Saturday, April 07, 2007

Richard Dawkins Part I: Consciousness Raising

Richard Dawkins: Consciousness Raising

Our next presenter at Beyond Belief 2006 is Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion and holder of the Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University.

Dawkins actually gave two distinct presentations; a short initial presentation on “Consciousness Raising,” followed by a longer presentation on “Morality and the Selfish Gene.” Following his example, I am going to write two essays on his presentation, the first having to do with consciousness raising, and the second with morality and the selfish gene.

Consciousness Raising

Consciousness raising is a way of correcting a type of cognitive error known as ‘chauvinism’. This is an assumed false assumption that something is true of everybody, when it is not. His illustrative example is a science fiction movie within which a character nostalgically mentions that it is springtime back on Earth. Dawkins labels that ‘northern hemisphere chauvinism’, because the statement is true only in the northern hemisphere, and it is false to assume that everybody lives in the northern hemisphere.

The first thing that he wants to raise consciousness about is the habit of calling young children ‘Sikh’, ‘Muslim’, or ‘Christian.’ This, he claims, is as absurd as calling three children, ‘Monitorist’, ‘Keynsian’, and ‘Marxist’. He calls this type of labeling ‘child abuse’.

On the first charge, the absurdity springs from a false analogy. When I was young, I lived in a rural community near a Hutterite colony. It was common practice to refer to the members of that community as Hutterites – even the children. The statement merely meant that the child was a member of a Hutterite community. There is no chauvinism involved in saying that a child is growing up in a Hutterite community. In fact, the statement is an objectively true statement about the child.

Furthermore, as I argued in, “Theism as Mental Illness or Child Abuse,” using the term ‘child abuse’ in a true statement requires that the object of condemnation display a willingness to harm or, at best, a lack of concern for the child. In other words, Dawkins’ claims imply that the people in my home town were somehow exhibiting a desire to harm, or at least a disregard for the well-being of, the children in that community simply because we called the people who lived there ‘Hutterites’. There is no ‘consciousness raising’ to be found in making such a claim. Dawkins’ claim is simply false.

The same can be said if somebody who operates a daycare center reports to the others who work there that a particular child is a vegetarian. Nobody assumes that this means that the child is fully conversant in the different theories regarding diet and has consciously selected a vegetarian diet. They fully understand that this means that the parents wish that the child is being raised in a culture that follows a particular set of rules. Not only is the statement a true statement, it in no way shows a willingness to harm or a disregard for the well-being of a child to say, “Tommy is a vegetarian.”

Now, bear with me, after that brief recap, I want to carry the argument further this time, adding new dimensions to the debate.

Sam Harris, in The End of Faith has an argument that may be said to answer this. He responds to the claim that Muslims clearly must love their children as much as Christians do. He refutes this claim with an example – that we can know whether a person loves another by their actions. The evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald did not ‘love’ Kennedy can be found in the fact that Oswald shot Kennedy. The action disproves the statement. Similarly, we can tell that Muslim fundamentalist parents do not love their children because they raise their children to go out and kill themselves in a Jihad. This is incompatible with love. This would allow us to classify their actions as ‘child abuse’.

The argument fails.

Assume we discover that a mother has drowned her five children. This would seem to be incompatible with the claim that she loved her children. Yet, on talking to her, we find out that she believed that the devil was after them, and the only way to keep them save was to turn them over to God. Now, we apply the principle that though a person always seeks to fulfill their desires, they always act to fulfill their desires given their beliefs.

This means that, to get at what the mother desires, we have to look at her behavior as if these beliefs were true. If a creature as evil a the devil were after a child, and the parent could only protect them by shoving them throw a door into a safe area, then the parent who loves her children would certainly push the child through the door. The parent who refuses to do so is the parent who shows a callous disregard for the child’s welfare.

