Wednesday, July 13, 2011

This is the kind of drivel we have to put up with

Here is an article from The Irish Times entitled Why Dawkins’s case against religion creaks at every joint.  It’s author, James P Mackey, is a proper theologian and everything (if there is such a thing):

James P Mackey is visiting professor in the school of religions and theology at TCD and professor emeritus of theology at the University of Edinburgh.

It doesn’t make very much sense.

RICHARD DAWKINS sold himself very short indeed in Dublin recently. For he was mainly concerned with securing the claim that “if science can’t get at the truth, nothing else can”; and then with securing not just the equality but the superiority of science over religions and their theologies.

I don’t think that was Dawkins’ chief concern at all – he was answering questions, mostly – but he certainly made the claim, as he has many times, that science is the best tool we have for understanding the universe.  Note that this is a very specific claim: the superiority he was claiming is superiority in finding out what’s true and what isn’t.  It’s a difficult argument to refute. Science really is a very good way of finding out what’s true. We can test its claims and predictions and we throw away whatever fails the test. 

By way of contrast, religion doesn’t do any of that. It makes predictions, to be fair, but many of them are far too vague to be tested properly and any ‘truths’ they reveal are not true in any normal sense of the word.  Besides, many of the predictions made in holy books have turned out not to be true (for instance, the second coming of Jesus “within the lifetimes of some of you here”) and yet they haven’t been discarded from the religion.  They are still considered true even though they are – by their own standards – false.  Tell me again what truths religion reveals?  But I’m drifting off topic.

Dawkins’s case is built on twin platforms. First, that evolution offers a full and adequate explanation of how the world came to be as we now know it; and this makes creator gods superfluous.

Then, second, that creator gods, and especially the Christian version, are nothing short of agents of immorality, both by example and in terms of their actual moral teachings, and the horrendous punishments threatened to enforce these.

This is an astonishing statement. Dawkins’ case against religion was put down very clearly in The God Delusion and he makes neither of these points. 

In fact, not only has he never made the first claim, he has argued repeatedly that it is false.  I suspect Mackey is confused by a few similar claims that Richard has made:

  1. All life on Earth is a product of evolution
  2. Life elsewhere in the universe is very probably also a product of evolution: we know of no other method by which it could have occurred.
  3. This goes for gods too: even if god did create life on our planet or life on all planets or the universe itself, then god would have to have come about by natural selection or something directly analogous.

Richard certainly hasn’t claimed that evolution “offers a full and adequate explanation of how the world came to be as we now know it”.  It’s a piece of the puzzle.  We have no reason to believe that evolution requires any gods.

Mackey’s second point is….incoherent.  Richard has certainly said that gods as depicted in holy books are creatures that display consistently vile behaviour.  He’s also said that religion is capable of making good people do bad things.  He’s also said that threats of eternal punishment are wicked.  Is this what Mackey means?  It’s impossible to tell.

Whatever he means, this isn’t Richard’s case against religion.  His case is that:

  1. It’s not true. We know this because there’s no evidence.  We’ve looked, and there’s no reason to suspect that any of the supernatural claims made by religions are true, and
  2. We’d almost certainly be better off without it.

All of which nullifies any remaining possibility of good moral behaviour on the part of a race already apparently only too prone to immorality, and increasingly so as its powers of destruction grow apace.

This is an outright lie by Mackey. Richard has written one book (The Selfish Gene) which is all about the evolution of altruism and he’s spoken and written about this many times.  He’s also spoken and written many times about how he favours liberal, moral societies and despises cruel and immoral behaviour.  He’s put his own money where his mouth is numerous times by donating large sums to charitable causes and encouraging others to do the same.  These are not the actions of someone who believes there’s no good in people.

After these barely coherent and generally untrue statements, Mackey lets his ignorance run riot.

The first platform for Dawkins’s case against religion – that evolution theory makes creator gods obsolete – creaks at every joint. Since a full understanding of it requires a broad acquaintance with both physical science (especially quantum physics) and metaphysics and few, possibly including Dawkins (a mere biologist, if not just a zoologist) can claim such broad expertise, it is sufficient to note briefly here how those properly endowed do handle it. Then we can pass on quickly to Dawkins’s moral argument; for we are all endowed by nature with a moral sense and an impressive moral repertoire.

Richard doesn’t claim to know everything about how the universe works.  Why on earth would or should he do that?  Is one person’s admitted ignorance of every corner of the universe sufficient to topple the fact that there’s no evidence for god?  The argument just doesn’t make the slightest sense.

First, evolution names a process, not an agent. It simply tells us that whatever agency causes this world to come to be what it now is, did not create the world in the beginning in the form in which we now know it.

