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Dawkins Rallies for Reason
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Author:  TFBW [ Sat Mar 24, 2012 6:29 pm ]
Post subject:  Dawkins Rallies for Reason

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.

Author:  TFBW [ Wed Mar 28, 2012 9:12 am ]
Post subject:  Dawkins' speech at Reason Rally 2012

In the interests of having a written, searchable, and quotable record of what Dawkins said at this event, I have produced the following transcript. I have reproduced the speech as clearly and accurately as I can (minus the occasional "uh" or stammer), but bear in mind that the choice of punctuation and paragraphing is quite subjective. I used the following three YouTube videos as source material: video #1 (this has the clearest audio), video #2, video #3. I acknowledge that Richard Dawkins owns the copyright in this speech, but I presume the right to reproduce it here in full because it was a public speech, which the public is (evidently) permitted to record and redistribute. I assert no additional rights over my transcript.

Richard Dawkins wrote:
What a magnificent, inspiring sight. I was expecting great things, even in fine weather; in the rain -- look at this -- this is the most incredible sight I can remember ever seeing.

The sharper critical thinkers among you may have discerned that I don't come from these parts. I see myself as an emissary from a benighted country that does not have a constitutional separation between church and state -- indeed, we don't have a written constitution at all. We have a head of state who is also the head of the Church of England; the church is deeply entwined in British public life.

The American constitution is a precious treasure, the envy of the world. The first amendment to the constitution, which enshrines the separation between church and state, is the model for secular constitutions the world over, and deserves to be imitated the world over. How sad it would be if, in the birthplace of secular constitutions, the very principle of a secular constitution were to be betrayed in a theocracy, and it's come close to that.

How could anyone rally against reason? How is it necessary to have a rally for reason? Reason means basing your life on evidence and on logic, which is how you deduce the consequences of evidence. In a hundred years time, it seems to me inconceivable that anybody could want to have a rally for reason. By that time we'll either have blown ourselves up, or we'll have become so civilised that we no longer need it.

When I was at school, we used to sing a hymn. It went, "it is a thing most wonderful, almost too wonderful to be." After that, the hymn rather went off the rails, but those first two lines have inspired me ever since. It is a thing most wonderful, that on this once barren rock, orbiting a rather mediocre star on the edge of a rather ordinary galaxy -- on this rock, a remarkable process called evolution by natural selection has given rise to the magnificent diversity of complexity of life -- the elegance, the beauty, and the illusion of design, which we see all around us -- has given rise, in the last million years or so, to a species -- our species -- with a brain big enough to comprehend that process, to comprehend how we came to be here, how we came to be here from extremely simple beginnings, where the laws of physics were played out in very simple ways -- the laws of physics have never been violated, but the laws of physics are filtered through this incredible process called evolution by natural selection -- to give rise to a brain which is capable of understanding the process -- a brain which is capable of measuring the age of the universe, between thirteen and fourteen billion years, of measuring the age of the earth, between four and five billion years, of knowing what matter is made of -- knowing what we are made of, made of atoms, brought together by this mechanical, automatic, unplanned, unconscious process, evolution by natural selection. That's not just true, it's beautiful, and it -- it's beautiful because it's true, and it's almost too good to be true. How is it conceivable that the laws of physics should conspire together, without guidance, without direction, without any intelligence, to bring us into the world? Now we do have intelligence. Intelligence comes into the world -- comes into the universe -- late. It has come into the world through our brains, and maybe other brains in the universe. Now, at last, finally, after four billion years of evolution, we have the opportunity to bring some intelligent design into the world. We need -- we need intelligent design. We need it to intelligently design our morals, our ethics, our politics, our society. We need to intelligently design the way we run our lives, not look back to scrolls -- I was going to say ancient scrolls -- they're not even very ancient: about eight hundred B.C. the book of genesis was written.

I am often accused of expressing contempt and despising religious people. I don't despise religious people: I despise what they stand for. I like -- I like to quote the British journalist, Johann Hari, who said, "I have no contempt for you... I have" -- sorry -- "I have so much respect for you, that I can not respect your ridiculous ideas."

Electromagnetic spectrum runs all the way from extremely long wave radio wave end of the spectrum, to gamma rays at the very short wave end of the spectrum, and visible light, that which we can see, is a tiny little sliver in the middle of that electromagnetic spectrum. Science has broadened out our perception of that spectrum, to long wave radio waves on the one hand and gamma rays on the other. I take that as being symbolic of what science does generally. It takes our little vision -- our little, parochial, small vision -- and broadens it out, and that is a magnificent vision for what science can do. Science makes us see what we couldn't see before. Religion does its best to snuff out even that light which we can see.

So we're here to stand up for reason, to stand up for science, to stand up for logic, to stand up for the beauty of reality, and the beauty of the fact that we can understand reality. I hope that this meeting will be a turning point -- I'm sure many people have said that already -- I like to think of the physical analogy of a critical mass. There are too many people in this country -- there are too many people in this country who have been cowed into fear of coming out as atheists, or secularists, or agnostics. We are far more numerous than anybody realises. We are approaching a tipping-point -- we're approaching that critical mass, where the number of people who have come out becomes so great that suddenly everybody will realise, "I can come out too". That moment -- that moment is not far away now, and I think that with hindsight, this rally in Washington will be seen as a very significant tipping point on the road.

And I would particularly appeal to my scientific colleagues, most of whom are atheists -- if you look at the members of the National Academy of Sciences, about ninety percent of them are non-believers -- an exact mirror image of the official figures of the country at large; if you look at the Royal Society of London -- the equivalent for the British Commonwealth -- again, about ninety percent of them are atheists. But they mostly keep quiet about it. They're not ashamed of it, they just can't be bothered to come out and express what they feel. They think religion is just simply boring, and they're not going to bother to even stand up and oppose it. They need to come out -- religion is an important phenomenon: forty percent at least of the American population, according to opinion polls, think that the world -- the universe, indeed -- is less than ten thousand years old. That's not just an error, that's a preposterous error -- I've done the calculation before, and it's equivalent to believing that the width of North America from Washington to San Francisco is equal to about eight yards.

I don't know that I believe that forty percent figure -- it stands out as being apparently so for about ever since the nineteen eighties -- but what I want to suggest you do, when you meet somebody who claims to be religious, ask them what they really believe. If you meet somebody who says he's Catholic, for example, say, "what do you mean -- do just mean you were baptised Catholic, because I'm not impressed by that." We just ran a poll by -- my foundation in Britain -- just ran a poll in Britain, in which we took those people who had ticked the "Christian" box in the census -- and by the way, that figure has come down dramatically -- we just took the people who ticked the "Christian" box, and we asked them, "why did you tick the Christian box?" And the most popular answer to that question was, "oh, well I like to think of myself as a good person." Well we all like to think of ourselves as a -- as good people. Atheists do, Jews do, Muslims do -- so when you meet somebody who claims to be Christian, ask her, ask him, "what do you really believe?" And I think you'll find that in many cases they -- that they give you an answer which is no more convincing than that "I like to be a good person." By the way, when we went on to ask a specific question of these only fifty-four percent, "what do you do when you're faced with a moral dilemma -- where do you turn?", only ten percent turned to their religion when trying to solve a moral question -- only ten percent. The majority of them -- the majority of them said, "I turn to my innate sense of goodness", and the next most popular answer was, "I turn for advice to relatives and friends." So, when I meet somebody who claims to be religious, my first impulse is, "don't believe you -- I don't believe you until you tell me, do you really believe," for example, if they say they're Catholic, "do you really believe that when a priest blesses a wafer, it turns into the body of Christ? Are you seriously telling me you believe that? Are you seriously saying that wine turns into blood?" Mock them! Ridicule them! In public! Don't fall for the convention that we're all too polite to talk about religion. Religion is not off the table. Religion is not off limits. Religion makes specific claims about the universe which need to be substantiated, and need to be challenged, and, if necessary, need to be ridiculed with contempt.

I want to echo what my colleagues from the Richard Dawkins Foundation have said -- I am an outsider, but we have -- we're well-staffed in America, and we're going to spread the word along with our colleagues in other organisations throughout the length and breadth of this land -- this land which is the fountainhead, the birthplace, of secularism in the world, as I said before. Don't let's let that tradition down. Thank you very much.

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