About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Enough blasting Dennett and Dawkins, all right?

Look, I have several problems with both Daniel Dennett's and Richard Dawkins' approaches to the relationship between science and religion. Although I'm an atheist, I find Dawkins' take to be philosophically unsophisticated and Dennett's treatment of evolutionary biology a bit too scientistic. Nonetheless, the abuse both of these thinkers is taking because of the publication of their latest books (Dennett's “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon” and Dawkins' “The God Delusion”) is irritating and way out of proportion. The reader of even relatively progressive newspapers like The New York Times, or serious scientific outlets like Nature, could not be blamed if they got the impression that these two characters are dangerous intellectual lunatics bent on destroying civilization as we know it. And all because they dared attack the most sacred of all sacred cows: religion itself.

Here are, in a nutshell, the common and tiresome “arguments” made by even intelligent people to denigrate anybody who has the guts to come out publicly against religion:

* “Nothing good can come out of stating what one does not believe.” Yes, we all like a positive message, and of course both Dennett and Dawkins do have positive messages, like any atheist or secular humanist I know. However, to stand up against something is often as important as to stand for something. In the 1960s it was important to stand up against the Vietnam war, which of course was the same as standing for peace. Secular humanists stand up against religion because they stand for reason and real human compassion (not the variety catalyzed by fear of eternal punishment).

* “They don't understand the subtleties of theology.” To which I'm guessing that both Dawkins and Dennett would answer that this is like saying that critics of astrology don't understand the subtleties of ascendants. I have been criticized for underestimating the “depth and complexity” of the thought of theologian Alving Plantinga, but since theology is about a subject matter for which there is neither evidence nor reason to believe in, being an “expert” in theology isn't any better than being an expert in paranormal phenomena. The stuff that respectable scholars can study about religion is its complex history and immense cultural impact, i.e., one can seriously do history and sociology of religion, but not theology.

* “There is a big difference between fundamentalism and 'reasonable' religion.” Granted, the real beef here is against nutcases who hurl themselves against skyscrapers aboard jetliners, or who picket abortion facilities and shoot down doctors and nurses. But fundamentalist religion is only the extreme and obvious consequence of absolutely believing in something despite the evidence, an attitude that all religious people share. Dawkins, Dennett and others aren't calling for a government-enforced shut down of churches, just for people to realize that make-believe isn't a good basis for decisions in life, at either the personal or the societal level. Besides, what we now call “mainstream” Christianity, to pick on a particular sect, has been responsible for crusades and burning of witches in the past, and is currently co-responsible for the AIDS epidemic in Africa.

* “Religious people are not superstitious.” That's funny! I thought that superstition is, by definition, the belief in supernatural or mystical forces despite the complete lack of evidence for their existence. If religion doesn't qualify, I don't know what does.

* “Science is a matter of faith too.” Oh, give me a break. Yes, of course scientists have to accept as a necessary premise of their investigations some key philosophical assumptions, for example the idea that there is a real world out there independent of our minds. But this isn't “faith” in any sense of the word comparable to what religious people do, and to use the word in this context is either na├»ve or disingenuous. Every human being has to accept what philosophers call realism in order to conduct sane lives, we all bring our cars to mechanics, not to exorcists. But that is in an entirely different ballpark from making up stuff despite the evidence of facts and against the (dim and tentative) light of reason.

* “They'll never convince anybody.” Well, that is an empirical statement, and it remains to be investigated as such. But if in fact the diatribes of Dennett, Dawkins and the like won't convince anyone, then why all the venom? Why is it that so many “reasonable” religious people find it necessary to vilify these authors as if they were the devil incarnate? Could it be that the Christian or Muslim god is so powerless that a couple of books are going to send him down the same path as Zeus and Apollo?

* “Skepticism about religion is one more instance of intellectual arrogance.” Of all the anti-intellectual statements this is the most preposterous. So, using natural reason (which presumably god gave us, from the standpoint of a believer) is arrogant, even though scientists and philosophers keep saying that their positions are provisional and debatable. On the other hand, just stating the Truth out of thin air, or based on what a handful of ignorant people just out of the caves happened to write several thousand years ago, that does not quality as arrogance? Telling people that you know exactly who is going to hell and who to heaven, and that your view of morality is absolutely the only one that the creator of the unvierse himself endorses, that is not arrogance??

