Friday, August 01, 2014

The Library of Babble

Well, this is kind of interesting.

Via Grandmere Mimi, in comments, I get a link to this opinion piece about Richard Dawkins and rape (on which topic perhaps enough has been said).  From that piece I get a link to this review by Stephen Jay Gould from late in the last century (it's so much fun to be able to say that!).  It isn't so much about Dawkins' idea of "selfish genes" (although Gould virtually dismisses that theory out of hand, and for clear reasons.  I'm sure elsewhere he wrote more extensively on Dawkins' "fundamentalism," as he calls it.  Again, that problem of research!), as it is about Daniel Dennet's book from the '90s,' Darwin's Dangerous Idea.

Which, oddly enough, is what this review is about.  Yeah, yeah, I know:  same book, two reviews, so what?  But I got that link from this post at Thought Criminal.


Anyway, it's interesting if only to find out scientists act just like commenters on blogs:  they find it easier to get personal than to engage in rational considerations of topics, even of scientific topics within their fields.  Jump to the last paragraphs of that review by Gould to see what I mean.

It's also enlightening to analyze Dawkins and Dennett as fundamentalists; ultra-Darwininsts, as Gould labels them.  It explains so much, even if it isn't exactly news.  When Eleanor Robertson writes:

Dawkins’ narrowmindedness, his unshakeable belief that the entire history of human intellectual achievement was just a prelude to the codification of scientific inquiry, leads him to dismiss the insights offered not only by theology, but philosophy, history and art as well.
And you read that in light of Gould's review of Dennett (and comments on Dawkins), you begin to wonder if Dawkins has ever made any serious contribution to science or human understanding, and if his turn into a fundamentalist atheist is really a turn at all.

If you weren't wondering already.

I don't know how many supporters Dawkins has among scientists; I do know he has many fans on the internet (go to the comments at the Robertson link above to see what I mean).  But their devotion is rather ignorant, is based more on Dawkins saying what they want to hear, than on Dawkins actually making a sound argument about anything.  Science, like any human endeavor, is all about interpretation.  You can't say that to most atheists/science "supporters" on the internet; they will scream the heavens down upon your head.  But it is true: any human endeavor comes down to the simple ambiguity of interpretation, of how you explain/understand the material (ideas, facts, what have you) which form the basis of your consideration and explanation.

No explanation is complete and total; it is simply accepted as such.  And all explanations are subject, at least, to the Incompleteness theorem, at the extreme.  So no explanation can be complete and total; it simply isn't possible.

I have a weak (admittedly) but enlightening (I hope) example in the new "Sherlock" series, which I've been re-watching on Netflix.  I love this series, because this Sherlock (unlike the demi-god of the Sherlockian canon) can over-read the evidence before him, leaping to conclusions where a simple application of, say, Occam's Razor might make him consider conclusions are more dangerous things than he realizes.

Moriarty, for example, in this series, first appears to Sherlock's eyes as a gay man.  His dress, more than his manner, allegedly betrays him.  Except it turns out Moriarity exploited Sherlock's willingness to accept material facts (the way he dressed) for the final arbiter of truth; Moriarty reveals to Sherlock that he appeared as a gay man knowing Sherlock would leap to the conclusion, never considering it might be a ruse.

In "The Final Vow," Sherlock confronts a man who allegedly has a vast vault beneath his huge modern country home, a vault containing information on paper about almost every person of importance (or of not importance, it seems) in England.  Sherlock never considers an alternative, which turns out to be true:  that the "vault" legend is just that, legend; and the villain has, not a warehouse of paper, but an eidetic memory and a storehouse of memories, of perfect recall of the documents that can blackmail others (or just knowledge of what can be used against them, like the safety of spouses and friends).

It's not an obvious answer, and it's a bit magical (memory doesn't really work that well, especially eidetic memory), but upon review you think:  if Sherlock were as preternaturally intelligent as he is supposed to be, why didn't he consider that possibility?

But Sherlock accepts his intelligence and ability to observe and reason and deduce, as all the power he needs.  This is an intentional weakness in his character, a flaw that keeps him from being a mere automaton or so supremely super-human he is a fantasy figure like Superman.  But it's also a fair warning:  you never know as much as you think you do, and the certainty of your conclusions is always based on what you don't know you don't know.  Sherlock tells Watson at one point that real life is not as neat and tidy as Watson's stories about him are, but the TV episodes can't help being fiction and providing tidy endings to messy story lines.  That is fine for fiction; but it cannot carry over into real life, and in order to make the stories more realistic and less fantastical, Sherlock has to fail, betimes.  Even if the figure Conan Doyle based the first Sherlock on was a real human being, the diagnoses of that doctor were never as final and certain as those of the fictional character he inspired.

Ambiguity, like the poor, will always be with us.  Murder mysteries will always answer all of our questions; real life will not.

