For a philosopher that likes to point out the nuances of the philosophy he thinks Dawkins misses out on, Gray is awfully sloppy with his own thinking – sloppy or malicious, possibly both.
“The Closed Mind of Richard Dawkins – His atheism is its own kind of narrow religion”
In what way is Dawkins close minded? Closed to ideas that lack evidence to support them, for as long as they lack evidence, but open minded enough to consider evidence when presented? Is that so bad? In what way is the atheism of Dawkins different from the atheism of Gray? Does Gray hold to some greater open mindedness to the possibility of some intelligent entity creator than does Dawkins when he expresses his views?
When Gray quotes Dawkins from The Selfish Gene wondering if visiting aliens might wonder if humans are intelligent enough to notice Evolution at work, Gray seems to get the idea that Dawkins is some kind of supremacist.
“There is his equation of superiority with cleverness: the visiting aliens are more advanced creatures than humans because they are smarter and know more than humans do.”
One has to wonder by what means Gray thinks some alternative, ‘less’ intelligent, aliens might have got here to do the observing. I would expect, as a first approximation, that any aliens clever enouch to reach us across the vastness of open space have figured out some pretty damned clever technology for doing so.
So, yes, there is a sense in which cleverness is superior – superior to dumbness. Perhaps Gray thinks we should promote philosophy professors based on lack of cleverness, stupidity. Perhaps they did at the London School of Economics and Political Science when Gray was there. Thay might explain some things.
“The theory of evolution by natural selection is treated not as a fallible theory—the best account we have so far of how life emerged and developed — but as an unalterable truth, which has been revealed to a single individual of transcendent genius. There cannot be much doubt that Dawkins sees himself as a Darwin-like figure, propagating the revelation that came to the Victorian naturalist.”
This really is grossly sloppy research by some dumb ass philosopher. Of course evolutionary theory is fallible in many respects, as are all theories in science. And yes it’s the best we have yet. But if Gray would like to offer some hint at were it is so wrong that there is much chance of its basic principles being overthrown by some future theory he’s welcome to illustrate them.
And yes, there can be much doubt that “Dawkins sees himself as a Darwin-like figure, propagating the revelation that came to the Victorian naturalist” in any crude and derogatory sense that this statement from Gray implies. Is Dawkins an evangelist for evolution over crack-pot creationism? Sure he is. No doubt Gray has lauded the benefits of philosophy in his time. Pity he doesn’t practice in this piece some of the critical thinking philosophy is supposed to encourage.
“Among these traits, it is Dawkins’s identification with Darwin that is most incongruous. No two minds could be less alike than those of the great nineteenth-century scientist and the latter-day evangelist for atheism. Hesitant, doubtful, and often painfully perplexed, …”
Incongruous, because Darwin and Dawkins have some personality differences? Incongruous because Dawkins has the wealth of genetics to back up his perspective on the reliability of evolution that Darwin didn’t? Well, what would you expect? Of course they were different in many ways, and it’s plain stupid to try to turn the emulative admiration Dawkins has for Darwin into supposing Dawkins imagines himself to actually be the Darwin of his day. Of course Darwin was more hesitant and perplexed by the ideas he was formulating while now Dawkins is more confident that Darwin was on the right track.
“… Darwin understood science as an empirical investigation in which truth is never self-evident and theories are always provisional.”
And Gray’s dishonest scuralous implication is that Dawkins doesn’t understand that – when Dawkins expresses that opinion regularly. You only have to listen to Dawkins rather than just cherry picking what you like, or what you heard someone else report, in order to see the misrepresentation going on here.
“If science, for Darwin, was a method of inquiry that enabled him to edge tentatively and humbly toward the truth, for Dawkins, science is an unquestioned view of the world.”
Is it any wonder so many of us dispair at the state of philosophy when philosophers like Gray come out with such bullshit. The fact of the matter is that science is not the unquestioned view of the world, but the view questioned by scientists all the time. That’s what it is to do science – to question one’s views of the world. When one then comes up with some pretty good answers that doesn’t turn you suddenly into some absolutist for science dogma, though that’s how science is often presented when one wants to attack a sientist.
