Richard Dawkins at His Finest

by Luke Muehlhauser on April 25, 2010 in Video

Dawkins is referring to Kurt Wise’s short chapter in In Six Days: Why 50 Scientists Choose to Believe in Creation.

Previous post:

Next post:

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Josh April 25, 2010 at 8:13 pm

This is one of the saddest stories I’ve ever heard. Luckily, I honestly think that this mindset isn’t that common.

  (Quote)

justfinethanks April 25, 2010 at 8:14 pm

Dawkins: I am powerless against that.

Arguing with creationists, particularly the young earth variety, it is actually sometimes comforting to remind myself that they don’t really care on what side of the ledger the evidence actually lies. Because they believe if they were to accept basic scientific knowledge it would lead to a horrifying existential despair much, much worse than death.

So when they start pulling out things like the “appearance of age” or “prove God didn’t arrange the ERVs in that manner,” instead of getting monumentally frustrated (which is what I used to do), I remind myself that I am actually fighting against this person’s basic survival instinct. Getting them to accept mainstream science and getting them to apply basic reasoning to the examination of the natural world would be emotionally devastating, and so they are going to fight it with every ounce of energy they can.

It’s perhaps a little disheartening to realize that publicly verifiable evidence is indeed completely powerless against upbringing and cognitive biases in overdrive, but there there is also a peace to be had with this knowledge. They are simply damaged intellects. And so the best we can hope for is make creationism so embarrassing that they next generation recognizes how silly it is.

And this strategy is working already. It wasn’t that long ago that YECism was at the forefront of creationist efforts. But when Paul Nelson was invited to make a contribution to a book on creationist views, his fellow Discovery Institute members Dembski and Meyer discouraged him from doing so, fearing that his expressing his YEC views would discredit Intelligent Design (even more!)

While I’m pessimistic that modern creationists will ever recognize the evidence for what it is, if YECism can go from being mainstream amongst creationists to an embarrassment in just a generation, I’m very optimistic on how the next generation will view Intelligent Design. While we do have virtually no power in making creationists change their mind, I thankful that we do have the power to make creationism look like the farce of real science that is.

  (Quote)

Michael April 25, 2010 at 9:13 pm

As a Christian myself, I find Wise’s story quite sad. Being honest, I would certainly give up my beliefs if I thought them impossible, implausible, or false by any means. Especially given the fact that there are many things that I certainly would do if I were not a Christian. One of these being “wasting” my time trying to get others to become Christians, another being my lack of sexual activity. I certainly would not become murderer or anything of the likes, as many atheists or agnostics certainly live “good” lives. But being a Christian really is a burden in some ways, since many things are, in a way, “off limits” to me, that are perfectly acceptable in society today.

But enough about me. To get to that point and throw out evidence is truly ridiculous, and I would hope that everyone would agree with me here. On the other hand, I would also hope that if a real proof for God or even just supernatural things came about, or if even something the atheist and agnostic communities accepted as evidence that it is more likely than not that a god exists, that they would abandon atheism and switch to the side with the greater evidence. Of course,, we all weigh things differently,none of us have perfectly balanced scales. But I definitely think it wise to weigh the evidence and stand on the side that has greater evidence that to reject it, no matter what that means.

  (Quote)

Tom Molloy April 25, 2010 at 9:18 pm

I think Kurt Wise grasps more of the most important tenants of philosophy of science than Dawkins could ever hope for. It really shouldn’t be that big of a surprise that philosophy usually trumps science.

I didn’t even know who Kurt Wise was until I wikipedia’d him after watching this and recognized that he’s more correct in his views than most:

“Science has never been closed to people who had ideas they wouldn’t change. Every scientist has a set of presuppositions and assumptions that he never questions.”

So true. I think Dawkins would do well to pick up an introductory phil science textbook (but that’s no surprise). I do agree that this video is an example of Dawkins at his finest, though–as a rhetorician.

  (Quote)

Jacopo April 25, 2010 at 9:40 pm

@Tom – The important ‘tenants’ of the philosophy of science? Like a big house rented out by Bacon, Popper, Lakatos and Feyerabend?

How on Earth can someone who has said they will not change their minds given any amount of evidence, have any view on the philosophy and practice of science which is not preposterous?

As someone who’s read introductory philosophy of science, I remember new experimentalism, I remember Bayesian approaches and falsificationism, but I don’t remember believe-what-you-like-whatever-the-hell-the-evidence-points-to-ism.

In so far as scientists have adopted the latter approach they’ve been generally regarded as failures, e.g. Einstein with regard to developments in quantum indeterminism – his reluctance to change his mind meant he wasted much of the his career!

