24 May 2007

Dawkins And Chomsky: A Reader Responds

This letter just arrived in response to my column in Punk Planet #79 (would like to post a link to the column here, but temporarily lack the technological capability). Since it came too late for me to answer it in the next issues of PP, I thought I'd do so here. First, here's the letter, from one Dan McKee:

Hey Larry…I was just reading your latest column in Punk Planet, and I’ve got to pick you up on something. When you question Chomsky’s knowledge on geo-political affairs because he made a name for himself academically in the field of linguistics, you are really defending quite a strange viewpoint: that one can’t have expert knowledge about two subject areas.

Now obviously Chomsky made a name for himself in linguistics, but if you actually read his political work rather than simply knee-jerk about it, then you can see that he has perfectly valid credentials to discuss the issues he raises: he question’s the way the mass media deals with the events they report, compares what they say with a well-sourced and meticulously researched account of what actually happened, and shows valid and plausible conclusions from this research about the media’s ideology; conclusions consistently supported by the ongoing empirical record. After doing such research for about forty years now, he not only has accrued a significant amount of irrefutable empirical evidence with which to support his overall thesis, but he has, more importantly, now spent more than double the time researching and studying geopolitical affairs than he had spent studying and researching linguistics by the time he revolutionized that field in his late twenties and made that original name for himself.

My point is, perhaps the argument “what is this linguist doing poking his nose into international affairs” might have held some vague credence in the mid-sixties, when Chomsky first started to write on US foreign policy after making a name for himself in the field of linguistics…but how can one possibly look at the massive amount of political research and study Chomsky has produced in the past forty years and seriously say that at this point he is not qualified to comment on such matters? Even allowing for your seemingly held view that a person cannot have knowledgeable expertise in two fields at once, at this point even Chomsky himself sees his linguistic work as more of an obstacle to his political research than as his main scholarly pursuit. To ignore his genuine contributions to political analysis based on spurious claims that he doesn’t know what he is talking about is totally absurd.

Which brings me to Dawkins. To read Dawkins’ God Delusion as akin to the fundamentalist rantings of extremist Christians, Muslims, etc is to entirely miss the point: whereas the religious base their claims in nothing but unsubstantiated assumptions of tradition and faith, Dawkins’ simply asks readers to give religious claims the same level of intellectual analysis that they do to all other claims made in their life, and agree with the evidence such analysis will yield: that there is no compelling rational basis for any religious belief, and there are very compelling rational arguments against them.

The reason that this is precisely related to his specialised field of evolutionary biology is because, Dawkins feels, evolutionary biology provides a much better, empirically verifiable and factually-supported explanation for most phenomena than the traditionally accepted religious views which assert mystical genesis to such things. Further still, his “fundamentalism” is not asking people to forsake their cultures and traditions by force and believe exactly what he believes or die/go to hell, etc; but is simply asking people to do what they do anyway in all other walks of their life, and use their rational capacities to give their religious convictions the same level of intellectual analysis they would give to any other thought. His urgency and despair that might give rise to seemingly frustrated and shrill pleas for an end to religious belief, is because of how the high levels of religious thinking that still prevails in the world today has lead to many, many negative things in society, which he feels (and coherently argues), once the unearned deference given to religious claims is discarded and genuine rationality applied, are dangerous trends which are completely unnecessary and unjustified, and therefore could be abolished today if people simply starting thinking clearly about such matters.

Anyway, these are just my thoughts. It’s fine for you to say that you think Chomsky is wrong, or that Dawkins is wrong…but don’t try and hiding behind a spurious argument to discredit these thinkers’ right to engage in the debates they choose to enter. If you take issue with their arguments, then engage with what they are saying, rather than whether you feel they are entitled to say it.

Of course, by your own logic, I should only expect such a short-sighted and ignorant analysis of Chomsky and Dawkins from you, and indeed, maybe I should just reject your ability to say anything meaningful about philosophy, theology, or politics? I mean, you’re not a specialist in any of those areas! Your field is punk rock isn’t it, and, by your own arguments, you surely therefore have no right to talk seriously about issues in other people’s fields of expertise?

Dear Dan:

Thanks for your well and passionately argued response to my column. My argument was not that people should be confined to commenting on matters within their own field of expertise (if that were the case, the vast majority of people would have to remain silent on the vast majority of issues), but that expertise in one field shouldn't be assumed to confer expertise in another.

I don't know enough about linguistics or evolutionary biology to evaluate Chomsky's or Dawkins' competence in their respective disciplines, but when it comes to geopolitics and theology, they are strictly amateurs (in both the pejorative and meliorative senses of the word), just like me. As such, they and I can only be judged on the quality of our reasoning, conclusions and research.

