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.