Holy atheists

I haven’t heard much about Richarf Dawkins recently. You will remember his many publications including The God Delusion, which I reviewed for the Catholic Herald. It resulted in a discussion of nearly 30,000 words on his website (which I summarised in the Church Times). But I am grateful: if anyone hears of me in the next century it will be because I am mentioned in a footnote in the book. ‘Who on earth was he?’ the historians of the 21st century will ask.

I am reminded by coming across, by chance, a few paragraphs I wrote about Dawkins at the time. And I have to say I thought it summarised the question of atheistic scientists. So I am cheating by reproducing it here:

“Notwithstanding Piers Paul Read’s excellent article on Professor Dawkins’s programmes The Root of All Evil?, or perhaps because of it, I fell to wondering whether he might have something to teach us. It would be safe to say that Dawkins is not exactly popular among Christians at present. The only redeeming feature a lady friend of mine could find was that she found him rather good looking. But Benjamin Franklin claimed that he had never met anyone from whom he could not learn something: so what can we learn from Dawkins?

First of all, Dawkins is a searcher after truth. We may think that he is confused or barking up the wrong tree, but no one who has read his books will doubt his sincerity, and his determination to increase the sum of human knowledge. How many of us could say the same? We may claim that he has an obstinately closed mind. But how many of us have really used our intellects to interrogate what we believe? And has our religion been in the habit of encouraging or discouraging this? There are motes and beams here.

Second, he is a man of faith. He believes without any solid evidence that science can, at least theoretically, explain the whole universe, including the crucial transcendental aspects. But he would retort that we believe in a creator God equally without any solid evidence. In fact we regard this as a major virtue and call it Faith. So, “Yah Boo!” all round.

Dawkins chose his targets selectively. His programmes were an exercise in polemics, not science. But in themselves they were good targets, and we would do well to acknowledge this. The tendency in human nature to form intolerant communities around some core, unprovable “value” appears in both secular and religious contexts. But it has been prevalent in Christianity, even in modern times, as a brief acquaintance with Church history will show. Derek Wright in The Psychology of Moral Behaviour quotes evidence to suggest that the majority of religious adherents do so primarily to meet their emotional need to be part of a secure and certain community. Only a minority genuinely own their religious belief and commitment.

Dawkins argues that the indoctrination of the young into religion is an abuse of young minds. Of course others indoctrinate, we teach (can you spot the difference?). A shocking accusation! Well, not altogether. I can think of several examples of such abuse in my Catholic education. Just challenge me. My point is that until we open our minds to the tragic ways in which we can be false to Christ’s message we cannot hope to do better in the future. Dawkins, for all his vehemence, can do us a service — if we feel secure enough to listen to his case without prejudice.

And the vehemence of his views is what I like best. Hugh Ross Williamson, the distinguished Catholic historian who died in 1978, wrote in his Letter to Julia that he respected the committed religious believer and also the committed atheist. He reserved his contempt for the wishy-washy boneless mediocrities who flapped around in the middle. I suspect he would not be any more surprised than me to see Professor Dawkins, wearing that “naughty boy look” he does so well, welcomed at the Pearly Gates. His passport would not be that he had found the truth but that he had looked for it.”

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Quentin queries, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Holy atheists

  1. Quentin says:

    Forgive me if you had double notification of this blog. Sending a number of BCC messages confuses my computer (and me).

  2. John Thomas says:

    Indoctrination: What I would say to RD is that in my view the indoctrination of children into the religion of secular materialism is the worst child abuse, and it occurs on a vast scale, in our society, all schools being ‘faith schools’, the vast majority of which indoctrinate children into the secular materialist faith. The militant atheists, of course, are in reality simply involved in clearing the ground for a radical form of Islam to take over, in our society – most are too stupid to realise what they are actually doing – I give them the benefit of the doubt as to their intentions, naivety seems better than duplicity – and there is evidence that RD is begining (a bit late in the day, perhaps) to realise this. He has said things recently that suggest he is happier with some form of Christianity continuing to hold sway, rather than the Islamist alternative. I have a Christian friend who suggests that RD may one day see the error of his atheist ways, and turn around … who knows – bigger things have happened.

