Dawkins, Determinism, and Truth

Philosopher Paul Copan describes his recent experience at a lecture given by Richard Dawkins at Nova Southeastern University:

There I was—the first one in line during the Q&A. I asked Dawkins how he could claim that the naturalist [is] rationally superior to the theist since, according to his book River Out of Eden, all of us are dancing to the music of our DNA. Our beliefs are the product of non-rational, deterministic physical forces beyond our control—whether we’re theists or naturalists. In fact, if the naturalist is right, it’s only by accident—not because he’s more intellectually virtuous than the theist. That is, the naturalist has accidental true belief (which is not knowledge) rather than warranted true belief (which is knowledge).

Dawkins gave the odd reply that it’s kind of like Republicans and Democrats—with each group thinking they’re right and the other group wrong. But on what grounds could either side think they are more rational than the other? Dawkins then added that he supposed that whatever view “works” the correct one to hold. But here’s the problem: what “works” is logically distinct from “true” or “matching up with reality”—since we may hold to a lot of false beliefs that help us survive and reproduce, even if they are false. Indeed, naturalistic evolution is interested in survival and reproduction—the “four F’s” (fighting, feeding, fleeing, and reproducing). Truth, the naturalist philosopher Patricia Churchland argues, is secondary to these pursuits According to another such naturalist, the late Richard Rorty, truth is “utterly unDarwinian.”

To top off his answer to me (without addressing how to ground rationality), Dawkins dismissively quipped that science flies rockets to the moon while religion flies planes into buildings.

Read the rest of the post and see what Professor Copan made of Dawkins’ response.

Darwinism, Morality and Violence

Is mass murder the corollary of belief in materialistic evolution? Dennis Sewell thinks it is. In a controversial article at the Times Online, the former broadcaster at the BBC and contributing editor of The Spectator argues that there is a demonstrable link between Darwin’s theory and the recent spate of high-school killings by teenagers in the US and Europe. While many celebrate the life and impact of Charles Darwin this year, Sewell contends that a darker edge to the man and his theory must be reconsidered:

In America, where Darwin’s writings on morality and race have come under particularly intense critical scrutiny because of the enduring creationist debate, he has been accused of fostering moral nihilism and scientific racism, and even of promoting an ethic that found its ultimate expression in the Holocaust. Most startling of all, a connection has now been drawn between Darwin’s theories and a rash of school shootings.

Looking at the Columbine High School Massacre, where two senior students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 students and 1 teacher in 1999, Sewell suggests that little attention has been paid to their motivation behind the act. Enamoured by Charles Darwin’s ideas, both Harris and Klebold saw their actions as the implementation of natural selection, the British journalist argues. He quotes one of the attorney’s for the families of six of the students killed at Columbine, Barry Arrington:

“I read through every single page of Eric Harris’s journals; I listened to all of the audio tapes and watched the videotapes… It became evident to me that Harris consciously saw his actions as logically arising from what he had learnt about evolution. Darwinism served as his personal intellectual rationale for what he did. There cannot be the slightest doubt that Harris was a worshipper of Darwin and saw himself as acting on Darwinian principles.”

Neither Harris and Klebold were alone in seeing their violence as the outcome and implementation of Darwinism. Sewell discusses other school killings or planned killings and suggests an emerging pattern that cannot be easily dismissed. In describing the social culture that sustains and accumulates around these groups, Sewell refers to one visitor of a Natural Selection Army website who also went on a rampage:

On November 7, 2007, in Tuusula, Finland, Auvinen forced his head teacher to kneel down in front of him before he shot her with his pistol. He slaughtered a further seven victims before turning the gun on himself. Some of the Jokela high school students afterwards described the way Auvinen prowled through the building pointing his gun at people’s heads. Sometimes he would squeeze the trigger and kill them; sometimes, after looking long and hard through the sights, he would suddenly turn away and let his terrified target go free. One witness said he seemed to be choosing his victims at random, but in fact he was making a very deliberate selection. He was trying to weed out the “unfit”.

