richard dawkins

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Sam Harris is a well known atheist, a hater of religion along with the other “horsemen”, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Dan Dennett, but he has this mystical side. That word, mystical, must be defined very carefully, however, or the wrath of Sam will be upon you.

Here is a good tract by Sam Harris in which he goes into this. He argues that secularism has no content other than its negativity:

To be secular, one need do nothing more than live in perpetual opposition to the unsubstantiated claims of religious dogmatists.

The “mysticism” he espouses has to do with meditation and the mystery of consciousness. Here is the last sentence of his third note in his article:

Still, consciousness remains a genuine mystery, and anyone who attempts to study it is confronted by serious conceptual and empirical problems

Antonio Damasio, a well known neuroscientist, has a new book out in which he attempts to explain consciousness scientifically. However, John Searle, a well known American philosopher takes issue with Damasio’s claim in his New York Review of Books article, The Mystery of Consciousness Continues.

All very interesting.

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Here’s a fascinating TED talk by Alain de Botton which he calls Atheism 2.0. The 2.0 comes from Alain’s rejecting the well known atheism, which one could call Atheism 1.0, of Richard Dawkins and his so-called four horsemen made up of himself, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. Atheism 1.0 believes that “religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.” (See The Rise of the New Atheists by Simon Hooper). Alain de Botton begs to differ.

So, what does he believe? What is Atheism 2.0? I’m not sure myself after listening to the talk. Incidentally, on the link to the talk there are lots of comments. I started perusing these but gave up because it would be endless. Here, perhaps, is an example from my experience illustrating Atheism 2.0 in a special case (Alain de Botton might agree): I do not take the bible literally, don’t believe in the virgin birth, Mary, Jesus, the whole trinity thing, but I am greatly moved by religious music.

Here for example is the Stabat mater op.53, Part 6, by the Polish composure Karol Szymanowski. It’s slow, almost painful, but to me it has an excruciating beauty and power which even gives me a feeling of satisfaction in the face of my own finiteness and inevitable death. Lots of other religious music has pretty much the same effect on me.

Psybertron has an interesting checklist of headings for Alain de Botton’s TED talk. Well worth checking these.

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Just discovered an interview by Third Way magazine of a Professor John Carey who appears to be a religious agnostic. Here are some excerpts that caught my fancy:

I also think that the notion that science, or logic, is capable of something you might say is truth is itself quite questionable. I mean, the human brain, the scientists tell us, is a piece of meat with electric impulses going through it. Now, why should that piece of meat have some connection with something called ‘truth’? You know? I don’t see why they’re so sure about it. It seems to me the whole business is so uncertain that their dogmatic certainty seems extraordinary.

And aggression – well, obviously, aggression is, alas, what you don’t want.
There’s another thing about the human brain from that point of view – going back to Richard Dawkins. He often talks about awe, doesn’t he? About how you don’t need religion because science gives you awe and wonder – as if religion only gives you awe and won­der! But awe and wonder, it seems to me, are simply traceable to the deficiencies of the human brain as it has dev­eloped over the millennia. What it’s developed to do is to, well, solve simple physical problems – make stone axes and so on. And if you look at subatomic particles and think how awesome they are – well, they’re only awesome because we’re completely unable to deal with them. What Dawkins calls ‘awe’ is actually ignorance. I don’t see anything particularly wonderful about it.

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I really enjoyed Bill Moyers interview with John Sexton, the president of NYU, last evening. He’s a fascinating and likable guy. Of course he believes in God, being raised a catholic in Brooklyn, NY, and apparently never straying from that belief. But I think I grasp what he’s trying to say, this thing about cognitive limitations, and different dimensions.

Here’s a portion of his conversation with Bill Moyers, taken from the transcript on the Moyers website:

BILL MOYERS: By ineffable, you mean?

JOHN SEXTON: I mean that what we’re discussing now is something that’s approached through music and poetry and mythos in the best sense of that word. You know, Americans talk about myth as falsehood. It’s become a synonym for falsehood, whereas myth speaks– I mean, Lisa had never reasoned to me to the fact that she loved me. I never reasoned her to the fact that I loved her.

It was something that was an experience truth, the deepest truths in life, including what we’re talking about here, including what I tried to get at in that course. Baseball is a Road to God, with its kind of, you know, a frolicky title is there’s something very serious. But it’s not something that you get to through cognitive processes.

This is why the war between science and religion seems to me is a false war. There’s no tension between science and religion. They’re different dimensions. So everything I’ve just said to you I know is a matter of faith. There are people out there on the NYU faculty that are embarrassed to have their president say this and I delight in that, you know. I mean, but it is something that’s real in my life and affects me day-in and day-out. It– it’s self-evident that there are important things that are not reducible to the cognitive. You know, now, the neuroscientists would like to map, you know, even the poetic parts of the brain. And so on. We’ll see where that goes. But the fact of the matter is that when I listened to Rachmaninoff’s second at the Philharmonic a couple of days ago, there was an ineffable transportation to another plane that undeniably became part of my experience.

