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Hitchens v. D’Souza, and Thoughts on the New Atheism Debate

In the climate of our postmodern culture, few things are less "post" than defending science and rationality against superstition and wooly thinking. With most engaged in the hysterical bid to adopt the correctly "nuanced perspective" and a "wide reaching respect … Read More

By / October 23, 2007

In the climate of our postmodern culture, few things are less "post" than defending science and rationality against superstition and wooly thinking. With most engaged in the hysterical bid to adopt the correctly "nuanced perspective" and a "wide reaching respect for difference" combined with an "open mind" that is "resistant to totalizing," it seems as if today one needn't look far to find the next public conversation where cognitive dissonance is celebrated and clear thinking is dismissed as "arrogance." Last night's King's College-sponsored debate between Christopher Hitchens and Dinesh D'Souza at the Center For Ethical Culture was only another such event.

Debate roundups for these scenarios can be every bit as useless as the book reviews of Hitchens and D'Souza's respective diatribes against and in favor of religion. Both debaters make their cases about as well as they can be made. Whether you prefer the acerbic anti-theistic style of one or the pulpit punditry of the other is a matter of taste. Whether you think one was more right than another, however, depends on your basic understanding of rational argumentation and the scientific method as well as the limitations of both. What's most interesting in this regard is not D'Souza, who essentially regurgitates theistic errors and rhetorical sidesteps, but those in the audience who applauded his points. But this isn't to say they were all idiots. D'Souza himself is a well-spoken fellow, with a decent enough command of the history of science and the ins-and-outs of certain philosophical problems. It is precisely what he upheld in spite of intelligence and knowledge that becomes the most intriguing/disturbing. D'Souza knew the speed of light off the top of his head (easy enough, but still uncommon), he knew the legacy of seminal geneticists, and a few basics about Einstein (even if he tried underhandedly to pass him off as a theist). The majority of the great scientific minds throughout history, he said, were religious, therefore science is proof of religion's truth. He had the auditorium's Christians alight with the notion that their camp had been responsible for the majority of scientific accomplishment throughout history. But for the things he did know, did he not know that the majority of minds throughout history have been religious due in no small part to the threat of death for proclaiming any other worldview–a threat that has been with most humans for most of their years on this planet? D'Souza's compartmentalized his thinking and is thus so unaware of what it feels like to stand on solid argumentative ground, he couldn't possibly be aware how much he's leap-frogging. What do I mean by leap-frogging? One example: in his opening statements, he proposed to prove the value of religion on the basis of evidence with no recourse to superstition. For the remainder of the discussion, he proceeded to remind everyone that certainty was problematic, thus negating the atheist's adherence to evidential argument. Furthermore, he consistently reproached Hitchens for not presenting evidence, meanwhile failing to live up to his initial promise. Instead, he reiterated the impossibility of evidence-based certainty. Whatever lily-pad will keep you from sinking, I guess… But Hitchens could have done more to educate the folks who were getting off on his opponent's bullshit (and I mean that in the most Harry G. Frankfurt sense of the word). Not once did he remind Dinesh that atheism is not a firm belief but rather a stance with regard to knowledge. In fact, D'Souza actually made this point himself accidentally when he reminded us that in absence of evidence of unicorns he feels no need to speak out for their non-existence but simply lives as if there are none. I'd have like to have heard Hitchens remind him that a) the belief in absurdity is offensive on its own b) that if part of the unicorn myth involved the sanctioning of murder in the name of one's unicorn tribe, it would become necessary to fervently attack the belief in unicorns and that c) if Dinesh understands this principle with regard to unicorns, his willingness to suspend it for the Christian God proves his hypocritical selectivity and disqualifies him as one worth paying any attention to when he speaks about the universe and the human mind operating according to a rational set of laws. But to Hitchens: why not school people in precisely how the human mind does work at this point in the argument? It certainly does obey laws–laws so material that the notions of subjectivity and consciousness on which the theist's argument rest get blown to smithereens. If a human subject with a "mind" who makes ethical decisions that transfer to his or her immortal soul suffers a brain injury impairing his or her interpretive systems, ability to read human emotions (key to the brain response we know as 'compassion') then what's happened to the soul? If I can remove the part of a person's brain that enables ethical judgment, have I not surgically removed their moral soul? This connection between what the religious call the soul and what is known about material brain functionality severely undermines the theist's notion of the "I" that makes choices that bear on "my" eternal soul. If I'm a neuroscientist, I can plug your immortal soul into a machine and map it's electricity. Descartes believed that somewhere in the brain there was a driver's seat for the soul–the site where "you" make the decision to act, whether morally or immorally. But the "I" that so many take for granted is known to be nothing more than the brain's interpretation of its own complex functioning. Multiple things occur in the brain that the "I" isn't aware of and couldn't control no matter how hard it tried. The notion of heaven, this place where all the "I"s will someday go because of things they did or didn't do, is not commensurate with what is known about the brain. The human "I" in other words is little more than the transcendentalizing of an evolved brain phenomenon. If one accepts evolution, as D'Souza does, then one must also accept that these brains once had no ability to conceive of themselves in this way, much less to glorify it so. And so grows a new problem for the theist–not the atheist–to explain, one that isn't unlike the ensoulment debate regarding abortion. Whence did the soul of the "I" come into being in terms of human evolution? And how can something be transcendent if it can be surgically removed?

Many have charged the new atheists of wearing out an old argument and passing off as if its new. But these questions are completely current. Francis Crick proclaimed the brain to be the great frontier of the 21st century and it has only been with the advent of computers in the last 20-30 years that the intensive acceleration in learning has taken place. Hitchens, Dennett, Harris, and Dawkins are not beating dead horses by the name of Russell or Nietzsche. They are pushing back the post-everything world's increasing tendency to accept bullshit. And their rebuttals to this trend stand on foundations that aren't hundreds or thousands but mere tens of years old. Hitchens could have been a bit more forward with some of this information. D'Souza could stand to be a bit more aware of it. But hey, the best bullshitters are the ones who believe their own bullshit. People can throw around things like "nuance," "respect for difference," "open mindedness," and "resistance to totalizing schemes" all they like. To be sure, each quality is desirable. But what's undesirable is when these catchphrases are taken as gospel by smart people and turned into smokescreens for scientific illiteracy. This is precisely where the collusion of the faithful and the post-modernists takes place–it's an alliance soldered together by these kinds of platitudes that make an enemy out of evidence, should evidence possibly create some friction. It would even appear to arise from a need, common to both the post-modernists and the faithful, to be just a little more clever than science. A little more current. A little more du jour. The Christians want to be so far ahead of their time they're always extending the timelines. Death? Nah, they're ahead of the game. End of Earth? Ahead. End of the universe? So five minutes ago. They're livin' forever. But really, the most difficult thing to swallow is these are mostly smart people. To quote Frankfurt, this is the essence of bullshit–the bullshitter "does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are." Plenty of that going around courtesy of King's College last night in New York City.

[Watch the Hitchens/D'Souza debate here.]

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