Saturday, August 09, 2008

What you need to know to deal with the Dawkinites

To my mind one of the best blogs on the internet is Just Thomism. I can find no information on the anonymous proprietor of the blog, and I'm assuming he is a philosophy professor at a Catholic college somewhere--and a fortunate college it is. I receive his daily posts in my Google Reader. Each one is a brief and to the point kernel of philosophical wisdom from a Thomist perspective.

If you have never read St. Thomas, I strongly recommend you do. He is one of those writers (The only other one I can think of is Chesterton, himself a Thomist) who has written on just about everything, and whose thinking you can trust on just about every issue he writes about. One of my life goals is to translate the entire Summa Theologica from the Latin--all of it.

I have only just started on the project, but I am on may way.

I have received permission to run one of his recent posts in its entirety. It is advice to someone who commented on his blog about arguing with the Dawkinites--who are, in case you didn't know, humanoids who have evolved to such a high level on the tree of life that they no longer consider themselves bound by rationality.

Here is the post:

Paul Boire wrote on one of my old posts:

I’m engaged in a few debates with a few people on the Amazon site of Richard Dawkins. I was fortunate to have been able to enjoy some philosophical education at an undergrad level, and hope you might direct me to some available sites with good explanations of the idea of the human soul.

Thanks beaucoup. I end up at your site quite often in my cybertravels and always enjoy your efforts.

The response soon grew too large, so I’ll post it here:

Websites on the soul? That’s easy. There are none. Not even ones that mention it much in passing.

The present science of life, which analyzes living beings into their basic living component parts, and which largely takes living things as given, has no need for the soul. Nothing that Dawkins actually understands (modern zoology) could be assisted much by speaking of the soul. Such realities are superfluous to him. When one divides up the animal by dissection and/or microscopic and chemical analysis, the idea of the soul need never arise. Everything the soul explains is already taken for granted to such a division. As far as Dawkins is concerned- or any modern biologist- the soul need be nothing more than the organization of a living body. “Soul” in this sense is a vague idea that the biologist must replace with distinct ideas.

One finds soul by a different kind of analysis than the division of the body into parts. One comes to an idea of soul by asking “is the living body living because it is a body?” Does it live merely because it has extension, mass, chemical composition, etc? Not at all, for then anything with these properties would be alive- like a stone. We need something in addition to mere bodily existence to have life- and this “something more” is called the soul. But even this is not the fundamental awareness of soul. Our foundational awareness of soul is in our own experience of moving ourselves, of being a single entity, of using our various organs as tools, etc. We experience ourselves as moving ourselves. The source of this self motion is called “soul”. It is far more known to us than mere matter, body, physical or sensible reality, etc. Don’t we call all these things inanimate? This is nothing other than calling them “lifeless” or in our account “soulless”. But for now it will suffice to see the soul as whatever is required in addition to mere body.

For Dawkins and biology, this “something more” need only be a certain organization and composition. This is fine, and no one denies that this is necessary. even though plants and animals have this “something more” it is completely destroyed with the death of the plant or animal- whatever it is. The question that you ask, no doubt, is whether the human soul is “something more” than a body precisely by being a spirit, as opposed to the mere animals or plants, whose soul must pass away.

Yes, it is. But we need a way of discovering this, and it is a difficult proof. Spirits are by definition not given in experience directly, and so we can only argue to them by something that is directly experienced by us. For Aristotle and St. Thomas, this thing directly experienced is the universal that we know, and the general object of our mind, i.e. the nature of material or bodily things. These arguments require great meditation and contemplation- and they can be easily sniped at by vulgar minds. I don’t say this to dissuade you from learning the arguments, they are beautiful and any amount of understanding we can attain of them is good. I only say this because I want you to know that when you run into objections that shake you, you need to be aware that all these objections have already been refuted before.

Henri Grenier’s manual “thomistic philosophy, volume II” on natural philosophy might give you a good summary of the arguments, and the common objections, but it would be better to meditate on St. Thomas’s arguments in the Summa Contra Gentiles or the Compendium theology. There are links to both at the “Blogging Aquinas” site. This will give you a first look at the proofs. But I stress that these arguments require meditation and contemplation.

The key thing to see, which makes any study of the soul very difficult, is that the soul is a form. The distinction between form and matter requires a different kind of analysis than is found in modern sciences. The mode of analysis proper to modern sciences cannot find soul. It would be as silly as trying to find the soul by dissection, or by using a telescope. Again, just as the soul is not the term of an experimental or physical division or analysis, neither is the soul a hypothetical entity. Hypotheses are superfluous to the initial study of soul, or in general to the distinction between form and matter.

A rigorous, scientific understanding of the soul requires a careful reading of Aristotle’s Physics Book one and two and De Anima. Don’t rush, and don’t read it with a polemical atmosphere in your soul, but as a disciple listening to the master. The translation you use is not important, but Glen Coughlin’s translation of the physics is the most faithful and his appendices and introduction serve to help modern readers understand the distinctive nature and power of Aristotle’s way of proceeding scientifically. It helps to keep in mind while reading the initial texts: “why are natural things composites of matter and form?” Why is this absolutely necessary? Only after you see this can you see the reality of soul.

All these things take time, but it is time well spent. I doubt that they will be seen as anything other than nonsense by the Dawkins crowd. Trying to explain the truth of the soul to them would be like trying to explain polymer chemistry to native tribesmen, or etiquette to the average high-school loudmouth jerk. There is simply too much prerequisite knowledge to make up for. There is also a problem of disposition. In my experience, the best spoken theists understand best atheist arguments very well, and present them carefully and faithfully; but I have never met an atheist who understood the best theist arguments carefully and correctly. Never. If you have the calling to speak to the Dawkins crowd, you must answer the call, but remember that the full truth is always revealed only to relatively few who seek truth and wisdom faithfully and as disciples of the great masters. The Dawkinses have always been with us. Five years from now they will be replaced by some new fad that feeds on death. They are nothing more or less than the world which is already passing away. At times it seems clear that they don’t even want to refute other arguments, they just want to suck people into an argument that itself will drag everyone down to death. They want us to speak like them: at one time ironic, condescending, and spiteful, and at another time with a false modesty that feeds on ignorance, tepidity, sloth, and death.

But I’m being preachy now, and am probably only saying things you understand on a more visceral level than I do.

Visit his blog here.

28 comments:

Will Duquette said...

Thanks much for the link to Blogging Aquinas!

I agree with you about Just Thomism; I'm just beginning to study St. Thomas, and the posts on Just Thomism are a real help.

Lee said...

I've remarked before that one such theist who understands atheistic arguments is Doug Wilson, who wrote a book, "Letter From A Christian Citizen," as a response to Sam Harris' "Letter to a Christian Nation." His new one, "Is Christianity Good For the World?," is his debate on Christianity Today with Christopher Hitchens, which can be read online here:

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/mayweb-only/119-12.0.html

Wilson is a Reformed pastor living in Moscow, Idaho. He has a blog, "Blog and Mablog", here:

http://www.dougwils.com/

On another point: as I remarked in another thread, materialists (that is, the philosophical component of atheism) are people who have trouble seeing the book for the paper, ink, and glue that comprise it. Someone confronted with a book who had never seen anything like it would not be able to deduce directly that it was anything more than paper, ink, and glue. Particularly, if that someone was part of a culture that did not have a written language. To apply the materialist lens, all that exists essentially is here: pulped wood, dried chemical stains, and an adhesive, maybe a hard cardboard cover. Hmmm. Why imply there is anything more than that? Why must we infer that the object contains a coded message? Why, yes, the groupings of ink take on a pattern, but it is our observation that this is the way the groupings of ink behave. A message? That seems far-fetched. You're telling me that these groupings of ink correspond to words, and that if we knew what they all meant, we would need to infer that another being had created the objects for the sole purpose of putting that message forth? That can't be proven. But we don't need any of that to understand the essence of this book -- which is the paper, the ink, and the glues.

publius said...

To quote from Shadia B. Drury( Canada Research Chair in social Justice at the University of Regina and author of a forthcoming book Aquinas and Modernity.) essay in the June/July issue of Free Inquiry: The Death of Conscience; "In defending the Inquisition, Aquinas was defending the killing of innocents -with a clear conscience."

Anonymous said...

lee quoting dougwils?: You're telling me that these groupings of ink correspond to words, and that if we knew what they all meant, we would need to infer that another being had created the objects for the sole purpose of putting that message forth?

