Feb 082010
 

‘Theodore Dalrymple’ is the pen-name of Dr. Anthony Daniels, retired British doctor, contributing editor for the City Journal, author, and eloquent conservative obser­ver of contem­po­rary culture. Recently, Daniels was invited to give the annual John Kenneth Galbraith Lecture at Memorial University in Newfoundland. The Galbraith Revival is a reflection on that experience.

Other articles to try include: They dance, I take the dog for a walk, What is Poverty?, What the New Atheists Don’t See, False Apology Syndrome, and All Sex, All the Time. There is a directory of Dalrymple’s City Journal work here.

–Paul

  2 Responses to “Dalrymple on Galbraith”

  1. I didn’t know Theodore Dalrymple under either of his names, so I took a look at the title which most grabbed my interest: “What the New Atheists Don’t See.” Dalrymple claims that he “is not [him]self a believer,” but I suspect he means a believer in any particular organized religion. He is certainly angry at the “new atheists,” but I couldn’t find much good in his argumentation.

    Much of it depended upon the kind of shoddy relativism used by current creationists. For example, “if I questioned whether George Washington died in 1799, I could spend a lifetime trying to prove it and find myself still, at the end of my efforts, having to make a leap, or perhaps several leaps, of faith in order to believe the rather banal fact that I had set out to prove.” Yes, at the end of the day, the scholar, and any rational person, has to be aware of infinitesimal, or large, uncertainties lurking beneath the mounds of historical (or scientific) evidence. But Dalrymple seems to be associating himself here with the claim that this “leap of faith” is of the same kind and on the same order as that required to believe in a god for whom there is no mound of evidence, or even no evidence whatsoever. This belongs to the general category of strategy that calls even atheism a religion, “secular humanism.” If of course it can be established that “we all believe,” then it becomes an issue only of what each of us believes. Dalrymple consequently speaks of religion in the context of “all possible human beliefs, including belief in evolution.” Another way in which this is often put is that evolution is “just a theory,” and therefore just as likely or unlikely as every other “theory,” such as the “theory” that god created the world.

    This false relativism taints even Dalrymple’s best, and easiest, point. He takes Sam Harris to task for having written: “The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim …” Obviously Harris is well aware of the “extraordinary” nature of this speculation, and one could well wonder, along with Dalrymple, whether he goes too far. But clearly he is thinking about rare and extreme cases of beliefs which would lead to genocide, or mass suicide, or nuclear holocaust, or some similar mass death of innocents. Instead of arguing with Harris rationally, Dalrymple demeans him by comparing his “sinister” and “disgraceful” sentence with the “more charitable, more generous, more just, more profound, more honest, more humane” sentiments of Joseph Hall, D.D., a seventeenth century bishop of Exeter and then of Norwich and a “moderate Puritan,” who was moved to pity at the sight of a “harlot” being taken to execution.

    Are these cases in any way comparable? Harris is speaking of the theoretical case of the death of countless innocents as the direct result of one man’s pernicious preaching. The “harlot” is being put to death for what religion has determined to be a “moral” failing; she is a threat to no innocent life, and only engages in “sin” with the most willing of participants. These are the same sort of thing?

    But before we leave our generous and humane bishop, let me note that Hall adds: “Neither, indeed, is she worthy of less” than this “just punishment.” He is only bothered by the fact that others, unlike his generous self, do not take the opportunity to look to themselves too, and draw conclusions for their own lives. He, religious man that he is, finds that the “harlot,” in being vilified and then executed, is suffering “just punishment.” This is “charitable,” “generous,” and “humane?”

    No, I am afraid I was not impressed by Dalrymple’s thinking in this article nor by his method of argumentation.

  2. Hi Chris,

    I guess Dalrymple did not agree with you.

    I think it is somewhat far-fetched to try to associate this distinguished, literate, atheist doctor with creationism. But this might explain why you were so reluctant to take his word about his own beliefs — despite his concrete account of the childhood experiences which formed them.

