Sunday, November 18, 2007

Thinking you're thinking

Young man versus old man

The San Francisco Chronicle saw fit this weekend to provide its dwindling pool of readers with some words of wisdom from Dinesh D'Souza. Interesting choice. D'Souza is busy drumming up sales for his new book, What's So Great About Christianity?, just published by Regnery, a pre-eminent source of right-wing blather. D'Souza should feel right at home.

D'Souza has spotted an opportunity to take advantage of the recent higher profile of atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. He's girded his loins and joined the faithful's counterattack against the God doubters. D'Souza assures us in his newspaper article that we are ensouled creatures, not godless products of a mechanistic universe. How does he know this? It's because D'Souza can make a mess whenever he feels like it!
[I]s the long-standing human belief in the soul a fiction? We can answer this question by examining the issue of free will. Let me illustrate. I am sitting at my computer with a cup of coffee on my desk. I can reach over and take a sip if I choose; I can knock the coffee mug onto the carpet if I choose; I can just leave the cup alone and let the coffee get cold. Now I ask: Is there anything in the laws of physics that forces me do any of these things? Obviously not. In Milton Friedman's phrase, I am “free to choose.”

Perhaps I could believe this argument if I chose to do so, but I find that I can't. That's perplexing. Even the quote from St. Milton of Friedman doesn't persuade me.

Although I haven't read D'Souza's book-length defense of Christianity, the piece in the Chronicle neither raises my hopes nor piques my curiosity. The author wants us to believe that our rational minds must be more than the operation of neurons. Unfortunately, his argument merely displaces the discussion from rational thought to free will. If complex networks of neurons permit us to think, why shouldn't these networks permit us to make choices, too? How did the notion of a soul get wedged into that?

The book flap for What's So Great About Christianity reportedly sports the following teaser:
  • Why Christianity explains what modern science tells us about the universe and our origins—that matter was created out of nothing, that light preceded the sun—better than atheism does
  • How Christianity created the framework for modern science, so that Christianity and science are not irreconcilable, but science and atheism might be
  • Why the alleged sins of Christianity—the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Galileo affair (“an atheist's fable”)—are vastly overblown
  • Why atheist regimes are responsible for the greatest mass murders of history
  • Why evolution does not threaten Christian belief, but actually supports the “argument from design”
  • Why atheists fear the Big Bang theory and the “anthropic principle” of the universe, which are keystones of modern astronomy and physics
  • How Christianity explains consciousness and free will, which atheists have to deny
  • Why ultimately you can't have Western civilization—and all we value from it—without the Christianity that gave it birth.
Provocative, enlightening, a twenty-first-century successor to C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, Dinesh D'Souza's What's So Great About Christianity is the perfect book for the seeker, the skeptic, and the believer who wants to defend his faith.

Yeah, right. Dinesh is in the same league as C. S. Lewis. Tell me another one. D'Souza is just another apologist for creationism and its bastard offspring, intelligent design.

Don't get me wrong: I do certainly believe that Dinesh D'Souza is one of the greatest intellects to be found in the current stable of right-wing polemicists. That's seriously sad, isn't it?

I wonder if D'Souza has read any of Mark Twain's thoughts on free will. Twain's famous essay What is Man? is in the form of a dialog between a Young Man and an Old Man. The entire text is available on-line from the Gutenberg Project, from which I took this excerpt:
Y.M. You have arrived at man, now?

O.M. Yes. Man the machine—man the impersonal engine. Whatsoever a man is, is due to his make, and to the influences brought to bear upon it by his heredities, his habitat, his associations. He is moved, directed, COMMANDED, by exterior influences—solely. He originates nothing, not even a thought.

Y.M. Oh, come! Where did I get my opinion that this which you are talking is all foolishness?

O.M. It is a quite natural opinion—indeed an inevitable opinion—but you did not create the materials out of which it is formed. They are odds and ends of thoughts, impressions, feelings, gathered unconsciously from a thousand books, a thousand conversations, and from streams of thought and feeling which have flowed down into your heart and brain out of the hearts and brains of centuries of ancestors. Personally you did not create even the smallest microscopic fragment of the materials out of which your opinion is made; and personally you cannot claim even the slender merit of putting the borrowed materials together. That was done automatically—by your mental machinery, in strict accordance with the law of that machinery's construction. And you not only did not make that machinery yourself, but you have not even any command over it.

