John Gray’s awful review of Dawkins’s “An Appetite for Wonder”

December 29, 2015

John Gray has a review of Richard Dawkins's An Appetite For Wonder at New Republic here (from a while ago). I review Gray's review below.

Gray begins with a quotation from Dawkins that, suggests Gray, exhibits several of Dawkins's 'traits' in his 'campaign against religion'. Here's what Gray quotes from Dawkins:

Intelligent life on a planet comes of an age when it first works out the reason for its own existence. If superior creatures from space ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilisation, is: “Have they discovered evolution yet?” Living organisms had existed on earth, without ever knowing why, for over three thousand million years before the truth finally dawned on one of them. His name was Charles Darwin.

Gray claims this passage reveals three things:

1. Gray says: 'There is his equation of superiority with cleverness: the visiting aliens are more advanced creatures than humans because they are smarter and know more than humans do.'

But Dawkins is discussing superiority in terms of intelligence and scientific progress. He's obviously not committing himself here to the view that aliens that are more intelligent and scientifically advanced than us must also be, say, morally superior too - or indeed superior in any other way. That might be Dawkins's view, though I very much doubt it is. But in any case, nothing Dawkins says here commits him to it. So Gray is setting up a straw man.

2. Gray says: 'The theory of evolution by natural selection is treated not as a fallible theory—the best account we have so far of how life emerged and developed—but as an unalterable truth, which has been revealed to a single individual of transcendent genius.'

There are at least two errors in just this one sentence. Here's the first. Yes, Dawkins thinks the theory of evolution is true, and says so. But of course for Dawkins to say the theory of evolution is true is not for him to say that either he, or the theory of evolution, is 'infallible'. Indeed, Dawkins has repeatedly gone out of his way to explain that all scientific theories are fallible, and - though he supposes it's highly unlikely - that even the theory of evolution could in principle be shown to be mistaken.

Gray's second error in that sentence is: nothing Dawkins says here commits him to the view Gray ascribes to him: that Darwin is an individual of 'transcendent genius'. That might be Dawkins's view, but for all Dawkins says here, Darwin might be have been a competent scientist who merely found himself in the right place at the right time.

3. Gray says: 'There cannot be much doubt that Dawkins sees himself as a Darwin-like figure, propagating the revelation that came to the Victorian naturalist.'

But, maintains Gray, Darwin and Dawkins are really very different:

'Hesitant, doubtful, and often painfully perplexed, Darwin understood science as an empirical investigation in which truth is never self-evident and theories are always provisional. If science, for Darwin, was a method of inquiry that enabled him to edge tentatively and humbly toward the truth, for Dawkins, science is an unquestioned view of the world. The Victorians are often mocked for their supposed certainties, when in fact many of them (Darwin not least) were beset by anxieties and uncertainties. Dawkins, by contrast, seems never to doubt for a moment the capacity of the human mind—his own, at any rate—to resolve questions that previous generations have found insoluble.'

Gray says that, for Dawkins, 'science is an unquestioned view of the world'. Really? Anyone with even passing familiarity with Dawkins' work should know that's an absurd claim to make about him. Does Gray want Dawkins to acknowledge that evolution is merely a 'fallible' theory, not something we can suppose is actually true? But of course there is plenty in science we can suppose is actually true, such as that the Earth goes round the sun, that bacteria cause infection, and so on. True, no scientific theory is, as Gray puts it, infallible, but plenty are extremely well-confirmed, and it's by no means irresponsible for us to talk about them being true. Or, if it is, then we'll have to tick off Gray next time he says it's 'true' that water boils at 100c at one atmosphere. Yes, Dawkins thinks the theory of evolution is true. Like pretty much any sensible scientist. That doesn't mean he lacks humility. Yet it is, of course, towards that cliched accusation that we are finally headed: the ad hominem favoured by all Dawkins-bashers that Dawkins is an arrogant know-it-all who thinks science can answer every question! Except, er, he doesn't.

So, we're 500 words into Gray's review, and there's barely anything that's warranted in what Gray has to say about Dawkins.

Many of Gray's errors are egregious errors. Any reasonably intelligent person who took the time to read the above passage from Dawkins and what Gray attempts to extract from it really should be able recognise that Gray is committing a variety of flaming howlers.

And anyone at all familiar with Dawkins's work should also be able to recognise that Gray is saying things that are untrue. That 'science is [or should be] an unquestioned view of the world' is obviously not Dawkins's view; rather, it's Schmawkins's view, Schmawkins being the straw-man facsimile of Dawkins favoured by his weaker-minded opponents.

And yet, for some strange reason, people who should know better have been praising Gray's review. I encourage them to read it a bit more carefully. Gray's review is, in reality, embarrassingly awful. Even Dawkins's critics should be able to recognise that.

Comments:

#1 cornell (Guest) on Wednesday December 30, 2015 at 12:22pm

So when you say Gray makes egregious errors is that an infallible truth or just a rinky dink fallible truth in which it could be false which then makes it pointless to label as a truth?

