Thursday, November 16, 2006

Dawkin's Delusion!

I finally got it from the mail, my very own copy of Oxford Professor of the Public Understanding of Science Richard Dawkins' scientistic opus "God Delusion" that tries to convince readers that God is unlikely to exist. And to think I got it on the feast day of Saint Albert the Great, the Mentor of Thomas Aquinas and patron of scientists and science.

My favourite saint (of science that is), Galileo Galilei is probably the first scientist to say that scientists should avoid doing theology. Well that isn't really a problem for many scientists that followed. Conversely,Galileo had to remind theologians that they shouldn't do science. The late Stephen Jay Gould took wise counsel, Dawkins seems did not.

Reading Dawkins on Theology gave me a headache. As a scientist, I have read books on Catholic theology, while surely that isn't my field, I have admired the clarity of Aquinas and even Teilhard and of course Joseph Ratzinger. While I had to at times struggle, Aquinas never gave me a headache.This is perhaps the main criticism of Delusion. It is so muddled that a critic at the London Review of Books says Dawkins' arguments are "Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching". The critic also says that the more detesting one becomes of religion the more misinformed their criticisms tend to become. Dawkins is a clear example of this.

Dawkins rightly could propose that altruism, morality, religious belief and systems are products of Darwinian natural selction. It is somewhat possible that these characteristics of the human species confer some fitness. However, even though one can satisfactorily prove that these characters are conferred by natural selection, this doesn't mean that God does not exist. This is the central reason why the Catholic Church can live with Darwin's theory. Evolution cannot prove or disprove the existence of God.

And it is in this that Dawkins begins to stumble. His main thesis is what he calls the Ultimate 747 hypothesis that is also called the Argument from Improbability. It is a bit ironic that Dawkins himself would appropriate an argument often used by Intelligent Design (ID) proponents. Dawkins correctly argues that chance alone could result in something well designed. That is not debatable. Natural selection has also resulted in nature being well designed.

What is this 747 hypothesis? It is attributed to Fred Hoyle who said that if there was a disassembled 747 jumbo jet, a hurricane that passes over it is unlikely to assemble it into a functional, flying jetplane. For creationists, this is "proof"of a creator. Design is evidence that there is a designer. Probably. But here we are dealing with probabilities, an event that is unlikely can still happen. Probability theory can give us estimates, something an undergrad statistics student learns. Now ask anyone who has won the Lotto jackpot. To whom would they attribute their win?

Here is the reason why this book won’t sell beyond the converted-to-rationalism crowd. It is no secret that Dawkins has a low regard for religious belief. In his Delusion, Dawkins equates that religious belief is tantamount to loss of rationality. There is no religion in the world that can afford to sacrifice rationality. Of all the world’s religions, the one that Dawkins dislikes for all sorts of reasons, Roman Catholicism has the most developed theological system, whose understanding of which; requires reason. And that is the reason why Catholic clergy have to undergo years of philosophical training. This simplistic view of faith and reason has led one critic to write that “Dawkins discusses Aquinas in a rather stereotypical way” Is Aquinas vacuous as Dawkins alleges? The hollowness of Dawkins’ “us rationalists and them believers who have a monopoly on truth” arguments is the one that gave me a headache.

Dawkins moves on to ethics and even to a discussion of purgatory and theological support of it. Here is where he makes a travesty of philosophical debate and by extension, theological reflection. His defence of abortion is something expected of fundamentalists. Here he describes strong opponents of abortion as “almost all deeply religious” (really now Mr Professor Dawkins?!) and supporters as “consequentialists”. Other philosophers have discussed why consequentialism is flawed. This caricature of the abortion debate won’t help pro and anti-abortion advocates come up with a reasoned approach to this contentious subject.

Dawkins caricature of the theology of purgatory exposes his laughable ignorance of Catholic systematic theology. I really do not see the reason why an evolutionary biologist would question how sins are forgiven in purgatory.

The Dawkinian conclusion that “there is almost certainly there is no God” sounds so laughable and a bizarre non-sequitur since Dawkins himself admits that we don’t have yet a “crane” in physics and cosmology to explain how the cosmos came ex nihilo. And yet he declares that we will have one. Well I call that faith. Now is Dawkins’ faith in the pre-eminence of a physical theory of the creation of the universe absolute or probabilistic? With regards to God, the improbability of existence is not evidence of the probability of absence. Any philosophical argument of existence based on probability may be falsified. Here is where theology and science would part.

And the comic relief in this book is where Dawkins has to say that a majority of fellows of the Royal Society and the American National Academy of Science are atheists (the results of the surveys are tentative). It is not relevant to the argument of God’s existence if eminent scientists are atheists or not. I am so tempted to conclude from Dawkins’ argument that atheism is some sort of social construct that maintains the stability of the Royal Society. Now in the wider world, atheism seems to be a maladaptive meme. After all, how come still many people believe in God? God seems to be an adaptive meme.

The spectacle we would want to see is a debate and discussion between the Oxford Don and the Don of Regensberg. Both have their cathedras but one cathedra has the pallium and infallibility. Either way, they hath offended and given me a headache.

Who would the lotto winner attribute his win? And if God did play dice with the universe, he’d win and confound Richard Dawkins.

So I would have to say some prayer to Saint Galileo Galilei!

Feast of Saint Albert the Great patron saint of Scientists and Science

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