Most British scientists: Richard Dawkins' work misrepresents science

Discussion in 'General Science & Technology' started by paddoboy, Nov 7, 2016.

  1. exchemist Valued Senior Member

    Guides to morality need not require anything be taken as fact. Art, music and literature guide our thoughts and inspire us without in any way claiming to be instruction manuals.
  2. Google AdSense Guest Advertisement

    to hide all adverts.
  3. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    He doesn't.

    So if 38 out of 1500 scientists thought he did, they would simply be wrong.
    You apparently haven't actually read anything Dawkins has written. For one thing, he deals with most of that stuff explicitly, as a kind of basic ignorance about his views that he encounters frequently.
    While Dawkins may be committing the error of claiming necessity, he would not be in error if he simply pointed to the ubiquity and apparent inevitability of that situation. Muslims, for example, are well known for insisting on Divine predominance over mere scientific fact in many arenas - if there is a conflict between the Koran and some research findings, say, the Koran is where the truth is found and the science must be adjusted.
  4. Google AdSense Guest Advertisement

    to hide all adverts.
  5. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    What do you think he needs to understand about religion and religious people, that he has missed?

    To my knowledge, he does nothing of the kind.

    All of these people are entitled to their opinions, of course. The argument that Dawkins is wrong about the harms of religion because he doesn't really understand it is an easy claim to make, but he has written an entire book setting out his argument, which incidentally anticipates many of the objections that are commonly put by religious types who haven't bothered to read it.

    I've read Alister McGrath's book, The Twilight of Atheism. He is wrong, but he makes a good argument, such as that Dawkins did not reinvent atheism (which is true), and that atheism has failed to offer viable alternatives to religion (which may also be true, but is beside the point, especially considering that atheism represents the absence of a belief, and is not in itself a belief system).

    The argument from theists that atheists in generally are "missing" what religion is "really" about - even if that was an accurate claim - doesn't do anything to address their specific criticisms of it.

    John Gray is an interesting writer too, but his target is bigger than atheism. He is against all ideas of human progress, for example. His position is that human nature is more or less fixed, and the ideas of the enlightenment, that human society and morals are progressively improving, are an illusion. Gray lends no support to argument that favour religion, at least on my reading of him. Gray is a pessimist about human nature, whereas Dawkins is ultimately an optimist. So naturally Gray thinks Dawkins is missing something important. But then again, Gray thinks that the vast majority of us modern westerners are missing something important, deluding ourselves that humanity is on some path of continual progress.

    I think this is a misreading of Dawkins.
  6. Google AdSense Guest Advertisement

    to hide all adverts.
  7. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    You ought to read The God Delusion, where Dawkins explicitly addresses this objection, in the first chapter if I recall correctly. He is well aware that not all religions are the same, and that there are different varieties even among Christians. His criticisms are not of a specific religion, but of all religions. He is quite explicit about that.

    I doubt that he holds such a simplistic view on that. Nevertheless, there are some quite famous examples of where science and religion have been mortal enemies. To take just one contemporary example, consider the ongoing feuds between Christian fundamentalists and science educators over the teaching of evolution in the United States.

    Dawkins is right on this. If a religion claims that miraculous healing exists, or that God answers prayers, or whatever, those are existence claims that are scientifically testable. It is not the case that all existence claims are testable in this way; the ones that aren't can't be addressed by science. But Dawkins' point that religion certainly makes some claims that are amenable to scientific investigation is indisputable.

    A universe that has a God who only works through the laws of nature is indistinguishable from a universe with no God. That kind of God is an unnecessary hypothesis; we can explain everything we see in the world without invoking such a God.

    On the other hand, if God does act in the world in a supernatural way, then God must affect natural things in observable, testable ways. In principle, science should be able to deduce that such a God exists by observing the works of the God.

    So, on this point, Dawkins is right.
  8. exchemist Valued Senior Member

    All that you say may be true, but the public image Dawkins has created, over the years, is that he sees the bible as a a rival theory of nature and that he attacks creationism as if it were Christianity. He has softened (clarified?) his position in recent years, notably during his debate with the Archbishop of Canterbury. But the image is what it is and that accounts, I think, for the lack of esteem in which he is held by many British people with a science background, myself included.
  9. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    Dawkins has capitalised on his notoriety following publication of The God Delusion to express his ideas on many topics. Generally, his long writings (articles, books etc.) are carefully thought out and invariably well written. His twitter posts and the like, on the other hand, have at times been exceedingly ill-judged and reactionary. I would say that most of the damage done to his personal reputation has tended to flow from the tweets and the sound-bite grabs, rather than from any detailed examination of his substantive arguments on topics such as religion or science.

