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Dawkins Documentary Debate

by GnashEquilibria
Tags: dawkins, debate, documentary
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GnashEquilibria
#1
May7-07, 10:23 PM
P: 4
I hope this is an appropriate forum for this debate; my opponent recommended it. We started a debate about Richard Dawkins' style of criticizing religion - particularly in his documentary "The Root of All Evil?" - in a different forum, where an in-depth debate would have been clearly off-topic. The debate is over relatively fine points; we couldn't be described as coming from the opposite ends of the spectrum of viewpoints.

In this post, I will summarize the history of the debate so far; in the next post, I'll continue where we left off.
  1. It all started when GnashEquilibria (that's me; I go as "Gneq" in the other forum) offhandedly noted that scientist and author Richard Dawkins would be appearing on political pundit/blowhard Bill O'Reilly's show The O'Reilly Factor.
  2. In response, Robert K S criticized Dawkins' performance as an interviewer in Dawkins's documentary "The Root of All Evil?" and rhetorically opined that Dawkins (a promoter of atheism) and O'Reilly (a promoter of theism and specifically Christianity) have more in common than either might admit.
  3. Gneq disagreed with Robert's criticisms and took Robert's comparison of Dawkins and O'Reilly to be offensive.
  4. Robert elaborated, and exhorted Gneq to watch the documentary.
  5. Four brief replies ensued: G1 R1 G2 R2.
  6. Gneq watched the documentary and challenged Robert's criticisms.
  7. - Robert elaborated further.
  8. - Gneq indicated disagreement with Robert's explanations and asked for the appropriate venue to continue discussion.

As Robet kindly suggested this place, I will respond to the last substantive post here.
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Smurf
#2
May8-07, 12:30 AM
P: 2,891
First impression: I saw Dawkins documentary (most of it anyways) and by any academic standards it's pretty pitiful.

Second Impression: Gneq is full of bullocks (why does he have to use such a convoluted vocabulary?)

Still haven't finished reading all the links posted though...
Smurf
#3
May8-07, 12:34 AM
P: 2,891
This argument reminds me of reading Plato.

Smurf
#4
May8-07, 12:54 AM
P: 2,891
Dawkins Documentary Debate

Hey I thought you were gonna respond to his last post... Should I wait? I'll wait...
GnashEquilibria
#5
May8-07, 12:57 AM
P: 4
Quote Quote by Robert K S
in actuality, the "visible emotional reactions" came not to offensive comments but to opinions that were, however misguided, calmly presented by the interviewees, as a check of the transcript will show
First, you can't always know what the last thing said was before any given statement; heavy editing is obvious. So you are assuming a lot when you say that Dawkins' reactions were to calmly presented opinions. More importantly, your critique is invalid in principle: why would calmly presented appalling statement call for any different reaction than an emotionally presented one? Dawkins is - as he should be - reacting to the ideas, not to the psychological state of the interviewee. And, lastly, I couldn't find a transcript online, but in all cases you mentioned, the interviewees were clearly saying offensive and/or preposterous things.

Appropriate responses for an interviewer whose motivations are to enlighten and pursuade do not include the vain challenge "Do you want to bet?", the indignant "I beg your pardon", or the arrogant pronouncement "You obviously know nothing...", nor do they include "Okay, well, I think we better leave it at that" just when the discussion turns provacative.
You are grossly misrepresenting those situations. How would you respond in his place? Haggard says something like "maybe in 50 years people will laugh at your evolution thing", which is completely ridiculous, but, being about the future, obviously not refutable by facts observable today. Dawkins offered the only possible way to turn Haggard's empty rhetoric into a somewhat responsible statement - bet on the outcome. Far from a "vain challenge", it is the most substantive challenge possible to an utterly vain claim.

Similarly, imagine that I claimed that all men from your city have only one testicle and all women from your city have moustaches. (That's equivalent to Haggard's characterizations of evolution and evolutionary biologists.) Would it be an "arrogant pronouncement" if you responded that I obviously didn't know anything about the people from your city?

As for "we better leave it at that", Hawkes had made such a morally damning statement about himself that continuing the conversation might have made him look like a psychopath. You might at least consider the possibility that Dawkins didn't want to embarrass him on a personal level.

