Monday, January 15, 2007

Dawkins, Nagel, and The God Delusion

I just finished reading Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, and I liked it very much. It's a book trying to popularize certain biological and philosophical ideas, and having studied both biology and philosophy in college, there was much I found unoriginal and a little that I felt was poorly treated. Nonetheless, on the whole the book is very interesting, not least for it's hard-line stance against religion. The central project of the book is well captured by the title of the fourth chapter: "Why There Almost Certainly Is No God". And Dawkins makes a point of being as blunt as possible about his anti-theism. Raising the young to be religious is child abuse, he thinks, and he fails to see why theology ought to be viewed as a field of study at all.

As my acquaintances may guess, I am broadly sympathetic to these sorts of ideas. I'll come right out and say that I think the world would be a better place, on balance, without religion, and I too resent the privileged status granted to religious beliefs such that they are considered to be above criticism. Believing something to be true in the absence of supporting evidence is, to put it mildly, silly, and when the evidence is in opposition to your belief, well, then, you're just being willfully stupid.

When it comes to matters of faith, though, a great many people are willfully stupid, and a great many of the criticisms of The God Delusion are predictably unintelligent. There is the fair charge that the book is poorly edited and contemptuous, but none of that speaks to the merits of its argumentation. I'd like to have read a clearer, more disciplined book, but that sort of quibble is a distraction. It's also true that Dawkins could have been more polite in his delivery but, again, the most this gets you as a criticism is that the book is likely to offend people it could otherwise persuade.

To date, I've read only one insightful criticism of this book, and it comes from Thomas Nagel. I'd known that Nagel had written a review , but prior to reading the book I didn't see why I should particularly care what he had to say about it since it wasn't obviously his field. Dawkins, though, makes some dismissive comments about moral absolutism and ontological dualism. After reading the book, I can see why Nagel would be interested, since Nagel is among the world's foremost advocates of both moral absolutism and ontological dualism. And besides, Nagel's a genuinely brilliant guy - a fact I can testify to not just as a result of reading his work but also from personal experience - so, I signed up for a trial subscription to the otherwise-lame New Republic just to read what he had to say.

Nagel's objection boils down to this:
The fear of religion leads too many scientifically minded atheists to cling to a defensive, world-flattening reductionism. Dawkins, like many of his contemporaries, is hobbled by the assumption that the only alternative to religion is to insist that the ultimate explanation of everything must lie in particle physics, string theory, or whatever purely extensional laws govern the elements of which the material world is composed.

This reductionist dream is nourished by the extraordinary success of the physical sciences in our time, not least in their recent application to the understanding of life through molecular biology. It is natural to try to take any successful intellectual method as far as it will go. Yet the impulse to find an explanation of everything in physics has over the last fifty years gotten out of control. The concepts of physical science provide a very special, and partial, description of the world that experience reveals to us. It is the world with all subjective consciousness, sensory appearances, thought, value, purpose, and will left out. What remains is the mathematically describable order of things and events in space and time.
In other words, Dawkins has succumbed to the temptation to think that everything that exists has to be explained exclusively and ultimately in physical terms. Initially, Nagel dismissively refers to this as "amateur philosophy". Eventually he concedes in an off-hand way that there are actually a lot of questions left unanswered by "[a]ny anti-reductionist view", but the gist of the complaint seems to be that if Dawkins had just read "What is it Like to be a Bat?", his book would be very different (and, presumably, better.)

Now, I think Nagel is right that Dawkins is too dismissive of dualism in general, probably because his exposure to philosophy is limited. You can file a similar complaint against Dawkins's contempt of moral absolutism, best captured by this bit from pg. 232:
Moral philosophers are the professionals when it comes to thinking about right and wrong. As Robert Hinde succinctly put it, they agree that 'moral precepts, while not necessarily constructed by reason, should be defensible by reason'. They classify themselves in many ways, but in modern terminology the major divide is between 'deontologists' (such as Kant) and 'consequentialists' (including 'utilitarians' such as Jeremy Bentham, 1748-1832). Deontology is a fancy name for the belief that morality consists in the obeying of rules. It is literally the science of duty, from the Greek for 'that which is binding'. Deontology is not quite the same thing as moral absolutism, but for most purposes in a book about religion there is no need to dwell on the distinction. Absolutists believe there are absolutes of right and wrong, imperatives whose rightness makes no reference to their consequences. Consequentialists more pragmatically hold that the morality of an action should be judged by its consequences.