* “Let the children decide for themselves... when they are adults!” This argument applies specifically to Dawkins' book, since he maintains that children around the world are being abused by early indoctrination into religious nonsense. I have come across the same reasoning within my family. My daughter, who is nine, has been talking about Jesus and god for years, fortunately with only mild conviction. Whenever I raise the worry that she is being brainwashed and that something should be done about it, I'm told that I want to impose by own set of beliefs on her. “Let her grow up and then if she wants to let go of god she'll make her own decision.” These people don't seem to even be able to grasp the elementary fact that religious indoctrination isn't a harmless default, and once it takes hold of one's mind one has to struggle for decades to get rid of it. Which is, of course, why religious ministers the world over pay special attention to children. Critical thinking is one of the most precious things we have, but it doesn't come naturally, and it needs constant nurturing and effort. Superstition, on the other hand, we share with other animals from rats to apes, an ironic twist considering that so many religious people are bent toward denying our familial relationship with the rest of the natural world.

So, let people like Dennett and Dawkins rant to their heart's content. Even if their science isn't quite as far reaching as they think (Dennett), or their philosophy could use a reinforcing shot after high school (Dawkins), it is so refreshing to see serious intellectuals challenge the major source of unhappiness and disaster that the human race has ever seen. As Voltaire would have said, Ecrasez l'Infame!


  1. You might want to know that Alvin Plantinga is a philosopher, not a theologian. But perhaps it isn't necessary to take philosophers seriously either, n'es pas?

  2. I just read the review of Dawkins book in Harper's magazine (forgot the name of the reviewer) and it was total bunk. This reviewer focused on the errors of certain periods of science, such as eugenics, to say "see, science does bad things to". Of course the reviewer ignores the fact that the enterprise of science has a method of self-correction. All knowledge is up for revision.

    On the other hand, if you want to challenge a dogma of a particular religious institution like the Catholic Church, you have to start your own religion (i.e. Martin Luther).

  3. Dear anon

    It may be that Plantinga is classified as a philosopher in some way or other, but his business is apologetics.

    I read something of his on line some time ago, and it went something like this. How do we reconcile knowledge we receive from the sciences with apparently contradictory knowledge we receive from the Bible?

  4. How do we reconcile knowledge we receive from the sciences with apparently contradictory knowledge we receive from the Bible?

    suffenus - I think your definition of the term 'knowledge' is the problem here. Science turns observations into information, ie knowledge. There is something real underneath the knowledge - supporting it. Religious "knowledge" is lacking this feature - therefore I would use the term 'opinion' or 'heresay' for what passes as religious knowledge.

  5. "suffenus - I think your definition of the term 'knowledge' is the problem here. Science turns observations into information, ie knowledge. There is something real underneath the knowledge - supporting it. Religious "knowledge" is lacking this feature - therefore I would use the term 'opinion' or 'heresay' for what passes as religious knowledge."

    Well put.

  6. Me

    I guess I'm guilty of not italicising the sentence you quoted. It was my paraphrase of what Plantinga said, not something that I said.

    My point was that Plantinga, though a philosopher, is primarily engaged in apologetics, as evidenced by his notion that the Bible conveys knowledge on equal terms with empirical investigations.

    I could also have pointed out his belief in a "sense of the divine" that he himself traces back to Calvin.

  7. Amen, Massimo! Let the children decide - when they're adults - if they want to be theists or not. Before then, keep it all away from them. That way, no one will have to say "there is no god", either.

  8. “Let the children decide for themselves... when they are adults!”

    What they mean by this is that after having religion drilled into into their skull for years on end, they can then decide as adults if they want to burn in Hell or live eternally in peace and love with God. Hey, they're adults now, it's their choice.

    Massimo, loved the post. You said everything I've been screaming about in my brain.

  9. Max, I take it that you find Dawkins' arguments unsophisticated rather than just plain wrong (hence your comment about learning philosophy beyond the high school level), but what exactly do you find problematic? I, for one, would like to know.

  10. Superstition, on the other hand, we share with other animals from rats to apes...

    Outside of NIMH I hadn't heard of superstitious rats (or of superstitious non-human apes anywhere). I would have thought that human-level intelligence would be necessary to develop and sustain a sophisticated mental construct like a superstitious belief. Could you point me to an article or book arguing this position? Thanks.

