October 29, 2008

Do fantasy stories undermine rationality in children?

Richard Dawkins might want you kids to stop reading Harry Potter, fairy tales, and the like.
"I think it is anti-scientific – whether that has a pernicious effect, I don't know"...

"I think looking back to my own childhood, the fact that so many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes, whether that has a sort of insidious [e]ffect on rationality, I'm not sure. Perhaps it's something for research."
And he doesn't think much of the "Judeo-Christian myth".
He went on: "I plan to look at mythical accounts of various things and also the scientific account of the same thing. And the mythical account that I look at will be several different myths, of which the Judeo-Christian one will just be one of many.

"And the scientific one will be substantiated, but appeal to children to think for themselves; to look at the evidence. Always look at the evidence."
The funny thing is, talking like that, Dawkins sounds like a villainous character in a children's book. But he's quite serious, especially about children and religion:
"Do not ever call a child a Muslim child or a Christian child – that is a form of child abuse because a young child is too young to know what its views are about the cosmos or morality.

"It is evil to describe a child as a Muslim child or a Christian child. I think labelling children is child abuse and I think there is a very heavy issue, for example, about teaching about hell and torturing their minds with hell.

"It's a form of child abuse, even worse than physical child abuse. I wouldn't want to teach a young child, a terrifyingly young child, about hell when he dies, as it's as bad as many forms of physical abuse."

120 comments:

knittinggeek said...

Child abuse? Really?...

Teaching MY children my morality and giving MY children spiritual guidance is child abuse?

Note to self: Keep my children away from this clown.

Jamie said...

Interesting, if not hypocritical, considering he made a cameo appearance on the BBC children's science fiction show Doctor Who over the summer.

Joan said...

Why does anyone listen to Dawkins?

Paddy O. said...

Dawkins is indeed a character.

Shockingly similar to the villains in CS Lewis' Space Trilogy, with his musings here almost like word for word dialogue from That Hideous Strength.

Mob said...

Wow. We've all heard of someone who needs to grow up. I think I've just decided that some people need to stop growing up at some point. I'm sure he'll be wondering about the "insidious effect on rationality" that movies have as well. Talking animals!?

/sarcasm ahead

It's plainly obvious this is a real danger. I mean look at what those "frogs turning into princes" stories did to Richard Dawkins. Trust me, you don't want your children to turn out like him.

Bender said...

This is news? That an anti-theist is a totalitarian thug?

Henry said...

I'm an apathetic athiest, but my small children occasionally ask me about God or death. I mentioned to them the other day that people are animals (categorically!) and they totally didn't buy it. So I dived into evolution. My son did perk up at the idea of being related to monkeys. My daughter remains a skeptic.

Does Dawkins know any small children? They have an astonishing capacity to come up with their own inventions without adult assistance. The world is inherently magical at that age (and still is, even for me).

Sofa King said...

Just what are children supposed to read, then, to learn of the complexities of nonscientific issues like morality, ethics, virtue, and love? A psychology textbook?

Nihimon said...

Of course, it's child abuse! And we need to outlaw it! FOR THE CHILDREN!*

* TM - Jeff Goldstein

PatHMV said...

Will Dawkins now team up with the hard-core religious folks who think Harry Potter is evil because it has witches in it? It's not unheard of for insane people to find common cause with other insane people whose views they normally despise, if they find some common enemy to fight.

If the religious nutters and the atheist nutters team up, could they succeed in getting the book banned?

Jamie said...

Further thought--I heard a psychologist once claim in reference to Michael Jackson that having a childhood--a time of fantasy, imagination, and play--is necessary part of life. people will have a childhood at another point in life if they are denied one at the proper time.

Dawkins needs to let children be children or they are going to wind up broken, immature adults.

Independent George said...

Dawkins is one of those people I agree with 80% of the time (at least on matters related to biology), but can't stand. Nassim Nicholas Taleb is another.

MadisonMan said...

Why does he assume that every child's reality is somehow better than the reality in a fantasy book? Does it cross his mind that reading a fantasy book can be a welcome escape from a harsh life?

Richard Dawkins was much funnier on Match Game, especially when the definitive answer was related to breasts.

Richard Dolan said...

Dawkins is playing out his self-assigned role, but is too inadequate an actor to pull it off. Maybe that's because he thinks his part requires him to act out what it means to be boorishly unimaginative. He certainly manages that well.

Quayle said...

Dawkins is an absolute idiot.

Children want to know what they should do.

How is Dawkin's science going to answer that when it only looks at what is?

And the flaw in Dawkins is that doesn't know the difference.

Synova said...

Refusing to give a child a frame-work to understand the world is child abuse.

For a lot of people that basic frame-work is religion but it doesn't have to be. In any case it is not scientific or rational and it *is* provided to children by parents... because children ARE too young to know what their views are about the cosmos or morality or reality. That's part of the condition of being a child. Any child needs a lattice on which to arrange their discoveries about the world. Denying that is child abuse. (But we know he's not really... he just doesn't like the religious sort of world-view... too bad.)

Synova said...

As for fantasy stories...

Making sh*t up is what makes us sentient! Being able to function symbolically is why we even have *language*.

What an idiot.

Mary said...

"Do not ever call a child a Muslim child or a Christian child – that is a form of child abuse because a young child is too young to know what its views are about the cosmos or morality."

Do unto others as you'd have done to you. Love God, and your neighbors, as you love yourself. Be kind to the poor, the imprisoned, the elderly and the lonely. Play nice with others. Try to forgive and work things out when things go wrong. We all have faults and make mistakes -- doesn't make us bad people. God, an family and friends, love you regardless of our mistakes, and want us to try to do better tomorrow...

If you're good -- and you care and understand that children need to be taught how to behave and control themselves in our shared world -- then darn right you can craft the above messages (Christian, in this case) into daily lessons, even for a 2- and 3-year-old.

(And by "if you're good", I mean if you're a clever, patient, and creative teacher who is trying to understand your child as an individual, what they're ready for and are committed to the message you're teaching.)

We could do a lot worse for society than children formally raised with a code of ethics in the home, with committed adults explaining the how's and why's, and shaping their child's ethical outlook and behavior. Parents who don't do this under the banner of religion -- are they undertaking in other ways, through other literature and teaching methods, to instill this sense of responsibility to self and community? Or do they just think the child is going to absorb "right and wrong", actions and consequences, from tv, video games and the general society? )

Mostly though, I just wanted to say I think Dawkins understimates children with his statements. Probably, like Sullivan, (you get the opinion) he doesn't have any children very close to him in his life as is. (?)

Christy said...

Fairy Tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.-- G. K. Chesterton

Why do I aways suspect Dawkins, while successful, doesn't have a rich inner life?

mccullough said...

Wordsworth wrote that when he was a kid fairy tales helped introduce good and evil and death and sacrifice in a way that helped him learn to cope with the world.

I think Harry Potter does a pretty good job of this too.

Salamandyr said...

To an extremely limited extent, Dawkins has a point. Children are sponges for information, and for too many of them, they get entirely too much fluff-y fantasy, and not enough reality.

To put it in terms of food, which seems an apropros metaphor here; you would never allow your child to eat nothing but cake, chocolate, and pie for their meals, regardless of the incidental nutrition those things might provide. Children need meat and veggies to grow. By the same token, fantasy is a wonderful treat, but shouldn't be the entire basis of one's diet of reading materials.