    • Vincent says:

      John, I wonder if you are being fair. To me, indoctrination is directed and forceful teaching. Of course every child is likely to pick up the general values of their parents, but the Catholic teaching, I hope of yesteryears, is absolute, unquestionable and repetitive. You are or were force fed meticulously in both spiritual and moral matters. No doubt some atheistic parents behaved like this but the Church did so, as a communion, on principle.

  3. Alasdair says:

    Quentin hasn’t heard much about Richard Dawkins recently probably because he, Dawkins, really doesn’t have much to say – certainly nothing new. It’s is, and was, just the same old stuff and even many atheists were’nt comfortable with his arguments and his tone, and even if they once were, they’ve long since moved on.
    C S Lewis was familiar with the “Dawkins Delusion” long before Dawkins’ time, having heard all of the arguments before and seen right through them. For example, in “Mere Christianity” he wrote:
    “Such people put up a version of Christianity suitable for a child of six and make that the object of their attack. When you try to explain the Christian doctrine as it is really held by an instructed adult, they then complain that you are making their heads spin and that it is all too complicated and that if there really were a God they are sure He would have made ‘religion’ simple, because simplicity is so beautiful, etc. You must be on your guard against these people for they will change their ground every minute and only waste your time”.

  4. ignatius says:

    Yes I agree about this. I’ve been involved in evangelism for a long time now and have come to the conclusion that ‘polite discussions about religion’ are pretty much a waste of time…pearls before swine I think it is called. On the other hand we Catholics do have a tendency to overdress the gospel and obscure it with complexity.

  5. Nektarios says:

    Yes, Ignatius, quite so.
    Hence my repeated appeal to return to the Apostolic Doctrine, Teaching and Practice.

    • Alasdair says:

      Then having dumbed down the Gospel for the benefit of the people C S Lewis was taking about (Quentin’s Holy Atheists) – and wasted your time because they won’t actually be listening to what you’re saying, they’ll suddenly come out with “So what about the Spanish Inquisition then?”.

      • Ignatius says:

        Alisdair, Not quite sure who you are speaking to in your post or even what exactly you are trying to say. But it is my own experience that treating the gospel as an intellectual debating game really is a waste of time unless one can sense a deeper unexpressed need. Human beings have a desperate need of God’s mercy but until they recognise that need the gospel is meaningless to them.

  6. Alan says:

    Quentin – “He believes without any solid evidence that science can, at least theoretically, explain the whole universe, including the crucial transcendental aspects.”

    I’m unsure what you mean by this. Are you certain that he accepts that there are “crucial transcendental aspects” to the universe or are you expecting that it be a part of his openness to possible scientific explanations because you are certain of it?

    • Quentin says:

      Alan, I am guessing because it was all a long time ago, but I assume that what I had in mind was consciousness, moral obligation and freewill. None of these appear to be susceptible to a scientific (materially causable) explanation.

    • Alan says:

      Quentin – ” … but I assume that what I had in mind was consciousness, moral obligation and freewill. ”

      I think it probably safe to say that these don’t reflect Richard Dawkins’ thoughts on the subject then. They seem a little out of place to me in a description of what “he believes”. Without including them his own position sounds quite different to me –

      “He believes without solid evidence that science could, at least hypothetically, explain the whole universe.”

      Or if I were to express it more as I imagine his views to be :-

      “He is very reluctant to rule out the possibility of any scientific explanation without solid evidence.”

      This appears rather non-committal when compared to “essentially transcendental”. More cautious of drawing conclusions where we know little.

      • Quentin says:

        We’d need to do a little research to find what he actually says. But I recall his criticism of God for commanding the Hebrews to slay the Canaanites, man woman and child. (And rightly so.) He compares it with Nazi atrocities. But to do that you have to be able to discern right and wrong and you need to assume the use of freewill because you cannot condemn an unfree choice since, by definition, it is not a choice. Has he ever attempted to show how science, even in principle, could explain these? Could you?