I think Gray is mistaking the view of science that Dawkins and others have by comparing it to their view of ‘other ways of knowing’, which turn out to be unreliable flim flam. Maybe it’s the utter inadequacy of religion and philosophy to tell us anything useful about the world, such that when Dawkins points that out Gray sees him claiming instead that science is perfect: “Oh, our philosophy and theology is hopeless is it? And I suppose you think your science is perfect!”
“The Victorians are often mocked for their supposed certainties, when in fact many of them (Darwin not least) were beset by anxieties and uncertainties. Dawkins, by contrast, seems never to doubt for a moment the capacity of the human mind — his own, at any rate—to resolve questions that previous generations have found insoluble.”
The irony leaps out from the pages of the New Republic! Just as many cautious tentative Victorian scientists were misunderstood for claiming certainty, so here we have Gray misunderstanding Dawkins. How can a professional philosopher make such glaring errors of thought? Read Dawkins, Mr Gray. Or just play a few of his short video clips on YouTube. You’ll see he prefaces and loads much of what he says with contingency. Again, you are perhaps mistaking his derision of ‘other ways of knowing’ for some claim that scence is perfrect. See the distinction?
Or, perhaps read someone with a better appreciation of Dawkins having actually met the man. This is Andrew Anthony, “There’s a smoothness to the way he carries himself – a touch of the Nigel Havers – that could no doubt be construed as an arrogance befitting his intellectual status, but in conversation he is restrained, even hesitant, and faultlessly modest throughout our interview.” – My emphasis, my way of spelling out Gray’s error.
Gray covers the period of Dawkins growing up in what was the dying stages of Britain’s colonial Africa, and his days at school. Gray picks up on how Dawkins can’t remember having any empathetic feelings for a bullied boy at school. And Gray leaps on this and extrapolates to how Dawkins bullies the religious now.
Except Gray, as with many critics of Dawkins, totally scews it up. He gets it dead wrong. Dawkins does not bully the religious by any stretch of the imagination – except if you stretch your imagination so far you event your own caricature of Dawkins that is nothing like the man.
When you see Dawkins rail against the most obnoxious of theists that are persecuting homosexuals, promoting creationism, opposing democracy, abusing children, then if this is your sole point of reference it’s easy to see how you can get it so wrong. But Gray is supposed to be a sharp thinker, a philosopher. Where’s his research?
Perhaps Gray could learn something from that one article and its comments. But there’s plenty more. You only have to actually listen to Dawkins, or not read his works looking for your own version of what you think he says. Or simply Google for the actual opinions of Dawkins. Read his website. I’m afraid Gray has perhaps done too little research into the man whose biography he is critiquing, or perhaps has a predetermined agenda and is taking this opportunity to air it. It’s not difficult to find nearly every piece by Dawkins is the antithesis of the caricature Gray is presenting.
“Exactly how Dawkins became the anti-religious missionary with whom we are familiar will probably never be known.”
More failed research.
So what did turn Dawkins into an anti-religious missionary, as opposed to an ‘old atheist’? Well, 9/11 played a big part in that, as we can see here in a copy of a piece from the Guardian. And from there we have The God delusion. But long before that he was objecting to the Creationist opposition to evolution. And, of course, he was charged with the job promoting science, when from 1995 to 2008 Richard Dawkins was the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. It doesn’t take much research to have a fair stab at “how Dawkins became the anti-religious missionary with whom we are familiar” – something Gray seems totally incapable of trying.
“From what he writes here, I doubt he knows himself.”
Then, Mr Gray, you clearly haven’t read very much of what he writes. Or you’ve been mallisciously selective.
“At no point has Dawkins thrown off his Christian inheritance. Instead, emptying the faith he was taught of its transcendental content, he became a neo-Christian evangelist. A more inquiring mind would have noticed at some point that religion comes in a great many varieties, with belief in a creator god figuring in only a few of the world’s faiths and most having no interest in proselytizing. It is only against the background of a certain kind of monotheism that Dawkins’s evangelical atheism makes any sense.”
