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Sunday, October 06, 2019

Grumpy McGrumpface: Dawkins on Brexit, democracy and God

Here is part of Professor Dawkins' "Diary" in this week's Spectator magazine:

I hate the very idea of a referendum. Referendums are capable of naming a ship ‘Boaty McBoatface’. We are a parliamentary democracy. We vote for representatives who have the time (and salary) to examine complicated economic and political issues thoroughly and give an informed vote. Nevertheless, having got into this mess through David Cameron’s cowardly folly, the only way out is another referendum. If Leave wins again, we should accept it with good grace and make the best of it. But it’s hard to imagine that Leave could possibly win again, now that we know — as we did not in 2016 — what Leave really means. A connoisseur, too, of religious faith, I detect it in the fanatical zeal of Brexiteers: those for whom the 2016 vote has become unchangeable holy writ; those who are prepared to force Brexit through at any price, even if the price is the obvious and undeniable disaster of no deal. Boris Johnson’s bullying, threatening bluster, when he should be apologising if not resigning, may betoken cynical ambition, but the ill-mannered cheering-on by his barmy supporters surely stems from blind faith.

The kitten of his argument is eaten alive with polemical fleas. Washing these off, we see that he says referendums sometimes give answers that those in charge don't like, which is true, but trite; and that we should have a second referendum because Leavers didn't know what they were voting for the first time, which is not trite and not true.

If anything, during the pre-vote campaign the Leave-inclined public had an unduly bleak picture of economic consequences painted for them by the PM, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Governor of the Bank of England, CBI and all the other panjandrums riding Tom Pearce's grey mare towards Widecombe Fair and their downfall.

One could also argue that Remain-inclined voters were insufficiently informed of the likely consequences of staying in the EU: the military buildup, the legal seizure of control over UK Armed Forces, the aspiration to Empire, the dangerous fiscal imbalances in the Eurozone, the growing regional inequalities that are feeding social unrest, the threat to the UK's Welfare State of unlimited Schengen "free movement of people." Professor Dawkins may find it hard to imagine Leave winning again, but his view is coloured by the knowitall Oxford milieu in which he lives, and which prevents him from understanding - perhaps he has never even met them - the "fanatical", "barmy" and "blind" majority of his fellow subjects.

You may also care to de-flea his preceding paragraph, which is equally tendentious and oratorical:

I would normally not mention Brexit in a diary such as this. But the humiliation of our sick-joke Prime Minister has dominated the week and cannot be avoided. I expected a good verdict from the Supreme Court, but its unanimity and decisiveness had me whooping and thumping the table with joy. It really deserved a standing ovation and I sensed one rising up from decent people all over the country. Whether you voted Leave or Remain, you are surely revolted by the unashamed manipulation of the Queen for partisan political ends. Ends, moreover, that have no sensible connection to ‘the will of the people’. For when ‘the people’ expressed their will in 2016, ‘Leave’ most certainly did not mean ‘Leave with no deal’. It meant, as we were repeatedly assured, an orderly and amicable separation.

One reason he will have been given this space to air his views is that he has just brought out another theological tome, "Outgrowing God." The review in Private Eye magazine (issue 1506, p.36) is unsympathetic and identifies, I think correctly, a weakness in him: an inablity to appreciate alternative points of view. He seems to be the sort of person who "knows what he knows" and that is not a quality to make the best sort of university teacher, I should have thought.

But then the professorship he held from 1995 to 2008 was not for scientific research and teaching per se - though he is a highly distinguished geneticist evolutionary biologist (corrected - please see Bruce Charlton's comment below). The chair of "Public Understanding of Science" was created specifically for him by the billionaire Microsoft applications developer Charles Simonyi, who will not have been unaware of Dawkins' views on religion. Dawkins was given a position that required him to communicate with the public; though under the circumstances, one wonders what is the gist of the messages Simonyi wished him to convey.

In any case, such is the Professor's "fanatical zeal" that he is in danger of undermining his own credibility. Philosopher and Christian Peter Williams says "far from being a disinterested advocate of truth, Dawkins spends his time preaching the gospel of atheism using a raft of fallacious arguments dressed up in an obscuring cloak of science" and gives examples of Dawkins' logical weaknesses here:

Returning to "Outgrowing God": the Private Eye reviewer says

... Worse still is the book's lack of empathy. There is no acknowledgement, let alone understanding, of the fact that, for some young people, science and reason may not offer the same degree of emotional comfort provided by the notion of God and, what's more, this does not necessarily make these individuals wankers. [...] There remains a coldness at the heart of Dawkins' writing that is as self-defeating as it is wearing.

I am sure that when discussing matters within his scientific field Dawkins makes perfect sense. But he may be blind to science's - and his own - limitations.

The philosopher AJ Ayer used to maintain that meaningful statements were only about what could be proved, a position from which he resiled later on. I suggest that one of the unprovable ones is Leibniz's question; "Why is there something rather than nothing?"

It seems to me that any scientific attempt to explain the origin of the Universe can only refer to things we observe in the Universe itself - time, space, matter, energy - and so the explanation will be circular. If the universe had a beginning, we cannot know how it started, even theoretically (references to a multiverse merely raise the question of how that started.) Alternatively, if there was no start, the brute fact of the Universe's existence is equally enigmatic.