Beth said...

What a cranky old man!

Madisonman, I see your point about fantasy being a welcome escape from some kids' reality. But it's more than that. The best fantasy is about that reality, from a distance, and with better outcomes - kids don't have to know how to define "metaphor" to experience them. And fantasy takes them into the dark places they already know exist; and that helps them as they develop moral reasoning. The unconscious is present in us, and fantasy is one we get to speak with it. Dawson doesn't understand fantasy at all. He should read Le Guin's "The Child and the Shadow."

MInTheGap said...

What I find most interesting is the opposite. If it's considered child abuse to tell a child why you believe what you believe and your worldview, what makes it right to teach a child Dawkin's worldview and not consider it also child abuse?

This is also at the foundation of the "Is it indoctrination question?" to which the logical response is "no, if it's teaching them truth."

And then we must decide what is truth. Does Dawkins purport to know? And is it wrong to use fantasy as a vehicle to discuss moral truth?

This is a veiled attack at the anti-thiest's favorite boogeyman. They get so wrapped up in attacking something that they believe it isn't there... makes you wonder what they have to be so scared of?

john said...

That guy reminds me of Smeagol. They even look alike; at least I imagine they do.

Salamandyr said...

Mary, I think it's because we both agree, that to an extent, reading, and education is "feeding" a child.

You make a very good point about needing to teach children values. I think this is an area fiction actually does better than biographies, or textbooks. Essentially, each story is a lab model of a moral situation, and a hypothetical working out of that situation. They become part of our arsenal of possible options when dealing with similar situations in our own life.

It's ironic how so often the stories we expose our children to undermine the lessons we try to teach them.

Michael McNeil said...

Doctor Who is for children? Who knew?

walter neff said...

Titus tells the best fairy tales.

TMink said...

Wow, so I was abusing my 6 year old boy last night when I told him that God made him and loves him very much.

What an idiot. If he is so scientific, why doesn't he get some data about how Christians actually interact with their children. He is projecting.

Not at all scientific.

He is abusing me with his fairy tales. He could be blinding me with science, but he is just abusing me with ignorance. The hypocrit.

Trey

Oligonicella said...

Dawkins has become an idiot in this respect and like many others think that that which did not harm them needs to be kept from others because they've come to not accept it.

Bender --
"This is news? That an anti-theist is a totalitarian thug?"

Or, to be fair, that an adamant theist is one as well.

Anyone reading my comments for any length of time knows two things, I am an atheist and I have no truck for atheists who are condemnatory of theists and vice versa.

Dawkins --
"I don't know what to think about magic and fairy tales."

Because you don't understand them.

"I plan to look at mythical accounts of various things and also the scientific account of the same thing."

Like I said. I have chum. The result is a set of 75 fables detailing the universe and human growth (evolution). If you know how to read them. Just like all the other fables.

What a dork.

Salamandyr said...

Historically, Doctor Who was for kids. It's not so much anymore, though I understand they still try to be cognizant of their younger audience. For instance, characters from the (very adult) Torchwood have appeared on Doctor Who, but they will never have the Doctor appear on Torchwood, for exactly that reason.

I think what Dawkins really has a problem with is teaching children religion. The rest is just a faux intellectual justification for that stance.

Michael McNeil said...

While I tend to disagree with Dawkins in this regard (I love science fiction and fantasy myself, which hasn't prevented my mind from attaining a scientific bent, nor many others'), his suggestion that research be done on the question is worthwhile, I think.

Brooklyn Redneck said...

This guy is sick. Between him and Hitchens, my disgust and disrespect for athiests is strengthened.

Tibore said...

"Prof Dawkins said he wanted to look at the effects of "bringing children up to believe in spells and wizards".

"I think it is anti-scientific – whether that has a pernicious effect, I don't know," he told More4 News.

"I think looking back to my own childhood, the fact that so many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes, whether that has a sort of insidious affect on rationality, I'm not sure. Perhaps it's something for research."


Oh, please, Richard. You don't expand a child's horizons by restricting what that child is exposed to.

I understand there's far from a glut of interesting scientific, rational thinking childrens literature, but c'mon. Fantasy stimulates the mind, rationality disciplines it. Kids need both.

Oligonicella said...

Brooklyn Redneck --

Is this balanced by a disgust for theists based on the various hate spewing religious leaders? Just wondering.

Both sides have bigoted jackasses and those jackasses seem to be pretty well proportioned, according to population percentages.

Athena DePaul said...

So it's child abuse to tell children fantasy stories. But it's not child abuse to inform people below an arbitrary threshold age that they don't have the capacity for faith or reason?

If your concern is undermining rationality, I can think of nothing more harmful than telling a child that he lacks the capacity for reason because his parents read him the wrong bedtime stories.

His apparent belief in what religions are, what they teach, and how they do it reveals a lack of sophistication in his knowledge and reasoning on the topic. He also reveals a lack of sophistication with the purpose and meaning of fictional stories - fantastic stories may teach through allegory, inspire creative thinking, and otherwise inspire rational thought.

Does he have kids? Does he remember being a kid? Does he approve of the way our culture infantilizes children through and beyond the age of 18?

Dawkins doesn't sound like he knows anything about children, fiction, fantasy, religion, or faith. Why anyone would feel the slightest inclination to listen to him about any of these is beyond me.

chickenlittle said...

Madisonman wrote: Richard Dawkins was much funnier on Match Game, especially when the definitive answer was related to breasts.

Dawson man, Richard Dawson.

:)

Kim said...

I can appreciate that Dawkins doesn't want to see any more belief in mystic beings. I think a lot of us can sympathize. I think it's a shame that he doesn't have a decent philosophy to help him get past the belief of mysticism and how art can be appreciated on a different level.

rhhardin said...

Editors' introduction to the ``Sociology of Literature'' issue of Critical Inquiry v.14 n.3 (Spring 1988) p.428-429:

[quote]

A metaphor that cannot be avoided deserves closer attention. If we examine the mirror more closely, we may find that the metaphor actually serves the sociology of literature in unexpected ways. The marvelously revealing mirror in Hans Christian Andersen's ``The Snow Queen'' offers a case in point. In this tale a demon invents a unique mirror : it does not reflect, it systematically misreflects. Andersen's mirror shrinks and distorts every good and beautiful thing, and it magnifies everything evil or ugly. In this glass pleasant landscapes look like boiled spinach, normal people appear hideous, and kind thoughts become wicked grins.

The demon creator appears mildly amused by his invention, but his students, simple reflectionists, take it very seriously :

All the pupils in the demon's school - for he kept a school - reported that a miracle had taken place : now for the first time, they said, it was possible to see what the world and mankind were really like. They ran about everywhere with the mirror, till at last there was not a country or a person which had not been seen in this distorting mirror.

Eventually the mirror breaks. Shards of glass fly through the world and lodge in people's eyes and hearts. These shards retain the peculiarities of the mirror, so that everyone sees the world through bent, distorted, and misshapen images.

[unquote]

James said...

Sheesh. Was it Chesterton(?) who said something along the lines of "Insanity isn't the lack of reason, it's the lack of everything but reason"?

Case in point, Mr. Dawkins.

Athena DePaul said...

If teaching children about hell is pernicious child abuse, would it be abuse to teach them about heaven also?