"sole purpose" - very good


Without understanding a language I could do an experiment to determine if printing on paper had meaning. For example, I could instruct one isolated person to write a message and bring it to another person and see if they could read it. Of course, if the second person only understood a different language, this would not disprove the concept of written.

"That seems far-fetched."

Of course, he is using an example which doesn't seem at all far-fetched to us, thus making the argument appear stronger than it is.

jah

Anonymous said...

"We experience ourselves as moving ourselves. The source of this self motion is called “soul”. ... The question that you ask, no doubt, is whether the human soul is “something more” than a body precisely by being a spirit, as opposed to the mere animals or plants, whose soul must pass away."

By this definition, souls exist. Although why does it follow that the souls of plants must pass away?
And do viruses have souls?



"The key thing to see, which makes any study of the soul very difficult, is that the soul is a form. The distinction between form and matter requires a different kind of analysis than is found in modern sciences. "

Electric fields aren't matter either, yet they are amenable to scientific study.

jah

Martin Cothran said...

So Publius are you arguing that all of Thomas's views are to be rejected because he supported the inquisition?

Anonymous said...

Here's a British response to Dawkins. It is notable for distinguishing evolution and atheism.

From The Times
August 7, 2008
Richard Dawkins, the naive professor
It's not a simple choice between God and evolution: none of us can know that there is nothing out there
Libby Purves

Firmly I believe and truly that Professor Richard Dawkins is an honest scientist and great communicator. He's magic on telly: his programmes sending up New Agers were fun, especially when he let a lady “replace his Atlantean cells” by blowing on him. As for his reverence for Darwin and evolutionary theory, I share it. Have done ever since school.

My convent school, to be exact. The chief science-nun, despite her wimple and veil, was dead keen on Darwin. Most educated Christians are. Which is why the first episode of the professor's Channel 4 series, The Genius of Charles Darwin, had me alternately cheering and cursing. Talking about evolution, he is terrific. But every few minutes he spoils it by announcing that natural selection means there is, categorically, no God. Not needed as wildlife designer - ergo, non-existent.

Professor Dawkins met a class of children, some of them indoctrinated by that crazily literal minority who think the world began 6,000 years ago on a divine drawing board. Instead of explaining natural selection and letting them work out that maybe the Creator works in more mysterious ways than the Genesis myth, he offered them a choice as stark as any bonkers tin-hut preacher from the Quivering Brethren shouting: “Repent or burn!”

Evolution or God - take your choice, kid! The moment one of them found an ammonite on the beach, Professor Dawkins demanded instant atheism. OK, he is provoked, as we all are, by nutters. But most believers are not creationists. Some are scientists. They reckon that an omnipotent being capable of giving humans free will is equally capable of setting a cosmic ball rolling - Big Bang, abiogenesis, all that - and letting it proceed through eons of evolution, selection and struggle. One of the oddest aspects of Dawkins's TV programme, rich in antelope-mauling and gobbly snakes, was his emotional implication that, gee, Nature is too cruel to have been invented by God! A wet, mawkish, bunny-hugging argument.

Darwin shines; evolution is as marvellous as Dawkins says. But it is not fair to use Darwin's beautifully evolved brain to bang the drum for your private conviction that there is nothing out there. Nobody knows. Not really. Teaching children real science is one thing, making them choose God or evolution is another.

Stupid, too, in a Professor of the Public Understanding of Science. If you offer a choice between science on one hand and faith and tradition on the other, too many people will reject science. A subtle and well-evolved species like us can accept both ammonites and Alleluias. Live with it, Prof.

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/libby_purves/article4474112.ece

jah

Anonymous said...

Martin Cothran said:
"So Publius are you arguing that all of Thomas's views are to be rejected because he supported the inquisition?"

I don't know about Publius or Thomas, but sometimes I wonder if Martin supports the Inquisition. At least for the sociology dept. at UK.

papabear said...

Electric fields aren't matter either, yet they are amenable to scientific study.

Electric fields are a material phenomena, even if they are not in the category of substance.

Martin Cothran said...

Anonymous,

I don't recall the Inquisition calling for intellectual diversity, do you?

Lee said...

jah, I was not quoting Doug Wilson, just paraphrasing one of the points he makes, and I hope I'm doing so accurately.

And I'm not saying the someone in my hypothetical example could not discern a pattern. I'm saying that he would have to infer the pattern meant something more than it appears, not be able to prove it directly.