I accept that by itself this conundrum goes nowhere near justifying all the tenets of religious dogmas; but I think Professor Dawkins should temper his assertions with a little humility and empathic understanding. He lays about him insensitively, like someone playing Blind-Man's-Buff.


Sackerson said...

Dawkins doesn't know how to think. He pretends to be a defender of reason but in essence he is merely logical instead of thinking (to paraphrase Niels Bohr)

Why is Dawkins afraid of Rupert Sheldrake? -

Paddington said...

I have not read all of Dawkins' books. However, his arguments are both logical and scientific. That's why people like the Young Earth Creationists can't stand him.

What the Christian philosophers really hate is that, when push comes to shove, they can provide no real evidence at all, and that has been known for a long time, at least back to Russell.

Despite Gould's idea of non-overlapping magisteria, the idea of pure philosophical thinking underpinning reality has been shown to be useless when confronted with tangible facts. This annoy many, especially when their pet beliefs are challenged.

Sackerson said...

@Paddington: As I have just said elsewhere, his approach to truth is honest, but myopic and intolerant. I have to assume that his style of argument in his books is very different from the testy and arrogant piece I have discussed here.

Bruce Charlton said...

Coupla things - I used to work in the same academic domain as Dawkins, and he would be termed an *evolutionary biologist* (or evolutionary theorist) - Not a geneticist.

l also used to think "at least he is honest"; but discovered from personal experience - which I described on my blog - that he is not; at least not nowadays.

Presumably because corrupted by the temptations of power and being surrounded by sycophants; and with no solid rooted religious belief to prevent him drifting in the direction of corrupt expediency...

I would judge that Dawkins did nothing worthwhile after The Selfish Gene (1976) and The Extended Phenotype (1982); but he deserves credit for those significant (albeit not first rate) contributions. WD Hamilton was the real deep thinker 'behind' Dawkins;

...but without Dawkins's simplified and selective exposition of Hamilton, WDH probably would not have had the (albeit simplified and selective!) attention he has! Hamilton was (like most geniuses) an 'impossible' person, in several respects - and needed a populariser.

Sackerson said...

@Bruce Charlton: I stand corrected on the terminology, will note in the post.

Shall read your pieces - would you consider making them into an amlgam for a fresh post here?

Bruce Charlton said...

@S - OK. But rather than trying to guess what you want; if you want to do the mash-up - including those aspects that interest you; then just check it with me and I will swiftly make any revisions or polishings.

Paddington said...

@Dr. Charlton - As one of the comments on your piece suggests, the (arguable) preeminence of the US in science is in spite of the religiosity, not because of it. The country is split in many ways, not the least of which is a significant anti-intellectualism.

The most religious parts of the country are the Deep South, which are also the least educated and most violent. Those are the parts of the country where you have to be careful if you even mention evolution.

Much of the significant science work in the country was begun in the 1940's and 1950's by European immigrants escaping post-war construction, and the government and industry at that time strongly supported basic research, in almost anything.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Pad - That is a secondary point - I was addressing Dawkins's frequent assertion that a Religious society is hostile to science. That is empirically false.

On the contrary, a society that has abandoned religion will soon abandon science - as has happened through the West.

But there is a lag. It is sufficient to have been brought-up a Christian (or Jew) in a Christian society - and abandoning the faith is young adulthood does not harm, but may even enhance, scientific perfomance.

However, this only lasts one generation - and once society is materialist, and individuals are brought-up materialist - they essentially never (very very rarely) attain the highest level of scientific (or any other) accomplishment - mainly because without transcendent values they have no reason to be dedicated, will lapse into dishonesty and expedience.

I got this mostly from the analysis and conclusion of Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment. It is one (of several) of the reasons why genius has become very rare in the world over the past half century.

Paddington said...

1. The most religious parts of the US are in the Deep South. They are actively anti-science – against evolution, cosmology, biology, geology and anything else which contradicts their Young Earth views.
2. I know a great many successful scientists. Some are quite religious, some quietly so, and many not at all. I do not see the trends that you claim to.
3. I would be very wary of Charles Murray's opinions. His most famous work, 'The Bell Curve' used Statistics which was Mathematically wrong, as dissected in the American Mathematical Monthly. Some of his writings remind me of the Nazi scientists who tried to prove that 'untermenschen' were genuinely inferior.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Pad - re 1 & 2 - if you are sufficiently interested, you'd need to look at the links I posted.

3. I know Charles Murray and several of his works pretty well - and rate him highly as a scholar and a person. His politics and ethics are mainstream US libertarian; so I don't agree with them (I don't agree with anyone!) - but they bear near-zero resemblence to the National Socialist Workers Party of Germany!

I don't know where you got the idea that The Bell Curve was refuted by statistical errors, but it is rubbish. Herrnstein was Murray's co-author, professor and chair of Psychology at Harvard and a formidable statistician. But Murray himself uses stats exceptionally well, through all his work I've read, by my estimation.

Far from being refuted, the Bell Curve led to a formal statement in support by some of the world's major intelligence researchers, which you can read in full here: