Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Dawkins

A.A. Gill, of all people, has an entertaining (i.e. reinforces my prejudices) review of "The Root of All Evil ?"

"His splenetic, small-minded, viciously vindictive falsetto rant at all belief that isn’t completely rooted in the natural sciences is laughable. Dawkins is a born-again Darwinist, an atheist, so why is he devoting so much blood pressure and time to arguing with something he knows doesn’t exist? If it’s not there, Richard, why do you keep shouting at it?"

"Dawkins is, of course, the archetype of a man who protests too much, and I’d say he’s well on his way to, if not a Pauline, then at least a Muggeridgian conversion. Any day now, he’ll be back on telly quoting CS Lewis."

UPDATE - Cobb on Dawkins' infinite patience - though I'd call it infinite arrogance.

Why do we vent such visceral hatred on child murderers, or on thuggish vandals, when we should simply regard them as faulty units that need fixing or replacing ?

We're back in Clockwork Orange territory, where we can make people good even if they don't want to be (Anthony Burgess seems to have been a prescient writer).

Cobb writes :

"Listen to the Alphas and deploy the Betas, it's time to correct those faulty Gammas. Serious business.

This is truly dangerous. It means that we will become dependent on some institutions that correct us, that perfect us. By definition the budget for such an institution would have to be infinite, because the capacity of humans to be wrong, to be immoral, is practically insatiable."

13 comments:

Jamie Young said...

As an atheist, and a fundamentalist one to boot, I wish Dawkins would STFU sometimes. Atheism isn’t a cause, and contempt for science isn’t restricted to religious nutters – as anyone familiar with the academic Left or the treehuggers surely knows. However, since the academic Left and the treehuggers form both Dawkin’s constituency and his paymasters, he’s hardly likely bring that fact up.

And, just what does chance would he give rationalist secularism of surviving in a place where the Christian heritage has been extirpated? Will the mullahs be as tolerant of his (and my) beliefs? Or the High Priestesses, for that matter?

paul said...

And here's Roger Scruton on Dawkins meme theory in last week's Spectator:

...the theory of the religious ‘meme’. A meme is a mental entity that colonises the brains of people, much as a virus colonises a cell. The meme exploits its host in order to reproduce itself, spreading from brain to brain like meningitis, and killing off the competing powers of rational argument. Like genes and species, memes are Darwinian individuals, whose success or failure depends upon their ability to find the ecological niche that enables reproduction...

This analogical extension of the theory of biological reproduction has a startling quality. It seems to explain the extraordinary survival power of nonsense, and the constant ‘sleep of reason’ that, in Goya’s engraving, ‘calls forth monsters’. Faced with a page of Derrida and knowing that this drivel is being read and reproduced in a thousand American campuses, I have often found myself tempted by the theory of the meme. The page in my hand is clearly the product of a diseased brain....

All the same, I am not entirely persuaded by this extension by analogy of genetics. The theory that ideas have a disposition to propagate themselves by appropriating energy from the brains that harbour them recalls Molière’s medical expert (Le Malade imaginaire) who explained the fact that opium induces sleep by referring to its virtus dormitiva (the ability to cause sleep). It only begins to look like an explanation when we read back into the alleged cause the distinguishing features of the effect, by imagining ideas as entities whose existence depends, as genes and species do, on reproduction. [Moreover]...not every dependent organism destroys its host. In addition to parasites there are symbionts and mutualists — invaders that either do not impede or positively amplify their host’s reproductive chances. And which is religion? Why has religion survived, if it has conferred no benefit on its adepts? And what happens to societies that have been vaccinated against the infection — Soviet society, for instance, or Nazi Germany — do they experience a gain in reproductive potential? Clearly, a lot more research is needed if we are to come down firmly on the side of mass vaccination rather than (my preferred option) lending support to the religion that seems most suited to temper our belligerent instincts, and which, in doing so, asks us to forgive those who trespass against us and humbly atone for our faults.

Ian said...

When I read The Selfish Gene, I can honestly say it was a book that "changed my life".

I admired Dawkins at the time as he was prepared to fight in the scientific corner by arguing for its benefits, he was concerned at science accuracy and the emphasis was on getting out to a wider audience, with education the key.

Somewhere along the line he lost the plot. With the religionists jumping on the bandwagon with ID, partially trumping the educational aspect, and the likes of "celebrity scientists" (Vorderman, etc) dumbing it all down for entertainment, nothing was needed more than a the clear, concise, accurate pin of Dawkin's wisdom to burst the bubble of nonsense.

Instead, he has just resorted to loopy name calling, plus a pointless venture into politics to show he's just as culpable of succumbing to idiotic memes as we all are.

I put it down to the death of Stephan Jay Gould, his erstwhile evolutionary sparring partner who would do battle and lock "spandrels" with him one day, then stand shoulder to shoulder on the next against the rising tide of fundamentalism.

No matter how much I have agreed with him, I have always felt uncomfortable opposing religion in the UK as it risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater, having seen first-hand a lot of the good that comes from a religiously inspired community. In modern democracies there is no way religious nutjobs can get real absolute power, so I cannot understand why he relentlessly attacks them whenever a Godhead pokes itself above the parapet.

As the first comment noted, the real danger is the rising theocratic power in Islam, all Dawkins seems to do is join in with the multitudes in ignoring the elephant in the room.

Qaz said...

Johnathan Miller gave the game away on his show on bbc4 a few months ago, aparantley atheism is really anti-theism, which was a shock, but the anti-theism only runs to being a self hating jew or a christian, the muslims are much misunderstood, as is the case in polite society these days.

