Zmirak eviscerates Derbyshire

In a clever article at Taki’s Magazine, John Zmirak gives John Derbyshire’s atheist and Darwinist ideas an honor that Derbyshire himself studiously avoids giving them: he treats Derbyshire’s ideas seriously and consistently, applying them to life and society in general, to the supposed reality of other so-called conscious entities (particularly the so-called conscious entity “John Derbyshire”), to the supposed existential requirement of living beings to reproduce themselves, which the “Derbyshire” entity insists on, and to the entity “Derbyshire’s” notion that we should care more about the reproductive success of entities who are physically like ourselves. Zmirak’s point is that if Derbyshire’s atheism and Darwinism were true, then Derbyshire would have absolutely no basis for believing in any of the things he believes in, including not only the doctrines of atheism and Darwinism, but even his own personhood and reason.

This is exactly the kind of ruthless response that is needed against such modern belief systems as Darwinism and deconstruction that attack the human mind on which those belief systems themselves depend. With his strict Darwinian view that all human things are the product of the mindless and purposeless processes of random genetic mutation and natural selection, Derbyshire denies the very possibility of truth, meaning an intentional correspondence between human words and objective reality. As I recently explained here, according to the consistent Darwinian view (i.e., the Darwinian view without the escape hatch of unprincipled exceptions), the only reason people believe or say or do anything is that the instinct to believe or say or do that thing was planted in them by chance genetic mutations that occurred in their distant ancestors and were then passed down to the present generation by natural selection. Therefore a man has a certain belief, not because it is true, and not because he believes in the possibility of truth as such, but because that belief, having been planted in his ancestors by a random genetic mutation, helped his ancestors survive (i.e., natural selection), or, alternatively, because a distant female ancestor of his had a random genetic mutation that made her want to mate with a male who had that belief, which he in turn had acquired through a random genetic mutation (i.e., sexual selection), or, alternatively, because the man himself has a random genetic mutation which plants that belief in him.

Consistent Darwinists thus deny the truth foundation of all human statements, and thus the truth foundation of their own statements, and thus any claim they imagine they have on us that we should take their statements seriously. Therefore, instead of giving the consistent Darwinists the undeserved courtesy of treating them and their ideas with respect, we should, like Zmirak, mercilessly call their bluff. After all, why should we, who according to the Darwinists only exist because our ancestors competitively out-bred other humans, be courteous toward other humans or believe that other humans’ supposed “ideas” are anything but the epiphenomena of a mechanical process generated and passed down by previous random mutations and natural selection?

* * *

Zmirak’s article is not easy to follow. As usual, he expresses himself not by a logical progression of ideas, but by a sequence of brainstorms, tropes, jokes, and zany illustrations—often witty, but often overdone and obscure, and sometimes unnecessarily vulgar. Yet there is a coherent theme working its way through it all, which is, first, that if we accept Derbyshire’s Darwinian view, then there is no such thing as a person named John Derbyshire who has a claim to human recognition and human rights, but rather a “data stream” that goes by the name “John Derbyshire,” a “featherless biped” wearing a jacket and tie, an “oddly ape-like figure” who handles a knife and fork. Further, if “Derbyshire’s” idea are true, why should Zmirak have any consideration for his fellow human beings whom he confronts every day? Further, Zmirak asks, if “Derbyshire’s” ideas are true,

why should I trouble myself with the dreary business of reproduction? My DNA may be selfish, but so am “I.” If it’s so bloody determined to replicate itself, it had better rejigger my neurons to offer me a better set of hedonic rewards for taking the effort to do its bidding. So far, no sale.

* * *

Six days after the article was posted, a surprisingly confrontational exchange took place between Derbyshire and Zmirak in the comments thread. I’ve copied it below. (To make it easier to follow I have changed the format and put the author’s name at the beginning of each comment instead of after it.)

John Derbyshire wrote on Sep 24, 2008:

OK, I finally managed to get all the way through John’s piece, on my third attempt. I got the point: Unless I sign on to the whole invisible-spirit-impregnates-human-female business, I have no reason to live, or care about my children. Got it. I shall kill myself after completing this email.

