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Eagleton on Dawkins; me on astrology

tnh points us to Terry Eagleton's review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, from the London Review of Books back in October. It won't surprise you that I am on Eagleton's side of this debate; since I'm up early due to B waking us at 5.30, I have been looking through the 'net for other reactions. Marilynne Robinson did a less polemical, longer, and more intellectual takedown of Dawkins for Harper's. Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg, writing for The Times, defends Dawkins:
Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books sneers at Dawkins for his lack of theological training. Are we to conclude that opinions on matters of philosophy or religion are only to be expressed by experts, not mere scientists or other common folk? It is like saying that only political scientists are justified in expressing views on politics. Eagleton’s judgement is particularly inappropriate; it is like saying that no one is entitled to judge the validity of astrology who cannot cast a horoscope.
Actually, that's not what Eagleton is saying; expressing opinions is fine. Everybody votes, but I would prefer to read a book on politics by someone who is professionally engaged in it rather than someone who just happens to have strong views. Most people in the world have formed their opinions on religion without reading Aquinas or even Dawkins first. But before you write a book-length essay debunking something, you should make the effort to understand it in its own terms; otherwise you run the risk of becoming polemical and cartooney, as Dawkins appears to have done (I haven't read his book or seen the TV series, and don't feel especially inclined to, based on what I've read from both supporters and opponents).

And this applies also to astrology. As it happens, I have studied astrology, and do know how to cast a horoscope; my M Phil dissertation was on a twelfth-century text by the little-known scholar Roger of Hereford. One of the best known astrologers and mathematicians of his age, he argued for a rigorous mathematical approach to the subject. As a result of my in depth research, I am even more convinced than I ever was that astrology is bunk; but also because I went to the trouble of getting into Roger's mind and trying to understand what he thought he was doing, I would like to feel that my views are better informed, maybe even more authoritative. I wrote this history of astrology for this encyclopedia many years ago, but the best analysis I have read is this book, taking it on its own terms and demonstrating its utter inconsistency.

Dawkins' failure to engage with religion and theology on similar terms is to his discredit.

Comments

( 94 comments — Leave a comment )
raycun
Feb. 16th, 2007 08:10 am (UTC)
I know that casting a horoscope involves checking the positions of the planets at the time of birth (or other significant time) and predicting characters and events based on those positions. Is that not enough information to test whether there is any merit to astrology, or do you think it is necessary to understand the various methods of casting horoscopes?

(To put it another way - can you not demonstrate that there is no possible way to get from a set of inputs to a desired output, even without testing some particular operations which are said to do the trick?)
nwhyte
Feb. 16th, 2007 01:17 pm (UTC)
No, I don't think so. Just saying "I can't think of a way in which input A could possibly lead to output B" invites the response "Well, there may be forces out there which you don't understand." An example that occurs to me is continental drift, which we believe happens because of empirical evidence that it does, but whose operations are not well understood.

It's not enough to say "the positions of the planets can't possibly have any effect on our destiny, because it's a silly idea to suggest that they do." You have to be able to show that predictions made by astrology are wrong, or inconsistent, or unfalsifiable.
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jackthomas
Feb. 16th, 2007 08:13 am (UTC)
I would encourage you to read the book, it is very good, although i would say aimed at a the American audience. To say that Dawkins doesn't address theological issues would be a gross misunderstanding of what Dawkins is trying to achieve. If you can offer up good arguments for the non-existence of God without having to get involved in theological debate then why not. I would say it would be a lot like offering massive evidence that the Emperor is not wearing any clothes, any been rebutted with 'You have no experience in clothes manufacture of this kind and can not appreciate it properly.' But if the entire underlying concept is bunk then why study obscure points based of its premise?

Anyhow I digress, Dawkins book aims to provide a scientific debunking of a personal God, and to that he does an excellent job, it is not a theological argument, it is a scientific one.
djm4
Feb. 16th, 2007 09:53 am (UTC)
I would say it would be a lot like offering massive evidence that the Emperor is not wearing any clothes, any been rebutted with 'You have no experience in clothes manufacture of this kind and can not appreciate it properly.'

To me, though, it's as though he were trying to convince mathematicians that infinity can't exist, since 'surely you could add one to it and get a bigger number'. He just can't grasp the concepts needed to discuss what he's discussing.

Anyhow I digress, Dawkins book aims to provide a scientific debunking of a personal God, and to that he does an excellent job, it is not a theological argument, it is a scientific one.

It's also a largely irrelevant one, since most people's belief doesn't have a scientific basis. Dawkins clearly thinks that it should, but that doesn't make it so.

I'd be less annoyed by this if Dawkins were a poor scientist, but the guy invented the meme. And yet all his scientific writing now seems to be focussed on explaining why religion is bad and wrong, which is a huge waste, in my view. I still remember his Thought For The Day on Radio 4, where it turned out that the most important subject for the first ever secular Thought For The Day was ... oh, religion. Gee thanks, Richard. Come back when you've finished peering into that abyss.
communicator
Feb. 16th, 2007 09:06 am (UTC)
I've got to disagree with you there, nhw. Dawkins is engaging with the premise of theology. If he can dismiss that, then the individual variations of theology are irrelevant. The differences between Indian and European astrology (for instance) are interesting culturally and historically, but it is not necessary to understand them to reject the suggestion that astrology is worth mastering.

Having said that, to a European reader Dawkins comes across as shouting at shadows, because nobody really tries to impose theology on us over here, I think.
bellinghman
Feb. 16th, 2007 09:42 am (UTC)
Thank you. I would agree that the requirement to 'engage' with the subject in such cases is a surrender to the premises of those who propose them.
swisstone
Feb. 16th, 2007 10:58 am (UTC)
I disagree. Engaging with ideas is not the same as subscribing to them - it's understanding why people think they way they think, so as to better counter them. Eagleton's argument is that Dawkins fails to do this. Based on the first part of Dawkins' Channel 4 series, I'm pretty much in agreement. Dawkins isn't engaging with religion or theology - instead he constructs a straw man of what he believes religion and theology are, and proceeds to demolish it. The result is a polemic that seems underpinned by the belief that nothing good has ever come of religion, and nothing bad ever come of scientific rationalism, a belief easily countered. And as a response to the rise of intolerant dogmatic religious fundamentalism which is what seems to have motivated Dawkins, a retreat into an equally intolerant and dogmatic scientific rationalism is deeply irrational.
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srk1
Feb. 16th, 2007 10:03 am (UTC)
Dawkins is engaging with the premise of theology.

I don't think he is. I think he is attacking the premises of various popular organised religions, and believing that in doing so he is attacking the premise of theology. There is also an unhelpful fetishisation of 'science' in the abstract as a counter to theology, which might be useful for debunking particular theologically-founded arguments (creation of the world in seven days, etc), but isn't much use for assessing theology itself, in the same way that 'science' isn't much use for assessing the respective arguments of (e.g.) Rawls and Nozick.
raycun
Feb. 16th, 2007 10:06 am (UTC)
If he is debunking the idea of a personal god, as said above, then yeah, there's some theology left over. The bits that may be of interest to theologians, but not to most believers.
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nwhyte
Feb. 16th, 2007 01:23 pm (UTC)
I've been away all morning so have missed the debate as it has developed (and won't have time to contribute properly until this evening, if at all) but I just wanted to pick up on one point you made:

The differences between Indian and European astrology (for instance) are interesting culturally and historically, but it is not necessary to understand them to reject the suggestion that astrology is worth mastering.

Actually, the fact that the differences between Indian and European astrology are incapable of resolution in favour of one method or the other is a pretty good ground for rejecting astrology as pseudo-scientific. In science, if you have two competing theories, you can devise a test which will disprove one and prove the other. The fact that Indian astrologers places the signs of the Zodiac in a different position from European astrologers, and neither group has noticed their predictions going wrong, is a pretty strong indicator that they are both making it up.
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redfiona99
Feb. 16th, 2007 11:53 am (UTC)
Will respond properly once I have time to read the relevant links, but as it is, I'm amused because I was about to write a post on Dawson too.
pwilkinson
Feb. 16th, 2007 08:11 pm (UTC)
My own reaction to Eagleton's review was that I almost totally agreed with him about his specific criticisms of Dawkins but almost equally lost sympathy when he tried extending it into arguments about why atheists shouldn't engage in theology. But confirmed atheists willing to speculate about theological issues seriously can often have useful arguments to contribute.

To take an example - Charlie Stross's views on God and religion seem to be in many ways very similar to those of Dawkins, but that doesn't stop him engaging more or less indirectly with theological questions fairly consistently in his fiction and usually reasonably constructively. (OK, the "what if there is a god and he is entirely evil?" question that is implicit in the Laundryverse may not seem that constructive to theists, but the question is worth arguing as the assumption that theists often make that an infinitely great being must also be good is not exactly obviously true to many unbelievers - and, in other novels, the at least somewhat god-like Eschaton is a generally sympathetic character running into several standard theological problems.)

Dawkins, of course, never does this - for Dawkins, theological questions are never worth taking seriously except as mental viruses to be purged from the human mind.
djm4
Feb. 17th, 2007 08:15 am (UTC)
My own reaction to Eagleton's review was that I almost totally agreed with him about his specific criticisms of Dawkins but almost equally lost sympathy when he tried extending it into arguments about why atheists shouldn't engage in theology.

I didn't see him doing that, which may well be my own blindness. I'd disagree with that point of view, though (being as I am an atheist who sometimes does just that). Which bit of the review do you read as saying that?
sashajwolf
Feb. 17th, 2007 08:36 am (UTC)
OK, the "what if there is a god and he is entirely evil?" question that is implicit in the Laundryverse may not seem that constructive to theists

Well, this theist (here via djm4) finds it quite intriguing and wasn't previously aware that Stross had written on it, so thank you :-)
(Anonymous)
Apr. 3rd, 2007 05:55 pm (UTC)
Astrology Questions
Astrology is the ancient practice and study of the stars and planets. Its history goes back to Babylonian times. Astrology is not the same as astronomy. Astronomy studies only the science of the planets, stars and universe.

horoscope, astrology (http://astrologyquestions.com)
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