Saturday, December 02, 2006

Deluded About Delusion

I am increasingly using Political Opinions to sift through the mountain of political commentary posted daily on UK blogs. Every now and again I come across a posting that is either brilliant and deserves praise or terrible and deserves ridicule. I came across one at Chris Whiteside's blog that unfortunately falls into the latter category.

Chris describes himself in the third person as "a Conservative activist, living in Cumbria with his wife and young family. He has held a wide range of posts both in the Conservative Party and as a councillor and school governor, and is currently a Vice President of Copeland Conservatives."

Chris posted an entry a few hours ago that left me Engaged and Angry rather than Disillusioned and Bored. I tried picking out pieces of the article here, but I felt that I was doing him a disservice and that I could be accused of taking him out of context. So regrettably, here is the entire text:

The Dawkins Delusion

Professor Richard Dawkins is brilliant at explaining biology in a way which many people can understand. However, his objection to religion sometimes verges on the unhinged.

Ironically, both his recent book, "The God Delusion" and his plans, if correctly reported in the press, to send rationalist material to schools, are open to exactly the same charge which he has brought with some justice against the supporters of so-called "Creation Science" and those who want "Intelligent Design" taught in schools.

From now on, I shall use the expression "The Dawkins Delusion" to refer to the fallacy that science can either prove or indeed disprove the existence of God.

Science is a means of testing how the physical world works. It is a very effective method, and nobody who is interested in the truth has anything to fear from it.

The scientific method consists of putting forward a hypothesis which is capable of being tested and disproved by real world evidence, and checking that hypothesis against the evidence. If the facts line up with the hypothesis, you stick with it: if repeated tests fail to reject the hypothesis, it is promoted to a theory. But if the facts disprove a hypothesis or theory, it has to be discarded, and replaced either with a completely new idea, or a new, modified version which can explain the new data: and which has itself to be tested against the facts.

However, only ideas which are capable of being disproved have anything to do with science. In the past, various religions used to put forward ideas about how the real world works which were indeed capable of such checking: for example, the idea that Heaven and Earth were created on 26th October 4004BC at 9 o'clock in the morning, or the idea that Winter is caused because the daughter of the Goddess of the Harvest had to spend six months of the year in the underworld. We now have very strong evidence suggesting the likelihood that the origin of the earth is closer to 4000 million BC than 4004 BC, and we can explain Summer and Winter because the axis on which the earth spins is tilted towards the sun for part of the year at any given latitude, and away from the sun at other times.

But while some ideas or religious origin are capable of being scientifically tested, others are not. For example, the structure of ethics which is associated with any religion, and also fundamental to the running of human society, can be assessed using logic, but is not subject to science. How could you devise a scientific test of the principle that murder is wrong, for instance ?

Further, both belief and disbelief in a God are philosopical and religious positions, but not scientific ones. I do not believe that any human test could possible be devised which could prove beyond reasonable doubt that God exists, or that He doesn't. Both the Theist and the Atheist have to make a leap of faith.

"Intelligent Design" does not belong in a science class, because there is no way you could conclusively disprove it. Neither do Professor Dawkins's atheist views for exactly the same reason. His belief that this religious position is scientific is The Dawkins Delusion.

I'm glad that Chris bothered to write the article because it will be clear to any reader that he doesn't understand a word of The God Delusion. Has he even read the book? It might be a good start.

The examples Chris gives in his article of scientific progress are not really cases of "putting forward a hypothesis which is capable of being tested and disproved by real world evidence". They are in fact examples of evidence backing up a hypothesis. The balance of this evidence is then used to discredit views based on weaker or no evidence. His penultimate paragraph sums up his misunderstanding when he says "Both the theist and atheist have to make a leap of faith." Wrong, wrong, wrong! The point is that there is NO leap of faith. Rational decisions based on the balance of evidence are made, rather than blind judgments based on dogma. These views will then be adjusted when new or better evidence comes along. This is the strength of a rational, scientific point of view, not a weakness. Intelligent design doesn't belong in a classroom because there is no evidence to support it, not because it cannot be conclusively disproved. Darwin's theory does, because there is.

There is no requirement for the atheist to prove that god does not exist, the burden rightly falls on Chris to prove that he does. He should try proving that a tennis ball that I insist is invisible and untouchable doesn't exist. Hard isn't it? Does this put it beyond the scope of science? No, it probably puts me in a loony bin!

