Reader Michael called my attention to this 40-minute talk from October’s CSICon in Las Vegas that was posted just this morning by the Center For Inquiry. There are only 150 views so far. First, the YouTube notes:
Compare two ways of knowing the world. On the one hand theologians claim that the universe and all that’s in it was divinely made and can be understood through faith and revelation. On the other hand there is science, and the scientific method which extols evidence, and demonstrated, repeatable outcomes.
Science knows a lot, but has the humility to acknowledge what it still doesn’t know, and is working on. Theology, by contrast, has contributed literally nothing to our knowledge, and hubristically makes stuff up.
Science is continually surprising, even shocking. Darwin dealt the biggest shock of all when he showed that the prodigious complexity of life has a stunningly simple explanation. Darwin’s courage should arm us to face the remaining deep puzzles of existence: how did the universe and the laws of physics originate? Why is there something rather than nothing?
Inspired by Darwin, this lecture celebrates the godless world-view as not just scientifically valid but courageous. We need intellectual courage to resist facile non-explanations. And we need moral courage to eschew comforting but empty illusions and face into the cold but bracing wind of reality.
Richard’s talk is actually two talks. The first discusses the contrast between religion and science, reprising, I have to say, many of the points I made in Faith Versus Fact. Dawkins notes, for instance, that some of the truth statements of Christianity, like the bodily assumption of Mary into Heaven, were simply made up by Church authorities—without even any scriptural justification. He also dilates on the minutely detailed rules of behavior promulgated by some branches of Islam: behavior that is both senseless and unjustified (he uses breast-feeding as an Islamic index or being a “relative”). He calls this religious authoritarianism “control freakery,” and contrasts the dogmatic certainty of religion with the tentativeness of science. He concludes that “religion has contributed exactly zero to what we know.”
Of course I don’t have Dawkins’s eloquence, and you’ll be amused at his contrast between how theologians versus scientists would answer the question, “Is second-hand smoke dangerous?” Finally, he calls out the Left for coddling religion, saying, “I find it nothing short of disgusting the way the Liberal Left in America, people who should be on our side, bend over backwards to overlook the illiberal, homophobic bigotry of Islamism.”
The second part of the talk gets to the title’s point: we should draw courage from Darwin. But how do we do that?
Richard’s solution is to list the “deep questions of science”, and admit that, in contrast to the certainty of theology, we don’t have the answers. These questions include how does our brain’s physiology lead to the subjective phenomenon of consciousness, where do the laws of physics come from, and why is there something rather than nothing. (He alludes to Lawrence Krauss’s solution to this question, but admits that Krauss’s definition of “nothing” is contested.) The intellectual courage that we should derive from Darwin is the courage to work on these deep problems, confident that there is a naturalistic solution even if we ultimately can’t find it. It is the courage to accept the possibility “that something as complex as life and the origin of the universe could have just happened.” It is the courage “to kick oneself out of our emotional incredulity and persuade yourself that there is no rational choice beyond accepting a naturalistic explanation, to think that solutions can be found to these deep problems.”
But why draw the courage from Darwin rather than science itself or pure naturalism? Because, argues Richard, Darwin already solved the biggest problem, the one that people thought could never be solved by reason: how the illusion of cosmic design could be explained in a purely naturalistic fashion. If Darwin could do that, then we should not quail before “lesser” problems like consciousness, dark matter, or the origin of life. As Richard says, Darwin’s success “should armor us with courage to tackle the remaining problems.”
And atheism should armor us with the moral courage: the courage to face our finitiude, and the courage to live our lives knowing that we’re not being overseen and protected by a celestial father.
It’s a good talk, but many of us who have been steeped in Dawkins’s speeches and books may not hear much that is new. Still, remember that he’s speaking not to the readership here, but to many people who can benefit from his kind of inspiration. As for Darwin, well, I greatly admire what he did, persisting in finding a naturalistic answer to the diversity and change of living creatures. Am I inspired by that to tackle harder problems? Well, I don’t tackle harder problems, but if I was inspired by anything when I was doing research, it was by pure curiosity. As scientists we’re inculcated with the idea that scientific problems have naturalistic solutions, and that comes unconsciously and not as an explicit lesson from Darwin. In fact there are many scientists working on hard problems who don’t even know much about Darwin.
But for this audience, yes, perhaps the lesson of Darwin should impart confidence that things appearing intractable almost surely have naturalistic solutions. I myself would have listed a bunch of problems that once were thought insuperable, requiring the intervention of a God, but now are known to have purely naturalistic solutions.