D'Souza's Confession

Monday, November 12, 2007

Is Dinesh D'Souza making a boast here -- or confessing that his position, irrational at root, could use some more propping up?

Dawkins is in some ways a terrible representative for atheism, which I'm glad about because a bad cause deserves a bad leader. He is also a terrible advocate for science, which I'm sad about because science deserves all the support it can get.

Having debated Christopher Hitchens, I'd like the opportunity to debate Dawkins. I think I can vindicate a rational and scientific argument for religion against his irrational and unscientific prejudice. When I wrote Dawkins to propose such a debate, however, Dawkins said that "upon reflection" he decided against it. He didn't give a reason, and there is no reason.

In his writings on religion, Dawkins presents atheism as the side of reason and evidence, and religion as the side of "blind faith." So what’s he afraid of? How can reason possibly lose in a contest with ignorance and superstition? I have written Dawkins back offering him the most favorable terms: a debate on a secular campus like Berkeley rather than a church, with atheist Michael Shermer as the moderator, and a donor ready and willing to pay both our fees. [bold added]
If D'Souza is so confident in the reasonableness of his views, why not aim higher than a lightweight such as Dawkins? Perhaps it is because, as I have discussed here recently, D'Souza's own position can, by its nature, look rational only with a clown like Dawkins as an opponent.

Science does not offer a comprehensive worldview as does religion, although its implicit philosophical foundation is rational, and there is at least one rational philosophy I can think of that does offer a comprehensive worldview that can compete successfully with religion: Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand.

D'Souza knows that it is rational philosophy, rather than science, which is really the proper basis for atheism, but he isn't interested in unearthing the truth. If he were, he would scour the earth for someone who could really test the soundness of his arguments, and he would make a lot less noise about it in the process.

The boasting and the hounding of a pushover opponent reveal D'Souza's real objective: to find a stooge to help him look good as he pulls the wool over the public's eyes. His urgency is also belies his fear of others making up their own minds: He wants to fool them before they figure out that there really is an alternative to religion, and that it isn't coming from Dawkins or his ilk.

-- CAV


Neil Parille said...

D'Souza is viewed as something of a lightweight in neoconservative circles. I doubt he would want to debate an articulate atheist.

Gus Van Horn said...

Exactly my point. D'Souza is a nobody and owes what little apparent stature he has to the likes of Dawkins.

Clay said...

So I have to wonder what it would take to arrange for D'Souza to debate a prominent Objectivist philosopher?

Gus Van Horn said...

I don't know, but then there is a legitimate question as to whether one ought to debate D'Souza at all.

D'Souza is not really interested in an actual debate. He wants to look good by saying he was in a debate, and that he "won" it.

A debate should be based on rational argumentation, based only on evidence and logic. But remember that D'Souza's whole position is based ultimately on faith.

I do not speak for anyone but myself here, but whether to engage in a debate involves not just the question of the intellectual merits of one's own position, but also whether the very fact that you are engaging your opponent in a debate might give him an undeserved appearance of credibility.

To take a slightly different example, when Hugo Chavez is invited to an international summit, that very fact is a sanction of him as the head of a civilized regime, which he clearly isn't.

So to debate D'Souza could backfire in that sense -- by making him look like a worthy opponent to an unwary audience. (And influencing an audience is the basic motivation for holding public debates.)

If that question ever came up, I am confident that D'Souza would get trounced if he were engaged or that if he were declined, the reason for doing so would be made so clear he would regret ever making the challenge.

Galileo Blogs said...


Excellent point about what agreeing to a debate means to the religionist. It does grant him an undeserved legitimacy. The religionist gets to have it both ways. He can show the world he uses rational argumentation in a public debate, all the while actually relying on non-debateable faith.

What would a true debate with an honest religionist look like? The religionist could only silently stand there, "secure" in the knowledge that his mystical faith is a proper basis for a belief in God. As soon as he utters words he undercuts himself. To the extent his words mean anything, they presuppose an external, objective reality, rational epistemology, etc.

To debate the religionist gives him the trappings of reason, which he then uses to undercut reason.

