Friday, February 23, 2007

Dawkins at Manoa

This week, evolutionary biologist, science advocate and atheism activist Richard Dawkins was a guest speaker at the UH-Manoa Distinguished Lecture Series. Dawkins gave presentations on two different topics; "Queerer than we can suppose: The strangeness of science" on Tuesday evening, and "Is evolution predictable?" Wednesday afternoon. Both were oversubscribed, with standing room only in the afternoon session, and hundreds turned away in the evening.

An Oxford professor as well as a prolific author with a wide readership, Dawkins is one of a handful of popular science writers -- also including Stephen Jay Gould and Paul Davies -- whose work led me, in my mid-teens, to contemplate science journalism as a career. As it worked out, my first degree was in the history and philosophy of science (HPS). So, like many others, I owe an intellectual debt to Dawkins, whose crystal-clear use of analogical thinking helps make him as capable an explicator of complex scientific ideas as I've ever found.

Some of what he said on Tuesday reminded me of a fascinating class I took as an undergraduate, the University of Melbourne's HPS offering called "Science, Life and Mind", which dealt with the various psychological pitfalls that affect the scientist's mission of apprehending the world rationally (such as the biases and heuristics research of Tversky and Kahneman). Focusing not on the cognitive details but instead on the broad-brush evolutionary limitations hemming in human perception, Dawkins made the point that, depending on the ecological niche of the world they inhabit (particularly the scale, from microscopic life to megafauna), different animals operate different "world-representing software". As a result, the common sense view of reality that evolution afforded us to navigate the "Middle World" (neither microscopic nor macroscopic in level) where we humans live, does not necessarily correspond to the nature of things in any absolute sense. One example is the fact that the spectrum of light visible to us, which presents itself, so to speak, as everything there is to see, in fact comprises merely a fraction of the "larger rainbow". Another illusion born of our position in the scale of things is the perceived solidity of matter, because at a subatomic level "matter" turns out to be mostly empty space. In this way Dawkins, borrowing J.B.S. Haldane's turn of phrase, elaborated the idea of science being "queerer than we can suppose".

He went on to add that in Middle World, "evolution has not equipped us to handle very improbable events". Things at the "very unlikely" end of the probability spectrum are by definition rare creatures, although they are sighted from time to time. What some regard as "miracles" are, says Dawkins, nothing other than highly improbable, but nonetheless possible -- very occasionally actual -- events. The spontaneous arising of a self-replicating molecule in the universe, that is, the advent of life, illustrates the point. Now, as you may be able to tell from the above, if you didn't know already, Dawkins expends a good deal of his professional effort advocating scientific epistemology, and simultaneously debunking religious belief (see his current book, entitled The God Delusion). I haven't read that one yet, although I read and learned a lot from Sam Harris's excellent The End of Faith, another recent work which makes a similar appeal to replace religion-motivated wishful thinking with reason. We'll come back to this point.

Meanwhile, let's stay with the interesting line of thought mentioned above, that what can seem utterly outlandish within our narrow frame of reference becomes plausible in the big picture. Accordingly, it seems we might expect to discern more clearly the horizons of possibility if we take a broader look. So let's consider this idea in relation to temporality: it's not difficult to see how this notion illuminates the value of thinking very long term. To do so expands our sample of possibility space to encompass much more than just the "visible spectrum" of contemporary human experience. The practice of history (and other fields of study, for that matter) makes it plain that what we perceive immediately around us is far from an exhaustive representation of the range of possible ways to communicate, organise our societies, be human, and live life. The exploration of possible events yet unseen, and the imagining of ways of doing things yet untried, may therefore be important avenues of inquiry.

But I wonder how "scientific" they are? Let's run a thought experiment where we rewind this universe's story back to the (undoubtedly rather dark and lonely) era before the advent of life. Surveying the dark and inhospitable landscape of a still cooling earth, how foreseeable would that sudden eruption, that spilling forth of self-replicating matter into an otherwise apparently dead universe, have been? With, by definition, no precedent -- not a shred of evidence "on the record"; but without any need to invoke the actual existence of such a record, nor imply the existence of anyone at the time to monitor it -- I'd suggest it might not have been on the cosmic radar at all. If things can and do happen in this universe for which there is no evidence that they can or will happen, then we're in an even stranger position than Dawkins suggests. We're inhabitants of a place which -- in principle and hence irretrievably -- must remain, in part, beyond the grasp of the best scientific thought.

Now, let's come back to the other point, concerning "The God Delusion". Here I probably need to emphasise that I subscribe to no religious view that causes me any difficulty with the thesis that God is a delusion, and I'm quick to agree that there's any amount of historical evidence to buttress an argument condemning the tragic consequences of dogmatic indulgence of that genre of belief.

But I am not convinced that putting this delusion to rest is necessarily as important, or even desirable, as Dawkins seems to think. When I asked him, following the second presentation, to describe the sort of problems that he hopes or believes might be resolved if his admonitions against religious belief were properly heeded, he took the opportunity to ridicule Creationists -- the intellectual equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel -- and then alluded to the wondrously deepened appreciation of the world that would be afforded these converts to science (my term, not his).

This is, I'm sorry to say, utterly inadequate. I'm sure there are other arguments he could have made, examining the deleterious social consequences of monotheism, he may have developed these elsewhere (I look forward to acquainting myself with them); but the superior aesthetic value of science-approved truth is deeply questionable, and given that the most perilous problems of our age are deeply entwined with not only the ill logic of religious fanatics, but also the material products of the scientific revolution and its heirs, the epistemological basis of the latter ought also to be questioned as critically as the former. (Coming soon -- salvation! Oddly enough, from the worldview that brought you global warming, nuclear waste, and the hydrogen bomb...)

I can't imagine what they'd be, but I think we need new myths, not a priesthood of scientists telling people what they should and should not accept as true. Even if they're "right", my point is to say we should beware an elitist and monopolistic politics of knowledge. It's unfortunate that this excellent scholar appears to be as prone to dogmatism and closed-mindedness as some of his opponents, which makes him hard to agree with on the grounds mentioned already, as well as unlikely -- practically speaking -- actually to win people over. If, as it seems, certain of their objections are beyond logic, then we can expect those objections to remain impervious to even the most astute and comprehensive rational argumentation.

Which implies, as I tried to suggest to Dawkins, a case for a more fundamental intervention to our "world-representing software". Since we didn't seem to get anywhere with that in the difficult forum of a public lecture Q&A session, I'd be interested to think with readers of this blog about what forms that intervention could, or ought to, take. I'll rephrase: do we, and can we, in some specific cultural or cognitive ways, need to "become posthuman" in order to rectify the ways in which we misapprehend the world? (In my darker moments I wonder if ego consciousness as manifested in humanity isn't an evolutionary dead-end in the making. Any thoughts?)

At one point Dawkins remarked, I believe partly in tribute to Douglas Adams (to whom his latest book is dedicated) and in tune with the title of his first presentation: "I think revelling in the absurd is something that scientists must learn to do". I certainly think so too. But I don't see much of Adams's marvellous capacity for savouring life's absurdity reflected in Dawkins' demagoguery -- except perhaps performatively, in the irony that the acute intellect of Richard Dawkins is deployed in a contradiction, pointing out the limitations of scientific knowledge (evidence-based knowing) on one hand, but hawking it as an epistemological silver bullet on the other.

The uncompromising approach he takes is all the more unfair if we consider what I understand to be his own contention, that belief in (some version of) God is an artifact of an idiosyncratic psychological arrangement, a side-effect or glitch in our world-representing software. Given that such belief has apparently afflicted a large percentage of the people that have ever lived, he seems a bit too quick to cast it as evidence of pitable, abject stupidity, a "cockeyed" world view; rather than -- like it or not -- part of the human condition. I say this even if it's a part of our software we'd be better off "recoding". A scientific prescription for how the world ought to be apprehended needs to be careful not to fall into a hubristic trap as insidious as the supposed consequences of pre-scientific ignorance.

