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Logic and feeling

Dawkins did an interview at the Global Humanist Conference this morning, and PZ has a report-plus-dissent on it.

Dawkins spoke at #whc2014 this morning, in an interview with Samira Ahmed. Ahmed held his feet to the fire a bit, and grilled him on the recent rape comparisons on Twitter. Unfortunately, he made the same justifications all over again. Basically, his argument was that his critics are:

  1. Irrational, incapable of grasping the lucid logic of his argument.
  2. Emotional, driven entirely by a visceral reaction to rape.
  3. Suppressive, unwilling to discuss the issues calmly. They never discuss some topics, like rape and pedophilia.

He received resounding applause from a receptive audience, and he would have deserved it if there had been any truth at all to his claims. There isn’t.

Well I’m not even sure he would have deserved resounding applause if there had been a tiny bit of truth to his claims, because the truth would be incomplete and tendentious.

For one thing – it’s just not a good approach to keep announcing that “I am being flawlessly rational and everyone who disagrees with me is being irrational.” It’s really not.

It’s not good epistemology to start with the assumption that “I am flawlessly rational” period. Humans aren’t flawlessly rational; even humans who know all about the ways humans aren’t flawlessly rational can be irrational in the same ways as everyone else, and the best of them know that and point out examples of it. Daniel Kahneman does that in Thinking Fast and Slow, and Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson do it in Mistakes Were Made (but not by me).

And what he was saying wasn’t formal logic anyway. It wasn’t a syllogism. It made sense, it was reasonable, but it wasn’t a syllogism. It was a tweet but it was not a syllogism.

For the other thing, he’s just wrong in this disdain for what he calls “emotional.” Morality is an emotional subject; morality makes no sense without emotion; morality is not like a blueprint or an algorithm or a recipe. You need reason and feeling to be able to talk about it sensibly.

As many many many people have pointed out, he knows that himself – he said he chose a provocative subject on purpose. Well quite! If you’re going to choose a provocative subject, it’s no good then rejecting all the provoked responses on the grounds that they are provoked.

It’s not rational to think you can discuss inherently emotive subjects like rape “calmly” and with pure logic. I suspect he would be able to see this with no problem if the subjects were different. Imagine one of those BBC round-table discussions, in which an Islamist guy very calmly and logically explained why it’s haram for a woman to participate in public life. Would Dawkins frown on a feminist ex-Muslim woman who responded with heat as well as reason? I doubt it.

Comments

  1. daniel imms says

    I think Dawkins is right, and most people commenting here are being too emotional. And I bet that comment got an emotional reaction from some. Morality is not emotion. Morality is what you consider right and wrong for a reason. There is always a reason. I consider walking up to a shopkeeper and blowing his brains out to be morally wrong, because I wouldn’t want it to happen to me. That’s not emotional. Bring emotion into it and you lose perspective and rationality.

  2. Seven of Mine, formerly piegasm says

    For the other thing, he’s just wrong in this disdain for what he calls “emotional.” Morality is an emotional subject; morality makes no sense without emotion; morality is not like a blueprint or an algorithm or a recipe.

    This. Even Sam Harris gets this. He uses it, sort of, in The Moral Landscape. I remember watching a video of a debate between him and William Lane Craig (I think the topic was if you can have morality without god; Harris’s part was basically a chopped up promotional speech for the book) and one of the things he says to defend his approach is something to the effect of “I defy you to think of anything that people will care about that has nothing to do with how people experience the world.”

  3. Al Dente says

    Dawkins continues to shitstir. His basic argument, that X is worse than Y is not a promotion of Y, is so banal that it doesn’t need to be made. What he did was make the argument and then give examples he knew would be triggering. Also his examples were not good since they’re purely subjective. When people pointed out both of these problems then Dawkins sneered at his critics for being “emotional.”

    If you’re going to choose a provocative subject, it’s no good then rejecting all the provoked responses on the grounds that they are provoked.

    Exactly.

  4. says

    I did notice, and I watched it a few days ago. It’s not nearly as bad as the silly crowing might have led one to think. I disagreed with very little of it, except for the part about giving it at TAM at all.

  5. Reality_based_community says

    I have no idea what the frack Dawkins is on about. Many of his tweets in this dialog (such as it is) seemed downright childish, which in no way was justified by the childishness of some of the tweets he received. I fear that a kind of cult of celebrity may be getting the better of his judgment at times. I wish he’d return to talking about more substantive ideas. We really need to do better if we desire any relevance. And excuse the quaint notion of thinking of us as a community…a “we,” a notion which I know some are already sharpening their daggers to attack.

    We’ve already lost Hitch (whom I’ve already forgiven for his unconscionable support for the war). Dawkins too? And their successors (Sam Harris? M. Shermer?) don’t seem to be anywhere in the same league.

  6. says

    Shermer? Why Shermer? I’m not sure he identifies as an atheist at all, and I know he’s done some erupting at explicit atheists (at Harry Kroto specifically). Also, he has some rather significant faults.

    Plus, “successors”? Atheism isn’t a monarchy. We don’t need “successors”; we don’t need “horsemen”; we don’t need the whole worshipful mess.

  7. Reality_based_community says

    I’m not sure why I said Shermer. Just a random example. I agree we don’t need a “whole worshipful mess.” But there will be those with greater exposure in the media than others, and they will become the de facto spokespersons in the public eye. I don’t see anyone adequate to the job. That’s my only point.

  8. says

    Well I think with any luck the de facto spokespersons will become more diffuse – and, one ardently hopes, more various – and that will make all this leader-anointing much less likely. It will also mean that personal flaws won’t loom so large.

    People yip about “the rage-bloggers” and “outrage culture” but they’re the same people who turn two or three individuals into Giants and Heroes, who then do a lot of damage to the putative atheist movement by turning out to be a good deal less than perfect. The whole cycle is ridiculous and unhelpful.

  9. chrislawson says

    I think r_b_c meant “successors” in the sense of those who came after, not in the sense of those taking over a nominated role. But, yes, it’s not the ideal word.

  10. Reality_based_community says

    Well I think with any luck the de facto spokespersons will become more diffuse – and, one ardently hopes, more various – and that will make all this leader-anointing much less likely.

    I suspect you are correct. By necessity, I think, that will be the case. Not that it’s hero worship to wish for somebody as articulate and fearless as, say, a Hitch (certainly a man of many flaws, even literally fatal flaws). Discourse is largely driven by the media, and one might wish for a singular presence or presences. But I agree, those days are probably going away, and perhaps that will open up new possibilities for a more pluralistic discourse.

  11. Reality_based_community says

    Chris, yes, that is what I meant. I understand that there is no Central Committee that appoints the next dear leader.

  12. moarscienceplz says

    R_B_C #9

    But there will be those with greater exposure in the media than others, and they will become the de facto spokespersons in the public eye. I don’t see anyone adequate to the job.

    Part of the reason for this is due to a positive feedback loop. Journalists maintain a list of people who have commented on a particular topic in the past, and use that list to get new comments. If we all tried harder to respond directly to journalists who write or broadcast news articles we feel we have a valid viewpoint on, some of us could get added to those lists for future comments.

  13. leni says

    I am so, so tired of the continuing false equivalence of emotional with irrational. And given the context, it’s just sleazy. Yeah, sleazy. He knows it will push buttons. He’s not responding to the substance of angry replies. He is fine with his own churlish bullshit because it’s logical to him, but everyone else is “emotional”. That is some grade A asshole activity.

    This from the man who forced his fans to have to think the words “Mild date rape” and “mild pedophilia” every time they see him. Forever. Those gross, stupid words are burned into my brain and will never, ever be disassociated from him.

    I will think of them ever time I see him. Every time I read his words. Until I die. I’m probably just going to start calling him Richard “Mild Date Rape” Dawkins. Is that how he wants people to think of him? People who WANT to like him and generally agree with him?

    Bang up PR job he’s doing.

  14. Reality_based_community says

    Dawkins has been very good at defending science and rationality as opposed to a religious worldview, or even just what might be termed more generally as a superstitious world view. For that, I’ll applaud his work. It’s important. But he has contributed very little to any kind of meaningful a-theistic world view…or I guess more precisely to how we can advance the human project from within that world view. Some kind of contribution that is a bit more than just raw knowledge and better gadgets (which again, I’m certainly not disparaging, at all). But there is a project whose advancement takes a bit more than ridicule and disdain. Evolutionary biology has explained in great detail how and why us primates have opposable thumbs. As important, and less often asked, is what the frack are you going to do with it?

  15. johnthedrunkard says

    Isn’t Dawkins’ defensiveness a near-perfect demonstration of ‘emotion’ trumping reason? His small point about ranking not involving endorsement is warped and lost under his subjective, personal, experience:
    HIS molestation wasn’t particularly traumatic, hence molestation isn’t so bad.
    Rebecca wasn’t shot in the head, therefore internet bullying and stalking….

    He is demonstrating exactly the same failure of thinking that he is trying to call out. His personal emotions are NOT a measure of the real world.

  16. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    Bang up PR job he’s doing.

    Fits right in with the rest of the atheoskeptical leadership. Public relations to them seems to equal “scream at the public until they admit we’re right.”

  17. says

    Between his reaction to Rebecca Watson’s comment and his statement on “mild pedophilia” it’s clear Dr. Dawkins feels that women and children are just supposed to tolerate at least some amount of predatory behavior from men. His latest comments on rape are in keeping with that. He’s fucking disgusting and fuck him for denigrating people’s emotions. Gah.

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