Monday, October 08, 2012

Dennett contra Weinberg

There's a relatively famous quote by physicist Steven Weinberg : "With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion." I think this is an incredibly naive claim. I would replace "religion" in that quote with "ideology." After all, good people do evil in the service of political ideologies all the time. But that's a post for another day. Right now I want to point to an interesting passage from Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea that contradicts Weinberg's claim. It's from page 264 of my copy, the third page in chapter 10; the emphases are mine.

Anybody as prolific and energetic as [Stephen Jay] Gould would surely have an agenda beyond that of simply educating and delighting his fellow human beings about the Darwinian view of life. In fact, he has had numerous agendas. He has fought hard against prejudice, and particularly against the abuse of scientific research (and scientific prestige) by those who would clothe their political ideologies in the potent mantle of scientific respectability. It is important to recognize that Darwinism has always had an unfortunate power to attract the most unwelcome enthusiasts -- demagogues and psychopaths and misanthropes and other abusers of Darwin's dangerous idea. Gould has laid this sad story bare in dozens of tales, about the Social Darwinists, about unspeakable racists, and most poignantly about basically good people who got confused -- seduced and abandoned, you might say -- by one Darwinian siren or another. It is all too easy to run off half cocked with some poorly understood version of Darwinian thinking, and Gould has made it a major part of his life's work to protect his hero from this sort of abuse.

So Dennett not only affirms that science can lead good people to do evil, but evolution in particular can do so. Of course, Dennett and Weinberg and I would respond to this charge that such people are obviously misunderstanding science and evolution in such cases. But then I don't see why this defense isn't available for religion as well.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


Mike D said...

Weinberg's quote always struck me as being either naively foolish or, more probably, pure soundbite polemics.

David B Marshall said...

Sorry, but I think that solution is too simple.

I think great evil can be and has been done by people who understand both science and evolution perfectly well. What's to stop them? Guru Dawkins himself implies that this is a valid interpretation of Darwinian morality, just an unfortunate one. Understanding evolution usually has no positive effect on morality at all, and without God, tends to have a bad effect, I think.

As for religion, there are good religious ideas that have a good effect, but also a bad or indifferent effect. There are bad religious ideas that have a bad, good or indifferent effect. Multiply that times the number of believers, then by their mood swings and appetites and magnetic fluxes.

The truth is more like this:

"Without religion, people usually act like baboons. With religion, people act like human beings, so hold onto your wallet and pray to God Almighty for salvation."

And that's without defining "religion," which Weinburg was too philosophically naive, like most Gnu scientists, to do.

Anonymous said...

Critics of Gould's The Mismeasure of Man have found it to be highly tendentious in an essentially political way, precisely *because* he placed fighting against prejudice above the pursuit of scientific truth. Here is a summary of one critic's comments on Gould, from Wikipedia:

"In a review of The Mismeasure of Man, Bernard Davis, professor of microbiology at Harvard Medical School, said that Gould erected a straw man argument based upon incorrectly defined key terms — specifically reification — which Gould furthered with a "highly selective" presentation of statistical data, all motivated more by politics than by science.[14] That Philip Morrison’s laudatory book review of The Mismeasure of Man in Scientific American, was written and published because the editors of the journal had "long seen the study of the genetics of intelligence as a threat to social justice." Davis also criticized the popular-press and the literary-journal book reviews of The Mismeasure of Man as generally approbatory; whereas, most scientific-journal book reviews were generally critical. Nonetheless, in 1994, Gould contradicted Davis by arguing that of twenty-four academic book reviews written by experts in psychology, fourteen approved, three were mixed opinions, and seven disapproved of the book.[15] Furthermore, Davis accused Gould of having misrepresented a study by Henry H. Goddard (1866–1957) about the intelligence of Jewish, Hungarian, Italian, and Russian immigrants to the U.S., wherein Gould reported Goddard's qualifying those people as "feeble-minded"; whereas, in the initial sentence of the study, Goddard said the study subjects were atypical members of their ethnic groups, who had been selected because of their suspected sub-normal intelligence...."

L. Legault

Anonymous said...

"I would respond to this charge that such people are obviously misunderstanding science and evolution in such cases. But then I don't see why this defense isn't available for religion as well".

I'd say that religion in general (or most existing religions, for that matter) is a much more ambiguous and hard to define thing then scientific facts. And it's also hard to define what constitutes a misunderstanding of it, considering the diversity found in most religious texts and practices.

However, I agree with the general meaning of the post. I'd also add that a person who is already immoral will be drawn to amoral religious or ideological concepts.

John Kurman said...

Considering Weinberg worships at the church of string theory, one wonders what great evil he has in store for us.

Admin said...

I can't resist noting that I've made the same point about ideology being the danger rather than religion on my own blog:

It isn't irrelevant to note that Weinberg is an outspoken defender of controversial Israeli military operations. Chris Hitchens was responsible for popularising Weinberg's quote, and he ended up outspokenly defending the Bush administration's various military interventions.

Anonymous said...

Gould. Weinberg. Are we sensing a pattern here yet? Pattern recognition is the definition of intelligence, right?