Richard Dawkins’ Inconsistent Reliance On Pragmatism

A very popular video on YouTube featuring Richard Dawkins is titled ‘Science Works, Bitches.’ It periodically makes the rounds on social media; as it does, Dawkins acolytes–in the video and on social media–applaud him as he ‘smacks down’ a questioner who inquires into the ‘justification’ for the scientific method. (A familiar enough question; for instance, science relies on induction, but the justification for induction is that it has worked in the past, which is itself an inductive argument, so how do you break out of this circle, without relying on some kind of ‘faith’?) Dawkins’ response is ‘It works, bitches!’ Science’s claim to rationality rests on its proven track record–going to the moon, curing disease etc.; this is an entirely pragmatic claim with which I’m in total agreement. The success of inductive claims is part of our understanding and definition of rationality; rationality does not exist independent of our practices; they define it.

Still, the provision of this answer also reveals Dawkins’ utter dishonesty when it comes to the matter of his sustained attacks on religion over the years. For the open-mindedness and the acknowledgment of the primacy of practice that is on display in this answer is nowhere visible in his attitude toward religion.

Dawkins is entirely correct in noting that science is superior to religion when it comes to the business of solving certain kinds of problems. You want to make things fly; you rely on science. You want to go to the moon; you rely on science. You want to cure cancer; you rely on science. Rely on religion for any of these things and you will fail miserably. But Dawkins will be simply unwilling to accept as an answer from a religious person that the justification for his or her faith is that ‘it works’ when it comes to providing a ‘solution’ for a ‘problem’ that is not of the kind specified above. At those moments, Dawkins will demand a kind of ‘rational’ answer that he is himself unwilling to–and indeed, cannot–provide for science.

Consider a religious person who when asked to ‘justify’ faith, responds ‘It works for me when it comes to achieving the end or the outcome of making me happy [or more contented, more accepting of my fate, reconciling myself to the death of loved ones or my own death; the list goes on.]’ Dawkins’ response to this would be that this is a pathetic delusional comfort, that this is based on fairy tales and poppycock. Here too, Dawkins would demand that the religious person accept scientific answers to these questions and scientific resolutions of these ‘problems.’ Here, Dawkins would be unable to accept the pragmatic nature of the religious person’s answer that faith ‘works’ for them. Here, Dawkins would demand a ‘justified, rational, grounded in evidence’ answer; that is, an imposition of standards that he is unwilling to place on the foundations of scientific reasoning.

As I noted above, pragmatism is the best justification for science and the scientific method; science works best to achieve particular ends. Dawkins is entirely right to note that religion cannot answer the kinds of questions or solve the kinds of problems science can; he should be prepared to admit the possibility that there are questions to which religion offers answers that ‘work’ for its adherents–in preference to other alternatives. Pragmatism demands we accept this answer too; you can’t lean on pragmatism to defend science, and then abandon it in your attacks on religion. That’s scientism. Which is a load of poppycock.

Polygamy And Joseph Smith’s Convenient Revelations

In Under The Banner Of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, Jon Krakauer cites Fawn Brodie‘s No Man Knows My History, her classic biography of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism:

Monogamy seemed to him–as it has seemed to many men who have not ceased to love their wives, but who have grown weary of connubial exclusiveness–an intolerably circumscribed way of life. “Whenever I see a pretty woman,” he once said to a friend, “I have to pay for grace.” But Joseph was no careless libertine who could be content with clandestine mistresses. There was too much of the Puritan in him, and he could not rest until he had redefined the nature of sin and erected a stupendous theological edifice to support his new theories on marriage.

That ‘stupendous theological edifice’, of course, was constructed by conveying some rather conveniently timed and worded ‘revelations’ that Smith would subsequently receive from God himself.