But ambiguity and contradiction are anathema to fundamentalists, of which Dawkins is clearly one.  “Mild pedophilia is bad. Violent pedophilia is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of mild pedophilia, go away and learn how to think.”  The first question there has to be:  "what the hell is 'mild pedophilia'?"  But clearly the latter is "worse" because violence has been added, as if "mild pedophilia" were not an act of violence already.  But to Dawkins is isn't; indeed, how could it be, else there could not be "violent pedophilia."  Carry it out with the next topic he brought up, "Date rape" v. "rape by a stranger at knifepoint," and his meaning is quite clear.  Date rape is like mild pedophilia; bad, but fully not an act of violence.  Rape by a stranger with a knife is violent; rape by an acquaintance is merely unfortunate, or at any case a lesser form of rape.

Except, of course, rape is an act of violence.  That's why the criminal statutes don't distinguish between acquaintance v. stranger:  rape is non-consensual intercourse, even if it is with your spouse.  Whether you could prosecute that example or not is a separate question:  the statues don't speak in terms of personal relationships or the necessity of violence additional to the rape itself.  Rape is rape.

Pedophilia is pedophilia.  Dawkins' insistence on distinction in either case, does him no credit at all.  He is not thinking, he is determining, and those who do not determine as he does are the ones with the problem.  It's the world that is wrong, not the Oxford don.

Nice work, if you can get it.

Fundamentalists love to cleave the world into either/or, and one side is right, the other wrong, with no ambiguities or contradictions or shades of grey allowed, and all true knowledge pointing toward one end.  It's a fine method of thought for murder mysteries where the criminal is finally identified, the murders finally stopped and justice fully done.  But in reality there is always that problem of incompleteness, always those questions any system of thought can generate, which only another system of thought can answer.  It's not progressive, moving higher and higher toward a final paradise; it's more like Borges' Library of Babel:  going on endlessly and seemingly repetitively, although it never quite repeats itself, but it never quite reaches an end, a telos, either.

If Plato taught us to think too much of how we might one day achieve the Good, Aristotle taught us to think too much that everything as its goal, its telos; and we took it for a summa, a completion.

Ambiguity and mystery, and the sense that if with God all things are possible then even the contradictions presented by God to our ideas and theologies can be made well by God, are not sources of confusion but comfort; not points where we can be sure we are right or others wrong, but of humility, where we can only be sure we don't yet know all there is to know, and until that time, that telos, we never will.


  1. Not that I'm a fan of Dawkins, or have ever read any of his stuff, but I have to say it's not saying anything extraordinary to recognize distinctions and degrees of culpability in recognized offenses. The law and moral theology have always done so. Dawkins' tweet is rather tactless in saying if you don't agree with him you must not be thinking. That's typical of somebody who's on the defensive. But at least he's speaking out of experience. I think he was a victim of what he called "mild pedophilia." He didn't like it, but he doesn't think it did him any major harm. Some people, obviously, get messed up for life out of it. Everyone isn't going to agree, but I don't think he's totally nuts to insist on degrees of culpability within a simgle identified offense (what some of us still call a "sin"). And it's correct, I think, to say that distinguishing bad from worse doesn't make bad good (Just as distinguishing good from better doesn't make good bad). In this he's just agreeing with St. Augustine.

  2. The question is: how are the distinctions made? They exist, of course, but is there a "legitimate" rape, or pedophilia that isn't bad?

  3. Sherlock never considers an alternative, which turns out to be true: that the "vault" legend is just that, legend; and the villain has, not a warehouse of paper, but an eidetic memory and a storehouse of memories, of perfect recall

    I've been thinking about that one a lot lately, and I'm not entirely sure Sherlock didn't figure it out when they met and he saw the spectacles were ordinary, and the whole op was a ruse to make final confirmation of his unstated hypothesis.

    But anyway...

  4. " there a "legitimate" rape, or pedophilia that isn't bad?"

    No. But I think there can be bad, worse, worst. I think that's all he's trying to say.

  5. ntodd--could be.

    Rick--problem is, what accounts for the degrees? Added "insult," such as a weapon? Or lowered familiarity with the attacker?

    Or simply prolonged, v. singular? And why? The law recognizes each act as separate, with a weapon involved, say, as an added feature of what is really a separate crime. How is one rape "worse" than another? One crime can be, but the problem is still one of definition.

  6. I think there can be bad, worse, worst. I think that's all he's trying to say.

    But why? It still is an attempt to diminish some women's experience. Rape is rape, and mansplaining it adds no value to the conversation.

  7. ntodd--that's the heart of my question in this otherwise ignorable matter (which, no, I haven't ignored, have I?): Richard Dawkins is a best-selling author and an Oxford don. So why does everybody have to explain what he REALLY meant to say?

  8. on a bit of a tangent, but the best mysteries - maigret, ross macdonald's 'archer' books- do leave questions unanswered

    in general i find that the more overbearing the certainty, whoever the source, the more skeptical i get- even though sometimes i wonder if the knee-jerk response is the right one