Thursday, May 28, 2009

On Being Certain, and what Dawkins thinks he knows.

"On Being Certain" by Robert A Burton is a book I wish more people would read. So much of the so-called debate in the country is people who are certain they are right shouting at each other and trading ad hominem attacks. Burton goes in depth to pick apart the inner workings of that feeling of certainty we are all prone to and exposes it for what it really is. It's a sensation which arises from unconscious mental processes, processes which are invisible to our conscious mind. We may know we feel certain, but we mostly don't have a clue as to why. And even if we know some of the reasons why, we have no way of knowing if we have the whole picture or not. So humans should let go of their habit of considering their feeling of certainty to be evidence of correctness.

There's a lot more to say about this book, and I'd like to come back to the subject in another post, but right now I wanted to point out a small error in the book. In a section criticizing a number of people in the public sphere for an excess of certainty, he talks about a quote from Richard Dawkins:

"They say to me, how can you bear to be alive if everything is so cold and empty and pointless? Well, at an academic level I think it is - but that doesn't mean you can live your life like that. One answer is that I feel privileged to be allowed to understand why the world exists, and why I exist, and I want to share it with other people."

This quote is from an article about Dawkins published in The Guardian, available here. I don't know what material the quote is excerpted from. Burton has a number of things to say about this, the one I particularly take issue with is this:

"Dawkins ... believes ... that he is mentally capable of understanding why the world and we exist"

I can understand the criticism of one is only working from that quote. I read the Dawkins quote, and, on the face of it, it sounds like he is claiming a pretty amazing piece of knowledge. However, if one assumes that he is using why as in why there is something rather than nothing, then it really doesn't sound like anything the Dawkins I am familiar with would say. In searching the web for thecontext of the quote, I came across an interview with Dawkins on which is very relevant, because in it he explains what he means when he uses the word "why" in a statement like that.

Q: What about the old adage that science deals with the "how" questions and religion deals with the "why" questions?

Dawkins: I think that's remarkably stupid, if I may say so. What on earth is a "why" question? There are "why" questions that mean something in a Darwinian world. We say, why do birds have wings? To fly with. And that's a Darwinian translation of the evolutionary process whereby the birds that had wings survived better than the birds without. They don't mean that, though. They mean "why" in a deliberate, purposeful sense. So when you say religion deals with "why" questions, that begs the entire question that we're arguing about. Those of us who don't believe in religion -- supernatural religion -- would say there is no such thing as a "why" question in that sense. Now, the mere fact that you can frame an English sentence beginning with the word "why" does not mean that English sentence should receive an answer. I could say, why are unicorns hollow? That appears to mean something, but it doesn't deserve an answer.

This cuts right to the heart of the misunderstanding between Burton and Dawkins. When Dawkins uses the word "why" he means the kinds of why that we can know, not the metaphysical why. I pointed this out to Burton in a correspondence via his web site. Burton graciously acknowledged his misunderstanding. He communicated back:

OOOOPs--- you are right about Dawkins' use of why-- I had actually read that Salon interview but didn't catch his distinction. I think I was bothered by his condescending dismissal of the less enlightened and overread his use of 'why.' a perfect example of being hoisted on one's own petard.

Burton certainly practices what he preaches about keeping an open mind and accepting new information. Dawkins can seem a bit condescending; I can see that as a fair criticism. Dawkins expects a lot out of people, maybe too much. I'm a bit on the fence on the rest of Burton's criticism of Dawkins. While I find Burton's breakdown of the process of being certain of great use in tempering views and opinions, I don't feel that Dawkins goes too far.

I find Dawkins' sort of certainty useful in the world. Burton talks about how the pleasant feeling of certainty serves a useful function in our mental processes. Without it we would not know when to stop trying to solve the problem. A measured amount of certainty in the public debate is necessary to just get the ideas out there and in the mix. I don't feel Dawkins oversteps what is necessary for the public debate, but then I tend to agree with Dawkins' point of view.

One of the reasons I don't find Dawkins' style of certainty objectionable is that it centers around ideas worked out over a long scientific career filled with debate and a constant stream of new data. Dawkins has stated many times that he holds in the highest regard the ability to admit one is wrong. Dawkins is sharp minded and has thought through a lot of hard problems in his life, but if one could present him with compelling evidence that he is wrong one some point, he would be glad to admit it and thank you for the correction.

Dawkins recounts in The God Delusion what he considers one of the most influential moments in his budding scientific career:

I have previously told the story of a respected elder statesman of the Zoology Department at Oxford when I was an undergraduate. For years he had passionately believed, and taught, that the Golgi Apparatus (a microscopic feature of the interior of cells) was not real: an artefact, an illusion. Every Monday afternoon it was the custom for the whole department to listen to a research talk by a visiting lecturer. One Monday, the visitor was an American cell biologist who presented completely convincing evidence that the Golgi Apparatus was real. At the end of the lecture, the old man strode to the front of the hall, shook the American by the hand and said - with passion - 'My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.' We clapped our hands red. No fundamentalist would ever say that. In practice, not all scientists would. But all scientists pay lip service to it as an ideal - unlike, say, politicians who would probably condemn it as flip-flopping. The memory of the incident I have described still brings a lump to my throat.

I'm willing to accept a bit of certainty from a man who gets a lump in his throat over that.

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