Having recently read and reviewed John Polkinghorne and Nicholas Beale’s recent book Questions of Truth, I came across some negative reviews written by some atheists on the web. This does not come as a surprise. Now, negative and critical reviews are completely fine providing they are sensible and have some genuine substance and justifications, but the particular ones I have looked at have none of these qualities. They are in fact absurd. Polkinghorne understandably attracts a healthy amount of attention for his views by christians and atheists, and Questions of Truth has had some interesting reactions.
Outspoken atheist/humanist AC Grayling, a philosopher and self-professed ‘bright’, published a scathing article in New Humanist magazine (read here), reviewing Polkinghorne and Beale’s book Questions Of Truth. I wasn’t planning on writing posts about Grayling but this particular review of his is crammed with misrepresentations, contradictions, logical fallacies and characteristically childish objurgations. I couldn’t resist! It puzzles me often because Grayling generally comes across as a polite man but when he starts talking about religion he resorts to knocking down straw men and ad hominem attacks. Having read his book Against All Gods and various articles of his in The Guardian, I am all too familiar with his philosophically vacuous thinking and sophomoric mockery. What is strikingly obvious when reading his review, is that Questions Of Truth touched a sore spot for Grayling. Both being New Atheists types, Dawkins and Grayling are friends and the book does critique Dawkins quite well, a fact that I’m sure Grayling doesn’t like. Predictably after reviewing the book, he is encouraged by Dawkins as his comment on richarddawkins.net shows: ‘What a wonderfully clear, incisive, and justly scathing writer AC Grayling is- Richard’.
In his ‘scathing’ critique of the book, the first factual error Grayling makes is in claiming the book is apparently self published. The book is actually published under Westminster John Knox who publish scholarly works on religion for the academic community. They have over 1,600 books in print and go back to 1838.
Grayling makes a snide comment that many of the questions in the book relate to theological issues or ‘premise membership of the asylum already‘. It is evident that he has to resort to labelling christians as ‘members of the asylum‘ to avoid engaging in rational dialogue and debate with them. Childish name calling is not what you would expect from a professor of philosophy but in Grayling’s case this is an exception. He contemptuously dismisses the theological questions raised in the book (why believe Jesus rose from the dead?), and one can only conclude that he’s afraid they just might offer some convincing and evidence based responses.
Grayling says that instead, he will turn to the questions that relate to science and religion revealing that he somehow thinks he has expertise on the subjects. He hasn’t any professional scientific background and then has the chutzpah to say:
‘because the interest attaching to Polkinghorne is that he is a physicist who became a Church of England vicar, which makes people think that he has a special line into the science-religion question’.
Yes John does have a special line into the science-religion question. As he mentions, Polkinghorne is a physicist who became an Anglican priest. Irritatingly for Grayling, he has over 26 books published on the subject and his work has also helped in the discovery of quarks (an unseen but fundamental constituent of matter). Becoming ordained in the church doesn’t mean he just threw all his scientific expertise out of the window. Sensible people are entitled to think John has a special line into the science-religion question because he does.
According to Grayling, all the responses in the book fall into three categories: god-of-the-gaps, arguments-to-the-best-explanation and “religion and science both seek the truth but in different domains”. He asserts that ‘undergraduates cut their teeth on refuting them‘, but as to who these undergraduates are, he does not say. I haven’t the time in this post to write a lot about the god-of-the-gaps accusation although I will do another time. Questions Of Truth does not use god-of-the-gaps reasoning. In short when atheists hurl out this accusation they are assuming a priori that the gaps will be filled with entirely naturalistic explanations and that some day science will explain everything. It’s Karl Popper called promissory materialism. Whatever science explains, there will always be metaphysical questions that go beyond scientific analysis. Polkinghorne and Beale actually concentrate on things that science can understand and infer God from these elements. Grayling strangely dismisses inference-to-the-best-explanation strategies or what is also known as abductive reasoning. Abductive validation is common practice in hypothesis formation in science, law and in particular philosophy of science so his objection is nonsense.
As mentioned the authors do not point to gaps in scientific knowledge and in fact admit that there could be possible alternative explanations for certain issues in the future, but say that they are too unlikely and implausible. The findings of modern science point towards a deeper reality that cannot in principle be answered by science. Next Grayling turns to the anthropic principle and misrepresents the argument by offering a false analogy:
‘I would not be writing this on a laptop if computers had not been invented, but this does not prove that computers were invented so that I could write this.’
