Friday, August 01, 2008

GET DAWKINS


Everyone with a theistic worldview is Dawkins bashing nowadays. I’m not a natural atheist basher myself: Given the human predicament the atheist position is at least plausible and deserves some respect and consideration, especially as much of the religious world is not only crackpot but is so horribly blighted by a mindless bullying hegemony. However, although I’m not a natural enemy of atheists, the impassioned and polarised state of the debate, especially in America, forces one to choose sides. Protagonists like Richard Dawkins seem determined to make enemies of all who don’t subscribe to their take on the subject of Primary Ontology, which to be fair is a highly speculative topic that really demands a tentative and trial approach rather than a violent melee of “we don’t take prisoners” crusaders. Ok then Richard, have it your way; you’ve got a thoroughly alienated enemy here. Happy now? To this end I reproduce below an otherwise private article I wrote in 1993 that was a response to Richard Dawkins’ article in the New Statesmen in 1992. If you can’t beat the Dawkins bashers join them! Makes a change from fundamentalist bashing I suppose!

HOW TO KNOW YOU KNOW YOU KNOW IT

Knotes on Richard Dawkin’s article “Is God a Computer Virus”, New Statesmen Dec 1992

by Tim Reeves 18/9/93

Revised January 1997

1) RELIGIOUS RAMBOS exercising their believing muscles, nervous wimps in religion, wild red blooded Catholics, and virtuoso believers skilled in the arts of believing the unbelievable, are all some of the characters one meets in Richard Dawkin's article "Is God a Computer Virus” (New Statesman, Dec. 92). I found the subject matter of the article laughably caricatured and I wasn't sure how seriously the proposition was to be taken. But having heard and read Dawkins in the past I think he is serious, although he takes far from seriously those who are the subject of his thesis. His ideas do have a bearing in some quarters, especially the cults, but for myself I found it difficult to identify the faith of some of the people I meet, or my own faith, with what Dawkins describes. However, if Dawkins is right, then it is unlikely that I could make such an identification, because it is no doubt part of the survival strategy of the "faith virus" to be difficult to detect by victims. It is, therefore, difficult for a person of faith to oppose the faith virus theory by attempting prove that they are not a victim, because the theory probably implies that the virus is likely to induce its victim to try and do this any way in order to enhance its survivability. Thus my opposition, as a person of faith, will hardly count as evidence. In this respect Dawkins faith virus theory is remarkably like the faith virus itself in that one can say of both, to quote Dawkins, "Once the proposition is believed it automatically undermines opposition to itself"!! The faith virus theory is also self-referential like the faith virus. But I am not going to be too hard on Dawkins here; Self reference, particularly of the self supporting stable kind, as I will go on to show, is not necessarily a bad thing. But let us note the irony in Dawkins thesis !

2) THE PENULTIMATE PARAGRAPH of the article is really the most interesting bit. Here, after considering and lampooning (harpooning?) those wallowing in the sea of faith, this solid, no nonsense, bah-humbug biologist attempts to put his intellectual anchors down on what he thinks is the firm bedrock of science. As we know, this bedrock, in a philosophical sense, is far from firm. Who is going to tell him ?

3) AS DAWKINS SMUGLY throws out an anchor in the penultimate paragraph it seems to me that his anchor simply catches on to the very raft on which he is standing. His justification of science in terms of exacting selective scrutiny of concepts, non-capricious ideas, evidential support, repeatability, progressiveness, independence of cultural milieu etc., itself appears to be a scientific view of science, presumably based on some juxtaposition of a theoretical conception of science and observations of it. Now, I don't want to be misunderstood here; some might think that this scientific self referencing is sufficient to rubbish Dawkins, but for myself, not only do I tend to agree with his views on science (although they need further scrutiny), but I find no a priori problem with self-description, self-reference, or self-justification. For the moment, however, let us be aware that it is happening, covertly, in this penultimate paragraph, where Dawkins anchors science to science, and let us, once again, make a note of the irony.