Dawkins's fault seems to have been one of poor preparation. If he came to demolish, he should have been able to do so without an elevated heart rate, without breaking eye contact, without lifting a finger. But, as I hope I've made implicit, as an interviewer, he should not have come to demolish: properly presented, illogicalities demolish themselves in their contradictions.
The film is not about the logic of theistic arguments, but about the evils caused by religion in the real, practical world. Illogicalities aren't the problem per se. What Dawkins demonstrates are connections between religion and specific real harms, and he shows that the agents of religon (in some cases leaders, in others followers) whom he interviewed are wrong factually as well as ethically. This is not some academic exercise in debunking proofs of God's existence or whatnot.

Possibly Dawkins's perceived incompetence is wholly an artifact of the documentary's editing (...). Even so, the fault is in Dawkins; the programme is his.
You can't mean this seriously. He didn't even have a say in the title (well, he managed to get the question mark appended), and you assume he controlled the editing?!

Dawkins doesn't do these things, but nor does he assume the mantles of humility and patience called for by the solemnity of his subject.
Dawkins would probably answer you that the main characteristic of his subject is urgency. People are killing each other, driven by their religious beliefs. Patience is not what you need to deal with urgency.

As for "solemnity", that's exactly one of the entrenched arguments Dawkins and other (esp. Dennett) are working hard to debunk. It is prejudging to assume validity of that argument when critiquing them. There is no objective reason for religion to be a more solemn subject than anything else. "Solemnity" is mainly the instrument for shouting down skeptics and rationalists.

What Dawkins seems not to understand, however, is that the power of religious myths (of all traditions, not just the monotheistic ones) erects itself upon their symbolically veracious foundation: to rail against any myth's illogicality is to miss entirely its profound analogical truth, and hence to neglect its function on the extraconscious.
While I'd challenge your claim that the foundation is "symbolically veracious", that is not central here. What is important is that your entire thesis is a straw man. Dawkins is not attacking myths. I dare you to find any evidence that he opposes teaching any myths - Biblical, Greek, Hindu, whatever - as stories. But he does oppose "false advertising" - presenting myths as facts, or using them to build authority for immoral acts, teachings and social structures.

Dawkins instead prefers to focus, incensedly and confusedly, on the perversions of various dogmas. The dogmas are indeed what are dangerous, but not what are essential, about religiosity, which when authentic is always at its core a reference to the mystery of existence
You are entitled to your opinion on what is "essential" about religiosity, but that is not what is practically relevant in the real world. Mystery of existence indeed does not motivate people to do evil things, but it motivates scientific pursuit just as much as the religious. Dawkins is certainly driven by it and mentions it a lot. But dogma makes religion tick; it is almost entirely through its dogmatic forms that it becomes influential in the society. It is not a perversion, either, but a useful adaptation. Read Dennett's new book for a fascinating survey.

Your argument is equivalent to an apology for Communism that insists that the totalitarian regimes in various Communist countries were perversions, and the essence of Communism was the philosophy of Karl Marx, interpreted in the most humanistic way possible, and free of all the parts that Marx himself eventually repudiated. I think it would be absurd to say that Western leaders during the Cold War should have focused on finer points of Marxism rather than the "perversions of dogmas" actually practiced in its name.

The rest is completely off-topic in my opinion, but I suspect that you think it is the main point, so I won't ignore it:

The mystery of existence, of which we can all be viewed as manifestations; the inquiry of which is beyond the limit of human competence; which science will never be able to (and when serious about itself, does not pretend to) explain.
You cannot know what science will be able to explain or where the limits of human competence are. And I will tell you that any question that turns out to reach beyond such limits is a meaningless question. Meaning doesn't exist outside of the human mind, so whatever the human mind cannot explain in principle, has no meaning by definition.

Not to worry, I am sure we still know only a tiny fraction of what is knowable, or explainable, in principle, so I doubt that any such limits will become binding in our lifetimes.

Once this is understood, the conflict between sciences and religions is declared insane and the essential cause of society's disorientation, the source of the present decadence recognized by both O'Reilly and Dawkins but little solved by either.
Conflict between science and religion is very real. Just listen to the Pope, let alone fundamentalist Christians or Muslims. That may well be insane, but only on the religious side. Decadence is not a reputable concept; there was no Golden Age at any time before; as bad as the world looks today, it is about as enlightened and as peaceful as it ever was. I don't even know what "society's disorientation" is supposed to be, let alone what its causes are. O'Reilly recognizes nothing worth a mention, he is just a goon who likes inciting hate and is good at that. Dawkins is a man who deeply cares about what is true and what is good, and has worked all his life to advance both, and more effectively than most people. So, all of what you said is subject to serious challenge.
Smurf
#6
May8-07, 01:28 AM
P: 2,891
by the way, this topic is borderline acceptable, whether it gets locked kind of just depends on whichever moderator sees it first.

Please Read:
http://physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=93343
Robert K S
#7
May8-07, 05:04 AM
P: 2
Quote Quote by Smurf View Post
by the way, this topic is borderline acceptable, whether it gets locked kind of just depends on whichever moderator sees it first.
I recommended this forum after having read those guidelines and established that Gnash and I would be operating firmly within them. We are not asserting a priori the truth or falsity, value or nonvalue of any doctrines. I would ask that all moderators give us a look and lock this now if need be so we might go elsewhere without wasting energy. I believe this discussion would be valuable to the forum, and am certain this is the best place for it.
GnashEquilibria
#8
May8-07, 09:09 AM
P: 4
Quote Quote by Robert K S View Post
I would ask that all moderators give us a look and lock this now if need be so we might go elsewhere without wasting energy.
I agree. That is the best and least painful course for everybody.

BTW, regardless of what the moderators will decide, I am chortling at the fact that the first person to bring up acceptability of the topic is the one whose comments are at the level of "X is full of bullocks."
Robert K S
#9
May8-07, 10:45 AM
P: 2
Quote Quote by GnashEquilibria View Post
First, you can't always know what the last thing said was before any given statement; heavy editing is obvious. So you are assuming a lot when you say that Dawkins' reactions were to calmly presented opinions.
I was hoping that you would have paid closer attention to the documentary (the video itself is freely available and easily navigable) and realized that, with only one exception, the above is entirely incorrect, rather than forcing me to spend time elaborating further when that time might have been saved simply by your conceding the point. But since you do not, will you now ask that I spend a post thoroughly and incontrovertibly showing that you can know, and indeed do know, the things said before any given statement in the examples I mentioned, and others which I might present, such as Dawkins' unprompted comparison of Haggard's congregation with Nazis, a remark more suited to a 12-year-old Internet troll than learned man who should know that fair interview technique does not mean merely prefacing incendiary remarks with "if you'll forgive me"? Will you force me to note time markers of individual scenes, and prove that, given the fact that the documentary was shot with a single camera, there is no point at which its edits are not transparent?

More importantly, your critique is invalid in principle: why would calmly presented appalling statement call for any different reaction than an emotionally presented one?
Critically, Dawkins needed to contain his affect (I would not call it emotion) to maintain the consistence of presentability and credibility of his narrative. A karate master does not respond to a credible threat with anything but the cool precision of a controlled counterattack; a hotheaded response is an uncoordinated response. One must "Know thyself" in order to "Control thyself".

Dawkins is - as he should be - reacting to the ideas, not to the psychological state of the interviewee.
This is unascertainable, but even if true, it defies the wisdom of transactional analysis. You are suggesting it is appropriate to react to both mature and immature stimuli with immature responses. Who's supposed to be the adult here, our Virgil, Dawkins, or his supposedly inferior-worldviewed interviewees? Whatever one is reacting to--ideas, psychological states, funny moles--a person in Dawkins's position must take the high road and respond with ideas, note psychological states, not empty challenges, not indignant interjections, not arrogant pronouncements, not comparisons to Nazis, not funny moles.

And, lastly, I couldn't find a transcript online, but in all cases you mentioned, the interviewees were clearly saying offensive and/or preposterous things.
If you want to continue to push this point, I trust you will back up your perspective in detail. The complete video is available for free online and is easily navigable. The meaty bit with Pastor Haggard begins at 25:41 in Part 1 (though the Nazi comparison comes earlier); Rabbi Gluck begins at 6:20 in Part 2; Headmaster Hawkes at 11:14 in Part 2. You can throw out the "offensive" criterion--nothing can effectively offend (i.e., provoke the vanity of) the well-grounded, and anyway, you will not find anything offensive said by these men--and no need to quote the "preposterous"--I will be satisfied with the "demonstrably false".

