Posts Tagged ‘Dawkins’

In our last Philosophy Cafe, we invited Dr. Arthur Schafer, head of the Centre for Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba, to talk about whether there are moral absolutes. Schafer is a prominent commentator on ethical issues here in Canada, and  recently invited the cognitive/evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker to lecture at Winnipeg’s new Museum of Human Rights.

Always engaging and provocative, Schafer argued that as long as we had enough facts about a situation, we would steer toward the right action, or at least know what the right action is not. He gave the example of a head hunter in Papua New Guinea. Why do they insist on harvesting the soul of the opponents head, each time a new baby is born? Because they have imperfect knowledge about the fact that harvesting souls is impossible, and hence headhunting is redundant (and so terribly politically incorrect). If the headhunter knew this, they would probably (hopefully) stop headhunting. Ethics is defined by how we view harm reduction in each individual situation, based on factual knowledge.

To me this represented the liberal scientific anti-religious view of life quite admirably. We know what is good based on a utilitarian calculus of harm. The key here is that harm is always defined according to modern liberal conceptions of the individual and of rights. We can respect other cultures’ erroneous and harmful views, because they are acting in good faith without the factual correct knowledge that we have. Therefore it becomes very important to educate people in empiricism and facts, which can undermine harmful ways of thinking.

But if good ethics are based on “facts”, how do we come to knowledge of the intrinsic dignity of the individual – of human rights? I suppose that ethical facts may in the end be reduced to a kind of scientism. Do Pinker, Dawkins, and company view the idea of human rights as merely a useful meme that allows for human flourishing? Do people have responsibility and freedom to act morally, or merely the illusion of responsibility for reproductive advantage?

Since I’m currently reading Daniel Dennett’s book “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” in which he extols the “meme” interpretation of culture, I couldn’t resist Roger Scruton’s article criticizing the same. Scruton is a close student of the arts and of philosophy and often says what many people lack the courage to articulate (and articulate clearly). In this New Atlantis article, he does it again:

The theory of the “meme” threatens to debunk the whole realm of high culture by making culture into a thing that survives in the human brain by its own efforts, as it were, and which has no more intrinsic significance than any other network of adaptations.

Scruton provides a sustained argument for the idea of a human person and their subjective experiences, and therefore freedom and moral responsibility.

Even if there are units of memetic information propagated from brain to brain, it is not these units that come before the mind in conscious thinking. Memes stand to ideas as genes stand to organisms: if they exist at all (and no evidence has been given by Dawkins or anyone else that they do) then their ceaseless and purposeless reproduction is of no concern to culture. Ideas, by contrast, form part of the conscious network of critical thinking. We assess them for their truth, their validity, their moral propriety, their elegance, completeness, and charm. We take them up and discard them, sometimes in the course of our search for truth and explanation, sometimes in our search for meaning and value. And both activities are essential to us. Although culture isn’t science, it is just as much a conscious activity of the critical mind. Culture — both the high culture of art and music, and the wider culture embodied in a moral and religious tradition — sorts ideas by their intrinsic qualities, helps us to feel at home in the world and to resonate to its personal significance.

Other, perhaps reactionary, critics of the meme concept have similar things to say. One such critique comes from David Bentley Hart, the orthodox theologian who wields the English language like a scimitar (“Daniel Dennett Hunts the Snark”). He points out that memes are a useful metaphor in the absence of any clear understanding of how evolutionary theory might explain culture and ideas. The propagation of memes functions more like a virus, rather than a function of human consciousness, will, desire, and rational thought. Atheists like Dennett, therefore, easily sidestep the need to refute the content of ideas, particularly ones he disagrees with, such as God and religious faith.

So far, from my reading of Dennett, liberal values like human rights are arbitrarily seen to be “good” (always in quotation marks) for the simple reason that things like eugenics, radical reductionism (E.O. Wilson and company), and the concept of God, are common sensically bad. There is no argument here, only assertion backed by the scientistic metaphor of memes.

More to come on Dennett and ethics.

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Given enough time, can monkeys typing randomly come up the works of Shakespeare?…or even just 1 play?….  or just 1 sonnet?

The “infinite monkey theorem” has a long pedigree in the history of ideas – starting with Aristotle, and showing up in Jonathan Swift, Bacon, Huxley, Jorge Luis Borges, and Dawkins. There was even a real live demo of monkeys banging on (or smashing rather) typewriters in the UK. (They weren’t able to produce a single English word –  even “a”).

This week I used the poor old typing monkeys to illustrate the pros and cons of intuition. Does our hunch of what is possible change when we examine mathematically how small the chance actually is?

In AP Psych,  Thinking and Cognition unit, I gave a Cole’s notes summary of Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking: Fast and Slow. Kahneman is a cognitive psychologist famous for showing how economic decision theory has not taken account the often irrational nature of our intuitions, which are influenced by recent thoughts, events, and environments. For example, participants in a study who were asked to describe their overall life happiness were told to go make a photocopy in another room. Once they returned the psychologists gave them a life happiness questionnaire. In the experiment group, psychologists placed a dime on the photocopying machine. To their amazement, the experiment group reported a higher happiness in life than their counterparts! Their judgment of the whole was influenced by a recent (and minuscule) chance event that changed slightly their thought process.

We’re also less reasonable than we think, often falling back on gullible intuition to conserve energy. For example, consider the following:

A bat and a ball cost 1.10, and the bat was 1 dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

If you answered 10 cents, you’ve fallen prey to your misguided intuition, which associates the 1 dollar difference with the easy calculation between $1.00 and 10 cents. If you think about it before jumping to conclusions, you’ll realize that if the ball cost 10 cents and the bat was 1 dollar more, then the bat would have to cost 1.10, and the total would be 1.20. But you’re in luck, because when presented to students at Ivy League schools such as Harvard, more than have of the participants made the same mistake. In my AP Psych class of 23, only 1 student caught the problem right away.

OK, back to typing monkeys. I thought of using this example after reading about atheist philosopher Anthony Flew’s famous “conversion” to theism. This conversion, also experienced by the likes of Einstein, Schrodinger, Dirac, and Heisenberg (to varying degrees), hinges on the fundamentally rational nature of the universe: 1. science assumes the rationality of the universe, 2. the universe seems to reflect some kind of order, accessible to reason (or given by reason if you’re an idealist), 3. the inherent order of the universe seems to contradict the doctrine that all events are entirely by chance, 4. Our experience of order is more real than our experience of random chance, 5. It is more rational to assume their is an ordering logic to the universe (whatever that may be) than that everything is entirely by chance.

Anthony Flew, an atheist heretic, was said to be just an old man in his 80s with the jimmies for some kind of piety. That may be the case. Nevertheless, the example he cites from the scientist Gerald Schroeder is a great illustration:

What are the chances that monkeys will type a single Shakespeare sonnet?  Well, the smallest word in the English alphabet is “a”, but you need a space in front and back, so assuming that there are roughly 30 characters on a typewriter, that’s a probability of 30 x 30 x 30 , or 27,000.  Now, how about a sonnet? “Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s Day” is 488 characters long. There are 26 letters in the alphabet, so the probability of generating each character in sequence is 26(power 488). In base 10, that’s 10 (power 690).

Just to give you an idea how big that number is, there are only 10 (power 80) estimated particles in the known universe. There are not enough particles in the universe to write down the trials – you’d be off by 10 (power of 600).

If each particle were somehow converted into a microcomputer and did 488 trials a million times per second, the number of trials you get from the beginning of time is 10 (power 90). You’d be off again by a factor of 10 (600 power).  “Yet the world just thinks that the monkeys can do it every time.”

Again, this is simply 1 of Shakespeare’s sonnets, never the complexity of DNA or ecosystems, and it would be impossible for the entire universe converted to computers to generate it within the history of the universe.

So… how did my students react? Well, some were impressed. But most kept to their hunch – “if it is at all possible, and the universe is infinite, then sure, it’s possible for monkeys to come up with a Shakespeare sonnet.”

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