Dawkins’ Hyper-Rationalism

A critical review of A Devil’s Chaplain – by Richard Dawkins

(Buy at Amazon)

Review by Ian Glendinning, March 2003. (Visit the Psybertron WebLog)


By way of introduction …

I was reading A Devil’s Chaplain after only recently reading The Blind Watchmaker, and having already been impressed by ubiquitous references to Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and Climbing Mount Improbable, in the works of many other philosophers and scientists bearing on my current research into better knowledge models. I am first and foremost an Engineer, with a grounding in the physics of things real, objective, rational, logical, scientific. With that hat on I am completely happy with the science of “Core Darwinism” as the basis of all emergent adaptive complexity that makes the world the rich experience that it is. With a focus on the human experience, I am equally happy with this evolutionary model being applied to the outcomes of the human brain, whether as memes in the information world or, more generally, knowledge of any kind, or as functional and behavioural, individual or social, aspects of the brain itself, in Pinker’s terms (*1).

It’s important that I state that case, because the subject of this article is a plea against taking rampant scientific objectivism too far – “hyper-rationalism” as it has been called (*2). The problem in making such a case is that the alternative may seem too close to mysticism and blind faith for any serious scientist to consider reading on, particularly since in my own naïve way as neither a professional scientist nor philosopher, I have already let the cat out of the bag in the range of subjects covered in my public web log. Is it possible to be too open minded?

It’s too easy for a scientist to rubbish woolly thinking – when his life is about expanding scientific knowledge – but most people experience the need to make sensible decisions now in the real woolly paradoxical world, without the luxury of time funded to establish every premise and syllogism by repeatable, falsifiable experiment before proceeding. Catch-22? Lazy? Ignorant? Perhaps. – but life’s too short, which will eventually bring us to the key subject of such clichéd aphorisms, particularly those with a metaphorical basis (*3). But we won’t be going there yet in this essay. I almost drafted this essay a few days earlier having read Ayn Rand’s Philosophy, Who Needs It? She made no bones about the fact that objectivity rules – accept no substitute – always understand your premises for thought and action. However her pejorative, nay inflammatory, reactionary language against the “evils” of alternative views (*4) had me thinking “methinks the lady doth protest too much” and the motivation here is identical. The difference here is that despite the criticism, I retain enormous respect for, and a belief born of recognising the essential truth in, the wealth of thought expressed by Dawkins, and cited by many others whom I, and he apparently, hold in similar high regard.

Bits of communication …

Let me start by analysing a series of quotes from Dawkins to illustrate the points at issue. I have several from A Devil’s Chaplain, but the one that first made me sit up and say - hang on Dawkins you’re missing something important - was this one.

In chapter 2.3 The Information Challenge, Dawkins is reinforcing his theme that genetics is quite literally about digital information processing, that is explicitly, not just metaphorically, and digital, albeit quaternary rather than binary. Right with him so far, ignoring only some possible fundamental non-digital basis in quantum information processing behind the binary and quaternary scenes (*5). But that’s not my issue here. My issue is his little parable (on p93) about the expectant father waiting outside the delivery room being communicated to by being shown only either a blue or pink coloured card to signify boy or girl to illustrate a single bit of binary information – again, so far so good. As part of his illustration of redundancy and compression in communicating bits of information, he goes on to suggest that if “a doctor walked out of the room, shook his had and said congratulations old chap, I’m delighted to tell you that you have a daughter” the 17 word message would still be only one bit of information. It’s at that point that the objectivist leaves the humanist behind. I’ve not done the maths, but there are surely thousands of bits of information communicated here and interpreted by the recipient. The particular17 words chosen from several alternatives for each of the 17 used, the decision for the doctor, to walk out of the room, to seek out the father, rather than any one of a dozen other ways the message could have been communicated, the use of “old chap”, the use of “delighted”, the body language, the context, the smell of whiskey on her breath, the old school tie. I could go on. Dennett (*6), help me out here. So many more bits communicated than the single fact that the baby is a girl. So many more than 17 too, notice.

