Monday, 6 June 2011

The Pollyannism of Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins, probably the world’s best known scientist, on the suffering of the world:

“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference."

Powerful words, worthy of Ecclesiastes, Schopenhauer, Cioran and all of the other great sages of darkness. And, of course, to those who aren’t blinkered, all perfectly true. The only quibble, and a notable one, is the limiting of the description to the natural world. Anyone who doesn’t have their head in the sand and even glances only occasionally at a newspaper or news channel sees that the above applies equally, if not more so, to the human world.

Given such a horrible picture it would appear obvious and eminently rational that one would react with horror, distress and disgust at such a tapestry of misery and suffering. After all, who would embrace such an existence or world if they were offered it beforehand, or even affirm its worth finding themselves thrown into it? Given that Professor Dawkins prides himself on his rationality and his tireless combat against what he perceives to be mindless superstitions, we would be justified in expecting a reaction of horror and outrage. But no; instead we get this:


“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton.”

And this:

“We as individuals are still hugely blessed. Privileged, and not just privileged to enjoy our planet. More, we are granted the opportunity to understand why our eyes are open, and why they see what they do, in the short time before they close for ever.”

And then the poetry:

“After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn't it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked -- as I am surprisingly often -- why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn't it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it?”

Hmmmm, hard to see how such celebrations of life follow from the first quotation. Let’s try a little experiment here: given that scientists such as Dawkins are always espousing the values of consistency, logic, the banishing of subjective emotions from the judgement process, the condemnation of religion as being no more than wish-fulfilment and so on, it shouldn’t be unreasonable to mix and match Dawkins’s statements and expect a coherent whole to emerge. Here we are:

I tried to convey how lucky we are to be alive, given that the vast majority of people who could potentially be thrown up by the combinatorial lottery of DNA will in fact never be born. For those of us lucky enough to be here, we live in a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, where some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life: during the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease.
Isn't it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? We as individuals are still hugely blessed. Privileged, and not just privileged to enjoy our planet. More, we are granted the opportunity to understand why our eyes are open, and why they see what they do, in the short time before they close for ever, namely that the universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference. Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of a universe where the total amount of suffering per year in that world is beyond all decent contemplation?

Ah yes, pass the straitjacket please....

26 comments:

  1. Holy shit, you just one-shotted Dawkins. Good work.

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  2. Great point, this dilemna is a problem for religious and atheists alike, if they honestly examine the brutal horrors of nature. I would hope some intelligent philosophers have already made some progress here. Take the death scene from Blade Runner, for example; some people would rather be in alive in terrible pain then dead.

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  3. Great to bring this up, Karl.

    Not to steal your thunder, but Jim has a great response to Dawkins on his antinatalism blog (blog post is here.

    Even most secularists worship life and defend it just as fanatically and narrow-mindedly as the most fervent Fundamentalist is about their interpretation of the Bible and "God's Will".

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  4. The Plague Doctor7 June 2011 at 04:22

    I must admit, I was also one of those "the Universe is beautiful" types when I was young(er), and to some extent this is true. Strictly speaking, there is no contradiction: the universe can be both beautiful (in the esthetic sense) and bad (in the moral sense), simultaneously.

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  5. Great dovetailing of Dawkins' rather contradictory statements/worldview, Karl. Bravo!

    As much as I applaud Dawkins' efforts to address the superstitious heritage most of the world still labors under, I find his inquiry into the existential problem we face hopelessly one-dimensional and inadequate in the extreme. Of all the 'new atheists', I'd be most curious to read Sam Harris' take on the matter, as he seems the most philosophically oriented of the bunch. I could be wrong, but I just get the feeling that he might find some sympathy for our worldview. I wouldn't expect his public endorsement (consider Peter Singer), but I think he'd at least get a handle on what we're saying.

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  6. Francois, thanks for the nice comment.

    Pieter, more does indeed need to be said about this topic as it is quite vital and trips up most camps outside anti-natalism. Perhaps it may even provide the ground for a common understanding of the issues.

    filrabat, thanks for referring to Jim's post. I'd remembered its existence, but couldn't locate it (although I commented on it myself). Jim's take is certainly more comprehensive than mine. Here's a link to Benatar's take on the same topic:

    http://vorosh.blogspot.com/2008_03_01_archive.html

    Jim, thanks for the compliment. Re.Harris, I've been reading and hearing a bit of him lately. I may be caricaturing him slightly,but he strikes me as just another one of the science-worshipping crowd who believes that all humanity will converge on universal values; needless to say, those values bear a curious resemblance to the American brand of neo-liberal, ultra-capitalist ideology that prevails now. For example, his reply to the work of Noam Chomsky is (roughly) that it's ok when America causes havoc in the world because "our" intentions are good, whatever about the results, whereas "their" motives are nihilistic. I may write more on this at some point. The work of the British philosopher John Gray is the best antidote to this nonsense. Check him out.

