November 5, 2009

Dawkins and the Philosophers

I am periodically asked by my fellow Christians how Christians should respond to Richard Dawkins. I confess to being puzzled by the question of how I personally should respond to Dawkins. This is because a great many non-philosophical atheists take his word as Gospel, and a great many Christians are troubled by his arguments and assertions, but the fact of the matter is that, on the intellectual merits, Dawkins is simply not worth the effort of refuting. In philosophy, it is our practice, in arguing against positions, to target the best version of the view. This is why, for instance, (on a topic that has for some reason come up in several unrelated conversations recently) if I want to refute ethical egoism, I will target Thomas Hobbes, who was a philosophical genius, rather than Ayn Rand, who was not. Similary, if I am to argue against atheism or religious skepticism, there are targets out there like David Hume or J. L. Mackie who actually know what they are talking about and have some logical skills, unlike Dawkins who does not have either the knowledge or the skills to write competently about the philosophy of religion.

I am writing about this just now because there was recently an article in The Guardian which I think captures the sentiment that I have most often heard from philosophers who are atheists or religious skeptics. Philosopher Michael Ruse writes:

I have written that The God Delusion made me ashamed to be an atheist and I meant it. Trying to understand how God could need no cause, Christians claim that God exists necessarily. I have taken the effort to try to understand what that means. Dawkins and company are ignorant of such claims and positively contemptuous of those who even try to understand them, let alone believe them. Thus, like a first-year undergraduate, he can happily go around asking loudly, "What caused God?" as though he had made some momentous philosophical discovery.

Philosophers know that classical theism is a sophisticated metaphysical system whose implications have been investigated by centuries and centuries of brilliant minds. As a result, it can't possibly be refuted quite that easily. One has to actually bother understanding theism if one is to refute it. (My impression is that the reason most philosophers don't believe in God is not that they think there is some conceptual incoherence or something, but simply that they see no positive reason for belief in God, and are not in the habit of unnecessarily multiplying entities.)

It is true that over the last 150 years most of the leading atheist philosophers have not expended a great deal of effort on trying to refute theism. Honestly, I wish they would. Philosophy of religion today is actually dominated by Christians, and it is suffering as a result. I would love to see more philosophically sophisticated atheists expend the effort to defend their viewpoint.

Posted by Kenny at November 5, 2009 5:54 PM
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Comments

I think that one reason some atheist philosophers are disinclined to take up serious academic engagement with philosophy of religion is that, as far as Phil Religion is concerned, the question of whether God exists, or of which arguments can or cannot be used to prove the existence of God is a relatively small subset of the questions concerning the field. The problem of Hell, for instance, or various perplexing questions about the nature of the trinity, presuppose some pretty substantial theistic commitments. These debates may interest me, and can even be philosophically illuminating for me – some of the discussions I have had with philosophers of religion about the trinity have drawn our extremely interesting metaphysical issues that are independent of theism – but I am simply not invested in resolving or answering them in the same way that I am for most of the philosophical issues that I spend my time on.

Posted by: Lewis Powell at November 5, 2009 8:36 PM

I do think that probably has a lot to do with it. On the other hand, I think most undergrad philosophy of religion classes spend at least 3/4 of their time on arguments about the existence of God and/or the rationality of believing in the existence of God. I don't think anyone would complain if someone taught a phil religion class that ONLY covered these issues, so I don't know that a lack of interest in the other theological issues would necessarily prevent an atheist from picking up religion as an AOC/secondary research interest.

Of course, I have the impression that the average philosopher REALLY doesn't want to teach phil religion to undergrads, probably because of the religious students, so that may be another factor.

Still, to my mind there is no reason why the existence of God shouldn't be covered as a question of metaphysics. In fact, I did once take an undergraduate metaphysics class that did a unit on the existence of God.

In short, lack of interest in other theological questions might well explain why there aren't more atheists or religious skeptics specializing in philosophy of religion, but I don't think it explains why atheist philosophers don't expend more effort attacking theism and the arguments for it.

Posted by: Kenny at November 5, 2009 10:53 PM

The problem with Michael Ruse's position is that it is full of misrepresentations of those he is writing against. Atheists are used to being misrepresented of course, but it does get old after a while. Take a look at Michael Ruse and Faitheism for instance.

It is noticeable that among the people who have blogged about the Ruse article, the only people expressing any support for him are the Christians! Not because they agree with his atheism, but because they agree that atheists ought to shut up about their challenges to the quality of the evidence for God's existence and of the legal privileges organised religions enjoy in most countries.