Notice also that the “most significant bit” may not even be the obvious one intended by the pink / blue bit. Witness Del Boy (*7) rushing to spread the news to the assembled extended family. What is it ? “It’s a baby”. Been there, done that, got the tee-shirt, and I’m sure anyone who has knows that the MSB is usually the fact that baby and mother are fine. The beam on Del’s face and the demeanour of the doctor in Dawkins’ example tell us all we need to know, and a lot more, instantly. (Spooky and probably irrelevant synchronicity, inserted here just to test the staying power of any scientist who’s got this far, is the fact that whilst composing this essay in my head, I was sitting watching again the first episode of Cold Feet (*8) which focuses on Jenny giving birth to Adam – a thousand more opportunities to make my point, but I’ve started with the beam on Del Boy’s face so I’ll finish with that.)

Anyway I’m sure Dawkins didn’t mean to stir up anything contentious, certainly not sufficiently contentious to undermine his basic point. Nor am I suggesting Dawkins is an inhuman automaton – any true fan of Douglas Adams (*9) passes that test in my experience. The only sin is his choice of metaphor, which like all metaphors comes with the warning “caveat metaphor”. In illustrating one point, a thousand others may be misrepresented – pretty important if your aim is public understanding. As I said however, we will not be exploring metaphors any further here.

Less metaphorically, Dawkins makes a similar simplification in another information communication example in 1.3 Gaps in the Mind (p21) when talking about characterising a woman as tall or short. He says he’d shrug and say “She’s five foot nine, doesn’t that tell you what you need to know?” Well I say it kinda depends on the context and delivery the original question. The relationship to some statistical average is one area I may have been interested in, but so also, is your view in relation to your own impression and experience of this woman and the height of women in general - these could all be much more valuable bits than the specific objective measurement.

And another thing …

Dawkins makes at least two references to aeronautical engineering, which is fine by me, that’s what I graduated in. But no, I’m not about to catch him out with some scientific howler about my specialist subject – that would be unnecessary and, let’s be honest, I spotted no such error anyway. No, mine is another humanist point.

Quoting himself in chapter 1.2 What is True (pp14/15) from his earlier River out of Eden – he says “Show me a cultural relativist at 30,000 feet and I’ll show you a hypocrite … If you’re flying to an international conference of anthropologists or literary critics the reason you will probably get there … is that a lot of western scientifically trained engineers have got their sums right.” Well fine, to remind this payload that it takes something other than arts and “social sciences” to get 100,000 rivets flying in close formation - though I doubt many of them really believed otherwise before being reminded. On the other hand I suspect a larger number of western trained engineers might much more easily discount the value of the “social sciences” in pulling off this neat trick. Where are the real hypocrites? When I think of how many human decisions it took to get that aircraft up in the air, only some of which were based on well founded and well executed “scientific” calculations, I shudder at the possibility that any of the key ones may have been automated by some over confident western engineer and, remember, I used to be one. I still am an engineer, but I place a lot more confidence in decisions supported by a good sprinkling of “wisdom” about how human behaviour might interact with that bag of rivets along the way. By the way, thanks to Douglas Adams, I can never check in for a flight anywhere without conjuring up the vision of Thor checking in at Heathrow Terminal 3 for his flight to Norway, and the ensuing mayhem (*10) – there but for the grace of (a) god – another metaphorical aphorism we won’t have time to explore further here. (Metaphorical remember – I have no need of a mystical god, or any kind of god.)

