Friday, July 06, 2007

Wilson on Dawkins

David Sloan Wilson certainly has some unkind things to say about Richard Dawkins[1], but I think Wilson is off-base in much of his criticism.

I find Wilson's speculations more scientifically appealing than Dawkins'. I think religion as a social practice has far too much effect on human behavior to not be adaptive in some sense; I don't buy Dawkins' speculation in The God Delusion that religion is just a side-effect of children's uncritical acceptance of their parents' teaching. But that's not the point.

The Scientific Method is a little bit subtle. It is not just drawing logical deductions from the evidence; the Scientific Method requires the creative invention of hypotheses and theories which are justified by the evidence. It's also the case that the details of various theories drives the collection of new evidence. It's a feedback process, where the invention of theories and the evaluation of evidence both affect each other, and it is an empirical observation, not a logical necessity, that this feedback process tends to be dynamically stable and lead to well-accepted theories. (Contrast science with religion, which does not appear to be particularly dynamically stable or convergent outside of authoritarian institutions such as the Catholic Church.)

Science as a social system depends strongly on advocacy, but advocacy is very different from dogma. Dawkins is an advocate for the non-adaptationism and "accidentialism" of religion. I share Wilson's opinion that Dawkins is wrong, but I don't share Wilson's opinion that Dawkins is dogmatic or closed-minded. Nothing of Dawkins work, but much of Wilson's essay, is philosophically troubling.

Wilson opines that Dawkins is "just another angry atheist, trading on his reputation as an evolutionist and spokesperson for science to vent his personal opinions about religion." This is an outrageously tendentious ad hominem. Why shouldn't Dawkins use his scientific reputation to express his personal opinions about religion? It's not at all shameful to have personal opinions, and that Dawkins is an accomplished scientist ought to bring those opinions to the public's attention and give them at least a degree of weight. And, in The God Delusion Dawkins definitely does not trade on his scientific reputation to justify those opinions: Like any good scientist or philosopher, he presents his arguments for critical analysis.

Wilson justifies his opinion with a single quotation:
Here is how Dawkins recounts the period in his 1982 book The Extended Phenotype:
The intervening years since Darwin have seen an astonishing retreat from his individual-centered stand, a lapse into sloppily unconscious group-selectionism … We painfully struggled back, harassed by sniping from a Jesuitically sophisticated and dedicated neo-group-selectionist rearguard, until we finally regained Darwin's ground, the position that I am characterizing by the label "the selfish organism…"
This passage has all the earmarks of fundamentalist rhetoric, including appropriating the deity (Darwin) for one’s own cause.
The characterization of the quoted passage as "fundamentalist rhetoric" is absurd. To be fundamentalist, rhetoric must assert the authority and unerring truth of scripture. Dawkins clearly does not do so in the quoted passage. If merely negatively characterizing those one disagrees with counts as "fundamentalist rhetoric", then Wilson would clearly be guilty of the same sin.

The above passage appears in a section entitled "Scientific Dogmatism". Wilson asserts that "the case against group selection began to unravel almost immediately after the publication of Adaptation and Natural Selection, although it was difficult to tell, given the repressive social climate." But Wilson gives no evidence whatsoever to substantiate this assertion, noting only philosophical quibbles with terminology. The only science he mentions is a study in 2006. Forty years does not seem to qualify as "almost immediately after" the publication of Adaptation and Natural Selection in 1966. If the case against group selection began to unravel "almost immediately", then why the heading of the very next section, "The Revival of Group Selection"?

Wilson insinuates that Dawkins commits the worst scientific sin: Getting the facts wrong.
The problem with Dawkins’ analysis, however, is that if he doesn’t get the facts about religion right, his diagnosis of the problems and proffered solutions won’t be right either.
This is a contemptible insinuation, made even more reprehensible by the weasally "if". The facts are what every honest, competent person ought to uncontroversially agree on: To get the facts wrong is to exhibit dishonesty or stupidity.

But Wilson does not ever substantiate Dawkins misrepresenting actual fact. Dawkins may get the science wrong (and I think he has), but we have to be free, as honest and competent inquirers, to get the science wrong: We have to invent hypotheses which we do not know a priori are true, test them against the facts, and discard the ones we get wrong. If we make it ethically wrong to get the science incorrect, who would risk an unproven hypothesis?

I found one passage from Wilson's essay particularly disturbing:
I recently attended a conference on evolution and religion in Hawaii that provided an opportunity to assess the state of the field. It is not the case that everyone has reached a consensus on the relative importance of the major evolutionary hypotheses about religion. My own talk included a slide with the words SHAME ON US! in large block letters, chiding my colleagues for failing to reach at least a rough consensus, based on information that is already at hand. This might seem discouraging, until we remember that all aspects of religion have so far received much less attention than guppy spots from an evolutionary perspective. The entire enterprise is that new.
The idea that reaching a consensus is per se a normative standard—that the failure to reach a consensus should entail shame—takes an ethical page straight from the manual of religious dogmatism. Consensus should emerge "naturally" from the facts and rational analysis of competing hypotheses, not imposed as a normative standard. And this goes double for an area of inquiry that is very new and has not yet received substantial scientific attention.

I think it is Wilson himself who, although I think has better scientific ideas, exhibits the worst characteristics of religious dogmatism, fundamentalist rhetoric, and weaselly, tendentious, fallacious debating. This is the pot calling the not the kettle but the silver spoon black. Dawkins may be wrong on the science, but Wilson is wrong, dangerously wrong, on the philosophy.


[1] Link fixed

42 comments:

  1. potentilla7/6/07, 1:05 PM

    Do you know the background to this? DSW has proposed a form of group selection as the reason for religion (in "Darwin's Cathedral") and has been fairly widely, um, disagreed with by other biologists, who are very doubtful that group selection can ever work, let alone for something as complex and major as religion. (So I would say that few scientists share your view of DSW's science). Hence the fact that he is in a snit about the pasage from TEP.

    I agree that religion is due to evolution not just cultural (does RD really think its only cultural?), but I think the better view than DSW's is that it is a "spandrel", a term which has been coined for an effect that comes about because of evolved traits but which is not itself adaptive (or at least primarily adaptive). I think it's reasonable to say that the reason most biologists don't think it's adaptive is because the benefits people suggest for it tend to be for the group not the individual, and group selection is very difficult to make work (haven't got the energy to type a long explanation of this if you aren't already familiar with it, but could probably dig out refs if required).

    As I have before, I commend to your attention Breaking the Spell and Why Would Anyone Believe in God? both of which deal with the the ways that God could have arisen from evolved traits which were adaptive for non-God reasons.

    Sorry, not the clearest comment ever, but the thoughts behind it are quite clear!

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  2. potentilla7/6/07, 1:14 PM

    I've now read the DSW article rather sketchily; lots of good stuff, I must dig out my copy of DC again. He mentions the spandrel theories towards the end, in a para about Lee Kirkpatrick, but doesn't say why (or even if) they are not as convincing as his own adaptationist view.

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  3. I was not at all persuaded by Dawkins' non-adaptationist argument in The God Delusion; by my intuition, they went thud instead of ding.

    But, of course, I'm not a biologist, sociologist, or anything like that. I'm frankly not qualified to have more than a vague intuitive impression about the substantive scientific issues.

    But even granting maximum charity to Wilson, he still comes off as turning a scientific disagreement into a philosophical dispute, and a dispute where he not only loses, but shoots himself in the foot, labeling disagreement as dogma and creative scientific inquiry as shameful chaos.

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  4. potentilla7/6/07, 3:37 PM

    I think he possibly does worse than that; turns it into a personal dispute.

    I just had a quick look through TGD and as far as I can see, Dawkins only touches very briefly on the arguments I'm talking about (round about p180 somewhere). Maybe when you get to BtS, ding will happen. In fact, I found WWABIG (which I only read recently) even more ding on this particular issue. (And you will so much enjoy being cross about the last chapter......tempt, tempt).

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  5. Sloan Wilson seems to destroy his scientific, or at least bilogical, credentials when he criticises Dawkin's concept of extended phenotypes, with the slightly weird example of a beaver dam which he says, "benefits all of the beavers in the pond, including those who don’t contribute to building the dam. The problem of within-group selection is present in the dam example and the concept of extended phenotypes does nothing to solve it."

    An important fact about beavers - which a biologist should have checked - is their territoriality. A colony generally consists of four to eight closely related beavers, who resist additions or outsiders to the colony or the pond. Cooperation and altruism amongst close relatives does not require a revival of group selection theories.

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  6. First, the jury is very much still out on group selection--may still come to nothing, but its stock has gone up in recent years.

    Now, Barefoot, do you actually believe that Richard Dawkins is an advocate of non-adaptiveness of religion for any other reason that his hatred of religion?

    As for the benefits of religion, they may be psychological and therefore rather hard to account for in our current state of understanding of the psyche and with all the testability issues (of subjective experience) we are only just beginning to overcome.

    And it isn't just a philosophical dispute--it's also a political one. Dawkins is being accused of trading on his scientific reputation to advance what is essentially a personal political agenda.

    It isn't as if Dawkins writes this book as if it were an essay. It isn't as if he tells us, say, that he has no intention of trying to fairly assess all the available data; or that he has no intention of reading and accounting for the relevant science.

    The book is essentially unscientific. In fact, anti-scientific. That's Wilson's problem, and it doesn't really entirely follow from what he'd written before, but from the whole discussion that surrounds the book.

    I'd recommend reading Scott Atran's and here objections to the whole neo-atheist line at edge.org.

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  7. Now, Barefoot, do you actually believe that Richard Dawkins is an advocate of non-adaptiveness of religion for any other reason that his hatred of religion?

    Yes, I actually believe that. Actually, I think the truth is a little different: Dawkins hates religion for the same reasons he thinks it's not adaptive: It's all a pack of lies.

    I suspect Dawkins is not correct, at least in the sense that I suspect religion and supernatural belief are adaptive, or at least were actually adaptive at one point. But just because religion is or was adaptive doesn't mean its claims of the supernatural are true, or that we should refuse to believe philosophical arguments against religion.

    I think Dawkins is crystal clear about his intentions in writing The God Delusion and the limitations on the scope of his book, and I think he succeeds within those limits. Obviously your opinion apparently differs. I'm not Dawkins' mommy, though, and I feel no need to defend him.

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  8. Dawkins hates religion for the same reasons he thinks it's not adaptive: It's all a pack of lies

    He hates it for much the same reason you do; he feels no personal draw towards it, and he is well aware of the manifest evil that has been done in its name. (For instance, neither of you hate Father Christmas with the same passion).

    He is much to good a scientist to think it's non-adaptive because it's a pack of lies. There are plenty of examples of us ( and other animals) believing untrue things because of behaviours which have evolved because they were adaptive.

    He thinks it's non-adaptive for the same reasons I do; its universal nature makes it likely that evolution comes into it somewhere (ie it's not purely cultural); there is not yet any strong candidate for it to have evolved by selective advantage to the individual (as opposed to the group); and he is as yet unconvinced by DSW's attempt to revive group selection as a mechanism which actually works most of the time.

    I agree that Sam Harris is smoking dope if he thinks, as he appears to, that mere exhortation is somehow going to banish religion. (In fact I think SH is an intellectual lightweight and I'm not really sure why he gets so much airtime). However, Dawkins' position in TGD is a bit more subtle than that; he is essentially arguing that people who, like him, don't feel drawn to religious explanation, should be able to 'come out' as atheists, or, in the case of children, never get sucked into religion in the first place.

    Scott Atran is a good bloke - and, of course, a major proponent of the idea that religion is a by-product of evoloution rather than being adaptive in itself.

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  9. The end bits of that last comment were of course addressed to oran p kelley.

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  10. But just because religion is or was adaptive doesn't mean its claims of the supernatural are true, or that we should refuse to believe philosophical arguments against religion.

    Just to be clear: whether or not religion is true is not an issue for me. I don't see how it applies to this discussion. The question for me is what functions might religion serve, as either an adaptation or a spandrel.

    Dawkins' two big goals in his book were to provide evidence and arguments against belief in God (which Bertrand Russell had already done well enough,imo, but whatever) and to show religion's essential and thoroughgoing perniciousness. It is on this last point that I think the book fails badly by not considering reasonable (as opposed to stupid) counterarguments.

    Atran would be my candidate for someone who is "open-minded" and "thought provoking" when he talks about how religion might have evolved.

    And while he thinks religion is probably a side effect of our cognitive evolution, he is pretty adamant in his belief--contra the neo-atheists--that religion may now have important social and cultural functions (much as spandrels develop functions) which we cannot just ignore.

    As an encouragement to atheists coming out of the closet, maybe Dawkins has done some good. But, frankly, I have a hard time reconciling myself with the fact that the world's most famous atheist so often comes across as a closeminded enthusiast.

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  11. religion may now have important social and cultural functions (much as spandrels develop functions) which we cannot just ignore

    True. But they are not necessarily morally desirable functions, are they?

    often comes across as a closeminded enthusiast Does he? In writing? I haven't really read much he's written except all his books, so maybe he is more casual in the press/on the web. Any links?

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  12. >> [oran] often comes across as a closeminded enthusiast
    > [potentilla] Does he? In writing? I haven't really read much he's written except all his books, so maybe he is more casual in the press/on the web. Any links?


    I've read several of his books, a bunch of magazine articles and on-line bits and pieces, and seen him speak and do a q&a in person.

    I've never really understood where he gets his negative reputation. I've certainly never found him closeminded (or arrogant, the other label I see attached to him quite often).

    He's definitely enthusiastic about his topics though, but I can't imagine that being considered a bad thing.

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  13. "To describe religions as mind viruses is sometimes interpreted as contemptuous or even hostile. It is both."

    "If people think God is interesting, the onus is on them to show that there is anything there to talk about. Otherwise they should just shut up about it." [Here of course he's kind of off course, many of the people who have complained about his book--including Atran--think religion is interesting. Dawkins seems militantly incurious.

    I suppose if you agree with Dawkins that fighting religion is more important than knowing the truth about it, then he seem fairly measured and reasonable. For me the obvious Dawkinsian agenda--kneejerk denial of any hypothesis which proposes possible functions for religious belief, and attempts to paint anyone forwarding such a hypothesis as some kind of apologist--is essentially anti-intellectual.

    Check out his responses to the first two objections in his "I'm an atheist but . . ." article.

    He's more interested in these issues as hurdles to atheistic evangelism than he is in them as scientific questions. Pretty sad.

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  14. Can't say I agree with you there.

    I suppose if you agree with Dawkins that fighting religion is more important than knowing the truth about it, then he seem fairly measured and reasonable.

    What gives you the idea Dawkins thinks fighting religion is more important than knowing the truth about it? Religion is bunkum. That's the truth. Whether religion does or does not have some function is interesting, yes, but somewhat undercut by the fact that religion just isn't true.

    For me the obvious Dawkinsian agenda--kneejerk denial of any hypothesis which proposes possible functions for religious belief, and attempts to paint anyone forwarding such a hypothesis as some kind of apologist

    He does no such thing. He has in fact answered this objection elsewhere. Even if religion is useful to some people in some circumstances, it doesn't alter the fact that religion isn't true.

    And for Dawkins (and others), truth matters.

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  15. See, that's why I normally take an hour to post a comment instead of 10 minutes. I wouldn't like the tone of that if I was on the end of it.

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  16. Well, Owen, I liked the tone of your comment. :D

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  17. Religion is bunkum. That's the truth. Whether religion does or does not have some function is interesting, yes, but somewhat undercut by the fact that religion just isn't true.

    OK, the propositional content of religion is largely untrue. Big deal.

    Why does it exist at all? What good do people derive from it? Why does the practice persist? What problems (psychological, social, cultural) may arise if religion goes away? How can we act to alleviate these problems? If religion is a problem, what sort of institutions/practices would likely displace it/replace it?

    Those are what I find to be interesting questions about religion. As far as I am concerned the truth of any particular religious tradition has been pretty much a decided point since the Enlightenment.

    The question isn't Is x religion true. The question is, why does religion persist in spite of its being false.

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  18. Oran:

    Whether the propositional content of religion is largely or completely untrue is a big deal. It's a big deal to me, it's a big deal to Dawkins, and it seems a very big deal to millions of religious believers.

    The questions you ask are also good and interesting questions, questions which Wilson attempts to answer in a scientific manner. (Having read Wilson's paper carefully, I have to agree with potentilla that he fails, but that's beside the point.)

    As Dawkins notes in his reply to Wilson, he's writing his own book, not Wilson's, yours or even mine. There are ~5.9995 billion people in the world who haven't read The God Delusion; if you think the truth or falsity of the propositional content of religion is uninteresting, one more non-reader isn't going to make a difference.

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  19. Whether the propositional content of religion is largely or completely untrue is a big deal. It's a big deal to me, it's a big deal to Dawkins, and it seems a very big deal to millions of religious believers.

    But I think you would find that people do not believe for reasons that Richard Dawkins is going to argue them out of. So what's the point of the book?

    Particularly considering that the "Proving God doesn't exist" has already been done pretty well already (see Bertrand Russell, among many others)?

    Personally, I think if we're going to reduce belief amongst the believers, we really ought to first understand the nature of religious belief. People don't believe because someone has made a great argument on behalf of belief--I think we know that much. Why do we think an argument against belief is going to be some great positive intervention?

    Dawkins claim (in his response to Wilson) that disproving the existence of God was THE central theme of the book is disingenuous. There are TWO central themes of the book: religion is false and religion is pernicious.

