Sophisticated Theology: Grayling on Polkinghorne and Beale

While going over Jerry Coyne’s examination of Polkinghorne’s and Beale’s book “Questions of Truth, I came across A.C. Grayling’s purported review of the book, which Jerry Coyne loves. Having just read the book, I think now would be a good time to examine Grayling’s review. And it seems that having read the book puts me one up on Grayling, at least.

Okay, okay, that was horribly snarky. But reading Grayling’s review was incredibly frustrating, and more frustrating than reading Coyne’s attempts and examination of the book, because I at least expect Coyne to stumble a bit when doing philosophy, not having the experience in doing it. Grayling, though, really should know better, and not make the mistakes he made. I expect more from someone with his background and experience and reputation. Now, I do apologize for implying that he hadn’t read the work, because he clearly did. But I do not apologize for calling it a “purported” review, because it wasn’t a review. Generally in a review you look at the purpose the work was written for and see if it achieves that purpose, which in this case would be to ask if it expresses Polkinghorne’s and Beale’s views clearly and reasonably. I think it achieves that. On the other hand, a critique would go after the arguments made in detail and show why they fail. Grayling does neither, and seems to have read the book with the main goal of reducing all of their arguments to specific standard arguments which he then trots out the old standard responses to, without ever bothering to see what their specific take on it is. As a review, it says nothing interesting, and as a critique it misses the arguments too often to count as doing a proper critique.

But I’m not just going to say that and expect everyone to agree with me, so let me go through the review and point out the issues with it.

It is needless to itemise the questions and their answers, because the former are, as noted, the all-too-familiar ones, and the answers given by the composite Beale-Polkinghorne author are very familiar too. In fact they come down to the tired old three: god-of-the-gaps, argument-to-the-best-explanation and “religion and science both seek the truth but in different domains”. And of course Beale-Polkinghorne milk the tendentious version of the Anthropic Principle which has it that the constants of nature are fine-tuned in order that we can exist.

Yes, their argument are fairly standard, true, but are there any interesting spins that they put on it? What does Grayling say about these specifically? Well, for the first two, it turns out that he doesn’t say much:

The gaps-god and best-explanation strategies (which both come down to “we don’t know the answer so let’s say Fred did it”) can be left to sink in the murk of their own fatuity; undergraduates cut their teeth on refuting them.

Now, let’s recall here that Polkinghorne and Beale are doing nothing more here than expressing their own opinion of the evidence, and what they think are the best explanations. The “gaps-god” strategy — also known as “God of the gaps” — is an invalid strategy when used to say that there must be a God because there’s a gap that you can fit God into, and it is trivial to show that just because God could fit into that gap doesn’t mean that He must. Thus, it doesn’t work as a way to refute naturalistic explanations; the naturalist can always reply with “We’ll find it out someday”. However, that reply works poorly against someone who simply says that in their view, God is in that gap. Unless the naturalist actually has the naturalistic answer to that question, you can’t really assail that choice unless you can prove a contradiction in their view, which vanishingly few “God of the gaps” arguments actually have. The best one can do, then, is trot out the old canard that natural explanations have pushed supernatural explanations out so many times before that we should just accept that they’ll do it here as well. At which point perhaps Grayling would like to consider something that is also taught at the undergraduate level and be introduced to David Hume, who, suffice it to say, wouldn’t agree that you can simply toss past experience in as an argument about what we will find in the future.

And it is misleading to say that “best-explanation” arguments are essentially arguments that we don’t know what it is, so God. Best-explanation arguments — and Polkinghorne and Beale’s are of this type — are arguments that say that taking the evidence they have and perhaps some other worldview assumptions, they think that one explanation — for them, God — makes more sense than the alternatives. Grayling and atheists will come up with other explanations that they think are the best ones, but until someone can actually demonstrate that one of their views really is, objectively, the best explanation it stays in the realm of personal opinion. Which, of course, Polkinghorne and Beale are just expressing here. They are explicit about this in the introduction, and thus unless Grayling can show objectively that they are wrong his blanket dismissal is just using a general argument and the way the argument is used against an argument without that goal and that isn’t presented in that way.

And it gets worse with the Anthropic Principle:

As for the Anthropic Principle: well, it passes belief that it can still be trotted out in this guise. The argument that the universe exists for the express purpose of making the existence of humans possible has long since been debunked, and it is discreditable of Beale-Polkinghorne to try to pass it off on the unsuspecting.