You are grossly misrepresenting those situations.
No, I am quoting them, and I would be happy to provide the time markers and the immediately preceding comments if you continue to insist otherwise.

How would you respond in his place?
Good-humoredly, forcefully, and in a way that doesn't stymie the flow of the discussion, which hopefully I would have been able to do if I were properly prepared for the interview.

Haggard says something like "maybe in 50 years people will laugh at your evolution thing", which is completely ridiculous
It is possibly ridiculous from some perspectives--such as the one Haggard probably intends--but not from all perspectives, and Dawkins's response, as the response of an ostensibly thoughtful person, should account for this. To give a hypothetical example: our present understanding is that the mechanisms for gene mutation include only random processes (copying errors, environmental disruptions, and the like). But what if further investigation revealed that the mechanisms for mutation are much more variegated and complex, and one was discovered that involved "deliberate" control, à la somatic hypermutation, but in cells that would ensure transmission to descendants? In such a case, our present understanding of evolution would indeed be laughable to a future generation, and would be much closer to Haggard's naive conviction that evolution "happened by accident" (inasmuch as all of the natural mechanisms for transmitted mutation are indeed accidental and not matters of "choice" on any level, personal, cellular, chemical, or otherwise). This hypothetical example, made up off the top of my head, is given only to illustrate the selfsame point that Haggard makes, justly, and that Dawkins would not (or should not) disagree with: arrogance about one's credences is the recipe for perpetual ignorance and perdition.

...a somewhat responsible statement - bet on the outcome.
It was not responsible, since there was no reasonable expectation of receptiveness to the bet, since the bet could not be settled in a reasonable timeframe, and since such a bet would not in any way serve the purposes of the documentary. The empty challenge to wager short-circuited the interview, shortchanging Dawkins's viewers of any dialectic. It was an affective and senseless thing to say in the context of a television presentation.

Would it be an "arrogant pronouncement" if you responded that I obviously didn't know anything about the people from your city?
Yes, it would, since you may know quite a bit about people from Cleveland, Los Angeles, or Paris, but might possibly be mistaken on that one point, and since I can easily disabuse you of your misapprehension within the timeframe of my documentary by presenting my complete testical pair and showing the lack of anything approaching the amount of facial hair on my lady friend that would be required to designate it a mustache. A few whiskers, maybe, sure, but nothing you could Pinaud-Clubman into anything twirlable.

As for "we better leave it at that", Hawkes had made such a morally damning statement about himself that continuing the conversation might have made him look like a psychopath.
Any more than Dawkins's confrontations with any of his other subjects may or may not have made them out to look like psychopaths? Hawkes was presenting his philosophy in a distinctly non-personal way. But he came off as too nice a guy. Could it have been that Dawkins was too charmed to stay firm?

This is not some academic exercise in debunking proofs of God's existence or whatnot.
You're right. It is instead a confused academic exercise that takes as its mistaken premise that the errors and persuasions of religious dogmatism are sufficient to explain fanatical behaviors that carry to the point of violence. They are not sufficient; in the final equation, they are not even the dominating term.

You can't mean this seriously. He didn't even have a say in the title (well, he managed to get the question mark appended), and you assume he controlled the editing?!
I do not know whether or not Dawkins assisted in the editing of the piece. However, I do not believe that he would have allowed the piece, on which he puts his face and his name, to be aired if he did not believe it accurately portrayed him and his ideas. (The alternative, that he would have, is more shameful.)

Dawkins would probably answer you that the main characteristic of his subject is urgency. People are killing each other, driven by their religious beliefs. Patience is not what you need to deal with urgency.
To your third sentence: as a game theorist, you ought to be aware that work demonstrating the opposite was not too long ago awarded Nobel. And to your second: you will have to work much harder to convince me that the brainwashing of religious dogmatism alone can override the weakest conscience and the frailest pulsion for self-preservation. The pseudoreligious and socially-dysfunctional milieu in which the killer is reared has no small impact on the unhealthy formation of his psyche, but if you tell me it is the promise of paradise and virgins alone that motivates him to murder or to blow himself up, I will respond that further investigation will prove he has bigger issues that are interrelated with but distinct from whatever "religious" dogmatism he may subscribe to, and that a similarly troubled killer could have followed the same path with a different set of "religious" dogmatic principles, or under the influence of dogmatic principles that were not "religious" at all.

"Solemnity" is mainly the instrument for shouting down skeptics and rationalists.
It is a matter of terminology, but no, you are refering to "sacredness". Personal mortality is a solemn subject; is it only through dogmatism that the bodies of the dead (or whatever symbol for the solemn--it could be the peaceful cow) are considered sacred.

While I'd challenge your claim that the foundation is "symbolically veracious", that is not central here.
I think it is central, and am interested in challenging it. It is ultimately my only interest in this debate, as I (presently) think it is the only line of attack that can satisfactorily resolve the "culture war". And this is the key piece that I believe both Dawkins and O'Reilly are missing, which is why it is easy for me to put them in the same boat (on this issue).

Dawkins is not attacking myths. I dare you to find any evidence that he opposes teaching any myths - Biblical, Greek, Hindu, whatever - as stories. But he does oppose "false advertising" - presenting myths as facts, or using them to build authority for immoral acts, teachings and social structures.
No disagreement with that.

It is not a perversion, either, but a useful adaptation.
This is a contradiction, if you mean what I think you mean: the perversion of profound and veracious mythical symbols into various senseless and disprovable dogmas is a useful adaptation for ordering a religious system which in turn structures a society. But then, the propagation of such dogmatism is a virus that ends up destroying the society. Which is it? Is unregulated replication a "useful adaptation" for a cancerous cell? (Maybe I am misinterpreting. I will try to read the Dennet book.)

Your argument is equivalent to an apology for Communism that insists that the totalitarian regimes in various Communist countries were perversions, and the essence of Communism was the philosophy of Karl Marx, interpreted in the most humanistic way possible, and free of all the parts that Marx himself eventually repudiated. I think it would be absurd to say that Western leaders during the Cold War should have focused on finer points of Marxism rather than the "perversions of dogmas" actually practiced in its name.
The analogy is superficially insightful but, upon reflection, inapplicable, since it suggests the appropriate response to a wrongly motivated threat is solely to pontificate on the sources of the threat's wrong motivation without doing anything to combat that wrong motivation. But both comprehension of a problem and solutive action are required to completely sublimate the problem and fully neutralize its menace. It is not enough to know that its fear is the cause of a rattlesnake's rattle, without proceding to stop disturbing the rattlesnake (or, less humanely, kill the rattlesnake) in order to avoid being bitten. Perverted communism was justly combated in the 20th century; false and murderous religious doctrines must be combated in the 21st but the more effective and more permanent way to do so will involve understanding the psychological mechanisms behind their powers of their seduction.

The Amazon.com review of the Dennett book says that the book makes a plea "for religions to engage in empirical self-examination to protect future generations from the ignorance so often fostered by religion hiding behind doctrinal smoke screens." The words "empirical self-examination" are significant because they suggest that there can be such a thing as a methodically guided introspection. If values could be understood to be immanent to life, and could be taught rather than preached, critically evaluated rather than indoctrinated, would not the need for structuring dogmatism be obviated? Is this not a more sensible approach than the one Dawkins seems to propose, which is just to throw out all religions, without making any effort to comprehend the validity and potency of their underlying myths?

You cannot know ... where the limits of human competence are... [etc.]
Of course we can know of a limit: the prime cause. No cause is determined from its effects, thus the origin of existence cannot be determined by the manifestations of existence, even the most developed ones, without devolving into a pseudological causa sui. As you rightly discern, "any question that turns out to reach beyond such limits is a meaningless question." This is the very definition of the limit of human competence.

Dawkins is a man who deeply cares about what is true and what is good, and has worked all his life to advance both...
But as the documentary demonstrates, he is also still at times a victim of his own vanity, which does no good for his cause when he puts himself in front of the camera.