Firstly by using this analogy Grayling admits that the computer (the universe), was invented and thus must have had an inventor. Secondly the fine-tuning argument is not used as a proof for a divine intention but a strong pointer. Thirdly what Grayling fails to understand is that the anthropic fine-tuning is really a bio-centric principle. Physicist Brandon Carter first coined the term ‘anthropic principle’ but thought it was a misleading label. The question to be asked is; why is the universe endowed with laws with staggeringly improbable values that make the emergence of intelligent carbon based life possible? To shrug shoulders and to say that we’re just here as a brute fact is the mother and father of all cop outs. Scientists wouldn’t get anywhere if they adopted this lazy approach. Ironically it can be labeled the it-just-is-of-the-gaps strategy! As the authors try show, the current alternative explanations to the fine-tuning are not plausible and theistic explanations are by far the most parsimonious. The fact that many atheists feel the need to appeal to a multiverse, even though there is no observable evidence for a multiverse whatsoever, is testimony to the fact that the fine-tuning cries out for a deeper explanation. The fine-tuning has some profound philosophical implications and many non-theistic physicists such as Roger Penrose, Paul Davies, Martin Rees agree on this.
Next in the review he turns to the ”truth but in different domains” manoeuvre. Grayling doesn’t seem to be able to grasp the idea that the Bible contains different genres of literature. The Bible contains accounts of historical events, stories, poems, letters, allegorical and moral truths, parables and biographies and thus requires different levels of interpretation not ‘cherry picking’. As for ‘the resurrection…whose violations of biological laws you just have to shrug your shoulders over.’, I suggest Grayling should read the book Hume’s Abject Failure by John Earman. He then trots out the false claim that the Biblical interpretation for Genesis had to change in the light of scientific advances (I presume he means because of evolutionary theory). He evidently has a profound lack of historical knowledge on the subject and either didn’t bother checking the appendix notes on p163/164 in the book or found the fact inconvenient and chose to ignore it. St Augustine and pretty much every theologian in the 1st century Patristic period felt that the creation account seemed to imply a non-literal interpretation and this was around 1500 years before Darwin.
A second point to refute this claim of ‘reinterpretation in the light of science‘ is that Genesis predicted a finite universe centuries before the big bang theory was excepted. Indeed when evidence started coming in for the big bang, it was resisted by many scientists as it seemed to imply a creation event. In a snort of indignation, Astronomer Fred Hoyle came up with the label ‘big bang’ in order to discredit the idea because it seemed to conflict with his atheism. Hoyle then posited an alternative but eventually discredited theory, the steady state model. As another blogger pointed out , in the 19th century it was said by many that an eternal universe implied atheism. Now that it has been found to be an inconveniently finite universe, we are told that that implies atheism too. It seems that christians can no longer be the only ones charged of ‘cherry picking’ and re-interpretation. Grayling then claims ‘And indeed there is no possible test of religious claims; again conveniently, “God will not be tested.” This is a whoppingly false claim and funnily enough completely contradicts what Dawkins himself thinks. In The God Delusion Dawkins writes that religious claims are open to investigation and the God hypothesis is a scientific question. Religious claims can be tested.
According to Grayling, Christians make up the truth as they go along by re-interpreting scripture to avoid refutation. As we have seen, this is a false assertion. Surely if it is really the truth, then it cannot be made up. Truth is truth and it is discovered and revealed to us. With a somewhat tiresome predictability, Grayling then descends into mudslinging again and seems to take great pleasure in calling christians lunatics. Grayling’s lack of knowledge in philosophy of mind studies then allows him to dismiss Beale and Polkinghorne’s embrace of dual-aspect-monism. He complains that these ideas are ‘explained in a cloud of fudge by analogy with piano and the music played on it’. In others words he doesn’t understand. As to what the problems are with duel-aspect-monism, once again Grayling has absolutely nothing to say, dismissing it as too complicated to explain.
Last of all Grayling claims that it is scandalous that the Royal Society allowed the book to be launched by them and that they felt they had to oblige because Polkinghorne is one of the societies fellows. But, he conceals the fact that the whole thing was endorsed by several Noble laureates, eminent scientists and was chaired by Onora O’neil, a highly respected Philosopher and President of the British Academy. The appendix on anthropic fine-tuning was reviewed by Martin Rees, Eric Priest and other world respected astronomers. The endorsements and praise for the book can be viewed here. The book was evidently endorsed by the society because it has something interesting to say on the relationship between science and religion. In a letter to Nicholas Beale he complains further that there are plenty of churches and theological colleges around the country where they could have launched the event. There was no need for this as the Royal Society obviously thought the issues discussed in the book were appropriate for such a society and thankfully do not embrace a strictly atheistic agenda. In the letter Beale offered Grayling the chance to debate and discuss matters at a Royal Institution event. After all his ranting and false accusations about the book and event, Grayling declined: ‘having devoted enough attention to your views I have no wish for further correspondence’. What a Shame.
Unfortunately for me I felt the urge to reply to Grayling’s pitiful review and even more unfortunate was the fact that it contained so many misleading and fallacious assertions, resulting in this painfully long reply. On the plus side, the Oxbridge Humanist has been sussed out and his rantings have been exposed to be impressively inept. I hope that in the future, when listening to what Grayling says or writes, the reader will think very hard before believing him. For an excellent refutation of AC Grayling’s book Against All Gods, read Peter S. Williams’s writings, which can be found here. I recommend them unreservedly!
AC Grayling’s scurrilous review can now be left to ‘sink in the mirk of its own fatuity’.
Thanks for reading