    It is in connection with this second theme that Dawkins runs into problems. I think he recognizes that, so he's now trying to pretend that no such second theme exists.

    It is in connection with this seconf major theme that Dawkins includes a chapter on the evolution of religion. Dawkins now tells us that to say that this chapter "is peripheral to my main critique would be an understatement."

    So why include it at all? Because if religion is an adaptation, it can't be as overwhelmingly and near-universally pernicious as Dawkins would have it.

    BTW: I don't think potentilla's statement that most biologists "don't think [religion] is adaptive" is accurate. I think most biologists would have no opinion.

    This particular argument is only just getting started, and I'd bet that most biologists are keeping an open mind on the topic.

    My feeling is that Dawkins obviously has a bias: he'd like to see the world rid of religion, so he is loathe to acknowledge that it may have important functions. To mitigate against that idea was the main motivation for putting the evolution chapter in the book in the first place.

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  20. The point of the book is the point of any book: Because the author has something to say.

    He also actually says why he wrote the book, and convincing unbelievers is not one of his reasons. I'll let you actually read the book (you'll have to read fewer than a dozen pages) to discover those reasons.

    You're right though: Religious believers believe (or profess belief) because they are stupid, insecure, or arrogant: Rational discourse won't touch that.

    "Proving God doesn't exist" has already been done pretty well already.

    So what? Everything in philosophy has been pretty well done. And yet we still philosophize.

    "If we're going to reduce belief amongst the believers..." I don't think that's a good candidate for a primary goal. My primary goal is to know the truth, not just to persuade people to my own beliefs, which might well be arbitrary and idiosyncratic.

    I want to reduce belief because I believe it to be false; it's a secondary goal that emerges from my primary goal of knowing the truth.

    I really don't know how Dawkins fails in his attempt to show that religion is pernicious: How can a false belief be anything but pernicious? Yes, we should understand why this pernicious belief has taken hold in our minds, but Dawkins is not writing that book, nor is he obligated to do so.

    Because if religion is an adaptation, it can't be as overwhelmingly and near-universally pernicious as Dawkins would have it.

    With all due respect, this is bullshit. Religion can be adaptive and pernicious, just as sickle cell anemia, back problems, and even death by old age itself are both adaptive and pernicious. There are two fallacies in this stance: The first is that what is adaptive in some circumstances is not necessarily adaptive in others, and adaptation often directly changes the circumstances.

    Second, there is not yet, I think, a good scientific definition of "religion". Dawkins would appear to label as religion only the "otherworldly elements" of certain cultural practices; Wilson, for example, seems to include in "religion" just about any cultural practice that can be remotely ascribed to those who self-identify with some religion.

    Furthermore, the stance itself is an example of the naturalistic "fallacy": Just because a feature is adaptive (is) does not imply that the feature is good (ought).

    Your accusation of bias is, I think, unfounded. Dawkins certainly has drawn some some decisive conclusions, but it's tough to draw a conclusion of bias, which implies an a priori prejudice, from the fact that he disagrees with someone as scientifically inept and philosophically confused as David Sloan Wilson.

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  21. With all due respect, this is bullshit. Religion can be adaptive and pernicious, just as sickle cell anemia, back problems, and even death by old age itself are both adaptive and pernicious. There are two fallacies in this stance: The first is that what is adaptive in some circumstances is not necessarily adaptive in others, and adaptation often directly changes the circumstances.

    OK: just for the sake of demonstration, try to come up with a plausible scenario through which religion may have evolved as an adaptation that has no impact of Dawkins's anti-religious agenda.

    I think what you will find is that any benefit that could have plausibly driven religion to be selected for would still have potential benefit today.

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  22. Furthermore, the stance itself is an example of the naturalistic "fallacy": Just because a feature is adaptive (is) does not imply that the feature is good (ought).

    Who said that we "ought" to have religion? Certainly not me. I am saying that good or not, if religion is an adaptation, that has consequences for an anti-religious agenda.

    I think what we really have here is an example of the "too anxious to find common mistakes in the arguments of others" syndrome.

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  23. Your accusation of bias is, I think, unfounded. Dawkins certainly has drawn some some decisive conclusions, but it's tough to draw a conclusion of bias, which implies an a priori prejudice, from the fact that he disagrees with someone as scientifically inept and philosophically confused as David Sloan Wilson.