4) RUSSELL'S PARADOX, which was a famous contradiction arising from self-referencing or self-descriptive statements, was solved by doing not much more than simply disallowing such self-referencing. However, this solution, although valid, was highly artificial. Self-description and self-reference can and do exist, but if we allow them to exist in our knowledge there is a price: Self-description and self-reference are forms of feedback, and therefore if we accept them we also have to accept that in analogy with systems where feedback exists, we will have the possibility of both stable and unstable conceptual behaviour. The stablility of non-contradictory thinking contrasts with the unstable world of contradiction where we find a cognitive analogy to the oscillatory or chaotic behaviour produced by certain types of feedback. The liability of unstable cognition is a consequence of the human ability to have knowledge about knowledge, and it becomes a possibility as soon as we allow even subtle updates in what we know about our knowledge to register themselves as part and parcel with that knowledge. Of course, in mathematics, one can attempt to rule out this conceptual feedback, but in the real world of cognition it exists, and Russell's solution, although fine for set theory, is only an artificial device.

5) I HAVE A THEORY that at least part of the reason for the demise of 18th century rationalism was the rather unnerving effects of conceptual feedback. With the early success of science and the consequent feeling that the race was onto a good thing, it is not surprising that eventually a rational view of rationalism would be attempted. Thus, as in various philosophical endeavours understanding sought to understand itself, what was to prove a very dangerous loop was quietly closed, and a trap was set for any who might leave the straight and narrow. A little knowledge was to prove a dangerous thing, and so in a series of philosophical debacles the painful signals of conceptual feedback started to flow like blood in a previously constricted limb. Extreme empiricism in the form of positivism discovered unstable feedback as soon as people started asking whether the verifiability principle was verifiable. Kant, in his search for a-priori synthetic knowledge about the world, failed to get to the other side of the cognitive interface we have with it, and was left dumbfounded by the result that mind appeared to be justified by mind, and he virtually lost contact with the "external" world. Darwin sensed the possibility of unstable feedback as he mused over how an evolutionary system, which appeared to be governed only by a survivalist ethic, had any obligation to produce minds that could understand evolution. The ulterior motives that sometimes lurk behind reflections such as these can be highly self-destructive. On many issues (but certainly not all) high standards of empirical verification and/or testing are possible, and this is capable of supporting a healthy level of scepticism because providence allows its satiation with sufficient empirical demonstration. However, this scepticism has a tendency to become more extreme, thoroughgoing and demanding, perhaps as a result of a proud desire for intellectual self sufficiency founded on "absolute" knowledge. And so, as if in a judgment on the abuse of providence, this scepticism is permitted to start to doubt and therefore undermine the a-priori methods, assumptions, and mental toolkit that providence supplies in order for scepticism to go about satiating itself in the first place. Thus, without taking the utility of these gifts of providence for granted, human scepticism remains deeply unsatisfied. It is as if the stomach, in it’s craving for food, was to start digesting itself.

6) THE PHYSICAL SCIENCES are served by a meritocratic elite, holders of strange and deep secrets who express themselves in obscure technical and mathematical language that not many can fathom. This knowledge, some may say, and many appear to accept, is the key to the mystery of life, the universe, and everything; every academic subject is just a footnote to physics; the physicist Richard Feynmann called the social disciplines pseudo science, and the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawkin writes the wave function for the universe! Whether right or wrong, the attitudes underlying this sort of thing, are asking for trouble; some of the gut feelings at the bottom of both religious and secular humanism are offended here.

At the heart of humanistic endeavours there seems to be a necessity to have a basic a-priori optimism about the possibilities open to human achievement and its ability to eventually attain peace, justice and fairness. If this, what sometimes appears to be crass optimism, didn't exist it is unlikely that humanistic projects, like Marxism (and Fascism), for example, would ever get off the ground. Hence, it may be felt that a situation where an intellectual elite hold the keys of all knowledge just can't be right; it cuts across humanistic optimism; it isn't fair, it isn't accountable, it isn't egalitarian; surely the universe is amenable to a more socialist approach? Worst of all, I suspect, is that it also cuts across some people’s own taste for intellectual hegemony. So, it is with great glee that some of these people pounce on the discomfiture of science found in the great feedback debacles, where the physical sciences appeared to lose something of their absoluteness. Moreover, Kant had showed that the human element must be highly active in the pursuit of knowledge. So, in the battle for academic and intellectual hegemony there have been those who, jealous of the position and achievements of the physical sciences, have so emphasised the human element in the quest for knowledge that one can be forgiven for thinking that they are suggesting this element is all there is to it, and that human and cultural studies are therefore more fundamental. Some of the more extreme disciples of social historicism, objective idealism, dialectical materialism, existentialism, and subjective idealism appear to be consumed by ‘science envy’. There may be something to be said for all these points of view, but when they become fortresses in the battle for intellectual domination, the trappings of offence and defence do not help toward an impartial consideration of them. It is as if opthalmists were to claim that the meaning of life, the universe and everything is to be found by studying the eye. After all, a case could be made for this in as far as much of life revolves round sight! The motives behind the intellectual anti-science culture are not only clear, but it is also clear that it is a culture that has potentially worse conceptual feedback problems than the physical sciences. The latter may claim, (although it can never assuage absolute scepticism) that the world of physical laws is unchanged by thought and culture, and that science therefore has the effect of anchoring knowledge. But if, in contrast, knowledge is only part and function of culture, then as it seeks to know that culture (of which it is a part) it will in turn change that culture, thus in turn altering itself. Therefore, it will find itself following a moving target leading, perhaps, to a runaway feedback situation resembling a dog chasing it's own tail. Perhaps a run around of this kind is precisely what is happening in our society!

