“John Cornwell”

Richard Dawkins takes an exasperated look at John Cornwell’s throughgoing misrepresentation of his book. In one example, Cornwell takes part of a general discussion of consolation, which includes this passage –

We can also get consolation through discovering a new way of thinking about a situation. A philosopher points out that there is nothing special about the moment when an old man dies. The child that he once was “died’ long ago, not by suddenly ceasing to live but by growing up. Each of the seven ages of man “dies’ by slowly morphing into the next. From this point of view, the moment when the old man finally expires is no different from the slow “deaths’ throughout his life.

and says this about it (the ‘you’ is Dawkins) –

The atheist “philosopher’s” view you cite argues that when an old man dies, “The child that he once was “died’ long ago. . . From this point of view, the moment when the old man finally expires is no different from the slow ‘deaths’ throughout his life.” Tell that to a teenager dying of cancer, and his family.

The ridiculous scare quotes pissed me off as soon as I saw them, and they pissed me off even more when Dawkins elucidated:

Do you see what Cornwell is up to here? First he puts the word “philosopher” in quotation marks, which can only have been intended sarcastically. In a footnote, I attributed the argument to Derek Parfit, who happens to be an extremely distinguished philosopher, author of the book Reasons and Persons, described by another eminent philosopher, Alan Ryan, as “something close to a work of genius”. Even if Cornwell didn’t see my attribution to Parfit, his sarcastic quotation marks were uncalled-for. How did he know whether I got the argument from a real philosopher that he respects, or not? Why be sarcastic?

Why indeed? Apparently because he’s yet another defender of religion who wants to hurl random abuse rather than say anything even faintly reasonable. Right, the “philosopher” Derek Parfit; well played.

Second, Cornwell describes my “philosopher” as an atheist, although I never said he was an atheist and Parfit’s point would be just as valid whether he is or not. There never was any suggestion that the argument is an atheist argument, put by an atheist philosopher. That wasn’t why I brought it up, not at all. Once again, Cornwell is reading what he expects to see, not what is actually there. Third, as with the Linklater misreading, Cornwell seems to think that I am offering the (Parfit) argument as an atheistic alternative to religious consolation. Why else would he add the gratuitously sour sentence: “Tell that to a teenager dying of cancer . . .” Once again, I was offering the Parfit argument simply as an illustration to clarify the kind of thing that consolation can mean: the consolation we can derive from a new way of thinking about familiar facts.

Apart from all that, it’s good stuff.

But if that is irritating, the following is gratuitously offensive. Cornwell is talking about Dostoevsky’s reading of nineteenth century thinkers. He mentions Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Utopian Marxism, and “a set of ideas that you would have applauded – Social Darwinism.” Does Cornwell seriously imagine that I would applaud Social Darwinism? Nobody nowadays applauds Social Darwinism, and I have been especially outspoken in my condemnation of it (see, for example, the title essay that begins A Devil’s Chaplain).

He’s right you know – I’ve quoted that passage from ‘A Devil’s Chaplain’ and from Darwin’s letter which is the source of the phrase, more than once, in response to one misreader or another who gets Dawkins wrong on this. People are convinced that he’s a great naturalistic fallacy fan but he’s not, and he’s said that as clearly and definitely as it’s possible to say it. Natural selection sucks. And I’m not much impressed by John Cornwell, either.

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