Software Musings

Suppressing a Truth

Posted on: 20/06/2006

I have just read an article entitled The Public-Intellectual Menace: On Richard Dawkins’s irresponsible and irrational dogmatism by Carson Holloway. It has made me very angry. This is unusual since my anger normally only rises when I see a misplaced apostrophe.

Now, Richard Dawkins obviously doesn’t need me to defend him, but I feel that the opportunity should not be allowed to pass. Holloway is not concerned with the accuracy of Dawkins’ books and articles but by the fact that “Dawkins … appears to be utterly indifferent to the spiritual and emotional difficulties that his writings cause for many of his readers. He mentions one reader for whom The Selfish Gene initiated a ‘personal crisis.’ Its apparent debunking of any higher purpose in nature caused this person ‘a series of bouts of depression’ lasting over a decade. In another case, a teacher wrote to reprimand Dawkins for his book’s effect on a young student who was driven to tears after concluding that The Selfish Gene teaches that life is ’empty and purposeless.’

This is apparently a new criterion against which writers are to be judged: could the contents of their books offend the sensitivities of a juvenile mind? It would be interesting to list books which have given me bouts of depression and driven me to tears (not because of the quality of the writing but because of the contents). The Bible (have you read the 51st psalm recently?) would obviously be at the top but the list would also have to include a lot of Graham Greene, King Lear and even, I’m sorry to say, J.L.Carr’s Battle of Pollock’s Crossing. If you haven’t read about that battle then, at the possible cost of your immortal soul, I can recommend it strongly. This year I’m hoping to make the trip to Huron, South Dakota, USA where Carr spent a year imbibing material which eventually found its way into this disturbing book.

But these are books of fiction. Dawkins’ books are science and, therefore, subject to the normal philosophical caveats about causality, Mach’s positivism, etc., are factual. And this is the origin of Holloway’s second (and real) criticism. Dawkins, he claims, has invalidly extrapolated from his scientific observations to the statement that “Presumably there is indeed no purpose in the ultimate fate of the universe.” That “presumably” notwithstanding, this is, to quote Holloway, the type of extrapolation not carried out by “those [scientists] who respect the limits of their method and avoid amateur philosophic extrapolations from it.

Speaking as an amateur philosopher, and not even an amateur scientist, I’m going to ask a simple question about the onus of proof.

To most people I suspect the idea of the acceleration of gravity being more-or-less the same for all bodies on the earth’s surface initially comes as a surprise: it’s common sense that heavy bodies accelerate faster than light ones. Various experiments have shewn us that that acceleration is about 9.80665 metres/sec/sec for everything. Although scientists haven’t measured the acceleration of gravity on all bodies, they seem pretty confident that this value applies universally. It would then come as something of a shock to be told that, since scientists haven’t actually measured the acceleration of gravity on Bishops’ Mitres, they should not extrapolate in an amateurly philosophical way about the acceleration of gravity on Bishops’ Mitres. That is a religious subject outside their experience.

That was, in case you didn’t notice, an allegory. One which, properly read, could upset the balance of a sensitive and juvenile reader. Where does the onus of proof lie: on the scientists to check the Bishops’ Mitres or on the faithful to shew that Bishops’ Mitres are an exception?

To finish, I suppose I should remind my reader (Mrs Enid Smith of 12, Acacia Avenue, Leamington Spa) of Pierre Laplace’s “Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis”. And yes, I do know Lagrange’s response.


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June 2006
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The author of this blog used to be an employee of Nortel. Even when he worked for Nortel the views expressed in the blog did not represent the views of Nortel. Now that he has left, the chances are even smaller that his views match those of Nortel.
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