Pharyngula

Dawkins vs. Quinn

As some of you might have heard, the Raving Atheist has been getting increasingly wacky and wobbling towards some weirdly irrational beliefs. The latest turn in the saga is that his disaffected readers have jumped ship and have started a brand new site, Raving Atheists. It’s a shame, really: the Raving Atheist was one of the earlier blogs where godlessness was loudly and proudly expressed, and he had a strong community of atheist readers who congregated there, and who are now off on their own site. If nothing else, we can all thank RA for stimulating an interesting group of people.

Another thing I’ll thank him for is that he has a transcript of the radio exchange between David Quinn and Richard Dawkins (mp3 here). I listened to that a while back, and was appalled at the foolishness Quinn was spouting, yet apparently a number of people think Quinn mopped the floor with Dawkins. Shouting dogma does not a victory make, I don’t think, and that’s all Quinn did.

Quinn: Well, I mean the first thing I’d say is that Richard Dawkins is doing what he commonly does, which is he’s setting up strawmen. So he puts God, he puts believing God in the same category as believing in fairies. Well, you know, children stop believing in fairies when they stop being children, but they usually don’t stop believing in God, because belief in God, to my mind, is a much more rational proposition than to believe in fairies or Santa Claus.

Moderator: Do we have more proof that God exists than we do for fairies?

Quinn: I’ll come to that in a second, okay? I mean the second thing is about compartmentalizing yourself, and he uses examples of well, you’ve got intelligent people who somehow also believe the world is only 6,000 years old, and we have a young earth and we don’t believe in evolution. But again, that’s too stark and either/or, I mean there are many people who believe in God, but also believe in evolution and believe the world is 20 billion years old and believe fully in Darwinian evolution or whatever the case may be. Now, in all arguments about the existence or non-existence of God, I mean, often these things don’t even get off the launch pad because the two people debating can’t even agree on where the burden of proof rests — does it rest with those who are trying to proof the existence of God, or does it rest with those who are trying to disproof the existence of God. But I suppose if I bring this onto Richard Dawkins turf and we talk about the theory of evolution, the theory of evolution explains how matter, which we’re all made from, organized itself into, for example, highly complex beings like Richard Dawkins and Ryan Tubridy and other human beings, but what it doesn’t explain to give just one example is how matter came into being in the first place. That, in scientific terms, is a question that cannot be answered, and can only be answered, if it can be answered fully at all, by philosophers and theologians. It certainly can’t be answered by science. And the question of whether God exists or not cannot be answered fully by science either. And commonly, and a common mistake people can believe is, the scientist who speaks about evolution with all the authority of science can also speak about the existence of God with all the authority of science and of course he can. The scientist speaking about the existence of God, is actually engaged in philosophy and theology, but he certainly isn’t bringing to it the authority of science.

Moderator: Answer the original question — have you any evidence for it?

Quinn: Well, I would say the existence of matter itself. I would say the existence of morality. Myself and Richard Dawkins have a really different understanding of the origins of morality. I would say, free will. If you are an atheist, if you are an atheist, logically speaking, you cannot believe in objective morality. You cannot believe in free will. These are two things that the vast majority of humankind implicitly believe in. We believe, for example, that if a person carries out a bad action, we can call that person “bad” because we believe they are freely choosing those actions.

Moderator: Okay . . .

Quinn: An atheist believes we are controlled completely by our genes and have no free actions at all.

Get all that? There’s no substance to Quinn’s claims.

He claims that god is a more rational proposition than Santa Claus, yet he offers no rational support…in fact, the moderator repeatedly asked him to answer the question. When he finally gets down to it, he offers the same two shallow assertions as evidence that Francis Collins did: morality exists (or rather, that atheists cannot believe in morality and free will), and matter exists.

It should be painfully obvious to anyone that the mere existence of a phenomenon is not evidence for a hypothesized mechanism to create it. If I pointed to a puddle on the ground and declared that it is evidence that elephants are walking around, pissing, you’d be right to call me a damned fool if I responded to a request for evidence for the existence of this elephant by pointing to the puddle again and saying that was it — you’d tell me there are plenty of alternative mechanisms (rain, leaking pipes, pissing rhinoceroses, etc.) that could explain it. Similarly, the existence of the universe is not evidence that it was made by a deity, and especially not by your specific, quirky, historically and culturally contingent version of a deity.

Morality is also not necessarily a product of a god. There are evolutionary processes that can select for altruism. We learn by example, and we grow up in the care of individuals who often are making sacrifices for us—I don’t need a Jesus to show me what love and generosity are, I can look to my mother and father who, nice as they are and were, are not gods. Most of us are able to see that the ability to live in a community of other human beings demands some willingness to follow a common morality; again, pragmatism, not a god, can drive our choices to be objectively good people.

