Secular consensus


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3 Responses to Secular consensus

  1. TFBW says:

    The Dawkins remark comes from his interview in the documentary, Faith and Reason, which anecdotal evidence suggests was broadcast in September 1998. He elaborates on this point as follows.

    It’s an important point to realize that the genetic programming of our lives is not fully deterministic. It is statistical — it is in any animal merely statistical — not deterministic. Even if you are in some sense a determinist — and philosophically speaking many of us may be — that doesn’t mean we have to behave as if we are determinists, because the world is so complicated, and especially human brains are so complicated, that we behave as if we are not deterministic, and we feel as if we are not deterministic — and that’s all that matters.

    By “merely statistical”, I take it that he means some combination of determinism and randomness, producing a non-deterministic but biased result. The comment, “we feel as if we are not deterministic — and that’s all that matters,” is a bit surprising, since it suggests that he’s perfectly happy for us to operate under the delusion that we aren’t deterministic, even if we are. Apparently Dawkins doesn’t consider “delusion” to be a bad thing in and of itself; rather, it’s a matter of consequences.

    The Harris remark comes from his book, Free Will. He elaborates as follows.

    Free will is actually more than an illusion (or less), in that it cannot be made conceptually coherent. Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.

    In some sense, these two quotations only conflict at a superficial level. Both would seem to offer only determinism and randomness as possible raw ingredients (which arguably begs the question, but that’s a discussion for another time). From this, Harris concludes that free will is categorically impossible, and Dawkins (being something of an oaf when it comes to matters philosophical) seems to suggest that the combination of determinism and randomness in play is sufficient to generate a powerful illusion of free will, and that whatever it is, it’s sufficient to transcend the raw influences of Darwinian Evolution (i.e. “override biology”).

    On my analysis, then, Harris’ remark can be taken at face value. He has made his position clear, to the extent that he has expressed it. I haven’t read on to discover what he thinks his position means for us as actors (although it seems pretty clear where he’s going with it in terms of moral responsibility). Dawkins’ remark, on the other hand, reflects his standard lack of clarity when it comes to philosophy, and can’t be taken at face value. His “free will” does not seem to correspond to anything that a philosopher would normally grace with that title. It is just some combination of determinism and randomness which can override raw Darwinian influences, and I think it’s obvious that humans do transcend Darwin in that manner: we routinely terminate our unborn offspring in the name of personal convenience! If that were genetically determined behaviour, it’s providing its own massively negative selection pressure. On the other hand, Dawkins insists that the genes are entirely responsible for producing the complex system which makes those decisions, so is it even logically coherent to describe that as overriding biology?

    In conclusion, it doesn’t really look like Dawkins has admitted to the existence of Free Will in any sense that contradicts Harris. He’s merely admitted to a complex melange of deterministic and random influences which can produce different outcomes than those favoured by Darwinian Natural Selection. He’s also shamelessly romanticised it, giving it the superficial gloss of true Free Will, while denying the reality of it. Furthermore, he’s lost sight of the fact that he attributes the production of that complex melange of influences entirely to genes, so his position may not even be logically coherent, or may be fatal to his “selfish gene” thesis. It’s not clear enough to say for sure.

    In summary, then, I’d say that there is a certain degree of consensus between the two, despite appearances, in that neither is admitting the possibility of Free Will in a sui generis sense. Mostly, however, Dawkins is too incoherent to convey a real meaning, and a meaningless statement can’t stand in proper agreement or disagreement with anything. It depresses me every time I hear someone express admiration for Dawkins’ clarity of thought.

  2. Gary Good says:

    Although both claim to hold that only science can tell us anything, neither one has proven through science that their statements are true. In actuality, their statements are nothing more than their opinions. Why should we pay any attention to them. They have no objective source for truth.

  3. Dhay says:

    As regards backing up mere opinions, I quite like this Dilbert strip:

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