What if the kid was dying?

I like that he likes Pullman - the author who specifically wrote fantasy for the purpose of teaching children to hate and despise religion (particularly religious authority figures). I guess Pullman's use of fantasy to instill opposition to traditional religion is ok, but to use it to teach traditional values is not. I don't think it's coincidence that Pullman isn't just the only one he LIKES, but Pullman is also the only one he's even READ.

Athena DePaul said...

Ok, I am really exercised about this.

Nothing sets me off faster than people criticizing Harry Potter without having read the books.

Joe said...

I think Dawkins is still bitter that The Little Mermaid wasn't real.

Paul Snively said...

Beth: The best fantasy is about that reality, from a distance, and with better outcomes - kids don't have to know how to define "metaphor" to experience them.

Thank you for this. I intend to steal it entirely without shame.

TMink said...

My friend Olig wrote: "I am an atheist and I have no truck for atheists who are condemnatory of theists and vice versa."

Good point, it is the hate and disdain, not the belief in the paranormal that causes the problems. I would MUCH rather hang out with a kind atheist than a jerk Christian, and vice versa.

Trey

Revenant said...

First of all, let me say that Richard Dawkins is brilliant when writing about evolutionary concepts. "The Selfish Gene" is one of my favorite books.

That being said, he is completely wrong on this topic. Regular commenters here know that I'm a materialist/atheist; I don't believe in any sort of supernatural or divine forces in the universe. I'm also an avid reader of fantasy, and have been ever since I was a tiny child. Hell, I even read (and have frequently re-read) the Chronicles of Narnia, which not only didn't inspire me to believe in magic but didn't inspire me to believe in Christianity, either.

Oh, and I'm a huge fan of the Harry Potter books. Yes, they're childish, but they're hugely entertaining.

Revenant said...

I'd like to recommend the book "Killing Monsters" for parents or adults concerned about children and fantasizing. It does an excellent job of addressing the valuable role that fantasy (not just the elves and magic kind, but imagination in general) plays in a child's life.

Marcia said...

Richard Dawkins? I always liked him on The Family Feud.

Pogo said...

Without novels, fables, and other fantasies, childhood is often unfathomable if not unbearable.

His inability or unwillingness to acknowledge a useful role for stories in human activity (for that must be true given the tenacious survival of this habit across millenia and cultures) tells me he is not much of a scientist.

To deny what is directly in fron t of him means he is unable to see it. He is simply blind to certain forms of information.

And that realization calls into question all of his other conclusions, which now seem based entirely on a narrow delusion, containing a modicum (or larger) of truth, but expanded into falsity or mendacity by ideology.

Methadras said...

Dawkins might as well ask children not to read comic books. Why afterall, superheros and supervillians have super-powers and the ones that don't develop technology to help them achieve their super-powered status. Completely fictional, but resonates with children in a way that is not only magical, but also deals with pseudo-science, make-believe science.

Even science fiction novels deal with science in technology in a completely real world fashion, but the imagination is allowed to explore. Dawkins would have a childs imagination grounded and taken away for the sheer sake of anchoring reality on a young mind that wants to see and believe in all things fantastical.

Synova said...

Not only am I convinced that make-believe doesn't have an insidious affect on rationality, it's necessary to develop rationality. Even a little baby laughing at a toy that "disappears" behind something and then pops out again is learning about representations and symbolism. It's how we understand and how we see. It's the same sort of intelligence (and necessary for it) as the ability that lets us look at a few lines on paper and identify a person or puppy or bird, when factually, rationally, not even a photograph represents the reality of a thing... it's flat, and the wrong size!

We do it with language.

We do it with ideas.

Revenant said...

His inability or unwillingness to acknowledge a useful role for stories in human activity (for that must be true given the tenacious survival of this habit across millenia and cultures) tells me he is not much of a scientist.

Pogo, the fact that something survives for thousands of years is not proof that it is good. To cite an obvious example, almost all children have to be actively discouraged from lying and stealing, and even then the discouragement doesn't always take. Surely nobody is going to argue that the thousands of years children have spent lying to their parents is proof that it is good to lie to parents! The scientific explanation for the persistence of this behavior is that either the behavior is useful in some circumstances, or is a side-effect of traits whose positives offset the negatives of lying and stealing.

So it could be the case that childhood fantasy is a bad thing, and either a side-effect of something good (like intelligence) or a misuse of an ability useful in adults (imagining how things might be different from how they are now). There's nothing "unscientific", in other words, about believing fantasy is bad.

That being said, I think Dawkins is mistaken. But being wrong isn't the same thing as being unscientific; most scientific theories turn out to be wrong.

Buford Gooch said...

Dawkins is a dickweed.

kynefski said...

I would MUCH rather hang out with a kind atheist than a jerk Christian, and vice versa.

Aye, but would you rather hang out with a kind atheist than a kind Christian? I never thought I would say it, having worshipped as a Christian almost all of my life, but I'm afraid that, all else being equal, I would. I think it's a post-9/11 thing. I've just grown increasingly troubled by the fact that, for all we have learned, from science and from global trade, actual belief in supernatural agency remains so valued in our culture. I'm not sure I like what it says about us.

I don't share these thoughts with believers because, frankly, I don't want them thinking of me the way they think of Richard Dawkins, but I'm kind of grateful that Dawkins doesn't have the same reservations.

Jeff with one 'f' said...

"It is evil to describe a child as a Muslim child or a Christian child"

How odd- where does an atheist get this "evil" concept?

He's like some PC drone who insists on using "CE" rather than "AD" while denying that the Gregorian calendar has anything to do with Christianity.

Pogo said...

"Surely nobody is going to argue that the thousands of years children have spent lying to their parents is proof that it is good to lie to parents!"
Not that lying is good or bad, but that it is innate and ineradicable. It's what children do, the little barbarians.

And telling stories is just as innate. Dawkins cannot see or does not know that humans communicate by stories, and always have done so. You'd think he'd be aware of this. It suggests he knows little at all about people. Didn't he write about evolution? Did he miss something?.

"The scientific explanation ...is that either the behavior is useful in some circumstances, or is a side-effect of traits ...."
Or something else.
Evolutionary just so stories are often irrefutable in this manner, and therefore unscientific.

mcg said...

Hmm. Revenant said that nobody would argue that lying to parents is good, but then he posits a certain survival value to it... which makes it... good, under certain metrics, does it not?

Revenant said...

It's what children do, the little barbarians. And telling stories is just as innate. Dawkins cannot see or does not know that humans communicate by stories, and always have done so.

Did you not actually read the article? Dawkins is speaking against *encouraging* that sort of activity in children. Parents don't encourage their children to lie and steal, however innate those tendencies may be. Saying that children have an innate desire to fantasize doesn't speak to Dawkins' point at all.

Evolutionary just so stories are often irrefutable in this manner, and therefore unscientific.

They are irrefutable and unscientific in the sense that the theory that Kennedy died from a bullet to the head and not from a stroke immediately prior to the bullet impact is irrefutable and therefore unscientific. In both cases, however, the explanations are the most reasonable and parsimonious given what we know about the world.

Revenant said...

Revenant said that nobody would argue that lying to parents is good, but then he posits a certain survival value to it... which makes it... good, under certain metrics, does it not?

