About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Dawkins trilogy

Skeptical Inquirer has just published the third and last entry of my unofficial “Dawkins trilogy,” three short pieces where I take Richard to task about his views on science and religion, his idea of memetics, and, of course, the selfish gene stuff.

Briefly, as readers of this blog know, I'm as much an atheist as Dawkins is. Yet, I think he goes over the top when he claims that any religious education amounts to child abuse (some surely does, but what about Unitarians? C'mon!). Most importantly, I think he takes an unwarranted scientistic attitude when he claims that what he calls the “God hypothesis” is scientifically testable. It isn't, although it can be soundly rejected on philosophical grounds. Scientism doesn't do science (or atheism, for that matter) any favor, and betrays a lack of philosophical sophistication.

On memes, I think it's a nice metaphor, but no more than a metaphor. Memetics, as far as I can see, has not added anything of substance to pre-existing ideas on gene-culture co-evolution, not to mention the wealth of work in psychology, sociology and anthropology. It's not just that nobody has any clear idea of what the physical basis of memes are (indeed, according to some memeticists they don't seem to have a specific physical basis, since they can evolve by jumping from brains to hard drives to any other storage device). It's that nobody has proposed a “functional ecology” of memes, a theory that tells us why certain memes (say, some religions) spread more than others. Without such theory, memetics becomes an instance of circular reasoning (the fittest memes spread; the fittest memes are those that spread...).

Finally, the selfish gene. Dawkins was, of course, simply a (very effective) popularizer of that idea, which really emerged from the technical work of Hamilton in the UK and Williams at Stony Brook University (where I am) in New York. But even Hamilton and Williams later adopted more sophisticated and pluralistic views of evolution, and retreated significantly from the “gene's eye view” of the biological universe. Yes, there certainly are selfish genetic elements, and we can study the dynamics of their evolution inside genomes. But natural selection occurs at many levels, and even genes are forced to cooperate with other genes in order to maintain organismal fitness. More controversially, there have been strong suggestions recently that genes may sometime play a rear-guard action in evolution, fixing phenotypic changes triggered by other mechanisms, such as developmental plasticity and “accommodation” (to use Mary Jane West-Eberhard's term). Furthermore, philosophers like Okasha have convincingly argued that even Dawkins' much-vaunted distinction between replicators (genes) and interactors (phenotypes) is far from being either clear-cut or particularly useful in evolutionary theory.

I'm sure much more meaningful discussion can be had on all three topics, but it seems like Dawkins' undeniable charisma and captivating prose have somewhat hidden serious conceptual difficulties with much of his work, difficulties that people genuinely interested in the nature and limits of science ought to squarely confront.


  1. You write: 'I think he takes an unwarranted scientistic attitude when he claims that what he calls the “God hypothesis” is scientifically testable. It isn't, although it can be soundly rejected on philosophical grounds. Scientism doesn't do science (or atheism, for that matter) any favor, and betrays a lack of philosophical sophistication'.

    I'm sorry, but what part of a god's impact on the natural world isn't subject to scientific testing?

    As for a lack of philosophical sophistication, I'm afraid the best that this poor soul can raise is a Bronx cheer. It sounds suspiciciously close to special pleading to me.

  2. I was going to quote the exact same section...

    Doesn't it depend on the exact hypothesis? Maybe a vague deistic kind of god isn't testable, but what about a god who supposedly created the whole universe about 6000 years ago?

    I believe science rejects that specific god hypothesis. If a Christian, for example, then says Genesis is not a literal story about seven 24-hour periods and 6000 years of Adam's descendants, then that would be a different kind of god and a different hypothesis.

    Basically I'm saying we have to know what the hypothesis actually is before declaring it testable or not.

  3. I welcome the new atheists but am disappointed in their books. My favorite writer on this subject is Walter Kaufmann and you can find a short summary of his position The Faith of A Heretic here http://faculty.plts.edu/gpence/html/kaufmann.htm
    I have found his books (Critique of Religion & Philosophy, Faith of A Heretic, Man's Lot) to be serious discussions of the matters at hand. Have you read Kaufmann and do you have any comments on his positions?

  4. I second the motion on kaufmann

  5. Massimo,

    You, quite rightly, argue here that memes have contributed little to understanding of cultural evolution, yet it seems that you quite like "Breaking the Spell" which argues that religions are particularly successful memes. I found the book disappointing for that reason - am I missing something?

    -- Chris

  6. Chris,

    you are right, the disappointing part of Dennett's book is the meme stuff. But if you just take "meme" out and replace it with "idea," and substitute "cultural evolution" for "memetics," everything becomes sensible...

  7. Wow (Dave) I just discovered kaufmann's fondness for Velikovsky. I hardly know what to say.

  8. Paul, I think Kaufmann admires Velikovsky's courage and independent thinking but not necessarily his "science". I know nothing of Velikovsky's theories and have not read his books but am a bit familiar with Carl Sagan's criticisms which seem on point to me. What I like about Kaufmann is that he is a great writer who is not afraid to express strong opinions. I also like that he takes religion seriously which I think is useful for those who want to criticize it especially if they want to reach believers. I give credit to the new atheists for bringing this subject up but I still prefer the older more philosophical essays such as Morris Cohen's The Dark Side of Religion, Bertrand Russell's Why I'm Not A Christian, or Walter Kaufmann's The Faith of a Heretic which are all available online. For more recent discussions along the same lines check out Jennifer Michael Hecht's review of Hitchens' book in the current issue of Free Inquiry or the last few essays in Neil deGrasse Tyson's new book Death by Black Hole. Thanks for the comment.

  9. One of the reasons like the idea of memes is the same reason that people use terms like 'beef' rather than 'muscle tissue of cow' - simply because it conjures a different set of images. When someone uses the term 'meme' the educated listener knows the emphasis is on the 'selection' and 'evolution' of ideas, rather than just the ideas themselves.

  10. When it comes to the God Hypothesis being scientifically tested, I both agree and disagree.

    If the God Hypothesis yields testable predictions, then it certainly can be tested, just like astrology, dowsing and rain dance (all supernatural phenomena) provided a clear definition of what is tested is available and provided that science limits itself to methodological naturalism.

    Of course the faithful will make an ad hoc hypothesis if the experiment fails, but that simple means we are dealing with a modified hypothesis. The old one is still quite dead, just like astrology, dowsing and rain dance.

  11. May I ask our host a question : Being true that biblical theism can be soundly rejected on philosophical grounds, why isn’t this enough, why bother with empiric arguments? Why can’t we declare victory in this dispute?

  12. I agree that the concept of memes are best considered as metaphorical. And a useful metaphor at that. Some of the difference with genes, besides not being actually physical is that memes can be actively modified by the carrying agents, and they can be propagated by a variety of means.

    The social sciences have had another useful concept, not mutually exclusive from memes, called "ideology", which I also find useful.

    I would also argue that "cultural evolution" should not only be considered as dealing with the ideational, but with the cultural whole in an anthropological sense. For example, cultural knowledge may include any number of things that would include practical knowledge of how to survive in a particular environment, or when to laugh, and with whom to joke with.

  13. Cassandra,

    "Being true that biblical theism can be soundly rejected on philosophical grounds, why isn’t this enough, why bother with empiric arguments?"

    Right. Religion is best rejected on philosophical grounds, not empirical ones. The reason the latter fail is because god being supernatural _and_ sentient s/he can do whatever the hell s/he likes, without having to behave rationally or according to scientific protocols...

  14. "rationally or according to scientific protocols..."

    Science isn't at all 'the basis' for rationalism. Greek philosophy (more or less) was.

    I could cite many cases where science, and a large number of the practitioners or adherents to it, "jumped off the cliff" together.

    And, fyi, are about to do it again...


  15. called "ideology", which I also find useful

    To keep with the metaphor game, I would then (jokingly) suggest that and "ideology" is a "genome" full of memes... :-)

  16. Massimo,
    Thanks for the answer, but I still don’t understand why people avoid to defend atheism mainly on philosophical grounds. Nicholas Everitt for example, says in The Non-existence of God: “the defining attribute of God are either individually self-contradictory (omnipotence) or cannot be coinstantiated (omniscience and omnipotence, omniscience and eternity, eternity and personhood, eternity and creatorship, etc.). It thus follows that not only does God not exist, he cannot exist. For ignorant agnostics who unthinkingly proclaim that it is impossible to prove or disprove the existence of God, here is a putative set of disproofs.”

    So is it because of ignorance that people still adopt the agnostic position? Or is there any problem with these arguments? And if there isn’t any, why can’t we say without doubt bible based religions are only myths because they are based on a concept that cannot exist? Why can't we declare the issue settled once and for all just as the geocentric ptolemaic system was?

  17. Cassandra,

    we can declare the issue settled, but people ain't gonna listen (right, Cal?).

    Moreover, even if there are logical contradictions with certain conceptions of god, a religious person can always say that he holds onto a different conception, or -- when all else fails -- that god "defies logic," whatever that means...


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