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Dawkins on Fatima (by Robert Perry)

[I'm tied up with finishing a project - which I'll be writing about here before long. In the meantime, continuing the theme of incredulous scientists, many thanks to Robert Perry for providing these thoughts on a passage in Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion - RM.]

Recently, I was poking around in Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, which a friend lent to me and which I haven't gotten around to reading. The book jacket promises that Dawkins "eviscerates the major arguments for religion." A bold claim, which I thought I would check out.

One of the arguments he "eviscerates" is "The Argument from Personal 'Experience." It is a short section of only about five pages, but it doesn't need to be long, since it makes it clear that any experience of God is clearly an aberration of human psychology:

This argument from personal experience is the one that is the most convincing to those who claim to have had one. But it is the least convincing to anyone else, and anyone knowledgeable about psychology. (p. 88)

So, anyone knowledgeable about psychology is entirely unconvinced by the phenomenon of spiritual experience, because they can see it's just an illusion of the mind. That's quite a sweeping claim, and an entirely false one, of course. There are many who are far more knowledgeable about psychology than Dawkins and yet are genuinely convinced by the data of spiritual experiences. One obvious example was Carl Jung. Dawkins provides a number of illustrations of personal experience as psychological illusion: campers convinced they have heard the voice of Satan when in fact it was just the shrieks of the infamous "Devil Bird"; the Yorkshire Ripper who "distinctly heard the voice of Jesus telling him to kill women" (p. 88); Dawkins himself who as a child heard a "ghost" that turned out to be the wind blowing through a keyhole; people seeing "the face of Satan in the smoke rising from the Twin Towers" on September 11, 2001.

Of course, all that Dawkins has done is take the universally-acknowledged fact that the brain can conjure up illusions and show that some otherworldly experiences can be explained that way. He then seems to assume that this gets rid of all such experiences. I recently read a line that fits perfectly here: "But, as all philosophers know, the word 'some' has very different logical properties than the word 'all.'"

One wonders why he doesn't deal with stronger examples; for instance, spiritual experiences in the psychologically healthy that cannot be seen as misinterpretations of sensory phenomena, that are contrary to personal and cultural expectation, that follow universal patterns, that promote mental health, and that even contain a veridical element. Thus, instead of near-death experiences in which people accurately see things far from their bodies and their non-functioning brains, we get campers misinterpreting bird calls. If he is "eviscerating" religious experience, why go after the straggling calves? Why not face the bulls in the herd?

If Dawkins were willing to go after those bulls, his argument would have the potential to get interesting. Then, at the end of the section, that is exactly what he does. He confronts the famous "solar miracle" at Fatima:

On the face of it mass visions, such as the report that seventy thousand pilgrims at Fatima in Portugal in 1917 saw the sun 'tear itself from the heavens and come crashing down upon the multitude,' are harder to write off. It is not easy to explain how seventy thousand people could share the same hallucination. But it is even harder to accept that it really happened without the rest of the world, outside Fatima, seeing it too-and not just seeing it, but feeling it as the catastrophic destruction of the solar system, including acceleration forces sufficient to hurl everybody into space. David Hume's pithy test for a miracle comes irresistibly to mind: 'No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.'

It may seem improbable that seventy thousand people could simultaneously be deluded, or could simultaneously collude in a mass lie. Or that history is mistaken in recording that seventy thousand people claimed to see the sun dance. Or that they all simultaneously saw a mirage (they had been persuaded to stare at the sun, which can't have done much for their eyesight). But any of those apparent improbabilities is far more probable than the alternative: that the Earth was suddenly yanked sideways in its orbit, and the solar system destroyed, with nobody outside Fatima noticing. I mean, Portugal is not that isolated. (pp. 91-92)

He appears to have faced this "harder to write off" example head-on and completely destroyed it. But there are many things he tellingly fails to mention:

First, the seventy thousand weren't just "pilgrims," as he puts it. There were many non-believers, including journalists and, yes, atheists. As such, not everyone there shared the will to believe. Some shared Dawkins' will to not believe.

Second, it was widely reported that, even though the rain had been pouring down beforehand, after the "solar miracle" the pools on the ground had vanished and people's clothes were inexplicably dry. This is obviously difficult to explain under the mass hallucination theory.

Third, the sun was photographed. There is a photo that's readily available on the Internet. It is a crude black-and-white picture, but the sun in the photo looks very much like the opaque disk that people described on that day.

Fourth, the event was seen outside of Fatima, by witnesses who were up to 25 miles away (some accounts say 11 miles away), witnesses who by their own account weren't even thinking about the event. This is a highly relevant fact, one that most accounts seem to mention. Strange that Dawkins doesn't, even while commenting on the significance of no one "outside Fatima, seeing it too."

Fifth, and in my mind most importantly, even believers explain the event as a local phenomenon, as a miracle that was performed for the benefit of the people who had gathered. We may have many disagreements with the Catholic Church (which officially accepts the reality of the miracle), but do we really think it is so cosmically stupid as to believe the sun literally danced in the sky on that day?

