Dawkins talks to the dulls

Here’s Richard Dawkins being slightly more restrained and less arrogant than usual. I suppose that’s probably the effect of talking to an audience that is not necessarily predisposed to agree with you. Nevertheless he of course reiterates his assertion that evolution is the truth and that there is no God, a position that in its epistemological absolutism and certainty has more in common with his religious opponents that most scientists would be willing to go along with these days. Personally, I doubt that any of the current evolutionary theories are true in the sense that they will not be substantially overhauled at some point in the future, just as every major scientific paradigm of the past has. And I find that likely even though there isn’t necessarily any better or more plausible competing theory right now. Most scientists, I think, are aware that there is a big difference between being the best available theory and being the truth. Dawkins may just be condescending to his audience by simplifying, but he doesn’t appear to make any acknowledgement of that. Which is ironic for him of all people, because that is exactly what evolution is about–namely the difference between relative fitness or adaptation, i.e. being better suited to survive in one’s environment than one’s rivals, and absolute fitness, which would be I suppose having the best possible adaptations for survival. Of course relative fitness is the only relevant concept, but truth, like absolute fitness, is an absolute: something is not true just because it is the best of a selected group of explanations, any more than Newtonian physics was the truth just because there were no more viable theories until the 20th century.

Hence truth is somewhat of a chimera, and one needs in the short term a little more solid foundation for separating them. The virtue of scientific theories lies in their ability to make predictions. I wish defenders of evolution like Dawkins, just as much as their religious opponents, would deal on this level rather than in metaphysical fantasies. There is no harm in many cases, surely, in believing in a benevolent power ruling the universe. It may in fact be very beneficial internally, especially in cases like the person dying in a hospital and in search of comfort. But if they are, say, dying of a rapidly mutating pathogen like HIV, knowledge of evolutionary theory is surely at least equally useful and benefiical. I think there is an implicit understanding among a certain number of people that regardless of how one may feel emotionally or aesthetically about something like evolution, the knowledge that it confers brings many tangible benefits, like immunology. So not only are Dawkins’ grandiose claims about the truth of evolution probably epistemologically unjustifiable, they miss the real strength of the theory, which is to say its usefulness. Creationism may be comforting for people (although I’ve never understood the appeal myself), but it’s rather otiose. This sort of explanation is really a form of causistry or ad hoc explanation, where any information can be retroactively fit into the scheme of the dogmatic premises, yet doesn’t generate any useful predictions about untested cases. But since it is infintely flexible, it can organize all known information into some sort satisfying explanatory schema. This is why the division of scientific and religious knowledge into different realms seems to often work on a practical level even though it doesn’t make much sense from a theoretical perspective. Scientific work will continue to pile up useful knowledge about discrete physical phenemona, while almost inevitably people will form (or accept others’) big metaphysical theories to satisfy the need for complete explanations about the world.

Leave a Reply

If your comment doesn't appear right away, it was probably eaten by our spam-killing bot. If your comment was not, in fact, spam (and if you're actually reading this, it probably wasn't), please send me an email and I'll try to extricate your comment from our electronic spam purgatory.