Dawkins and his critics – 3

December 23, 2010

Let me just tidy up a few corners before the Holidays kick in and I won’t be able to post for a few days:

Again here’s the first paragraph of Tuesday’s instalment, for orientation purposes:

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.)

For today I’d like to reference a couple of passages from the Walker article.


Consider, for instance, [Dawkins’] argument about feelings: “I don’t want to decry human feelings. But let’s be clear, in any particular conversation, what we are talking about: feelings, or truth. Both may be important, but they are not the same thing” (353). Certainly not. Neither, though, are they mutually exclusive. Even if we should buy into Dawkins’s implied syllogism that there can be no truth in feeling, no feeling in truth, that schizoid division of our hearts from our heads might still be unwise. Maybe we do not have to divide, let alone choose between feeling and truth as he has; maybe we shouldn’t.

Oddly enough, I do think they’re both right. Here’s how I’d put the matter: feelings are a fundamental aspect of human existence, they motivate everything we do including our choice of what to turn our minds to. What they do not do, in my experience, is give reliable information concerning the sensorily-perceived universe. Others’ experience may be different; we can talk about that if anyone wants to; but I have always gotten better results in the day-to-day business of maneuvering around objects and dealing with people and doing the very things my feelings motivate me to do if I bracket the feelings themselves for a while, put them on a back burner, while I figure out as best I can what the facts are.
(And also adjust my feelings to account for my increasing knowledge of just what options are out there and what they cost.) So for me there is no “schizoid division,” but as it were a division of labor. So in practice again I come down on the side of Dawkins as regards the sensorily-perceived universe.

At the same time I am also sympathetic to those who are dissatisfied with the whole business, who want and long for an alternative. After all, the sensorily-perceived universe is in the end not such a winning proposition. Things fall apart and break, we ourselves face a future of decrepitude and final failure to function, nothing that we work and strive for is likely to survive the explosion of the sun into whatever the astronomers say it’s going to turn into 6 billion years down the line. I admire Dawkins’ ability to put all this out of his mind and focus on the everyday, but I don’t always share it, and I empathize with those who don’t share it at all. My only problem with traditional religion is that I don’t find its alternatives particularly credible. So I keep looking for a better one, or trying to formulate one of my own. Of which more in posts to come. But meanwhile I also support the efforts of the scientists, humanitarians and progressive political activists to try to improve this little samsara of ours, this cycle of birth and death, because for all we know it may well be all we’ve got.

As to the claim that people of faith in some way actually see something Dawkins and I don’t, as Walker suggests here:

I play tennis with an aging cohort, their eyesights fading. My vision is still 20/20, which I am persuaded permits me to see tennis evidences my colleagues cannot. The resulting contested line calls, very much like my readings of The God Delusion, render me incapable of understanding how someone who has failed to see a thing can be surer of what he has not seen than someone who has seen it. Seeing things that are not there, as Dawkins warns, is for us unreliably perceiving humans a definite problem. But a bigger practical problem is not seeing things that are there. Far fewer car accidents are caused by hallucination than by failure to observe.

I agree in principle that such a thing is possible. But what good does it do us to consider it?  Sometimes the analogy is made to the perception of color: how do we persuade the color-blind that there really is such a thing? Well, I can imagine a lot of ways I could be persuaded that someone had a sensory perception that I lacked, as long as that sense referred to the same world of things I do perceive; as long as it fit into that texture of perception which gives me the sense of “objective reality.” If I were color-blind I think I would be persuaded by the fact that people do uniformly use color terms to group objects in the same way, with disagreements at the borders like blue-green and the like. I could imagine a controlled experiment with say a number of pieces of paper, identical except for color, and with something written on the back so that the color-blind person can track which is which; the allegedly color-sighted can then show that they can tell which is which without looking on the back. Any rational color-blind person could be persuaded by this, eventually, with enough controls and iterations. But a “sense” that doesn’t refer to ordinarily perceptible things at all is a harder sell. Maybe believers and disbelievers should just give up on the idea of persuading each other, and concentrate on those areas of life where they can work together.

A thousand words already and this series is far from over. Be back in a few days!


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