Friday, March 03, 2006

Personal Incredulity

I've been reading The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins, a very thorough and easy-to-read guide to the theory of evolution, for the layman. Dawkins, a zoologist, provides some extremely powerful arguments in favour of evolution, while simultaneously refuting several historically important arguments in favour of competing theories beliefs.

I bought it at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which had a special exhibit on evolution and the life of Charles Darwin.

Dawkins argues his case without mincing words; he's direct and to the point. What I liked best though, was his demonstration that most of the arguments against the theory of evolution involve what he calls "Personal Incredulity", where someone attempts to disprove evolution simply because they don't believe, or can't bring themselves to believe, that it could work. Reading some of the arguments, the less philosophical among us could actually start to wonder if there's some truth in them. Dawkins, however, is quick to shred the thin logic apart and expose it to be, in fact, merely the result of a lack of understanding or simple refusal to accept the blindingly obvious.

Some further thought shows that offering up personal incredulity as an argument is all too easy. It may be as obvious as just saying "I don't believe so-and-so" or more sneaky, saying "how can so-and-so be possible?" and proceeding to quote references like "common sense". Sometimes, questions asking the "do you think so-and-so could ever happen?" are used to trick you, the reader, into accepting a point of view because if you don't, then your common sense is called into question. We'd rather believe dubious claims and beliefs than question our own common sense: egotism in it's finest form.

Follow your minds, people... egos are only meant to be neatly pressed and folded into an old suitcase.


Muppala Suryaprakasha Borthakur said...

Have you also read "The Selfish Gene", also by Dawkins?

Jim said...

It's on my to-do list. I did borrow it once from the library, but never found time to read it.

I found that there's actually a name for some of the sorts of arguments most creationists tend to use: Sophism.

Karthik said...

Hi Buddy!! Saw this quote about you : Along the way, I picked up more from PC Quest and PC World and looking over the shoulders of seniors (Jim George, Chirayu and Kashyap) than I ever did in class. ...from

On the shoulders of giants...Cheers

quills said...

Nice post....egos are only meant to be neatly pressed and folded into an old suitcase .. So true. Seems like a great book to read. Must look it up. But even though the practical side of self could believe in Darwin's Theory of Evolution, I continue to believe in what the Bible said. Must be force of habit. But still, I love exploring the many explanations regarding how life evolved.

Jim said...

Vinit made sure I read that :) Very sweet of him, to put me in the same category as legends like Kash and Chirayu.

Eventually, it seems like everyone with an opinion but nothing to back it up ends up resorting to such appeals to one's ego. That in itself may be a form of evolution, in the sense that all other arguments died out. About the Bible, well, I could start and finally stop talking the day after tomorrow, but when it comes to matters of faith, no argument, no matter how well crafted, is enough. Even Dawkins acknowledges this in his book. I suppose one of the strongest arguments in favour of evolution is that it has been used successfully in controlled environments to solve problems (genetic algorithms), so "it works". Assume that competing theories also work. Apply Occam's Razor to the collection of theories and you'll have your answer.