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.