I didn't posit a survival value to lying to your parents. There's an obvious survival value to lying and stealing in certain circumstances, though -- I trust everyone here can think of circumstances where honesty isn't personally the best way to ensure you and your children survive and thrive.

Chip Ahoy said...

My mum cried when dear ol' Dad, always the rationalist, gently and carefully explained there was no Santa Clause.

My brother goes, "I knew it!"

I didn't. They had me totally going. This jolt had the affect of turning me agnostic at an early age. For years I simply could not understand faith. Who could after that? Struggling to understand the world around me, how was I to ever fully trust what I was being told?

Dawkins has had a profound affect on my British friends. His The God Delusion is at the top of most of their favorite books lists. It has caused them to become quite disparaging toward all people of faith. They honestly believe themselves intellectually superior because it it, because of having read that single book. Their Photoshops on Christian themes are straight-up blasphemous and not the slightest bit amusing. Crucifixion scene: "Hey, I can see my house!" sort of thing. That's why they're going to hell. Either that, or reeducation in the hereafter. Oddly, though, they never bother satirizing Islam. Scaredy cats.

Revenant said...

Also, MCG, the word "good" has problems in that it is used to discuss both morality and effectiveness. If you and another person are both on the verge of starvation, stealing his food is a "good" (i.e., "effective") survival strategy, but not not necessarily a "good" (i.e., "moral") survival strategy. But evolution works on the basis of effectiveness, not morality. The laws under which the universe operates have no apparent moral content.

But certainly most of us would agree that there are cases when lying is "good" in both senses of the word -- e.g., lying to the Nazis about whether there are Jews hiding in your attic.

Jamie said...

Doctor Who is for children? Who knew?

Pretty much anyone who has watched it for at least five minutes.

Pogo said...

"Saying that children have an innate desire to fantasize doesn't speak to Dawkins' point at all."
Only if you stop there. Children and adults tell stories. Fantasies are merely practice in doing so. Adults tell stories to communicate. The fact that it survives until today tells us that this behavior has some evolutionary advantage. That's still a fact today (fiction outsells nonfiction) Dawkins he ignores that here. Why?

It suggests massive and willful ignorance. I mean "look at the evidence"? He looks away, deliberately, and cannot see how the effect he desires might even be enhanced by fantasy. Dawkins sounds more and more like a crank.


"the explanations are the most reasonable and parsimonious given what we know about the world."
I disagree.
They are irrefutable because they are untestable, which is unscientific. They assume the thing being proved is true. If evolution accounts for the behavior, then the behavior exists because of its evolutionary advantage.

That's reasonable and parsimonius, but only in a circular way; because it is parsimonius reasonable.

Nichevo said...

"It's a form of child abuse, even worse than physical child abuse."

I don't want to hear another word from this cocksucker until he explains exactly how he knows this to be true.

garage mahal said...

That's why they're going to hell

And so are most Christians. "Strait is the way and narrow is the gate, and few-few-are they that enter in thereat" which would make Hell the one truly Christian community, would it not?

Kirby Olson said...

Dawkins wants us to stop reading poetry because it isn't scientific. He spent a whole book damning a poem by Keats because the poem wasn't scientifically correct. He couldn't understand why anybody would want to think in any way that wasn't purely scientific. He's like a grown-up Dexter cartoon.

Revenant said...

The fact that it survives until today tells us that this behavior has some evolutionary advantage.

No, Pogo, it doesn't. That's the point you're missing. The fact that a human behavior survives for a long time is NOT proof that that particular behavior is evolutionarily advantageous. It is strong *evidence* that one of two things is true:

(1): The behavior is evolutionarily advantageous, OR
(2): The behavior is a side effect of something which is evolutionarily advantageous.

Your argument only holds in case (1). In case (2) it may actually be advantageous to the species to discourage the side-effect behavior in question.

Furthermore, the results of evolution are not necessarily the best possible survival strategy. Even if it were a rock-solid proven fact that fantasy helped humans survive for most of our history, it does not follow that that is the correct strategy to use going forward. Most humans are only a few generations away from a primitive state of bare subsistence and nearly perpetual conflict. A strategy that helped us best survive in that situation is not necessarily the best one to help us survive in a state of democracy, complex economies, and pervasive information technology.

Revenant said...

They are irrefutable because they are untestable, which is unscientific.

The theory that Kennedy was killed by a bullet and not a stroke is also untestable, Pogo. We can't travel back in time and examine Kennedy's brain immediately prior to the impact. We have to decide, based on what we do know, what the most likely explanation is.

We know, today, that a person who is willing to lie has enormous advantages over a person who always tells the unvarnished truth. That theory is not only testable, but thoroughly tested. We know that there are disadvantages to lying as well -- again, something both testable and tested. We also know for a fact that lying is ubiquitous throughout human society, and engaged in by humans before they can even talk or understand speech. This strongly suggests that it is genetic. Finally, we know for a fact that net advantageous traits are selected in evolution and that net disadvantageous traits are selected against in evolution -- this, again, is both testable and thoroughly tested.

So knowing the solid facts that lying has advantages and disadvantages, that humans lie, and that evolution selects for advantageous traits, the sensible explanation for the long history of human lies is that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. You call it a "just so story" -- well, ANY explanation for the past is by definition a "just so story", since we cannot travel back in time and change events to test the theory that X happened because of Y. In that sense, any theory about the past, from "Julius Caesar existed" to "Kennedy was shot", is "untestable and unscientific".

But of course no branch of science that deals with the past uses that standard. Theories about the past have to be consistent with what we know, and are judged based on how consistent they are.

If evolution accounts for the behavior, then the behavior exists because of its evolutionary advantage.

That would be true if and only if every behavior had its own personal gene. So far as we know, NO behavior has its own personal gene. Genetic changes usually produce a wide variety of changes in behavior.

Fred Drinkwater said...

Dawkins should re-read some books by a guy named Dawkins. Pretty sure he know him...
The author Dawkins spent quite a bit of time speculating about the existence and survival utility of human mental simulations of the world, both current and future, conscious and unconscious (dreams). Seems to me that story telling / listening behavior, including "fantasy" stories, fits neatly into the schema that author Dawkins wrote about. (Fantasy, of course, is merely different in degree, not kind, from other fictions.)
Goodness or badness of such behavior in the context of a human civilization is open for debate, but let's not minimize the scope of the thing we're discussing.

Pogo said...

"(2): The behavior is a side effect of something which is evolutionarily advantageous."

That answer always cracks me up. A critical and pervasive behavior in all of known human history as a side effect. Call me skeptical.

"Furthermore, the results of evolution are not necessarily the best possible survival strategy. "
That's not exactly big news.
Of course, how in hell does Dakins know it is not in fact advantageous any longer, or that it wasn't in the first place?
He doesn't address this.

How does he prove it "undermines rationality"? He doesn't. He admits he doesn't know. Yet admitting his own ignorance of the entire issue, he still pontificates on it. Or, as drinkwater states, he is lying about that which he used to know as true.

Total bullshit.

" A strategy that helped us best survive in that situation is not necessarily the best one to help us..."
Again, who would be surprised by this statement?
More importantly however, how does science answer a question about what we should do?
It is ill equipped to do so.
And Dawkins is just bloviating here.

He's full of shit, scientifically speaking. How do I know?
"It is evil to describe..."
Since when does "evil" have a rational definition?

"ANY explanation for the past is by definition a "just so story"
No, it's not. I know you're trying very hard to tie imperfect knowledge about known historical events with total guesses about a completely remote, unrecorded, and unknowable past, but they aren't even in the same league of incompleteness. And I am far from counselling unknowability about all things, as you seem to suggest.

The latter are a total fucking guess, and are usually stated just as you have done:
(1): The behavior is evolutionarily advantageous, OR
(2): The behavior is a side effect of something which is evolutionarily advantageous.

But this of course presumes that evolution is the only way human behaviors could be the way they are. That is, it is part odf its own proof. If it were a reqal scientific effort, it would be able to posit why the theory might not in fact be true, and what would disprove it.

Pogo said...

"(2): The behavior is a side effect of something which is evolutionarily advantageous."

That answer always cracks me up. A critical and pervasive behavior in all of known human history as a side effect. Call me skeptical.

"Furthermore, the results of evolution are not necessarily the best possible survival strategy. "
That's not exactly big news.
Of course, how in hell does Dakins know it is not in fact advantageous any longer, or that it wasn't in the first place?
He doesn't address this.

How does he prove it "undermines rationality"? He doesn't. He admits he doesn't know. Yet admitting his own ignorance of the entire issue, he still pontificates on it. Or, as drinkwater states, he is lying about that which he used to know as true.

Total bullshit.

" A strategy that helped us best survive in that situation is not necessarily the best one to help us..."
Again, who would be surprised by this statement?
More importantly however, how does science answer a question about what we should do?
It is ill equipped to do so.
And Dawkins is just bloviating here.

He's full of shit, scientifically speaking. How do I know?
"It is evil to describe..."
Since when does "evil" have a rational definition?

"ANY explanation for the past is by definition a "just so story"
No, it's not. I know you're trying very hard to tie imperfect knowledge about known historical events with total guesses about a completely remote, unrecorded, and unknowable past, but they aren't even in the same league of incompleteness. And I am far from counselling unknowability about all things, as you seem to suggest.

The latter are a total fucking guess, and are usually stated just as you have done:
(1): The behavior is evolutionarily advantageous, OR
(2): The behavior is a side effect of something which is evolutionarily advantageous.

But this of course presumes that evolution is the only way human behaviors could be the way they are. That is, it is part odf its own proof. If it were a reqal scientific effort, it would be able to posit why the theory might not in fact be true, and what would disprove it.

Tibore said...

"Synova said...

Not only am I convinced that make-believe doesn't have an insidious affect on rationality, it's necessary to develop rationality.


Synova has an excellent point. Who takes these things literally? Are children really unable to see beyond the fantasy & mythology to the symbolism behind it? And are parents really unable to help lead their children through these stories?

Dawkins' statements remind me too much of the attitudes behind "How To Read Donald Duck". That book's author - Ariel Dorfman - makes the dual mistake of thinking people would both buy completely into the "capitalistic/imperialistic ideology" that the Disney cartoons supposedly embody, and turn around and buy into his critique of it once they're exposed to the truth. Neither is true because readers are not blank whiteboards to write on; they bring their own interpretations and values to the material they read. It's possible to take Disney's archetypes as merely being fanciful, playful fiction with no thought besides cartoonish harkening to charicatures and realize that Dorfman's mischaracterizations can only be believed if you subscribe to a single socialist worldview. All you have to do is think for yourself. Reading "How to Read Donald Duck" is having a person who thinks you're letting yourself be told what to think telling you what to think. Nothing like 120 pages of competative brainwashing.

Likewise, Dawkins seems to infer that the imprinting of anti-rational, anti-scientific attitudes will happen from mere exposure to fantasy material. So like Dorfman, he goes on to tell people how they should be thinking. That's just arrogant. It's based on the same sloppy rationale that Dorfman uses: People accept unthinkingly and uncritically, so we have to tell them how to think properly. That ignores all the experience the parents bring to the forming of the child's mind, as well as all the limited experience the child he or she has gathered. The mix of parental and children's differing levels of experience can, when tackling books like Harry Potter, lead to a wonderfully varied vista of interpretations of the material, and from there facilitate the child's growth in many different directions. As well as allow the child to develop many different mental skills, rational thinking being one of those.

But Dawkins sees only one avenue of interpretation. Pretty pedestrian for such a celebrated thinker.

Revenant said...

That answer always cracks me up. A critical and pervasive behavior in all of known human history as a side effect. Call me skeptical.

The argument from incredulity fallacy is not a legitimate objection. We know that there are plenty of human behaviors that are very unlikely to be the primary result of a genetic trait -- for example, humans have been playing organized sports for all of recorded history, but nobody seriously believes we have a "sports gene". Our interest in sports is likely a side-effect of traits we really DO have, like aggression and tribal identification.

Of course, how in hell does Dakins know it is not in fact advantageous any longer, or that it wasn't in the first place? He doesn't address this.

He doesn't address it because he isn't claiming it.

Yet admitting his own ignorance of the entire issue, he still pontificates on it.

Fancy that -- a scientist who doesn't know if something is true or not, daring to raise the question about whether or not that something is true. He even has the nerve to suggest that the correct answer to the question might be worth researching. Your somewhat amusing response to his suggestion that it might be worth investigating if fantasy is good for kids is to attack him for being "unscientific" -- because, apparently, you belief any long-lasting human behavior is definitionally desirable. You're being quite silly here.

"It is evil to describe..."
Since when does "evil" have a rational definition?


He wasn't claiming that it was a scientific fact that doing such things to children was evil. Your complaint amounts to nothing more than an attack on him for actually having emotions as well as reason.

More importantly however, how does science answer a question about what we should do? It is ill equipped to do so.

Say what? Science can't tell you what your goals ought to be, but it is better than anything else at telling you how to reach your goals once you decide what they are. It can't tell us, for example, "it is a good thing for the human race to survive for the next five thousand years or more" -- but if you decide that you would like to see the human race survive for the next five thousand years or more, you'll want to look to science to figure out how to do that. There is no other sensible alternative. However ill-equipped science might be in that regard, it is better equipped than the other systems you might turn to, and unlike those other systems has a proven means of improving itself.

No, it's not. I know you're trying very hard to tie imperfect knowledge about known historical events with total guesses about a completely remote, unrecorded, and unknowable past, but they aren't even in the same league of incompleteness.

Pogo, theories about human evolution are much easier to test than theories about the assassination of Kennedy for the simple reason that human evolution is still happening, while Kennedy is already dead.

That natural selection works is a fact. That humans evolve, also a fact. There is no significant doubt on either point, just disagreement over the exact mechanisms. We know that we've got an inborn tendency to do things like lie, and we know that our biology is the result of evolutionary forces. There aren't as many "unknowables" here as you claim there are. We can argue over WHY humans evolved the tendancy to lie, but arguing whether we did is like arguing over whether or not we have arms and legs.

But this of course presumes that evolution is the only way human behaviors could be the way they are.

Evolution is the only source of biological traits which is known to exist. Obviously if another source exists than that too is a possibility. But just as we don't credit the theory that Kennedy was killed by a death ray fired by aliens from Alpha Centauri for the simple reason that we've no reason to believe they exist, we can't rationally credit non-evolutionary explanations for inborn human traits.

