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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Basil's Car ... and Justice

This post is offered in fulfillment of an implied promise I'd made to 'Crude' to "dig up and post my analys/smackdown of Richard Dawkins' "Dangerous Idea"."

Gentle Reader may, at his leisure, peruse Mr Dawkins' "Dangerous Idea" in his essay 'Let's all stop beating Basil's car.'

And, in contrast, here is C.S.Lewis' 'The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.'

There are three main points I wish to make here:
  1. Richard Dawkins is a liar (worse than a mere liar, actually, as I'll explain) ... and that he admits so, in print;
  2. Richard Dawkins' "Dangerous Idea" is inhumane, and anti-human, and anti-justice; it is a sure 'Road to Hell' for any society to operate as though his assertions were true;
  3. Richard Dawkins' atheism compels him to assert these false and wicked things which he doesn't himself believe.
(I'll explain point #1 last) #2 Richard Dawkins' "Dangerous Idea" is inhumane, and anti-human, and anti-justice; it is a sure Road to Hell for any society to operate as though his assertions were true The introduction to Dawkins' essay:
Ask people why they support the death penalty or prolonged incarceration for serious crimes, and the reasons they give will usually involve retribution. There may be passing mention of deterrence or rehabilitation, but the surrounding rhetoric gives the game away. People want to kill a criminal as payback for the horrible things he did. Or they want to give "satisfaction' to the victims of the crime or their relatives. An especially warped and disgusting application of the flawed concept of retribution is Christian crucifixion as "atonement' for "sin'. Retribution as a moral principle is incompatible with a scientific view of human behaviour. ...
Punishment primarily for the sake of "deterrence" or "rehabilitation" is immoral, it is wicked (see Lewis' essay). The proper end of punishment is exactly "retribution," which is to say, "just deserts." Any moral, just, and proper rationale for inflicting punishment on a person must primarily involve the fact that he deserves it; if the punishment should happen to accomplish other good, that is bonus. But notice: Mr Dawkins is trying to raising a moral objection (to be more precise, moralistic, rather than moral) to retribution-as-justice; which is to say, he is objecting to justice, period. He is not putting forth an argument, mind you, but merely making an objection -- though one that gets any force it may ever have from his reader's willingness to be emotionally cowed or shamed by the baseless assertion that one is somehow immoral and/or "unscientific" if one believes that retribution is fit and proper when deserved. On a side note, the Christian understanding of the meaning of the Crucifixion may be incomplete, but that is a very different thing from being flawed, warped, or disgusting. AND -- considering what he wants *you* to believe to be true about the nature of reality -- where does he get off asserting that the Christian understanding of the meaning of the Crucifixion is "[a]n especially warped and disgusting application of the flawed concept of retribution," anyway? IF his other assertions in the article are true, then this assertion about Christianity is, at best, meaningless. Richard Dawkins holds forth with the "argument" for his "Dangerous Idea:"
... Retribution as a moral principle is incompatible with a scientific view of human behaviour. As scientists, we believe that human brains, though they may not work in the same way as man-made computers, are as surely governed by the laws of physics. When a computer malfunctions, we do not punish it. We track down the problem and fix it, usually by replacing a damaged component, either in hardware or software. ... Why do we not react in the same way to a defective man: a murderer, say, or a rapist? Why don't we laugh at a judge who punishes a criminal, just as heartily as we laugh at Basil Fawlty? Or at King Xerxes who, in 480 BC, sentenced the rough sea to 300 lashes for wrecking his bridge of ships? Isn't the murderer or the rapist just a machine with a defective component? Or a defective upbringing? Defective education? Defective genes? Concepts like blame and responsibility are bandied about freely where human wrongdoers are concerned. When a child robs an old lady, should we blame the child himself or his parents? Or his school? Negligent social workers? In a court of law, feeble-mindedness is an accepted defence, as is insanity. Diminished responsibility is argued by the defence lawyer, who may also try to absolve his client of blame by pointing to his unhappy childhood, abuse by his father, or even unpropitious genes (not, so far as I am aware, unpropitious planetary conjunctions, though it wouldn't surprise me). But doesn't a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make nonsense of the very idea of responsibility, whether diminished or not? Any crime, however heinous, is in principle to be blamed on antecedent conditions acting through the accused's physiology, heredity and environment. Don't judicial hearings to decide questions of blame or diminished responsibility make as little sense for a faulty man as for a Fawlty car? Why is it that we humans find it almost impossible to accept such conclusions? Why do we vent such visceral hatred on child murderers, or on thuggish vandals, when we should simply regard them as faulty units that need fixing or replacing? Presumably because mental constructs like blame and responsibility, indeed evil and good, are built into our brains by millennia of Darwinian evolution. Assigning blame and responsibility is an aspect of the useful fiction of intentional agents that we construct in our brains as a means of short-cutting a truer analysis of what is going on in the world in which we have to live. ...
