Friday, January 19, 2007

Richard Dawkins' New Book

Over on blogs dealing with the struggle of science, in the form of evolutionary theory, vs. religion, in the form of Intelligent Design, such as The Panda's Thumb, there's a lot of discussion about the new book from Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. There are a couple of attacks being made on the book (well, one of the book and one on the title of it!) that I want to discuss.

First off, the title. Apparently, a lot of mental health professionals have objected to the word "delusion" in the title, because, in a clinical sense, a delusion is a false belief that results from some form of mental illness, and, as such, the title implies that all theists are mentally ill. Because, you see, by psychiatric definition, believing that aliens speak to you through a device in your teeth is a "delusion" and means you're mentally ill, but believing that an immaterial omnipotent being (or his Jewish son) is speaking to you isn't.

Why not, you ask? What's the difference, since neither is any likelier than the other to actually be happening? How do psychiatrists determine one is a delusion and the other isn't?

Guess what! They don't. The difference is that religious beliefs are defined, a priori, as not being delusional. Well, mostly. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders says about delusions:
A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everybody else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person's culture or subculture (e.g., it is not an article of religious faith).
That is to say that if you believe in X, and lots of people in your "culture or subculture" believe the same thing, you aren't mentally ill. But if you hold belief X and "almost everybody else" disagrees, with absolutely nothing about you, your mind, or your brain different, you are suddenly mentally ill. Whether you are mentally ill is actually a function of what other people think or do, not at all a function of anything going on inside you. Whether you are mentally ill or not is dependent on what other people do.

Can you imagine if you defined, say, heart disease that way? "A clogging of the arteries resulting in reduced blood flow to the heart inconsistent with the amount of clogging of the arteries in other member's of the person's culture or subculture." You may be on the verge of a heart attack, but because you live in America, land of the clogged artery, you're not sick. If you lived with the fishermen in China, though, boy, you'd be in trouble!

Yeah, that'd work out real well when both have heart attacks. Sure.

Worse, the criteria used to diagnose a delusion gives us no objective way to discriminate between a valid, non-delusional belief and a delusional one:
* certainty (held with absolute conviction)
* incorrigibility (not changeable by compelling counterargument or proof to the contrary)
* impossibility or falsity of content (implausible, bizarre or patently untrue)
Let's test it. I know a guy who is an evangelical Christian. He believes in young-Earth creationism "with absolute conviction," cannot be swayed by the undeniable evidence in favor of the theory of evolution and the age of the Earth being much greater than 6,000 years, and instead clings to and implausibe and bizarre belief that means that an immaterial, omnipotent being created a world containing a bunch of false evidence that it existed much longer than it appears. The criteria for a delusion, objectively applied, can't discriminate between a 'good' belief unsupported by evidence (a religious one) and a 'bad' belief unsupported by evidence (a non-religious one). Why? Because there is no discernable difference between any two beliefs unsupported by evidence. That's why they had to define one into existence to exclude the beliefs they don't want to label "delusional." It's a cheat. They just throw out the criteria when the results don't suit them.

Also, I don't think we can accept the logical implications of such a definition. Do we really believe that Himmler wasn't delusional in his beliefs that there was a vast Jewish conspiracy to destroy Germany and rule the world when he was Nazi Germany's Reichsfuhrer-SS, but only became mentally ill when Nazi Germany fell and the German people repudiated Naziism? I think most people, and most psychiatrists, would say that Himmler's beliefs were pathological delusions whether or not they were shared by his "culture or subculture." Also, along those lines, does this mean that people who think they are vampires aren't delusional as long they are part of the vampire "subculture?"

Removing the subjective language in the definition of delusion that lets psychiatrists avoid including religious beliefs essentially by fiat and makes the definition so inclusive as to be worthless, we are left with delusion as "A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained." Belief in a God or god(s), as well as creationism, are rooted in "incorrect inference[s]" about external reality when lack of understanding of the natural world led early humans to infer that "god(s) must have done it."

As such, complaining by the mental health community about Dawkins' use of the word "delusion" in the title of his book is disingenuous at best, since the only reason belief in God isn't a delusion by psychiatric definition is because psychiatrists made an exception just so it wouldn't be. "You shouldn't say belief in God is a delusion because it isn't by our definition, which we arrived at by deciding it wasn't" is just another of saying, "Belief in God isn't a delusion, though it meets the criteria for a delusion, because we say so. So there!" What utter posh.*

Secondly, the book has been criticized for failing to deal with the finer points of theology, and Dawkins for not being well-versed enough in theological arguments and study in his arguments against the existence of God. Bull. One doesn't have to study all the intricacies of astrology to know that astrology is bullshit. The fact of whether or not one can predict the future by looking at the positions of the stars and planets is disprovable without engaging each and every piece of bullshit ever written in support of it. And, I'd bet, the critics would not agree that it is necessary to study all the claims and all that has been written in support of Jediism (the religion based on the Force from the Star Wars films -- it's real, Google it and see, there's already been a schism resulting in various sects, and I'm not making that up) before rejecting it, now, would they?

