Richard Dawkins and the ‘Blurred Lines’ of Logic

This blog post is a response to the minor controversy over these tweets:

Tweet 1

Tweet 2

Tweet 3

Applying the principle of charity, we can say that Richard Dawkins did not mean to imply that certain types of rape are worse than others (even though that is exactly what he said). Even so, he’s guilty of a severe lack of tact. He desperately needs PR agent before his descent from “pop science writer” to “racist UKIP grandad” is complete.

Now, because he’s probably a litigious little shit, I’ll just point out that I am not alleging Richard Dawkins to be racist. Nor has he, to my knowledge, said anything racist ever. What I just said was a juxtaposition of Richard Dawkins making crass and ignorant statements about rape with UKIP supporters and OAPs of another generation who also make crass and ignorant statements about rape, in addition to being racist.

This does not mean he is a racist (though he might be), nor does it mean he’s a UKIP supporter (though he probably does). But, because he has “being an OAP” and “saying crass things about rape” in common with racist UKIP supporters, we are compelled by the laws of analogy to induce that he probably is racist and probably supports UKIP (if x has and b and y has ay probably has b). That’s not me saying that Dawkins is probably racist, it is rationality! And, if you can’t tell the difference between an analogical induction and a apodictic deduction, you should go away and learn how to think logically!

A sense of irony would be as useful as learning to think, especially given he can’t see the irony in starting a blog post intended to explain why what he said wasn’t tactless by comparing the criticism he received to a tsunami. Last time I checked, twitter debates have a much lower average death toll. And, before you say it was one of his fans who came up with the tsunami thing, the only thing worse than referencing Dawkins in an argument is referencing a Dawkins fan.

Having said, that, that’s exactly what I’m about to do. Dawkins claims he was simply informing the world about a point of elementary logic. But, if he truly sees his role in international debate as teaching people elementary logic, judging by the following comment from a fan, he has fundamentally failed.

 

 

Syllogism

 

It wasn’t a f**ing syllogism, Aaron! It was just a clumsy, fumbled declaration of the fact that non-contradicting statements don’t contradict each other. Thanks for that, Richard! It’s a real public service you’re providing. You must have been what Socrates had in mind when he said he was like a fly, never settling and always popping up to challenge people’s ignorance. “You will never find another one like me!”, he said. How wrong you were, Socrates! How wrong you were! Dawkins is there to pop up and inform you of logical banalities. It would be a great to have an app for that: iDawko, the logical assistant. There to aid your bank transfers by reminding you that the law of the excluded middle means that you can’t be in credit and debit for the same account at the same time. There to tell you that, because Keith Lemon is a man and all men are mortal, Keith Lemon is mortal (actually, that is slightly reassuring). Buy now and get a free iTunes download of Blurred Lines.

Enough silliness. The real question for me is why does a prominent figure for atheism feel the need to set himself up as the last bastion of reason and rationality. The fact that Dawkins knows very little about theology is well accepted by anyone who takes atheism seriously. Exactly why anyone is supposed to listen to his arguments against the nature of religion when it is not his area of expertise has never been clear. But, an equally important downfall with his project is that Dawkins has no real clear understanding of what “reason” is either, despite having set up an institute for the promotion of reason.

Dawkins will frequently claim that it is irrational for people to believe in God, because such belief is incompatible with the consistent and universal application of scientific method to every aspect of every part of life and society. This latter tendency he takes to be the height of rationality. He may not put it in quite this way, but it is implicit in everything he says and does.

To disagree with the principle that the scientific method should be applied to every issue in one’s life is not irrational. Equally, it is not irrational to apply the scientific method to every aspect of your life, although it is probably a sure way to a life without friends. The fact is, Dawkins has clearly confused the word “Rational” with “Correct” and “Irrational” with “Incorrect”. He would do better to just say “religious people are wrong!”, but it doesn’t sound as convincing.

The only requirement for something to be rational is for it to have something to do with thinking in a logical way. Because of this, it is perfectly possible to be both rational and incorrect at the seem. For example, Anselm’s Ontological Argument for the Existence of God is one of the most hyper-rational things ever written. It argues on the basis of reason alone, using the tricks of reason alone, that something outside of reason exists. It happens to be wrong, but it doesn’t stop it being rational.

Immanuel Kant, the one professional thinker who has done more for making atheism possible than any other (with the possible exception of Nietzsche), the only person to ever successfully refute the ontological argument and to kill of natural religion at its source, even Kant argues that reason, when left to its own devices, tends towards theological explanations. Religious thinking, he says though in other words, is the most rational thing there is. It’s just reason being reason. Reason simply finds it easier to think the world if there is a transcendent being responsible for it. But, argues Kant, there is no justification for this desire within reason. As such, if we wish to understand and not simply think the world, we need to limit reason, not bang on about it on twitter and raise it to the level of a demigod.

I’m not an atheist. But if I was, I would cringe at Dawkinists’ obsession with rationality and reason, and not just because they aren’t actually very good at logic. Reliance on reason alone as a means of understanding the world is an essentially theological enterprise, whether it prays or not. While the path of least resistance in our thinking on the pseudo-debate between religion and science is to claim that religious people must escape reason and retreat to emotional feelings, e.g. a gut instinct that a comforting presence exists), such a transition from the rational to the emotional, from thought to experience, is a far more pressing priority for any authentic atheism. This is well understood by Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus and all the existentialists. In other words, proper atheists do not tweet logic!

 

 

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