Friday, April 17, 2009

Let's stop beating Basil's car: Richard Dawkins on moral responsibility

A redated post.

Ilion linked to this little piece of Dawkiana, in which Our Hero maintains that holding a person morally responsible for their actions is absurd as Basil Fawlty beating his car for not starting. No namby-pamby soft determinism for Dawkins! I guess Dennett's Elbow Room didn't convince him. (Oh well, it didn't convince me either). Of course, that means that the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials (duck-scales from which are, I'm told, preserved in the Salem City Museum), the Great Wars of Religion, and the 9/11 attacks are really no one's fault. It's no one's fault if you don't believe in evolution, or if you invade Iraq without sufficient reason. In fact, it isn't your fault if you have Dawkins burned at the stake. This is sounding better all the time.

42 comments:

Nullasalus said...

Of course, didn't Dawkins also say that, because our genes are selfish, we have to use our brains to rise up and fight against them? Or something like that.

It's not like he's ever been terribly consistent, aside from really not liking religion (or calling anything he dislikes yet another iteration of religion, for that matter.)

Anonymous said...

Is he serious? Dawkins has essentially provided, a la Plantinga, an undefeated defeater for most of his attack on religion (or at least anything that involves morality, i.e. a good deal of it). I didn't think it could get any worse than his Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit. Also, until now I didn't think necessarily true propositions (e.g. The 747 gambit is Dawkins’ worst move) could indeed be falsified. Oddly, Dawkins does this here, albeit unintentionally. Of course, I could be stupid, or unenlightened, or just don’t “get” what he’s really saying and, thus, am obviously wrong in my assessment. I’m also probably just too unimaginative to anticipate the just so story that many will proffer to justify this glaring inconsistency.

Timmo said...

Why bother reading a thinker like Dawkins? He is popular mainly because he's loud and vulgar, and not because he has compelling arguments in his favor. There is much higher quality work by atheists/agnostics out there. Good arguments are much more interesting philosophically -- and more likely to be right -- than bad ones.

Ilíon said...

We're taught ... in what passes for education in the US ... that it is *impossible* to prove either that there is or is not a God. In general theory, that's what we're taught; in general practice, what we're taught is: it is *impossible* to prove that there is a God ... therefore the question is pointless, or even meaningless.

I have *never* believed what we are taught, in either version. I just didn't know how to go about showing to others that the teaching is false. Ironically, Prof. Dawkins ... and that piece in particular ... is one of the influences which taught me how to go about doing this.

I think the main influences, that I'm conscious of at any rate, for my "Ego Argument Against Atheism" (I don't know what else to call it) are: 1) CS Lewis; 2) Alvin Plantinga; 3) William Dembski (though, I couldn't tell you how, precisely); ... and 4) Richard Dawkins. How amusing is that?


The particular moral theory that Mr Dawkins, along with others, presents is the one that an atheist -- to be logically consistent -- must try to argue or at least assert.

But, *no one* can actually live as though that theory is actually true; no one can actually believe it to be true. To be more precise, no *sane* person can believe it to be true and/or live as though it is true.

Of course, the fact that no one -- other than those the rest of us call "insane" -- can actually believe this theory of morality, or behave as though they believe it true, is not in itself the disproof of the theory.


At root, we *know* this theory is false because it *necessarily* contradicts one of the most basic points of knowledge we (each if us, ourselves singly, as an individual) know; it contradicts one of the necessary and self-evident truths upon which all the rest of our knowledge rests. We know that this theory is false for the same reason we know that Calvinism is false: it logically/necessarily denies that we ourselves are agents.

*ALL* knowledge that we (each of us, ourselves, as an individual) can possibly possess starts with: "I exist" and "I am an agent." While these two statements can be verbalized as though they are separate (see, I did so), they are really like two sides of the same coin, for each implies the other: if we deny either, we deny them both; if we affirm one, we affirm both.

And, since we all know that we, ourselves, both exist and are agents, we *know* that *anything* which denies either of these statements is necessarily false: we cannot logically affirm that which denies what we know cannot be false.


Or, for those for whom the argument I've sketched above is too basic, we can show that this atheistic theory of morality is false either:
1) logically -- by its internal contradictions; or,
2) empirically -- by the fact if it is true, then we can really say nothing (and yet, we constantly say all sorts of the things we could not say were it true).

Mr Reppert has sketched that in his OP.

Ilíon said...

Nullasalus: "Of course, didn't Dawkins also say that, because our genes are selfish, we have to use our brains to rise up and fight against them? Or something like that."

We are "robots" which are "programmed" by our "selfish genes" ... and at the same time, *somehow* we can nonetheless "rise up against" our "selfish genes" ... and make ourselves into agents.

Please, don't expect this to be logically consistent; that isn't its purpose, nor a requirement.


Nullasalus: "It's not like he's ever been terribly consistent, aside from really not liking religion (or calling anything he dislikes yet another iteration of religion, for that matter.)"

Well, no, he's not terribly consistent. And, of course, since he is an agent, he *chooses* to be logically inconsistent.

But, at the same time, his personal logical inconsistency is *inherent* in the atheism he chooses to espouse. (Lest that be understood, I don't mean that there is some other logically consistent atheism he could espouse, if only he could find it.)


The denial that there is a Creator/God is false. *ANY* world-view which incorporates that denial is going to throw off logical contradictions like sparks; and it cannot be otherwise.

World-views are like "formal axiomatic systems" (I said "like" because very few of us have actually formalized our individual world-views). Still, a "formal axiomatic system" which contains a false axiom or an invalid rule (*) cannot help but generate false statements. This is just a fact about them.

(*) The rules of a "formal axiomatic system" define how its statements, the first of which are the system's axioms, are combined to generate new statements.

Ilíon said...

Anonymous: "Is he serious?"

That's rather a tricky question, isn't it? What I mean is: when someone tells you that he doesn't himself actually believe what he's trying to convince you to believe, how serious can that person possibly be? How seriously can one possibly take him?


Anonymous: "Dawkins has essentially provided, a la Plantinga, an undefeated defeater for most of his attack on religion (or at least anything that involves morality, i.e. a good deal of it)."

It's perceptive of you to notice this. Most people I've pointed toward this article either cannot or will not see the point, even after the point is explicitly given to their attention.

And, the reasoning he employs here is the same which supplies an "undefeated defeater" for atheism as a whole. I speak here of "western" atheism -- that denial-of-God which is formulated expressly to deny the Creator-God of the Bible. "Eastern" atheism, Buddhism or what have you, is self-refuting from its first word, for it begins with the denial either that we ourselves exist, or else that anything at all exists.

Atheism ("western" atheism) logically must pre-suppose "naturalism" or "materialism" -- deny that, and you no longer have atheism. Deny that and you're affirming the very thing atheism is meant to deny: that the ontological *basis* of reality is mind, rather than matter.

That is, while atheism and naturalism are not identical, each implies the other. It's very late (I should be in bed), so I won't go into that right now.


But, if "naturalism/materialism" is the fundamental fact about the nature of reality, then we (we human beings) *must* be as mechanistically subject to "nature" as is any old clump of matter. If we are *not* as mechanistically subject to "nature" as is any old clump of matter, then there exists *something* which is "supernatural" (i.e. above or beyond "nature"). Which is to say, naturalism is falsified if *we* are not strictly and entirely subject to whatever mechanisms comprise "nature." [Even use of the word 'mechanism' really does imply the falseness of naturalism, for a mechanism serves a purpose or end/goal.]


So, getting back to Mr Dawkins' humorous argument against the reality of moral responsibility. Now, IF the argument is valid and sound [it isn't, and we all, including he himself, know it isn't ... but let us pretend we believe it is, for this is the argument atheists logically have to make], THEN it does not apply merely to the question of the reality of moral responsibility, but also to all sorts of other interesting questions.

For instance: can we *know* anything? Well, IF the naturalistic argument is valid and sound, THEN no, we cannot know anything. But this is absurd -- we know that we can't know anything!

