Thursday, September 15, 2011

Dawkins fails the truth test again

Richard Dawkins was trending on Twitter yesterday, on the strength of an interview with Paxman on Newsnight last night (link here, jump in at about 36 minutes). As we might expect, Dawko was on the box to promote his latest book, which apparently is aimed at children and shows them how to free their minds from superstition and religion, and become rational-minded thinkers like Dawkins.

The present Dawkins is a more congenial figure than the blood-spitting one of the past.  Formerly atheism's Grand Inquisitor, sworn to seek and destroy all those who opposed the true word of Dawk, he has re-cast himself as an evangelist, eyes burning with certainty, seeking to persuade the unbelieving masses by the power of his words.  He is the true antithesis of the religious believers he so despises. Watching him last night prompted a couple of observations. One is that the church needs more people who can communicate on TV with the same degree of clarity and certainty that Dawkins does. It is a rare gift, but one which would be very helpful if possessed by the next Archbishop of Canterbury (for example).

But the most interesting point is that Dawkins has grasped that belief is intimately connected with the presuppositions which shape our broader thinking.  He believes that the reason that religious belief persists, when to his mind it should long ago have withered away, is because children are indoctrinated to it at an early age. So, he reasons, if he can provide an alternative indoctrination, he should be able to inoculate the young mind against religion.

This is a shrewd observation. The mental landscape we construct in our early life is hard to re-arrange: "give me a child at twelve and I will give you the man for life" is a truth long recognised by the Christian church, and Dawkins is merely getting in on the act.  But if I was to advise him, I would say there are some glaring flaws in his cunning plan.  Setting aside the question of whether he really believes that his one book can counter the effect of the huge mass of religious literature and teaching (I suspect that he probably does), the problem lies in his utterly feeble concept of "truth".

If you watch his interview, you will see that he majors on the concept of truth vs. falsehood.  Because the creation stories he mentions (including Genesis) are not compatible with the scientific understanding of our origins, he brands them "false", implying that what he is saying is "true".  But that only works if you confine the meaning of "true" to things which can be scientifically proven. To Dawkins, this is self-evident. But it's actually not a great definition of truth.  For a start, there is the question of what constitutes scientific proof.  Understood in its purest sense, this means something which can be demonstrated by replicating it so that an observer can see it happening.  But Dawkins, as an evolutionist, has spent his entire career working on a different assumption, namely that some things cannot be replicated in the lab, but can still be proven by examining the evidence.

This is acceptable, and I am no 6-day creationist, trotting out the lame line that evolution is "only a theory", as if it was some crackpot idea dreamed up by Darwin during a late-night session on an online discussion forum. It is a very good theory, one which reveals certain facts, and indeed some truth.  But once we admit that evidence points us to the truth, we also have to admit there are different kinds of evidence.  The evidence of a witness in a law court, which has to be evaluated.  The evidence of the Bible and the Holy Spirit, for example, pointing us to the truth about God.  Dawkins has to construct a very strained idea of truth, evidence, and fact in order to maintain the illusion that we have to choose between science and religion.

Unless, of course, you prefer to buy into the idea that science is an alternative belief system and that the Bible can only be taken seriously if we first rip up all human thinking since about 1500.  There are plenty of Christians that think like this, and this is why Dawkins is able to keep going.  He is a product of creationism, its necessary antagonist, and as long as religious fundamentalism is around, Dawkins and his like will be with us too.


Crimperman said...

"[Dawkins] is a product of creationism, its necessary antagonist, and as long as religious fundamentalism is around, Dawkins and his like will be with us too. "

Nice post but I'm not sure the last part of this statement is true. It may be true that his argument will lose a legitimate target but I'm not sure that will stop him (or others like him) making it. Dawkins has become almost as much a parody of himself as Ali G did.

Red said...

I have yet to watch the interview, but I generally don't like Dawkins because he comes across as being just as intolerant as those he suggests are religious nuts and therefore intolerant of science. He is doing the same, just in reverse!
I disagree about the kids thing though - In my opinion as many kids as get interested in faith at a young age, are put off by it too.
Agree with Crimperman though, Dawkings is becoming a parody, although I suspect that has something to do with his media success.

Charlie said...

Yes, good point. Probably church itself has a done better job of inoculating children against Christianity than Dawkins could ever hope to do.

Ray Barnes said...

Just a different slant on the "give me a child and I'll show you the man" theme.
I, and many like me, brought up not only, without religion but with an opposing set of values (in my case communist/atheist father and socialist/agnostic mother) turned late in life to a Christian faith and now view the world from a different hill-top entirely.
As a child, teenager and young woman, my views were those of my parents. There is no certain formula for either point of view.

David said...

Another reason why Dawkins is barking up the wrong tree with the 'indoctrination' angle: he doesn't get postmodernism.

Dawkins writes and argues as the product of post-Enlightenment modernism, wherein logic and reasoned argument are all - a very left-brained world. This epoch reached its height about a hundred years ago, when public debating was all the rage and huge numbers turned out to see debates between GK Chesterton, George Bernard Shaw and their ilk. In this worldview, what is academically taught is EVERYTHING - we flourish by receiving what wiser heads have divined. That is where solutions based on 'education, education, education' come from, and it doesn't work any more. Dawkins, in intellectual terms, is the product of a previous age, and needs to learn to communicate cross-culturally to postmodern people.

Postmodern people - pretty much everyone born in a post 60s existentialist paradigm - don't value cold, hard fact; they don't respect academic authority; and they have little interest in reasoned argument. They distrust what they are taught (and those teaching it) as a matter of course, leading to a complete shift in how information is successfully spread and learned.