Theology is a bunch of people writing about things that don't exist and needn't be addressed in its finer points until and unless it's proponents can actually present compelling evidence for their claims. But, instead, most theology assumes the existence of God and is thus irrelevant to the question of whether God exists, which is what Dawkins is discussing. Except for the parts of theology where they try to prove that God exists, but unlike Dawkins (supposedly) I have read a lot of theology and there aren't any such arguments that aren't logically and fatally flawed and haven't been successfully refuted many, many times. If there were, trust me, I would know, you would know, and Dawkins would know too, and theists wouldn't trot out the same tired old arguments time after time.

The fact is that questions of how many angels can dance on the head of pin have no relevance to the more basic question of whether God exists. Theological word games in which theologists and philosophers attempt to logic God into existence by clever tricks don't force God into existence, not matter how much they may try. In the end, theology has nothing new or worthwhile to say on the subject, its arguments have been successfully refuted many times by many other authors, and it is not necessary to deal with each theory about fairies before saying fairies don't exist. It's ridiculous for the critics to claim otherwise.

* I have the same problem with the clinical term "magical thinking," which basically means believing that the world works in illogical, noncausal ways. For instance, believing that stepping on a crack will break your mother's back is a form of magical thinking. Obviously, stepping on a crack has nothing to do with whether your mother receives violent spinal trauma. In exactly the same way as with delusions, psychiatrists avoided the problem that a lot of religious thinking, like the belief that sitting in a chapel asking for help from a nonexistent immaterial being will make an ill loved one well, is indistinguishable from magical thinking by simply exempting such thinking when it is based on religion.


At 5:07 AM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

On the issue of the phsychological definition of delusion, irrespective of Dawkins' book or the veracity of religion, allow me to play Devil's Advocate.

Would you not agree that it is part of the basic human condition that we gravitate toward the majority? That is, if most of the people we know believe the world is flat, we are more likely to also believe the world is flat. Perhaps we are foolish to do so, but delusional?

The "T"ruth of our perspective and interpretation of the world is always questionable. I often deny there even is a "T"ruth ... but it is at least the case that our understanding of what is real depends on many factors, including the articulated visions of those around us.

For example, there are many experiments where a tardy student is made to admit an obviously erroneous answer because his (a priori coached) classmates disagree. Moreover, it has been shown that if that person has a few allies, he is much more likely to answer as he truly believes. We don't like to be alienated from our peers.

Is the student who yields to peer pressure and says that Kansas City is the capital of the US because his 30 other classmates said it was delusional? Or is he just weak-willed and foolish?

Likewise, over 95% of Americans say they believe in some sort of supernatural being. With such a majority, isn't it reasonable to assume that many of them are pursuaded by the mass itself ... a kind of National world-view peer-pressure? Peer-pressure, not delusion.

Perhaps the caveate "belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person's culture or subculture" is fair, then? Not as an exculpatory for religion, but just as it is written, as admission that humans (by nature) are predisposed to think like those around us.

Also, as an aside, a definition is only useful if it divides things ... and the word "disorder" implies an abnormality. If all (or most) humans suffer from this "weakness" (i.e., religion), is it epistomologically useful to consider such a class as a "mental disorder."

At 6:08 AM, Blogger mooglar said...

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At 6:38 AM, Blogger mooglar said...

What you say is true. But Dawkins isn't disputing the point you make, that people tend to believe what others around them believe. He's making the point that they shouldn't. I think he's trying to get across the point that a mass delusion is no less dangerous than a solitary one, and, in fact, is often more dangerous.

One of the points he explicitly makes in the book is that religious and faith-based beliefs should no longer have a complete free pass in society, being somehow immune from scrutiny and debate. And that's exactly what the definition of 'delusion' does, exempting beliefs that would otherwise be labeled 'delusional' if they are based on religion. As long as religious beliefs are given special status, he argues, then reason can't compete and we will never get rid of our superstitions.

As such, while it may be useful in the mental health field to limit the defintion of 'delusion' only to non-religious beliefs, it also reinforces the special status of religious beliefs. In a more rational (and probably impossible) world, religious beliefs would be seen as delusions just like belief in conspiracy theories or alien abductions. But, as long as we accept that religious beliefs are expemt from criticism and are in a special class, they will continue to thrive and grow.

It may be true (and here I'm only guessing about what Dawkins would say, because I don't think he explicity says this) that the individual religious believer may not be delusional, but pervasive religious belief makes humanity, as a whole, delusional, and makes groups and nations act in delusional ways. Perhaps a particular individual isn't harmed to a great degree by believing in things that don't exist, but as a race we are harmed greatly by it.

So, I think Dawkins is arguing, even though religious beliefs aren't, clinically, 'delusions,' they should be, because they can't be fought as long as they're exempt. The clinician may disagree because he's focused on helping individual patients, but Dawkins' argument is that it would be good for us as a whole, and that it's wrong to just define the problems caused by irrational, faith-based beliefs away the way the mental health field has done.


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