Y.M. This is too much. You think I could have formed no opinion but that one?

O.M. Spontaneously? No. And you did not form that one; your machinery did it for you—automatically and instantly, without reflection or the need of it.

Y.M. Suppose I had reflected? How then?

O.M. Suppose you try?

Y.M. (After a quarter of an hour.) I have reflected.

O.M. You mean you have tried to change your opinion—as an experiment?

Y.M. Yes.

O.M. With success?

Y.M. No. It remains the same; it is impossible to change it.

O.M. I am sorry, but you see, yourself, that your mind is merely a machine, nothing more. You have no command over it, it has no command over itself—it is worked solely from the outside. That is the law of its make; it is the law of all machines.

I think I'll read more Mark Twain and less Dinesh D'Souza. Not, of course, that I have any choice in the matter!

28 comments:

toomanytribbles said...

this is a brilliant bit of text!

(....how obvious is it that i mean twain's?)

thanks for sharing it.

David Marjanović said...

Even the quote from St. Milton of Friedman doesn't persuade me.

ROTFL!!! :-D

a twenty-first-century successor to C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity

Urgh.

Jim RL said...

Atheists deny consciousness? I missed that in the atheist orientation sessions.

Zeno said...

I don't think that atheists necessarily deny consciousness, Jim, but I'll wager that atheists disbelieve the claim that consciousness is a manifestation of one's soul.

dustin said...

Even the quote from St. Milton of Friedman doesn't persuade me.

Lolworthy.

Karen said...

The saddest thing of all is that D'Sousa makes a living producing this garbage.

salient said...

Karen said, "The saddest thing of all is that D'Sousa makes a living producing this garbage."

Hmn. I think that the saddest thing is that D'Sousa can make a living producing this garbage *because so many people* want to read this garbage.

If Christians have such faith, why do they need to read the same message over and over again in slightly different wording? I don't need to read anti-apologetic arguments over and over again to confirm that I do not believe.

salient said...

"Why atheists fear the Big Bang theory and the “anthropic principle” . . .

Psychologists term this 'projection' – it involves false attribution of one's own emotions and motivations to another.

I have encountered many theists who fondly imagine that atheists are afraid of all manner of things that don't scare atheists one whit.

It says nothing about atheists and a great deal about the inner emotional workings of theists. Rather sad, really.

lightning said...

Hmn. I think that the saddest thing is that D'Sousa can make a living producing this garbage *because so many people* want to read this garbage.

Minor modification -- he produces this garbage because somebody pays him do do so. This piece of organic fertilizer is published by Regnery, the publications branch of the Wingnut Welfare System.

Who would actually buy this book? Neither atheists nor theists will read it because they know what their reaction will be (free will or no :-). Students of such things won't buy it because it's such obvious drivel.

Are there really that many people who Just Gotta Have the latest piece of right-wing kitsch?

A Reasonable Kansan said...

Crap! Is D'Souza right? Did 100 million people die under officially atheistic governments.

I had no idea the figure was that high!

Where did that come from?

Australian Atheist said...

The old 'coffee on the floor' argument.

Even the greatest philosopher arguing that free will is a delusion must admit defeat when his/her opponent points out that coffee+floor=free.will.

What beverage-location combination will D'Souza use next to 'prove' something he believes in.

How about cola+wall=atheism.requires.move.faith.than.christianity.

Eamon Knight said...

Why atheists fear the Big Bang theory and the “anthropic principle” of the universe, which are keystones of modern astronomy and physics

Well, damn -- as if the bananas weren't scary enough already....

....a twenty-first-century successor to C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, Dinesh D'Souza's What's So Great About Christianity is the perfect book for the seeker, the skeptic,....

It's that bad, huh?

Jeff Dee said...

Daniel Dennet, one of the so-called 'new atheists', has no problem with free will. As a compatibilist, he simply identifies his 'self' as what Twain refers to as 'his machinery'. Ergo, when his machinery churns out thoughts (wholly within the limits of physics), Dennet (the machine that churns out his thoughts) gets the credit.

Not all atheists are compatibilists, of course, this is just another example of how Dinesh D'Souza is full of crap.

Anonymous said...

Hmmmm.

do we see another Indian-American (who is Christian) as a Governor....and yes in one of the "Bible belt States"

Anonymous said...

yes yes, national socialism and communism killed in the name of atheism, not some political ideology...right

Thursday said...