Here I'm invoking a pragmatic question about the observed, and potential, effects in the world of subscribing to or proselytising for various beliefs, rather than just the comparative merits of the truth claims they make. None of this should be regarded as a defence of those who ignore scientific evidence in favour of literal belief in biblical accounts of how the world was made. But there are different kinds of truth and, to my mind at least, what ought to be believed is not as self-evident as Dawkins appears to suggest. In any case, as the nascent thought-technology of a handful of inhabitants of Middle World, human science should stay humble. Reason has its limits -- just ask a gnat.

If the most important developments in the unfolding of the universe can happen without evidence, we ought indeed to learn to appreciate and enjoy the absurd; and I'd include under that rubric the unknown, the ridiculous, and the highly improbable (once again, see Dator's second law.) What I'm not clear on is how a prescription for universal adoption of scientific epistemology would necessarily or conclusively help with that. Science as we know it, or at least as exemplified by Richard Dawkins, seems much more predisposed to patrolling and regimenting knowledge than to encouraging genuine exploration. If, as Dawkins suggests, scientists themselves still need to learn to revel in the absurd, then how can they hope to teach that to the rest of us?


John said...

The problem, to my mind, is a well-understood one. Although
rationality can lay out the facts, it cannot ultimately assess them.
Logical thought can lay out the facts, and find the facts entailed
within these original facts, but has no normative content. Rationality, similarly, given an assessment of the value of situations, can lay out a course of action through the simulations to find results of high value. However, this assessment must be given. This challenge to utilitarianism, that it depends on an evaluation that might not be agreed upon, has yet to be met.

Instead of attempting to decide the assessment unilaterally, religous
individuals value the normative assessments of others, and seek out
understandings of normative assessment that are sympathetic to the upbringing and traditions they already know. Those who don't are
strawmen, unrepresentative of religious experience.

Fortunately, there may be frameworks of thought to allow these matters to be addressed non-dogmatically. These analytical-deliberative frameworks use science and other forms of close study to logically and rationally lay bare all that is there (analytical), but then this
information is left to debate, deliberation, and assessment
(deliberative). Similar to how good analysis takes into account all the facts and available analytical techniques, bringing them into a cohesive arrangement; good deliberation takes into account all viewpoints and methods of ranking, bringing the respective viewpoints into clear presentation.

We have yet to build tools that allows us to disseminate, navigate,
and effectively deliberate the results from analytical techniques.
Any time a scientific fact is presented as fact, without the evidence being accessable, clear, and well-debated, is no victory for a science that believes it is not a religion. One way for science to revel in the absurd it to view uninformed criticism as a joy: a diagnosis of where to improve dissemination.

In any case, our deliberations of the flaws of current scientific
analysis, and its advocates, may lead us to synthesize yet better
practices of science.

shali_isdes said...

If scientists wanted to really be absurd and meaningful they could admit that theres is a kind of religion.
More to the point, with the hope that science and religion can reconcile in the amicable truce of Quantum mechanics, perhaps we can stop putting so much value on reason and thereby rectify the damage that the empirical attitude has caused.
Humanity is so much more than just brainy people and blind believers. They're all just extremists in my opinion.

or in other words, I just said what John just said

Stuart said...

John, Shali; thanks for your thoughts.

John, I agree. Rationality, in its own mythos, has no normative content. A purely scientific worldview (one that refuses to engage "what ought or ought not to be", because science isn't made to supply answers to such questions) is thus incomplete. When it pretends not to be missing anything (e.g. science as lifestyle; a commitment to expanding the body of "objective" knowledge as a life goal) it's much more dangerous, because others, who may have a clearer agenda, then fill the normative vacuum. And that's how we end up with nuclear weapons.

I like the observation you made: "One way for science to revel in the absurd it to view uninformed criticism as a joy: a diagnosis of where to improve dissemination." Personally I don't know if that's my favourite kind of revelling, but certainly it's a more rational, not to mention constructive, response to criticism for scientists like Dawkins than vitriol.

But I'm not sure I share your sanguine attitude about the prospects of "better practices of science". On this point I fully agree with Shali -- a humbler science would be a great improvement.

Then again, perhaps that's what you have in mind.

John said...

Humility is a welcome start.

Dov Henis said...

Humanistic Atheism
(From postings elsewhere during 2005-6)

My own humanistic concept/self-image comprises only science-informed-based attitudes and behaviour.


