Pharyngula

More misplaced Dawkins furor

Richard Dawkins sure does a fine job of placing sticks of dynamite under people’s chairs and blowing them up. I’ve been out of town and I haven’t even had net access for the past day, so nobody can blame me for this latest round of anti-atheist outrage going on in these parts.

Dawkins’ latest op-ed suggesting an alternative reason for not assassinating people like Saddam Hussein was more than enough to provoke frantic scurrying in these parts. Barbara calls him a “fundamentalist atheist” (that tired old slander), Chris is horrified that Dawkins seems to feel “justified in objectifying Hussein” (scientific curiousity being so much more awful than the political objectification that goes on), John talks about “the value of justice over science” (where, of course, the non-scientific approach has certainly demonstrated its nuanced appreciation of justice in this case), and Mike simply agrees with the critics.

I’m not impressed with the complaints. I don’t see that Dawkins was suggesting that the only reason Hussein should have been spared was because of his utility as a guinea pig; what is clear from the very first sentence of his piece was that there are many valid, obvious objections to the executions, and that all he was doing is adding one more small objection. I think that what he actually did was toss out one example of a purely scientific motivation for committing a moral act, the sparing of a man’s life, as part of the whole parcel of demonstrating that an atheist’s and scientist’s position is not an amoral one. I am amused at the people who are freaking out over his comments, as if they represent some horribly evil idea, when the contrast is with a bunch of people who joyfully killed a man while chanting politial and religious slogans. Get some perspective here; who has committed the amoral act?

Just to be on the up and up, Dawkins bounced the op-ed off me and some other people before publishing it. I suggested that there were a lot of people who had their minds made up and weren’t going to react positively to the suggestion at all (yes, I am prescient), but that it was a novel twist that might resonate with a minority of the readers. I did disagree with one thing; I didn’t think studying Hussein would have taught us much. I said,

I’d be more inclined to see a study of the political and social environment in which tyrannical thugs, which are dime-a-dozen, can rise to power as more productive than trying to figure out what’s going on in the head of a petty dictator.

Now that I think on it, though, I realize that we’re also in the middle of demolishing that political/social environment and putting an even more pathological one in its place, so maybe Iraq is one big scientific experiment. Not a benign one like Dawkins’ suggestion that actually makes an excuse for not killing someone, but a grand nation building experiment that in the mind of the anti-science right justifies mass murder and destruction.

Again, I’m baffled by the reaction to a hypothetical observation that demands that we don’t kill, compared to the ongoing massive moral imperative to kill without regret.

Comments

  1. #1 Dave Carlson
    January 6, 2007

    When it comes to Dawkins, I tend to land on the side of the so-called “Neville Chamberlain atheists” more often than not, but I too was baffled by the reactions to Dawkins’ piece. Some people, it seems, are just chronically disposed to interpreting Dawkins in the most uncharitable manner possible.

  2. #2 SmellyTerror
    January 6, 2007

    Reality is a scientific experiment. Don’t they know what science is? The HORROR! Imagine wanting to study something rather than kill it, burn it, and dance on its ashes.

    Anyway, folk can scream over this because Dawkins actually presented reasons, and that pins him down. Mistake. It’s much harder to attack vague sentiment. What do supporters of the execution present as reasons? “Justice”? Waving a magic word around doesn’t actually explain a damn thing. One side can be lambasted for their reasons for making the guy live, because the other side don’t give – or apparently need – real reasons.

    An appeal to humans’ natural desire for revenge is easy. Why would they bother with reason?

  3. #3 Chris
    January 6, 2007

    You may disagree, but it’s odd to call my dislike for Dawkins, and disagreement with his op-ed, “anti-atheism,” given that I’m an atheist. An atheist of a different sort, it’s true, in that I treat atheism as a life and moral decision rather than a scientific one, but still an atheist, and a pretty zealous one at that.

    Also, I stated in my post that I’m anti-death penalty in all cases. I don’t think states should be in the murder business in any way, shape, or form, be it “legal” executions, less than legal assassinations, or unjust wars that result in tens of thousands of civilian deaths. If Dawkins were simply advocating that we not execute Hussein, that is fine, but as I pointed out in my post, even if we accept the most charitable interpretation of Dawkins’ letter, governments keeping people around simply because they find them useful, for scientific purposes or whatever, is a dangerous way to go too.

  4. #4 Christian Burnham
    January 6, 2007

    You lot are slowly winning me around to your argument that Hussein should have been kept alive.

    I still think we run the risk of agonizing over the fate of Hussein- whilst forgetting the thousands of nameless victims that he had killed and/or tortured.

    Well- I’m sure you haven’t forgotten them- but let’s keep things in perspective.

  5. #5 SmellyTerror
    January 6, 2007

    Shris: When science replaces religion, it becomes more and more like religion, and in the minds of its worshipers, can justify the same sorts of inhumanities.

    You don’t call that atheist bashing? sure, it might the the “other kind of atheist”, but I really can’t see how it can be read in any other way.

    …keeping people around simply because they find them useful, for scientific purposes or whatever, is a dangerous way to go too.

    Dawkins didn’t say he should be kept alive purely for research. He said there were lots of reasons, and that he was adding one more.

  6. #6 PZ Myers
    January 6, 2007

    Oh, come on. His very first sentence demonstrates that you are wrong: he’s not advocating keeping people around simply because they find them useful — he’s only offering one more reason among an openly acknowledged many. It’s not merely a charitable interpretation, it’s an openly stated premise from word one.

  7. #7 valhar2000
    January 6, 2007

    Well, it seems that people are dying to find evidence that will validate other opinions they already hold; that is why some of these critics “clearly” read into Dawkins rather insipid article meanings that I cannot fathom in any way.

    I don’t think that any comparison is being made between Dawkins sugestion and what has transpired; comparisons are being made between his suggestion and… something else.

  8. #8 Caledonian
    January 6, 2007

    Among a certain kind of Christians, intentions count for everything while results are almost irrelevant. Our glorious leaders invaded Iraq with the intention of creating a friendly, democratic, and peaceful nation-state; therefore, the invasion was justified, and the unfortunate results in no way diminish the moral appropriateness of the intentions – or so the reasoning goes.

    This is the same phenomenon. Whether a man is killed is irrelevant, what matters is what we intend to do and how we intend to do it. What we actually do, and how we actually do it, doesn’t matter.

    Thus, killing hundreds of thousands of people (and creating conditions for hundreds of thousands more to be killed) is fine as long as we didn’t mean to do it. Intending a man to act as a guinea pig is a horrible atrocity.

    By now, you’ve probably guessed what I think should be done with such people.

  9. #9 mjh
    January 6, 2007

    Isn’t slippery slope a standard fallacy of argument? Chris seems to have thrown a can of WD-40 and a pound of melted butter on his downward slope.

  10. #10 Tyler DiPietro
    January 6, 2007

    Chris,

    If Dawkins were simply advocating that we not execute Hussein, that is fine, but as I pointed out in my post, even if we accept the most charitable interpretation of Dawkins’ letter, governments keeping people around simply because they find them useful, for scientific purposes or whatever, is a dangerous way to go too.

    Oddly enough I was just in the process typing up a post for my own blog (URL embedded in name below) on why slippery-sloping is usually a bad form of argument. As PZ said, there are a myriad of reasons for keeping Hussein alive, and I don’t see Dawkins challenging that anywhere in his op-ed.

    And yes, it is the “most charitable” interpretation of Dawkins to say that he doesn’t advocate torture a la Joseph Mengela. Perhaps it is this overwhelming tendency to assume is some kind of atheist Nazi that PZ has in mind when he uses a term like “anti-atheist”.

  11. #11 Tyler DiPietro
    January 6, 2007

    Me, from above:

    Perhaps it is this overwhelming tendency to assume Dawkins* is some kind of atheist Nazi that PZ has in mind when he uses a term like “anti-atheist”.

    *Fixed.

  12. #12 Tiax
    January 6, 2007

    Even if he were suggesting that we should reduce punishments like this to -only- to get useful information, I hardly see the problem. Such practices are a core component of our justice system. Someone gives us useful information, and we take the death penalty off the table. In other cases, we agree to let people out of jail early. Where were all these objectors when Jack Abramoff made a plea deal because of all the information he could give us?

  13. #13 Observer
    January 6, 2007

    I don’t understand how these people can read the worse interpretation of Dawkins’ article. I read it a couple of days ago and totally agreed with him. I’ve written about the same exact thing on my community board, especially after a friend was murdered, and didn’t get such kneejerk responses from right-wingers! As part of my entire argument against capital punishment, the desire to “study” these mass murderers, et al. is purely practical and very well may be of sociological benefit. You can’t ask questions of a dead person!

    We already do this with endless questionnaires, studies, focus groups with regular people, plus interviews with famous murderers in prison. I have seen all the Manson family interviews, and Manson, for instance, and I’ve always been very curious how these people think after years. Do they finally have a sense of remorse? Were they truly psychopathic, etc. etc. It’s not to use people as “guinea pigs” in any other way then we use each other now. It’s simply one more “useful” reason to the larger issue of why we shouldn’t have state-sponsored killing in the first place.

    I personally would have no sense of justice or closure by killing the person who murdered my friend. I would perhaps feel something upon hearing him in future years come to grips with what he’s done. I see no problem with submitting to brain scans (as we do with non-criminals!) to perhaps learn something useful in that way about the psychological underpinnings of criminals. This is already being done!

    I understand the need to not want to “romanticize” criminals by providing them forums to go on talking, and I understand some victims’ need for retribution, but I don’t agree with it. I don’t think Dawkins’ view on this is an atheist’s view – I see it as more of a pragmatic view on the subject of capital punishment and ONE MORE REASON NOT TO EXECUTE PEOPLE.

    Geesh, thanks for raising my blood pressure. People who start going off about scientists and using people as guinea pigs in some Dr. Mengele-nefarious way are really reading much to into this.

  14. #14 jb
    January 6, 2007

    Just to be on the up and up, Dawkins bounced the op-ed off me and some other people before publishing it.

    Well, that explains a lot. Perhaps if Dawkins were to hire some real PR experts, they’d have the gumption to tell him when it’s best to just keep his trap shut long enough for the aftershocks to die down.

  15. #15 Tyler DiPietro
    January 6, 2007

    Well, that explains a lot. Perhaps if Dawkins were to hire some real PR experts, they’d have the gumption to tell him when it’s best to just keep his trap shut long enough for the aftershocks to die down.

    Well sure, but controversy has good effects. For one it increases traffic to the SB website, which means they can charge higher premiums for advertisement space, and thus stay here longer so we can yell at each other about the next controversy. :)

  16. #16 ThomasHobbes
    January 6, 2007

    Can I argue for a moment about Dawkin’s actual points, and not the reaction to them? Thank you.

    I tend to agree with what he says: there is still a void in understanding why and how people come to do immoral, violent things to their fellow men. Not that the field isn’t a topic of research, nor that we don’t understand anything about it–the Stanford prison experiments and the Milgram experiment come to mind in particular, suggesting that evil can flourish under a mere deference to authority, rather than a specific intent. There’s still much to learn.

    That said, I also agree that Saddam Hussein probably would not have taught us much: who would have been surprised to find out that he was a sociopath who justified his violence by blaiming the victims and elevating himself? By all accounts, it sounds like he came from the Idi Amin/Augusto Pinochet/Khmer Rouge school of dictators; it also sounds like he was no outlier (in terms of motivation) in the long, unpleasant history of such rulers. Nonetheless, such dictators are (happily) rare enough that we ought to be content to have the chance to capture one alive and study him.

    Now such considerations are academic, and all we can do now (beyond analyzing the information that we already have on Hussein) is try to claim that we will “never again” allow such dictators to flourish. That’s worked out real well so far, hasn’t it?

  17. #17 Caledonian
    January 6, 2007

    Chris seems to have some problems with science. See Where Rampant Scientism Takes You and What is Scientism? for examples.

    I’ve asked him to provide us with a single example of knowledge that we can all recognize as valid without utilizing the scientific method.

    Let’s see what he says, shall we?

  18. #18 Anatoly
    January 6, 2007

    The problem with Dawkins’ op-ed isn’t that it’s morally corrupt; it’s that it’s so silly and naive. Neither Saddam nor Hitler were uniquely evil or cruel; many, many people throughout history and now have been and are no less cruel.
    Dawkins’s claim that “most people can’t even come close to understanding how any man could be so cruel as Hitler or Hussein” is preposterous and unsubstantiated sentimental twaddle. Most people come to contact with enough evil and hatred in their everyday life to make it quite possible to extrapolate that experience to the scale of a Hitler or a Saddam.

    Psychologists have had access to various abnormal and abhorrent people (mentally ill, prisoners, sexual offenders, etc. etc.) for many decades now, and haven’t gotten much in the way of objective science from that; in fact, the nontrivial conclusions they have drawn seem to point towards the potential for evil being present in all of us, very common, very much near the surface (see the Stanford prison experiment). Frankly, psychologists are mostly busy pursuing much more sensible problems than “struggling to understand how an individual human being could be so evil” – that’s Hallmark-channel understanding of psychology. Besides, there’s absolutely no reason to think any kind of questioning of Saddam would yield anything but self-serving propaganda.

    I’m reminded of one of the closing scenes of the movie, “Starship Troopers”, where brave human researchers poke a captured “thinking bug” with sharp needles, trying to understand its psychology. Dawkins googly-eyed-happy picture of a swarm of social scientists in white coats, questioning Saddam and learning oh-so-much hard data about human nature, is painfully ridiculous.

  19. #19 Azkyroth
    January 6, 2007

    MJH:

    I must inform you that I am going to steal that way of putting it. Fucking brilliant. :D

  20. #20 Tyler DiPietro
    January 6, 2007

    Anatoly,

    I don’t think Dawkins’ op-ed focuses so much on inherent psychological tendencies as the environment in which normal humans can kill, maim, torture, etc. many others without apparent conscience. Perhaps you can read minds, but I myself have no such tendencies. And I think that ameliorating our lack of understanding of such things is important. Nothing “googly-eyed” or “Hallmark” about that.

  21. #21 mjh
    January 6, 2007

    Anatoly, the second part of Dawkins’ sentence you quote is the kicker:

    Most people can’t even come close to understanding how any man could be so cruel as Hitler or Hussein, or how such transparently evil monsters could secure sufficient support to take over an entire country.

    That is is the important question Dawkins raises. The acts of Hussein hardly compare to the daily “evil” we all encounter in our daily lives, which amounts to historically trivial things like someone cutting you off in traffic, greedy employers, or a bar fight or whatever.

