Richard Dawkins and the Purpose of Purpose

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Oxford University’s previous Charles Simonyi Professor for Public Understanding of Science, Richard Dawkins, visited Michigan State University in East Lansing on March 2nd and 3rd. Prof. Dawkins gave a lecture on “The Purpose of Purpose” to a sold-out crowd at the Wharton Center on the evening of the 2nd, and held an hour-and-a-half question and answer session at the Fairchild Theater on campus in the morning of the 3rd.

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Fred Dyer (above), head of MSU’s Zoology Department, introduced Prof. Dawkins to a sold-out crowd in the Wharton Center main theater. A part of the WorldViews Lecture Series, this event was the first to completely sell out the main seating area and balcony for a lecture rather than a performance at the Wharton Center. A comparison to a lecture by Stephen Jay Gould several years ago cannot be made, since the organizers for that one booked only a smaller room at the Wharton Center and were dismayed to have to turn away a large number of people seeking admission. That sort of organizational miscue was avoided for Prof. Dawkins’ appearance.

Prof. Dawkins titled his talk as “The Purpose of Purpose” and began with an anecdote of Peter Atkins being asked by one of the Royal Family, “But what about the ‘why’ questions?”, and Atkins replying, “That is a silly question.”

Dawkins noted that asking ‘why’ for inanimate objects like air or rocks is almost always considered inappropriate. But asking ‘why’ living organisms are seems to often have been done in the past. He noted a number of amusing instances, such as claims that domestic animals provide a means to keep their meat fresh until we have need to eat them, lice were a strong incentive to personal cleanliness, large predators allowed hunters to test their courage, and horseflies encouraged industry and the use of wits in combatting them.

This mindset persists to this day, said Dawkins, popping up the Ray Comfort “banana” video, which got an especially large dollop of audience laughter with Comfort’s assertion that the banana has just the right shape to fit in the human mouth. Dawkins noted that, unfortunately, the video was not simply a joke. Comfort apparently has offered to give Dawkins $10,000 to debate Comfort. Dawkins responded saying that he would take Comfort up on that only if Comfort donated $100K to Dawkins’ new foundation. Then Dawkins compared the modern, domesticated version of the banana to the fruit of the wild banana, showing that many of the properties that Comfort was ascribing to God’s design were actually choices made in artificial selection by humans. Some of the attitudes remain even in those who have abandoned a religious viewpoint, especially when it comes to seeing humans as part of the panoply of life and not separate from it, as when people ascribe the grave sin of murder to aborting a human fetus, while cheerfully eating a cow. The question to be asked is not whether something can reason, or talk, but rather whether it can suffer.

Dawkins went on to talk about artificial selection as a transition to natural selection. Corn, for example, has been selected in varieties that minimize and maximize the oil content, with dramatic increases in oil content seen in the one, and values of oil content close to zero in the other. Roses demonstrate the extent to which human artificial selection can take things. But it must be recognized that human selection of roses picks up where natural selection done by insects has left off. Flowers show the lengths that adaptation in plants can go to avoid the phenomena of self-fertilization. Wind pollination only goes so far. Many flowers now bribe pollinators to carry their pollen. A Madagascar orchid that was examined by both Darwin and Wallace illustrates this, as the “dangly thing” restricts pollination to a pollinator with a thin tongue of some 11 inches in length. Darwin and Wallace predicted this, and later Darwin’s Hawk Moth was discovered, an animal with the predicted long tongue.

Natural selection is non-random success, and represents another way to improve. All living things are “survival machines”, where every species preserves its genes in a different way. Humans do this by thinking. And so we can give a new view of purpose, where purpose for living organisms is to preserve and propagate their genes, to work hard and make copies of themselves.

As related by Dawkins, humans appear to be a major exception to this view of purpose. Naive Darwinism has no explanation for things like contraception and adoption. Adoption is a wonderful thing, it just isn’t very Darwinian.