Truth, to postmoderns, is FELT far more than it is proved - it is related to, not merely received and memorised. The objective facts of modernism do not work very well in a postmodern world, because they do not effect the heart. However well-argued Dawkins may be (and I frankly don't think he's that good), he is aiming entirely for the brain, and the left side thereof. He's barking up the wrong tree.

Further Reading:
Charles Dickens - Hard Times
Ken Robinson -

Charlie said...

Haha David, you win the prize for the first-ever comment with a reading list! :D

Sure you are right, although I don't think that invalidates the idea about the early formation of beliefs. In fact, in early life, we probably learn in a naturally postmodern way, which explains why Dawkins is so uptight about it.

Jon said...

Charlie, I'm not so sure I agree with your analysis of the workings of the scientific world. Rather than "working on a different assumption, namely that some things cannot be replicated in the lab, but can still be proven by examining the evidence", I think that science proposes a model, and tests (and refines) that model by making as many observations as possible. Over time the refinements made to the model (which of course all have to be consistent with all previous observations) result in the closest approximation (that science at least can come) to the truth.

The absence, therefore of "testability" (is that a word?) in a laboratory seems to be something of a red herring. What is important is the iterative observation/refinement process, and accompanying logical deductive process. Critical to all this, is that good scientists will acknowledge that nothing is ever proven in science - rather that theories are merely the current truth until they are disproven and need to be refined (or thrown out altogether, as seems might be necessary with the Higgs Boson).

Now as you know, I'm not a religious kind of a bloke, but I am interested in understanding the thought process that leads to a belief in God, and your interpretation of what is "true". What puzzles me is whether any religion (not just christianity) can point to a rigorous observational and iterative process of disproval and refinement. I'm sure that many people feel that every observation they make reinforces their faith model, or allows them to understand it better (and refine it), but many, many other people find that their observations about life mean that the God model is something of a Higgs Boson. Until that issue can be sorted out, I'm afraid that those people are going to be prone to believe only in the scientific process of getting to the truth.

I worry too about your discussion of evidence. You rightly say that evidence in court needs to be evaluated, but what about evaluation of the evidence of the Bible and the Holy Spirit? Is that free from evaluation? Should that evaluation be different to that of a court process, and if so, why? It isn't enough to say that the evidence comes from God and therefore shouldn't be subject to the same type of evaluation - that would be circular, since for me, the evidence comes from people writing books (the Bible) or telling me about their own private and personal experiences. In the court arena, that's essentially hearsay, and inadmissible. Why then, should I accept such evidence as more legitimate in any other circumstance?

I also read your recent post on "how rude do you like them". I hope you don't think this rude, or that I'm being insulting - I'm just interested in your views.

Charlie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jon said...

Charlie - thanks for your follow up; I found it very interesting.

I whole heartedly agree that what is true cannot be limited to that which is proven by science (even within the acknowledged boundaries of the scientific process). If that was the case then there would never be new science about things we are currently unaware of (and the existence of God might, to some fall into that category).

And so maybe in fact my comment was more on the subject of belief than truth. I might acknowledge that what you believe in may well be true, because I'm unaware of a rigorous scientific attempt to disprove it. That would be hard to do because there are so many variations on what people believe, and so what "truth" should the scientists set out to try and prove or disprove? However, even if I acknowledge, from the point of view of ignorance the possible truth, that doesn't help me believe. Belief comes down, for me at least, to what underlies the variations in what people believe.

So, I base my beliefs in what is true from a scientific perspective (and occasionally, when my profession forces me to do so (!) on the principles of justice). Others are more inclined to have other drivers for belief, and I guess this is why religious people talk so often about that huge mystery for non-religious people: Faith.

The argument (if there is one) cannot therefore be based upon what is true and what is not true. Nobody knows, where the boundaries of truth lie. Rather we have to accept that people believe different things because the driving forces that make them believe or not believe are different. This, I think, is where the likes of RD go wrong. I think the underlying driving forces are quite possibly hard wired, and so maybe those 12 year olds who are influenced would have ended up religious (or non-religious) eventually even without any early intervention.

Recognition of the fact that some do believe and some don't, as you mention in your final paragraph, is, of course the key to a civilised and tolerant society. I wish RD (and humanists more generally) could accept that because some of what he says is interesting, and when he sticks to science he is fascinating.

I'll not clog up your blog any more on this subject, but thanks for the discussion Charlie - it was interesting for me at least, and I'll keep coming back to see what else I can comment on.

Charlie said...

Oh, aaargh! Thanks to my complete incompetence I have deleted my very long comment that was a reply to Jon's first one. You'll just have to deduce what I said by reading his reply...

Gurdur said...

Thanks for this post, Charlie. As I said in my own blog post citing this, it's more a case of Dawkins being half-wrong, half-right, than him failing the truth test. There is, however, one aspect possibly meant but not actually drawn out, and that is, Dawkins actually doesn't talk to many clergy at all, so he carries on on a picture of what he thinks is happening, rather than what really is happening.

And there, Charlie, I think you have a very valid objection to him. Yet as you yourself hint at, in a world of Alpha Course, Creationism, Charismatics, REFORM, etc. (and I won't go into the snake-handling churches in Arkansas and elsewhere), Dawkins won't lack targets.

Here a very real problem for Christians is: how do you separate yourselves in the public eye from the kooks, whilst still upholding Christian fellowship?

I found David's remarks re pomo and Dawkins quite interesting; I agree 75% with them. Dawkins really doesn't grasp moral skepticism and subjectivism, and he tends to see morality from a very blinkered, rather priviliged First-World, upper-middle-class position.

Brad said...

Really nice thoughts here.

"Because the creation stories [Dawkins] mentions (including Genesis) are not compatible with the scientific understanding of our origin..."

Except that "Let there be light." is a far more reasonable, dare I say, rational explanation for the origin of the universe than "everything just popped into being...somehow, some way."