Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Tyson and Dawkins

This has been much discussed at the Panda’s Thumb, but I found a clip of it and I really like it. In a panel discussion at the Beyond Belief conference, the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson took Dawkins to task, in a very collegial way, for striking the wrong tone and undermining his own goals. Below the fold I’m going to post the video of that, but a few thoughts before I do that. First, to Dawkins’ credit he accepts the criticism; I truly hope he learns from it and takes it to heart, so to speak.

Second, I think Tyson’s comments should be combined with the comments that he made about the wonder and awe of science and the relationship of those emotions to feelings of spirituality (Part 1 and Part 2). I think he’s on to something there and I think it is possible to utilize that shared sense of awe and wonder to forge a common ground between science and religion. Like it or not, we do not think only with pure reason; our ability or willingness to reason out a problem is affected very much by our emotional reactions. Convince us that an idea is being offered by a terrible person and we are less likely to accept it even if we know intellectually that the validity of that idea should stand on its own and not depend upon the character of the person offering it.

We all fall victim to such tendencies at times. And I think Tyson is on to something important here that could help break down emotional resistence to at least thinking about science. If we can get them to look at science with the same sense of awe and wonder that they look at religion, we might at least find some common language. I know from my own experience that this is true because it was reading Carl Sagan, perhaps the greatest communicator of the emotional fulfillment one gets from studying nature who ever lived, that opened my mind to science in the first place. And as Tyson suggests, this is likely due to the fact that he pushed the same emotional buttons in my brain that religion had previously pushed.

Let me also say this: Richard Dawkins is not the devil, for crying out loud. I have my disagreements with his approach, of course, but I think Tyson gets it about right. He is a man of enormous intellect, enormous charm and an amazing gift for communication. With a change in tone and more understanding of his target audience, he could be much more effective at reaching people. Come to think of it, that may be true for me as well.

Comments

  1. #1 kehrsam
    November 25, 2006

    Richard Dawkins is always so charming in public, even when he is being “a bit sharp” as Tyson puts it. He can be much sharper when not dealing directly with another human, which I would guess serves to personalize the debate.

    Unfortunately, I think Dawkins rejects that “sense of awe and wonder” out of hand. I don’t think he would deny that he feels it, rather he would argue that any such subjective emotion needs to be denied. In this sense he appears to be a good old-fashioned Stoic.

  2. #2 Caliban
    November 25, 2006

    I’m glad you posted this Ed. I think a lot of the folks who come to your blog have felt that Dawkin’s is being unfairly demonised and that everything he has ever wrote about or said has been eclipsed because of a few, rude comments.

    Obviously, Dawkins thinks that much of religon is bunk. This belief in itself does not make him a bigot any more than thinking that Republicans or Democrats are bunk. If one thinks that, for instance, Republican ideology is wrong-headed it’s going to be that much harder to phrase your rejection of that ideology in terms that will never offend someone. Especially if, like Dawkins, one is asked about it all the time.

    I think that what Dawkins and other atheists like myself want is no different than what the Christian or Muslim wants. Anyone who has an ideology that excites them and motivates them will naturally want to see that ideology flourish. Liberal Christains desire that the country become more like them. Foundamentalists desire that the country become more like them. And yes, Secular Humanists want the country to be more like them.

    I’m not a bigot for rejecting Christianity anymore than a Christian is a bigot for rejecting atheism. Same goes for Dawkins.

  3. #3 Leni
    November 25, 2006

    I like DeGrasse too. That was an extremely diplomatic, well put and respectful criticism.

    And that “fuck off” quote was a classic too.

    Kehrsam, I don’t really know where you’re getting that from. His descriptions of deep geological time, evolution and the fragility of life often express those very feelings. Articulately and convinglingly, I might add. I think Dawkins would only ask that we not mistake them for the voice or hand of god.

  4. #4 Caliban
    November 25, 2006

    Kersham, have you read any of Dawkin’s books on evolution? If so, i don’t know how you could possibly think that he would think that “subjective emotion needs to be denied”.

    When Dawkins is talking or writting about evolution, he is (to me) obviously every bit as much in love with the material as Carl Sagan was with astronomy.

  5. #5 Ruth
    November 25, 2006

    ‘Unfortunately, I think Dawkins rejects that “sense of awe and wonder” out of hand. I don’t think he would deny that he feels it, rather he would argue that any such subjective emotion needs to be denied. In this sense he appears to be a good old-fashioned Stoic.’

    Have you actually read a single thing Dawkins has written?