You refer to the quality of Chomsky's "research," but while I haven't read anywhere near all of his books, I've read enough to observe that what he presents as research comes across in my view as a meticulous compilation of every fact, vignette, anecdote or insinuation likely to show America in particular and liberal capitalist democracy in general in a bad light. And that this "information" is consistently presented out of context and with what looks like a deliberate omission of any mitigating factors.

Allow me to make an analogy: suppose that I, Larry Livermore, decided to "prove" that you, Dan McKee, were a reprehensible scoundrel with absolutely no redeeming qualities. If I were to go over your life with a sufficiently fine-toothed comb, I'm sure I could compile a substantial body of "research" proving just that, provided that I focused only on the times you goofed off on the job, failed to do your homework, disobeyed your parents, broke laws governing the consumptions of alcohol, cigarettes or drugs, etc. etc., and completely left out any mention of awards or honors you've won, the prestigious job you might hold, the wonderful friend or son or brother you've been, or the old ladies you may have helped across the street.

This is essentially what Chomsky does with his "analysis" of America and its place in the world (Zinn does much the same thing in a more populist vein). If you were to use Chomsky as your only source of information about American history, you could be forgiven for thinking that this country has done little for the past 230 years apart from invading countries, manipulating foreign dictators and exterminating hapless indigenous peoples, all for no apparent motive apart from greed and sheer untrammeled malevolence.

Examples: discussing only American involvement in foreign conflicts or its enormous military budget while failing to note these often took place in the context of a grave (or what was perceived at the time to be grave) external threat. If Chomsky were your only source, for example, would you even know that an expansion-minded and totalitarian Soviet Union ever even existed?

And Chomsky's been writing long enough for some of his conclusions to be measured against the standard of real-life outcomes, and here he falls down badly. In American Power And The New Mandarins he blithely dismissed American concerns over regimes like North Korea while assailing the likes of South Korea and Taiwan as being repressive American puppets; today it's generally accepted that North Korea is one of the most brutal dictatorships on earth and both South Korea and Taiwan are prosperous, thriving democracies. Chomsky shrugged off the Cambodian Khmer Rouge as an essentially benign movement, and when that "benign" movement had finished murdering a quarter of that country's people, he shifted his stance to claim that the genocide was the fault of (who else?) the Americans for having destabilized the region.

What's Chomsky's motivation? I must confess that I don't know, but at times his anti-Americanism appears to border on the pathological. And I say that in light of my experience of having once held many similar views about America and Western society: I was pretty much a sociopath myself at the time.

As for Dawkins, well, his research into biology can, like all scientific research, be tested and queried, but his assumption (and that of his fans and followers) that one can use the same criteria for a study of things theological is fallacious from the get-go. When it comes to pondering the nature of our ultimate origins or destinations, we are all rank amateurs stumbling about in the dark. Anyone who claims to "know" or to have "proved" that there is or isn't a God has in so doing shown himself to be a charlatan.

Simply by virtue of the generally accepted scientific understanding that it is impossible to prove a negative, Dawkins is on shaky ground. The fact that there is a great deal still unexplained (and, some might argue, inexplicable) about how the universe and its contents came into being would seem to lend more credence to the existence of some higher power or intelligence than to the absence thereof, but this is a point about which we can agree or disagree endlessly. Until God chooses to make him/herself undeniably manifest and/or science has succeeded in mapping out every last detail and corner of existence and explaining beyond refutation its source and purpose, none of us can say anything definitive on the subject.

My problem with Dawkins is not his wish to proclaim himself as an atheist; it is the almost childish vindictiveness with which he attempts to ridicule people of faith while at the same time clinging to his own "scientific" faith. I stand second to none in my admiration for science and what it has given us, but when it comes to ontological and existential questions, science has provided no more credible answers than religion or philosophy has. The Big Bang? Please. It's no more plausible and a lot less poetic than Genesis, and even if it could be proven to be true, would still have done nothing to explain the origin or nature of the materials that preceded it.

In other words, it's not Dawkins' erudition I question; it's the dubious and at times almost childish conclusions he reaches with it.


Anonymous said...