      • Alan says:

        Quentin – “Has he ever attempted to show how science, even in principle, could explain these?”

        Not that I know of. Although I have seen others offer ideas on these subjects

        But I’m not quite sure I know exactly what you are asking. Clearly you aren’t merely asking how science could explain these things, because the answer to that might well be “We don’t know”. So the key must be in the “even in principle” detail. I’m trying to understand what that might mean by considering other questions that have gone before and I can think of many, many examples. Imagine the same question being asked about heat before we had any notion of what matter was, what it was comprised of or what heat was. One idea that was once popular was that heat was some force or “stuff” that flowed from one thing to another. This turned out to be wrong of course but, in principle, it could have been right and there to be discovered and tested. It turned out that quite a different scientific principle was there to be found. One that, if we go back far enough, had never been imagined or proposed. What possible answer could these “ignorant” people have given to your sort of question?

        Or is there another type of “in principle” answer to this example from our history that I’m not spotting?

  7. Nektarios says:

    I think we can drop the word ‘Holy’ and just call them Atheists. That is the natural state of man regarding God. They won’t have His rule over us, and imagines himself at the centre of the universe.

    Richard Dawkins, brought up in the Cof E but his education at the time was all about science and how it can achieve anything it wants. But two world wars later, with the introduction of the Hydrogen and Atomic bombs it shows all the hype about what technology can achieve by science
    has fallen on its face and failed. I guess that is why Richard Dawkinns has not much to say these days apart from repeating the same old mantras and sell a book or two.

    In the 19th century Religion was all the rage and slowly but surely it too, like the grand churches to their vanities began to crumble and fall into ruins and be sold off to the world for pubs and other uses. The problem in the 19th century was their smugness as churches were full and gaining in wealth, power and prestige, only to come crashing down and failing.

    This is why science and psychology took off so easily, now it too is reaching its limits and failing.

  8. Vincent says:

    If we can reasonably assume that Dawkins, wrong or right, is trying to find the truth, and if we assume he is concerned to benefit the human race — wrong or right, would he not be displaying love? We have just been reminded at the royal wedding that human love is God expressing himself in the world. Do you think God would turn Dawkins away on the grounds that he didn’t know God’s name?

    • Alasdair says:

      RD may have been trying to find the truth when he was in the role of scientist. He has moved on from that however, and is now evangelising his own world view in a totally unbecoming way. He takes a most “superior” and belittling attitude to his audiences and to those who disagree with him on any issue. To quote him on Brexit for example :
      He (David Cameron) handed over this massively important decision to a simple majority of ill-informed voters. The fleeting opinion, on just one day, of a slender majority of an ignorant and misled public is now touted as the sacred and unchangeable word of “the British people”.
      I interpret this to mean that RD considers the public ignorant and misled whichever way they voted – and certainly even more ignorant and misled if they also believe in God.

  9. Nektarios says:

    Vincent

    You write:- We have just been reminded at the royal wedding that human love is God expressing himself in the world.

    The natural man does not express God in the world, the direct opposite in fact. He hates God,
    is rebellious against God, is a sinner, separated from God, until God may have mercy on that person.

    You further write:- If we can reasonably assume that Dawkins, wrong or right, is trying to find the truth, and if we assume he is concerned to benefit the human race — wrong or right, would he not be displaying love?

    Yes, love of self. Love of Science. Both which are failing, as I said previously.

    So let me ask you, what is it to Love God? What does it mean?
    My own feeling about your posting is you assume too much, and perhaps a trite gullible to be taken in with liberal thinking and definitions?

  10. G.D says:

    You all may know this joke (slightly adapted) … St Peter was showing a new comer around heaven. “Over there we have the baptists, over there we have the Hindu, there the Muslim, there the C of E over there the Catholics ..etc etc” . “What’s behind all those walled off sections?” asked the newcomer. “Ah, that’s the self opinionated from each persuasion; they think they are the only ones up here”.

    ‘There’s none as blind as them that say they see’.

  11. Alasdair says:

    Regarding the New Atheists’ such as Dawkins’ criticism of God for commanding the Hebrews to slay the Canaanites. Firstly they don’t believe that God exists so why do they waste ink? I would however listen to the comments from someone who does believe that God exists eg see http://www.equip.org/article/killing-the-canaanites/

    • Alan says:

      “… why do they waste ink?”

      I occasionally ask about and criticise/question religious ideas because I’m puzzled by them. I cannot resolve the problems they raise for me any more than I can for alternative views. Take existence and morality as quite common examples. Neither God nor science explain these things for me. Yet other seem so sure of themselves. I find this very curious. It interests me because I share a sentiment that the site you link to does – I think the truth matters.

      This isn’t limited to religion for either myself or Richard Dawkins. Alternative medicine springs to mind as another topic that comes up for me from time to time. If I remember rightly a T.V. documentary by Dawkins covered astrology amongst other things. I’ve also seen others test and challenge the beliefs of people who were confident that they could dowse for water. I suspect the non-believers in this case do what they do because they are interested in why these people believe. If they discover there is good reason for the dowser’s very strong confidence then that’s a really interesting discovery. On the other hand, if they find there isn’t good reason for the dowser’s confidence then that’s is a very interesting discovery too.

      The merits of the opposing views seem independent of the belief or non-belief of those holding them to me.

  12. FZM says:

    This isn’t limited to religion for either myself or Richard Dawkins. Alternative medicine springs to mind as another topic that comes up for me from time to time. If I remember rightly a T.V. documentary by Dawkins covered astrology amongst other things. I’ve also seen others test and challenge the beliefs of people who were confident that they could dowse for water. I suspect the non-believers in this case do what they do because they are interested in why these people believe. If they discover there is good reason for the dowser’s very strong confidence then that’s a really interesting discovery. On the other hand, if they find there isn’t good reason for the dowser’s confidence then that’s is a very interesting discovery too.

    There seems to be a strong difference between certain sorts of religious belief and claim and water dowsing, astrology and alternative medicine. If they are all conflated it can be indicative of some strong underlying metaphysical commitments or ideology. This is possible in the case of Dawkins, though his arguments were pretty vague and he seemed to rely a lot on assertion/polemical rhetoric.

    • Alan says:

      FZM – “If they are all conflated it can be indicative of some strong underlying metaphysical commitments or ideology.”

      This could be the case and it is something that I have heard suggested before. Alternatively the metaphysical commitment might lay in a need or desire to offer speculative answers to questions where knowledge and evidence are in short supply and to then keenly defend them. I’m not sure how we could tell which, if either, were at work or having the greater influence.

      Can we see any signs of where a difficulty might be? Quentin (and others) ask about an “in principle” solution to particular questions that haven’t been answered or even framed by science. I assume the implication is that without such we should consider a possible naturalistic answer to be either impossible, unlikely or less likely than the favoured alternative. Yet, as far as I can tell, there isn’t a single scientific discovery that we’ve made to date that wouldn’t at one time have been equally challenging for us to answer or even speculate about in any meaningful way. I could be wrong about this of course. But if so then I would have thought it possible to outline the basic form and essentials of such an answer for a familiar example. Perhaps mine was a poor example in this case or I didn’t express my question very well. Not to direct this at you but I’ll try once more for anyone willing :-

      Strip away what we now understand about mass, the Earth, spacetime or its curvature, other planets, weak gravitational force, etc. What, in principle, can science tell us about why things fall to the ground?

      The only response I can come up with is both true (to the best of our current knowledge) and entirely unrevealing about how likely it is to be true. This can’t be what others are concluding.