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    1. Karl, can you please link me to the John Gray podcast Jim refers to below, if you know it?

      That would be kind if you can.

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    2. Christoph, thanks for all of your comments on the various posts. I hope you don't mind if I don't reply to them all. I think the John Gray podcast might be this one:

      http://benatlas.com/2011/05/john-gray-theos-lecture-on-the-new-atheism/

      Hope you're doing ok.

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    3. Cristoph,

      We are all in the same page as you man. You can count on that.

      I´ve read all your comments in the posts of Karl´s blog. You can be sure we are on your side on this one.

      If you want, you can check out my blog as well, since I´m an associate of Karl´s, and I don´t think he´d mind my advertising.

      Anywho, it was, in a strange way, good to reading your comments, as it always is when we feel that sense of connection with anyone.

      To echoe Karl, hope you are doing ok. As ok as one can be to keep on this existence.

      Delete
    4. Thanks, Shadow.

      Sure, I'll check out your blog, but you'd need to link to it.

      I clicked your handle's hyperlink, but it says your Brogger profile is not publicly available.

      Delete
    5. You can also access Shadow's blog by clicking it in the blog list in the column on the right; it's "The last page".

      Delete
    6. @Bazompora,
      Thanks for providing the blog´s access.

      @Christoph
      I´ll try and take care of this link problem anyway.

      Delete
  7. I listened to a nice podcast of John Gray that I believe you linked me too, Karl. Coincidentally, somebody else sent me some of his material at right around the same time.

    You're most likely correct about Harris, since it only seems acceptable to discuss controversial subjects within the boundaries of 'but of course, the show MUST go on'. The need for life to continue indefinitely is always the backdrop, isn't it? Which is why I've labeled antinatalism 'the greatest taboo'. I honestly can't think of a greater, more universal one, unnoticed by most only because the bogeyman is shrouded over by the tacit assumption.

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  8. Absolutely, Jim. Even in the work of John Rawls - America's most famous political philsopher of recent times - he tries to find principles for designing an ideal society from behind a "veil of ignorance", but never considers the possibility that the best society is no society. It's the equivalent of being told that a foetus is hideously malformed, but deciding to go ahead with the birth anyway.

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  9. Jim, did You mention Singer as an example with which most others wouldn't want to be seen agreeing, because of his controversial arguments, even when he is right (as he often is, I think)? Or do You mean that Singer has a certain understanding of antinatalism, but doesn't dare to agree? Like here: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/should-this-be-the-last-generation/

    It is strange that a lot of people even ignore Singers rejection of antinatalism from that article and just lump Singar and Benatar together, and then rant away. Probably because they don't like either of them, but even more so because they probably don't like (or are capable of) rational thought and philosophy in general. Thera are many articles and stuff to this end.
    It really is a taboo.

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  10. Good pointing, Karl.

    "Powerful words, worthy of Ecclesiastes, Schopenhauer, Cioran and all of the other great sages of darkness".

    And to conclude:

    "And, of course, to those who aren’t blinkered, all perfectly true."

    There are some many blinkered ones, that we can get frustrated at times. But let´s continue climbing the mountain. There´s still more light to shed on the darkness (or darkness to shed on the light) =).

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  11. Karl: interesting that you mention the Original Position argument, because I've been thinking about it too. I think it's definitely a valid antinatalist argument. What sort of motivation could any being possibly have to desire to begin to exist?

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  12. Shadow, nice line about sheding darkness on the light:-)

    Francois, the only motivation I can think of for choosing to exist is an unbridled egotism. Sadly, when we contemplate people choosing to bring new life into existence, we see displaced egotism at its worst.

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  13. Dawkins simply discovered that he needed to wax poetic in order to "seem human" and appeal to the masses. How else to scrape by in his field if not by breaking into the popular-science realm? Next stop: Oprah's book club.

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  14. GottaName: Interesting hypothesis re.Dawkins. It's true that these guys need to reach a mass audience, so they pour a lot of "wonder" and "awe" into the pot and serve up a Pollyanna pie. I'm generally wary of going ad hominem, but I can't help observe that the kind of life Dawkins leads is highly privileged: wealth, fame, guaranteed audience and so on. (I once attended a lecture by him and the level of fawning adulation he received was scary.)Interesting also to note that he and his cadre are setting up a new, incredibly expensive university for the kids of the rich:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/jun/05/new-university-college-humanities-degrees

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  15. Haha! I didnt know that about him.

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  16. You have to realize, Dawkins gets to make a good living working at something he enjoys (and not very hard at that), so it's easy for him to have a happier view of life. If he had to work at Walmart or in some dismal cubicle, living in a shitty apartment or with his parents, and jerking himself to sleep every night, he might not be so fucking cheerful.

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  17. Haha, that anonymus comment was gold.

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  18. Yup, take these guys out of their bubble and see how they feel about existence then!

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