July 8, 2010

Richard Dawkins: Activist or Philosopher?

I'm back after the long weekend and ready to post. This topic came to me through an unresolved argument that I had with one of my professors, who was teaching a medieval philosophy class. It was a one on one class, where I still had to do a presentation on at least two topics. As one of those topics I chose Aquinas's proofs for the existence of  God, which for the most part can be found here.

The start of the presentation went pretty well and I broke down the arguments and talked about them, but then I ran into a problem that really wasn't anticipated. I started giving quotes from famous people today and their reasoning for belief in God, and compared them with Aquinas's proofs. This was an attempt to show how the discussion really hasn't progressed very much in the past centuries, then I pointed out how Richard Dawkins still felt the need to respond to some of those proofs in The God Delusion. Well this was apparently was a direction that the professor felt the need to criticize heavily. His main point of contention was that Richard Dawkins was someone arguing from a pre-dictated position; he was an activist or proponent and not a philosopher. Richard Dawkins lost creditably to this professor by being a reputable biologist!

I'm not sure what the ultimate consequences were for being a activist or proponent, but I can assure you that it meant in the very least that this professor didn't feel the need to take him seriously in the realm of philosophy. He obviously felt that there was something disingenuous with the position Dawkins was taking and because of that the message he was presenting could be belittled, something I couldn't disagree more about.

He was arguing that Richard Dawkins scientific background was making his philosophical views and that he couldn't have any other kind of view because of his background; Science was poisoning the well.

This is like the burden between a denialist and a skeptic.  A denialist can write arguments off for things they know aren't and cannot be true. Have you looked at Dean Radins research into peoples ability to change the randomness of a random number generator? No, people can't affect machines like that, Dean Radins a crank! While a skeptic has to look at each argument and evaluate it on individual merit no matter where it comes from.  Have you heard about Sheldrake's work with dogs knowing when their owner will return? Yes I have looked into it and it seems interesting, but I don't think it really proves anything and there were some methodological contentions that I have with the work that was performed.

There is a wold of difference between these two positions and it really shows what the burden of being a skeptic is.  As a skeptic I can't write off a belief someone else has without looking into it myself, or looking up information other people have gathered. The belief then has to pass a reasonable level of a burden of proof the differs depending on the belief. My professor was a denialist; he didn't need to listen to Richard Dawkins because of the background he was coming from, and he is much worse off for taking that position.

Not only does he not get the experience of seeing and thinking about the arguments Dawkins is bringing up, he is also losing some of his intellectual integrity. He is achieving the intellectual dishonesty he is accusing Dawkins of by becoming a denialist.

Is Richard Dawkins an activist or philosopher? The answer really irrelevant. His methods are rigorous and his thinking is well thought out. He has done enough to at least earn a place at the table and to be listened to. 

Thanks for reading,
- the moral skeptic

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