Then Dawkins got to the essential framework of the rest of his talk, making a distinction within purpose between the purpose that comes about as adaptation via natural selection, which he called “archi-purpose”, and the purpose that comes about through the intent of a planning brain, which he called “neo-purpose”. Archi-purpose, then, resembles an intentional purpose, but is not such: the resemblance is an illusion. Neo-purpose, as Dawkins views it, is itself an evolved adaptation.

The brain viewed as an on-board computer sets up goals, or neo-purposes. Dawkins raised the question of whether man-made machines can, themselves, have neo-purposes? And he answered in the affirmative on that, noting that machines like guided missiles can seek goals. He did note that certain other inventions, like cannonballs, were destructive but did not have the goal-seeking or even goal-setting property that underlies neo-purpose.

Dawkins moved on to what goals could be seen in animal behavior, bringing up bat biosonar as an instance. He also considered the simple guidance system of maggots where they use a negative phototaxis to get to a food source as a low-level example. Dragonflies, he noted, seek out their prey much as a guided missile seeks out its target. One could note the similarities in orientation via sound between human-made submarines and whales.

So, what happens in the on-board computer? Dawkins thinks that a key component in developing neo-purposes is the ability to simulate, to predict future outcomes under conditions other than what currently apply, and to be able to imagine novel situations. This raises further questions. Are whales conscious of their purposes? Dawkins relates that it seems that one can doubt that very simple animals have that sort of consciousness, but that it seems very likely that whales do have it.

The sort of flexibility in determining behavior that a simulating, imaginative brain gives an animal, said Dawkins, makes for a double-edged sword. With flexibility comes the ability to subvert the adaptive archi-purpose underlying the brain’s functionality. Why do humans seek hedonistic pleasure? Why do humans not work more diligently at propagating their genes? It is the nature of brain flexibility that makes subversion of that archi-purpose possible, such that re-programming of the brain can happen.

But we know, said Dawkins, that there is both flexibility and inflexibility involved. The flexibility to set a new goal, a neo-purpose, can be coupled with the inflexible drive to pursue that goal that was originally part of the adaptive archi-purpose program. The new, neo-purpose, goal can be pursued over long periods, even a lifetime, in service of religious, military, or political ideas. There can be continued flexibility in setting up sub-goals, and sub-sub-goals, in service of the inflexibly held neo-purpose goal. It is important to understand this hierarchy of goal-seeking, and the capacity to set short-term goals in service of long-term goals. Humans provide the most obvious examples of subversion of goals. Humans bred sheepdogs for herding sheep, yet what one sees in the herding behavior is an altered or reprogrammed version of the stalking behavior of wolves. To take a fictional example, Dawkins used the movie, “The Bridge Over the River Kwai” and the character of Colonel Nicholson, whose obsession with proving the industry and ingenuity of the Western mindset subverted the goal of firmly opposing the war efforts of the enemy.

Dawkins named a number of archi-purposes that provided “subversion fodder”: hunger, sex, parental care, kinship, filial obedience, and others. We evolved under conditions where sugar and fat marked high-quality food sources, and poor food availability meant we tended to eat obsessively when food sources were available. But today for western culture, food is always available, and we do damage to our teeth and our health via over-indulgence. For the subversion of sex, Dawkins showed a photograph of a moose mounting a statue of a bison. Once the audience had gotten a laugh out of that, the next slide showed a scantily clad human female model, and Dawkins said, “At least the bison statue was in 3D.” Contraception forms a subversion of the archi-purpose of sex. Notes Steven Pinker’s quote, “My genes can go jump in the lake.” We adopt kittens and puppies.

Filial obedience is subverted as in “God the father”, and the elevation of other father-figures. Subversion of kinship occurs, too, we are keenly aware of our kin relations, and may be said to be obsessed with kinship. This subversion occurs via fictive kin, subverting kinship loyalty. In-group loyalty and out-group hostility utilize fictive kin to cement those new allegiances. Religion consistently uses fictive kin rhetoric. Entire nations can be viewed as using fictive kin relationships. This is especially dangerous when an implacable faith is involved, as the 9/11 terrorists demonstrated.

