Did Dawkins Really Need to Say That?

One area where naturalists seem to have a great difficulty in being consistent is in the area of determinism. Recently, I saw a portion of a debate where the naturalistic/atheistic/scientist-type made the claim that evolution leads to the conclusion that there is no such thing as free will. This, of course, leads to the question, "Do you really think that, or did you have to say that?" In fact, I think that a great tact to take when someone says "there's no free will" is to say, "Why are you telling me? After all, I am determined by my upbringing and genes to disagree."

Apparently, the bombastic Richard Dawkins recognizes that this is a problem, but his solution is . . . well, weak. In an entry by Evolution News and Views entitled Who wrote Richard Dawkins's new book?, American Enterprise Institute's Joe Manzari asked Dawkins how he could reconcile what appears to be a fairly strong case of determinism in his naturalistic philosophy with his claim that he wrote the book, The God Delusion. "[I]t would seem," Gage stated, "that the consistent position would be that necessarily the authoring of this book, from the initial conditions of the big bang, it was set that this would be the product of what we see today."

How did Dawkins answer? In my opinion, his answer was quite confused. Dawkins responded:

The philosophical question of determinism is a very difficult question. It's not one I discuss in this book, indeed in any other book that I've ever talked about. Now an extreme determinist, as the questioner says, might say that everything we do, everything we think, everything that we write has been determined from the beginning of time in which case the very idea of taking credit for anything doesn't seem to make any sense. Now I don't actually know what I actually think about that, I haven't taken up a position about that, it's not part of my remit to talk about the philosophical issue of determinism. What I do know is that what it feels like to me, and I think to all of us, we don't feel determined. We feel like blaming people for what they do or giving people the credit for what they do. We feel like admiring people for what they do. None of us ever actually as a matter of fact says, "Oh well he couldn't help doing it, he was determined by his molecules." Maybe we should… I sometimes… Um… You probably remember many of you would have seen Fawlty Towers. The episode where Basil where his car won't start and he gives it fair warning, counts up to three, and then gets out of the car and picks up a tree branch and thrashes it within an edge of his life. Maybe that's what we all ought to... Maybe the way we laugh at Basil Fawlty, we ought to laugh in the same way at people who blame humans. I mean when we punish people for doing the most horrible murders, maybe the attitude we should take is "Oh they were just determined by their molecules." It's stupid to punish them. What we should do is say "This unit has a faulty motherboard which needs to be replaced." I can't bring myself to do that. I actually do respond in an emotional way and I blame people, I give people credit, or I might be more charitable and say this individual who has committed murders or child abuse of whatever it is was really abused in his own childhood.

Okay . . . . So, what is he saying? Manzari sought a more concrete answer from Dawkins, and this was the final exchange:

But do you personally see that as an inconsistency in your views?

Dawkins: I sort of do. Yes. But it is an inconsistency that we sort of have to live with otherwise life would be intolerable. But it has nothing to do with my views on religion it is an entirely separate issue.

Ah, so Dawkins makes a leap of faith? He recognizes that his position is inconsistent, but he simply pretends to have free will to make life tolerable? Personally, I don't find that position particularly compelling, but then under Dawkins' view its probable that that was the only answer he could give.

(ht: The Atheist Delusion)


midacamp said…
Wow, interesting.

So a good argument for acting as if there is a God would go as follows for Mr. Dawkins:

"What I do know is that what it feels like to me, and I think to all of us, we don't feel [like there is no God]. We feel like [having a basis for morality]. We feel like [having a foundation for rationality].


I can't bring myself to [say there is no God]."

So even if I am completely convinced there is no God, if I want to believe in God for any practical reason (I find prayer calming, I want to be a dualist, I like the social bonds found in a church, etc.), I can. Am I missing something here?
Jason Pratt said…
Oh, it gets better. Didn't Mr. D spend a significant amount of time in TGD _blaming_ religion/the church/theists in an ethical fashion, with the apparent intention of having his readers draw an ethical conclusion against religion and in favor of whatever Mr. D was proposing instead?

If so--then I guess it could be literally said that Mr. D's determinism (soft, hard, whatever) really is "an entirely separate issue on my views on religion"!

Except, his notion of religious belief and development seems suspiciously deterministic, too, doesn't it? (It's hardwired into us as a random copy-error that happens to confer a survival-to-breed advantage and so gets passed along, without any real reference to objective realities the feeling seems to be about. Thus religion is a memetic virus, etc.; having served whatever purpose it may have once had it ought to be wiped out.)

So, he's a determinist when that looks convenient; and not a determinist when _that_ looks _more_ convenient: and in each case, it has everything to do with his views on religion.

Thus ends another episode of Mr. D Science Theater 3000...

BK said…
midicamp and Jason,

Great points.
Alethes Ginosko said…
i was linked to this from a comment in another blog, and I just wanted to give kudos to Jason for the MST3k reference.

Entropy said…
No its not inconsistent. Gibbs law of free energy dictates that the realm of the universe in which we perceive is pre determined with time. Dawkins is saying that despite this knowledge, The human mind gives itself a sense of will to allow for a more productive society. A group of cavemen which kill off the child murderer are obviously going to benefit more then the group which doesn't. I'd say this is an evolutionary trait left from when we were still primitive. I think Dawkins thought process is a modern way of looking at it from our perspective now with what we know about chemistry and physics. I think in 50 years our children will be saying to us.. I can't believe u thought differently
Anonymous said…
Y'know, there's another way of looking at his comment. I mean, I kind of loathe the man, don't get me wrong, but let's be fair to him.

You're sort of saying, "Oh you have addressed these deep questions over here, and here is another one you haven't addressed. It is an incredibly complex and difficult one that nobody has really answered satisfactorily. Please answer it right now or else you're obviously a fraud."

The answer, "Well uh I haven't given that a lot of thought," is the only sensible one to give.

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