Monday, 16 April 2012

Dawkins Versus Pell

Just reading the ABC transcript of Richard Dawkins versus Cardinal Pell answering questions. Richard Dawkins is coming across more and more like the Dr Terry Tommyrot parody of himself. Here is Dawkins:

RICHARD DAWKINS: "Why?" is a silly question. "Why?" is a silly question. You can ask, "What are the factors that led to something coming into existence?" That's a sensible question. But "What is the purpose universe?" is a silly question. It has no meaning.

Tommyrot: Well, for one fairly obvious reason: these people believe any book which has Dawkins' name on the cover, and these books say a lot of very silly things.

Dawkin's bandies the word "silly" around with a fervour that would even have one of the Monty Python team wondering if they had too many said "silly" too many times in a sketch, and it did him no favours, because it meant that Pell could come back with a soft question that completely changed the mood of the discussion:

RICHARD DAWKINS: The question why is not necessarily a question that deserves to be answered. There are all sorts of questions that people can ask like "What is the colour of jealousy?" That's a silly question.


RICHARD DAWKINS: "Why?" is a silly question. "Why?" is a silly question. You can ask, "What are the factors that led to something coming into existence?" That's a sensible question. But "What is the purpose universe?" is a silly question. It has no meaning.

GEORGE PELL: Could I just interpose very briefly.

TONY JONES: Very briefly.

GEORGE PELL: I think it's a very poignant and real question to ask, "Why is there suffering?"

Pell has, of course, done his homework thoroughly, but Dawkins just as obviously is just appearing as a pundit, and has not really looked for weakness in Pell's position prior to their meeting. This comes through to quite strong effect in the following exchange:

TONY JONES: Well, can I just put a question to you? Could you ever provide Richard Dawkins with the sort of proof he requires for belief? Scientific proof of the existence of God?

GEORGE PELL: No, because I think he only accepts proof that is rooted in sense experience. In other words he excludes the world of metaphysics, say the principle of contradiction, and he excludes the possibility of arguments that don't go against reason but go beyond it. But could I make one little suggestion as to why Richard calls himself an atheist? Because in one of his blogs in 2002, he was discussing whether he's an agnostic or a non-theist. He said he prefers to use the term atheist because it is more explosive. It's more dynamic. You can shake people up, whereas if you're just going around saying you're an agnostic or a non theist, it's - these are his own words.

TONY JONES: Well, let's let Richard Dawkins respond.

RICHARD DAWKINS: I don't remember saying that. It wouldn't totally surprise me. It's...

GEORGE PELL: It's in 2002.

And again, by doing his homework, Pell not only wrong foots Dawkins, because he has evidently done more reading up that Dawkins of Krauss:

RICHARD DAWKINS: Well, something can come from nothing and that is what physicists are now telling us. I could give you - you asked me to give you a layman's interpretation. It would be very, very layman's interpretation. When you have matter and antimatter and you put them together, they cancel each other out and give rise to nothing. What Lawrence Krauss is now suggesting is that if you start with nothing the process can go into reverse and produce matter and antimatter. The theory is still being worked out. It is a very difficult theory, mathematical theory. I'm not qualified to answer the question but what I am sure about is that it most certainly is not solved by postulating an intelligence, a creative intelligence, who raises even bigger questions of his own existence. That certainly is not going to be the answer, whatever else is.

TONY JONES: George Pell.

GEORGE PELL: Thank you. The trouble well, there are many troubles with Richard's teachings but a fundamental one is that he dumbs down God and he soups up nothing. He continually talks as though God is some sort of up market figure within space and time. Now, from 450, 500 BC where, with the Greek philosophers, God is outside space and time. God is necessary, self-sufficient, uncaused, unconditioned. That's the hypothesis you've got to wrestle with. The second thing is that Krauss says nothing about the big bang coming out of nothing and admittedly he comes clean about six pages from the end of his book and I don't know whether Richard has read it that far because he gave it a forward. What he says is what Richard is describing as nothing is a sort of mixture of particles and perhaps a vacuum with electromagnetic forces working on it. That's what Krauss is talking about under the heading of nothing and there's a very good review of this in the New York Times, not a pro religious paper at all, where Krauss is absolutely denied and demolished, although especially by his supporters claiming that he says things come out of nothing. He doesn't say that.

There was also later a very interesting, and quite amusing discussion with Pell on whether atheists could go to heaven. I love the presenter's comment "you're the only authority we have here"!

MATTHEW THOMPSON: I am an atheist. What do you think will happen when I die and how do you know?

TONY JONES: George Pell, we'll start with you? You ought to be an authority on this, I imagine?

GEORGE PELL: Well, I know from the Christian point of view, God loves everybody but every genuine motion towards the truth is a motion towards God and when an atheist dies, like everybody else, they will be judged on the extent to which they have moved towards goodness and truth and beauty but in the Christian view, God loves everyone except those who turn his back turn their back on him through evil acts.

TONY JONES: So atheism is not an evil act?

GEORGE PELL: No, not - well, no, in most cases it's not.

TONY JONES: So I guess to get to the point of the question, I suppose - I mean he may be having a little wager here but is it possible for an atheist to go to heaven?

GEORGE PELL: Well, it's not my business.

TONY JONES: You're the only authority we have here.

GEORGE PELL: I would say certainly.