This is just plain dumb. I mean really dumb. Being ‘evangelicaal’ is merely to express a keenness for something one believes in, to the point of thinking it worth promoting actively, stridently if you will. But hold on …
“In turning away from the milk-and-water Anglicanism in which he had been reared…”
If his ‘evangelical’ nature is grounded in his Christianity, and yet his Christianity was ‘milk-and-water Anglicanism’, Gray’s appraisal doesn’t really add up. You are contradicting yourself, Mr Gray. Unforgivable for a philosopher endowed with the critical thinking philosophy offers, surely.
The real difference between being an outspoken atheist and an evangelical Christian, is that the latter has no grounds in evidence upon which to base his case, while the former, being claims no more that a failure to be convinced of Christianity or other religions in the light of no positive evidence to support them. So, the stridency of Dawkins to me seems more like that of the mystified Brian in Python’s Life of Brian, addressing the throng of people who mistake him for a messiah:
Brian, “Please, please listen. I’ve got one or two things to say. Look. You’ve got it all wrong. You don’t need to follow me. You don’t need to follow anybody. You’ve got to think for yourselves. You’re all individuals. You’re all different. You’ve all got to work it out for yourselves. Don’t let anyone tell you what to do.”
And when Brian says, “You’re all different” and one of the crowd comically responds “I’m not”, I can’t help but think of the comic hapless Gray uttering a futile self-contradiction.
A couple of other ironies here. The crowd in this scene are the religious, looking to Brian. Of course Dawkins is not looked to as the messiah by the religious (though often mistaken for the anti-Christ) or by atheists. The stridency of Dawkins is that of Brian telling the religious to think for themselves instead of following holy preachers and silly books. The other irony is that this is also how many religious people, and some atheists, like PZ Myers and crew, see those of us who are atheists that defend Dawkins against these stupid attacks. We don’t follow Dawkins in the sense they imply; but as with any good thinker it’s worth taking note of what they say. And it’s worth pointing out when they are misrepresented – and Gray isn’t on novel ground here; he merely echoes the same tripe that we get from others.
“Even more remarkable is Dawkins’s inveterate literal-mindedness.”
Gray goes on to agree with Dawkins that some Christians, as Dawkins says, believe in original sin. But Gray here is lamenting the fact that Dawkins observes this in Christianity as if gray thinks Dawkins believes it himself.
Gray tries to put Dawkins right – but about something for which Dawkins was never wrong, because Dawkins never professed it:
“Even so, it [original sin] is an idea that contains a vital truth: evil is not error, a mistake of the mind, a failure of understanding that can be corrected by smarter thinking. It is something deeper and more constitutive of human life itself. The capacity and propensity for destruction goes with being human. One does not have to be religious to acknowledge this dark fact.”
Dawkins is an evolutionary biologists. Does Gray really think this is the inate nastiness of life that Dawkins is railing against? What a straw man to pull out of one’s ass. Dawkins is arguing against the original sin of Christianity, not the varied and sometimes unpleasant behavioural tendencies of humans.
“As an atheist myself, it is a view I find no difficulty in sharing.”
And neither would Dawkins. But that perspective on innate biologically determined human tendencies isn’t original sin, is it. The Gray analogy is that both Christians and atheists agree humans sometimes do bad things to each other; but it’s their explanations that are so different that makes the criticism of Original Sin justified, while still allowing us atheists to think there are other reasons for our occasional nastiness. Nothing that Gray has said on this amounts to any valid criticism of Dawkins at all, though Gray is passing it of as if it is.
“Quite apart from the substance of the idea, there is no reason to suppose that the Genesis myth to which Dawkins refers was meant literally.”
Yet more utter bollocks. In the week in which the current and maybe most liberal of recent Popes professes belief in actual angels it is totally ridiculous of sophisticated theologians and accommodationist atheists like Gray to play this game of pretending that hardly any of the religious believe the literal interpretation of biblical bollocks. Many do. And many will skirt around the subject to duplicitous degrees to avoid owning it.
