Delusion in the Delusion

One could logically demonstrate vast parts of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion to be nothing but delusion.

Man can exist without science but the story of science has no existence without man—the being who created it as a refuge, a very poor one indeed, and at best a means to better comprehend a tiny aspect of the universe in order to appreciate the greatness that surrounds him.


One could logically demonstrate vast parts of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion to be nothing but delusion.

Really? You may dislike the book, but you're going to have a very hard time demonstrating that any of it is a "delusion". I don't believe you can do it - but I'm happy to entertain your attempts.

And your reference to "a tiny aspect of the universe" is somewhat unfortunate. As Carl Sagan and others have pointed out, traditional religions are so fixated on a tiny region of space and time - such as parts of the Middle East region of this planet Earth, one or two thousand years ago - that they are far too small to do justice to the scope, majesty, and wonder of the real universe.

Posted by Geoff Arnold on March 28, 2007 at 04:49 PM PDT #

Hi Geoff - I hope all is going well ...

Yes. I only reciprocated with the same amount of philosophical seriousness with which he has examined his own subject. Using red herring as a method of argument should be far below a man of letters. Dawkins proves the opposite. In other words, he does not even make an attempt to understand the theosophical arguments on their own terms. Since he has not done this, he cannot use the terminology of theosophers. In other words, I think the word "God" in his title means something quite different and special to his own argument and only comprehensible within Dawkins belief system, with absolutely no relevance to the "God" of theosophers. (In his NPR interview with T. Gross, he starts using "Gods" in his existence terminology and in the middle of the interview. So, perhaps, he should have used "'Gods' Delusion" as the title of his work.) This only proves that he has not even settled on his own meaning of what he means by the word "God".

Leaving terminology aside for a moment ... I now turn to a second methodological problem.

All principles or methodologies of thinking finally reduce to some belief. The question then becomes what it is one believes and what range of validity one admits for one's beliefs.

Dawkins doesn't seem to be bothered with any pangs of humulity with regards to the limitations of his own understanding. Plausible theories, hypothesis and interpretation of some facts do not together mean that one has understood the truth about existence. Such practice only means one has come to attach oneself to some explanation of some aspects of it. One has found a temporary refuge.

Without accepting the limitations of one's understanding, it is impossible to move forward. Once we understand those limitations, we should also accept that we might be totally wrong, or at least accept that we have admitted some explanation through belief.

It seems to me that intellectual honesty would at least bring people to fall on the second alternative, i.e. to accept that they merely have a belief systems, nothing more and nothing else.

... and of course, not all belief systems are of the same value or consequence. Nevertheless, they all have one thing in common. They are all partial and limited--some more than others.

We are then led to start on what it is that determines a good belief vs. a bad or inadequate one.

Posted by M. Mortazavi on March 28, 2007 at 06:10 PM PDT #

Science is merely the best process that man has so far devised in order to arrive at an understanding of the universe that surrounds him - it's hardly a refuge from anything! The universe is what it is, regardless of our level of understanding of it - which has increased over time, and will presumably continue to do so. At this moment in time our level of knowledge is far from complete, but there's no shame in that - being in the middle of a journey doesn't mean that you haven't already made significant achievements along the way. Saying that 'the story of science has no existence without man' is self evident, but not very profound or insightful!

Posted by Ian Baker on March 28, 2007 at 06:34 PM PDT #

\* Man can exist without science but the story of science has no existence without man Notice the slight-of-hand there... science vs the story of science.

Posted by Bosco on March 28, 2007 at 09:34 PM PDT #

Ah, the old "philosophical seriousness" objection. The problem is that it is ultimately question-begging.

My favourite response to this is what PZ has dubbed the Courtier's Reply.

And yes, thank you: things are going very well for me. Life at in Seattle agrees with me!

Posted by Geoff Arnold on March 28, 2007 at 11:35 PM PDT #

Bosco - Thanks for your note but there is no slight-of-the hand here.

Science is but a story, or a perspective on reality, and no more. It has no inherent "truth."