    It is quite possible to agree with Dawkins on some things while not agreeing with him about everything. This is the case with any public intellectual of any substance. My own position is that I consider him to be largely on the side of right and good, fighting the good fight. But occasionally he makes rather egregious blunders. Like most public intellectuals, he tends to be worst when he ventures into territory that is out of his area of expertise. He is not a perfect human being. He doesn't always admit when he is wrong, or makes an error of judgment. But then, who is perfect?

    As for softening his position, I am not aware of any substantive change in Dawkins' views on religion since publication of The God Delusion. His debate with the Archbishop was simply one of the few times that he has engaged in a mutually-respectful conversation by a religious leader in a forum that was widely viewed by the general public.

    It suits many religious people to imagine that Dawkins is some kind of unreasonable ogre who is full of irrational hatred for God and religion, because then they can rationalise as to why they don't need to engage with anything he writes or says. They can simply dismiss him as a shrill critic whose opinions are worthless. That may be comforting to them, but it ultimately does nothing to diminish the strength of the arguments makes. It astounds me how many outspoken religious critics have never actually sat down and read The God Delusion. They make this obvious when, as they so often do, they base their critique on some point that Dawkins explicitly dealt with, often at some length, in the book.

    Regarding the bible, Dawkins is right most of the time. You only have to read it through to see that the God of the Old Testament, in particular, is a quite despicable character in many ways, and not a good role model for morality.

    Biblical fundamentalism is at one end of a spectrum of religious belief. Clearly, treating the bible like a science textbook and a literal record of history is a silly thing to do, especially given its many errors and fabrications.

    One problem with "moderate" Christianity is that it is supposed to have a biblical basis, too. So how do moderate Christians go about deciding which parts of the bible are "gospel" and which parts they can safely ignore or regard as archaic irrelevancies? Largely, it seems to me, this is a case of the individual doing what he or she feels is right, in which case can it be said that the individual is really following the bible? And don't the fundamentalists have a legitimate case when they claim that "moderates" are abiding by a kind of watered-down Christianity-lite version of what the holy book says?

    Probably because of the way that Dawkins expresses himself in person, he has come to be seen by many religious people as emblematic of the perceived arrogance of atheists in daring to dismiss God, when those religious people truly believe that atheists don't really know God the way they do. Dawkins is by no means the only "representative" of the "new atheism", but religious people have ultimately chosen to view him as a de facto figurehead of the "movement". In fact, there are a number of other writers who are more nuanced and better equipped than Dawkins to argue the atheism position, and they do so with some eloquence. But, like it or not, most don't have the same public profile that Dawkins has achieved.

    Dawkins, of course, had the advantage that he was already admired for his writings on science in general and evolution in particular, long before The God Delusion. As an expert of evolutionary science, there is much to admire about Dawkins. When I met him and asked him to sign a book for me, the one he was kind enough to sign was not The God Delusion, but The Selfish Gene, which is ultimately a much more important work and, I am sure, the one of which he is more proud.
    Last edited: Nov 9, 2016
  10. spidergoat pubic diorama Valued Senior Member

    Even you won't defend its truth.
  11. exchemist Valued Senior Member

    No, I won't. I will however defend its value - though not at length here, as it becomes a digression and I have limited energy for a protracted debate.
  12. spidergoat pubic diorama Valued Senior Member

    The truth claims are what Dawkins rejects. I think in general, atheists will acknowledge that one can find worthwhile teachings in sacred texts, they being the product of human beings with the capacity for wisdom. He makes the point that religious teaching starts with seemingly appealing and moderate ideas, but mixed in are ideas like faith is preferable to reason, and it goes downhill from there.
  13. paddoboy Valued Senior Member


    I have not read any of Dawkin's books as yet, but have watched numerous debates on various scientific institutions.
    I also agree with near everything he has said, but my beef [if you could call it a beef

    Please Register or Log in to view the hidden image!

    ] is simply on his delivery style and I compare that with Carl sagan, who I see as one of the greatest educators of our time.
    I base that comparison of the pair, on who would win over most observers to their beliefs, and I believe Sagan would, despite the fact that they would be conveying the same message.
    In my opinion, I just find Professor Dawkins rather abrasive in his approach, while Sagan has a more dulcet, soothing approach......
    Sort of like getting his point over with a sledge hammer, while Sagan just chips away.
  14. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    Dawkins is far better as a writer than as a speaker.

