Follow up to the “what is Dawkins wrong about?” discussion

Now I’ve had a chance to read the whole of the “what is Dawkins wrong about?” discussion, here are my comments on some of the main points raised.  First, let me say that I was absolutely wrong about the abuse thing. As JustKat said:

You would be reluctant to think that someone calling a child a worthless little bastard or stupid little shit is child abuse?

Yeah, my bad. Citizenghost’s comments are also worth quoting here:

His more disingenuous critics (William Lane Craig, etc.) have seized upon this to actually slander Dawkins. They say that Dawkins seeks to have government authorities step in and take children from homes in order to prevent their parents from teaching them religion. After all, if religious teaching of children is “abuse” then isn’t the state required to intervene?

They think they are being clever but there is an obvious difference between PHYSICAL abuse and various other forms of psychological abuse. Parents are not legally restrained from frightening their kids, from stunting their emotional development or from teaching them nonsense. If you’d prefer to call that something other than “abuse” that’s fine, but I’d say that’s just a tactical word choice to give critics less ammunition to work with.

Next, on the ontological argument. I’ve generally agreed with Jason Rosenhouse’s comments on this one:

I have not seen any statistics on the matter, but I’d be amazed if it’s even one Christian in a thousand who could tell you what the ontological argument is. And I’d be doubly amazed if you could find very many who believe in God because they find the argument persuasive. Nonetheless, it is an argument with considerable historical significance, and one about which philosophers and theologians have spilled a preposterous amount of ink. In light of these facts Dawkins chose to give a brief description of the classical form of the argument, to explain the major problems with it, and to refer people to Mackie’s book The Miracle of Theism for a comprehensive and nuanced discussion of the matter. Seemed like a sensible approach to me, especially given that he was writing a popular exposition of these ideas intended to be read, as opposed to an academic philosophical treatise intended only to exist.

But Rick Taylor points out one line from The God Delusion he especially didn’t like:

I’ve forgotten the details, but I once piqued a gathering of theologian and philosophers by adapting the ontological argument to prove that pigscan fly. They felt the need to resort to Modal Logic to prove that I was wrong.

I had to think about this one awhile, but after thinking about it I agree that was the wrong way to make that point. The problem is not that Dawkins should have been more respectful of the modal ontological argument. It’s actually trivial to adapt even Plantinga’s modal version of the ontological argument to prove that pigs can fly: “Possibly, it’s a necessary truth that pigs can fly. But possible necessity entails necessity. Therefore, pigs can fly!”

No, the problem is that this quote makes it sound as if Dawkins has a problem not just with the ontological argument, but with modal logic itself. Jason Rosenhouse just yesterday wrote something else that’s relevant here. After discussing his experiences at creationist conferences and giving some example of creationist abuse of mathematics, particularly probability theory, Rosenhouse writes:

Most of my fellow audience members were true believers. The speakers were telling them exactly what they wanted to hear. Many times, though, I tried to place myself in the position of a fair-minded person lacking any formal training in science or mathematics. How would they react to these speakers, with their casual use of jargon and unflagging confidence? I suspect most people would say to themselves, “I do not have the training to understand the details of the speaker’s argument. I know, however, that I certainly wouldn’t stand before a crowd and simply pretend to know something about science . So I will give this fellow the benefit of the doubt and assume he has some decent point to make.”

It is an understandable reaction, but misguided. The creationists have no decent point to make at all. Their scientific arguments are entirely false. They are not even interesting. And that is why I say Americans need to be more cynical.

All that’s exactly right. And it applies not just to abuse of probability theory to attack evolution, but abuse of modal logic to “prove” the existence of God. But it would still be a mistake for Dawkins to have written something like, “those silly creationists had to resort to probability theory to refute me.”

I agree the “Neville Chamberlain atheists” line was stupid, as such cliches usually are. By the way, when you’re reading the drafts of my book, warn me if I say anything half that cliche, please?

On the book title “The God Delusion”: when I first read the book, I didn’t like the fact that Dawkins’ explanation of what he meant by the title probably wasn’t how a lot of people would hear it. But Dawkins doesn’t actually seem to have gotten much backlash over that. Look at the people who complained about The God Delusion the loudest (like Alistair McGrath), and you realize a lot of them were saying the same things pre-God Delusion. It’s just that Dawkins’ success helped them get more attention for themselves too.

In fact, I think choosing the title “The God Delusion” actually probably increased the number of believers who read the book. Titles like “The Blind Watchmaker” and “A Devil’s Chaplain” are clever if you get the allusions, but most people won’t. They don’t grab your attention the way “The God Delusion” does, and I think that has to be part of the reason the books with those titles sold a lot fewer copies than The God Delusion. Notice also that The Selfish Gene, whose title does grab your attention, is Dawkins’ #2 selling book after The God Delusion.

That’s all I have for now. Feel free, of course, to continue the discussion in the comments.

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