    This is laughable. I'd suggest you read some Wilson before going on about how inept he is. Evolution for Everyone might be a good start. I by no means agree with him about everything, but he is far from inept.

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  24. Second, there is not yet, I think, a good scientific definition of "religion". Dawkins would appear to label as religion only the "otherworldly elements" of certain cultural practices; Wilson, for example, seems to include in "religion" just about any cultural practice that can be remotely ascribed to those who self-identify with some religion.

    Religion cannot be limited to propositional beliefs about "otherworldly elements." And I don't think Dawkins actually sticks to that through the book. He realizes as much as anyone that religion is a set of rituals, practices, relationships AND beliefs (and as I recall he criticizes ALL of these sorts of things under the general rubric of "religion.")

    Also, as I recall, Dawkins was mostly trying to direct his criticism away from polytheism, animism and "Einstein's God" at this point in the book, not away from real-world manifestations of what everyone acknowledges is religion.

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  25. Religion cannot be limited to propositional beliefs about "otherworldly elements."

    This is the crux of the biscuit, on which everything else depends. Why can't we—at least in a scientific context—restrict the label of "religion" to apply only to "otherworldly elements". After all, it is precisely and only the otherworldly elements that distinguish religion from other cultural practices.

    With that sort of definition, we can very easily construct a story about the present maladaptation of religion: As B. F. Skinner showed, confirmation bias and the tendency to reinforce hits far more strongly than to reinforce misses is a deep trait of organisms with brains even as moderately sophisticated as pigeons'. Clearly this sort of learning modality is good enough for everything up to human beings, and it's a component of our own brains. However, in a sophisticated technological society it's simply incorrect: Most of science looks counterintuitive or completely absurd from this sort of learning modality.

    Now, it's still an open question whether human intelligence in general, much less scientific thinking, has actual long-term survival value. On the other hand, it seems clear that if we could simply eliminate this tendency to superstition, we would at least have one fewer reason to believe dangerous falsehoods.

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  26. As to Wilson's scientific ineptitude, my opinion is based exclusively on his paper, which commits any number of inept solecisms in addition to the statistical fallacies I've noted elsewhere.

    Since this is the paper he uses as his main evidence in his conflict with Dawkins, I feel entirely justified in coming to my conclusion about his ineptitude in this context on the basis of this paper. If a someone made a good case for other of his work being sound, I would, of course, evaluate that work on its own merits.

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  27. "I suspect Dawkins is not correct, at least in the sense that I suspect religion and supernatural belief are adaptive, or at least were actually adaptive at one point. But just because religion is or was adaptive doesn't mean its claims of the supernatural are true, or that we should refuse to believe philosophical arguments against religion.

    An important point. However powerful TGD may be, Dawkins does sort of overlook the "religion as adaptation" possibility, or, shall we say, a more anthropological view of religious institutions. It seems rather plausible that religions do provide some type of genetic advantage to groups (or individuals), as other types of "grouping behavior" might--whether based on racial, ethnic, or linguistic factors or--even sort of a territoriality (various types of mafias in a sense). Besides, given Darwinian premises, logic and rationality are not really "binding", as even Nietzsche realized (or fascists and communists for that matter)--one could advance one's interests (whether economic, sexual, or political) quite effectively by acting supremely anti-rational. Religious fanatics of all types realize the potential force of anti-rationalism as well.

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  28. Dawkins "overlooks" a lot of things, notably the relationship of religion to of Assyrian woodwind instruments or the burrowing behavior of aardvarks.

    I'll say it again: The evolutionary role of religion, and the role of religion in anthropology is an important question. Heck, even Assyrian woodwind instruments and the burrowing behavior of aardvarks are important issues that deserve study. And the truth or falsity of the propositional content of religious belief, and the pernicious role that religious falsity has had in human history are important questions, and I'm please that Dawkins has addressed these two issues.

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  29. After all, it is precisely and only the otherworldly elements that distinguish religion from other cultural practices.

    Right, but the distinguishing characteristic (otherworldly beliefs) is not necessarily the essence of the thing. (Imagine thinking of Britain as the "land of excess vowels.") It might be fairer to say that religion is otherworldly beliefs and associated practices (the definition Dawkins seems to actually use).

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  30. Yet there's a question whether that sort of reductionism---i.e. "The language/message/propositions of the New Testament taken as a whole are either True or False, and if false (or mostly false?), the entire text is worthless"--is itself correct. Is, say, Shakespeare's Macbeth T v F? Nyet. Should the play Macbeth be tossed on a bonfire because it is not truth functional? Probably nyet. Golgotha's a metaphor, man: however much that metaphor might irk dogmatists (including Darwinian dogmatists). We have, however, been perusing TGD and are generally in agreement, though DocDawkins is not the most subtle of skeptics (perhaps one reason propeller-heads everywhere are drawn to his scribblings).

