Friday, April 20, 2007

Richard Dawkins, Basil Fawlty and Virginia Tech: We Shall Learn to Laugh At Our Mental Constructs of Evil and Good

The quote that follows is what Richard Dawkins had to say previously about the moral responsibility of criminals. He applied his ideas below to rapists, child murderers, thuggish vandals and "any crime, however heinous." So it follows that he would apply it Cho Seung-Hui.

Before reading the following quotation, please note the following so Dawkins is not misunderstood: he is not necessarily suggesting that we laugh at the events and crimes themselves- only our mental constructs of good and evil and our attitudes towards the criminals. He is also not suggesting that we not mourn and express sympathy with the families and friends of those who died.

I considered whether the timing of posting this quotation was appropriate. However, Dawkins makes specific reference to the "visceral" emotions we feel in the face of such evil crimes. Therefore, I thought it appropriate to post this while many of us are still in the midst of our visceral reactions to the tragedy at Virginia Tech. I had a visceral reaction to this passage when I first read it. I hope posting this now will encourage others to think through the consequences of ideas, and work to make this world a better place.

It may be unnecessary to say, but I will say it anyway: I thoroughly disagree with Dawkins worldview, and his evaluation of the reality of good and evil:

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.

There are so many things to say in response to this. I will limit my comments to these few.

Dawkins says we should not blame people, but "we should simply regard them as faulty units that need fixing or replacing." But given his contention that our mental constructs of good and evil are just useful fictions, what is the basis for identifying the units (persons) that are working from those that need "fixing or replacing"? Aren't they all working just as they "should" according to his "scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system," and his purely materialistic view of the origin of all life?

Finally, according to how Dawkins sees things, is not Cho Seung-Hui's evaluation of the moral significance of his own behavior closer to "that level of enlightenment" of which Dawkins speaks?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

When Militant Evolutionists Attack Appeaser Evolutionists and Theistic Evolutionists

Big hat tip to Larry Moran for this quote from Michael Ruse about militant evolutionists:

I start to suspect that these people ... in their way are tarred with the same features of which they accuse the creationists. There is a dogmatism, a refusal to listen to others, a contempt for nonbelievers, a feeling that they alone have the truth, that is the mark of so many of the cults and sects that have sprung on American soil since the nation's founding.

It is actually fairly similar to Ruse's comments in his book, which I wrote about here.

Moran in his post is very critical of the strategy, which he attributes to Ruse ("Appeaser"), of trying to hide or deflect attention from the fact that macroevolutionary theory has philosophical and religious implications.

My own position is that macroevolutionary theory has very obvious philosophical and religious implications, and those implications have been reflected in many ways in the intellectual history of Europe and the US since Darwin's day. However, I also think that the underlying science can be separated from the implications. I think the same about the theory of intelligent design: the underlying science can be separated from the philosophical implications. More here.

The problem is that there is a real risk that the philosophical and religious implications will not be kept separate when evolution is taught, and will get passed on to public school kids.

In any case, it is always amusing to watch the Darwinian Fundamentalists fly the flag boldly and sink their teeth into the more moderate macroevolutionary proponents. It also helps thoroughly undermine Judge Jones' untenable position in this regard.