As for free will…Quinn seems to think it’s important, but I don’t, and neither does Dawkins. Quinn thinks it’s so important that he has to make up nonsense, such as that genes are destiny. Dawkins tries to dismiss that stupid assertion, but Quinn keeps dragging it back.

Moderator: What evidence do you have, Richard Dawkins, that you’re right?

Dawkins: I certainly don’t believe a word of that. I do not believe we’re controlled wholly by our genes. Let me go back to the really important thing Mr. Quinn said.

Quinn: How are we independent of our genes by your reckoning? What allows us to be independent of our genes? Where is this coming from?

Dawkins: Environment, for a start.

Quinn: But no, hang on, that also is a product of, if you like, matter, okay?

Dawkins: Yes, but it’s not genes.

Quinn: Yes, okay. But what part of us allows us to have free will?

Dawkins: Free will is a very difficult philosophical question and it’s not one that has anything to do with religion, contrary to what Mr. Quinn says.

Quinn: It has an awful lot to do with religion, because if there is no God there is no free will, because we are completely phenomenon.

Dawkins: Who says there is no free will if there’s no God? What a ridiculous thing to say.

Quinn: William Provine, for one, who you quote in your book. I have a quote here from him. Other scientists as well believe the same thing, that everything that goes on in our heads is a product of genes and, as you say, environment and chemical reactions. But there is no room for free will. And Richard, if you haven’t got to grips with that, and you seriously need to as many of your colleagues have, and they deny outright the existence of free will and they are hardened materialists like yourself.

(By the way, Dawkins does not quote or cite Provine in The God Delusion. I’ve got a searchable pdf of the British proofs: no Provine anywhere. “Free will” is mentioned just once, as an example of rationalizations used by theologians to get around the problem of evil—it’s the price we pay for free will.)

I don’t know what Quinn is blithering on about, but it seems to be that he believes there is some non-physical part of his being that is making decisions—it’s not free will he’s going on about, it’s dualism. Quinn is trying to claim that all atheists and naturalists believe we’re unaware, unconscious robots following a fixed program, a kind of billiard-ball intelligence. It’s idiotic. I think Dawkins was right to wave it off, although it might be useful to develop some arguments against this patent silliness in case others try the game of misrepresenting biology.

So what was Dawkins main point that he was trying to get to over Quinn’s querulous interjections?

Moderator: Okay, Richard Dawkins, rebut to that now, as you wish.

Dawkins: I’m not interested in free will. What I am interested in is the ridiculous suggestion that if science can’t say where the origin of matter came from, theology can. The origin of matter —€“ the origin of the whole universe — is a very difficult matter. It’s one that scientists are working on, it’s one that they hope, eventually, to solve. Just as before Darwin, biology was a mystery, Darwin solved that, now cosmology is a mystery. The origin of the universe is a mystery. It’s a mystery to everyone. Physicists are working on it, they have theories, but if science can’t answer that question then as sure as hell theology can’t either.

Quinn: It is a perfectly reasonable proposition to ask yourself, “where does matter come from?” And it’s perfectly reasonable as well to posit the answer God created matter.

Dawkins: It’s not reasonable.

That’s the crux of it. Why should we trust theology? Has it ever come up with an objective, testable, believable answer to anything? Quinn seems to think he can just say “God did it,” and he has provided an acceptable answer. He has not. Science does not claim to have all answers, only an effective method to work towards those answers; religion claims to have all the answers, but offers no tools for determining the truth yourself.

The rest is tiresome repetition from Quinn. He hammers away that we can’t say where matter came from, and doesn’t acknowledge that he can’t either, and that chanting “God” doesn’t get us any closer to the answer.

Dawkins wasn’t as aggressive as he could have been, but come on. He’s hampered by two things: he’s a nice guy, and like many of us, he finds it hard to believe the stupidity of the arguments the opposition can bring out. Those are real handicaps when you have to go head-to-head with obnoxious nitwits like David Quinn.

Comments

  1. #1 Xerxes1729
    October 22, 2006

    Quinn’s argument basically comes down to this:

    Richard Dawkins cannot explain the origin of matter.
    Therefore, God exists.

    This is the state of modern theology? I’ll take St. Anslem any day. At least his argument, though flawed, was kind of clever.

    It’s hilarious to hear Quinn suggest that somehow the origin of the universe is an issue that must be studied theologically, as if theology had some sort of standard methodology or body of established knowledge. Theology has nothing to contribute to that discussion other than “God did it”.