  22. #22 PZ Myers
    January 6, 2007

    I’m reminded of one of the closing scenes of the movie, “Starship Troopers”, where brave human researchers poke a captured “thinking bug” with sharp needles, trying to understand its psychology. Dawkins googly-eyed-happy picture of a swarm of social scientists in white coats, questioning Saddam and learning oh-so-much hard data about human nature, is painfully ridiculous.

    I agree — that is ridiculous. However, since it’s you who has brought up needles and white coats and intentionally conjured up a scene from a SF movie, let’s not put the blame on Dawkins.

  23. #23 Aerik
    January 6, 2007

    I’m reminded of one of the closing scenes of the movie, “Starship Troopers”, where brave human researchers poke a captured “thinking bug” with sharp needles, trying to understand its psychology. Dawkins googly-eyed-happy picture of a swarm of social scientists in white coats, questioning Saddam and learning oh-so-much hard data about human nature, is painfully ridiculous.

    Quite an interesting analog. Of course, unlike the arachnids and other bugs who couldn’t help but obey the ‘brain bug’ in Starship Troopers, the people who do Sadda
    m’s bidding (gassing, shooting, hanging, poisoning, espionage, propaganda, etc.) are just as culpable and responsible as Saddam himself. And in that scene of the movie, they aren’t trying to understand it’s psychology as much as it’s biology, when they jam that instrument in its face. Hell, it was more of a poke, if you paid attention. The “two needles’ were two talons of a big mechanical claw, that once inside spread open and a gouge went to work on the bug from the middle of the instrument.

    That scene was about torture in the name of science. It cannot be compared to that scene you are suggesting. And your need to characterize Dawkins as naive is very telling. It seems that the only protest you can manage against Dawkins is that there is a better time, some better way to do things other than being direct and honest. In which case, it is you that is naive.

  24. #24 Caledonian
    January 6, 2007

    But that’s precisely what people seem to think of as ‘scientists’: white coats, probing, and a lack of any kind or moral or ethical sense.

    Most of “Nazi science” wasn’t science, and wasn’t even useful. Now, the Japanese conducted all kinds of unethical experimentation while they were in China, and we made all kinds of deals to get our hands on their research because we weren’t willing to do what it took to acquire that incredibly useful knowledge – precisely because our researchers wouldn’t agree to do those things.

  25. #25 SmellyTerror
    January 6, 2007

    Do all sociopaths gain control over a nation? No. Do you know how he did it, and how he maintained control? No.

    …and how can you hope to learn that now? A seance?

    Maybe he wouldn’t have given us anything useful. Maybe the methods that have worked so many times on other imprisoned murderers would not have worked on him. Maybe. But we’ll never know now, will we?

  26. #26 Anatoly
    January 6, 2007

    mjh,

    It just so happens that “the important question Dawkins raises” has been studied. Historians wrote many volumes on how people like Saddam, Hitler or Stalin come to power and retain their hold on power. Note that Dawkins implicitly, and erroneously, claims this question to be psychological (the previous sentence sets up the one you quoted with ‘the most important research… is psychological’). The question has been studied by historians, sociologists and philosophers (ever since Ortega y Gasset), but not so much by psychologists.

    Take Pinochet. Has his staying alive and very much in his right mind for 15 years after giving up power helped social sciences much? Did we learn a lot of very important hard data about Pinochet’s coming to power, or the functioning of the junta, from the man himself? (I’m sure neither Dawkins nor you would advocate torturing Saddam to get information out of him, hence the distinction of Saddam being a prisoner and Pinochet a free citizen is somewhat irrelevant to this analogy). Have psychologists suffered a huge loss with Pinochet’s demise the other day? Someone must surely write an op-ed!

  27. #27 Dark Matter
    January 6, 2007

    Observer wrote:

    I don’t understand how these people can read the worse interpretation of Dawkins’ article.

    The Kingdom of Noise is ramping up the attacks against Dawkins
    and other vocal evolutionists/atheists. That is what happens
    when you get in the way of the misuse of religion as an
    instrument of political will.

    Expect the swiftboaters and other gunmen of the predatory
    cult that has the reins of power in America to show up
    soon….

  28. #28 mjh
    January 6, 2007

    …and how can you hope to learn that now? A seance?

    I’ll provide the Ouija board and the Slayer records, if anyone is interested. We won’t get answers, of course, but the music will be teh darkness!!!!11one

  29. #29 Observers
    January 6, 2007

    One also wonders how these critics would have perceived the very same article written by a non-scientist nor by Dawkins. Does everyone understand that non-scientists and ordinary people hold Dawkins’s exact view on this issue? By people who are not so fogged up by revenge even for the most hideous specimens of our species?

    My admiration for Dawkins is only growing as people jump on the often precarious tightrope of language. If he maintains his poise against some of these contentious pile-ups, he’s going to be one of my personal heroes of the 21st century.

  30. #30 Anatoly
    January 6, 2007

    Observers,

    Does everyone understand that non-scientists and ordinary people hold Dawkins’s exact view on this issue?

    Your ability to tap into the collective conscious of non-scientists and “ordinary people” (oh my) is uncanny, and is matched only by Dawkins’ piercing insight into “most people”‘s ability to imagine evil.

  31. #31 Abigail
    January 6, 2007

    Its like when Charlie shot Ethan on Lost. That pissed everyone off, because they wanted information about him!

  32. #32 SmellyTerror
    January 6, 2007

    Anatoly: It just so happens that “the important question Dawkins raises” has been studied.

    Oh, it’s been studied! Well, that’s all right then, we can all stop. Never mind, fellas! IT’S BEEN STUDIED! Go home, all you historians. Never mind, psychologists. We already know everything there is to know about the subject. It’s been studied, don’t you know!

    Anatoly, do you honestly think that historians would put no value on the most primary of primary sources? And do you not see the informational difference between Pinochet, who dedicated the last years of his life to avoiding conviction, and Saddam, who was never going to get out of prison?

    Do you think that free serial killers provide anything like the information provided by those who are interviewed in prison?

    Honestly? Or are you being dense on purpose?

  33. #33 mjh
    January 6, 2007

    Anatoly,

    I would think (agree?) with you that it is a question for sociology, not psychology, on that matter, and thus Dawkins’ comment was at least misdirected, if not erroneous. I only know Ortega y Gasset from a quote in the liner notes of a Fugazi record, though.

    But re: topic, that does not explain the odd and vitriolic response to Dawkins’ op-ed here.

  34. #34 craig
    January 6, 2007

    “Most people come to contact with enough evil and hatred in their everyday life to make it quite possible to extrapolate that experience to the scale of a Hitler or a Saddam.”

    Quite possible to, sure…. but most people still don’t. Why else is it so common to call murderers “inhuman” and “monsters?” You can often see people arguinig for capital punishment by saying that “these people aren’t human beings, they’re monsters.”

    Killing each other comes in about third after eating and screwing on the list of what it is people do.

    That’s why we can’t keep these people around – if we get too familiar with them it might start to sink in that he’s just a guy who did what probably 15 or 20 percent of men would have done if in his position. We might start to see similarities between that guy and some of OUR guys in leadership.

    And then we’d be unable to keep telling ourselves that “it can’t happen here” or “our culture is the better one” or that we wouldn’t have behaved like the average German or any of the other lies we tell ourselves.

  35. #35 Colugo
    January 6, 2007

    When I was in grad school my then-hero Dawkins – along with other ‘sociobiologists’ – was unfairly vilified by certain intellectuals as a proponent of (or, at best, for helping lend support to) Social Darwinism and other ultra-reactionary politics, dogmatic genetic determinism, and worse. Much of this criticism came from the left of center.

    Since then, those baseless charges have receded and today Dawkins is under fire from both left and right for quite different reasons. Some of these current attacks are without merit or are overblown, like the ‘Saddam Hussein research’ controversy.

    However, I believe that Dawkins is naïve about both the role of religion and the ability of our current state of scientific knowledge to solve social problems, and this sometimes leads to ill-advised rhetoric on his part. As an atheist and scientific rationalist, I largely agree with Mel Konner’s criticism of Dawkins and Harris.

  36. #36 Observer
    January 6, 2007

    People post so fast…Dark Matter…”The Kingdom of Noise” is an apt expression. The same Kingdom with that noisy “War on Christmas,” for instance, despite that I saw plenty of nativity scenes, despite that me, “raging hardcore atheist,” went to my parent’s church and sang and read along with all of them without melting like the Wicked Witch of the West. I could go on, but “instrument of political will” has always been the case as is evident in the Bible…at least in what I studied in the gospels.

    There is a lot of noise out there and not enough listening. So, is Dawkins so labeled now that everything he writes about will be perceived as an “fundamentalist atheist” diatribe? If that’s the case, then these people have small minds in which there’s little room to grow intellectually.

  37. #37 Anatoly
    January 6, 2007

    ST,

    My point is not that the question’s been studied, it’s that Dawkins seems ignorant of who it is that’s been studying it (namely, not so much psychologists, no; but then Dawkins’s op-ed displays quite feeble understanding of psychology, doesn’t it? In Dawkins’s world, psychologists go around studying evil by interviewing past dictators. In the real world, psychologists prefer to study, you know, psychology).

    Now, Saddam. If he were left alive (by the way, the crude spectacle of his execution was appalling, and he definitely should have been sentenced to life in prison – just not for the reasons Dawkins cites), historians might possibly find him a valuable source of information. It’s a very uncertain “might” – it’s much much more probable that he’d continue to spew self-serving propaganda. What would be his motivation to tell the truth about his reign, his crimes, his coming to power, exactly? Past experience tells us that historians haven’t found primary sources very reliable when recounting the times of their evil deeds and crimes.

    So yeah, historians – a very very uncertain “maybe”. Psychologists? Not so much. “Understanding evil”? The Hallmark-channel school of silly twaddle attacks.

  38. #38 Chris
    January 6, 2007

    First off, most atheists don’t treat science like a religion. Dawkins and PZ do. That’s why I’ve criticized them, not atheism, or atheists in general. Given that there are all sorts of atheists, and lots of different forms of atheism, criticizing philosophically naive rationalists can’t possibly constitute “anti-atheism.”

    Second, as John Hawks put it in an email to me, arguing that Dawkins’ letter advocates something that’s not as bad as Mengele, and is therefore not bad, is pretty absurd. I may have used the equivalent of a slippery slope argument, which amounts to “I don’t like the idea of the government keeping people around just because they’re useful” (it’s not really a slippery slope, but I’ll give you your bad reasoning, for the sake of argument), but at least I have a standard that isn’t “If it ain’t as bad as the Nazis, it ain’t bad.”

  39. #39 yiela
    January 6, 2007

    I don’t agree with Dawkins about there being great potential in the study of people like Saddam but I don’t feel all hysterical about my disagreement with him. Some study would be fine with me and maybe even somewhat useful. We study the psychology of serial killers, do we not? But I don’t think we would learn anything from studying Hussein that would help head off people like him and even if we did, the politics and power involved would make it impossible to apply that knowledge in any useful way. Besides, I think that “they” are not so different from “us”, that is why they are so frightening. It’s not about the psychology of one man, it’s about a society, politics, power, oportunity and lots of stuff like that. No one runs a government alone or commits mass murder alone. Dawkins is naive to think that those with the power to study Saddam would be interested in history. Most just want to shut him up, and they did.

  40. #40 Caledonian
    January 6, 2007

    First off, most atheists don’t treat science like a religion. Dawkins and PZ do.

    I challenge these assertions. Explain to us what it means to treat something “like a religion”, and then defend your claim that Dawkins and PZ have done that.

  41. #41 Anatoly
    January 6, 2007

    mjh,

    But re: topic, that does not explain the odd and vitriolic response to Dawkins’ op-ed here.

    Is it really odd? Contrast with what PZM writes: “Richard Dawkins sure does a fine job of placing sticks of dynamite under people’s chairs and blowing them up.”

    The way I see it, if you throw vitriol at people, you get vitriol back. Much (most?) of flaming directed at Dawkins probably comes from creationists of various kinds, and those religious people who find his vitriolic attacks on religion offensive. But some of it surely comes from people like myself who are neither IDers nor religious zealots, and dislike Dawkins’s arguments not because they’re offensive, but because they find them offensively stupid: reductionist in the unreasonable extreme, lacking in knowledge, imprecise, all vitriol and no wisdom, downright rah-rah silly, etc.

  42. #42 Tyler DiPietro
    January 6, 2007

    First off, most atheists don’t treat science like a religion. Dawkins and PZ do.

    No they don’t. That’s your strawman, based entirely on erroneous conceptions of what Dawkins and PZ are specifically criticizing about religion. And furthermore, you have still failed to provide an example of this glorious and rarefied religious belief that Dawkins fails to address, or this non-scientific knowledge (about the empirical world, presumably) you constantly allude to.

    but at least I have a standard that isn’t “If it ain’t as bad as the Nazis, it ain’t bad.”

    Man, Chris, you just can’t leave the strawmen at the door, can you?

  43. #43 Coathangrrr
    January 6, 2007

    Isn’t slippery slope a standard fallacy of argument?

    It is, but that doesn’t mean that it is always incorrect to warn that some action might be the first step on a slippery slope. It just means that it does not give logical proof that something will be the case.

  44. #44 Tilsim
    January 6, 2007

    A non-executed Saddam might have yielded more information in court. Neither a Mengele style lab nor a psychologist’s sofa would have been needed.

  45. #45 Tyler DiPietro
    January 6, 2007

    But some of it surely comes from people like myself who are neither IDers nor religious zealots, and dislike Dawkins’s arguments not because they’re offensive, but because they find them offensively stupid: reductionist in the unreasonable extreme, lacking in knowledge, imprecise, all vitriol and no wisdom, downright rah-rah silly, etc.

    Needless to say that upon challenge none of these claims have been validated Dawkins detractors. You are welcome to, as outside of the narrow context of his recent LA Times op-ed I’m curious about hearing responses. Beating your chest in an Eagleton-esque fashion doesn’t count.

  46. #46 Caledonian
    January 6, 2007

    Ultimately, Dawkins may not be important for his reasoned arguments, but his ability to make the headcases go totally bonkers and drop the facade of rationality and reasonableness.

    Once they abandon the defensive camoflage, it’s easy to see them for what they are.

  47. #47 Krystalline Apostate
    January 6, 2007

    I just got thru reading the Mahablog, and it was disturbing (I’d have commented there, but the post was closed).
    This bugged me:
    Unfortunately, like every other fundamentalist atheist I’ve ever encountered, he is profoundly ignorant about religion as a whole. The small part of religion he knows and writes about is not representative of the whole.
    Wait: isn’t this the same guy who went to interview nutjobs like Haggard, that Jew-turned-Muslim, the Hell House guy, & the Hebrew convert?
    He might’ve gone in w/some preconceptions, but most ‘fundies’ don’t even BOTHER to go to ANY length to show both sides of the coin. At least, in my limited experience.