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  31. I really don't know how Dawkins fails in his attempt to show that religion is pernicious: How can a false belief be anything but pernicious?

    This seems naive to me. How many of us are honest at all times, with ourselves and others? How many of us would not agree that mistaken beliefs are sometimes quite enabling, or a lubricant for social life.

    Consider:

    "Does this make me look fat?"

    or, on a larger scale . . .

    The Catch-22 problem. They ask me to fly more missions to defeat a power I despise. But I know that if I fly more missions I'll sooner or later get killed. And I also know that my personal contribution isn't going to make much difference one way or the other. So, logically, I should do everything I can to avoid flying more missions while encouraging others to do so. Unless someone fails to come to this (I'd say) logically unassailable conclusion, the Nazis win. So false consciousness sometimes is what makes the world go round.

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  32. Oran: If you take "religion" to mean the otherworldly elements and the practices that make sense only according to those otherworldly elements, then I might agree. Of course, with such a definition, one would be still defining religion as non-adaptive cultural practices.

    The real crux of the biscuit is how "otherworldly elements" actually do act as a proximately causal mechanism; I call Wilson's paper inept precisely because he dances around this issue; his observation that people who call themselves "religious" have adaptive behaviors they call religious proves nothing in the same sense that showing that amphibians have adaptive features such as legs and teeth would tell us nothing whatsoever about the adaptivity of amphibianism itself.

    I'm beginning to suspect that the "otherworldly elements" actually don't have much of a proximate causal effect on cultural practices, and I'm persuaded by the data in Wilson's own paper: We find proximate causal power in peer pressure and physical assertions of authority; lacking these worldly elements, the otherworldly elements seem extremely labile.

    The otherworldly elements seem efficacious only at providing "intellectual" justification for various temporal and worldly authority and power arrangements.

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  33. More begging the question. The otherworldly elements--even the insistence "on faith" seen in Paul's epistles-- in the NT are, arguably, secondary to the ethics. That's not to defend Screepture across the board, but religious "belief" does not generally involve believing that people rise from the dead, but (at least for some), a belief that people are held accountable for their actions--moral objectivity, in a sense. Not to say that's ultimately defensible, but it's debatable whether moral subjectivity is such a great alternative. Moreover, even Dawkins grants that theological claims cannot really be conclusively disproven, per se; Dawkins however is unwilling to consider any pragmatic use of religion (some people might attend Church to hear a Bach fugue, admire the cathedral architecture, or--practice their latin, etc/etc.).

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  34. Phritz: Macbeth is, of course, false: There was no such person, and the events depicted in the play did not happen. But no one has any false beliefs about Macbeth: Everyone knows it's fiction.

    That's the fundamental asymmetry: It's not that religious texts are fictional or metaphorical that makes religion pernicious, it's the false belief that they are actually true and thus authoritative.

    Dawkins comes out not against fiction, but against delusion: The false belief that religious fictions are true.

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  35. A "Macbeth" is mentioned in like 10-11th century Scottish history, and the events of the play are fairly close to the historical narrative. That doesn't make it "true" (but then, how does one prove the historical record is true either, especially say pre-1800 or so?). You're missing the point anyways: most humans--apart from dogmatic positivists, or religious fanatics--- would grant (were they sufficiently intelligent) that the play Macbeth, while not a record of historical fact, has a certain aesthetic--and even psychological--value nonetheless. Similarly for Scripture, when it is view apart from the strict theological context. Dawkinistas often sound nearly Islamic in their denunciations of anything faintly religious.

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  36. most humans--apart from dogmatic positivists, or religious fanatics--- would grant (were they sufficiently intelligent) that the play Macbeth, while not a record of historical fact, has a certain aesthetic--and even psychological--value nonetheless.

    Of course. But that value is not predicated on Macbeth being literally true or in any way authoritative.

    Dawkinistas often sound nearly Islamic in their denunciations of anything faintly religious.

    That earns a hearty roll of my eyes. Quotes?

