Dawkins Talks Sense

Apologies for the headline, but since I tend to use Dawkins as my prime example of the arrogant scientist who doesn’t get the value anything other than science (and objective / deterministic logic), but by way of balance, this conversation with Larry Krauss from February this year, has some excellent content.

It does of course still have some cringeworthy moments – like the gratuitous mocking accusations of hypocrisy and madness of people, even scientific people, literally holding mythical truths – or that fact that the title “Something From Nothing” is completely misleading – they never really get past complexity from simplicity, or “matter” out of “nothing” (*) – but anyway … The nature of alternate life evolving anywhere other than life as we know it on earth; serious references (by both Dawkins and Krauss) to the Anthropic Principle and more. (Ordered Larry’s book on the strength of it.)

Krauss – Cosmic Humility. Excellent. Dawkins take note. At least Dawkins has the humility to admit his physics is 19th century.

(*) In fact Krauss does push back the nothingness … towards metaphysical cosmogeny (ie What’s this nothing from which something might come?). Good. Last time I majored on Krauss and Anthropic Principles was here: One of my more important posts.

Physics is science,
and cosmogeny is metaphysics or theology again

I’m pretty sure Krauss gets it and there is some hope Dawkins listens to him.

Too Much Communication

This is surreal and ironic on many levels.

Sam is probably my second favourite amongst the four horsemen, a real moral philosopher. No prize for guessing my least favourite, but it was he who tweeted the link picked-up by Ricky. (Dan, Sam, Hitch and the Dawk in that order in case you’re interested.)

Fact : internet enabled comment on blogs directly and via social media is a major source of miscommunication – an insidious spread of misinformed ideas. (aka The Memetic Problem). Apart from comic entertainment value – most are without value or with meta-value only or, more importantly, with negative content value, unless they can be editorially moderated. Life’s too short.

Weird : Sam reckons PZ Myers “shepherd of trolls” (Pharyngula Blog) to be odious. PZ is clearly on the side of (evolutionary) science in the god debates, so you might think an ally of Harris, along with the other three horsemen. But I’ve noted before the “baying mob” mentality of PZ and his commenters (similar to Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science and many Guardian “Comment is Free” contributors.) Makes intelligent debate hopeless. The baying mob is odious – see the memetic problem.

As I say, I have a lot of respect for Sam, but I have taken exception to some of his “narrow” rationality – a recent example here. I am really intrigued as to the reality of Sam’s take on PZ. Must have missed a significant spat or irony here?

The Memetic Problem ? Sam says:

The Internet powerfully enables the spread of good ideas, but it works the same magic for bad ones—and it allows distortions of fact and opinion to become permanent features of our intellectual landscape.

I say, it’s even worse than that, because the ideas that spread more easily tend to be the inferior ones. Too simplistic, too reductionist, too comfortable fit with existing prejudice and fashion, etc. all make such ideas easier to communicate and receive and re-communicate, and “stickier” when received. Evolutionary fidelity and fecundity both benefit from simplistication of the message and its fitness.

Pullman on Blake

Been reading around Philip Pullman since discovering earlier this year he was a beacon of hope in the BHA (British Humanist Association) and that he’d received the BHA award for services to humanism in 2011. (I guess in that context Dawkins‘ award in 2012 counts as balance?)

I’ve been a humanist since I recognised the word used by my first mentor back in the early 80’s. I’m a BHA member, a non-theist / atheist, but sick and tired of their monotonous cracked-record of one campaign after another against just about anything religious; faith-based schooling, creationism, the lords-spiritual, etc, with barely a hint as to what they might actually be for apart from science, scientific knowledge, scientific truth, evidence-based choice, etc. A literal god is not great – we get it already. What else? Beginning to despair that humanism had redefined itself entirely as scientism set against theistic faith.

If humanism is to be more than scientism the BHA must redress this balance in the messages it promotes. Finding things to fight against is all too easy, or poke fun at (fair game) if you’re the recognised court jester like @rickygervais, but what is BHA’s vision of a better future ? That’s not in fact a rhetorical question, but I digress from the point of this post. Pullman has a wiser vision.

Rather than murder by my analytical dissection, just read this and weep.

Recognising “the system” that makes you “twice-born” rather than clinging to the belief that you operate within a baggage-free neutral absence-of-belief-system. Better a good value system than the neurotic pretence of none. Beautifully argued. Twice-born(*) = Wise. Hallelujah. Nuff said.
[So close to Nick Maxwell’s scientific neurosis thesis too.]

[More – And so gently but skilfully effective in damning (Dawkins and Hawking) with genuinely-respectful-but-faint praise for being half-right – as in 100% right but barely half the humanist story. On a par with Wittgenstein – who came to bury logic, not to praise it. So many more good articles here too.]

[(*) Not to be confused with born-again.]

Sad Day for BHA

Richard Dawkins is to receive the 2012 BHA award for services to humanism.
Someone is confusing humanism with scientism I fear.

[It was bad enough that he was ever the president of the organization – but at least that was fixed.

Oh, and very spooky, the last positive thing I had to say about Dawkins concerned airport security – see immediate following post today.]

