Continuing discussion.

EPS Blog

This is the blog area for the Evangelical Philosophical Society and its journal, Philosophia Christi.

Monday, March 1, 2010

New Paper Critiquing Dawkins' New Atheism Published in 'Think'

My paper 'The Emperor's Incoherent new Clothes - Pointing the Finger at Dawkins' Atheism' has just been published in the latest edition of Think (Number 24, Volume 9, Spring 2010).

Think is a Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, edited by Stephen Law and published by Cambridge University Press.

I argue that Richard Dawkins' 'new atheism' proffers self-contradictory ideas about moral value, knowledge and responsibility.

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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Thomas Nagel On Intelligent Design Again

Having previously reviewed Thomas Nagel's sympathetic treatment of Michael J. Behe's argument for Intelligent Design Theory in The Edge of Evolution (Free Press, 2007), it's interesting to note Nagel's continuing interest in ID. In the recent edition of the Times Literary Supplement he names Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design as one of his books of the year. The TLS website posted a preview of Nagel’s endorsement:
Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell: DNA and the evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperCollins) is a detailed account of the problem of how life came into existence from lifeless matter – something that had to happen before the process of biological evolution could begin. The controversy over Intelligent Design has so far focused mainly on whether the evolution of life since its beginnings can be explained entirely by natural selection and other non-purposive causes. Meyer takes up the prior question of how the immensely complex and exquisitely functional chemical structure of DNA, which cannot be explained by natural selection because it makes natural selection possible, could have originated without an intentional cause. He examines the history and present state of research on non-purposive chemical explanations of the origin of life, and argues that the available evidence offers no prospect of a credible naturalistic alternative to the hypothesis of an intentional cause. Meyer is a Christian, but atheists, and theists who believe God never intervenes in the natural world, will be instructed by his careful presentation of this fiendishly difficult problem.
As I argue in my paper 'Atheists Against Darwinism' (hosted on the EPS website), Nagel's reason for being instructed but unconvinced concerning ID is actually self-contradictory!

Signature in the Cell was previously named one of the top ten best-selling science books of the year by Amazon.com.

Also in the TLS

I'd encourage Matthew Cobb, reviewing two recent books with a Darwinian perspective, also in the TLS - cf. 'Evolution, RNA and the power of natural selection' (December 2nd 2009) - to read Nagel on ID. Doing so might at least temper his re-cycling of stereotypes:
'although the United States is the source of some of the most rabid and well-organized forms of anti-evolutionism, it is by no means alone. In the UK, creationists and their sneaky cousins, the “intelligent design” crew, are growing in influence; Intelligent Design was given public backing in the Spectator earlier this year by Melanie Phillips, who absurdly claimed that it “comes out of science” not religion.'
You can read Phillip's article in full here, and while her description of ID isn't entirely accurate, I welcome her recognition, in agreement with Nagel, of the scientific status of ID.

Craig Debates ID

Whilst on the subject of ID, it's worth noting that William Lane Craig recently participated in his first ever public debate on the topic (cf. the official debate website here). Craig's noted debating partner was theistic evolutionist Francisco J. Ayala. The topic of debate was: Is Intelligent Design Viable?

You can watch Craig's opening speech on video; listen to the full Ayala/Craig debate and Q&A time on MP3 Audio here.

Craig stated that he is agnostic about the truth of a design inference from biology, but that he thinks such an inference is at least a viable hypothesis that should be given a place at the table, and that the attacks being made on the theory aren't sound.

Craig offers his view of how the debate went here and discusses evolution in a new podcast on Evolutionism and Skepticism. See also William Lane Craig, 'Skepticism about the Neo-Darwinian Paradigm'; 'Skepticism about the Neo-Darwinian Paradigm Re-Visited'.

Interestingly, the debate and Q&A time was moderated by Bradley Monton, an atheist philosopher of science and the author of Seeking God in Science: Atheist Defends Intelligent Design. In essence, Craig was arguing the same general thesis as Monton (although he is more positive than Monton about biology-based ID arguments), whilst being a theist rather than an atheist.