  11. Kimpatsu,

    I think Dawkins too often comes to blur the line between methodological and philosophical naturalism. While I am both a methodological naturalist (like all scientists) and a philosophical one (as an atheist), the latter doesn't necessarily follow from the former. Dawkins, I think, is aware of this distinction, but blurs it to his convenience. Also, he says things like "you can't prove a negative" (referring to god's inexistence), but that's sloppy too. Plenty of negatives can be proven, it depends on the size of the universe to be searched (e.g., it is easy to prove that I don't have a million dollars in my pockets :)

  12. Rob,

    I don't have the reference handy, but you'll probably find this in standard cognitive behaior textbooks. "Superstitious" rats and mice can be observed when they happen to do something, say bump against a wall, immediately before getting food. You will then see that they keep trying to repeat the action, presumably because of an innate inference of the type correlation=causation (which, of course, is a logical fallacy, but, hey, we're talking rats!). This is like golfers wearing a favorite shirt at a tournament because "it's lucky."

    Interestingly, if I recall correctly, rats give up on the superstition when they realize it doesn't work a few times in a row. Humans are much more persistent, probably because they can rationalize the failures (sounds familiar?).

  13. Interesting that you write, "I find Dawkins' take to be philosophically unsophisticated," yet complain about people saying that Dawkins doesn't "understand the subtleties of theology." It seems that at least to some extent, complaints about Dawkins' shallow theology really pertain to his shallow philosophy, e.g. his sound bite about who designed the designer.

  14. Max, even if I search your pockets and fail to find a $1 million, that only means I failed to find it, not that I have necessarily proven the negative that you don't have $1 million. Remember, last year when someone tried to mug David Copperfield in Miami, Copperfield used sleight of hand to conceal his wallet, mobile phone, and other valuables from his would-be robber. So did the robber prove that Copperfield doesn't have a wallet, mobile phone, etc., or did he just fail to find them in a universe the size of David Copperfield's pockets?
    Besides, I remember a "Rationally Speaking" from year ago in which the author, a certain Massimo Pigliucci, argued that you cannot prove the non-existence of unicorns in a universe the size of the one we inhabit for the reason that a search of such scale is beyond our undertaking. The very point you were making then was that we can't prove a negative, so either you've changed your mind on this point in the intervening years (possible), or you've forgotten what you wrote back then.
    BTW, I read "The God Delusion" avidly. Could you point out a specific example where Dawkins blurs the line? (Even better, write a mega-review of the whole book, please.)
    I remain a self-professed fan of Dawkins, Dennett, and some guy called Max Pigliucci...

  15. JJ,

    >> you write, "I find Dawkins' take to be philosophically unsophisticated," yet complain about people saying that Dawkins doesn't "understand the subtleties of theology." <<

    But that's ne of my points: theology cannot have (relevant) subtleties, no more than astrology can. Philosophy is another matter.

  16. Kimpatsu,

    >> last year when someone tried to mug David Copperfield in Miami, Copperfield used sleight of hand to conceal his wallet, mobile phone, and other valuables from his would-be robber. <<

    But if you get the guy naked (as revolting as the idea may be :) you will have searched the entire searchable universe and proven a negative. The case of the unicorn is different precisely because one cannot search the entire relevant universe. And of course one can prove plenty of negatives in math, geometry and logic. All of which argues the point that it's not true that one cannot prove a negative, it depends on the negative.

  17. "But that's ne of my points: theology cannot have (relevant) subtleties, no more than astrology can."

    Arguably true, but one can show one's poor grounding in philosophy by making bad arguments, even if those bad arguments are against theology. To some extent, this is what is behind the complaints about not understanding the subtleties of theology. Eagleton, whatever his faults as a reviewer, is a pretty good example of example of someone who says just that:

    "Dawkins, it appears, has sometimes been told by theologians that he sets up straw men only to bowl them over, a charge he rebuts in this book; but if The God Delusion is anything to go by, they are absolutely right. As far as theology goes, Dawkins has an enormous amount in common with Ian Paisley and American TV evangelists. Both parties agree pretty much on what religion is; it’s just that Dawkins rejects it while Oral Roberts and his unctuous tribe grow fat on it."

    Back to the astrology example. Say a wannabe skeptic used fallacious arguments against astrology. Does the fact that astrology is bunk mean that the would-be skeptic has a right to say bunk about it?