It's an interesting discussion. Pell seems to have the odd notion that evolution means that human beings are descended from Neanderthals. For once, he doesn't seem to have done his homework. Nevertheless, he does not disbelieve in evolution as such - "Well, science and religion are two different activities and in the Catholic Church you can believe, to some extent, what you like about evolution"

Dawkins corrects him and calls them "nearest cousins" thus showing his ignorance of more recent DNA findings which indicate some interbreeding, which was first a news story from a study in 2010, and has since been confirmed by other studies - "A newly mapped Neanderthal genome reveals that between one and four percent of DNA of many humans today came from Neanderthals."

I'd say that mostly Dawkins and Pell try to score points rather than try to listen to what the other is saying.

Dawkins weakness is that he always goes for the facile type of sound-bite presentation, as for instance:

TONY JONES: Yes, Richard Dawkins, I'm a bit confused about this because you just referred to yourself moments ago as being an atheist and yet, with the Archbishop of Canterbury, you referred to yourself as an agnostic?

RICHARD DAWKINS: In the God Delusion I make a seven-point scale. One is I'm totally confident there is a God. Seven is I'm totally confident there is not a God. Six is to all intents and purposes I'm an atheist. I live my life as though there is no God but any scientist of any sense will not say that they positively can disprove the existence of anything. I cannot disprove the existence of the Easter Bunny and so I am agnostic about the Easter Bunny. It's in the same respect that I am agnostic about God.

He sidesteps evolutionists like Stephen Jay Gould, who have a very different idea of agnosticism. As Gould's widow stated: ""For the record, my late husband, Stephen Jay Gould, told me many times that he was an agnostic and not an 'atheist.'" Indeed, Gould once described how he was asked whether religion and evolution were compatible:

At lunch, the priests called me over to their table to pose a problem that had been troubling them. What, they wanted to know, was going on in America with all this talk about "scientific creationism"? One asked me: "Is evolution really in some kind of trouble. and if so, what could such trouble be? I have always been taught that no doctrinal conflict exists between evolution and Catholic faith, and the evidence for evolution seems both entirely satisfactory and utterly overwhelming. Have I missed something?"

A lively pastiche of French, Italian, and English conversation then ensued for half an hour or so, but the priests all seemed reassured by my general answer: Evolution has encountered no intellectual trouble; no new arguments have been offered. Creationism is a homegrown phenomenon of American sociocultural history-a splinter movement (unfortunately rather more of a beam these days) of Protestant fundamentalists who believe that every word of the Bible must be literally true, whatever such a claim might mean. We all left satisfied, but I certainly felt bemused by the anomaly of my role as a Jewish agnostic, trying to reassure a group of Catholic priests that evolution remained both true and entirely consistent with religious belief.

I can't imagine that happening with Dawkins. But for Gould, agnosticism meant keeping the matter of belief in reserve, of not deciding whether there is a God or not. As he stated:

I am not a believer. I am an agnostic in the wise sense of  T.H Huxley, who coined the word in identifying such open-minded scepticism as the only rational position because, truly, one cannot know. Nonetheless, in my own departure from parental views, I have great respect for religion. The subject has always fascinated me, beyond almost all others (with a few exceptions, like evolution, paleontology, and baseball).

Dawkins seems to be using the term agnostic in a much more provocative way, with his introduction of the "Easter Bunny", which is an example of a cheap shot fired off mainly for effect.

On the other hand, Pell doesn't do very well when pressed to defend the notion of the "body of Christ"

GEORGE PELL: No, I don't. I follow it, I understand it, according to a system of metaphysics. It was spelled out by the Greeks before Christ came, which we have adopted and that is there is a substance which is the core of a being and it is revealed to us through what are called accidents. Now, I believe that the core of the being becomes the bread, becomes the body and blood of Christ and continues to look exactly as it was. We believe that in the Catholic Church. Now, I know you're a cultural Anglican and we can't blame the Anglican...

Fortunately for him Dawkins is no philosopher, or he would have pressed Pell to answer if the Aristotelian substance / accidents schema was a philosophical interpretation which has no place in modern physics, and cannot be seen as underlying the text of the New Testament.

Pell is also rather vindictive in his notion of hell as punishment:

GEORGE PELL: Thank you. Preparing them for the first communion and they were very patriotic young lads and one of them announced very breezily to me that he didn't believe in hell and I mean certainly the idea of any child being sent to hell, I agree that that is grotesque and that's not the Christian God but, anyhow, I said to this kid - I said simply "Hitler. You think Hitler might be in hell? Started the Second World War, caused the death of 50 million or would you prefer a system where Hitler got away with it for free?" Anyhow the little kid was quite patriotic and he said, "Mm." He realised hell was in with a chance if Hitler was going to go there.

TONY JONES: What about a system where he was obliterated and didn't exist anymore?

GEORGE PELL: Well, he would have got away with too much, as far as I am concerned.

In conclusion, it is an interesting debate, but I don't think I'd agree with either side. Dawkins is too keen to score cheap shots, and has clearly spent so much time as a TV pundit that he's not been doing his homework properly, as seen by his forgetting the recent discoveries on Neanderthal DNA. Pell, meantime, has done a lot of work before the debate, but some of his statements need a proper philosopher to challenge, and unfortunately Dawkins has no philosophical training, nor seems to have made up for this deficiency since he was trounced by Mary Midgeley for the slippery use he made of the term "selfish" in "The Selfish Gene".


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