Dawkins Thinks Badly (Arguably)

This is not quite as clear an instance of sloppy thinking as the previous example; however, there is something not quite right with what Richard Dawkins has to say about fairy-ology.

In this interview, Dawkins responds to the criticism that he appears to know little about theology, and seems to think that it is possible to defeat an opponent without dealing with their strongest arguments, as follows:

Look, somebody who thinks the way I do doesn’t think theology is a subject at all. So to me it is like someone saying they don’t believe in fairies and then being asked how they know if they haven’t studied fairy-ology.

The first (minor) point is that Dawkins  misrepresents the objection here. To express it in fairy terms, the objection isn’t that one cannot know whether one believes in fairies if one hasn’t studied fairy-ology (because clearly non-belief doesn’t require expertise). It is simply that if one wants to show that belief in fairies is irrational (or something like that), then one needs to know a fair bit about fairy-ology.

So what about this claim? Is it necessary to know a fair bit about fairy-ology to show that belief in fairies is irrational?

The answer is that it is certainly arguable that in some circumstances at least it is necessary.

In a world where people have believed in fairies for more than two thousand years, where fairies have inspired many of the great achievements of human civilisation, where some of the outstanding minds in human history have believed in fairies, have debated their existence and nature in some of the major works of literature and philosophy, where there are “proofs” of fairies that many (some?) people take to be valid, where there exists a huge variation in what people take fairies to be when they say that they believe in them… when all this, and more, is true:

There is absolutely an argument that it is necessary to know a fair bit about fairy-ology to show that belief in fairies is irrational.

This is not to argue that more sophisticated arguments about fairies, God, the Loch Ness monster, etc., are more likely to be right than their less sophisticated equivalents. It is simply to argue that it will be a good deal harder to show how they are wrong. And also that at least part (but only part) of showing that a belief is irrational is to show how it is wrong. (It is also not to argue that there is no merit in showing how unsophisticated beliefs are wrong; clearly it is desirable that this is done.)

 I’m not sure why this is contentious. More knowledge makes for better criticism, doesn’t it? Why would it not?

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