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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Speaking of The Tangled Bank ...

... I really should give more of a plug to this fine and diverse anthology of stories, poems, and essays related to the topic of Darwinian evolution.

Apart from anything else, it contains my 5000-word essay, "Science and the Sea of Faith", which is my most elaborate account to date of the relationship between science and religion, why (and in what sense) I see them as incompatible, and why I see a naturalistic, science-based view of the world as superior to a religion-based view of the world. But it also provides my most elaborate account to date of what I think we are up against - where "New Atheist" approaches are, perhaps, incomplete, or too swift to assume that a naturalistic, science-based view of the world can be made attractive to everybody under current social conditions.

A small sample, as a teaser rather than as a substitute for the whole essay (since editor Chris Lynch actually wants to sell copies of his book):

I've argued that science provides a view of the cosmos that really does tend to contradict traditional religious views. The view from science is superior, both epistemically (it is gradually getting at the truth) and morally (it can provide us with better guidance for living our lives). But there is still a problem: the vast and ancient cosmos revealed by science contains many wonders that are simply not on a human scale, and may defy understanding. The biologically impossible creatures of myth — centaurs, minotaurs, and fire-breathing dragons — make far more intuitive sense than the bestiary of sub-atomic particles, and their actions are more easily grasped than any quantum-level event described by mathematical formulae or translated into paradoxical sentences. Myths and religions, with their gods and monsters, offer views of the world that, although contrary to the hard-won scientific evidence, are intuitive to creatures like us.

Though fire-breathing dragons do not actually exist, they can stand as metaphors for many human-scale fears. Quantum events, by contrast, simply are. These very small events are, of course, exploited in contemporary human technologies, but they are not an obvious symbol for anything we can grasp intuitively. Even science's great populariser, Richard Dawkins, notes that "it may be that nobody really understands quantum theory, possibly because natural selection has shaped our brains to survive in a world of large, slow things, where quantum effects are smothered" (Unweaving the Rainbow, 1998, page 50). Quantum theory is frequently co-opted and vulgarised — "quantum this, quantum that" — in an attempt to give scientific cachet to all sorts of (usually banal) ideas, but the metaphors are generally inapt.

Reflection on this emphasises the harsh truth that this world was not created for us and does not, in any way, care about us or feel as we do. While the world revealed by science is, in any many ways, more wondrous than anything imagined by mystics or mythmakers, it is also far less intuitively understandable or meaningful. Thus, it is one thing to exult in the amazing phenomena revealed by science, but another to argue convincingly that the scientific picture should be enough for ordinary people — non-scientists — who seek to live meaningful lives within human societies, and who are not absorbed, day by day, in examining the very small, the very distant, and the very old. Can the scientific picture be made meaningful to ordinary people who live, work, love, and die in the middle-sized human world?

I'm pleased to see people like Philip Kitcher, who would probably agree with all the above, worrying away at the same questions, and I think they require a lot more attention than they've received so far. It's one thing to put the intellectual case against the supernatural claims of religion and the various attempts to use these to ground morality and political policy. It's another thing to move on to consider how best to promote a naturalistic and secular vision of the world. We are at a pre-scientific state of knowledge about the psychological issues involved. That doesn't mean we stop putting the arguments for secularism and philosophical naturalism: surely that's at least part of what is needed. But there is surely more.

Exactly what, though? That is the question. It's good to ask this, and it's good that leading "New Atheist" Daniel Dennett recognises that we don't yet have a clear answer. I think it will involve more than offering better and better, more and more sophisticated arguments (not that the latter does any harm).

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