Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Oh, God ...

... Bryan Appleyard calls it: Dawkins and Robinson: An Unequal Contest.

I concur.

Update: Richard Dawkins is known for having introduced the term meme. But memetics, I gather, may not be all it has been cracked up to be: The revealed poverty of the gene-meme analogy .


  1. Anonymous3:27 PM

    There's lots of passion in Marilynne Robinson's essay, just not enough substance. I have no problem with Dawkins having "a simple-as-that, plain-as-day approach to the grandest questions, unencumbered by doubt, consistency, or countervailing information." That's the best way to cut through b.s. It's not like he's forcing anyone to listen.

    And how come Ms. Robinson ignores that if there is a "final idiot war," the culprit at the moment is far more likely to be religion than something secular. They'll use scientific tools, sure, so do I, but I don't try to turn the clocks back to the Dark Ages with them. It is religion that is wanting us to do that, not science. Science tries to free your mind, religion tries to control it.

  2. I think you ought to read the book, Noel, and then you'll see how substantive her criticism is. It is a poorly organized, sloppily argued book, nowhere near the level of The Selfish Gene or The Blind Watchmaker. I would also refer you to the end of Robinson's essay when she discusses Dawkins's thin account of modern physics.

  3. I also posted some of this this on Bryan's blog:

    I've always felt Dawkins to be a veiled zealot, promoting his New Religion (the religion of science) under the disguise of anti-religion. Dawkins' is a stance based on faith, and it ultimately a religious one.

    When I was a typesetter, in the dim past, I used to work on the monthly newsletter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, in Madison, WI. These were former evangelical Christians who had become atheists, and were doing a lot of cultural work, including fighting a lot of legal battles trying to preserve the separation of church and state. What was so ironic (and it was an irony they did not seem to understand themselves) was that they used the exact same style of delivery and tone as your average bible-thumping fundamentalist, but their message was the exact opposite one.

    There is no fanatic like the truly-converted, no matter what the doctrine. Makes one want to go back and re-read Eric Hoffers' insightful book "The True Believer."

    Dawkins is very much a true believer. My biggest concern in all this is that Dawkins goes so far that he plays into his enemies' hands.

    For example, I am all for the teaching of comparative religion in schools, as Dawkins suggests. But while he thinks that will naturally lead to atheism on the part of the students, I am more likely to believe that students will discover the many things in common that many of the world's great religions have to teach, and end up affirming faith (albeit ecumenical rather than sectarian).

  4. Anonymous6:57 PM

    Frank, I have finished reading it. I see why you say it is not as tightly organized as some of his other books. I think it was designed to be easier to approach, less scientific. I don't agree it is sloppily argued, nor if I remember from your review of it did you, until you read Marilynne Robinson's critique.

    I thought the thrust of your review was that he was too strident in tone and that he didn't qualify as a bench scientist, while mentioning one example of his book "being all over the place" by saying that in its first section, he discusses "polytheism, then monotheism, then - "Secularism, the Founding Fathers and the Religion of America." This hardly seems a necessary sequence."

    I enjoyed your review because you compared it with alternative opinions from Christian scientists and it wasn't couched in popular intellectual twaddle.

    I would also refer you to the end of Robinson's essay when she discusses Dawkins's thin account of modern physics.

    Believe it or not, I read all of Marilynne's essay before commenting on it. You've referred to the end of it. I see where she attacks him on "his consistent inattentiveness to history," nitpicks scripture, and suggests he's probably a racist, but I do not see where she tackles him on physics in any substantive way. It reads like an emotional smear done in intellectual style. I think there could have been more substance.

    It concludes with this:

    Would not the attempt to narrow [diversity] only repeat the worst errors of eugenics at the cultural and intellectual level? ... It is diversity that makes any natural system robust, and diversity that stabilizes culture against the eccentricity and arrogance that have so often called themselves reason and science.