But there is a good side to the subversion of purpose. It can be exhilarating. Our species is likely young in its liberation from the strictures of archi-purposes. The steps from the invention of the wheel to that of airliners and space shuttles have proceeded rapidly. Cultural evolution is speedy, whether we pursue things beneficial or the sub-goals of war. But the flexibility we have gives us grounds for hope.

A question and answer session followed after the lecture. The questions were submitted by the audience and selected by Prof. Dyer.

The first question asked about Dawkins’ personal history of non-belief. He said he first started doubting religion at the age of nine, when he realized that there were lots of different religions. He completely lost faith at the age of fifteen, when he learned about Darwinian evolution and was able to attribute life and its history to something other than a designer.

How would you respond to those who compare you to the likes of Billy Graham; do you consider yourself an evangelical atheist? No, Dawkins said, he did not consider himself an evangelical atheist, for the reason that people like Billy Graham are absolutely sure that they are right, and he is not certain that he is right, and would be able to change his mind given sufficient evidence that he was wrong. Dawkins said that he was not dogmatic, therefore not an evangelical atheist. While the pattern of speech that he employs based on conviction may sound similar to that of Billy Graham, but he bases his conviction on evidence and should not be confused with conviction that proceeds from no evidence at all.

Could someone embrace a no-god view without learning for themselves what science says about the world? Dawkins thought it would be difficult. He presumes that he would have been religious if he had been born before 1859, as the appearance of design is convincing. But even without the later scientific knowledge, one cannot come to a conclusion of a designer with any good certainty, as was recognized by various thinkers before Darwin, notably David Hume. So it would have been possible, but it would have been difficult.

What about the tendency in our society to embrace medicine based on pseudoscience? Dawkins said he was not dogmatically opposed to “alternative medicine”, as if one could demonstrate that some “alternative” works, it ceases to be alternative and simply becomes mainstream. That said, it is difficult to imagine a test for something like homeopathy, where active ingredients supposedly become more powerful with dilution. Eventually, both your control and your test dose contain nothing of the supposed active ingredient, thus if you found a difference, you would also have found entirely new laws of physics, too. Of course, the placebo effect exists, and mainstream doctors don’t have time to spend with patients, but alternative medicine doctors do. That additional time may be effective, but that effectiveness needs to be separated from the effect of the process or medication that the alternative practitioners offer. If we go back far enough, we may see our preference for alternative medicine in the fact that at one time what mainstream doctors mostly did was kill you, and while the alternative medicine practitioners may not have made you better, they at least mostly did nothing at all.

What about the view that medicine extends life to many who would otherwise have died? Certainly modern medicine allows the human population to propagate many genes that contribute to genetic illness, but Dawkins does not see this as a bad thing.

What if instead of consider archi-purpose to be subverted that we view the ability to set neo-purposes as adaptive? Dawkins said that this was interesting and would go to his points about flexibility in brains as on-board computers.

Is there an archi-purpose for spiritual experience? Dawkins said that the capability for spiritual experience could have a biological purpose, but that we should be careful to note that this did not mean that gods existed. Delusion is commonplace, and the survival value of the predisposition to spiritual experience could lead to the worship of nonexistent entities. The most likely way this might manifest is in a biological predisposition to a psychological attitude.

Dawkins has said that he’d be honored to become a fossil. What does he see as the best thing that he will leave behind? Dawkins said that it would likely be The Selfish Gene, though more recently he has preferred The Ancestor’s Tale. While The Blind Watchmaker is extremely popular, he sees Climbing Mount Improbable as a better book addressing much the same topic.

What is your favorite novel? Dawkins said that he was devoted to P.G. Wodehouse, but loved the works of Evelyn Waugh.

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The picture above shows Fred Dyer and Richard Dawkins on stage following the Q&A on March 3rd.

*Photos by Wesley R. Elsberry. All rights reserved.

Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Data scientist in real estate and econometrics. Blogger. Speaker. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

37 thoughts on “Richard Dawkins and the Purpose of Purpose

  • 2009/03/09 at 11:49 am

    I was up in the nosebleed seats for the lecture, having gotten my tickets a mere three weeks ahead of the lecture.

    My most immediate disagreement with Dawkins would have to do with his answer to the question about being described as an “evangelical atheist”. Answering in the way he did about not seeing himself as dogmatic and thus not evangelical relies on equivocation; the primary property of evangelicalism is not its dogmatism but rather its proselytizing character. He might as well have said that he did not consider himself an “evangelical atheist” because he didn’t have great hair like various televangelists. On the property of being a proselytizer, Dawkins simply had nothing to say. It would have been perfectly legitimate for Dawkins to say that he disliked having the term “evangelical” applied to him because of the baggage it carries, but I don’t think that he would demur at all from a recognition that he energetically and enthusiastically uses his skills in persuasion to convince other people to take up a “no-god view of life”. His response to the question does nothing, in my opinion, to de-legitimate the application of the term to his activities as a proselytizer for atheism.

  • 2009/03/10 at 8:07 am

    Wes, thanks for the notes. The archi-purpose and neo-purpose are intersting concepts that I think I’ll be mulling over for a bit. Just trying to parse out what societal behavior might come from what biological behaviors. Kind of fun in that sense.

  • 2009/03/10 at 12:21 pm

    Thanks for the detailed description Wes.

    As for Dawkins’ answer to the “evangelical atheist” question, I think he understood evangelical to mean something close to fundamentalist. I could be wrong, but his answer certainly seems to suggest that. I suspect if the question had been “fundamentalist atheist” he would have answered the same way, and if it had been “energetic and enthusiastic atheist” he would have answered quite differently.

    The word evangelical confuses me too, frankly. Merriam-Webster defines it as follows, and only number 5 makes sense of your criticism, while the first 4 make sense of Dawkins’ take on it. I suspect that the word is used differently inside the Evangelical tradition, than outside.

    1: of, relating to, or being in agreement with the Christian gospel especially as it is presented in the four Gospels
    2: protestant
    3: emphasizing salvation by faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ through personal conversion, the authority of Scripture, and the importance of preaching as contrasted with ritual
    4 a) capitalized: of or relating to the Evangelical Church in Germany. b) often capitalized: of, adhering to, or marked by fundamentalism : fundamentalist.
    5: marked by militant or crusading zeal

  • 2009/03/10 at 4:36 pm

    Yep, only sense #5 would be applicable to my comment.

    It is interesting that none of the provided definitions make sense in terms of Dawkins’ reply to the question.

  • 2009/03/11 at 12:24 am

    > It is interesting that none of the provided definitions make sense in terms of Dawkins’ reply to the question.

    of, adhering to, or marked by fundamentalism : fundamentalist.

  • 2009/03/11 at 6:35 am


    Dawkins addressed only dogmatism. He did not say anything in that response that I recall about fundamentalism.

  • 2009/03/13 at 3:08 pm

    I thought “evangelism” had to do with “telling the good news”, which is the way it is used in a secular sense in the technology industry. In this sense, I think that Dawkins is an evangelist for atheism.

  • 2009/03/14 at 8:47 am

    Calling someone an evangelical atheist always seems a bit weird to me. The term ‘evangelical’ is distinctly Christian in character. Calling someone an evangelical Muslim, Sikh or Buddhist would seem just as weird to me.

    It seems that the element amongst evangelicals which sprung to mind for Dawkins was their insistence that you “accept Jesus as your personal Lord and saviour”. Dawkins claim that it would be more sensible for people to become atheists is not such a dogmatic insistence. It seems just as good a comparison as any.

    In the end, the problem was that the question was rather odd and so Dawkins had to interpret it as best he could. It seems bizarre to claim he was wrong because you believe that he fulfills the criteria of being an “evangelical atheist”. That would seem to involve claiming him to be both Christian and atheist at the same time (something Dawkins would find absurd).