That is why religionists are typically so eager to debate atheists, Objectivists, etc. Even if they "lose" the debate to an objective observer, they know that the mere fact of their debating, coupled with colorful sophistry, will sway weak minds to their irrational cause.

Is there a context where it would be appropriate to debate a religionist? Perhaps such a context exists, but in essence debating a religionist is to sanction him.

On the issue of Hugo Chavez, Ahmadinejad, et ilk [my special version of "et al." for these people], can there be any doubt that the U.N. or Columbia podiums are extremely valuable tools that legitimize these thugs? I think it is correct to conclude that by the same principle, a podium aids the religionist. The only real difference is that religions have such long and often intellectual histories that it can seem appropriate to treat them as intellectual "equals" worthy of full consideration. I question whether such a generous position is ever proper.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for completing the circle on my argument, GB! I'd forgotten about Madman Mahmoud's visit to Columbia!

Burgess Laughlin said...

Clay said... "So I have to wonder what it would take to arrange for D'Souza to debate a prominent Objectivist philosopher?"

Clay (or others), setting aside the issue of sanction, if there were to be a debate between D'Souza and a competent Objectivist debater, what would you suggest as the exact topic?

Burgess Laughlin

Burgess Laughlin said...

Gus, you said: "D'Souza is a nobody and owes what little apparent stature he has to the likes of Dawkins."

What reason do you have for saying that? Is D'Souza's reputation ("apparent stature") really limited to conflicts with people like Dawkins?

I haven't made any special study of D'Souza. My memory is telling me he has been around a long time among Catholic conservative intellectuals; and he has established a reputation from many other activities besides his dealings with individuals such as Dawkins.

For a Wikipedia biography of D'Souza: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dinesh_D'Souza

Jim May said...

The thing is, D'Souza is the only conservative I know of who has identified Kant as conservatism's patron saint, out in the open like this (I imagine that Russell Kirk or the like has done so someplace, in a book I've not yet read). That sure sounds like a "teachable moment" tailor-made for us.

While it is true that D'Souza is a lightweight, who *isn't* a philosophical lightweight on the conservative side? Who would be a better debater to engage on this topic than D'Souza?

There's no doubt in my mind that he's spoiling for a fight. Perhaps debate isn't the right way to engage him, but damn, he's still a big, fat, potentially productive target IMO.

Gus Van Horn said...


When I called D'Souza a nobody, I was being a little over the top. I was aware, for example, of what Jim points out after your comment.

I have a low moral opinion of D'Souza and suspect that he'd hold up poorly in a debate against better opponents than he seeks. (And I think Jim is probably right about him offering a "teachable moment".) But the latter is just my opinion. I have not devoted overmuch attention to him myself.


Burgess Laughlin said...

Jim: ... D'Souza is the only conservative I know of who has identified Kant as conservatism's patron saint, out in the open ...

Jim, where has D'Souza said this? I am very interested in the reason vs. faith debate and Kant's role in that debate. A source would be very helpful because it would help me show Kant's modern influence on conservatives as well as on leftists.

I suspect that the admiring study of Kant, as a movement, may be having a tiny resurgence. (But I suspect it is happening only from bits of anecdotal information, not from a systematic study.)

Burgess Laughlin

johnnycwest said...


This is not what we want, but it is often what we get with the current atheists.

The big question is what will a debate accomplish? Can it convince some fence sitters or some agnostics to move squarely to the rational camp? Does a debate legitimize religion? I lean to think that a strong Objectivist debater could change some minds, but I know it would be entertaining. And religion needs to be met and opposed head on - if nothing else a rational atheist would provide better ideas and intellectual ammunition for the other atheists out there depending upon the likes of Hitch and Dawkins. Let the games begin!

Neil Parille said...

I don't think most conservatives have been influenced by Kant.

Russell Kirk for example barely mentions him. Scruton is the one exception that I'm aware of.

Conservative religious thinkers are generally quite opposed to Kant because his views on religious matters were unorthodox (he has been described as an atheist, agnostic, deist, pantheist, panentheist).

Anonymous said...


Here is an article by D'Souza on Kant:


John Kim

Clay said...

Several thoughts..

