BBC 4: Beautiful Minds: Richard Dawkins
Thank you BBC for another good programme: Beautiful Minds: Richard Dawkins.
There are a couple of points that are well worth taking from the programme; points which Dawkins has been struggling to make clear since he had to suffer the backlash of The Selfish Gene.
Steven Rose, like many people who object to scientific truths, fail to understand the basic distinction between the descriptive role of science, and their own desires about what they want to be the case. This was also exemplified by the response of the political right of the 70′s and 80′s. It’s also characteristic of those who oppose the notion of illusory free-will on the basis of what they think are the moral implications. Raymond Tallis, a British Humanist, neurobiologist, and writer of many books opposing illusory free-will, and the animal nature of humans, is particularly prone to the this mistake. If science tells you something and you don’t like what it says about us humans, then tough luck. You don’t get to decide what is the case by what you want to be the case.
This isn’t a new enlightenment from Dawkins. Bertrand Russell made the very same point in his 1959 BBC interview (about 7:45 in). When asked about what he would like to leave for future generations he said:
When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only, what are the facts, and what is the truth that the facts bare out. Never let yourself be diverted, either by what you would wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. Look only and solely at what are the facts.
Dawkins also made clear in his programme that it is for humans to rebel against the selfish gene, and that it does not need to be a prescription for how we should live our lives. This too was expressed by Russell, in the following:
Love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world, which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other. We have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way, if we are to live together and not die together. We must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance, which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on the planet.
There are many critics of Dawkins who will want to point to his New Atheist stridency as being in opposition to this sentiment; but they get that wrong too. Dawkins is only intolerantly opposed to the intolerance of religion and its unforgiving drive to persuade by foul means, of indoctrination, religious fanatical bullying, and denial of science for religious ends – the latter being precisely what Russell was objecting to in his first point. Though it’s true that Dawkins may have a personal distaste, and a strong position on the intellectual case, as made by Russell’s first point, it is also true that he is tolerant of our freedom to believe what we want, however dumb that may be. It’s odd that the very criticisms of the supposed stridency and intolerance of Dawkins are better directed to many of those that make them.