Saturday, October 14, 2006

Widening The Debate

Widening the Debate One thing I have always been convinced about is the veritable infinity of knowledge. Firstly let me start with a small quotation which for me was always an inspiring gem or vision that might underpin any plausible epistemology. My quote comes from David Brewster’s (Scottish scientist, 1781-1868) celebrated biography of the great scientific genius Isaac Newton (1642-1727): "I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me." (Brewster, Vol 2, Ch 27) The other quotation which I also love is from Socrates: “the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” I could go on there are many other quotations which I could marshall as necessary supports not only for a credible epistemology but also for sincerity and authenticity of character, but that self-indulgence must wait for another day. These thoughts follow on as a logical continuation of my blog entry on Richard Dawkins. Firstly, in keeping with my own epistemological premise outlined above, I must first admit my ignorance in a Socratic fashion. Dawkins is a brilliant biologist and a marvelous writer. In short he is an amazing popularizer of scientific thought, especially of the theory of evolution. I read his first great book many years ago and was much taken by it, convinced by much of it, but put off by its stridency, its tendency to preach, its tendency to have as it were all the answers. I admit that it did have a lot of the answers, but certainly not all. The claim to absolute truth no matter whether it comes from scientific or religious quarters puts me off. I also have every intention of buying Richard’s new book. Why? I always love good, clear and precise writing. I also subscribe to the scientific and benefit with joy from its many successes. I also like being confronted and challenged by a great mind of the late 20th and early 21st centuries – as indeed should we all. However, I question Richard Dawkins’ narrow or reductionist approach. I have read some of his later interviews and listened to some others he has broadcast which are available on Google and on YouTube I think. Richard is a thinker’s thinker, if I may be so bold as to put it that way. He tackles the origins and destiny, the arts and literature, not just the various human and physical sciences of humankind from the position of being a high thinker. He seems not to allow for feelings or emotions, nor for the drive to meaning which lies within the human breast. He is very light on sociology and psychology. What do I mean by this? Whether religion is true or not (in a scientific manner I mean) is really not relevant. Look around you and you see at least thousands of people attending religious services of various denominations. Obviously attending to religious duties or worshipping what these people call God fills a need or a gap in their lives. It allows people as a community to celebrate birth, marriage and death in a culturally acceptable way. One of my favourite Irish journalists, John Waters, acknowledges this sociological role well in a rather rhyming phrase namely: “hatching, matching and dispatching” function of the various churches. On a psychological level a considerable number of people need their beliefs to give meaning and structure to their lives. I myself do not practice my religion, but I feel that a lot of people need it. It just happens that I don’t – just like it so happens that Richard Dawkins, Stephen J. Gould, Daniel C. Dennett etc don’t. When I was hospitalized for depression in 1998 I let go of religion as a crutch or support and found more support in counseling, psychotherapy, the Self-Help movement, psychology and psychiatry with its various pharmacological interventions – all very necessary. I also remember having heard some Oxford Don professing that he had “rather growth through and out of religion.” I thought this was a marvelous sentence and I appropriated it for myself as that was precisely what happened for me. I have a native distrust of and aversion to evangelicals from either the religious or scientific extremes. Why should they want to convert me to the way they think? There are so many ways of thinking. Another person’s way might not be as sophisticated or as logical as mine, but that’s no reason to disparage it. In its simplicity that person’s way of thinking may be exactly what he or she needs at that time in his or her life. I have heard Richard Dawkins proclaim comments like: “I’m not interested in free will” etc. He firmly maps out his area of interest and argues a tightly coherent argument that virtually irrefutable. That’s fine and I can go along with the logic of this. But if Richard or any other scientist or philosopher wishes to then generalize on all aspects of human knowledge and endeavour from the constraints of their narrow precision within their area of expertise then we are into an area that is commonly called reductionism – namely generalizing from a specialism or a specialist viewpoint. By all means, let’s widen the debate. Let’s throw it open. Let’s not confine it to one version of the truth, i.e., the scientific or mathematical method. Let’s be open to knowledge from all other disciplines. Let’s look at philosophy, sociology, psychology, and even, God forbid, theology (all irony intended here). I think looking at the psychology of belief – be it religious or scientific – could have some interesting results for the way we humans think and believe in general, not just in religious or scientific fashions. The believer and the unbeliever might be closer than they think, and far closer than they feel. The picture I have placed above this post is one I took of the surf at Dún Chaoin in Co Kerry October 2005.

Friday, October 13, 2006

A Word in Your Ear

A Word in Your ear, Richard, if you are listening?  