  48. #48 Joshua
    January 6, 2007

    How can you defend this horrid creature, PZ? I mean, just look at him, that rabid, hateful, too-strident atheist! You can see the bloody foam forming around his fangs!

  49. #49 Steve LaBonne
    January 6, 2007

    Caledonian- I agree completely. And it’s fun to watch, isn’t it?

  50. #50 PZ Myers
    January 6, 2007

    First off, most atheists don’t treat science like a religion. Dawkins and PZ do.

    I do? But I thought I hated religion and despised all who practice it! This is so confusing.

  51. #51 jb
    January 6, 2007

    Chris said,

    Second, as John Hawks put it in an email to me, arguing that Dawkins’ letter advocates something that’s not as bad as Mengele, and is therefore not bad, is pretty absurd. I may have used the equivalent of a slippery slope argument, which amounts to “I don’t like the idea of the government keeping people around just because they’re useful” (it’s not really a slippery slope, but I’ll give you your bad reasoning, for the sake of argument), but at least I have a standard that isn’t “If it ain’t as bad as the Nazis, it ain’t bad.”

    I see an entirely different argument. PZ says:

    “Dawkins’ latest op-ed suggesting an alternative reason for not assassinating people like Saddam Hussein…”

    Perhaps if I considered the end result of judicial trial, conviction and sentencing for mass murder to be “assassination,” I too would want to save tinpot dictators from their well deserved fate.

  52. #52 PZ Myers
    January 6, 2007

    Wait: isn’t this the same guy who went to interview nutjobs like Haggard, that Jew-turned-Muslim, the Hell House guy, & the Hebrew convert?

    Those aren’t real religious people.

  53. #53 BitterOldCynic
    January 6, 2007

    Dawkins deniers find reality not to their taste. Since they cannot change reality, they replace it with fantasy. Dawkins is undermining their self-delusion, which makes their hatred of him understandable. But still wholly shameful. Although they have lost the capacity to feel shame.

    You know, it’s nice to have heroes again.

  54. #54 Steve LaBonne
    January 6, 2007

    Perhaps it there had BEEN a real trial, rather than what actually happened- a US-manipulated farce combined with a Sadrist revenge fantasy come true- it would look less like an assassination. And in that case perhaps the despicable Saddam would not now be attaining martyr status in much of the Arab world.

  55. #55 Observer
    January 6, 2007

    Observers,

    Does everyone understand that non-scientists and ordinary people hold Dawkins’s exact view on this issue?

    Your ability to tap into the collective conscious of non-scientists and “ordinary people” (oh my) is uncanny, and is matched only by Dawkins’ piercing insight into “most people”‘s ability to imagine evil.

    Posted by: Anatoly

    I was musing out loud how the article may have been perceived if it was written by a non-scientist and not Dawkins. I am a non-scientist and an ordinary person. I don’t see Dawkins’s ruminations on this Saddam/execution issue as anything having to do with atheism, but I see people making it so and/or overreacting. What was your point to me?

    You seem to want complex reasons for what I think is simple curiousity and utility to interviewing and studying such criminals as they remain incarcerated. Executing someone is certainly the simplest thing to do. Perhaps there wouldn’t be such useful benefit to the field of psychology, but people are sure fascinated with watching these interviews when they come out. Gawking at a hanging, gawking at an interview…what serves us best? Who? If nothing is gained from studying such an individual, what’s lost? They rot in prison. What else do you get but revenge if you execute him?

  56. #56 Ed Darrell
    January 6, 2007

    Remember Leopold and Loeb?

    Leopold died in prison in a knife fight. Loeb earned an M.D. behind bars. Eventually released, he moved to Puerto Rico to stay out of controversy. There he became a noted birder, contributing to our knowledge of birds, and he worked in public health, preventing perhaps a million premature deaths by some estimates at his death in 1971.

    The tapestry of a life is made of many colors of thread — some threads are silver, some gold, some are red, some are green, white, yellow, blue, and gray. Some are black.

    Isn’t it extremely odd that so many who profess to be Christian, have given up all hope that a murderer might gain redemption or salvation?

    Dawkins wonders what humans can learn if we look. Some who question science say “don’t look.” It’s troubling that any others of a more rational bent might join in the call to avert our human drive to learn from our mistakes, and even from others’ errors.

  57. #57 mjh
    January 6, 2007

    Is it really odd? Contrast with what PZM writes: “Richard Dawkins sure does a fine job of placing sticks of dynamite under people’s chairs and blowing them up.”

    But Dawkins tends to bend over backwards, almost to the point of annoyance (consider the caveats to creationist quote-miners in The Ancestor’s Tale, for example), in addressing the sillier yet most common objections to his claims.

    That Dr. Myers compares Dawkins’ writing to a stick of dynamite directly below the ass does not convince me, or most other readers, I bet, that Dawkins is being “offensively stupid.”

    And when I wrote “odd,” it does seem odd that most of Dawkins’ opponents consider him to be an arrogant asshole. He covers his own ass well, and speaks/ writes with specific language and reasons for such. Presenting a well-reasoned argument does not equal being an asshole.

  58. #58 Davis
    January 6, 2007

    First off, most atheists don’t treat science like a religion. Dawkins and PZ do.

    First the “other ways of knowing” nonsense in your “scientism” posts, and now accusing people of treating science like a religion. I hate to say this, but you’re starting to sound dangerously like a new-age woo.

    Seriously, what does it mean to treat a process like a religion? Can you explain it to me without horribly mangling the definition of “religion”? With examples, preferably.

  59. #59 Observer
    January 6, 2007

    Ed Darrell, you rock!

  60. #60 yiela
    January 6, 2007

    I don’t think there would have been much reaction to Dawkins post if it had been written by anyone else. Really, it was pretty tame opinion. People that don’t like Dawkins are having to do a lot of wild fan waving to blow this up into much of a flame. This is an example of the society wrecking, amoral ravings of a fundamentalist Atheist?

  61. #61 jb
    January 6, 2007

    LaBonne said,

    Perhaps it there had BEEN a real trial, rather than what actually happened- a US-manipulated farce combined with a Sadrist revenge fantasy come true- it would look less like an assassination.

    So… you believe Nuremberg was orchestrated collective “assassination” as well? And while you’re at it, what’s the word you use to describe what happened to Hitler and Saddam’s victims? I call it “murder,” just so you know.

  62. #62 PZ Myers
    January 6, 2007

    I agree! Now acknowledge who supported Hussein during his murders.

  63. #63 Anatoly
    January 6, 2007

    mjh,

    But Dawkins tends to bend over backwards, almost to the point of annoyance (consider the caveats to creationist quote-miners in The Ancestor’s Tale, for example), in addressing the sillier yet most common objections to his claims.

    It’s true that Dawkins tends to address the sillier objections.

    That Dr. Myers compares Dawkins’ writing to a stick of dynamite directly below the ass does not convince me, or most other readers, I bet, that Dawkins is being “offensively stupid.”

    No, but it does hint at his writing being vitriolic, hence it’s puzzling to me that you’re so puzzled over the vitriol of the response.

    And when I wrote “odd,” it does seem odd that most of Dawkins’ opponents consider him to be an arrogant asshole. He covers his own ass well, and speaks/ writes with specific language and reasons for such. Presenting a well-reasoned argument does not equal being an asshole.

    Consider, then, the possibility that your assessment of Dawkins’ presenting “well-reasoned argument” is mistaken; then, perhaps, what seems odd to you will not seem so odd anymore (although I wouldn’t go as far as an “asshole”).

    Take the op-ed we were talking about. Where’s the “well-reasoned argument”? I see a hodgepodge of ludicrous misinformation about what psychologists study and silly cliches about the mysteriously unique eeeevil of a Saddam or a Hitler. Far from “covering his own ass well”, the writing is sloppy and riddled with erroneous or unsubstantiated claims. The central argument, while perhaps barely plausible on its surface, is easily contradicted by available historical evidence. We’ve had, perhaps not many, but some cases of past dictators and other evil men of power remaining either free citizen out of power (like Pinochet) or even incarcerated prisoners (like some of the Nazi leaders for many years, or Manuel Noriega even now). Is there any evidence that psychologists tried to question/interrogate/interview them, learned much from their words, advanced the science? Not to my knowledge. Is there even evidence that historians found them very useful as primary sources? Not really. Dawkins has no case.

    So, where’s the well-reasoned argument?

  64. #64 Steve LaBonne
    January 6, 2007

    I call you “moron”, just so you know. Non-morons know about elementary things, such as two wrongs not making a right.

    By the way, perhaps you’ve never heard Churchill’s reaction (I assume you don’t think he was a Nazi sympathizer but one never knows with morons) to the victor’s justice on display at Nuremberg. He remarked to “Bomber” Harris (the man responsible for the wave of firebombing that culminated in Dresden- who would indeed have had reason to worry): “You and I must take care not to lose the next war!”

  65. #65 jb
    January 6, 2007

    Acknowledge the BFEE? Why? I know what it is and what it does. That’s the beauty of launching major warfare to further your family’s gun-running empire. You get to kill the bad guys (and tens or hundreds of thousands or millions of relatively innocent other folks) while never having to say you’re sorry.

    Or was that “love” ?

  66. #66 PZ Myers
    January 6, 2007

    No, but it does hint at his writing being vitriolic

    It’s subtle, so I’m not surprised you didn’t get it. Dawkins could say “hello” and people would act like he was threatening to blow them up with a bomb.

  67. #67 Anatoly
    January 6, 2007

    It’s subtle, so I’m not surprised you didn’t get it.

    I don’t think you’re very good at subtle. Sorry.

    Dawkins could say “hello” and people would act like he was threatening to blow them up with a bomb.

    Really? Well then, it must be real easy to show an example of such a thing happening.

  68. #68 jb
    January 6, 2007

    LaBonne said,

    I call you “moron”, just so you know. Non-morons know about elementary things, such as two wrongs not making a right.

    Non-assholes know how to add, just so you know. Making Saddam Hussein’s life no more valuable to science or humanity than any one of the tens of thousands he murdered. Are you just disappointed that he had only one life to give, or merely suffering the letdown of judicial anticlimax?

    By the way, if I had been in a position of power per Saddam or Osama, I’d have had them both assassinated years ago.

  69. #69 Anatoly
    January 6, 2007

    Tyler,

    Needless to say that upon challenge none of these claims have been validated Dawkins detractors.

    What do you mean by ‘validated’? Surely you can grant that some reasonable people happen to disagree with Dawkins. Or is it your view that it’s apriori unreasonable to disagree with Dawkins?

    You are welcome to, as outside of the narrow context of his recent LA Times op-ed I’m curious about hearing responses.

    If you’re asking for more recent examples of what I think is wrong with Dawkins’s style, I’d cite his dishonest quotemining of Einstein on atheism, and his metaphor of religious people being “atheists about all gods but one”. I argued against both some months ago in comments on Pharyngula. But of course, you might find my arguments unpersuasive.

    In the non-recent category, I remember as especially ludicrous Dawkins’ analogy, in “Blind Watchmaker”, where he
    tries to explain how natural selection can cause complex structures to arise from simpler ones. He does that by talking of a hypothetical computer program that tries to arrive from a meaningless sequence of letters to a specific line from Shakespeare by changing the sequence one letter at a time, ‘generation’ after ‘generation’ – set up so it always chooses the right letter from the specific target sequence. I mean, it’s hard to think of anything less like natural selection than a process that tries to arrive at a predetermined conclusion, by comparing its steps with that conclusion! I felt there were many other faults in that book, but that one really stood out; it was unclear to me ever since how one can take Dawkins seriously as an elucidator of anything.

    I’m afraid, however, that a few random examples is all I’m good for; I’m not a Dawkins fanatic, I don’t follow the man’s writings closely, etc. I simply happen to have a very unfavourable opinion of his arguments and writing, and I’d bet there’re quite a few others like me out there, who are neither creationists nor religious zealots, but feel the same way.

    Beating your chest in an Eagleton-esque fashion doesn’t count.

    Agreed.

  70. #70 Observer
    January 6, 2007

    Anatoly, I think this John Hawks guy’s overblown crapola of a post to Dawkins’s article is a perfect example of Dawkins saying “hello.”

    Off The Rails

    Perhaps, it’s perspective: I’ve contemplated this issue and think that justice is served in the apprehension of a person, not executing them, and I want to know what they think in years to come, so I didn’t read all this odd “science vs justice” paranoia nonsense that John Hawks is going on about – I sense the meat of what Dawkins is saying. Hawks uses the phrase “complete revulsion”…over this? Isn’t that what PZ is reacting to? I just don’t know how anyone could find Dawkins article worthy of “complete revulsion.” (My views then are completely revolting, too, I guess, gee whiz.)

  71. #71 Frank
    January 6, 2007

    Chris of Mixing Memory,

    The near-universal reaction to your post on Dawkins’ article on Saddam has been that you’ve basically gone off the deep end and are making scurrilous accusations about Dawkins’ motives and character that have no foundation in what he actually wrote. But you’re still defiantly defending your ludicrous “interpretation” of the article. For goodness’ sake, get a grip.

    Then again, since you proudly describe yourself as a “Dawkins hater,” I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.

  72. #72 Russell Blackford
    January 6, 2007

    Slippery slope arguments are not necessarily fallacious – that’s a popular misconception. There’s a lot of work around on when slippery slope arguments are good and when they are not. There’s certainly reason to be suspicious of them, because they often rely on tugging at people’s emotions, but that’s not the same thing as saying they are all invalid or have false premises.

    That said, I don’t think there’s a successful slippery slope argument floating around in all this latest Dawkins bashing.

    There just might be a successful argument available (I haven’t thought this through) to the effect that “If we start sparing the lives of malevolent dictators, before we know it we’ll start sparing the lives of other people!” – but, to me at least, that’s not obviously a repugnant outcome.

  73. #73 Steve LaBonne
    January 6, 2007

    By the way, if I had been in a position of power per Saddam or Osama, I’d have had them both assassinated years ago.

    I might very well be tempted to do the same thing, but I hope that I at least wouldn’t have the bad taste to pretend it was justice. And of course you haven’t even addressed the point that the judicial farce and botched execution have turned this bastard into the most unworthy of martyrs. Yet another brilliant triumph of Bushco diplomacy.

  74. #74 Anatoly
    January 6, 2007

    Observer,

    I agree that the post you link to is completely overblown, and I don’t see how “complete revulsion” can be a reasonable response to Dawkins’ op-ed. With that, I don’t think Dawkins is just saying “Hello” here.

  75. #75 Ian H Spedding FCD
    January 6, 2007

    Dawkins, Myers and Moran enjoy beating up agnostics as Chamberlainite appeasers while they posture as Churchillian warriors demanding the unconditional surrender of religion.

    They keep very quiet about the fact that Churchill didn’t want to bother with war crimes trials; he wanted to stand the Nazi leadership up against a wall and shoot them.

    Seems like the Churchillian metaphor only stretches so far, though. When it comes to actually doing something effective to these thugs, it’s the hard men of atheism who “whimp” out.

  76. #76 Irving Washington
    January 6, 2007

    Dawkins is the Donald Trump of popular science writers. He is an attention whore. To an objective person, he is as grating as the people he detests. No one denies he is intelligent, but who could stand having a beer with him? Compare him to Richard Feynman. Which atheist would you rather share a brew with? South Park nailed his personality.

    Dawkins preaches to the choir (or an audience of rapt atheists). Dawkins fears nothing more than a world full of naturalists/atheists/brights/secular humanists because he would lose the market for his opinion$.

  77. #77 Steve LaBonne
    January 6, 2007

    What perfect illustrations of what Caledonian said a while back. Well done, gentlemen.

  78. #78 melatonin
    January 6, 2007

    Can’t see the issue here, I’m sure someone like Adrian Raine would have liked to get Saddam under a scanner. Of course, he would only be a single case study at this point.

    I guess we’d find reduction in PFC grey matter and associated social and emotional deficits like the run of the mill psychopath. We would classify him as an ‘unsuccesful psychopath’ as he sort of failed to escape detection.

  79. #79 jb
    January 6, 2007

    “Yet another brilliant triumph of Bushco diplomacy.”

    Bushco has diplomats? …Where?

  80. #80 Blake Stacey
    January 6, 2007

    “Dawkins preaches to the choir”? What choir?

    The “choir” hasn’t come together yet. Dawkins, PZ and a few others have just been composing music for a small but growing number of amateur aficionados to learn, play and improvise upon. And none of us have to fear the choir growing too large, because chanting is not the cornerstone of our lives. We’re here because we like to know about the natural world — to be ways for the Cosmos to know itself — and there’s plenty of Cosmos to go around.

  81. #81 TW
    January 6, 2007

    Another very good post and an excellent example of how any time Dawkins gets mentioned every one seems to get their knickers in a twist (nearly four times as many comments as any other on the home page to your blog!)

    As an aside to the “keep it in perspective” comment about how many people died under Saddam’s orders – executing Saddam will not bring any of them back to life. Revenge is not justice.

    Regarding Anatoly’s trolling: “Dawkins could say “hello” and people would act like he was threatening to blow them up with a bomb.
    Really? Well then, it must be real easy to show an example of such a thing happening.”
    As I am sure everyone is aware it was a literary metaphor and in that light, the sheer weight of comments and debate that surround pretty much every thing Dawkins says or writes is an example.

  82. #82 Blake Stacey
    January 6, 2007

    Russell Blackford said:

    Slippery slope arguments are not necessarily fallacious – that’s a popular misconception. There’s a lot of work around on when slippery slope arguments are good and when they are not. There’s certainly reason to be suspicious of them, because they often rely on tugging at people’s emotions, but that’s not the same thing as saying they are all invalid or have false premises.

    I suppose that a slippery-slope argument is likely to be fallacious in proportion to how slippery and how steep the slope is (and inversely proportional to the friction coefficient of one’s shoes). What, in your judgment, are the best places to enter the literature on this question?

    When I read Ray Kurzweil’s Age of Spiritual Machines, it puzzled me that he used “slippery slope” to refer to a situation where we inevitably (or almost inevitably) find ourselves at the bottom once we stand at the top. Later, I noticed other, more significant problems with naive singularitarianism — besides the fact that “technological singularity” sounds an awful lot like what you get when you sit at home typing blog comments on a Saturday night instead of dating.

    (Cf. PZ on the Singularity, from the old Pharyngula.)

  83. #83 Tyler DiPietro
    January 6, 2007

    Anatoly,

    First, thank you for replying in a civil tone. My reply:

    What do you mean by ‘validated’? Surely you can grant that some reasonable people happen to disagree with Dawkins. Or is it your view that it’s apriori unreasonable to disagree with Dawkins?

    No a priori, at least. It’s an inductive, a posteriori inference based on the fact that people I’ve debated with make all kinds of claims about things that Dawkins doesn’t understand, that he is unsophisticated, deals with strawman version of religion, etc., etc. But when asked to show the money, most of the people I’ve argued with have fallen back on the exact same claims they’ve made, only slightly permuted (“You have misread Anslem” without explanation, etc.).

    If you’re asking for more recent examples of what I think is wrong with Dawkins’s style, I’d cite his dishonest quotemining of Einstein on atheism, and his metaphor of religious people being “atheists about all gods but one”.

    Most people reject all gods but their own, and take a similar attitude of atheists to those gods. It is not as if someone has presented data demonstrating a greater liklihood of Jehovah’s existence over that of Zeus of Woden. I don’t think it is so much an argument as an appeal to empathy from his readers, viewers, etc.

    About Einstein, I fail to see where in TGD he “quotemined” him. He made pretty clear that he did not believe in a personal God. In my estimation, he was at best a deist. But the most likely solution is that his thinking was not systematic and he wavered between various positions on the matter.

    I mean, it’s hard to think of anything less like natural selection than a process that tries to arrive at a predetermined conclusion, by comparing its steps with that conclusion! I felt there were many other faults in that book, but that one really stood out; it was unclear to me ever since how one can take Dawkins seriously as an elucidator of anything.

    It has been a while since I’ve read the book, but from your description I can glean that he used it as an example of how a natural process can produce a complex result, in this case iterative selection of a string of characters. He also uses other examples, such as “biomorphs”, to illustrate how a step by step (algorithmic) process can create complexity in objects without the need of conscious design of the object itself. These things are, in my estimation, a sort of intuition pump to set up his explanation of what natural selection is, and as a corollary is not (“randomness”, as a frequently used strawman version puts it).

  84. #84 AndyS
    January 6, 2007

    Caledonian,

    I’ve asked [Chris] to provide us with a single example of knowledge that we can all recognize as valid without utilizing the scientific method.

    And Chris, rightly, has not replied to this obvious trap. I bet you’ll get a response, however, if you first say what you mean by the scientific method. In fact, in getting through the day, with all the knowledge required for anyone to do that, the scientific method is not involved — unless you are a professional scientist and it happens to be a work day. I suspect by “scientific method” you mean something quite different than what scientists or even philosphers mean.

    So, give us your solution to the demarcation problem, and we can start the discussion.

  85. #85 jb
    January 6, 2007

    LaBonne,

    I might very well be tempted to do the same thing, but I hope that I at least wouldn’t have the bad taste to pretend it was justice. And of course you haven’t even addressed the point that the judicial farce and botched execution have turned this bastard into the most unworthy of martyrs. Yet another brilliant triumph of Bushco diplomacy.

    “Justice” is a relative construct, not an absolute. Assassination is mere political expediency. The only way to NOT make martyrs of guys like this is to keep them alive. Until you can’t anymore, at which point you can do a whole show-trial production. Or field a ringer on the nightly news with screaming headlines – “New bin Laden Video!” and pay the pundits to argue for weeks about whether or not it’s really him.

    Saddam’s trial, sentence and execution were legal enough for the purposes, given reality on the ground. Sure, we could have flown him off to a super-secret CIA torture facility in Uzbekistan and let Sam Harris do the honors, but we already knew he had no intelligence to offer. Would it have been more moral to torture him for a few years before hanging him, shooting him, electrocuting him, overdosing him (or just turning him over to Dawkins as “research data”)?

    Expediency might have been the most ‘moral’ of all the immoral choices that were actually made. But that’s history, so are 6,000+ Americans, about a million Iraqis (all told), and now, so is Saddam.

    Nobody really knows about Osama, do they?

  86. #86 Colugo
    January 6, 2007

    I’m surprised that Dawkins’ views on the anthropic principle and multiverse theories (which I mostly agree with) haven’t generated more controversy, given how some believe that these concepts shouldn’t even be regarded as science.

    In fact, Dawkins was a major influence on physicist David Deutsch’s multiverse theory.

    Perhaps these are inherently less emotional topics.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-dawkins/why-there-almost-certainl_b_32164.html

  87. #87 Caledonian
    January 6, 2007

    Why do you add the modifier ‘professional’ to scientist, AndyS?

    Easy: because science, like singing, is something virtually everyone can do, and it’s useful to distinguish between casual and highly trained singers – although ‘professional’ only implies training and quality loosely.

    To the contrary, I use the standard, general definition: using observations to produce hypotheses, testing the hypotheses by carrying out experiments whose results might contradict a prediction or necessary implication of the hypotheses, and modifying the hypotheses (discarding if necessary) according to the new data, then repeating the process.

    It’s the same procedure I use when figuring out which of my Christmas lights has burned out as I do when trying to figure out how the brain’s motor centers plan for future motion.

    Now you answer a question: when are Dawkins and PZ obviously wrong in such a way that their “followers” won’t accept it? Be specific. If you can.

  88. #88 Caledonian
    January 6, 2007

    Oh yeah, one more thing:

    It’s an obvious trap because Chris is obviously wrong. He can’t offer such an example of “another way of knowing” producing a valid conclusion because there are no such examples. It’s science, or nothin’.

  89. #89 Dennis
    January 6, 2007

    The death penalty is one area where I am least liberal. I used to be a jail guard. I am not about torture, revenge, or punishment. I just know from my own experience that some people don’t deserve to be saved. They don’t add anything to our society and prey on us. I once talked to a serial killer, 2 banks robbed, people killed, 1 women (nurse) raped and thrown off a train. I asked him why? He told me “because I needed to, I need money”, I asked what about them (his victims), he looked at me like I was from mars “what about them?” he said. Just chilling! Maybe he had a bad childhood, maybe bullies beat him up in school, maybe his mother drank through his foetal development. But save him! For what!

    What! Wait for a non-existent god to punish him! Study his cheating lieing ass to understand he is a psycopath?

    Nuts!

  90. #90 Jason
    January 6, 2007

    AndyS,

    And Chris, rightly, has not replied to this obvious trap. I bet you’ll get a response, however, if you first say what you mean by the scientific method.

    He has. Still no response. I’ve also asked the same question.

    In fact, in getting through the day, with all the knowledge required for anyone to do that, the scientific method is not involved — unless you are a professional scientist and it happens to be a work day.

    On the contrary, I think getting through the day is all about using the scientific method–observing, occasionally experimenting, and reasoning to conclusions from the results of those observations. I agree that people don’t always do this, but those are the times when they’re likely to come up with the wrong answer.

  91. #91 Pierce R. Butler
    January 6, 2007

    Prof. Dawkins the “evangelical atheist” didn’t say a word about religion in his LA Times op-ed (how slyly strident!).

    The “so silly and naive” Dawkins shows much more political insight as to why Hussein was silenced (before future trials might implicate we-all-know-who) than any of his critics on this or any of the other related threads that I’ve seen.

    For those who want to indulge in atheist-bashing on grounds of amoral (and pragmatically dubious) advocacy of treating “bad guys” as potential research subjects, may I suggest you turn your enlightened regard to Sam Harris ( see http://www.alternet.org/story/46196/ )?

  92. #92 Daniel Morgan
    January 6, 2007

    Did everyone see the Wall Street Journal and Guardian screeds against Dawkins?
    WSJ, G

  93. #93 Caledonian
    January 6, 2007

    The new atheists fail too often simply for want of charm or skill. Twenty-first century atheism hasn’t found its H.G. Wells or its George Bernard Shaw, men who flattered their audiences, excited them and persuaded them by making them feel intelligent.

    From the WSJ article.

    Gee, Wells and Shaw accomplished so much, it’s a wonder Dawkins feels he has anyone left to sway. [/rolleyes]

  94. #94 Caveat
    January 6, 2007

    While it may have been of mild interest to study Hussein, I doubt it would have revealed much.

    I’ve always believed it is not the Hitler, the Stalin, the Pinochet or the Hussein that is the villain. It is the people who support them, without whom they could get nowhere. Hitler started with a handful of people, for example. Had he been laughed off the stage at the beginning, he couldn’t have succeeded.

    The interesting question to me is what makes people stand idly by while others are persecuted and scapegoated or even worse, what makes them actively participate? While I’m sure a certain degree of cunning and charisma exists in the dictator himself, what motivates others to carry out the plans?

    I have noticed that a country which is held together by a strongman, either benevolent or not, falls apart into warring splinter groups when the dictator is removed. This is a predictable outcome. So what type of society can only be relatively successful when held together by a dictator?

  95. #95 Robert Skipper
    January 6, 2007

    I am amused at the people who are freaking out over his comments, as if they represent some horribly evil idea, when the contrast is with a bunch of people who joyfully killed a man while chanting politial and religious slogans. Get some perspective here; who has committed the amoral act?

    “He hit me first, mommy?” Come on. Get out of the sandbox.

    Not a benign one like Dawkins’ suggestion that actually makes an excuse for not killing someone….

    Let’s just use prisoners rather than executing them? Right. There’s the moral high road.

    How about not grasping for straws and realizing that while capital punishment is general morally reprehensible, it may very well be the only plausible recourse against someone who commits crimes against humanity.

    Good grief, Myers. Enough with the Dawkins worship.

  96. #96 Millimeter Wave
    January 6, 2007

    Well, that explains a lot. Perhaps if Dawkins were to hire some real PR experts, they’d have the gumption to tell him when it’s best to just keep his trap shut long enough for the aftershocks to die down.

    Well, obviously. What we need in order to better ourselves is less debate and more PR. Good PR can fix everything.

  97. #97 mjh
    January 6, 2007

    i’ll buy a beer for the first wo/man who accurately counts all the nonsequiters in this comment thread. the above comment has a couple in it, at least.

  98. #98 mjh
    January 6, 2007

    “above” meaning the one above millimeter wave’s comment.

  99. #99 poke
    January 6, 2007

    I thought Caledonian’s question,

    I’ve asked [Chris] to provide us with a single example of knowledge that we can all recognize as valid without utilizing the scientific method.

    Was a clever play on Ziman’s idea of science being “consensible.” That is, knowledge is scientific if it’s possible “that we can all recognize [it] as valid.” Which would mean it’d be impossible for Chris to give examples by definition.

  100. #100 Ichthyic
    January 6, 2007

    “above” meaning the one above millimeter wave’s comment.

    I WAS wondering.

    the post you refer to goes far beyond nonsequitor and well into nonsensical, however.

