Thursday, August 09, 2007

Contempt for truth among Dawkins' critics

I preface this post by saying that this is perhaps the first post that I began knowing it would be rather unpleasant to write. The reason is that I am about to say some very nasty things about Alon Levy, who just a few days ago I was having a fruitful e-mail exchange with. But I don't believe in holding back out of politeness--indeed that's why I got in this spat in the first place.

The background is a brief quote from Daniel Dennett which I posted as one of my Quotes of the Time Being. Alon responded with a tangentially relevant comment, I responded with my position on the issue, and mentioned that "what's really bothersome among the people Dennett is attacking is that they often attack Dawkins et. al. on purely tactical grounds, with a disregard for what's true." Bronze Dog also chimed in, saying he too cared about what was true.

In Alon's response, he said, among other things, that for Dawkins and his fellow religion critics religion is the root of all problems in the world. I pointed out that Dawkins has explicitly rejected this position. Alon's response? He claimed the fact that Dawkins has rejected the position he attributed to him doesn't matter.

Pause and think about this for a moment. I criticized some of Dawkins' opponents for acting with a disregard for truth, and this quickly lead to one of them claiming that it didn't matter whether the critic's characterization of Dawkins' position matched Dawkins' statements. In essence, Alon is claiming a right to slander. This is actually an example of contempt for truth far worse than anything I had in mind in my initial comment. Talking about having an opponent prove your point for you. Did I mention Alon's an atheist, has blogged at Unscrewing the Inscrutable, and that I first met him at the CFI conference? My first impulse is to be embarrassed that an activist atheist could say something like what he said, though I suppose that's as silly as expecting to see special virtues in every person who does not believe in fairies. Oh well.

In the spirit of full debate, I'm going to go through everything Alon said in support of his position. First, from the initial comment:
For example, Harris ends up endorsing an incredibly conservative agenda about Muslims that a consistent empiricist would eschew; some of the things he says about Muslims would do Rush Limbaugh proud.
There are three weird things here packed into one sentence: first, the apparent assumption that a "consistent empiricist" would automatically reject anything "incredibly conservative" (whatever that means--I learned long ago that political labels aren't terribly useful). Where on earth does the apparent identification of liberalism (whatever that means) with empiricism come from? Second, he insists Harris' position must be wrong without a shred of evidence, in spite of the superficial appeal to empiricism. Third, and perhaps worst of all, he appears to argue if a person agrees with Limbaugh on some point, the person must be wrong. Now, I have never heard Limbaugh explicitly state his position on the color of the sky, or the sum of two and two, or the moral character of Stalin, but I suspect we would find these as points of agreement, and I cannot find in me the slightest desire to change my position on these issues for that reason. Furthermore, I cannot help but note that Limbaugh would probably applaud Alon's view of "radical feminists."

Really, that was one of those sentences that looks like an argument at first glance, but once you've analyzed it, the view that the author only ever meant to make a baseless assertion begins to look like the more charitable interpretation. Moving on:
Dawkins invented a whole pseudoscience, memetics, so that he could pathologize religion.
This sentence prompted me to actually read the original proposal for the idea of memes in The Selfish Gene, and I could not find a shred of evidence for Alon's view therein. Dawkins does discuss God in one paragraph (out of thirteen pages), but only as an illustration of a larger point. I see nothing to suggest he was trying to pathologize religion. He mainly comes off as a curious scientist trying to figure out how culture works, and throwing out an interesting explanation. The explanation is not a dumb one: it notes that cultural artifacts undergo semi-conservative replication much as genes do, and plausibly infers that the processes involved might be similar. He later went into more detail on memes and religion, and observed that many religious systems have ways of getting people to believe independently of whether they're true, but I see no reason to think this was the sole driving force behind memes. More importantly, Dawkins' observation about religious systems appears to me to be correct (see faith, damnation, etc.) Next!:
Neither seems to have ever seriously considered the possibility that people can consider the evidence unbiasedly and come to different conclusions...
I see little reason to think that Dawkins and Harris think that can never happen (though some people, like philosopher Richard Feldman, have argued it can't happen). In the narrower area of reasonable religious belief, I would wonder if they have simply considered the claim and found it wanting. Finally:
...or the possibility that in a world with 5.5 billion religious people, a lot of unrelated problems would be superficially entangled in religion.
Oh, yes, they dismiss that possibility out of hand, except of course in the sections of their books where they explain specific ways in which religion causes problems.