Note, first, that nowhere in his essay does Mr Dawkins actually present a logical argument supporting what he wants to convince his reader to believe to be the truth about the human condition and the nature of reality. Now, on my point here, rather than reinventing the wheel from scratch, I first direct Gentle Reader's attention to C.S.Lewis' 'The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.' The thrust of Dawkins' "Basil's Car" argument, such as it is, is not that punishing people for their behavior may be ineffective in modifying their behavior, but rather that the concept of punishment is a category error. For, he starts with the assertion that human beings are not agents, any more than an automobile is; and since (as he asserts) humans are not agents, then they logically cannot be morally responsible for their behaviors. From the "Basil's Car" pseudo-argument, it is clear that Dawkins would have no philosophic difficulty with inflicting upon "criminals" the sorts of unpleasant conditions we already do ... just so long as it's not conceived as deserved punishment, but rather as therapy; that is, to "track down the problem [of their behavior] and fix it." Punishing (or, as we should say, "punishing") people for the primary purpose of modifying their behavior (i.e. "track[ing] down the problem and fix[ing] it") is exactly what Lewis is arguing against in 'The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.' To punish a miscreant because he deserves to be punished is to affirm that he is a moral and rational being (and that we all are); to subject persons to certain conditions for the express purpose of "track[ing] down the problem [of their behavior] and fix[ing] it" is to deny all humans' status as moral and rational beings; it is to subvert actual justice. Once the immoral and unjust "therapeutic" model of "criminal justice" fully supplants the moral and properly just "retributive" model, there remains no philosophic hindrance to "punishing" some persons for "crimes" which they did not commit. For, after all, under the "therapeutic" model the philosophic rationale for the "punishment" is not actually to deservedly punish behavior which has occurred, but rather to deter behavior which has not occurred. And "punishing" the innocent may oftentimes be even more effective for that end than punishing the guilty. #3 Richard Dawkins' atheism compels him to assert these false and wicked things which he doesn't himself believe In the "Basil's Car" pseudo-argument, Dawkins asserts:
  1. that ALL things are fully explicable in terms of physics and mechanistic processes working out the effects of "antecedent conditions" -- that is, he asserts that materialism is the truth about the nature of reality;
  2. that there as no such things as 'good' and 'evil,' as men have always understood those terms, and certainly not with respect to morality;
  3. that we imagine the terms 'good' and 'evil' refer to real things is but the result of a "mental construct" -- constructed by a mindless and goalless mechanistic "process" -- and is similar to the fact that we breathe and eat;
  4. that agency is a fiction we construct in our brains about ourselves and others -- that is, he asserts that we ourselves do not actually exist, but that even if we did exist, we could not *choose* to do or not to do;
  5. that assigning blame (or praise!) is an aspect of the fiction that we, and others, are agents;
  6. that we construct this fiction to avoid knowing the truth about ourselves.
His implicit reasoning behind these assertions is logical, his assertions/conclusiosn logically follow from his mechanistic/materialistic view of the nature of reality; the problem is in his false foundational premise: atheism. And YET, for all that these assertions are logically consistent with his foundational premise, the whole structure of it is all vastly incoherent -- FOR human beings exist and these claims are about us, and they are false with respect to us. For one thing, if we are not really agents, then we cannot *ever* understand anything -- if we were indeed not agents, then we could never know that we are not agents. (I've explored this logical inevitability at more length in this post: You Cannot Reason.) The point now is that the claims he advances in this essay -- that concepts such as 'right' and 'wrong' and 'blame' and 'responsibility' are "outmoded" and false and "unscientific," for these and similar concepts refer to non-existent things -- follow directly from atheism. As I have explained in the You Cannot Reason thread:
GIVEN the reality of the natural/physical/material world, IF atheism were indeed the truth about the nature of reality, THEN everything which exists and/or transpires must be wholly reducible, without remainder, to purely physical/material states and causes.
IF atheism is the truth about the nature of reality, THEN however it is that the world, and all that is in it, happens to exist, it is not (and cannot be) the result of an intention or intentions (I've explored this logical inevitability at more length in this post: The First Question), and *everything* must be wholly explicable and reducible, without remainder, to purely physical/material states and causes -- because, logically, that would be *all* "the universe" ever has with which to "work." Of course, were atheism/materialism the truth about the nature of reality, then we cannot state, and certainly cannot grasp the truth of, the prior paragraph. Dawkins' assertions listed above are false, but they inescapably follow from the denial that there is a Creator -- this is why so many so-called atheists like to wave around the word 'emergence' as though it were a magical talisman. That the majority of self-professed atheists refuse to grapple with the logical entailments of atheism is quite irrelevant to the truth of the matter -- one simply cannot be a logically consistent atheist and simultaneously believe that any person is responsible for any behavior or choices. Another way to put this is that one simply cannot be a logically consistent atheist and believe that "free will" exists. Another way to put this is that if atheism is the truth about the nature of reality, then there are actually no such things as choices, as we have always understood them to be, for there exists nothing with the ability to choose. But, notice also, that if one is a logically consistent atheist, them one must, perforce, be irrational and incoherent! To be logically consistent (as an atheist), one must choose to become illogical! It's mind-boggling, isn't it? #1 Richard Dawkins is a liar, and admits so, in print This is easy to show. Let us now ignore the content of Mr Dawkins' "Dangerous Idea" and his argument (such as it is) aiming to convince others of its truth, let us ignore its inhumane implications, and consider merely the conclusion of the piece:
"... My dangerous idea is that we shall eventually grow out of all this [i.e. believing certain allegedly "unscientific" concepts] and even learn to laugh at it, just as we laugh at Basil Fawlty when he beats his car. But I fear it is unlikely that I shall ever reach that level of enlightenment."
Now, what does it mean to allege that some person lacks "enlightenment" with respect to some idea or concept? It is to assert that he does not (at least yet) understand it, and thus does not (at least yet) grasp the alleged truth of it, and therefore does not (at least yet) believe it to be true. But, this is not *me* asserting that Mr Dawkins lacks "enlightenment" about this or that; this is Mr Dawkins asserting about himself that he lacks "enlightenment" about the very thing he's trying to convince you to believe is the true picture of yourself and of everyone you know and of all reality. The man is a liar, and he admits so in print: He seeks to convince you to believe -- on the basis of nothing more substantial than the "authority" of his prestige and social status -- that which he admits that he does not himself believe, and recognizes that he probably never shall believe. Mr Dawkins says, on one hand, that the rational and "scientific," and hence *right* thing to do, is to reject the God of the Bible and the morality which follows from that God. And then, on the other hand, he seems to be saying that he hopes to one day arrive at a place where he no longer holds moral convictions at all -- including the "moral" convictions that we *ought* to reject God and accept "Darwinism." The man's not only a liar, and worse than a liar: he's incoherent and irrational. #1a Richard Dawkins is worse than a mere liar This goes back to something I'm forever, it seems, talking about: the moral and rational distinction between mere lying and intellectual dishonesty. Mere lying is episodic; but intellectual dishonesty is systemic. Mere lying is episodic: The man who is a mere liar lies about this or that truth-claim. To be sure, he may lie constantly, he may lie when there in "no percentage" (as the saying goes) to doing so, he may even lie when doing so defeats his own self-interest. He may act outraged when caught out ... but his lies depend upon truth being truth and reason being reason. On the other hand, intellectual dishonesty is systemic: The man who is intellectually dishonest, such as a Dawkins or an Obama, lies about the very natures of truth and reason themselves. To be sure, the intellectually dishonest man lies about this or that truth-claim, but the main thrust of his lies is to murder truth itself, to make rational reasoning difficult or impossible. As hypocrisy is to morality, so intellectual dishonesty is to reason. Intellectual dishonesty is hypocrisy with respect to truth and reason. Consider just this one assertion he has made in the article: "But doesn't a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make nonsense of the very idea of responsibility, whether diminished or not? Any crime, however heinous, is in principle to be blamed on antecedent conditions acting through the accused's physiology, heredity and environment." Now, consider his purpose in this article: to assert (and browbeat the reader into assenting) that it is blameworthy for human beings to hold to the supposedly primitive and outmoded and "unscientific" concepts of blame and responsibility, and punishment. According to this paragon of reason (and we know he is, for he has told us so!), no one is blameworthy -- or praiseworthy! -- for anything; rather, all behaviors of human beings are due to "antecedent conditions acting through the [person's] physiology, heredity and environment." But, at the same time, *you* are blameworthy if you do not agree with the prior assertion.
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(On a really weird side-note, the MS Word spellchecker knows that "Dawkin" or "Dawkin's" is a misspelling.)