In his book, which incidentally I do have on my desk, Dawkins quotes the following from Bertrand Russell who puts it far more eloquently:
"Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than the dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time."

Dawkins also covers Chris' points on intelligent design and ethics, but I'm afraid this post has gone on far too long already. Maybe he should buy the book here.

Update: I just wanted to add the following from Wired on Dawkins' view of the disproval approach to science that Chris is so fond of:

"Dawkins' style of debate is as maddening as it is reasonable. A few months earlier, in front of an audience of graduate students from around the world, Dawkins took on a famous geneticist and a renowned neurosurgeon on the question of whether God was real. The geneticist and the neurosurgeon advanced their best theistic arguments: Human consciousness is too remarkable to have evolved; our moral sense defies the selfish imperatives of nature; the laws of science themselves display an order divine; the existence of God can never be disproved by purely empirical means.

"Dawkins rejected all these claims, but the last one – that science could never disprove God – provoked him to sarcasm. "There's an infinite number of things that we can't disprove," he said. "You might say that because science can explain just about everything but not quite, it's wrong to say therefore we don't need God. It is also, I suppose, wrong to say we don't need the Flying Spaghetti Monster, unicorns, Thor, Wotan, Jupiter, or fairies at the bottom of the garden. There's an infinite number of things that some people at one time or another have believed in, and an infinite number of things that nobody has believed in. If there's not the slightest reason to believe in any of those things, why bother? The onus is on somebody who says, I want to believe in God, Flying Spaghetti Monster, fairies, or whatever it is. It is not up to us to disprove it."

"Science, after all, is an empirical endeavor that traffics in probabilities. The probability of God, Dawkins says, while not zero, is vanishingly small. He is confident that no Flying Spaghetti Monster exists. Why should the notion of some deity that we inherited from the Bronze Age get more respectful treatment?"


Chris Whiteside said...

Dear "Disillusioned and bored."

Thanks for the comment. One of the fascinating things about the internet is seeing which subjects provoke a debate - it is very rarely the posts which I expect to get a reaction which do.

The quote from Bertrand Russell which Dawkins gives and which you repeat, is a strong argument for the agnostic position. It does not suffice to prove the atheist position.

Chris Whiteside said...

Dear "Disillusioned and bored"

A further point having read a little more of your blog. Some of your points are very astute and interesting - others leave me as astonished as anything I wrote leaves you.

And in particular: you present yourself as an arch rationalist, and talk about taking the battle to religious moderates.

Presumably this explains your attack on people like me who actually agree with you that "Intelligent Design" and so-called "Creation Science" have no place in science classrooms.

And then I find that your blogger profile lists your star sign and astrological birth year!

Has your host added this for you automatically? If so, you might be well advised to get them to remove this before you start attacking "religious moderates" or your host is putting you in danger of looking rather silly.

And if you are saying on the one hand that all religions are superstition, and on the other hand you are dabbling in astrology, then perhaps you might like to consider whether there is a contradiction there.

Disillusioned and Bored said...

That is a fair call. I am not an astrologist, but I haven't figured out how to turn the damn thing off. Any ideas?

Disillusioned and Bored said...

However, I also want to address your earlier point. You have misunderstood again when you say it is an agnostic argument. Not true. The point is that things are not there to be disproved, they are there to be proved. In terms of atheism, until someone proves to me that there is a god I will assume there is not. I am not unsure about it, I feel confident that to date there is no evidence. Provide with evidence to the contrary and I will reassess. Until that point, to the extent I can really know anything I will be sure that he is a myth.

Disillusioned and Bored said...

Astrology has now gone.

Chris O'Connor said...

The person you quoted above definitely didn't understand a thing Dawkins said...good point. Dawkins has never argued that science proves the nonexistence of God. Heck, he went into detail to explain that this is impossible.

I want to invite you and your readers to join us in reading and discussing Dawkins “The God Delusion” during Q1, 2007. I’m working on getting him in a live chat session for some time in March 2007, but nothing is set in stone. If this chat happens you are welcome to attend.

We had Richard Dawkins for a live chat back in 2003 where we discussed “Unweaving the Rainbow.”

BookTalk - online reading group and book discussion forum

Chris O’Connor