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An appropriate title for a book that is complete nonsense itself
, February 27, 2011
This review is from: Nonsense of a High Order: The Confused and Illusory World of the Atheist (Kindle Edition)
Some books give you an embarrassment of riches, some are just embarrassments. This book is the latter. Rabbi Moshe Averick's response to the recent spate of "New Atheist" books by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and all is an unfortunate collection of poor critical thinking and straw man arguments. The first chapter sets the tone for the rest of the book, when Averick plucks a few lines from various atheist authors, puts them together into an argument no reasonable person would make, and then criticizes the argument.
Averick puts his straw man argument in the first chapter under the heading "Reality Check Please." First, Averick claims that atheists believe that "objective reality life has no meaning, purpose or value" and uses as his example Freud, Stephen Weinberg and William Provine. Of course, non of these men ever said that life has no purpose. Averick finds that conclusion to be "implicit in [their] worldview."
Averick's next claim is that atheists "find inspiration for humanity in the fact that we are all related to ground worms." For this rather odd claim he uses Christopher Hitchens, who was ruminating on the idea that Darwinian evolution provides a means by which to consider all life on Earth as being related, including us mammals and "ground worms and other creatures."
These are the first two steps in a five point argument that Averick is making, and we can see quite clearly how dishonest this approach is. The first line rewrites and freely interprets three different atheists to produce a statement that none of them said, or would admit to believing. (If a quote were available from any of them, why not use it?) The second line grabs a metaphorical rumination from a completely different person, and uses that as line two of an argument.
This is a straw man argument. I know that Rabbi Averick understands the concept of a straw man argument, and I know that he realizes that using such tactics is both dishonest and intellectually valueless. But unfortunately, he continues this for three more points.
Avericak claims that an "inescapable implication of [an atheist's] worldview is that" racism and democracy... are equally insignificant, [and] 'stupid'..." This he also takes from Hitchens, falsely, and applies it to all atheists.
This is the way the entire book goes. Poor thinking piled upon poor thinking. It's not only his thinking that is confused. He has trouble with simple facts. He uses the long debunked story about the 34 witnesses who did nothing as they watched Kitty Genovese stabbed to death in 1964 to make a completely unrelated point about cognitive dissonance. (A term Averick should take the time to learn.) A quick look at Wikipedia would have told him that the Genovese story has been debunked, and major sociology texts have removed or modified their accounts in the light of new evidence.
In Chapter 2 Averick lays out the ground rules for arguing his case for a creator God. Of course the rules are set to favor his personal theological views, and have little to do with critical thinking. For instance, he asks this question "Do you trust your senses, your mind, and your brain, to give you accurate data with which to interface with reality? Please answer yeas or no. There are no other options."
This is a tactic that wouldn't pass muster on a grade school playground, never mind in a free debate on the nature of reality. Averick wants you to choose yes, that you do trust your senses, and to an extent, I agree with him. But it is not a simple yes or no question, is it? There are plenty of times our senses can be fooled. We see faces in rock formations and clouds, even when we are sober. When drunk, the reasonable person does not drive a car, because he realizes that he can't trust all his senses. Optical illusions trick our eyes, and we need instruments to fly airplanes through clouds. In fact, humans are not very good at discerning reality at all, at least not on a macro or micro scale. No human can observe electrons or black holes directly.
To simply force someone into a "yes or no" answer on this question is nonsense. Cognitive neuroscience is beginning to show us hundreds of ways in which our senses and our minds can be fooled. Perhaps Rabbi Averick's fervent belief in God is an example of his mind being fooled. Yes? or No?
Moving on to the core of the book, three chapters on the Origin of Life, and how, since it is impossible for life to come from non-life without a creator, there therefore must be a creator, we get more of the tortured logic, straw men and ad hominem attacks Averick seems to favor. His favorite victim in this section seems to be Richard Dawkins, who Averick admits has never claimed to be an expert in "origin of life" science. Averick is also not an expert in this area, by his own admission, so we are presented with an unusual case of a non-expert criticizing a non-expert or his views. Dawkins has claimed that even though science cannot yet show how life came into being on a lifeless planet Earth, he's sure that science will one day provide some answers. This somehow angers Averick, who insists that science have all the answers right now, or give up and admit that God did it.
This gets at one difference between Religion and Science. Science can comfortably say "We don't know the answer, we're still trying to figure it out" whereas religion always has an answer at the ready: God did it.
Chapter four begin with a wholesale attack on scientists. Not on "science" as a means of answering questions of a scientific nature, but on scientists. Averick seems to feel that scientists need to be taken down a peg, because of their confident, cocksure ways. He goes on for quite some time, pointing out that scientists are no better or worse than the rest of humanity, and that they have all the same faults as any other humans. While this may true, it is hardly relevant to anything. Critiquing scientists says nothing about science, in the same way that critiquing Jews says nothing about the core beliefs of Judaism.
Again, I have to assume that Averick knows that all this verbiage is just wasted effort. It adds nothing to his point, it simply attacks, ad hominem, the character of scientists, and says nothing at all about the nature of science. If I don't assume intellectual dishonesty on his part, I have to assume that he's intellectually lacking, and I'd rather believe he's being deceitful rather than stupid.
Not understanding the limitations of science seems to be Averick's biggest error. He believes that science should at some point abandon science and jump to supernatural explanation when, in his opinion, there is no scientific explanation possible. Rabbi Averick loves to tell stories to illustrate his points. Let me try one.
Imagine a man who wants to be a great painter. He decides to paint his masterpiece, but despite his skill, he can't quite produce a work of art that completely gets his point across. In frustration, he gives up, and hires a man to stand in the gallery next to his painting and explain what he was trying to say to anyone who looks at his failed masterpiece. In this way the man gets his point across, but he is not a painter anymore. He has abandoned his brushes and canvas, and forsaken the point of the exercise. Not only is he a poor painter, he has given up being a painter at all.
When Averick asks scientists to abandon science in favor of supernatural explanations, he is asking them to do the same thing. Just because science does not have an answer, does not mean it will not one day have one. 1000 years ago man could not fly. It was impossible, and no one could imagine the science that would make it so. But a man would not have been wrong to say that one day science might find a way to let us fly.
I am running long here, but to adequately do justice to this mess of confusion and ignorance that Averick has passed off as a book would take a book in itself, and it would not be a book worth writing, because I think Averick's work is obviously the work of someone who, by his own admission, was "experiencing [a] slightly manic and frenetic state of mind... as [he] wrote this book."
His final chapters deal with morality in an atheistic world (dealt with in the works of Dan Barker and Greg Epstein) and the problem of evil in a universe in which God exists. His philosophical acumen is again found wanting, as he recycles arguments that were tired in the ancient world. In discussing the atheist view of a non-created, purposeless universe, Averick writes, "I don't think I would be going out on a limb by opining that the universe described... is not a universe that would inspire the average person to jump for joy (it might however, inspire him to jump off a tall building.)"
This, I believe, gets at the heart of Averick's mental disconnect. He has a lot invested in the idea of God's existence, and cannot stand the idea of a Godless universe. As a result, he will use any argument or tactic to convince himself and as many people as he can that there is a God, no mater how dishonest, illogical or plain silly his arguments have to be. I really wish I had not bought this book. It adds nothing to the debate, and the arguments it advances have been better made by more worthy theologians.
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