In fact, at its very core and its very best, it presumes that all its statements could be false.

Science itself has come to realize the existence other worlds, for example, within the constraints of its own vocabulary of existence. (See Michio Kaku's Parallel Worlds.)

As a story, Science attracts largest number of listeners because of a degree of cosmically limited material power and control it offers.

For more on this topic, from a Western point of view, I would recommend Scottish philosopher John MacMurray's work: Science, Art and Religion. You will find other works in the East that comprehend the subject in other subtle ways. See Mulla Sadra, Sohrevardy, Gazzali, Confucius and Mencius to start with. These classical thinkers should not be under-estimated but their study requires a free mind-set and a good teacher. I've certainly not been through them all.

Posted by M. Mortazavi on March 29, 2007 at 02:36 AM PDT #

I agree with Geoff. Even though Dawkins had to indulge in a small amount of philosophical hand waving around the fundamental requirement of accepting evidence as proof, it is very small indeed and he points it out. As he says, we accept evidence in large areas of our lives since very early childhood, and you have to start from something. Once you accept this, the rest follows naturally.

Some of the most common criticisms of Dawkins has been the short shift he gives to the classical philosophical arguments. I think that is one of the most important aspects of the book. It makes it very obvious where the a priori arguments lead if you reject the obvious conclusions.

Posted by Brian Utterback on March 29, 2007 at 03:49 AM PDT #

Dear Ian -

It is hard for me to buy the argument that science is in the middle of some journey that progressively gets us closer to understanding the truth about the world.

In my view and experience, for every door science has opened, it has found many more doors behind it. Questions beget other questions. Of course, I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with this inifite search and I have no feeling of discomfort about this unsettled characteristic of science. However, one should not deny that science only begets more questions within each of its questions.

In short, I would have no problem if we viewed science as a humble act of continuous wondering about the world and its essence but not one that can make a credible claim to have discovered its actual essence. That would go against not only scientific humility but it would also destroy the spirit of wonder.

Science at its worse provides instruments of material control and power.

At its best, science would be a humble wondering about order and beauty in the structure of world.

Posted by M. Mortazavi on March 30, 2007 at 04:04 PM PDT #

Brian -

I would say the greatest flaw in Dawkins is the use of red herring, and a less than honest attempt to comprehend the subject about which he is writing. (Please see my first comment above.)

Dawkins has placed himself in a house of mirrors, each mirror reflecting back to him his own ideas and notions. It is ironic that in those places where he has bothered with a modicum of a dialog (not a real dialog), he finds himself in danger of drawing the oppositte conclusions.

A Socrates, asking a few simple questions, would have helped him break a few of those mirrors.

Posted by M. Mortazavi on March 30, 2007 at 04:12 PM PDT #

"[Writing] will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to other, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. [...] You provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. [...] But it is much nobler to be serious about these matters, and use the art of the dialectic. The dialectician chooses a proper soul and plants and sows within it discourse accompanied by knowledge - discourse capable of helping itself as well as the man who planted it, which is not barren but produces a seed from which more discourse grows in the character of others. Such discourse makes the seed forever immortal and renders the man who has it as happy as any human being can be." (Plato, Phaedrus, 275a-b, 276e, 277)

Posted by Roberto Chinnici on April 01, 2007 at 10:09 AM PDT #

Roberto -

Thank you. This is a very apt and relevant quote drawing our attention to the important difference between writing and the dialogue!

(I also alluded to this difference some time ago, perhaps less directly, under the title "Plato on Writing to Forget.")

Posted by M. Mortazavi on April 01, 2007 at 01:51 PM PDT #

You're welcome. Plato's statements on writing are well-known, but I had (temporarily, I guess) forgotten how dramatically and directly he contrasted writing with the dialectical method, all in the space of two pages. Your mention of Socrates in an earlier comment must have jolted my memory.

I can't comment on the specifics of Dawkins' book, since I haven't read it yet. The link to the Courtier's Reply is priceless though, thanks Geoff!

