own Ultimate Boeing 747 argument. Indeed, one needn't be a creationist to note that Dawkins's argument suffers at least two potential problems. First, as others have pointed out, if he is right, the design hypothesis essentially must be wrong and the alternative naturalistic hypothesis essentially must be right. But since when is a scientific hypothesis confirmed by philosophical gymnastics, not data? Second, the fact that we as scientists find a hypothesis question-begging—as when Dawkins asks "who designed the designer?"— cannot, in itself, settle its truth value. It could, after all, be a brute fact of the universe that it derives from some transcendent mind, however question-begging this may seem. What explanations we find satisfying might say more about us than about the explanations. Why, for example, is Dawkins so untroubled by his own (large) assumption that both matter and the laws of nature can be viewed as given? Why isn't that question-begging?

The rest is well worth reading.


At 1/15/2007 8:14 AM, Blogger derek said...

hi alan, thanks for posting this review. I have read both plaginta's review (& one other i think), and it seems clear that as great as scientist Dawkins might be, he is playing the wrong game when he tries to delve into philosophy/theology/religion.

Do you think the book is worth a read? It seems like people from fundamentalists, Christian intellectuals, religious agnostics, and those who just review books all think the book is pretty weak. I'm not sure if this particular dawkins book is worth my time. What do you think?

At 1/15/2007 10:56 AM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Hi Derek,

Honestly, I haven't read the book, though I have read upwards of eight different reviews, some very comprehensive, as well as other things by Dawkins.

As far as I am aware, Dawkins has nothing fundamentally new to say in this book that he hasn't already said many times before. Given that the serious reviews have been, almost without exception, highly critical, the only justification I can think of for reading it is to stay abreast of the growing cultural phenomenon of "fundamentalist atheism", of which Dawkins is the current high priest.

At 1/15/2007 1:11 PM, Blogger derek said...

Thanks Alan. I appreciate your thoughts; that's kind of what i thought.

Without doing too much shameless promoting, i would suggest you check out my blog about Witherington on Atheism. He talks alot about "fundamentalist Atheists." I have the link to his actual blog, which states it very eloquently.

Thanks Alan,



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