Category Archives: Dawkins

Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life. Episode 3: Meaning

This is the third and last video in the series Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life. It’s about “meaning.”

Richard Dawkins sets out to answer the question he often gets asked – “How do you get up in the morning?”

Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life Episode 3.

Another laid-back coverage by Dawkins. He gives plenty of space to the religious attempts to find meaning but is personally not convinced. I find his own description of meaning in understanding and observing reality, experiencing human art and culture, and appreciating the awe provided by our surroundings, far more attractive.

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Death – part 2 of a series

Here’s the second episode in the series Sex, Death and the Meaning of life – fronted by “everyone’s favourite Strident Atheist.” See Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life – Sin for Part 1

It’s another laid back, non-threatening presentation of an important issue. A chance to consider different religious/philosophical approaches and to also learn some science.

Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life Episode 2.

For such an evil atheist Dawkins seems to spend a lot of time in cemeteries and churches. Seems quite at home there.

The 3rd and final episode on The Meaning of Life screens in the UK next week.

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Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life – Sin

Sex, Death and The Meaning of Life is a new series of TV documentaries fronted by Richard Dawkins. I welcome this – partly because Dawkins is an excellent communicator. But also because it’s about time some of the current ideas in the science of morality and ethics were more widely known.

The first programme in the series, SIN,  was screened last Monday, on Channel 4 in the UK. I have embedded it below. It’s very informative.

There’s even a bit of humour – look out for the David Attenborough moment where Dawkins gives a description of evolution social customs around animal mating while watching humans performing on a dance floor

Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life Episode 1.

There are at least two other programmes in the series. LIFE AFTER DEATH and MEANING OF LIFE.

See Death – part 2 of a series for the second episode.

See also:
Clear Story – Sex, death and the Meaning of Life
Channel 4 – SIN
Channel 4 – LIFE AFTER DEATH
Channel 4 – THE MEANING OF LIFE
British Atheist Richard Dawkins Explores Sin and Morality in New TV Series

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Is there room for religion in science?

Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution is True highly recommends this video (see Dawkins on Al Jazeera). I watched it over lunch and can second his recommendation.

It’s an Al Jazeera talk back show – The Stream – where Richard Dawkins is interviewed and other people from around the world are linked in for comments and questions. The basic question was “Is there room for religion in science?”

I think Dawkin does an excellent job of calmly and sensibly answering the questions (so much for the “strident” myth). But I was also fascinated by the way the programme was integrated with  Twitter and Google+ to get real-time feedback from viewers. Those comments themselves are intriguing.

Quite a unique experience – and fascinating to see such a well done programme presented on an international news media channel. Dawkins really seems to be getting his message across internationally.

New Atheism’s most polarising figure? – YouTube.

Must admit I wondered if I had the colour balance wrong – or does Richard have a touch of sunburn?

Update: Richard has confirmed that it was a colour balance problem. He added: “They could presumably have fixed it “in post” but perhaps they rather enjoyed the association of red face with strident anger!”

A disciplined discussion

I have commented several times that the debate format is very unsatisfactory and have favoured a discussion format for public discussion. Richard Dawkins has tried out a number of such discussion formats, I think successfully.

But I think this one is actually quite ambitious – four personalities in discussion, on stage, in front of an audience of 4000. It actually comes out very well. With no chairperson or moderator, everyone seems to get a fair go. No one dominates. And the discussion is fascinating. I would love to have been there.

It’s the panel discussion between Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali which occurred at the 2012 Global Atheist Convention
held in Melbourne last April.

Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris & Ayaan Hirsi Ali – YouTube.

It’s an hour-long – but very interesting.

Gnu bashing once again

The latest Gallup poll on American’s beliefs about creationism and evolution has predictably raised some comments among bloggers. As expected, there have not been any big changes – most still support either creationism (46%) or a god-guided form of evolution (32%). Although it is heartening that there is a long-term trend of increasing acceptance of normal evolutionary science (no god-guidance) – see below.

Among the commenting bloggers, one stands out – Robert Wright, writing for the Atlantic (see Creationists vs. Evolutionists). Because he is raising that old myth – Richard Dawkins is responsible for the strength of creationist belief in the US!! He even raise this old myth to a status of “theory”, but then retreats to a hypothesis.” Come on Robert – a bit more humility is in order – even hypothesis need some sort of supporting evidence, and the above graph is not providing any.

How the hell does he support the idea that “biologists such as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers started violating the nonaggression pact” which has lead to the current situation. Where’s the sudden jump when Richard publishedThe God Delusion inb 2006 or PZ started blogging (2002).

Have a look a blog posts by Jerry Coyne (Robert Wright blames creationism on atheists) and PZ (My vast powers transcend space and time!) ridiculing this little “hypothesis of Wright’s. I will just take this issue a little further to cover a similar myth – that these horrible “new atheists” (gnus), and Richard Dawkins in particular, are responsible for the lack of support and respect for science in the US. I mentioned this myth in my review of Ecklund’s book  Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think  (see Are scientists hostile to religion?)

Ecklund had referred to statistics on public attitudes towards science to support her mythical thesis that prominent scientists were causing people to turn away from science because they criticised relgion! But again, the statistics just didn’t support her claim. The plot below shows there has been no effect of  “new atheists”  activity (starting in 2004/2006) on the attitude of the public toward scientists.

%age of US public considering professions of “very great prestige.”

In fact, the data shows that there had been a downturn in respect for religious professions after 2001. Was that due to the “new atheists?” Are PZ’s blog (2002) or Sam Harris’s first book (2004) responsible for the dip in 2002 – 2004?

Or is this just a sign that the public was turning away from religion because of its involvement in the New York terror attacks of 2001? Or maybe a comment made by many people may just be  relevant. We had just got fed up with the hypocritical morality (think of all the choir boys) and interference of religionists? Perhaps even reacting to the religious interference in the teaching of science – even the practice of science?

Oh well, you can make you own interpretation of the statistics to fit your own prejudices.

Robert Wright does raise an issue which corresponds to one blip in the first graph. He says:

” Over the past two years, the portion of respondents who don’t believe in evolution has grown by six percentage points. Where did those people come from? The graph suggests they’re people who had previously believed in an evolution guided by God–a group whose size dropped by a corresponding six percentage points. It’s as if people who had previously seen evolution and religion as compatible were told by the new militant Darwinians, “No, you must choose: Which is it, evolution or religion?”–and pretty much all of them chose religion. “

But perhaps ID is to blame?

Again, I say, Wright’s propensity for Dawkins’ bashing is confusing him. He can’t see the alternative explanations of that blip (if it is even real). What about the effect of propaganda by the intelligent design (ID) protagonists, who are very hostile to theistic evolution (usually mean god as the guider). You just have to watch bits of the videos of the ID  conference on theistic evolution held at Biola University in October 2010 (see Videos from an ID conference at Biola University,  Biola God and evolution conference now on YouTube and Seven videos from the Biola University conference on God and evolution).

They hate theistic evolution and really dug the knife into Francis Collins. They make it clear that they won’t tolerate any bit of this ideas that you can accept evolution and still believe in a god. They will just not compromise. (Although even then, dear old Casey Luskin manages to really transfer the blame to the gnus because he claims theistic evolution cannot stop the war of the gnus on god – he’s a funny guy.)

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Toss out the moderator for a better discussion

Here’s an interesting video – a discussion between Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss at the Australian National University recently.

I have a couple of thoughts about this event:

  1. It really only took place because both speakers were in Australia for the recent Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne. I think this endorse a point made by one journalist that such conventions do have important spin-offs. Of course there are economic ones – and this convention, which attracted over 4000 participants, would have brought tourists and money into Melbourne and Australia generally. That’s why governments actually help fund events like this.
    But this journalist was also talking about the intellectual and cultural benefits the convention brought to the country. The in the country inevitably leads to other events – TV interviews, debates, lectures and discussions like this. This contributes to the intellectual and cultural life of the country.
  2. Just look at how many people there were in the audience. it is gratifying to see top rate scientists creating such interest and drawing such crowds.
  3. The format of the discussion. Richard Dawkins has for some time expressed disappointment in the debate and moderated argument format. He repeats his reasons at the beginning of this video. Consequently he has undertaken a number of unmoderated discussions along the lines of this one. Personally I think they are successful – and much prefer them to debates which can end up as just glorified verbal boxing matches. I welcome readers thoughts on these formats.
    I look forward to such an unmoderated discussion where the participants have stronger difference. I like to think it could be successful. What do you think?

Thanks to:  Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss in conversation at ANU | The RiotACT.

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Morality and the “worship” of reason

I have so far read about one-third of  Jonathan Haidt‘s new book – The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. I still highly recommend it – but I think some of his claims need strong criticism.

The first part of his book provides a really useful and fascinating (for the lay person anyway) summary  of what he calls his “first principle of moral psychology” – intuitions come first, reasoning second.  We rely on institutions for our moral reactions in most situations, but then, if asked, we will use reason to rationalise those actions. Sometimes we can’t actually provide very good justifications.

I think this aspect of human psychology in important – and relevant to lots of areas apart from human morality. But the fact that we do this should not be used to denigrate reason.

Intelligence is like sex

Human intelligence and reason may well have evolved naturally to handle situations our ancestors faced. And there was never an evolutionary requirement for an organism to know the “truth” about reality, purely to handle the situations it faced. However, like sex which humans use for other purposes than simple procreation, intelligence and our ability to reason enables us to investigate and come to understandings about reality – a reality which our ancestors never had to deal with let alone comprehend.

I think this is important to how we should consider reason. True, the individual more often uses reason like a lawyer, rather than a scientist. To justify one’s actions or support one’s predetermined beliefs, rather than get at the truth. But we can also use it to get at the truth – and I think that is valuable. So I agree – using reason like a lawyer may not be exactly noble (even though we all do it) but I certainly don’t put the discovery of truth into that class.

Delusional reasoning

After describing this modern synthesis on moral psychology Haidt asserts – “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason.” I will leave aside his emotional use of the word “worship” for the moment and just point out that Haidt has put himself in a bind – how is he going to determine truth without reason?

This impossible situation seems to scream out from his next sentence – “We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is.” How does he imagine taking this “cold hard look” without using reason?

Of course his problem is that he is using “reason” almost in a pejorative sense – “motivated reasoning” – the reason of a lawyer, not a scientist.

Elsewhere Haidt does clarify “I’m not saying we should all stop reasoning and go with our gut feelings. . . .Rather, what I am saying is that we must be wary of any individual’s ability to reason.” We are all partisan and prone to confirmation bias but we overcome this, especially in scientific endeavours, by reasoning socially – in groups where “some individuals can use their reasoning powers to discomfirm the claims of others.”

Now , that’s better. Reasoning is a good thing, even though it is often motivated.  But why denigrate those who support reason by calling that “worship”? He goes further – “As an intuitionist. I’d say that the worship of reason is itself an illustration of on of the most long-lived delusions in western history: the rationalist delusion.”

The caricature of “new atheism”

Perhaps his motive is revealed by that word “delusion.”  He adds that some people see reason as bringing “us beyond the ‘delusion’ of believing in gods (for the New Atheists).” Perhaps he is really having a bash at these so-called ‘new atheists” who he has a hang-up about. (I referred to his preoccupation in that area in my recent post Conservatives, liberals and purity.) Haidt even refers to Richard Dawkins’ “childrearing advice” (“utopian program for raising more rational children”) in The God Delusion.

Haidt’s presentation of “new atheism” is a sad caricature. It is silly to characterise as a “utopian progam” the raising of one’s children to ask the question “How do you know that?”, to look for the evidence supporting ideas and claims, and to try to apply reasoning to questions they face.  After all, I can imagine discussing with my grandchildren the ideas of moral psychology Haidt describes in his book. Explaining  how humans very often reason like a lawyer rather than a scientist. And the importance of having input from a range of perspectives.  Is Haidt going to describe that as a “utopian program,” a “rationalist delusion” and the “worship” of reason? Come off it Jonathan.

Ethics education?

However, even worse than this Dawkins’ bashing” is Haidt’s apparent rejection of ethics education. He says:

“if our goal is to produce good behaviour, not just good thinking, then it’s even more important to reject rationalism and embrace intuitionism. Nobody is ever going to invent an ethics class that makes people behave ethically after they step out of the classroom.”

I think that is not only naive – it is just plain wrong. And it is denigrating what could be an effective contribution to the ethical education of children. Especially as he offers no real alternative.

And this is, I think, one of the weaknesses in Haidt’s analysis – a mechanical tendency to see intuition and reason as opposite and ignoring their interaction. Sure our moral actions are intuitive, not immediately based on reason. However, out intutions are not static – they can actually be altered by reason. This happens in learning, when a new action or idea needs to be consciously rehearsed at the start but in time becomes incorporated into our unconscious and becomes automatic. It becomes intuitive. Haidt concedes this may sometimes occur when an individual with a different idea comments on one’s actions. But he ignores the very important role of society, at a number of levels, in helping form and change our moral intuitions.

Personally, I think ethics classes where children get to discuss and suggest solutions to common moral issues could play a valuable role in the moral upbringing of our children. Sure, no student walks out of a class and immediately applies all they have learned in a lesson (in mathematics as well as ethics). But surely Haidt can see that education, especially that supplemented by the inevitable relevant real day-to-day activities does lead to intuitional changes.

While reading this book I can’t help thinking from time to time that the book itself is an example of motivated reasoning, of Haidt’s own partisanship and prejudices. Perhaps that’s how it should be and how the reader should see any book.  And Haidt even admits the possibility of his own bias:

“I have tried to make a reasoned case that our moral capacities are best described from an intuitionist perspective. I do not claim to have examined the question from all sides, nor to have offered irrefutable proof. Because of the insurmountable power of the confirmation bias, counterarguments will have to be produced by those who disagree with me. Eventually, if the scientific community works as it is supposed to, the truth will emerge as a large number of flawed and limited minds battle it out”

Now that would be putting the best of Haidt’s scientific ideas into practice.

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The argument from authority (or lack thereof)

In the natural sciences arguing from authority is frowned on. Sure, we do have to give credence to authorities when attempting to understand subjects outside our field. But, in our own areas (and in the end with any scientific subject) authority counts for nothing. After all the best test of any scientific idea is to measure it against reality. Evidence counts more than authority.

So I always find arguments from authority  weak. And when the arguer uses only that approach, maybe even using the argument from authority as a way of ignoring evidence (or even details of the argument itself), I suspect that argument from authority has become a way of avoiding the issue completely. One can end up debating at length the importance of authority, or the rights of others to have opinions, and never once deal with the real issue which sparked the debate.

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“Other ways of knowing” and their result.

Here’s a little clip from one of Richard Dawkins presentations.

I think it’s a fitting illustration of what science would be like if epistemologically it behaved the way religion does.

It also ridicules the concept that religion has “other ways of knowing” which are more reliable than science.

Richard Dawkins: If Science Worked Like Religion