Monday, 13 September 2010

Alister McGrath’s response to The God Delusion

Alister McGrath’s response to The God Delusion, by Stephen Law

Which brings me to the theologian Alister McGrath, a long-standing critic of Dawkins. In his article, “The questions science cannot answer - The ideological fanaticism of Richard Dawkins’s attack on belief is unreasonable to religion - and science”, McGrath attempts to defend religion against Dawkins’ attack. He begins by pointing out there are questions science cannot answer:

In The Limits of Science, Medawar reflected on how science, despite being “the most successful enterprise human beings have ever engaged upon”, had limits to its scope. Science is superb when it comes to showing that the chemical formula for water is H2O. Or, more significantly, that DNA has a double helix. But what of that greater question: what’s life all about? This, and others like it, Medawar insisted, were “questions that science cannot answer, and that no conceivable advance of science would empower it to answer”. They could not be dismissed as “nonquestions or pseudoquestions such as only simpletons ask and only charlatans profess to be able to answer”. This is not to criticise science, but simply to calibrate its capacities. [From The Times, February 10, 2007]

MacGrath then goes on to do several things. First of all, he accuses Dawkins of being ideologically wedded to scientism. Dawkins, claims MacGrath, simply assumes that “science has all the answers” But of course, scientists need to show a little humility. There are questions science cannot answer.

This first line of attack on Dawkins, though very popular among theists, entirely misses its mark. In fact, within the pages of the very book MacGrath is attacking, Dawkins quite unambiguously acknowledges that, “Perhaps there are some genuinely profound and meaningful questions that are forever beyond the reach of science.” (p XX) Indeed, Dawkins seems happy to concede that moral questions may well fall into this category. Dawkins says: “we can all agree that science’s entitlement to advise us on moral values is problematic to say the least”. (p80).

So McGrath is attacking a position Dawkins does not hold. In fact McGrath is presenting a rather crude caricature of Dawkins’ position. The charge of scientism is unwarranted. It is also irrelevant. For suppose we can show that scientism is false – that there are certain questions science cannot answer. These may include certain questions about meaning and value, for example. Would it then follow that science cannot show there is no Judeo-Christian God? Would it follow that Dawkins’ argument must fail. Of course not. Science might still be able to show that there’s no god. Perhaps Dawkins has.

MacGrath then proceeds to rubbish Dawkins’ argument against the god hypothesis, not by identifying any flaw in it, but by simply insisting that we cannot “prove there is no god”.

Now, interestingly, Dawkins remarks in The God Delusion itself that in his earlier attacks on Dawkins, McGrath’s defence of theism seems to boil down to “the undeniable but ignominiously weak point that you cannot disprove the existence of God” (p XX). Dawkins says he agrees with McGrath that we cannot conclusively prove the non-existence of God, but points out, correctly, that this doesn’t entail belief in God is therefore immune to scientific skepticism. For, Dawkins suggests, the God hypothesis has observable consequences: “a universe with a creative superintendent would be a very different kind of universe from one without. Why is that not a scientific matter?” p80 Dawkins maintains that, in response to this question, McGrath had previously offered no real answer. It is particularly ironic, then, that in his Times article attacking Dawkins, McGrath simply repeats the charge, yet still offers no real answer to Dawkins question.

So McGrath’s point about Dawkins not having a “conclusive proof” is another red herring. Dawkins claims no such proof. Dawkins merely argues that God’s existence is highly improbable.

In short, McGrath entirely fails to engage with Dawkins’ argument. McGrath merely levels at Dawkins the inaccurate and irrelevant charge of scientism, and makes the inaccurate claim that Dawkins is trying conclusively to prove there’s no God, which he’s not.