  101. #101 Caledonian
    January 6, 2007

    poke, by that definition, no knowledge is scientific. So the person who suggested it was stupid, and should die in a fire.

    The previous example, that “Washington, DC is the capital of the USA” is something that we can reasonably recognize as true – however, we know it’s true because we apply the scientific method.

    I want Chris to provide us with a similar statement, that we can reasonably recognize as true, that we do not and cannot recognize as true by applying the scientific method.

    He’s been strangely silent. Huh.

  102. #102 Keanus
    January 6, 2007

    The Iraqi motive in Hussein’s execution was revenge. The US motive was to keep secret, or at least obscure, our long term relationship with him. Dawkins’ suggestion that we could learn something from him is problematical. I’m very much with Caveat in believing that little would have been revealed by talking with Hussein. He’s a type who is a dime a dozen but happened to rise to power in a state with the resources for real mischief and no mechanism for thwarting him. And, as Caveat also observed, the real villians are the people who allowed him to rise to power. Study them, if one wishes to learn how vile people like him rise to and maintain power. It’s the gullibility of the populace who enable tyrants and buffoons like Hussein–and Dubya.

  103. #103 Scott Hatfield
    January 6, 2007

    So many references to beer!

    Irving Washington wrote, with respect to Dawkins: “No one denies he is intelligent, but who could stand having a beer with him? Compare him to Richard Feynman. Which atheist would you rather share a brew with?”

    Irving, you’ve got to be kidding. If PZ or Richard Dawkins ever made it to my neck of the woods, this *believer* would be thrilled to have a beer with him.

    mjh wrote: “i’ll buy a beer for the first wo/man who accurately counts all the nonsequiters in this comment thread. the above comment has a couple in it, at least.”

    I’m not smart enough to win that contest, but let me make an observation:

    Whatever Dawkins wrote regarding the disposal of the Iraqi dictator is irrelevant to the merits of his views on evolution, theology, etc. Many people here seem very exercised to defend him, but I would rather shine the light of reason on those who would like to seize on any remark that comes from Dr. Dawkins’ mouth and use it as ammunition in a crusade against evolution, science education, etc. I mean, the reason there are so many non sequiturs here is that the implied linkage so many people are laboring under, pro or con, is a non sequitur….!

    By the way, for my many correspondents/critics, I’ll throw a pint your way if you ever happen to be in Fresno. Shoot, I like beer and I like stimulating conversation…SH

  104. #104 Stogoe
    January 7, 2007

    That’s because Chris is a cowardly dipshit.

    …That’s not why his ideas are wrong, however. They are wrong independent of his cowardly dipshittiness.

  105. #105 Azkyroth
    January 7, 2007

    Scott: I expect to be in Fresno on the 24th and 25th helping with emission testing on farm-tractors (a nice change of pace; I don’t want to look at a frickin’ tractor trailer again for a while x.x). *eyebrow*

  106. #106 Krystalline Apostate
    January 7, 2007

    Those aren’t real religious people.

    Hmmm…that sounds vaguely familiar.
    Oh, riiiiggghtt.

  107. #107 Tyler DiPietro
    January 7, 2007

    Robert Skipper,

    Let’s just use prisoners rather than executing them? Right. There’s the moral high road.

    Being “used” (vague) is something prisoners are subjected to all the time. There is a continuity of things that can be done against a prisoners will. How about imprisoning them against their will? How about questioning them against their will? How about putting them on trial against their will? Whether experimentation on Hussein would be in the sphere of things considered “humane” is a legitimate question*, but this hand-waving of Dawkins argument away here is silly (as are the apparent uses of it to validate claims of his “fundamentalist atheism” or “scientism”).

    *And for the record, I agree with those who say it would be of dubious scientific value. My objection is to the moral hand-waving going on against Dawkins op-ed, which is pretty telling.

  108. #108 John Marley
    January 7, 2007

    After slogging through these comments, I have to wonder: how many Dawkins-bashers here actually read his article? And I do mean read, not just skimmed for bitw to quote-mine.

  109. #109 RavenT
    January 7, 2007

    Leopold died in prison in a knife fight. Loeb earned an M.D. behind bars.

    Just a teensy nit–isn’t it the other way around? But the point you’re making still stands, regardless.

    Ed Darrell, you rock!

    I’ll second that!

  110. #110 Ichthyic
    January 7, 2007

    Hmmm…that sounds vaguely familiar. Oh, riiiiggghtt.

    VAGUELY familiar??

    hell, it’s been used so often of late, especially wrt to Dawkins (and just about all atheists, for that matter) and portrayal of the religious that I’m beginning to think that I should buy a kilt.

    evidently, Richard is speaking of absolutely NOBODY, because they all say the same thing:

    “that ain’t MY religion he’s a talkin’ about! No REAL (put your religion here), would ever do the things he says!”

    *sigh*

    It’s like Ted Haggard doesn’t even exist (and you know what I mean by that, if you’ve ever seen “root of all evil”).

  111. #111 Azkyroth
    January 7, 2007

    Incidentally, who are Loeb and Leopold?

  112. #112 Mike Haubrich
    January 7, 2007

    It seems that Dawkins bashing is in vogue nowadays, and I am really very disturbed at the flak he is getting from atheists. Must we eat our own?

  113. #113 Russell Blackford
    January 7, 2007

    Why do people keep coming out with this pseudo-Kantian “use people” nonsense? People use each other all the time, for all sorts of purposes. Kant’s beef was against treating someone solely as a means to my ends. If I go into a cake shop to buy an apple strudel, I am using the person behind the counter as a means to my ends. However, I am not relating to her solely in that way, since (for example) I would help her if she suddenly fell sick.

    I don’t see anywhere where Dawkins says that we should have treated Saddam Hussein solely as a means to our ends. However, if there’s any value to be gained out of interviewing him, or whatever, that would indeed be treating him as a means to our ends – while also treating him with respect as a human being, in so far as we would not coerce him, would give him medical insistence if he suddenly fell sick, etc., etc. I mean, I’m not sure that Saddam did actually deserve to be treated as an end in himself, but that’s not the argument Dawkins is making. The argument is that he could also have been used for certain good ends (such as psychological or historical research) and that this was an additional reason not to kill him. Call it a utilitarian reason if you want. I see nothing wrong at all with making such a claim, whether or not it is plausible that anything valuable would actually have been gained.

  114. #114 Ichthyic
    January 7, 2007

    It seems that Dawkins bashing is in vogue nowadays, and I am really very disturbed at the flak he is getting from atheists. Must we eat our own?

    No REAL atheist would say something so group-centric as that.
    ;)

  115. #115 llewelly
    January 7, 2007

    Hm, wikipedia has something on Leopold and Loeb . But the discussion page reveals some issues with the article.

  116. #116 Millimeter Wave
    January 7, 2007

    It seems that Dawkins bashing is in vogue nowadays, and I am really very disturbed at the flak he is getting from atheists. Must we eat our own?

    No REAL atheist would say something so group-centric as that.
    ;)

    And, I’m bound to add, if you’re not on anybody’s shit list today, you probably didn’t do anything important ;).

  117. #117 Scott Hatfield
    January 7, 2007

    Azkyroth, you poor devil, actually going TO Fresno?

    Well, if that is your fate, you will NEED some libation. Let semi-pro imbiber Scott Hatfield be your guide in all manner of potent potables.

    Seriously, though, email me at the address given below and we’ll have a good old-fashioned bull session over a Black and Tan, or something:

    epigene13@hotmail.com

  118. #118 craig
    January 7, 2007

    “But save him! For what!”

    Its not about saving him, its about saving yourself. I also knew a serial killer. He lived in my house. He drove me to school in the mornings. He raped and murdered, by his count, over 30 women.

    When they executed him it didn’t bother me for a second that his life was over. His life was essentially worthless anyway, probably even from his own perspective.

    But we gained nothing from his death – and can not gain anything from it, and CAN lose from it. We lose our humanity. We become brutal. When you need to see someone die, no matter who that someone is, to get “closure,” then you’ve lost something.

    I am against the death penalty for a lot of reasons, and not the least of them is selfishness – I’m better than that, I want to be better than that, and I want my society to be better than that.
    I want to live in a culture that sees crime as something to be prevented, reduced and managed, not avenged.

  119. #119 Russell Blackford
    January 7, 2007

    Personally, I have nothing at all against killing evil, dangerous people. I just don’t think it’s a good idea to have the death penalty as part of our system of criminal justice. They are separate issues.

    If someone kills an evil, dangerous person, I’ll be rooting for them to get off somehow, even if it wasn’t, strictly speaking, done in self-defence. But once we start letting the state kill its citizens, well … I don’t trust the state to get it right, for one thing. For another, I can see differential results along lines such as race and class, that add to division and mistrust in our society. Then there’s the sheer cruelty of the death penalty – not the actual killing but putting people on death row, knowing they are going to die (in some extreme cases, I might not have sympathy, but I can sympathise with all but the most sadistic murderers). Again, where do we draw the line between who dies and who is “merely” imprisoned for life? How can we guarantee that any pardoning system is not corrupted? Etc.

    All in all, I’m against the death penalty, and I agree that it is a barbaric institution for these and other reasons. It would be better if reinstituting the death penaly (or maintaining it, for the Americans in states that still have it) were unthinkable. But my objection isn’t on some spooky ground – like the idea that we’re all children of God and every human life is objectively precious. Despite everything I’ve said … as far as I’m concerned, the life of a sadistic killer is not precious at all; the world is better whenever such a person dies. When hardened killers bump each other off in gang wars, as happens from time to time where I live – as opposed to the state killing people – I celebrate.

  120. #120 Tyler DiPietro
    January 7, 2007

    My argument against the death penalty is the same essential one as Russell Blackford’s. I think that enlightenment and barbarism in society are pretty much packaged deals, one can’t reasonably expect a culture that legitimizes the idea of revenge to limit it to the execution of a small amount of cases involving the worst killers. You can’t decouple the lynch-mob mentality the Iraqi’s displayed in the Hussein execution from other barbaric institutions, such as the death penalty and other cruel punishments for misdemeanors, sanctioning of torture, etc.

  121. #121 Daniel Morgan
    January 7, 2007

    Caledonian said:

    I want Chris to provide us with a similar statement, that we can reasonably recognize as true, that we do not and cannot recognize as true by applying the scientific method.

    How about: “2+2=4″?

    How about this statement: “The scientific method is a valid and very productive means by which knowledge is gained.”

    Of course, this is the classic Empiricist-defeater — the statement, “only the scientific method brings us valid knowledge” is self-refuting: you cannot know the truth of this proposition via science.

  122. #122 brian coughlan
    January 7, 2007

    I’ve been following the discourse and thought I’d finally chip in.

    Of course, this is the classic Empiricist-defeater — the statement, “only the scientific method brings us valid knowledge” is self-refuting: you cannot know the truth of this proposition via science.

    Posted by: Daniel Morgan | January 7, 2007 05:46 AM

    Isn’t it simply a question of reviewing the results from various methodologies and totting up which deliver the best results? Granted there is a lot of definition and givens in the background which I’ve glossed over, but I think it’s a sound observation. Or am I missing something?

    The statement is bugging me, it’s got the feel of standing between two mirrors and staring at infinite reflections, can someone help me out?

  123. #123 mndean
    January 7, 2007

    Oh, PZ! It appears that RJ Eskow has another article that you may want to include in the list above – titled : 15 Questions Militant Atheists Should Ask Before Trying to “Destroy Religion”. Strangely enough, it’s about Dawkins and refers to the his op-ed piece. It’s at Huffington Post, as if I had to tell you that. HuffPo really loves giving the Dawkins-bashers a forum, one reason I quit visiting the place.

  124. #124 Caledonian
    January 7, 2007

    Sorry, Daniel Morgan, but I keep checking “2+2=4″, and every time I get the result that it’s valid.

    Therefore, I form the hypothesis about the relationship of those concepts that adding two to two will produce the result of four every time. This hypothesis has survived every experimental test.

    Science!

  125. #125 Caledonian
    January 7, 2007

    I am afraid, Mr. Morgan, that your ‘contradiction’ reduces to “there is no way to generate valid inferences other than logic”, which we must use logic in order to analyze.

    You’re correct that no method can truly evaluate itself. You’re wrong in thinking that the most fundamental method can be evaluated – all attempts to do so utilize it. It’s simply true in a tautological sense. Arguing against a tautology is not wise.

  126. #126 Chris
    January 7, 2007

    the statement, “only the scientific method brings us valid knowledge” is self-refuting: you cannot know the truth of this proposition via science.

    That isn’t a proposition – at least not standing alone. It needs rigorous definitions of “scientific method” and, even more crucially, “valid knowledge” before it can be considered well-defined.

    Depending on how you define those terms, it could end up as a tautology, a contradiction, or a genuine proposition whose truth value would depend on some other facts. Also, the statement could be simultaneously true and impossible to validly know (however you happen to define that term).

  127. #127 Caledonian
    January 7, 2007

    The statement must also be presumed to represent an example of knowledge. If one doesn’t take it as knowledge, then it’s not self-contradictory no matter what other definitions of terms are involved.

    Example of non-scientific knowledge, Chris. Where is it?

  128. #128 George
    January 7, 2007

    I’ve said … as far as I’m concerned, the life of a sadistic killer is not precious at all; the world is better whenever such a person dies.

    How is the world better?

  129. #129 Keith Douglas
    January 7, 2007

    ThomasHobbes: But learning how Saddam (or anyone else) becomes a psychopath, or similar such things would be very valuable – both for its own sake, and for the obvious utility of baby steps towards preventing it. (Note of course the dual edge of technology here, too, as always: in principle one could start to develop means to make psychopaths.)

    Anatoly: Your skepticism seems to be unwarranted if only for the reason that unexpected findings are the lifeblood of science. I think it was Feynman who said that science begins with “that’s funny …” . I dare say this is all the more true in psychology and the social sciences where most people blunder through life more or less okay with “intuitive psychology and sociology” as all they have to go on. But obviously some of us aren’t content with that, and any opportunity to potentially learn more is not to be squandered lightly. Do you feel we learned absolutely nothing by interviewing the Nuremberg prisoners? /// Ah, but historians also work with an implicit psychology. Perhaps this intuitive psychology is wrong. Now if you want to understand logicistical matters, e.g. how did Hitler’s generals get food out to their troops, sure, no psychology needed. But if one wants to understand why many Germans found Hitler a spellbinding speaker (say) … then one cannot merely appeal to common sense psychology, I should think. After all, not every raving nutcase is mesmerizing (and that’s how a lot of Germans described Hitler – that’s a datum, not a conclusion). /// As for psychologists studying evil, well, you do seem to miss the entire discipline of forensic psychology, which does involve (amongst other things) psychologists studying various aspects of people in prison for various crimes, so …

    craig: Confronting, as Gene Roddenberry put it, the enemy within, is amongst the hardest things to do. (Chomsky has made similar points.) You’re quite right to suggest this as a possible motivation. It is too easy to say that “we’re not like him”.