14 comments:

cathy said...

Ilion, you get me thinking about so much stuff -- and given the truly dreadful intellectual atrophy that has set in over the last mrmphty-mrmph years, I can actually hear the creaking inside my head.

But if I can extract a coherent thought -- besides being surprised that someone so widely believed to be smart as Dawkins (just ask him) would commit himself to such a half-assed model as criminal as defective machine (Yes, we'll just saw off the top of his head to get a good look at the works, pull out the brain, dismantle the various lobes, screw in a few replacement parts, shove all the bits back into his skull, and plug him back in!) -- I'll come back.

Is he always so irritating?

Crude said...

Thanks for this, of course.

Naturally, Dawkins will - if ever called out on this sort of thing, and it's happened more than once - back off, claim he's been misunderstood or didn't mean to be taken in such and such a way, etc.

But I agree it all collapses. He raises a moral objection in the one worldview where such objections can't coherently be raised. He attempts to make an argument with an assumption about minds that flat out guarantees arguments never work if it's true.

Which, by the way, is one thing I refuse to stop pointing out. When an atheist/materialist starts talking to me about "good" and "evil" or "moral" and "immoral", I insist on stopping right there and making it clear what that must truly mean given their worldview. Far too many people let those words slide and have their substance and usual meaning abused in the process.

Ilíon said...

You're welcome, Crude. This posting is not really something I "dug up," it's actually selected content of half a dozen or more old posts going back to 2007, edited and expanded with new lines of thought.

"But I agree it all collapses. He raises a moral objection in the one worldview where such objections can't coherently be raised. He attempts to make an argument with an assumption about minds that flat out guarantees arguments never work if it's true."

Exactly. And given his commitment to atheism, he must.

"... Far too many people let those words slide and have their substance and usual meaning abused in the process."

And far too many who claim to be on God's side will viciously attack *you* for being so “uncharitable” to the foolish and irrational God-haters. They’re either deluded about being on God’s side, or they’re suffering Stockholm Syndrome.

Crude said...

And far too many who claim to be on God's side will viciously attack *you* for being so “uncharitable” to the foolish and irrational God-haters. They’re either deluded about being on God’s side, or they’re suffering Stockholm Syndrome.

Various reasons, I think. Many times a misplaced feeling of charity - I wonder if this is actually imported from ecumenical dialogue many times, without realizing that materialist atheism is a vastly, vastly different animal than islam, judaism, various types of christianity, hinduism, deism or even traditional buddhism.

With others, I sometimes suspect it's because of shared political or social goals. (I remember reading an article where a self-described liberal christian openly lamented New Atheism, on the grounds that liberal christians and atheists were previously allies against conservative christians. Lovely.)

And still other times, I think it's almost masochism. As in they think it's very spiritual of them to never make an intellectual criticism of a deeply flawed worldview with a dangerous recent history, and also to condemn themselves and their faith for crimes that, frankly, are often in essence imaginary.

And finally, I think many people just aren't aware of what materialism or atheism entails. It wasn't immediately obvious to me until I read TLS and some other material - probably in part because even self-declared materialists rarely speak as if materialism is true, just like they talk about morality (even 'good' and 'evil') and such, despite those words having to mean something radically different if they want to be consistent.

Ilíon said...

I don't disagree with anything you've said, Crude. I was, shall we say, trying to look at the too-common situation in the most charitable light I could.

Crude said...

Oh, I know. Just thinking out loud, so to speak. In part because it's a major issue for me as well, and one game I wish fellow christians (who seem to almost have a monopoly on this) would quit playing.

Ilíon said...

You know the affliction we call "Holier Than Thou"? ... well, for some of the persons afflicted with it (some of whom even claim to be atheists), the "Thou" of whom they are more holy is God himself!

Ilíon said...

Cathy,
I may not be the best person to ask whether Dawkins is always so irritating, as everything about the man irritates me.

I'm happy that you are getting something out of reading my posts.

Coherent thoughts don't have to be earthmoving, so please, share your thoughts with us. Who knows how much earth we may move my bouncing regular ol' thought off each another?


Also, and though the Lewis essay is specifically about "criminal justice systems," the issue isn't merely the half-assery of Dawkins' "half-assed model [of] criminal as defective machine," but rather his "half-assed model [the human being as] machine."

AWA said...

Two things that came to mind while reading this:

Dawkins, much like Gould, goes on about how one is unable to ultimately make moral pronouncements about life; it just "is", and we "dance" to DNA's music. Or some such flirtation with fashionable nihilism...

But ever notice how often the evolutionary story - take any example from the paleo scriptures or from Dawkins' own books - is inherently a tale about how researchers are searching for how or why the right way was found by x-representative in the fossil record, so as to afford it and its presummed ancestors a viable future? If anything, the Darwinian passion plays are more about success and economic viability in nature - at any cost - as they are about the failure to survive and thrive in an ever changing world. You get the impression that every "finding" is tantamount to truth on granite tablets, informing you of "what life's really all about".

...Add to this scenario the virtuous narrators themselves, the labcoats who defy all that is old and decrepit (e.g., tradition) and who bravely step forward into a new world of understanding and free thought, Galileo heil, ad nauseum...

It's not a case where the reader's anthropomorphizing any of it - it's inherent in the way the paleo material is written and packaged.
Dawkins is one of the worst offenders in this regard - boasting neutrality and cold detachment like a Dalek while knowing that he's just rocking those Christians' prefab worldview with his sardonic (and scientific!) Dadaism.


The second point was something I'd heard while learning about Lenin, to the effect that at about the time he was growing up, nihilism wasn't seen as something reprehensible in some European circles. On one hand, progressives and revolutionaries would be learning how to overthrow old decrepit tradition (that description again) by any means necessary, contemplating the destruction of society and man alike with intellectual abandon... and then the next minute, running off to plant flowers in the garden with mom on their 100 acre lemon orchard estate.

It's the weird conundrum of seeing nihilists - rebels of their day who promoted violence and death - wearing proper suits and ties, all stuffy and dandy. I suppose it's no different with Dawkins: The universe and mankind especially are all meaningless - until of course we're talking about his position at Oxford as "ambassador for scientific understanding". And his books. Not to mention his opinion about everything. All suddenly meaningful and critically important.

A nihilist has that curious inability to include his own self and life's work under that same banner of "meaningless" - even though that definition quite fits their own endeavors. Almost none of them ever get to the point of Sartre - their almighty egos never allow for them to follow a path which they unflinchingly prescribe for everyone else. Into a void or nothingness, more or less.

In a word: Pagan sadducees.

Ilíon said...

Quite so, AWA: self-identifying atheists and Darwinists (the "and" is because the two groups are not totally co-extensive) almost never behave as though they actually believe that what they assert is true about the nature of reality and of human existence is indeed the truth.

We Christians frequently fail to live up to what we say is truth; the so-called atheists always fail to live down to what they say is truth. For which, let us thank God.

Now, anyone willing to look at Dawkins' public life and work can easily see that he doesn't really believe the position he asserts; for, as you point out, were what he's selling the actual truth about the nature of reality anf of the human condition, then nothing at all matters -- yet there is Dawkins, et al, carrying on as though things matter! What I like about this little essay is that here he even admits that he doesn't believe what he's selling.

"In a word: Pagan sadducees."

Some will think you meant Pharisees, but I think, in this case, Sadducees quite nicely captures the essence.

Ilíon said...

Cornelius Hunter has a recent post related to this.

Ilíon said...

Here is an older post on Victor Reppert's blog (Let's stop beating Basil's car: Richard Dawkins on moral responsibility), to which, if I may be allowed to toot my own horn, I made some rather insightful comments.

Ilíon said...

Here is Ken Brown (of the 'C.Orthodoxy' blog): Dawkins’ Fawlty Logic

Ilíon said...

In an amusing and wholly unexpected development, Mr Dawkins appears to hold that *some* persons really are moral agents, who are really responsible for their actions and really can be held accountable for same.