Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Richard Dawkins Far From a Paragon of Reason

The Enemies of Reason bumps against numerous shortages of reason

Richard Dawkins has unquestionably become the growing atheist movement's resident heavyweight.

Whenever asked, he'll be the first to insist that atheism is the natural handmaiden of scientific rationalism, and insist that the only way for such rationalism to ultimately endure is for its alternatives -- notably, religion and spirituality -- to be discredited and, ultimately, destroyed.

One would be tempted to dismiss this as hysteria unless one of Dawkins' closest collaborators, "EZ" PZ Meyers, hadn't said so much himself.

However, if Dawkins and his cohorts are really so concerned with preserving rationalism and reason, one would expect that they would strictly impose themselves within the limits of these concepts.

In the hysterically titled The Enemies of Reason, a Dawkins-produced documentary aired by the BBC, Dawkins proves himself to fall far short of that.

In the first part of the two-part documentary, "Slaves to Superstition", Dawkins emerges as a curmudgeony, cynical individual prone to hyperbole.

"Science has sent orbiters to Neptune, erradicated smallpox and created a supercomputer that can do 69 trillion calculations per second," says Richard Dawkins during the opening of his television documentary, The Enemies of Reason.

"Science frees us from superstition and dogma," he adds. "And allows us to base our knowledge on evidence."

Dawkins' thesis on religion in his film becomes immediately apparent -- religion makes people small-minded and irrational, and poses a threat to the world's ability to govern itself according to reason.

Yet Dawkins indulges his own irrationality and small-mindedness at length throughout his film -- rarely as cogently as within the opening 60 seconds.

"There are two ways of looking at the world," he insists. "Through faith and superstition or through the rigours of logic, observation and evidence -- through reason."

Reason is threatened by an "epidemic of irrational thinking," he insists. Religion "impoverishes our culture," he announces. "New age gurus exhort us to run away from reality," he laments.

To Dawkins, religion is more than simply a means for individuals to seek answers to questions that science can't answer, it's some sort of insidious threat to civilization itself.

"As a scientist, I don't think our indulgence of irrational superstition is harmless," he says. "I believe it profoundly undermines civilization."

"We live in dangerous times when superstition is gaining ground and science is under attack," Dawkins muses. "In this program I want to take on the enemies of reason."

Apparently, in Dawkins' mind, science is at risk of being subjected to another holy inquisition such as that inflicted upon Gallileo. But instead of resisting the spectre of dogmatic intolerance wholesale, Dawkins' solution seems to be to unleash an inquisition on religion instead.

"Increased life expectancy, health and leisure provided by modern medicine and industrial technology have given more people more time than ever before to educate themselves, express their creativity and ponder existence."

People expressing themselves and pondering existence are both pursuits that Dawkins seems fine with -- he just wishes people would restrain themselves within the means of which he personally approves.

"Yet into this better world that reason has built, primitive darkness is coming back," Dawkins laments. "A disturbing pagan mix of superstitions."

Dawkins first takes aim at astrology, trying to draw as close a comparison between it and racism as he can manage. "Amusingly, it falls afoul of our modern taboo against lazy stereotyping," he insists. "How would we react if a newspaper published a daily oolumn that read something like this: 'Germans - It is in your nature to be hardworking and methodical, which should serve you well at work today. In your personal relationships, especially this evening, you'll need to curb your natural tendency obey orders. Chinese - Inscrutibility has many advantages but it may be your undoing today. British - Your stiff upper lip may serve you well in business dealings, but try to relax and let yourself go in your social life'. And so on through 12 national stereotypes. Of course, the astrology columns aren't as offensive as that, but we should ask ourselves exactly where the difference lies."

The fact that racism divides people based on immediately apparent physical and cultural characteristics - skin colour, language, etc -- and astrology practices divides people more arbitrarily is obviously among the chief differences between astrology and racism, as is the fact that astrology divides people fairly evenly across (not amongst) such racial and cultural divides.

In other words, there's a world of difference between astrology and racism. Neither fall within the narrow conflines of what Dawkins would consider to be "rational" or "reasonable".

From astrology (Dawkins notes that, surprise surprise, he prefers astronomy), Dawkins moves on to belief in the paranormal -- in particular, psychics.

Once again, Dawkins is picking an easy target. The revelation of JoJo Psychic Alliance's Miss Cleo as a complete fraud served to largely discredit the psychic community.

But Dawkins makes no mention of Parapsychology, a scientific (probably better described as pseudo-scientific) field in which researchers attempt to apply the scientific method to the paranormal in an attempt to explain it, most often with mixed results. They often study psychic phenomenae.

It should be of little surprise to anyone that a scientific field would emerge to stupiy phenomenae that conventional science has all but abandoned, and perhaps for good reason -- science seems to lack the tools necessary to explain them.

In the case of psychics, Dawkins jumps on a theory offered up by skeptic illusionist Darren Brown: cold reading. Cold reading, Brown insists, is basically a glorified method of word association in which various words are offered up and subjects supply the meaning on their own.

Yet cold reading doesn't explain how an individual such as Craig Hamilton Parker could "cold read" such specific details about such specific people.

For skeptics, however, there is a far superior method of debunking many psychics -- such as the case of Peter Popoff, who ran a similar outfit, yet was revealled to be "reading" people through FM radio transmissions to a headset. Various audience members were revealled to be "cased" before hand.

As it turns out, most of Craig Hamilton Parker's congregation are regulars. This alone explains his ability to percieve details about individual members as if they have been delivered from beyond the grave. In other words, the far more rational explanation of familiarity and (perhaps even) research rather than obscure psychological trickery.

Dawkins' questions about the pyschological impact of percieved contact with the dead are also entirely legitimate -- questions that should be asked, and questions that Parker himself should certainly feel obligated to answer.

Parker insists that he's trying to help others -- and he may even believe he is -- but that doesn't change the legitimacy of Dawkins' concerns.

Dawkins then turns his attention to, of all things, dowsing -- the practice of trying to find water using sticks.

Dawkins blames time-old notions of animism -- the belief that everything existing in the world possesses some spiritual nature -- for what he dismisses as -- admittedly, because they so often are -- irrational thought.

In particular, Dawkins notes the tale of the Persian king Xerxes, who once ordered the ocean punished for destroying a bridge he had built. The belief that the ocean was a "malevolent force", Dawkins views as irrational.

Of course, Dawkins is overlooking some realities of the times in which these beliefs were widely held -- times in which many people who travelled by sea never returned alive, if they ever returned at all. The belief that the sea is malevolent could have been treated as a parable for the fact that the sea has, historically, been very very dangerous for those who dared embark upon it.

Dawkins next turns his attention toward gamblers.

He insists slot machines -- "one-armed bandits" as he describes them in the popular manner -- dispense prizes randomly.

He notes that many gamblers have their own particular routines they like to engage in, and then asks if such superstitious behaviour is the result of human evolution. He suggests that quaint notions of luck are actually the result of biological processes that help living creatures judge situations statistically in order to make decisions that help optimize survival.

Dawkins argues that supersition is little more than the fallacious side of a pattern-seeking tendency of animal minds: finding a pattern where none exists.

But for Dawkins to choose electronic gambling machines -- Video Lottery Terminals as they're known in Canada -- as his example of this is, in itself, a folly. First off, these machines don't dispense prizes randomly. They're programmed in order to dispense prizes in a manner that optimizes profit. Furthermore, there is no such thing as a random number within a computer -- only a calculated number deliberately computed to resemble randomness as much as possible.

Nor is there really any such thing as randomness in nature. The governing laws of nature -- physics, thermodynamics, biology, etcetera -- may often collude in such a incomprehensible manner as to appear random, but there is no such thing as true randomness. Thus the suggested animal instict to search for discernable patterns.

When famed psychologist BF Skinner introduced such randomness into an experiment involving pigeons, he witnessed them exhibiting superstitious behaviour -- attempting to influence patterns with "false positives" that they had percieved to influence the "random" distribution of their food.

Dawkins attributes it to a human desire to read meaning into everything -- "faces in toasted cheese" and "fortunes in tea leaves".

Of course, meaning will always remain subjective. Dawkins attributes it to a desire for an organizing force -- yet the human brain itself is an organizing force. The human brain absorbs stimulus from its environment, then natural processes within the brain manage these stimuli to a tolerable level, effectively ignoring any stimulus these processes have been conditioned to treat as immaterial or unimportant.

In other words, there are things going on around the human brain that the conscious mind never recognizes.

An obvious difference between Dawkins and the numerous "believers" he examines throughout Enemies of Reason seems to emerge: simply, that these processes of his brain have been conditioned in order to ignore stimuli that others do not, while others' brains have been conditioned in order to ignore stimuli that he does not.

One could hypothesize at length about differences between individuals like Dawkins and the believers at a fundamental neuropsycholigical level.

