Andrew Denton’s interview with “Elder” Richard Dawkins

I haven’t seen any of the other “Elders” programs with Andrew Denton on the ABC, but I am sure glad I pressed the “record” button on the DVD recorder on Sunday night and caught Denton’s interview with Richard Dawkins (who, at 68, could pass for an “elder”). Cathy and I watched the interview last night, and I found it very interesting from what it revealed about Prof. Dawkins as a person. Denton is a very skilled interviewer, and although he could have varied the way he phrased his questions so as to get a bit more out of the good professor (eg. Denton’s way of phrasing questions by asking “How do you define…” obviously got Dawkins’ back up, and he should have found a different way of asking future questions along this line), the questions were good ones and for the main part penetrating.

You can read a full transcript of the interview here, and see an edited video (about 10 minutes deleted – including the really good bits where Dawkins is uncomfortable with the questions – especially the last question, which, in terms of Dawkins’ reaction was just priceless). There is a good discussion of the interview online here.

I think it is interesting to read this interview in the light of the previous Dawkins interview on which I blogged here.

One thing that this interview reveals, I think, is that Prof. Dawkins has not sufficiently reflected on the different bases for “knowledge”, especially in intangible matters such as love, art, beauty etc. I found this comment really revealing, in terms of Dawkins rather shallow theories of epistomology:

ANDREW DENTON: You wrote a letter which has been published to your daughter, Juliet, when she was ten. Can you tell me about that?

RICHARD DAWKINS: Yes, it is an attempt to encourage her to ask questions and think for herself. It begins by saying, how do we know the things that we know? And so it’s a kind of hymn to evidence, it’s kind of trying to encourage this ten year child to always look for the evidence for anything that you’re asked to believe. And it specifically singles out for scepticism, things like tradition, authority, and revelation, which are not ways of knowing anything. Evidence is the way you know anything that you know, and I tried to put into language that a ten year old might understand- how we get evidence, and how we evaluate it.

Leaving aside the rather sad fact that at the time he wrote this “letter” he was actually estranged from his second wife (the girl’s mother) and hence also from his daughter, and that he should chose to write on such topics which avoid the whole question of his personal relationship with his daughter (and also his point that since writing this piece, he has not taken the opportunity to discuss the matter with his daughter personally), what about the actual claim. Is it true that Dawkins believes that “tradition, authority, and revelation, which are not ways of knowing anything”?

I don’t know about “revelation”, but surely Dawkins cannot seriously claim that all his knowledge is based directly upon his own empirical investigations, that is, that he has gained nothing which he counts a “true knowledge” from sources that could be described as “tradition” or “authority”?

For instance in the very same interview he speaks about his reliance in matters of physics upon the “authority” of physicisits, rather than his own studies. Now, okay, he would reply that the knowledge provided by these physicists is verifiable, but he has nevertheless relied upon the fact that these physicists are “authorities” whom he can trust without doing the verification himself.

And surely in his own education as a biologist, he has received a lot of knowledge (including his knowledge of the scientific method) from what could truly be termed a “tradition of science”?

A bit more thinking is required here, in my opinion.



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8 responses to “Andrew Denton’s interview with “Elder” Richard Dawkins

  1. Salvatore

    “And it specifically singles out for scepticism, things like tradition, authority, and revelation, which are not ways of knowing anything.”

    Presumably that includes the ‘traditional authority’ of parents for their children? One wonders, then, why Professor Dawkins expected that his daughter would (or indeed should) pay any attention to him.

  2. PM

    Never mind the lack of evidence for the historical and literary howlers that pervade Dawkins’ rants – an intelligent ten-year-old could do much better.

    And where is the empirical evidence for the existence of memes?

