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:
Mark Linsenmayer says
With a little subsequent research, I got to see a test of my little theory re. how squalid the atheist debates are, so here’s a nadir that to me that at least demonstrates that Dawkins is by comparison to Bill O’Reilly a shining intellectual of our age (not that that’s saying a whole lot):
Joshua Carl Davis says
“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 couldn’t agree more. But, you can’t blame the academics. They are just doing their jobs.
As far as Dawkins goes, I love the fact that he grilled Bill O’Reilly, if only to provide a counterpoint. The God debate is not my interest, but I do believe that Americans need to spend a little more time questioning, and that’s a good way of getting them to do so.
Yes we can’t blame them maybe for not being opened for criticism coming from non-specialized philosophers or even normal citizens!
Ethan Gach says
I often feel like the “New Atheists” paint with to broad a brush as they simplify and trample the sentiments, opinions, and beliefs of their opposition.
On the other hand, I appreciate that they try to bring their research and academic work to the public forum. Yes it’s watered down, and yes not always original, but they’re necessarily going to have to adapt their work/thought to a much less interested, knowledgeable, and thoughtful public.
After watching the above piece, I had a greater appreciation for their efforts then ever. The stakes are high, and their are religious moderates, but the fanatics need to be separated out and legitimized, and if it takes some midnight undergrad bull session books to do it, so be it.
I respectfully disagree that in order to weigh in on matters of religion, science or philosophy one needs to be an accredited specialist in the particular field. A generalist is far more likely to see the forest, not the trees, far less likely to get bogged down in semantic trivia. How many PhD’s I have known who were blinkered dolts!!
I am not a New Atheist, I’m an old atheist. Never lost my faith because, despite religious parents and a Christian upbringing in the 1950’s, I never had any. I agree with Chris Hitchens that religion’s fixation on personal salvation and an “afterlife” diminish the need to struggle against cruelty and injustice (some of it religiously-inspired) in the real and only life we will ever know. Obey the rules (of the priests, mullahs, rabbis, whichever oligarchy they support) and go to Paradise … I don’t buy that premise.
Ethan Gach says
I think to weigh in on matters, while it might not require a degree in specialization, at least in matters of science, one would lack much credibility without it. Science is based on more than arguments, reason, practice.
Daniel Horne says
I think either Dawkins or Harris have already responded to this kind of argument by stating that we all reject Norse mythology without having studied it in detail. Christians and secular humanists alike reject belief in the Zoroastrian god Mithra, and neither group will be persuaded that further study of Zoroastrianism would change their mind.
I suppose one could retort that the general concept of metaphysics should not be dismissed without some knowledge of its history. But the reality is that most religious people have very little concept of the history and evolution of their _own_ religion, much less that of those they reject outright.
So why must atheists study all religion before rejecting them outright in favor of empiricism, but believers need not study all other competing religions before rejecting them in favor of their own?
While my religious upbringing did not inspire any “faith,” it did illuminate for me the sectarian biases that have so often facilitated the manufacture of enmity and war. I saw religion as atavistic long before I read the history of early Christianity. It’s a tragedy that religion has been conscripted yet again by America’s oligarchs to fuel global conflict (very profitable) and divert attention from their corruption and fraud.
I volunteer in a soup kitchen and see the fruits of unfettered capitalism: cheap education; lousy health care; underemployment; untreated addiction; eviction. The people who get the meals give thanks to God (in some case a bit raucously, as if to say they’re not fooled). But they often thank the volunteers personally.
You don’t have to be a social scientist to grasp that religion can be used for good or ill by any group, and the existence or non-existence of a supernatural being is beside the point. People with an agenda or a mission will latch onto religion as an available means to further their ends.
Bit of a straw man going on here. When religious people complain about scientists “disproving” religion, like any group these complaints range from poorly constructed arguments to well thought out ones.
One might object to science overextending its reach into religion in that science begins with the premise that all observed phenomena have natural explanations. As a starting premise to exclude religious explanations from a system and by that process to be able to account for most, if not all, observed phenomena it is then quite a leap to say the religious sphere is a fabrication.
There are many non-theistic religions that are not based on trying to provide explanations of an afterlife or paradise, but rather on giving practical advice for existing in this one.
The article above does illustrate well the general weakness of religious objections to atheism. If it doesn’t work for you put it down, the same goes for the Twilight series, I suppose.