    P.S. For those of you who would wish to remind me of the fifth definition above, that it referring to the crusading zeal of Christians (after all, a ‘crusade’ is also very much related to Christianity in particular).

  • 2009/03/14 at 9:29 am

    Ex-evangelical ex-Christian reporting in:

    “Evangelical” among Christians refers to a group of Christian beliefs. Typically, the need for personal repentance and conversion is in there. So is what’s known as a “high view” of the Bible (evangelical churches tend to describe themselves as “Bible believing”) where words like “infallible” or “inerrant” are used of scripture.

    Evangelical and fundamentalist are sometimes used as synonyms, and it’s perhaps that which Dawkins was reacting to by saying that he wasn’t dogmatic. They’re not quite the same, though: at least in the UK, not all evangelicals reject evolution, for example.

    The word for making converts is “evangelising” and the people who do it are “evangelists”.

  • 2009/03/14 at 10:06 am

    What is mistaken for evangelism or fundamentalism in Dawkins is simply enthusiastic teaching. He has long been committed to a program of public promulgation of science. (It’s ironic that religious people use religious terminology to accuse atheists of holding to atheism as a religion, thus seeming to accept the premise that religion is something shameful.)

  • 2009/03/14 at 10:08 am

    Thanks for making your notes on Dawkins’ new lecture public, for those of us unfortunate enough to be thousands of miles away and having to miss it.

    Austringer@#1 brings up great points about the denotation of the term evangelism. Sounds more like he was thinking of “fundamentalism” when he was responding to that question.

    That said, his points in the article’s selfsame paragraph, that whereas Billy Graham was “absolutely sure that [he was] right,” Dawkins’ point that he would be able to change his mind given sufficient evidence was spot on, and shows a flexible and reasoning mind capable of adjusting itself in response to the direction the evidence points, and without harboring presuppositions in any direction (in the absence of valid evidence).

    I’ve heard him make the “evangelism” vs. “fundamentalism” gaffe before, and while they often overlap, they by no means have the same denotation, so I hope he corrects that at some point in the future. (How this is or can be spun or quote-mined rhetorically is another matter entirely, of course.)

  • 2009/03/14 at 10:19 am

    >He did not say anything in that response that I recall about fundamentalism.

    define:fundamentalism in google gives,

    “# Religious fundamentalism refers to a “deep and totalistic commitment” to a belief in the infallibility and inerrancy of holy scriptures, absolute …”

    I think Dawkins addressed precisely this point.

  • 2009/03/14 at 10:22 am

    Would it be fair to say that Dawkins\’ talk is really a derivative of Dennett\’s Darwin\’s Dangerous Idea, e.g., in regard to Dennett\’s hiearchy ending in Popperian man? Also the references to on board computers.

    Having said that, I think perhaps his notion of archi-purpose may have more \”combat value\” than Dennett\’s design stance, since it strikes directly at the \”illusion of design\”, yet does not commit itself to over-interpreting what is \”designed.\”

  • 2009/03/14 at 11:26 am

    He’s not an evangelist for atheism, atheism is not a belief structure. Atheism is simply non belief based on evidence for the same reasons you don’t think Santa Claus is real, or pink fairies orbit pluto. Can you prove they don’t? No, but your disbelief based on evidence and reason does not constitute a belief, just like not believing in a God does not mean you have faith or a belief construct in the other direction.

    You could say he is an advocate for reason.

  • 2009/03/14 at 11:27 am

    David stole my comment.

    The (likely) nonexistence of gods is a “joyous message”.

  • 2009/03/14 at 11:49 am

    “Dawkins addressed only dogmatism. He did not say anything in that response that I recall about fundamentalism.”

    I think you’re just being difficult. You may consider the difference between the two concepts as material and specific, but in truth they aren’t – if fundamentalists were not dogmatic, they would not be fundamentalists. Nor dangerous.