Once these differences are recognized, one conclusion becomes unignorable: that Dawkins' mind has reached different subjective conclusions about the nature of the world around us using different information.

It's well-known that Dawkins prefers his own method of attaching meaning to the world around him: science. But it's in this vein that a strong case can be made for at least one alternative: spirituality.

Spiritualists actually come in great variety. Dawkins turns his attention to Satish Kumar, who argues that everything in the world has both physical and spiritual properties.

Without giving Kumar's views any more than a cursory examination, Dawkins dismisses it as "fabricated meaning".

"Science and rationality are often accused of having a cold, bleak outlook,"Dawkins muses. "But why is it bleak to face up to the evidence of what we know?"

In the perception of those such as Kumar, Hamilton Parker and others such as Ben Stein, the answer to this question is very simple: because it discounts difficult questions about what we don't know. Questions of meaning and purpose, which often science will not even begin to explore.

Science is under attack, Dawkins insists. Yet Dawkins and his compatriots are the ones who have professed that they will eliminate religion. It would seem that religion is what is really under attack.

Of course, it hasn't always been this way. When Copernicus questioned the Heliocentric view of the Catholic Church, he was punished severely even after he recanted his view -- which turned out to be demonstrably correct.

There is little question that scientists were targeted by the agents of the Church -- both within the formal structure of the Inquisition, and under other, more informal guises.

But as the formal onslaught of the church against science has effectively subsided -- scientists are no longer imprisoned for their work -- Dawkins seems to believe that the time has come for the exact same evils to be turned upon religion: an inquisition of science against religion.

Individuals such as Michael Onfray have gone so far as to promise a "final battle" between religion and atheism.

For Dawkins, however, the battle is not against religion alone. He also blames postmodernism for allowing alternative worldviews to be treated with respect -- respect that he himself has proven unwilling to afford.

Yet the critiques postmodernism offers to science are entirely benign questions -- questions that, if answered, would strengthen science's claims to objective truth, rather than weaken them.

"Reason has built the modern world" Dawkins insists.

Certainly so. But reason has not built the modern world alone. Religious and spiritual movements have been alongside science all along, often acting as philosophical, moral and spiritual guides to the world. Religious and spiritual movements have provided key cultural memes around which modern societies have been built.

In his effort to enforce his strict views of scientific rationality upon others, Richard Dawkins has fallen far short of the paragon of reason he often purports himself to be.


  1. Wait, I don't get it. How is calling PZ Meyers "EZ" insulting exactly? It's EZ to understand his biology teachings because he's a great prof? He's a very EZ writer to read? It is very EZ to agree with him? I've never had an EZer time laughing at Christianists than on PZ's blog?

    By the way "strictly impose themselves within the limits of these concepts" doesn't actually make grammatical sense.

  2. Well, I'll start off by being entirely forthcoming with you: I don't like PZ Meyers.

    But the "EZ" PZ remark was actually a reference to "Beware the Believers" -- rapping Richard Dawkins and PZ Meyers and all that. It wasn't really meant as an insult -- especially since its become apparent to me that "Beware the Believers" was actually a mutual satire of both "camps" in the evolution/ID debate.

    Beyond that, if all you want to do here is try and critique my grammar, you're clearly more than just slightly out of your league.

  3. Um... the point is that the things that you say don't make sense. If you have a 'blog I assume that your goal is to communicate ideas. If your ideas are incoherent, well... FAIL.

  4. There's nothing incoherent about it. Apparently you just read at a sub-high school level.

  5. I would highly suggest for you, and any one else interested to read the book ""The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions." by self-professed secular Jew and mathematics/philosophies teacher David Berlinski.
    This tells the story of a Jew who was forced to dig his own grave prior to being shot by a German soldier. Prior to being shot, the old Jewish man advised the German that “God is watching what you are doing.” The Jewish gentleman pointed what i think is the real problem with atheism. "If you have the time please check the book out

  6. But we aren't about to pretend that such problems don't arise within religion, do we?

    Consider the inquisition: a religious organization founded on the hunting and disposal of heretics which, as we all know, often treated the killing of the suspect as a foregone conclusion.

    Their belief was that god was watching, and he approves.

    While I would posit that atheism lacks the ideal of any central moral arbiter (such as a watchful god) and thus could on those grounds be considered more liable to taking liberties with human rights, I would also posit that there are few things as problematic as a belief that the central moral arbiter is turning a blind eye -- or, worse yet, applauding -- one's own immoral behaviour.


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