Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Secular enlightenment

RICHARD DAWKINS
Evolutionary Biologist, Charles Simonyi Professor For The Understanding Of Science, Oxford University; Author, The Ancestor's Tale


Let’s all stop beating Basil's car

Ask people why they support the death penalty or prolonged incarceration for serious crimes, and the reasons they give will usually involve retribution. There may be passing mention of deterrence or rehabilitation, but the surrounding rhetoric gives the game away. People want to kill a criminal as payback for the horrible things he did. Or they want to give "satisfaction' to the victims of the crime or their relatives. An especially warped and disgusting application of the flawed concept of retribution is Christian crucifixion as "atonement' for "sin'.

Retribution as a moral principle is incompatible with a scientific view of human behaviour. As scientists, we believe that human brains, though they may not work in the same way as man-made computers, are as surely governed by the laws of physics. When a computer malfunctions, we do not punish it. We track down the problem and fix it, usually by replacing a damaged component, either in hardware or software.

Basil Fawlty, British television's hotelier from hell created by the immortal John Cleese, was at the end of his tether when his car broke down and wouldn't start. He gave it fair warning, counted to three, gave it one more chance, and then acted. "Right! I warned you. You've had this coming to you!" He got out of the car, seized a tree branch and set about thrashing the car within an inch of its life. Of course we laugh at his irrationality. Instead of beating the car, we would investigate the problem. Is the carburettor flooded? Are the sparking plugs or distributor points damp? Has it simply run out of gas? Why do we not react in the same way to a defective man: a murderer, say, or a rapist? Why don't we laugh at a judge who punishes a criminal, just as heartily as we laugh at Basil Fawlty? Or at King Xerxes who, in 480 BC, sentenced the rough sea to 300 lashes for wrecking his bridge of ships? Isn't the murderer or the rapist just a machine with a defective component? Or a defective upbringing? Defective education? Defective genes?

Concepts like blame and responsibility are bandied about freely where human wrongdoers are concerned. When a child robs an old lady, should we blame the child himself or his parents? Or his school? Negligent social workers? In a court of law, feeble-mindedness is an accepted defence, as is insanity. Diminished responsibility is argued by the defence lawyer, who may also try to absolve his client of blame by pointing to his unhappy childhood, abuse by his father, or even unpropitious genes (not, so far as I am aware, unpropitious planetary conjunctions, though it wouldn’t surprise me).

But doesn’t a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make nonsense of the very idea of responsibility, whether diminished or not? Any crime, however heinous, is in principle to be blamed on antecedent conditions acting through the accused's physiology, heredity and environment. Don’t judicial hearings to decide questions of blame or diminished responsibility make as little sense for a faulty man as for a Fawlty car?

Why is it that we humans find it almost impossible to accept such conclusions? Why do we vent such visceral hatred on child murderers, or on thuggish vandals, when we should simply regard them as faulty units that need fixing or replacing? Presumably because mental constructs like blame and responsibility, indeed evil and good, are built into our brains by millennia of Darwinian evolution. Assigning blame and responsibility is an aspect of the useful fiction of intentional agents that we construct in our brains as a means of short-cutting a truer analysis of what is going on in the world in which we have to live. My dangerous idea is that we shall eventually grow out of all this and even learn to laugh at it, just as we laugh at Basil Fawlty when he beats his car. But I fear it is unlikely that I shall ever reach that level of enlightenment.

http://www.edge.org/q2006/q06_9.html#dawkins

9 comments:

  1. I think the following quote, taken from Calvin's commentary on Romans 13, shows him to have a different view on this matter than you. I think Calvin's view scriptural and therefore align myself with him.

    "For they bear not the sword in vain, etc. It is another part of the office of magistrates, that they ought forcibly to repress the waywardness of evil men, who do not willingly suffer themselves to be governed by laws, and to inflict such punishment on their offenses as God’s judgment requires; for he expressly declares, that they are armed with the sword, not for an empty show, but that they may smite evil-doers.
    And then he says, An avenger, to execute wrath, etc. This is the same as if it had been said, that he is an executioner of God’s wrath; and this he shows himself to be by having the sword, which the Lord has delivered into his hand. This is a remarkable passage for the purpose of proving the
    right of the sword; for if the Lord, by arming the magistrate, has also committed to him the use of the sword, whenever he visits the guilty with death, by executing God’s vengeance, he obeys his commands. Contend
    then do they with God who think it unlawful to shed the blood of wicked men."

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  2. Thanks for posting this, Steve. Dawkins is one of God's gifts to Christian apologists.

    Strangely enough, I had a dream last night (probably seeded by a TV advert for this) in which I met Dawkins at a university conference. Weird. Needless to say, he wasn't impressed by my doubts about Darwinism. (I can't remember whether he concluded that I was ignorant, stupid, insane, or wicked.)

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  3. Always a bit disconcerting whenever, as happens regularly, some prominent real-life Enlightenee starts acting and speaking like one of the bad guys out of That Hideous Strength, isn't it?

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  4. He states, "we should simply regard them as faulty units that need fixing or replacing."
    What I would like to know is how he can regard this reasoning as being more than a "mental construct" that was "built into his brain by millennia of Darwinian evolution." It seems to me that the notion of attributing behavior to environmental and mechanistic workings alone is just a "useful fiction" that he constructed in his brain as a means of short-cutting a truer analysis of what is going on in the world in which he has to live.

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  5. "Why do we vent such visceral hatred on child murderers, or on thuggish vandals, when we should simply regard them as faulty units that need fixing or replacing?"

    On what scientific basis can Dawkins claim that these are faulty units needing fixing? Where is the basis for his very moral view that such behavior is in fact "faulty".

    In the end the question is really which is more silly, Basil Fawlty beating his car, or Dawkins treating a child murder like a car and trying to change his oil? QUE!?

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  6. The real eye-opener is the final paragraph, especially these two sentences:

    Presumably because mental constructs like blame and responsibility, indeed evil and good, are built into our brains by millennia of Darwinian evolution. Assigning blame and responsibility is an aspect of the useful fiction of intentional agents that we construct in our brains as a means of short-cutting a truer analysis of what is going on in the world in which we have to live.

    Dawkins says that these various 'mental constructs' are both 'built into our brains by millennia of Darwinian evolution' and a useful fiction 'that we construct in our brains'. Well, which is it? If we inherited it from evolution, then we don't construct it ourselves. And if we construct it ourselves, then there is no need for evolution to bequeath it to us.

    But let's pass over this inconsistency in his exposition, and ask an even more pointed question: why should anyone believe the two sentences cited above? Has Dawkins provided any empirical evidence for his specific conclusions here? No, not in any way.

    If indeed evolution by natural selection is the 'universal acid' that Daniel Dennett proclaims it to be (Darwin's 'dangerous idea'), then we can't stop with 'blame and responsibility' and 'evil and good' being the sole 'useful fictions' which inhabit our brains. On the hypothesis in question, *every* mental item in our brains is there because it's useful for our survival, not because it's likely to be true. And this applies, reasonably enough, to Dawkins's espousal of evolution itself. If being 'built into our brains by millennia of Darwinian evolution' is sufficient reason to cast aside the veracity of our intuitions and inferences about blame and responsibility, then it's sufficient reason to cast aside just about all of our intuitions and inferences *simpliciter*. Dawkins's line of reasoning, then, touted as a defeater for Christian morals, is in fact self-defeating. It is what Plantinga calls a 'defeater-defeater,' except that in this case it's Dawkins who gets the short end of the stick.

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  7. By Dawkin's own arguments, isn't it "silly" for his to get mad at Creationists for not believing in Darwinism? Or to get angry at the Creationists who allegedly doctored the film of his 11 second silence to a simple question about Darwinism's ability to create new information?
    I believe Lewis's comment about Materialists still applies. All their disbelief in the non-eistence of right and wrong goes out the window when they think THEY are the victim of wrongdoing.

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  8. "nonexistence"
    (Where's my spell checker?)

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