Reviewing the Review: October 22 2006

The New York Times Book Review needs to stop getting things wrong, and when I say this I’m not blaming the freelance critics who make the mistakes but the editors who, I would certainly hope, must be fact-checking this stuff, but let substantial errors slip in week after week. Today’s offender is Jim Holt’s cover article on The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, which contains this head-spinning misfire:

The least satisfying part of this book is Dawkins’s treatment of the traditional arguments for the existence of God. The “ontological argument” says that God must exist by his very nature, since he possesses all perfections, and it is more perfect to exist than not to exist.

Go back to Philosophy 101, man!!! This formulation is just downright dumb, and churchyards full of 17th century European Rationalist philosophers have got to be spinning up a storm in their graves to be thus represented. The ontological argument is most famously contained in Rene Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy, which is certainly one of the most basic and well-known philosophical essays of all time. It states that the existence of God can be proved by the fact that humans are capable of imagining the idea of a perfect supreme being. We could not imagine something that does not exist, Descartes wrote, and therefore the phenomenon of humans believing in a perfect God forms the proof of the existence of God. It’s a proof based on observation of human behavior, not a trivial truism like “it is more perfect to exist than not to exist”.

I can understand why an average person on the street might stumble while trying to describe the ontological argument, but I can’t understand why the writer chosen to write the NYTBR’s cover article on a book about religion should get it wrong. Maybe he cribbed his explanation from this Wikipedia page, which contains a short summary of the ontological argument that resembles Holt’s description, though the Wikipedia article clearly points out that this is not a substantial summary of the argument (the Wikipedia article focuses on the ontological argument as presented by philosophers before Descartes, but Descartes’s formulation is the canonical one, and Holt should have consulted numerous other articles like this one instead).

Is this just a minor point? Am I going on and on about nothing? I really don’t think so. The New York Times Book Review is read widely and trusted widely, and I fear the current editorial staff is simply too permissive about allowing mistakes committed by contibutors to run unchecked. For all we know, future great philosophers may read Holt’s article and turn away from their destined careers because they believe the field of philosophy to be rife with infantile and meaningless statements like “God must exist by his very nature, since he possesses all perfections, and it is more perfect to exist than not to exist.”

Okay, so I’m off to a bad start with this week’s issue! There are several other articles about religion, including a respectable foray by conservative critic George Will on the question of whether or not America’s founding fathers can be fairly co-opted as “conservative Christians” by modern believers (Brooke Allen’s Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers says “hell no” and George Will seems to agree). David Brooks also takes on fundamentalism in his review of blogger/columnist Andrew Sullivan’s The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back, which posits that American conservatives need to embrace the skepticism and disdain for authority that got lost when Christian fundamentalists began to dominate the Republican party. It turns out that Brooks completely disagrees with Sullivan’s approach to this argument, stating instead that “The United States is a creedal nation, and almost every significant movement in American history has been led by people calling upon us to live up to our creed”. He also says “Doubt is not a political platform. Hope is.” I’m a bit of an outsider in this argument, since I’m not a conservative Christian or a conservative anything, but I will say that George Will’s summary of Brooke Allen’s book, four pages earlier in today’s issue, makes a strong case for Sullivan’s side: doubt may very well be a political platform, or at least Jefferson and Madison and Adams would have said so.

Okay, what about fiction? Colson Whitehead is assigned Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker, and his review is respectful but disappointingly superficial. Whitehead spends much of his time summarizing the book’s plot but fails to engage with any of the book’s more resonant themes. His writing is acrobatic and enthusiastic, but there’s more Whitehead than Powers here.

Christopher Benfey does a better job with the newly unearthed first novel by Thomas Bernhard, Frost, which sounds fascinating. Henry Louis Gates Jr. offers a substantial critique of James Baldwin’s critique of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Ariel Levy provides an interesting spin on Marisa Acocella Marchetto’s Cancer Vixen.

On the kid-lit front, there’s also an interesting summary by Chelsea Cain of Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P. L. Travers by Valerie Lawson, and I’m glad to see a thoroughly positive consideration of Lemony Snicket’s great A Series of Unfortunate Events phenomenon, the final volume of which is now in stores. I have empirical evidence of the excellence of Snicket’s now-concluded work: my twelve-year-old daughter just finished the final (thick) volume in record time, and the satisfied look on her face said it all.

