Tuesday, July 7, 2015

What would Dawkins say to Lewis?

Peter S Williams has written a book (C S Lewis vs the New Atheists) in which he attempts to counter the "New Atheist" movement by using arguments of CS Lewis.  In this video, he promotes the book, discussing some of the contents of the book.  He essentially places himself in the position of presenting arguments from both sides, in this case with Richard Dawkins representing the "New Atheists".  This is an interesting way of assuming the air of objectivity while presenting arguments from both sides, but the reality is that Williams is presenting his own understanding of these arguments.  It may be the case that he has a good understanding of Lewis, but it is definitely not the case that he understands or fairly represents the opposing perspective.

He begins his discussion with "scientism", which he says is the view, held by Dawkins, that all beliefs must be based on empirical evidence.  He says that from Dawkins' perspective, the issue is one of evidence-based beliefs as opposed to the "blind faith" of Lewis, which Dawkins would describe as "believing without evidence".  But Dawkins is wrong about blind faith, because Lewis would define faith as "trust".  It is something that allows one to maintain warranted beliefs in the face of emotional pressures or temptations that would beguile one away from those beliefs.  As an example of this kind of trust, he cites Lewis' description of his youth, when he said there were times when, as an atheist, he experienced moods that made Christianity look probable. 

The problem with this is that Lewis' belief was subject to being swayed by emotion, but any rationally warranted or evidence-based belief would not require faith as a safeguard from such persuasion.  Lewis' beliefs, both before and after his conversion, were heavily influenced by feelings and emotions, and that belies the notion that they are rationally warranted.  So Lewis is really refuting his own claim that his faith is anything but belief without evidence.

But what about Dawkins' supposed scientism?  Williams claims that it is self-contradictory because it would have no ultimate basis.  That is, any belief based on empirical evidence, must itself have some underlying rationale or assumption about the nature of that evidence, which would, in turn, require further evidence.  And so empirical-based belief would entail an infinite regress, which implies that it is self-refuting.  And he offers examples of beliefs that require no empirical evidence: that a rainbow is beautiful, that we have moral obligations, and that we know the rules of logic. 

As for the claim that empirical-based belief is self-refuting, Williams has made another egregious assumption - namely that empirical knowledge must be absolute.  This is an assumption that theism makes about the existence of things for which there is no empirical evidence, but empiricists understand that knowledge based on evidence is only as good as the evidence.  They understand that improved evidence can result in improved knowledge, but never absolute knowledge. 

Williams' claim that scientism entails that all beliefs must be backed by evidence is wrong on its face.  He makes no distinction between knowledge and opinion.  By conflating the two things, he creates a straw man that he labels as "scientism".  An empiricist would claim that knowledge derives from empirical information, but would not make the claim that opinions constitute knowledge.  Aesthetic value judgments may be based on feelings rather than evidence, and are not matters of factual knowledge.  It is simply wrong to assume that all beliefs, whether they are matters of knowledge or matters of opinion, are the same, and that they require evidence.  Moral judgments are not knowledge, either.  They are judgments or opinions.  It may be the case that most people agree in their moral judgment about certain things, but that does not imply that those judgments are a matter of fact.  They are not.  Empiricists also understand that logic is not knowledge, either.  Logic expresses relationships between propositions, and the truth of those propositions is a matter of empirical knowledge.  But the rules of logic are based on axioms that we accept as being true without proof.  Only to the extent that the validity of those axioms is confirmed by our observation of the world can we claim that we "know" they are true.

Another main thrust of Williams' discussion deals with agency and intentionality.  Again he misrepresents the position of materialists by making his theistic assumption that agency requires an immaterial soul, and therefore in the absence of this soul we are nothing more than billiard balls being bandied about by blind forces, devoid of morality and even conscious thought.  As a consequence of this erroneous assumption, he thinks it is incoherent for materialists to say that people should be responsible for their actions or that they have any moral obligations.

But this is not what materialists believe.  We generally assert that there is agency, intentionality, and morality without God.  The fact that science has yet to settle on a definitive theory of mind is irrelevant, and it certainly doesn't imply that there can never be any such theory.  There are naturalistic explanations for the existence of those things.  We don't need God or immaterial souls to fill the gaps in our understanding.  All we need is to continue to improve our scientific understanding.

Likewise, it is wrong for Williams to say that it would be incoherent for materialists assert that there are things we ought not to do.  It is indeed possible to "get an ought from an is".  We do exactly that routinely when we reason that if we desire outcome A then we ought to take action B to achieve that outcome.  And this is the essence of morality.  The theist reasons that if he wants to get to heaven or if he wants to please God, then he ought to behave in a certain way.  Similarly, the materialist reasons that if he wants to achieve happiness or to coexist with the rest of the world, then he ought to behave in a certain way.  There's no difference between them, and there's no need to postulate that the "ought" must come from some supernatural source.  It's perfectly natural.

To sum up, my major complaint with Williams is that he doesn't adequately present the opposing point of view or the arguments they make.  He can complain all he wants that Dawkins doesn't address the theistic arguments sufficiently, but until he makes the effort to understand the position of opponents like Dawkins, he is just another theist who doesn't know what he's talking about.  I think Dawkins would be well justified in saying that Williams is just farting into the wind.  As for what Dawkins would actually say to Lewis, I think we would be well advised to allow him to speak for himself.

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