Saturday, May 01, 2004

Philosophical Generosity and Richard Dawkins

In Ektopos, Matthew writes:

Philosophical Generosity (AKA Why do I hate Richard Dawkins)

I’ve been wondering why it is that every time I see Dawkins name my blood just boils, especially when I see a quote. I figured out last night that I get irritated not so much by Dawkins ideas as by his attitude. Simply put Dawkins lacks philosophical generosity. Perhaps it is the case that this was not a concept that anyone ever taught young Dawkins at Oxford. Perhaps it might stem from the fact that Dawkins studied zoology and not philosophy. Whatever the case you would think that Dawkins would have stumbled across the concept by now.

I think the concept is really rather simple. When discussing philosophical matters try and give the most positive reading to your opponent, remember that you may think your opponent wrong but that doesn’t necessitate them being stupid, and try to act magnanimously .

I’m wondering if anyone else ever learned of such a concept, or maybe it’s just my little neck of the woods? Perhaps such a notion is well spirited but wrong-headed?

I agree with this assessment, and I'm gratified to hear others taking a similar perspective. The more of Dawkins I read, the more impressed I am by his intellect and his knowledge of certain aspects of biology, and ability to reason through difficult biological theories. However I'm also taken aback by exactly what Matthew calls philosophical ungenerosity.

Dawkins seems very much to assume that anyone reasoning from a background of any theistic tradition is arguing from revelation or "blind faith," and that this is the kind of reasoning that characterizes anything associated with religion. While he's not entirely wrong, it certainly seems to lead him to sometimes to cross that translucently veiled line we all (should) fear into assaulting strawmen.

This is indeed one of the things that for me best distinguishes Dawkins from other people who often take very similar positions on current issues. For example, Dawkins is often aligned in the media with Dennett, for example for their nearly simultaneous and similar assaults on Stephen Jay Gould, and their nearly simultaneous and similar support of the Brights movement. However, to me Dennett is a model of philosophical generosity, and takes great and admirable pains to argue against the strongest form of his opponents argument he can stomach. Some of his dialogs with Rorty are a great example of this.

I agree that philosophical generosity is a worthwhile value, perhaps a core value of what I think of as the modern liberal intellectual tradition, and that we can and should support it both through reasoned argument and by directly expressing our gut feelings about it.

To put the matter succinctly, as it was in a negotiation course I once took, I take as a useful and important guideline to be "hard on principle, but soft on people." To me that translates to giving some benefit of the doubt to opposing viewpoints, to explore them actively rather than simply taking our gut impression of them as accurate and final, but to do this exploration without capitulating on important principles. It's a challenge, but sometimes it isn't hard to identify people who seemingly haven't even accepted the challenge.

Does philosophy succeed or fail?

In response to an interesting post at Ektopos, claiming that philosophy was a failiure and an "untruth," I had some thoughts...

Whether philosophy fails at its goal depends on what the goal is supposed to be. If philosophy is an ongoing endeavor continuous with the Greeks, and if that endeavor was a program to discover the truth about the foundations of knowledge and reality, then yes, it has probably failed thus far. Neither have the sciences yet filled in the gaps, if such a thing is even forthcoming.

If you accept the arguments of the pragmatists, philosophy failed self-consciously to find a foundation for certainty. If you go farther and accept the arguments of many of the latter 20th century philosophers, then philosophy failed even to form a coherent tradition of reasoning from which to explore the questions of importance to us. (I'm partial to the pragmatists, but the latter argument seems to me to often be too pessimistic about human knowledge).

On the other hand, if you think of philosophy in a less conventional way, as a questioning process, identifying the issues and assumptions, grouping issues by intellectual history, traditions of reasoning, and background assumptions, and less emphasizing the solving of problems, then it still seems very relevant to each of us personally in our thinking.

That is to me somewhat independent of academic fashions in philosophy, and not reliant upon technical expertise in the field.

Philosophy as a lifelong study and a way of thinking still supports the individual search for knowledge and wisdom, and serves as a useful way to organize our reasoning, without neccessarily being a solution finding process per se.

Essay about "The Brights" and their goals

Essay about "The Brights" and their goals ...

Originally posted at Ektopos

I'm simultaneously fascinated and disturbed that two issues are so closely linked in our discussions: (1) freedom of speech for atheists, and (2) the value of religious practices and institutions to human life.

The first is the stated goal of the Brights movement, and I can wholeheartedly agree with it. Whether you consider atheism as the lack of religion, a quasi-religion, or modern secular religion, and whether it may be partisan speech in some sense notwithstanding, it is speech deserving of protection, often made by very knowledgeable people deserving of our attention.

That's the critical issue of freedom of philosophical speech. I would argue should include reasoning from secularist traditions and religious ones. I don't think that all speech or all reasoning is equal on merit, but it does seem to me unavoidable that there is more than one rational tradition of value to political and social issues. Either side of an issues like abortion or euthanasia can be argued from progressive/secularist or orthodox religious traditions, in spite of our tendency to associate progressive reasoning with one side (e.g. pro-choice, pro-euthanasia, "pro-death"), and the orthodox reasoning with the other (e.g. "pro-life", anti-euthanasia).

The second issue, raised by Dawkins especially, seems to be linked by Brights to their justification for the first issue: atheists need their speech protected partly because they are right, and partly because people who think differently are not only wrong, but often dangerously wrong. I'm referring to Dawkins' anti-religionism. We all know that atheists are not always anti-religious, but there is a dark side anti-religionism just as there is a dark side to religion. For one thing, it denies the aspect of our nature that makes us think of ourselves as spiritual beings.

This comes very close to presenting a paradox to the humanistic values espoused by the Brights. We probably don't need to escape naturalism entirely in order to value a human spirit and share an optimistic and egalitarian ethos, that's the central point made by atheist philosophers. However, we do need to frame naturalism in a way that doesn't preclude or discourage the very values we are trying to promote.

That is, Brights have to be careful not to let their argument for free speech get in the way of their core humanistic values, the way we find left liberal political activism sometimes gets in the way of liberalist values, and the way conservative activism against their perceived enemies of social order sometimes gets in the way of their core values as well.

My claim is that thinking of ourselves as spiritual beings is not simply a matter of being superstitious, it is also a way of thinking about persons that supports the reasoning that lies behind some of the core values of humanism.

The rational challenge for Brights seems to me to be separating out the value of a spiritual view of the human person from the specific traditions of theistic reasoning, and moving toward the Enlightenment goal of universal reason in its support. That is, finding a way to incorporate humanity into what are supposed to in principle be non-sectarian traditions of reasoning such as science. That, and recognizing the legitimacy of orthodox religious reasoning, while seeing through its unfortunate frequent dependence on sectarian assumptions.

For the opponents of the Brights, the challenge is recognizing the legitimacy of secular tradition of reasoning. and separating it from its unfortunate frequent dependence on its own sectarian assumptions.

We can argue for atheist speech, which seems important in the current conservative climate in the U.S., while also having a a productive dialog about the roles religion plays in human life, and arguing for some kind of legitimacy of both progressive and orthodox traditions of reasoning. This limited pluralism seems to me a very worthwhile thing to promote in both philosophy of politics. Atheist speech merits protection not because it tells the whole story, but because it often tells an important part, and I would argue that the same is true of some religious speech.

I would argue that the presence or absence of a religious background of assumptions does not determine the value of the reasoning.