    Which Dawkins isn’t. He may be rude and disturbing (or he may just appear that way to those who don’t want to hear what he has to say, however gently he tries to say it), but he is not dangerous, nor is he dogmatic, nor evangelical.

    He explains it quite clearly – he believes there is a real universe not subject to any arbitrary whims from some superior entity, not because that is the article of faith which underlies his beliefs, but because that is the result of his consideration of the facts, without any articles of faith whatsoever save for the fact that there is a real universe.

    So he is an evangelical scientist, and an atheist, but he is not an evangelical atheist. Unless you insist that any atheist is evangelical because he would argue against your All Powerful Stone Age Deity.

  • 2009/03/14 at 12:33 pm

    So what, it’s deplorable to attempt to change people’s minds?

    The real motivation behind accusing Dawkins of prosyletizing is to make him out to be a hypocrite.

    But then when has he ever suggested that there should be a moratorium on the competition of ideas? Isn’t that competition how good ideas supplant bad ones?

    To advocate atheism is not the same as to prosyletize for a religion, as the materialist model of the universe and our origins is well supported by evidence, and supernatural alternatives are not, except where they plagiarize wholesale from the materialist model and then stick their preferred god on top.

    You may as well scold anti-vaccinationists for “prosyletizing” their \”religious view\” that vaccinations don’t cause autism.

  • 2009/03/14 at 1:03 pm

    The word ‘evangelical’ is, while occasionally used in an extended sense to mean the zealous promoter of any cause, comes from the Greek word ‘evanggelion’, which is the word that we translate correctly with the word ‘gospel’, which comes from the Old English ‘godspel’, for good new or glad tidings. In Old English, of course, the sense is ambiguous, because the word for God is god, so it could be, and was no doubt often taken to mean, ‘God’s tidings’. So ‘evangelical’ (as Webster rightly indicates) refers primarily to the proclamation of the Christian message.

    The use of the word with respect to an atheist is, in a real sense, then, an oxymoron. Dawkins is not, as Sili says, delivering a joyous message. He is making what he feels to be a reasonable claim, based on the evidence available to us. But he is not asking anyone to accept it because he says so, but because he thinks it is probably true. It is not, in the sense of a gospel, good news. It’s just a fact, or not, as the case may be.

    Perhaps Dawkins needs to work on his answer to this question. There are several that I can think of, which would not leave his audience hanging by a thread.

  • 2009/03/14 at 2:50 pm

    Is the proper prefix for an instinctive purpose (for lack of a better term) “archi-” or “archaeo-“?

  • 2009/03/14 at 5:38 pm

    Austringer, Prof. Dawkins answered the evangelical question quite properly.

    You missed the important part – he “would be able to change his mind given sufficient evidence that he was wrong.”

    Billy Graham works ONLY on faith, not evidence. He is dogmatic.

  • 2009/03/14 at 6:01 pm

    I remember apple mac evangelists.
    Poor deluded fools.

    Seriously, how often does RD get asked about being evangelist or fundamentalist? Atheists are constantly being labeled as dogmatic followers of just another religion.
    Its good that RD’s reply made the point, whatever the wording of the question.

  • 2009/03/14 at 8:25 pm

    Is Dawkins wearing designer jeans in that picture? LOL, I’ve never seen him wear jeans.

  • 2009/03/14 at 9:11 pm

    “Dawkins went on to talk about artificial selection as a transition to natural selection.” Isn’t artifice a subset of natural? If it ain’t what is it?

  • 2009/03/14 at 10:11 pm

    Thanks to everybody popping in from Pharyngula.

    #21: I’d disagree that I “missed” the point about dogmatism and evidence.

    I’d certainly agree that people seeking to cast atheism as another religion are confused, but, as I said in #1, “dogmatism” isn’t the principal usage associated with “evangelist”. I don’t see a problem with Dawkins doing his best to argue his viewpoints, but I also don’t see a problem with the descriptive term being applied. At least, a demurral from dogmatism isn’t an effective counter-argument on that score.

    Amusingly, I just came across the following from the July/August 2007 PCPhoto (p.56):

    An Adobe Certified Expert in Photoshop and a senior evangelist for a premier imaging technology company, Weston Maggio is an authority on Photoshop instruction.

  • 2009/03/14 at 11:09 pm

    From an ex-Catholic standpoint, we used to use evangelical as denoting a Christian who spread the gospel through the community. I belonged to a Christian group and we would refer to others as being more evangelical. The term seemed to have broadened to mean anybody spreading a message.

    I think the confusion is that in a America the label has broadened to mean a whole grab bag of values belonging to a certain type of Christian.

  • 2009/03/15 at 11:05 am

    I began to write a comment but accidentally wrote “Evangenital” instead of “Evangelical” – I guess this says more about me than anything else. It also makes this message more interesting than the original message I was writing. So I’ve sent THIS one instead.

  • 2009/03/15 at 2:48 pm

    While I can imagine any number of miracles that would falsify my opinion that there are neiter a god nor gods, I cannot imagine a single positive piece of evidence that the gods do not exist. What sort of a miracle could a non-existant god present?My strong Atheistic conviction depends upon the impossibility of a supernatural and the addition of naturalistic explanations by the sciences of the questions of life. I do not recognize the god-of-the-gaps as any explanation at all. The explanation of a miracle by invoking a greater miracle is just plain goofy and should be pointed out to every fundie who trys to adopt it.
    If there is a single issue in Atheism that deserves criticism it is the shameful cowardness of so many Atheists who refuse to open their self imposed closet door, to come out, to be proud of their knowledge and to be free from superstition.
    Thank you Professor Dawkins. I apologise for the nay sayers and nit pickers who are so bloody negative.

  • 2009/03/15 at 8:57 pm

    Thanks for the excellent summary, Wes.

    I agree with Wesley that Dawkins answered the “evangelical atheist” question as if he understood it to be “fundamentalist atheist.” Dawkins is of course not the latter, since new evidence (e.g, of god, of supernaturalism) would change his views; he is not dogmatic. But Dawkins and the other New Atheists frankly do not have a good understanding of the diversity of religious belief. They tend to generalize too much and lump religionists together. Not all Evangelical Christians are Biblical Literalists and Inerrantists, Religious Fundamentalists, and Social Conservatives. Some evangelicals (obviously not a majority) are liberal to moderate and do not read the Bible literally. They DO accept Christian doctrine, but are not necessarily dogmatic or fundamentalist. It is likely that Dawkins does not know that Christian Fundamentalists took to calling themselves Evangelicals since the term “Fundamentalist” has correctly earned a nasty stigma. That’s why Fundamentalists like to call themselves “Conservative” when they are in truth quite radical in the right-half of the political spectrum, i.e. they are Fascists.

    My main complaint about this talk is the coining of new terms. Dawkins’ “archi-purpose” and “neo-purpose” are incredibly awkward and could be better stated as simply “apparent purpose” and “intentional purpose.” In fact, technical terms for these two concepts have long existed in science and Dawkins should have used them: teleology and teleonomy. Intentional, goal-oriented purposeful behavior is teleological. Ernst Mayr long ago defined the term to describe the apparent but non-teleological purposefulness and goal-directedness in nature: teleonomy. The apparent design of the biological world is teleonomic, not teleological, because it results from a natural and mechanistic modifications (by mutation, recombination, and natural selection) to a program of coded information (DNA). There is even a webpage devoted to this term:

  • 2009/03/16 at 9:41 am

    From what I can tell from the last photograph, Dyer appears to be a fairy-tale giant.

  • 2009/03/16 at 1:22 pm

    Dyer is about my size, but I’m standing down some steps and Dyer is a few feet closer to me than Dawkins for that photo.

