Sunday, 8 June 2008

Darwin's Angel: Part 1 of a Comprehensive Review

Darwin's Angel: An Angelic Riposte to The God Delusion, is, funnily enough, a response to The God Delusion. It is written by a bloke called John Cornwell. I have not finished it yet, and indeed might not get around to finishing it for a while, but this is part 1 which will discuss the Preface and Chapers 1-4(of 21! yes, my discussion is on the long side).

I must say, that of the content I have read, I am not enjoying this book. Often I feel there isn't really enough meat to Cornwell's argument so it was hard to discuss. Sometimes, I did not understand what he was getting at. I feel like sometimes, Richard was quoted out of context, and because he does not give the page references to the quotes of Dawkins', it is difficult to check whether a quote is in or out of context. I cannot tell if this is sloppiness or intentional so Cornwell can misrepresent Richard without sneaky atheists being able to pin him down on it(I can, I believe, sometimes, but if I can't find the quote there's no way I can.) Whether or not is it is deliberate it leads the reader to think he's trying to misrepresent Dawkins on purpose.

Here's another oddity for you: the subtitle of the book is different on the front cover where it is "An Angelic Riposte To The God Delusion" than on the inside page, where it is "A Seraphic Response to The God Delusion."

A quick note on cites: the main books used are Darwin's Angel(Cornwell, J. Darwin's Angel: An Angelic Riposte To The God Delusion, Profile Books 2007) and The God Delusion (Dawkins, R. The God Delusion, Bantam Press 2006). Quotes from Darwin's Angel will be referred to in brackets after the quote as DA, p. 2, wheras The God Delusion quotes will be TGD, p. 2.

Main Review


I don't actaully have too much to say about the preface. The first point I would make is that Cornwell, rather than writing as himself, decides to write the book from the perspective of Dawkins' guardian angel. I'm not sure, to be honest, what this is supposed to achieve. Some of these are summary points and I will adress them in the course of the main book rather than repeating myself.

Misrepresentations of Dawkins in the Preface

"He has established his own "Ten Commandments"" (DA, p.16)

I'm not sure what Cornwell means. I think he is referring to a passage in TGD where RD cites an example of some "New Ten Commandments" he found on an atheist website. Dawkins then gives some examples of some of his own that he would consider including. This is hardly setting up moral rules in stone unlike the Bible and it is merely used as an example of the way mankind's morality changes and how it is not based on religion.

"He has un-faithed, or "outed" in eternity such as Jefferson, Dostoyevsky, and Einstein; he has even "outed" my former protege Father Mendel, who was so admirably a man of both sceinec and religion."(DA, p. 16)

Dawkins actually quotes Einstein(TGD, p. 15) as saying "I do not believe in a personal god." I think this is rather a case of Einstein outing himself than Dawkins doing it for him.

Regarding Jefferson. Dawkins does not outright say that "Jefferson was definetly an atheist." His comments are more along the lines of the fact that Jefferson's ideas were compatible with atheism, and he quotes Christopher Hitchens on the issue, who believes it was likely Jefferson was an atheist, although it cannot be proved because he could not declare it at the time. This can be found on pages 42-3 of TGD.

Dostoyevsky: There is only one reference to him in the index, pg. 227, which is mainly a quote from The Brothers Karamazov, in a section discussing whether we need God to be good. I do not see any reference to Dostoyevsky's opinions on atheism, only that of one of this characters.

Mendel: Richard on Mendel "Mendel, of course, was a religious man, an Augustinian monk; but that was in the nineteenth century, when becoming a monk was the easiest way to pursue his science."(TGD, p. 99). As far as I know, it is the only entry about Mendel in the book, and Dawkins specifically said he was a religious man! Cornwell quotes this passage from Dawkins, but curiously omits the "religious man" clause(DA, pg. 16).

I A Summary Of Your Argument

As this is just a summary, I will deal with it as the claims come up in the main book.

Misrepresentations of Dawkins in Chapter I

"In your mind there is essentially no difference between an Al Qaeda terrorist and your North Oxford neighbour who goes to church twice a year."

Richard does believe moderate faith can be dangerous but he would never make a comparison this ludicrous. Richard's argument is basically that the respect for moderate faith protects fanaticism, and that a lot of fanatics are actually not taught by other fanatics, they are taught by moderates. I'm going to use an analogy and compare this situation involving racism.

A fair good percentage of a society--Society A-- is white supremacist. Let's say 60% of the population is. The non-racist whites in this society do not in any way challenge the bigotry of these people. In effect, the point I'm getting at is white supremacy is pretty much tolerated in said society.

Now take Society B. Society B still contains a minority of white supremacists, but they are criticised heavily by everybody else in society. Their political influence is next to nothing as a group.

It would be of no surprise if I told you that Society A has much more hate crime against black and Asian people than Society B. Now, this would be so even if the majority of people in society A did not not commit hate crime, or encourage violence against these groups. You can call these the "moderate" white supremacists if you like. However, these white supremacists still teach that black and Asian people are genetically inferior and not to be trusted. This would lead some people to extemism - ie. hate crime, harrassment, violence et al. And because the majority share the view that people of another race are bad, it is harder to criticise the perpatrators. This demonstrates how a more moderate viewpoint, if dissipated in a society, can be a cause of more extremist views. The societies could have the same amount of white supremacists advocating violence, but society A would still have more violence that society B because of the general attitudes held.

Chapter II - Your Sources

Cornwell criticises Richard for citing his own works and own experiences with people and their experiences of his work. For a start, Richard is going to refer to his own personal experience in a book about religion and there is nothing wrong with using anecdotes to make a valid point. Religious writers refer to their own experience of the divine, don't they, and I'm sure Cornwell sees nothing wrong with that. Secondly, one does not have the space to rehash everything one may have already argued in other books. Other arguments in other books may be useful if you want to know more about a particular topic, for example, Richard's books on evolution would be relevant to chapers 5 and 6 of TGD. Thirdly, Richard is not the only person to refer to his own work in a new book. For example, Daniel Dennett, refers back to Darwin's Dangerous Idea in his book Freedom Evolves in the section about the Life game by John Conway. Victor Stenger, in his book God: The Failed Hypothesis lists several of his own books and articles in the Bibliography and refers to Has Science Found God? more than once in the main text, eg. pg. 95, 99. Steven Pinker does it in The Blank Slate, pg. 80, 393. It's not just Richard, then.

Misrepresentations of Richard Dawkins in Chapter II.

"Your book is an innocent of heavy scholarship as it is free of false modesty." (DA, pg. 29)
Okay, this is more of an ad hominem, but in my opinion you cannot assert(and assertion it is; he doesn't argue for it) this sort of thing in a book meant to be a scholarly rebuttal of Dawkins.

"You might have discussed at least in brief your intellectual antecedents: [...] Herbert Spencer, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud."
Is this passage trying to imply that Richard is a Social Darwinist(or, technically a Social Spencerist, as it was not Darwin's idea). I can assure you that this is not true. He has stated many times that he does not believe the theory of evolution should dictate our morality. And aren't Spencer and on the other hand Marx and Freud completely diferrent. Communism relied on the idea that people could me made to conform the the Communist ideal ie. blank slate theory. Freud believed that all mental problems were to do with upbringing and not genes. Spencer was the opposite, he appeared to be a genetic determinist, or at least somebody who believed that genes were very influental in determining personality. Although nature and nurture are in no way incompatible and both are needed and both affect each other, one cannot totally agree with the thoughts of all of these thinkers. Not to mention, where has Dawkins said he is a Freudian or Marxist theorist? Nowhere to my knowledge.

Chapter III - Imagination

To be honest, I'm not sure what Cornwell's point in this chapter is. He seems to criticising Richard's dismissal of theology and Richard's apparent disdain for the imaginiation. I'm tempted to just dismiss a lot of the chapter as just being straw mannery because Richard has nothing agianst the dimention of imagination. For a start, Richard is a scientist. Science is a wonderfully imaginative discipline. How imaginitive did Einstein have to be to come up with the theory of relativity for instance? Science combines this imagination with fact and observation. How could Richard dislike imagination when imagination is exactly what drives his dicipline? In a similar vein, he also portrays Richard as having something against literature, again, I don't really see how he does. Maybe Richard is more interested in scientific fact, but then again, I am very interested in scientific fact that doesn't mean I don't read any fiction, and that's his perogative anyway. Cornwell hasn't really demonstrated that Dawkins is against or dislikes either of those things. In his book Unweaving the Rainbow Dawkins maintains that science is poetic.

There were a couple of points in this chapter I found a little bit, well, stupid. For instance, he says, "but do you really wish your readers to accept that writers such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Dostoyevsky ... the entire canon of world literature ... is just so much untruth? Fiction?" (DA, p. 35.)

Well, isn't that the point? I'm not sure what he means, or what he's getting at. The only thing I can think of is that he thinks these books contains moral truth, which may or may not be true, but then later he says, "you no longer believe in the power of the imagination to impart literary, poetic, religious and moral truth either?"(DA, p. 36) which implies he considers the truth of literatute to be different from moral truth, so now I'm very confused. What exactly is "poetic truth"?

Misrepresentations of Dawkins in Chapter III

Already dealt with all of them above.

Chapter IV - Beauty

This is a discussion of the argument from beauty, which Dawkins rebuts in TGD. This chapter, again, seemed to be straw manning and didn't make a lot of sense in places. I think somehow he's just misread or misunderstood Dawkins, but I don't see how he's got the interpretation that he has.

For example, Cornwell says this: "You allow that art often prompts feelings of "sublimity" but then you make this curious statement: "[Shakespere's sonnets] ... are sublime if God is there and they are sublime if he isn't." Whose standpoint are you adopting? The poet's? The reader's? God's? Or Richard Dawkins, as an angel, surveying all three? I think you might mean that a poem can have sublimity --whether the poet believes in God or not." I don't thaink that's what Richard means at all. I think it is fairly obvious from the book that Richard means exactly what he is saying here. He means that a piece of art is sublime whether God exists or not. It is pretty obvious what he means.

Cornwell then mentions that a suspention of belief is not the same thing as faith, but this is another strawman because nowhere does Dawkins say that it is.

Richard said in TGD that the argument that beauty exists, thus god exists in not spelled out properly. So Cornwell attepts to rebut this point by citing an example of a theologian who explictly spells out this kind of argument.
I've said it before and I'll say it again. Your average, run-of-the mill religious believer does not read theologians, does not care what they have to say, maybe doesn't even understand what they have to say most of the time. And I'm not sure I understand this theologian's argument either, at least not in the way that Cornwell describes it. I haven't read the book in question, but Cornwell quotes him as saying "I will put forward the argument that experience of aesthetic meaning in particular [...] infers the necarssary possibility of this real presence[ie. God.]"(Steiner, G. quoted in DA, p. 40)
To me that seems like it is saying effectively that aesthestics exist and this implies that God must exist, but Cornwell doesn't like this interpretation even though it seems the most obvious on a reading of the text. He says "'[N]ecarssary probability" of God's presence is not the same as requiring that God actually exists. Steiner [...] is arguing that there is a connection, by analogy, between authentic original artistic creativity and the idea of the sustaining creation of God in the world." But doesn't God need to exist for him to have a creation? How does the idea that an analogy works make God true? And why in the cited paragraph does he appear to be saying something totally different?

Misrepresentaions of Dawkins in Chapter IV.

Nothing else I want to deal with.

That's it for part one, people!

No comments: