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Prophet of Pointlessness — book review

STEPHEN M. BARR

Richard Dawkins has been accused of spreading a cold and joyless message, a pessimistic nihilism and his latest book, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder, was written in response to these charges. Richard Dawkins was not always a prophet. But the message he now proclaims from his pulpit, the endowed chair in “the Public Understanding of Science,” is that the universe and life have no meaning. But this book is based, in its entirety, on a simple mistake.

In Reading Richard Dawkins I am reminded of an anecdote told by Werner Heisenberg. Heisenberg and several other great physicists were sitting around one evening talking about God and religion. The discussion ended up being dominated by Paul Dirac, who went into a long diatribe declaring religion to be the opiate of the masses. At the end of the evening someone turned to the brilliant Wolfgang Pauli and said, “You have been very quiet tonight, Pauli. What do you think of what Dirac has been telling us?” Pauli responded. “If I understand Dirac correctly, his meaning is this: there is no God, and Dirac is his Prophet.”

Richard Dawkins was not always a prophet. In his early days he wrote well-regarded papers on the rules for grooming in flies and the nesting strategies of digger wasps. It was while toiling in the vineyards of zoological science that he apparently heard the call to preach. His pulpit is an endowed chair in “the Public Understanding of Science” at Oxford, and the message he proclaims in his elegantly written, if somewhat waspish, books and articles is that the universe and life have no meaning. “The universe we observe,” he says, “has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference.”

The root of Dawkins' philosophy is the insight, derived from neo-Darwinian theory, that life has no ulterior purpose, biologically speaking. Mosquitoes exist to replicate mosquito DNA and dung beetles to replicate dung beetle DNA. The whole drama of life is a meaningless genetic competition. Not surprisingly, many people find Dawkins' vision of a pointless universe rather repellant. He has been accused of spreading a cold and joyless message, a pessimistic nihilism. The present book seems to have been written to respond to these charges. Its preface begins thus:

A foreign publisher of my first book confessed that he could not sleep for three nights after reading it, so troubled was he by what he saw as its cold, bleak message. Others have asked me how I can bear to get up in the mornings. A teacher from a distant country wrote to me reproachfully that a pupil had come to him in tears after reading the same book, because it had persuaded her that life was empty and purposeless.

This preface filled me with the keenest anticipation. I had always wondered what consolations could be found in a philosophy like Dawkins'. What would he have to say to that sleepless publisher or that desperate girl? Not what you might have expected. Here is a passage from chapter one, in which he is describing the time-line of life on earth:

Fling your arms wide in an expansive gesture to span all of evolution from its origin at your left fingertip to today at your right fingertip. All across your midline to well past your right shoulder, life consists of nothing but bacteria.
 

Many-celled, invertebrate life flower's somewhere around your right elbow. The dinosaurs originate in the middle of your right palm, and go extinct around your last finger joint. The whole history of Homo sapiens and our predecessor Homo erectus is contained in the thickness of one nail clipping. As for recorded history; as for the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Jewish patriarchs, the dynasties of Pharaohs, the legions of Rome, the Christian Fathers, the Laws of the Medes and Persians which never change; as for Troy and the Greeks, Helen and Achilles and Agamemnon dead; as for Napoleon and Hitler, the Beatles and Bill Clinton, they and everyone that knew them are blown away in the dust of one light stroke of a nail file.

Vivid, striking, accurate, but hardly consoling.

Indeed, what Dawkins has to say to troubled souls is, basically, to grow up and stop snivelling: “The adult world may seem a cold and empty place,” be writes, “with no fairies and no Father Christmas, no Toyland or Narnia, no Happy Hunting Ground where mourned pets go, and no angels — guardian or garden variety. . . . Yes, Teddy and Dolly turn out not to be really alive.”

Dawkins believes that the charge of nihilism and coldness leveled against his philosophy stems from a certain view of science which sees it ridding the world of poetry and romance by explaining things previously steeped in wonder. The title of his book is taken from Keats' poem “Lamia”:

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
Philosophy will clip an angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine
Unweave a rainbow

The word “philosophy” here refers to “natural philosophy,” i.e., science, and the “unweaving” to Isaac Newton's explanation of the rainbow as being due to the prismatic effect of raindrops.

