Monday, September 25, 2006

Anger Management

For those who have been hearing about the infamous Clinton interview with Chris Wallace which was aired on FOX yesterday and wondering what all the talk is about, here's the video. Former President Clinton certainly does seem pretty angry at the suggestion that he didn't do all he could have to thwart terrorists during his presidency. I almost expected him to grab Wallace by the throat.

The MSM has been fairly silent today about Clinton's barely controlled rage, but I wonder how they'd be covering this were it, say, Dick Cheney or George Bush who reacted this way in an interview.

Dawkins' Bad Book, Brown's Bad Review

Andrew Brown, writing a review of Richard Dawkins' latest screed against religious belief titled The God Delusion, opines that Dawkins has written a terrible book:

It has been obvious for years that Richard Dawkins had a fat book on religion in him, but who would have thought him capable of writing one this bad? Incurious, dogmatic, rambling and self-contradictory, it has none of the style or verve of his earlier works.

Brown goes on to explain why the book written by the world's most famous atheistic Darwinian is so egregious, but before he does he feels the need to present his own atheistic credentials lest someone think he's just one of those religious yahoos out to blaspheme atheism's patron saint. He burnishes his skeptical bona fides by observing that there are some things about which Dawkins is correct:

In his broad thesis, Dawkins is right. Religions are potentially dangerous, and in their popular forms profoundly irrational. The agnostics must be right and the atheists very well may be. There is no purpose to the universe. Nothing inconsistent with the laws of physics has been reliably reported. To demand a designer to explain the complexity of the world begs the question, "Who designed the designer?" It has been clear since Darwin that we have no need to hypothesise a designer to explain the complexity of living things. The results of intercessory prayer are indistinguishable from those of chance.

Brown may think that Dawkins is right about these things, but I think Brown is wrong. Let's unpack the above paragraph and consider each of its sentences in turn:

Religions are potentially dangerous, and, in their popular forms, profoundly irrational. This is an observation, unfortunately, that tells us nothing. Every belief system, indeed every thing, is "potentially dangerous". The assertion that popular forms of religion are "profoundly irrational" is probably true of some and not true of others. What makes religious belief irrational? Is it irrational to believe in a personal God? If so, why? Brown does not give us any criteria for judging whether a belief is irrational or not. He simply asserts that religious belief is irrational and evidently expects his reader to nod in agreement without thinking about the matter. Perhaps Mr. Brown might spend an evening or two with Alvin Plantinga's Warranted Christian Belief. If he would he'd discover how and why the irrationality claim has been so thoroughly debunked that not even most atheistic philosophers accept it any more.

The agnostics must be right and the atheists very well may be. Why must agnostics be right? An agnostic is someone who refuses to commit himself to theism or atheism because he thinks the evidence in either case is insufficient. However evidence, both in terms of what constitutes it and how strong it must be, is person-relative. What is sufficient to support or warrant belief for one person may not be for another. When Brown says that agnosticism must be right he seems to be saying that everyone should be an agnostic regardless of whether they find the evidence sufficient to warrant belief or not. In other words, he's imposing his standard of warrant on others and this he has no business doing. Agnosticism may be the proper position for him, but he cannot say that it is the proper position for everyone. There's nothing wrong, certainly, with someone believing God exists if they are convinced that He does.

There is no purpose to the universe. This is partly true. On Brown's assumption that there is no creator then of course there's no purpose to anything, including your life, my life and Mr. Brown's life. Our existence is utterly meaningless and pointless. If, however, the cosmos is the product of an intelligent agent then we are justified in assuming that that agent had some purpose in creating it. We may not know what it is, but there may well be one and we may well have some purpose for being here as well. In order for Mr. Brown's claim to stand he has to show at the very least that it's likely that there is no creator. It would be interesting to see him attempt that.

Nothing inconsistent with the laws of physics has been reliably reported. This is a little disingenuous. What constitutes "reliably reported"? And what constitutes a physical inconsistency? Take the account of Jesus' resurrection. Why aren't the reports of this event reliable? When we cut away all the rhetorical brush we find that they are unreliable because they report a miracle. Why does that make them unreliable? Because genuine miracles never happen. How do we know they never happen? Because a miracle is inconsistent with the laws of physics and nothing inconsistent with the laws of physics has ever been reliably reported. Makes you dizzy, doesn't it?

As for inconsistency with the laws of physics, it's hard to say what such a thing would look like. The laws of physics merely codify probabilities. They don't say that something is impossible. The law of entropy, for example, simply tells us that it is highly unlikely that a system will go from a state of disorder to a state of order unless there is an input of energy from an outside source. The resurrection of Christ was an example of the reversal of entropy, but, if it occured because of an energy input from an outside source, i.e. God, there would have been no nomological inconsistency involved.

