Awful Authorities

I was reading an article by Richard Dawkins about why there is almost certainly no God. It’s impressive in how aggressively he misunderstands the subject matter, but it’s even more impressive how much he misunderstands what people have said about it. The way that he casually assumes he completely understands scholastic terminology—as if the scholastic philosophers like Aquinas were writing in conversational English—is a masterwork of arrogant stupidity, to be sure, but that’s not what I want to talk about. It would also be interesting to consider Dawkins as a Martin Luther Lite—Martin Luther was both supremely arrogant and not very bright—but at the moment I’m more interested in the people who accept Dawkins as an authority on religious matters. (I mean authority in the logical sense; to accept his characterization of an opponent’s arguments instead of reading those arguments in full in their original context is to accept Dawkins as an authority in this sense.)

To anyone capable of understanding brilliant thinkers like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Nietzsche, or Heidegger, Richard Dawkins is notable only for how utterly average he is. To put it colloquially, as a philosopher, he’d probably make an OK—but not great—bricklayer. An intelligent atheist who has studied philosophy and religion would be embarrassed by Richard Dawkins. So why do so many people respect and follow him?

The answer lies, I think, in how varying intelligence levels relate to intelligibility. This is especially observable in how people of varying intelligence levels follow arguments. Logical arguments for non-trivial things are very rarely made with every step in the argument being stated explicitly. It would take far too long, and explicitly stating connections between statements which are obvious makes an explanation seem dull, plodding, and even insulting. But which connections are obvious and which need to be stated explicitly depends on both the intelligence and the knowledge of the person trying to follow the argument. (For brevity, I will concentrate on the intelligence side of that, though the reality is more complicated because of the knowledge dimension, but the generalization from intelligence to intelligence-and-knowledge is relatively straight-forward.)

While explaining steps in an argument which are obvious to the reader can make the argument ponderous and boring, omitting steps which the reader cannot supply will make the argument entirely unintelligible. People can’t explain something at a higher level of intelligence than what they possess and most people will naturally explain an argument at the level of detail which they don’t find ponderous.  Now, while I think that intelligence is distributed among the population more like a poisson distribution than a bell curve, even if it is a bell curve, the inability to read (by lack of mental capacity, not whether one has been taught) forms a lower-level cutoff even to a bell curve, so either way, there is a large fraction of the population which is towards the effective bottom of the intelligence scale.

Given all of this, the most natural thing in the world is for people popular among people of average intelligence to be very slightly above them in intelligence. The slight edge will give them things to explain, but being very close means that (without much effort) their explanations will be intelligible. It is of course possible for a more intelligent person to condescend (in the etymological sense of the world—to come down and be with) to his less intelligent brethren; G.K. Chesterton is a great example of this because he was both  brilliant and quite popular. Still, the gift to understand people unlike oneself is relatively rare, as is the gift of being a good writer, and these two together with the willingness to expend the energy to condescend are rarer still. Still, it does happen, and so popularity does not give us any ability to predict the intelligence of the popular person.

But this does make Richard Dawkins’ popularity intelligible. A person who is in no position to judge whether Dawkins is right about religion will get the pleasure of being presented an intelligible thing, which can be convincing if it is in no way thought about. The less intelligent a person is, the more effort it takes to think about whether new information is congruent with what else is known about the world, making it especially unlikely for a person of average intelligence to think about whether Dawkins’ explanation is not only self-consistent but also consistent with the rest of the world.

Thus what Dawkins is doing may be regarded as a sort of unintentional seduction. His poor understanding has some explanatory power which is made very intelligible by it having been assembled specifically to appeal to an average intellect (his). It is then explained in a very intelligible way because he explains it at the ideal pace for a person of average intellect to understand it (i.e. at the pace he would want to read it).