7) CONCEPTUAL FEEDBACK is inevitable, but an important question is, is the feedback we are interested in stable? If it was not possible to attain stable knowledge we could not know about this instability ourselves in a stable way because if we did, then it would, of course, contradict this condition of universally unstable knowledge. However, if some truly stable knowledge existed, then a stable belief in stability could be part of that stability, and therefore, a-priori stable conditions admit the possibility that we could know of this stability in a stable way. (Got that?) At least a modicum of a-priori stability is required for stable knowledge; we would not be the creators of this stability - it would just have to be accepted and exploited, as probably happens in the physical sciences. Moreover, the physical sciences seems to be blessed with a high proportion of solid and reliable types who tend not to endlessly analyse their assumptions, thus closing the feedback loop, but instead are inclined to go ahead and exploit their "hard", "firm", "soft", and sometimes thoroughly "wet" brainware to the full. No wonder the social and human disciplines find progress more difficult! If some of the students of these disciplines concentrated less on making a style out of defining and redefining themselves, of constantly being insecure about making assumptions, and of tampering with a mental toolkit they don't understand, along with various other behavioural affectations, then they might find progress easier! I therefore have great sympathy with Dawkin's implicitly self-referencing, but stable, characterisation of science. However, one may ask what, apart from gut reaction, makes Dawkins object to some of the equally stable "faith viruses" he describes?

8) THE ARTICLE FAILS to elucidate the reason for this gut reaction because it gives little space to the question of just what characteristic makes a virus a virus. If all that characterises a virus is that it is a resilient self-perpetuating packet of information then I suppose one might argue that knowledge of how to open a door is a virus. That latter is a concept that spreads from human to human and even cats and dogs have been observed to catch this very successful cognitive virus. In this sense any useful piece of information becomes a virus. But what marks out a useful piece of information from a virus is the former’s role in relation to a larger context; what distinguishes the door opening concept from a virus is that the former takes part in a wide symbiosis: Without the door opening concept life as a whole would become very difficult, whereas without a virus life is not difficult; on the contrary life's identity and stability is usually enhanced by the absence of a virus, whereas the absence of useful information not only diminishes life’s identity and stability, but may even make life impossible because life is dependent on useful information. In contrast, life is not necessarily dependent on a virus, although the virus is inevitably parasitic upon life and therefore necessarily dependent on it. In a strange inversion of transactive justice the virus may even exact a cost on the host for the privilege of helping to maintain the viral identity; namely chaos in the host. In a word the virus gives nothing and takes all just short of the final extinction of the host. So, is the God concept of this ilk? I would say no; it is part of a wider symbiosis, and a lot more than that!

