Monday, March 2, 2009

A Most Fascinating Couple Hours

This comes from Richard Dawkins's blog.

This is part one of a two-hour discussion between four of the great rational & scientific thinkers of our age: Dawkins himself, philosopher Daniel Dennett, and authors Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. I've read a bunch of stuff from each of them, and though I don't know Dennett particularly well, the other three would be on the top of my list of recommended authors. Richard Dawkins's work popularizing biology is of inestimable worth, and Hitchens and Harris have both done fantastic work debunking religious hooey.

I think one would be hard-pressed to ever find four finer minds assembled in one place for an informal chat. This is like getting invited to sit at the dinner table with the crowd that would never have me. So get yourself something to drink and a comfy chair and settle in.


dbackdad said...

I'm all over that. I don't have the time right now but am going to listen tonight. I've read Dawkin, Hitchens and Harris but, like you, have not had a lot of experience with Dennett.

wunelle said...

I read his book "Darwin's Dangerous Idea," and found it good but a bit dry. But he's a respected thinker and has dealt with many issues related to our collective resistance to parts of science. He contributes greatly to this conversation--well, they all play a great part. Enjoy.

dbackdad said...

Finally had the chance to sit down and watch the whole thing. Great stuff.

Hitchens is often portrayed as being a bit of a drunken blowhard, but I find him remarkably intelligent and well-spoken, at least in this forum.

wunelle said...

If one reads his Vanity Fair and Slate things (to say nothing of his books), I think he's a remarkable intellect, and a bit of an acerbic character. He's intriguing to me here as the lone person who thinks this battle cannot be won without military force (and in the depth and breadth of his arguments for this).

OldJoeClark said...

Being a religious skeptic I have no fundamental disagreements with any of these gentlemen. However, I do have one bone to pick with Harris on one thing he said. He mentioned that for a religious person to admit they're wrong is to confess that their life has been wasted (or to that effect). As someone who was raised Mormon, tried to make it work for 40+ years only to discover it was hogwash, and now has turned solely to the religion of my own mind I have to say that I hardly consider my previous life as "wasted".

Both Mr. Harris and religious zealots get up in the morning, put their pants on one leg at a time, commute to work, eat their lunch, belch, fart, and make love. My point is that no matter our perspective on things religious we are all homo sapiens and our time is largely consumed doing the things that homo sapiens do. From a practical standpoint my life has changed little since my religious deconversion.

Humans did not evolve as truthseekers but as survivalists. In primitive cultures much of survival hinged on being a member of a group. Groups can better supply food, clothing and shelter and defend their turf from potential invaders. The urge to stick with a group is a much stronger impulse than the impulse to seek truth especially when it brings you into conflict with your group.

The Four Horseman are as guilty as a lot of religious zealots who draw a polemical black and white picture of the world which I think is not accurate. Both groups seem to be hyperfocused on "what". The Four Horsemen would be more persuasive with their critics if they included more "why" in their arguments, like why are people so drawn to religion from a psychological and sociological perspective, and mixing a little empathy in with it wouldn't hurt. There is a lot of great work done in this area by other academics that would be great to include in their work.

That said I think Dawkins has toned his rhetoric down a little over the years. I am not that familiar with Dennett, but I like a lot of things he adds to their discussion.

wunelle said...

Howdy. (Sorry I'm so uncommunicado lately, but this training business has me quite under water. I should resurface shortly.)

I quite agree with your assessment: it's hardly a waste of a life (whatever that means) for us to try to make our way through the thicket as best we can. I think there is value in acknowledging what we cannot know, and we are all fallible and possessed of limited vision.

That said, I think it becomes a question of what task lays before them (the Horsemen, the skeptic) and how do they accomplish it? The approach of the skeptic or rationalist toward religion seems so case-specific. On the one hand, we have we Regular Joe Citizens who are just trying to make our way; and on the other we have the zealots and the movers & shakers--and I think it's this latter category that invokes much of their wrath (though with the awareness that religious leaders have exactly as much power as we unwashed give them). I think so much of their argument is with those who have steered our culture down this peculiar path, and who now resist the extended reach of rationality.

I also quite agree with your admonishment that the Horsemen might get further with a bit more empathy, though I might add this: religious viewpoints are protected and everywhere in evidence in our culture, and we STILL find rationality itself under attack (certainly where scientific theory rebuts established religious thinking). And I think that assertion is itself not accepted in religious circles. So I don't know how close we are to the group hug that might otherwise be beneficial.

I think you're right on about seeing where our brains come from and how our need for religion extends from that. We are pattern-seekers, and a keen grasp of causality is surely a survival mechanism for us. But it's one that can be exploited (along with our hard-wired proclivity for hierarchical social structures) for one group to gain power and control over others. Every time I see the Poop and his bishops & prelates and catemites I'm reminded of this.

Thanks for the excellent comment.