  2. #2 Valhar2000
    October 22, 2006

    Skeptico posted an entry in his blog that is very appropriate to answer one of the (standard) objections brought forth by Quinn.

    After reading about how some of the communist regimes worked, and talking to some of the sillier left-leaning people I know, I came to the conclusion that Communism (and many other political propositions) were in fundamental ways no different from religion, and would be repugnant to a person who had arrived to atheism in the manner that Dawkins (and any-one with half a brain) advocates.

    How is it different to assert that every man owes allegiance to Jesus Christ because he died for our sins and must therefore submit to the will of the Church, and saying that every person owes allegiance to The Good of the People and must therefore submit to the mandate of The Party?

    It is the very same kind of servile, complacent and compartmentalized thinking that is promoted by the religions of the world that made Communism and National Socialism possible.

  3. #3 George
    October 22, 2006

    Slightly off topic.

    Hey PZ, nice review of God Delusion on Seed!

    Am reading God Delusion slowly, enjoying every barb, poke, skewer, stab, and piece of ridicule it contains.

    Dawkins. Yum!

  4. #4 Sastra
    October 22, 2006

    I agree, the “Free Will Proves God” argument falls flat. It’s nothing more than an appeal to dualism, with its attendant assumption that somehow placing Free Will off into its own irreducible category solves the problem. We get Free Will from the Free Will Force, just the way we get matter from a Matter-Creating Force. Wow. What’s really been illuminated? Those aren’t explanations; they’re dead-end excuses for remaining in the dark.

    Quinn mentions Provine, but fails to mention Daniel Dennett, a prominent nontheist who has written several BOOKS defending naturalism-based compatibilist versions of Free Will. If this is an example of someone “mopping the floor” with Dawkins, I’m not eating anything that drops on it.

  5. #5 Xerxes1729
    October 22, 2006

    Jeb – Honest atheists will say that they don’t *know* that a god does not exist, but that they’re pretty sure there isn’t one. As Dawkins is fond of pointing out, everyone is an atheist about most of the gods that people have ever believed in everywhere. Ask a fundamentalist Christian if Thor exists, or Isis or Ganesh. He’ll tell you, with absolute certainty, that they don’t. An atheist just believes in one fewer gods than a (mono)theist.

  6. #6 Pete
    October 22, 2006

    Quinn’s arguments are of course specious and empty, but Dawkins was not as skilled as I expected him to be in demolishing them. Dawkins should read some more Dennett to meet the free will jab, and have a better answer for the sophomoric “matter exists therefore god exists”. Also some debate practice wouldn’t hurt; I got the impression that he ceded dominance to Quinn early on.

    However, the actual answer to the free will argument might make some people uneasy. What most people understand by “free will” is, as Quinn was saying, some kind of magical ability to sidestep mechanical causation and be the “true” originator of your body’s behavior – and we certainly do not have this. One may disbelieve in the “big god” in the sky but still hang on to the “little god” who lives in your brain and wills actions into existence. We do have free will, of course, but in a way that is fully compatible with physics. But if you try to explain this complicated subject in a few minutes on a radio interview, it would sound to most people like you’re saying we have no free will.

    Jeb – do you disbelieve in anything? I bet you do. I bet you disbelieve that there is a pink ostrich in your bedroom right now who will disappear without a trace if you go look for it. All that a rational atheist proposes is that you should have the same degree of disbelief in a deity, that you have toward that pink ostrich – no more, no less – because the amount of evidence is the same in each case.

  7. #7 Ian H Spedding
    October 22, 2006

    All that debate – or, rather, the reaction to it – proves is that loudness and aggression can impress an audience more than reason. A triumph of style over substance.

    But we already knew this. The televangelists and TV pundits like Bill O’Reilly use the same technique.

    The only grounds for possibly criticising Dawkins is that he has yet to find the most effective response in terms of presentation.

  8. #8 jeffw
    October 22, 2006

    But we already knew this. The televangelists and TV pundits like Bill O’Reilly use the same technique.
    The only grounds for possibly criticising Dawkins is that he has yet to find the most effective response in terms of presentation.

    Yeah, Dawkins was too nice, allowing himself to be interrupted, and not returning the favor. Unfortunately, when you deal with these cretins, you have to sink to their level. Lowest common denominator, and all that.

  9. #9 Jonathan Badger
    October 22, 2006

    After reading about how some of the communist regimes worked, and talking to some of the sillier left-leaning people I know, I came to the conclusion that Communism (and many other political propositions) were in fundamental ways no different from religion, and would be repugnant to a person who had arrived to atheism in the manner that Dawkins (and any-one with half a brain) advocates.

