Richard Dawkins and Richard Wiseman: “Jesus Wept!”

Richard Dawkins is rather unflappable, but I do suspect he wasn’t quite ready, at least at first, for questioning by Richard Wiseman, who, let’s face it, gets rather silly. Impish? Yes, I’d say so. Now, the conversation the two had on stage at CSICon 2017 was fun and fluid, with lots of great insights and big laughs. But I also think the one Richard didn’t quite see the other Richard coming.

And I mean that in the best sense. It’s kind of cool to see Dawkins light up with delight at the playfulness of Wiseman, even if he didn’t always know exactly how to respond to it. For example, Wiseman displayed a picture of a truly odd sculpture of, supposedly, Dawkins, to which Dawkins exclaimed, “Jesus wept!” Also, Wiseman insisted that his Aunt Jean was not at all selfish, so how would Dawkins explain that? There was nothing to say to that. But usually, he very much did know how to respond.

Wiseman, in one of the non-silly lines of questioning, was interested in Dawkins’ expectations and reactions concerning his biggest books, The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. Dawkins revealed that he had hoped to begin work on The God Delusion as far back as the late nineties, but there was a belief that such a book would fare poorly. Fast forward through five or six years of the George W. Bush administration, and it was suddenly clear that it was time to make it happen.

Now, it’s estimated not only that the book has sold about three million copies, but that the unauthorized Arabic language version, only existing as a digital file, has been downloaded about 30 million times. Why? Dawkins hopes there is “a hidden groundswell of irreligion in the Muslim world, a mismatch between what we’re told they believe and what they do.”

What can still impress someone like Richard Dawkins, the great evolutionary biologist? What makes him say “wow”? Well, actually, it’s more evolutionary biology. Dawkins said he’d read about incredibly elaborate termite mounds, which Daniel Dennett had pointed out look remarkably like large, magnificent churches. But it wasn’t just the similarity that blew him away. He was amazed that “one was built by design,” the church had an architect who devised every detail, but the other had no designer whatsoever. In fact, not one of the termites has any idea what they’re making. That’s astounding.

Dawkins always gets asked about aliens. You can always bet on an aliens question. (Listen to my Point of Inquiry episode with Lee Billings to learn more about what we know, or rather don’t know, about aliens.) He says, yes, he does believe there are likely other creatures elsewhere in the universe, and that they could very well so advanced as to be god-like to us. But if they are god-like, “they didn’t create the universe. They would have evolved in it.”

There was much more of course, but I’ll leave you with this. He is, in fact, working on an atheism-for-kids book, and he has an idea of what his final quote should be:

“There is such a thing as the truth. The truth is to be discovered by science. And the truth is utterly wonderful.”

Yeah, that’s pretty good.

P.S.: Here’s the Peter Medawar review of Père Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man that Dawkins said he loved so. Enjoy.

Photo by Brian Engler

Born Thinking Magically: James Alcock on Confusing Labels for Knowledge

If you’ve been around the secular community for any length of time, you’ve probably heard the cliché that goes, “we are all born atheist.” I bristle at it, because it’s not as though we come into the world affirmatively rejecting the supernatural beings hypothesis. It’s kind of like saying we’re born undecided voters.

James Alcock is our first CSICon speaker, and he’s talking about how human beings make associations between things that actually have no relationship. He began with circular explanations for things that actually give us no information, as when one asks, “why does the apple fall from the tree,” and the answer is, “because of gravity.” How do we know gravity is operating? Because the apple fell, silly.

“We confuse labels for knowledge,” says Alcock. No real information comes out of that.

It applies to things like the association of prayer with events in the real world: one prays to get over an illness, one gets over the illness, and it’s falsely assumed that prayer works.

But here’s the thing. We’re wired for this. Alcock explains that we have evolved to perceive agency in things that have none, to make associations that might not exist. Believing comes naturally.

Critical thinking is one of the last intellectual skills human children develop. We’re not born atheist, you see. As we learned from Alcock today, “We are born as magical thinkers.” I think that just makes skeptics’ work all the more important.