      • G.D says:

        Not exactly sure what you are asking … but ….
        Stripping away ‘understanding’ is stripping away science too, is it not? The reference points of ‘knowing’ we use to think of gravity, and anything else, would no longer be relevant, including scientific thought? There would be no principle to discover.

        When sitting in silent meditation – without thought – there is a ‘knowing’, but not an understanding. That’s not to do away with thoughts or understanding at ( the majority of) other times.
        The only thing i do understand in principle, is everything (including my understanding, and science) is as it is AND is continually evolving every ‘moment’. (Not that i believe in ‘time’ but that’s off topic).

      • Alan says:

        G.D.

        “Stripping away ‘understanding’ is stripping away science too, is it not? The reference points of ‘knowing’ we use to think of gravity, and anything else, would no longer be relevant, including scientific thought? There would be no principle to discover.”

        I can see why my question would make it seem that way. There doesn’t appear to be much, if anything, left to work with. But the things I listed are mere data that we’ve learned rather than anything fundamental to the methods or principles of science. My question could be answered, and someone could have guessed (hypothesised) the same answer that we now have, but it would have sounded like a fantasy. Just as my answer to Quetin’s question, if I had taken any kind of stab at it rather than admitting we just don’t know enough to speculate, would have sounded like wishful thinking too.

  13. FZM says:

    This could be the case and it is something that I have heard suggested before. Alternatively the metaphysical commitment might lay in a need or desire to offer speculative answers to questions where knowledge and evidence are in short supply and to then keenly defend them. I’m not sure how we could tell which, if either, were at work or having the greater influence.

    To explore this you could look more closely at how things like knowledge are being defined, what evidence is and what it’s relationship to knowledge is, and what the questions that we are supposed to lack the evidence or knowledge to answer are. In the case of Dawkins I remember that he touches on or hints at answers to questions like this but not in an explicit or systematic way (I guess it would potentially alienate readers, be awkward in polemical debate).

    For example, saying that all knowledge must be empirical, deriving from sense experience, and must involve making testable predictions would involve taking up a strong metaphysical position.

    Can we see any signs of where a difficulty might be? Quentin (and others) ask about an “in principle” solution to particular questions that haven’t been answered or even framed by science. I assume the implication is that without such we should consider a possible naturalistic answer to be either impossible, unlikely or less likely than the favoured alternative.

    I am assuming science is being defined in some more specific way than ‘organised body of knowledge’. For example, science might mean the three ‘exact sciences’, Biology, Chemistry and Physics. Or even more specific, science means Physics and that reality is ultimately reducible to and explainable by Physics.

    Using the first of these definitions, it’s hard to see that any question lies outside of science, or can’t be framed by science (because even theology would be part of science). Using the second and third, stronger arguments can be made that certain sorts of question can’t be framed by science and can’t be answered by science and that there are sources of knowledge of reality that lie outside science.

    It isn’t difficult to formulate a naturalistic view wherein everything bar extreme limit events (like, say the Second Coming or God deciding to make his existence know directly to every human in a way that it was impossible to doubt, something similar) has a naturalistic explanation, or must have a naturalistic explanation.

    But naturalism and science on the second and third definitions I offered would not be the same thing, and finding naturalistic explanations to everything would involve recourse to various non-scientific ideas and concepts. On the first definition both non-naturalism and naturalism could be part of science.

    Strip away what we now understand about mass, the Earth, spacetime or its curvature, other planets, weak gravitational force, etc. What, in principle, can science tell us about why things fall to the ground?

    Or, it is possible to keep these things in play and ask: what kind of explanation does invoking them offer, if it offers an explantion at all? (e.g. the Physics could be viewed as a description of how things are observed to happen, with little answer to the ‘why’ question. Or the same Physics could be seen as providing the ‘why’ answers as well, depending on the background metaphysics.)

    The only response I can come up with is both true (to the best of our current knowledge) and entirely unrevealing about how likely it is to be true.

    Does this move beyond global scepticism; I don’t know anything and I don’t even know that?