  18. Max, the British extreme magician Derren Brown has indeed performed sleight of hand naked on TV to prove there's "nothing up his sleeves". There was his entire unadorned universe, and he still managed to fool everyone. Presumably, Copperfield can do the same. It's not just the size of the universe; it's your ability to search it.
    Hey, my wife can make money disappear as if by magic...

  19. JJ,

    >> Say a wannabe skeptic used fallacious arguments against astrology. Does the fact that astrology is bunk mean that the would-be skeptic has a right to say bunk about it? <<

    Of course not, but I do think the situation with Dawkins/theology is different. Astrology could be true, in principle, and the debunking is a matter of empirical evidence and demonstrable structure of the universe. Not so in theology, where the whole darn thing is pure fantasy made up from scratch.


    >> the British extreme magician Derren Brown has indeed performed sleight of hand naked on TV to prove there's "nothing up his sleeves". <<

    Well, c'mon, how about a nice set of X-rays? But yes, your point is correct, it's a matter of our search abilities (which are still limited by the size of the searchable universe).

    I'm enjoying these exchanges too much... :)

  20. "Astrology could be true, in principle, and the debunking is a matter of empirical evidence and demonstrable structure of the universe."

    But this sidesteps my point, which is that one can make bogus arguments even against something that is itself bogus, so whether theology is bogus or not is beside the point.

  21. Max, I'm having mega-fun, too. :D
    But surely, once you concede that the issue isn't the size ofthe universe but your ability to search it, you have conceded my point that Dawkins' argument is par with your unicorns? Or is there another argument up your sleeve (pun intended) of which I am unaware? So, c'mon, give: what's the ace up your sleeve?
    BTW, did you see the TV special when Derren Brown visited Sedona, Arizona, the self-proclaimed "psychic capital of the world"? He made total mincemeat of these "psychics". (Quelle surprise...)

  22. Kimpatus,

    perhaps I'm jet lagged (I'm in Vancouver for the philosophy of science meetings), but I don't see why the two situations are relevantly similar. The point is: if one can search the whole relevant universe, even empirical negative statements can in fact be proven; if one cannot do the search, for whatever reason, then one has to fall back to probabilistic/plausibility arguments. Am I missing something?

  23. Gee, the water looks so fine, even if it is deep. OK, here I goooo...

    Once we get into the type of search where probabilities are admitted, I think a great deal depends on what we are looking for,as to what the search criteria should be.

    If I am looking for my wallet, my search will be quite limited. I will search my bedroom- on top of the TV, next to the clock radio, next to the phone (places where it might usually be found), then places adjacent to these where it might have fallen, then other reasonable possibilites like yesterday's pants pocket, shirt pocket, the laundry basket, the backpack- before I conclude it is not in the bedroom, and move on to other rooms, while trying to develop reasonable search criteria by remembering where I have been, etc.

    On the other hand, if the police were searching for a murder weapon, the search would have to much more thorough, they would have to assume I might have hidden it really well, their search would only be limited by certain physical possibilities (looking for a gun vs. looking for some poison).

    When you apply this to the God question, the first thing we think of is whether there is any obvious evidence as to the actions of a God in the world we know. But this might not be enough. Because some theologians maintain that God is hidden (deliberately so). This makes the search more difficult, and would probably justify Dawkins' remarks in that context, especially if the idea of the hidden God was also relevant in some other context (such as the free-will defense in theodicy).

    Of course, there could still be some logical bound to the possibilities being entertained, if for example the very idea of God could not be made coherent.

  24. jk; "Every physical phenomenon has a physical explanation. IOW, how could you show that my last sentence is false?"

    Oh, my all time favorite!

    Pre-big-bang Physics. What would the best physical explanation and origin for PBB Physics be?

    The "box" just got bigger.... ;)


  25. jk: "I'm no expert on Big Bang cosmology, but my understanding is that it is meaningless to talk about "before the Big Bang."

    Better yet, "before evolution".

    Do have any idea how bad the very mention of such a thing is for evolution?! ;)

    theoretically (with a few assumptions granted to us by info. theory) one could throw out the sum total of "natural science" in a box in tomorrow morning's trash. Where would you begin then?