Secualarism is the real issue for all of us atheists, theists et all.
what kind of secualarism, the euro secularism of exclusion are the american secularism of seperation?

miller and dawkins are for the first, im for the second.

I note that Athesim (and I suppose i subscribe to this non-belief myself) was given a fine bill of health by Dawkins, no mention of the 100 million europeans that died on its alter, or that it was europe not the middle east or amercia that spawned the evil of Marx and Nietzsche...the myths of blood and land, and the materialism of the control of production as Karl popper would explain.

Jamie said...

amercia?

A place that is not west-central England? ;-)

Squander Two said...

> why is he devoting so much blood pressure and time to arguing with something he knows doesn’t exist? If it’s not there, Richard, why do you keep shouting at it?

This is utter, utter bollocks. I bet A A Gill doesn't follow his own advice on that one, failing ever to argue against something that he knows not to be true. Arguing for different sides of an argument is one of the key factors in human progress. If no-one had ever done it, where would we be now?

Dawkins is a brilliant writer and scientist, and I'm with him on many of his anti-religious views -- for instance, I can't find any flaw in his argument that 9/11 was only made possible through belief in an afterlife. The religious who screamed blue murder at him for that one make the same mistake he does: they refuse to admit the possibility of a bad side to their belief system, no matter how obvious the evidence, just as he refuses to see the good aspects of religion.

One of the most intelligent things he's ever written is near the start of The Blind Watchmaker, where he says that, prior to Darwinism, atheism was an irrational belief: biological diversity needs to be explained, and, until we had a theory of how things may be designed without a designer, belief in a designer was entirely sensible. He also says that, when he first heard the Theory of Evolution, he immediately recognised it as ridiculous nonsense. Because, until you understand it properly, it really is quite incredible, in the literal sense of the word.

What always puzzles me is that he's so unwilling to cut any slack to people who think exactly what he admits to having thought himself for exactly the reasons that he says are so sensible.

paul said...

I can't find any flaw in his argument that 9/11 was only made possible through belief in an afterlife.

Belief in an afterlife may have been a necessary condition for the 9/11 attack, but it was not a sufficient condition.

Squander Two said...

Yes, that's what "only made possible through" means.

paul said...

Yes, that's what "only made possible through" means.

To attribute responsibility for x to y you need to establish that x is a sufficient condition of y.

Claiming that belief in an afterlife was a necessary condition of 9/11 is uninteresting: the flying lessons (and many other things) were necessary too.

Squander Two said...

If it's so uninteresting, how comes it attracted so much interest at the time?

> To attribute responsibility for x to y you need to establish that x is a sufficient condition of y.

That's not the definition of responsibility; it's an arbitrary definition of responsibility that you've just made up. It's obviously flawed. For instance, let's say I shoot a man in the shoulder who has taken a large dose of aspirin; he dies of blood loss, but the gun-shot wound itself would not have been enough to kill him if it weren't for the aspirin's prevention of his blood from clotting. According to you, I'm not responsible for his death.

> the flying lessons (and many other things) were necessary too.

Yes, but that wasn't Dawkins's point. The point is that it is possible to pull off something like 9/11 without sacrificing any of your men, but it is vastly more difficult and likely to fail than having them kill themselves in the process. Same applies to any other type of attack. Flying lessons were necessary for 9/11, yes, but, if there were no flying lessons (or even no planes), there'd still be buses and trains; if there were no explosives, there'd still be swords and ju jitsu and poison. You can train people to kill in an infinite variety of ways, but, no matter which method you choose, you will always gain a huge tactical advantage if you can persuade your men not to care about their own survival. Hence the belief in an afterlife is a cause of a different order than the other causes. If it weren't for flying lessons, 9/11 would not have occurred, but something else like it would. If it weren't for belief in an afterlife, nothing like it would have happened.

paul said...

According to you, I'm not responsible for his death

Quite right; nothing absurd about that. Your legal defence against the charge of murder would be that you intended to wound, not kill. If you knew, however, that he had taken an anti-coagulant or was a haemophiliac, then you would know that wounding him was a sufficient condition for his bleeding to death, and you would be responsible for it.

This is not an "arbitrary" definition of responsibility, though I concede it has been around for less than 2500 years.

The point is that it is possible to pull off something like 9/11 without sacrificing any of your men.... True; so belief in an afterlife is not even a necessary condition of 9/11, and the Dawk's link between 9/11 and afterlife beliefs becomes more tenuous! If x is neither a necessary or a sufficient condition for y, then it becomes even less plausible either to attribute responsibility for y to x or to say that x is a cause of y.

If it weren't for belief in an afterlife, nothing like it would have happened. How can you be so certain? Fanaticism takes many forms, and it is just as conceivable that the 9/11 terrorists could have sacrificed themselves for a secular belief.

Squander Two said...

> it is just as conceivable that the 9/11 terrorists could have sacrificed themselves for a secular belief.

Well, anything's conceivable. Not the same thing as likely or realistic, though, is it?

You appear to have confused "something like 9/11" with "9/11", and responsibility with lack of viable legal defense.

paul said...

As the Dawk's connexion between 9/11 and afterlife belief is (by your own admission)neither necessary or sufficient, it is just as likely that the 9/11 terrorists could have sacrificed themselves for a secular belief.

You appear to have confused "something like 9/11" with "9/11"...
No, I'm not. 9/11 was "something like 9/11"; and afterlife belief is neither a necessary or sufficient condition for either 9/11 or something like 9/11.

...and responsibility with lack of viable legal defense. No, I didn't say that: I used an example of a legal defence to a charge of murder to illustrate the concept of responsibility, as it has been applied in ethics and law since Aristotle.

PS Regarding anything's conceivable. No, it is not - eg the square circle isn't!