If it were a reqal scientific effort, it would be able to posit why the theory might not in fact be true, and what would disprove it.

That's both obvious and easy. For example, what would disprove the theory that lying is evolutionarily advantageous would be showing that people who lie are less successful in passing on their genes than people who tell the truth. And since humans are still around, it is indeed possible to conduct such experiments, and thus the theory is testable. But in fact experimentation has pretty solidly showed that unwavering honesty is never the best policy -- which comes as a surprise to basically nobody who has actually lived in the real world. The theory that it is better to raise children in a fantasy-free environment is similarly testable simply by doing so and seeing how those children turn out compared to "normal" children.

But in any case you're missing the point again. I don't have to prove that (2) is the case in order for you to be wrong. It is enough that (2) is a possibility. Your argument rests on the false dichotomy that a trait must be either good for humanity or else be filtered out by evolution. The simple fact that a trait CAN be a side-effect of a good trait demolishes your argument simply by raising a third possibility. It puts the onus on you to prove that childish fantasy CANNOT be a side-effect of some other, useful trait.

Stephanie said...

So... fantasy and Sci-fi for children is bad according to Dawkins.

Fantasy and Sci-fi gave us adults that continued the traditions of these media and brought us the Star Trek phenomena of the 60-70s that continues to this day. And Star Trek was nothing if not allegories on the problems of the 60s - racism, inter-racial marriag, war, justifiable killing, etc brought to the little screen by adults and largely written for all audiences. Many in that audience went on to NASA and other scientific endeavors, and thanks to them, we now have many items first conceptualized in that show. Hell, even the History channel runs a series on the influence of Star Trek on contemporary life.

Because the writers dared to fantasize about tri-corders, communicators, warp speed et. al., we have scientists who envision the dream as possible and have set about to make it reality.

Reaching for the future, the stars, or anything imagined is what advances science and civilization.

Dawkins as luddite. Who would have IMAGINED that....

Christy said...

While respecting his science, I confess to having read little about Dawkins, the man. So those of you more familiar with him, do you think he might suffer from Asperger's syndrome? Could he be not equipped to "get it?"

Beth said...

paul - cool. Thanks for the compliment.

pst314 said...

Child: "Mommy, didn't Richard Dawkins have fun when he was a kid?"
Mother: "Yes, dear, but his goal in life is to make sure that nobody else has any."

kynefski said...

While respecting his science, I confess to having read little about Dawkins, the man. So those of you more familiar with him, do you think he might suffer from Asperger's syndrome? Could he be not equipped to "get it?"

In appearances, Dawkins comes off as quietly articulate. He's firm on the issues, but not especially arrogant. Certainly not the pompous ass he is sometimes made out to be.

There's a video made last year of a conversation among Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. (I don't have a link, but you can search under "four horsemen of the apocalypse!") Against the others, especially the whiskey- and tobacco-fueled Hitchens (now there's your pompous ass), Dawkins can't get a word in edgewise, nor does he try.

Synova said...

So it could be the case that childhood fantasy is a bad thing, and either a side-effect of something good (like intelligence) or a misuse of an ability useful in adults (imagining how things might be different from how they are now). There's nothing "unscientific", in other words, about believing fantasy is bad.

It's unscientific if he hasn't a scientific basis for the belief that fantasy is bad. If it's just what he feels... then it's as emotional as any other belief system.

Perhaps the man should meet my great-grandmother (though she's long dead, so he can't) because she was from the old school of morality... any sort of fiction was the same as lying. It was saying what wasn't true, depicting what hadn't happened, so how could it be anything but a lie? She'd be right with him in insisting that reading stories that weren't true was a corrupting influence on children and a waste of time for adults.

She highly disapproved of the theater, too.

Beth said...

She highly disapproved of the theater, too.

Well, it is full of thespians!

Henry said...

Revenant -- while it is true that Dawkins proposed researching the religious roots of irrationality, it can be hardly be maintained that he hasn't already leaped to conclusions.

But that is well and good. Let him call his prejudice a theory and investigate it.

My question is this: what is his control group?

Certainly Dawkins can label some children religious and some non-religious (alas, the labeling of children asserts itself). And then he can evaluate them over time.

But by what test?

In my experience some of the most logical, scientific people I know are also deeply religious. They are rational in all things except their religion (and they know that about themselves). Likewise, I know some very irreligious people who are completely immune to logic or reason, yet superficially modern in their knee-jerk opinions.

How will Dawkins separate the one category of mind from the other?

A group of robotic children raised by robotic parents would be convenient, but alas, these don't exist.

Revenant said...

It's unscientific if he hasn't a scientific basis for the belief that fantasy is bad.

Sorry, I should have said that it isn't unscientific to suspect that fantasy might be bad. He doesn't actually say he believes it is, only that it could be.

Trooper York said...

Richard Dawkins is no where as much fun as his brother Daryl.

Everybody from Lovetron is all messed up.

Synova said...

BTW, didn't someone do a study recently that showed that people raised in a religion were less susceptible to irrational thought?

You know... talking to ghosts, alien abductions and the insane idea that George Bush is an evil mastermind capable of planning 9-11 and not getting caught?

Synova said...

BTW, my daughter (after much prompting) agreed that there is a Dr. Who spin off for kids called... Sarah Jane Adventures... or something? She can't remember.

Revenant said...

Revenant -- while it is true that Dawkins proposed researching the religious roots of irrationality, it can be hardly be maintained that he hasn't already leaped to conclusions.

It can easily be maintained that he hasn't "leaped to conclusions". It isn't like he just rolled out of bed yesterday and thought "you know, I bet religion leads to irrationality".

But by what test?

He was speculating that indulging children in fantasy would make it harder for them to think rationally later in life. So the appropriate test would be one which measured rational decision-making ability. If reading fantasy makes it harder to think rationally later in life, children raised on fantasy should on average do worse on those tests.

In my experience some of the most logical, scientific people I know are also deeply religious.

Obviously some scientists are religious. On average, however, scientists are much less religious than the general population. Dawkins didn't speculate that indulging a child in fantasy made rational thought *impossible*, only that it might make it harder.

Revenant said...

BTW, didn't someone do a study recently that showed that people raised in a religion were less susceptible to irrational thought?

Not exactly. The study found that people raised in a religion were less susceptible to irrational beliefs that weren't part of the religion in question. The belief that we can communicate with God through prayer isn't actually any more rational than the belief that we can communicate with ghosts through seances, after all.

Of course, most people don't consider their religion to be irrational. Its those OTHER people who have the crazy beliefs about the supernatural. :)

kynefski said...

BTW, didn't someone do a study recently that showed that people raised in a religion were less susceptible to irrational thought?

Yes, and this makes perfect sense. Everyone seeks shelter from the absurd, and the religious have already found theirs.

rhhardin said...

Bach Chromatic Fantasy.

rhhardin said...

Sweelinck Fantasy

TMink said...

kynefski wrote: "Aye, but would you rather hang out with a kind atheist than a kind Christian?"

Nope. I prefer to hang out with kind people, their orientation or race or spirituality does not enter into it.

OK, kind people who are smart are preferable, but smart is icing on the kind.

Trey

blake said...

To cite an obvious example, almost all children have to be actively discouraged from lying and stealing, and even then the discouragement doesn't always take.

