Eagleton on Dawkins #2
In October 2006 Terry Eagleton reviewed Richard Dawkins’ The god delusion1 for the London Review of Books. At the time Eagleton was John Edward Taylor Professor of English Literature at the University of Manchester. He is now Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University.
In my previous post I included the text of the first letter I wrote to Professor Eagleton after reading the review.
He was kind enough to reply. Among other things he said his basic objection to the argument Dawkins and I presented was that it involved a category mistake about the kind of thing religious faith is. He knew of no theologian who would endorse our view of religious faith, which was as ‘some kind of quasi-rational hypothesis about the creation and nature of the universe’.
I took the liberty of writing back to clarify, at rather greater length.
See also: Eagleton on Dawkins #1
10 June 2007
Dear Professor Eagleton
I was delighted to get your letter. Thank you so much for taking the time to reply.
It seems we must agree to disagree. I’m happy to concede your points about the good will of believers, the diversity in faiths and theologies over the centuries, and even Dawkins’ apparent lack of decency. But I think the category mistake argument begs an important question – perhaps the question.
As I understand it a category mistake is to treat something as belonging to a category it doesn’t belong to. If ‘supernatural independent being’ can take many meanings, and if the God of bible stories, hymns etc isn’t a single monolithic entity (both of which I’m happy to concede), that suggests that religious faiths and concepts of God are varied enough to fit into a plethora of categories – perhaps compatible, perhaps incompatible – and some perhaps into no category at all. But to substantiate a charge of category mistake surely it must be possible to identify what those correct categories are, and then argue that the opposing case is addressing a wrong one? It can’t be enough to say: ‘it’s not that, it’s not that…’ (religious faith is not a hypothesis about the creation and nature of the universe; it is not belief in a supernatural independent being; etc5). We need to say what it is.
My talk of discarded and undiscarded ladders was an attempt to acknowledge the strands in a number of religious traditions where closer and closer focus and meditation on the nature and/or meaning of God, belief, religious orientation etc lead by way of greater and greater universality to a perspective in which ‘God exists’ and ‘God does not exist’ become actually or virtually indistinguishable. But I would be surprised if a majority of believers shared this perspective. (I’m not sure this is the same as your suggested sense – which I’ll come to – in which it could be coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist.) Surely, for the majority of believers, a universe with God in it is a very different thing from a universe without God in it? Or a life with God in it is a very different thing from a life without God in it? (In both these statements I am not treating ‘God’ as an abstract noun like ‘happiness’ or ‘love’, as in eg: ‘a universe with happiness [love] in it is a very different thing from a universe without happiness [love] in it’; or: ‘a life with happiness [love] in it is a very different thing from a life without happiness [love] in it’. I’ll come back to this later as well.)
To quote from your review:
…Nor does [Dawkins] understand that because God is transcendent of us (which is another way of saying that he did not have to bring us about), he is free of any neurotic need for us and wants simply to be allowed to love us…
Your language here is categorical. If I say: ‘My daughter does not understand that we do not have any money’ I am saying that we do not have any money and that my daughter does not understand this. Of course if I say: ‘My daughter does not understand that Ophelia loves Hamlet’ I am also saying that Ophelia loves Hamlet, but the contextual assumption is that both are fictional characters.
So are you saying here that God, who really exists, really is transcendent of us, did not have to bring us about, and is therefore free of any neurotic need for us and wants simply to be allowed to love us? Or are you saying there are people who believe that there is a God who is transcendent of us, did not have to bring us about, and is therefore free of any neurotic need for us and wants simply to be allowed to love us? This matters, because the arguments of The God Delusion are directed against those whom Dawkins sees (rightly or wrongly, but I would say rightly) as suffering from the God delusion, not those who may want to defend them but are themselves immune.
The God Dawkins sees as a delusion is a ‘cosmic’ God whose existence or non-existence would make some sort of difference to the universe. (I’m using ‘cosmic’ here as a literal shorthand for ‘whose existence or non-existence would make some sort of difference to the universe’.) A universe which somehow includes a God who (eg) is transcendent of us (did not have to bring us about; is free of any neurotic need for us; wants simply to be allowed to love us) is significantly different from a universe which in every way excludes a God who (eg) is transcendent of us, …etc.
If not, if the two universes are indistinguishable, then it is hard to see how a ‘correct’ category could be specified to justify the charge of category mistake. If the two universes are distinguishable, then this God must have some specifiable feature or features which would allow us to identify its correct category or categories.
And to a possible objection that the category mistake you saw was about religious faith, not God, I would reply that Dawkins’ book is The God Delusion, not The Religious Faith Delusion. The domain in question is that part of religious faith which involves belief in a God – without denying there could be types or modes of religious faith which do not.
