Professors on Youtube

When we look around the world we see a reduction to absurdity of the idea that homo sapiens is a rational species. After doing a search on ‘Philosophy’ I have just discovered that Youtube is awash with videos by eminent professors lecturing the rest of us about religion, notable amongst them Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, that fail to display any real understanding of it. I have no respect for professors who do not do their homework and yet feel able to pontificate. It is irresponsible. In the case of these two academics it is perfectly clear from the two books Consciousness Explained and The God Delusion that there is no substance behind all this bluster.

Extrapolating from a few videos watched for a minute or two, and from their books and articles over the years, both these professors invariably begin their arguments against religion by making a very visible category-error. They assume that the brand of religion they are arguing against, the concept of religion they have in their heads and that they think is so ridiculous, is the whole of religion. Once this mistake is made it is bound to become easy to conclude that all religious people are fools.

But this is all quite ridiculous, perhaps even an academic scandal. Let us concede that the religion of these two professors, religion as they understand it, is unreasonable, implausible and should be discarded. Let us concede that when a thinker of the calibre of these professors is quite certain that they can refute a religious doctrine, demonstrate its falsity, then they almost certainly can. Let us concede that there is much taught in the name of religion that is unscientific, anthropomorphic and contradicts common sense. What follows? Nothing as far as I can see. We still have to decide whether there is any truth in religion.

It seems to me that professors, since they are usually listened to with considerable respect by the rest of us, have a responsibility to know a topic thoroughly before attempting to influence public opinion on important matters. Their words will carry authority, and so they should. This would be in their own interests, since it would help preserve our respect for academia rather than undermine it. It would also help to prevent the spread of unnecessary confusion and conflict.

Professors Dennett and Dawkins may be skilled in debunking the worst excesses of religious belief, but they are not experts on religion. Were they experts they would not be publishing books with misleading titles demonstrating that they have no idea how to explain consciousness or show that God is a delusion. Neither gives any sign of having read the detailed explanation of consciousness or the various proofs against God that can be found in religion.

For various clear and well-reasoned arguments against what might be called folk-theism, the stereotypically unstudied theism of the common-folk that is their target, which as an approximation we would expect to be at least a little anthropomorphic even if it no longer involves sacrificing virgins on the top of pyramids, then we would need to read the core literature of the world’s religions. Nobody puts the argument more strongly than the sages of the wisdom traditions. ‘Beware the hymn-reciters’ says the Rig Veda almost as soon as it becomes possible to put the warning in writing. The major part of this literature is devoted to the idea that religion is not what professors Dennett and Dawkins tell us it is. Their arguments do not even pertain to most of religion. If they can successfully and publicly refute those parts of religion that can be refuted then they will be doing us a tremendous service but they will not put a dent in religion. An inadequate literature survey leads them to miss the fact that there are sound formal arguments against theism from within religion that actually work and that are not just hand-waiving and expressions of opinion. Perhaps it is just that they fail to mention them, but why would they fail to mention arguments that support their case? More importantly, why would they not feel it a responsibility to mention them to their audience?

Admittedly, the literature of the wisdom traditions speaks regularly of God and this confuses the issues. Its happy reconciliation of theism and atheism can make little sense on a superficial reading. But even a superficial reading will reveal that the issue of God’s existence and the inner meaning of religion is a significantly more subtle and ambiguous one than anyone might guess from the naïve treatment it is given by these professors.

I do not wish to argue with them directly. I wish to influence the response of people who listen to them by demonstrating that it is possible to dismiss their views as naïve. Do these professors have a metaphysical theory that would render religion ad hoc? Of course not. People who are dogmatic about such things must stay well clear of metaphysics. It would be much too dangerous. Metaphysics requires that we use our reason to form our views rather than guesswork. They have no metaphysical theory, just a few isolated and unsystematic conjectures. Can they prove or disprove God? Of course not. They are not doing philosophy, not using logic and reason to form their views but to bamboozle us into thinking that they have done so. It may not be a coincidence that a low view of religion is always accompanied by an inability to explain consciousness or construct a viable metaphysical theory.

For a strong argument against theism there would be Francis Bradley’s metaphysical essay Appearance and Reality (1897). This is an argument for religion and it offers a complete solution for metaphysics. Another would be the Buddhist sage Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. This presents essentially the same argument but more concisely and formally, and it offers the same solution for metaphysics. Both texts give us a way of explaining consciousness, at least in principle. An argument against religion must engage with this form of it. To ignore it would be to render ones arguments against religion ineffective and irrelevant. A refutation of God would certainly be a useless weapon of attack against this form of religion since any such argument would be an endorsement of it. The Sufis, who call themselves the ‘true followers of Mohammed’, have been saying all along that Al-Lah is not a god. If the professors can prove this then it would be progress. But of course they cannot.

Whatever our beliefs and opinions, and in whatever way we define God, if we do so positively then He will be a straw-man or false idol. Our definition or concept will necessarily be anthropomorphic since we made it up. Unless we know God personally then the chances of our being able to define Him accurately will be exactly nil. We can reasonably argue that certain ideas of God are logically absurd or scientifically ad hoc, and any sensible person must pay attention to such arguments where they are well-constructed, but to argue that God exists or does not is hubris. We could have no idea what we are talking about. What would we mean by ‘exist’ and ‘God’? If we are going to argue against religion on the basis that our idea of God is implausible then we are going to seem very naïve to anybody who has taken the time to study the issues. In religion we are regularly warned against creating false idols whether it is for the purpose of worship or ridicule.

Perhaps if science students were given a good grounding in metaphysics then we would not keep seeing this kind of irrational treatment of religion but rather a recognition that it has much to offer science. Certainly the next generation of scientifically-minded Youtube viewers might be expected to come better equipped to see through all the smoke and mirrors. The physicist Ulrich Mohrhoff has recently shown how religion offers us an interpretation of quantum physics and a route to a fundamental theory. It would be crazy to ignore this opportunity just because certain religious beliefs do not stand up to analysis. Of course they don’t. Everybody knows that not all interpretations of the scriptures can be true.  In philosophy the Principle of Charity states that we should take as our target the interpretation of a theory that best stands up to analysis, and not just snipe away at the easy ones that seem obviously absurd to us. Certainly this principle should be adhered to on Youtube, where tilting at windmills is a waste of bandwidth that would be better used for cats playing pianos.

Supporters of these professors may at this point be indignant, but it should be a qualified indignation. There is no need for us to take issue with their dismissal of much of religion as naïve and incredible. Clearly it is. We have no choice as scholars, however, but to take issue with their lack of impartiality, their reluctance to get to grips with the more profound teachings of religion, their casual attitude to metaphysics, and most of all their attempts to unfairly use their eloquence and irrelevant qualifications to persuade the rest of us to adopt the same lazy approach to forming our views.

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