    Sagan was more of a people person that Dawkins is. Also, I suspect that Dawkins' Oxford-educated upper-class English persona probably grates on a lot of people, whereas Sagan, although being highly educated as well, always came across as more of an everyman.
  15. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    What caricature? Any dispassionate, objective examination will reach the same conclusion that Dawkins and I (and thousands of other intelligent, well-educated people) came to: Religion (at least Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Baha'i and Rasta--the Abrahamic religions that we're most familiar with) is nothing more or less than a collection of Bronze Age fairytales.

    There is absolutely no respectable scientific argument against the assertion that religion has no basis in fact or logic, and is merely an enormous collection of the kinds of tales that parents tell their children in order to avoid letting them learn at too early an age how tough life can be. Gods, angels and miracles are merely wishful thinking like Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny.
    Indeed. Priests were the primary demographic in which literacy, and the education it made possible, was widespread. Every government had a cadre of scribes who could read and write laws and communicate with other governments, but even kings and princes could not all read, much less write.

    Priests are no more immune to cognitive dissonance than anyone else. It's no more difficult for them to believe in a universe full of preposterous creatures and perturbed by astounding events, while at the same time believing that the universe is governed by natural laws that can be discerned by careful study, than it is for the rest of us.

    Jesuit universities, for example, teach their students the same courses as I had at Caltech. They have no trouble with the Big Bang or evolution. The notion that "God" is merely a way of understanding the natural universe fits right into their curriculum. If someone wonders why the laws of nature are what they are, the religionists and the secularists can participate in the discussion. Saying "God did it" is just a different way of saying, "we haven't got a clue."

    And the possibility that there are myriad other universes with completely different sets of natural laws (right down to: one plus one does NOT equal two) cannot be disproven by either camp.
  16. Yazata Valued Senior Member

    My point was that his criticism should be of specific religions, because not everything in the category of 'religion' possesses the qualities that he criticizes.

    In Chapter 8, entitled 'What's wrong with religion? Why be so hostile?' he lets go with full force. His subtitles include: 'Fundamentalism and the subversion of science', 'The dark side of absolutism', 'Faith and homosexuality', 'Faith and the sanctity of human life' and 'How 'moderation' in faith fosters fanaticism'. He's seemingly associating the broad concept 'religion' with the narrower concepts 'fundamentalism', 'absolutism' and 'faith'. He's seemingly oblivious to the fact that while these ideas may or may not apply to the kind of creationists he debates, they don't apply to many forms of religiosity. So he's not even addressing the question he himself asked 'What's wrong with religion?' At best he's explaining what he finds wrong about the particular species of religion he doesn't like. He doesn't like the fundies that he's associated himself with in his career as atheist controversialist, so all of 'religion' gets caught up in the resulting stupidity.

    Dawkins certainly sets up religion and science as opposites, as somehow antithetical to each other.

    Dawkins seems to be asserting that all existence claims are scientific claims, which looks to me like an assertion of metaphysical physicalism. It seems to suggest that to be real means to be physically real and that scientific methods are the only methods, since they apply to anything that exists. That's all metaphysical belief that will be difficult to justify.

    But if we accept for the sake of argument the hypothetical existence of non-physical or supernatural being, it's hard to see how natural science could be brought to bear on it.

    Maybe. But that would seem to contradict the idea up above that all existence claims are scientific claims.

    We can? We probably can't right now. That sentence sounds like an expression of faith in the completeness of methodological physicalism, the idea that natural science's research program will leave no unexplained loose ends if extended indefinitely to its conclusion.

    And just because something is deemed an "unnecessary hypothesis" isn't really a convincing argument that the something in question doesn't exist. What we seem to have instead is an argument for the irrelevance of science to the question. If the observed universe is consistent both with the existence and the non-existence of the questioned something, then no scientific observation will have any bearing on the question of its existence.

    I imagine that this is where 'Ockham's razor' will make its appearance. But that's just a slogan, a maxim, that still needs to be justified itself. It's often true that simpler theories are more beautiful to our eyes, but why should that make them more accurate depictions of reality?

    Parenthetical diversion: (I recently bought a hugely interesting book on that last question over at University Press Books in Berkeley, entitled 'Ockham's Razors: A User's Manual' by Eliot Sober. (Cambridge University Press, 2015)

    I'm not convinced that science could recognize a supernatural violation of the natural order, even if science's nose was rubbed in it. If what is being observed is a seeming violation of the natural order, then natural science would just observe that some anomalous event is inexplicable at the moment. It would have no way of knowing whether a natural explanation for it will be discovered in the future. The research program of methodological naturalism suggests that if science wants to proceed scientifically, it needs to seek a hypothetical natural explanation (even if conceivably none exists in some cases).