So what precisely is Dawkins ignorant of? Your quotation doesn’t do any of the leg-work it seems it is supposed to.

  (Quote)

Justfinethanks April 25, 2010 at 9:56 pm

I think Kurt Wise grasps more of the most important tenants of philosophy of science than Dawkins could ever hope for.

Could you be a bit more specific with this claim? And please bear in mind that you are trumpeting the superior philosophical literacy of someone who is comfortable with adopting views about the natural world that contradict the evidence. I certainly consider the idea that you should adopt the scientific beliefs that have superior empirical support to be an “important tenant of the philosophy of science.” Kurt Wise seems to disagree. Do you?

“Science has never been closed to people who had ideas they wouldn’t change. Every scientist has a set of presuppositions and assumptions that he never questions.”
So true.

Yes, that all sounds like a very wise and “above the intellectual fray” thing to say until you realize that it is part of Answers In Genesis’ whole “same evidence, different worldviews” rhetoric. They think that because people do indeed have preconceptions and biases, that gives them complete free licence to construct miserable ad-hoc explanations as to why the evidence seems to contradict their views and still consider themselves rational for believing a scientifically falsified hypothesis about the age of the Earth. It’s just an attempt to justify believing what they want to believe by employing a tu quoque fallacy.

Of course, Wise to his credit, at least does recognize the serious problems between a scientific and Biblical view of the world, while most YECs deny that is the case at all. And I’m sure Dawkins and many atheists would agree with Wise when he says:

Evolution is not the only claim of modern science which must be rejected if Scripture is assumed to be true

  (Quote)

Atheist.pig April 25, 2010 at 10:20 pm

@Jacopo_Justfinethanks – You might as well have went out into your garden, found an earth worm, then try and teach the worm general relativity, then see if the worm discovers that Einstein’s equations lead to an expanding universe.

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 25, 2010 at 11:53 pm

Jacopo, you crack me up.

  (Quote)

Reginald Selkirk April 26, 2010 at 5:01 am

Dawkins is a Mac user, I’m not going to pay attention to anything he says.

  (Quote)

Martin April 26, 2010 at 7:28 am

People like Kurt Wise have put Biblical literalism as the foundation of their religion, so anything that threatens it is indeed going to be fought vehemently.

I.e., their god is not God but literal Genesis. That’s what they worship.

  (Quote)

Jacob April 26, 2010 at 7:35 am

“Arguing with creationists, particularly the young earth variety, it is actually sometimes comforting to remind myself that they don’t really care on what side of the ledger the evidence actually lies. Because they believe if they were to accept basic scientific knowledge it would lead to a horrifying existential despair much, much worse than death.”

As much as I agree with this, I have been having recent debates with fellow atheists and agnostics about the existence of a historical Jesus and they prove to be just as dismissive of real evidence as creationists… It is really, really frustrating to say the least! Christians are not the only ones who like to ignore evidence so that they can stay comfortable in their worldview…

  (Quote)

Tom Molloy April 26, 2010 at 12:31 pm

So obviously my comment was incendiary for the purpose of causing us to think more deeply. And you forget Kuhn and van Fraassen. :)

I obviously believe that philosophical considerations precede most scientific explanations, for various reasons. One being that one can do philosophy without science but cannot do science without philosophy. Kurt Wise -is- doing science–he’s just doing it from within a different philosophical paradigm as Dawkins. As near as I can tell (and I don’t know Wise’s views at all) he’s working with an anti-realist view towards evolution. This is FAR from rejecting all of science; he’s not even rejecting all of biology! Rather, he is rejecting a particular worldview for philosophical reasons. And I, for one, see this as perfectly legitimate. This is because, in my view, evolution isn’t generally held for “scientific” reasons because, like any scientific theory, it has evidence that it explains and evidence that it doesn’t explain. In my observations, evolution isn’t accepted because of it’s pure, raw explanatory power, but because of it’s explanatory power -within a particular philosophical framework-, namely, atheism. Evolution -is- a worldview that explains some of the data. That’s fine. But to pretend like it’s the -only- view that explains the data is preposterous. I agree that it’s the only view that explains the data on general atheistic philosophical tenants, but then to reject this based on opposite philosophical views is not to reject a scientific theory in favor of biblical literalism; it is to reject a scientific theory based primarily on philosophical presuppositions because one does not share those same philosophical presuppositions. This is exactly what I’d do with a Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics–and primarily on philosophical considerations. You can disagree with what Wise does but it is foolish to use rhetoric to make it a science v. religion thing. It is a philosophy v. philosophy thing.

