Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Courtier's Reply, and some old ground

Dawkins and Myers

A while ago, Terry Eagleton was on Late Night Live. I missed it, and am reluctant to listen via audio on demand, as his thinking simply annoys me and I doubt he has much to add to his LRB attack on Dawkins, which I responded to here, especially regarding his claims about the need for a critic to have theological knowledge, and here, regarding his claims against science. I think I dealt with the theological issue quite effectively, but rather long-windedly, and I've since discovered, via P Z Myers, a more summary and clever response, which captures perfectly my dismay over theological speculation.

Myers has called it the Courtier's Reply, and it has caught on wonderfully. It comes from the famous fable, The Emperor's New Clothes, and consists of cutting through all the learned disquisitions on the Emperor's embroidered pantaloons and silken hat and the fashions they relate to, to point out that there actually are no clothes to speak of. Theology, learned and ingenious though it often is, has this massive assumption at its heart, an assumption that something clearly exists that those outside of it just don't see. No amount of theological study will ever convince me, or Dawkins or Dennett or Myers or Rosenhouse, etc, that these supernatural entities at the heart of theology actually exist. Theology takes these entities for granted, so it's hard to see, from our perspective, that theology has anything interesting to say to us.

As to Eagleton’s attack on science and the concept of progress, which he blends with a very personal attack on Dawkins as a ‘bourgeois’, I wish I’d read Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday before responding. In it he quotes the Nobel Prize winning immunologist Peter Medawar ‘To deride the hope of progress is the ultimate fatuity, the last word in poverty of spirit and meanness of mind.’ Eagleton constantly confuses scientific discovery and technological development with the uses to which it has been put. Thus he argues that science might well annihilate us all. I think if the human species is self-annihilated it will likely be out of arrogance, carelessness, bigotry or ideological blindness, all of them human traits since the emergence of homo sapiens. Science and technology loom much larger than they ever did before, and they will continue to loom ever larger in the future, their creative and destructive capacities always barely within our grasp and control. Exciting isn’t it?

I’m a bit behind the times, but The God Delusion has of course generated more substantial criticisms than those of Eagleton, including this one by H Allen Orr, well critiqued by Rosenhouse here. Many of the comments are worth noting too. There’s a rather frustrating exchange between Dennett and Orr here.


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