A response to an interview with Richard Dawkins in The Irish Times, Tuesday, October 10, 2006, page 15)

Richard Dawkins has once again produced another, undoubtedly marvellous and eruditely and logically argued, book.  Its title is both provocative and strident - The God Delusion (Bantam Press, £20 in the UK). It is hardly necessary to state that Dawkins is a strong Darwinian atheist.  It is also equally as unnecessary to question the stridency of the title of his new book.  These thoughts are occasioned by my reading an interview with Dawkins in The Irish Times (Tuesday, October 10th, page 15).  I have only read one of Dawkins’s books, namely The Selfish Gene and found it riveting when I read it many years ago.  It is hard to believe that this latter book was written way back in 1976, in my Leaving Certificate year.  However, I was not then sufficiently educated or wise or old enough to have read it with any appreciation.  I was to read it many years later, probably in the early eighties when I was doing some post-graduate studies.  However, that book, The Selfish Gene, convinced me that Dawkins was a great mind and a marvellous writer.  Of this I had no doubt and continue with my opinion.  However, he did not convince me to become an atheist.  At the time I was a practising believer in the RCC.  Now I am an agnostic Buddhist open to arguments from all sides of the debate, while being ever cautious in not backing any one position over another.

However, my real enemy is time.  I keep stockpiling books and somehow just manage to nibble away at some of them.  I should like, of course, to reread The Selfish Gene to be fair to Richard, and then to purchase his new book, fittingly and provocatively called The God Delusion.  The article from The Irish Times is called “Evolution of a Delusion” and is written by Aengus Collins.  This article is well worth reading for its simplicity of exposition of what is a rather dry and cerebral debate, called in my student days by such titles as “The God Question”, “The God Debate,” “God Talk,” etc.

I should like to return to Richard Dawkins in some later posts as I find his writing crisp, clear, logical and direct, and his arguments logically and convincingly laid out.  Dawkins appeals to the “head” or intellect in me, but almost never to my “heart”.  Perhaps if I get the time to read again some of Dawkins old books and his new one I may be fairer in my assessment of the learned professor – all praise here being sincerely meant!

However, the following points come from my heart or my intuition or my gut feelings.  Having studied philosophy and theology for years and having worked my way to a certain agnostic position, I have equal suspicion and a certain antipathy towards either strident believers or strident atheists.  Why?  Well, be they well educated or not, be they professors or not, I, like so many others, take exception to people attempting to convince us of the error of our ways.  Let’s call strident believers evangelical in the Bible thumping mould or simple fundamentalists.  Let’s call strident atheists militant unbelievers, or even evangelical unbelievers to use a purposely loaded oxymoron, or more simply still fundamentalist scientists.

Here is where philosophy to my mind comes into its own.  It never tires asking those questions, pushing us further and further into expanding our horizons.  Philosophy again to my mind in the very Queen of The Sciences.  I hope the followers of the late great Victorian Anglican and later Roman Catholic theologian John Henry Newman will forgive me for robbing his laudatory title for theology and appropriating it for philosophy.  Philosophy will ask the question as I do, “Why do you, Mr Believer, or Mr Unbeliever, or Mr Theist, or Mr Atheist feel the need not alone to convince the neutral others out there, never mind your diametrically opposed debater,  of the necessity of your belief position anyway?” “Why also this stridency of argument?”  “Okay, I realise the purpose of debating, but are you really open to hearing the opinions or indeed the strongly held beliefs of the opposition?”  “Are you an open-minded or a closed-minded person?”  “Do you value thought over feeling?”  “Are you an intellectual snob?” Do you admire anything at all in their position?   Please notice that I’m asking these question of both sides of the debate.

In my life I have always found that those stridently against something have oftentimes been equally strident supporters of it in a former incarnation – if I may be permitted to use a religious metaphor.  Witness that many former smokers are stridently opposed to smoking etc.    Are militant atheists people who come from very autocratic and fundamentalist religious homes?  Have they formerly had religion stuffed down their throats?  Is their present stance an equal an opposite reaction to this forced feeding if I may now be permitted a scientific metaphor?

Language is important.  Perhaps a good way of analysing a work of theology or indeed of science (especially popular science like those of Richard Dawkins or of the milder Daniel Dennett) would be to examine their use of language.  As a philosopher or former theologian I would argue that we might find that writers from both positions use metaphors to further their respective cases.  Undoubtedly I might even agree with Richard that the fundamentalist believer uses metaphors in a literal sense and ends up being a literalist or fundamentalist.  I might also be able to find similarly fundamentalist examples in Dawkins’s work namely places where he accepts literally the metaphors he uses as regards science.  To comb his books with this in mind would be an interesting pursuit.  Again time is not on my side here.

As an agnostic Buddhist open to beliefs from all quarters I highly recommend openness to all beliefs or positions, no matter where they come from and say in a rather pragmatic fashion, if such a belief makes a person’s life more easily lived and crises more easily coped with, then to attempt to disabuse that person’s mind of their beliefs may be downright immoral and unethical insofar as it removes a necessary support from them.  We can’t all have the strength of intellect or character of a Richard Dawkins.

The two photos I have placed above are ones that I took in August in Siracusa, Sicilia and show 1. L'orecchio di Dionigi - the Ear of Dionysus and 2. La Fonte Aretusa. Ears were made for hearing and papyrus traditionally for writing material!