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Science in the Soul: stimulating in spite of Safran

May 20, 2018

Last night I attended the event in Melbourne organised by Think Inc,  Science in the Soul: Richard Dawkins. It was a stimulating and enjoyable night as John Safran was in conversation with Professor Richard Dawkins in front of a packed house in Melbourne. I thought I’d type up some of my thoughts and review the night.

Great speaker + big crowd = good night out. I really enjoyed the night. It’s great to attend a well organised event with a very high profile international speaker. There was a big crowd who were eager to hear from Dawkins and he got a rousing reception. It was great to hear the man ‘in the flesh’ and see him live. Dawkins certainly offered some provocative opinions at times and it made for a stimulating night.

Dawkins is a brilliant rhetorician. I felt that the highlights of the evening were when Dawkins read excerpts from his new book, Science in the Soul. These excerpts were classic Dawkins, full of colour, vivid images and razor sharp insights into science, religion and atheism. He read several including a viciously insightful piece on ‘Thoriology’ and ‘a-Thoriology’ – commenting on what he would argue are meaningless discussions on different versions of theology, based on the same baseless myths. He also shared a letter he wrote to Prince Charles and also a dedication to Christopher Hitchens. These were all very engaging and were a great advertorial for his new book.

The evening was more interesting when not talking about science. I felt the evening got off to a very slow start. The conversation with Safran started with discussion of Dawkins tie and the mating habits of peacocks. Then we talked about the origin of natural selection theory and some rather dry discussion on Pterodactyls and a marsupial glider based on a couple of photos from the natural history museum. Perhaps it’s because Dawkins is a bit of a scientific generalist, but this discussion felt a little dry, technical and boring. Dawkins seemed to lack depth of insight or fluency in conversation on theses topics. It was once we left discussion of ‘science’ and moved into topics like religion and atheism that the energy in the conversation picked up. By the end and the audience Q&A the event was humming and I didn’t want it to stop.

Safran kept it superficial and disjointed. Unfortunately I felt that John Safran was a very poor choice as conversation partner. Safran didn’t add much from a technical side – his knowledge of science was pretty ordinary. He missed opportunities to go into any depth and often asked questions which didn’t flow at all from the previous topic of conversation. E.g. we got into an interesting discussion about religion and culture – i.e. how many people actually do believe the tenets of the Christian faith. Then Safran followed this up with a question asking Dawkins how old he was when he was agitated about religion? Which was followed by a question about exorcisms!

Safran played a video by Ray Comfort on bananas which added very little, other than fodder for a quick moments ridicule. It also unfortunately reinforced the idea that Dawkins actually does only attack ‘low hanging fruit’ so to speak.

I wanted to like Safran, and he had an easy style, but in the end, unfortunately I felt he detracted from the night.

Education is the key, but we’ll avoid the really hard questions. Dawkins repeatedly emphasised how important education and critical thinking were to the improvement of society and the eradication of religion. Yet I found it intriguing that despite extolling these things, Dawkins failed to answer (nor perhaps even understand) some of the hardest questions given to him. His answer to an audience question on free will and determinism was: ‘I hate the free will question and I won’t answer it’. I was surprised and disappointed. He never articulated why he wouldn’t answer it. Does he not actually have an opinion on it? Surely one must have an opinion on this, because it’s such an important and significant question (particularly for a naturalist).

I was similarly disappointed that he failed to really answer (or perhaps understand) what I thought was the best audience question of the night. The question referred to a debate between Sam Harris and Sean Carroll on morality and asked Dawkins if an evolutionary case could be made for moral realism or anti-realism. This was a very sharp question and I was literally on the edge of my seat – how would Dawkins combine moral theory with evolutionary biology? Yet again, I was sorely disappointed, Dawkins seemed to not really understand the question and seemed to try to evade the question as quickly as possible.

I felt it a shame that the most stimulating and thoughtful ‘intellectual’ questions were not even attempted at being answered by an intellectual extolling the value of education.

Nothing really new from Dawkins – except one really interesting thing. Much of Dawkins’ comments on religion and atheism were not new. I’d heard many of his arguments and ideas (though some seemed new to the audience). He spoke about the value of understanding reality, was critical of avoiding explanation by saying ‘God did it’ and continued his vindictiveness against Abrahamic religions – accusing them of being ‘petty’ (although precisely why they’re petty is unclear). Yet Dawkins did say something quite interesting at this point, in that if he were to pick a religion, he would go with a native North American religion. He thought it had a more majestic sense of wonder at the universe – which was intriguing, particularly as the Psalmist extols the wonder of the starry host by claiming that the ‘heavens declare the glory of God’ (Psalm 19:1) – which seemed to be what Dawkins claimed to do when looking up at the Milky Way. I was still intrigued that Dawkins was attracted to native North American religion.

Did Dawkins also undermine naturalism? I was intrigued by several statements that Dawkins made which seemed to undermine his naturalism – i.e. where everything is explicable by purely natural processes. He seemed to imply that everything ‘wasn’t’ completely explained by naturalism (this is related to the arguments from consciousness – i.e. of how consciousness can arise from non-consciousness). Here are the inconsistencies:

a) Look to the future. Dawkins claimed that one of the unique elements of humans is that they had the ability to look to the future i.e. take steps to stop being extinct. Then he admitted that natural selection had no foresight. So – if humans have evolved simply as the result of natural selection – how can this be? How can we have something that natural selection can’t do?

b) Darwinian society. Dawkins admitted that Darwinianism was red in tooth and claw and that a Darwinian society is not a society we would like to live – natural selection is brutal. But haven’t humans evolved simply as the result of Darwinian natural selection? If we don’t like it, why is that? It seems to be biting the very hand that feeds us and undermining the very same idea that Dawkins called perhaps ‘the greatest idea ever’.

c) SETI. Dawkins commented on the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI) and said that one of the ways to find intelligence is through prime numbers. The reason for this is that we could identify intelligence through a ‘non-biological source’. However if humanity is the result of natural biological processes, then surely things like prime numbers do come from a biological source i.e. us. Which means that Dawkins has undermined biology as the sole explanation of humanity (and intelligence).

d) Meaning of life. Dawkins was asked a question about the meaning of life. He said that the biological meaning of life was ‘reproduction’. Then he said that we can now go beyond this to other meanings, e.g. musical, literary, scientific etc, but again, if we are created by biological processes, how can we transcend a purely biological meaning? It would seem that pure naturalism fails again.

e) Progress. Dawkins also made a point about we have made ‘progress’ in a variety of areas, despite people like Donald Trump, Dawkins suggests that things are moving in the right direction. But the very concept of progress is antithetical to naturalism. We can speak of change, but never ‘progress’ as this smuggles in a telos. Under naturalism, there is never a telos – the watchmaker is blind – so why speak of ‘progress’? This sounds more like a Christian idea of time moving towards a certain end point! Again – Dawkins unwittingly undermines his naturalism.

These arguments in many ways are predicated on biological determinism (which Sam Harris articulates) – perhaps this is the reason Dawkins didn’t want to answer the question on free will.

In the end – let’s talk about reality. Dawkins closed in a fitting way by answering a question about the literary nature of religion – could religion provide meaning ‘just as a story’? Dawkins concluded, that you ‘can’t get away with it’. Religion makes claims about the universe and reality and he disagrees. Here we are vintage Dawkins – as a scientist he is interested in claims that are either scientifically true or not.

The evening stimulated us all to think about these questions – science, the universe, God, religion and reality – hence it was a fitting way to end a fascinating evening.

  1. G’Day, Rob, I hope you’re doing well.
    It sounds like it was an entertaining evening.

    I have some thoughts on your ‘undermines naturalism’ comments. Obviously I can’t speak for Dawkins and I wasn’t there anyway, but what you’ve said here just looks like misunderstandings of context. There is nothing inconsistent in Dawkins’ views given your accounts of what he said.

    “a) Look to the future. […] if humans have evolved simply as the result of natural selection – how can this be? How can we have something that natural selection can’t do?”
    This is a simple logical fallacy of the same type as the fallacy of composition.
    To clarify, natural selection can’t “do” anything, it is simply a phenomenon we observe in nature in which organisms are more likely produce offspring when they are better adapted to the environment.
    Humans (and some animals) are able to imagine and predict the future (within certain constraints, of course), because it is functionality that arises from the structure of brain.
    Similarly, just because the human stomach can digest food, that obviously doesn’t mean that natural selection can digest food!

    “b) Darwinian society. […] But haven’t humans evolved simply as the result of Darwinian natural selection? If we don’t like it, why is that? […] undermining the very same idea that Dawkins called perhaps ‘the greatest idea ever’.”
    That’s a very strange misunderstanding and sounds like the same type of logical fallacy above.
    Describing evolution by natural selection as ‘the greatest idea ever’ is simply a judgement about the quality and interest and value of the scientific discovery. It is not in any way a proposal for how to run a civil society.
    To evoke another simile, that would be like saying because gravity is a force that causes objects with mass to move towards each other, we should therefore live in a civilisation where we are all as physically close to each other as possible.

    “c) SETI. […] Which means that Dawkins has undermined biology as the sole explanation of humanity (and intelligence).”
    I really don’t understand what you’re getting at here. You’ve created a non-sequitur and jumped to some odd conclusions.
    It’s hard to know the context of the Dawkins’ statement on this, but from your language I suspect that the point he was trying to make was that an intelligence elsewhere in the universe could communicate that they existed (and were intelligent) by signalling in prime numbers. This is an observation that has no bearing on the nature of the intelligence (ie., biological vs. non-biological). The fact that humanity is biological is irrelevant. An alien intelligence might not be.

    “d) Meaning of life. […] if we are created by biological processes, how can we transcend a purely biological meaning?”
    This is rather muddled, and just another logical fallacy – this time the fallacy of equivocation. In particular, you are trying to suggest that the term “meaning”, when it is applied to “life”, cannot also be applied to other human activities without causing some kind of philosophical crisis. Which is, of course, absurd. “Meaning” is a term that has a thoroughly objective interpretation that is based on the context of its use.

    “e) Progress. […] But the very concept of progress is antithetical to naturalism. […] Under naturalism, there is never a telos.”
    Same kind of point above. You’re trying to take a word being used in its everyday context and extrapolate its usage to a different context, in an attempt to demonstrate a non-existent philosophical problem. It’s a very odd line of (attempted) reasoning.
    I would have thought that you can understand this: A person can reject the idea that there are any kind of transcendental drivers or forces for objective ‘progress’ (and meaning) in the universe, and yet still speak of ‘progress’ in the context of human civilisations.
    These are different domains of thought. You can’t take a concept that is well-understand in one domain, show that it fails in a different domain, and claim that the domain itself is therefore undermined.


    • “Meaning” is a term that has a thoroughly objective interpretation that is based on the context of its use.
      OK, reading this back, this might have been a ‘brain typo’. I might have meant subjective interpretation (not objective). The point is, the meaning of the word ‘meaning’ – like lots of kinds of words – is always context dependent.

  2. Hi there, I just wanted to say I liked your review and I was the person at the end who asked the final question. I felt a little bad about it when I asked, I think I could have worded it better. I was so nervous after all. Reading what you said about it made me feel much better. Thank you

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