@Tom – The important ‘tenants’ of the philosophy of science? Like a big house rented out by Bacon, Popper, Lakatos and Feyerabend?

How on Earth can someone who has said they will not change their minds given any amount of evidence, have any view on the philosophy and practice of science which is not preposterous?

As someone who’s read introductory philosophy of science, I remember new experimentalism, I remember Bayesian approaches and falsificationism, but I don’t remember believe-what-you-like-whatever-the-hell-the-evidence-points-to-ism.

In so far as scientists have adopted the latter approach they’ve been generally regarded as failures, e.g. Einstein with regard to developments in quantum indeterminism – his reluctance to change his mind meant he wasted much of the his career!

So what precisely is Dawkins ignorant of? Your quotation doesn’t do any of the leg-work it seems it is supposed to. Jacopo(

  (Quote)

Charles April 26, 2010 at 1:19 pm

Tom,

We have as much evidence for evolution as we do for gravity. If you want to doubt evolution, go right ahead, but it puts you on rather shaky epistemic ground for accepting pretty much any scientific theory.

  (Quote)

othertom April 26, 2010 at 1:34 pm

Tom Molloy-

You claim that:

1. Wise hasn’t rejected science, and
2. Wise rejects the theory of evolution by just (“legitimately”) rejecting its philosophical presuppositions.

So: What philosophical presuppositions ground the theory of evolution, but not the rest of science?

The argument you’re presenting, as I understand it, turns on your ability to provide a clear answer to this question. I can’t think of a candidate that doesn’t get ToE totally wrong. Help me out.

  (Quote)

Jacopo April 26, 2010 at 1:51 pm

Okay before anything I’m going to throw out there that my degree is in ecology and I’ve worked directly under the supervision, in the laboratory and in the field, of some of the top evolutionary biologists in the UK. Indeed I’m interrupting some revision of life-history evolution to write this. I’ve seen a wide breadth of evolutionary research taking in a variety of approaches and none of what you say makes any sense to me. It just doesn’t fit what I’ve seen actual scientists actually doing.

Kurt Wise -is- doing science–he’s just doing it from within a different philosophical paradigm as Dawkins.

All the science I’ve ever seen done within biology involves testing hypotheses and confirming/disconfirming them with experiment, as part of broader research programmes. Take a series of questions, all related but getting ever more specific: To what extent does oxidative stress mediate life history trade-offs? How far can it explain senescence? Under what situations would it evolve as a reproductive strategy for brood management?

That’s real, meaty science. There are hundreds of individuals working on just this small area, busily testing hypotheses and working out details in areas already known. There is absolutely nothing whatsoever which remotely compares to this anywhere else, including in the creation literature.

It’s possible for an astronomer to work within an Earth-centred paradigm (in an unsophisticated sense, not some Einsteinian special sense), but the view is so wrong I don’t think you could meaningfully say ‘he was doing science’. Anyone who said he was would be, I would contend, simply misusing the term ‘science’. The same applies to the idea that you can say that creation ‘science’ is ‘science’. But there’s a lot of room for cavilling here about whether it would be ‘not science’ or merely ‘bad science’ which doesn’t interest me too much. Either way, it’s a long way removed from an honest empirical enquiry into the world.

I’m afraid, having seen the hundreds of dozens of papers that confirm and expand evolutionary theory every month in just the top ranked journals like Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Evolution, Nature, Ecology Letters, Evolutionary Ecology, Evolutionary Genetics, TRENDS in Ecology and Evolution &c. &c. &c. I cannot take any of your ‘not accepting evolution for scientific reasons’ seriously. It doesn’t matter if you believe in a crazy supernatural worldview or not. You could very well believe in invisible pink unicorns. Lande and Arnold’s regressions (to take one example) will show (and have shown) stabilizing, disruptive and directional selection in populations just the same. The ring species of warblers and tits will still be natural examples of speciation with extant intermediates if you believe in leprechauns or you’re a hard-headed materialist. Lenski’s experiments on E. coli will still show and quantify the extent to which genetic contraints are (or rather, are not) involved in parallel evolution, and will still show the remarkable evolution of a citrate metabolism, whatever you believe.

Indeed take an everyday example of a paper I’m reading now, published just this month: “Does oxidative stress mediate the trade-off between growth and self-maintenance in structured families?” The whole thrust of the paper (basically) looks at this problem through the lens of seeing how structured families are a means of maximizing fitness. And through this lens the data make sense. Dobzhansky’s quote about biology only making sense in the light of evolution is bandied about a lot, but it’s so, so true.