> Firmly I believe and truly that Professor Richard Dawkins is an honest scientist and great communicator.

There is at least one dissenting voice on the "honest" part.

http://www.discovery.org/a/1416

http://www.discovery.org/a/1509

He draws all sorts of inferences about the supernatural which are not based on scientific observation, and somehow gets away with it without compromising his credentials as a scientist. Let's see Behe get away with that. And once he chided Gould for admitting too many of the weaknesses of evolutionary theory, weaknesses which may be true but tended to give people an excuse not to believe in evolution.

Dawkins may be a good scientist. He is definitely a powerful propagandist for atheism.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Martin,

I will adapt these arguments for when my so-called friends express skepticism about the 6’ tall invisible pink rabbit that follows me around.

Harvey

Martin Cothran said...

Oops, did I forget to add in the post requirements that your posts actually have to make sense?

Anonymous said...

Martin Cothran said
"Oops, did I forget to add in the post requirements that your posts actually have to make sense?"

Your vulgar mind is attempting to be ironic, condescending, and spiteful, and loaded with a false modesty that feeds on ignorance, tepidity, sloth, and death. I dare you deny the reality of my invisible 6' tall pink rabbit friend! You cannot see my giant rabbit because of the materialist lens through which you see the world. You cannot appreciate my fuzzy bunny. You are a propagandist for anti-bunnyism.

Martin Cothran said...

Oookay. I would try to help you here, but I'm afraid the help you need is of a professional nature which I am not qualified to give.

Anonymous said...

Martin Cothran said: "Oookay. I would try to help you here, but I'm afraid the help you need is of a professional nature which I am not qualified to give."

That's what all the vulgar condescending materialists said to Jimmy Stewart in the movie "Harvey", but us followers of Thumper Aquinas saw the 6' tall rabbit and accept Him into our hearts and lives. I submit there is just as much evidence for 6' tall invisible bunny rabbits as there is for a "soul".

Martin Cothran said...

And what kind of proof are you looking for?

Anonymous said...

Martin Cothran said: "And what kind of proof are you looking for?"

I didn't say anything about proof, I merely submit that there is as much evidence for the 6' tall invisible rabbit named Harvey as there is for a soul. Souls may exist, but the evidence is no better than for Elwood P. Dowd's invisible friend.

Martin Cothran said...

The soul is made up, along with the will and the imagination, of the intellect. Maybe you could explain to me why I should believe anything uttered by a person who says there is no more evidence for the existence of the intellect that there is for a 6 foot rabbit.

In fact, how can a person who does not believe in the intellect argue anything at all?

thomas said...

Anonymous,

"Souls may exist, but the evidence is no better than for Elwood P. Dowd's invisible friend."

You are aware that there is a difference between the "Platonic" and the "Aristotelian" account of the soul, right? That the Aristotelian account does not refer to a soul which exists apart from the body, but to the principle of life for a living being? In other words, the soul is what separates animate beings from inanimate beings, and if you deny this sort of soul you cannot make a distinction between animate and inanimate things. And surely you are aware that the consensus fidelum of the church sides with the Aristotelian soul against the Platonic notion of the separate, immortal, incorruptable soul of Platonism?

Anonymous said...

And others think Harvey is really a 6'1" hare. You still have not presented anything that would constitute evidence, just different theological concepts.

Martin Cothran said...

If I gave you evidence, what would you do with it? You don't have an intellect, remember?

Hannah J said...

*scrolls down*
*finds negative adjectives heaped on MC, who graciously allows such freedom of speech*

Do those adjectives help with the discussion and your arguments, Anonymoi?

Lee said...

Forget about proving Harvey exists. Can anyone here scientifically verify that anonymous exists?

I think he might exist, but I don't have any evidence, just different theological concepts.

Anonymous said...

Martin Cothran said:
"If I gave you evidence, what would you do with it? You don't have an intellect, remember?"

You have made up a definition that mixes things most people would accept are real (intellects) with theological concepts that are disputable. When someone disagrees with you, you claim they are denying the things most people would accept as real. How convenient.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous posts, therefore he is.

Martin Cothran said...

Made up? The classical definition of the soul includes the intellect, along with the will and the imagination. I suggest you get yourself a good definition of the soul before you start trying to argue about it.

Lee said...

> Anonymous posts, therefore he is.

Now, that's funny! :-)