Monday, October 30, 2006

What have Terry Pratchett, Richard Dawkins and Pope Benedict all got in common?

They are very, very interested in the relationship between Reason, Religion and Science.

I have just finished reading Science of the Discworld III. You have to be familiar with the Discworld novels to really get the point of the "Science of the Discworld" series, but if you are, then do yourself a real favour and read these three books. If you're not, then do yourself an even bigger favour and start reading the Discworld novels now. There's about a hundred to choose from and Pratchett writes faster than you can read so you will be laughing until you're in the grave.

Right, back to "Science III", the whole premise of this book is what would have happened if Darwin didn't write "The Origin of Species" but "Theology of Species" (or, as the wizards keep saying it: "The Ology" instead of "The Origin"). So, yes, it is about evolution and God and reason etc. etc. Its an entertaining and educational read, but you can easily get annoyed with it. Not so much with Pratchett as with his co-writers, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. The approach these blokes take to the relationship between religion and science is not unlike that of Richard Dawkins.

Who, if you are interested, recently did a radio debate in Ireland on the topic of the rationality (or lack of it) in religious belief. Zenit did us the monumental favour of putting the transcript up on their website in two parts: Part I and Part II. His interlocutor, David Quinn, runs circles around Dawkins. Dawkins is reduced to a sort of Monty-Pythonesque "No it isn't; Yes it is" style of argument.

Back to "Science of the Discworld III": the first customer review on the Amazon link above is fairly spot on, I reckon. The reviewer writes:

It isn't as if Pratchett is setting up 6 day creationism against science. This book is actually based on a premise that people who believe that God works through evolution are dangerous and that godless evolution must triumph if the world's population is to be saved. ...Beyond that the logic of the arguments here defeat each other. As the book points out, one of the great strengths of Victorian England was that diversity flourished in it, and that is one of the reasons it was such an inventive time. What Pratchett also knows is that the diversity existed because no one world view predominated at the time. So what does Pratchett propose? To end the diversity of world views by making a godless scientific one the only show in town.

Dawkins, in the radio debate, actually does set up the straw man of "creationism" and fundamentalism as the only possibility for religious belief. He wants to say that all religion is a delusion.

All religion? No, not quite. He doesn't mind Einstein's "sophisticated" type of religion "which really wasn't religion at all." Einstein "used the word "God" a great deal, but he didn't mean a personal God, he didn't mean a being who could listen to your prayers or forgive your sins."

Is any other type of religion okay? Well, yes, Dawkins doesn't find the deistic types of belief in God a problem. They "believe in a kind of God, a kind of personal God who set the universe going, a sort of physicist God, but then did not more, and certainly doesn't listen to your thoughts, and has no personal interest in humans at all."

The real "delusion" is reserved for "theists, who actually think they talk to God and think God talks to them."

So let's get this straight: Dawkins is happy to acknowledge that there may be a God--even a God who could create the entire universe (or multiverse, if you prefer) which is pretty powerful--but not so powerful that he could actually communicate himself to his creation! That would be "delusional".

Later in the interview, Dawkins rejects Quinn's definition of the "unmoved mover" as God. "You just defined God as that", Dawkins retorts. WELL, YEEES! DOH. But it isn't really a very original definition of God. It's what Aristotle and Aquinas--and Einstein for that matter--thought of as God.

Dawkin's God--and Pratchett/Cohen/Stewart's God--is too small. Their God, the one they reject, it the anthropomorphic watchmaker God with the beard who created the world 6000 years ago. In other words, these guys are way, way, WAY behind the theological times. Its like they've got a hundred degrees in science, maths and astrophysics, but haven't even graduated from Sunday School in theology (or whatever the equivalent is in Philosophy).

First published in 2005, one suspects that the authors of "Science of the Discworld" have not read much by Papa Benny as yet. They are, however, familiar with JPII's dictum that "the bible does not wish to teach how the heavens were made, but how one goes to heaven." But this "sophisticated reconciliation of evolution with God is a wishy-washy compromise, a cop-out." Why? "Because evolution knocks an enormous hole in what otherwise might be the best argument yet devised for convincing people of the existence of God, and that is the "argument from design"."

Well, in fact, the argument from design is still alive and well--and not just in the philosophically and theologically immature attempts of the "Intelligent design" mob. That's where Pope Benedict and Cardinal Schoenborn etc. come in. That's where these scientists need a good dose of philosophy and theology to counter their single track rationality that sees only the empirical as the rational. I wonder if Dawkins, Pratchett and co have taken the time to read the Regensburg address? I doubt it. Pity.

Actually, Cohen and Stewart give the clue towards the end of their book with Pratchett. As the reviewer said above, the key is not being tied down to one "world-view". Different stories can exist side by side without being contradictory. In fact, each can throw a different light on reality. Human beings, as they conclude, are not simply Pan narrans--the story telling ape--but Polypan multinarrans. The evolutionary story and the creation story can actually work together in a complementary manner. Not a compartmentalised manner, as Dawkins would have us think, but in a narrative way, in which two accounts of the same reality can both be objectively true for what they are trying to convey.

The other problem is that which many people have of having a God who is neither big enough, nor small enough. Ratzinger, in Introduction to Christianity, deals with this issue:
In a world that in the last analysis is not mathematics but love, the minimum is a maximum; the smallest thing that can love is one of the biggest things; the particular is more than the unversal; the person, the unique and unrepeatable, is at the same time the ultimate and highest thing.

I think even Einstein understood that.


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