more on the retreat from realism
I don’t often read The Weekend Australian these days, and I missed the article on Richard Dawkins, ‘A man of reason’ in last week’s issue, but there’s some feedback in this week’s issue. I’d love to know how many readers write in and how newspapers select the letters to be published, but I was disappointed to find that the two most prominent responses, and I can’t quite believe they were representative, came from the pro-religioun lobby.
John Heininger, the first commentator, is or was Chairman of a primitivist organization called The Evangelical Apologetics Society. As the link shows, he’s been an activist in the creationism field for at least fifteen years. His letter contains the standard guff:
Atheist Richard Dawkins is lost in an evolutionary wonderland where the impossible happens, and always in reverse... For example: order from chaos; complex from the simple; life from non-life; consciousness from non-consciousness. In short, chickens from scrambled egg. He believes that all these ‘natural’ miracles happened without a miracle worker, which one would have to concede is really miraculous. Even more miraculous is why natural selection would preserve within human genetics the need for belief in spiritual forces that supposedly don’t exist.
Anyone who’s read Dawkins’s books, or those of Peter Atkins, or any other reputable science writer, will find plenty of material to debunk Heininger’s simplistic ‘this from that’ linkages. The finest expository passages from Climbing Mount Improbable, for example, reveal that this is no fantasy land Dawkins evokes. The trouble with these critics is that they don’t bother with the evidence presented as they’re already convinced of their centuries-old truths. It’s just a repetitive mantra. As to why the belief in supernatural forces, sans evidence, remains strong, that’s a vital question, and one being tackled from an evolutionary angle by thinkers such as Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran. I’ll be writing more about that later.
The other letter comes from an Adelaidean, one John R Sabine, who appears to be an agricultural scientist as well as a regular commentator on the limitations of science. His contribution is also an old standard:
A belief that science has all the answers is as much a leap of faith as is belief in the existence of god.
The question of whether science has all the answers is not one that bothers most scientists, but we can certainly look back over the history of science, especially since the explosion of knowledge as a result of the application of scientific methodology from the seventeenth century, as a source of pride and continued inspiration. The history of organized religion is by contrast a sorry spectacle, no matter what your vantage point.
Sam Harris has popularized the phrase that faith is a belief in something for bad reasons – or no reason. I can’t think of a good reason for belief in supernatural beings. The scientific approach, on the other hand, has been spectacular successful, its fruits are all around us. This isn’t triumphalism, it’s realism folks.