KARL JASPERS FORUM
Commentary 40 (Comment on R15)
CRITICAL THINKING VS. SCIENTISM AND DOGMA
by William A. Adams
16 August 2009, posted 22 August 2009
Thanks to Herbert Müller for posting the *Time* interview with Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins. It shows Dawkins ever-so-slightly climbing down from the extremism of his bombastic “The God Delusion.” Collins well and fairly represents the other side of the argument, and both sides are (more or less) respectful.
Having read and reviewed Dawkins’ delusional book, I offer these comments.
First, the book was mis-titled. Except for some brief and very general comments in the early chapters about theology, the book is largely about “The Religion Delusion.” It does not seriously take up the question of whether belief in God is delusional. Instead, it concentrates on making fun of religious doctrines.
Since most religions presuppose belief in the existence of God, the two ideas are not independent. But religion is a larger concept and an easier target for Dawkins’ barbed arrows. History demonstrates that virtually all religions have energetically pursued social control, secular power, wealth accumulation, and personal aggrandizement. Notwithstanding that religions have done much good in the Hobbsian sense of keeping us from each other’s throats, it is easy to identify and ridicule their hypocrisy, which Dawkins does.
Also, most religions’ axioms, principles, and dogma are clearly arbitrary, another easy target for Dawkins. When such beliefs are confronted with reason, they quickly show themselves to be absurd.
True believers have only two recourses: one, insistence on an axiomatic first principle, such as “Allah is the only God and Mohammed his only prophet.” Once you accept that the doctrine is the literal word of God, then it is possible to reason within that framework and to reject those who do not accept the first principle. The principle itself is not open for discussion. That gambit makes the religion a formal system, like a chess game, with the rules defining the limits of fair play. It also makes it immune to criticism.
The second recourse is to appeal to non-rational, or super-rational ways of knowing that transcend reason. Unfortunately, since critical thinking presupposes reason, it is not possible to complete a rational dialog with someone who uses this approach. The conversation ends up in a cul-de-sac of non-negotiable opinion.
Both the above recourses are used by Collins in the reported dialog.
On the other side of the coin, the great weakness of the rational-scientific approach is the hubris of scientism, irrational belief in the epistemological omniscience of the scientific method. That approach is Dawkins’ trademark and makes him an easy target for opponents, and a poor spokesperson for those committed to critical thinking (of which science is the gold standard).
For example, Dawkins’ opening assertion (taken from the book) that whether God exists or not, is a scientific question, is simply risible. No one informed in philosophy of science could support that view. Science is limited in its scope by its own starting definitions and assumptions. For example, science pre-supposes physicalism, materialism, elementalism, objectivity, epistemological absolutism (as opposed to relativism – across time and cultures), and above all, commitment to empiricism (meaning inference from observation by the biological receptors, as extended by instruments).
None of those assumptions (and those are just a few) are scientific findings. They are beliefs, every bit as arbitrary as the axiomatic beliefs of religion and every bit as burnished by tradition into “self-evident truths.”
There are many good reasons to argue that the scientific set of beliefs is extremely pragmatic and beneficial to humanity as a whole, worthy of its exalted place in the pantheon of cultural beliefs. But those beliefs are also science’s limitations.
For example, science, by its own definitions and methodology, cannot in principle gain purchase on non-physical phenomena, such as intuition, creativity, love, intentionality, religious insight, revelation, poetry nor even consciousness itself. The only recourse the scientist has when confronted with non-physical phenomena is either to admit they are out of scope, deny their existence outright, or, absurdly, redefine them as physical. The last two ploys constitute scientism, a fallacy of critical thinking. Dawkins is a champion of that fallacy.
So in a sense, Collins and Dawkins deserve each other. As civilized as their discussion was, I would still like to see that conversation engaged by two people committed to critical thinking, on opposite ends of the belief spectrum. That has not happened yet.
e-mail <bill.adams111 (at) gmail.com