    I agree it is diversity that makes things strong. Genetics is a very new science and it's blind luck that there's been any advances so far. I'm not sure scientists really know what they are doing - it's looks sort of cut and paste at the minute, but that's not a reason to stop investigating. Scientists are using genetics to better understand inherited medical illnesses, they're trying to cure cancer through genetic therapy and learning about how genes age, how our bodies age. Two thousand years ago people's life expectancy was 40. We didn't know what caused disease, we had none of the medicine we have today.

    If Marilynne wants to progress backwards in time because she resents science inquiring further into our body, or our mind which is a part of our body, she can get rid of her electricity, get rid of her clothing, get rid of every comfort science has given her, and when she is sick, not go to the doctor.

  5. Anonymous7:04 PM

    I've always felt Dawkins to be a veiled zealot

    Art, Hoffer in The True Believer says fanatics (or "zealot"s) "cannot be convinced but only converted." I'd call Dawkins a convinced atheist.

    Calling atheists fanatics reads like a technique to be used against atheists. If all atheists are fanatics, then anyone with any convictions at all could also be termed a fanatic and that's just silly. As Hoffer admits, fanaticism "was a Judaic-Christian invention."

  6. Hi Noel,
    You remember my review better than I do. I rarely look at them once they're done (lack of time, not modesty). In saying that he was all over the place I had in the back of my mind that effective argument is tight and not endlessly digressive.

    I can't help thinking that if Dawkins had been serious about persuading anybody he would have adopted a more reasonable tone - which he does in his TV appearances. (Will the real Richard Dawkins please rise.)

    I didn't get the sense from Robinson's piece that she was accusing Dawkinbs of racism so much as criticizing him for failing to recognize the racist implications of certain views.

    In "referring" you to what she says at the end I did not mean to imply you had't read the essay, I was just referring you to this part:
    '...he offers these thoughts on the fluidity of matter: “Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made. If that doesn’t make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, read it again until it does, because it is important.” Earlier, Dawkins attributes the origins of the illusion that we have a soul to the persistence of a childish or primitive tendency toward dualism — '“Our innate dualism prepares us to believe in a ’soul’ which inhabits the body rather than being integrally part of the body. Such a disembodied spirit can easily be imagined to move on somewhere else after the death of the body.” Yet the image of deeper reality invoked by him here suggests a basis for the ancient intuition of the persistence of the self despite the transiency of the elements of its physical embodiment.'

    I think she makes a good point. I realize you will not. But you see, I am not certain of my position, which is grounded in faith. If I read you correctly, you are certain. (Of course, I also think we live in universe characerized by uncertainty, period. I do not think science achieves anywhere near the degree of certainty that is often claimed for it.)

    Finally, a fanatic is a fanatic, whether theistic or atheistic. If the woman who keeps leaving messages for me in which she rants until the tape runs out about what a young, raving and pathetic fool I am for believing in God and that I ought to get with the program is not a fanatic I'd like to know what she is. The emails I have received in response to the columns I have recently written - all from irate atheists telling me in essence the same thing, and who are so defensive they confuse observations of fact with critical judgments - well they certainly seem like fanatics to me.

  7. Re-reading Hoffer, as I have a few times, I'm with Frank: a fanatic is a fanatic, no matter what it is they're promoting. It's a state of mind, as Hoffer points out, which can be applied to any belief-system. Events in the politcal arena in recent years should prove to any astute observer that fanaticism is not limited to any one group, religion, or belief-system.

    And I never said all atheists were fanatics. I said that particular group whose newsletter I had been typesetting on a monthly basis was. And they were. I have of course met other atheists who were rather quiet about it. Like any group, you get the quet ones and you get the extremists.

  8. Anonymous7:50 AM

    I do not think science achieves anywhere near the degree of certainty that is often claimed for it.

    Maybe, but it achieves more than something with no certainty at all and it doesn't claim to be complete.

    I am not certain of my position, which is grounded in faith.