    Colugo: Whether or not you think that science is too underdeveloped to help with social problems (I happen to think we’re further along than you do, but that’s an aside), surely it is not naive to advocate research that would improve this situation, as Dawkins seems to?

    Russell Blackford: Just a question in case you catch this reply – do you happen to have any titles of said literature on “slippery slopes”? I had often thought similarly, and wouldn’t mind it in my teaching resources …

    BTW, the discussion of Kant and psychology reminds me – I seem to remember that the Canadian Psychological Association and other sources misquote Kant in the way you describe, leaving off the crucial “only” in the phrasing. Hmmmm.

  130. #130 Observer
    January 7, 2007

    Caledonian, I’ve been reading all the comments at Mixing Memory, and I’d like some clarification about what you’re asking Chris. (I know this is off-topic, but if people are still in hyperbole-mode over Dawkins’s article, then they really need to come back down to earth.)

    You asked Chris:

    Come, Chris, provide us with an example of knowledge that we’ll recognize as valid that you did not acquire through the scientific method. (It’s singular, by the way, as it refers to the essential process of science, not any of the instrumental, often interchangeable, and potentially eliminatable methods not necessary for the process.)

    Just one point would be enough to demonstrate your point, that not all knowledge comes through the process of science. Just name it.

    When I read Feynman’s Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! I noticed he used “intuition” and “intuitively” on several occasions. He arrived at something that worked without going through the whole process of the scientific method. When you say “we’ll recognize as valid” – well, I’ve arrived at knowledge without using the scientific method – all I had was observations and insight. Observations being very important, (which is why the idea of “divine intuition” is nonsensical), but no testing, no hypothesis, etc.

    Perhaps this leads to a semantical issue over the word “knowledge,” but the way you’re phrasing the question begs a few questions. I do think we use the scientific method in many ways throughout our daily lives, but is all *knowledge* gained through the scientific method? I’m not so sure and I’d like to hear you flesh this out (and Chris doesn’t seem to be answering you anyway). :)

    Here’s my dictionary definition, so you see where I’m coming from:

    Main Entry: in·tu·i·tion
    Pronunciation: in.()t(y)üishn, intwi-, in.tywi-
    Function: noun
    Inflected Form(s): -s
    Etymology: Middle English intuycion, from Late Latin intuition-, intuitio, from Latin intuitus (past participle of intueri to look at, contemplate, from in- 2in + tueri to look at) + -ion-, -io -ion — more at TUITION

    1 a obsolete : the act of looking upon, regarding, examining, or inspecting b archaic : the act of contemplating or considering : CONTEMPLATION, CONSIDERATION c obsolete : a view, regard, or consideration of something as an ulterior goal or acquisition

    2 a : the act or process of coming to direct knowledge or certainty without reasoning or inferring : immediate cognizance or conviction without rational thought : revelation by insight or innate knowledge : immediate apprehension or cognition b : knowledge, perception, or conviction gained by intuition (trusting … to what are called intuitions rather than reasoned conclusions — A.C.Benson) c : the power or faculty of attaining to direct knowledge or cognition without rational thought and inference d in Bergsonism : a form of knowing that is akin to instinct or a divining empathy and that gives direct insight into reality as it is in itself and absolutely e : quick and ready insight (with one of her quick leaps of intuition she had entered into the other’s soul — Edith Wharton)
    synonym see REASON

  131. #131 Caledonian
    January 7, 2007

    Intuition doesn’t produce knowledge. Depending on how one doubts, it produces either beliefs or hypotheses.

    I can certainly believe that you’ve made excellent guesses without the use of reason – I’ve done so myself on many occasions – but that’s all they were, excellent guesses. They don’t even come close to being knowledge until we test them out, watch the results, and see that the guess survives tests that had the capacity to contradict it.

  132. #132 Observer
    January 7, 2007

    See, there is an issue with the word *knowledge.* I’ll slap up one more long definition. Caledonian, I’m not trying to be a thorn here, I’m looking for precision in language. You’re making “knowledge” to be a collectively accepted body of *facts*, but that’s not what *knowledge* is all about. Intuition does produce knowledge – at face value that is a correct statement. It would be nice if Chris backed up his assertion since he’s a cognitive psychologist. In no uncertain terms I want to be certain…of something. :/

    Main Entry: 2knowledge
    Pronunciation: ”
    Function: noun
    Inflected Form(s): -s
    Etymology: Middle English knawlage, knowlage, knawlege, knowlege, from knawlechen, knowlechen, v.
    1 obsolete a : ACKNOWLEDGMENT b : COGNIZANCE
    2 : the fact or condition of knowing a (1) : the fact or condition of knowing something with a considerable degree of familiarity gained through experience of or contact or association with the individual or thing so known (a thorough knowledge of life and its problems) (has a fair knowledge of the people of that country) (a remarkable knowledge of human nature) (2) : acquaintance with or theoretical or practical understanding of some branch of science, art, learning, or other area involving study, research, or practice and the acquisition of skills (knowledge of advanced mathematics) (has little knowledge of the techniques of drawing and painting) (a knowledge of foreign languages) b (1) : the fact or condition of being cognizant, conscious, or aware of something (was elated by knowledge of their success) (the knowledge that it was really important) (his knowledge of what she had had to endure) (2) : the particular existent range of one’s information or acquaintance with facts : the scope of one’s awareness : extent of one’s understanding (said that to the best of his knowledge the matter had not yet been attended to) c : the fact or condition of apprehending truth, fact, or reality immediately with the mind or senses : PERCEPTION, COGNITION (intellective knowledge) (the nature of knowledge) : COMPREHENSION, UNDERSTANDING (intuitive knowledge) (proceeding from the lower to the higher degrees of knowledge) d : the fact or condition of possessing within mental grasp through instruction, study, research, or experience one or more truths, facts, principles, or other objects of perception : the fact or condition of having information or of being learned or erudite (a man of great knowledge) (always seeking after more and more knowledge)
    3 archaic : CARNAL KNOWLEDGE
    4 a : the sum total of what is known : the whole body of truth, fact, information, principles, or other objects of cognition acquired by mankind (adding to the vast store of knowledge) (all branches of knowledge) b archaic : a branch of learning : ART, SCIENCE
    synonyms KNOWLEDGE, SCIENCE, LEARNING, ERUDITION, SCHOLARSHIP, INFORMATION, and LORE agree in signifying what is or can be known. KNOWLEDGE applies to any body of known facts or to any body of ideas inferred from such facts or accepted as truths on good grounds (a knowledge of languages) (a knowledge of the habits of snakes) (a knowledge of modern chemistry) (to benefit by the accumulated knowledge of centuries) SCIENCE still sometimes interchanges with KNOWLEDGE but commonly applies to a body of systematized knowledge comprising facts carefully gathered and general truths carefully inferred from them, often underlying a practice, usually connoting exactness, and often denoting knowledge of unquestionable certainty (must bear in mind that geographic discovery also is science, and it was a scientific theory that impelled the venture of Columbus — I.M.Price) (the defense of nations had become a science and a calling — T.B.Macaulay) (the science of administration — A.S.Link) (the art of feeding preceded the science of nutrition by many centuries — F.B.Hadley) (the diagnosis of disease is no longer primarily guesswork but rather a science) LEARNING applies to knowledge gained by study, often long and careful and sometimes connoting comprehensiveness and profundity (to expose children to as much learning as possible) (a full, rich, human book, packed with information lightly dispensed and fortified with learning easily worn — Honor Tracy) (a man of great and profound learning but little common sense) ERUDITION usually stresses wide, profound, or recondite learning, sometimes suggesting pedantry (often flabbergast their elders with their erudition — a scholarly but lively sense of words, a sound background in history and economics, the ability to translate or even to speak two or three foreign languages — Stanley Walker) (all the encyclopedic erudition of the middle ages — J.L.Lowes) (balancing an immense load of erudition upon a precarious foundation of fact — Times Literary Supplement) SCHOLARSHIP implies the learning, careful mastery of detail, especially of a given field, and the critical acumen characteristic of a good scholar (the immense and rapidly expanding scholarship not only in psychology but in history, sociology, and anthropology as well, which illuminates the study of the family — Lynn White) (unusually equipped in both scientific and classical scholarship in addition to his command of his own field, a brilliant and powerful lecturer — E.S.Bates) (his learning and general scholarship were universally recognized, and in his special sphere of law he had no peer in this country — T.D.Bacon) INFORMATION generally applies to knowledge, commonly accepted as true, of a factual kind usually gathered from others or from books

  133. #133 Observer
    January 7, 2007

    Whoa, sorry about that. That definition didn’t look that long to me before posting. ‘Don’t mean to clog up the thread.

  134. #134 Caledonian
    January 7, 2007

    No, intuition never produces knowledge. It sometimes produces conviction, when the person having the intuition fails to doubt properly, but never knowledge.

  135. #135 RavenT
    January 7, 2007

    Perhaps this leads to a semantical issue over the word “knowledge,” but the way you’re phrasing the question begs a few questions. I do think we use the scientific method in many ways throughout our daily lives, but is all *knowledge* gained through the scientific method? I’m not so sure and I’d like to hear you flesh this out (and Chris doesn’t seem to be answering you anyway). :)

    I’d be very interested in hearing Keith’s or John’s or one of the other philosophers’ take on this, as well.

    I’m just kind of sketching out some rough thoughts I’ve been having on the subject, but based on that, I think you’re right that we’re running into a semantic issue in discussing “knowledge”. As far as I can tell, Caledonian is using the term to mean only an assertion whose validity is replicable by outside observers, and nothing else. We can call this type of assertion “universal” as a shorthand. It’s fair game to question and challenge these assertions, and scientists do it all the time in scientific discourse. At least in theory, the answers to those challenges are easy to establish by verifying against the replicable outside reality.

    I think a lot of people use the term in a more operational sense, kind of in the sense of sufficient certainty to make real-life decisions, whether or not that assertion that is claimed to be “known” can be independently replicated. And often, that’s unfounded in anything that resembles evidence: “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it” is clearly certainty, but very few people would call it knowledge. We can call this type of assertion “unique”, since it’s not independently verifiable, and its opposite is equally true for others as this assertion is for certain believers. It’s often fair game to challenge those assertions, such as pointing out the hypocrisy of the religious right, although I would not say it’s always true. For example, my mother smoked like a chimney her entire life, and we kids were always trying to get her to quit for her sake and for ours. When she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, though, we decided it was cruel to try to persuade her at that point–it wouldn’t gain her anything, and it would only deprive her of her most important pleasure–and so, we totally dropped the subject. In a similar way, I wouldn’t choose someone’s deathbed as a time and place to begin to challenge the unique assertions they’ve taken comfort in all their lives; that would just be cruel. So, with big caveats, I’d say these unique assertions are fair game for challenges, too, and they cannot be resolved in favor of the unique assertion with reference to an independently replicable reality.

    Where I think the difficulty comes in–and again, I’m sure I’m rehashing old philosophical arguments, due to lack of familiarity with the literature, and I’d welcome corrections from people who know the domain–is in real-world situations where evidence only goes so far. For example, in the clinic, a patient with cancer has to make decisions about the course of treatment. Some of the treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation, can have very difficult side effects on the patient’s short-term quality of life. And some cancers are eminently curable or at least remissible, while others are quite aggressive and can be slowed down, but not stopped.

    So the evidence can often tell a patient something like “Out of 100 patients with your type of cancer, n patients can recover with chemo or radiation and be cancer-free in 5 years, m patients will not recover but will not get worse for x range of time, and k patients will die regardless of treatment (and will have the side effects of treatment in addition to deal with)”.

    Based on that population evidence, the patient has to make individual decisions about the treatment, which often means guessing which percentage of patients they’re likely to be in. And it means incorporating personal preferences into the decision: more time with side effects, versus less time without side effects, for example. And these decisions are unique as well–two patients with similar diagnoses and prognoses can make opposite decisions, based on their preferences about how they want to spend their indeterminate remaining time. Patient A may “know” that getting the maximum amount of time possible is the right decision, while Patient B may “know” that less quantity but higher-quality time (minus side effects) is the right decision. So these decisions are also “unique” assertions, because they have access to the same evidence, yet are not independently replicable.

    Yet I’m not comfortable lumping this kind of unique assertion with the previous kind I described. For one thing, there is an altie analogue to the “God said it…” argument, which is that chemo and radiation are always wrong–you can read about many notorious examples at Orac’s blog. I don’t think considering the evidence, and deciding against treatment on that basis, is the same as categorically rejecting a class of treatment under any circumstance. And I think challenging the altie view with facts is always appropriate, except, as mentioned, when it’s too late to matter.

    On the other hand, there are a lot of studies that show the patient’s confidence in their own decision, their own health-care provider, and a host of other factors surrounding their treatment can have either a positive or negative effect on their treatment and quality of life during it. So that would mean that, although it is a unique assertion, to challenge the decision, once it is made on the imperfect evidence available, would be inherently cruel, as opposed to rarely and situationally cruel for the other types of “unique” assertion. Perhaps in this shorthand, we should call them unique[1] and unique[2].

    In this rubric, universal “knowledge” is pretty obviously real knowledge, and unique[1] is pretty obviously not. It’s unique[2] that I’m really not sure how to deal with. It’s not reliably reproducible, and yet I’d be very loath to challenge it. And in the discussion to this point, I think you may be implicitly running up against this semantic issue as well.

  136. #136 Blake Stacey
    January 7, 2007

    Keith Douglas said:

    I think it was Feynman who said that science begins with “that’s funny …” .

    I’ve heard this attributed to Isaac Asimov (never to Feynman, IIRC), but I don’t know in which book or essay it occurs.

  137. #137 Observer
    January 7, 2007

    Caledonian, why are you being such a stickler about the word *knowledge* and its breadth of meanings?

    Ok, you’re going to stick by the most strict sense of *knowledge* in the way my Philosophy of Education teacher said (with Italian accent for flair): You can’t have knowledge of something unless you understand the nature of it…when you understand the nature of something you have knowledge of it. A tree, a motor, a person…how it works…and so on.

    One can’t understand the true nature of something without utilizing the scientific method. The facile knowledge that I possess from intuition – if I in fact understood the nature of it, then even that process would require SM to understand (that’s oddly worded – I’m trying to figure out how to say it). In that sense, no, I can’t come up with an example of how we gain knowledge of something without using the SM. (Thanks…I think.)

