Letter Responding to Comments on Dawkins Article

published in Quadrant 439 (September 2007), 5-6



Responses to my article on Dawkins and God  (May 2007) have fallen into two classes:  those that challenge my criticism of Dawkins’ atheism, and those that challenge my criticism of the morality on display in some Bible stories.  I will briefly respond to those in the first class, and then those in the second class.

          P. J. Moss suggests I am attracted to “the Cartesian notion of mind-body dualism,” and do not have regard to “the work of those philosophers of mind who … see the task of the philosopher as posing the problem into a precise enough form so that it admits of scientific resolution;” and he commends the work of John Searle.  I am indeed attracted to a kind of dualism.  However, it is not the Cartesian dualism of “two distinct realms” rejected by Searle, but rather a dualism that accepts, as Searle does, that there are two categories of empirical reality, subjective and objective, which are mutually irreducible (The Rediscovery of the Mind, pp19, 98), and that there are features of subjective reality that cannot be fully understood in terms of objective reality.  In a major work published in 2001, Rationality in Action, Searle even leaves open as a reasonable possibility a view I support, namely that consciousness may be able to cause things that cannot be fully explained by the causal behaviour of neurons, and he also supports a non-Humean notion of the self, as an entity that can, as a whole, consciously try to do things:  see my review in (2002) Journal of Consciousness Studies 9(2), 92-94.  In any event, my argument against Dawkins does not depend on acceptance of dualism, just on the undoubted fact that science does not yet have the first idea what objective features are necessary and sufficient to give rise to subjectivity.

          Robert McLaughlin makes out a reasoned case against my three suggested errors in Dawkins.  It would take a book to deal fully with points of the kind he raises (I tried with my 1991 book The Mind Matters, and I may try again), but I have to be brief here.  To say that the basis of all human moral values is simply human judgment begs the questions, whose human judgment and why should anyone else defer to that judgment?  If morality is based only on evolution-selected attitudes, then there is nothing to say which attitudes are to be accepted.  Reasoned arguments about morality must assume the contrary.  On consciousness, it is true that there are highly respected philosophers who argue that consciousness is purely physical, but there are powerful arguments to the contrary from equally respected philosophers.  In any event the short points I made about consciousness in my article, apart from my suggestion that consciousness itself may be beyond physical matters and laws, are I believe valid irrespective of what philosophical view of consciousness is accepted.  In my point about language, I am not suggesting that we should stop trying to understand.  On the contrary, I am suggesting that in trying to understand, we should not prematurely assume we already have the framework for a complete explanation of everything in terms of physical matter and physical laws, but rather should recognise that new concepts and frameworks will almost certainly be required, and should not be dismissive of the metaphors of religious belief.  I entirely agree that we should keep plugging away!

          Chris Poole suggests that religion is primitive and superfluous.  But there are questions that science cannot answer, such as how should we live our lives; and these questions deserve rational consideration, and require a broader view than science can provide about what we are and what our place in the universe is.

          Moving to criticisms of the second class, James Franklin suggests that celebration of the Passover does not mean celebrating everything to do with the original story, for the same reason that marking Anzac Day does not imply approving of military blunders.  I think there are differences.  The Gallipoli campaign may have been a blunder and may have resulted in huge casualties on both sides, but it was neither a war crime nor terrorism, and the courage and sacrifice of the soldiers are matters for admiration and gratitude.  But if it had been a war crime or terrorism, I do not think it could be celebrated, particularly if the name given to it drew attention to the crime.  Suppose that the Madrid train bombing had resulted not just in Spanish troops withdrawing from Iraq, but the release of a large number of people who had been oppressed by the Spanish government.  If those people and their descendants celebrated their liberation on each anniversary of the bombing under the name Madrid Day, it would be difficult to say they did not condone terrorism.  I am not saying that celebration of the Passover necessarily condones terrorism, but rather that celebration of the Passover as an occasion when God selectively killed children to induce Pharaoh to release the Israelites would be to condone terrorism.

          Rabbi Apple takes me to task for writing “an opinionated piece relying on [my] own judgment without considering the scholarship on the question.”  The views set out in the article are indeed my opinions, but they are supported by relevant arguments.  I am not dismissive of faith or theology, as is Dawkins, but I do argue that faith and theology should defer to reasonable morality.  The contrary view, that faith and theology should prevail over reasonable morality, would itself need to be supported by reasoned arguments that do not assume divine authority.  In any event, how could Kierkegaard’s questionable idea of  “the teleological suspension of the ethical” justify bringing up children to believe that the killing of all the firstborn of a nation in order to put pressure on its government is something to applaud and celebrate, or that Joshua’s killing of every inhabitant of the defeated city of Jericho was a good thing?  I don’t think Christians and Jews would accept that Islamic faith and theology could justify bringing up children to believe that suicide bombers act rightly, or that it is right to inflict dire punishment on those who decide to convert from Islam to Christianity or Judaism.  Wherein lies the difference?  In a world where some religious teachings support extreme violence against enemies, these matters deserve reasoned and unbiased reflection.

          Greg Clarke does not directly explain why, if it was unacceptable for Abraham to kill his own son, it was acceptable for God to command it, or why Abraham’s willingness to do it counted as passing a test rather than willingness to do something unacceptable.  When Clarke comes to the tenth plague, he says it was not immoral because it was the Creator dealing with his creatures, and he may intend that this explanation also apply to the Abraham story.  My suggestion is that it is not reasonable to believe in a God who is conceived of as good, just and loving, but nevertheless does things that, if done by human beings, would be grossly unjust and immoral.  For reasons I gave in my article, morality cannot reasonably be regarded as depending solely on God’s commands, since that would make human morality purely a matter of prudence; so I do not see that God can reasonably be regarded as wholly above morality.  Not withstanding Clarke’s suggestion to the contrary, I do try to approach these questions with due intelligence, humility and diligence in being informed; but I don’t think this requires one to assume in advance that the Bible is divinely inspired, and I think it is reasonable to regard immorality in Bible stories as counting against this.

          Similar comments apply to the letter from Henk Jens.  Henk Jens appeals to deeper meanings in the stories of Abraham and Isaac and the Passover, and to the ability of God to restore life when he has taken it.  But Jens does not consider whether this could justify Joshua in killing every man, woman and child in the defeated city of Jericho, or whether it means it is right for God’s followers to kill innocent people because they believe God has told them to, or what would count as acceptable evidence that God has done so.


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