    I'm not certain either. Science doesn't claim to have all the answers, unlike religion which does, without being able to offer a shred of evidence to support them, like, for example, what will happen when you die, really die, not just clinically die and then come back. The truth is that none of us know. As James M. Barry wrote Peter Pan saying: “To die would be a very great adventure.”

    Yet the image of deeper reality invoked by him here suggests a basis for the ancient intuition of the persistence of the self despite the transiency of the elements of its physical embodiment.

    Perhaps you and Robinson are right. It's not what I understood it to mean, but the possibility that that is what he is saying is reason enough for theists or agnostics to read it and decide for themselves. Dawkins can defend himself and I'm sure Robinson can to.

    If the woman who keeps leaving messages for me in which she rants until the tape runs out about what a young, raving and pathetic fool I am for believing in God and that I ought to get with the program is not a fanatic I'd like to know what she is.

    Yep, she sounds like a fanatic alright, so do the e-mailers. However, because some atheists are fanatics doesn't necessarily mean every atheist is a fanatic, anymore than some theists being fanatics necessarily means every theist is a fanatic, or anyone with any convictions on anything at all and refuses to stay quiet about it is a fanatic, and on this it seems that you, Art, and me agree.

  9. "it achieves more than something with no certainty at all."

    That, too, is to beg the question. Once we acknowledge, as you just have, that there are degrees of certainty, and different methods at arriving at those different degrees, you cannot assume that faith leads to no certainty at all.

  10. Anonymous6:43 PM

    I can, because faith offers no certainty at all. With no certainty at all, how can you assume that faith leads anywhere?

    I'll take the certainties science can offer over the supernatural claims all religions resort to. When, or if, religion comes up with a smidgen of what could be reliably called evidence, I'll consider the evidence.

  11. Asserting that faith offers no degree of certainty is not the same as demonstrating it.
    Buit you don't want faith to be of any value and you settle for the narrowest form of truth - that which you can be "certain" of, which can be "proved." You can't prove that Beethoven's ninth is a great piece of music or that the Sistine Chapel ceiling is great art. But they are. And, as I've pointed out before, you can't prove that you exist. But you do. And you're certain that you do.
    Your bedrock faith in the verities of science and only those verities means that this dialogue will never move forward. I have science and lot else besides.

  12. Anonymous8:08 AM

    Asserting that faith offers no degree of certainty is not the same as demonstrating it.

    You're free to demonstrate that it does, preferably with some evidence to support your assertions.

    As mentioned elsewhere, if one man says he experienced God in some way, it is a revelation to him alone. When he tells others about it, it becomes hearsay. I am free to believe or disbelieve him and when I hear people saying they regularly experience God and that God tells them things, I invariably exercise my right to disbelieve them. This is not to discredit a person's personal experience - they may well be sensing or experiencing something - only that the feelings they are experiencing are not necessarily a manifestation of 'God'.

    We've had similar conversations before where you've tried to make out that all I 'believe' in is science (as though science was a faith) and each time I point out that there are some things science can't explain and I wouldn't want them explained even if science could explain them. But because science cannot currently explain everything about life (and may never) doesn't mean that therefore there must be a 'God'. You seem to believe it does, without evidence to support your beliefs.

    I'm not against anyone having faith. In fact, I think your chances of succeeding at anything without faith - in yourself and in what you think is possible - are pretty low. I've gotten involved in a couple of ventures that had no certainty attached to them and I knew they didn't. Though I believed in them and pushed them, I didn't delude myself into believing that my faith in them conferred certainty when there evidently wasn't any. That way you get to hold onto a sort of mental stability which means that if you do fail, it won't stop you from ever trying again.

    So you see I don't only have faith in "the verities of science." By all means, have science and "a lot else besides," but at least try to have a rational explanation for why you have them. Otherwise, the Flying Spaghetti Monster awaits ... and we wouldn't want you worshiping that. ;)

  13. Anonymous8:21 AM

    Here's The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. for anyone who might be even a tiny bit curious. Not as much tradition, I grant you, but then neither did any belief(s) in supernatural forces when starting out.