Our typical atheist will, of course, adamantly deny that this conclusion follows (and will likely never admit that it does). And, the typical "theist" may well not immediately grasp the point. So:

The naturalistic (or, as Mr Dawkins like to call it, the "scientific") claim is that we are not *responsible* for our actions; we did not *choose* to do this or do that, rather, "Any crime, however heinous, is in principle to be blamed on antecedent conditions acting through the accused's physiology, heredity and environment."

But, if this reasoning is sound and valid, then it *must* apply to *all* aspects of human behavior: not only must it be the case that our physical actions are "in principle to be blamed on antecedent conditions," but also our mental acts! That is, we do not and cannot know "Fact B" to be true or false because (ground-and-consequent, as Lewis might say) of its logical relationship to "Fact A," but rather, because (cause-and-effect) there exists some "antecedent conditions" which cause us to assert or deny "Fact B" irrespective of "Fact A."

Thus: the very reasoning by which the atheist denies (if he is being logically consistent) the reality of moral responsibility *also* denies the very possibility of knowledge.


The truth is this: we human beings are already "supernatural," even now as physically embodied minds. That is, IF "nature" really is to be understood or defined in terms of the philosophy of naturalism, THEN human beings are definitially "supernatural" -- for we are not strictly bound by "nature," we are not strictly subject to the mechanistic web of cause-and-effect which we see in "nature." We are above or beyond the mechanism.


Anonymous: "Of course, I could be stupid, or unenlightened, or just don’t “get” what he’s really saying and, thus, am obviously wrong in my assessment. ..."

No. You're probably "wicked" ... but he'd probably rather not consider that. ;) [This is a sarcastic reference to his famous, or infamous, assertion that: "It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that)." -- Notice, even that assertion contains a *moral* assertion, and *assumes* that the person so excoriated is an agent.]

Hans said...

Dawkins is an idiot if he thinks it is possible to cure an evil person through natural means.

Only God can change the heart of a person so that he no longer chooses evil.

Hans said...

If Dawkins was right, then assigning moral responsibility to a toddler for hitting another toddler would be as foolish as beating Fawlty's car.

But Dawkins is wrong.

We are born with original sin.

We have all fallen short of the mark.

We are sinners, in need of a saviour.

Dawkins can claim that age , illness, environment or heredity take away our moral responsibility.

But he is not the God of Justice that we worship , who holds us all morally responsible for our actions.

Rob Grano said...

In one respect Dawkins is being inconsistent (expecting 'moral' behavior where it's inherently impossible), but in another way he's right: No God, no morality. Nietzsche got it, Dostoevsky got it, Richard Weaver got it, etc. It's nice to see a modern atheist who gets it.

Solon said...

>>We are born with original sin.
>>We are sinners, in need of a saviour.

Speak for yourself.

>>but in another way he's right: No God, no morality. Nietzsche got it...

N's point was far more logical: that you are imprinting a doer upon the deed, and that our grammar has this metaphysical bias. At base there is no "cause" to the action per se; it is all part of a process and drawing a line or circle here or there is perhaps useful, but not the truth. To condemn part you must condemn the whole. -And vice versa.

Dawkins, who so often argues badly, seems to think something much more superficial: there is a clear line of causality (like marbles bumping into each other) and the true cause can be found somewhere behind the doer and "corrected." Yet again the old optimistic Socratic dream of correcting existence by way of a True world accessible to reason - which parallels the Christian dream of correcting existence by way of a True world accessible to the believer. Both are nihilistic condemnations of our world in favor of another, "True" world.

(And of course, Christians play the same game as Dawkins when taking the line of "the devil made me do it," no? Must get the eeevil out and free the doer again.)

Ilion, have you ever NOT posted 3 long useless posts in a row? Jeez, get a blog and link to it.

Rob Grano said...

Solon, yes, I see that difference between Nietzsche and Dawkins. But in the end, it comes down to the same thing: no transcendent order, therefore no ultimate morality.

Clayton said...

no transcendent order, therefore no ultimate morality.
Euthyphro! (For the eleventy billionth time.)