Now, a counter-move to this will draw on statements that I have made about obligations to believe. In several postings, and most recently in “Reckless Argumentation”, There, I argued that intellectual recklessness is a moral crime.

A physically reckless person is somebody who does not care enough about the consequences that his actions might have on others to refrain from behavior that puts others at risk. My paradigm example of this type of person is the drunk driver.

An intellectually reckless person is one who does not care enough about the welfare of others to critically examine his beliefs, making sure that he does not promote falsehoods that are harmful to others. A person who refuses to go through these efforts proves that his concern for others is lacking. When the victims of a particular habit of intellectual recklessness are children, it would be legitimate to charge the person with child abuse.

However, not all false beliefs represent intellectual recklessness. False beliefs can come from a mental illness, causing a person to hear voices or to see things that are not there. Yesterday, in “Mahzarin Banaji: Bugs of the Mind,” I showed evidence that even properly functioning brains do not always generate true beliefs. Furthermore, as I wrote in “Theism as Mental Abuse and Child Abuse,” we simply do not have the time or the ability to hold all of our beliefs up to rational scrutiny – particularly when we are young. We must use rules of thumb. One of those rules of thumb is to simply accept the beliefs that surround us when we are children. These beliefs are quite reliably (though fallibly) true.

The demand for perfect rationality is, itself, irrational.

The case of moral culpability in “Reckless Argumentation” rests on the fact that the author had an easy and widely accepted method available to him for checking his premises, and did not use it. He could have simply asked those whose view he was criticizing, “Did I get your view right?” He did not. The only reasonable conclusion to draw is that he did not care about the truth – that he was, in fact, intellectually reckless.

So, Dawkins’ first topic of consciousness raising missed the mark.


Dawkins then goes on to illustrate two other differences between religious ways of thinking and scientific way of thinking.

In the first illustration, he puts up a map that divides the world into predominant religious beliefs – some areas showing up as Protestant, some as Catholic, some as Muslim, and others as Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu, and the like. He then expresses the absurdity of putting up an identical map of scientific beliefs, illustrating regions where people believe that the dinosaurs were killed by an asteroid, other regions where people believe that a comet killed the dinosaurs, disease-theorists, and the like.

I think that it is important to note that we could put up such a map. It might even show some regional preferences for different theories. It might even be the case that a person is more or less likely to embrace a particular theory because it is the most widely accepted theory in the place where he was raised. However, the important difference between science and religion in this respect is that, even though these things may be true, to the scientist, it does not matter.

In particular, the asteroid theorist has no obligation to ‘respect’ the beliefs of the disease theorist. It would be particularly absurd to have an asteroid theorist publish a paper showing evidence that the disease theory has a fatal flaw, then have the disease theorists fire back article after article accusing the author of being an ‘asteroid fundamentalist’ or ‘asteroid militant’. The disease theorist who would respond in this way simply proves that he has lost touch with the nature of the issue under debate.

This is the point that Dawkins makes best in his third example. He puts up a table of contents for hypothetical special issue of “The Quarterly Review of Biology”. The articles included in his table of contents are:

(1) “Iridium layer at K/T boundary and potassium argon dated crater in Yucatan indicate that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs.”

(2) “The President of the Royal Society has been vouchsafed a strong inner conviction that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs.”

(3) “It has been privately revealed to Prof. Huxdane that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs.”

(4) “Professor Holdley was brought up to have total and unquestioning faith that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs.”

(5) “Professor Hawkins has promulgated an official dogma binding on all loyal Hawkinsians that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs.”

(Note: I am not sure that I got the names right in these articles. The slide, as displayed, was blurry and his speech was not entirely clear.)

Given that Dawkins’ began this part of his presentation with an example of chauvinism, I find it ironic that he would assume here that a peer-reviewed scientific journal is the best place to illustrate the differences between scientific and religious claims. Is it not reasonable to suggest that the scientific paper has a home-court advantage here? Let us put these types of claim in a different context, and see how they measure. It would not be difficult to level the charge against him that his examples exhibit ‘science chauvinism’.

