Monday, October 16, 2006

Why Richard Dawkins is no fun

Recently, Richard Dawkins was interviewed in Salon, promoting his new anti-religion book.

There is nothing terribly surprising in it, but this section is intriguing:

[Salon]: But it seems to me the big "why" questions are, why are we here? And what is our purpose in life?

[Dawkins]: It's not a question that deserves an answer.

Well, I think most people would say those questions are central to the way we think about our lives. Those are the big existential questions, but they are also questions that go beyond science.

If you mean, what is the purpose of the existence of the universe, then I'm saying that is quite simply begging the question. If you happen to be religious, you think that's a meaningful question. But the mere fact that you can phrase it as an English sentence doesn't mean it deserves an answer. Those of us who don't believe in a god will say that is as illegitimate as the question, why are unicorns hollow? It just shouldn't be put. It's not a proper question to put. It doesn't deserve an answer.

I don't understand that. Doesn't every person wonder about that? Isn't that a core question, what are we doing in this world? Doesn't everyone struggle with that?

There are core questions like, how did the universe begin? Where do the laws of physics come from? Where does life come from? Why, after billions of years, did life originate on this planet and then start evolving? Those are all perfectly legitimate questions to which science can give answers, if not now, then we hope in the future. There may be some very, very deep questions, perhaps even where do the laws of physics come from, that science will never answer. That is perfectly possible. I am hopeful, along with some physicists, that science will one day answer that question. But even if it doesn't -- even if there are some supremely deep questions to which science can never answer -- what on earth makes you think that religion can answer those questions?

On reflection, this is probably just a statement of some version of positivist philosophy, which is nothing new. However, hearing it stated this way seems to unintentionally make it sound like, at best, a terribly dull philosophy, and at worst, a heartless and almost dehumanising one.

Actually, reading the sequence of questions makes me think that maybe Dawkins has oversimplified the question (when he says "if you mean, what is the purpose for the existence of the universe..") into such a form that he can claim it to be a nonsense question. But in doing so he seems have dismissed a personal concern for purpose in one's own life as being just as illegitimate as demanding that the universe as a whole have a purpose.

Does he really believe that? If he does, the interviewer was right to express some astonishment.

Anyway, even if he is not as dry a positivist as this interview makes him sound and he allows some legitimacy to the question of how people may find purpose in their life, his dismissal of the relevance of purpose to the universe does not sit well with modern discussion of the anthropic principle in cosmology. It is the apparent co-incidences of the physical constants of our universe that lead to such speculation. Yet Dawkin's attitude would seem to deny that this is a fair question to even ask. At the very least, thinking about ideas like the anthropic principle and the possible multiverse strikes me as intellectual fun, yet it would seem Dawkins attitude seems rather a wet blanket on the issue.

Maybe it would just annoy Dawkins too much if it turned out that the religious impulse had intuited a truth about the universe that science took a few thousand years to confirm, so he just dismisses that as a possibility out of hand.

For the record: I am actually only lukewarm on the anthropic principle and have not really followed the intelligent design argument with much care. I don't think ID in terms of biological evolution is a valid science topic in a school science curriculum, but am happy for the anthropic principle to be covered if any high school science spends much time on cosmology now.

I also know how atheists go on about not needing God to have a sense or awe and wonder from the scientific understanding and observation of the universe. No one need point out to me that Dawkins would say this. Being thrilled by nature is probably a natural impulse that is shared by everyone. The issue of how humans are valued and treated within nature is the more interesting point where materialists and the religious can start to wildly diverge.

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