Ilíon said...

False dilemma! (For the eleventy billionth time) -- combined with the First Sin (trying to make oneself into God).

Anonymous said...

Divine simplicity neutralises the Euthyphro.

Ilíon said...

I would say that the Euthyphro neutralizes itself, quite apart from any specifically Judeo-Christian beliefs about God.

Hans said...

Ilion is right to say that Dawkins is trying to make himself god.

Only God can decide who is morally responsible for which sins.

Jesus will judge us all.

We have been told not to judge.

Ilíon said...

Hans,
I'm not yet ready to join others in suspecting that you're an atheist troll. But I will admit to understanding *why* some might suspect that.

For instance: "We have been told not to judge" -- that, and specifically in context, reflects a very common and popular-amongst-atheists misunderstanding. Of course, that misunderstanding is also common and popular amongst non-atheists.

Hans said...

If Ilion claims he is ursurping Jesus by claiming Ilion will judge the world, and not Jesus....

Hans said...

And Ilion claims everybody who disagrees with him must be a non-Christian.

Not a very Christian attitude on his part.

Ilíon said...

There was the tie-breaker.

mattghg said...

Ilíon,

You see what I mean?

Hans,

Sind Sie* Deutscher? Ich stelle Ihnen diese Frage, weil „Hans“ als Vornahme typisch deutsch ist (wie Sie natürlich wissen), also ich dachte, wenn Sie wirklich „Hans“ hießen, würden Sie Deutsch sprechen. Oder? Wenn Sie aber „Steven“ heißen, und stammen aus Großbritannien, dann werden Sie wahrscheinlich kein Wort aus diesem Kommentar verstehen.

Wie gesagt, ich ahne, dass Sie Steven Carr sind. Wenn ich mich irre, dann sollten Sie mir das sagen, und ich werde mich entschuldigen.

* Wie könnten uns duzen, wenn Sie wollen.

Hans said...

Ich moechte gar nicht mit Ihnen duzen.

Denken Sie daran, dass Hans auch ein typischer Name aus den Niederlaenden ist, und viele von uns drei Sprache sprechen.

Hans said...

'wenn Sie wirklich „Hans“ hießen,'

HIESSEN? Habe ich meinen Namen in der Vergangenheit veraendert?

Ich zweifle daran, ob Jesus dieses Benehmen von Matt nachahmen wuerde.

mattghg said...

Also, wie versprochen, jetzt entschuldige ich mich dafür, dass ich Ihnen solch einen Vorwurf gemacht habe. Aber ich muß wissen, sind Sie wirklich Christ, oder geben Sie nur vor, Christ zu sein? Denn wenn Sie wirklich Christ sind, muß ich Ihnen sagen, dass ein paar ihrer Argumente ein bisschen... seltsam... sind.

Übrigens denke ich momentan, dass Ihre Fußballmannschaft die Europameisterschaft gewinnen wird :)

Ilíon said...

MattGhg: "Ilíon,

You see what I mean?
"

Matt,
I saw what you meant when you first asked "Hans" if he's Steven Carr. It's just that:
1) Hans did not come across to me as an atheist
2) I think sock-puppet hunting is a *huge* waste of time and attention.

Want to know something amusing? I've been accused ... for both directions ... of being an atheist sock-puppet. I was even accused of being a sock-puppet of a certain leftist atheist "Darwinist" who has (or had, if he's finally gotten over it within the past few months) a strange obsession with me.


But, as for "Hans" being an atheist sock-puppet: even aside from thinking this sort of speculation is a waste, I still don't see it quite that way.

However, I do agree that there is something about him that just doesn't fit, or isn't quite on the up-and-up.

Consider: he makes the accusation of me that "Ilion claims everybody who disagrees with him must be a non-Christian" -- something anyone knows I do not do -- and even as he himself is frequently doing it (in English, and now in German).

Who else might that remind you of?


By the way, what does "duzen" mean?

mattghg said...

You're right: this has been a waste of time. My apologies to everyone for any part I've played in derailing any threads you were enjoying.