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7 comments:

Alon Levy said...

The reason is that I am about to say some very nasty things about Alon Levy

You should dig some old threads on Feministe, or Pharyngula, or even Majikthise... the way people talk to me there is nasty. The way you do isn't.

I criticized some of Dawkins' opponents for acting with a disregard for truth, and this quickly lead to one of them claiming that it didn't matter whether the critic's characterization of Dawkins' position matched Dawkins' statements. In essence, Alon is claiming a right to slander. This is actually an example of contempt for truth far worse than anything I had in mind in my initial comment.

Uh, no. What I was saying is that even if he explicitly said he didn't think religion is the root of all evil, his other statements suggest otherwise. It's really like how every Dominionist politician left of Robertson makes the obligatory statements about supporting separation of church and state, before telling atheists they're not real Americans.

Memetics is a good example, so I'm going to keep going with it. Dawkins has used it a lot of times as a way of arguing that religion is a type of pathology: humans are wired to believe in God, religion succeeds because it propagates itself well rather than because it's true, and so on.

The key point is that he never analyzes atheism that way even though it can be. Modern atheism tells one that all religions are wrong, just like a new religion tells one that all existing religions are wrong. It also tells the atheist that he is intellectually superior, and Pamuk's book Istanbul mentions how many in the Turkish upper class wanted to believe but avoided religion precisely because it was associated with backward traditions and the lower class.

If religion is a meme, so is atheism. You can claim that religion is somehow more naturally a meme, but you need a tremendous body of evidence for that, which Dawkins can't have; most biologists are iffy on whether his greedy EP theory even makes sense. Otherwise, you're no better than the perennial hacks who scream loudly about how the media is biased toward the other side.

There are three weird things here packed into one sentence

None of them is weird, really... the first and third are placeholders. Harris has basically reproduced the standard conservative line in support of torture, despite having no evidence that it is right and plenty that it is wrong (I can give you a link to a blog post of his asserting that, if you want). Mere conservatism doesn't cause someone to make it; in the Republican Presidential debate, only Tancredo was so blunt. It takes a special hatred of Muslims, or a huge need to be perceived as tough, to make that argument, which is why I'm accusing Harris of what I'm accusing him.

Another thing Harris has supported, again against evidence, is restricting Muslims' immigration rights (I may be wrong about how anti-immigration he is, though). He basically joins Ayaan Hirsi Ali and a host of xenophobes in demanding Muslims eschew Islam before being allowed to immigrate.

The standard response to that argument is something like "Well, a lot of Muslims have shown a willingness to integrate Islam into democratic tradition." Personally I prefer, "You're a racist asshole who's not saying anything that wasn't said about Jews, Irish, and Italians in 1900."

Yes, agreement with Limbaugh isn't necessarily wrong. Agreement with him on issues involving Muslims almost always is, though.

Oh, yes, they dismiss that possibility out of hand, except of course in the sections of their books where they explain specific ways in which religion causes problems.

Yes, religion causes some problems. It fixes others. In both cases, the question is almost always just political.

For example, take the I/P conflict. Western observers, who typically couldn't name five different political parties in Israel, tend to view it as a problem of religion. While we're at it, so do some Israeli settlers, who view settling in Palestinian lands as a divine command.

The thing is, Israel's religious politics tends to be almost completely disjoint from its nationalist politics. The fundamentalist parties care little about the I/P conflict; they'll join in coalition with anyone who gives them key domestic-oriented ministries, and supports their agenda for increased child credit, increased subsidies for yeshivas, and decreased government oversight of religious schools. The right-wing parties have some practicing Jews, but they're predominantly secular, and were for one Knesset in coalition with the staunching anti-religious Shinui party, with which they shared a capitalist economic agenda. Only one small party, the National Religious Party, combines religion and nationalism.