9) THE NARROW CONFINES of extreme forms of reductionist materialism, dialectical materialism, social historicism, objective idealism, existentialism and subjective idealism may be dogmatic about what can be, but for myself I found that I could never claim to know enough to be able to say "there is no God". For all I knew the notion of God could be both intelligible and real. Take the issue of intelligibility: Is the concept of God so diffuse that it is meaningless? Dogmatic "intelligibility atheism", like "ontological atheism" founders on the inevitable finiteness of experience and knowledge; my concepts of complex things such as "personality", "human beings", social interactions and even complex computer behaviour may also be rather diffuse. But clarity comes with experience and learning, and, moreover, there seems to be a rough rule that the less trivial and more significant something gets the less amenable it is to the immediate senses and lower cognitive functions. If God existed, then like many social entities, there was going to be a problem for me in grasping both the meaning and reality of God. No "proof of God" was ever likely to be found that was big and complex enough and I could no more expect to "see" God than I could expect to "see", other than metaphorically, a personality or a society. What should one do when faced with these uncertainties? Should one commit oneself to atheism, God, or nothing at all? To me there seemed to be no middle way. Like a man in an aircraft going down in flames, I had only two options: stay with the aircraft or bale out. But I had an advantage over the man in the burning aircraft: He could make a wrong decision; the plane may or may not crash badly or he may or may not muff the parachute drop. Christian living appeared to do good things to people, things that a thorough going secular philosophy failed to do. So even if this God business was rubbish I had little to lose by giving it a try. Born out of uncertainty and the need to act was the realisation that, as Pascal noted, opting for God was the better half of the bet. I couldn't go wrong. So I made my choice and it turned out to be the best thing I ever did! And so it should have been; absence of proof or disproof proves nothing; if God was logically meaningful and ontologically real, and moreover personal and relevant to my existence, then positive evidence was obliged to come along eventually. It has been said that assertions of existence are scientifically intractable because one has to look all over the place to prove or disprove them; however, the logic changes a little if that which is asserted to exist comes looking for you!

10) LACK OF BALANCE is how I would describe Dawkin’s article in New Statesman. In trying to maintain a balance myself, I would acknowledge that there might be circumstances to which Dawkin’s ideas apply, but there are also religious connections to which they do not. For myself, and some other nervous wimps in religion, Dawkins ideas are inapplicable because experience, evidence, reason and philosophy play an important role in nuturing and maintaining faith. For example, the inevitable level of giveness in the universe, the consciousness discontinuity, historical evidence re the life of Christ and His resurrection, personal experiences and the synchronous nature of certain events in one's life, all act in the germination and maintenance of faith. Of course, in comparison with the kind of secular intelligentsia that Dawkins represents one might appear as a mistaken fool about all this, but, nevertheless, we are talking here of something far removed from the sort of "faith" described by the article. In the article we find reference to a kind of fideist and gnosto-dualist faith that is self supporting in the sense that it loves itself more and more as it is less and less contaminated by the profanity of evidential or reasoned support of any kind.

Much more could be made of the "compost" of experience, and evidence that help nourish the seeds of faith during growth, but I would like to pick up something which is more in line with the theme of self-reference.

11) DAWKINS IS RIGHT, in a sense, that a faith like the Christian faith does have a considerable conceptual stability arising out of its self-referential nature. However, this self referential stability exists not in the way described in the article, but as a result of the Christian belief in a loving personal God. To see this, contrast it with the opposite view, namely, that the world, apart from oneself, is primarily and fundamentally apersonal and/or disinterested. Influenced by a belief (for such it is) of this sort, one may rightly question and feel sceptical about whether one's knowledge represents anything at all; apersonal parties and/or principles, by definition, carry with them no a-priori absolute guarantee of the representational nature of any knowledge. The belief that the universe is primarily disinterested and/or apersonal is not only inclined to violate the foundation of knowledge, but it may start to undermine itself as one may wonder whether this belief itself actually represents anything. The result is that you are either left with nothing or next to nothing, or less honestly you fudge the issue by becoming philosophically diffuse and won't dare admit to holding to anything resembling a belief in truth. At most there might be an acknowledgement of the utilitarian value of beliefs (presumably itself a belief). This tendency toward nihilism, or at best "minisculism", instability and confusion contrasts with the stability of a belief in a personal loving God. If I hold such a belief I am more likely to see accurate representational knowledge as an outcome of God's love for me. Needless to say, the very belief in a loving God is itself seen as the providential outcome of that love because it is believed to be imparted by a God who desires to reveal to us not only truths, but above all Himself. This belief is self-referencing, but it is, of course, highly stable because it is self-affirming. Moreover, it encourages a proactive growth in knowledge, as this growth no longer seems a pointless exercise; in this context knowledge is believed to mean something. Therefore, if there is a God, the belief in God will further reinforce itself as further knowledge and experience of God's love and providence is sought for, and inevitably gained. This growth and reinforcement will depend on that knowledge and experience being of the corroborating kind; but for it to start at all one must first start with God. My view is that to do so is to concur with an essential component of one's metal toolkit. There is no way one can from an absolutely sceptical basis "prove" this starting point without getting into unstable conceptual feedback cycles; we just have to assume it and exploit it. We are absolute dependents whose first premise is "In the beginning God ...."


c. T.V Reeves 1993