I would be happy to continue, but I fear we will face an impasse if we are operating under different sets of definitions, premises. We often may even be agreeing when it looks like we're disagreeing, as it seems we are when we talk about the limit of human competence. I mentioned earlier a reading list. I'll find and read your recommended reading if you make an effort to take a look at mine. Deal, or no deal?
GnashEquilibria
#10
May8-07, 12:47 PM
P: 4
Wow, you are quick. It will probably take me somewhat longer to respond. For now, just two housekeeping items:

1. I'll be happy to try to read any book you recommend; I always welcome opportunities to learn. But, please, be realistic with quantity and expectations; you know I have a busy life. (BTW, any religion that promises - and makes good on it - to expand the day to about 30 hours will instantly earn my conversion.)

2. I think I will try to split my response into two posts/subthreads: one about the specifics of the documentary and one about the more general/abstract/theoretical/principled issues.
berkeman
#11
May8-07, 01:03 PM
Mentor
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P: 40,649
Quote Quote by Robert K S View Post
I recommended this forum after having read those guidelines and established that Gnash and I would be operating firmly within them. We are not asserting a priori the truth or falsity, value or nonvalue of any doctrines. I would ask that all moderators give us a look and lock this now if need be so we might go elsewhere without wasting energy. I believe this discussion would be valuable to the forum, and am certain this is the best place for it.
I've pinged the other Mentors with your request. You should have an answer shortly. Thanks.
Smurf
#12
May8-07, 04:15 PM
P: 2,891
Quote Quote by GnashEquilibria View Post
BTW, regardless of what the moderators will decide, I am chortling at the fact that the first person to bring up acceptability of the topic is the one whose comments are at the level of "X is full of bullocks."
Yar, me no speaky so good anglish. You use much bigger words. (Hey Mickey! Hey Mickey!). I beg your pardon, sir, I'm sure!

(where are you guys from? Watford?)

You do realize that Atheism is a religion too, right? It requires just as much faith to disbelieve. That's the inherent flaw in this damn "culture war" you guys are making up, Atheists think their skeptics, but they just have a different dogma. They've got their own little holy books and prophets and unfalsifiable beliefs too (like that god DOESN'T exist!).

This culture war is comparable to Islamists and Christians going at each other because "Christ was the last Prophet!" "No! Mohammed was the last Prophet!"

Whatever.

It doesn't logically follow from "You can't prove that" to "you shouldn't believe that". What DOES follow is from "You can prove that's wrong" to "you shouldn't believe that". But you can't prove it's wrong. That's why it's religion.

Hey look! It's an interview!

The main point Dawkins tries to make here is that 'eventually' science will discover the meaning of the universe. That's a fallacy, it's called "Argument To The Future".

Then he starts arguing about wether you should believe in God, if you can't prove it either way. The logical consequence from not knowing something isn't disbelief!
Hypothetical Analogy: You don't know whether you have to work tomorrow or not. You have a schedule, but you lost it, so you don't have any record to look at (no evidence) to see whether you have to work tomorrow or not.
This does not mean that you automatically assume you that you DON'T have to work tomorrow just because you have no evidence to believe so. Unfortunately we can't just call god up and ask him if he exists or not.

Then there's the whole introduction to the Documentary which is just weird. His whole mantra about how Religion is responsible for wars and death and blah blah blah. (O' Reilly touched on this with the Stalin, Hitler, etc,. point) I would try and refute these claims, but he doesn't actually back them up with anything. No citation, no sources, no statistics, nada. Just empty claims.

And then there's Robert K's whole thing about Dawkins getting angry in the middle of an interview, which is just unbecoming. Come on! What if Walter Cronkite had gotten angry and shouted at people in the middle of an interview! That has nothing to do with the legitimacy of his arguments, but if that were me, I wouldn't have published that film, it's embarrassing.

And I'm sorry, but the only reason you like Dawkins' film is because you're too caught up in hating religion to take notice.
berkeman
#13
May8-07, 04:17 PM
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P: 40,649
Thread locked.

I don't think you guys have found an appropriate forum for you "debate" here on the PF. Even for the Philosophy forum, this is not a good match, and your tone is deteriorating.

Perhaps you should carry on your debate in private, via PM or e-mail.


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