It is possible (and quite evident) that different people who would claim the existence of a ‘cosmic’ God (in my very specific and limited sense of ‘cosmic’) might attribute different features to that God. The arguments of sceptics and secular rationalists over the years have targeted different combinations of features: omniscience; omnipotence; creator and/or sustainer; source and ground of goodness; etc. Dawkins surveys a number of these arguments, not all of which succeed against every concept of God. And it is easy to imagine believers adjusting and adapting their concepts of God each time a counter-argument is acknowledged as irresistible. This is no doubt one of the ways the various concepts of God may have evolved through history: ‘not that; not that;…’.
Certainly it is a challenge to frame a convincing argument against the existence of a ‘cosmic’ God which gets redefined after every successful refutation. The stubborn insistence on existence (even a type of ‘existence’ as diminishingly sui generis and non-committal as ‘making some sort of difference and therefore worth taking seriously’) seems a residue from eras when concepts of God plugged real gaps in knowledge and understanding (not to mention technology and economics of political power) – the times of Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Eriugena and countless others who created the traditions in and to which the Rahners and the Moltmanns could add their contribution. To persist in such a belief is a choice a sovereign individual is free to make, and it is unlikely that science or any other branch of rational thought could ever ‘disprove’ the existence of a god people choose to continue believing in. Sceptics could however question the rationality of such a choice, particularly when evaluated against (say) a fully digested neo-Darwinian alternative vision of how ‘life’ (and therefore human life) relates to the rest of the physical universe. The more residual such an unassailable concept gets the more it resembles Russell’s celestial teapot in its pointlessness.
I find it difficult to imagine what it must be like to be able sincerely to entertain the idea of a God who ‘really exists’, or ‘really makes a difference’ – in any sense in which it could be said (eg) that
…God is transcendent of us (which is another way of saying that he did not have to bring us about), he is free of any neurotic need for us and wants simply to be allowed to love us…
– while fully endorsing the relentless suffering and waste of natural selection as the blind engine of life and therefore of how we were ‘brought about’ so as to be the object of this transcendent love. To be reassured that this difficulty is just the result of a category mistake is no good to me until I know what the correct category is.
I have no argument with someone whose concept of God is an explicitly pragmatic and/or metaphorical ‘as if’: someone who welcomes ‘God’ into his or her life as an orientation of the mind or soul or consciousness, as the positing of a universalising ‘not-self’ to guide life, behaviour and attitude. ‘God’ here would be something like a deliberately and individually chosen categorical imperative of unselfishness. It would be a deliberately and explicitly ‘non-cosmic’ God for which it would no doubt be both significant and true to say that a life with God in it is a very different thing from a life without God in it. But it would only be significant and true to say, in respect of this kind of God, that a universe with God in it is a very different thing from a universe without God in it in the sense that that universe includes that individual life.
I would have no reason to question the rationality and value of a choice like that. But two people sharing the same thinking and orientation and choices would not be sharing the same ‘God’ in any literal sense in which that ‘God’ would exist independently of either of them. This is not the God of The God Delusion. Nor is it a kind of God who is transcendent of us…, is free of any neurotic need for us and wants simply to be allowed to love us. And if this ‘non-cosmic’, ‘as if’, kind of God – a kind of God who could have no logical role to play in births, christenings, baptisms, weddings, deaths and funerals – if this kind of God is the God of the majority of believers today, then I am myself deluded.
There is of course no logical reason why a ‘non-cosmic’ concept of God cannot be arrived at by starting with a ‘cosmic’ concept and then whittling away features which can no longer be defended. But nor is there any logical reason why it must be. (You don’t have to go by ladder.) In the interests of uncluttered thinking and intellectual honesty there is every reason why, ideally, it should not be arrived at like that. But there could well be historical and/or psychological and/or cultural reasons why this is very often what does happen and has happened in practice. Theology is still a huge and profitable market.
The gods which collectively form the subject of The God Delusion are ‘cosmic’ gods (in my constrained sense of ‘cosmic’) which – variously – listen and respond to prayers; and/or bestow special rights and obligations and/or love on a particular mammalian species; and/or nominate a particular middle-eastern nomadic tribe for a historic function; and/or dictate works of literature to selected individuals; and/or set values of gravitational constants; and/or give their only-begotten sons to be crucified; and/or reward suicide bombers; …etc.
I realise of course that many of these gods are also rather different from the God you describe in your review:
…For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects….
I think I understand the individual words above, but I may not fully understand them in combination. The condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever and the answer to why there is something rather than nothing seem, first, to imply a choice to see something as problematic: in this case, why is there something rather than nothing? They then seem more a statement of the problem than an ‘answer’ to it. In the red corner is possible universe A – posited perhaps by someone who does not see the problem as a problem – in which the entities which exist, exist without anything being the condition of their existence, or the condition of the possibility of their existence. In the blue corner is possible universe B – posited by someone who does see it as a problem – in which therefore the entities which exist, only exist because something is the condition of their existence, or the condition of the possibility of their existence. That something cannot itself exist in the same sense as the entities themselves, as you would have an infinite regress. But it must exist in some sense, eg as ‘making some sort of difference and therefore worth taking seriously’. Are A and B necessarily different universes, or could they be the same universe but puzzled over in two different ways?