  26. Plantinga's no apologist. Sure he's written on Christian subject matter--take his books "God, Freedom, and Evil" or "Warranted Christian Belief" as prime examples. But his real contributions to the philosophical community have been "The Nature of Necessity," "Warrant: The Current Debate," and "Warrant and Proper Function." These shouldn't be seen as the work of an apologist, but rather an important contributor to the debates surrounding modality and epistemic justification. I suspect that his contributions to the epistemology literature are something people interested in science and the philosophy of science should be familiar with, since they represent a coherent naturalized epistemology.

  27. Hey massimo. this is my first time blogging. love the site and all your work. you say dennett comes off too scientistic. im not too sure what that means. does scientism mean placing too much emphasis on the explanatory powers of science?

  28. Mark,

    welcome! Scientism is the attitude that some people have that science can provide all the answers, no matter what the question. A good (in the irritating sense) example is E.O. Wilson's "Consilience."

    In "Denying Evolution" I devote a chapter to the negative effects of scientism.

  29. oh ok. thanks! would you consider evolutionary psychology and the evolutionary origins of religion, the moral faculty, etc. too scientistic?

  30. Mark,

    I have serious doubts about evolutionary psychology as an empirical science, but I wouldn't consider it scientistic.

    As far as naturalistic explanations of religion (Dennett-like), I think they make sense. Again, they aren't science as much as philosophy using science to make a case for a particular interpretation of human phenomena.

  31. I was an atheist but then I discovered FSM.


  32. Dawkins knows that theology is bunk. He is not shallow in his book,just does not use Bayesian logic or abstruse arguments . Those who claim otherwise cannot show he uses shallow arguments. To ask who designed the designer is very much an apt question. To aver as Sahakian does that it commits the fallacy of multiple questions commits begging the question and special pleading for this god to have the attributes that would exmept it from the question. Logic is the bane of theists alright.

  33. Massimo the softy softy approach was fine for awhile. I have listened to your podcasts with Kent Hovind and others. You are very good and fair, but it makes no difference.

    Dawkins has said we need to get firm with religions as we’ve been giving them a free ride for too long, I agree give them back what they would give you. Now it’s time for action.

  34. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this defense of Dennett and Dawkins.

    At the core of scientific rationality is a willingness to have one's ideas examined and criticized, and certainly Dennett and Dawkins are open to criticism. But there's a big difference between valid and constructive criticism and criticism that is so off-base as to be useless. Your post does a terrific service in exposing worthless criticism of Dennett and Dawkins.

  35. As for proving the nonexistence of unicorns . . .

    It's a freshman fallacy to think that science is all about proving the existence of things. Science is about naturalistic explanations. If a Theory of Unicorns could be shown to explain something better than any other existing theory, a scientist might happily adopt the theory, tentatively, until someone came up with a better theory.

    I hesitate to call Dennett scientistic. A "scientistic" person (if such a person exists) possesses blind faith in the ability of scientific methods to explain phenomena in any domain and to solve all problems. I doubt that Dennett or any scientist has convictions that are that strong. Rather, Dennett and scientists, based on the track record of scientific accomplishments see science as our best hope for explaining the universe. If someone comes up with a better method, I predict that you would see scientists happily converting.

  36. to learn more, i just picked up "Scientism" by Tom Sorell. have you read it?

  37. Mark,

    yes, I've read it. I found it interesting, but pretty tough to digest.

  38. i just picked it up so i havent started yet. why do you say its hard to digest? is it very dense?

  39. Superstition, from rats to apes, mechanisms that mediate a rat's "decision" to re-emit a response that might determine for prevention of ultra short-acting awareness precedes activation that is a prerequisite already present. Intergenerational fairness documenting and generating a simple feedback loop by analogy in an adaptive preserved order of the mechanisms evolutionary function regulators of ] development entities may be an underestimate typically an antisimetrical underestimate of a dual-use system. While reiterating and trafficking certain points can be generated 'artificially complementary' as complementary explanations that mutually inform each other between the biological and social sciences as Intergenerational fairness Social Life Cycle Assessment used for comparisons scientific atheism and the possibility of a dialectic of the fates.
    for additional background information:
    This is what the citation will look like:

    CRESPO, J.A., PANLILIO, L.V., SCHINDLER, C.W., STURM, K., SARIA, A., ZERNIG, G. (2006). Peri-Response Pharmacokinetics of Remifentanil during a Self-Administration Session Indicates That Neither Blood nor Brain Levels Are Titrated. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1074(1), 497-504. DOI: 10.1196/annals.1369.050


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