I don’t blame Gray too much since modern academia can’t even decide what it means to say “X is true”

Perhaps “truth” is just an undefined term at the moment.  Deflationary theories of truth don’t look so silly anymore.

#2 cornell (Guest) on Wednesday December 30, 2015 at 12:42pm

“Or, if it is, then we’ll have to tick off Gray next time he says it’s ‘true’ that water boils at 100c at one atmosphere.”

Gary wouldn’t be ticked off if he just countered with the question ” Is truth a property.”?

#3 Stephen Law (Guest) on Wednesday December 30, 2015 at 12:48pm

Cornell, it’s a fallible belief, just like my belief the Earth goes round the sun, that my cat is in the room, etc. Doesn’t mean I cannot reasonably consider any of these beliefs true.

We don’t need a philosophical theory of truth here. A theory re under what conditions we can *reasonably believe a claim true* would be more useful here, but it had better not have the consequence that we cannot reasonably believe anything true unless we’re infallible about it!

#4 cornell (Guest) on Wednesday December 30, 2015 at 1:19pm

“Cornell, it’s a fallible belief, just like my belief the Earth goes round the sun, that my cat is in the room, etc. Doesn’t mean I cannot reasonably consider any of these beliefs true.”

But now we have another problem, what exactly is it about those beliefs that make them “reasonable”

Is it because they conform to reality?  Are coherent propositions, an ideal of rational inquiry?  Or is truth just deflated?

“We don’t need a philosophical theory of truth here. A theory re under what conditions we can *reasonably believe a claim true* would be more useful here, but it had better not have the consequence that we cannot reasonably believe anything true unless we’re infallible about it!”

But this response makes it look like you are making a commitment to a pragmatic theory of truth, because of the way you speak of “usefulness”.

I think it’s impossible to put forth a truth claim that attempts to speak about reality without committing to some philosophical theory of truth, but that is just me.

Overall I think you did a good job against Gray, but I think he doesn’t look too bad since “truth” is a complicated topic and I can see where he would get confused by Dawkins.  I actually like Dawkins anyways.

#5 Stephen Law on Wednesday December 30, 2015 at 1:32pm

Point is, Cornell, that just so long as reasonable belief that P is true does not require one be infallible about P (and surely it doesn’t), Gray’s point collapses. Gray is here simply presupposing something that is at very best contentious and, actually, pretty obviously wrong.

#6 cornell (Guest) on Wednesday December 30, 2015 at 5:10pm

Ahh, I see what you mean now.

When you put it that way I agree with that.

#7 Philip Rand (Guest) on Wednesday December 30, 2015 at 10:10pm

Yes, Gray took the wrong path analysing the book…

I mean, look at the paragraph:

“Intelligent life on a planet comes of an age when it first works out the reason for its own existence. If superior creatures from space ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilisation, is: “Have they discovered evolution yet?” Living organisms had existed on earth, without ever knowing why, for over three thousand million years before the truth finally dawned on one of them. His name was Charles Darwin.”

What is obvious is the pure “mythos narrative” style.

I mean, for one thing Wallace discovered evolution as well… but adding that would diminish the mythos narrative.

But, I do think that it is this mythos narrative purpose that is the key in analysing the paragraph…and reveals a general confusion in Dawkins approach…

Because the paragraph is really a “Verstehen” exposition that is “dressed” up as a scientific explanation… essentially this is Dawkins clever rhetorical trick in his books.

So, really if one looks closely at the paragraph…the paragraph is oxymoronic, i.e. it cannot be both a verstehen and scientific exposition at the same time!

#8 Stephen Law (Guest) on Thursday December 31, 2015 at 6:35am

Interesting… I take it you are using ‘vestehen’ in the Srelb Boc sense, rather than, say, Max Weber’s?

#9 Stephen Law on Friday January 01, 2016 at 10:06am

Srelb Boc view: that the truth is revealed by a mirror?

#10 Philip Rand (Guest) on Saturday January 02, 2016 at 12:01am

This is complex…verstehan has many ways of being understood (which is a bit funny in and of itself)...

Briefly, classing the paragraph as verstehen is to say that Dawkins “understanding” (whether he is aware of it or not) of the “true” is coextensive with what humans themselves have created, i.e. we are in a better position to understand what humans “make” (mirrors), i.e. theory of evolution (products of the mental) i.e.  rather than grasping material phenomena that are not of our making.

What Dawkins is attempting to achieve with the paragraph is to unify “science” with “literature”... this is why the paragraph has the “structure” it does…

What Dawkins is attempting to do is to describe “the theory of evolution” in a manner that is unproblematic… but, the paragraph’s descriptive framework is less malleable than the explanatory scientific theory of evolution… this is what Gray is focusing on.

It is the distinctiveness of Dawkins paragraph that does not allow any sort of amendment of further development that differentiates it from the “scientific theory of evolution”... and that this “distinctiveness” from the scientific theory of evolution is non-inferential (this is what makes it verstehen… but the paragraph is verstehen internally as well, i.e. “actions” of aliens judging humans… it is an extremely complex paragraph to analyse fully)

This is why Gray criticises Dawkins, Gray recognises “instinctively” that the paragraph has this non-amendable quality to it but he cannot put his finger on what is problematic about the paragraph… so Gray attempts to redescribe what Dawkins is saying in the paragraph in an unproblematic way for Gray to understand… he is explaining Dawkins “actions”.

The Dawkins paragraph has much to offer an in depth analysis…

#11 Philip Rand (Guest) on Saturday January 02, 2016 at 3:11am

Now, before I get accused of being opaque here is a simple example…

We more or less know how the Sun operates because we more or less know how a nuclear bomb operates, i.e. we “mirror” what we have constructed and supposedly “understand” to something we have not constructed.

#12 Stephen Law on Saturday January 02, 2016 at 4:28am

I see, you are going with the ‘mirror’ use. but what happens when we ‘mirror’ ‘Srelb boc’ itself? Does it not say:

‘Cobblers’?

#13 Philip Rand (Guest) on Saturday January 02, 2016 at 5:37am

Dr Law…

I think it would be quite useful for you to read Heidegger’s “Question concerning Technology”...

It is very worthwile…

Also, I think it is wishful thinking on your part if you assume I am using the “boc” interpretation (that is your own “understanding”)...I did not exactly say what “verstehen” interpretation did I?


I wrote that their are many interpretations… however, they do all share particular characteristics…

I chose to use the word “mirror” because you used it… I simply attempted to incorporate a concept you would understand…

#14 DR. T M Murray (Guest) on Sunday January 03, 2016 at 6:24am

Gray has indeed committed “a variety of flaming howlers”, not surprisingly given his ad hominem approach to argument. His tactics are cheap and unprofessional.  Even if he were correct, he should give the bulk of his review to explaining what is wrong with Dawkins’ arguments, not barely disguised snarky character assassination. Luckily Stephen Law demonstrates a more professional and detached style in his review of Gray.  I hope the latter will benefit from it.

#15 Philip Rand (Guest) on Monday January 04, 2016 at 2:39am

Dr Murray…

Yes, I suppose one could say that Dr Law’s review of Gray was professional and detached on one level…

But, on a deeper level, i.e. below Dr Law’s “reasons” there exists the “cause” of the article…

I do hope that if Prof Dawkins reads Dr Law’s article… I hope he has also read “Believing In Brown Nosers”...

Sorry, Dr Law… I could not help myself…but, it is quite a humourous linkage, don’t you think?

But, actually…, according to your “rules” I am allowed to poke fun…

#16 Michael Fugate (Guest) on Tuesday January 05, 2016 at 4:09pm

Philip, which parts of evolution do you have problems with or is it evolution in general? Or maybe all of science?

#17 DR. T M Murray (Guest) on Wednesday January 06, 2016 at 12:08am

Wow I’ve been censored for quite polite comments.  Amazing.

#18 Philip Rand (Guest) on Wednesday January 06, 2016 at 5:34am

Ah, but Dr Murray you have been censored politely… that is the amazing part…

#19 Philip Rand (Guest) on Wednesday January 06, 2016 at 10:02am

That was a bit unfair of me to leave it at that Dr Murray… but, I shall be as clear and as succinct as possible…

I believe my comments concerning Dawkins paragraph got to the crux of the issue…

Thing is my analysis of the paragraph pin points the error that Gray commits…

Now, if Gray’s analysis is in error… it also means, Dr Law’s analysis of Gray should have logical errors in it…

And it does!

The quick analysis is this…in Dawkins paragraph he commits himself to the truth of evolution (nothing wrong with this)... However, the problem comes with Dr Law’s analysis…in his analysis Law states that Dawkin’s is also stating that no scientific theory is infallible…

But, this is the problem… Dawkins is NOT committing himself to this position…Dr Law is committing this position in the second person…

So, when Law says to Gray “What you say is false” and to Dawkins “What you say is true” takes over some part of the paradoxicality from their first-person equivalents since they would have to be capable of commanding agreement and disagreement, and this requires Dr Law committing himself to a paradox in the first-person, i.e. equivocation…

So, we find an error in logic in Dr Law’s article as well…not only Gray is in error…

#20 Philip Rand (Guest) on Wednesday January 06, 2016 at 9:29pm

In many respects Cornell’s initial comments highlighted the equivocation defence Dr Law uses to defend Prof Dawkins…Cornell just did not observe the equivocation…

Here is a quick schematic of what is going on:

Dawkins says: “Evolution is true like the sky is blue.”

Gray says: “Blue is a secondary quality.”

Law says: “Blue is a primary quality and a secondary quality.”

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