  14. Alan says:

    FZM,

    “I am assuming science is being defined in some more specific way than ‘organised body of knowledge’. For example, science might mean the three ‘exact sciences’, Biology, Chemistry and Physics. Or even more specific, science means Physics and that reality is ultimately reducible to and explainable by Physics.”

    I’m not being too strict about the definition. Quetin presumably has something of it in mind when he asked me the question such that it was difficult to answer from the point of view of an atheist and I’m entirely happy with that – whatever the details of it might be. There is certainly more to be explored by delving into the definitions and what follows from there. But, having seen such discussions before, I know I would struggle to follow them with a sense/hope that they were leading anywhere. At least anywhere that I could make sense of. I would generally rather leave that to others unless someone could peak my interest.

    “Or, it is possible to keep these things in play and ask: what kind of explanation does invoking them offer, ”

    Again, I’m sure this is possible and a perfectly valid line of enquiry, but I think there might be some value in sticking with the question as it stands.

    “Does this move beyond global scepticism; I don’t know anything and I don’t even know that?”

    Would your response to my question be any different than mine? As G.D. suggests above, what remains seems to leave us entirely adrift. The same basic question, the same broad definitions and, with a little consideration for when they are asked, the same answer in each case (albeit an entirely unsatisfactory and non-committal one). And then we would want to draw some sort of a conclusion from that (non-)answer?

  15. FZM says:

    Alan,

    I’m not being too strict about the definition. Quetin presumably has something of it in mind when he asked me the question such that it was difficult to answer from the point of view of an atheist and I’m entirely happy with that – whatever the details of it might be. There is certainly more to be explored by delving into the definitions and what follows from there. But, having seen such discussions before, I know I would struggle to follow them with a sense/hope that they were leading anywhere. At least anywhere that I could make sense of. I would generally rather leave that to others unless someone could peak my interest.

    As I understood it, Quentin’s point seemed to be aimed at scientism, not necessarily atheism as such. Though in the case of Dawkins the two seem closely linked because according to Dawkins (in theory) science is the basis of his atheism and for the kind of claims he makes against theism.

    Dawkins makes claims that have a certain similarity to those put forward by Quentin concerning consciousness and morality but broader in scope; explanations must be naturalistic otherwise they are not explanantions, there is no evidence for the existence of God and there can’t be any, if a claim has any impact on our existence it must be scientifically testable, belief in any claim without sufficient scientific evidence is both unjustified and dangerous and so on.

    In either case the justification for the statements seems to turn on definitions of the scientific and of scientific explanation.

    Would your response to my question be any different than mine? As G.D. suggests above, what remains seems to leave us entirely adrift. The same basic question, the same broad definitions and, with a little consideration for when they are asked, the same answer in each case (albeit an entirely unsatisfactory and non-committal one). And then we would want to draw some sort of a conclusion from that (non-)answer?

    I don’t think I really understand what your question was. As far as I can tell taking away all the details of our knowledge of gravity, or some other example of scientific knowledge with all the details taken out, you would be left with a discussion about scientific methods in general, about what features and qualities scientific explanations in general aught to have.

    Then I think scepticism about whether we know anything about where the demarcation between the scientific and the non-scientific is, what constitutes a scientific explanation, what the methods of scientific research are etc. would undercut Quentin’s point, but also all of those that Dawkins makes.

  16. Alan says:

    FZM,

    “In either case the justification for the statements seems to turn on definitions of the scientific and of scientific explanation. ”

    I can’t see it myself for the particular point I was trying to make, but that might only be due to my short-sightedness. Since the question I asked isn’t as clear or simple as I had hoped perhaps I should consider these definitions here. For Quentin’s question – “Has he ever attempted to show how science, even in principle, could explain these?” – is there a definition that you feel is appropriate to the point you believe he wished to make?

    “Then I think scepticism about whether we know anything about where the demarcation between the scientific and the non-scientific is, what constitutes a scientific explanation, what the methods of scientific research are etc. would undercut Quentin’s point, but also all of those that Dawkins makes.”