Instead of mentioning these five key things, Dawkins sets up a false choice: We either have to accept a completely naturalistic explanation, no matter how improbable, or we have to accept something utterly preposterous: the Earth being "suddenly yanked sideways in its orbit." Well, we all know the Earth didn't leave its orbit. We can knock that straw man down without even thinking. Therefore, we are forced to accept that the "miracle" has to have a naturalistic explanation. Dawkins doesn't attempt to identify which naturalistic explanation is correct. He freely admits they are all improbable, but this is as far as he needs to go. He has shown it simply must be one of them, and having established that much, we can just stop there, our curiosity having expended itself.

Now, I'm not a Catholic. I don't know exactly what to make of the solar miracle. I am frankly not entirely comfortable with it. I certainly don't think the apocalyptic message that it apparently conveyed was something that would come from God. I read a book on it years ago and, since then, have always more or less wished it would go away. On the other hand, it does seem like something physical happened that day, or at least something with a physical component. (I give that last qualification because not everyone saw the same thing.) I don't have a specific explanation for what happened. But it seems clear that any explanation has to at least try to account for all the data.

What has Dawkins accomplished in this section? First, he has shown that some otherworldly experiences can be explained as illusions of the brain, picking on weak examples like seeing faces in smoke. And second, with the one example he admits is "not easy to explain," he shows a surprising inability to actually face the phenomenon as it really is. He fails to mention key pieces of evidence and then offers us as our only paranormal option one so ridiculous that even believers don't go there.

Both of these have one thing in common: Dawkins seems to have difficulty facing these experiences in their strongest form. He avoids the strongest evidence and the strongest, most credible, paranormal explanations. In short, he seems unable to look at the phenomenon he's trying to vanquish in its full strength. To use what he thinks the Fatima pilgrims should have done, it is as if he is trying to protect his eyes by refusing to stare at the sun.

Having dispensed with the solar miracle, Dawkins concludes his section with this:

That is really all that needs to be said about personal 'experiences' of gods or other religious phenomena. If you've had such an experience, you may well find yourself believing firmly that it was real. But don't expect the rest of us to take your word for it, especially if we have the slightest familiarity with the brain and its powerful workings. (p. 92)

This is how one "eviscerates the major arguments for religion"? I think this is one evisceration that has to be taken on faith.

Fairy Stories


It's not surprising that Stephen Hawking thinks there is no heaven or afterlife. It's what most scientists think.

But I admit to having experienced a moment of pique at seeing him describe it as a 'fairy story for people afraid of the dark'. And that the national newspaper that elicited the comment considers it so newsworthy that it makes it into a banner headline on page 3, as well as prominently displaying it above the masthead.

The remark expresses the usual contempt for people who believe things 'for which there is no evidence', and atheist readers of the rationalist Guardian will gladly assent. Useless to explain that for some of us it's a belief arrived at over a period of years, from a long process of reading, researching and reasoning. Or that others understand it experientially. We've tried to explain this, many times, in all sorts of ways, but it's a brick wall. For many people it's an unquestioned dogma: afterlife can only ever be an irrational belief,

And where does this idea come from - another of Hawking's remarks - that people who believe in a continued existence after death, for whatever reason, are not living fully in this one? Why does one have to be an atheist to value life properly?

One somehow expects top scientists - the exceptional minds that for some reason the world considers somehow to hold the ultimate secrets to human existence - to express themselves more diplomatically. Like Einstein. Or like Hawking himself, when he talked of 'knowing the mind of God', and then politely explained he only meant it metaphorically. For pragmatic reasons, if nothing else - after all, it wastes so much of their time to take sides in public controversy.

Perhaps he's just had enough. That would be understandable. He's lived, as he says, close to death for five decades, so he's had a lot of time to think about it. He got criticised by religious types for his reasoned rejection of a creator God in his last book The Grand Design. He's been seriously ill and has been working hard to prepare a public lecture tomorrow on 'Why we are here'. Perhaps he's tired of being diplomatic.

The Guardian got to pitch six questions to him, and I'm not sure they got much back - apart from this. Another of the questions elicited this cryptic response:

The universe is governed by science. But science tells us that we can't solve the equations, directly in the abstract. We need to use the effective theory of Darwinian natural selection of those Societies most likely to survive. We assign them a higher value."

There's been a lively debate on the Guardian blog about what this means.

Michael Prescott has had an interesting discussion on what Osama bin Laden might be experiencing on having finally arrived in the next world. As a matter of principle I try not to speculate about such things, but actually I do. I wonder what convinced atheists like Hawking will experience. A deep sense of surprise?

Bertrand Russell - another Great Brain - said that if he went to heaven and God demanded to know why he didn't believe in him, he would say: 'Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence'. Russell didn't find evidence in mathematics, although some people do. What sort of evidence for God would Hawking find in space?