New talk by Dawkins on taking courage from Darwinism

December 11, 2019 • 10:00 am

Reader Michael called my attention to this 40-minute talk from October’s CSICon in Las Vegas that was posted just this morning by the Center For Inquiry. There are only 150 views so far. First, the YouTube notes:

Compare two ways of knowing the world. On the one hand theologians claim that the universe and all that’s in it was divinely made and can be understood through faith and revelation. On the other hand there is science, and the scientific method which extols evidence, and demonstrated, repeatable outcomes.

Science knows a lot, but has the humility to acknowledge what it still doesn’t know, and is working on. Theology, by contrast, has contributed literally nothing to our knowledge, and hubristically makes stuff up.

Science is continually surprising, even shocking. Darwin dealt the biggest shock of all when he showed that the prodigious complexity of life has a stunningly simple explanation. Darwin’s courage should arm us to face the remaining deep puzzles of existence: how did the universe and the laws of physics originate? Why is there something rather than nothing?

Inspired by Darwin, this lecture celebrates the godless world-view as not just scientifically valid but courageous. We need intellectual courage to resist facile non-explanations. And we need moral courage to eschew comforting but empty illusions and face into the cold but bracing wind of reality.

Richard’s talk is actually two talks. The first discusses the contrast between religion and science, reprising, I have to say, many of the points I made in Faith Versus Fact. Dawkins notes, for instance, that some of the truth statements of Christianity, like the bodily assumption of Mary into Heaven, were simply made up by Church authorities—without even any scriptural justification. He also dilates on the minutely detailed rules of behavior promulgated by some branches of Islam: behavior that is both senseless and unjustified (he uses breast-feeding as an Islamic index or being a “relative”). He calls this religious authoritarianism “control freakery,” and contrasts the dogmatic certainty of religion with the tentativeness of science. He concludes that “religion has contributed exactly zero to what we know.”

Of course I don’t have Dawkins’s eloquence, and you’ll be amused at his contrast between how theologians versus scientists would answer the question, “Is second-hand smoke dangerous?” Finally, he calls out the Left for coddling religion, saying, “I find it nothing short of disgusting the way the Liberal Left in America, people who should be on our side, bend over backwards to overlook the illiberal, homophobic bigotry of Islamism.”

The second part of the talk gets to the title’s point: we should draw courage from Darwin. But how do we do that?

Richard’s solution is to list the “deep questions of science”, and admit that, in contrast to the certainty of theology, we don’t have the answers. These questions include how does our brain’s physiology lead to the subjective phenomenon of consciousness, where do the laws of physics come from, and why is there something rather than nothing. (He alludes to Lawrence Krauss’s solution to this question, but admits that Krauss’s definition of “nothing” is contested.) The intellectual courage that we should derive from Darwin is the courage to work on these deep problems, confident that there is a naturalistic solution even if we ultimately can’t find it. It is the courage to accept the possibility “that something as complex as life and the origin of the universe could have just happened.” It is the courage “to kick oneself out of our emotional incredulity and persuade yourself that there is no rational choice beyond accepting a naturalistic explanation, to think that solutions can be found to these deep problems.”

But why draw the courage from Darwin rather than science itself or pure naturalism? Because, argues Richard, Darwin already solved the biggest problem, the one that people thought could never be solved by reason: how the illusion of cosmic design could be explained in a purely naturalistic fashion. If Darwin could do that, then we should not quail before “lesser” problems like consciousness, dark matter, or the origin of life. As Richard says, Darwin’s success “should armor us with courage to tackle the remaining problems.”

And atheism should armor us with the moral courage: the courage to face our finitiude, and the courage to live our lives knowing that we’re not being overseen and protected by a celestial father.

It’s a good talk, but many of us who have been steeped in Dawkins’s speeches and books may not hear much that is new. Still, remember that he’s speaking not to the readership here, but to many people who can benefit from his kind of inspiration. As for Darwin, well, I greatly admire what he did, persisting in finding a naturalistic answer to the diversity and change of living creatures. Am I inspired by that to tackle harder problems? Well, I don’t tackle harder problems, but if I was inspired by anything when I was doing research, it was by pure curiosity. As scientists we’re inculcated with the idea that scientific problems have naturalistic solutions, and that comes unconsciously and not as an explicit lesson from Darwin. In fact there are many scientists working on hard problems who don’t even know much about Darwin.

