As I write, an event called "Reason Rally"
, billing itself as "the largest gathering of the secular movement in world history", is taking place in Washington DC. Richard Dawkins is the top-of-the-bill speaker, and he has written a short article for the Washington Post entitled, "Who would rally against reason?"
, explaining why reason needs a rally to defend it.
Richard Dawkins wrote:
To base your life on reason means to base it on evidence and logic. Evidence is the only way we know to discover what’s true about the real world. Logic is how we deduce the consequences that follow from evidence. Who could be against either? Alas, plenty of people, which is why we need the Reason Rally.
The article is a short case study in Richard's lack of epistemic humility, and his penchant for opposing straw men.
What is epistemic humility? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes "epistemic humility" as being one possible explanation of wisdom
-- a view dating back to the ancient Greeks. The encyclopedia expresses the view that "humility views of wisdom are not promising", but there is still a case to be made that such humility is virtuous
-- a good thing to have. There is more to wisdom than epistemic humility, but such humility is befitting of one who would be wise.
So if epistemic humility is not "wisdom", exactly, then what is it? It is that aspect of wisdom which entails an awareness of the limits of one's own knowledge, particularly in the sense of avoiding extravagant claims. To put it another way, it is knowing when to say, "I know", "I expect", "I'm not sure", or "I don't know". The encyclopedia portrays it in terms of Plato's Apology
, in which an Oracle claims that Socrates is the wisest person. Socrates is perplexed by this claim, because he is sorely aware of the limits of his own understanding, while many others in the community are renowned for their extensive knowledge and wisdom.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy wrote:
Socrates does an investigation to get to the bottom of this puzzle. He interrogates a series of politicians, poets, and craftsmen. As one would expect, the Socratic grilling reveals that those who claim to know either did not really know any of the things they claimed to know, or else they knew far less than they proclaimed to know. The most knowledgeable of the bunch, the craftsmen, knew quite a bit about their craft, but they claimed to know things far beyond the scope of their expertise.
Dawkins is much like the craftsmen in Plato's Apology
. There is no doubt that he is an expert in his field (Ethology, a branch of Zoology), and that he possesses much knowledge on the subject, but his claims of knowledge extend far, far beyond that field -- even beyond science proper and into metaphysics -- and they are expressed in terms that brook no dissent. This is epistemic arrogance -- the opposite of epistemic humility -- and it has become increasingly conspicuous in his work over time.
This present article provides yet another example. In it, Dawkins lists a substantial number of knowledge claims (intermingled with a few practical achievements and other assertions). No doubt there is a great deal of actual truth in his list, but there is also no sign whatever of epistemic humility: it's a succession of bold, unqualified "we know" statements, some of which are quite grand in their claims. The onus is on us to sort out the truth from the arrogant excesses. I won't actually be undertaking that tedious task right here and now: the point of the analysis is simply to highlight the lack of epistemic humility, and the resultant need for scepticism in relation to his knowledge claims.
This need for scepticism is heightened by the fact that Dawkins is a man with a clear agenda: he is militantly anti-religion, and doubly anti-creationist. Note that his list of knowledge claims includes a few key long-age evolution claims, then a bunch of other things that you'd be hard pressed to find anyone to contradict. It's a rhetorical device on his part to be grouping these things together: it's presented as a list of established facts that only a fool would contradict, as though to challenge any one would be to challenge them all. The uniformly strong knowledge claims are not just epistemic arrogance: they're also a browbeating tactic.
The other key aspect of this article is the use of straw men. Straw men make convenient opponents, because you can make them as stupid and contemptible as you like, and Dawkins certainly doesn't hold back on that front. Dawkins puts the following words into the mouths of his straw men, to illustrate the kind of people who are rallying against reason, but the straw men he constructs cast further light on his own epistemic arrogance.
Straw Man #1 wrote:
I don’t trust educated intellectuals, élitists who know more than I do. I’d prefer to vote for somebody like me, rather than somebody who is actually qualified to be president.
Such a terrible ignoramus this straw man is -- so resentful of the superior intellect of others, and their damned knowledge. One wonders what Dawkins means when he says, "actually qualified to be president", though. What qualifications should a president have? Plato's ideal state was ruled by a philosopher-king. Who rules Dawkins' ideal state? A scientist-king? He doesn't actually tell us: he just berates this brainless straw man for wanting an ignorant leader, and he's only too happy to name the candidates he considers to be examples of such ignorance. There's no mention of what qualifications the acceptable alternatives have, though.
Straw Man #2 wrote:
Rather than have them learn modern science, I’d prefer my children to study a book written in 800 BC by unidentifed authors whose knowledge and qualifications were of their time. If I can’t trust the school to shield them from science, I’ll home-school them instead.
This truth-hating straw man can't even spell "unidentified". We can tell he hates truth, because he hates science. His hatred of truth drives him to shield his children from all knowledge everywhere, teaching them exclusively from some ancient text of dubious authorship and no modern application. Why can't he be reasonable, and surrender his children to the state to be instructed in the manner deemed right by our enlightened scientist kings?
Straw Man #3 wrote:
When I am faced with a mystery, with something I don’t understand, I don’t interrogate science for a solution, but jump to the conclusion that it must be supernatural and has no solution.
Our last horrible straw man adds superstition and defeatism to the vice of ignorance. This is even worse than the 99% of the population who, when faced with something they don't understand, simply shrug and get on with the rest of their day. Only the true reasoner follows the appropriate response: jump to the conclusion that it must have a natural
explanation, then science that problem hard until you find a natural explanation that fits. Once you've done so, berate all the ignorant people for their rational inferiority, or offer them a condescending invitation to the Reason Rally, like so.
Richard Dawkins wrote:
Even if you are unaccustomed to living by reason, if you are one of those, perhaps, who actively distrust reason, why not give it a try? Cast aside the prejudices of upbringing and habit, and come along anyway.
This is the final word in epistemic arrogance: not only to believe oneself to be especially wise, but also to believe everyone of a differing viewpoint to be particularly unwise
. Clearly, anyone who holds different views on religion and such like, relative to Dawkins, must simply be not using reason and evidence at all
, otherwise they would agree with him.
I bid Dawkins and his eager disciples an enjoyable celebration of their common smugness at this rally. May they relish the mocking of their many straw men, and bask in the mutual admiration of their superior reasoning faculties. If I feel like rallying for reason, however, I'll go take a refresher course in critical thinking in the philosophy department of the local university.