“Coarse and tendentious atheists of the Dawkins variety prefer to overlook the vast traditions of figurative and allegorical interpretations with which believers have read Scripture.”
This is yet more nonsense. Of course Dawkins criticises the literalist. And the allegorists too. And all shades in between. Maybe the reason you see Dawkins objecting to Biblical Literalism so often is that he’s arguing with Biblical Literalists of varying degrees. Even in debate with the previous Arch Bishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, he tried to pin him down on issues like the resurrection, it is typical of Williams to skirt around it, but you can bet plenty of Christians believe it is literally true. Instead of addressing that duplicity Gray picks on what is most likely the least popular literal interpretation of the bible, the six days of genesis. But still, the Pope believes in Adam and Eve. Of course Dawkins is leteralist when addressing literalists.
Gray points us to Augustine and Philo of Alexandria as non-literalists. But their theological interpretations of their beliefs are not universal. So, did Augustine think the resurrection didn’t really happen? Does Augustine believe there is no actual literal God? This sophisticated theology that tries to explain away religious nonsense doesn’t mean that there are no literalists in other respects that Dawkins cannot address.
Has Gray never heard of the No True Scotsman fallacy? Surely he has. So why is he playing that hand here?
“In treating religion as a set of factual propositions, Dawkins is mimicking Christianity at its most fundamentalist.”
Hold on. If Christians are not the literalists that Gray says Dawkins is mistaking them for, then how can he be mimicking a ‘factual’ literalist Christianity? Gray doesn’t make sense. He’s losing sight of his own arguments in his commitment to having a go at Dawkins.
Gray moves on to Dawkins and memes.
“There are many difficulties in talk of memes, including how they are to be identified. Is Romanticism a meme? Is the idea of evolution itself a meme, jumping unbidden from brain to brain? My suspicion is that the entire “theory” amounts to not much more than a misplaced metaphor.”
And that use of meme as metaphor is pretty much where Dawkins leaves it too. But it’s a word where the spread of morphology through genes is an analogue for the spread of behaviours through ideas as memes. It’s a fair metaphor. It doesn’t have to be an established scientific theory to be useful. Come on, Mr Gray, you’re a philosopher, a member of a discipline renowned for making up bollocks and presenting it as theory.
“The larger problem is that a meme-based Darwinian account of religion is at odds with Dawkins’s assault on religion as a type of intellectual error. If Darwinian evolution applies to religion, then religion must have some evolutionary value.”
No it isn’t at odds. It’s just multiple perspectives. And it need not have evolutionary value if it’s a spandrel. The propensity to see agency were there is none may indeed have had some benefit – better safe than sorry. But it’s quite feasible that an evolved behaviour can morph under social thinking into some unhelpful monstrosity. I guess Gray doesn’t have any evolutionary explanation for tight jeans, pipe smoking, Boy Scouts or any other human concoction. But there they are.
“But in that case there is a tension between naturalism (the study of humans and other animals as organisms in the natural world) and the rationalist belief that the human mind can rid itself of error and illusion through a process of critical reasoning.”
Not so. The human mind as a behavioural process of a physical brain is still subject to cause and effect of the natural world. My brain is caused to find religious belief an error of thinking, by my brain’s caused modelling of the thinking process under empiricism. That effect in turn causes my brain to engage in critical thinking in order to try to persuade believers they are wrong. If my verbal behaviour, as received by a believing brain causes that believing brain to adopt a different perspective then that believing brain may become a non-believing brain. All that is a natural process of mechanistic human brains. And that my brain uses the meme metaphor for religion and sees it as an error does not make any of that inconsistent. Many philosophers simply can’t dig deep enough into determinism and physicalism to follow where they lead.
“To be sure, Dawkins and those who think like him will object that evolutionary theory tells us how we got where we are, but does not preclude our taking charge of ourselves from here on.”
Correct. We are caused to think we are in charge of ourselves. Free will is an illusion.