In case you need reminding, the point can be illustrated as follows: I would not be writing this on a laptop if computers had not been invented, but this does not prove that computers were invented so that I could write this.

The problem is that in the book, that isn’t the argument that they are making. They argue that with these fine-tuned constants, there are basically three views that one can take:

1) You can think that it was guided by some sort of creative intelligence, which is why it works out the way it does.
2) You can think that we just got incredibly lucky.
3) You can think that this is just one of many universes and so we were going to get it sometime.

It’s true that just because this universe is fine-tuned to support life in terms of those constants it doesn’t mean that it had to be designed to do so. The problem is that it is also true that you have to accept one of those three premises in order to make it work, and the last two — the ones that atheists are committed to, generally — have serious problems. For the second, that’s just as much a “We give up” answer as saying “God did it”; surely we should not stop looking to see if there is a reason why those constants are set as they are and concede “blind luck” without making sure of it. And the third posits a large number of extra entities that we cannot in any way observe and are just invented to solve the problem, which certainly doesn’t give it any empirical credibility over a God explanation. Add in claims of supernatural creator entities and it’s hard to see how either 2 or 3 could be rationally considered to be better evidenced that 1, which gets us at least to the point where 1 is also a credible theory, and we have no reason beyond worldview committments to prefer one over the other. Thus, how they trot it out adds much to the debate, and adds much that Grayling simply seems to miss.

Grayling moves on to science:

To get this to work you have to cherry-pick which bits of scripture and dogma are to be taken as symbolic and which as literally true – so: Genesis is symbolic, the resurrection of Jesus literally true – the chief criterion being convenience, with the resurrection as a bit of necessary dogma whose violations of biological laws you just have to shrug your shoulders over.

Problem: Polkinghorne and Beale don’t use convenience to decide between the two. They argue that the Resurrection is so fundamental to Christianity — and, indeed, that it is what makes Christianity unique, which was in one of those questions that Grayling decided to skip — that if it was not literally true then there would be no Christianity anymore. However, that isn’t true of the Genesis story. Grayling can debate that if he likes — one can argue that Original Sin is also fundamental to at least some forms of Christianity and so the Genesis story cannot be figurative — but he cannot simply dismiss their claim as if they never made it, and simply assert that all they are doing is cherry-picking. What they are doing is exactly what you do in all cases like this (so all who want to know how to do this, pay attention here): Find the stories where if they are not literally true the message or intent of the work is undermined, and take those as having to be literal. Everything else can be figurative or literal. Should you find that one story or claim is not literally true, check to see if it must be literally true for the message to work. If it must, then you’ve refuted the work/belief/whatever. If it need not, then that can be and should be taken figuratively. Surely Grayling can figure out the differences between thought experiments and the like in other works — for example, I find it unlikely that he would think that Searle’s Chinese Room was describing an actual psychological experiment — so it shouldn’t be too hard for him to apply the same sort of thought process here.

Moreover, as Beale-Polkinghorne exquisitely show, they can by this technique of evasion, rewriting, special pleading, Jesuitry and speciousness provide a religion-consistent answer to every question and every objection: which reminds one of Popper’s telling remark, “A theory that is consistent with everything explains nothing.”

Sadly, Grayling never shows how they show that, and after reading the book I am certain that on this point Grayling has no clue what he’s talking about. As for evidence, see the above comment about them holding out part of Christianity as having to be literal. This, then, is nothing more than a rant with no actual textual basis because he doesn’t give one.

Thus in short, on the religious side of things you make up truth as you go along, by interpreting and reinterpreting scripture to suit your needs and to avoid refutation by confrontation with plain fact; and thus it is that Beale-Polkinghorne can claim that both science and religion seek truth. I would call this dishonest if I did not think it is in fact delusion, which – since a kind of lunatic sincerity is involved – it rather palpably shows itself to be. And it happens that “lunatic” is appropriate here, for the painful experience of wading through this book gave me an epiphany: that religious faith is extremely similar to the kind of conspiracy theory that sufferers from paranoid delusions can hold: the faithful see a purposive hand in everything, plotting and controlling and guiding – and interpret all their experience accordingly.

All of which can be refuted with one old canard: It’s not a conspiracy theory if it’s true. Grayling doesn’t even engage their specific so-called making up of truths, let alone demonstrate that they really don’t have the better explanation here. As a review, he’s missed their goal of expressing their own views in favour of trying to criticize them, but he doesn’t engage enough with what they actually say to make this a worthwhile critique.

I found the Beale-Polkinghorne explanation of natural evil (tsunamis and earthquakes that drown or crush tens of thousands, childhood cancers, and other marks of benign providence) as disgusting, though it is novel, as any that other apologists trot out. They say that the deity allows natural evils to happen because “he” has given creation “freedom to be and to make itself” – thus imputing free will to “creation” to explain natural evil in the same way as moral evil is imputed to the free will of humans. Heroic stuff.

I fail to see how your feeling of disgust is something that anyone other than you should care about. I don’t particularly like this explanation myself (and I think this is on the list of questions I want to talk about), but they outline their view and why in the book. If you wanted to criticize it, you would address their motivations for the argument. Instead, you dismiss it without any real analysis or engagement. So far, this review seem far less than useful, which means it’s hard to me to see why anyone would call it good.

And of course Beale-Polkinghorne have to be mind-brain dualists (see their chapter on this, in which their dualism is described in their own version of Newspeak as “dual aspect monism” in which “mind and brain are not identical” – work that one out!) …

As a card-carrying mind-brain dualist, I can say with certainty that they actually aren’t mind/brain dualists, at least not in the sense of being substance dualists like you’d normally use to get room for a soul. They argue, I think, that minds are completely embodied in the brain, but use the “software” analogy to argue that essentially the mind is the software that runs on the hardware of the brain. This view is perfectly compatible with materialism, and the most they say about it is that things like software are not material in the same way that brains are. Functionalism relies heavily on this sort of move, and while the “software” analogy and functionalism are not identical that analogy is perfectly compatible with functionalism, and functionalism is perfectly compatible with materialism. So, for the part that Grayling simply cannot work out, this means pretty much exactly what I just said: mind and brain are not identical in the same sense that Windows 7 and the machine that is running it are not identical. They also do a good job of outlining issues with trying to consider them identical (eg if a thought is identical to a brain state, how can it ever be the case that you and I, with different brains and different brain states, are thinking the same thought?). Since this is basic philosophy of mind, I find it highly puzzling that Grayling seems unable to figure that out. Perhaps he needs to cut his teeth again at the undergraduate level …

…in order for them to keep a place for the concept of “soul”, itself explained in a cloud of fudge by analogy with piano and the music played on it: “…layers…indeterminism…er…Penrose…chaos theory…quantum mechanics…er…blah blah…see my book chapter 9, all rather complicated…”

No philosopher should ever criticize a work or view because it’s too complicated to be expressed in a simple book aimed at a general audience, because it is almost certain that they have views that would also be too complicated to express in that sort of work. Plus, it isn’t that opaque. The “piano and music” example I just explained, and is basic philosophy of mind. Where their view gets complicated is when you have to talk about life after death, because they think that a mind must be embodied, but it has to develop embodied and so it isn’t the case that at death the mind simply wanders off into the afterlife, so it needs a new “body”, but then what that is would be an issue, and so on. I would have to read the details on how all of this works, but I think I understand it well-enough to know that it likely has some problems and I’m not sure I buy it, and so I’d need to read it in more detail to say for certain. It’s clear that this is the point where Grayling couldn’t reduce their claims to simple arguments that he’s seen before, and so is stuck being completely unable to say anything meaningful, and so reduces his counters to basically “I don’t understand it, so it’s stupid” and leaves it there.

And this is really where I call Grayling out on this as opposed to Coyne. One might expect Coyne to miss the importance of their take on the Anthropic Principle and what their argument is there, but not Grayling. Coyne could be expected to now know about one of the most basic and fundamental analogies in Philosophy of Mind … but surely not Grayling. Coyne might be expected to dismiss the embodied soul argument and decide that he can criticize it without ensuring that he understands it, and in fact to criticize it for not being clear … but surely not Grayling. Grayling, in this review, violates pretty much every good practice of philosophy, to produce a “review” that is neither review, nor critique, but which seems like nothing more than an ill-informed rant … and an ill-informed rant is of limited use.

And that’s the sad thing. As an atheist, Grayling has the background knowledge and ability — one presumes — to take them on in the strongest possible way and actually demonstrate that their views are problematic. In theory, I’m sympathetic to their view and I think I have more substantive objections than Grayling gives here. Basically, Grayling wants to claim that the book is, what, bad? without ever bothering to show what’s wrong with it outside of his blatant assertions about what it says … assertions that end up being wrong a significant amount of the time. This could have been a good review or critique, if Grayling had only set out to do that instead of setting out to produce the pointless rant that we actually ended up with.

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