Thursday, November 1, 2007

Testing ideas by argument

Another quotation from Theodore Dalrymple's essay addresses the argument that religious belief is simply the result of evolution and, consequently, its universality is explained by the conditions endured by our ancient ancestors but has long since outlived its usefulness.
Dennett’s Breaking the Spell is the least bad-tempered of the new atheist books, but it is deeply condescending to all religious people. Dennett argues that religion is explicable in evolutionary terms—for example, by our inborn human propensity, at one time valuable for our survival on the African savannahs, to attribute animate agency to threatening events.

For Dennett, to prove the biological origin of belief in God is to show its irrationality, to break its spell. But of course it is a necessary part of the argument that all possible human beliefs, including belief in evolution, must be explicable in precisely the same way; or else why single out religion for this treatment? Either we test ideas according to arguments in their favor, independent of their origins, thus making the argument from evolution irrelevant, or all possible beliefs come under the same suspicion of being only evolutionary adaptations—and thus biologically contingent rather than true or false. We find ourselves facing a version of the paradox of the Cretan liar: all beliefs, including this one, are the products of evolution, and all beliefs that are products of evolution cannot be known to be true.
If all beliefs are a product of biological evolution, then what is the basis for thinking that one rather than the other is true. All we can really say is that those beliefs that exist must have survival value - not that they are true. And non-belief in God would fall under the same stricture, for what would be the basis for asserting that it must fall outside the pattern? This reminded me of an argument C.S. Lewis made in several forms:
Every particular thought (whether it is a judgment of fact or a judgment of value) is always and by all men discounted the moment they believe that it can be explained, without remainder, as the result of irrational causes. Whenever you know what the other man is saying is wholly due to his complexes or to a bit of bone pressing on his brain, you cease to attach any importance to it. But if naturalism were true then all thoughts whatever would be wholly the result of irrational causes.... It cuts its own throat....

By thinking at all we have claimed that our thoughts are more than mere natural events. All other propositions must be fitted in as best they can round that primary claim. (C.S. Lewis, "A Christian Reply to Professor Price.")
Thanks to Harrison Scott Key for the reference.

What the New Atheists Don’t See by Theodore Dalrymple, City Journal Autumn 2007

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