Posted by: Ken Brown | August 10, 2007

Dawkins’ Fawlty Logic

As I begin this new blog, it seems appropriate to highlight a few of the best posts I’ve written for Signs of the Times. On that note, here is one of my favorites, Dawkins’ Fawlty Logic:

Every year, Edge magazine asks numerous people of interest a single question (HT: Telic Thoughts). This year’s question: “What is your dangerous idea?Richard Dawkins’ answer: Determinism.

Not very unique, I know, but his explanation is noteworthy. According to him, “science” has dismantled the illusion of free will by reducing us to the blind interactions of our physical particles.

The result? A fantastic British comedy, apparently:

Basil Fawlty, British television’s hotelier from hell created by the immortal John Cleese, was at the end of his tether when his car broke down and wouldn’t start. He gave it fair warning, counted to three, gave it one more chance, and then acted. “Right! I warned you. You’ve had this coming to you!” He got out of the car, seized a tree branch and set about thrashing the car within an inch of its life. Of course we laugh at his irrationality. Instead of beating the car, we would investigate the problem. Is the carburettor flooded? Are the sparking plugs or distributor points damp? Has it simply run out of gas? Why do we not react in the same way to a defective man: a murderer, say, or a rapist? Why don’t we laugh at a judge who punishes a criminal, just as heartily as we laugh at Basil Fawlty?

[D]oesn’t a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make nonsense of the very idea of responsibility, whether diminished or not? Any crime, however heinous, is in principle to be blamed on antecedent conditions acting through the accused’s physiology, heredity and environment. Don’t judicial hearings to decide questions of blame or diminished responsibility make as little sense for a faulty man as for a Fawlty car?

Dawkins’ is right about one thing: this truly is a dangerous idea. But he is quite mistaken about where that danger lies. He only sees in it an end to retributive justice, but much more is at stake than that.

Consider: Basil becomes so angry at his car precisely because it was not doing what it was supposed to. Yet cars can only be “faulty” because they are built for a purpose. A rock cannot be faulty; it can only be itself, for it was not made for any purpose. But according to Dawkins, people are more like rocks than cars. Their design is only apparent, not real, and they have no more purpose than a rock does (nor are they any more capable of determining their own behavior than a rock is).

But in that case, we have not only thrown out moral responsibility, we have also thrown out morality itself. We have not just destroyed the justification for punishing crime, we have also destroyed justification itself. All actions would then be just as right as all others (and just as wrong, since these words lose all meaning), and it is no longer possible to call anything faulty.

Ironically, while such a view wouldn’t prevent anyone from punishing a criminal for their “sins” (any more than it stops Basil from beating his car), it would prevent anyone from rehabilitating the criminal. For you can’t rehabilitate a man unless you have some idea of what man is supposed to be, and this is precisely what Dawkins has declared to be impossible for the science-savy to accept.

If we carried this Fawlty logic to its end, Basil would not only be irrational for beating his car, he would be irrational even to think there was a problem with it. No wonder Dawkins finds it unlikely that even he “shall ever reach that level of enlightenment.”


  1. […] our compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves [I address Richard Dawkins’ similar claim here]. But this is backwards – if Naturalism is true, our moral awareness is an illusion, and we have […]

  2. […] lashes, we all know he was being absurd, for the sea can neither deserve nor feel punishment. But what about a man? Is it true that Gaius bears no guilt for what he did, that his choices were predestined for him […]

  3. By the way, here’s my analysis of the “fawlty logic” of Richard Dawkins, self-admitted Liar

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