Alister McGrath v. Daniel Dennett

Alister McGrath takes Daniel Dennett (he of the “religion can be explained by evolution” program) down a bit here

(HT to Stuart Buck)

My favorite line: “This book, in my view, makes a critique of religion dependent on a hypothetical, unobserved entity, which can be dispensed with in order to make sense of what we observe. Isn’t that actually a core atheist critique of God – an unobserved hypothesis which can be
dispensed with easily?”

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15 thoughts on “Alister McGrath v. Daniel Dennett

  1. McGrath is just the man to do it. Double doctorates in biophysics and theology. He knows his science and his religion. Very potent fellow. I highly recommend all of his books. (Okay, okay, I’ve only read three or four of them.)

  2. “My favorite line: “This book, in my view, makes a critique of religion dependent on a hypothetical, unobserved entity, which can be dispensed with in order to make sense of what we observe. Isn’t that actually a core atheist critique of God – an unobserved hypothesis which can be
    dispensed with easily?””

    Not a particularly fair argument since the subject there is memes. A meme is nothing more than a model of how concepts propogate though the mental realm of societies. No one suggests that a meme really exists, it is simply a way to think about a complicated aspect of reality.

    You could compare it to the modern view of the bohr atom. We know for a fact that it is not real, yet the model is simple and effective enough to be useful in many ways, so we keep it.

    That’s entirely different than hypothesizing God. Unless of course you feel that God is simply one way of looking at something that is too complicated for us to really get, in which case I’m with you.

  3. Hmmm, T, that’s not the way McGrath presents Dennett’s position – and in order for evolution to explain religious belief, “memes” would have to be connected to something material, right? Seems fair enough.

  4. Not a particularly fair argument since the subject there is memes.

    I think that’s the whole point. Memes are not exactly an empirical sledgehammer – why would you use them to authoritatively refute anything?

    That’s entirely different than hypothesizing God.

    Not when you take it as far as Dennett does. The whole point of his book ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’ is that scientific materialism should be accepted as having absolute authority by non-scientists (philosophers, lawmakers, ethicists, etc) – and all their work should flow from this understanding.

    This is exactly the same as hypothesizing God. Dennett makes a full-fledged truth claim with all of the corresponding god-like implications. And the empirical basis/authority for this is…memes?

  5. “Hmmm, T, that’s not the way McGrath presents Dennett’s position “

    Maybe Dennet treats memes as something physically real. I kind of doubt it but I haven’t read him so couldn’t say. However in conventional usage I promise you nobody thinks memes are physical. They are a model, a way of conceptualizing the complicated motion and development of human thought across organism boundaries.

    “and in order for evolution to explain religious belief, “memes” would have to be connected to something material, right?”

    No, not really because religious beliefs are themselves non-physical. It is perfectly valid to explain the existence of a non-material belief by talking about the methods of communication and indoctrination.

    “I think that’s the whole point. Memes are not exactly an empirical sledgehammer – why would you use them to authoritatively refute anything?”

    I doubt you could use them to authoritatively refute something. However if you show that religious beliefs are communicated similarly to other memes and similarly to each other despite the nature of the paticular religion then you have a very hefty clue that what is going on is not profound but simply a subset of human behaviors we see in a wide variety of contexts.

    “The whole point of his book ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’ is that scientific materialism should be accepted as having absolute authority by non-scientists (philosophers, lawmakers, ethicists, etc) – and all their work should flow from this understanding.”

    Well assuming you are charcaterizing his argument correctly then I disagree with his premise and agree that it is essentially a form of religion. Science cannot prove nor disprove a god like the christian god precisely because it is presented as being supernatural.

    By making that claim it moves out of bounds for science, but at the same time it also relegates itself to a minor role because nothing so empirically unprovable can be accepted as the basis for real world secular action.

  6. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”—Carl Sagan, pop scientist and noted atheist

    Even Plato had insolvable problems with skepticism, as nothing of value can ever be “proved”. (That which is not a fact is a value.)

    To look at our beautiful yet tragic earth, with its perfect order and capacity to sustain both great good and unfathomable evil, and submit that it arose from nothing seems an extraordinary claim.

