Saturday, May 31, 2008

A Moment.

John Gray is apparently one of the most well-regarded philosophers currently published. Still, I find it hard to read this without stumbling across a few of the old classic right-wing arguments.
  • Science as a uniform discipline? Check.

  • An absence of doubt as integral to the scientific method? Check.

  • Evolution as 'ideology'? Check.

  • A deliberate misunderstanding of theory and theorem? Check.

  • A 'belief' in evolution as tangential to fascism? Check.

Of course, they're all nonsense, but he continues through the usual well-worn anti-intellectual paths for a while (Morality without religion? Impossible!), and of course, his arguments are inherently Judeo-Christian. Why give to conscience anything else? But that's not the problem here.

This man earns his living as a philosopher. He is both published (regularly, in book form as well as article) and a teacher at LSE. That he should present such appallingly weak arguments should be a cause for concern. An example:

"Promoting Darwinism as an intellectual orthodoxy - a creed rather than a provisional hypothesis - these writers renew the old quarrel between science and religion. Though controversy has been intense, it can hardly be described as having made any large intellectual advance on the debate that raged in Victorian times."

I have never wanted more for the written equivalent of a slide whistle. Let's pretend for a moment that the remark is not vapid nonsense (that is to say, the discovery and understanding of DNA, to name but one small step made in the last hundred years, should be thought of as a trivial thing). What 'intellectual advances' are we supposed to have made? The fact that the majority of scientific discoveries, and here I do mean quantifiably, and of all time, have been made in the last fifty years seems to have escaped this man. That they were meant to be set as some vast scheme to disprove religion is a nonsense, and they were never put forth, initially at least, as part of that debate. That they continue to weaken the hold superstition has over the human race is a blessing, but the idea that that is what they have been working towards is precious little but a right-wing fallacy. In Gray's case, though he has always been demonstrably right-wing, you have to wonder what he imagines scientific endeavour to be. Is the quest for knowledge deliberate counterpoint to his musings? From this evidence, he would certainly seem to think so.

The term 'provisional hypothesis' is something I always appreciate when it comes up in a rant of this nature. To call evolution a 'hypothesis' is to misunderstand the nature of scientific inquiry. As previously stated, Mr. Gray is a philosopher, and so I have to hope that he understands what qualifies as a hypothesis. A hypothesis is either untested, or in the process of being tested. Evolution is a theory. The most tested theory in history, in point of fact. Genuinely remarkable amounts of work go into it each and every day. Have a problem with gravity? Call it a hypothesis - after all, God could be holding you down. But know this - gravity, the theory of gravity - hasn't had one-thousandth of the practical work conducted on it that evolution has. That certainly doesn't make it a hypothesis, much less one one-thousandth of a hypothesis.

Here's another memorable quote:

“Just who has imposed on the suffering human race poison gas, barbed wire, high explosives, experiments in eugenics, the formula for Zyklon B, heavy artillery, pseudo-scientific justifications for mass murder, cluster bombs, attack submarines, napalm, intercontinental ballistic missiles, military space platforms, and nuclear weapons? If memory serves, not the Vatican.”

Not Gray's own words, but ones he feels suit his arguments quite well. Again, the need for a slide whistle is profound. Poison gas and barbed wire? No - not work of the Vatican. Work of organised athiests? If you want to believe that, then quite frankly you can fuck off right now. Two things that were amongst the many horrors to come out of the trenches of WW1. An atheist invention? No. How does that even merit an argument? It's genuinely pathetic.

High explosives? Again, I'm pretty sure that wasn't the vatican. The first modern high explosive, TNT, or dynamite, was invented by Alfred Nobel, renowned scientist and philanthropist. It was designed to make mining operations safer. What a cunt.

Zyclon B was created under the auspices of Nazi Germany, led by known Catholic, Adolf Hitler. Of course, Hitler held whatever religion served him best at the time, but you could play this game all day. Most of these things were the works of single men or women, working for a company or government, with precious little idea or control of how their inventions would be used.

Let's play another game. Who covered up organised paedophilia amongst priests in the US and the UK? Who endorsed the Nazi government of Germany? Who organised witch hunts from the 14th through 16th centuries? Who denies resources to help prevent the spread of AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa? Whose agents have beaten women in Irish communities? Who has systematically persecuted people whose only crime is to have known more than those persecuting them?

Going beyond the Catholic Church, of course Northern Ireland, where I was born, has seen an grotesque amount of bloodshed in the name of religion. It can't have escaped many people's notice that there has been a certain amount of trouble with non-Christian religions of late (not that it would bother Mr. Gray - after all, his discourse is not against religious persecution, but is explicitly pro-Christianity). Then you have the Crusades, anti-Jewish pogroms across Europe from the middle ages to the middle of twentieth century, persecution of Muslims in Palestine and across the world, honour killings (which are socio-religious, but require religion as justification). Stop me if this gets old.

Isn't the blame game fun? Seems to me as though we could play for hours.

The idea that this short list of things that are not ostensibly Christian constitutes an argument for Christianity is hilarious. These things are no more Athiest (we're getting a capital letter too, spellcheck be damned) than they are Christian. It's a standard of modern politics - the argument that's there to be read and accepted, never questioned - but it should never be one of philosophy.

These are the piss-poor arguments of a man who's already made up his mind - dangerous territory for any philosopher, particularly one chasing tenure. It's going to take quite a lot more to convince me.

Try harder.


Oliver said...

That's fantastic. I may provide a link to it from my Livejournal if you have no objections?

Dave said...

Absolutely. No problem.