Posted by Roberto Chinnici on April 01, 2007 at 03:42 PM PDT #

If you would like a quick summary of the book from the author himself, you may want to listen to Terry Gross' interview with Dawkins.

For those familiar with methodological issues, H. Allen Orr's review of Dawkins tract would prove worth reading.

Reflecting on my earlier comments, I can only concur with Orr that Dawkins demonstrates absolutely no understanding of Ludwig Witgenstein's work on truth, certainty, belief, language, its use and play. Neither does he demonstrate an appreciation of methodological questions. The reader should not expect any real example of hermeneutics (science of interpretation) when reading Dawkins. Besides the fact that he is locked in his own vocabulary and world view, he assumes, without questioning, his methodology for discovering truth to be valid and not prone to major errors.

Posted by M. Mortazavi on April 01, 2007 at 04:37 PM PDT #

I still do not understand what you mean by the "red herring" in Dawkins book. While Orr has a point, it is the same one that I mentioned in my first comment, and is very aptly answered in "The Courtier's Reply" linked to above. If we apply scientific reasoning to the subject, then the conclusion is inescapable. If we allow other types of reasoning, then other possible conclusions become possible. Since scientific reasoning requires only two small leaps of faith (that our senses supply data on reality and that casuality is real) while most other theological reasoning either requires more leaps or negates these, it seems natural to follow the scientific system.

For instance the old philosophical argument that the universe could have come into existence one minute ago, with all of the atoms arranged just so in a manner to be consistent with a universe billions of years old including all of our memories, is irrefutable. However, it is also quite uninteresting. There is no and can be no evidence for or against it, so are we to argue that it must be true? This is exactly what Dawkins means when he says "There is almost certainly no God", namely that the methods of reasoning that would refute his conclusion are likewise without evidence, but might still be true. He rejects them in the same manner, allowing the possibility that they may be valid and true, but seeing no evidence that this is so.

One interesting thing to note, is that many reviewers (including Orr) suggest that Dawkins is seeking converts. I do not think this is so. As he states in the book, one of the differences between a scientist and a religious person is that a scientist knows what evidence would convince him to change his mind, while one of the facets of religion that Dawkins dislikes is that it teaches that no amount of contrary evidence is enough. That's why Dawkins thinks religion is so dangerous, that once lodged in the mind, it is virtually impossible to get it out again.

So, I cannot believe that he really expects to convert any religious person to atheism. No, his targets are people that already are atheists and either to not admit it to themselves or to others. He is saying that it is okay to be an atheist.

It is interesting to note that a recent poll showed that most Americans would be willing to vote for a black, a woman or a jew for president, but not for an atheist. The irony of this is that while we have not yet had a black, woman or jewish president, we have very likely already had atheist presidents.

Posted by Brian Utterback on April 01, 2007 at 10:29 PM PDT #

Brian - A very good comment. I did read it a couple of days ago but have not had a chance to sit down and write my response. Hopefuly, soon, I will. Good stuff.

In summary, this is what I plan to do in my response.

My analysis will look at the concepts of causality and sense perception. I will start with Hume on causality and then develop the concept of probabilities as a tool, in response to Hume's critique of human understanding of causes, and note some meaninglessness in such probabilistic analysis (using actual example/evidence to look at the absurdity of the concept of "low-probability" events, that in fact, keep happening) and then move to sense perception, and note the variety of sense perception experience, through the evidence of artists' actual works and their stupendous variety, and then, I will wonder about the difference between the artistic digestion of sense-perception and the scientific one, borrowing from John MacMurray, a bit, here.

As far as the "red herring" is concerned, I meant it indirectly. I will describe that. I will then show that perhaps I should have affixed, instead, the label of "straw man" argumentation techniques, where I affixed "red herring" ...

All this, in detail, later ... I hope ... but if this little bit encourages you enough for a reply ... I welcome it, still.

Posted by M. Mortazavi on April 03, 2007 at 12:26 PM PDT #

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