In Palestine, too, religion is incidental to the conflict. People vote for Fatah or Hamas based on issues like corruption, who can achieve independence faster, and economics. Religion is there, too, but in fact if I remember correctly only 11% of Hamas's voters voted for the party for religious reasons in the last election.

In general, Islamism tends to be more about corruption and the failure of all other solutions. The Arabs tried monarchy and failed. They tried liberalism, pan-Arabism, socialism, nationalism - all without success. They've never really tried fundamentalism, so it seems fresh; but in Palestine, two years of Hamas rule are enough to make the people go back to nationalism. In Iran, where the fundamentalists have been in power for generations, the people are ready to go back to either pro-American liberal democracy or anti-American social democracy.

Another area rife with problems that superficially seem religious, India, is again about politics. Hindutva's most salient characteristic isn't that it's Hindu. Gandhi was Hindu, too. No; it's that it's nationalist about it.

Like it or not, religious divisions can function like ethnicity or nationality or language: Shi'a/Sunni in Iraq, Protestant/Catholic in Northern Ireland, Hindu/Muslim in India. The only religious division that doesn't work exactly like race is the internal division between secularists and believers within each tradition. If it weren't religion, it'd be something else - perhaps more Indians would be rioting over language rights, and the same political simpletons would say that if only everyone spoke Esperanto the world would be more peaceful.

So yes, despite what Dawkins says, there is such a thing as a Christian child, just like there's an English-speaking child or a Hispanic child. A Christian child placed in a Muslim family will become a Muslim child, just like an English-speaking child placed in a French-speaking household will become a French-speaking child, and a Hispanic child raised in France will just be a white child.

Hallq said...

Okay, so you're not disregarding Dawkins' position, you're claiming he's lying about. That isn't as bad, but it's close, given how little grounds you have for your accusation. All you can say is that he applies a double standard to himself and his opponents, but it doesn't even begin to follow from that that he thinks religion is the root of all the problems in the world. It just doesn't, and it's hard to think of any more to say on that subject. The one thing I can think to ask is whether you would infer that an anti-communist writer thought Nazism did not cause problems simply on the grounds that he or she committed one of the sins you attribute to Dawkins or Harris--applying one standard to capitalism and another to communism, or believing communists should not be allowed to immigrate.

You seem all too ready to imagine the worst in anyone who disagrees with you, a tendency you would of course deplore if you detected it in Dawkins. For example, it does not in any way follow that if a politician says atheists are not Americans, then the politician subscribes to the whole Dominionist platform. Again, it just doesn't. The stated position may be shocking, but that's no reason to assume they take the most extreme position possible.

Beyond this, there are a few pieces of obvious nonsense in your comment. For one, you seem unable to tell the difference between thinking contrary belief systems are false and thinking their adherents must be punished eternally. "Believe A or else!" is what logicians call an appeal to force; "If A then not-not-A" is what logicians call a tautology.

On Harris' limited support of torture, I'm not sure what you mean by "no evidence that it is right." From a philosophical/ethical perspective, his position is not obviously stupid: if we accept that sometimes it is necessary to kill terrorists for the greater good, then in some circumstances it might be right to torture terrorists for the greater good. Note that Harris nevertheless opposes indiscriminate torture, and has said that it should probably remain illegal in spite of that consideration. I don't know what "evidence" you would have here to show he's wrong, the question is largely one of philosophical reasoning. Where evidence would more naturally come into play is on the psychological question of whether torture is actually the best way to get captured enemies to cooperate. On that question Harris may be mistaken, but the mistake can be attributed to over reliance on common sense. It isn't necessary to postulate pathological hatred of Muslims.

Finally, I wonder what evidence you have that Ayaan Hirsi Ali believes Muslims should be forced to deconvert before immigrating. Yes, she believes in pushing for assimilation and opposes separate schools, but she's also made clear Muslim immigrants would retain religious freedom. I hope you're doing more than inferring her position here because she said something else you don't like.