"duzen" means to address as "du", i.e. informally. Hans prefers that we stay on formal terms (which is fine - I was only trying to be friendly).

Like you, I still think something is up, but am going to invest my energy in something other than wondering about what that is.

Ilíon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ilíon said...

Matt: "Like you, I still think something is up, but am going to invest my energy in something other than wondering about what that is."

Allow me to suggest one small further expense of time -- it may be of little or even no use, or it may at least be interesting: Run both your German postings and Hans' through Babel Fish.

Do you notice something in comparing the results?

Now, of course, the German you've both posted is too little to do more than raise a faint suspicion, which means this is likely pointless, even if interesting.

Ilíon said...

Touching (again) on "something not being on the up-and-up" with respect to Hans:

In this post I bluntly (and with explanation) criticized something Hans had said.

No one likes to be criticized, I'm sure we all understand this. But one can wrap only so much velvet around a criticism and have it still be an honest criticism, honestly offered. The person offering a criticism has moral obligations ... but so does the person receiving it (beginning with not immediately disregarding it as a personal attack).

This post is Hans' response. What I want you to notice about Hans' response is that he does not respond/talk *to* me, but rather *at* me.

After that -- and because talking at people is something I generally associate with the constellation of mindsets of which atheism (*) is a natural part -- I began to pay a bit more attention to Hans' posts in general. And, as Matt (essentially) says somewhere or other recently, the general run of Hans' posts, when one tries to mentally join them into a single argument is ... odd.

Now, Hans has said in this thread that he's Dutch. Perhaps it's that Hans, being a non-native speaker of English doesn't even realize that in English he frequently speaks *at* others, rather than *to* them. Perhaps he doesn't understand that in English this comes across as an intentional and very serious insult.

And, for that matter, I don't doubt that most (natively English speaking) readers of what I've just said don't quite grasp, on the intellectual level, what they've just read -- even as they would take offence (but be unable to articulate quite why) at being shoken *at*.



A few days ago, after Hans' posts in this thread in which we talked *at* me, I had considered returning the favor to try to get across part of the point of this post. But, while I'm quite capable of speaking *at* someone -- and, since I would understand what I were doing, I could do it "well" -- I'd much rather not talk *at* another, even to get a point across. So, anyway, the small exchange between Matt and me seems to furnish a background to say this, without speaking *at* Hans.


(*) Let what I wrote not be "misunderstood:" people who claim Christ are as capable of any "undesirable" behavior as atheists.

Anonymous said...

The original blog entry by Reppert is not reporting Dawkins accurately. Dawkins is only criticizing the sort of responsibility which underlies the idea of punishment for punishment's sake, as opposed to punishment because of the positive effects it may have. This still requires some sense of responsibility, but it is somewhat attenuated from the full blown one that justifies punishment purely for the sake of punishment.

Ilíon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ilíon said...

Anonymous: "[ignorant ... or dishonest ... "defense" of Dawkins]"

How totally cool is this?


Sadly, this particular Anonymouse is wrong in his "defense" of Dawkins. But, just why is that?

Is he wrong because he just doesn't have the mental wattage to *ever* understand the points raised in Mr Reppert's blog and in the original article by Mr Dawkins? While we ought to acknowledge this as a possibility, I am certain we can safely discount it as a live possibility: there are very few people in this world who really are so lacking in the ability to reason ... and those few would tend not to be able to write coherent and gramatically correct sentences.


That narrows things down to two other general options for understanding the Anonymouse's error:

1) The Anonymouse is lacking or does not understand some certain information which would enable him to see that his accusation against Mr Reppert is misplaced (and that his "defense" of Mr Dawkins fails).

2) The Anonymouse *refuses* to understand some certain information which would enable him to see that his accusation against Mr Reppert is misplaced (and that his "defense" of Mr Dawkins fails).


Now, of course, from the Anonymouse's single post I don't really have enough information to make an informed decision as to which of the two above options is correct. Nevertheless, I'm fairly confident that I can guess correctly. And that you, Gentle Reader, can too.