I mean, I think Keats would say, at this point, that there’s a coalescence of what we’re talking about here, about transcendence and beauty and truth and faith.

Again, whether all this about different dimensions and knowledge beyond the cognitive, is true, or just a happy illusion, just more chemical effects on our endocrine system making us feel “transported” and into a false reality, I’m still undecided upon, terribly mixed up about. The new atheists, the Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, etc., have put religion in its place, the opiate of the people, the awful hypocrisy of it, the source of much of the world’s evil. But still, there are cognitive mysteries, like the “turtles all the way down” paradox. Of course, it appears that Rebecca Goldstein thinks Spinoza has explained all this rationally. Or perhaps not.

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Here I am back to Terry Eagleton again with his first Yale lecture series talk, “Christianity Fair and Foul”, in the middle of which he invokes the “mind-blowing contingency” of the cosmos, the fact it might just as well never have happened, and captures for me again my one feeling of mystery, namely, the Why is there something rather than nothing? feeling. He’s totally brilliant and amusing throughout this talk and sums up Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens as Ditchkins. I was led here this morning from another old flame of mine, James P. Carse, to whom I was led by the remarkable Rebecca Parker, UU “theologian” of the Starr King school in Berkeley, Calif., after having heard her beautiful North Conway Friday evening talk about earth being our only paradise, as proclaimed by among others, Jesus H Christ, and the early Christians. How I found James P. Carse from this comes from a UU World interview of Parker and co-author Rita Nakashima Brock, under Recent Articles in the sidebar. Parker’s latest book, again with Brock, is titled, “Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire”. OK, there’s enough material here in these links to last a lifetime, certainly my lifetime.
ps. I forgot what really set me off on this track this morning, Stanley Fish’s recent article in the NYT, God Talk. It’s a review of Terry Eagleton’s latest book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate.
Happy reading! 😆

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Just finished a great book: Atonement by Ian McEwan. It’s blood curdling real in two senses: the psychological and the actual. Psychologically, McEwan knows how to get into his characters, to develop them so well you know them intimately and in fact grow to love them dearly. The actualities of the WW2 scenes in France are deeply and tragically believable and have tremendous descriptive force. The experiences of the young nurse, Briony her name, with the returning soldiers from the battle of Dunkirk are psychologically real and deeply affecting. And the final atonement of Briony is heart breaking but necessary as she makes further confessions to the young lovers, one of whom she had nearly destroyed through a crime she committed as a child, a crime which came about because of her fantasizing and desire to be a novelist at the age of thirteen. This is fiction but it all seems so real and believable: we see how seemingly trivial actions and events produce far reaching and tragic consequences.

OK, you can see I’m carried away with this. I knew nothing about Ian McEwan before I read this book. Here’s an interview of McEwan by Richard Dawkins:


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In looking up again Terry Eagleton’s blast against Richard Dawkins’, The God Delusion, I came across a vigorous debate between what might be called hard-nosed atheists and soft-nosed atheists on the Club Troppo blog. My nose runs toward the soft-nosed camp, and as I grabbed for my hanky I found this comment by a Richard Phillipps which cleared my nose, leaving it still soft at the core:

What a ripper of an article! As I recall, Eagleton was a Marxist literary and cultural critic, and no doubt under the new syllabus his works will be banned and burned in the main street.

There are, I suspect, three things about religion that no one can really deny.

The first is that even for us unbelievers the Judeo-Christian value set provided a guide to life and to relationships (social, personal, business) that was good in the sense that it emphasized care, humility, honesty, and respect for others. As that value set evaporates, we have little to replace it with.

Second, in a time when some of us wonder about a Grand Unified Theory, about a time before time, about what preceded the big bang and why, there is a whole lot of mystery out there, and it is hard not to have a feeling akin to religiosity about it.

Third, one of the worst developments of the c20 was the removal of mystery from religion. Priests riding motor scooters and playing guitars, the abolition of Latin, the idea that religion was just really a form of smiling, unctuous, rubbery social work, and that religion had to be relevant (why? why on earth should a god’s ideas be “relevant” to us? Are my ideas relevant to the frittata I made yesterday?) all of these have gutted and filleted religion, and have thrown out with the bathwater the essence of standing before a mystery – which is a sense of humility.

btw: I am not to be understood as arguing for, or accepting, Christianity.

But this soft-nosed argument is ripped to shreds later on by a James Farrell in this comment:

I can’t agree with you on this one, Nicholas. Dawkins is a brilliant expositor of science, and his criticisms of religion are spot on. So what if he isn’t an expert on theology? Here’s a challenge: if you read a scathing and hilarious critique of astrology written by an author who wasn’t himself steeped in astrological wisdom, would you really be cross and indignant about all the simplifications and strawman demolitions in the book?

The only people who are going to get upset about this book are ones who have an emotional loyalty to religion and can’t stand seeing it rubbished. This obviously applies to Eagleton, and I can’t for the life me understand why you say ‘it’s not done on behalf of religion’. A bit of googling on Eagleton tells me he is or was religious.