Alon Levy said...

Okay, so you're not disregarding Dawkins' position, you're claiming he's lying about.

People in politics don't lie. Politicians spin, parse, make overfussy distinctions, and change their views based on how the winds blow, but they rarely lie. Liars get caught too often to justify lying. That's why so many people got Iraq wrong: Bush really did lie, which is so unusual in politics none of the moderates believed he did.

Dawkins, Dennett, et al are the same; they don't view their double standards as such any more than Edwards views his Iraq flip-flop as a flip-flop. Despite their persistent attempts to portray themselves as above it all, they're engaging in standard politicking. Of all their failings, that is the worst: like all other radicals, they think they're better than everyone else, and as such they shouldn't dirty themselves with mere politics.

Even standard elitists are better. Those elitists think they're better than us mortals and think they deserve to lead and everyone else ought to follow, but at least they understand the importance of successful political action. The Sartres, the von Miseses, the MacKinnons, and the Dawkinses bask in their marginality, which to them is all the more evidence for their greatness.

The one thing I can think to ask is whether you would infer that an anti-communist writer thought Nazism did not cause problems simply on the grounds that he or she committed one of the sins you attribute to Dawkins or Harris--applying one standard to capitalism and another to communism, or believing communists should not be allowed to immigrate.

Not Nazism... but fascism. Anti-communists tend to lump Nazism together with communism. But yes, a disturbing number of anti-communist writers, some of whom are accomplished historians whose work on the crimes of Stalin or Mao is groundbreaking, are in fact fascist sympathizers of some sort: Robert Conquest, R. J. Rummel, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. And conversely, some of the most insightful anti-fascists have blind spots when it comes to communism.

Of all the opponents of totalitarianism in the world, I can think of only one who is consistent, Orwell, and he's also about the only political commentator who doesn't view himself as a Great Man destined to lead the hoi polloi.

At any rate, I do think people like Conquest and Solzhenitsyn should be read... but that's because the crimes they expose are real, and because their analyses of the situation can be bias-free. The Gulag Archipelago isn't polemical but muckraking. In contrast, Dawkins isn't exposing anything. There's no great religious crime everyone except him denies. And he's proved entirely unable to write about religion without resorting to polemic.

On Harris' limited support of torture, I'm not sure what you mean by "no evidence that it is right." From a philosophical/ethical perspective, his position is not obviously stupid: if we accept that sometimes it is necessary to kill terrorists for the greater good, then in some circumstances it might be right to torture terrorists for the greater good.

That formulation is a very non-trivial (and false) claim that tries to pass for something obvious. Torture doesn't work, except on 24. Good military interrogators rely on endlessly asking the prisoner the same questions, and comparing his answers with his previous answers as well as with colleagues' answers. It's an issue of competence; a competent interrogator can almost always extract the information without torture.

What is more, people who are tortured tell the interrogators what they want to hear. This is an empirical fact, supported by the words of both humanitarians and experienced interrogators.

Now, Harris could easily get it right, by checking with people who know something about interrogation before he opened his mouth about torture. Instead, he made an embarrassing statement that's more spy-fi than poli-sci.

Finally, I wonder what evidence you have that Ayaan Hirsi Ali believes Muslims should be forced to deconvert before immigrating.

I was using hyperbole... her position is that they should profess allegiance to what she considers democratic values. I'd think the idea that everyone is considered innocent until proven guilty is a democratic value, but apparently it doesn't apply to immigrants who offend Hirsi Ali's sensibilities.

Hallq said...

Your affirmation that you're not accusing Dawkins of lying is interesting. At first glance, it's very hard to see that this isn't an admission that you're wrong about Dawkins. Lying is generally defined as "willful misstatement of fact." It's hard to unwillfully misstate your own beliefs, so the question becomes merely whether Dawkins misstated his views. If he isn't lying, he didn't misstate them. Since he said he doesn't think religion is the cause of all problems in the world, that means he doesn't think religion is that cause of all problems in the world. You claimed other wise, so you're wrong.