    I’m really curious as to what Chris’s example would be. Hmm…

  138. #138 RavenT
    January 7, 2007

    Ok, you’re going to stick by the most strict sense of *knowledge*

    Doesn’t work, though–as Alon pointed out, if the reasoning leads to an absurdity, it’s wrong.

    Insisting that only the most strict definition of knowledge is valid entails that the cancer patient who declines treatment on the basis of imperfect evidence in my example above “knows” nothing more than the altie who categorically rejects a class of treatment. Since that conclusion is patently absurd, so is the semantic limitation that entails it.

  139. #139 AndyS
    January 7, 2007

    Caledonian,

    You are being too coy. Seems by “scientific method” you mean everyday empiricism which is quite different than what scientists do. Yes, yes, it the foundation but far removed from the kind of collaboration, replication of results, peer review, and publishing that I would hope all scientists see as essential to their work.

    We could go on about this endlessly. I’m quite fond of Hume and Pierce and James and their train of thought; it fits perfectly with my sense of Buddhism. However, seems to me it is far too easy to gloss over the amazingly complex and varied way humans learn and express their learning by just saying “well, it’s all merely an emprical process.” That’s too much like the IDers saying “God, did it” to explain the creation of life. It glosses over how we make observations and generate hypotheses, what we see as sufficient evidence, how we hold onto beliefs (some tentative, some firmly) and what it takes to change them, how much we learn unconsciously, etc. And, just for fun, there’s that whole nature/nurture debate.

    Most of the knowledge we use in our daily activities is nothing like the “scientific” knowledge an engineer uses to design an industrial boiler and is not the result of the sort of processes that created the various theories of thermodynamics and material science. Most of what we do isn’t even explicitly conscious or thoughtful (e.g. walking to work, chatting in the elevator with stranger). Some people maintain a hyphothesis about God without ever running into evidence that that is an unnecessary idea; others think their Fortune 500 company cares about them as an individual. It doesn’t follow that they are stupid across the board. Heck, some people even think unbridled capitalism is a fine way to run an economy in spite of an abundance of evidence to the contrary.

    I think it’s quite fair to claim there are a host of ways we learn and quite a variety of ways to hold onto and express our beliefs all of which, in context, can be seen as reasonable and empirical.

  140. #140 Caledonian
    January 7, 2007

    As far as I can tell, Caledonian is using the term to mean only an assertion whose validity is replicable by outside observers,

    Wrong emphasis. Knowledge is an informational claim or claims, based on observation, that concerns the nature of a thing. On occasion, knowledge can be acquired at a remove through the examination of a reliable source, but secondhand data is always inferior to that derived from primary sources.

    In everyday language, words have many subtly different meanings. Switching between those meanings can confuse and obscure important points. If I made an intuitive leap and became convinced of a thing, I would know it to be true, but I wouldn’t know it to be true.

    See the problem? Both of those clauses are accurate – for different usages of ‘know’. Precision is necessary to avoid deluding self and others.

  141. #141 Caledonian
    January 7, 2007

    You are being too coy. Seems by “scientific method” you mean everyday empiricism which is quite different than what scientists do.

    Impressive. You’re wrong at least three different ways in that tiny little sentence. Practice much?

  142. #142 jbark4
    January 7, 2007

    Jeebus, Anatoly on one side and Caledonian on the other.

    Is anyone here starting up a third team? Sign me up.

  143. #143 Ichthyic
    January 7, 2007

    Of course, this is the classic Empiricist-defeater — the statement, “only the scientific method brings us valid knowledge” is self-refuting: you cannot know the truth of this proposition via science.

    spoken like a philosopher, not a scientist.

    In fact, we certainly could produce a hypothesis based on such, and test it looking at historical data.

    I would argue we defacto already have done this over the last several hundred years, with the result being the obvious pragmatic success of the SM over any other method of gaining “knowledge”, that has lead to its general adoption as the only viable and reliable method.

    Hence, Cale is not wrong in asking the question, as he has several hundred years of observation and testing on his side.

    In other words, for all practical purposes, the question he posed to Chris is quite legitimate.

  144. #144 Carlie
    January 7, 2007

    In this kind of situation especially, with someone who was used to being the pinnacle of power, I wonder how exactly it is supposed to be “justice” to kill him outright. If someone wanted justice, wouldn’t it be much better to make the little dicatator sit in a small cell, alone and forgotten by all, for years and years as he slowly ages? This way he got to go out with a bang, sure of becoming a martyr. I’m not so sure why it is that killing is the end all of justice for certain people. Then again, I guess if you think he’s going to eternal judgement in Hell you might want to speed along the process, but still, wouldn’t you want to see him be miserable here first? “Value of justice” indeed.

  145. #145 Cody
    January 7, 2007

    Of course, this is the classic Empiricist-defeater — the statement, “only the scientific method brings us valid knowledge” is self-refuting: you cannot know the truth of this proposition via science.

    Someone really should do a meta-study on all the different types of studies done. I’m willing to wager that studies which employ the scientific method are more reliable than studies which don’t.

    Ten will get you fifty for the reverse.

  146. #146 Krystalline Apostate
    January 7, 2007

    Ichthyic:

    VAGUELY familiar??

    I was being facetious, dude. Sorry you didn’t catch that.
    & I do own a copy of ‘the Root of All Evil’.

  147. #147 Jason
    January 7, 2007

    AndyS,

    Yes, obviously the scientific method as used by ordinary people in everyday situations differs in certain important respects from professional science. This is understood. The point is that they both use the same basic process of observation-experiment-reason to produce knowledge. Note that this method includes certain types of knowledge produced by reason alone, such as knowledge of the truth of logical propositions, or of one’s own subjective mental states (“I know I’m hungry”).

    I would still like you or Chris or anyone else who claims there are “other ways of knowing,” other ways of producing knowledge, to explain clearly what you think those alternative methods are and to give some examples of knowledge you think they have produced.

    As for the rest of your post, yes, there are obviously many ways in which people “learn” knowledge and “express” their beliefs, but that’s not the issue here.

  148. #148 Anton Mates
    January 7, 2007

    I suggested that there were a lot of people who had their minds made up and weren’t going to react positively to the suggestion at all (yes, I am prescient), but that it was a novel twist that might resonate with a minority of the readers.

    It certainly did with me. I agree with you that analyzing Hussein probably wouldn’t revolutionize psychology, but he literally knew where the bodies were buried, and it would have been worthwhile to pump him for every last detail of his regime’s rise and operation. Especially if, as many execution proponents suggested, the aim was to provide the Iraqi people with satisfaction and closure.

    I wonder if Dawkins realizes the PR potential inherent in his current situation? He doesn’t even have to say controversial things anymore; he could write a column on how bunnies are fuzzy and cute and it’d receive a rhetorical firestorm from his enemies. They’re doing a better job of demonstrating intolerance toward open atheism than he ever could.

  149. #149 AndyS
    January 7, 2007

    Jason,

    As for the rest of your post, yes, there are obviously many ways in which people “learn” knowledge and “express” their beliefs, but that’s not the issue here.

    Sure it is. Saying all ways of knowing are empirical is like saying all music is based on sound waves. It’s so general and abstract it lacks meaningful content — even if trivially true. Learning how to be an effective psychologist or parent involves completely different ways of knowing and learning schemes than learning to be a mechanical engineer. Are they both based ultimately in empiricism? Certainly. Yet they are as similar as night and day and saying they are empirical tells us nothing of importance. (I know of no way to talk to people who believe in magic.)

    I think if we are to promote secular humanism (which I’m learning is what most people here mean by atheism), rather than going on about God beliefs or the supernatural we are better served by talking about accepting “knowledge” offered (or dictated) by authority figures and the how and why of questioning it. That’s the crux of the issue since that’s where everyone gets started and where many stop.

  150. #150 Jason
    January 7, 2007

    AndyS,

    I did not say “all ways of knowing are empirical.” I said there are no “ways of knowing,” no sources of knowledge, other than science and reason. This includes certain types of knowledge produced by reason alone, such as knowledge of the truth of logical propositions.

    Yet again I ask, if you dispute this please explain clearly what you think the other “ways of knowing” are, and provide some examples of knowledge you think they have produced. Not mere beliefs or guesses or wishes, but knowledge.

  151. #151 Daniel Morgan
    January 7, 2007

    Caledonian,

    I don’t wish to be drawn into a lengthy debate over epistemology, but I must point out that your attempt to bring validity to “2+2=4″ via induction is absurd.

    Mathematical truths do not depend on the scientific method in any sense, no observation of logic is possible; no hypotheses can be formed around evidential propositions. Proof through cold logic: that’s all.

    Radical empiricism, such as you seem to be espousing, is dead in the academy for a good reason.

  152. #152 Daniel Morgan
    January 7, 2007

    A nice resource on these issues.

    My URL was wrong in the last post. That was my pre-”Blogger upgrade” URL.

  153. #153 Ichthyic
    January 7, 2007

    I think if we are to promote secular humanism (which I’m learning is what most people here mean by atheism),

    then you are flunking the class, because as has been discussed ad nauseum (most notably in the “symbol for atheism” thread) the two are not the same thing by definition or practice, nor can you conflate either of them with naturalism.

    go back and read through that thread again.

    btw, anybody know if any “symbol” was ever generally agreed upon?

  154. #154 windy
    January 8, 2007

    I don’t wish to be drawn into a lengthy debate over epistemology, but I must point out that your attempt to bring validity to “2+2=4″ via induction is absurd.
    Mathematical truths do not depend on the scientific method in any sense, no observation of logic is possible; no hypotheses can be formed around evidential propositions. Proof through cold logic: that’s all.

    Um, how are you going to prove 2+2=4 without induction?

  155. #155 windy
    January 8, 2007

    In the non-recent category, I remember as especially ludicrous Dawkins’ analogy, in “Blind Watchmaker”, where he tries to explain how natural selection can cause complex structures to arise from simpler ones. He does that by talking of a hypothetical computer program that tries to arrive from a meaningless sequence of letters to a specific line from Shakespeare by changing the sequence one letter at a time, ‘generation’ after ‘generation’ – set up so it always chooses the right letter from the specific target sequence. I mean, it’s hard to think of anything less like natural selection than a process that tries to arrive at a predetermined conclusion, by comparing its steps with that conclusion! I felt there were many other faults in that book, but that one really stood out; it was unclear to me ever since how one can take Dawkins seriously as an elucidator of anything.

    I’m surprised no one commented on this earlier. To quote the talk.origins archive:

    Dawkins’s simulation was plainly stated in his book to demonstrate selection, not evolution. It was intended to show the difference between cumulative selection and single-step selection. Attempts to apply Dawkins’s simulation to evolution as a whole are a misreading of his book.

    Do you also scoff at biologists who use the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium in their teaching?

  156. #156 Daniel Morgan
    January 8, 2007

    windy,

    Caledonian said:

    Sorry, Daniel Morgan, but I keep checking “2+2=4″, and every time I get the result that it’s valid.

    Therefore, I form the hypothesis about the relationship of those concepts that adding two to two will produce the result of four every time. This hypothesis has survived every experimental test.

    Science!

    In mathematics, there is no induction as there is in the scientific sense: repetition of observation, leading to the conclusion that this observation can be generalized/made universal.

    In math, the key part of his post was “I keep checking”. How do you check mathematical proofs? You only need to use pure logic — the relations that obtain between axioms and identities. In math, if you prove something once, it’s over. End of story. There is no repetition to consider, as in science, where experimental error and observational error must be taken into account.

    Deductive arguments are structured such that the truth of the premises is supposed to guarantee the truth of the conclusion; whereas with an inductive argument, the truth of the premises only makes it probable that the conclusion is true. This “problem of induction” renders inductive reasoning in mathematics non-rigorous. It does not lead to proof.

    Science relies upon both deductive and inductive reasoning. Mathematics does not.

  157. #157 Daniel Morgan
    January 8, 2007

    Sorry, the blockquote tag broke early.

    The above comment should read —
    Caledonian said:

    Sorry, Daniel Morgan, but I keep checking “2+2=4″, and every time I get the result that it’s valid. Therefore, I form the hypothesis about the relationship of those concepts that adding two to two will produce the result of four every time. This hypothesis has survived every experimental test. Science!

  158. #158 Caledonian
    January 8, 2007

    I don’t wish to be drawn into a lengthy debate over epistemology, but I must point out that your attempt to bring validity to “2+2=4″ via induction is absurd.

    In math, the key part of his post was “I keep checking”. How do you check mathematical proofs? You only need to use pure logic — the relations that obtain between axioms and identities. In math, if you prove something once, it’s over.

    Ah, but how did you know that you applied the logic correctly? How did you know that you didn’t have a specific failure, or even that your brain has a general flaw that prevents it from reaching the correct conclusion in certain evaluations?

    For that matter, how do you know that the laws of mathematics remain constant, if not through the recognition that we get the same answer every time?

    The events happening inside of our brains are just as subject to observation uncertainty as anything else. Once something is proven, it’s over – but nothing is ever actually proven, just established to a high degree of certainty.

    There have been actual cases of mathematical arguments containing hidden flaws that invalidated their conclusions – yet somehow, people didn’t magically detect that the arguments were wrong right off the bat, and thought that the conclusions had been demonstrated. I’m particularly thinking of Marvin Minsky and the neural networks. Error happens everywhere.

  159. #159 Blake Stacey
    January 8, 2007

    Gregory Chaitin says,

    for years I’ve been arguing that information-theoretic incompleteness results inevitably push us in the direction of a quasi-empirical view of math, one in which math and physics are different, but maybe not as different as most people think. As Vladimir Arnold provocatively puts it, math and physics are the same, except that in math the experiments are a lot cheaper!

    (Via Torbjörn Larsson at Good Math, Bad Math.)

  160. #160 Blake Stacey
    January 8, 2007

    Induction in mathematics: “I have yet to find a set of three integers x, y and z such that x^n + y^n = z^n for n greater than 2. Therefore, I conclude that it is a reasonable use of my time to search for a proof that this is always true.”

  161. #161 Anatoly
    January 8, 2007

    windy,

    Thanks for taking the time to actually address an issue. In a weblog whose commentators mostly self-identify by groupthink and derision towards those who would question the idols, this is a welcome occurrence.

    Dawkins’s simulation was plainly stated in his book to demonstrate selection, not evolution. It was intended to show the difference between cumulative selection and single-step selection. Attempts to apply Dawkins’s simulation to evolution as a whole are a misreading of his book.