Posted by: Jonathan West at November 6, 2009 4:48 AM

Jonathan - I find your comments odd in this context. In my post I (1) said that there were very smart atheists who had made very good arguments for their positions, and (2) said that I wish the very best atheist philosophers would spend more time arguing for atheism. In light of those two things, I think your remarks are misdirected here.

I certainly am not advocating that atheists shut up. Dawkins is an embarrassment to your cause not because he is so vocal, but because he is so ignorant. It is my impression that the majority of atheist philosophers would agree with that statement.

Posted by: Kenny at November 6, 2009 8:51 AM

I should also say that I have looked at the post you link, and I do think you make some good points there. It is true that the 'what caused God?' line represents a legitimate problem for theism (and Ruse never implied that it didn't); it simply must be recognized that it is a problem that many brilliant minds over many centuries have tried to address. You may criticize Swinburne's 'brute fact' line, but (1) every theory has its brute facts, and (2) while Swinburne is one of the great Christian philosophers alive today, there are in the tradition many other treatments of the subject. Swinburne doesn't believe that God is atemporal or even immutable (since he doesn't believe in divine knowledge of future contingents), and I think these points weaken his account.

This is not a 'New Atheists' vs. 'friendly atheists' issue (or 'plain atheists' vs. 'movement atheists', as I think another Guardian article said), at least not for me. It is a 'philosophically sophisticated atheists' vs. 'ignorant pop atheists' issue. Most popular Christian writers are not (on the intellectual merits alone) worth refuting either. I am glad that you, at least, are willing to seriously engage with Swinburne and his views.

Posted by: Kenny at November 6, 2009 9:05 AM

The one specific point on which Ruse accused Dawkins of ignorance was the question of the necessary existence of God. I know that Dawkins has read Swinburne (he quotes him in TGD), so I know that Dawkins is not ignorant of the necessary existence argument. He just thinks that it is no argument at all. I happen to agree with him.

If Ruse has read TGD (which he says he has) and if he has also read Swinburne (which I don't know but think probable, since it is one of the leading academic texts on the philosophy of religion), then Ruse must also know what the necessary existence argument is, and that is does not render Dawkins “What caused God?” question to be fatuous. It doesn't address that question at all.

The fact that many clever people have been asking the “What caused God?” question over many thousands of years doesn't means that Dawkins is unjustified in joining in. After all, I don't think you or anybody else is in a position to provide an answer to the question. In the circumstances, to claim that there is no answer and we need to abandon the search for one is just a call to ignorance. There is no reason for Dawkins to agree to go along with that. He's a scientist. He looks to be able ask such questions and see what we can find out about them.

Posted by: Jonathan West at November 8, 2009 7:28 AM

By the way, if you want to see a bit of effort taken by an atheist addressing theism, by all means pop over to my blog where I have been doing a chapter-by-chapter review of Richard Swinburne's "The Existence of God". As I'm sure you are aware, Richard Swinburne is one of Britain’s leading academic theologians. He is a Fellow of the British Academy. From 1985 to 2002 he was Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at the University of Oxford.

If this is the best he can do, he should be an embarrassment to academic theology, unless the whole of theology is as badly argued. He says of the book.

The Existence of God is the central book of all that I have written on the philosophy of religion. It was originally published in 1979. A ‘revised edition’ was published in 1991, but the revision consisted merely in the addition of two appendices; the main text remained intact. The present revision is a far more substantial one.

So far I have been through the following chapters.

Chapter 1: Inductive arguments
Chapter 2: The Nature of Explanation
Chapter 3: The Justification of Explanation
Chapter 4: Complete Explanations
Chapter 5: The Intrinsic Probability of Theism
Chapter 6: The Explanatory Power of Theism
Chapter 7: Cosmological arguments
Chapter 8 : Teleological Arguments
Chapters 9 & 10: Arguments from Consciousness, Morality and Providence
Chapter 11: The problem of evil

I've a couple more chapters to go, which I will be dealing with for completeness, but you should be able to see clearly enough already the general quality of the book.

Posted by: Jonathan West at November 8, 2009 11:51 AM

Jonathan - I have now produced a more thorough response here.

Posted by: Kenny at November 9, 2009 12:12 PM

If someone asked me to prove that a hammer exists and is in fact a hammer, I wouldn't talk about the manufacturer, explain the construction, or test the materials. I would show him the hammer, and then go bang a nail with it.

I would expound but I have to go meet people for lunch, so that is all for now.

Posted by: pferree at November 12, 2009 9:25 AM

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