Since I read Atheism and Theism [1], J.J.C. Smart has become something of a philosophical hero for me. I really admire both his philosophical acumen and his attitude towards philosophy and other philosophers in general. If only all atheists exhibited his combination of sharp logic and respect for those that disagree with him (and all theists were a bit more like J.J. Haldane) then the philosophy of religion would be a lot more respectable.

I mentioned Smart only because I wanted to refer to his claim that there are few knockdown arguments in philosophy [2], which I think is important. However, I note that I have inadvertently produced another basis for my segue into a discussion of a talk by Richard Dawkins.

In July 2005, Richard Dawkins gave a talk at TED entitled “Queerer than we can suppose: the strangeness of science” [3]. Much of the talk is taken up by Dawkins’ theory that our ideas about what really exists, or what is normal, are the result of our evolution in what he calls Middle World. The “middle” refers to our position in the scale of things between the very small, the level of particle physics and quantum theory, and the very large, the level of astronomy and general relativity.

Thus, for example, we perceive rocks to be hard and impenetrable because at our level, the level of humans, rocks are indeed impenetrable. I cannot walk through, or pass my hand through, solid rock. However, at the quantum level, both rocks and humans are of course mostly empty space. A neutrino-sized being that had evolved a brain in its neutrino-sized world would perceive rocks to be mostly space. Similarly, we have evolved to possess an intuitive understanding of motion at the sort of middling speeds that things, such as animals, in our middling world of everyday experience tend to exhibit. If we had evolved to move through the cosmos at speeds nearing the speed of light, we would have a better intuitive of understanding of Einstein’s theories of relativity.

Dawkins refers to Feynman’s description of quantum theory:

Richard Feynman compared the accuracy of quantum theory’s experimental predictions to specifying the width of North America to within one hair’s breadth of accuracy. This means that quantum theory has got to be in some sense true. Yet the assumptions that quantum theory needs to make in order to deliver those predictions are so mysterious that even Feynman himself was moved to remark, “If you think you understand quantum theory, you don’t understand quantum theory.” [4]

The difficulty that we have understanding the way the world works at very small and very large scales is, according to Dawkins, due to our having evolved in a world of medium-scale entities.

Dawkins goes further than this, to speculate about the way the world might appear to other species:

“Really”, for an animal, is whatever its brain needs it to be in order to assist its survival. And because different species live in different worlds, there will be a discomforting variety of “really”s. What we see of the real world is not the unvarnished world but a model of the world, regulated and adjusted by sense-data, but constructed so it’s useful for dealing with the real world.

The nature of the model depends on the kind of animal we are. A flying animal needs a different kind of model from a walking, climbing or swimming animal. A monkey’s brain must have software capable of simulating a three-dimensional world of branches and trunks; a mole’s software for constructing models of its world will be customised for underground use; a water strider’s brain doesn’t need 3D software at all since it lives on the surface of the pond in an Edwin Abbott flatland.

I’ve speculated that bats may see colour with their ears. The world model that a bat needs in order to navigate through three dimensions catching insects must be pretty similar to the model that any bird, a day-flying bird like a swallow, needs to perform the same kind of tasks. The fact that the bat uses echoes in pitch darkness to input the current variables to its model while the swallow uses light is incidental. Bats, I’ve even suggested, use perceived hues such as red and blue as labels, internal labels, for some useful aspect of echoes — perhaps the acoustic texture of surfaces: furry or smooth and so on — in the same way as swallows, or indeed we, use those perceived hues, redness and blueness etc., to label long and short wavelengths of light. There’s nothing inherent about red that makes it long wavelength. [5]

It is interesting that Dawkins draws such a strong distinction between the way the world objectively is and the way it subjectively appears to us, even going so far as to claim that another species may see “red” in quite different circumstances from those that would cause a human to see red. His description of “redness” and “blueness” could be a textbook description of qualia. He certainly appears to be saying that there is something that it is like to be a bat. This seems to contradict his own self-description as an austere mechanist:

Most scientists today subscribe to a mechanistic view of the mind. We’re the way we are because our brains are wired up as they are and our hormones are the way they are. We’d be different, our characters would be different, if our neuro-anatomy and our physiological chemistry were different.

But we scientists are inconsistent. If we were consistent, our response to a misbehaving person like a child murderer should be something like, “This unit has a faulty component, it needs repairing.” That’s not what we say. What we say, and I include the most austerely mechanistic among us, which is probably me, what we say is, “Vile monster! Prison is too good for you!” Or worse we seek revenge, in all probability thereby triggering the next phase in an escalating cycle of counter-revenge, which we see of course all over the world today.

In short, when we’re thinking like academics, we regard people as elaborate and complicated machines like computers or cars. But when we revert to being human, we behave more like Basil Fawlty, who you remember thrashed his car to teach it a lesson when it wouldn’t start on Gourmet Night.

The reason we personify things like cars and computers is that just as monkeys live in an arboreal world and moles live in an underground world and water striders live in a surface-tension dominated flatland, we live in a social world. We swim through a sea of people, a social version of Middle World. We are evolved to second-guess the behaviour of others by becoming brilliant, intuitive psychologists.

Treating people as machines may be scientifically and philosophically accurate but it’s a cumbersome waste of time if you want to guess what this person is going to do next. The economically useful way to model a person is to treat him as a purposeful, goal-seeking agent with pleasures and pains, desires and intentions, guilt, blame-worthiness.