    My own stab at one of his views was my starting point.

    “He [Dawkins] is very reluctant to rule out the possibility of any scientific explanation without solid evidence.”

    His other views that you mention certainly sound familiar but it has been some time since I read or saw anything he has written/presented. I assume you feel that this too leads to the same need to explore definitions?

  17. FZM says:

    Alan,

    “In either case the justification for the statements seems to turn on definitions of the scientific and of scientific explanation. ”
    I can’t see it myself for the particular point I was trying to make, but that might only be due to my short-sightedness. Since the question I asked isn’t as clear or simple as I had hoped perhaps I should consider these definitions here. For Quentin’s question – “Has he ever attempted to show how science, even in principle, could explain these?” – is there a definition that you feel is appropriate to the point you believe he wished to make?

    Say Quentin understands ‘science’ to mean the three natural sciences (this seems to be something like what Dawkins has in mind at least), and I look at one of the examples of given, morality and moral judgement.

    Biology seems the most likely place to look for an explanation of morality. But, one generally accepted criteria for determining whether an explanation can count as part of Biology is that it doesn’t include any appeal to any kind of teleology. Apparent teleology has to be reducible to non-teleological processes.

    It is possible to argue that morality can’t be explained without reference to teleology. Removing the teleology eliminates key features of morality, the normative element, the idea of intentional and purposeful behaviour etc. So, rather than explaining these features, a Biological explanation would end up eliminating them. With Physics or Chemistry I guess the situation would be even starker.

    His other views that you mention certainly sound familiar but it has been some time since I read or saw anything he has written/presented. I assume you feel that this too leads to the same need to explore definitions?

    I think what you presented is too tentative to reflect Dawkins’ position. His position seems more like: either there is a scientific explanation or no explanation at all, it’s something that can’t be known.

    If scientific explanation is defined broadly it becomes a more or less a synonym of rational explanation. This makes the claim that it is impossible to rule out a scientific explanation almost trivially true (any rational explanation will be a scientific explanation). It also makes science so broadly defined useless as a stick to beat Theism and religious belief with (the use Dawkins wants to put it to) because natural theology and all kinds of other philosophy can be part of science.

  18. Alan says:

    FSM,

    “It is possible to argue that morality can’t be explained without reference to teleology.”

    And purpose is either “one element” or “the essential element” of morality which cannot be explained in terms of some biological or physical process? There is a separate argument that suggests that teleology (as perhaps an aspect of consciousness) is beyond the realms of science?

    I feel that if I follow this subject further we are going to have too much to discuss. No doubt it would be better for me if I were to research the subject somewhere else. But I have tried this before and I don’t have the stamina for it. I lose patience with wanting to ask questions of the authors when I cannot.

    “If scientific explanation is defined broadly it becomes a more or less a synonym of rational explanation. This makes the claim that it is impossible to rule out a scientific explanation almost trivially true (any rational explanation will be a scientific explanation).”

    Similar to the criticism “That which can explain everything explains nothing?”. Might this would lead us into a discussion about a meaningful definition of things non-scientific?

    Can we try a different approach for a moment?

    I would like to ask about how we might see this naturalism play out in practice. For someone that was committed to a natural explanation in this way – what would prevent them from being able to recognise an actual effect that was claimed to be supernatural? This is where I see the comparison with alternative medicine or dowsing etc. perhaps being appropriate. “The treatment is effective”, “I can detect water”, “the miraculous healing did happen”. Without being concerned with whether the explanation is natural or not, these are claims that can be tested. The Catholic church, for one, does try to test such things. I’ve the impression it chooses to limit its tests somewhat, but it does believe these things are real and recognisable (regardless of cause). Why can’t anyone collect this data? It happens in scientific research often enough after all. There are lots of things which remain unexplained and have sometimes been considered beyond hope of explanation. That doesn’t stop people accepting that they do indeed happen – no matter how strict or rigorous the examination or rare the event. The somewhat stark contrast doesn’t seem related to the cause.

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