Not all absolutism is derived from religion. Nevertheless, it is pretty hard to defend absolutist morals on grounds other than religious ones.
Since Dawkins himself had pointed out only a few pages earlier that there are very plausible arguments that Kant was himself an atheist, it's not clear why he now dismisses deontologists out of hand as religious nuts. Certainly today there are no shortage of non-religious deontologists among the ranks of those moral philosophers who "are the professionals when it comes to thinking about right and wrong." (Nagel is one, as a matter of fact.)

One is forced to conclude that Dawkins isn't actually very familiar with the ins-and-outs of contemporary philosophy, since he seems oblivious to the widely-respected arguments for both ontological dualism and ethical absolutism. In both cases he just assumes - without any evident reason - that the position he disfavors is necessarily bound up with religion, and must therefore be summarily tossed out.

Plainly put, Dawkins is wrong to reject dualism and absolutism on the basis of the arguments he offers. At the same time, those technical philosophical criticisms have almost no practical impact on the arguments of the book. One need not reject ontological dualism to point out that religious people ascribe all sorts of ridiculous characteristics to the non-physical world and tend to assume that if non-physical phenomena exist, they must be the sort of phenomena that are described in, for instance, the Bible. Similarly, one need not reject moral absolutism to acknowledge that religious groups tend to come up with really lousy moral absolutes.

In other words, Dawkins assumes in multiple instances that when the content of religious beliefs is absurd, the underlying ethics or metaphysics must be equally absurd. That's a baby-with-the-bathwater mistake, and Dawkins of all people probably has friends who could have helped him clarify his thinking. Instead, he gets the philosophy wrong even though it's got no significance to his central thesis: namely, that we'd do well to get rid of religion altogether.

Update: Because Tom asked, and because I felt like this post wasn't quite long enough, I thought I'd expand on my thoughts on dualism a little bit.

I personally don't know that I subscribe to dualism. But I don't think I'm really committed to monism, either. My issue with Dawkins is that he just acts like dualism is obviously wrong, but in fact that is one of the central and most contentious questions in contemporary metaphysics.

I think dualism's got problems - most notably, a dualist has got to give some account of how it is that an essentially non-physical thing can interact causally with a physical thing (without running into conservation of energy problems, no less!) But dualism also has some very powerful arguments going for it.

The gist of the problem was formulated with force by Nagel, in that "Bat" article I linked to.
I have said that the essence of the belief that bats have experience is that there is something that it is like to be a bat. Now we know that most bats (the microchiroptera, to be precise) perceive the external world primarily by sonar, or echolocation, detecting the reflections, from objects within range, of their own rapid, subtly modulated, high-frequency shrieks. Their brains are designed to correlate the outgoing impulses with the subsequent echoes, and the information thus acquired enables bats to make precise discriminations of distance, size, shape, motion, and texture comparable to those we make by vision. But bat sonar, though clearly a form of perception, is not similar in its operation to any sense that we possess, and there is no reason to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine. This appears to create difficulties for the notion of what it is like to be a bat. We must consider whether any method will permit us to extrapolate to the inner life of the bat from our own case, and if not, what alternative methods there may be for understanding the notion.

Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited. It will not help to try to imagine that one has webbing on one's arms, which enables one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one's mouth; that one has very poor vision, and perceives the surrounding world by a system of reflected high-frequency sound signals; and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one's feet in an attic. In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task. I cannot perform it either by imagining additions to my present experience, or by imagining segments gradually subtracted from it, or by imagining some combination of additions, subtractions, and modifications.


It is difficult to understand what could be meant by the objective character of an experience, apart from the particular point of view from which its subject apprehends it. After all, what would be left of what it was like to be a bat if one removed the viewpoint of the bat?

Reducing the mind down to physical facts about the body isn't like, say, reducing proteins down to individual amino acids, he thinks, because mental phenomena are necessarily subjective, while the physicalist project is aimed at moving toward ever-increasing objectivity. I can imagine, at best, what it would be like for me to be a bat, but no amount of physical knowledge could possibly let me know what it's like for the bat. This isn't a problem about being able to reproduce neurological states; it's a problem about being able to actually occupy a point of view that's not your own.

I think Nagel identifies a very real problem here, but Frank Jackson probably did it more clearly in "What Mary Didn't Know", the central argument of which is this:

Mary is a girl who is locked up in a black and white room without windows, where she is taught every physical fact about the world (using, of course, only black and white materials.) If it is actually possible to explain everything in the world in terms of physical facts, Mary knows everything there is to know.

Presumably, though, if Mary is then let out of the room, she will learn something new: namely, what it is like to see, for instance, red.

The underlying concern in both cases is that mental phenomena seem to have these subjective properties - "qualia", in the jargon - that you just can't get at with any quantity of physical knowledge. It's difficult to see how any set of physical facts could possibly lead to knowledge about what a mental phenomenon is like.