  6. #6 James Hrynyshyn
    November 25, 2006

    I’d just like to chime in with those surprised by Kehrsam’s suggestion that Dawkins doesn’t embrace the awe and wonder of nature. He most certainly does. Read the Selfish Gene (1976) for starters and then read the God Delusion (2006). It’s pretty clear he shares Tyson and Sagan and Gould’s well established sense of wonder.

  7. #7 jeffw
    November 25, 2006

    Have you actually read a single thing Dawkins has written?

    Have you? There are many of his books that exhibit “awe and wonder” and a kind of metaphorical “poetry”. The Ancestors Tale, River out of Eden, and the end of The God Delusion come to mind. He’s one the finest science writers out there, with excellent prose and clarity (although he’s little better in print than in person, IMO).

  8. #8 writerdd
    November 25, 2006

    To those who dislike Dawkins’s tone in The God Delusion, I have one suggestion: Shut your mouth and write a better book–if you can.

  9. #9 Ed Brayton
    November 25, 2006

    Yeah, I agree with all the above. I’ve read most of Dawkins’ books (despite my criticism of him on some things, he is an absolutely brilliant writer) and I have no doubt that he does feel that same sense of awe and wonder at studying the ways of nature. I feel that same sense from reading his books on science as I do when I first read Sagan as a teenager. And that is what science popularizers do best, I think.

  10. #10 DuWayne
    November 25, 2006

    I may well read Dawkins now, with the great recommendations here. Carl Sagan is responsible for my love of Astronomy and science. If Dawkins is even close to Sagan in expressing the wonder of our universe, he is worth reading.

  11. #11 Ed Brayton
    November 25, 2006

    One thing I have always said, even while criticizing Dawkins for many things, is that he is absolutely worth reading. He’s a daring thinker and an exceptionally good writer. I’ve learned much from him, as I have from PZ Myers as well. We can criticize someone in one area while still having great respect for them in other areas.

  12. #12 Jeff Hebert
    November 25, 2006

    Ed Said:

    Come to think of it, that may be true for me as well.

    Has anyone else noticed that Ed has the ability to admit when he is wrong, to accept responsibility for a poor choice of words that gets taken in a different way than he meant it, and confesses that there is a possibility that he may have room to grow, as both a person and an advocate for science?

    That’s one of the reasons I love reading Ed. He’s ferocious in the attack, gracious in victory, and humble in defeat. I never trust a man who can’t admit when he’s wrong or who thinks he’s already got all the answers.

    I could point out that this attitude stands in stark contrast (especially recently) to other prominent science bloggers, but I hate stating the obvious.

  13. #13 chet snicker
    November 25, 2006

    I could point out that this attitude stands in stark contrast (especially recently) to other prominent science bloggers, but I hate stating the obvious.

    if you’re talking about me, yes, i’m never wrong….

    re: dawkins, the man is a brilliant prose stylist. after reading his works you see what other popularizers like matt ridley are trying grasp toward. if dawkins is a stoic, he is one in whom the divine spark burns brightly.

  14. #14 egbooth
    November 25, 2006

    Jeff Hebert: I whole-heartedly agree.

    If everyone in this whole evolution/science/religion conversation had just an ounce more of humility, this world would be a much better place. There are so many a$$holes out there coming from all sides who can never ever admit that they have made a mistake or any viewpoint that they hold could turn out to be incorrect. It’s pathetic and extremely unpleasant to read.

  15. #15 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 25, 2006

    If anyone wonders how Dawkins can be harsh at times, please view his reading with Q&A session at Randolph-Macon Women’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia, USA. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Univesity is across town, and many students and faculty showed up to participate in the Q&A, mostly by asking the same question (how can atheists be moral?) over and over and over, even after Dawkins had addressed the issue.
    link

  16. #16 Troy Britain
    November 25, 2006

    Hey guys, not only does Dawkins share that feeling of wonder about the natural world that all normal humans have, as I recall he wrote a whole book about how understanding how something in nature works or came about (evolution) does not/should not, detract from that sense of wonder.

    See:

    Dawkins, Richard (1998) Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder.

  17. #17 Matthew
    November 25, 2006

    I don’t share that awe for nature but I sure do enjoy Tyson on NOVA.

  18. #18 bj
    November 25, 2006

    There is still too much Dawkins worship on this side of the aisle. He is using his talents destructively. I suppose we Americans have always been suckers for the English dialect. He is part of the problem, not part of the solution. Religionists who are disrespectful and demeaning of atheists are equally at fault. When considering science education and the future of science, a broad coalition of theists, deists, and non-theists, etc., who are grown-ups, are going to be the ones to save the day.

  19. #19 Greco
    November 25, 2006

    There is still too much Dawkins worship on this side of the aisle.

    So, saying that someone is a good writer, has some good ideas, and isn’t evil incarnate is worship?