This suggests that the best way to counter it is by presenting arguments which are similarly maximally intelligible to people of average intelligence. This is quite distinct from the strongest arguments against Dawkins’ position, and this is why I am leary about relying too heavily on cosmological arguments. They are incredibly powerful, but they are not simple. They rely on things like understanding that there cannot be an actual infinite regress. I love the argument from contingency, and in fact when I teach The Catholic Moral System in RCIA that is my starting point precisely because we can learn so much about God from it. But if people don’t always perfectly follow it, still, when I speak about the conclusions like God existing outside of time and space, or that God is perfectly happy and doesn’t need us, or that God’s relationship to us is one of pure gift from Him to us with no reciprocity, it works for them to take my word for it that this is catholic dogma, or even to recognize the truths as true once stated as the verbal formulation of something already intuitively known. They wouldn’t be in the Rite of Catholic Initiation for Adults if they didn’t already believe the faith is true, or at least very strongly suspect it (people are welcome to use RCIA to learn more about the faith and drop out if they think it was a mistake).

When it comes to people who are skeptical about the faith, I think that they will generally need something which they can not only accept, but something which they can fully recognize as true. For that reason, I don’t think that the argument from contingency (or other cosmological arguments) are the ideal way to go in arguing with most atheists. A much more intuitive argument is the argument from design, but since one of the pillars of Dawkinsian atheism is a creation myth based on the scientific theory of evolution plus a little astronomy, the argument from design is much less effective than it should be.

(I should mention that I’m not talking about a god of the gaps argument like you find supported by people like Michael Behe in Darwin’s Black Box. Rather, I mean that if you look at the world, it is imperfect but in the main rationally ordered according to a hierarchy of being. A hierarchy implies that there is something at the top. More colloquially: the universe looks like a work of art, and art implies an artist.)

Since this very natural proof for God is no longer very effective, I think that a better approach would be to argue from morality. This is an argument which is not yet well developed. Atheists generally dismiss the version of it which runs, “why would you be good if you weren’t afraid of going to hell”, and indeed this is not a great argument, though the way that the atheists dismiss it is worse. “I don’t need God to be good,” Christopher Hitchens famously said, and it would have sounded better if it wasn’t coming from a drunkard who abandoned the mother of his children to take up with another woman. But in any event this misses the point, because no one ever asked atheists how they will do something moral if they happen to feel like doing it, but why they would do it even if they don’t feel like doing it. I’ve never yet heard an answer to that question, except a few indignant yet half-hearted attempts to prove that everyone feels like doing the right thing in all cases. (Except the mentally ill, who should be medically treated, of course.)

That being said, despite the weakness of the atheist answer to even a childish argument from morality, I think that a more adult form of it would be vastly better. In particular, the fact that we recognize morality at all means that the world matters. The existence of morality proves that the world is real and not reducible to the meaningless arrangement of sub-atomic particles that New Atheists would have us believe. The New Atheists have a number of just-so stories to explain away morality as post-hoc rationalizations for instinctual behavior, but that’s obviously not true, and in general I don’t think that these arguments could persuade even a child. Work is needed, to be sure, to explain how morality is necessarily tied to God, but I suspect if done well this line of argumentation is more likely to be persuasive to the sort of person who finds Dawkins credible on religion.

3 thoughts on “Awful Authorities

  1. Speaking as an atheist who loves philosophy, I certainly agree with you as regards Dawkins. He quite often pronounces upon subjects with which he is laughably ignorant as if he has full understanding of that subject matter. Unfortunately, there seems to be a strange quirk in society which doesn’t understand that brilliance in one area does not necessarily imply brilliance in other areas. Dawkins is a very good biologist and a wonderful educator and popularizer of that science. He is, however, an extremely poor philosopher.

    Incidentally, I’ve made similar complaints on my own blog about apologists (particularly William Lane Craig) pronouncing upon matters of science and mathematics with which they are largely ignorant.

    I am rather curious about one thing you said, though:

    Rather, I mean that if you look at the world, it is imperfect but in the main rationally ordered according to a hierarchy of being.

    What do you mean when you say that the world is rationally ordered according to a hierarchy of being?


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