Becoming a humanist is not envisioned/intended to be a religious conversion, shedding off one's phenotype traditions and features and adopting another's phenotype traditions/features. Becoming a humanist/Bright is shedding supernatural beliefs and applying science-informed rational thinking and attitudes. Humanism is broad and firm enough to accept, with scientific rational understanding, concurrent adherence of members to their innate historical phenotypic, former religious customs/traditions, stripped of their elements of faith/belief and sacredness.


"Spreading the humanist/Brights gospel" should be, I think, mostly and primarily by example and by display of principles and behaviour, both within the family and in the community, rather than by deriding religious beliefs anywhere in any way.


In Nov 2005 I came across a link of a "Centre for Science and Religion", comprising:

"The University of Leeds has now established a new Centre for Science and Religion. The connection between science and religion amounts to far more than conflict. Religions are a source of values, and the sciences give power to implement them, so their study is important for all of society."

Thus I finally learned and understood the division of labor between science and religion. It has become clear for me...Dumbfounded DH.


Morality-ethics are human artifacts, extensions and elaborations of the most basic characteristic of life, cooperation.

All aspects of organisms' inter-cooperation within its community are at the base of life's evolution and are an expression of evolution's progress towards survival, at ever higher complexity. This scheme started with the occurrence of life, with individual genes evolving and elaborating cooperative genomes commune associations.

Life is a fractal affair, a repetition of phenomena on ever more complex scale. It cannot be otherwise; this is the nature of the universe. And surviving-proliferating life has always been a cooperative affair since cooperation is a most successful mode for overall survival/proliferation.

Thus all organisms have an innate natural drive and instinctive mode of cooperative action in within-group activities and relationships. This holds for the most complex poly-celled creatures and all the way down to the mono-cell organisms, and it comprises a variety of modes of cooperation including self-sacrifice for the good of the community.


Humans display a different approach to the scientific study of the nature of life than to the study of anything else. This is most probably due to an aversion to accept the dismaying realization that we are, after all, just one of the many life forms on Earth (or in our galaxy or in the universe?).

A most essential, and uniquely human, ingrained/inherent need, is an inflated degree of self-esteem. The survival and bearable existence of human individuals and communities of any size is anchored in and established on a foundation of Self-Esteem Culture which is neatly a complete creation of humans.

The Inflated Self Esteem phenomenon, Religion, has been traced back circa 100,000 years ago, expressed in the form of human graves.

Unbelievably even and still now, in spite of the scientific comprehension amassed todate, there are so many humans clinging to the basic human instinct that attributes to humans, religiously, higher "universal value" than to other lives, to other forms of temporary energy bubbles/packages wherever they are...


Humanity is urgently becoming faced with the vital need to re-formulate the basis of its culture and the communities-format of its organization on Earth, to anchor and build our life edifice on a science-informed rationale of convincing moral/ethical/social values.


Dov Henis

Stuart Candy said...

Dov, some very deep waters we're getting into here. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Your point about Inflated Self Esteem (E.) reminds me of a disquieting thought that has occurred to me from time to time; that in the space of possible universes, ego-consciousness may tend to be an evolutionary dead end (because of the selfish and destructive behaviour it engenders).

You address in broad terms the challenge of finding our way out, however (in point F.), and I agree there's a "vital need to re-formulate the basis" of culture and community organisation. Renovating our beliefs is surely part of that. But the pragmatist in me is not entirely convinced that scientific epistemology can do the job alone. Values don't emanate from the lab.

Maybe, though, if we need to design new, more robust myths, science can provide a way to forget that we designed them.

Anonymous said...


My base moral values are of 1st century AD Shamai (Talmud,tractate Holidays, Shabbath, in Arameic):

"A man came to Shamai (renowned teacher) and requested to learn from him all the Torah (Jewish instruction) while standing on one foot. Said Shamai :Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you".

For me this is a universal "religion". It does not require faith or fear or belief. It is both a rational/logical way for individuals, families and communities to co-live, and a lofty banner to raise for justice and fairness. It warrants upholding with all the determination and application-wisdom that we can master.

Dov Henis said...

Just to clarify,

The above "Anonymous" is Dov Henis...