    I suppose we Americans have always been suckers for the English dialect.

    Which one? RP? Estuary English? Cockney? Scouse? Lancashire?

    He is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

    The pot calling the kettle divisive?

  20. #20 Corkscrew
    November 25, 2006

    There is still too much Dawkins worship on this side of the aisle.

    Moving beyond the more obvious ways this comment is daft, I’d note that Dawkins does seem to have become a repository of everyone’s feelings on atheism. When I hear someone say “Dawkins believes X”, and I think X is ludicrous, I know they’re wrong: because Dawkins is The Quintessential Atheist and I know what atheism means to me. (The fact that I’ve so far always been right about his views is besides the point)

    Similarly, when a fundie believes that Atheists Are Evil, or that they deny the wonder inherent in the world, or whatever, they tend to project these traits onto Dawkins. It’s an interesting phenomenon.

  21. #21 Troy Britain
    November 25, 2006

    Matthew: I don’t share that awe for nature but I sure do enjoy Tyson on NOVA.

    Really? You’ve never looked at the stars in the sky on a dark night and felt any wonder or awe at the size, age, and beauty of the universe?

    You have never looked closely at a living thing like a butterfly and felt anything about their beauty and intricacy?

    Have you ever been to the Grand Canyon? Few are those who can look into the Canyon and not feel something of the grandeur of nature.

    If the answer truly is no, then (no offence) you really are an odd bird indeed.

  22. #22 Tom Wood
    November 25, 2006

    I think there’s a huge difference between religion and spirituality – that sense of awe and wonder. In many ways religion and spirituality are mutually exclusive. When a scientist experiences awe and wonder at nature, they are experiencing legitimate spirituality that doesn’t undermine reason. Revealed truth cuts that off short by preventing any journey into the unknown.

  23. #23 Matthew
    November 25, 2006

    I find some of those things interesting Troy, but I’m not in awe with them (in this sort of religious awe sort of way). Maybe the first time I looked at them, but not lasting. It all seems pretty mechanical to me and I’m ok with that. The achievements of man, however, I find awe in, and yeah I know that we are of nature as well. This attempt to give non-theists spirituality through naturalism isn’t going to work for me.

  24. #24 sparc
    November 25, 2006

    Tyson and Dawkins

    I was really attracted by the heading until I realized that it was not “Iron” Mike …

  25. #25 DuWayne
    November 25, 2006

    Tom Wood -

    That is a very interesting notion. I understand how you would think that, but I disagree.

    First, they are not mutually exclusive. I was raised by a mother who was/is a fundy Christian and a dad who is an atheist (happily married for nearly thirty years and counting). I was brought up in pentecostal, fundamentalist churches. I believed, I mean really Believed.

    I also had a dad who was pure inspiration. I mean he bent over backwards, under and around, to make sure his kids were able to learn about anything and encouraged us to explore. He took me to see Carl Sagan speak when I was 11 (I saw him speak when I was seven too) and it was a near transcendental experience. It moved me in a way I didn’t know possible – it was very much what you are describing – the vast world of knowledge, beauty waiting for me to suck it in and hopefully add to it’s sum.

    Then and now, I live in a world of both – though I am more deist than theist. The beauty and expanse of the universe and time are positively intoxicating to me. The very notion of fifteen billion years rocks me to the core – the added notion that the human race has only been around for 1.5 to 2.5 million years, all but the last thirty thousand or so, in proto human form is, well it’s hard to describe the feelings that produces – but it is awesome to just try to comprehend these kind of distances through time.

    Add to that the nature of the universe. The potential of a multi-verse. The explosion that formed our universe. That everything, absolutely everything in our universe shares a common ancestry. Never mind that all life on this tiny little rock in the cosmos shares common ancestry – absolutely everything in our universe (which is really, really big, mind) shares common ancestry. Everything we can see or will see, is of the same stuff, blasted into being some 15 billion years ago, as we comprehend time.

    If your not getting me, I really get excited about the world, the universe around me.

    But I also get excited at the notion of God. It is exciting to me, that their could be something greater than even my habitual comprehension of the universe. I love to contemplate our universe, I also love to contemplate God, what is God – what are these stretches of time and space, is God somewhere in that comprehension, somewhere in our inter-connection, outside looking in, ignoring us, interacting with us, us.

    More than being confined to exploring what obviously is, I like to explore what could be. I firmly believe that by exploring what could be, we can change what is. The practical and important, what could be, that I like to explore is the human race, human nature and where we are going. I would like to think that we might come out of our infancy, into something greater than our present sum.