In God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects I suspect the word ‘objects’ betrays a false analogy. Yes my envy is not an object, but if I am envious then my envy exists as a fact – there are criteria for knowing whether or not it exists. If I am envious then my envy exists – even if only by definition. If there are criteria for knowing whether or not I am envious (which I think sounds reasonable) then those same criteria can serve for deciding whether or not my envy exists. There will be a different set of criteria for knowing whether or not my left foot exists. So my envy and my left foot may not be two objects, but they are two ‘things’, where ‘thing’ here = something for which there are criteria as to whether or not it exists. Are God and the universe (ie the universe minus God, assuming God does exist – in some sense) two ‘things’ in this sense? Are there criteria as to whether or not each of them exists? The answer could well be no, but this would be because they and their combination are very different from that of my envy and my left foot, not because they are similar.
My point here is that this sort of discourse is metaphysics, hovering on the edge of intelligibility. Are you really claiming that out of the however many millions or billions of believers – or even just out of those millions following Judeo-Christian faiths – the majority of those who need an answer to why there is something rather than nothing have (and who as parents pass on to their children) concepts of God anything like this? Isn’t it more credible that they do see him more as a ‘cosmic manufacturer’?
In talking about God as the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves we need to be very careful how we treat features of God posited in relation to life, love, consciousness etc. It is not that science has now discovered everything there is to know about what life is, how it originated and diversified, and how consciousness, emotions and behaviour evolved. But an alternative vision is growing and deepening in predictive and explanatory power. It is one founded on rigorous principles and, perhaps most important of all, it is falsifiable.
It is perhaps not yet irresistible, but it would be hard for a rationalist simultaneously to ‘believe in’, on the one hand, the evolution of reciprocal altruism – and therefore love – out of a blind and heartlessly competitive struggle between replicators, and, on the other hand, a god who (eg) brought the universe into being ex nihilo but out of love rather than need, and who sustains all things in being by his love. This sort of god, the sort of god who would make some sort of difference in the universe and therefore would deserve taking seriously in relation to life, love and consciousness – and no doubt in relation to death, destitution, fidelity, tragedy, hope and so on – is also a god of The God Delusion.
I don’t think either Dawkins or I see religion and fundamentalist religion as one and the same. But I share his concern about non-fundamentalist, ‘sensible’, religion making the world safe for fundamentalism (his words) by continuing to promote the view that there is moral value in holding beliefs about the universe for which there is no evidence. There is for example the belief that religious faith can cause someone to be good – that therefore even though religious faith may not be grounded in fact, it is a good thing that it exists because it makes the world a better place.
There is an obvious link here with the countless millions who have devoted their lives selflessly to the service of others in the name of Christ or Buddha or Allah. The reference is undeniable. But it is also tellingly inexplicit as to whether it is faith which causes selflessness or vice versa. Perhaps causality is out of place here. But the problem is that causality is so often assumed, and also that it is so often assumed to be from faith to selflessness rather than the other way round – such is the enormity and majesty of God versus the humility of the believer. But a sceptic might argue that the reverse is just as likely if not more so, suggesting a powerfully insidious sense in which good sensible non-fundamentalist faith can indeed make the world safe for fundamentalism.
‘All ravens are black, therefore all black things are ravens’ is a falsehood fuelling a lot of racism and sectarianism – for example. ‘All good people are religious, therefore all religious people are good’ would be equivalently false and equivalently dangerous. Of course it is not true that all good people are religious. But for a lot of history a lot of people could have sincerely concluded on the basis of individual and collective experience that ‘all the good people I know are religious…’. Add a few powerful amplifiers – from the political advantage of institutionalising moral authority to the reluctance of the selfless to attribute their selflessness to themselves – and the false conclusion ‘…therefore all religious people are good’ could be almost irresistible. It wouldn’t then be much of a hop to ‘…therefore religion makes people good’ and then to ‘…therefore whatever people do in the name of religion must be good’.
So we return to the two areas of argument I tried to summarise in my first letter: one to do with ontology and the other to do with ethics. As far as the link between ethics and belief is concerned, I think that far from denying the countless millions who have devoted their lives selflessly to the service of others in the name of Christ or Buddha or Allah, both Dawkins and I would see the undeniable truth of that as part of the problem.
As for ontology, the bottom line seems to me to be this. As more and more domains which once were available to theology are either lost or under threat, the burden is increasingly on believers to justify why their belief (including very importantly the belief as to what features their God possesses) is rational rather than on sceptics to explain why the naked shingles of the world are more than enough. Yes the sceptic needs to be alive to the possible charge of committing category mistakes, but the prosecution could itself be lunging, flailing and mispunching until it can specify the correct categories and show they are intelligible.
Thank you again for writing back. I have enjoyed this correspondence!
5 Quotations are from Eagleton’s reply to me, May 2007.
© Chris Lawrence 2009.