    Communism in its time attracted people far more impressive intellectually than Dawkins — people like the geneticists J.B.S. Haldane an John Maynard Smith and crystallographers Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin and J.D. Bernal. And such people considered themselves free of any dogma, religious or otherwise. (on the other hand, they lived in societies that *weren’t* Communist, so by being Communists they were being counter-cultural; in East Germany many dissidents joined the Lutheran Church, not out of any real piety, but because it was a way of thumbing their noses at the Communist regime).

  10. #10 George
    October 22, 2006

    I count myself a strong atheist. I believe this position is legitimized easily – go to a well-stocked library and browse the religion shelves for half a day. Then go to the science shelves for the second half of the day. At a macro level (maybe there’s a better word for it), it’s very hard not to come to the conclusion that the theistically-minded people are full of it. It’s made-up crap.

    Once you realize theism is a crock and a huge waste of time (and think of the billions of hours consumed by humans on this crap!), it’s legitimate to make skewer what theists say, which is what Dawkins does brilliantly.

    He’s effective because he doesn’t give them the benefit of the doubt. His bullshit meter is always on. He turns us on to the absurdity of religious talk. People make the mistake with these lunatics of giving their arguments some credence. Whenever that happens, people are ripe to be sucked into the bullshit vortex and spit out the other side as God-loving, bullshit-spouting, idiots. Dawkins nips it in the bud and says, in effect, enough of your bullshit!

  11. #11 The Ridger
    October 22, 2006

    As for free will…Quinn seems to think it’s important, but I don’t, and neither does Dawkins.

    Free will is desperately important to Christians – most theists, I expect – because free will is the only way to reconcile “loving god” with evil. See, if we don’t have free will, we can’t reject god and sin and deserve bad things to happen to us.

  12. #12 Common Sense
    October 22, 2006

    “I listened to that a while back, and was appalled at the foolishness Quinn was spouting, yet apparently a number of people think Quinn mopped the floor with Dawkins.”

    I guess everyone believes what they want to believe. Maybe HE should go at it with Mr. Quinn, and see whether or not Quin mops the floor again.

    Sounds more like a dog with a big bark but small bite.

  13. #13 Jeb
    October 22, 2006

    Pete,

    I guess my argument is more likely one of semantics. At what point does one declare themselves an Atheist? I for one am not a religious person, however, I feel that peoples beliefs should be respected, or at least tolerated.

    What purpose does a book like Dawkins serve? Is it to bolster the support for evolution (something I completely believe in), or is it just to belittle the beliefs of the religious. The title suggests anyone believing in a God is delusional, at best this will bring the open minded to consider his point of view, at worst it serves as a rallying point for religious leaders against the unbelievers.

    Is it a book that promotes open minded discussion or simply just more intolerance? (such as calling people idiots)

  14. #14 Sastra
    October 22, 2006

    What purpose does a book like Dawkins serve? Is it to bolster the support for evolution (something I completely believe in), or is it just to belittle the beliefs of the religious.

    Dawkins approaches the concept of God as if it were to be taken as a serious hypothesis. In doing so, he’s not so much “belittling” the belief as giving it the same sort of respect — and the same sort of criticism — that he or any other scientist or philosopher should give to any theory which they believe to be significantly flawed. If “God” is supposed to really exist — if it’s supposed to really *matter* and make a difference in the world — then keeping hands off and treating it like a form of personal therapy, private inclination, or subjective matter of taste is giving it less than its due.

    If Dawkins can make a reasonable case for atheism, then I think it serves the purpose of making atheism a reasonable position. Given the current climate of scorn and dismissal of atheists, that’s no small goal. A reasonable case for atheism might also help to undermine supernaturalistic distortions of current science and medicine — which can have harmful effect, and hinder the pursuit of truth.

  15. #15 MarkP
    October 22, 2006

    “Intolerance” is attempting to use some form of force to prevent certain opinions from being held or voiced. There is nothing intolerant about giving a subject serious consideration, concluding one side is full of beans, and expressing this opinion. This is all Dawkins does with the issue of God. Freedom of speach does not come with an exemption from criticism.

    It is up to the side making claim that “God exists” is true to give the term “God” a clear meaning. Failure to do so makes the atheistic position more reasonable rather than less. After all, we’d not accuse those who don’t believe in The Snark of being intellectually unreasonable due to the lack of a clear definition of what a snark is.

