Thursday, August 16, 2007

PZ Myers on the McGrath and Dawkins debate

"Science does not use proof. We favor evidence.."

They let anybody onto the faculty at Oxford nowadays

by PZ Myers, Pharyngula
Thanks to rowed for the link.

Reposted from:

PZA few readers sent me a link to this interview with Alister McGrath; most thought it was worth a laugh, but one actually seemed to think I'd be devastated. I'm afraid the majority were correct: everything I've read by McGrath suggests that here is a man whose thoughts have been arrested by a temporal lobe seizure that he has mistaken for a lightning bolt from god. He'd probably be flattered to be compared to C.S. Lewis, but I see some similarities in the shallowness of their thinking that they believe they've deepened by tapping into theological tradition, but I'm sorry — my bathroom tap could drip for millennia, but it's a nuisance, not Niagara.

It also doesn't help that his argument is basically one of dogma and contradiction.

I think Richard Dawkins approaches the question of whether God exists in much the same way as if he'd approach the question of whether there is water on Mars. In other words, it's something that's open to objective scientific experimentation. And of course there's no way you can bring those criteria to bear on God. I think Dawkins seems reluctant to allow that God may not be in the same category as scientific objects. That's an extremely important point to make in beginning to critique him.

He's actually right on one thing: we are approaching the question of god as a scientific problem, and the question of water on Mars is a pretty good analogy. We can't see it here, we aren't there, we have to build a case on inference from evidence and we have to design tests to evaluate the possibilities. That's been an eminently successful strategy for humanity. So why can't we bring them to bear on the god question? I've highlighted his answer: he says we just can't. He doesn't say why we can't, it's just a dogmatic assertion. Keep this in mind, though, because he's going to contradict himself in a moment.

Also, I'd like to know what he means by this category of "scientific objects". Everything is a scientific object, from distant stars to grains of dirt, from the first picoseconds of the Big Bang to pillow talk between lovers. If we can ask a question about it, it can be science. McGrath may think this is a useful strategy for a critique, but all it amounts to is setting up his premises as unquestionable. We simply do not have to accept that.

A second point, which clearly follows on from this, is that Dawkins clearly believes that those who believe in God must prove their case and atheists have nothing to prove because that's their default position. But I think that's simply incorrect and it's obviously incorrect.

Really, the only obvious position is to say: We don't know, we need to be persuaded one way or the other. The default position in other words is: not being sure.

For a guy who is about to claim to understand science, he sure is clueless about the fundamentals. This is not about proof. Science does not use proof. We favor evidence, and the work consists largely of the slow accumulation of evidence in support of ideas, not magically potent proofs that establish an idea as unassailable. What we have on the atheist side is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates the sufficiency of natural processes in generating phenomena that were once considered "obviously" the handiwork of a god — the steady decline of the relevance and support for the god hypothesis. At the same time, we see theologians like McGrath and pseudoscientists like those of the Discovery Institute trying to support their god/designer hypothesis with handwaving, sloppy logic, mangled evidence, and bald-faced assertions of unquestionable premises. Our side is growing in strength and has a solid foundation, theirs is a shambles. That's why scientific thinking will favor atheism.

Now of course, maybe they'll get their act together, throw out the charlatans, discard the historical relics cluttering up their beliefs, and actually assemble some evidence of their own; then we'll have some real competition. I don't think it will happen, but I could be surprised.

As for his claim that the default position is "not being sure" — he's being dishonest. His position and the religious position in general is one of certainty in their dogma in spite of the lack of evidence (this is called "faith," and is considered a virtue by the religious; it's called "gullibility" and is considered an error by the rational). The scientific position is that they've had a few thousand years to make their case and they've failed, while a few centuries of scientific progress has revolutionized human culture, and theirs is a dead argument.

As someone who has studied the history and philosophy of science extensively, I think I've noticed a number of things that Dawkins seems to have overlooked. One of them is this: One of the most commonly encountered patterns in scientific development is seeing a pattern of observations and then saying, in order to explain these observations, we propose that there exists something that is as yet unobserved but we believe that one day will be observed because if it's there, it can explain everything that can be observed.

Of course, if you're a Christian you'll see immediately that that same pattern is there in thinking about God. We can't prove there's a God but he makes an awful lot of sense of things and therefore there's a very good reason to suppose that this may, in fact, be right.

Whoa. What happened to "of course there's no way you can bring those criteria to bear on God"? What about "God may not be in the same category as scientific objects"? One moment he's claiming you can't study god like you would the possibility of water on Mars, and next he's claiming the validity of using observation and theory to justify the existence of the remote and directly unseen. How … inconsistent.