Monton has blogged on the debate here.

It's well worth reading Monton's book, and listening to his lecture defending ID: Bradley Monton, 'An Atheist Philosopher Defends Intelligent Design - Lecture'.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Atheists Against Darwinism

Allow me to draw attention to this paper recently published on the EPS website:



Abstract

Intelligent design theory claims that 1) empirical evidence warrants 2) a scientific design inference using 3) reliable design detection criteria. Philosophia Christi published my paper "The Design Inference from Specified Complexity Defended by Scholars Outside the Intelligent Design Movement: A Critical Review" (Philosophia Christi, Vol 9, Number 2), which defended the third of these claims by reviewing the work atheists and theistic evolutionists. This paper defends the second of these claims, likewise by reviewing work by agnostics and atheists.

Hence this paper rounds off a two-part defence of the philosophical elements of Intelligent Design Theory (claims 2 & 3), and does so in two phases. Phase one focuses upon the growing acceptance of Phillip E. Johnsons' analysis of the role played by methodological naturalism in buttressing Darwinism, while phase two focuses upon Thomas Nagel's positive interaction with Michael J. Behe's argument in The Edge of Evolution (Free Press, 2008). I argue that Nagel's reticence about embracing ID is philosophically inconsistent.

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Friday, June 5, 2009

Downward Causation

It is always heartening to see other thinkers whom I admire moving in similar directions. My own recent work in philosophy of mind involves a defense of downward (or top-down) mental-to physical causation (e.g., see "Is Downward Causation Possible?" in the most recent issue of Philosophia Christi Vol 11, No. 1 2009, pp. 93-110). I have just read and reviewed an excellent work in defense of the soul, libertarian free will and teleological (downward) causation, namely Naturalism by Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro. This is highly recommended. I found it so engrossing, I was able to give it a first read on the plane while tired during apologetics events! Since then I have taken copious notes and learned a great deal.

Naturalism is a concise yet potent anti-materialist salvo, and is perhaps the ideal appetizer for my main entree J. P. Moreland's Consciousness and the Existence of God. (See his book interview here.) This is a very important work, also defending downward causation and showing how the varieties of naturalism are in real trouble. In the last chapter, Moreland notes the strange fact that while the case for dualism has now been developed with impressive sophistication, there is a failure of physicalists to "enjoin the dualist literature" (186) and a repertoire of "dismissive maneuvers" used to camouflage this exercise in intellectual irresponsibility. So my hope and plea is that we can change this situation and invite (or if necessary, shame) naturalists to engage the actual positions of the best contemporary defenders of dualism and theism.

Finally, on the apologetics front, a definite thumbs-up for Peter Williams' A Sceptic's Guide to Atheism, which contains a lot of helpful material for responding to the new atheists' attempts to dismiss religious belief and experience as an illusion (which helped me considerably in presentations I gave at UCLA and Fort Wayne). See his interview here.

Right now I am working on a defense of libertarian free will against the claims of some scientists and philosophers that neuroscience has undermined conscious free will. This has become a hot issue in the philosophy of law, as some claim that retributive justice is obsolete, leaving only utilitarian, "crowd control" arguments for punishment. The paper I am working on will be delivered at the IVR World Congress meeting on Philosophy of Law in Beijing, China, September 15-20th of this year in the workshop on the connection between Punishment, Retribution and Free Will.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Interview with Peter S. Williams: Sceptics's Guide to New Atheism

We interviewed Peter S. Williams, an EPS blogger and contributor to Philosophia Christi, about his just released book, A Sceptic's Guide to Atheism (Paternostre, 2009). A talk by Peter about his new book can be downloaded by clicking here.

What is unique about your book compared to other critical treatments on the “new atheists”?

The new atheism is characterised by the propositions that belief in God is false and evil. The new atheists believe that at the core of even the most outwardly benign theism is an immoral commitment to flouting one’s intellectual responsibilities. That means that the new atheism presupposes both an account of rationality and an account of morality. What’s unique about my book is that I examine those accounts and turn the results of this analysis against the new atheism. By systematically reviewing their major arguments, I show how the new atheism is grounded in incoherent accounts of knowledge and morality.

It’s not just that the new atheists are wrong to define ‘faith’ as ‘belief without evidence’ or ‘belief against the evidence’. It’s that their positive account of what it means to live up to one’s intellectual responsibilities is self-contradictory. I counter with an epistemology that isn’t self-contradictory, which frowns upon both ‘blind faith’ and belief despite overwhelming counter evidence, but which opens up the possibility of a faith in God that’s compatible with living up to one’s genuine intellectual responsibilities.

Then again, the new atheists put a lot of emphasis on arguments against belief in God, as opposed to arguments against the existence of God, and these arguments all have a moral dimension. For example, the argument that faith means being committed to ignoring one’s intellectual responsibilities presupposes that we have an objective moral responsibility to reason in a certain way. However, for the new atheists to invoke objective moral responsibilities is self-contradictory, since the naturalistic worldview of the new atheism excludes the reality of any objective moral values. For example, Dawkins says both that there are no normative facts, no good, no evil, and that faith is an evil that leads people to do evil things. These claims form an in consistent set.

Of all the different new atheist voices that are out there, who do you find to be the most compelling in their case against the existence of God?

Dawkins makes the most compelling case against the truth of belief in God; but that’s partly because, despite being such a poor logician, he is a good rhetoritician, and partly because the other new atheists are even worse on this issue! The God Delusion was the first new atheist book I read, and I thought at the time that it was a low point for atheistic apologetics. Dawkins clearly doesn’t even understand the theistic arguments he critiques, and his book is consequently full of embarrassing errors. When it comes to his ‘central’ argument against theism, it turns out to be an exercise begging the question. Dawkins’ engagement with natural theology is a litany of formal and informal logical fallacies; but he’s a zoologist and not a philosopher. I expected more from new atheists who are philosophers, and I was disappointed to discover that Dawkins is actually the high water mark for new atheist engagement with the question of God’s existence!

The new atheists spend very little time arguing against the existence of God, or trying to counter the arguments for God’s existence. Dawkins’ is the most sustained effort on offer. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell is crucially predicated upon the non-existence of God, but he only spends eleven paragraphs (from pages 240-245) on this issue! Like his compatriots, Dennett skims over straw-man presentations of a small sub-set of theistic arguments which he dismisses using long discredited counter-arguments.

Anyone who didn’t know better and was inclined to trust what the new atheist’s say would come away from their books with the false impression that the cosmological argument depends upon the premise that ‘everything has a cause’ (thus leading to the question ‘Who made God?’), and that the moral argument claims that people can’t discern or behave in accordance with the good unless they believe in God (or in the Bible as the inspired word of God). As far as I’m concerned, that’s an academic scandal.

What are some of the sociological, cultural-historical or philosophical factors that have empowered the new atheism to emerge now compared to, say, fifty years ago?

I think the explanation is multi-factorial. The terrorist attacks of September 2001 clearly put the issue of religiously motivated violence smack in the centre of Western public consciousness; but I don’t think we can simply point the finger at the actions of a certain type of Muslim and say that the new atheism is a secular reaction to their actions. For one thing, Christians shouldn’t let themselves off the hook here. Many atheists have legitimate cause to feel themselves an oppressed minority. In 2006 researchers at the University of Minnesota identified atheists as America’s most distrusted minority, and the American Sociological Review reported that it is generally thought socially acceptable in America to say that you are intolerant of atheists. I think that the Church must ask itself if it is ‘speaking the truth’ to atheists ‘in love’, or in fear and hate? Perhaps we’ve had a hand in creating a stick with which to beat out own backs.

Another factor is the way in which the new atheism offers an apparently meaningful and purposeful existence to its converts. Materialism is the metaphysics of nihilism par excellence (cf. my book I Wish I Could Believe in Meaning: A Response to Nihilism) but the new atheism dresses itself up in fake robes of meaning and purpose, like the fairy-tale about the Emperor’s New Clothes. The fake meaning comes in the guise of moral outrage at the (generalised) behaviour of theists. The fake purpose comes in the form of an intellectual-cum-socio-political crusade against theistic belief and for a metaphysically naturalistic worldview. The ‘new atheism’ thus offers an apparently valuable meaning and purpose to people’s lives, a daring intellectual identity and a community of like-minded fellow-pilgrims. And the Emperor’s new tailor appeared to offer him the finest new robes…

Where do you think the discussion is going between new atheists and theists in the years to come?

I suspect that the new atheism has already had its cultural hay-day. It has now lost something of that ‘lure of the new’ to which our media-saturated culture is so in thralled, and it seems unlikely that Dawkins et al can sustain their movement’s momentum even if they manage to write a new set of books to keep their ideas in the public eye.

Nevertheless, significant numbers of people have been profoundly influenced by the new atheism. If there’s one thing to be said for the new atheism it is that antipathy towards Christianity is better than apathy; and the new atheism means Christians will meet more antipathy, albeit an intellectually under-resourced antipathy. Christians must ‘speak the truth in love’ to those influenced by the new atheism, engaging them with the real reasons for the hope that we have (rather than the straw-men boldly eviscerated by Dawkins et al), but also engaging with them on a personal level as friends whom Christ loves. If the new atheism can lead to more disagreements that are not disagreeable, then it may be a blessing in disguise!

Peter S. Williams is a philosophy and apologetics researcher, lecturer, and author with the UK based Damaris Trust.

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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Richard Dawkins' search for a grander truth

In a recent interview in the UK based Third Way magazine, Richard Dawkins affirmed:

'I'm damn sure there's more to the universe than we understand... there may be some things that we never understand. But I think I draw the line at saying because we don't understand it, therefore some kind of theistic interpretation is therefore more plausible. I suspect that the truth, when and if we discover it, will be far grander and more mysterious than anything that theists have ever imagined.' (Third Way, 'Said the atheist to the (ex) Bishop', September 2008, p. 10.)

A few brief observations:

1) Dawkins almost sounds here like a proponent of the theological 'way of negation' which holds (rightly or wrongly) that we can only say what God is not, and not what God is.

2) While everyone seems agreed that there is indeed a bad, 'God of the gaps' form of theistic argument (at least when it is an 'argument from ignorance'), arguments in natural theology needn't be, and generally aren't, formulated along such fallacious lines.

3) The main question this quote raises in my mind is whether Dawkins hasn't come accross St. Anselm's definition of God as 'the greatest conceivable being' or 'that than which a greater cannot be thought'. Of course, since Dawkins critiques the ontological argument in The God Delusion he must have come accross Anselm's definition. How, then, can he think that any as-yet-to-be-discovered truth could possibly be greater than the greatest possible being? I can only surmise that Dawkins' (literally) doesn't understand what he is talking about on this issue.

4) Is Dawkins contradicting the values-subjectivism he elsewhere explicitly embraces by talking about the possibility of discovering 'grander' truths? If not, then how can a merely subjective 'grander' truth be any greater than God, especially when God is defined as the objectively 'maximally great being'? Dawkins is either contradicting himself or undercutting himself here.

5) Perhaps if Dawkins came to understand the meaning of the phrase 'greatest possible being' he wouldn't think of theistic belief as a 'medieval' place-holder for something grander. And if he thought more deeply about God so-defined than he does in The God Delusion (where he basically passes the ball to Hume and Kant) then he might look more kindly upon St. Anselm' ontological meditations upon that theme...

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Antony Flew's trenchant response to Richard Dawkins & 'The God Delusion'

In 'Flew Speaks Out: Professor Flew Reviews The God Delusion' Professor Antony Flew responds in trenchant terms to what he calls 'that monster footnote [concerning Flew on page 82] to what I am inclined to describe as that monster book' The God Delusion (Bantam, 2006).

According to this new article by the 85 year old ex-atheist, published July 19th 2008 by UCCF's excellent apologetics website www.bethinking.org, Richard Dawkins is 'a secularist bigot'.

The fault of Dawkins as an academic, says Flew: 'was his scandalous and apparently deliberate refusal to present the doctrine which he appears to think he has refuted in its strongest form.'

Flew's 2004 announcement that at the age of 81, after a noted professional lifetime of atheism, he had come to believe in the existence of God, really set the cat among the pigeons. Ad hominem accusations of hedging his bets with respect to an afterlife that Flew (under the influence of Gilbert Ryle) still doesn't believe even theoretically possible were bandied about by ill-informed detractors such as British humanist's Roy Hattersley and Richard Dawkins. Indeed, at a recent conference on the resurrection in London, Flew stated (before a mainly Christian audience) from a platform shared with Professor Gary R. Habermas and Bishop N.T. Wright, that he didn't believe in any kind of life after death, including resurrection. Hardly the words of a man who is either hedging his bets or easily swayed by Christian friends! As Flew writes in There Is a God (Harper One, 2007): 'I do not think of myself as surviving death. For the record, then, I want to lay to rest all those rumors that have me placing Pascalian bets.' (p. 2.)

Indeed, Richard Dawkins slings several criticisms in Flew's direction within a large footnotes on page 82 of The God Delusion (Bantam, 2006), none of which deal with the substance of Flew's Deism, or the philosophical arguments that persuade him thereof. Instead, Dawkins says that in his 'old age' Flew, whom he depreciates as not being a 'great philosopher' like Bertrand Russell, has adopted belief in 'some sort of deity'. Dawkins also attacks Flew for what he calls 'his ignominious decision to accept, in 2006, the "Philip E. Johnson Award for Liberty and Truth', for which he notes 'The awarding university is BIOLA, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. One can't help wondering whether Flew realizes that he is being used.'

Having responded in several venues to the erroneous suggestions that his change of mind is a 'Pascalian Wager' in the face of death, and that his book There Is a God was basically written by rather than with help from Roy Abraham Varghese, Flew now responds directly to Dawkins. (By the way, I personally read the hand-typed article sent by Flew to a mutual contact at UCCF for publication, so I hope we can leave conspiracy theories where they belong.) Flew is clearly deeply upset with Dawkins, on both an academic and a personal level, and he doesn't mince words, accusing him of an 'insincerity of academic purpose.' Dawkins 'is not interested in the truth as such,' laments Flew, 'but is primarily concerned to discredit an ideological opponent by any available means.'

On receiving the Philip E. Johnson award, Flew notes that: 'Dawkins obviously assumes (but refrains from actually saying) that [being a specifically Christian institution] is incompatible with producing first class academic work in every department...' Moreover, as to the suggestion that he was 'used' by Biola, Flew clearly doesn't think the accusation worth dignifying: 'If the way I was welcomed by the students and members of faculty whom I met in my short stay at Biola amounted to being used then I can only express my regret that at the age of 85 I cannot reasonably hope for another visit to this institution.'


Recommended Reading

Antony Flew with Roy Abraham Varghese, There Is a God (Harper One, 2007)

Antony Flew, 'Flew Speaks Out: Professor Flew Reviews The God Delusion'

Gary R. Habermas & Antony Flew, 'My Prilgrimage from Atheism to Theism'

Gary R. Habermas, 'Antony Flew's Deism Revisited'

Roy Abraham Varghese, 'Letter to the Editor, Magazine, New York Times'

Benjamin Wiker, 'Exclusive Flew Interview'

Peter S. Williams, 'A Change of Mind for Antony Flew'

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Saturday, July 5, 2008

Welcome Peter Williams

We welcome Peter S. Williams as our newest web contributor to the EPS website. Among many things, Peter is a Philosophia Christi contributor, a philosophy lecturer and a researcher particularly in the areas of intelligent design and natural theology work.

You can see more of Peter here at his author profile.

Also, we have posted three of his essays:

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