What? This is set forth here and people agree with it? What is this, The Brady Bunch Syndrome? Where the children are sociopaths and need to be grounded to realize that sociopathic behavior is bad?

"The Brady Bunch" is child abuse, I tell you what.

Did you all lie and steal when you were kids? And were you "corrected" by an adult, and that's how you learned? Really?

rcocean said...

We need to hear more from Mr. Dawkins. He's a most representative spokesman for atheistic thought.

And He seems to be a 21st century "Mr.Gradgrind"

rhhardin said...

Vaughan Williams Fantasy

blake said...

Every child I have ever met, to about the age of seven or so, has been an animist and a minor deity.

That is to say, they grant life--a soul--to everything: animals, plants, their toys... (Surely the reason A Toy Story resonated so strongly was that many had a recollection of believing their toys were alive.)

Sometimes that "minor deity" idea extends into the near teen years, with kids postulating connections between to related items, like "If I avoid stepping on a crack, I'll get an 'A' on the test." (Ray Bradbury wrote a story like that taken to the extreme, called "The Miracles of Jamie". Certainly I recall having thoughts like that as late as 10-11 years old. (And despite having a love of math, science, computers, I also loved science-fiction, fantasy and horror--and isn't it interesting and possibly invalidating of Dawkins' theory that that crossover of interest is generally true of geeks.)

It seems likely to me that there's both a hardware and a software reason behind this: That is, children believe in fantastic things because they don't have the data or framework to comprehend the reality, but also because the brain simply doesn't have the capability.

But it feels a whole lot like Dawkins (and some others) don't know much about children.

blake said...

"between two unrelated items" that should have read.

Synova said...

I agree with it, Blake.

Children do not need to be taught to lie or to steal. They have creative little minds... problem solvers, every one of them.

Few of us have enough children anymore to understand what is nature and what is nurture. Few of us have looked into a small child's eyes and watched the wheels turn as they decide to tell their first lie... just to see if it will work.

Little scientists, every one of them.

Synova said...

As for sociopaths...

The one of mine who was most prone to lying is also the one who has the most empathy.

Sociopath means something other than "is very naughty."

Henry said...

Revenant wrote: It can easily be maintained that he hasn't "leaped to conclusions". It isn't like he just rolled out of bed yesterday and thought "you know, I bet religion leads to irrationality".

Rev, you're postulating your hypothetical against what the man actually says -- about Christianity and Islam.

Your reply to Synova actually touches on the point I made. What is the test for reason? Is it logical thinking or normative thinking? That is, do we want people to be able to sift evidence and make coherent arguments on a conceptual level, or do we expect them to adhere to a particular curriculum?

Do you see what I mean? If a person tests as extremely logical in all matters except in the one in which they admit that logic doesn't matter, do they pass Dawkin's test?

I'm reminded of the probabilistic thinker Nassim Nicholas Taleb who abhors drawing meaning from randomness in finance but embraces its role in poetry and art.

Daryl said...

Dawkins is an idiot.

The best defense against one form of fantasy is to teach that there are a hundred others, and to teach their details, and to show children just how many decent, upstanding, righteous, intelligent people believe those different fantasies.

Instead, this crusty old man wants to trample children's creativity. What a boring old fart.

Revenant said...

Did you all lie and steal when you were kids?

Blake, have you actually MET any children? The notion that children lie and steal is not exactly controversial. I'm not talking about seventeen-year-olds stealing cars, I'm talking about normal child behavior. Kid colors on wall, mom demands to know who colored on the wall, kid denies it was him, kid gets a swat on the bottom or a "timeout". Or, younger brother wants to play with older brother's toy, older brother says no, younger brother waits until older brother isn't looking then grabs the toy and runs for it.

It isn't serious theft, but we train kids not to do it because if we don't they grow up thinking that maybe its ok to grab the MONEY they want and make a run for it, or maybe it is ok to deface someone's property and lie about it. A sociopath is a person who isn't capable of learning those kinds of lessons.

Stephanie said...

Without imaginary creatures parents wouldn't have anything to blame farts on...

Revenant said...

Rev, you're postulating your hypothetical against what the man actually says -- about Christianity and Islam.

He posed the idea that telling kids fantastic stories might make it harder for them to reason later. This is a separate claim from the one later in the article, that it is abusive to call children "Christian" or "Muslim". That claim centers on the fact that children don't yet know WHAT they really believe, and "Christian child" is usually nothing more than code for "child who has been exclusively taught that Christianity is correct". I don't know that I'd call it "abusive" to label a child as being a true member of a religion, but it is certainly silly.

But in any case my main complaint was with your using the term "leaping to conclusions". Dawkins has been writing about rationality, morality, and religion for a long time now. There's no reason to believe he didn't consider the possibilities before concluding that such treatment of children was wrong.

That is, do we want people to be able to sift evidence and make coherent arguments on a conceptual level

That would be a valid test, yes.

If a person tests as extremely logical in all matters except in the one in which they admit that logic doesn't matter, do they pass Dawkin's test?

If they're correct about logic not mattering to the area in question then yes, it seems to me that they would. But if (for example) their childhood leads them to grow up into a person who truly believes as a matter of faith that the earth is 6000 years old and that any scientific evidence to the contrary is illusory then one could fairly say those early childhood fantasies did some harm; they rendered the person incapable of thinking rationally about a subject to which reason CAN be applied.

Oligonicella said...

blake --

Did you all lie and steal when you were kids? And were you "corrected" by an adult, and that's how you learned? Really?

Yes. You too, by the way. You simply do not remember. Ask your mom.

rcocean --

We need to hear more from Mr. Dawkins. He's a most representative spokesman for atheistic thought.

No we don't and no, he's not. Don't project your wish for an easily disliked spokesman onto us as "representative".

Revenant said...

Dawkins has gotten crabbier with age, certainly. But I still think "The Blind Watchmaker" and "The Selfish Gene" serve as excellent explanations of how the world we live in doesn't actually need gods to explain it. They are atheistic in the old "I have no need for that hypothesis" sense rather than the "you Christians are a bunch of ninnies" sense.

blake said...

Rev and Oligon,

Not only I have I met kids, I have kids, I've worked with kids, and I was a kid, and remember it very well.

I suppose you all think infants are selfish, too?

blake said...

Syn--

No, I never said children had to be taught how to lie or steal.

But from my observation, children have a far better sense of ethics--however limited by the available data--than most adults.

Adults don't really understand (or recall) the limitations imposed on children.

Oligonicella said...

blake --

Infant studies say you're wrong. I have no doubt you believe what you say, but children "tell fibs" and "take things", that is lying and stealing. Perhaps you're using the verbs in a more serious sense than we are.

Synova said...

Children have very absolute ethics, particularly when they are five. They've just about figured out the rules and get very cross when everyone else doesn't follow them.

But I don't quite see the conflict here. Rev didn't say that all children needed to be beaten regularly until they got the devil beat out of them... he said they have to be "actively discouraged" from lying or stealing.

They do.

Christy said...

So I guess I did a bad, bad thing when I caught my nephew lying and began to tell him tales of the trickster gods?

blake said...

OK, so, you're new in a place.

You see something you like.

You take it.

Is that stealing?

You can't answer that question without more information. Neither can an infant. There is no "sin" without the knowledge of harming another.