Orwell: “One cannot really be Catholic & grown-up.”

John Zmirak wrote:

Dear John,

Sorry you’ve such a problem with reading comprehension. Must make it very hard to do your job. My sympathies. Perhaps you should leave off complicated philosophical problems, if simple essays overtax your capacities.

Indeed, I am saying that the reality of death, in the absence of personal immortality, makes self-sacrifice ridiculous. In taking the logic this far, as I frequently have in wrestling with my own periodic religious doubts, I am showing the kind of intellectual consistency and willingness to face the abyss of which you assert believers are incapable. In fact, you are the one who needs comforting illusions to get through the day. Sorry to make you uncomfortable.

John Derbyshire wrote:

Hate to tell ya, John, but self-sacrifice is all over in the animal kingdom. Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it. You might want to put aside those philosophy books & bring yourself up to date on what’s been going on in biology the last 50 years. Are those beasties all subscribers to the Son-O’-God stuff? If not, what “comforting illusions” get them through their day? Perhaps they’re just doing what comes naturally.

J0hn Zmirak wrote:

Yes, John. I am aware that animals sacrifice themselves for their genetic kin. All part of our DNA’s enlightened selfishness. Ants, termites, bees and all that. They’re blessed not to have the consciousness of death; they’re not driven to write poems like “Dover Beach,” or books like The Myth of Sisyphus. I cannot imagine Sisyphus happy, not if he really is conscious. No doubt that is why our popular culture works so hard to render us UN-conscious; it’s helping us to live like the beasts our pop scientists tell us we are. And if they’re right, I’m all in favor of numbness—and I won’t let anti-Christians get away with trying to claim the human dignity that only comes with the awareness of man’s likeness to God. It’s a package deal—something the modern totalitarians understood all too well.

I wonder why you would bother trying to “conserve” the heritage of a West built on such a tissue of pernicious lies? Why on earth do you associate yourself with people like Buckley, Potemra, et cetera? It’s one thing for someone who has lost his faith in Christianity (or Judaism) to regard it wistfully, and stick by the culture to which he is attached; that’s poignant and pious, if pointless. But if you regard Christianity, indeed THEISM, as fundamentally pernicious then you and I have absolutely nothing in common. We don’t belong in the same movement, on any level whatsoever. Limited government, prudence, yadda yadda yadda—all of these are arguable means to an end. If we disagree about the end—that is, about the fundamental goodness or evil of three millennia of Judaism and Christianity and their influence on civilization—then we have nothing to talk about. I might as well go hang out with David Horowitz, Naomi Woolf, or Pete Singer. Better yet, you should go join them. Enjoy the company of Christopher Hitchens, and pray there’s no eternity where you’ll have to help him nurse his very long hangover.

John Derbyshire wrote:

“But if you regard Christianity, indeed THEISM, as fundamentally pernicious then you and I have absolutely nothing in common.”

Please tell me where I ever said such a thing. My last published remark on this topic was actually this, on NRO the other day: “I am parting company with Hitchens & Co. there, please note. They think religion makes things worse; believersat least the ones who argue this point with me—think it makes things better; I think that on balance, it probably makes no difference.” That is not the thing you said I say. Why do you want to misrepresent me? Not very Christian of you, is it?

And I do **not** have grey hair. I have grey **hairs**, but that is not the same thing.

John Zmirak wrote:

Ah, so the role of religion in the West is to you a matter of indifference! Thanks for explaining. When I’m indifferent about something—let’s say, professional sports—I don’t generally take the time to pour out scorn for those who do think it is important. I’m not on the record denouncing fans of Canadian curling, accusing them of insincerity and cowardice. But perhaps that’s just good British manners.

[end of Derbyshire-Zmirak exchange]

It makes me glad to see a conservative writer criticizing Derbyshire so decisively. As I’ve said more than once, it has bothered me that I’ve been alone these last few years in pointing out how objectionable, and how pernicious to conservatism, are Derbyshire’s nihilism and overt anti-Christianity, given a platform as they are at America’s leading conservative magazine.