Dmitry Chernikov said...

> In fact, it isn't your fault if you have Dawkins burned at the stake.

Dawkins might agree with that but argue that there are advantages to you of treating him as a malfunctioning robot. It's more enlightened, will give you more happiness, etc. to try to fix Dawkins rather than burn him.

Ilíon said...

V.Reppert: "In fact, it isn't your fault if you have Dawkins burned at the stake."

D.Chernikov: "Dawkins might agree with that but argue that there are advantages to you of treating him as a malfunctioning robot. It's more enlightened, will give you more happiness, etc. to try to fix Dawkins rather than burn him."

'Enlightenment' is meaningless to robots, for only agents/subjects can attain enlightenment -- this is one of the absurdities of Dawkins' piece: he simultaneously asserts that we *are* robots and that we *can* attain enlightenment.

While I think we can all agree that it would doubtless give Mr Dawkins more happiness (as though a robot could be happy!) to be fixed than to be burned -- at any rate, initially; after 10 years of being fixed he might well decide it had been better to be burned -- it doesn't seem at all clear to me that we (or Dawkins) can know that it would give Mr Reppert more happiness to fix Dawkins than to burn him.


It seems to me that Mr Dawkins' "argument" must always resolve to: "But I don't *want/desire* to be burned!" (though, of course, robots cannot actually have desires). And, since (in this scenario) he has the upper hand, Mr Reppert can always decisively "counter-argue" with: "But I *do* want/desire to burn you!"

Carlo said...

Good Job! :)

Matthew said...

Don't you see? It makes no sense to tell Dawkins that it makes no sense to condemn religion. Dawkins really is like a car sometimes.

dvd said...

So when Dawkins attacks the morality of the bible, does that mean he is "beating Basil's car?"

I think so!

WoW, Dawkins, the man who can't condemn Hitler, but calls Stalin a very bad man, and who condemns the morality in the Bible, but doesn't believe in real free will!

Priceless. (and I ain't talking about Robert Price)

Ilíon said...

What you're noticing is that Mr Dawkins is a walking testiment to the absurdities that atheism must always generate.

But, the problem/issue isn't Mr Dawkins, amusing though it is to laugh at the amusing shapes into which he must contort himself. The issue is the absurd/irrational and illogical nature (*) of God-denial.

(*) That is, the issue is the necessary falsity of atheism, for that which is illogical is necessarily false. A thing can be logical and false, but nothing can be illogical and true.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Timmo: they have Duane Gish and Philip Johnson, we have Richard Dawkins (though if Dawkins is an example of the lunatic fringe of what I believe, then I'm proud to be an atheist).

Also, those acting as if all configurations of molecules are metaphysically and morally equivalent are being silly and need philosophical counseling.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Robot scientists, literally.

Ilíon said...

Others are noticing that Mr Dawkins is intellectually dishonest -- Mariano (Atheism Is Dead): The Latest Dawkins Spanking

Anonymous said...

Of course, didn't Dawkins also say that, because our genes are selfish, we have to use our brains to rise up and fight against them? Or something like that.

He did say something close to this, but it hardly requires much interpretation to make sense of it, even from a deterministic perspective. Even if you believe we are mere machines, algorithmically determining our next action based on an interaction between our inherited mental machinery and the imperfect memories of our combined perceptions and experiences, his ,utterance becomes one more such experience, and hence could effect the decision making process of anyone who reads it. Not everyone who reads it, of course.

The point is, thoughts like "I can do anything I set my mind to", or "I'm no good", or "the meritocracy is broken", or "everyone gets exactly what they deserve", can have an effect on decision making and the future life arc of someone whether you take a deterministic view or not.

In a deterministic view they form part of the "knowledge" or "data" that is consulted in making decisions. They effect the Bayesian Belief net and it's assigned probabilities, if you will.

In the framework of free will they presumably are part of the "nuclear reactor" of free will, the well spring of the new and independent causal chains that get initiated by the "will". Or at least they effect how this generator of new causal chains acts.