> You cannot, thereby, both believe in God (or ETs or anything else that
> is powerful and out there hiding from us) and be an extropian. The
> two are logically mutually exclusive.
> Brent Allsop
I'll go along with that. Furturmore, you don't have to be an extropian to be a
non-theist, as Richard Dawkins demonstrates in the following article. Note
also that he has eased up on debunking religionism in favor of promoting
science. Which is what I think I'll do more of from now on.
Need someone to deny the existence of God? Then Richard Dawkins is the man to
ask. Thomas Sutcliffe meets the best-selling scientist with an answer for
"Anyone would think I was the only atheist around," says Richard Dawkins, in
tones of mildly frustrated grievance. He isn't, of course, but if you happen
to be in the market for an atheist, there's little doubt that the Charles
Simonyi Professor in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University
is the market leader – a Rolls-Royce of anti-clerical argument, whose
contradictions and counter-propositions slam shut with a perfectly engineered
For the moment, though, he's happy to let the business go elsewhere. "You've
no idea how often I turn down invitations to do that kind of controversial
stuff," he continues. "Time and again broadcasters will be looking for
somebody to say something negative about God and they'll come to me, and
nowadays I say no almost always."
This reticence is not the result of second thoughts, incidentally, but of a
growing anxiety that his observations on religious faith are obscuring
something that matters a great deal more to him – the promotion of scientific
method, about which he will speak with a proselytising passion. Whether he
likes it or not, it has made him not just the most successful populariser of
evolutionary theory in the country, but also a figurehead for scientific
scepticism. He has written with genuine indignation about the bad press given
to Thomas – the one Disciple who wanted to subject Christ's claims to some
kind of clinical verification.
Which is why the publisher of Snake Oil and Other Preoccupations, a book about
alternative medicine that John Diamond was working on when he died, naturally
turned to Dawkins for a preface – and why he is sitting in his garden in north
Oxford talking, among other things, about homeopathy and religion.
We are seated at a vast slab of Devonian Jurassic stone – a roughly hewn
square, 10ft by 10ft, resting on three carved- stone Platonic solids, the kind
of prodigious jeu d'esprit you can treat yourself to if your books have become
global bestsellers. The public appetite that made them so, Dawkins is ready to
concede, may not be entirely divorced from the religious instinct that
prevailed in Victorian times.
"It is absolutely true that the ecological niche that was filled by religion
is now filled by science, and perhaps above all by the evolutionary science
that I cling to myself," he says – that word "cling" so hesitantly voiced that
I have to rewind the tape several times to make it out. "I do feel that
science is absolutely not a religion when you mean it is held on faith, but it
fills the same ecological niche as religion in the sense that it answers the
same kind of questions as religion, in past centuries, was alleged to answer.
"So I have respect for religious people in so far as they are asking important
questions. They want to know why we exist and why the world exists, and they
don't just want to know who's going to win Wimbledon and what's for dinner.
And to that extent I have great respect. But I get irritated at the way those
deep and fundamental and mysterious questions are hijacked – because I think
that science can answer most of them, if not all of them."
The "if not all", by the way, is not a revised bid for comprehensive
explanation, but a concession that some mysteries will always remain. The
"why?" question that is often thrown at Dawkins in public lectures ("everyone
who asks it, asks it in the tone of voice that suggests that no one has ever
asked it before") is, to his mind, irrelevant: "The mere fact that a question
can be put – the mere fact that the English word "why" exists – doesn't mean
that it's a legitimate question."
Darwinians ask meaningful "why" questions, he says. Those that ask "why is
this leaf this particular shape?" or "why does this animal walk like this?".
What about, "why are humans so credulous?" I ask. So happy to pay through the
nose for an aura massage or crystal healing. Mustn't gullibility have an
evolutionary explanation too?
"I would put it back to childhood and say that there's a Darwinian survival
value in children believing what their elders tell them, because the world is
too dangerous a place and it takes too long to learn what you need to learn to
survive," Dawkins replies. "You've got to have a rule of thumb that's built
into the nervous system that says 'Believe what you're told'. And once you've
got a rule of thumb like that, it's like having a computer, which is
vulnerable to viruses. A good computer will run whatever programme you stick
in it, whether it's beneficial or not."
The vulnerability of children to such parental downloads is one source of
Dawkins' fierce opposition to religious schools (he recently described
government plans to encourage the spread of single-faith schools as "evil").
The subject briefly makes him forget his self-denying ordinance: "I can't bear
the religious labelling of children," he says. "Like four-year-old Islamic
children or four-year-old Catholic children... If anything makes me see red,
that does, because these children are too young to know what they are... Would
you ever talk about a four-year-old neo-Keynesian monetarist? Or a
four-year-old Gramscian Marxist? Of course you wouldn't. Religion is the one
place where opinions about society, about philosophy, about cosmology are
grafted on to labels tied round the necks of children."
Dawkins' own label would have read "four-year-old Anglican". His father read
Botany at Oxford, and both parents were interested in the natural sciences, so
many of the answers to his own youthful questions were likely to have been
couched in scientific rather than mythical terms.
"I think I can remember at the age of six regaling my unfortunate younger
sister, was three, telling her about the solar system and telling her which
planet was further away than which, and the order in which they came... I must
have got that from somewhere...
"The first time I understood Darwinism was when my father explained it to
me... I understood it but I didn't believe it... it didn't seem to me to be
Educated at Oundle, he was confirmed into the Church of England after a brief
lapse in faith. He then drifted from the church again as he read more on
evolution: "The second time, it was the collapse of the argument from design
and the realisation that the beauty and complexity of the living world had a
simple explanation. That was a very beautiful revelation".
He revises this word "revelation" later – anxious, I think, that this
shouldn't sound too much like a Damascene conversion – but the sense that he
had found a credo rather than lost one remains strong. He was never, he says,
the kind of biologist who turns their hobby into an academic discipline: "Many
students come into biology because they've been bird-watchers or bug-hunters –
I was always interested in the more philosophical aspects".
His confidence in evolution as an all-encompassing explanatory framework also
allows for doubt: "I've sometimes thought about this. Would I be discomfited
if, say, Darwinism turned out to be wrong and the truth about the guiding
force of evolution, why things are so beautiful and so – apparently –
well-designed, turned out to be something else?" He pauses briefly and then
his eyes widen at the thought. "I would be fascinated... Obviously, I can't
imagine what that alternative might be, and I'm very sure there isn't one...
but I would be totally fascinated if there was one."
The genuine excitement that this speculation arouses marks the difference
between a religious and a scientific mindset – this is a man exhilarated at
the thought of his conceptual universe being turned upside-down.
In the meantime, though, he continues to fight the good fight against the
enemies of reason – the charlatans and the misguided. He did not know John
Diamond well, he points out in his preface to Snake Oil..., but he clearly
recognised a fellow- combatant, and he salutes him in martial terms. "Although
this gallant man is silenced," he concludes, "his guns are not silenced...
Open fire, and don't stop."
It may well be that Richard Dawkins is observing a temporary ceasefire on the
religious front, but the swords haven't yet been beaten into ploughshares.
'Snake Oil and Other Preoccupations', by John Diamond, is published by
Useless hypotheses, etc.:
consciousness, phlogiston, philosophy, vitalism, mind, free will, qualia,
analog computing, cultural relativism, GAC, CYC, and ELIZA
Everything that can happen has already happened, not just once,
but an infinite number of times, and will continue to do so forever.
(Everything that can happen = more than anyone can imagine.)
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