  14. Admit fanaticism a Judaic-Christian invention? Wasn't the frenzied dithyramb a Greek invention?

    Science, religion, and control freaks in both camps, Noel.

    -blue [adrift in a western myth]

  15. Anonymous4:02 PM

    Hoffer quotes the biologist J.B.S. Haldane on the last page of The True Believer, as saying that he counted "fanaticism among the only four really important inventions made between 3000 B.C. and 1400 A.D." Then he says, "It was a Judaic-Christian invention." I don't know enough of Chinese history to know where they describe the same condition, but I'm willing to bet they knew it too. I don't believe it was a "Judaic-Christian invention." Fanaticism is a part of human nature and I agree control freaks are found all over, not just in Germany or Japan, science or religion, politics or art.

    In science, I particularly admire Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He had a great mind and put it to work to free the minds of other people by giving them ways to travel to see things for themselves, rather than using it to control them for his own ends. He trusted human nature.

    Here's something I fell in love with the moment I heard it:

    Only a man who has himself gone in search of truth
    knows how deceptive is the blaze of evidence with
    which a proposition may suddenly dazzle his eyes.
    The light soon fails, and the hunt is on again.


    I'd like to ask if the myth you're adrift in is of your own making.

  16. In that last question, if you would just replace the pronouns "you" and "your" with the pronoun "I" and "my", you will be able to continue your search.

  17. I'm not sure. Most of it was here when I arrived. I like to think I've contributed SOMEthing to it. And I'm not done yet.


  18. Anonymous5:52 PM

    That's fair enough and good for you! I've explained the other side of life, what I've experienced of it anyway, to myself. I don't think a supernatural being is behind it. It just is. And we get to enjoy it. What happens after is anyone's guess.

    Einstein said:

    A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.

    If there's a higher aspiration to have in life, I don't know what it is.

  19. Mrs. Merryvale's Reprise

    Late in the afternoon,
    from her bedroom balcony,
    she watches squirrels
    chase jays away from seeds,
    taking god for granted.

    Jays scream and swoop,
    swear at twitchy tails,
    unaware of great sacks, hidden,
    full, that relate god's name
    in eight glyphs.

    The ridge in the distance
    silhouettes against a sanguine sky.

    -beau blue

  20. Anonymous9:25 AM

    "It was six men of Indostan
    To learning much inclined,
    Who went to see the Elephant
    (Though all of them were blind),
    That each by observation
    Might satisfy his mind.

    The First approached the Elephant,
    And happening to fall
    Against his broad and sturdy side,
    At once began to bawl:
    “God bless me! but the Elephant
    Is very like a wall!”

    The Second, feeling of the tusk,
    Cried, “Ho! what have we here
    So very round and smooth and sharp?
    To me ’tis mighty clear
    This wonder of an Elephant
    Is very like a spear!”

    The Third approached the animal,
    And happening to take
    The squirming trunk within his hands,
    Thus boldly up and spake:
    “I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
    Is very like a snake!”

    The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
    And felt about the knee.
    “What most this wondrous beast is like
    Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
    “ ‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
    Is very like a tree!”

    The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
    Said: “E’en the blindest man
    Can tell what this resembles most;
    Deny the fact who can
    This marvel of an Elephant
    Is very like a fan!”

    The Sixth no sooner had begun
    About the beast to grope,
    Than, seizing on the swinging tail
    That fell within his scope,
    “I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
    Is very like a rope!”

    And so these men of Indostan
    Disputed loud and long,
    Each in his own opinion
    Exceeding stiff and strong,
    Though each was partly in the right,
    And all were in the wrong!


    So oft in theologic wars,
    The disputants, I ween,
    Rail on in utter ignorance
    Of what each other mean,
    And prate about an Elephant
    Not one of them has seen!"

    Blind Men and the Elephant by John Godfrey Saxe