    And what if as I suggested earlier, everything that happens is the product of God's will, but God's will operates through natural law? The young couple thinks their beautiful new baby is an answer to their prayers. That doesn't mean that they think that their baby's birth was a violation of the laws of nature.

    How could science possibly prove them wrong?
    Last edited: Nov 11, 2016
    exchemist likes this.
  17. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    A more useful criticism of Dawkins might avoid the supernatural altogether, and address whether he has given the natural world its due.

    He occasionally, to me, seems to share the common belief among the supernaturalists that the physical world is simpler than it appears to be, that it embodies no complexities on the level of what to a human manifests as a "spiritual" realm . The supernaturalists conclude from such dimly perceived complexities the existence of the supernatural (miracles are how a materialist escapes the trap of their materialism), which is clearly misled, but the naturalist can make a similarly founded error in underestimating or denying the logical level involved, and claiming (for example) that free will cannot exist because its substrate is physical material in a human brain.
  18. exchemist Valued Senior Member

    Very well explained. This is why I maintain that Dawkins does not understand religion. He seems unaware of the philosophical assumptions he is making, and this trivialises his approach.
  19. danshawen Valued Senior Member

    This thread belongs either in religion or general philosophy.

    If you strongly believe, unlike Dawkins and other scientists who already know better, that human beings are the centerpiece of a universe ruled by a personal G-d who cares about what happens to them and try to carry that idea into an intensive study of cold, hard, dispassionate science, you are going to have many bad days.

    The only part of the universe that occasionally cares about our fate is us. The only vaguely eternal life is the biological system that supports and nurtures us and organizes itself to leverage evolutionary development. Failing to develop higher forms of life by means of evolution simply means perpetuity without change, which might as well be the same as death for the entire biomass as eternal damnation. Think about these ideas or sins if you prefer before becoming vegans or embarking on a program of racial cleansing by means of genocide. Or ignore global warming or engage in other means of disrupting the hospitality or character of this small planet by overpopulating it with our species. At least genocide curtails that mode of self-destruction. So, is it 'evil' or not? Which is more evil, religion, science, or genocide?

    Religion properly applied is about morality. Science can't possibly address that, and neither can someone like Dawkins be our moral compass in such matters because he is just as blind, deaf and even dumber than the rest of us. Whatever knowledge we have or delude ourselves into thinking we have will never be enough to offset the fear about the much greater body of we don't know or can't possibly understand.
    Last edited: Nov 15, 2016
  20. spidergoat pubic diorama Valued Senior Member

    All of religion is based on faith.
    In other words, there is no evidence to support it, nor can there be.
    How could anyone prove it right?
  21. exchemist Valued Senior Member

    They couldn't of course, but then they would not try, because it is one of the oldest chestnuts of all that the existence of "God" can neither be proved nor disproved.

    There is no objective evidence supporting religion, that is for sure. But then, the realm of religion is to do with subjective personal experience - something that is also true of art, literature and music, and to do with providing a guide for living one's life.
  22. spidergoat pubic diorama Valued Senior Member

    Except that all religions are different, aren't they? Some, like Christianity, aren't just concerned with personal subjective experience.


    Christianity says Jesus was born of a virgin mother. That’s a testable claim, and science says humans don’t work that way.

    Christianity says that God created the world (in six days, too, depending on how literally you take the Bible) and the people in it. The science says otherwise. People who want to merge the two worlds will say something silly like God used the Big Bang to create the universe or God used evolution to create us… as if we need a middleman.

    Many Christians also believe that if you pray for someone else — someone who doesn’t even know you’re praying for them — it makes a difference. Every credible study ever done on intercessory prayer says otherwise.

    That’s what Dawkins is talking about when he says religion and science are incompatible. There are times when you can’t just take something on faith. There are times when religious people believe things that directly contradict reality. And whenever religion and science do battle, science wins. Science always corrects religion — it’s never the other way around.

  23. spidergoat pubic diorama Valued Senior Member

    Also this:

    It’s also worth pointing out that this research was funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation, an organization that has an explicit agenda of trying to show science and religion are compatible. In fact, Dawkins even said about the organization’s Templeton Prize in The God Delusion that it’s “a very large sum of money given… usually to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion.” He also said, paraphrasing a colleague of his, that “Templeton’s money corrupts science.”

    But I’m sure none of that had anything to do with this hit piece of a research paper.
    danshawen likes this.

Share This Page