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.

Kōbō Abe’s ‘Woman in The Dunes’ And The Scientist’s Existentialist Despair

Kōbō Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes wears and displays its existentialist, absurdist aspirations openly and transparently; this is its terse Wikipedia summation:

In 1955, Jumpei Niki, a schoolteacher from Tokyo, visits a fishing village to collect insects. After missing the last bus, he is led, by the villagers, in an act of apparent hospitality, to a house in the dunes that can be reached only by ladder. The next morning the ladder is gone and he finds he is expected to keep the house clear of sand with the woman living there, with whom he is also to produce children. He eventually gives up trying to escape when he comes to realize returning to his old life would give him no more liberty. After seven years, he is proclaimed officially dead. [citations removed.]

Yes, there is a Sisyphean task here; the labors are joint–crucially, involving both a man and a woman–but seemingly infinite and never-ending anyway. The mystery over why Niki is treated as he is by the villagers is never given a satisfactory solution, and indeed, as in the case of those who counterproductively continue digging in holes, efforts to solve this conundrum only heighten its inexplicability. Bafflement, bewilderment, anger, frustration are Niki’s primary responses, and they are all equally efficacious–that is, they are not in the least.

A perplexed protagonist, a brutal, unrewarding task, an unsolved mystery, the realization that deliverance is not forthcoming; yes, this is an existentialist novel.

There are two interesting embroiderings of these basic existentialist themes in Abe’s novel. First, the novel is set ten years after the end of the Second World War, ten years after hell was dragged  up from its depths and deposited on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and thus, on the Japanese nation. This is a world in which the firmness of an older universe has been replaced by the shifting and transient sand of a new relationship with the world; sand, as Abe reminds us, is ‘fragmented rock,’ once solid and imposing, now beaten down. The Japanese, of whom Niki and the woman are as good representatives as any other, might yet be buried by this relentless invader of their older world. Second, Niki is not just any man, any Japanese. He is a schoolteacher, and moreover, he is a man of science. He is an entomologist; he studies sand as well, and is fascinated by its physical properties.

As a man of science, Niki expects his situations in this world to be infected by the same reason he sees underwriting the cosmos. He is, precisely because of this intellectual orientation, unprepared for the villagers’ mysterious, criminal behavior: Why have they kidnapped him? Do they really think they can get away with this absurd plot? The villagers do not care; they are absorbed in their task. The woman does not know and she does not too, seem to care too much. If there is a concern for consequences, it is a narrowly circumscribed one: what will happen if the sand is not kept at bay? This encounter, this futile dashing of the hopes of the man of science that a reasonable explanation will be found for all that afflicts us, that the methods which have made so much of the world comprehensible will make the villagers and their task less mysterious, gives Abe’s novel its most acute sense of desperation and despair.

RIP Hilary Putnam 1926-2016

During the period of my graduate studies in philosophy,  it came to seem to me that William James‘ classic distinction between tough and tender-minded philosophers had been been reworked just a bit. The tough philosophers were still empiricists and positivists but they had begun to show some of the same inclinations that the supposedly tender-minded in James’ distinction did: they wanted grand over-arching systems, towering receptacles into which all of reality could be neatly poured; they were enamored of reductionism; they had acquired new idols, like science (and metaphysical realism) and new tools, those of mathematics and logic.

Hilary Putnam was claimed as a card-carrying member of this tough-minded group:  he was a logician, mathematician, computer scientist, and analytic philosopher of acute distinction. He wrote non-trivial papers on mathematics and computer science (the MRDP problem, the Davis-Putnam algorithm), philosophy of language (the causal theory of reference), and philosophy of mind (functionalism, the multiple realizability of the mental)–the grand trifecta of the no-bullshit, hard-headed analytic philosopher, the one capable of handing your  woolly, unclear, tender continental philosophy ass to you on a platter.

I read many of Putnam’s classic works as a graduate student; he was always a clear writer, even as he navigated the thickets of some uncompromisingly dense material. Along with Willard Van Orman Quine, he was clearly the idol of many analytic philosophers-in-training; we grew up on a diet of Quine-Putnam-Kripke. You thought of analytic philosophy, and you thought of Putnam. Whether it was this earth, or its twin, there he was.

I was already quite uncomfortable with analytical philosophy’s preoccupations, methods, and central claims as I finished my PhD; I had not become aware that the man I thought of as its standard-bearer had started to step down from that position before I even began graduate school. When I encountered him again, after I had finished my dissertation and my post-doctoral fellowship, I found a new Putnam.

This Putnam was a philosopher who had moved away from metaphysical realism and scientism, who had found something to admire in the American pragmatists, who had become enamored of the Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations. He now dismissed the fact-value dichotomy and indeed, now wrote on subjects that ‘tough-minded analytic philosophers’ from his former camps would not be caught dead writing: political theory and religion in particular. He even fraternized with the enemy, drawing inspiration, for instance, from Jürgen Habermas.

My own distaste for scientism and my interest in pragmatism (of the paleo and neo– varietals) and the late Wittgenstein meant that the new Putnam was an intellectual delight for me. (His 1964 paper ‘Robots: Machines or Artificially Created Life?’ significantly influenced my thoughts as I wrote my book on a legal theory for autonomous artificial agents.)  I read his later works with great relish and marveled at his tone of writing: he was ecumenical, gentle, tolerant, and crucially, wise. He had lived and learned; he had traversed great spaces of learning, finding that many philosophical perspectives abounded, and he had, as a good thinker must, struggled to integrate them into his intellectual framework. He seemed to have realized that the most acute philosophical ideal of all was a constant taking on and trying out of ideas, seeing if they worked in consonance with your life projects and those of the ones you cared for (this latter group can be as broad as the human community.) I was reading a philosopher who seemed to be doing philosophy in the way I understood it, as a way of making sense of this world without dogma.

I never had any personal contact with him, so I cannot share stories or anecdotes, no tales of directed inspiration or encouragement. But I can try to gesture in the direction of the pleasure he provided in his writing and his always visible willingness to work through the challenges of this world, this endlessly complicated existence. Through his life and work he provided an ideal of the engaged philosopher.

RIP Hilary Putnam.