Dawkins and his critics

December 21, 2010

The springboard for today’s post is one of many critiques of Dawkins from what can be called a modern, open-minded theistic perspective, which I just stumbled on yesterday and found to be rather more nicely written than some of  its kind: “Selling the Soul of Science for a Pot of Message: Evangelizing Atheism in The God Delusion” by Steven C. Walker, published in Brigham Young University Studies 47:133. (This link is to an online version, which appears substantially identical to the hard copy as far as I can recall.)

One thing I like about it is that the author writes with what seems to be real respect for Dawkins’ work as a scientist, his skill as a writer and the strength of some of his arguments. I am using it however mainly because the themes of his criticism are ones which I have encountered and tried to think through before, which I was going to blog about sooner or later anyway, and which Walker expresses clearly enough for me to use…

The first paragraph which caught my eye is this:

I am not suggesting Dawkins is small-minded—anything but. He just keeps his energetic mind on too tight a scientific leash. Dawkins distrusts imagination so much I sometimes wonder if he has any. This distrust limits his perspective, almost as if he is color-blind to theology. He focuses so intently on the black and white of material reality he cannot perceive the slightest tint of theological color. Old-school psychologist William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1905) has far less problem imagining the perspective of the believer.3 James, with a modicum of imaginative empathy, was able to comprehend what Dawkins may never see: religious evidence may be real evidence; personal evidence of God may be more directly experiential, however much less measurable, than scientific evidence.

Doesn’t this come up all the time in discussions on the subject? Years ago (long before Dawkins had entered the field) a Catholic priest friend complained to me that “these people call themselves empiricists but they rule out so much of experience.” In other words,  intuitive, private “religious experience” is counterpoised to the whole body of “scientific” knowledge based on sensory observation, precise measurement, and repeated experimentation resulting in objective verification. Walker doesn’t deny the validity of the latter, unlike some “postmodernists” (though if you corner them they may deny that they really meant that), he just thinks it isn’t enough, that a full healthy world view should be informed by the former.

My problem with this is that not having had a recognizable “religious experience” myself, I am reduced to relying on the reports of others who claim to have had them. Now this is nothing unusual in itself; in fact one of the criticisms I have of Dawkins is that in his dismissal of all religion as irrational he fails to take into account that most of what we think we know about the world, outside of our limited experience and what we can infer directly from it, we learned from someone else. Either someone told us, or we read it somewhere. Dawkins has his reasons for the certainty he expresses for the findings of those sciences he is expert in; my reasons for believing those findings cannot be the same, but must include a larger element of trust in the whole system, the institutions of scientific teaching and publication etc. The totality of my experience and learning leads me to have such trust; but on a human level I find I must be more tolerant than Dawkins seems to be towards those whose mileage varies.

But returning to “religious experience.” Writers like Walker are always referring to it, but they don’t specify whose experience, or what account of such experience. My own reading and conversation over the decades has led me to the conclusion – not an altogether happy one, as when I was younger I would have very much liked to find a real workable alternative to the material world with all its hardships – that the stories told of these experiences simply don’t converge onto something coherent enough for me to believe – that is, accept as conveying information about anything outside of the mind of the experiencer, in the way that sensory experience and reasoning based on it converge onto that scientific world view which everyone concedes works in the sense of enabling us to predict and manipulate the flow of phenomena in ways most of us like. If you claim to have had an inner experience that seems of cognitive value to you (“noetic” I think is the word James uses), tell me about it. I will listen respectfully, I will gladly take your word (absent some strong external evidence to the contrary) for the fact that you had the experience and are describing it as best you can, I will profoundly respect your right to draw the most sensible conclusions you can from that experience, and will not criticize your efforts the way Dawkins might; but for me to conclude that the experience really is noetic, that it does give information about something outside your mind, I would need to be able to fit it into a pattern of similar reports, in the same way that when a traveler tells me of Australia I can look it up on a map, read or ask for other people’s accounts, and fit them all together in a way that converges. So far I have not seen this to be the case with intuitive, emotional or religious experience, and so my own sympathies on this point are with Dawkins.

Egad, this is way too long already and I haven’t even begun to spin it out to my satisfaction. I can only endeavor to insure that further instalments follow. Good bye for now!

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4 Responses to “Dawkins and his critics”

  1. Carty Says:

    Hi Peter. I spend a lot of time wrestling with the same issue.

    Dawkins bugs me :). He is just so smug in his conclusions about things that I believe to be fundamentally difficult. He is either much smarter than I or we are not actually asking and answering the same questions, I prefer the latter explanation.

    My problem with this is that not having had a recognizable “religious experience” myself, I am reduced to relying on the reports of others who claim to have had them.

    In my own case my conviction that there is more going on than science currently explains comes not from an experience as much as a constant intuition that we are not simply individuals, that we are part of a larger whole. It is only in this context that morality and love make sense to me.

    Another much more specific obsession for me is human (animal?) consciousness. In extrapolating what we know about computing even at geometric rates we don’t come to understand or achieve consciousness, there is something else going on. Roger Penrose, one of Dawkins’s colleagues at Oxford has done some monumental work on the limits of our understanding here without feeling the need to assail anyone’s faith in the process.

    I really like your blog, have a wonderful holiday, look forward to seeing you soon.

    • allogenes Says:

      Thanks, Carty!
      You’ve pointed at precisely the two issues where i cannot go along with Dawkins: the smugness, or as i see it the lack of toleration for any suggestion at all of anything beyond the material-experiential level of existence (as opposed to merely being uninterested in such things himself, which is entirely his decision to make); and the question of consciousness, which is the one thing I still don’t see quite fitting into the scientific paradigm – more on that a few instalments down the line, if I get that far!

  2. jaqueline Says:

    I must admit..after writing what I have about Dawkins and then reading your post…that I have closed my mind to the man…I shut down. Completely. I would want to be more open minded but I just can’t with him.
    Which is not very smart I know and I do get riled when I hear his words in populist media because they come across simplistic and ignorant. But I am more open to trying to understand where he is coming from by reading what you have to say about him..thank you for this..

    • allogenes Says:

      I’m glad you find my efforts helpful! As I’ve indicated, there’s a lot of what he says that I do consider valid; but unfortunately the part where he goes way too far (in my humble opinion) naturally repels a lot of people (like yourself) whom he would do better not to alienate. It’s not your fault, that’s the way he’s chosen to present himself. Meanwhile I do what I can to clarify the real issues as I see them and bypass the unnecessary odium. More later.


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