    Personally, I think the hystrionic reaction to Dawkins by many on the believing side of the aisle is testament to one of PZ’s points in an earlier blog. No matter how self-effacing and polite an atheist may be (if you’ve heard Dawkins speak you know what I mean), if he unapologetically takes the position that there is no God, and expresses the logical ramifications of that, there is a considerable portion of the pious masses that will take personal umbrage. Period.

  16. #16 Cyan
    October 22, 2006

    Quinn: It is a perfectly reasonable proposition to ask yourself, “where does matter come from?” And it’s perfectly reasonable as well to posit the answer God created matter.

    Dawkins: It’s not reasonable.

    I like the tack Dawkins took on Colbert more:

    Colbert: I’m lost. I’m lost. I’m lost. It hurts when I think. See, if I just think that God just (clapping hands) did it, that I can understand.

    Dawkins: And who just did God, then?

    I imagine an exchange that would go like this:

    Quinn: It is a perfectly reasonable proposition to ask yourself, “where does matter come from?” And it’s perfectly reasonable as well to posit the answer God created matter.

    Dawkins: And what’s God made of, then?

    Quinn: God’s not made of anything!

    Dawkins: I quite agree!

  17. #17 Daniel Colascione
    October 23, 2006

    Who would use “myself” in the sense of “Myself and Richard Dawkins have a really different understanding of the origins of morality”?

    That hypercorrective word choice was very revealing of his mindset. It reflects perfectly the mindset he and his followers share: that appearance is more important than actual correctness, and that complexity can be used to hide thoughts rotten at the core.

  18. #18 idris
    October 23, 2006

    There is much to object to in both Quinn and Dawkins presentation of the arguments, however I think it is a bit hasty to respond to Quinn as follows:

    “It should be painfully obvious to anyone that the mere existence of a phenomenon is not evidence for a hypothesized mechanism to create it.”

    On the contrary, it should be painfully obvious that the existence of a phenomenon is evidence for the truth of postulated explanations. Question: Why does the existence of boiling give reason to beieve in atoms? Answer: because if there were atoms, and they possessed certain features, then that would explain the phenomena.

    Of course, the phenomena are evidence the best explanations of them — hence your mention of alternative explanations. Note, however, that the possibility of alternative explanations is not by itself enough to defeat belief in the postulated mechanisms.

    If there are rival hypotheses, then the dispute then becomes one of detail: and one must ask, among other things, does this hypothesis have more problematic consequences than its rival — does it, for example, rule out free will or morality (or whatever)? Whether theism is laughable depends on the details of answering these kinds of questions.

    Ok, so what about the details? If you do due diligence about almost any philosophical question — e.g. does free will require dualism? etc. — then you will discover that what might have appeared laughable is not. Smart people have put together good and challenging arguments in favor, for example, of dualism of some kind or other. Smart people have identified serious problems with the existence of moral facts, the solution of which could very well be provided theistically. The take home lesson of the last 50 years of philosophical reflection on the existence of God is this: theism might be false, but its falsehood is not obvious.

    -idris

  19. #19 Greg Peterson
    October 23, 2006

    The existence of a god does absolutely nothing for free will. If anything, a god might make free will less likely. But the fact is, at any given decision point, a person can either decide on the basis of the past up to that point, or make a random decision. Randomness is not freedom, and a person cannot control all the events in the past that might lead one to make a certain choice. This is equally true if there is a god or not. And since God is said to know the future, and set the boundary conditions at creation, everything would have been entirely fixed in place at the moment of creation–unless theists are willing to assert “uncaused causation” within the minds of humans. Of course, once one asserts “uncaused causation,” one loses the “where did matter come from” argument by default. This is highly unsophisticated theistic banter, and if anything, Dawkins was a genial and generous gentleman not to cut this nonsense into nano-ribbons.

  20. #20 Loudon is a Fool
    October 24, 2006

    My personal preference would be that the empiricist crowd stick to what they are good at: fixing toasters and cars, coming up with quick and convenient ways to reheat food, and designing wall paint that covers in a single coat. Metaphysics, epistemology, origins of life, etc. Notwithstanding the weakness of the appeal to authority, it seems those questions are all above the typical empiricist pay grade. This comment, of course, concerns the typical empiricist. This crowd is clearly a deeply philosophical bunch, with a classical liberal arts education, and a deep and penetrating (calm down, Mr. Dawkins) knowledge of the history of the western philosophical tradition.

  21. #21 David Jakobsen
    October 25, 2006

    I do not agree with Myers that Quinn looked that bad in this argumentation. In fact I think he surely gave Dawkins a hard time. I have commented that in a post here:
    http://www.apologetik.dk/?p=322

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