Personification and the imputing of intentional purpose is such a brilliantly successful way to model humans, it’s hardly surprising the same modelling software often seizes control when we’re trying to think about entities for which it’s not appropriate, like Basil Fawlty with his car or like millions of deluded people with the universe as a whole. [6]

There is some confusion here. Is it or is it not accurate to describe people as purposeful? Dawkins appears to be saying that it is never accurate to describe anything as purposeful but that it is sometimes useful to pretend that certain things, such as other people, are purposeful. He does not say that treating other humans as purposeful is deluded, he says it is useful. But in that case the millions of people who believe the universe is purposeful cannot be deluded either: it is merely the case that their belief is not as useful as it is when applied to humans.

Dawkins cannot have it both ways. Either humans genuinely are purposeful, in which case “treating people as machines” is neither scientifically nor philosophically accurate, or people who impute purpose to the universe are not deluded. Dawkins seems to switch between correspondence and pragmatist truth theories as it suits him, which makes his philosophical position rather incoherent.

But let us ignore his snide comment about the deluded masses. There is still a problem with the claim that although people are really just machines, it is more useful for us to pretend that they are not.

Even those who, like Dawkins, claim that the world is purposeless cannot help both experiencing the sensation of having purposes themselves and treating others as if they genuinely are “purposeful, goal-seeking agent[s] with pleasures and pains, desires and intentions, guilt, blame-worthiness.” Indeed, the latter segment of Dawkins’ talk is an attempt to explain why it is that we cannot help believing that humans are purposeful.

But if we cannot help believing it, we should surely demand some damn good evidence that it isn’t real. Dawkins does not present any such evidence: all he does is attempt to explain how it could be the case that we believe it even if it isn’t real. He does not present any rational reason for believing that it isn’t real.

What could such a reason be? Elsewhere, particularly when arguing about the existence of God, Dawkins makes reference to the idea that a simple or parsimonious explanation is better than one that introduces unnecessary complexity or leaves yet more to be explained [7]. So it may be that he would like to remove purpose from our understanding of the world because he believes that everything can be adequately explained without it.

However, there are two flaws in this approach. The first is that it is not at all clear that everything can be adequately explained without it. We experience the sensation of having purpose and we believe we perceive purpose in the actions of others. The obvious explanation is that our perceptions are correct: we really do have purpose and so do other people. Dawkins’ alternative is that purpose is illusory, an artifact of the way that our brains predict the actually mechanistic behaviour of others. But denial is not explanation. Dawkins has not demonstrated that purpose is illusory, he has just stipulated that it is so and then conjectured some way in which such a stipulation might accord with our apparently contradictory experience.

Furthermore, this conjecture does not even account for all the evidence. Perhaps it could explain why we treat other people as “goal-seeking agent[s] with pleasures and pains, desires and intention” but it does not explain why it is that we ourselves feel pain and desire. Regardless of its origin, artifact of simulation or otherwise, I have first-hand experience of pain, desire, intention and so forth. Dawkins offers no explanation for this.

Second, earlier in his talk he seemed to postulate the existence of qualia, which throws doubt on any claim he might make that his explanation is more parsimonious than the obvious one. It is hard to make sense of this, since the existence of qualia would presumably refute his mechanistic philosophy, the support of which appears to be the sole motivation for his denial that purpose is real. Moreover, even if there is some way in which Dawkins’ position could be stated coherently, it is still not clear that his explanation in terms of simulations of “a social Middle World” is simpler than just accepting the reality of purpose.

Finally, perhaps there is a pragmatic reason for claiming that purpose is illusory. We have already seen that Dawkins vascillates between pragmatism and a concern for objective truth: perhaps in this case he is being pragmatic. However, Dawkins himself admits that humans cannot help thinking in terms of purpose, in which case it would be bizarre to claim that it is more pragmatic to think in some other way. Indeed, one might reasonably claim in such circumstances that the most pragmatic option would be to accept the reality of purpose, even if other considerations cause one to doubt its reality.

On the basis of this talk, there does not seem to be any rational reason for rejecting the common sense view that humans are purposeful, that they have intentions and desires, experience pleasures and pains and so on.

Dawkins appears to have chosen a theory, a philosophy of mind known as eliminative materialism, and then tried to explain how our contradictory experiences might be shoehorned into this theory. In both science and philosophy, it is generally considered bad form to pick a conclusion then attempt to explain away any data that contradicts it. In general, one should attempt to begin with the data and then seek the theory that best explains it. One can only assume that Dawkins has an ideological motivation to do otherwise.

[1] Atheism and Theism, J.J.C. Smart and J.J. Haldane, Wiley-Blackwell, 2003.

[2] ‘Why Philosophers Disagree’, J.J.C. Smart, in Reconstructing Philosophy: New Essays in Metaphilosophy, J. Couture and K. Nielsen (editors), University of Calgary Press, 1993, pp. 67-82.

[3] The talk can be viewed on YouTube:

[4] Ibid. 00:54 – 01:28

[5] Ibid. 11:29 – 13:28

[6] Ibid. 19:03 – 21:26

[7] Dawkins frequently complains that a creator God would have to be at least as complex as that which He created, thus any attempt to explain the universe as God’s creation is useless because we are left with the equally or more difficult task of explaining God. I deduce from this that Dawkins doesn’t really understand what theologians mean when they say that God creates and sustains the world. Until recently I did not understand what they meant either but, having read a couple of books, I now have a much better idea. It is clear to me that Dawkins has not bothered to do even a cursory amount of research into his opponents’ theses, which is remarkable given the scorn he pours on those who dare to question scientific theories without first studying science. I really enjoy his books on biology, which makes his hypocrisy in philosophical matters deeply saddening. See Dawkins versus Swinburne at the Maverick Philosopher for a very restrained response to one of Dawkins’ exercises in double standards.

Published in: on July 17, 2009 at 12:21 am  Leave a Comment  

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