Evolution doesn’t tell us that at all.  It says nothing whatever about any such ‘agency’.  The theory explains how life got from it’s starting point to where it is now and makes predictions about what sort of things we should find in the fossil record.  I suspect Mackey is trying to say that evolution doesn’t account for the existence of the universe.  He’s right.  Nobody says it does.  Especially not Richard, even though Mackey claims he does.

Rather did the agency create the world in the beginning in such a manner that a certain randomness in the “units” out of which the world is made, is always combined with it. This is never without sets of laws that govern the cosmic dance of the “units” ever alternatively coming together and breaking apart, until the world we now inhabit continues to come to be.

Who knows what Mackey is on about here.  What ‘units’?  What is the ‘it’ that contains the randomness?  Is it the mysterious ‘units’? Is it the universe itself?  What is this randomness?  Where does it come from and how does it manifest itself?  The ‘laws’ are presumably the laws of physics, but what is it that Mackey is actually trying to say here?  That the universe is different now to how it used to be?  Well….duh….. Why didn’t he just say that? 

And because the randomness in the “units” offers the possibility of virtually infinite combinations and permutations, regulated by laws themselves designed to evolve apace, contemporary science holds out the possibility – for some more than a possibility – of innumerable worlds, according to either the multiverse or the many-worlds formula.

Yes, but so what?  Mackey seems to be stringing together every half-remembered bit of every pop-science article he’s ever read with no clear purpose.  I genuinely have no idea what argument he’s trying to make at this point.

Second, quantum physics challenges the notion that the original “units” consist in atomic particles that are in effect hard balls of solid matter. It suggests instead that these are more akin to pure geometric forms, like one-dimensional strings or triangles for example; and these, like the laws, look more like mental constructs.

What the WHATNOW?  Technically, this kind of argument is called ‘blinding by science’, but I really don’t want to dignify this drivel with that name.  What Mackey is doing here is exactly the same sort of thing people like Deepack Chopra do.  He’s throwing in quantum physics and making it sound all mysterious so he can make the breathtaking non sequitur that sub-atomic particles might be vaguely analogous in some way to ‘mental constructs’ (whatever that means) at some astronomical level of abstraction.

Again, so what? This is what:

So that it is matter that emerges from mind, rather than mind from matter; and Dawkins’s imagination may be the one that is too impoverished to see the full implications of quantum physics.

Um…. Right.  So let me try to follow the argument:

  1. Evolution is a process.
  2. Quantum theory is weird. Therefore:
  3. Matter emerges from mind and so presumably god created the universe.

Does anyone really have to point out the childishness of this argument?  Did Mackey feel pleased with himself for making it?

Scientists who work in quantum physics and regard the mind-born entity called knowledge as the main formative, causative factor in the making of the cosmos, normally assure us it is not as advocates of any religion that they arrive at these views.

Do they?  Are there any such people?  There are plenty of pseudo-scientists who say nonsensical, incoherent stuff like this.  I don’t know of any quantum physicists who talk like that.  Pity Mackey didn’t think to cite some of them.  Almost as if they don’t exist.

Finally, Dawkins freely admits science still cannot see how life, much less mind, can have emerged from lifeless matter.

This, of course, is another lie.  He’s explained in at least one of his books how life might have begun.  Nobody understands every aspect of it, of course, just as we don’t yet understand everything about minds or their evolution.

But once again: so what?  The lie is particularly stupid because science really is quite ignorant of some of the steps in this process.  It’s no secret.  It’s nothing science should be embarrassed about.  And it doesn’t undermine any case against religion in the slightest.

But that leaves his totally evolutionary explanation of the coming to be of the cosmos still looking at a yawning gap in the evidence offered for his theory; requiring, it would seem, a leap of faith to cross it. But that, surely, could not be science; and one cannot but recall all Dawkins has to say about leaps of faith.

But Richard has never proffered any such explanation of the coming to be of the cosmos, so the entire argument is a strawman from the getgo.  But in any case, gaps in the theory do not require leaps of faith.  They require more evidence.  And the great thing about theories is that they predict what evidence ought to be found if the theory is correct.

Scientific theories aren’t like a chain of inference.  They don’t fall down if there’s a gap in knowledge.  This is because each bit of the theory is independently supported by evidence.  If we find evidence that fills in the gaps, our confidence in the theory’s correctness is increased.  If we find evidence that contradicts the theory, it’s a signal that we might have to modify the theory or throw it away entirely and begin with a new hypothesis.

Mackey’s article makes no sense from beginning to end.  I don’t think he even knows what argument he’s making.  He certainly doesn’t know (or deliberately misrepresents) the arguments Richard makes against religion and he does an astonishingly bad job of trying to debunk even that strawman.

Is this childish nonsense what we should expect from professors of theology?