Melanie Phillips is fulminating against Dawkins for the strangest of reasons. She chews him out for dismissing dowsing, crystal healing, conspiracy theories, reptoids, etc. as charlatanry — not because she believes in any of that nonsense, but because, in essence, it’s all Dawkins’ fault. You see, once upon a time, everyone was too busy believing in rational religion to dabble in magical thinking, but once science caused the collapse of Christianity, the irrational woo-woo silliness rushed in to take its place.
Whoa. Now there’s a twisted chain of thought.
I don’t suppose we should wonder whether people believed in superstitious silliness before Darwin or even before Bacon. I guess we aren’t supposed to notice that the Christian beliefs in chanting entreaties to an invisible man or nibbling on enchanted crackers in a ritualistic cannibal feast are, well, irrational. Or that perhaps the ready substitution of magical thinking for religious piety suggests a rather obvious equivalence between the two. And please, no one should bring up the unfortunate coincidence that it isn’t atheists who are standing in line at Lourdes or seeing Mother Teresa in a tortilla or letting televangelists thwack them in the forehead or are sending in $10 bills with their paper prayer mats.
After all, if Melanie Phillips thinks those obvious observations are irrelevant to her claim, who am I to argue?
Now somehow, in all this complaint that science has driven away the religious defense against irrationality, she comes to the weird conclusion that science itself is irrational, and that one of Dawkins’ own arguments should be turned against it.
There is no evidence for this whatever and no logic to it. After all, if people say God could not have created the universe because this gives rise to the question “Who created God?”, it follows that if scientists say the universe started with a big bang, this prompts the further question “What created the bang?”
That’s nice. I think that’s a good question. I also think physicists are thinking about it right now. The point of the “Who created god” question, though, is to point out the inadequacy of the “goddidit” answer, and in particular, to address the argument that everything must have a creator, since that obviously isn’t true for at least one thing. The Big Bang is a singular event, with no intimations of eternity or causality — that remains to be determined.
We aren’t done with the twisty paths of Phillips-brand logic, though, because the next argument against the rationality of science is that scientists don’t like Intelligent Design creationism. This is a certain sign that scientists are irrational, of course.
These findings have given rise to a school of scientists promoting the theory of Intelligent Design, which suggests that some force embodying purpose and foresight lay behind the origin of the universe.
While this theory is, of course, open to vigorous counter-argument, people such as Prof Dawkins and others have gone to great lengths to stop it being advanced at all, on the grounds that it denies scientific evidence such as the fossil record and is therefore worthless.
Yet distinguished scientists have been hounded and their careers jeopardised for arguing that the fossil record has got a giant hole in it. Some 570 million years ago, in a period known as the Cambrian Explosion, most forms of complex animal life emerged seemingly without any evolutionary trail.
These scientists argue that only ‘rational agents’ could have possessed the ability to design and organise such complex systems.
Well, yes, we do think that idea is worthless. It’s not true that complex animal life emerged without any evolutionary trail: we’ve got the pre-Cambrian fauna as fossil evidence (although the connections with later organisms are complicated and murky), and most importantly, we’ve got molecular evidence of pre-Cambrian evolution, and of the relatedness of multicellular life to bacteria and protists, for instance. There is no “hole”, although there is a stretch of ambiguity.
Her argument for the irrationality of modern science does have one significant assertion. She’s found a rule we follow that is so perverse, so bizarre, so incomprehensible, that it automatically demolishes the scientific position. It’s one that that pinnacle of rational thought, evangelical Christianity, does not follow, so it’s a fault we can pin directly on those absurd scientists. I’ve put it in bold below so that you don’t miss it.
Whether or not they are right (and I don’t know), their scientific argument about the absence of evidence to support the claim that life spontaneously created itself is being stifled – on the totally perverse grounds that this argument does not conform to the rules of science which require evidence to support a theory.
She does have a point. That “perverse” business of requiring evidence to support a theory is one we’re a stickler for, and we’re clearly using it as a flimsy excuse to browbeat those poor ID creationists. Her argument would be much more telling if it were the case that science actually supported a theory of evolution that lacked evidence, but that isn’t the case.
Next time she writes on this subject, though, I do hope she makes that point much earlier in the essay so that I don’t have to wade through all the rest to get to the laughs.