Hey, I probably have read less Chomsky/Dawkins texts than anyone (close to nil for both), but to your specific point re: Taiwan/North & South Korea -- both Taiwan and South Korea both went through well-documented phases of being strong-arm dictatorships. How is Chomsky discredited by the fact that they later evolved into more mature democracies? Is the correct attitude "well, things will inevitably get better, so let's not worry about the brutalities that are happening now"?

re: North Korean threat -- again I haven't read the book, so I'm going to make a guess here that it is addressing and refuting the perceived threat at the time that NK was a base station from which to launch a domino-style communist revolution in the Pacific Rim. This of course didn't pan out, and the biggest threat from NK the US has today isn't its existing hostile military regime, but its imminent collapse. If he actually meant that NK ought to be left alone and/or starved out, well, OK then that sort of isolationist, blockading, non-engagement posture is nuts.

re: Dawkins, I also haven't read his book so I can't speak to how smarmy he actually comes across, but your roping off of theological or philosophical areas as somehow off-limits to scientific rigor seems a bit arbitrary. Forget Dawkins' specific training as a biologist -- Why do the rules of rationality that we employ to minimize BS no longer apply here?

If Dawkins actually goes so far as to describe a non-existence proof of God, then I'd agree, what a boner. Does he ever do this? Or does he merely point out that the overwhelming body of evidence we have so far fails to support Church doctrine?

The idea that science itself is a kind of faith is bogus. If a better theory than the 'big bang' comes along, then you can bet that 'big bang' will be discarded. How easily does this happen in religion? You practically have to start a whole new branch, if you escape stoning first. The fact that some scientists will have a fondness for old theories, and might cling on to it against the available evidence doesn't imply that science itself is a faith, only that these people are not behaving like good scientists, and if the entire scientific community behaves that way, then alright, I guess they just aren't good at keeping discipline. But it's for this reason that untestable theories like string theory are relegated by science to the same speculative bin as biblical myth. Just because it sounds neat and compelling doesn't make it so, regardless of its source.

I don't know if I'd enjoy reading any of these guys' stuff. They sound like blowhards from the way even fans of theirs describe them. Even so, I don't think I could write them off as being wrong, if being obnoxious blowhards was the most substantial evidence you could offer as critique.

Matt said...

I guess I'd imagine Chomsky would say that his painting of America which features only the bad parts is supposed to report the 'untold' stories, since everyone apparently knows all the good parts. A lot of the mainstream media has, in the past, portrayed America in this backslapping, "world police" (ha) way, so I guess Chomsky assumes his readership is familiar with the good parts. I know what you mean though, people say the same about Michael Moore, but I'd still rather these people were doing what they do.

As for Dawkins, well: "Anyone who claims to "know" or to have "proved" that there is or isn't a God has in so doing shown himself to be a charlatan." - I need to re-read The God Delusion, but I'm pretty sure he makes it clear that proving or disproving God is ultimately impossible: he carefully titles a chapter "Why There Almost Certainly Is No God" to avoid making a direct statement.

"The fact that there is a great deal still unexplained (and, some might argue, inexplicable) about how the universe and its contents came into being would seem to lend more credence to the existence of some higher power or intelligence than to the absence thereof"

Not necessarily. To me that just means that we haven't quite figured it out yet. Thousands of years ago we didn't know what space was (let alone neutrons, string theory, wormholes etc etc) so the Adam and Eve story was conceived to explain something we couldn't otherwise consider. Now we've learned more, we're able to fill in some of the gaps with accurate information. Where this doesn't work, I'm confident in a few hundred years, we will know more. Slotting religion into those gaps doesn't solve anything, it just raises the question "okay, but who made God?" upon which the religious zealot falls back on the traditional "oh, God was always there"-esque argument, which means nothing.

YouNotSneaky! said...

(if that were the case, the vast majority of people would have to remain silent on the vast majority of issues)

That actually sounds pretty good.

Anonymous said...

Dan made the same point I made about Larry long ago: Larry's same methodology of attempting to discredit professors, strategists, and analysts with whom he disagrees can be employed with great ease against Larry, and would result in Larry himself being discredited even more than the subjects of his criticism.

To Larry, Chomsky (and others like him) can be utterly disregarded as "just some old dude talking politics at some college." What he doesn't mention is that, on those terms, Larry Livermore is just some old dude at, well, nowhere even remotely related to politics, with no bona fide credentials or experience pertinent to the subjects on which he speaks.

Not that I believe everything Chomsky (or anyone else) says should be accepted and adored by virtue of the impressiveness of his resume. But, conversely, it is folly to summarily dismiss virtually all statements and opinions by indisputably renouned intellectuals in the manner Larry routinely does. Remember: If Chomsky or Parenti can be dismissed with the flick of the wrist, than Livermore can be dismissed with far less effort.

done said...

The "higher power" is being scientifically proven all the time and the proofs are on two websites;