The Literary Salon

A free salon wherein patrons and passers-by may view or contribute ideas on literary and generally intellectual matters. The blog will strive to maintain its commitment to wit, humour and perspicuous analysis.

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Location: Toronto, now Ottawa, Ont, Canada

Monday, August 06, 2007

Ah Dawkins, my old friend

As fate would have it, I watched a recent documentary by the infamous (depending on your perspective) and certainly incendiary Richard Dawkins, which I caught on google video (I believe it is called the God Delusion, but it is in two parts).

Before continuing, I must make it clear that I'm not a Dawkins basher: I agree with much of what he says, especially the dangers of religion that we in the politically correct west tend to connive at (most notably Evangelical Christianity in the US heartland and Islamofascism).

Building on what I said in yesterday's post, I came across one point in the documentary that had me shaking my head. Dawkins was (quite correctly) arguing that one does not need a God to be a moral, good person. However, he tried to argue this using evolutionary biology, which is his background. He actually argued, based on no evidence, that, via natural selection, we have inherited altruistic genes. This is a fascinating claim, and one almost hopes that it's true, but Dawkins, a scientist, offers little support for it, which is odd coming from a man who derides religion because of its lack of evidence. What struck me as odd wasn't so much that he argued the genetic basis of altruism, but, given his background, that he argued that natural selection made it so. In other words, in our proto-human state, it became useful to be altruistic. (BTW, the argument over whether altruism was natural or merely useful raged in the mid-18th century). That's a very narrow conception of altruism, the "I'll scratch my back and I'll scratch yours, as Dawkins calls it. How does one account for "pure" altruism? When one sends money or supples to a country recently ravaged by an earthquake, what is that person expecting in return? Charity in its strictest sense is not utilitarian.

Of course, there are people out there who would argue that there can be no such thing as altruism. That is, they argue that even through selfless acts we are always doing something for ourselves (witness Hitchens's excoriation of Mother Teresa a few years ago). However, Dawkins, I believe, does not believe in this, or at least he does not say anything about it.

Here's a tangent on what has just been discussed: some argue that altruism is always selfish, presumably because it makes one feel better. Instead of arguing that this is selfish, could one not argue that "it feels good" to be altruistic because that is what you are supposed to do? It reminds me of what CS Lewis said about our sense of right and wrong in Mere Christianity, a fascinating, well-argued book, although his views on gender are antediluvian. To those people who say that there cannot be a God (or higher power, or whatever) because there is so much wrong and injustice in the world, Lewis argues that these people would not be capable of feeling thus if they did not have some sort of reference, i.e., the right state of affairs. He then goes on to argue for an innate moral sense that is nearly universal (example: no culture has ever praised cowardice as a virtue). This is not exactly the same thing, but I think Lewis's remarks illuminate the problem.

Not sure if this all makes sense, but I no longer feel like writing.


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