With 25 years of hindsight, I can see why I found compressible turbulent flow tough in my time studying to be an aeronautical engineer. At the time I was simply uneasy with the empirical nature of so many such formulae, relying as they did on experientially determined factors which in themselves provided no explanation of the underlying physics or evidence of building on those scientific premises I held so dear. It seemed then like cheating. Dawkins makes a deliberately ironic reference to the Navier-Stokes equations in his chapter Postmodernism Disrobed (p50), in thanking two unfortunate post-modernists for their fatuous gender-war reasoning as to why turbulent flow is a hard problem. It is no coincidence that Dawkins goes on, on the same page, to highlight the misuse of chaos in describing difficult issues, and later chapter 3.3, The Great Convergence (p147), he mocks the rolling together of chaos, fuzzy-logic, uncertainty and quantum physics in mysterious and money-spinning new pseudo-sciences. Dawkins, like many other respected scientists makes statements about not being convinced that any given situation actually needs chaos to explain it. Suspending disbelief is one thing but active disparagement is quite another. Like a large part of post-modernism (but not all of it, I hasten to add), a great deal of this pseudo-philosophy and pseudo-science is undoubtedly unmitigated “meta-twaddle”, but I would not be surprised to find similar criticisms of apparently “real” science too. However, before throwing baby out with the bathwater, it’s fair to say that turbulent flow is at least one area where chaos has brought not only explanation, but also problem solving and predictive solutions where previously there was only empiricism.

Rather than mocking the great convergence I believe what remains to be explained is the compelling attraction of these apparently mystical pseudo-science explanations for difficult problems. Dawkins suggests several times that his best answer is that the rest of us are all infinitely gullible, suggestible and too lazy to ask the right questions, unlike himself of course. For example on p41 whilst arguing (convincingly IMHO) against trial by jury, he mocks the OJ Simpson jury “could you imagine even one other jury reaching the same verdict ?”. Well yes actually, ceteris paribus, but not because I believe OJ was innocent. Over the page in Crystalline Truth and Crystal Balls he disparages pseudoscientific drivel like the healing power of crystals amongst others and concludes, “There is no obvious limit to human gullibility”. If this is his best explanation I am disappointed. If we need science to teach us anything, it’s a better public tolerance of uncertainty, and I don’t mean Heisenberg this time either. Fortunately this is something that Dawkins also appears to support. In fact the climax of chapter 1.8 on Sanderson of Oundle is the admission “I don’t know”.

Another irrelevant spooky synchronicity? I was sitting in my garden reading the Navier-Stokes reference on p50 yesterday and paused to look up at aircraft trails across the clear blue sky. In one cruising lane, at 25 to 30K feet I’d estimate, I noticed a particular turbulent flow behaviour in every aircraft in that path and altitude not present in any of the others. (*11)

Metaphorically speaking … caveat metaphor

You can’t have it both ways. If you’re going to use metaphors, particularly anthropocentric ones to imply intentional human-like conscious behaviour in scientific processes, then you need to beware their limitations. I suspect Dawkins has been dogged with critics constructing arguments based knowingly or unknowingly on misunderstanding the explanation of the overall emergent behaviour and the true causal relationships between the underlying evolutionary processes. The Selfish Gene positively cries out for such misrepresentation, unwitting, mischievous or worse. (*12)

I know Dawkins knows this, because in chapter 2.2 Darwin Triumphant on p85 he points out “The common error … [is] … to personify the Second Law [of thermodynamics]. To invest the universe with an inner urge or drive towards chaos.” Pot and kettle spring to mind, but that is not my main point here where caveat metaphor is already understood. I plan a second essay on the significance of metaphor in both scientific and folk knowledge, or rather; the significance of fact that it is significant to both, so this thread will end here for now.

In attacking all things that retain any element of mystery, for whatever reason, Dawkins is being hyper-rational. Where mystery and misunderstanding is born of scientific ignorance, then Dawkins does his duty in pointing it out, though I’m not convinced that mockery is the best education for the ignorant. Where the mystery is emergent from objective complexity and uncertainty, and worse still, in combination with the uncertainties of social science, then I believe in suspending disbelief of folk knowledge, captured in those metaphors and aphorisms we actually live by (*13).

