Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Richard Dawkins: A liberating force

Original posting is taken from The Island.


By Shyamon Jayasinghe,
Melbourne Writer

The Island newspaper has, to its credit, sparked off an interesting discussion to mark the impending arrival to Sri Lanka of Richard Dawkins, the world’s most famous atheist. I have seen and heard Dawkins when he came to Melbourne two years ago to attend the International Atheists’ Convention. We also had the privilege of watching his TV appearances and the TV debates on the ABC Channel. The Dawkins experience over here was intellectually fascinating and exciting.

Voted by the Prospect magazine as one of the world’s top three intellectuals (alongside Umberto Eco and Noam Chomsky) Dawkins really takes off from where the mind-shattering natural scientist Charles Darwin stopped. This is true in two senses: One, the fact that Dawkins develops Darwin’s thesis by integrating new discoveries in genetic and biological sciences and new findings in the field of evolution.

Second, Charles Darwin (in 1871) was wary of shocking the world with his great discoveries mostly for fear of reprisal from the Church and the establishment. Said Chares Darwin: "I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects, yet it appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity and theism produce hardly any effect on the public and freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds, which follow[s] from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science. I may, however, have been unduly biased by the pain which it would give some members of my family, if I aided in any way direct attacks on religion."

The scenario with Richard Dawkins is different. He is contemporary and so confronts a relatively more open and tolerant society influential sections of which have begun to realize at least that the subject of religion should be properly scrutinized. Galvanized by the mounting scientific evidence of the 20th and 21st centuries Dawkins is so passionate about the truth of evolution by natural selection as opposed to creation and rather intolerant of those who continue to preach and to mislead the unwary against the weight of contrary evidence. This is why Richard Dawkins is regarded as the Rottweiler of Charles Darwin. He was observed in Melbourne making intellectual forays with his incisive and razer-sharp mind to objections by creationists. The sarcasm was there and so was the ruthless clinicality of his approach.

Richard Dawkins, FRS, FRSL is Emeritus Fellow of New College Oxford and was Oxford’s Professor of Public Understanding of Science. In the last mentioned role that he played from the years 1995 to 2008 Dawkins had been cast in a mission to take science into the public consciousness. His entire writings exhibit that sense of mission. Such a goal would necessarily undermine belief systems that appear contrary to external empirical evidence. In his famous best seller "God Delusion" Dawkins points out that the fundamental religious belief that a supreme being created the universe and life in it constitutes a scientific issue or, if you like, ‘A scientific hypothesis’ and so it has to be examined with the methodology of science and as "sceptically as any other (hypothesis)" (P2). One has to examine if there is any positive or negative evidence for such a postulate. The God Delusion is a kind of magnum opus that comprehensively surveys all the arguments that have been put forward for God’s existence beginning with Thomas Acquinas’s famous ‘proofs.’ It also presents other considerations from life and nature that are not consistent with the hypothesis. A hypothesis of this nature cannot obviously be subject to controlled experiments. Hence the final conclusion has to be set on a spectrum of probabilities. Dawkins gives the probability as one below zero for the simple reason that one cannot prove that anything does not exist.

Unlike many other atheists Dawkins’ thesis derives a particular strength from his presentation of evolution through natural selection as the explanation for all forms of life and alleged design in the universe.

As a matter of fact there are numerous scientific issues that cannot be brought under controlled experiment. Empirical scientific investigation and logical scientific reasoning yield a spectrum of probabilities in most such cases. This is why they remain .’ Evolution by natural selection proposed by Charles Darwin at the beginning of the 19th century is also theory and has remained so as long as empirical observations sustain that theory. All evidence since Darwin has consolidated that theory so that the theory of Darwin has ‘worked’ in the Pragmatists’ sense; and as long as it works we accept it. It is not difficult to understand that ‘theory’ in this scientific sense is different from the usage of that word in ordinary parlance.

Despite this creationists point out that the God question is not amenable to scientific investigation and that it is to be determined by recourse to religious sources. Dawkins counters this by asserting that "The notion that religion is a proper field, in which one might claim expertise is one that should not go unanswered." Religion is not a source of knowledge since it is essentially based on faith on an alleged divine revelation. If the belief in God is unsustainable in the face of evidence, faith on such a being is also not valid. What is faith but a belief without evidence? If one seeks to believe sans evidence one is entering capricious terrain as there is no reference point to adjudicate between conflicting beliefs. The different religious beliefs contradict one another.

Creationists argue that scientific knowledge is a limited system. Such a statement is true only in relation to a particular time and space. What science has unravelled today is vastly more complete that what it did just a decade ago. In the future we would have fuller and fuller information.Hence, the limited nature of science is a relative feature. In The Descent of Man (1871) Darwin said: "Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science."

Evolution by natural selection proposed by Charles Darwin after his extensive investigations during the voyage of the Beagles is meant to explain how " from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved." (The Origin Of Species") Richard Dawkins has detailed this process from the simple to the complex in his latest book, "The Greatest Show on Earth."

Creationists are guilty of creating confusion by conflating the notion of a supernatural God with the kind of pantheistic reverence for nature that eminent scientists like Einstein averred to. Einstein’s God was a kind of ultra-poetic vision derived from his observation of nature as Wordsworth found over the Westminster Bridge of in butterflies. "The idea of a personal God," said Einstein is quite alien to me and seems even naive." Dawkins’ reference is to the supernatural creator and supervisor- God like Yahweh or the God of the Old Testament and not to the Einsteinian ‘religion.’

One has to read Dawkins’ work with the open mind of scientific investigation. We should not let our inherited belief systems stand in the way. Our religious beliefs are mostly given to us at birth depending on the society and the family we were born into. That fact itself should guard our mind against overprotection and zealotry. If one were born in, say, Afghanistan one may probably have ended up being a Taliban fanatic burning down Bamyan Buddhas. This is the real nature of all religious belief although religious followers are ever ready to kill the ‘non-believer’ or to persecute the latter. *Said Charles Darwin: "The idea of a universal and beneficent Creator does not seem to arise in the mind of man, until he has been elevated by long-continued culture....Nor must we overlook the probability of the constant inculcation in a belief in God on the minds of children producing so strong and perhaps as inherited effect on their brains not yet fully developed, that it would be as difficult for them to throw off their belief in God, as for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear and hatred of a snake." (P.93 Darwin’s autobiography)

The social origins of our religious beliefs have endowed such beliefs with an emotional charge. The result is that any objective examination of the belief is denounced as an "insult." In rational terms it should not be so. Says Dawkins

(p 27):"I am not in favour offending or hurting anyone just for the sake of it. But I am intrigued and mystified by the disproportionate privileging of religion in our otherwise secular societies. All politicians must get used to disrespectful cartoons of their faces, and nobody riots in their defence. What is so special about religion that we grant it such uniquely privileged respect?" Continued Dawkins: "As HL Mencken said: ‘we must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children are smart.’

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