The neodarwinists have delivered brilliant insights into the hardwired behavior of many species, including ours. I find their theorizing about natural selection (and when it comes to natural selection, theorizing is pretty much all we can do) quite original and largely persuasive. My quarrel with them is when they step away from science and attempt to become speculative philosophers.
In this capacity, they are neither original nor particularly adept. Although they are devout rationalists, they get tripped up in their own logic. In short, they contradict themselves.
No one does it better than Richard Dawkins. For reasons that are difficult to fathom, Dawkins has become an embittered old codger, full of rage and venom. He’s wholly certain that he knows better, and he wants to convert the world to atheism. Fine. The problem is, I can’t recall the last time a person decided to abandon religion because of arguments laced with condescension and abuse.
One suspects that Dawkins, in the manner of many famous people, just enjoys venting his opinions. Persuasion doesn’t enter the picture.
Nor does logical consistency. Sophistpundit has read Dawkins’ latest book, subtly titled The God Delusion, and has no patience with the circularities in its arguments. Because Dawkins is almost too easy a target, I’ll give only one example — concerning, as is proper for this blog, the question of morality.
Dawkins is quoted as writing, “Absolutists believe there are absolutes of right and wrong, imperatives whose rightness makes no reference to their consequences. Consequentialists more pragmatically hold that the morality of an action should be judged by its consequences.” Those fanatical religious zealots are of course absolutists. Enlightened Oxford dons are consequentialists.
But there’s a pretty obvious problem with this line of reasoning, as Sophistpundit observes:
There is Absolutism, under which there absolute rights and wrongs.
- There is Consequentialism, under which the morality of an action is judged by its consequences, which . . . are . . . uh . . . right or wrong. Absolutely? Relatively? What’s the difference between these two again? [. . .]
All systems of morality begin with a claim which in Dawkins’ terminology is absolutist. To say that absolutist statements are very difficult to defend on any grounds other than religious ones is something that a man like Dawkins would only state if he believed that he had presented a viable alternative. But what is consequentialism? How can you judge something by its consequences? Are consequences innately good or bad? Before consequences can be used as a standard to judge actions by, you need a value standard to judge them by.
All consequentialism does is take the question a step back. Dawkins’ absolutism is simply stating up front that this or that action is immoral. His consequentialism is saying, well, it may or may not be moral, we can’t tell you until we see what it does. When you do see what it does, however, then what? Then you pull out your own personal categorical imperative, and it turns out that you’re really no different from anyone else when it comes to matters of morality.
Consequentialism begs the question. Or, as Sophistpundit writes, it needs a standard. That standard must be absolute, or one regresses into infinity: at each level, each relative standard will point to the next. Morality doesn’t work like that — it requires absolute stopping-points.
Like the other neodarwinists, Dawkins simply assumes, on absolutist terms, the superiority of the rationalist, humanist ideals prevalent in academia. He embraces his own parochial tradition while pouring scorn on that inherited, across centuries of history, by the rest of us.
Read the whole thing — as well as Sophistpundit’s dissection of the rationalist epistemology in the book. Good clean fun.