Thursday, August 23, 2012

Against Intellectual Fascism in Science: Alister McGrath

This is a book review of sorts. God loves Richard Dawkins, and so should I, but I don't like his books much. Reading parts of 'The God Delusion' reminds me in an odd sort of way of reading parts of 'Mein Kampf' by Adolf Hitler. Hitler was fairly thoroughly convincing for many for a while. Same with Dawkins. They share certain characteristics. (Certainly not all, but bear with me!) There is the same sort of disdain for the dissenter and the same sort of simplistic and blinkered reasoning. Too much isolated reasoning. Too little caution regarding one's own possible underlying flaws, motives and presumptions. Unquestioning followers of both are likely to become fascists of some sort. On politics, I prefer to read Churchill because there is, as almost anyone would agree today, a better feel about it (though still hardly ideal). There is a more rounded, more corporate, more questioning approach to opinions and decision making. On complex matters, dogma is mostly replaced by realistically tenuous, reasonable opinions. Back to Dawkins. Is he a brave straight talker or a simplistic, insular, belligerent propagandist? I go for the latter. But I still love him because God does.

Now I am not against firm opinions. I believe John 3:16, 10:10 and 14:6 absolutely and dogmatically. I am just dogmatic about different things. I believe I have good reason for that.  

Sorry about the diversion. Back to faith and science. Better perhaps to read some more open-minded books which attempt to reconcile theology/religion with science, books discussing the reasonable boundaries of each discipline.*

I have enjoyed Alister McGrath 'Why God Won't Go Away' enormously, and also Andrew Parker 'The Genesis Enigma'.

Andrew Parker adopts a similar worldview to Francis Collins, a leading US geneticist foundational in mapping the human genome. Collins wrote a book called 'The Language of God'. The title refers to the quaternary genetic code realized in the DNA molecule. In the book he attempts to consolidate the theory of evolution using biochemical and genetic evidence. He also opines concerning the room for faith in God in parallel with his acceptance of the mainstream scientific evolutionary perspective. Parker, alternatively, is a researcher in Natural History. He makes much of the fact that there is a similar, even identical order in which things appear in Creation as related in Genesis, and according to mainstream scientific opinion. Mainstream scientific opinion of course sees Big Bang Cosmology and Evolution as being the big picture behind how we all got to be here**.

I do not agree with Collins and Parker concerning the effectiveness and scope of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. Parker adopts many of the assumptions of the mainstream view without challenging them. Assumptions like chance abiogenesis, the self assembly of the first living cell purely by chance. Or the inevitability of genetic mutation producing useful change. Parker takes these on board without questioning. These assumptions are, to me, frankly ridiculous. To be more positive, Collins and Parker are of course, gifted, widely-read thinkers, and in the case of Collins, a high achiever in research science. Yet their opinions in these 'big picture' arenas are held in a manner somewhat more realistically tenuous and flexible than those of the New Atheists. The slightly scary intellectual fascism is not there.If  Dawkins had been writing to deliberately annoy me, he would have succeeded. Parker and Collins I found easier to bear. But then they are both theists.

Concerning science, one would have thought that the New Atheists might have avoided the move to simplistic, and ultimately wholly illogical and dogmatic, attempts to suppress reasonable dissent.

Which brings me back to McGrath. I have not even read all of it yet, but he does a superb job of raising very legitimate and logical objections to some of the New Atheist lines of reasoning. He does so by spelling out inconsistencies and assumptions in their methods which are very hard to ignore once highlighted. In  particular, the naivety of the assumption that the scientific method will necessarily be able to probe all reality and truth is dismantled convincingly.

Bottom Line: Other means of assimilating truth are required. Other than what? Other than accepting the mainstream opinions of the scientific community. Other than endlessly attempting to apply the scientific method until we are conjecturing so much that the reliability of our conclusions is very questionable. I would go for investigating the Bible as a reality reference point. It is based on a Revelation given in Condescension, not on human deductive logic taken to unreliable extremes.

* On the other hand, maybe read Dawkins anyway if you are a doubter. McGrath tells at the end of his book of how a reader of Dawkins was so struck by the one-sidedness of his arguments that he started attending church to check it out and got soundly converted! Indeed McGrath himself is a former atheist.

** I would advise people to discriminate in their thinking between 'mainstream opinions of the scientific community' and 'reliable science'. Where the boundary between these arises is a subjective matter. I was a development engineer for several years and engineers hopefully use 'reliable science' only. If they don't, planes crash etc etc.

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