What are the alternatives:
1) Spin. A pejorative without much clear content.
2) Parse. Dictionary.com tells me this is an act of technical linguistic analysis. I suppose it could mean, but extension, reading carefully. Don't know why they're bad things.
3) Make overfussy distinctions. Are you suggesting that the distinction between "religion causes lots of problems" and "religion causes all problems" is overfussy? If so, I revert to my previous position that you're speaking with a disregard for the truth, with the nuance that perhaps you can't be blamed becausee you have trouble understanding basic principles of rational discourse. As a philosophy student, I don't even know what an overfussy distinction might consist in. Precision in one's positions and arguments is the coin of the realm in analyitic philosophy, and I don't see how it could ever be a bad thing. Sure some philosophers fail to achieve the clarity they aim at, but they're not to be blamed for trying.
4) Change their views based on how the winds blow. Dawkins and Harris appear to be the sort of people who can't easily change their beliefs by willpower. I suspect this isn't what you're talking about, though, you're talking about people who have no strong views and will falsely claim to have whatever view sounds good. That seems to fall under the definition of lying, so maybe you are accusing Dawkins of lying after all (in which case it's a very confused accusation).

On anti-communists: I notice you talk about *some* anti-communists. The question isn't about what some people do, it's about whether we can infer they'll be cozy to fascism simply because their criticism of communism is not totally unbiased.

On Harris and torture: you didn't really dispute anything I said. I already said that Harris may be guilty of relying on common sense and not paying attention to the data. My question about how it follows that he must have a pathological hatred of Muslims remains unanswered.

On Ayaan Hirsi Ali: I haven't read up on the details of her position on that point, but I'll admit it doesn't sound like a great idea. Insisting people just accept democracy isn't going to get as practical of results as insisting children go to schools where they can be taught the value of democracy over several years (a point where she clearly is right). How is this even relevant, though? How is such an immigration policy evidence of thinking religion is the cause of all problems in the world?

Alon Levy said...

Okay... in philosophy, yes, you need very precise distinctions. In politics you sometimes do, too, but more often than not they're an excuse for inconsistency: witness how the party out of power always finds reasons to support balanced budgets and argue for the filibuster, only to find new arguments for deficit spending and against the filibuster once it wins power.

In the case of Dawkins and Harris, those distinctions crop up whenever they blame something on religion.

I'm staring at an issue of Free Inquiry that has the results of a contest Harris declared for finding refutations of the common rebuttals to him. Of course, one of the rebuttals was that religion doesn't really cause all those problems he's talking about. The winning answer is basically a derisive laugh, together with the implication that "Suicide bombers are religiously motivated, so religion is to blame."

Now, that's an overfussy distinction, because Harris never gives credit for the good things motivated by religion: civil rights, Indian independence, democratization in Turkey. In the last case, the secularists are actively opposed to democratization, preferring military rule with a democratic fa├žade.

It's also spin. Yes, Jihadists are motivated by religion. So what? In the US and Canada, where the governments take positive steps to prevent discrimination, people born to Muslim immigrants are fairly well-assimilated. In Europe, where they don't, they aren't. I can email you a detailed study by Pew that compares the attitudes of American Muslims to those of European ones. It's impossible to look at the evidence and conclude that this sort of terrorism is inherent to Islam, rather than being triggered by discrimination.

The reason I contend Harris pathologically hates Muslims is that he seems perfectly capable of sifting through obscure evidence, when common sense is not on his side. When he has to have evidence to be able to say something against Islam, or against Christianity, he finds that evidence. When he doesn't, he doesn't, even when the evidence is actually against him.

Hirsi Ali is a more complex figure... but even she has the ability to come off as a Somali-Dutch Kanan Makiya: full of good intentions, but terminally clueless about facts on the grounds.

Alon Levy said...

On a completely different note, you should check out Taner Edis's article in the August/September issue of Free Inquiry. He briefly explains where secular critics of Islam, especially Harris, go wrong.

Hallq said...

I have no idea what to say in response, since I can't make out what your claim is re: the original reason for this post. All I can do is redirect you to the first two paragraphs of my last reply and say "try again."