It's true, scientists do use chains of observation to make reasonable inferences about the cause of a pattern, make hypotheses about that cause, and then design experiments based on those hypotheses to assess their ideas about the cause. Theologians do the first part. They observe phenomena, and make assertions based on traditional mythology (i.e., not reasonable), but then they refuse to test their ideas — they enthrone them as dogma and insist that you cannot bring scientific (i.e., logical and empirical) criteria to bear on them. And then when someone like Dawkins dares to apply the next step in scientific reasoning to their claims, they cry "Unfair!" and stamp their feet and try to take their ball home.

We examine the pattern of evidence, and in biology for instance, we don't see evidence of any kind of god meddling in our history. Even those biologists who believe in a god will tell you that they don't see evidence, they see possibilities: maybe God flipped this nucleotide that way to generate that useful mutation. It's indistinguishable from a chance event, though, and they can't show any causal agent, but they find solace in the idea that maybe it happened. There is no good reason to insert a god into the pattern, other than that the scientist may have been brought up in a superstitious tradition that demands one.

So my question, therefore, is: How on earth can Dawkins base his atheism on science when science itself so to speak is in motion, in transit?

That's pretty funny.

Well, heck, how can anything be based on science, then? I'm listening to the stereo right now: if the physics and electronics and materials engineering behind that widget are scientific subjects in constant flux, how can it possibly be working?

That's actually the powerful secret of science. We embrace the change. We build on a foundation of good observation, but we are free to abandon old paradigms to find better ones that more accurately describe the universe and that are more productive in leading us deeper into understanding it. Gods are the old paradigm, the one that has failed, the useless idea that takes us nowhere.

Another thing of interest to you, seeing as we're talking to a Catholic audience, is that I've spoken in many lectures about Richard Dawkins and critiqued him. And very often atheists will stand up and say: "How dare you criticize Richard Dawkins!"

It's almost as if there's a new dogma of the infallibility of Richard Dawkins in certain circles and I find that bizarre.

Now I find that claim bizarre, especially since earlier in his screed McGrath claims that the "most serious, negative reviews" of Dawkins' work have come from his fellow atheists. Are we his claque or are we his most serious critics? And good grief, read the comments at — this is not a coterie of fan boys and girls praising their leader, but an undisciplined mob, each with their own idea of what atheism means, agreeing with Dawkins in some points and nit-picking him on others (and this diversity, while a negative as far as getting a coordinated response from atheists, is also one of our strengths, since there is a kind of Darwinian savagery about the internal workings of the atheist movement.) And, by the way, I think one of the goals of the Out Campaign (which is a good example of Dawkins' ideas not being automatically accepted) should be to get more representatives of atheism up there so that the religious apologists have to quit pretending that atheism consists of Richard Dawkins and his army of clones.

I also don't see this kind of event McGrath describes happening often. More likely, someone would stand up and say, "How dare you criticize Richard Dawkins so stupidly!"

One last nugget of foolishness, and then I'll drop McGrath.

The second point I'd want to make is that certainly I believe in the Nicene Creed, but I don't believe it because someone has rammed it down my throat. I believe it because I've looked at it very closely and I believe it to be right. I am very happy to be challenged about that because I believe in being open and accountable.

Amazing. He's not dogmatic, but he accepts the Nicene creed.

I've read it. Actually, the Nicene creed was probably the major trigger for my own abandonment of religion. It's a statement of the major premises of Christian belief, and I was required to memorize it in my confirmation classes, and we also went through it and discussed each clause. I quickly realized that the first line, "We believe in one God," was not true for me. Further, the subsequent lines were further assertions that I found either false (that there was a "maker of heaven and earth") or self-contradictory (there's also a Jesus, who is a god, and a Holy Spirit, who is a god?) or gibberish (the Virgin Mary nonsense and the resurrection, which somehow redeems us). It doesn't hold up under the critical examination of a 14 year old, so I'm baffled about how an educated adult can find it at all persuasive. I've found my own preferred version of the creed on a t-shirt:

Christianity: The belief that some cosmic Jewish Zombie can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him that you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.

That's patent humorous insanity, but the Nicene creed is worse: it's patent insanity that takes itself seriously. That anyone could look at it "very closely" with any objectivity at all and accept it, from triune god to virgin birth to 'dead' god to resurrection and ascent to final judgment, and argue that it is right is incredible. McGrath was adamant in insisting that atheists need to prove the nonexistence of god, but what I'd like to see is one scrap of evidence for any piece of the exceptionally silly Nicene creed — not proof, but just some rational reason for me to believe one single line of this dogma that McGrath accepts.

My confirmation teacher (a very nice and enthusiastic lady) and my pastor (also a decent fellow) couldn't do it. Neither could any of the books I'd read after and since. McGrath sure hasn't. McGrath claims that atheists misrepresent Christianity, but if the Nicene creed is the core of the belief, I don't see how we're misrepresenting it: it's a collection of absurdities. Maybe Mr McGrath should try spending more time actually defending that nonsense convincingly than simply whining about the atheists who are picking on his beliefs…but I don't think he can do that, either.

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