Monday, October 30, 2006

Sorry, Sorry, Sorry

Sean Carroll says in response to the opening of Eagleton's review:

These questions, of course, have absolutely no relevance to the matter at hand; they are just an excuse for Eagleton to show off a bit of erudition. If Dawkins is right, and religion is simply a “delusion,” a baroque edifice built upon a foundation of mistakes and wishful thinking, then the views of Eriugena on subjectivity are completely beside the point. Not all of theology directly concerns the question of whether or not God exists; much of it accepts the truth of that proposition, and goes from there. The question is whether that’s a good starting point. If an architect shows you a grand design for a new high-rise building, you don’t have to worry about the floor plan for the penthouse apartment if you notice that the foundation is completely unstable.

Which is exactly right. If, of course, Dawkins talks about nothing whatsoever in his book except the abstract philosophical question of whether something divine exists. Of course, Carroll himself recognizes that he doesn't. And even those who haven't read the book can still read the excerpts at the BBC and see for themselves that Dawkins, even in these short passages, runs through a lot of theological issues that would require at least a reasonable degree of research, so the claim that nothing but foundational issues are relevant shouldn't fool anyone. 'Besides the point'? Eagleton might well reply: which of the legion of points Dawkins makes?

Incidentally, passages like this will, I imagine, just confirm Eagleton in his opinion:

For the past two thousand years, theology has struggled to reconcile these two apparently-conflicting conceptions of the divine [i.e., the unmoved mover of Aristotle and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob], without much success. We are left with fundamentally incoherent descriptions of what God is, which deny that he “exists” in the same sense that hummingbirds and saxophones do, but nevertheless attribute to him qualities of “love” and “creativity” that conventionally belong to conscious individual beings. One might argue that it’s simply a hard problem, and our understanding is incomplete; after all, we haven’t come up with a fully satisfactory way to reconcile general relativity and quantum mechanics, either. But there is a more likely possibility: there simply is no reconciliation to be had.

What I found a little humorous was the phrase, 'exists in the same sense that hummingbirds and saxophones do', since hummingbirds and saxophones themselves don't 'exist in the same sense', although they both obviously exist. The latter is a functional instrument that gets its status as a saxophone from a surrounding culture; the former couldn't exist in the same sense unless IDers were right. A more serious discussion of this would consider the issues of analogical predication, but even Berkeley, not always very sympathetic to the schoolmen, devoted a long portion of one of his Alciphron dialogues to showing that this characterization of the doctrine of the schools on attributions was poorly informed. The reason was that that characterization was very popular among freethinkers in the eighteenth century; I notice with some interest that it's making a comeback, because I have been seeing it more and more. It doesn't appear to be any more informed than it was then, whether Carroll has in mind Aquinas or Tillich here; and it's all the sadder in that it doesn't appear to be very relevant to the issue of 'reconciliation' between Greek and Hebrew views, which it is somehow supposed to be. Perhaps Carroll has some unusual figure in mind? In any case, I don't think Eagleton would find anything in Carroll's discussion particularly impressive, because it commits the same mistake of thinking you can give a genuine refutation of a position you only know superficially. If that were the case a lot of crazy views would be in a much better position than we usually think. But it must be said that Carroll's discussion is much, much better than a lot of the defenses of Dawkins that are floating around, enough that I can recommend reading it in the sense that it's not a waste of time.

I really am trying to get away from this topic.

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