Indeed, as Krakauer goes on to note, so precisely specified were these revelations that they even took care of any resistance that Smith’s wife, Emma, might have had to her husband’s rather transparent philandering. As Verse 54 of Section 132–the one that sanctions so-called ‘plural marriage’– of the Mormon’s Doctrines and Covenants states:

And I command mine handmaid, Emma Smith, to abide and cleave unto my servant Joseph, and to none else. But if she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord; for I am the Lord thy God, and will destroy her if she abide not in my law.

Other passages make it plain that casting one’s eyes about is quite all-right:

61 [I]f any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another…then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else.

62 And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified.

63 But if one or either of the ten virgins, after she is espoused, shall be with another man, she has committed adultery, and shall be destroyed; for they are given unto him to multiply and replenish the earth, according to my commandment.

It all works out rather nicely. Take as many as you need; and woe betide any of your ‘brides’ if they seek similar sexual freedom for themselves. Indeed, threaten them with damnation and destruction in response.

The misogyny, mendaciousness,  and self-serving deceit on display is quite breathtaking. But it is not novel–as the histories of fundamentalist strains of the world’s major religions so depressingly reveal.

The new atheists–Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris et al.–are rightly pilloried for their intemperate and unsophisticated attacks on religion. Still, it is worth recalling, when one reads of the foundations of one of the world’s fastest growing faiths, that the reason they find such a sympathetic following is, all too often, because they have such glaring and easy targets to aim at.

Adaptation, Abstraction

This spring semester, teaching Philosophy of Biology–especially the Darwinian model of adaptation and environmental filtration– has reminded me of the philosophical subtleties of  ‘abstract model’ and  ‘abstraction’. More generally, it has reminded me  that philosophy of science achieves particularly sharp focus in the philosophy of biology, and that classroom discussions are edifying in crucial ways.

In its most general form, the Darwinian theory of adaptation by ‘natural selection’ states that adaptation results if:

There is reproduction with some inheritance of traits in the next generation.

In each generation, among the inherited traits there is always some variation.

The inherited variants differ in their fitness, in their adaptedness to the environment.

In teaching this version (taken from: Richard Lewontin, Adaptation. Scientific American.  239: 212-228 in Rosenberg and Shea’s Philosophy of Biology) I point out how much this concise statement of the theory leaves unspecified–the entity reproducing, ‘traits,’ the mechanisms of reproduction and inheritance, the sources of variance,  the nature of ‘fitness’, the extent of the environment, and the mechanisms and characteristics of the adaptation–even as it provides an explanatory framework of great power and scope. (This under-specification allows  the model’s statement too, in terms of interactors and replicators.)

The generality of the Darwinian specification reminds us of the practicing mathematician’s adage that the sparsest, barest definitions result in the richest, most interesting theorems. In this case, the theory works with a diversity of hereditary mechanisms and sources of variation, and does not require or imply any particular one. Rather, it merely requires that there be some  mechanism for heredity and some source of variation in heritable traits for every generation in every line of beings. I think it’s a fair bet to say that if there were any appreciative reactions in class to this discussion of the theory, they were grounded in a grasp of the theory’s generality.

Getting clear about the abstraction of the Darwinian model is crucial in understanding why it does not issue teleological explanations, why it cannot be understood as ‘progressive’, and why it is plausibly extensible to different levels of theoretical explanation in more than one domain of application. Later, our descriptions of  blind variation and selective retention as algorithmic processes enabled another reckoning with the abstraction of the model’s substrate neutrality. (Discussing this with my students reminded me of teaching the multiply-realizable computational model of the mind in classes on the philosophical foundations of artificial intelligence, especially as our discussion segued into an attempt to understand the abstract notion of computation.) In general, I sought to clarify why the model specified above is an ‘abstract’ one and what relationship its abstraction has to its generality and its explanatory scope.

Unsurprisingly, at moments in my exposition, I found myself rediscovering admiration at the theory’s Spartan outlines.  I was pleasantly surprised too, by how sophisticated my students’ interjections and questions became as they attempted to take on and apply the theory; they forced me to think on my feet in addressing them. More than anything else, their class responses reminded  me that a particularly important species of learning takes place in the course of teaching.