12 August 2007

Dawkins: more straw men

Headline and lead from a recent article in the Sunday Times by Peter Millar:
The gullible age
Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion sold a million copies. In a new and hilarious onslaught he pits hard science against astrology, tarot, psychics, homeopathy and other ‘gullibiligy'. The Enemies Of Reason starts on Channel 4 on August 13.

I would have liked to publish a reply to The God Delusion entitled The Social Delusion, but I do not have Richard Dawkins’s social status; in fact I have no salary or financial support apart from what I can make for myself. My book would probably not have been reviewed, and would have been lucky to sell any copies at all.

In ‘The Enemies of Reason’ Richard Dawkins is evidently embarking on attacking another series of straw men which will be taken as proof by many people that there is no possible competition for the worldview of the modern ideology as the sole source of reality. He will not be attacking, I think, anyone funded by public money (i.e. money obtained by the taxation of individuals) or anyone with socially conferred authority as an expert — although there are many in those categories who are as deserving of his strictures as fraudulent mediums, or as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, of whom Dawkins says (quoting Peter Medawar), “He can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he took great pains to deceive himself.”

I would think that latter remark applies to a good many purveyors of supposedly ‘hard-edged’ science in the modern world.

However, unless I get a financial supporter or a Professorship, I am not going to be in a position to reply to Dawkins’s new series in detail, any more than I was to reply to The God Delusion, although I may manage to get a few snippets of what I am thinking onto my blog. Meanwhile, I reproduce below a section from my book The Lost Cause (Introduction, pp.24-25).

The perceived advantage of anomalous monism

Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene, pointing out that human evolution is explicable in terms of the survival of the genes of those who behave in the ways most likely to ensure the presence of their offspring in future societies, wishes nevertheless to ascribe some independent value to ideas about how human societies should be run, and how individual human beings should behave. So he proposes the concept of a 'meme': an idea which, if it is a good one, has a survival value of its own, presumably in the context of human society. The value of the meme is not supposed to depend on selection processes as they apply to biological evolution.

Somewhat similar advantages as a solution to the dilemma of reductionism as described above are probably perceived in the anomalous monism of Donald Davidson, which may account for its influential position in philosophy of mind over recent years. While the mental is always to be regarded as an aspect of the physical, which is primary, the relationship between the mental and the physical is not law-like (i.e. is anomalous). This supposedly permits us to regard ideals of egalitarianism and collectivism, for example, or Richard Dawkins's memes, as possessing an intrinsic value of their own, even though they arise in the minds of individuals as a result of neuronal events.

Thus it seems to be implicitly accepted that such theories as anomalous monism provide an acceptable framework within which ethics about social groups can be regarded as meaningful, while individualist ethics can not. Deterministic reductionism, i.e. the theory that mental events are caused by physical ones, need not in itself have been taken as devaluing mental events, which might include individualistic ethical principles. Nevertheless, I believe it is felt, and I have heard it asserted to be the case by academic philosophers, that anomalous monism permits us to continue to ascribe emotional value loadings to the mental, i.e. to certain psychological attitudes to human interrelationships, while rejecting the mental's claim to onotological status.

Philosophically, the issues concerning morality and determinism continue to be debated. When finality on these issues has been reached, we need not suppose that it will be clearly stated and widely publicised. It is more likely that philosophers will stop discussing such things, and write as if certain conclusions could be taken for granted, rather in the way that materialist monism is the common starting point in the great majority of up-to-date books on philosophy of mind.

In fact, it is not difficult to guess what the final conclusion may be, in fact already is. The individual can have no higher freedom than that of fusion with the collective.

... to be free, people must be able to employ the material resources which they need to give effect to their choices, and this is possible only through collective control over the productive powers of society. All of these suggestions call into question the idea with which we began, of a compromise; between the freedom of the individual and the power of society, since they imply that only as social beings are people capable of exercising freedom in the first place. ('Freedom, political', Oxford Companion to Philosophy, 1991, p.292)

Only collective society retains a numinous soul, but nowadays we do not draw attention to it. We would not bother to give it grandiose names, as earlier writers did, such as sovereign or general will or Hegel's Geist.