Richard vs Richard: The Dawkins–Rorty Debate Reply

Imagine a debate between Richard Dawkins and Richard Rorty. What would it be like?

Richard Rorty, American Pragmatist

Unfortunately, we will never know for sure, since our friend Rorty went on to receive his eternal reward in the spring of 2008 — he did not believe in that eternal reward, but we should hope that he attained it anyway.

Rorty’s pragmatism, in brief, is a sort of thoroughgoing practical relativism. The core tenet of pragmatism is often described as “Whatever works.” In other words, there is no absolute norm for human behavior; if the outcome justifies your activity, the activity is justified.

Sounds like an attractive way to use your ends to justify your means, but I don’t want to oversimplify Rorty’s sophisticated approach to ascertaining unattainable “Truth.” Here is what Rorty has to say about “Truth.”

One wonders how to justify such an approach when, say, one has a kidney stone and wants to get rid of the attendent, excruciating pain. Well, Rorty might say, there are ways and ways to go about that. Which one is right is up to you to decide. More on that later.

Rorty’s relativism — if I may call it that — flies in the face of scientific realism, the doctrine that states of affairs in the real world can be scientifically explained and understood with a certain degree of exactness.

Richard Dawkins, for instance, is a scientific realist who insists that evolution is true, and that he can tell you how it occurred. In the following video, Dawkins denounces relativism (and accuses the Church of England of unscientific antirealism at the end of the clip).

Although I cannot say that evolution did not occur, nor do I challenge the evidence (raw data) that points toward evolution as an explanation, I have to side with Rorty here (believe it or not).

I am not encouraging people to embrace antirealism. However, I do have a problem with scientists making absolute claims that seem beyond their ability to claim, especially when they also claim to be atheists who scoff at believers and ridicule them as naive for making claims about God.

For example, although Dawkins’ account of the evolutionary process is compelling, fascinating, and perhaps the most reasonable explanation I’ve ever heard — I personally heard Dawkins deliver his account at a conference in New York a few years ago — it does not prove anything to me, other than a nice, speculative description, based on scientific data, of what could have happened. As reasonable as his theory may sound, it’s just a theory. I explain more what I mean by that here.

I can’t conceive of any possible way to verify his theory. I’m open to the possibility that, one day, scientists might verify Dawkins’ account of evolution. But since I can’t really even imagine how it might be eventually verified — unless scientists were to invent a time machine — I am more open to the possibility that it will never be verified.

So in the end, who’s to say that it’s true?

I always have to add disclaimers for those who would accuse me of denying the “obvious facts” of evolution. The existence of fossils is an obvious fact. The fossil record, in as much as it is a record, is a human account of those facts, that account is always subject to revision, and so why exactly should we call it a fact? Carbon-dating is factual in as much as it can tell us something about archaic remains, but it has an enormous margin for error. So please, before you accuse others of not having their facts straight, make sure you have all of your facts straight first. Of course, you should always feel free to share your opinion.

Back to the relativism vs. realism debate, for those who would like more background knowledge on what is at issue in this discussion, here is a rather short, simplified explanation of what the realist holds as opposed to what the relativist holds.

Since the video is just a short, very simplified account that does not offer any criticism of either one of the views it exposes, I just want to add that there is a lot more to be said regarding both perspectives. I thought the video did a fair enough job as an introductory exposé for the realism vs relativism debate.

I mentioned that I would say more on the relativism of kidney stones and pain, later. I meant later. Maybe tomorrow or later on next week, but I do have something to say on that point that could give those Rorteans out there something to mull over and digest. If there’s something real in there, there’s something real out there…

Since we are dealing with the topic of relativism, I thought I would end with a recent quote from our Pope in a discourse he gave to medical students, just a couple of days ago, on May 3:

“Rich in means, but not in aims, mankind in our time is often influenced by reductionism and relativism which lead to a loss of the meaning of things; as if dazzled by technical efficacy, he forgets the essential horizon of the question of meaning, thus relegating the transcendent dimension to insignificance.”

Pope Benedict XVI, May 3 2012

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