Atheisms radical new heroes: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and an evolving new moral view

Posted: March 3, 2014 at 2:50 am

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In the preface to Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (1998), Richard Dawkins, then Oxfords Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, recounted two incidents that in part prompted him to write his new book. One concerned an unnamed foreign publisher who had told him that, after reading his first book The Selfish Gene (1976), he could not sleep for three nights, so troubled was he by its cold, bleak message. The other story concerned a teacher from a distant country who had written to him reproachfully that a pupil had come to him in tears after reading the same book because it had persuaded her that life was empty and purposeless. He advised her not to show the book to any of her friends, for fear of contaminating them withthe same nihilistic pessimism.

Dawkins then went on to quote from his colleague Peter Atkinss book The Second Law (1984) [i.e., of thermodynamics]: We are the children of chaos, and the deep structure of change is decay. At root, there is only corruption, and the unstemmable tide of chaos. Gone is purpose; all that is left is direction. This is the bleakness we have to accept as we peer deeply and dispassionately into the heart of the Universe.

Dawkins comments: [S]uch very proper purging of saccharine false purpose; such laudable tough-mindedness in the debunking of cosmic sentimentality must not be confused with the loss of personal hope. Presumably there is indeed no purpose in the ultimate fate of the cosmos, butdo any of us really tie our lifes hopes to the ultimate fate of the cosmos anyway? Of course we dont; not if we are sane. Our lives are ruled by all sorts of closer, warmer, human ambitions and perceptions. To accuse science of robbing life of the warmth that makes it worth living is so preposterously mistaken, so diametrically opposite to my own feelings and those of most working scientists, I am almost driven to the despair of which I am wrongly suspected. On the contrary, he wanted to convey the sense of awed wonder that science can give us and which makes it one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable.

The title of Dawkinss book comes from a poem by Keats, who believed that Isaac Newton had destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to the prismatic colors. Dawkins did not accept this argument. He insisted that scientists and scientifically literate people everywhere who can read Keats as well as Newton have two ways of experiencing and understanding rainbows, not one, and that must be an advance.

He then set about demonstrating his own wonder at the natural world and the cosmos, ranging from bacteria, insect ears, birdsong, the rings in the trunks of sequoias, cuckoos and their habits with eggs, to snail polymorphism and much else. Along the way he dismissed paranormal activities, astrology, all forms of superstition and gullibility. He peppered his text with poemssome good, some indifferentin a fulsome attempt to show that an appreciation of science in no way compromises enjoyment of poetry, not least because [s]cience allows mystery but not magic. That, in fact, an awareness of scientific inaccuracies in literature was and is another form of poetic appreciation.

At the end, he made a claim for what he calls poetic science: the notion that a Keats and a Newton, listening to each other, might hear the galaxies sing. Thanks to language, which separates us from the other animals, [w]e can get outside the universe in the sense of putting a model of the universe inside our skulls. Not a superstitious, small-minded, parochial model filled with spirits and hobgoblins, astrology and magic, glittering with fake crocks of gold where the rainbow ends. A big model, worthy of the reality that regulates, updates and tempers it; a model of stars and great distances, where Einsteins noble spacetime curve upstages the curve of Yahwehs covenantal bow and cuts it down to size. The spotlightpasses but, exhilaratingly, before it does so it gives us time to comprehend something of this place in which we fleetingly find ourselves and the reason that we do so. We are alone among the animals in foreseeing our end. We are also alone among animals in being able to say before we die: Yes, this is why it was worth coming to life in the first place.

In the past few decades, both evolutionary biologists like Dawkins and cosmologistsphysicists and astronomershave mounted a spirited attack on the basic dimensions of religion, in particular the main monotheisms, and in doing so have tried hard to reshape whatfor the sake of a better phrasewe may call our spiritual predicament.

The collective achievements of these two sciences have been threefold. First, they have sought to show that religions are themselves entirely natural phenomena; they have evolved, like so much else, and from this it follows that our moral life is also a natural (evolved) phenomenon, not rooted in any divine realm or mind. In this sense, the details of evolution teach us how to live together without any reference to God. Nothing is put in his place, because nothing is needed. Second, science has discovered or reconfiguredsome new aspects of the human condition, which provide us with principles for arranging our affairs for the greater benefit of the greatest number. Again, there is no need of God. Third, evolutionary biology and cosmology have given us some radically new ideas about the organizing principle(s) underpinning the universe. Some have gone so far as to call these new principles divine in themselves, but many others see them as entirely natural features of the world.

Some of these innovations are controversial, some are fantastical (part of their point being to gain our attention) and some are contradictory. They bring us up to date.


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Atheisms radical new heroes: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and an evolving new moral view

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March 3rd, 2014 at 2:50 am