Richard Dawkins and Archbishop Rowan Williams


So I watched this today:

 

I felt that Richard Dawkins did most of the talking and that the archbishop didn’t really go in depth into his own views nor really explained or pushed any point. He mostly posed questions, clarified what his views are not, and gave very vague diplomatic sounding answers. At least, vague to me, someone who is not familiar with his positions.

In summary, I have to agree with the top comment on the video: Richard Dawkins made some clear points, the archbishop made some vague points, and they both come across as very nice and altogether too civilized and polite people. Sorry, no locking horns or bloodshed at all.

Some ideas that were discussed and my two cents:

The part I liked was the exploration of the idea of the first human, or rather, the lack of a first human. Highlighting the point that there may not be a distinctive point where are new species emerges. Exactly! Taxonomy, the classification of biodiversity, is an arbitary, human-created system. It’s a classification system created by us to allow us to conveniently describe the world we see. The world, more often that not, tends not to fall obediently into the nice distinct categories we draw up, at least not without plenty of exceptions to every rule.

The part about language was interesting too– whether it was a sudden change in those particular genes, something that arose gradually or arose as a side-effect result of some other ability.

I wish they had gone more into the issue of consciousness though, and I wish the archbishop had elaborated more on his view (I assume?) that science may not be able to explain consciousness. Personally, I don’t see a problem with a gradual consciousness arising from brains. It seems completely plausible and even likely to me that the gaining of consciousness and self awareness (and ‘god awareness’?) could have been a gradual evolutionary process as well.

I mean, we can see all sorts of different ‘levels’ of consciousness and self awareness in the living things around us; From plants (completely unconscious, unintelligent and unaware) to simple organisms to insects (are insects conscious?) to birds and mammals like cats and dogs which have discernible personalities even but probably don’t self reflect too much, to elephants, apes and dolphins that are definitely conscious and probably self aware to some extent at least, even if we can’t tell if they ever reflect on the meaning of life or question why they do things.

I also agree with Dawkins that self-awareness would probably be gained way before we would call it human, and I’d add on that I think any ‘god awareness’ would probably come quite a bit after what we would likely call human.

The archbishop wondered about the problem of getting something non-physical (ie consciousness) from something physical, and coincidentally I had recently discussed some similar ideas with a friend. Again, I don’t see a problem, but maybe I’m missing something, making a mistake somewhere.

I don’t see why what we know about how the physical brain relates to non-physical processes doesn’t solve this problem. When certain physical parts of the brain are damaged, there is a resulting damage to memory, or speech. When you stimulate parts of the brain, there is a resulting sensation. Specific chemicals (neurotransmitters) result in certain feelings or emotions. Doesn’t this close the gap between the purely physical and the non-physical?

Then the question of whether computers can have consciousness and free will.

Dawkins imagines if you were able to programme a computer so well that it could behave as though it were conscious well enough to fool people, and while he hesitate to call that consciousness, it seems like he has to committed to that view.

The response to that was that it’s pretty ridiculous to commit to such a view, since computers are mere tools; they can’t even add 2 and 2 or tell the time, they can only do what you tell them to.

I think an answer such a question depends fully on your underlying assumptions about what consciousness is and how it comes about.

If we were really able to, one day, programme a computer to be so human and life-like, like in science fiction (I, Robot? A.I.?) where computers for all purposes appear exactly like they have a unique personality and free will, then how could you say they weren’t conscious? If we were really able to reach that point, you wouldn’t find it so ludicrous an idea. Of course, if you think they couldn’t possibly be conscious, that would also mean you think it’s impossible for computers to ever reach that stage, that it’s impossible for something programmed by humans to cross that line, to truly have consciousness or free will.

Free will is indeed a tricky one; I think most people would disagree about determinism? and Richard Dawkins is understandably hesitant about his position too. But in recent months, I’ve found myself tending very much towards that sort of thinking: everything that we do or feel happens as a result of millions of factors that we have no control over; from my innate personality or temperament to the weather on a particular day affecting my mood to my education and upbringing that affect the way I think and see the world… is there still room for free will?

It seems incredibly counter-intuitive to think that I do not have free will, and yet maybe that’s just due to… reactionary prejudice to the idea? I mean, saying you have no free will… seems to eliminate self (that we cherish so much) altogether: you’re nothing but a robot or simple animal merely reacting to (external) stimulus in accordance to the abilities and tendencies of  your hardware (ie your brain and body).

Yet, even if I did believe that I don’t truly have free will… the ‘no free will’ universe and the ‘free will’ universe would be indistinguishable– I’d have no way of telling because in practice there are so many billions of factors involved that go into causing any emotion or decision-making in me that the illusion of free will would still remain.