Before I get into too much trouble for that statement, let me change the context slightly so that I can illustrate its importance.

Most people do not read scientific journals. Most people are going to hear about the claim that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs through traditional media. Items (2) through (5) can appear in the mainstream media pretty much as Dawkins wrote them. However, a reporter reading (1) in a scientific journal would need to make an important change to turn it into a news article. He would have to write something like:

(1’) “According to an article in The Quarterly Review of biology, an asteroid killed the dinosaurs.”

Now, all five statements are alike. Every one of them tells the reader that an authority has decided that a particular proposition is true. In all five cases, the average reader lacks the inside knowledge of how the field works to be able to determine if the claim is true or false. They must trust somebody else to read the scripture or tea leaves or entrails or scientific instruments, and to communicate the results. To the common reader, they are all very much alike.

I happen to know of an important difference. I know that science is in the practice of comparing different claims with reality. Scientific theories have to be able to explain and predict real-world events. Those that fall short are constantly being thrown out in favor of those that do a better job.

So, now, let us assume that you have five bowls of soup in front of you. Every one was selected from a large supply of soups, some of which were poisoned. One of them comes with the claim that scientists have conducted a number of tests – including feeding soup samples to subjects who are much like humans - and they predict that this soup will not kill you. Another was selected by somebody who meditated while thinking about soup until he received divine inspiration to pick a particular soup. Another read a random piece of scripture and interpreted it as saying that he should pick yet a third soup.

Which soup would the wise person eat?

Which soup would the truly compassionate and concerned parent feed to her children?

There are those who would make decisions over which soup to eat, and which soup to feed their children, based on these other methods. The result is untold, and incalculable, death, disease, and depravation. At the same time, the history of the last 400 years is a history of scientists doing a better and better job of determining which soups are poison and which are nourishing, and feeding the world as a result.

Then there are priests who, when asked which soup scripture recommends, peek over at the scientist’s answer, before finding that interpretation of scripture that happens to give the same answer.

Where there is consciousness to be raised, I recommend that it be done here. One method champions better and better ways of detecting poison through gathering an increasing body of evidence, keeping those methods that are empirically shown to be the best at predicting which soups will kill those who eat them and which will nourish them, and constantly throwing away those that are less reliable. The rest demand that we must continue to use methods invented 1300, 2000, or more years ago and have faith that they give us the right answer.

If there is consciousness to be raised, then I suggest that it be done here: If you do not wish to feed your children poison, then it is wise to go with those who, by their nature, are constantly tossing away less reliable methods for detecting poison for more reliable methods.


Ultimately, I am going to end this post with the same set of claims that ended yesterday’s post. Instead of defending atheism over religion, I would suggest that it would be more useful to focus on epistemic responsibility, particularly when a person is arguing about actions and policies that do harm to others. This, in turn, would recommend the same lessons in epistemic moral responsibility that I mentioned yesterday.


Austin Cline said...

The same can be said if somebody who operates a daycare center reports to the others who work there that a particular child is a vegetarian.

This analogy fails because "vegetarian" is simply someone who doesn't eat meat, not someone who necessarily follows any ideology.

It was common practice to refer to the members of that community as Hutterites – even the children. The statement merely meant that the child was a member of a Hutterite community.

I objected to this back in your original post and you never responded: Is that all that's meant by parents who call their kids "Christian" - that they are simply members of a community and nothing more? It carries no further denotation or connotation of belief, faith, ideology? I don't buy that. I don't dispute that it also means "member of a community," but I deny that it only means that.

Your analogy depends upon a particular use of these terms, but you don't support your premise.

If you have good reasons for rejecting this objection, that's fine — but I don’t think it's right to re-use this argument as if the objection had never been made.

Neonirvana said...

Check out the Richard Dawkins documentary based on his book " The God Delusion" on my blog: