Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Is Richard Dawkins a bully for appealing to reason?

Richard Dawkins has been called a bully in a rambling post by theologian Neil Ormerod. He argues that
....Dawkins and his multitude of followers feel entitled to express such contempt and anger toward religious believers.  Nothing religious believers say can be tolerated because they are at heart irrational human beings; they are free to be otherwise, and in not choosing to be rational they are failing in some sense to be what human beings should be. They are like a watch that does not properly tell the time. They need fixing. And the proper fix is to be more rational, a better human being, and drop their religious beliefs. If these are not Dawkins' and his followers' beliefs about what it means to be human, then all their contempt and anger is nothing more than an attempt at bullying believers, like alpha male primates beating their chests to warn off rivals.
The true face of rationality?

He then goes on to argue that:
However, for many religious traditions this demand for rationality is what is meant by saying that we are "spiritual" beings - that is, we are beings who are not determined simply by their material components, but by something more than mere materiality, by meaning, reason and purpose.
In other words, if humans can make rational choices we must be "spiritual" beings, presumably equipped with immaterial souls that magically endow us with the ability to think and reflect on what we decide to believe is true.
As Dawkins claims, we are just atoms in motion, and all our activities are reducible in principle to the laws of physics. While we may not be able to do so at present, eventually science will find a way to explain all human behaviour.... The whole universe is a purposeless, meaningless set of forces and particles banging into one another according to the laws of physics. How then might Dawkins construe the apparently purposeful appeal to live according to the dictates of reason that is implicit in the aims of his book?
This assumes that for human beings to experience some sense of purpose the universe itself must have purpose. If we are "just" atoms we may as well not make any choices at all! But if Dawkins himself is just a robot with no purpose how is he a bully? By this straw man argument presented by Ormerod, Dawkins is just doing what he is programmed to do. How is this equivalent to bullying? Ormerod seems to think that an appeal to reason is somehow equivalent to the use of intimidation and coercion to get one's own way.

The whole argument is ludicrous and incoherent. "If you believe that it is good for humans to make rational choices then you must believe that we are immaterial spiritual beings, even though there is no rational evidence for this claim." Therefore, to be rational you must be irrational. And what about the problem of dualism? If rationality descends from some immaterial soul, how exactly does an immaterial substance interact with a physical body?[1] Alternatively, maybe we have rationality not because of an immaterial substance which cannot be rationally comprehended, but for the same reason that we have the ability to think and make intelligent decisions. Which might be because we have a brain perhaps?

"If you don't believe the universe has an objective purpose then you cannot have a sense of purpose as a human being." So no objective purpose means that subjective purpose is not possible. Ahh, why exactly? If the universe has no objective purpose does this mean that humans cannot have any values or indeed feelings about what they consider important? Humans do have feelings about what's important, in spite of the fact that we have no way of ever knowing what purpose the universe might even be. So what is wrong with asking people to make rational choices that will lead to better outcomes or that will help to make the world a better place? Theologians have been arguing for millenia that people who choose not to believe in a particular religion will be condemned to an eternity of punishment, just for exercising their "God-given" free will. But Richard Dawkins is a big bully beating his chest and trying to intimidate people just for exhorting people to think critically about what they believe. Perhaps to be fair, some people find having their cherished beliefs questioned very uncomfortable, so trying to get people to think probably seems plain mean.

[1] For a detailed critique of substance dualism, I recommend this video.

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