    Sorry for the length. Point being that I take as much joy in contemplating God as I do nature. Granted, I take a very deist approach, but I took the same joy in expressing my faith, when I was a decidedly theist, Christian child. In fact, after seeing Sagan and awakening my thirst for knowledge, my joy in Christian expression grew exponentially.

  26. #26 Tom Wood
    November 25, 2006

    Hi DuWayne,

    In my more cynical moments I think faith is the place where we give up trying to understand. So to me it seems a tragedy to accept a pre-packaged set of beliefs without ever having tried to grapple with the Big Questions. And I just don’t think God writes books where all Truth is revealed. That being said, I do think Christianity’s message of forgiveness and compassion is one that was necessary for our humanity. But it’s only a step along a continuum.

    Me? I’m more of a pantheist and can accept a self-organizing, and perhaps self-aware universe as a stand-in for God. I got there after much grappling, and because it seems to be the simplest explanation, Occam’s Razor and all. I also think that our notions of God are rooted in simple survival instincts. When push comes to shove, it’s probably better to be on Its side than not.

  27. #27 DuWayne
    November 26, 2006

    Tom -

    I don’t think God writes books either, but I also don’t think that it is impossible that he does or has. I think it even less likely that any of the “major” religious texts accuratly portray what God might want to say, if he were inclined to say anything. Though I am decidedly fond of the things that Christ had to say, thus my identifying as a Christian. Do I believe that the bible is an accurate expression of any god I would worship – no. But I really dig the message of Christ and do my damndest to live it.

    My faith is the faith that the human race can transcend our present, human nature. I also have faith that we will, but that is sorely tested on a daily basis – still, it is something more than mere hope.

  28. #28 Lettuce
    November 26, 2006

    First, to Dawkins’ credit he accepts the criticism; I truly hope he learns from it and takes it to heart, so to speak.

    Hear, hear!

    One way to guide us all!

    The correct way. The one tone, the right tone, Ed Brayton’s tone!

  29. #29 Loren Michael
    November 26, 2006

    There is still too much Dawkins worship on this side of the aisle. He is using his talents destructively. I suppose we Americans have always been suckers for the English dialect. He is part of the problem, not part of the solution. Religionists who are disrespectful and demeaning of atheists are equally at fault. When considering science education and the future of science, a broad coalition of theists, deists, and non-theists, etc., who are grown-ups, are going to be the ones to save the day.

    Ah, not the fundamentalist atheist, not the fundamentalist religionist, but the fundamentalist middle-of-the-roader.

    I don’t get you guys at all.

  30. #30 SLC
    November 26, 2006

    Judging by some of the comments on the Salk Institute conference on other blogs, it appears that Neil Tyson, Steven Weinberg, and Lawrence Krause, atheists all, have joined Ken Miller as the objects of the fundamentalist atheists scorn, presumably for being backsliders.

  31. #31 Nebogipfel
    November 27, 2006

    Perhaps Dawkins’ attitude is just coloured by the fact that, day-in-day-out, he sees a subject he knows and loves being trashed by people who smugly demonstrate that they know less than nothing about it. Perhaps its something similar to having to watch your grandparents being mugged by drunken football hooligans. After a while, it’s bound to make you feel a bit antagonistic. Dawkins is only human, after all.

  32. #32 Raging Bee
    November 27, 2006

    DuWayne: thanks for the sensible posts. I would just add a couple of sayings I picked up at random:

    From a bumper-sticker: “God is too big to fit into one religion.”

    And from a marquee in front of a church in NC: “The Bible is a compass pointing you in the right direction.” (as in, the compass tells you which way you need to go, but you’ll need more than that to deal with the mountains, rivers, and other obstacles you’ll find on your journey.)

  33. #33 Leni
    November 27, 2006

    “The Bible is a compass pointing you in the right direction.”

    LOL- Right direction as in ‘toward the burning witch’?

    (Sorry! I couldn’t have stopped myself even if I’d wanted to…)

  34. #34 Loren Michael
    November 27, 2006

    “The Bible is a compass pointing you in the right direction.”

    LOL- Right direction as in ‘toward the burning witch’?

    (Sorry! I couldn’t have stopped myself even if I’d wanted to…)

    sorry to continue this line of thinking, but reminds me of:

    “thou shall not suffer a witch to live!”, but then when you say “wait, WTF are you on about?”, it’s “ha HA! mysterious ways! can’t touch it!”

    this stuff is always sophism and/or solipsism if you start asking questions.

  35. #35 Raging Bee
    November 28, 2006

    Taking the best bits of the Bible, and ignoring the irrelevant or obsolete bits, is not “sophistry” or “solipsism.” It’s called “taking responsibility.” You DO consider that a good thing, right?

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