Saturday, December 02, 2006

1 Chron 12:32 Report, 4: The Materialism Delusion

The title to this post, of course, is a deliberate echo of the title of Mr Richard Dawkins' latest book, The God Delusion. This work rose to No 2 bestseller on the Amazon list, and -- in part unintentionally! -- tells us a lot about the agenda a major force in our time that we must take the measure of, if we are to understand our times and act appropriately in good time -- as Paul did in Athens.

For, as Greg Easterbrook aptly summarises, Professor Dawkins, holder of Oxford University's Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science, claims that:

Faith isn't merely wrong . . . religion is dangerous lunacy. The religious do not deserve respect, any more than respect should be extended to crazy people raving in the streets about the Trilateral Commission. If there were no religion, The God Delusion maintains, there would have been no 9/11, no Troubles in Northern Ireland, no Israeli-Palestinian conflict, no partition of India and Pakistan, "no shiny-suited bouffant-haired televangelists fleecing gullible people of their money." That belief in God is a delusion is not a private matter, Dawkins writes; the religious are well-organized and influence the world's governments, and essentially all of their influence is harmful. Dawkins proposes that atheists and agnostics stop politely respecting faith and organize to discredit religion, with the goal of halting its involvement in education and public policy.

This is of course simply an updated form of a major traditional accusation of the skeptic, as say Robert Ingersoll put it in his "The Damage Religion causes," as Vox Day summarised on his way to pointing out that of 489 wars listed by Wikipedia -- from Caesar's Gallic Wars to the 1969 Honduras-El Salvador "football war" -- "only 53 of these wars - 10.8 percent - can reasonably be described as having a religious nature" :

Religion makes enemies instead of friends. That one word, "religion," covers all the horizon of memory with visions of war, of outrage, of persecution, of tyranny, and death. That one word brings to the mind every instrument with which man has tortured man. In that one word are all the fagots and flames and dungeons of the past, and in that word is the infinite and eternal hell of the future.

The astute observer will of course at once spot the over-the-top plastering of religious faith with blame for all the world's headlined ills and will recognise the all-too-familiar underlying favourite rhetorical pattern long since deplored by Aristotle in his The Rhetoric: persuasion by attacking the man and exciting fear and rage instead of addressing the issue fairly and squarely on the merits. This is all of a piece with Mr Dawkins' longstanding, notoriously village atheist level claim that those who reject the neo-darwinian, evolutionary materialist account of origins are "ignorant, stupid, insane . . . or wicked." [Cf responses here, here and here, also my own comment here.]

One is tempted to ask: Does Mr Dawkins understand that his over-wrought, inflammatory and unbalanced rhetoric invites the the attitude: believers are dangerous lunatics so just shut them up and lock them away? [Nor it this mere rhetoric -- in the officially atheist Soviet Union, religious believers were routinely locked away in insane asylums and tortured with psychoactive drugs. Similarly, secularist-influenced ideologies in control of the levers of state power were responsible for over 100 million deaths through wars and internal persecutions in the past 100 years -- and, not just under Nazism and Communism. As an educated and informed man, Professor Dawkins should be aware of that all too recent track record.]

So, let us pause to listen to Dr Dawkins' fellow Oxford professor, the evangelical theologian Alister McGrath, who is incisive (and BTW far more on-target than Mr Easterbrook):

The God Delusion . . . is perhaps his weakest book to date, marred by its excessive reliance on bold assertion and rhetorical flourish, where the issues so clearly demand careful reflection and painstaking analysis, based on the best evidence available. Attractive precisely because it is simplistic, Dawkins demands the eradication of religion. Only when it is eliminated can the human race rest secure! Get rid of religion, and the world will be a better place. It is a familiar theme, if stated with greater fervour than before.
But is it right? What happens if a society rejects the idea of God? The evidence suggests that it transcendentalizes alternatives – such as the ideals of liberty or equality. These now become quasi-divine authorities, which none are permitted to challenge. Perhaps the most familiar example of this dates from the French Revolution, at a time when traditional notions of God were discarded as obsolete, and replaced by transcendentalized human values. Madame Rolande was brought to the guillotine to face execution on trumped-up charges in 1792. As she prepared to die, she bowed mockingly towards the statue of liberty in the Place de la Révolution, and uttered the words for which she is remembered: “liberty, what crimes are committed in your name.” All ideals – divine, transcendent, human, or invented – are capable of being abused. That’s just the way human nature is. And knowing this, we need to work out what to do about it, rather than lashing out uncritically at religion.

