Monday, July 21, 2008

Scutinizing Scruton (Oh I am SO clever)!

Recently I came across an article from Roger Scruton. I looked him up and apparently he's big time in the philosophical and academic communities. Despite that though, I still find some of what he says in his article as setting my bullwoo meter off the charts! So let's take a look.

The article, titled 'The Return of Religon', goes after what Scruton calls the 'evangelical atheists', such as Dawkins and Harris. In it he offers some criticism of them and their like and offers a few reasons why someone might turn to religion. He starts his argument with:

There are two reasons why people start shouting at their opponents: one is that they think the opponent is so strong that every weapon must be used against him; the other is that they think their own case so weak that it has to be fortified by noise. Both these motives can be observed in the evangelical atheists.
Well, yeah, Dawkins is angry, but Scruton may have it wrong here. Sorry to say, but this appears to be a fallacy - clearly there is more than two reasons why someone would yell. In the case of the atheists, I would say it's not because they're afraid their argument sucks, but because the other side isn't willing to listen when they need to. So Scruton did a nice little number there, trying to already make the atheist's position look worse than it actually is. He then follows this with:

They seriously believe that religion is a danger, leading people into excesses of enthusiasm which, precisely because they are inspired by irrational beliefs, cannot be countered by rational argument.
He makes it sound as if this is some sort of absurd and ungrounded belief, but this seems to be the actual case. How many times have YouTube and Internet debates proven this claim to be true? Scruton then attempts to undermine such a belief by bringing the point that not all religious believers are dangerous, and in fact some go to religion in search of peace. Of course, this is true, there are different 'types' of believers. I don't think this completely debunks the belief though: religion can be considered dangerous in several ways.

There is violence of course, and most recently the Islamic extremists and abortion clinic bombers are great evidence for this. But this is what Scruton was trying to argue: not everyone is like that. There is another type of danger in religion though, and that's a lack of skeptical and scientific thinking. As Sagan always used to say, "...
that kind of skeptical questioning, don't accept what authority tells you -attitude of science- is also nearly identical to the attitude of mind necessary for a functioning democracy. Science and democracy have very consonant values and approaches, and I don't think you can have one without the other." Basing beliefs on faith makes people more vulnerable to following leaders of any sort blindly, and in a democracy (or any type of government almost), things can turn badly when that happens. And THAT is dangerous (take Iraq for example).

Ignoring that type of danger though, Scruton continues with his argument by posing the question "... What exactly does modern science tell us, and just where does it conflict with the premises of religious belief?" Well, most holy books of any religion for starters, but Scruton continues.

He then gives the example of genetics and how all humans are 'survival machines' and goes into some detail about this and how life possibly started. So here he says that science has been able to tell us about our origins (and will soon finish filling in the details); obviously this conflicts with most religious premises. Scruton follows that with astrophysics and cosmology and the 'general picture' the theories and facts from these studies have produced.

Only ignorance would cause us to deny that general picture, and the evangelical atheists assume that religion must deny that picture and therefore must, at some level, commit itself to the propagation of ignorance or at any rate the prevention of knowledge.
Well, that certainly seems to be the case - especially with fundamentalists who wish to deny major fields of science (such as evolutionary biology), so the atheists seem to have good reason to assume!

Yet, I do not know a religious person among my friends and acquaintances who does deny that picture...
Uh... Insufficient data? Helloooo!? I have friends who deny that 'general picture', obviously very many religious people do also!

Scruton then claims that there is a subliminal argument going on between the atheists and theists: atheists say that any sort of enquiry into the metaphysical should stop - especially regarding meaning - and theists disagree.

... Brings enquiry to a stop. And the religious person will feel that this stop is premature: that reason has more questions to ask... So who, in this subliminal contest, is the truly reasonable one? The atheists beg the question in their own favor, by assuming that science has all the answers, but science can have all the answers only if it has all the questions; and that assumption is false.

We get a few things here: 1) there is a subliminal contest going here; 2) science claims it has all the answers so there can be no metaphysical meaning; 3) this is a false assumption; 4) atheists are unreasonable.

I'm not sure why this 'contest' is subliminal, but ok. However, I'm not sure science has ever said it has all the answers... And many great scientists admit that even the best scientific theories will never get us to absolute truth. So for false assumptions, it seems Scruton made one by claiming "2". And somehow, atheists are unreasonable. I should make it clear that earlier in the quoted paragraph, Scruton makes it clear he is talking about meaning. So I'm expecting some sort of discussion on why atheists should be open to enquiry on meaning. You are too, right?

Well... Instead, we get an example of what one of the metaphysical questions beyond science is besides meaning.

One of these is the question of consciousness. This strange universe of black holes and time warps, of event horizons and non-localities, somehow becomes conscious of itself.
Very Sagan-esque, eh? Perhaps what Scruton is saying here is that consciousness is good enough reason to look for meaning in the universe. That it certainly is odd the universe is conscious (through us) and the rest of the universe seems to be nothing but stars, dust, holes, etc. Let's continue with that assumption.

Scruton dives deeper into what consciousness is, explaining how difficult it is to grasp it. But then Scruton seems to make a slightly absurd claim.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the thought of consciousness gives rise to peculiar metaphysical anxieties, which we try to allay with images of the soul, the mind, the self... But these traditional 'solutions' merely duplicate the problem. We cast no light on the consciousness of a human being simply by redescribing it as the consciousness of some inner homunculus - be it a soul, a mind, or a self. On the contrary, by placing that homunculus in some private, inaccessible and possibly immaterial realm, we merely compound the mystery.
Maybe I am misunderstanding this, but it seems to me as if Scruton is saying all theories of mind claim mental states to be the 'ghost in the machine'! That certainly isn't the case, there are plenty of theories of mind which are materialistic and which attempt to reduce the mind to something else (or even claim it doesn't exist - eliminative materialism). So where does Scruton take this?

It is this mystery which brings people back to religion.


Modern people are drawn to religion by their consciousness of consciousness, by their awareness of a light shining in the centre of their being.

Right, that may be true, but that doesn't make it right or ok. First of all, I don't think that's the only reason people flock to religion. Secondly, it would make far more sense to instead guide people towards the philosophy of the mind/body problem. Why don't we encourage others to educate themselves in these theories and enlighten themselves with science behind it? I would venture to say that if we were to do this instead, many more great philosophical minds would pop up into the community and help enlighten the rest of us as to what theory of mind may be most correct.

After venturing into why religion isn't such a bad thing, Scruton goes back to bashing those evangelical atheists.

These characters have a violent and untidy air: it is very obvious that something is missing from their lives, something which would bring order and completeness in the place of random disgust.

Eh? What? Something missing? Oh, could you possibly be hinting at... RELIGION!? Or could it be that they long for a world which operates rationally and hope for a global culture which values skepticism and science and realizes that it too may be spiritual - just not in the yuppy lame let's-all-go-to-heaven way?

Scruton is pissed. And I can agree somewhat, maybe Dawkins and the others could tone down their 'anger'... I'm sure believers would be more willing to listen then (or are they yelling because the believers wouldn't listen in the first place?) But, given the fact that Dawkins and the others are only human, it makes sense that they would be fed up with the ridiculousness that is blind faith and the rejection of theories enlightened by facts (which we call science) and this faith's pervasiveness in the world.

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