Do kids do this, too? Sure. And they know they're wrong without being told. (Actually, if you believe Freakonomics, parents have little to no effect on their children. Heh.)

What adults do is impose their baggage on children to try to interpret their actions. Watch the reaction of adults when they see a child do something that can be perceived as sexual. They'll freak out, even though the child has no sexual intentions whatsoever.

Rev says the idea that children lie and steal isn't controversial. Well, the idea that adults lie and steal isn't controversial. The implication with regard to children is that somehow adults occupy a higher moral plane that they pass on. To which I say both "Ha!" and "Pfeh!"

blake said...

Well, look, my five-year-olds felt crushingly guilty for what we would consider non-stealing. Like a shiny pebble from the ground at school, or something. I remember being the same way.

I have noticed that if kids are horribly punished for infractions, they'll do anything--lie, cheat, steal, frame, bribe--to get out of it.

And, you know what? If you can leverage that kind of power against adults--something not easy to do--they'll act the same way.

Revenant said...

The implication with regard to children is that somehow adults occupy a higher moral plane that they pass on. To which I say both "Ha!" and "Pfeh!"

Well, ok. But that raises the question of why moral belief systems have any value at all. If parents aren't generally more moral than children, what possible business do adults have teaching children right from wrong? Apparently it should be the other way around; when faced with a moral choice, ask a kid what to do?

I really can't identify with your position at all here, blake. If you think your kids don't lie or steal more than you do, then either you're a shady character, or you've got weird mutant kids, or you're not very observant. :)

Synova said...

There is no "sin" without the knowledge of harming another.

So what you're saying is that children *can't* steal until *after* their parents tell them not to?

And we're saying that children have to be told not to.

At what point, please, do children not have to be taught NOT to lie or steal? Someone has to tell them it's wrong... even if it ends up being the hurt party.

And I will say this... my teenaged daughter's (former) friend is a pathological liar (in my opinion) but as far as I can tell she does not lie to HURT anyone. She lies to make herself sound interesting and knowledgeable. She isn't hurting anyone (most of the time... when she hurts people she (technically) tells the truth.)

So if lying requires the understanding that it hurts people, then she isn't lying, even when she doesn't tell the truth.

And I've got NO NO NO sympathy for the idea that theft isn't theft if no one is hurt. That makes it okay to steal from rich people or from anyone else who "won't miss it."

Fatmouse said...

I find the lack of South Park in this thread disturbing.

"Let us not forget the great Richard Dawkins who finally freed the world of religion long ago. Dawkins knew that logic and reason were the way of the future.

But it wasn't until he met his beautiful wife that he learned using logic and reason isn't enough. You have to be a dick to everyone who doesn't think like you."


Since seeing that episode, every time I read an atheist argument on the internet, I can't help but think of Mr. Garrison's frankentitties.

blake said...

I was thinking that, fatmouse, really loudly, but I didn't want to quote it without a link.

blake said...

Actually, I find it useful to distinguish between "ethics" and "morals" when discussing this. "Ethics" is right and wrong, measured against all the players (starting with the individual and expanding out to the universe).

"Morals" refer to the cultural standards, the collected wisdom of the group.

In this sense, ethics can suggest a different solution than morals. What most people who elevate ethics above morality forget is that morals have value in and of themselves. (In other words, they neglect the damage to the group done by violating what they see as arbitrary rules.)

Children have to learn morality, they don't have to learn ethics. What they do have to learn, or to develop the capacity for, is awareness beyond the self.

But again, if we look at the infant, it's foolish to say that the infant is "selfish". An infant can't particularly be active on a scope larger than "self".

Here's a simple experiment to run on any random toddler. While they're eating potato chips, communicate to them that you like potato chips. If you can make them aware of it--make it real to them--they'll literally give you the potato chip out of their mouth. (Most, not all.)

I've seen this without fail: Children have an innate sense of justice. You can manipulate them by giving them bad data (that's the usual tactic in school). But they're incredibly ethical. (The only consistent exception I've seen is when they get together in groups, and I've seen that with adults, too.)

Rev, I don't know what to tell you. I remember back to about six months old and earlier. I was an honest child. I used to berate adults for throwing games, just for example. My sister was, on the other hand, dishonest.

My parents did the usual parenting things and from what I can see, it had no effect on either of us. I'm still honest; she's still dishonest. (Though she has adopted a moral code, which is interesting.)

As for my children, the two middle ones don't lie or steal at all. One came home from camp a few months back absolutely devastated because she had cheated at a game. I'm not even sure she was actually cheating, since everyone was doing the same thing, but she felt it was and was inconsolable.

Now, sure, the baby "lies" constantly. But it's a mistake to frame it that way. I sense that it's also a mistake to try to explain that.

Syn, no, actually, I'm saying that what parents say isn't really the key factor in a child's ethical development.

If we go back to the sociopath, for example, you can communicate to him that society frowns upon certain activities, but that person lacks the internal sense of ethics to figure this out on his own. At best, the sociopath figures out the rules society operates on, but sees no value in them other than hiding his own intention.

In other words, the sociopath can have a sense of moral right-and-wrong but never internalizes it. That's why they can beat polygraphs.

Children (non-sociopathic) have a sense of ethics that's both innate and strong. And if you don't believe that, try to inculcate an idea that opposes that sense. It can be done, but it's not easy. (It often takes the entire society to do that, and when the society stops moving in lockstep, morals end up giving way to idiosyncratic ethics.)

But the parent teaches morals, not ethics.

What I'm rejecting is the notion that children are born without an ethical sense, and that they need to be taught right-from-wrong, ethically speaking. I'm rejecting the "Brady Bunch" notion that children act like sociopaths unless guided by parents.

Stuff like not eating ham or not coveting your neighbor's wife, sure, they have to be taught, because those aren't ethical considerations, they're moral ones.

But ethics is simply a basic survival sense, innate and necessary.

amba said...

If you want to read a scientific fairy tale, read Gary Larson's There's a Hair in My Dirt. It's quite depressing.

Dawkins seems to be against imagination. Science, too, would be crippled without it.

blake said...

amba--

Depressing? I love that story!

TMink said...

Synova wrote: "Few of us have enough children anymore to understand what is nature and what is nurture."

True. Given our 6 year old triplets from donor embryos, my wife and I discuss the topic a lot! Our children, two boys and a girl, are fraternal twins, but they had nearly identical embryonic influences. And they are of course three different little people.

The newest thinking in the nature/nurture debate is noting how life events affect brain development, functioning, and even anatomy!

The part of our brain that controls our ability to attach and empathize with others, the orbital prefrontal cortex, develops from 20 weeks gestation to 9 to 12 months post delivery. After that, it is done forever!

This is also the part of the brain that reduces the affect ( a neurological pun)of the amygdala, the source of our fight or flight response. So you see, people with a poor attachment history cannot think when they are upset. And that is all traced back to their prenatal environment, including how their mother felt during her pregnancy, as well as how well the child is cared for during their first year. You can see why children born to stressed mothers who are without significant support are at huge risk. Think about the implications this has for teenage, unwed moms. Don't think about it too long though, it is very sad and chilling to do so.

If that developmental process goes wrong, the brain does not fully form. And you are left with a true sociopath. Forever.

I am happy to say that all our children are well attached, but they are still working on the whole honesty and thinking while upset thing!

Trey

wgh said...

Kids want to belong, too.