Of course, the way that philosophy works is that a lot of very smart people - Dawkins's buddy Daniel Dennett, for instance - have come up with really brilliant reasons why we shouldn't think that Mary learns anything new at all when she leaves her room. But it's not like the case has been closed, and my only real problem was with Dawkins acting like it was.

For my own part, I have physicalist sympathies, and I get the impression that monism generally is on the rise these days. But I am by no means confident that I could ever know what being a bat is like for a bat, and I think that's a real dilemma.


Tommaso Sciortino said...

Wierd. I was thinking of posting on a subject you touch on. I happen to believe that everything is reducible to physics. More concretely, a sufficiently advanced atomic-level computer simulation of a person would be indistinguishable from a regular person and would have a claim on "subjective consciousness, sensory appearances, thought, value, purpose, and will" as a real-world person. I think maybe you need to elaborate on why you think that's not the case.

Paul said...

I added to the post some stuff on dualism generally, which I don't really subscribe to in the first place, but the issue about computer simulations of people is separate. If you mean that devices constructed physically just like people could have subjective consciousness, that seems pretty plausible to me. I gather that's what you mean, but many people I think mean something more general, like, "If my desktop computer gets powerful enough, eventually it'll come to life!", and I think that's got to be wrong.

Harold said...

Paul, I'm pleased to hear that Nagel is brilliant not only on the printed page. I've been enjoying The View From Nowhere, provoked to read it after reading his review of Dawkins. I've blogged a little about various reviews of Dawkins's book, and was also glad to see that your take is approximately the same as that of the blogger at Higgaion, whose criticism seemed good even though at the end of the day he's more willing than I am to believe stuff without evidence.

Diego said...

I'm atheist, too. And I lean toward monism, though subjectivity is quite amazing and puzzling, especially on acid. But I wonder why you think it'd be better to get rid religion altogether. Correct me if I'm wrong, but is the argument this?

Religion is irrational.
Irrationality is bad.
If religion were subtracted, you'd get that much less irrationality.
You'd get that much less bad.

If so, what about nonreligious sources of irrationality? Wouldn't Hume's problem of induction remain? Are mistakes not practically built into perception and behavior?

How much of the bad in the world owes to religion and how much to common miscalculations? How much to evolutionary psychology? How much to group dynamics? How much to the anarchic inter-state system? Would getting rid of religion really make a meaningful contribution to the reduction of bad in the world?

Would it not also remove the happiness that religion and religious activity brings to many people? What is the quantity of that good relative to the quantity of the bad.

How do you define bad and good?

Matt S. said...

In response to your question I think I have an answer. Believing that a computer which is an "atomic-level" simulation (or in the technical jargon "functionally equivalent" simulation)is concious doesn't show that everything is reducible to physics. There is still the open question about why this particular physical arrangement of matter should have subjective experience at all. It's just as mysterious that we have subjective experience right now because we, like the computer, are made of individual non-subjective particles. This is the problem Nagel is talking about. Even if your computer is concious, materialism cannot account for it. The solutions to the problem are interesting. They are summarized by two positions (with a million subtle variations).

Solution 1: Conciousness does not really exist. All that exists are the structure and functions of material.

(I, as well as most people, find this option very counterintuitive.)

Solution 2: Subjectivity is somehow a different and FUNDAMENTAL part of reality, on the same level of existemce as matter, space and time.

(I believe that a version of this is correct, though the details are very murky.)

Hope this is thought provoking. Maybe you'll have to rethink your metaphysics a bit. If not, I'd love to hear why.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

I just don't understand how you're using "Consciousness" here. As far as I'm concerned "Consciousness" is a word we use to describe a certain emergent property which arises from completely naturalistic processes. Perhaps you mean free-will? If that's what you meant then rest assured: I don't believe in free-will.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

I should add, I think that a lot of people grossly overestimate the consequences of rejecting free-will. It's philosophically useless.

Matt S. said...


