Dinesh D'Souza on evidence for an afterlife

Note to readers: this was originally published in my previous blog, The Apostasy, in 2009. I've still got just a few posts I'm going to move here before I delete the blog for good.

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I was thumbing through the latest issue of Newsweek when I came across a review of Dinesh D'Souza's new book, entitled Life After Death: The Evidence. D'Souza, like any good Christian apologist, has taken to using words like "evidence" and "reason", if not employing the actual concepts, to providing evidence that their faith is not arbitrary.

A few quick words before I continue. Firstly, evidence, where valid, renders faith moot. You don't have to have faith in the standard model of particle physics; it's proven to be extraordinarily accurate through decades of empirical research. We don't "believe" in it; we just accept it as the reality it is (or, perhaps more accurately, as the description of reality it is). If all these apologists really were able to prove their beliefs to be inscrutable scientific facts, they would be men of science, not men of faith.

Secondly, I have not read D'Souza's book. So, naturally, this is not a review of the book. I have no intention of wasting either my time or money on his book. I have agonized through garbage like "The Physics of Christianity", "The Faith of a Physicist", "The Big Argument: Does God Exist?", "The Language of God", and "The Reasons for God" among others, and all are rife with the same fallacies. I have too many interesting books I actually want to read — I'm currently about halfway through "Warped Passages" by Lisa Randall — to read more of the same old apologist garbage.

However, D'Souza did post an article over at the uber-conservative National Review that is an adaptation from his book, and I'm going to take a few minutes to explain why it's stupid, and why I am not wasting my time reading his book and neither should you. Read the article full article here, if you don't mind feeling dumber for having read a three-page article.

Some choice excerpts, followed by my brief response:

Here is my presuppositional argument for life after death. Unlike material objects and all other living creatures, we humans inhabit two domains: the way things are, and the way things ought to be. In other words, we are moral animals who recognize that just as there are natural laws that govern every object in the universe, there are also moral laws that govern the behavior of one special set of objects in the universe, namely us. While the universe is externally moved by “facts,” we are internally moved also by “values.” Yet these values defy natural and scientific explanation, because the laws of nature, as discovered by science, concern only the way things are and not the way they ought to be.

Here he conflates a state of mind with a state of being. The moral "ought" is a human construct, born from millions of years of evolution by natural selection and sociocultural evolution. D'Souza prematurely assumes that our innate moral fiber defies scientific understanding, despite mountains of empirical evidence to the contrary — much of which I have detailed in this blog. However, even if morality eluded our current scientific understanding, D'Souza would still be resorting to nothing more than tired "God of the Gaps" reasoning — science can't explain it, therefore religion can. Sorry, it doesn't work like that. He continues, dumbly...

Moreover, the essence of morality is to curtail and contradict the powerful engine of human self-interest, giving morality an undeniable anti-evolutionary thrust. So how do we explain the existence of moral values that stand athwart our animal nature? The presupposition of cosmic justice, achieved not in this life but in another life beyond the grave, is by far the best and in some respects the only explanation. This presupposition fully explains why humans continue to espouse goodness and justice even when the world is evil and unjust.

D'Souza's fallacy here is assuming that the "selfish genes" of evolution must be equated to selfish beings, and as Richard Dawkins (author of "The Selfish Gene") himself would be quick to point out, that is simply not the case. Given that we are, as primatologist Frans De Waal describes, obligatorily gregarious creatures, cooperative group living is for us a survival strategy, not a choice. There is absolutely nothing about evolution that presupposes that we will behave selfishly; quite the contrary, given that we are inexorably bonded and interdependent. And here we see D'Souza going for that emotional crutch that lures in undiscriminating listeners: that it will all work out in the end. God let Hilter slaughter the Jews because those Nazis are gonna really get their comeuppance in the afterlife, and the Jews are going to be in heaven with Jesus. Or something. But how the hell does positing such an idea explain anything at all, much less the complex nuances of altruistic human behavior? Newsflash: it doesn't.

D'Souza then denies the obvious: that he is resorting to "God of the Gaps" reasoning:

Gaps are the mother lode of scientific discovery. Most of the great scientific advances of the past began with gaps and ended with new presuppositions that put our whole comprehension of the world in a new light. The presuppositional argument, in other words, is not some funny way of postulating unseen entities to account for seen ones, but rather is precisely the way that science operates and that scientists make their greatest discoveries. Copernicus, for example, set out to address the gaps in Ptolemy’s cosmological theory. As historian Thomas Kuhn shows, these gaps were well recognized, but most scientists did not consider their existence to be a crisis. After all, experience seemed heavily on the side of Ptolemy: The earth seems to be stationary, and the sun looks as if it moves. Kuhn remarks that many scientists sought to fill in the gaps by “patching and stretching,” i.e., by adding more Ptolemaic epicycles.

Copernicus, however, saw the gaps as an opportunity to offer a startling new hypothesis. He suggested that instead of taking it for granted that the earth is at the center of the universe and the sun goes around the earth, let’s suppose instead that the sun is at the center, and the earth and the other planets all go around the sun. When Copernicus proposed this, he had no direct evidence that it was the case, and he recognized that his theory violated both intuition and experience. Even so, he said, the presupposition of heliocentrism gives a better explanation of the astronomical data and therefore should be accepted as correct.
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From these examples, we learn that science regularly posits unseen entities, from space-time relativity to dark matter, whose existence is affirmed solely on the basis that they explain the things that we can see and measure. We also learn that gaps are a good thing, not a bad thing, and the genuinely scientific approach is to ask whether they are clues that lead to a broader and deeper comprehension of things. We also learn how presuppositional arguments work best, both in science and outside of science. The presupposition itself is a kind of hypothesis. It says, “This is the way things have to be in order to make sense of the world.” We then test the presupposition by saying, “How well does it explain the world?”



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Here D'Souza is conflating scientific inquiry with metaphysical speculation. Copernicus, like many scientists, thought that his hypothesis was a more accurate description of reality than previous explanations, and had good mathematical reasons to believe so. Such is also true of Einstein and General Relativity, which he felt to be correct despite the fact that it was profoundly counter-intuitive and would completely re-shape our understanding of physics. However, D'Souza makes an elementary error when he suggests that presupposition alone was adequate to accept these hypotheses as correct. On the contrary, they were only accepted as correct after they could be empirically demonstrated to be correct. They don't give out the Nobel Prize in physics for having good hypotheses. Nobody is suggesting that we should accept that String Theory is correct just because lots of smart people think it is, or because, at least mathematically, it unifies quantum mechanics and general relativity and resolves many of the most important questions in physics. Until it's validated with empirical proofs, it's speculative, just one possible hypothesis that may or may not be correct. Presuppositional arguments might suggest a means by which to close a gap, but they do not in themselves close gaps.

With this kind of nonsense passing for "reason", is there any wonder I have no desire whatsoever to read D'Souza's book? Just making through those three pages was agonizing. According to the Newsweek review, in addition to the already discredited moral argument, D'Souza appeals to near-death experiences and the resurrection of Jesus as evidence of an afterlife. Sounds air-tight to me.

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