In short, so much for the shrill rhetoric of headlines, fear-mongering, slander and finger-pointing.

On the more substantial point, Amazon cites how Scientific American gushes (and, inadvertently reveals the philosophical ignorance of its writers and editors, their confusion of attacks to the man with addressing the issue, and thus -- sadly -- their own lack of civility):

Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, tells of his exasperation with colleagues who try to play both sides of the street: looking to science for justification of their religious convictions while evading the most difficult implications—the existence of a prime mover sophisticated enough to create and run the universe, "to say nothing of mind reading millions of humans simultaneously." Such an entity, he argues, would have to be extremely complex, raising the question of how it came into existence, how it communicates —through spiritons!—and where it resides. Dawkins is frequently dismissed as a bully, but he is only putting theological doctrines to the same kind of scrutiny that any scientific theory must withstand. No one who has witnessed the merciless dissection of a new paper in physics would describe the atmosphere as overly polite.

But in fact, we are here looking at an issue of inference to best explanation relative to comparative difficulties, and in the context of the classic philosophical issue of the necessary being. Summarising the key issue posed by the cosmological argument to God:

1. Some contingent beings exist. (E.g.: us, a tree or a fruit, an artifact, the planets and stars, etc. -- anything that might not have existed, i.e. is caused.)

2. Contingent beings do not exist by themselves – that is in part what “contingent” means - so they require a necessary being as their ultimate cause.

3. If any contingent being exists, then a necessary being exists.
4. Thus, there exists a necessary being, the ultimate cause of the existence of the many contingent beings in the cosmos.

First, note that this argument is best considered, not as a classical proof [rationally indisputable conclusion logically deduced from generally accepted as true premises], but rather as an exercise in inference to best explanation: what basic worldview-level alternative best explains what we see as the case, relative to factual adequacy, logical coherence and explanatory adequacy?

In that context, the first underlying point is the intuitive -- and hard to escape! -- insight that there is a sufficient reason (PSR) for whatever exists or happens.

For instance, a couple of years ago, I was in a Vacation Bible school closing session in St Peter's Village here in Montserrat when there was a sudden, loud, "bang!"

Every head turned to see what made the noise. For, we instinctively, intuitively know that there is a reason why there is "a little bang." (Of course, we who live in Montserrat are very sensitive to bangs, given that we are living with an active volcano. Happily, in this case, it turned out to be a balloon.)

Just so, "Big Bangs" -- i.e. the observable universe and its generally accepted origin and development including our own existence -- invite us to ask: why?

And, since obviously the entities in the observed physical universe may not have existed, they are not self-explanatory, nor (arguably) is the universe as a whole -- so, where did that "big bang" come from? (In short, one may claim to reject the principle of sufficient reason (PSR), but in fact we do not and evidently cannot, live consistent with such a denial. That is, such a denial evidently reflects selective, self-refuting, self-serving hyperskepticism.)

But now, Mr Dawkins, as the Sci Am summarises, is actually asking for a causal explanation for God -- i.e. he evidently accepts the PSR.

That brings to bear the other side of the PSR, however, as the Cosmological Argument highlights. Namely, if -- beyond reasonable dispute -- we see and live in a world full of contingent beings and events, and a world that is at least arguably contingent itself, that raises the issue that there is a necessary being behind that world, one that necessarily exists in itself and is the ground for the contingent beings we do see.

Or, in the words of the Catholic Encyclopedia, discussing The Existence of God:

. . . whatever exists or happens must have a sufficient reason for its existence or occurrence either in itself or in something else ; in other words that whatever does not exist of absolute necessity - whatever is not self-existent -- cannot exist without a proportionate cause external to itself; and if this principle is valid when employed by the scientist to explain the phenomena of physics it must be equally valid when employed by the philosopher for the ultimate explanation of the universe as a whole. In the universe we observe that certain things are effects, i.e. they depend for their existence on other things, and these again on others; but, however far back we may extend this series of effects and dependent causes, we must, if human reason is to be satisfied, come ultimately to a cause that is not itself an effect, in other words to an uncaused cause or self-existent being which is the ground and cause of all being.