It is also heartening that John Zmirak of all people has taken a strong line. In reading his work occasionally over the years, I’ve always felt that, while he is very smart and talented, he has been limited as a writer by two factors: his excessive personalism, and his desire to remain on good terms with everyone, especially his fellow paleocons, and more especially those who were more prominent than himself. Over and over he would fail to follow an argument through to its logical conclusion, but instead turn a serious theme into a joke or personal anecdote or sentimental effusion. This is the first time I’ve seen him show some real fire and take a principled stand against a fellow conservative—who is, moreover, fairly well-known and has a following. It’s good to see.

—end of initial entry—

Paul K. writes:

Though I spend a lot on the Internet, there are a lot of writers I don’t read unless you cite them. For example, I don’t visit the Taki site and only rarely look in on NRO, so I thank you for linking the Zmirak piece. Odd that Derbyshire said it took him three tries to get through it; my reaction was that I should read it three times to savor it, and to memorize a few bon mots I can pass off as my own at social gatherings.

There seems to be something wrong with Derbyshire, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. I would be embarrassed to respond to Zmirak’s piece in such a childishly cranky manner as he did. Well, ridicule kills, as the French say.

LA replies:

I think I may have said myself at some point that Derbyshire seems disordered. Which would suggest that the main culprit here is not Derbyshire but National Review’s editors. It is they who give him a major platform where he is free to indulge his disorder, writing things that are totally inappropriate for a supposedly conservative magazine. The complete absence of what once would have been automatic limits on such behavior gives him the nihilistic message that nothing is forbidden to him, which in turn leads him to become even more disordered.

But that’s modern liberal society for you—a nihilistic world without standards and without authority. NR has thus become a perfect symbol or microcosm of liberalism, with Derbyshire acting out, and with the nonentities who are supposedly in charge of the place doing nothing to stop him.

Alan Roebuck writes:

Indeed. I have a strong hunch that many public atheistic apologists such as Derb are, psychologically speaking, fixated in a childhood rebellion against authority, because their rhetoric is emotional, not logical, and also because many of them emit unconscious hints that they are subconsciously seeking something strong to respect. (E.g., Derb gives some grudging respect to theists who strongly defend their position, as opposed to the wussy theists who make polite to their enemies.)

I have been in an email conversation with Derb in which I have gotten him to admit (albeit indirectly) that his worldview is naturalism, and I have challenged him, as directly as I can without descending into insults, to give reasons (or even hints of reasons) for his belief that naturalism is true. So far he has not even given a hint that he has any argument for naturalism, even though I told him that he would be simply a propagandist if he did not give reasons for his naturalism.

Defending naturalism is the Achilles’ Heel of atheism. Evidently they cannot defend it, even when repeatedly and directly challenged to so, and their entire worldview is built on it. Let’s publicly challenge them on it, so that the undecided will see that the atheism is an intellectual paper tiger.

Blake writes:

I agree: there is something seriously wrong with Derbyshire. It is amazing that only five years ago he was writing articles at NRO that included passages like this:

So here is my suggestion to Judge Myron H. Thompson, Northwestern’s Professor Pointyhead, Chuck Schumer, the ACLU, and all the rest of the Christ-purgers: Leave Christians alone. They are your fellow citizens—and, as citizens, better than average. Stop insulting them. Show a little respect. Stop enraging them. Stop picking on them.

But now he openly derides Christianity by calling it the “Son O’ God business” and talks about how “irreligious people cannot forget, though the religious would dearly like us to, how the disciples of Universal Love, Compassion and Brotherhood behaved when they had real power over people’s lives.” His transition from nominal defender of Christianity to snarling Hitchens-like atheist in such a short time has been startling.

I have no idea why the editors of NR continue to tolerate him, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact he has always explained his atheism in terms of his Darwinist beliefs. To challenge his atheism, they would have to challenge his Darwinism, and none of them is inclined to do that.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at October 03, 2008 06:55 PM | Send

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