thu 25/04/2019

Beautiful Minds, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Beautiful Minds, BBC Four

Beautiful Minds, BBC Four

If Richard Dawkins was more like Michael Palin we'd all be atheists by now

Richard Dawkins: a man who has seen the light of Reason BBC pictures

Apart from the fact that it’s a razor-sharp piece of writing, what most delights and impresses me about Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion is how it gets under people’s skin. It has generated several books in fevered opposition to it and, needless to say, countless abusive emails land in the poor man’s inbox every day. If it wasn’t such a lucid, incisive and relentlessly powerful piece of work I doubt it would have got such fierce and sustained opposition.

But what poor Richard needs now is not some other despiser of organised religion like myself singing his praises, but a well conceived documentary which reminds us that the man is a human being who read Doctor Doolittle as a child, wasn’t outstanding at school, spent a couple of years in California during the flower power era protesting against the Vietnam war, and is, at heart, a man in love with the world as seen through his beloved lens of scientific objectivity.

He sees believers as cowardly or lazy for not turning their eyes to the full frightening glare of the godless, afterlife-less planet we inhabit

Fortunately for Dawkins that’s exactly what this third in the Beautiful Minds series did. So his controversial clanger of labelling all rationalists, atheists and humanists “Brights” (with it’s implication that the planet’s billions of believers are all “Dims”) wasn’t mentioned, but plenty of the man’s friends and colleagues got to sing his praises. And of course there’s plenty to sing about. But the fact remained that Dawkins is no Michael Palin. This is a man who sees believers as cowardly or lazy for not turning their eyes to the full frightening glare of the godless, afterlife-less planet we most likely inhabit. So he needs this kind of programme to present a slightly less starched, more defrosted image of him to the world.

The emphasis was on a career divided in two, beginning with his groundbreaking work in molecular biology represented by best sellers such as The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker, and them moving on to his more recent role as evangelical atheist author of the even better seller, The God Delusion. Although, understandably, Dawkins himself was keen to emphasise a unifying continuity in his work. After all, only a man who has immersed himself for decades in the evolution and driving force of life on our planet could be fully qualified to dismiss the idea it was all thrown together by a bad-tempered deity in just six days; or any number of other equally absurd proposals.

But this programme revealed something missing in his atheist stance. Usually Dawkins’ rather easy and deserving targets are deity-specific belief systems adhered to because they give comfort, provide structure and act as a safety net against the coming fall into the abyss of death. Perhaps his early years as an obsessed computer programmer, immersed in an absolutist world of noughts and ones - either/or solutions – has left him incapable of conjecturing that we African apes (as he would have it) might be missing something. “The only reason you should believe X, is that there’s evidence for X,” he stated definitively at one point. Yet what if it’s not a question of belief, it’s a question of a smidgen of humility based on the fact that we’ve barely left the starting line as regards our understanding of what makes us and the universe tick?

Agnosticism is the only rational position to take in the face of the unknown. But of course, Dawkins, bless him, is a crusader fighting the good fight against the very real threat of what Ian McEwan recently called the “mild psychosis” of the god-fearing. Yet for someone who so passionately communicates his appreciation of a magical, wonder-filled world in which there are still many unanswered questions, it’s a shame that his mental hardwiring won’t even allow him to entertain the possibility that there may be more to our universe than what can be glimpsed through the necessarily blinkered view allowed by a microscope.

In one clip we saw Dawkins respond to an audience member’s perfectly reasonable question, “What if you’re wrong?”, with a gaggle of the most unlikely-to-exist things in the universe (in the manner of Bertrand Russell’s orbiting teapot) as circumstantial evidence of the absence of God. Yet isn’t it a bit ingenuous to invoke “the flying spaghetti monster and the pink unicorn” as hypothetical realities in order to suggest that all hypothetical realities are intrinsically absurd? As Milan Kundera put it: “A man of conviction is a man who has stopped thinking.” Which is ironically how Dawkins views the religious believer. But no matter, this was an excellent introduction to a largely beautiful mind.

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Comments

"In one clip we saw Dawkins respond to an audience member’s perfectly reasonable question, “What if you’re wrong?”, with a gaggle of the most unlikely-to-exist things in the universe (in the manner of Bertrand Russell’s orbiting teapot) as circumstantial evidence of the absence of God. Yet isn’t it a bit ingenuous to invoke “the flying spaghetti monster and the pink unicorn” as hypothetical realities in order to suggest that all hypothetical realities are intrinsically absurd?" Yes, because the belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree is so much more "reasonable"...

You’ve completely missed my point, Brian. Elsewhere in my review I agree with Dawkins on the absurdities, cruelties etc of what I called deity-specific religions. But my point was that in a world in which – as the late, great Christopher Hitchens put it, “we are half a chromosome away from a chimpanzee” -  isn’t it perfect reasonable to suppose there may be something more intelligent than us in this vast universe - something that may have even got the whole green and blue ball rolling in the first place?  It seems to me Dawkins and co rarely address this notion, preferring to shoot the fish in a barrel of either the traditional religions or the newer, just as barmy alternative ones.

“…isn’t it perfect reasonable to suppose there may be something more intelligent than us in this vast universe…” Yes it is perfectly reasonable, and you could have a very interesting conversation about it. However, the problem with pursuing this line of argument in debates is that religious apologists will almost always play the “deep and mysterious universe” card – and then make the totally illogical leap to talking about virgins giving birth, original sin, people coming back from the dead, etc. Incidentally, Richard Dawkins et al. have discussed the idea that there might be some kind of superhuman (but not supernatural) agency in the universe, and the idea a deistic god. I think the focus on theistic religion is a matter of priority and practicality: it’s the theists want to teach children superstitious nonsense, tell congregations in poverty stricken and AIDs-ridden Africa not to use contraception, cover-up child rape to protect the reputation of their church, rampage and murder over a couple of cartoons etc. “…it’s a question of a smidgen of humility based on the fact that we’ve barely left the starting line as regards our understanding of what makes us and the universe tick…” Again, I agree. But I would invite people to consider the real progress that science has made, and continues to make: extending the average human life expectancy from 20-ish to 80-ish, curing and eradicating disease, understanding the nature of life on Earth and our place in the wider universe. Contrast this with the progress made by religion. Factions of people all over the world who, despite believing that their religion gives them some kind of privileged access to truth, haven’t produced a single useful fact or hypothesis or prediction about the universe in several millennia. Science has humility built in (even if it is not always shown by individual scientists), we are always looking to prove ourselves wrong, and advance our understanding of the universe; even if it means throwing away personally cherished theories and ideas.

The label "Brights" isn't one of Dawkins' inventions, nor is it due to Daniel Dennett. Although Dennett has used the term, it is due originally to Paul Geisert, co-founder of the Brights movement with Mynga Futrell. Although Dawkins may have used the word, he is not responsible for it.

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