The most recent comment to yesterday’s post on atheism was a quote (thanks, Jonathan!) from Jose Ortega y Gasset used on this blog to argue that scientists shouldn’t be weighing in on matters of religion and ethics which are, after all, not their specialty.
The point is well taken, reflecting Socrates’s general criticism that every expert in one area thinks he’s an expert in everything. However, Ortega y Gasset’s critique is equally applicable to anyone who has not engaged in the requisite level of philosophical reflection, including any religious believers who have not studied epistemology and clergy who have not thought a lot about meta-ethics.
How much is “a lot” or “requisite?” I don’t know. Dawkins’s book is, unsurprisingly, at its strongest when talking about natural selection; his comments about ethics and other matters are certainly researched (much like Freud’s comments on anthropology and other subjects that make up his speculative work), but Dawkins is obviously not deeply familiar with the vast canon of philosophy in these areas.
…But this line of questioning is a weapon that I can’t help but aim at myself (and presumably most people reading this): the entire problem I have with academic philosophy is the fact that it chokes you from expressing yourself. You get this feeling that on any given subject, the only ones qualified to speak are those that have studied the subject for 20 years and read every conceivable thing on it. I think that most matters that Dawkins concerns himself with, like this “were the Nazis atheists?” question, are low-hanging fruit. I’m not criticizing Dawkins and Harris (at least right at the moment) for unwarranted speech about high matters with which they have no familiarity, but the fact that the whole discourse is debased, as is typical with political (as opposed to philosophical) disputes. Everyone’s got an opinion, and the fact that Dawkins does any research at all puts him one up on most of his intended opponents. Again, I’m not criticizing moral or theistic philosophers by saying this; I’m saying that I think his intended target is primarily “belligerent religious guy posting to Internet forums,” i.e. popular myths. There are a few times when he compliments particular clergy in his book as having very subtle and interesting beliefs, but then says that those beliefs would be unrecognizable by man-on-the-street mainstream Christians.
What really attracts scorn to Dawkins is what is depicted as his arrogance and aggression, per the constant descriptions of his stridency and anger. There was even a South Park episode about him, the point of which was “it’s fine to be an atheist, but don’t be an a-hole about it.” We don’t like being preached to, and sociologically he’s putting himself in that position. (Incidentally, Dawkins’s response to that episode is kind of amusing.)
Now enjoy this video that someone put together using the South Park visuals and audio from an actual Q&A with Dawkins. He’s replying to what is essentially a short paraphrase of Pascal’s Wager. I don’t know that his knocking down this “most simplest” argument merits the massive audience response he receives: