Thursday, 13 September 2012

Dawkins v Sacks: Science v Religion: A False Dawn?

Did you see the discussion between Richard Dawkins and Jonathan Sacks; "Rosh Hashanah: Science v Religion", 11:15 pm, BBC1, Wednesday 12 September 2012?

This was a very interesting and amiable discussion between two very intelligent men of goodwill. However, it ended on a note of false harmony that reminded me of the written 'agreement' between Chamberlain and Hitler immediately prior to World War 2. The only difference was that, in this case, both parties were being suckered into believing they had achieved 'peace in our time', not just the one.

During the discussion, Dawkins accepted that the application of science is capable of doing as much harm as religion. He affirmed that " Science can be hideously misused. Indeed, if you want to do terrible things, you need to use science to do it ---". Straight into the philosophical trap of confusing 'means' with 'motivation'. Yes, science has provided the means to inflect hell-fire and brimstone on one's enemies but religion has often provided the motivation to do so. The 'Social Darwinism' that, to a degree, underwrote the misdeeds of the Third Reich was the exception that proves the rule. Admittedly, this was a genuine motivational misuse of 'science'. However, it was not just a misuse of science; it was also a misinterpretation of science. It was incorrect science. So-called 'Social Darwinism' interprets the evolutionary theory, incorrectly, as meaning that nature works on the principle of 'the survival of the fittest'. The word 'fittest' in the last sentence is the usual one; the strongest, the best, the ones that can vanquish the weak. Natural Selection doesn't use the word 'fittest' in this way. In Natural Selection, the fittest refers to the individuals best suited to surviving and reproducing in the relevant environment. This makes all the difference since the ability to cooperate becomes at least as important as the ability to enforce. There is nothing truly Darwinian in so-called Social Darwinism. Dawkins is, of course, well aware of this. He should have ensured that the distinction was apparent to Sacks and thus cleared correct science - unlike correct religion - of the charge that it has ever been implicated in the motivation of harm.

During the programme, Sachs said "Belief in god doesn't require a suspension of our critical faculties". However he also said "My view is that god made us in his own image. He marked us out from other animals by giving us freewill, morality and conscience". I suggest that the claim of the first of these three sentences is 'called out' by the second and third sentences. Faith always involves a suspension of one's critical faculties. Of course, theologians can argue with each-other about the real meaning of bits of scripture; and that requires them to engage their intellect. However, this always takes place within the questionable epistemology of an unquestioning faith.

This brings us to the nub of the matter. At the end of the programme, Sachs claims that he and Dawkins have agreed that they can collaborate in a common pursuit of truth for the common good. He speaks of a breakthrough; even "an epiphany". Poppycock! However well-meaning and charming the proponents, science will never be able to cooperate with those that pursue truth with a methodology, an epistemology, that is based on faith rather than evidence. Sorry; no deal!


  1. I think we're now at a special place in time where Science is beginning to explain some of the fundamental arguments proposed by religion. Freewill has always been a cornerstone of theological beliefs … but current neuro-science studies are showing freewill is just a series of physical and chemical laws being played out in the brain.

    As the great Mr Hawking states:

    “Do people have free will? If we have free will, where in the evolutionary tree did it develop? Do blue-green algae or bacteria have free will, or is their behaviour automatic and within the realm of scientific law? Is it only multi-celled organisms that have free will, or only mammals? We might think that a chimpanzee is exercising free will when it chooses to chomp on a banana, or a cat when it rips up your sofa, but what about the roundworm called Caenorhabditis elegans—a simple creature made of only 959 cells? It probably never thinks, “That was damn tasty bacteria I got to dine on back there,” yet it too has a definite preference in food and will either settle for an unattractive meal or go foraging for something better, depending on recent experience. Is that the exercise of free will?

    Though we feel that we can choose what we do, our understanding of the molecular basis of biology shows that biological processes are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry and therefore are as determined as the orbits of the planets. Recent experiments in neuroscience support the view that it is our physical brain, following the known laws of science, that determines our actions, and not some agency that exists outside those laws. For example, a study of patients undergoing awake brain surgery found that by electrically stimulating the appropriate regions of the brain, one could create in the patient the desire to move the hand, arm, or foot, or to move the lips and talk. It is hard to imagine how free will can operate if our behaviour is determined by physical law, so it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion.”

    I think it’s great that today we’re able to debate these ideas …… the authority of Religion is no longer powerful enough to supress our desire to find answers. In its recent attempt to maintain authority, the Vatican invited current leading scientific figures for a convention to enable ‘science and religion to work together’. However the precursor for this debate was that everything back until the universe came into being during the ‘Big Bang’ is up for science to explore … anything before that is ‘off limits’!

  2. Thanks for that Sam. The first real comment on Finkabowdit.

    I wrote a post on Facebook today that addresses the Science v Religion issue you raise at the end of your comment and I'll post it below:----

    "Very often believers, who can be both scientists and non-scientists, will claim that science and religion address different aspects of the universe and our place in it. They talk about science and religion as having 'non-overlapping magisteria'. They claim that science does not, and cannot, study the meaning of our lives and how something came out of nothing; whereas religion can address these issues. I strongly disagree. Both science and religion can attempt to study anything at all. The problem is one of "epistemology". That is -- how is knowledge established within the domain? Science uses; 'the scientific method'; evidence, experiment, logic, replication and peer-review. Religion uses; scripture, faith and revelation. Most scientists (including myself) reject these METHODS used by the religious to establish knowledge. I suggest that this is the primary difference between science and religion."

    I think that attempts to encourage science and religion to work together are doomed to failure simply because of the difference I describe above. If religion works within the scientific method it will become, simply, science. If science works within a religious epistemology it will just produce bad science. Lots of money is being wasted by the Templeton Foundation, in particular, because this has not been recognized.

  3. Hi Jonny,

    I agree - science and religion working together is like an emulsion! As for the reasons you've stated they're inherently immiscible ....... Like oil & water, It takes continual energy and commitment to keep them together ..... but ultimately they will always polarise into their own domains.

    Perhaps the question is - which one is pure clean water and which one is crude manufactured oil! I can see arguments for either way!

  4. Do we have freewill?

    You say:-

    " --- Recent experiments in neuroscience support the view that it is our physical brain, following the known laws of science, that determines our actions, and not some agency that exists outside those laws."

    This is very much 'work in progress' in the meta-scientific world at present. 'Freewill', 'consciousness' and 'abiogenesis' are a trio of related phenomena that have been among the top-of-the-(intellectual)-pops for some time now.

    I think it is necessary to consider two, very different, types of actions here. The first could be characterized as intuitive, fast, unconscious responses. Daniel Kahneman calls them "System 1" (See his excellent recent book "Thinking fast and slow"). The second are those we make after engaging our brain. Kahneman (surprise, surprise) calls these "System 2". They are relatively slow, deliberate and conscious.

    What are the drivers of System 1 responses?

    I think these are purely biologically-driven. We all experience these as being 'beyond our control'. We just do it. I have no difficulty accepting that System 1 responses are devoid of free-will.

    What about System 2?

    There are several drivers here. Here is my own list:-

    Genetically mediated propensities
    Concurrent somatic condition
    Patterns of behaviour learned from early nurturing
    Patterns of behaviour learned during cognitive development
    Relevant learned social/ cultural norms
    Free cognition

    I'm suggesting that they all work together in producing our System 2 behaviour. Yes, as a contributor to our System 2 behaviour, I believe we do have a degree of free cognition that we experience as free-will. So, where does it come from? Briefly, I consider it to be an emergent property of consciousness but that is another story for another post. I will just end this post with a relevant question:- Water consists of two hydrogen atoms bound to one oxygen atom. Neither element has the property we experience as 'wetness'. So where does it come from?

  5. In my comment above I mention the 'drivers of behaviour' and 'consciousness'. For more detail, see separate posts on these topics recently entered at 'October 2012'.