Nor do I agree, being as objective as I can (as an admirer of Dawkins) that it’s a particularly clever or persuasive review – far less with Richard Phillipps conclusion that it’s a ‘ripper’. It’s bad tempered and unreasonable, and quite incoherent in key places where it’s pretending to clinch the argument. What on earth does this mean, for example:

He seems to imagine God, if not exactly with a white beard, then at least as some kind of chap, however supersized. He asks how this chap can speak to billions of people simultaneously, which is rather like wondering why, if Tony Blair is an octopus, he has only two arms.

And this doesn’t seem to make any sense at all:

Even Richard Dawkins lives more by faith than by reason. We hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nonetheless reasonable to entertain.

Is he really saying that Dawkins’ faith that, say, his wife is not really is biological sister, is on a par with religious faith simply because neither is ‘unimpeachable?’

And where does Eagleton stand, anyway? Does he think that belief in the God of Moses is any more reasonable than in Baal or Zeus? If so, on what grounds? If not, would he take exception to an uninformed attack on any of these beliefs?

And this comment is followed up by a comment from a Gaby:

Emphatically what James said. Beat me to the punch.

First, I haven’t read Dawkins’s book. But Eagleton’s review wouldn’t dissuade me from doing so.

I thought generally a poor review as a book review. One example from his own “molehill” is that he doesn’t tell us what Dawkins’s intentions are. Perhaps it is a piece of agitprop aimed at refuting and ridiculing the more common, in both senses of the word, religious falsities prevalent. The “pinhead” differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus may not just be relevant to this task.

Further Eagleton’s positive views don’t really illuminate. Why is belief in God not like belief in the tooth fairy? Asserting God’s “transcendence” doesn’t help nor saying that it is a “condition of possibility” and that it sustains all things “by love”. More or less these are things attributed to the old guy in the sky with the white beard, so I’m happy to lose that image.

El Tel, however, does give a good description of my favored view of Jesus as basically an “A.D.” hippie preachin’ peace’n’love Baby. Was he a vegun as well? Probably not given the “loaves and fishes” supposed prestidigitation.

But still a little later in the discussion a soft-nosed comment by an Ingolf appears:

Gaby, I think Nicholas was alluding to the meaninglessness of being dogmatic when dealing with “ultimate” questions. It’s all very well to flay the more literal religious or spiritual responses that merely paste a poster called “God” over the void, but in doing so one is no nearer to answering the questions for which these various belief systems have through the ages sought to be an answer. The simple truth, at least as I see it, is that not only do we not know the right answers, we don’t even know the right questions and are unlikely to ever do so. As Nicholas says, the very least this realization ought to engender is some sense of humility.

On my reading, the more sophisticated forms of all the major spiritual traditions have throughout the ages been only too aware of the absurdities and dangers lurking in any and all attempts to define God. Indeed, many of them prefer to avoid doing so altogether. The awe we properly feel before the sheer immensity of our ignorance can at times combine with a sense of transcendence, a pull towards the divine that lies at the core of all spirituality. (Both these concepts are of course equally difficult to define but not perhaps always so hard to feel).

Any determined atheist is in my experience at least as much in the grip of a belief system as the most fervent believer. For the scientist who feels no sense of the divine — which is obviously just fine — agnosticism seems to me the only honest stance. It is Dawkins’ fanaticism that many, including me, find so disagreeable, that and the way he arrogates to himself the cloak of reason, not aware, it would seem, of the inherent absurdity of his own position.

Well, needless to say this soft-nosed comment is taken to task later on by the hard-nosed group. If you’ve waded through this far, why not just read the whole thing? There are 52 comments in all and the whole discussion took place and ended in 2006.

Certain products of modern physics that I did not find mentioned at all by these posters are the baffling, one might say a-rational, findings of quantum theory; i.e. the duality of particles and waves, the inability to define a quantum state until it is measured, the phenomena of non-locality, and other such paradoxes. Considering these things, one wonders how we can know anything at all. Yes, the mathematics works, but not the underlying reality. Makes one question what reality is after all. And we haven’t even gotten to questions such as what came before the big bang, and how come we have an Anthropic principle which states that even the slightest deviation in physical constants from their present values would make life as we know it on earth impossible. OK, enough for now. I’m stumped.

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Perhaps I should mention the books I’m in the process of reading or have read recently. I just finished The Meaning of Life by Terry Eagleton, and before that the Irish novel The Gathering by Anne Enright which won the 2007 Man Booker Prize. Now I’m trying to simultaneously read The Private Life of the Brain by Susan Greenfield, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, and Cosmic Jackpot by Paul Davies. I’ve already read the latter — see here — so this will be a re-read. Also, I’m still dabbling in Roger Penrose’s The Road to Reality, a very heavy physics book for the “general reader”. Plus, there’s a bunch of stuff online on physics, cosmology, philosophy, and religion that I’m trying to keep up with. Incidentally, there’s a great put-down by Terry Eagleton of The God Delusion here.

My objective is to straddle science, philosophy and religion and see what kind of a mixture I might end up with, if any. 😆

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