  3. Good point, Salvatore. Dawkins’ very act of writing the ‘letter’ – or any of his books for that matter – presuppose at least the ‘authority of the author’. That is, he writes in the hope that people will learn from what he has written – with the result that they gain knowlwdge from his authority and not from any empirical investigation they have carried out for themselves. Furthermore, ome of the knowledge that he is seeking to convey is traditional, thatis, hnded down from scientist to scientist. As I said, he needs to do some more work on his epistemology.

  4. Paul

    I think we are all in furious agreement over this, but the fact remains that Dawkins’ books are best sellers, and he is widely admired. I think that, despite the holes in his arguments, people want to believe him in the same way that they used to want to believe the Church.

    This time of year shows the passionate interest as well as the confusion about religion today. The newspapers are full of rants against religion, as well as supportive articles. Perhaps the most public display of this schizophrenia are the Carols by Candlelight celebrations. In Sydney last week, it started with irrelevant songs and a ridiculous backdrop of a piece of holly in a stained glass window. I was in full grumpy rage at the stupid people in the world, but then they sang some real Christmas carols and there was a surge of emotion and gratitude from the crowd. It will be interesting to see the range of songs and reactions tonight in Melbourne.

    What does this all mean? It seems the Hound of Heaven is at our door, and despite all our efforts to stop our ears, we can still, almost, hear him. I pray that we hear him ourselves, and do whatever we can to help others to reassess their preconceptions and open their hearts.

    I wish everyone on this forum a happy, holy and memorable Christmas.

  5. Matthias

    Oh yes Carols by Candlelight-a melbourne tradition now a national institution. All starting from Norman Banks-a one time Anglican priest in training-walking home after doing his night show on radio station 3DBon Christmas Eve, and saw an elderly woman sitting at her table with a candle and singing carols,way back in 1934. Now every municipality in the country has them . someone told me that it is an Australian thing,and that it does not occur in other countries-well too cold in the Northern Hemisphere

  6. I just picked up that there was a link to this discussion on an australian blog called “Neuroanthropology”. You might be interested in his analysis:

    • Paul

      Hi David,
      thanks for this link about Dawkins’ ideas. The thing that annoys me about most of the New Atheists is that they concentrate almost exclusively on what they do not believe rather than what they do believe in. Dawkins goes so far as to say his books are designed to persuade, and he is prepared to use any rhetorical device to achieve this end. So much for dispassionate discussion.
      Did you see the interview last night of Fr Des Reid by Andrew Denton? Denton asked the same question (“what do you see when you look in the mirror?”) of Fr Reid and it is interesting to compare the responses:

      Dawkins: “[Pause] Ah…I don’t have an interesting answer to that. I mean I see myself. No, cut that one. I guess I’ve probably dodged all the questions that you’ve been told to put to everybody.”

      Reid: “I see a fella losing his hair very quickly and that there are all sorts of lines appearing and that type of thing but it doesn’t bother me because there’s a wonderful sense, as I’m getting old, there’s a wonderful sense of closeness with my mate, and my mate is Jesus Christ and you know I’m really happy that the things, I could have been killed a couple of times. I lost an engine in a twin engine aircraft and I put it on the ground safely. But the fact that it hasn’t happened for me is an indication that God wasn’t ready for me yet, I never understood why God would allow me to be an alcoholic. I could not see any reason, any good reason that I ever in it, I begged him anything else but not alcoholism, any other disease but not this one. . . ”
      Richard Dawkins may disagree with everything Fr Reid said in his response, but he would have to admit that Fr Reid can at least express his ideas coherently.

      Having said that, I suspect that Richard Dawkins has a more congenial personality in private than appeared in the Denton interview. A person that concerns me more is Peter Singer, who wrote an article last week promoting his ideas, based ultimately on the assertion that there is no such thing as a right to life:
      Singer, under some circumstances, supports abortion, euthanasia, infanticide and bestiality, He is living proof of the old saying that once abortion is allowed, eventually any killing will be accepted by some people.
      (random thought: If you believe euthanasia is morally right, are you ever justified in preventing someone from committing suicide)