Art, Science and Richard Dawkins

Recently I finally got around to watching an interview I’ve been told about many times by people on both ‘sides’ of the argument and neither: Richard Dawkins vs. Deepak Chopra [Click Here to Watch]. Dawkins, as usual, puts on airs of being Mr. Reasonable and Objective and ends up, to me, looking something of a bullying arse. The High Priest of Atheism as ever steps beyond the realm of his expertise (he has actually done good science and should continue with that). Although this is still within science – Chopra is a qualified and experienced medical doctor, a board-certified endocrinologist, experienced in conventional medicine and alternative therapy, Dawkins is a qualified and experienced researcher in evolutionary biology, quite different – Dawkins still acts as though he is the only ‘real’ scientist there (concerned more with statistics and trends than real individual instances, ever the research scientist).

In the full interview Chopra comes over very well, I think, it’s an interesting chat between two people with very different views. To call Chopra an enemy of reason would seem more than a little unfair. In the edit used for TV Dawkins makes Chopra look like a total charlatan. It’s pretty pathetic really. Dawkins shines as an evolutionary biologist, but as a ‘champion of reason’ he seems as smug and underhanded as he does foolish. Anyone who fails to believe what he believes is mad. Sound familiar?

I think the personality cult he has amassed and the attention he receives for his opinions disguised as facts is probably all to engrossing, like many groups and movements those who have bought into it believe they have all the answers and everyone else is crazy. They believe ‘Science’ is the lens through which everything should be viewed and yet, as Dawkins shows in the interview, science is a vast subject with many areas he himself knows nothing about. So when he says ‘Science’ what he likely means is research science, specifically animal behaviour and evolutionary biology. The lens through which everything should be viewed just so happens to be his.

Terry Eagleton has remarked ‘imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read[/hear] Richard Dawkins on theology.’ Or indeed philosophy, psychology, physics and a host of other subjects he seems to have decided can only be understood and found valid or invalid by him, er, I mean ‘Science’.

Dawkins seems to have an ego Neutron stars would envy – appearing small only due to its immense denseness. He could learn a thing or two from Chopra, if he could ever actually see beyond his own point of view. Even if Chopra is a charlatan, his work makes people happy and I’ve yet to hear of anyone threatening the lives of others or belittling them in its name.

As ever the comments on this and anything to do with Dawkins tend to descend into incredibly tedious and ubiquitous ‘religion is true/false’ slap fights in which the main taboo appears to be admitting we know nothing for certain and can only test our theories. This just so happens to be good science as well as good mysticism. I can only assume that dogmatism has more appeal to our basic tribal instincts.

The question of the empirical truth of religion and spirituality seems to me entirely uninteresting and missing the point. “Truth” applies to religion and spirituality as much as it does to art. Have you ever seen anyone arguing that a painting is “True”? Or two similar paintings being killed over because one is believed to be “True” and the other “False”? It would be absurd.

The interesting questions regarding religion and spirituality are why people have them and what purpose they fulfil. To fail to acknowledge and investigate the function of religion and spirituality as evolved and interesting natural phenomenon seems to me as much poor science as it does a failure of imagination on the part of the inquirer. But thankfully there are many thinkers willing to look at these issues, unfortunately none are as famous, infamous or influential as Richard Dawkins, who appears intent on promoting a fundamentalist materialist world view that seems to amount to existential nihilism, which leads inevitably to the Camusian question: ‘Why not kill ourselves?’

I chose to see the Nietzschean light at the end of that particular dark tunnel, that we must create our own meanings, and those meanings can and do have validity, the kind there is little use in poking and prodding about for in a laboratory. I accept the fact I am a limited life form with limited fleshy sensoria that can only tell me so much, I will never comprehend the entirety of this wonderful phenomenon that appears to be occurring, however many instruments I use. I lack the hubris to claim I could know it all but I also lack the fear to let that diminish me. I can know what I can know. I embrace that and am in wonder with it. I am an artist.

4 comments

  1. Hey, interesting take, and I really like your artwork! I’ve seen the debate too and know a bit about it. I write about biology and recently wrote a review on Dawkins’ most recent books. Hmm, Dawkins or Chopra? In my own opinion, it would be interesting to hear them just discuss the ideas as if it didn’t matter so much to them personally, more of a laid back “podcast conversation” than a debate. But as you probably realize, their kind of debate is partly entertainment. I think they do respectively have strong views, and it is true that Dawkins is a bit harsh, but if they enjoy the sensational aspects of it and have a bit of humor about it, why not? I would say Dawkins has more experience with objective science and Chopra subjective science although both seem a bit too certain in their views. But it is true that alternative medicine often works, studies show. In the objective view, it’s the placebo effect; in the subjective view, it’s real. But either way, placebo/belief can result in physiological and psychological changes, including the healing of some illnesses (with some limits and differences by individual). Additionally, one think Chopra is correct to say is that we experience everything (and even conduct science) subjectively, as he says, “in consciousness.” So there is more than may meet the eye about some of these issues, as you seem to imply.

    • Yes, there is a lot more than meets the eye about these issues; its nowhere near black and white. I also agree it would be interesting for these sorts of views to meet in a less personal way as a podcast. That sounds much more interesting than the usual “I’m right/you’re wrong” verbal slap fights; some nuance and openness to other ideas always makes for far more stimulating conversation 🙂

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