“If we “are” survival machines, it is unclear how “we” can decide anything. “
Because we have brains that are somewhat isolated from our environment but ultimately caused by it to be what we are. The term ‘decide’ relates to the logical process of decision. A computer makes decisions. It is programmed to do so. But with non-deterministic (to us and it) inputs it’s decisions can lead to unexpected novel outcomes. So decision making is really another perspective on causal systems. The decision making of a computer does consists at its most basic as an interaction of electrons and ions in electronic devices. That of a brain consists of the interaction of neurons.
“The idea of free will, after all, comes from religion and not from science.”
Mostly, that’s true. The dualist free will of the soul or mind is illusory, under naturalism. There’s no evidence of any spooky stuff that can bypass the causal nature of the matter of the brain.
“Science may give us the unvarnished truth — or some of it — about our species. Part of that truth may prove to be that humans are not and can never be rational animals.”
I disagree. Rationality is a label we give to the mechanistic processing of data that goes on in a human mind – the decision making. It is basically causal elements interacting.
“Religion may be an illusion, but that does not mean science can dispel it.”
Sloppy writing from a philosopher again. Religion is not an illusion. Religion is an actual human social behavioural phenomenon that includes an aspect of those brains believing things to be true for which there is no evidence. Science does dispel it, sufficiently, because of the lack of evidence for it. Typical: a philosopher allows his mind to coalesce science’s lack of supporting evidence for religious claims into his understanding of logical disproof of religious belief.
“On the contrary, science may well show that religion cannot be eradicated from the human mind. Unsurprisingly, this is a possibility that Dawkins never explores.”
First sentence is right, in that science might show that religion cannot be eradicated, by natural evolutionary means. Then again it might not show that at all. It might show, had we access to similar minds to ours but evolved independently, that indeed it is possible to not have religious belief. And it might be possible to show (I would expect it is possible) that religous belief could be eradicated from brains by artificial means.
The second sentence is Gray talking out of his ass again. Of course Dawkins has considered this.
“For all his fervent enthusiasm for science, Dawkins shows very little interest in asking what scientific knowledge is or how it comes to be possible.”
Dawkins does address this sometimes, but as far as I can tell gives little significance to it. He’s not specifically a philosopher of science, so perhaps it doesn’t get his dander up the way many problems of religion do – i.e. evolution denialism.
“There are many philosophies of science. Among them is empiricism, which maintains that scientific knowledge extends only so far as observation and experiment can reach; realism, which holds that science can give an account of parts of the world that can never be observed; irrealism, according to which there is no one truth of things to which scientific theories approximate; and pragmatism, which views science theories as useful tools for organizing and controlling experience. If he is aware of these divergent philosophies, Dawkins never discusses them. His attitude to science is that of a practitioner who does not need to bother with philosophical questions.”
The problem is that some of these philosophical details are no more than hair splitting in the absence of any evidence to favour any of them specifically. Rather, each and all of them can lead to material naturalism and physicalism. There’s simply no reason to keep re-hashing this stuff, though I appreciate that philosophers earn their money by doing just that.
“It is worth noting, therefore, that it is not as a practicing scientist that Dawkins has produced his assaults against religion. As he makes clear in this memoir, he gave up active research in the 1970s when he left his crickets behind and began to write The Selfish Gene. Ever since, he has written as an ideologue of scientism, the positivistic creed according to which science is the only source of knowledge and the key to human liberation.”
I’m losing count of the misrepresentation in this awful piece by Gray. Let’s get it straight.
Science is the broader label for a group of human activities that adopt the very same faculties that all humans have: reason and evidence, observing and interacting with the world and reasoning about it. This is empiricism. A simpler definition of empiricism allows only the sensory experience, but that alone is not what differentiates human brains from other brains. It’s our wider empiricism: observing and interacting with the world and reasoning about it.
On empiricism as an inclusive term for reason and experience: brain neurons and sensory and motor neurons have much in common. The empirical nature of the peripheral neurons isn’t that different from brain neurons. Brain neurons engage in empirical interaction with other brain neurons. There is no magical ‘thinking stuff’ beyond this that we are aware of. Physicalism rules, by default, for lack of evidence for anything else. Get over it.