  • 2009/03/16 at 2:03 pm

    I am spreading the evangel -glad tidings of humanism, naturalism, rationalism and skepticism. I belonged to the defunct group Evangelicals for Agnosticism at its end.
    We have the right evangel in that we embrace reality rather than superstitions in handling the world.
    Google naturalistgriggsy, rationalist griggsy, skeptic griggsy, griggs1947, sceptique griggsy and esceptico griggsy around the globe in different languages to see how I spread our evangel around the globe. Also I have blogs @ Google and WordPress under griggs1947.
    Oh, how much misery has Graham contributed to humanity? I’d like to see someone expose his stupidity. I know that Joseph Barnhardt has out “The Billy Graham Religion.”

  • 2009/03/16 at 4:33 pm

    I have been using the term atelic in the atelic argument that, since the weight of evidence shows no cosmic teleology, therefore no need to postulate God as the designer as we see patterns, not designs anyway.Now I’ll use the postivie term teleonomic as I use the positive terms naturalilst and rationalist as opposed to atheist[ and naturalism and rationalism also oppose the paranormal.] A without telic -teleology
    I also use the term dysteological- for the imperfections- for Hume’s negative argument against the teleological ones. Also we should require theists to respond to why the imperfections without answering the problem of evil!
    Logic is the bane of theists. Religion is mythinformation. Reason saves, not that dead , fanatic, Galilean cult leader!

  • 2009/03/16 at 4:52 pm

    Sorry for the typos. Barnhart
    positive naturalist
    Also Eugenie C.Scott errs in her book against creationism for castigating scientists for noting no cosmic purpose as she sees that as philosophical rather than scientific. Nay, as Paul Draper in an email to me, notes, she doesn’t fathom the demarcation problem of where science starts and ends; also, it was Simpson and Mayr who led the rebellion against the notion of orthogenesis which she would allow apparently. The article in Wikipedia belies her bald assertion in that it notes that orthogenesis is no longer a viable term. She would endorse, in effect, Miller’s and Giberson’s silly attempts to see orthogenesis in the form of convergence as Jerry Coyne shows up in ‘Seeing and Believing “@ the New Republic. Dawkins rightly contemns the accommodationists to the oxymoronic theistic evolutionism!
    From the side of religion, she can aver that there is no conflict but not from the side of science! We need to oppose such shenanigans. As Coyne notes, the fight is really between faith and secular reason,not merely creationism and science.
    Also Amiel Rossow @ Talk Reason pans Miller’s reintroduction of the designer after he demolishes ID. Coyne notees how Miller finds God in quantum processes: I say that is the god of the invisible!

  • 2009/04/05 at 7:53 am

    Does dawkins ever talk about what he see’s as his purpose (neo-purpose)? (please don’t just say look at his foundation website)

  • 2009/04/05 at 4:51 pm

    That’s pretty much my complete set of notes above. If you don’t see it there, it didn’t strike me as something I needed to get down while the talk went on.

  • 2009/04/15 at 8:06 pm

    But asking ‘why’ living organisms are seems to often have been done in the past.

    As well it should be. The lecture misses a fundamental point – why do organisms bother to evolve? The answer is, they evolve in order to survive. But why is survival an aim? Why bother surviving? Why did life evolve from being blue-green algae to humans over 4.5 billion years? Ultimately there is no ‘real utility’ in surviving, because we all die eventually. Even if it is just selfish genes doing what they do best, why do they do it? My answer is – human life is an intrinsic good, it is good in its own right, and this is why it evolved. It is the purpose towards which life has evolved for 4 billion years, or so.

    What is the alternative view? If there really is no such purpose, then life ‘just happened’ to evolve, culminating in human form. But this is not any kind of explanation, or theory – it is the absence of one.

    SO – I think it is perfectly legitimate to say ‘we are not concerned with purpose, science doesn’t deal with ultimate ends’. However it is perfectly meaningless to say ‘there is no purpose, life evolves without a purpose’. One would only say this because one thinks the statement that life has a purpose is a religious statement, and one hates religion.

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