Methinks the Charles Simonyi professor, for the public understanding of science at Oxford University, doth protest too much when he attacks lack of knowledge with scientific rationale alone.


Notes and References

(*1) Steven Pinker – The Blank Slate, The Modern Denial of Human Nature, also the author of The Language Instinct and How The Mind Works.
            [Psybertron on Pinker][Buy at Amazon]

(*2) Hyper-Rationalism, a term I saw coined recently by Edward Tufte.
            [Psybertron on Hyper-Rationalism][Edward Tufte]

(*3) The subjects of Catch-22 (the rationality / madness / game-theory paradox) and Metaphorical Aphorisms (cynical witticisms, many a true word spoken in jest, etc.) are recurring threads littered throughout my work, with temporary notes in [The Story So Far].

(*4) [Psybertron on Ayn Rand]

(*5) For quantum information theories [start here].

(*6) Daniel Dennett, philosopher and author of The Intentional Stance and much more.
            [Psybertron on Dennett][Buy at Amazon]

(*7) Lead character played by David Jason in long running BBC television series Only Fools and Horses.

(*8) Cold Feet - Granada TV Series often seen as later, grittier UK version of ThirtySomethings.

(*9) Douglas Adams (DNA) – Author of Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy (H2G2) and Dirk Gently series of stories, and general all round genius. [Start here for DNA & H2G2]. A good friend of Dawkins, who gave the eulogy at DNA’s untimely funeral, included in A Devil’s Chaplain.

(*10) The opening scenes from Douglas Adams’ Long Dark Teatime of the Soul, the second in his Dirk Gently series.

(*11) I only mentioned this for the coincidence value (synchronicity if you prefer), however here goes. Behind a cruising airliner, the vapour trails consist of a mist of droplets cooling to a cloud of crystals of mainly water vapour. Only a small part of this trail is concerned with the vapour from combustion in the two or four gas turbine engines, most of the effect is caused by the two vortices from the lifting effect of the wings, which trail behind, separated by something like two-thirds of the true wing span. Most of the entire energy expended in keeping the aircraft aloft manifests itself in the vorticity or spin energy in these trailing vortices, and at the centre of the vortex the air-pressure is much below the ambient atmospheric pressure, which is already low at altitude. So the vapour from the engine exhausts to a small extent, but mainly the atmospheric water vapour, drops out as droplets and then crystals in this cold region of low pressure. Imagine the depression in the free surface of bathwater running out of the plughole. (You see the same vortex trail effect in lower flying aircraft pulling high lift in humid atmospheres – where it is much more apparent that it has nothing to do with the engine exhausts. Even when atmospheric conditions mean that no vapour is visible, it is often possible to feel and hear the vortices pass you by some time after a low flying aircraft.) Anyway, my observation was in the dispersion behaviour of these trails once formed. I really should draw a picture, but in words it goes like this. The adjacent pair of trails, whilst generally becoming more diffuse further behind the aircraft, start to form a wave pattern, synchronised in opposition to each other, with a wavelength something like 5 or 6 wingspans peak to peak. As the inboard peaks get closer to each other the vorticity intensifies, some kind of self reinforcement I guess, and the effect is a bit like a fuzzy strip of wool or cotton being spun into a tight thread locally. As this continues the peaks actually meet at the point of maximum vortex density, the trails break into separate rings across the line of the original trails, still spinning furiously like rings from a smokers pipe. The original wave momentum continues however, and the rings collapse into figure eights with the most intense vorticity sections again colliding, resulting in two rings, and so on, though by this time the general dispersion and dare I say “chaos” of  turbulence means the whole effect is blurred out, physically as well as visually I guess. So next time you find me lying on my back looking up into the blue sky, you’ll have some idea what I’m doing. Sad I know.

(*12) See my observations on Brian Goodwin.

(*13) These word inspired by George Lakoff’s book title Metaphors We Live By, though I’ve not actually read it yet. He is also the author of Fire, Women and Dangerous Things, also on my reading list.