Positivist Discrimination

“Oh, God,” Dawkins could be heard to mutter as he fumbled for the full title of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. 

Dawkins was on Radio 4’s Today programme to promote his discovery-by-Ipsos-MORI that most Christians in this country are not in fact Christian.

The poll, commissioned by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, came to this conclusion partly by establishing that many self-identifying Christians cannot name certain key books of the bible – hence the Rev. Giles Fraser’s on-air counter-challenge, to which Dawkins rose with typically hubristic bluster.

According to the Telegraph – who, in fairness, also called Dr. Fraser “the archetypal 21st-century vicar, as predictably Lefty as he is drearily on-trend” – the episode was an “intellectual savaging”. While that’s somewhat wishful thinking, the Telegraph also argued that:

If you were trying to come up with a definition of misplaced intellectual arrogance, you could not do better than having the planet’s most famous atheist issuing diktats on who does and doesn’t count as a proper Christian.

I have some sympathy with that. The Dawkins road-show is out of touch with its positivist roots.

Auguste Comte, the founder of the movement known as Positivism, wrestled with the science vs. religion question 150 years ago. Recognising that “supernatural dogmas became inevitably an obstacle to its growth”, Comte urged that reason ought to “mould its conceptions upon observations, more or less accurate, of the external world” (Auguste Comte, A General View of Positivism. London: Trübner & Co., 1865. p. 19). In other words, he called for an understanding of the world based solely on what can be observed, eschewing all non-empirical sources of belief. Comte’s aims were essentially political – the aim of the Positivist method, and its envisioned polity, was to put an end to dogmatic debate and ensure social consensus. As Mary Pickering puts it, in her biography of Comte:

By making all ideas rest on the scientific method, which sought certain knowledge through the observation of facts, positivism would be able to establish irrefutable principles acceptable to each member of society. (Mary Pickering, Auguste Comte: An Intellectual Biography, Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. p. 4.)

In the Twentieth Century, the polemic against dogmatism was taken up by a new generation. Logical Positivism, a movement originating from a group of scientists and philosophers in the 1920s known as the Vienna Circle, took its inspiration from forebears such as Ernst Mach (who bore the now quaint-sounding title Professor of the History and Theory of Inductive Science at the University of Vienna). Mach’s writing was influential in its segregation of non-scientific activity: “Where neither confirmation nor refutation is possible, science is not concerned.” (Ernst Mach, The Science of Mechanics. Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Co., 1919. p. 490). Where Comte believed that dogmatic belief was irrational because it wasn’t grounded in empirical evidence, the Logical Positivists held that dogmatic belief was nonsense – literally, without meaning – because statements of that belief were not similarly grounded.

We might say that Positivism is right in spirit, in its call to ground all meaningful discourse in empirical evidence. As Comte wrote, “It teaches that while it is for the heart to suggest our problems, it is for the intellect to solve them” (p. 19). But Positivism in its extreme too easily becomes dogma itself, and the arrogance of Positivism – seen in its eagerness to dismiss non-scientific talk as “a word-series empty of logical content”, as A. J. Ayer put it in his “Demonstration of the Impossibility of Metaphysics” (Mind, 1934. p. 336) – lives on in the fervour of so-called “militant” advocates of science, such as Dawkins: “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence”, he wrote in the Independent in 1992. Contrast this with Pickering’s portrayal of Comte, for example, who “never intended for sociology to be ‘objective’ or purely empirical. Indeed, he felt pure empiricism was as dangerous as mysticism.” (p. 4)

In its 29 October 2011 issue, New Scientist ran a special report – “Unscientific America: A dangerous retreat from reason” (now available online) – that questioned the unenlightened attitudes of several prominent US politicians towards science. It argued that to win “the battle for hearts and minds” scientists need to learn how to find the right frames for communication. Science communicators, equally, need to “find frames that work with broad sections of the population.”  Dawkins may be the scientist for whom Oxford’s Chair for the Public Understanding of Science was originally created, but his dogmatic frame isn’t working.

Douglas Heaven is an Imperial College student studying for an MSc in Science Communication. To listen to the full discussion as aired on Radio 4’s Today programme on the 14th February 2012, follow this link: http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9696000/9696135.stm



One comment

  1. Thinking about Prof. Dawkins’ statement about the Christians in UK, there are, in my opinion, two thin sides of the ice sheet on which he is trying to walk on:

    1) The application of scientific extrapolation (induction) in contexts, like religion, that are typically out of the natural world. If inductivism is already dangerous when applied to data from the natural world, I feel it even more uncomfortable when applied to other contexts. I would be prudent as a scientist to draw conclusions about belonging to Christianity from the “observations” that “many self-identifying Christians cannot name certain key books of the bible “. Probably less “intellectual” criteria, such as faith, prayer, mass participation, devotion, might become far more important in determining the belonging to a religious faith among the believers.

    2) His positivist roots that lead him to completely neglect the figure of such an important philosopher of science as Karl Popper, who constantly urged for attention about the dangers of a “faithful science” that considers its method and its knowledge as absolute and only sensible.

    And I bet that if we apply Prof. Dawkins’ conclusions to other religions, such as Islam or Hindu, we might even more fall into a wrong spiral of logic reasoning.

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