But for this audience, yes, perhaps the lesson of Darwin should impart confidence that things appearing intractable almost surely have naturalistic solutions. I myself would have listed a bunch of problems that once were thought insuperable, requiring the intervention of a God, but now are known to have purely naturalistic solutions.



27 thoughts on “New talk by Dawkins on taking courage from Darwinism

    1. The frequent and obvious riposte is that science is also equally unable to prove that there are no leprechauns, unicorns, or elves of Rivendell. I suspect that logical retort carries no weight among those who routinely avoid logic and reason, and have been trained to do so from the age of five or so.

    2. Yes, absence of evidence for x, in the presence of strong arguments that such evidence would exist if x did, is perfectly good, the best possible in most cases, evidence of absence of x. And science cannot ‘prove’ non-existence in any stronger sense in any interesting case (to be utterly unoriginal).

      Perhaps the non-existence of a non-invisible or non-smelly or non-touchable or non-silent horse-sized unicorn stealing sips of my orange juice, right here now beside me, is more strongly provable.

    3. …and Religion has ‘proved’ that there are many, many gods, at least some of which cannot exist alongside each other.

  1. A big reason for this problem is the lack of evolution education in elementary and high school. And the reason for this is religion.

  2. I do think that “Darwinism” is a powerful idea that is useful for understanding the natural world beyond biology. A good example I am reading about now is “quantum darwinism” by Wojciech Zurek who uses a process called einselection to solve the measurement problem in quantum theory. The so-called pointer states that we can observe are selected from the other superimposed quantum states we never observe because of their stability and ability to survive decoherence. I think this is a good example of what Dawkins means by using Darwinism to courageously confront the deep and hard questions that seem unsolvable to us. Of course, at this time, quantum darwinism is still speculative.

    1. Will it not always be speculative?

      I ask because the measurement (so-called) problem is stated by most to be a problem, if that, in philosophy, not a scientifically decidable matter.
      Everettian quantum mechanics simply dissolves the problem, that is, it is a non-problem with that attitude, an attitude which takes science, in particular quantum mechanics, to be an effort to explain the world, not merely to be an effort to give an algorithm which says which numbers will arise when you do an experiment, or perhaps just observe something. And it logically implies the intuitively peculiar existence of “many semi-classical worlds”. It does not assume their existence as any sort of axiom.

      So I guess I am wondering what observation or experiment or philosophical kind of argument would actually move Quantum Darwinism from being speculative to being considered correct, so that Everettian, and DeBroglie-Bohmian, and Copenhagen-figleafian quantum theories will all be considered incorrect, even though they all give the same, so far correct, numbers.

        1. Perhaps these guys at Arizona State understand something about Q.D. not being merely an interpretation, something of which I, also no expert, am unaware.

        1. I understand that the Everett many-worlds (so-called) interpretation also relies on decoherence, esp. the work of Zurek, for solving the ‘preferred basis’, AKA pointer states, question. I realize this postdates Everett’s thesis by a few decades.

  3. Darwin dealt the biggest shock of all when he showed that the prodigious complexity of life has a stunningly simple explanation.

    Just to be a contrarian, I’d posit that the biggest shock in terms of scientific revolutions was the so-called “Copernican” Revolution, when the concept that the Earth (and humans) was not the centre of the universe was posited.

    You could argue whether it was Copernicus’ presenting of the idea, Kepler’s demonstration that it models the complicated heavenly motions well, or Galileo’s observation of the Moons of Jupiter orbiting something that was not the Earth, which was the really important point. But since the events were within a century of each other, at this range it doesn’t make much difference.

    Once the Copernican dethronement of humankind from the centre of the universe had happened, dethroning humankind from the centre of the biological world as Darwin did (well, that’s an arguable point) was less of a shock.

    The next revolution looming in front of us is discovering that Earth is not the only planet with life on it. The “Martian fossils” of meteorite ALH84001 gave us dry run of that possibility, but didn’t play out. However, people alive today may get to know the answer to whether the icy moons contain biological systems. That would be very interesting to know. How the god-squad would react to it, I don’t know. I bet they don’t want to think about it. It would be hilarious to watch them squirm as they try to justify their “revelation” not including that little datum.

    1. “ Darwin did..”

      Not to be a fuss-budget, but ‘..Darwin and Wallace..’, with Darwin having far more evidence and careful argument for natural selection.
      Maybe most squirming will occur if evidence for intelligent life, whatever that means, is discovered.
      If even just plain life is never discovered, I think science would definitely have a problem, what with all these trillions of planets etc.

      1. Do we have an a priori definition of “intelligence” that excludes, say, cetaceans? Or, for that matter, cats who have domesticated humans.

    2. Oh, I don’t know! I bet they would say it was evidence of god’s ineffable grace, and claim it as an even greater demonstration of its existence.

      And if we ever get visited by a spaceshipful of little green men, the first reaction of the godbotherers will be to try to evangelise them.

  4. In other Dawkins news, this week’s edition of the Times Literary Supplement has an awful, awful article titled “Idle components: An argument against Richard Dawkins,” by Rupert Shortt, the Religion editor of the TLS:

    It’s an actually an excerpt from Shortt’s new book “Outgrowing Dawkins: God for Grown-Ups.” How right Dawkins was to refer to such authors as fleas!

    Shortt’s braindead article of course tries to square evolution with God (“Darwin himself believed in teleology”). He tries impugning Dawkin’s scientific accomplishments by citing Denis Noble and Simon Conway Morris, and then has the gall to write that “The evidence suggests that people of faith have contributed sufficiently well to mainstream biology to make the picture painted by Dawkins unbalanced. He has therefore misled his readers”!

    I would dearly love to see PCC take apart Shortt’s towering garbage-pile, but I understand if he has much better (and much more enjoyable) things to do!

    1. Woh. That is bad. I’ll have to assume there are plenty of writers out there who have run out of things to say. They pick up on some feeling they have and turn it into an argument devoid of any rigor and hope for the best. The publisher, on the other hand, is looking at his deadline and can see a way through to start work on the next issue. Everyone gets payed.

    2. Dear me. The whole article is a collection of non-sequiturs. For instance, he asserts that:

      “intelligence…has likewise evolved independently several times. That would relate to an intellectual lucidity to things, which evolution explores. The rationality of the universe affords human rationality, if you will”. That is the hallmark of the armchair intellectual, who is content to construct verbal webs, rather than get involved in the harder task of trying to work out what is actually going on in the universe.

      As Revelator60 points out, he also asserts that people of faith have made contributions to biology that serve to undermine Darwin. I would challenge him to name three – or even one – of them, whose assertions are fully accepted by their fellow biologists.

  5. Unfortunately these talks acquire the feel of a sermon which puts me on edge. 😜
    Losing your religion for the indoctrinated is to go from certainty to uncertainty and to my mind, no more so when faced with the finality of your own mortality, which for me, is the crux of the matter.
    If we ever cure death, which by all accounts is not an unreasonable question these days, lt would be interesting as to where religion goes. 👉🖕
    Technological advances, new knowledge squeezing the life out of static holy texts, tedium of listening to the same old fairytale for hundreds of years.
    I look forward to it for some future generation.

  6. There is a simple reason why most religious people seem to dislike Richard Dawkins a great deal. He tells them the truth and there is nothing more upsetting to religious people than the truth.

    I have a sister who is unfortunately an evangelical something. Once she was Lutheran, now I don’t know, maybe SDA. Like many religious people in the Midwest, they get more extreme everyday. But you just mention Richard Dawkins and they go nuts.

  7. where do the laws of physics come from

    That phrasing sort of suggests that first the laws of physics were different, then they became the ones we know and love. There was a time around a decade ago when many scientists thought the fine structure constant was changing. So it looked like God not only plays quantum dice with the universe, He changes the rules in the middle of the game!

    But later data showed that the fine structure constant, as far as we can tell, hasn’t budged.

    Even if we rephrase the question to remove the time-dependence, I don’t think you can explain laws of physics except with other (simpler) laws of physics. You might be able to use anthropic principles to explain why the laws of physics *in our Hubble volume* (for example) are a particular way (because without them, we wouldn’t exist), but that’s a partial explanation at best.

    religion has contributed exactly zero to what we know

    That might be a little generous 😀

    1. ‘Laws of physics changing in time’ sounds exactly like NONconservation of energy, from my, admittedly naive, point of view. IIRC, the connection between conservation laws and symmetries goes both ways, i.e. Noether’s theorem in its best phrased form is an ‘if and only if’. So that supposed evolution of basic laws would be surprising, to say the least. But someone could perhaps correct my naivety.

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