Richard Dawkins is giving a drive-by talk, arriving, speaking and darting out again. “Drive-by” isn’t a bad description of the tone of the talk – it’s a fierce, scathing talk intended to provoke.
He begins with a thought experiment, showing a theoretical “Quarterly Review of Biology” with a special issue on “Did an Asteroid Kill the Dinosaurs?”. The first theoretical article he mentions has a good and scientific title. Then he offers one titled, “The president of the Royal Society has been vouchsafed a strong conviction that an asteroid killed the dinasours…” He offers a number of other scientific statements stated as religious belief: “An official dogma binding on all Hawkinsians…” This, he believes, is unacceptable in the world of science and in the larger world of thinking people.
“Faith can sometimes be caught like a virus from a charismatic preacher or a book,” Dawkins tells us. But it’s usually hereditary. Children always seem to adopt the same religion as their parents. Somehow they always believe that it’s the right one. This is a result, Dawkins believes, of indoctrinated as children.
He shows a photo of a Christmas paegant, a photo of three children dressed as the three wise men. It’s titled “Shadbreet, a Sikh, Musharaf, a Muslim, and Adele, a Christian, all aged four”. Dawkins believes this is as outrageous as a caption that read: “Shadbreet, a Monetarist, Musharaf, a Kenysian , and Adele, a Marxist, all aged four,” a caption that should probably get the children’s parents arrested for child abuse. “There is no such thing as a Catholic child, only the child of Catholic parents.”
Dawkins shows us a map of world religions and declares it preposterous, contrasting it to a map of “why scientists believe dinasours are extinct”.
Dawkin’s chief beef with religion is its “arrogant certainty”. Science, he argues, is unjustly accused of it, while faith may be more guilty of it. He walks us through examples of scientific humility:
– Clarke’s third law – Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
– Fenyman – “If you think you understand quantum theory, you don’t understand quantum theory”
– David Deutsch – the many worlds theory of quantum mechanics
Science’s willingness to admit that we don’t understand is its great strength, Dawkins argues.
He looks at the aspects of scientific reality that are difficult for humans to understand – the fact that matter is mostly empty space, but feels solid. “As an evolutionary biologist, I would offer the explanation that our brains have evolved to allow us to navigate in the space where we interact. We never evolved to percieve on a subatomic scale because our hands don’t penetrate rock.” Similarly, if our ancestors were able to travel at close to the speed of light, we’d be better at understanding Einsteinian relativity. Instead, we live in “the Middle World”, the world of rabbit speed and human scale.
Moving to a critique of religion for arrogance, Dawkins quotes Carl Sagan. He mentions that Sagan wondered: “How is it that any major religion has looked at science and concluded, ‘This is better than what we thought?'” Sagan said, “Religions declare ‘My God is a little God and I want him to stay that way.'”
The arrogance of faith, Dawkins argues, is that people argue, “I know the truth and nothing will change my mind.” Or “my holy book”, “my priest” or “my inner voice” tells the truth and there’s no need to look further. Science, Dawkins argues, is filled with doubt and skepticism, while faith is exactly the opposite.
He tells us the story of Kurt Wise, a geologist and paleontologist who trained with Steven Jay Gould. “He had a fatal weakness – he was infected with deep faith early in life and couldn’t shake it off.” He got a bible and physically cut out verses that he couldn’t get to be consistent with what he’d learned about evolution. He declared, “I couldn’t pick up the bible without it being rent in two… it was there, that night, that I accepted the world of God…” Wise walked away from science, as Dawkins sees it, and became a “young earth” creationist.
“Anything that can do that to Kurt Wise is a force for evil. If it can do that for a scientist like Kurt Wise, imagine what it can do to the rest of the population.”
He contrasts this story to a tale of a scientific colleague, an older biologist who didn’t believe in the existence of the Golgi Apparatus. He heard a lecture from a younger scientists which conclusively proved the existence of the Golgi Apparatus. He went to the front of the room, shook the man’s hand and declared, “I’ve been wrong for fifteen years.” The audience “applauded until our hands went red.” Science, at its best, is about admitting it when you know you’re wrong, and, if possible, being pleased to be proven wrong.
Dawkins tells us that society believes that we should treat faith with exaggerated respect. It’s acceptable to critique another person’s politics or football team, but with faith, we’re supposed to back off. “It’s about time we start criticizing faith.” Dawkins believes that faith cannot withstand these criticisms, because there are no rational arguments to support the position – this is why politeness protects faith.
One of the “crosses we have to bear” as scientists is the phrase “only a theory”, usually applied to evolution. Dawkins sees it as ironic that science’s humility ends up being used as a weapon against it. He closes with a quote from H.L. Mencken: “We must respect the other man’s religion, but only to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children are smart.”
I feel I should remind readers that I do my best, in conference blogging, to report the talks as I hear them. I try to editorialize after the fact, not while I’m doing it. It can be hard to do on talks like this, which I stridently disagree with. I recommend David Weinberger’s reactions to a previous Dawkins talk – I look forward to reading more of David’s writings on Dawkins before reacting to the talk in more detail.
Ian Beatty’s got a great response to the Dawkin’s talk on his blog.