To demand a designer to explain the complexity of the world begs the question, "Who designed the designer?" Aside from the fact that this is a misuse of the term "begs the question" (the implied reasoning in the first paragraph of the previous section is a better example of begging the question) we might ask why Brown's question is at all important. It may be interesting as a matter of curious speculation to wonder about the cause, if any, of the designer, but it's really not relevant or important. Once we find an example of something in the natural world whose probability of being produced solely by physical forces is so low as to be practically implausible, then intelligence becomes a legitimate causal option whether we can assign a cause to that intelligence or not. If an astronaut found a perfectly cubical and highly polished piece of metal ten feet high on Mars he would be perfectly justified in concluding an intelligent cause to the cube even though he might have no idea who or what the cause was or what it was that made whatever crafted the cube.

Suppose, to take a different example, that we have good reason to believe that there is a "universe generator" somehow churning out universes as some voteries of the multiverse hypothesis believe. Must we be able to find the cause of the generator before we can posit its existence? Surely not. We only need to see that the existence of such a generator is the best explanation for the phenomena for which we are trying to account. The same is true for an intelligent cause of living things in particular and the cosmos in general.

It has been clear since Darwin that we have no need to hypothesise a designer to explain the complexity of living things. Here's another good example of question begging. Brown assumes as true the very matter that is in dispute. In point of fact there's widespread agreement that if irreducible complexity (IC) exists in the natural world then it must have arisen through some process, either in addition to or instead of, RMNS (random mutation and natural selection). The question that is at the center of the controversy, then, is whether there really are any genuine examples of IC out there. The answer to this question is by no means "clear" and many labs are busily at work, as you read this, trying to show that the examples of IC that have so far been adduced are really not examples of the phenomenon at all. This actually is pretty interesting because it shows that ID is a legitimate scientific theory since it presumably can be tested and, despite the cavils of the critics to the contrary, it does lead to research programs.

The results of intercessory prayer are indistinguishable from those of chance. What does this have to do with whether or not belief in God, or religion in general, is rational? Presumably Brown means to say that we can't point to answered prayer as a proof that God exists because a putative answer to prayer might just be a coincidence. True enough, but it doesn't follow from any of that that God doesn't exist, or that prayer is not answered, or that religion is irrational.

All in all, Brown would have done better to have stuck to just criticizing Dawkins' book.

From Lenin to Lennon

Joseph Pearce at First Things draws the inference from an article by Niall Ferguson that England is on the brink of a civil war between its Muslim and non-Muslim populations. The tensions between the two groups herald the failure of multiculturalism and are exacerbated by the Left's ennui:

The trouble, of course, is that the comrades, long since disillusioned with Lenin, have adopted Lennon instead. Whereas the old Marxists believed in something, albeit something absurd and dangerous, New Labour believes in nothing; "nothing" as defined by John Lennon in his sentimentally pernicious imagination: "No heaven ... no hell ... no countries ... nothing to kill or die for and no religion too." This is the new hedonism with which the secularists want to unite British society; the new uniculturalism to replace the old multiculturalism. It is perhaps not surprising that many Muslims are unconvinced by this self-centered hedonism in which, to return to Lennon, "all the people" are "living for today." If this is all we have to offer, to hell with it.

In other words, Muslims, disgusted by Western decadence, regard the West with contempt because they see that it on the verge of having nothing left to fight for. A culture this far gone in the direction of spiritual suicide, they believe, is like ripe fruit ready to fall into their hands. Thus we see Muslims emboldened to hasten the destruction of the social and political structures of the European countries in which they live. They're likely to be convinced, listening to the Left, that it would be an easy matter.

Read Pearce's whole piece at First Things.

The Pope's Speech

A friend passes along the link to this column by George Weigel on what Pope Benedict was saying in his now famous Regensburg speech. Weigel writes that:

In a brilliant lecture at the University of Regensburg last week, Pope Benedict XVI made three crucial points that are now in danger of being lost in the polemics about his supposedly offensive comments about Islam.

The three points, according to Weigel, were these:

1) All the great questions of life, including social and political questions, are ultimately theological.

2) Irrational violence aimed at innocent men, women and children "is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the [human] soul."

3) If the West's high culture keeps playing in the sandbox of postmodern irrationalism -- in which there is "your truth" and "my truth" but nothing such as "the truth" -- the West will be unable to defend itself. Why? Because the West won't be able to give reasons why its commitments to civility, tolerance, human rights and the rule of law are worth defending.

Benedict is right, of course, on all three counts. Read the full column at the link.