I’m cooling my heels at R*agan Airport in DC, which I’d prefer to call National Airport, its old name. I’ll be home about noon Chicago time.
You may remember the first bit of this post’s title as a Beatles song; if you also remember the album it was on, you get extra credit.
The event last night with Richard Dawkins at Lisner Auditorium (George Washington University) went well, or so I thought. There was a crowd of 900, the VIP pre-event sold out, and I think our conversation was pretty informative, though it’s always hard to tell when you’re onstage and can’t see the audience (the spotlights were fierce). I tried to concentrate on evolution, though I did pin Richard down to saying something about free will (in the dualistic sense), as in his upcoming book of essays, Science in the Soul (recommended), he’d written this:
“After my public speeches I have come to dread the inevitable ‘do you believe in free will’ question and sometimes resort to quoting Christopher Hitchens’s characteristically witty answer, “I have no choice”.
Well, that’s glib, but also a non-answer, so I wanted to ask him if he accepted that all our actions are predetermined except for possible quantum events in the brain. And he did admit that, but added that he doesn’t really understand compatibilism and other attempts to give us free will. I didn’t get into those issues, and we briefly discussed the implications of pure determinism for society and the justice system.
Here are a few other questions I asked Richard (from my notes):
- How did your life as a scientist and immersion in science affect your personality and attitudes (towards truth, religion, etc.), and are such effects a general phenomenon among scientists?
- Let’s begin with Darwin: if he hadn’t existed, how would things be different? Would progress have slowed, and would we be where we are now? Would there be things that people wouldn’t have studied? (A: Wallace would have filled the gap, perhaps delaying a big book by 20 years.)
- If you could get Darwin back and ask him one question, what would it be? (A: Why did you wait so long to publish The Origin?
- If you could tell him one thing, what would it be? (A: About genetics. I then asked Richard what he would say if he were limited to one sentence.)
- If you had a device that let you peek back in time, but only for one day during a specified period, and could observe what you wanted, bringing a notebook but not a camera, what would you peek at? Origin of life? Beginning of multicellularity? Dinosaurs? Origin of our own species? Beginnings of civilization? Would you want to answer a question or just see something? (He answered that he would like to hear the beginnings of hominin speech.)
- What one misunderstanding about evolution you would like to correct? (A: It’s all accidental)
- *Do you think studying or using philosophy is of value to a scientist? How? (A: Yes, as philosophers often teach us to think more clearly about questions, even scientific ones.)
I won’t recount all the other questions and answers; there were many. I also moderated the audience questions at the end, and, as I ended them, I saw a little girl in line with her mother. I couldn’t resist calling on her, too, for, as the Bible says, “a little child will lead them” (she was about five, I think). She said that other children at her school call kids like her, who are interested in science, “nerds.” How, she asked, would Richard respond to that? His sweet and touching answer began with this: “I rather like nerds.”
Here’s a photo of the discussion courtesy of Brian Engler. Notice that Richard has mismatched socks, and one of the audience asked him, “What’s with the socks?” If a reader doesn’t know (put your answer below), I’ll tell you later.
I’m wearing my stingray cowboy boots.
Many thanks to Robyn Blumner and Stephanie Guttormson for their hospitality and organization.