Dawkins answers questions

This is good value. Richard Dawkins briefly responds to a range of questions.

The first question asks for his views of Sam Harris’s ideas on morality and science. He thinks Sam might be on to something and gives a clear explanation of why. (This is an ongoing discussion here – see Telling right from wrong?, Can science shape human values? and Waking up to morality.

Other questions relate to:

  • the problems presented by anti-evolutionary groups,
  • as yet unsupported scientific speculation which he finds interesting,
  • the future of fundamentalist religion and of science,
  • the most important scientific questions in biology ( he includes “why we have sex”), and
  • the best evidence for evolution.

The video finishes with a section where Richard reads some of his hate mail – good for a laugh.

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19 responses to “Dawkins answers questions

  1. my connection is less-than-fast at home, so only watched his answer to the Sam/morality question.

    I was pleased to hear Dawkins effectively the same thing I’ve been saying. That (from my memory of this vid) ‘once you have the moral goal of reducing suffering in place, then science can help…’

    Again, no moral goals/aims/assumptions/ideas (i.e. value >> suffering is bad; goal >> let’s reduce suffering), no meaning to talk of morality. I’m please that Dawkins seems aware of this.

    I couldn’t help but quip to myself that it’s not as though (i.e.) neuroscience (the example referred to) is going to suddenly revolutionise morality: ‘Gosh! now that we have fMRI, we really know that people really are suffering! Finally we can do something to help them!”

    Science/technology only confirms what we always knew before – people suffer, we don’t like it (except for childbirth when it is perhaps the most beautiful/meaningful kind of suffering we can know??), and want to see less of it. more facts makes all of this a more rich/diverse/varied/complex dilemma.


  2. Well, Dawkins has an advantage as he will have read Sam’s book well before most. Sam acknowledges his feedback in the book.

    As Nick says, Sam seems to be knocking the edges off his ideas which is leading to them getting a lot of support. Partly I think that he is a better writer than a speaker so that his book will advance people’s acceptance quite a lot.

    I don’t know if Dawkins has thought about this idea of having a moral goal in place. It comes across very mechanically as if one simply injects a moral outlook or ideology into a blank slate brain. When in reality our brain has evolved with certain characteristics which make some moral goals and outlooks largely inevitable. Empathy and social intuitions are largely wired in and world views/philosophies get built on to of these. (That’s one leg of the objective basis of our moral outlooks I refer to).

    Pascal Boyer’s latest book (TThe fracture of an illusion) is very illuminating about this. Taking the example of religion he asserts that religion is an illusion. There is no such thing as religion as a package deal – to think there is only accepts an ideological position which prevents proper investigation.

    He argues that what we call religion is really a collection of different things, cognitive processes, evolved intuitions, social customs, etc., which have their own origins and history. That the only real scientific way to investigate “religion” is to ignore the claim of a package and to investigate the different processes, their nature, evolution and history.

    I rush to add, of course, that I would apply that analysis to other ideologies as well. In fact I have often reflected on my own ideological/political development and recognised underling features like this. And I know other have done the same.

    By the way you reference to the use of fMR is a characiture. Nowhere does Sam make that claim. He does point out, however, that in the future this sort of technology may assist us to detect suffering (in fact I think there is recent progress with comatosed patients, and help resolve moral dilemmas. There is also an indication of rapid progress in the detection of lying which could have practical moral consequences.


  3. Ken,
    First I’m glad you’re speaking more along the lines of everyone having “religious” (or you’ll react less to the term ‘ideological’ perhaps) frameworks that develop.

    Yes, our ideas relate to our physical brains, and therefore to our evolutionary developmental history. No problem there.

    The question of morality though, is the question of ‘are we evolving/developing for the better or worse? This is the distinction between science & value-sets – between description & prescription.

    Here, I find your language again one-sided: “our brain has evolved with certain characteristics which make some moral goals and outlooks largely inevitable. Empathy and social intuitions are largely wired in and world views/philosophies get built on to of these.”.
    Both humane and inhumane goals/outlooks are ‘inevitable’ or ‘wired in’.


  4. No – wrong to claim everyone has religion because that implies supernatural beliefs. One’s beliefs could be quite devoid of the supernatural but could still be dogmatic and authoritarian. Despite the fact that they don’t get classified as a charity and therefore get given government handouts – which I think clearly differentiates them from religion.

    Of course our intuitions, which have arisen via biological and social evolution, can lead to inhuman as well as humane behaviour. I keep saying that. An obvious case is that the them vs us inutition can be a force for good as well as a force for bad.

    This is where rational consideration can play a role, recognise the sources of our behavior and establish ways of reinforcing the good. Surely this is the point also made by Phillip Zimbardo who did the prison experiment back in the 70s and has recently been promoting the heroes concept.


  5. First I’m glad you’re speaking more along the lines of everyone having “religious”…

    The scare-quotes cometh, the English language suffers.


  6. back to ‘rational consideration’? You say “rational consideration can play a role, recognise the sources of our behavior and establish ways of reinforcing the good.” ‘Good’ – according to whom? This is – and always has been – the point.


  7. Well, according to me – obviously. After all I have been presenting my own ideas here.

    But I am sure many if not most others will agree. After all the objective basis for our moral decisions and the similarity of our natures (for objective reasons) provides an excellent basis for agreement.


  8. the ‘objective’ facts of our nature, as we’ve seen, are an excellent basis for all kinds of behaviour. And what reason do we have to trust human agreement as a morality index? different cultures in different times/places have endorsed many different things…


  9. They have indeed, Dale. And some of the most inhumane actions have been justified by “divine” command ethics or other forms of dogmatic authority.

    It’s the same with our attempts to understand, explain and interact with our environment. Put success here has come from using objective evidence and verifying against reality. This had replace revealed knowledge or knowledge from authority. And we know it works, despite mistakes made along the road.

    It’s the same on ethical questions.

    I note that so far you attempt to cast cold water on my ideas from all directions. But you do nothing to I indicate an alternative.


  10. The point – once again – is that we don’t know what is ‘inhumane’ or what constitutes a ‘success’ or ‘mistake’ apart from a value-set. Only if you can agree to this will it be fruitful to discuss alternatives.


  11. And what reason do we have to trust human agreement as a morality index?

    We can’t trust humans. Or small rocks. We could maybe trust magic.

    Good’ – according to whom? This is – and always has been – the point.

    What about a magic man? A good magic man!

    But you do nothing to I indicate an alternative.

    Magic. A magic man is an alternative.
    Trust in the magic man.
    Have a little faith.
    Put money in the collection plate.


  12. Richard Christie

    …trust in the magic man

    but develop a selective deafness if, or rather when, he endorses stoning, genocide, infanticide…


  13. Dale, don’t you get dizzy going around in circles like this?

    We have already talked that out. I have explained how there is an objective basis to our moral values in our social, sentient, conscious, intelligent and empathetic nature. That is one leg but we are also always processing the objective facts related to moral decisions we continually make. This enables/assists the evolution/development of our value systems. That’s the other objective leg.

    The dialectical unity between objective reality and human values enables an evolving system which can accommodate the necessary changes in a post biological evolution environment. In response to social and technological changes.

    Now I have laid out in some detail my understanding of our moral system and how we set up our moral values. I don’t expect you will agree because after all we have fundamental ideological differences. But I don’t see any realistic alternative to that which I have proposed.

    I honestly think the current interest in the nature of morality, it’s origins and how we currently make moral decisions, amongst scientists and philosophers could well lead to something along the lines I am suggesting winning wide support.

    And I also think religion has got so fat on it’s claim of special knowledge in this area that their apologists will not be able to present any realistic alternatives. Their claims of special knowledge in moral questions will be shown up to be as hollow as their claims of special and privileged knowledge on cosmological questions.


  14. if it seems like we’re going in circles, it’s because I keep countering the same points which you continue to put forward.

    Instead of your ‘two leg’ metaphor (or ‘dialectical unity between objective reality and human values’), I say it’s more like a train track and a train – the train of science and factual/rational “consideration” cannot get anywhere (forward or backward) without the tracks of some other-than-science/’factual’ presuppositions about basic goods and ends.


  15. Dale I keep putting them forward because that is how I understand things. Surely that is my prerogative.

    Your arguments don’t convince me. They indicate that you either refuse to accept a point (whichoif course us your prerogative) or do nor understand it. You refuse to offer any alternative.

    All that is understandable – we have different ideological viewpoints and surely this will be manifested on situations like this.

    I am happy with where I am at in my understanding. This will no doubt develop as I read more and catch up with current ideas and discussions in this area. (Must admit I have yet to watch all the Origins videos).

    But if nothing new is coming up here perhaps we should just agree to disagree.


  16. FWIW, I’ve not been trying to make a positive argument. I was just critiquing Sam’s (& your) ideas – which I’d hope he (and you?) would welcome. I learn much from having my ideas interacted with.

    Indeed, there has been much repeated, though I find that sustained discussion enables them to get past initial misunderstandings, etc. Contrasts/points get sharpened, etc. But if you’re happy leaving it there, I am too.

    We must do a coffee together one day – my band has a gig in Hamilton on the 10th of Dec., perhaps I could head down a bit early? Or one of the times you’re up in Auckland?


  17. FWIW, I’ve not been trying to make a positive argument.

    That’s ok.
    You don’t have to make one all by yourself.
    Just borrow the standard one.

    Argument #62

    (1) If there are absolute moral standards, then God exists.
    (2) Atheists say that there are no absolute moral standards.
    (3) But that’s because they don’t want to admit to being sinners.
    (4) Therefore, there are absolute moral standards.
    (5) Therefore, God exists.

    Now go put some money in the collection plate.


  18. Richard Christie

    I thought it was number 26


  19. I’ll keep the 10th in mind Dale. I am likely to be in Wellington for my grandson’s birthday, but if not I will contact you.


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