And, plainly, for good reason, a great many people find the infinite-personal God a far more credible and reasonable necessary being than, say: an unobserved wider, quasi-infinite chaos as a whole in which our observed universe is nothing but a random bubble of apparent order!

I guess, though, I need to spell it out: many of these people are highly educated [so are not ignorant and/or stupid], are reasonably well balanced [so are not insane], nor are they among the "wicked" by any reasonable understanding of that term. (And, BTW, on what rational basis does an evolutionary materialist thinker assert moral -- as opposed to self-servingly rhetorical -- claims? Or for that matter, on what basis does he hold that his thought is credible and rational rather than the "mere" upwellings of underlying unconscious forces shaped and determined by the chance-driven circumstances and blind natural laws acting in his biological and socio-cultural evolutionary background?)

Now, if the secularist progressivist, evolutionary materialist wing of western culture is so polarised and so often slip-shod in assessing worldview level issues, can it long survive?

Indeed, that is exactly what Mark Steyn has pointed out:

[T]he salient feature of Europe, Canada, Japan and Russia is that they're running out of babies . . . Greece has a fertility rate hovering just below 1.3 births per couple, which is what demographers call the point of "lowest-low" fertility from which no human society has ever recovered. And Greece's fertility is the healthiest in Mediterranean Europe: Italy has a fertility rate of 1.2, Spain 1.1 . . . . We are witnessing the end of the late 20th- century progressive welfare democracy. Its fiscal bankruptcy is merely a symptom of a more fundamental bankruptcy: its insufficiency as an animating principle for society . . . . Which brings us to the third factor -- the enervated state of the Western world, the sense of civilizational ennui, of nations too mired in cultural relativism to understand what's at stake . . . . On the Continent and elsewhere in the West, native populations are aging and fading and being supplanted remorselessly by a young Muslim demographic. Time for the obligatory "of courses": of course, not all Muslims are terrorists -- though enough are hot for jihad to provide an impressive support network of mosques from Vienna to Stockholm to Toronto to Seattle. Of course, not all Muslims support terrorists -- though enough of them share their basic objectives (the wish to live under Islamic law in Europe and North America) to function wittingly or otherwise as the "good cop" end of an Islamic good cop/bad cop routine. But, at the very minimum, this fast-moving demographic transformation provides a huge comfort zone for the jihad to move around in.
Dinesh D'Souza has a further comment worth considering (and I hasten to add this citation does not imply my endorsement of his positions and claims in general):

The Rev. Ron Carlson, a popular author and lecturer, sometimes presents his audience with two stories and asks them whether it matters which one is true.
In the secular account, "You are the descendant of a tiny cell of primordial protoplasm washed up on an empty beach 3 1/2 billion years ago. You are a mere grab bag of atomic particles, a conglomeration of genetic substance. You exist on a tiny planet in a minute solar system in an empty corner of a meaningless universe. You came from nothing and are going nowhere."
In the Christian view, by contrast, "You are the special creation of a good and all-powerful God. You are the climax of His creation. Not only is your kind unique, but you are unique among your kind. Your Creator loves you so much and so intensely desires your companionship and affection that He gave the life of His only son that you might spend eternity with him."
Now imagine two groups of people . . . The religious tribe is made up of people who have an animating sense of purpose. The secular tribe is made up of people who are not sure why they exist at all. The religious tribe is composed of individuals who view their every thought and action as consequential. The secular tribe is made up of matter that cannot explain why it is able to think at all.
Should evolutionists like Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Wilson be surprised, then, to see that religious tribes are flourishing around the world? Across the globe, religious faith is thriving and religious people are having more children. By contrast, atheist conventions only draw a handful of embittered souls, and the atheist lifestyle seems to produce listless tribes that cannot even reproduce themselves . . . . The most secular continent on the globe is decadent in the literal sense that its population is rapidly shrinking. Lacking the strong Christian identity that produced its greatness, atheist Europe seems to be a civilization on its way out. We have met Nietzsche's "last man" and his name is Sven.

In brief, worldviews have consequences, and when those consequences are plainly absurd, it should at least maker us pause to see whether the underlying worldviews make sense.

Equally plainly, evolutionary materialism comes up short, especially by contrast with Judaeo-Christian Theism. END

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