. . .Auvinen left a special plea for his motivation to be taken seriously and for the world not merely to write him off as a psychopath, or to blame cult movies, computer games, television or heavy metal music, before concluding: “No mercy for the scum of the Earth! Humanity is overrated. It’s time to put natural selection and survival of the fittest back on track.

Even if psychotic teenagers saw their murderous acts of violence as the direct and necessary consequence of materialistic evolution, is it fair to saddle the theory itself with these horrible consequences? Sewell acknowledges that many homicidial groups have identified with philosophers and their writings but yet argues that there are two distinct reasons why Darwinism appeals to the disturbed adolescent mind and justifies these acts:

1.The loss of objective meaning: Sewell suggests that within materialistic evolution is embedded the notion “that human existence has no ultimate purpose or special significance.”

2. The eradication of an objective moral order: “Darwin also taught that morality has no essential authority, but is something that itself evolved — a set of sentiments or intuitions that developed from adaptive responses to environmental pressures tens of thousands of years ago. This does not merely explain the origin of morals, it totally explains them away. Whether an individual opts to obey a particular ethical precept, or to regard it as a redundant evolutionary carry-over, thus becomes a matter of personal choice. Cheerleaders celebrating Darwin’s 200th birthday in colleges across America last February sang “Randomness is good enough for me, If there’s no design it means I’m free” — lines from a song by the band Scientific Gospel. Clearly they see evolution as something that emancipates them from the strict sexual morality insisted upon by their parents. But wackos such as Harris and Auvinen can just as readily interpret it as a licence to kill.”

Sewell says that evolutionary scientists today “describe ethics as merely an illusion produced by genes. From a Darwinian perspective, there is nothing objectively wrong with shooting your classmates; it’s just that most of us have an inherited tendency to kid ourselves that it’s wrong — and that’s something that helps our species in the longer run by keeping playground massacres to an acceptable minimum.”

But materialistic evolution not only justifies these acts of violence by destroying any objective purpose or norm in which to live our life by – Darwinism also encourages both the “toxic doctrine of racial superiority” and eugenics (the practice of improving the quality of the human race by deliberate selection of parents and their offspring). Both with Darwin himself (who wrote in the Descent of Man, if we “do not prevent the reckless, the vicious and otherwise inferior members of society from increasing at a quicker rate than the better class of men, the nation will retrograde, as has too often occurred in the history of the world.”) and in history, Sewell catalogues this embarrassing relationship. He concludes finally:

“The debate between Darwin’s bulldogs and religious fundamentalists over the truth of evolution and the existence of God has become a sterile one. There are, however, many interesting questions about how Darwin’s views chime with our values of liberal democracy and human rights, or the simple lessons of right and wrong that most of us teach our children. But our society cannot begin to address these issues while we are fed only a bowdlerised account of Darwin’s work. The more sinister implications of the world-view that has come to be called “Darwinism” — and the interpretation the teenage nihilists put on it — are as much part of the Darwin story as the theory of evolutions.”

For a fuller discussion of the impact of Darwin on politics and culture, Sewell’s book comes out this month:


The Political Gene: How Darwin’s Ideas Changed Politics (Picador, 2009) by Dennis Sewell

Consciousness and the limits of Science

Let me begin by nailing my colours to the mast. I count myself a materialist, in the sense that I take consciousness to be a species of brain activity. Having said that, however, it seems to me evident that no description of brain activity of the relevant kind, couched in the currently available languages of physics, physiology, or functional or computational roles, is remotely capable of capturing what is distinctive about consciousness. So glaring, indeed, are the shortcomings of all the reductive programmes currently on offer, that I cannot believe that anyone with a philosophical training, looking dispassionately at these programmes, would take any of them seriously for a moment, were in not for a deep-seated conviction that current physical science has essentially got reality taped, and accordingly, something along the lines of what the reductionists are offering must be correct. To that extent the very existence of consciousness seems to me to be a standing demonstration of the explanatory limitations of contemporary physical science.

Michael Lockwood, philosophy professor and fellow of Green College, Oxford, in his article Consciousness and the quantum worlds. In Q. Smith and A. Jokric (eds.), Consciousness: New Philosophical Perspectives, 447–467. Oxford: Clarendon (2003).