    Who shall assume the burden of proof, then?

    It did occur to me shortly before McGrath peeled back the curtain that atheism/materialism is the real “meme,” an idea that takes hold for awhile, but is not in harmony with man’s nature. That “religion” (and we are really talking about “faith” here) refuses to die seems a function of consciousness, consciousness being what truly defines man.

    Memes die. Nature sustains.

    “Our hearts are made for Thee, O Lord, and they are restless until they rest in Thee.”

    So said Augustine well over 1000 years ago. That wasn’t religion, that was a simple scientific observation about the nature of man.

    That God does not exist seems to me an extraordinary claim. I await the evidence.

  7. Scientific materialists would [say] that they proved long ago, or are going to prove at some time in the future, that materialism is true. They are bluffing.

    Phillip Johnson

    The one empirical fact in Dr. Dennett’s project is that man is uniquely restless (or conscious). If both Plato and Tlaloc are correct in saying that this restlessness can never be satisfied with empirical proof, it is still interesting to note that man is uniquely afflicted with the question of meaning in the first place. Isn’t it a bit odd to expect a universe of materialistic particles and energy to create something that contemplates morality, truth, and beauty – or to suggest that this contemplation is somehow an element of evolutionary fitness? In the dark world of materialistic meaninglessness there should be no mechanism for comprehending light, let alone searching for it.

    It’s here that John (1:5) appears to be on to something:

    The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.

  8. “To look at our beautiful yet tragic earth, with its perfect order and capacity to sustain both great good and unfathomable evil, and submit that it arose from nothing seems an extraordinary claim.”

    That is because you see it as you want to see it and not as it is. Our earth is far from perfectly orderly. What it is is a marvelous example of the self ordering nature of life. Very impressive certainly. Just as the night sky is very impressive. The 100 billion or so stars in our galaxy make for quite the panorama and our intelligence, geared as it is to fiding patterns, can see in it all kinds of pictures. Ursa major and minor, cassiopea, Cygnus, Pegasus, Orion, and so on.

    But those images are not really there. We see them because we want to see them and because we have an amazing ability to select the datapoints we want and ignore the rest.

    ” Who shall assume the burden of proof, then?”

    The theory with the most unproven assumptions (Occam’s Razor). That is definitively any system that requires an unprovable god.

    “That God does not exist seems to me an extraordinary claim. I await the evidence.”

    It would be a pretty extraordinary claim, almost as fantastic as that god does exist. Science on the other hand is simply indifferent to the question which is not a claim at all.

  9. “it is still interesting to note that man is uniquely afflicted with the question of meaning in the first place.”

    We have no reason to believe it is unique.

    “Isn’t it a bit odd to expect a universe of materialistic particles and energy to create something that contemplates morality, truth, and beauty – or to suggest that this contemplation is somehow an element of evolutionary fitness?”

    The contemplation may indeed not be an element of evolutionary fitness, it seems instead to be a side effect, much like dreaming. The complexity of our brains does make us more fit by allowing us much greater problem solving skills. Along with that ability to think in symbolic terms comes a whole realm of mental distractions as it were. Just as by virtue of having eyes we can see but we can also be blinded by bright lights.

    I do not, personally, believe this is a materialistic universe, but it very easy to explain our nature by using a purely materialistic argument.

  10. The contemplation may indeed not be an element of evolutionary fitness, it seems instead to be a side effect, much like dreaming.

    That’s a pretty large side effect. When you consider all of the heat that Christianity takes for the problem of pain, it seems like quite a drastic genetic adaptation. We have to put up with all of this in order to have an improved ability to find lunch?

    I do not, personally, believe this is a materialistic universe, but it very easy to explain our nature by using a purely materialistic argument.

    From a long ways off maybe. The trouble is that once you start to compare it to what you intimately know (namely yourself or your field of expertise), it doesn’t measure up. At all.

  11. “That’s a pretty large side effect”

    So is a hurricane. Both are side effects of chaotic systems.

    “We have to put up with all of this in order to have an improved ability to find lunch?”