The experiment Dawkins mentions about your brain ‘deciding’ to make a decision before ‘you’ do is interesting, but I think it’s difficult to draw any real conclusions from it. Couldn’t it just mean that there is a time lag between when you actually decided and when you’ve realize you’ve decided? or between when you actually decided and when you’ve managed to convey to the experimenters that you’ve decided. On it’s own i don’t think it really shows determinism, or whether souls exist or not. On it’s own it’s just… interesting.

I don’t think investigating only “small scale, short term and uninteresting decisions” is a problem though, as the archbishop thought it was, unless you mean to draw a distinction that in picking up a glass of water you exercise less free will than when deciding whom to marry, which I don’t think is coherent.

I like the idea Dawkins put forward about the human brain going beyond what one would expect for mere survival, that in order to build a brain to survive in a mundane world, it is difficult to build a brain that is not also capable of doing more advance things like mathematics and philosophy. I’m not sure I agree fully because I think all the complicated bits of our brain could have evolved just like the simple bits: because they DID give us an advantage.

What advantage could the tendency to philosophize about metaphysical issues possibly give to animals whose main concern is to find food, shelter and mates? Well, wouldn’t an inquisitive mind capable of seeking explanations have benefited those that did manage to come up with answers that could improve their hunting abilities or survival? And of course there the social aspect: we’ve evolved to live in groups.  Surely that way of living could results in the selection of much more complicated mental states.

Things the archbishop said that I found surprising

1. Immortality is a matter of faith and not something that can be proven by reason. He even seems to discount near death experiences.

2. I’m not sure if I’m understanding what he said in reply to the question “was the universe designed” but this is what I got:

The fact that there is a universe that is intelligible, that hangs together, that has processes that converge to certain ends is part of what he means when he says that god created the universe and that god is an intelligent god.

Involving god in the micromanagement of the processes is problematic because of the moral question, ‘if god can do that (stop suffering), then why doesn’t he do it more often?’

Is that what he’s saying?

3. There is no first human and no adman and eve.

I suppose I haven’t read up much on views that assume parts of the bible as myths or allegory, so I don’t understand it much.

But the inevitable question is: once you give up the claim of the inerrancy of the bible, once you decide some parts aren’t properly true, then how do you decide which parts are and which parts aren’t? If you can give up the story of adman and eve, what’s stopping you from giving up the story of Jesus’ resurrection? Doesn’t the bible give a genealogy all the way from Adam to Noah? Abraham? Jesus? So if Adam isn’t real, how do you know where ‘real’ starts?

… argh, this post is altogether too long. Xp

Nature vs Nurture: Does it matter?


The debate and controversy surrounding homosexuality almost always gravitates towards debate about its nature: whether people are born gay or not.

Knowing the nature of sexuality would of course be helpful and as a science student I definitely think we should never stop chasing for answers. But I don’t think these particular answers are as central to the debate as people think they are.

In other words, even if we were to untangle all the gazillion factors that goes into making someone who they are in terms of their their sexuality and gender identity, the debate (or mudslinging and discrimination) would still continue, because that’s not what people are actually arguing about.

A disclaimer: Here I use the word ‘gay’ (or ‘homosexuality’) as an umbrella term for all of LGBT. I personally prefer the word gay to any other word because it sounds simple and happy. 8D

It’s Nature! …So What?

People on the pro-gay side of the argument tend to lean heavily towards ‘nature’ as the answer: Gay people are born this way. It’s natural. It’s like being born with red hair: not a choice and can’t be changed. Discriminating against gays is like discriminating against redheads.

But being born that way might not offer as much immunity from discrimination as you might think. Why? Because being born that way does not imply that it cannot be changed (it just can’t changed by your will alone), nor does it necessarily imply that it should not be changed.

People can be born with deformities or diseases. That’s natural, and there’s no choice involved. But if medically something can be done to reverse the effects, to cure the disease or fix the deformity, it will be done.

If nature means encoded in genes, then gays are safe for now, since science isn’t that far advanced yet to be able to  mess with the genetic code to get exactly what they want, especially since no ‘gay gene’ has been or is likely to be identified. Besides, most would consider it unethical to ‘play god’ and make ‘designer babies’ with customizable genes.

Genes are only the first step in the story though, not the only step. we may not be able to tweak the genes themselves, but we can certainly moderate and modify their effects or results, as when people with hormone deficiencies take supplements, or babies born with cleft lips undergo surgery, or a person with severe epilepsy undergoes brain surgery.

A gay gene hasn’t bee found, but plenty of research has highlighted the importance of hormones, mostly hormones in the womb and during early development. If abnormal amounts of hormones are found to be the main biological cause for gayness, wouldn’t that, ironically, be a blow for gay supporters since it implies a hiccup in the natural development that can and should be fixed? Being born gay would become less like having brown hair and more like having a hormone imbalance which can be treated.