By emphasizing paradigms and philosophical differences you completely ignore what it’s actually like at the coal face of science.

As for this evidence that evolution ‘can’t explain’, please bring it forwards. We can co-author an article in Science or Nature (the choice will be ours!) and we can join the ranks of the greatest thinkers in the entire history of science. I assure you that in terms of the actual consequences of this piece of evidence(s), I am deadly serious. However, I shan’t hold my breath.

Anyhow, in an odd way I agree with you. If Kurt Wise actually practised science in the way that people who give a damn about actually finding out about things do, he would have no choice but to accept evolutionary theory. It’s only by adopting a radical fideism as opposed to a view that sees scientific investigation as sovereign in our description of the world, that he can continue to hold his belief in literalism.

  (Quote)

Josh April 26, 2010 at 2:31 pm

Well said, Jacopo.

  (Quote)

Jeffrey April 26, 2010 at 5:50 pm

If you wish to read Wise’s chapter in its entirety, it’s been (legally) posted online.

  (Quote)

Jeffrey April 26, 2010 at 6:34 pm
lukeprog April 26, 2010 at 6:52 pm

Thanks, Jeffrey.

  (Quote)

Rhys Wilkins April 26, 2010 at 7:32 pm

Yo, bit of a red herring here, but has anyone watched NSC’s new Quiz Show video? It is absolutely frickin rivetingly genius stuff! You should give it a sneeze in your next post Luke.

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 26, 2010 at 8:28 pm

I posted it almost exactly as you were typing this comment, Rhys. :)

  (Quote)

Reginald Selkirk April 27, 2010 at 9:24 am

Rather, he is rejecting a particular worldview for philosophical reasons.

You keep saying philosophical when what you really mean is religious.

  (Quote)

Reginald Selkirk April 27, 2010 at 9:33 am

We have as much evidence for evolution as we do for gravity.

The gravity example raised again, but this time by someone on my side. If you eman the fact of gravity, then fine. If you are talking about our theories of gravity, then evolution is much better established.

For a couple centuries, Newton’s laws were our reigning theory of gravity. It has been superseded by relativity, which is more precise in cases of very high mass and very high velocities.

But: General relativity has some hurdles to overcome yet. GR and quantum mechanics are both very well-supported by evidence, but the two have not been completely reconciled as yet. We have no quantum theory of gravity. Then there are the dark matter and dark energy issues to deal with. There has been talk of adding a ‘cosmological constant’ to GR to accomodate dark energy, or switching to some other formulation for gravity; this has not yet come to a conclusion.

Meanwhile, there is no body of evidence which will not fit with the theory of evolution, and not theoretical competitors to it.

So in the theoretical sense, evolution is currently more solid in science than gravity is.

  (Quote)

DuckPhup April 28, 2010 at 8:47 am

@ Michael…

On the other hand, I would also hope that if a real proof for God or even just supernatural things came about, or if even something the atheist and agnostic communities accepted as evidence that it is more likely than not that a god exists, that they would abandon atheism and switch to the side with the greater evidence.”

Of course they would… but there isn’t (and there hasn’t been, even after looking for it for thousands of years)… and so until there is, they won’t.

Now some people say that ‘religion’ doesn’t change… but that’s not exactly true. There are MANY cases where the absolute, holy, divine, cosmic, biblical, God-given ‘truth’ has been miraculously transformed into ‘metaphors’ or ‘allegories’… but there has not once… not EVER… been a scientific fact or theory what has been transformed into “God did it.” Perhaps you ought to take that as SOME SORT OF A FREAKIN’ CLUE.

@ Michael…

Of course,, we all weigh things differently,none of us have perfectly balanced scales. But I definitely think it wise to weigh the evidence and stand on the side that has greater evidence that to reject it, no matter what that means.

Swell. So… that leaves you WHERE, exactly? Standing on the side where you ‘believe’ (the ILLUSION of knowledge) that that a cosmic Jewish zombie, who is his own father, can make you live forever if you submit to a magical soul-douching ceremony (complete with magical water, incantations and waving of hands), eat his flesh (USDA Grade-A God-meat, in the form of a cracker) and telepathically tell him that you accept him as your master so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was tricked by a malevolent entity (disguised a talking snake… with legs) into eating a piece of magical fruit from an enchanted tree… (etc.)… and that there is something horribly wrong with people who ARE NOT so stupid and gullible that they can be made to believe such outrageously ridiculous codswallop? Talk about not having ‘perfectly balanced scales’.

  (Quote)

Leave a Comment