8 Responses

  1. Freedom from ReligionBut
    Freedom from Religion

    But Descartes’ argument is so full of holes, maybe Holt was just trying to present a less swiss-cheesy synopsis. I mean “could a good God deceive me” entirely misses the point – could an indifferent creative force be totally indifferent to my little beliefs. There is no worthwhile ontological argument. Like the discrediting of Augustine’s concept – yeah I could conceive of an island of gold existing in the ocean – or anything else for that matter, but my imagination by no means proves that it exists.

    Not only must we demand freedom of religion, but as our founding fathers rightly insisted, we must never give up our freedom from religion.

  2. I log in therefore i amI
    I log in therefore i am

    I believe that Kenny Rogers is a perfect pitcher, therefore god must exist.

  3. because of the loneliness,
    because of the loneliness, the darkness, and the cold.
    because of strauch’s self-destructive thoughtscape, his depressive world view, his resignative monlogues.
    because of the scent of rottenness and decay.
    because of the immense verbal power.
    because of the rage, the hopelessness, the wretchedness.
    because of the full force of the painter’s celebrated world disdain.
    because of his choking desire to kill darkness with darkness
    and of literature falling down into the abyss of the real.

    therefore disturbing.

  4. So the stain on Kenny’s hand
    So the stain on Kenny’s hand would be what then, philosophically speaking.

  5. OntologyI’m not sure you’re

    I’m not sure you’re entirely right, Levi.

    The original ontological argument in Western philosophy (and many would say, the canonical one) was not put by Descartes but by St. Anselm in his Proslogion in 1077-1078, and it runs something like this:

    ‘Thus even the fool is convinced that something than which nothing greater can be conceived is in the understanding, since when he hears this, he understands it; and whatever is understood is in the understanding. And certainly that than which a greater cannot be conceived cannot be in the understanding alone. For if it is even in the understanding alone, it can be conceived to exist in reality also, which is greater. Thus if that than which a greater cannot be conceived is in the understanding alone, then that than which a greater cannot be conceived is itself that than which a greater can be conceived. But surely this cannot be. Thus without doubt something than which a greater cannot be conceived exists, both in the understanding and in reality.’

    Now, personally, I don’t fully understand this argument, and I would find it difficult to summarise. But I am fairly sure you’re right in the definition of an ontological argument being one which is based on reason and observation alone. But given that you haven’t read the Dawkins book, maybe Holt was paraphrasing Dawkins’ summation of the argument, which wouldn’t surprise me, given that Dawkins has been shown to be an absolute idiot over matters of philosophy and other intelligent pursuits.

    So basically, what I’m saying is, you’re being very pedantic. I’m not convinced Holt’s summary of the argument is entirely wrong, and I’m pretty sure your summary of Descartes’ argument misses the mark as well. It seems that most of these arguments a) do rely on some kind of idea of ‘perfectness’ and b) are extremely difficult to understand and therefore to summarise. So who cares if Holt misrepresents the field? It’s a bit of a crackpot field anyway.

  6. Coolazice, I actually checked
    Coolazice, I actually checked the book (after I wrote this review) to see whether or not Holt was quoting Dawkins in referring to Anselm’s version of the ontological argument. It turns out he is taking it directly from Dawkins, which means that the error I’m talking about doesn’t originate with Holt’s review, but is perpetuated by Holt’s review.

    The reason I am so emphatic about this is that Descartes’ ontological argument for the existence of God is, literally, Philosophy 101. That’s the class I learned it in, anyway. It’s an extremely famous argument in an extremely famous essay (the “Meditations”). It’s probably one of the two or three most well-known arguments in western philosophy. The Anselm version came first, but is, as I think we all agree, much inferior to Descartes’ version.

    Incredibly, Dawkins’ book has an entire chapter on proofs of the existence of God, and Descartes is mentioned nowhere at all. This is like a chapter on Mafia movies of the early 1970’s that doesn’t mention “The Godfather”. It’s just wrong.

    I do wish I had pointed out in my review that Holt is perpetuating Dawkins’ error rather than creating his own. But I still believe my main point to be correct — the Times should not have run that line as is, because it really sticks out as wrong to anybody familiar with Descartes’ essay.

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