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  37. I suggest Dawkins is a contemporary Nietzsche--if not a pro-capitalist individualist and crypto-aristocrat such as Ayn Rand (Rand's writings sort of a Nietzsche lite as well). Atheism, even scientific atheism, functions in a political context, and the writings of a Dawkins, like those of Nietzsche or Aynnie Rand serves the purposes of corporate execs better than the New Testament does. A SJ Gould, who made some critical remarks about Dawkins, offered a different form of atheism, as did say Russell--or Karl Marx (Russell perhaps more skeptic than atheist). Gould or Russell's skepticism, however, does not serve the corp. execs.

    Gould certainly had as much scientific credibility as Dawkins does, indeed probably more (see his material on punctuated equilibrium for one, a modification of strict Darwinism). And he was quite an eloquent essayist: tho’ I suspect his liberal politics–or his willingness to chat with, say, a Shakespeare professor–did not play too well with some in the scientific establishment, whether in the Ivy League or OxfordTown. And Gould did not, as far as I can tell, ever suggest something as intangible–nearly metaphysical!–as memetics. On the quack-o-meter Dawkins outscores SJG by a few centimeters.

    Gould, while a very capable scientist, also had a certain humility--as his essays in Natural History revealed-- in regards to traditional scholarship (i.e. say mastery of Latin) and also an awareness of the dangers of social darwinism, which many rightist atheists tend to ignore in their zeal to tell Zee Truth. Moreover, as a Popperian (at least on occasion) Gould realized that scientific claims–whether in biology or physics—are falsifiable, or at least modifiable (and often probable, not “laws” in a strict sense)–as evolutionary theory itself suggests: Mendel did something Darwin never did; punctuated equilibrium updated Darwin as well; Einstein and the quantum theory modified Newtonian physics. That truth “process” is something the reductionist often overlooks (that said, we do not agree with ALL of what SJG wrote--on occasion he drifts a bit too close to the marxist camp). Verstehen sie das? Gut.

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  38. Phritz: That's certainly an interesting perspective. I don't really buy it at first glance, though.

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  39. Bertrand Russell was himself aware of the negatives of naive atheism. I don't think Dawkins is that naive (nor did I suggest that my argument was "necessarily true"--it would be difficult to confirm); however some humans could use atheism--and Darwinism--as a justification for, well, "anything goes" --whether in terms of politics or ethics. Reading Christopher Hitchens (who has appeared along with Dawkins on occasion), one notes that sort or amorality. There is no God, and no objective morality; therefore the War against Iraq and the Islamic barbarians is acceptable, or something to that effect--sort of Machiavellianism 101 (I'm not saying that Hitchens' arguments are all wrong, but there is more to the story). Even in Darwin's time, unsavory conservatives made use of the popular version of "survival of the fittest" (which is not far from Machiavelli) to justify eugenics and racism.

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  40. "Gould certainly had as much scientific credibility as Dawkins does, indeed probably more (see his material on punctuated equilibrium for one, a modification of strict Darwinism)"

    Properly understood, punctuated equilibrium was not a radical departure from Darwinism, but a (rather interesting) wrinkle on its surface. It was still a gradualist theory, in the sense that it was not a saltationist one. Gould's rhetoric did much to confuse the issue, and he also made too much of other bogies, like "genetic determinism", a caricature that no competent scientist actually subscribed to (and which Dawkins himself debunked in The Extended Phenotype).

    Dawkins has never advocated using the selfish gene theory as a justification for doing things. He even explicitly warned against it, by stating clearly that it is an "is" theory, not an "ought" theory. He is in favour of social democracy, and is adamant that we should, when it is ethical to do so, rebel against our selfish genes (and that we are not in any case actually obligated to follow their dictates). Besides, one could, with about as much justice, support socialism rather than corporate executives by citing Dawkins; reciprocal altruism and kin selection can both be explained using the selfish gene model.

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  41. What kind of science has Dawkins done since he published
    "bees are easily distracted"?

    If evolution is so vitally important why has he spent most of his life attacking what he regards as delusions of others? Why has he not spent his life in fundamental research into the mechanism by which this totally important evolution occurs? The mechanism
    for evolution from molecules to man
    is still yet to be elucidated.
    Dawkins is confident though that it will be.......he has not backed this confidence with research though.Perhaps the truth is that research into the mechanism of evolution is not very productive despite a huge amount of effort that has been put into it. Is it not more profitable and glorious to criticise the beliefs of others?
    I would like to see him take on
    the believers in Mohammed. The followers of Christ are a soft target.

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  42. platypus: Presumably, Richard Dawkins is a grown man, and can work on the projects he feels are most important to him; I really don't think he's particularly worried about taking your priorities into account.

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