Saturday, October 21, 2006

Dawkins at KU

Finally getting around to posting about Richard Dawkin's visit last Monday to the University of Kansas. As might be expected most of his talk stuck pretty closely to the points made in his book, The God Delusion. The audience generally received him well and he got two standing ovations.

His major points dealt with what he sees as the improbability of God. He calls God the ultimate 747, in reference to Fred Hoyle's image of a 747 being assembled by chance. Dawkin's argues that if God really does keep tabs on everything in the universe then God must be more complex than the universe and hence even more improbable than life itself. This turns the creationist's favorite probability argument nicely on its head. In a not so subtle dig at Bill Dembski and related ID advocates Dawkins said about God that:

"God tries to get his free lunch and eat it too."

and he calls theistic solutions (that is God) for understanding the Universe "Grotesque amplifications" of the improbability problem.

He spent a lot of time discussing the power of natural selection as a process of accumulation and notes that natural selection rather than design is the alternative to chance and quite correctly I believe summarizes the creationist intelligent design argument as the 'illogic of default' and he had a wonderful syllogism that went something like this:

1. We have theory A and theory B

2. Theory A is very useful and supported by lots of empirical evidence.

3. Theory B is not useful and supported by no evidence.

4. I can't understand how theory A might explain a certain phenomenon.

5. Therefore theory B must be correct.

He makes an interesting contrast, which I am not sure is correct but certainly a good approximation to what creationists believe, between the role of ignorance in science and religion. Scientists readily admit ignorance and it drives scientists on to do research. I like to point out to my students using so called "Cell theory" as an example that a good theory points to its own weaknesses. Gaps in knowledge target scientific research, but in religion ignorance is seen as mystery and for intelligent design this gives victory by default. So in Dawkins' view the creationist is in effect arguing:

"Don't squander precious ignorance by researching it away, let's keep it as mystery"

Another major topic was the Anthropic principle which Dawkins characterizes as having a distinct Darwinian feel to it and these arguments are straight out of his book. He notes that the origin of life maybe highly improbable, but if so, if there are a billion billion planets where life could arise and the chance of life arising is 1 in a billion then the probability of life arising at least once in the universe is close to one. But once life, presumably in the sense of replicating molecules, then natural selection takes over from chance. Chance cannot explain the diversity of life on this planet, the explanation involves natural selection.

Toward the end of the talk he took written questions from the audience. For instance he was asked about Gould's idea that religion and science occupy non overlapping magisteria (NOMA). Dawkins clearly thinks this idea is nonsense and that a universe with God who violate physical law and do miracles would be a quite different place. He speculates that Gould really did not believe in NOMA but was an appeasement tactic that might make political sense. Theologians, in his view, like NOMA since there is no empirical evidence for religious claims.

Dawkins cannot bring himself to make this compromise, and here in he parts company with groups such as Kansas Citizens for Science who tend to accept the idea that science and religion are separate ways of knowing. I find myself in the middle. Science does not deal with questions of individual purpose, or existence of God because these are outside the empirical nature of science. Dawkins of course disagrees. But at the same time I tell my students that if you believe the Earth is only 10,000 years old, and believe in the Biblical flood and other metaphors as literal truth then your religion IS going to conflict with science.

Some local people I have talk with seem upset at Dawkins unwillingness to compromise and that he plays into the creationist argument that evolution leads to atheism. While I disagree with Dawkins on this point, I think in the long run evolutionists would be ill served politically by hiding these beliefs. Dawkins is right not to compromise. It seems to me that the science supporters need to do what I do which is to point out that one does not reject a scientific theory because it upsets you or leads you to question your religious beliefs.

Indeed the final question asked dealt more directly with Dawkins' belief that Darwinism does logically lead to Atheism and the notion that he is possibly acting as a "recruiting agent for the creationists". Dawkins admitted that the creationists would "rightly be gleeful." He observed that today Atheists are the "baddies along with pedophiles" and that hopefully this will change. He sees a shift in society in which Atheists and Agnostics are beginning to speak out. I hope he's right if only because that would signal a social retreat from the Fundamentalist absolutism of the Bush era and the cynical exploitation of religion by the administrations handlers.

Oh yes, I did get some books signed. I would have loved to have him sign my copy of the Selfish Gene but couldn't find it so had to be content with him signing my copies of The Ancestor's Tale and The God Delusion.

Here are some different perspectives of Dawkin's talk:

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