The bulk of Richard Dawkins’ speech at KU last night was taken almost verbatim from the text of his book. His focus was on what I considered the best parts of the book, an explanation of the flaws of intelligent design creationism and the intellectual poverty that it encourages, as well as an excellent presentation of the error inherent in treating religious beliefs as a property of geographic regions or genetic bloodlines.
The parts of the book I objected to most strongly in my review didn’t come out until the question and answer period at the end, and I encourage interested readers to read the comment thread there to see the range of perspectives available on those issues.
Dawkins is a good speaker and a sharp thinker, and it’s hardly surprising that the sympathetic audience which filled the Lied Center came from as far away as Arkansas and Nebraska to hear him talk.
Science professionals and especially science teachers in Kansas got special recognition. They are, Dawkins reminded us “on the front line trenches against the forces of darkness.”
Among those forces mentioned were the Phelps family (who Dawkins was surprised not to find greeting him) and the Kansas Board of Education. They, like others, are driven by what he termed “the illogic of default,” the idea that if someone else is wrong, it means that the first group must be right, by default.
In one slide, he illustrated the error:
1. We have Theory A and Theory B
2. Theory A is supported by loads of evidence
3. Theory B is supported by no evidence at all
4. I can’t understand how Theory A explains X
5. Therefore Theory B must be right
(Ignoring the question of whether Theory B can explain X…)
Helping people understand that this logic is atrociously bad is a worthy goal, and Dawkins did so elegantly. His discussion of the error of attempting to prove intelligent design by this method got lots of laughs and applause, and I expect it gave plenty of people the tools to help their neighbors understand these issues as well. Dawkins explained the attitude behind intelligent design as asking scientists “don’t squander ignorance.”
The most interesting point in the evening was his response a question about the origin of atheistic morality. He spent a while explaining how the Bible isn’t – and shouldn’t be – the basis for how any of us (other than the Taliban) actually live our lives. The number of stonings we don’t see is proof enough of that.
But I was intrigued that he seemed to indicate that he hadn’t really got an answer for where he derives his moral philosophy from. It’s indisputable that he has one, and he cites Kant and Rawls in his book, both are philosophers who’ve suggested paths to non-theistic moral philosophies. Kant in particular seems to mesh well with the idea of progressive moral change that Dawkins documents. I was frankly surprised that he hasn’t thought about, or didn’t want to discuss, how he envisions moral systems being constructed.
The only place where I really felt he missed the boat was in response to a question about whether he feels that his evangelism for atheism, and his explicit linkage between his scientific views and his views on theism, are doing harm in battles over education policy. He allowed that he probably does do harm, but the reason he gave (which he also gave in the book) wasn’t the whole story.
He said that he thinks he does harm simply because atheists are perceived as evil, which means his atheism would tend to undermine his presentation. What he didn’t address is that the legal and theoretical arguments against presenting IDC in science classes relate to science being secular, not promoting some religious views over others. This is an idea backed not just by many practicing scientists and by theologians, but by philosophers of science. Dawkins upends that to no clear benefit. He grants the central claim that IDolators would advance, that the science class is the appropriate venue for resolving theological disputes. And that, however people view atheists, is harmful.