On having your cake and eating it…

Pharyngula nails the remarkably silly Oxford theologian Alister McGrath for trying to get away with one of the most common tricks employed by religious apologists. The occasion is an interview with McGrath in a Catholic journal in which he is attacking his bête noire, Richard Dawkins. McGrath’s two-step follows a familiar pattern. First, argue that everyday notions of epistemology and ontology don’t apply to God:

I think Richard Dawkins approaches the question of whether God exists in much the same way as if he’d approach the question of whether there is water on Mars. In other words, it’s something that’s open to objective scientific experimentation. And of course there’s no way you can bring those criteria to bear on God.

The next move (usually several paragraphs later, to minimize cognitive dissonance), is to cite in support of your position the kind of evidence that you just rejected:

As someone who has studied the history and philosophy of science extensively, I think I’ve noticed a number of things that Dawkins seems to have overlooked. One of them is this: One of the most commonly encountered patterns in scientific development is seeing a pattern of observations and then saying, in order to explain these observations, we propose that there exists something that is as yet unobserved but we believe that one day will be observed because if it’s there, it can explain everything that can be observed.
Of course, if you’re a Christian you’ll see immediately that that same pattern is there in thinking about God. We can’t prove there’s a God but he makes an awful lot of sense of things and therefore there’s a very good reason to suppose that this may, in fact, be right.

One moment a “pattern of observations”, which is the raw material of all science, cannot be “brought to bear on God”. The next, this kind of pattern provides “a very good reason to suppose… there’s a God”. PZ charitably calls this “inconsistent”; I think “hypocritical” is closer to the mark.
But then consistency is not a strength of McGrath’s. One minute, atheists are supposed to be attacking Dawkins:

The most serious, negative reviews have come from atheists who feel that Dawkins is doing atheism a very bad turn, that Dawkins is portraying atheism as extremely ignorant and prejudicial.

… and the next, they are worshipping him:

Another thing of interest to you, seeing as we’re talking to a Catholic audience, is that I’ve spoken in many lectures about Richard Dawkins and critiqued him. And very often atheists will stand up and say: “How dare you criticize Richard Dawkins!”
It’s almost as if there’s a new dogma of the infallibility of Richard Dawkins in certain circles and I find that bizarre.

No, Dr. McGrath: what is bizarre is your sloppy thinking (not to mention your total misunderstanding of the nature of science).


From Xconomy: “Mitsubishi Electric Company of Japan has quietly disbanded the long-term research wing of its most famous international outpost, the Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories (MERL) in Cambridge, MA” When I was working in Sun Labs in Burlington, we interacted with MERL all the time. One example: we organized joint programs for interns working at the various research labs in the Boston area. Both of our labs were working on software agent technology; theirs was called COLLAGEN. You can look it up on the web, but be warned: most of the links to merl.com seem to be dead. Sic transit…