1) D'Souza in my mind was a stand-in for any prominent theist. That's just the way I function.

2) D'Souza wrote a VERY pro-Kant article a little while ago.


3) D'Souza also seems to have hit my radar a lot lately. Which would indicate that he's being noisome about his theism lately and getting an audience for it.

4) Implicitly, most conservatives would almost have to have been influenced by Kant if only indirectly.

5) About the sanction thing... ...where do you draw the line. I don't necessarily have an answer for that, but what about his article about Kant.. can you criticize it, can you point out that Ayn Rand already demolished it, or is even talking about it a sanction too?(I hope this doesn't sound too glib, but he has a POV and he's trying to convince people of it. And presumably so do some Objectivists. And those POV's come into conflict whether they acknowledge one another or not.

6) I think I would further add to that that most people don't know that Ayn Rand has answered Immanuel Kant. Isn't putting this information in peoples' ears a legitimate reason to find public forums in which to engage hostiles?

7) Potential debate topics: Theism vs. non-theism. The Nature of Reason. (I'm sure that there are more).

Burgess Laughlin said...

Clay said: "7) Potential debate topics: Theism vs. non-theism. The Nature of Reason. ...."

I would suggest that debate between D'Souza and a qualified Objectivist should skip theism vs. non-theism. The second topic, though, is on target.

There are no pure fideists who are also intellectual, articulate, and prominent. All fideists I am aware of are mixed cases. Faith has its realm and reason (variously defined) has its realm. So the debate would be about reason, in the Objectivist meaning, vs. the faith/"reason" package of a religionist.

This debate would be a classic example of a debate impossible to "resolve." Each debater means something different by the key terms. No reconciliation is possible. The debate could nevertheless be very illuminating -- e.g., a definition of reason that the religionists have never heard, and an attempt, from the religionist, to portray faith as anything but "blind."

Burgess Laughlin

P. S. -- John and Clay: Thank you for the link. It convinces me to look into his books as well, someday.

Clay said...

Well thanks back at you. I'd never read the word "fideist" before.

Jim May said...

I don't think most conservatives have been influenced by Kant.

While conservatism traces its historical roots to back before Kant, it owes its *modern* existence to him, and his ideas are now integral to its structure. As Kant's purpose was to save religion, his ideas plugged neatly into the old order's reaction against the Enlightenment, and modern conservatism was born.

It is not an exaggeration to say that conservatism would have gone the way of religion and gone *POOF* if Kant hadn't aborted the Enlightenment with his castration of the mainstream concept of reason.

It does not matter whether most conservatives cite him as an influence or even know he ever existed; it is still his ideas that shield them from reason. Kant remains the ideological cause to modern conservatism's effects.

Were I to plan a debate against D'Souza, I'd follow Burgess' advice: it's not about theism, but about reason. Attack him by showing how a man can indeed use reason to deal with morality, day in and day out.

Point out that far from "knowing its limits", that it must *always* be rational to use reason.

Those on HBL could draw some other choice points from Harry Binswanger's demolition of his CS Monitor essay.

Clay writes:

"3) D'Souza also seems to have hit my radar a lot lately. Which would indicate that he's being noisome about his theism lately and getting an audience for it."

"Noisome" does not mean "noisy", but rather "stinky". It still makes your point, though ;)

Gus Van Horn said...

That is a very important point, and one that Ayn Rand makes in Philosophy: Who Needs It. Just because someone doesn't explicitly name a thinker as an influence doesn't mean that he hasn't been profoundly influenced by that thinker.

Conversely, just because someone calls himself an adherent to a given school of thought doesn't mean he is.

One must observe a thinker in action, and pay attention to both the content of his ideas and his method of approaching ideas to be able to discover what his actual philosophy is.

Jim May said...

Here's a pretty good data point to prove what I meant by Kant's influence over those who may not even know he exists.

Here is Glenn Reynolds saying that the old conservative saw "If God is dead, everything is permitted" is something that seems to grow more "profound" the older he gets.

This core conservative axiom rests on the unstated premise that reason has nothing to do with morality, because the latter is a "different realm". One guess as to where that premise came from.

It simply does not matter whether Reynolds is aware of where his ideas came from, or where their logic leads -- they are what they are. That is the road he's on, and it leads where it leads regardless of where he thinks they go, or where he actually wants to go.

And this is in the context of a discussion about "a basis for human rights", where it falls to Norm Geras and Ramesh Ponnuru -- two religious conservatives -- to point out the Enlightenment view of "the nature of man" as the basis for individual rights.

It's almost Thomas Aquinas all over again, where the Christians are the ones retransmitting valid ideas despite themselves.

Burgess Laughlin said...

In one of his marathon sentences in the second edition Preface to his Critique of Pure Reason, at Bxxxi, Kant says, in part: "... criticism [which here means Kant's peculiar method of disintegration and pseudo-reintegration] puts an end for all future time to objections [raised in the Enlightenment] against morality and religion ...."

At CPR B877, at the conclusion of his very long book, Kant says: "From the whole course of our critique [the purpose of which is to cripple reason] we will have been sufficiently convinced that even though metaphysics [ontology + epistemology] cannot be the foundation of religion, yet it must always remain its bulwark ... [and "criticism"] prevents the devastations that a lawless speculative reason would otherwise inevitably perpetrate in both morality and religion."

In terms of Kant's broad effect, he did exactly what he set out to do -- "to deny knowledge [which means limit reason] in order to make room for faith." (Boldface in Kant's original, CPR Bxxx)

Of course, Kant was not the originator of the idea of "limiting" reason to make room for faith. However, his enormous influence as a philosopher did, at the very least, prepare the roadbed for all the other reason-hating travelers on their journey toward the destruction of Western Civilization (which is a cultural complex based on reason).

Burgess Laughlin

Anonymous said...

Kant is such immense figure in the shaping of the modern world. On the one hand he almost single-handedly ended the Enlightenment by limiting reason in the eyes of the intellectual world and saved religion from near certain death and thus allowed modern Conservatism to develop. But on the other hand by limiting reason he injected a massive dose of skepticism into the intellectual world which would pave the way for post-modern philosophy and thus create the entire Leftist, multiculturalist, nihilist world of the present. Kant is in a very real sense the founding father of today's Right and today's Left.

That's some resume.

John Kim

Anonymous said...

Jim May writes:

"While it is true that D'Souza is a lightweight, who *isn't* a philosophical lightweight on the conservative side?"

I agree with this but I am wondering is there anyone on the Left that isn't a philosophical lightweight as well? Everyone in today's culture seems to be a philosophical lightweight. Am I wrong in thinking this?

John Kim

Burgess Laughlin said...

John Kim: "Everyone in today's culture seems to be a philosophical lightweight."

That is an intriguing question. First we need to define "weight." One of the slams against Ayn Rand in academia is that she isn't among the "deep" philosophers. I see "depth" and "weight" as synonyms here.

My definition of depth/weight is this: An intellectual's ability to handle a hierarchical, syllogistically correct argument in favor of a conclusion, as measured in length.

For example, can the intellectual give an argument for a political position, an argument that refers to the underlying ethics and then, if challenged, the underlying epistemology, and then the underlying ontology? If so, then he is deep/heavy.

Note that the issue here is not correctness of conclusions or premises but the ability to formulate a chain of argumentation from more fundamental to less fundamental.

Ayn Rand is deep/heavy. So is John Rawls, a democratic socialist. So is Robert P. George, a conservative Catholic intellectual (author of Clash of Orthodoxies, among other books).

Rand and Rawls are dead; George is alive. All have successors who are heavy -- but may not be in the "public eye." But the successors are out there -- influencing others who are in the public eye, though probably with less depth themselves, perhaps inevitably.

Burgess Laughlin

Jim May said...

John: I would say that there are many more heavyweights on the Left than the Right (using Burgess' approach to "weight") -- but the passion and fire is on the Right. As they say, it isn't the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog.

The Left has a lot more raw brainpower, but owing to the nihilistic dead end they find themselves reaching, that power is largely squandered on obfuscation, sophistry, analysis of minutiae and esoteric pursuits of dubious significance and value. They are slowly ceding the intellectual high ground to the lightweights because they no longer have anything to fight for.