Monday, July 20, 2009

A Side-Bar About Ethics, Darwinism, and New Athiesm

I've been trying to focus on arts development and arts communities on this blog now, but I was listening to WNYC's peerless Radiolab, which most recently was basically an interview of Richard Dawkins about Darwinism versus Religion, and Darwinism versus Social Darwinism.

I don't really have the time or inclination to go sorting through all of the arguments-- you should go there yourself and take a listen. I just wanted to say that although Richard Dawkins is just as staunchly anti-religious as Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris, I don't think he's quite the same as them, and he's not in quite the same category of New Atheist.

Whereas Christopher Hitchens will argue (in ironically largely illogical arguments) the very foundations of why Religion is wrong and Science is right, Dawkins has a much more elegant and straightforward--and to me, more accurate--rebuttal of religion. His argument against religion is simply that the need to find purpose in systems is an illusion.

Now, Hitchens goes at great length to make Religion the sum total of human evil, and even Dawkins will overexaggerate the evils of religion, but Dawkins is most powerful when he's simply looking at the reason we irrationally search for reason. By showing that our need for purpose overrides the actual reflection of the universe, he's making a far more powerful case than by labeling it as an attack on freedom, or whatever Hitchens' thrust du jour is.

It reminds me this morning of listening to the other incomparable radio show, This American Life, do a fascinating look at the war between Scientologists and Psychiatrists. It starts with the journalist's sense of revulsion at the DSM-IV, with which he managed to diagnose himself with several "disorders" in a manner of minutes, including poor handwriting, poor mathematical skills, etc. He then examined how difficult it is to prove sanity to the psychiatric profession. Through this, he was being guided by a Scientologist who was eager to make an ally out of him. But then at the end of the episode he sits listening to their propaganda about how psychiatrists have caused 9/11, caused rape and slavery, etc. etc., and they've lost him.

This is the position that Scientologists and New Athiests share: they both are facing an institution with many flaws, but by painting the evil with a wide brush, they lose the ability to criticize impartially.

So that was the first part of the Dawkins interview. The second part was Dawkins' elegant defense of a Post-Darwinian rather than Social Darwinian view of society. Listen to the interview. And to hear to a much older, but also well argued version, read Thomas Huxley's Evolution and Ethics.

That's more than I wanted to say on this topic, but I guess it's been on my mind, having just finished The Selfish Gene and halfway through Oliver Sack's Musicophilia and with both Radiolab and This American Life touching the subject.