    Dawkins puts forth this analogy (this ‘simulation’) as a way of illustrating that evolution, by way of natural selection, is capable of producing complex structures from very simple ones. I don’t remember (I don’t have the text in front of me at the moment) him saying at any point that the analogy is not illustrative of evolution. He doesn’t draw the readers’ attention to the plain fact that the goal in his simulation is pre-determined, and that this is not how evolution (or natural selection as the primary mechanism thereof!) works.

    Consider that the simulation is specifically molded to resemble evolution in several ways. Sentences change by ‘generations’. In each generation, the letter that changes, as I recall, is more or less random, resembling a random mutation (but then only the ‘right’ letter goes forth to the next ‘generation’). Now if I wanted merely to show that step-by-step letter changes can lead from gibberish to a preselected sentence (that is, if I wanted merely to show that cumulative selection works), I could have just moved letter-by-letter left-to-right, right? That would be ‘selection’ in a way, right? And that wouldn’t be mistaken by anyone to look anything like natural selection or evolution in general.

    However, that’s not how Dawkins sets it up. I’m sorry, but the claim you’re citing isn’t supported by Dawkins’s prose (again, as I remember it). The whole thrust of that chapter is to convince the reader that evolution, by way of natural selection, is capable of producing very complex things from very simple things, in a very gradual manner. It’s natural selection Dawkins keeps talking about; it’s natural selection he claims capable of bringing forth complexity, refuting the watchmaker argument; and along the way he sets up this ‘simulation’ as a way to convince the reader that sense can come from gibberish in small steps. If this example is to have nothing at all in common with natural selection (I mean, from the book’s viewpoint; we know it’s as far from natural selection as you can get), there’s no reason to construct it at all – the fact that you can build complex things from simple things going about methodically, according to a predetermined goal, is both trivial and occurring everywhere in human machinery around us. If that were the case, it would add nothing to Dawkins’s argument. No, Dawkins wants this example to explain how natural selection can cause complexity to come from simplicity (yes, in cumulative small steps).

  162. #162 Anatoly
    January 8, 2007

    Tyler,

    First, thank you for replying in a civil tone.

    Likewise, thanks.

    No a priori, at least. It’s an inductive, a posteriori inference based on the fact that people I’ve debated with make all kinds of claims about things that Dawkins doesn’t understand, that he is unsophisticated, deals with strawman version of religion, etc., etc. But when asked to show the money, most of the people I’ve argued with have fallen back on the exact same claims they’ve made, only slightly permuted (“You have misread Anslem” without explanation, etc.).

    Fair enough.

    Most people reject all gods but their own, and take a similar attitude of atheists to those gods. It is not as if someone has presented data demonstrating a greater liklihood of Jehovah’s existence over that of Zeus of Woden. I don’t think it is so much an argument as an appeal to empathy from his readers, viewers, etc.

    Yes; but an intellectually dishonest appeal. This is like a vegetarian, trying to convince someone who only eats one kind of meat (say, beef) that they’re already a “vegetarian about all kinds of meat but one”. The very use of a word that by its definition implies rejection of all X, to denote someone who actually accepts one X very definitely, even if they reject all other X’s, is a logical fallacy (in this case, actually, a deliberately dishonest attempt at propaganda). I’ve talked about it at length in the old thread, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

    About Einstein, I fail to see where in TGD he “quotemined” him. He made pretty clear that he did not believe in a personal God. In my estimation, he was at best a deist. But the most likely solution is that his thinking was not systematic and he wavered between various positions on the matter.

    Possibly. However, Einstein explicitly said he did not consider himself an atheist. Moreover, he said some very definite and angry words about being dismayed when atheists selectively quote him to make him appear an atheist. And this is precisely what Dawkins does (again, I gave quotations and links from Einstein in that old thread). Einstein, in his own view, neither believed in a personal God nor was an atheist, and was adamant about both positions. Dawkins only selects quotes about one of them, to make it easier to convince the reader that Einstein was just a reluctant atheist, unwilling to identify as such. That’s sleazy.

    It has been a while since I’ve read the book, but from your description I can glean that he used it as an example of how a natural process can produce a complex result, in this case iterative selection of a string of characters. etc.

    Yeah, but the process of selecting the ‘right’ letter each time to reach a pre-selected result has nothing ‘natural’ about it. That’s not how nature works. See also the reply to
    windy, above.

  163. #163 Daniel Morgan
    January 8, 2007

    Last post for me on the subject.

    Caledonian said:

    Ah, but how did you know that you applied the logic correctly?

    You’re confusing [human] epistemic certainty with the metaphysical truth of “A is A”. And this issue is not empirical, either.

    How did you know that you didn’t have a specific failure, or even that your brain has a general flaw that prevents it from reaching the correct conclusion in certain evaluations?

    You don’t. But either you applied logic correctly and everything deductively followed from the axioms [typically incorrigible], or you didn’t. The truth of that issue is not empirical. Verification may be.

    The events happening inside of our brains are just as subject to observation uncertainty as anything else.

    I’m a bit confused as to what this means, or how it relates to the error of radical empiricism.

    Once something is proven, it’s over – but nothing is ever actually proven, just established to a high degree of certainty.

    Wrong. Mathematical proofs and logical laws are true. They cannot be otherwise. [in the scenario you outline above with someone making an error, then we are not discussing a "proof", but an error]

    There have been actual cases of mathematical arguments containing hidden flaws that invalidated their conclusions – yet somehow, people didn’t magically detect that the arguments were wrong right off the bat, and thought that the conclusions had been demonstrated.

    This confuses the order of being with the order of knowing. Something is either true or it is not. We cannot verify mathematical truth via empiricism or induction. We can only use deductive reasoning based upon the laws of logic. If their “arguments” were in error, this has little to do with the point I made, which you cannot refute: logical and mathematical truths are not subject to the scientific method. The scientific method incorporates these as givens in order to operate.

    I’m particularly thinking of Marvin Minsky and the neural networks. Error happens everywhere.

    Humans make errors. Propositions are either true or false. Logical laws and deductive reasoning can only be true.

    For that matter, how do you know that the laws of mathematics remain constant, if not through the recognition that we get the same answer every time?

    If logical laws aren’t laws, then there is no coherence, truth, or sense to the universe. Period.

    Global unrelenting skepticism falls on its own sword. Doubting the veracity of logic entails USING logic. You can’t escape it. Logical laws are incorrigible.

  164. #164 Daniel Morgan
    January 8, 2007

    Blake,

    Induction in mathematics: “I have yet to find a set of three integers x, y and z such that x^n + y^n = z^n for n greater than 2. Therefore, I conclude that it is a reasonable use of my time to search for a proof that this is always true.”

    Good point. Induction isn’t a problem when it comes to inspiration :-)

  165. #165 windy
    January 8, 2007

    Anatoly wrote: However, that’s not how Dawkins sets it up. I’m sorry, but the claim you’re citing isn’t supported by Dawkins’s prose (again, as I remember it). The whole thrust of that chapter is to convince the reader that evolution, by way of natural selection, is capable of producing very complex things from very simple things, in a very gradual manner.

    No, the main point was not simple to complex, since “skrhsdnk js fd xjss r kjrysi” is not really less complex than “methinks it is like a weasel”. The point was to illustrate cumulative selection in a simple way, and to show how much faster it works than completely random trials. Monkey typing Shakespeare at random vs. monkey typing at random and keeping the hits.

    Since many people are taken in by creationist claims that “there hasn’t been enough time for x to develop at random”, it is important to address these concerns starting from simple examples. If you don’t like this example, do you have a better way of presenting it?

    Yeah, but the process of selecting the ‘right’ letter each time to reach a pre-selected result has nothing ‘natural’ about it. That’s not how nature works.

    It would be a passable way of illustrating convergent evolution in cow and langur lysozyme amino acid sequences. Breeding fancy pigeons is not very natural, either…

  166. #166 Steven
    January 8, 2007

    More misplaced Dawkins furor is correct. This always happens when Dawkins writes and article and morons don’t read past the title or the first few lines. To everyone out in the world I say this “DON’T COMMENT ON AN ARTICLE UNLESS YOU HAVE READ IT FROM ALL”.

  167. #167 Ichthyic
    January 8, 2007

    In a weblog whose commentators mostly self-identify by groupthink and derision towards those who would question the idols, this is a welcome occurrence.

    *yawn*

    don’t keep projecting your own idol worship here, ’cause there ain’t none.

    the derision comes from those who object to the army of strawmen that seems to be erected around everything Dawkins writes. something you seem more than happy to participate in.

    Your perception of *groupthink* is merely a reaction on your part to a general agreement that that is what you are in fact, doing.

    perhaps a bit of introspection on your part is in order.

  168. #168 Anatoly
    January 9, 2007

    No, the main point was not simple to complex, since “skrhsdnk js fd xjss r kjrysi” is not really less complex than “methinks it is like a weasel”.

    OK. From random to order then.

    The point was to illustrate cumulative selection in a simple way, and to show how much faster it works than completely random trials. Monkey typing Shakespeare at random vs. monkey typing at random and keeping the hits.

    Except the notion of “hits” here is completely at odds with what’s going on in evolution.

    Since many people are taken in by creationist claims that “there hasn’t been enough time for x to develop at random”, it is important to address these concerns starting from simple examples.

    But that’s precisely the point I’m making. People are “taken in” by the not-enough-time argument not because creationist are devious propagandists (though they are), but because it’s genuinely compelling. It’s hard to explain why it’s possible for evolution to produce such complex changes via such tiny steps, even through such long
    time periods. It’s the most difficult thing about evolution to explain to a layman. It’s very difficult to explain intelligently. And Dawkins can’t, so he resorts to (at best) very misleading analogies.

    If you don’t like this example, do you have a better way of presenting it?

    I’m glad you asked! How about, if a particular letter mutation ‘survived’ into the next generation with better probability if its neighbouring letters were more likely to be neighbouring it in an English word? What if spaces were more likely to appear in places where they would more likely be in a phrase of this size in English, and would stick around more likely if their neighbouring letters were more likely to be engaged in a candidate word? That is, make the conditions localised, like they are “in real life”, and don’t make them depend on a preset solution. With a little luck, you’ll get a bunch of nonce words at the end, rather than a particular line from Shakespeare. And that’s just fine to illustrate “order from randomness”, because it is a very long process, and the reader should appreciate how long (but possible) it is.

    Of course, that’s just one possibility. You could also at the very least make the odds of survival depend on getting closer to anything in the whole of Shakespeare’s lexicon rather than a particular phrase, and watch the sequence turn out different quotations at the end in different runs. There are many ways to make it look at least a little bit like evolution; the way it’s phrased not only has nothing to do with evolution, but it actively misleads the reader into thinking that they just received an explanation about how evolution with natural selection makes it possible for order to come out of chaos.

    Anyway, I’m rambling and no one reads this anymore anyway, but I’ve got a point to apologise for: I’ve reread the text of that chapter, and Dawkins does get to explaining why this simulation is not like evolution, and he does say explicitly, a bit after introducing the simulation and its results and what they teach us, that in reality evolution doesn’t move towards a predetermined conclusion and that this is an important difference. So, I apologise for saying he ignored the difference and pretended it’s just like evolution. He didn’t.

    I still think it’s a very, very poor way to explain cumulative selection in context of talking about evolution.

  169. #169 Anatoly
    January 9, 2007

    Ichthyic,

    don’t keep projecting your own idol worship here, ’cause there ain’t none.

    OK, you convinced me.

    the derision comes from those who object to the army of strawmen that seems to be erected around everything Dawkins writes. something you seem more than happy to participate in.

    Oh please, you’re not even trying. The op-ed by Dawkins discussed in this thread is of very poor quality. I explained in detail the argument to that effect several times up there (for example, here);
    my points weren’t strawmen and they discussed Dawkins’ precise words. To the extent that some intellectually honest
    participants here addressed them, they couldn’t refute them
    and ended up agreeing with some (e.g. mjh agreed that when
    Dawkins claims studying a society that lets a dictator rise to power is something psychologists do, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about). Also, Windy eloquently addressed my criticism of an older quote by Dawkins. Besides
    that, my words were mostly ignored; one of the nodding idiots called them trolling, for no reason at all.

    It’s alright – I’m not offended by this. I’m not emotionally
    invested against Dawkins, or at least not overly so – I just
    think him a very poor, intellectually dishonest writer. And
    given PZM’s deferential stance towards Dawkins, and his own inability to meaningfully engage with non-cooky criticism
    or discourage the commentariat from cliqueing up (which is a
    natural impulse in a commentariat), the dogmatic atmosphere
    here is to be expected. I do still find it amusing, though.

  170. #170 Ichthyic
    January 9, 2007

    I’m not emotionally
    invested against Dawkins, or at least not overly so – I just
    think him a very poor, intellectually dishonest writer.

    I’d laugh if I thought you were being intentionally funny.

  171. #171 Anatoly
    January 9, 2007

    I’d laugh if I thought you were being intentionally funny.

    Convinced me yet again.

    You’re very good at arguments, Ichthyic.

  172. #172 crazy negro
    January 9, 2007

    i dunno anything about what 2+2 equals (i failed every math course i ever took :( ) but i thought i’d just get back to the original hubbub about why Dawkins thought Saddam shouldn’t be executed, i.e the fact that ~*scientists*~ and ~*psychologists*~ could have had a lot to learn from him. really, though, wouldn’t we learn the most from his *brain?* i may not be a neuroscientist, but i get the feeling that examining the physical makeup of his gray matter–such as whether the centers responsible for moral conditioning were underdeveloped, whether there were chemical indications of an unbalanced mind, etc. etc. etc.

    if i were a ~*materialistic naturalist*~ like Dawkins, i’d be more indignant about the fact that they threw out his brain rather than the fact that they just killed him

  173. #173 Keith Douglas
    January 11, 2007

    RavenT: Thank you for remembering my expertise, such as it is. As for what knowledge is, I don’t really know. The philosophical tradition has it that knowledge is justified true belief with [something else], where the [something else] is disputed heavily. I am sympathetic to the accounts that make it subject to appropriate linking with what the knowledge is about, though that is difficult to do in general terms. I am also sympathetic to the idea that one should remove the truth requirement and speak of warranted belief or something, with degrees of truth improving degrees of warrant, but is all very messy. It is important to realize, however, that “belief” here too is a term of art, one which I find very slippery. Here one gets all kinds of different ideas as well, depending on one’s behaviourist sympathies (and not).

    Blake Stacey: Maybe so. I don’t remember.

    As for “empirical”, I find it important to emphasize yet again that science is not empiricist in character. Hypotheses are invented (how? Beats me.), not somehow “induced” from the data. So science is as rationalist as empiricist. What is important is that a large (but not total) part of evidence used in science is factual, i.e. has to do with what is the case.

The site is undergoing maintenance presently. Commenting has been disabled. Please check back later!