The greater part of Dawkins' book is devoted to answering Keats. Dawkins points out — and here he is quite right — that an increased understanding of nature should heighten rather than diminish our sense of wonder at it. He uses Keats' own example of the rainbow to make his point. The rainbow is a spectrum of light, and Dawkins explains how understanding this spectrum has enabled scientists to make remarkable discoveries. For example, decoding the spectra of light from stars allows astrophysicists to infer what stars are made of, a feat which one might have thought utterly impossible. And decoding the spectra from distant galaxies is what revealed to Edwin Hubble in 1929 the astonishing fact that the universe is expanding.

Dawkins develops this theme through many variations. Not only light but sound has a spectrum. He describes how the human brain is able to “unweave” the exceedingly complex patterns of sound vibrations that impinge upon our ears and interpret or “reweave” them. He goes on to describe the amazing ability of bats to see with sound, and the way that crickets' song is “cunningly pitched and timed to be hard for vertebrate ears to locate, but easy for female crickets, with their weathervane ears, to home in upon.” Dawkins is at his best when describing the wonders which science has learned about living things. In his view, far from ridding the world of poetry, science reveals to us fit subjects for the great poetry of the future.

Dawkins contrasts this with a sense of wonder that feeds on the irrational and the inexplicable. He describes an audience at a magic show that grew angry when the magician's tricks were explained to them. It is this kind of degraded hankering after mystification that lies behind superstitions of all kinds, he alleges, including, of course, religion. What science has done is take the natural appetite for wonder and satisfy it with something true and worthy. Much of the book is taken up with the debunking of superstition in the manner of The Skeptical Inquirer.

In contrasting the two senses of wonder, the scientific and the obscurantist (which includes for him the religious), Dawkins directs his scorn at those “who are content to bask in the wonder and revel in a mystery we were not `meant' to understand.” This is a strange reproach, since it is the heart of Dawkins' own creed that we were not “meant” to do anything, let alone to understand. This is but one instance of a curious disjunction that exists between the tenets of Dawkins' philosophy and the values he wishes to base on them.

One sees this also in his discussion of astrology, which he attacks not only as false, but as fraught with “sad human consequences. But one of the problems with materialism is that it is little different from astrology in its human consequences. What is the difference between believing that one's actions are dictated by the orbits of the planets and believing that they are dictated by the orbits of the electrons in one's brain”

This book is based in its entirety on a simple mistake. It is not often that one can find exactly the point where an author goes off the track, but here one can. It is in the fifth sentence of the preface of the book, which begins, “Similar accusations of barren desolation, of promoting an arid and joyless message, are frequently flung at science in general.” However, what people object to in Dawkins is not the science but the atheism. Because he cannot see the difference, he writes a book that is a 300-page non sequitur. In answering the charge that his atheism is a joyless creed, he says, in essence, that his atheism allows him to derive pleasure from the beauty and magnificence of Nature as revealed by science. He may as well have said that his atheism allows him to enjoy a good steak or a game of baseball, or that his atheism gives him the great advantage of having a nose, two eyes, and ten fingers.

Those who believe in God, including the very substantial proportion of scientists who do, are every bit as able to thrill to scientific discovery as Dawkins is. They embrace scientific understanding and rejoice in it, as he does. But they have as well the joy of their faith, which tells them that the beauty of Nature points to something higher, to a Wisdom greater than their own. For Dawkins it points to nothing. He is welcome to that conclusion, but there is not the slightest reason why any scientist or scientifically minded person should share it.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Barr, Stephen M., J. “Prophet of Pointlessness.” First Things 95 (August/September 1999): 55-56.

Book review of Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder by Richard Dawkins and published by Houghton Mifflin.

Reprinted with permission of First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, 156 Fifth Avenue, Suite 400, New York, NY 10010. To subscribe to First Things call 1-800-783-4903.

THE AUTHOR

Stephen M. Barr is a theoretical particle physicist at the Bartol Research Institute of the University of Deleware.

Copyright © 1999 FIRST THINGS
 

 

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