Well, free will is a different topic; one I don't think easily dismissed (and certainly not philosophically useless!) But, let's not get into that here. One can still believe that "consciousness" is something above and beyond the physical while still deny Free Will. The reason I do not believe in physicalism is for a reason that you mention (albeit unknowingly) in your last post. The concept of emergence. No where else in nature do we see anything emerge from physical processes that have, theoretically, no reductive relation to that physical things microphysical parts. Since we can imagine a system having the exact atomic make-up as a person and yet not "experiencing," it seems that conciousness would be an emergent property that bears no foundational relation to the physical constituients. For example, water does not EMERGE from H2O, rather our concept of "water" is expressed reductively by the chemical name of H2O. They are the same thing, and we understand WHY and HOW they are the same thing. This analogy does not hold for processes in the brain. If we notice that when a person sees the color red certain nuerons fire in the brain there is nevertheless an explanatory gap between the phyisical motion and the subjective experience. It simply isn't good enough to say, well--they are just the same thing after all--because you have explained nothing other than correlation between two different modes of reality. Correlation does not explain away the "hard problem," here. The problem of subjectivity existing at all. Objective reality and subjective experience are two modalities of existence and the latter can never be explained away by the former beyond empirical correlation. This is why I believe subjectivity to be something fundamental about the world, much the way space, time, and matter is..after all, we ask not for an explanation for them.

P.S-This is fun. I look forward to your response.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Why don't you send me your e-mail address? I'm *my last name*

Jp said...

Sorry Tommaso, you've missed the point. A simulation of thinking just is not thinking. Unless of course you think that a simulation of a rain storm will get you wet.


Tommaso Sciortino said...

Ah yes, "reasoning by metaphor". Very slick JP. A simulation of a rain storm can't get you wet but a simulated sunny day might cheer you up. You see, simulations exhibit some properties of the original but not others. If you want to explain why a simulated person doesn't "think" you're going to have to define thinking in such a way that excludes a simulated brain.

It's not hard to do. For example you can define thinking as only arising from matter with the same chemical composition as human brains. This definition however isn't really that natural. If - like me - you define thought as a reasoning process including inner monologue, predicting hypothetical situations, logic, and such then I don't see how you can say that a quantum simulation of a brain is not thinking.

JP said...

Well Tommaso, at the moment I personally have discovered no real argument of any substance that refutes Searle's Chinese Room. Dennet claims to have, but as Searle comments, it must be one more book away. Simulation is not duplication, moreover, I happen to "believe" that "there is something it is like...". Simulation fails to carry over the essential property of the original, consciousness, unless of course consciousness for you is nothing more than information processing.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Well, as far as I'm concerned the Chinese room doesn't have inner monologue, contemplation of hypothetical, logic, etc. So it's pretty clearly not thinking and isn't conscious. The Chinese room may be a good at pointing out the flaws of the Turing test, but it has no bearing on whether an atomic simulation of a man is conscious.

As for "there is something it is to be like" I really just wish people would stop acting as if that's a meaningful phrase. It isn't. It's a convenient way for people to export their bias about thought and pretend it is logical even though in the end it relies on a fundamental "feeling" that something has consciousness and something else is not. If you insist I play your game then fine: I feel that "there is something it is to be like" a simulated man. So, now that we disagree on the ungrammatical test of "something it is to be" why don't you explain why a simulated man doesn't count.

Your final statement begs the question. I'm claiming that a simulation *does* have the property of consciousness. I've explained *why* I hold this position (it has to do with how I define "thought"). If you disagree it's *not* enough for you to just claim a simulation isn't conscious. You'll have to actually give me an argument for it.

JP said...

Tommaso, the fact that the chinese room is not thinking, that it does not add any intentionality to the only thing in the room that has intentionality, is precisely Searle's point. Programs are entirely syntactical, minds have content (semantics). The Chinese room is not about consciousness, the point is that the ability to simulate behaviour does not entail nor is necessary for semantics. My confusion over your position concerns your understanding of a simulated man.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Ah! Perhaps I should clarify then. When I say "simulated man" I mean a hypothetical atomic-level simulation of a human being. This is not so far-out: Atomic level simulations of whole viruses have already been made so it's not that crazy to postulate a large number of regular silicon-chip computers being able to simulate a person.

The point of this thought-experiment is to suss out those who define "consciousness" in a logically rigorous way and those who believe in "the soul" or "magical fairy the lives in your brain but that science can't detect" or "psychon that follows experiential laws, controlled by certain physical arrangements, some of which allow for more and more complex "experiences," peaking in complexity, as far as we know, with the human brain."

You may laugh, but that last one is am actual quote.

Mr Ant said...

Just arrived here three years late after searching for the Nagel review of God Delusion. Just wanted to say brilliant post. I remember reading about Nagel's bat and black and white Mary at University and it was a great pleasure to come back to them after so long.

Like you I feel very uncertain on the dualism monism question. Did you ever get a chance to read much berkeley? I know idealism is very out these days, but I always wondered whether there mightn't be something in it. It's a thought that nags at me all the more as I learn about the deep uncertainties at the heart of physics, and the huge difficulties we still have in fitting scientific models to reality...

Anyway, thanks for a great read