    I also think that you fail to make the case that Dalrymple’s arguments depend upon a “kind of shoddy relativism.” What you present seems to consist mainly of allusions to familiar polemics:

    Dalrymple seems to be associating himself here with the claim that this “leap of faith” is of the same kind and on the same order as that required to believe in a god for whom there is no mound of evidence, or even no evidence whatsoever. This belongs to the general category of strategy that calls even atheism a religion, “secular humanism.” If of course it can be established that “we all believe,” then it becomes an issue only of what each of us believes. Dalrymple consequently speaks of religion in the context of “all possible human beliefs, including belief in evolution.” Another way in which this is often put is that evolution is “just a theory,” and therefore just as likely or unlikely as every other “theory,” such as the “theory” that god created the world.

    You do not explain how Dalrymple associates himself with the claim that these beliefs are “of the same kind and on the same order”, other than to say he speaks of religion in the context of, “all possible human beliefs, including belief in evolution.” The phrase that you quote occurs as part of his reductio ad absurdum argument against the biological deter­minism of Daniel Dennett. This is the full context:

    For Dennett, to prove the biological origin of belief in God is to show its irrationality, to break its spell. But of course it is a necessary part of the argument that all possible human beliefs, including belief in evolution, must be explicable in precisely the same way; or else why single out religion for this treatment? Either we test ideas according to arguments in their favor, independent of their origins, thus making the argument from evolution irrelevant, or all possible beliefs come under the same suspicion of being only evolutionary adaptations—and thus biologically contingent rather than true or false. We find ourselves facing a version of the paradox of the Cretan liar: all beliefs, including this one, are the products of evolution, and all beliefs that are products of evolution cannot be known to be true. [emphasis added]

    It seems to me that Dalrymple is arguing, here, against what philosophers have sometimes called the genetic fallacy, the fallacy of supposing that the origin of a belief determines its validity. Dalrymple’s argument is a reductio argument, and it would be a mistake to infer that claims being entertained solum ad argumen­tum are being endorsed on their merits. Ironically, what Dalrymple is trying to show is that Dennett’s own position leads into a kind of relativism.

    There are other passages in his article, though, which might have served your needs better. For instance, Dalrymple says:

    I think Dennett’s use of the language of evaluation and purpose is evidence of a deep-seated metaphysical belief (however caused) that Providence exists in the universe, a belief that few people, confronted by the mystery of beauty and of existence itself, escape entirely. At any rate, it ill behooves Dennett to condescend to those poor primi­tives who still have a religious or providential view of the world: a view that, at base, is no more refutable than Dennett’s metaphysical faith in evolution.

    And later he remarks of Joseph Hall that,

    It is true that he would say that everything is part of God’s provi­dence, but, again, this is no more (and no less) a metaphysical belief than the belief in natural selection as an all-explanatory principle.

    I think, however, that there is still considerable distance between these sentiments and any kind of relativism. The perception of a “metaphysical” impulse common to both religious belief and belief in evolution does not necessarily entail the kind of flattened discrimination which holds that all belief structures are equally valid. It is possible, for instance, that there might be other features that distinguish between such beliefs, or that we need to think about, say, “family resemblances” instead of platonic forms. But I see no substitute for actually engaging the philosophical issues. For further discussion see my post on Logical Positivism, which mentions Karl Popper’s similar observation about the metaphysical character of natural selection (which he later retracted).

    It seems to me that you are bothered by another idea — the idea that atheism is a kind of religious belief. Do you think it is not?

    Finally, I will not quarrel with the judgments you make later in your com­ment, although I clearly do not share them. I thought that Dalrymple’s portrait of the 17th century cleric Joseph Hall D. D., bishop of Exeter, was perhaps the most intriguing thing in his essay. I mainly reacted to it sympathetically, imagining a reflective person of more depth and humility than Dawkins, Hitchins, Harris et. al. You reacted to it unsympathetically, imagining a person who was smug, bigoted and hypocritical — someone who could only be described using scare quotes. I think this shows how much our intellectual attitudes are influenced by the perceptions about religion that we bring to the table. These perceptions are often firmly en­trenched, and it is not necessarily easy to find productive ways to reason about them. As Peirce observed, “No amount of speculation can take the place of experience.”

    –Paul

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