[Bear with me on this one, OK?] I’ve recently started reading Butterflies and Wheels, prompted in part by the enthusiastic review that they gave to Frederick Crews’ wonderful Follies of the Wise. Today they linked to an interview by Nigel Warburton with Simon Blackburn, professor of philosophy at Cambridge. I blogged about his latest book, Truth, a year and a half ago; in the new interview, Blackburn displays the elegant style that I applauded then. For example, here he is on everybody’s favourite whipping-boy: relativism.
Nigel: Has relativism had its day as an influential philosophical position?
Simon: No – and I don’t think it should ever die. The danger is that it gets replaced by some kind of complacent dogmatism, which is at least equally unhealthy. The Greek sceptics thought that confronting a plurality of perspectives is the beginning of wisdom, and I think they were right. It is certainly the beginning of historiography and anthropology, and if we think, for instance, of the Copernican revolution, of self-conscious science. The trick is to benefit from an imaginative awareness of diversity, without falling into a kind of “anything goes” wishy-washy nihilism or scepticism. My book tries to steer a course to help us to do that, but the going is fairly rough at times!
Enjoying Blackburn’s style, I clicked through to his web site (quite Hofstadter-like in its self reference), and after a little browsing I came across his review of Richard Dawkins’ A Devilâ€™s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love. It was wonderful: vintage Blackburn, presenting an appreciative yet balanced view of Dawkins. First, appreciation of Dawkins on evolution:
[O]ne essay in particular, â€˜Darwin Triumphantâ€™ is a marvelous statement of the methodology and status of current evolutionary theory. Indeed, I should judge it the best such introduction there is, and it ought to be the first port of call for know-nothings and saloon-bar skeptics about the nature and power of Darwinian theory. In it Dawkins shows his uncanny ability to combine what might seem light and introductory material with actual heavyweight contributions to theory. Here he moves seamlessly from introducing â€˜core Darwinismâ€™ to answering a question left open by Francis Crick. The clarity of his writing is astonishing. This is his description of core Darwinism: â€˜the minimal theory that evolution is guided in adaptively nonrandom directions by the nonrandom survival of small random hereditary changesâ€™. Every word counts; none could be omitted and for the purposes of definition no more are needed. It is immediately obvious that core Dawinism is compatible with random genetic drift (where no adaptive advantage accrues because of a change) or with external catastrophic interference, as in the destruction of the dinosaurs, yet much ink has been spilled on such misunderstandings. Here is one part of his answer to Crick, talking of the way in which Lamarkian inheritance, the inheritance of acquired characteristics, could not be as efficient as natural selection: â€˜If acquired characteristics were indiscriminately inherited, organisms would be walking museums of ancestral decrepitude, pock-marked from ancestral plagues, limping relics of ancestral misfortuneâ€™. Almost any page will show similar gems.
Then on religion. According to Dawkins,
Religion is superstition, like astrology, alternative medicine, and the rest. He likes an example of Bertrand Russellâ€™s in which we consider the hypothesis that there is a china teapot orbiting the sun. Someone might believe that, but there are many reasons for supposing it false and none at all for supposing it true. Dawkins is right that it would be simply silly to say, for instance, to set store by the statement that the belief cannot be disproved. It may depend on your standards of proof, but in any event it is as unlikely as can be, and as unlikely as any of the infinite number of equally outlandish possible beliefs that we all ignore all the time.
It might seem not to matter too much if someone convinces himself that there is such a teapot. But Dawkins might side, as I would, with the Victorian mathematician and writer W. K. Clifford, whose famous essay â€˜The Ethics of Beliefâ€™ excoriated our â€˜rightâ€™ to believe pretty much what we like:
In like manner, if I let myself believe anything on insufficient evidence, there may be no great harm done by the mere belief; it may be true after all, or I may never have occasion to exhibit it in outward acts. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself credulous. The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them; for then it must sink back into savagery.
But the real and present danger lies not so much here, but in what the belief in the teapot waits to do. To become anything worth calling a religious belief, it needs to connect with our form of life, our way of being in the world. Perhaps out of its spout come instructions on how to behave, who to shun and who to persecute, how to eat and what to wear. Now the teapot becomes an object of veneration, and controversy. It needs interpreting. It needs a dedicated class of men (usually men) to give authoritative renderings of its texts and their meanings. In short, it has become a religious icon, and dangerous.
It has also stopped being a teapot, or merely a teapot (just as Duchampâ€™s urinal in an art gallery stops being merely a urinal: it is the audienceâ€™s take on it that matters, not the china). It will have started, for instance, to be a sin not to believe in this teapot, although normally it is no sin to doubt the existence of anything. The teapot may have become eternal, although natural teapots are not. In fact, at this point we can forget the teapot qua teapot, and look straight at the institutions it supports and the instructions and the way of life into which it gets woven. The factual component is not the bit that does the work. The teapot is merely a prop in the game, and an imaginary teapot serves just as well.
And finally a cautious note about Dawkins’ rhetorical skills:
There is of course, no reason at all why biology, like any other science, should not give terms a technical use. But our words control us at least as much as we control them, and I am not convinced that in places such as these Dawkins is in such perfect control as he is in general. Consider, for instance, the idea that we alone on earth can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators. What is the stripped-down, clean, biological truth intended by such language? Like all other living things we have genes. We also have psychologies; that is, in accordance with our genetic recipes and chemical environments, brains have formed, so that we think and desire and grow into the culture around us. But what is all this about rebelling and tyranny? A tyrant may tell me to do something, and rebelling I do something else. What is the analogy? Perhaps an occasion when I really want to do something, but control myself and do something else instead? But why describe this as a case of defying my genes? You might as well say that I am rebelling against my brain, whereas the fact is just that I am using it. It is only Cartesian dualists (religious people) who go in for opposing what nature would have me do against what I, the real me, does. And it is not even true that alone on earth we can exercise self-control. A dog may resist the temptation to take a biscuit, having been told not to do so.
It seems, then, that there are three levels at which to read Dawkins on such matters. There is strict science, empirical, verifiable and falsifiable. There is the value of the geneâ€™s eye view or the memeâ€™s eye view, giving us some surplus meaning: a guiding metaphor or way of thinking of things, earning its keep through prompting more strict science. And there is the third, rhetorical level, where the surplus meaning might mislead the lay person, but which is in Dawkinsâ€™s view easily detachable and disavowed. I have some doubts about this last claim, but the more important question for science is whether when the bad surplus meaning goes, everything goes.