Thursday, November 05, 2009


John Derbyshire comments on Dinesh D'Souza's new book.


Some readers have asked me to comment on the extracts from Dinesh D'Souza's new book, Life After Death: The Evidence currently appearing on National Review Online. The first one's here, the second here.

I confess I can't find much to say. To judge from the extracts — and of course, if this is the kind of thing that interests you, you should read the whole book — D'Souza seems to lean heavily on arguments of the type:

  • Science currently has no explanation for X. (In the extracts, X = moral behavior).
  • Therefore we must go to religion for explanations.

The overall schema there is contrary to an empirical style of thinking, which would prefer:

  • Science currently has no explanation for X.
  • Therefore we must press on with our investigations in hope of finding an explanation.

The empirical style is, though, a minority taste. As I say in, ahem, my own book, pp. 147-148:

The ordinary modes of human thinking are magical, religious, social, and personal. We want our wishes to come true; we want the universe to care about us; we want the approval of those around us; we want to get even with that s.o.b who insulted us at the last tribal council. For most people, wanting to know the cold truth about the world is way, way down the list.

Scientific objectivity is a freakish, unnatural, and unpopular mode of thought, restricted to small cliques whom the generality of citizens regard with dislike and mistrust. Just as religious thinking emerges naturally and effortlessly from the everyday workings of the human brain, so scientific thinking has to struggle against the grain of our mental natures. There is a modest literature on this topic: Lewis Wolpert's The Unnatural Nature of Science (2000) and Alan Cromer's Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science (1995) are the books known to me, though I'm sure there are more. There is fiction, too: in Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s 1960 sci-fi bestseller A Canticle for Leibowitz, the scientists are hunted down and killed … then later declared saints by the Catholic Church.

When the magical (I wish this to be so: therefore it is so!) and the religious (We are all one! Brotherhood of man! The universe loves us!) and the social (This is what all good citizens believe! If you believe otherwise you are a BAD PERSON!) and the personal (That bastard didn't show me the respect I'm entitled to!) all come together, the mighty psychic forces unleashed can be irresistible — ask Larry Summers or James Watson.

The greatest obstacle to calm, rational, evidence-based thinking about human nature, is human nature. Pessimism doesn't come easily. You have to struggle your way towards it.

In any case, aside from employing a schema that empirically-minded people will reject, D'Souza seems not to fully understand the science he is talking about. To judge from these extracts, he is not aware of, for example, Evolutionary Dynamics: Exploring the Equations of Life. It's possible he covers the topic elsewhere in his book. I'm only commenting here on the extracts, as I've been asked to do.

Christian apologists seem to think that morality is their trump card. How on earth could such behavior have appeared, if it were not implanted in us by a supernatural agent? Yet in fact the card is a weak one. There are all sorts of plausible explanations for moral behavior on naturalistic grounds. We don't know which one is correct, but there is no reason — there is never a reason! — for empirical inquirers to throw up their hands and say: "Heck, there is no way we shall ever explain this — best hand it off to the priests."

My advice to the Christian apologists would be to give up on morality, which likely will not be a "gap" (as in, "God of the") for much longer, and concentrate on consciousness, where we are much further from understanding.

Like they will take my advice!

I won't be reading D'Souza's book myself. Life's too short (except, presumably, in the Hereafter). I have, though, just got a review copy of Nick Wade's new book The Faith Instinct, which comes out next week. I'll be posting a review of that somewhere, also next week.

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