A Reasonable Kansan -

From the usual location: seeing what you want to rather than what's there.

The constant cry from the Fundie Fighters is that China, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union were all atheist, so atheists were responsible for all the deaths that happened in those countries at those times.

This argument relies on completely ignoring that each of those nations tried to replace God with The State, creating a new religion out of nationalism. Horrible atrocities have happened in each of those places, but they were done in the name of fanatical worship and utter devotion to a single cause.

Sound familiar?

Courtney said...

You have to know that any book that pulls the Stalin card is full of it.

jre said...

I say we watch this book's career very carefully. If Regnery starts giving away copies of this book to boost its popularity[1] Dinesh D'Souza may not just sue his publisher, he may have its management excommunicated!

[1] Not that they would ever (cougn, cough) need to, of course.

Steven Carr said...

Of course, D'Souza has free will.

Determinism is false.

Can any of you guys come up with a decent argument that D'Souza's actions are determined by rational thought?

Nothing causes D'Souza to choose one way or another.

It is the proud boast of Christians that they do things for no cause.



For our safety, D'Souza should be locked up.

I'm not saying he is evil, but he claims he cannot control himself.

Suppose I offered 2 dollars to anybody who would rape a 2-year old boy.

Most people would say no.

D'Souza would have to claim that he has free will. His will is free of all constraints, including moral ones. There is literally nothing in the universe which will prevent him saying yes to that offer.

How is D'Souza going to control a will that he says is free? A controlled free will? Not even D'Souza is dumb enough to talk about a free will that is not free.

So if D'Souza cannot control himself, he should be locked up for the safety of the public.


--------------------------------

It is surprising that so many people were killed in atheist regimes.

After all, The World's Most Notorious Atheist of the 20th century was Professor Antony Flew, not Stalin or Mao.

Berlzebub said...

-Steven Carr
"It is surprising that so many people were killed in atheist regimes.

After all, The World's Most Notorious Atheist of the 20th century was Professor Antony Flew, not Stalin or Mao."


Water, meet monitor. Monitor, clean yourself up and look more presentable.

Nick Barrowman said...

Although D'Souza spouts lots of nonsense, the puzzle of consciousness (and the related problem of free will) is, I think, the most challenging of all questions. I blogged about this a while back (here and here).

In January there was a very interesting piece by Steven Pinker in Time magazine, titled The mystery of consciousness. Pinker refers to a distinction make by philosopher David Chalmers between "the Easy Problem" and "the Hard Problem".
Pinker writes: "The Hard Problem is explaining how subjective experience arises from neural computation. The problem is hard because no one knows what a solution might look like or even whether it is a genuine scientific problem in the first place. And not surprisingly, everyone agrees that the hard problem (if it is a problem) remains a mystery."

I suspect that it's not a scientific question. So I don't find it surprising that religion should step into the breach. But that doesn't mean I find any old explanation satisfying.

Avedon said...

The Nazis were not atheist - "Kinder, Küche, Kirche," remember?

(They weren't socialist, either.)

Ed Darrell said...

So, avedon, how about some background, and a translation to English or Spanish, or one of the civilized languages?

Zeno said...

The Nazi slogan can be translated into English as "Children, Kitchen, Church." These were regarded by Hitler's minions as the three proper concerns of women, leaving men to attend to such other details as war, propaganda, and genocide.

GF said...

Well, D'Souza is right about one thing. The Western world as we know it probably wouldn't have done what it did if not for Christianity.

Specifically, if not for Calvinism.

Specifically, if not for "the Puritan work ethic", which made it not only allowable but MORAL to become as rich as possible. After all, you can't be rich if God doesn't want you to be, right?

And if you have to make a few other people suffer along the way, well, God must want that too, otherwise it wouldn't happen at all. They must just be damned. Poor fools.

Go go Christianist values!

Anonymous said...

I wonder if he realizes that the Milton Friedman that he (rightly) deifies happened to be an atheist himself.

Nick Barrowman said...

Ed Darrell said: how about some background, and a translation to English or Spanish, or one of the civilized languages?

If that's a joke it's not funny.

Ed Darrell said...

Hey, anonymous -- got a citation on Friedman's faith?

Nick, I regret you took offense, if you thought it was an offensive joke.