Still, it’s worth spending a moment to consider why McGrath supposes there can be no conclusive proof or disproof of the existence of God. In his book The Dawkins Delusion – Atheist Fundamentalism and The Denial of The Divine, McGrath explains as follows:

Any given set of observations can be explained by a number of theories. To use the jargon of the philosophy of science: theories are under-determined by the evidence. The question then arises: What criterion be used to decide between them, especially when they are ‘empirically equivalent’. Simplicity? Beauty? The debate rages, unresolved. And its outcome is entirely to be expected: the great questions remain unanswered. There can be no “scientific ‘proof’ of ultimate questions. Either we cannot answer them, or we must answer them on grounds other than the sciences. (p14)

McGrath’s point seems to be that, when it comes to such world-views as “god exists” and “god does not exist” we find both theories fit the available observational evidence. They are, indeed, “empirically equivalent”. But then neither theory can be proved or disproved by appeal to that evidence.

But is it true that both theories fit the observational evidence equally well? As we’ll see later in “But it fits!” any theory, no matter how nuts, can be made to “fit” – be consistent with – the evidence, given sufficient ingenuity. It doesn’t follow that all theories are equally reasonable, or that we cannot fairly conclusively settle the question of whether certain theories are true on the basis of observational evidence. After all, the evil god hypothesis is, surely, pretty conclusively ruled out on the basis of the available empirical evidence. But then why couldn’t the good God hypothesis be ruled out in much the same way? And why couldn’t Dawkins have succeeded in showing, on the basis of the observational evidence, that the “god hypothesis” he addresses is false?

MacGrath doesn’t say. In effect, he just asserts that the god question cannot be fairly conclusively settled on the basis of observational evidence. As this is precisely what Dawkins is denying, MacGrath has no argument against Dawkins. McGrath’s defence of the reasonableness of theism boils down to the wholly unjustified assertion that Dawkins is mistaken.

As I say, whether or not Dawkins’s arguments against the God hypothesis are good arguments is not my concern here. By all means argue that they are poor. That would be an intellectually respectable strategy for a theist to adopt.

However, McGrath fails to offer any cogent justification for his oft-repeated claim that the existence or non-existence of god is not something that observation, or indeed science, might establish. He makes the unjustified, false, and irrelevant accusation that Dawkins is guilty of scientism. McGrath also peppers his responses to Dawkins with numerous ad hominem attacks on Dawkins’ character, whose approach he dismisses as “superficial”, “brash”, “glossy”, “aggressive “ p. xi “embittered”, and “fanatical”.

I cite McGrath to illustrate a more general trend. When people offer rational, or even scientifically-based arguments, against theistic claims, one of the most popular strategies theists adopt to immunize their beliefs is to assert, without providing any justification, “Ah, but of course this is beyond the ability science and/or reason to decide”, and then imply their opponent must be an arrogant, unsophisticated twit fanatically wedded to scientism if they suppose otherwise. But we can reject, or remain unconvinced by, scientism while nevertheless maintaining that certain God claims are rationally, perhaps even scientifically, adjudicatable. To suppose otherwise is not, as McGrath implies, to commit yourself to scientism.

Say, “Ah, but of course this is beyond the ability of science and reason to decide” often enough, like a mantra, and there’s a good chance people will start to accept it without even thinking about it. It will become an immunizing “factoid” that can be conveniently wheeled out whenever a rational threat to the credibility of your belief crops up. Perhaps this is why, rather than respond to Dawkins arguments, McGrath just starts chanting the “Ah but of course this beyond the ability of reason/science to decide” mantra, realizing that it is now so heavily woven into the contemporary zeitgeist that many readers, even if momentarily stung by Dawkins into entertaining a serious doubt, can quickly by lulled back to sleep: “Oh yes, I remember, it’s beyond the ability of science/reason… scientism…zzzzz.”

Shorn of its theological and intellectual trappings, McGrath’s response to Dawkins is essentially no more sophisticated or effective than that of the commentator who attempted to defend belief in the amazing powers of crystals against a scientific criticism by insisting, without any justification at all, that scientific methods are far too “narrow” to refute such beliefs.

Stephen Law

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