Saturday, March 10, 2012

An Archbishop and an Atheist

Recently, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams had a public conversation (quasi-debate) with famed "New Atheist" and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Full video of the event was released on the internet, and made for a very interesting watch.

Dawkins has a great deal of insight into scientific matters like evolutionary biology, quantum mechanics, string theory, etc. But what really stands out is how inept his atheism becomes in the face of prescient philosophical questions. When put in a tight (if not inescapable) spot, he lashes out and goes into ad hominem mode, or refutes positions Williams had not taken.

Williams critiques the idea that evolution can account for every aspect of life including consciousness. He dissects vulnerable positions like Daniel Dennett's that "there is no evidence for consciousness." The idea that it is an illusion, or that it does not meet certain criteria, assumes correct perception, and a consciousness assessing those criteria. So the "ultra Darwinist" position becomes incoherent. Dawkins replies that a soul hiding inside a body is just as untenable. Well who said anything about that?

What's perhaps most frustrating about Dawkins is his completely ahistorical triumphantly secular vantage point. 'I don't see why you need Genesis' to explain anything meaningful about human life. Why would Williams "shoehorn" it into his beliefs? Dawkins constantly operates on the assumption that he's working from scratch, casting away all tradition to always make decisions on scientific, empirical evidence.

But doesn't secularism and atheism have a history? Doesn't it come from certain cultural assumptions? Terry Eagleton has critiqued the New Atheists for the ideology purveyed by their brand of atheism.

It's a dubious subtraction story. Once we shed childish religious beliefs like the Genesis creation account, we discover our true moral capabilities, that have been held back by religion. They are naturalizing a morality, a vision of the meaning of life, that has a positive history, and is not just some benevolent natural view that's been fogged up by religion.

Nietzsche is the last profound atheist who legitimately tried to break from all transcendent foundations. He tops the New Atheists in profundity, because he has a real sense of what a strict atheism costs. He breaks with all Christian foundations, and tries to rigorously establish a purely imminent (human) locus of meaning and morality.

He reviled the Christian past, and saw how easily others weakly fell into those assumptions. Sometimes Dawkins avows the ultradarwinist POV, saying that evolution accounts for simply everything. But other times he seems to borrows from the Christian philosophical tradition to talk about things like beauty.

Rowan Williams has a fitting reply to that. He cites a very moving passage from one of Dawkins' books describing in flowery detail the intricate beauty of the universe. "You're not just describing the universe," Williams retorts. "You're in love with it. Well, where does that come from?"

1 comment: