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Dawkins vs. Armstrong

Recently the Wall Street Journal published dueling articles by Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins entitled Man vs. God. The editors' choice of Dawkins to represent the atheist viewpoint is understandable enough; in the interest of balance, it seems that the WSJ editors searched hard to find a theist who mangles theism as effectively as Dawkins mangles atheism. Author Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic nun given to syncretism who believes that "we need God to grasp the wonder of our existence," answered the WSJ's "Mangler of Theology" Ad, and Dawkins had his disputant.


...Darwin may have done religion--and God--a favor by revealing a flaw in modern Western faith. Despite our scientific and technological brilliance, our understanding of God is often remarkably undeveloped--even primitive. In the past, many of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call "God" is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence, whose existence cannot be proved but is only intuited by means of spiritual exercises and a compassionate lifestyle that enable us to cultivate new capacities of mind and heart

Indeed, there are deep flaws in modern theology, but Darwin didn't reveal them; he concealed and exploited them. He exploited a deep error that had arisen out of Descartes' rejection of Thomist metaphysics and his embrace of Mechanical Philosophy. Descartes and his successors dispensed with the hylomorphic understanding of nature--with Aristotle's and Aquinas' understanding of substances as a composite of matter and form and the invocation of four causes (material, efficient, formal, and final) in nature--and replaced it with an anemic metaphysics of truncated material and efficient causes.

Mechanical Philosophy explains the world as a system of disparate mechanisms, mechanical particles and parts randomly bumping about and constrained only by laws of force, without intrinsic essence or teleology. It is a woefully impoverished attempt at metaphysics; it serves well Francis Bacon's dream of a model of nature that can be manipulated, but it utterly lacks the rich explanatory power of the traditional hylomorphic understanding of nature that is the foundation of Western philosophy and natural science. Mechanical Philosophy ignores teleology and organizational principles in nature; it is an impoverished description of nature as particles in motion. It has survived in spite of its inadequacy because of the remarkable success of scientific endeavors that have focused on the these limited mechanical aspects of nature. The focus on mechanical aspects of nature (material and efficient causes) obviously doesn't mean that such a focus is a complete description of nature, but it worked to advance the manipulation of nature, and over centuries we came to believe (falsely) that this truncated philosophy could be a comprehensive explanation of the natural world. There were of course ideologues who understood something else about Mechanical Philosophy: as it denies teleology in nature, it provides a wedge with which to deny the existence of God. For atheists, Mechanical Philosophy was a gift from... well, a gift.

Mechanical Philosophy is a methodology for manipulating nature; it explains nothing. Now don't get me wrong: I'm all for manipulating nature. I'm a neurosurgeon, and I manipulate nature professionally. I take out brain tumors, using very mechanical means, and during surgery inference to material and efficient causes suits me just fine. Applied science is a methodology, and for some purposes, that methodology is good enough. But the person on whom I'm operating can't be explained by the scientific method or by truncated notions of material and efficient causes. In fact, nothing in nature can really be explained without inference to all aspects of causation--material, efficient, formal, and final. And of course, hylomorphism (the metaphysical view that incorporates the four causes) necessarily leads to other conclusions, such as the existence of a Prime Mover/First Cause/Necessary Being. I'm fine with that, because I'm a Christian, and the necessary existence of a Creator seems obvious to me. I'm not an atheist, and therefore I don't begin with a bias that precludes a rigorous understanding of organizational principles and teleology in nature.

Perhaps the most obvious stumbling block of Mechanical Philosophy is its inability to explain life and the mind. Most people don't know or care about hylomorphism or Descartes or philosophical disputes that date back centuries, but they have the good sense to see that "particles in motion" is an impoverished framework for explaining biology and for explaining the immaterial aspects of the mind. They understand that it's not merely that "particles in motion" doesn't explain life and the mind; they understand that it can't explain life and the mind. Darwin's "accomplishment" was to offer a faux-explanation--chance (ateleology) and necessity (tautology)--to account for life. (Materialists are still scrambling, quite unsuccessfully, to provide a mechanical explanation for the mind). But Mechanical Philosophy has no explanatory power; it merely provides, under some circumstances, a methodology for applied science.

Essences (forms) and teleology pervade nature, and Mechanical Philosophy by its own precepts is blind to such aspects of reality. Darwin provided a faux-mechanism by which the living world acquired essences (species) and teleological attributes (specified complexity), without the invocation of real essence (form) or teleology. Darwin's error was to perpetuate an antecedent and much deeper philosophical error; he provided a faux-mechanism to explain life without reference to organizational principles and teleology in nature. Darwin concealed and exploited flaws in Mechanical Philosophy and in the anemic theology that it spawned; he didn't reveal them.

