2011, Books, Non-Fiction

The Divinity of Doubt (2011) by Vincent Bugliosi

It’s hard to know what to say about this book: I agree – most of the time – with Bugliosi’s position on this subject. But, as with his Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder, this comes off as an unorganized rant that is made all the worse because he constantly claims other people – in this book, philosophers no less – are incapable of reasoning like he is, and then he makes ridiculous, irrational arguments, sometimes of the exact kind he is criticizing.

And this experience is maddening for an agnostic like me so I can’t understand what it would be like for a died-in-the-wool Christian or an atheist fundamentalist, the people he is supposedly trying to convert.

The more I read of Bugliosi, the more I find he should stick to true crime. This is certainly a vast improvement on the Bush mess, but it’s still far from an ideal argument for the agnostic point of view, and that makes me a sad panda.

Probably the biggest problem is the way the book is organized: into 19 arbitrarily organized chapters and two “bookends.” In chapter 3 – I think – Bugliosi proves, in one of the many ways possible, that the Christian God does not exist. Great. I agree.

But then he spends the vast majority of the rest of the book harping on the problems with Christian belief! I mean, why??? He already demonstrated the Christian God does not exist. Either leave out the rest, or move everything around: the ‘Christian God does not exist’ should be at the end, if he is going to include all the other, unnecessary stuff about absurdities of the Bible and the rites of the religion.

And, in addition to the organization problems, there are three chapters that just don’t cut the mustard:

First, his chapter on atheist fundamentalism just reeks of personal attacks. I am no fan of Dawkins or of Hitchens, but Bugliosi seems to have misinterpreted the purposes of their books. (Maybe he hasn’t actually, as I haven’t read them.)

But that’s not really my problem: Bugliosi spends a chapter attacking them and Harris, but mentions Bertrand Russell once. If Bugliosi is going to take on an atheist, maybe he should take on Russell instead, after all Russell has thoroughly discussed the philosophical arguments for the existence of god to an extent than dwarfs the combined discussion by Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. (In fact, it is my understanding that none of these three “fundamentalists” even discuss those arguments.) So that’s a pretty major cherry picking issue.

Second, his chapter on evolution is lazy and frankly pathetic. Bugliosi does this “I’m just a humble trial lawyer” shtick which is infuriating because we know he is a smart man. He claims to have read far more on evolution than I, but then fails to understand it at even the most basic level. He seems to not want to understand it though, as he questions Darwin on evolution, apparently willing to ignore 150 years of evolutionary biology he supposedly read about before he wrote this book. Whatever questions he thinks he has – about the “gaps” in the record, for example – would no doubt be better answered by a modern text – such as Darwin’s Ghost – and not by Darwin himself.

Here are two really terrible examples of Bugliosi’s inductive reasoning run amok:

  1. First, Bugliosi cherry picks moments from his life where he remembers people having incredible memories and claims that evolution has no explanation for this – that there must be something more. He of course fails to mention the millions of times in each of our lives where we can’t find what we’ve supposedly lost or remember what we were going to say. (He actually does sort of address this issue, in a completely different section of the book, discussing a different issue, as some kind of attempt at finding god, which makes the cherry picking all the more absurd.) There is no argument here: sometimes people have amazing recall of certain things and sometimes I can’t find my glasses that I took off my face 25 seconds ago. (It’s also worth noting the scientific study of memory shows that we are not actually good at remembering most things.)
  2. Second, Bugliosi claims that human beings have not seen the evolution in pets that we have seen in ourselves during recorded history – that recorded history demonstrates this. But this is beyond ridiculous: humans now live longer lives and dominate the globe like we never have before, because we have focused ourselves on doing so. Is this a natural evolution? Hardly. We can do things that pets cannot in this regard. So I am bigger and healthier than my ancestors but am I fundamentally a different species??? Further, Bugliosi ignores selective breeding, which of course demonstrates how evolution sometimes stops working when human beings involve themselves in it: in many ways its the opposite of what would be caused by nature, because how would purebreds survive without people and modern veterinary care?

The third chapter that is hugely problematic is his chapter on the first cause argument. Russell has demonstrated the problems with this argument, and Bugliosi does not take him on. Instead, Bugliosi seems to be saying that it is not fair to claim we do not know what caused the universe unless we call this unknown thing god.

At least I think that is what he arguing, as he is very confused about it, attacking atheists for their arguments about the logical problems with the first cause while remaining seemingly completely, willfully ignorant of the science on the matter. On one page Bugliosi literally attacks the scientific perspective for not being sure about what caused the universe and on the next page basically names this unsureness, which he is suddenly defending, “god.” (If that’s what god is, we have problems: most people are not deists.)

The bookends are also highly problematic – based completely on inductive reasoning – but I won’t bother with them, as they clearly are meant more as extended footnotes.

Fortunately for us readers, Bugliosi’s concluding chapter is pretty much faultless and I found that after reading it, I disliked the rest of the book a lot less than I did while reading the above three chapters.

So, to sum up, I would say that this isn’t about convince anyone who isn’t already an agnostic to be an agnostic, which is unfortunate, but it does contain excellent discussions of the inherent absurdities of religion, and an excellent argument in favour of morality outside of religion. So those things, I think, outweigh the many, many problems in the early going.

6/10, which now feels very charitable.

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