This is what all humans do. Science is no more than making the effort to do that better, more reliably. The thing is, empiricism is all we have. It IS the only way of knowing, that we know of. There are no other ways of knowing. Science uses the usual human processes and adds method and rigour. That’s the distinction. So, within our one way of knowing, science is the best of it, when it comes to finding out how the world works. The imagination of fantasy may be very enjoyable – and may even be used in science to inspire ideas: many science fiction ideas become scientific goals. But when fantasy is used to proclaim a reality, without any supporting evidence, as in religion, and often in philosophy, then yes, science is much better.
I appreciate Gray has latched onto this Scientism trope. But it really is a poor show for a philosopher not to do the work to find out how humans acquire knowledge.
“If religion comes in many varieties, so too does atheism. Dawkins takes for granted that being an atheist goes with having liberal values (with the possible exception of tolerance).”
Wrong again. Dawkins criticises various ideologies that include a rejection of gods, such as the communist based ideologies of Stalin, Mao and others. Where does Gray get the idea that Dawkins thinks all atheists have liberal values? Is is when Dawkins mentions the liberal values of atheists in the liberal atheist sub-group? Such a misrepresentation would be like accusing the Pope of thinking all Christians are Roman Catholics when he addresses Roman Catholic Christians as Christians. This is just plain stupid from Gray.
“But there is no necessary connection between atheism and hostility to religion, as some of the great Victorian unbelievers understood.”
Yes, we know that already. Dawkins also criticises accommodationist atheists that make excuses for religions.
“One might wager a decent sum of money that it has never occurred to Dawkins that to many people he appears as a comic figure.”
Try asking Dawkins, Mr Gray.
“”I am not a good observer,” he [Dawkins] writes modestly. He is referring to his observations of animals and plants, but his weakness applies more obviously in the case of humans. Transfixed in wonderment at the workings of his own mind, Dawkins misses much that is of importance in human beings—himself and others.”
I disagree. He may sometimes miss the stupidity with which his plain speaking can be misunderstood and misrepresented. It may well baffle him how a philosopher such as Gray can miss so much too. But then he might figure, well, he is a philosopher.
“To the best of my recollection, I have met Dawkins only once and by chance, when we coincided at some meeting in London. It must have been in late 2001, since conversation at dinner centered around the terrorist attacks of September 11. Most of those at the table were concerned with how the West would respond: would it retaliate, and if so how? Dawkins seemed uninterested. What exercised him was that Tony Blair had invited leaders of the main religions in Britain to Downing Street to discuss the situation—but somehow omitted to ask a leader of atheism (presumably Dawkins himself) to join the gathering. There seemed no question in Dawkins’s mind that atheism as he understood it fell into the same category as the world’s faiths.”
Has it occurred to you, Mr Gray, that his dismay was really about the way in which one religiously motivated atrocity was going to be compounded by the religiosity of the Bush-Blair righteousness? What do the religious have to say on the matter than, say, someone from the British Humanists Association might not – other than colouring the whole campaign with religious platitudes of well meaning.
“In contrast, Dawkins shows not a trace of skepticism anywhere in his writings. In comparison with Pascal, a man of restless intellectual energy, Dawkins is a monument to unthinking certitude.”
Then, Mr Gray, you really are ignorant of pretty much all of the work and public appearances of Dawkins. And that is an awful position for a philosopher, commenting on an autobiography, of someone you know so little about, and have met only once and not at all intimately enough to extract any useful information from the meeting.
It’s ironic you wonder if Dawkins is aware of how comic he appears to be, when here you are, Mr Gray, making a total buffoon of yourself demonstrating utter ignorance, of Dawkins, of science, and even of aspects of the philosophy material naturalism and empiricism as it plays out in science.
It’s a bit rich when a philosopher starts complaining about how some scientist doesn’t get some philosophical angles when the philosopher has a completely skewed view of what the scientist actually thinks and expresses, about science or philosophy.