January 24, 2013

Horse 1431 - Dawkins and the July Turkey

One of the philosophers I happen to like is Karl Popper. A lot of what he wrote concerns that which can properly be known and which can not for absolute certainty be known, a sort philosophical empiricism if you will. Among many of his ideas, Popper theorised that science since about 1800 had gone from a state of being open to ideas and then fitting them into new theories which were malleable and replaceable, to a place where because the results led to financial implications theories were put forward as being correct until proven false.
If this is indeed the case, then this has two very large implications. But before we arrive at either of them, I have two illustrations.

Imagine you are a turkey. Every morning you stick your head out of the turkey house and the farmer gives you some lovely corn to eat. There is of course nothing in the world of a turkey to suggest any impending doom whatsoever but those of us who aren't turkeys know that come December, the world of the turkey will be radically different. Some turkeys have a particular date with destiny which is life-changing.
A turkey has no knowledge in its world in July which would lead it to believe anything other than when it sticks its head out of the turkey house in the morning, it will get fed. The one vital piece of knowledge which might change its behaviour, is not only unknown but completely unknowable. The implication that what you don't know and also what you have no way of even knowing or deducing, might have serious implications on your well being, happiness and even life itself, is scary.

Likewise, even if every raven you have ever seen in your life is black, even though you have no reason at all to suspect that there is such a thing as a white raven, to categorically deny the existence of a white raven with certainty, requires you to have met and catalogued every raven that ever existed. If this sounds silly, then think of white swans. The absolute unthinkable happened in Western Australia when lo and behold, black swans were found in abundance.
For a thing to be categorically classified as non-existing, requires that it be proven for all cases not to exist. It is easier in the world of mathematics to prove such a statement but as soon as you move to a subject with more parameters and far more variables where black and white do not hold, then a hard position is futile.

The reason why I even make mention of this is that SBS1 is running a series by evangelistic atheist Richard Dawkins which has been billed as being about Sex, Life, Death and The Meaning of Life. I tuned in to have a look but the truth is that I found both his arguments and his logic, incomplete and almost deliberately so. In consequence he sounds forceful, which means that many people never worry about thinking for themselves.
Dawkins likes to wantonly ignore the possibility of religion because he thinks that the idea of a God/gods/force/karmic system (whatever) is silly. By taking a hard position and hoping that others do likewise, he is very much inviting people to enter and live the way of the July Turkey.

I am of course reminded of Pascal's Wager. If God exists, then belief in Him is a rational construct, if He does not, then although that belief is futile, to have lived a virtuous life in the light that everyone's life was also futile, is at very least an apt consolation.
Either God is, or He is not.
Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.
The difference being that Mr Dawkins still requires a very strong position of faith to stand where he does and to never admit that is again dishonest. Science itself can not account for more than 95% of the universe, it still has no proper or probable definition of where conscience resides and I happen to find it curious that there has never at least to the best of my knowledge, been discovered any atheist tribe on the face of the earth. I don't know if that indicates something innate but it is curious.

Naturally, Dawkins dismissed the idea of the existence of the human soul but he kind of inadvertently provided a possible proof that he could be wrong about this.
Every cell in the human body is replaced roughly every 7-10 years; thusly the five year old Richard Dawkins in his words "is dead" according to him. Yet without clarifying how the 71 year old Richard Dawkins can possibly be the same person as the five year old Richard Dawkins, despite every single component part being replaced, he moved on to speak about DNA, genes and chromosomes, without even so much as touching on the subject ever at all. Again there's probably something to be said about the residence of conscience but the how, why and what of this was never explored.
It is all very well to dismiss the existence of the soul but without proof, at some point you're back to standing on that same murky concept of faith. The difference between Karl Popper and Richard Dawkins though was that Popper knew where the edge of his reasoning lay, whereas Dawkins is incredibly condescending and openly admits to feeling "sorry" for anyone who displays an air of faith in that which can not be seen.

Popper's position that:
"I don't know whether God exists or not. ... Some forms of atheism are arrogant and ignorant and should be rejected, but agnosticism—to admit that we don't know and to search—is all right" and that "Although I am not for religion, I do think that we should show respect for anybody who believes honestly" is a more apt, noble and honest position for someone to take. Fair enough, Dawkins firmly believes that there is no God but for a scientist to hold it out with such conviction, is like the July Turkey who thinks that it will always get fed, or the Black Swan fallacy.

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