Credit Where Credit’s Due

Heard Julian Baggini in a debate on BBC R4 Sunday programme, discussing the recent militant secularism – the local council prayers and the latest baroness Warsi / Dawkins spat. I’ve previously always found Julian a little too non-committal, too wishy-washy, too willing to please …

But here he was taking a positive strong middle-ground stance against Dawkins and the militant secularists – yes recognising the positive values in tradition, even religious traditions a la Alain DeBotton – but pointing out the negative value of aggression in Dawkins cracked record agenda against all things religious. Simply having the agenda was damaging.

Other main point is that one’s fundamental beliefs can never be “left at the door” in politics, whatever the disestablishment relationship between religion and politics.

Good on yer Julian.

[Different angle from George Galloway.]


Great to hear the collaborative evolutionary aspect of “survival of the fittest” make prime time at last.

Interviewing D S Wilson on the BBC R4 Today programme this morning, Evan had to make a clumsy apologetic aside along the lines of “Dawkins is big around here” but the visiting American could see the battle lines drawn differently within the cognoscenti and the public political popular-science sound-bite arenas.

Darwin’s “fittest” has always referred to best fit with your environment (physical, biological, social, intellectual) , nothing exclusively to do with being fitter as in stronger, faster, better, than those you are competing against in your environment. Where group-selection occurs in the social environment, the best fit concerns mutual participation in the group and the group in the wider environment. As I’ve written many times before, the “selfish gene” title has a lot to answer for in public misunderstanding promulgated by the professor for public understanding of science.

Ironic then that the next news item, about Cameron visiting Salmond on Scottish home turf for their debate on the British union, was characterised as drawing-up “battle-lines”. Public learning is a very slow process, when there is a useless but victorious meme holding the tattered standard in the tournament arena. We should be feeding Dawkins to the lions.

Also fitting in hindsight was the earlier thought for the day (Das) … BBC links slow to update in the aftermath of the live programme – will come back and add links.

Lynn Margulis

Died a couple of weeks ago, though I didn’t notice until I saw the pieces in the current edition of The Edge.

I like Dawkins comment:

I greatly admire Lynn Margulis’ ….  theory that the eukaryotic cell is a symbiotic union of primitive prokaryotic cells. This is one of the great achievements of twentieth-century evolutionary biology ….

She was Carl Sagan’s first wife (of 11 years). I find myself pretty well aligned with Sagan as a Spinozan.

Some people think God is an outsized, light-skinned male with a long white beard, sitting on a throne somewhere up there in the sky, busily tallying the fall of every sparrow. Others—for example Baruch Spinoza and Albert Einstein—considered God to be essentially the sum total of the physical laws which describe the universe. I do not know of any compelling evidence for anthropomorphic patriarchs controlling human destiny from some hidden celestial vantage point, but it would be madness to deny the existence of physical laws.

When it comes to Gaia, Dawkins is ruthless in pointing out the fallacy in seeing progressive Darwinian processes at the level of the whole earth as organism, even though any number of complex adaptive systems could be explained that way – provided they are subject to selection pressures as part of a larger competitive environment. Dennett is more balanced – sure, evolution involves collaborative processes, important processes in the long run, clearly, but they cannot be the primary process.

And Gaia again in Margulis own words …

Lovelock would say that Earth is an organism. I disagree with this phraseology. No organism eats its own waste. I prefer to say that Earth is an ecosystem, one continuous enormous ecosystem composed of many component ecosystems. Lovelock’s position is to let the people believe that Earth is an organism, because if they think it is just a pile of rocks they kick it, ignore it, and mistreat it. If they think Earth is an organism, they’ll tend to treat it with respect. To me, this is a helpful cop-out, not science. Yet I do agree with Lovelock when he claims that most of the things scientists do are not science either. And I realize that by taking the stance he does he is more effective than I am in communicating Gaian ideas.

If science doesn’t fit in with the cultural milieu, people dismiss science, they never reject their cultural milieu! If we are involved in science of which some aspects are not commensurate with the cultural milieu, then we are told that our science is flawed. I suspect that all people have cultural concepts into which science must fit.

I’d say, Gaia is a useful analogy, but not a scientific explanation. And I’ve said before, science is its own cultural belief system. Some excellent corollaries in there, not least that not all helpful things in the world need be amenable to science. And of course mitochondria organelles are the focus of Margulis key work in evolution, coincidentally the subject of the Hunter Gatherer diet piece below.

(Quite a few straw men to disagree about about what she says other evolutionary biologists believe in her “Gaia is a Tough Bitch” piece. Why do people feel the need to use that kind of rhetoric to set up a fight ?)

Templeton for Martin Rees

The usual furore when Templeton awards its £1m dollar prize to a prominent scientist. This time it’s Martin Rees.

As usual I think this “Quisling” remark says more about Dawkins than anything.

Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and one of the most high-profile scientists in the aggressively pro-science, anti-religion ‘new atheist’ movement, once called Rees a “compliant Quisling” for accepting Templeton sponsorship of a lecture series when he was head of the Royal Society.

This is the reality, “publicity machine” basically.
Unlike constructive debate, polarization sells.
Just my previous post was on those excluded middles between polar opposites.

Denis Alexander, director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at the University of Cambridge, UK, welcomed Rees’s award and said that although “people who want to keep a very sharp demarcation” between science and religion are highly vocal, they are few in number. “The media tend to thrive on conflict so these loud voices in favour of a polarized debate tend to get heard quite often,” he says. Carroll agrees that Templeton Prize controversy has now become something of an annual event. “It’s a publicity machine and it works very well. Every year I get a phone call like this,” he says.