Richard Dawkins so right and so wrong.
Richard Dawkins So Right and So Wrong (thinking too about Freud)
(According to Bruno Bettelheim, who was brought up in the Vienna in which Freud had lived, the translation of Freud’s writing into English has been a disaster. According to him, Freud’s major interest was the making of the soul, a word you will never find in the translations. Freud’s It, I and Over-I have been translated by the Latin terms Id, Ego and Super-Ego, as if they were parts of a mechanism. The purpose of Freud’s psycho-analysis, says Bettelheim, is to help us in the long and daunting task of freeing ourselves from the mechanical biddings that are so large a part of our personalities. To take responsibility for ourselves rather than helplessly doing the bidding of our instincts. It is an intensely personal quest that only each person can undertake. But in the Anglo-Saxon world psycho-analysis is often no more than a few visits to a shrink to free us from the guilt that other people, notably our parents, have imposed upon us in order that we can have more fun. What on earth, you might ask, does this have to do with Richard Dawkins? I think it does.)
I am a great admirer of Richard Dawkins, and this for three reasons. First, he has helped me to free myself from ‘God’ and ‘religion’. In fact, he has been so important to me personally, perhaps he will find it not too much taking a liberty if I call him Richard. All through much of history people have trembled before a bloodthirsty tyrant God who decreed what was going to happen and demanded endless sacrifices. I now feel this reached a head in the Catholicism of my childhood. According to the Penny Catechism God was so displeased with mankind’s sin his anger could only be appeased by the extremely cruel sacrifice of his son. It is harder to think of anything more horrible and more blood thirsty. It was with amazement that I learnt later on that this is not what the Gospels tell us at all.
My second reason is that the young Richard, like the young Darwin, was a great poet. His descriptions of the marching ants in Panama in The Blind Watchmaker, and the ‘inclosed garden’, as he calls it, of the flowers visited by the fig wasp, or the exquisite construction of the radiolaria and the construction of a spider’s web. all these are as much poetry as they are science. Even as late as The Greatest Shown on Earth, when in a rare moment his imagination escapes from the facts and laboratory experiments whereby, I believe, he has now become overwhelmed, his imaginative identification with the T’aung child is intensely moving: “Poor little T’aung child, shrieking on the wind, as you were borne aloft by the aquiline fury, you would have found no comfort in your destined fame, two and a half million years on, as the type specimen of Australopithecus africanus. Poor T’aung mother, weeping in the Pleistocene”. Has anybody, except the young Darwin himself, ever invested the dry facts of science with such exquisite compassion?
My third reason for admiring him, paradox as this may seem, is what I now consider to be his irrationality. You can’t talk about genes except in what he himself calls ‘the language of purpose’ because what they do is inherently purposeful. If your whole point is to tell something else what to do then you must in some sense be intentional. And according to The Selfish Gene, genes make the ‘lumbering robots’ do what they have to do in order to carry out the purposes of the genes that control them. But Richard won’t have it that the genes are in anyway purposeful, and of course they aren’t. How could little strings of tissue be intelligent and purposeful? So he is saying in effect ‘when I say purposeful please understand that I mean purposeless’. It looks like literal nonsense to me. The whole book is telling us that we have to do what the genes tell us to do, right up to the last page where he tells us that ‘only we can escape from the tyranny of the selfish genes’. Perhaps I haven’t read the book properly but I cannot find anywhere in it any justification for this sudden volte face. Is this the poet escaping out of the laboratory?
Many people have become humanists in the wake of reading The Selfish Gene. But the more I think about it the more humanism too seems to me to be irrational. Science is telling us that all the things in the universe are intelligible and meaningful, and yet when you put them altogether they suddenly aren’t. The universe just happens to be there for no apparent reason. Think of the wonderful wayfaring capacities of a honey bee. She is such a clever mathematician she knows the horizontal angle formed by the sun, the hive and the nectar find, and when she gets back to the hive she can reproduce this information through her waggle dance vertically on a comb and the other bees can understand it. Is it more rational to think that this wonder came about purely by accident or that there is an immaterial intelligent dimension to material reality that science, which by definition is limited to the examination of material reality only, not surprisingly cannot locate? Is it that purposeful means purposeless? Or is there an unobserved force guiding the genes that the miscroscopes cannot see? But then they wouldn’t would they.
Or think of Milankovich cycles. Milankovich discovered the paths the earth takes as it is travelling round the sun. There are three of them. The longest takes a hundred thousand years before the earth reaches its original [position and starts again. The second takes 41,000 years and plots the different angles of the earth in relation to the sun at different stages of its journey. The third, 22,500 years, dictates the wobbles of the earth as it passes round. All these, arising from extremely complex processes, have to interact with each other with precise mathematical accuracy or otherwise the sun would not rise tomorrow morning. Are you telling me all this is just meaninglessly accidental? Or does it make more sense to think that there must be a cosmic intelligence that is the source of these intricacies? To say that we didn’t find God within the circumscribed circles of our miscroscopes makes as little sense as to say we didn’t observe Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony through our microscopes. Genes still do what they do whether God exists or not, but their wondrous behaviour is no argument that he doesn’t. In fact, the contrary. If these little strings of tissue are so purposeful and yet cannot be purposeful, as Richard rightly sees, it makes sense to think that their purposeful behaviour must be guided by something else.
Alice Roberts is always telling us to quit religion and become rational. But her kind of humanism isn’t rational. Most humanists think that ‘religion’ can only offer us mythological mysteries that science has remorselessly shown, one by one, to have natural explanations. This is thinking of science as if you still lived in the seventeenth century. Science now is telling us of mysteries so impenetrable they make those of religion look like physics. How can subatomic particles be both particles and waves? The scientists know that they are but they cannot explain it, only offer us highly mythologized suggestions. How can two electrons communicate with each other spontaneously across the whole universe, thus abrogating Einstein’s most fundamental principle that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light? What do we know of dark matter and dark energy? How can we even begin to imagine what an infinity of universes might be like?
Yet we should try to begin again by becoming humanists. We don’t know whether the Resurrection happened or not. But we do know we are human beings living together on this mysterious planet. We should begin again, and we should follow Richard because he has done so much to release me and so many others from the bloodthirsty tyrant God. But humanism is not enough. Richard is hopelessly muddled. On the one hand, he would have us be the mere machines controlled by the genes, the very thing Freud was trying to release us from. Take responsibility for yourself and the earth, don’t just do what either God or the genes tell you to. But on the other, Richard is a kind of Freudian champion. ‘Only we can escape from the tyranny of the selfish genes’. What a contradiction! If there was ever anybody with soul it was the young Richard.Even more we should follow Jesus, not because we think that the Resurrection happened, how could we know, but because Jesus was the greatest humanist. Alice Roberts’s lot will tell you that it couldn’t have. But how do they know? In so very mysterious a universe how can we be certain that it didn’t? We just don’t know. We should follow Jesus, nevertherless, because he broke so completely with the tyrant God. His attacks on ‘religion’ make Richard look like a polite choirboy. ‘You brood of vipers, you stinking charnel houses’. He replaced the sacrifices of bulls and goats with bitter personal tears, joining him in acute sorrow at his terrible sufferings. Could you think of anything more humane than his compassion, or anything nobler than forgiving his enemies even on the cross? We need exemplars and heroes. Read Richard and follow Jesus even if you can’t believe in the Resurrection. Jesus told us God is not some tyrant dwelling beyond the sky, but human. He was the greatest humanist.