Armstrong continues:

But by the end of the 17th century, instead of looking through the symbol to "the God beyond God," Christians were transforming it into hard fact. Sir Isaac Newton had claimed that his cosmic system proved beyond doubt the existence of an intelligent, omniscient and omnipotent creator, who was obviously "very well skilled in Mechanicks and Geometry." Enthralled by the prospect of such cast-iron certainty, churchmen started to develop a scientifically-based theology that eventually made Newton's Mechanick and, later, William Paley's Intelligent Designer essential to Western Christianity.

She gets it part-right. God isn't a "Mechanick," because His creation isn't mechanical (brought about merely by material and efficient causes). Nature has essence and teleology that transcend "Mechanicks." The theological embrace of the Divine Mechanick was a theological catastrophe.

Armstrong observes:

But the Great Mechanick was little more than an idol, the kind of human projection that theology, at its best, was supposed to avoid. God had been essential to Newtonian physics but it was not long before other scientists were able to dispense with the God-hypothesis...

She's right. But then she falls off her rhetorical cliff:

...finally, Darwin showed that there could be no proof for God's existence. Religion was not supposed to provide explanations that lay within the competence of reason but to help us live creatively with realities for which there are no easy solutions and find an interior haven of peace...

Armstrong couldn't be more wrong. Darwin didn't show that "there could be no proof for God's existence"; nothing he wrote touched any of the classical demonstrations for the existence of God, which are logical demonstrations, not empirical hypotheses. Contra Armstrong, demonstrations of God's existence are well within the competence of reason, because the philosophical and theological system constructed by Aristotle and Aquinas is the basis for reason. God undoubtedly provides "an inner haven of peace," but His existence is, and as we shall see must be, demonstrable by reason.

With theists like Armstrong, theism needs no enemies. Richard Dawkins sees this. He observes:

Now, there is a certain class of sophisticated modern theologian who will say something like this: "Good heavens, of course we are not so naive or simplistic as to care whether God exists. Existence is such a 19th-century preoccupation! It doesn't matter whether God exists in a scientific sense. What matters is whether he exists for you or for me. If God is real for you, who cares whether science has made him redundant? Such arrogance! Such elitism."

Dawkins is remarkably lucid:

The mainstream belief of the world's peoples is very clear. They believe in God, and that means they believe he exists in objective reality, just as surely as the Rock of Gibraltar exists. If sophisticated theologians or postmodern relativists think they are rescuing God from the redundancy scrap-heap by downplaying the importance of existence, they should think again. Tell the congregation of a church or mosque that existence is too vulgar an attribute to fasten onto their God, and they will brand you an atheist. They'll be right.

Dawkins is right (my fingers cramp as I type this). Armstrong's theology is a muddled mess; it's little more than an apology for atheism. Her assertion that God is That which "help[s] us live creatively with realities for which there are no easy solutions and find an interior haven of peace" is just functional atheism cloaked in New Age psycho-babble. The Incarnation of Armstrong's God isn't Christ; it's Oprah.

Remarkably, and to Dawkins' (Arrrgh..) credit, Dawkins refuses to accept Armstrong's easily assailed straw man. Dawkins seems to grasp, with perplexing clarity, the incalculable damage "theists" like Armstrong do to the case for belief in God. God is not a sentiment or a celebrity therapist. He is the Foundation of Existence. He is the Source of reason, and His existence is demonstrable by reason. If He is none of these, He doesn't exist. Real theologians and philosophers, and countless faithful and faithless alike, understand that God's existence is a radical claim about fact.

Rigorous philosophical arguments that demonstrate the existence of God bear no resemblance to Armstrong's woolly syncretistic meditations. The arguments with which New Atheists must struggle are the meticulous theistic arguments of Aristotle and Augustine and Maimonides and Averroes and Aquinas and Konig and Maritain and Gilson and Moreland and Plantinga and Craig. Not Armstrong. The debate with New Atheism is a debate about the rationality of belief in God, and the basis for that rational belief is built on several millennia of profound philosophical insight. The effective theist answer to New Atheist casuistry is not to point out that we feel awe and a sense of mystery and that the object of that awe must be God; the theist answer to New Atheists is that God's existence is logically demonstrable, and that His existence is the indispensable basis for reason, science, and morality.

Richard Dawkins points out that people who believe in God believe that He "exists in objective reality." Armstrong's Wall Street Journal essay is the epitome of rhetorical incompetence: she provided Dawkins with an opportunity to get something right.