What’s the difference between treating a disease and “treating”, for example, having red hair? Someone with a disease is likely to want to be treated, someone with brown hair may or may not want to change their hair colour. Treating someone with a disease should undoubtedly improve their quality of life, changing the colour of your hair, not so much.

Regardless of which you think homosexuality resembles more, it’s clear that what differs is not how someone came to have that condition but whether or not the condition should be treated, that is, whether or not it is something intrinsically undesirable.

It’s Nurture! … So What?

On the other side, detractors say homosexuality is a choice. It’s due to your upbringing, the effect your parents had on you. It’s insidious influences from society/internet/television. It’s a misguided choice,  a bad habit, a flawed perspective.

But even if ‘nurture’ played a more significant role, it doesn’t necessarily imply choice, or even the ability to change.

Language is certainly more cultural and ‘nurture’ than inborn or ‘nature’. Yet cases of feral or confined children who never heard speech during all important formative years ended up being unable to speak later in life, or at least had a much harder time picking it up than you’d expect, showing that a cultural factor (exposure to language) does not imply ability to change.

I like the colours blue and purple. Probably this isn’t 100% genetically coded. Probably it’s much more ‘nurture’ than ‘nature’. I mean, when I was younger my favourite colour was once orange. and light green. and red. and silver. and black. and… you get the point. It probably has a lot more to do with what I was exposed to when growing up; the subtle meanings and moods society gives to these colours; my mother’s favourite colour (also blue); the different things, memories, concepts I subconsciously associated with these colours to give me a positive experience when viewing them.

But… could I choose to discard these as my favourites? and choose pink instead, a colour I’ve disliked all my life? Could I choose, similarly, to like the music that I don’t like? could I choose not to like durian, or choose to like eating liver?

I can choose to wear a pink shirt (for Pink Dot, for example). I can choose to listens to trance music at a friend’s insistence. I can choose not to eat durian (because I have a sore throat) or to eat liver (because my mum asked me to). We can choose our actions, not our inclinations.

Well, you can choose to engage in behaviour that might alter your inclinations: you could go for anger management therapy to learn to control your temper even if you can’t choose whether to being angry or not like an on-off switch. And maybe wearing pink, listening to trance, and eating liver often enough would make me, slowly, change more opinion in time.  Maybe.

It certainly seems silly to think it’s impossible to change my favourite colour to pink. Yet… I have no idea how I would begin to approach such a task. Surround myself with pink things? Repeat daily “I love pink!” until i believe it? Deal out punishments when I choose colours other than pink, and rewards when I choose pink? Pinkify all my favourite celebrities, bands, people, items? Sounds dangerously like mental torture or brainwashing. Actually… wait a minute. Before we get to ‘how’, more importantly, why should I want to do this at all?

Again, even if we know with certainty whether sexuality is a result of our upbringing or a even a conscious choice, it still wouldn’t stop the debates. For clearly negative things like anger problems or difficulty integrating into society, no matter how difficult the process, therapy for a change would still be recommended. But for a neutral thing, like colour preference, the mere idea becomes ridiculous. Even if homosexuality can be changed… should it?

The Real Debate

Thinking that
Nature = natural = cannot be changed = should not be changed
Nurture = unnatural = a choice, can be changed = should not be changed
is too simplistic, and not really true.

If science proves that it’s genetic, or hormonal, or not a choice, it’s not going to stop anti-gay people rejecting it: people can and will still label it as an abnormality to be ‘cured’, a flaw to be ‘managed’, much like how my choice in feeling pain or getting angry is limited, but I still have to learn to control it.

If science proves that it’s mostly upbringing and can be changed with proper and careful counseling or prevented with proper upbringing, it’s not going to make gay people want to change their orientation: people will argue that it’s their right to live their life the way they want it, the way they’re most comfortable with, that the gay lifestyle doesn’t hurt anyone, that it’s a loving relationship between two consenting parties.

The real issue is not whether it’s nurture or nature, its whether sexuality is more like a genetic disease or hair colour. More like a psychological problem or colour preference.
The debate is about whether or not homosexuality is intrinsically undesirable, whether or not it is wrong.

Anti-gay people don’t think it’s Wrong because they think it’s a choice; they think it’s a choice because they think it’s Wrong. If you think something is Wrong, regardless of it’s causes or origins or nature you would want to resist it. If you think something is Right, you would want to promote and defend it, again regardless of other factors.

So the real debate is one of morality: why homosexuality is or is not Wrong.
And I personally believe that there is a much stronger case to be made for why homosexuality in itself is as morally neutral as heterosexuality, colour preference or hair colour, even from within a religious point of view.