26 December 2011
In “The traditional atheist/agnostic is indispensable to the intellectual world—Part I” ( The Best Schools, December 18, 2011), I made the point that “It’s not possible to evaluate what we believe except by hearing from a literate person who doesn’t believe it.” Note the emphasis on “literate.” There is a sharp contrast between the anger-ridden “new atheists,” who increasingly define for the media what an atheist is, and the tradition of intellectual atheism.
We looked at three atheists/agnostics who don’t go along with the new atheist perspective, principally the Humean philosopher and common sense philosophers. Predictably, the Humean took aim at the random universe (he in fact became a deist after grappling with the facts of the case). The common sense philosophers took aim at the tsunami of nonsense currently talked in Darwin’s name.
Here are a few more atheists and an agnostic, united by their disquiet over the vast reams of popular beliefs marketed as science today. American materialist atheist Jerry Fodor, has also broken ranks in What Darwin Got Wrong (London: Profile, 2010), co-authored by evolutionary biologist Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini. Fodor writes dismissively of evolutionary psychology’s “plethora of spooks” by which he means “Mother Nature, selfish genes, imperialistic memes”—ghosts without corpses, essentially. No one has ever sought to confirm their existence; their existence is considered to be demonstrated by the fact that clever people have imagined them, and then immediately put them to work explaining a vast variety of present-day human behavior patterns. Fodor very much wants to ground evolution in naturalism, but he sees little hope of Darwinism and its spinoffs supplying a sure enough foundation.
One of the best ripostes to reductionism was atheist Thomas Nagel’s famous essay, “What is it like to be a bat?” Nagel powerfully illustrated the limits of our comprehension of animal minds, especially when the animal’s sensory system is very different.
Agnostic mathematician and philosopher David Berlinski has written several skeptical books on Darwinism, including The Devil’s Delusion (Basic Books, 2009), aimed, of course, at Dawkins’s The God Delusion. Berlinski has said,
One of the reasons that people embrace Darwinian orthodoxy with such an unholy zealousness, is just that it gives them access to power. It’s as simple as that: power over education, power over political decisions, power over funding, and power over the media.
The power exerted is fundamentally the power of the simple explanation. Let us say we are discussing whether men or women are more jealous. The careful thinker might consider a vast variety of human experience, and say—unsatisfyingly—“It depends on a variety of factors, often unique to the society and/or the individual.” By contrast, an evolutionary psychologist might say, “Men are more jealous because women represent a bottleneck for their selfish genes.” But another evolutionary psychologist might say, “Women are more jealous because they have only a few chances to spread their selfish genes.”
If you want simple formulas for easy decision-making, evolutionary psychology can provide them. You can choose among the contradictory hypotheses, according to your own taste. If you want to know more about human nature, you will not, of course, pause there long, but try to catch up with Fodor and Berlinski instead.
Other atheists/agnostics have grown restless over unbelievable accounts of the workings of the human mind. One of the best ripostes to reductionism was Thomas Nagel’s famous essay, “What is it like to be a bat?” Nagel powerfully illustrated the limits of our comprehension of animal minds, especially when the animal’s sensory system is very different.
Nagel named Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell (Harper One, 2009), a defense of design in life forms, a Book of the Year for 2009. He also questions whether the human intellect is explicable on Darwinian principles. Yet this is a man who also says, “I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”
At one time, popular beliefs sought the recognition of religion; today, they are more likely to seek the recognition of science. It’s far from clear that science should welcome the victory.
Similarly, atheist neuroscientist Raymond Tallis denies that Darwinism can explain the human mind, which largely defeats the theory’s purpose in the view of most evolutionary biologists, who are pure naturalists (no God and no free will).
Those who disagree with these thinkers cannot legitimately take the easy way out by shouting “creationist moron!” at them. They are not creationists, and certainly not morons. They don’t dispute evolution, for example, but they do take aim at the easily believed nonsense that dominates popular writing on the subject today.
At one time, popular beliefs sought the recognition of religion; today, they are more likely to seek the recognition of science. It’s far from clear that science should welcome the victory. In any event, it’s not surprising that a growing number of the more thoughtful atheists and agnostics are turning their attention from religion to science, an increasingly promising territory for skewering nonsense.
Next: The traditional atheist/agnostic is indispensable to the intellectual world—Part III
Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.