Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Not so magical

Today I went with a friend to see Richard Dawkins speak at our very own University of Virginia. I was thoroughly underwhelmed. Perhaps it would have been better if I had gone into it knowing that it was simply a promotion for his new book, The Magic of Reality, which is essentially a children's atheist bible. Now if I just insert a few words into the title, like so:
Taking the Magic Out of of Reality
well then, yes, I think that about sums up the lecture today.

Dawkins opened his talk by apologizing that he might sound patronizing, since the book was originally aimed at children of age 12, but he hoped that the book would be valuable to people of all ages. Whenever you hear that expression, "Fun for all ages," don't believe it--the grown-ups will be bored to tears, I assure you. From his high-school level exposition of evolutionary biology to his stumbling explanation of how a prism really splits white light into colors (he wasn't quite successful today with his I-Pad apps), Dawkins was always somewhere in between putting me to sleep and offending me. Does one have to be an atheist to understand rainbows? It's amazing to me how he can consistently disparage any and all religious beliefs as antiquated myths and simultaneously reference scientists like Newton and Copernicus as intellectual giants, without ever dealing with the simple fact that such men had faith.

But that isn't the thing that really bugged me about this talk. Dawkins apparently had some desire to display genuine reverence for truth and to show just how beautiful the natural world really is. How, then, did he come up so short? This I can only explain by pointing out the tension between the desire to find beauty in the universe and the belief that only skepticism is an acceptable lens through which to view it. The word awe simply never came up. Speaking for myself, I heard not a trace of passion in his voice as Dawkins explain that our planet is but a tiny speck of dust compared to our sun, which is itself insignificant compared with the galaxy which enfolds it, which is itself but one out of hundreds of billions in the universe. If you can speak of such things without trembling, you simply have no sense of place in the universe.

The last chapter of Dawkins' book, on miracles, really says everything about the kind of philosophy into which he would like to indoctrinate young minds. He believes in strict rationalism, an approach to learning which refuses to accept anything which has not first been proved. It might be worth pointing out that the proposition that we ought to be rationalists cannot be proved, except by appealing to assumptions which themselves have not been proved. But aside from being logically self-defeating, this philosophy is not as consistent as it would appear with the reality of scientific progress. Were we to throw out the notion of trust entirely, we could not build on the work of others to form a scientific consensus. Trust in some sort of community is a necessary part of all intellectual development, including scientific. Dawkins knows this. That is why he works hard to build community among those who are like-minded. It just doesn't seem to occur to him that this desire for community might have implications for the philosophy he espouses.

This is not going to be a "refute atheism" post. I realize there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of all religions, and I encourage a healthy amount of skepticism in everyone. All I would warn against is making skepticism into an end in itself, and putting one's faith solely in mankind's ability to explain and control reality. Such faith tends to cannibalize itself; it destroys the very magic it once so longed to find.

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