    You are making the classic teleological mistkae. You are assuming that evolution is designed when it isn’t. It is a process. We evolved better brains and that did help find lunch. Along the way there are side effects.
    Some braches of simians didn’t go as far as we did in brain growth. Champanzees are very smart for animals but don’t seem to have nearly as many issues as we do with symbolic thinking. (It is worth noting that they do however seem to have some, they do react in interesting ways to death, certainly nothing so elaborate as we do, but still)

    They found a good niche for themselves. We found a better one for us.

    “The trouble is that once you start to compare it to what you intimately know (namely yourself or your field of expertise), it doesn’t measure up. At all.”

    Sure but it is easy to demonstrate thet what you intimately “know” is wholely untrustworthy. It is entirely colored by how you want things to be rather than how they are.

    There is a reason science is so successful, part of it is removing what we individually know and using only what we can demonstrate.

  12. “Champanzees are very smart for animals but don’t seem to have nearly as many issues as we do with symbolic thinking.”

    Actually, there are indications that chimpanzees and bonobos use symbolic communication. It’s really quite cool. There was an awesome article in Foreign Affairs (excerpted in Harper’s – I get both =]) on primatology and human behavior that I highly recommend. I also recommend to those interested in this subject the work of Edward O. Wilson. And for those more interested in memetics and idea propogation (as well as the evolution of religion and civilization), the work of Julian Jaynes.

    One of the interesting things about watching people trained philosophically debate those trained scientifically is that they approach debates in entirely different manners, and usually from entirely different premises. Scientists just don’t care about the same things philosopher’s do. It’s the rare person, like Dr. McGrath and Dr. Dennett, who tries to bridge the two.

    I liked the McGrath speech very much. I found a great refutation for intelligent design in it. =]

  13. Sure but it is easy to demonstrate thet what you intimately “know” is wholely untrustworthy. It is entirely colored by how you want things to be rather than how they are.

    Can I assume that this applies to scientists as well? I believe that was Mr. Simpson’s point in the original article.

    But maybe every once in a while we can give the evidence a fair shake. When we do, we find people like paleontologist Nile Eldridge making statements like, “No wonder paleontologists shied away from evolution for so long. It never seems to happen.” (Not that this keeps him from holding a materialist perspetive.)

    There are plenty more examples along these lines, where experts allow themselves to subvert what they ‘know’ in order to preserve their philosophical foundations. This is not entirely bad; it may be that their current level of knowledge is incomplete and that sticking it out will eventually lead to the truth. But for the time being, I could do without the pronouncements from authority that God is dead.

    In addition to the difficulties with the experts, I find that materialism has almost nothing to say about the motivations and purposes that guide my life. Altruism has always been a problem (and the latest in this area is still quite lacking), not to mention the moral ‘distractions’ and the reproductive nonsense put forward by the evolution crowd. Now I’ll admit that materialism is quite manly in that its model is a rigid one. And I can sympathize with the frustration that religionists always appear to be moving the model to fit the circumstance. But if we are guilty of this, it is only because we rightfully acknowledge that our model and the ‘facts on the ground’ should be in sync and that our journey towards the heart and mind of God is not yet complete. Materialism has no place for such humility, which in the end leaves you with a model that doesn’t conform with the ‘facts’ as we know them and offers little but the chance to die in defiance of the order that conspires against us. As Mr. Van Dyke would say, I’ll await the evidence before rushing over to that side of the aisle.

  14. “…I could do without the pronouncements from authority that God is dead.”

    Seriously, Matt: No such pronouncements. Except from me, but that’s because I like picking fights. Most scientists simply remain skeptical. I know many scientists, and I think that if there was any indication of evidence of an afterlife, alternate dimension, deity, or any such thing, they’d be all over it like white on rice. Not to debunk it, but because being a part of such a discovery would be so cool.

    It’s like saying secularists are atheists. It’s so overly broad as to be meaningless. There is no “establishment” position in science other than skepticism.

  15. In addition to the difficulties with the experts, I find that materialism has almost nothing to say about the motivations and purposes that guide my life.”

    I find the stubborn conflation of materialism to all things evolution and science baffling.

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