I hadn’t intended on posting again on Richard Dawkins again so soon after my last post, but he’s appeared once again on the British media waging his personal war against superstition. He had two programmes on Channel 4 in Britain, the first of whoch was broadcast on Monday. Entitled Enemies of Reason, the blurb in the Radio Times described it thus:
‘Professor Richard Dawkins explores how society appears to be retreating from the concept of reason, with the rise in belief systems like astrology, clairvoyance and alternative health rememedies. He meets with The Observer astrologer Neil Spencer to find out how the movements of the planets people’s lives and garners some Earthly trade secrets from illusionist Derren Brown’ (p. 67, for the of the 11-17th August 2007).
Now at one level Dawkins is quite right to offer his criticisms of the proliferation of fringe mysticism, like astrology, dowsing, tarot reading and the like. I do know people who take astrology far too seriously. In America, some municipal authorities have become extremely worried about the way some self-professed psychics have conned tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars from clients, to the point where laws have been passed to close down fortune-tellers and other psychics.
Also, Dawkins in this sense actually isn’t doing anything new. James Randi has been doing this for several decades, now joined by Penn and Teller. About two years ago Channel 5 in Britain screened Secrets of the Psychics, where various scientists and stage magicians took examples of fraudulent psychic activity, and showed how the perpetrators actually performed their tricks. So, nothing particularly new or even controversial here.
What is debatable is Dawkins’ philosophical standpoint for attacking the psychics. Dawkins himself is a thoroughgoing materialist. He stated at a conference organised to discuss and promote the sceptical debunking of the paranormal that many of the phenomena considered paranormal were really ‘perinormal’ in the sense that if they were true, then it was likely that they worked according to as yet unknown scientific laws, and so would be incorporated into the domain of science. His primary objection to the paranormal has always been philosophical. As an outspoken Physicalist, he’s always made it very clear that he objects to any kind of non-materialist philosophy or the idea that certain events and phenomena may have non-materialist causes. This has served to weaken his argument, as far from being an impartial sceptical, he’s adopted instead a doctrinaire position, which was actually one of the criticisms levelled at CSI(COP).
I also suspect Dawkins is missing the point in suggesting people are abandoning science for superstition or the paranormal. I’m certainly not a Pagan, but my experience of Pagans and the ritual magicians in Britain is that very many of them are extremely scientifically literate, with some being professional scientists or technicians. Thus a commitment to science in one sphere does not automatically translate to a rejection of the spiritual or transcendent, as the experience of the numbers of scientists of more conventional religious convictions demonstrates.
I also think he’s missing the point. A lot of the decline in the interest in science in the West over the past decades has probably less to do with the rise of mysticism and far more to do with the general structural and ideological changes in British and general western society. Way back in the 1950s, when the British manufacturing was much, much stronger, most boys took some form of vocational training and there was a stronger interest in science, partly because of the stronger role of machine industry in the British economy. Scientists, technicians and engineers were needed to build, service and develop the machines and technology that were obviously driving the British technology. Moreover, the rate of technical change meant that machines and technology were expected to play an ever greater role in the future. So, there were confident predictions of trains that could reach speeds of 300 mph, commercial holidays in space and robots around the house.
Now to be fair, some of these dreams have come true. People do have robots and computers – but they’re not sentient machines like R2D2. There are holidays in space, but only for the seriously rich who can spend $30 million. And yes, there are trains reaching those speeds, but not on the British railway network, which has suffered persistent lack of investment. The future doesn’t look nice, bright, shiny and technological. It looks pretty much like today, only a bit, but not radically different. It’s possibly for this reason that five years ago one of the complaints of one of the leading figures in the Science Fiction community complained that little far future SF was being written, and that most Speculative Fiction was near future. And the British manufacturing base has dwindled, so the social need for scientists and technicians isn’t as high profile as it once was.
Moreover, the glamorous jobs and projects that grab public attention have either declined, or appeared less glamorous. Aviation is a case in point. Manned flight is naturally one of the most fascinating and attractive areas of technology, and the development of aircraft from the frail kites – literally, as used by the British for reconnaissance during the Boer War in South Africa – to todays modern jets is stirring stuff. But the British aviation sector has suffered serious commercial problems as developing and constructing these great machines has become more expensive, and orders consequently more difficult to fulfil. And flight itself has become so routine that it isn’t a marvel anymore, to stir the imagination and the blood, as the experience of sitting in an airport departure lounge has demonstrated to the millions of international travellers every year.The new machine age which so enthralled the Italian Futurists has brought excitement and thrills, but also tension, anxiety, boredom as people have got used to it.
As for the abandonment of reason, that’s been going on at a number of levels, and not just by those who have embraced what Dawkins undoubtedly considers superstition. Postmodernism is one example of the philosophical attack on reason, and here I do agree with Dawkins’ in his sharp criticism of it. However, some of this pessimism has come from evolutionary biology’s own view of humanity as merely a particular type of animal. Darwin himself wondered if his human ideas could ever be trusted to be true, as ‘who could trust a monkey’s brain’.
And for many the real refutation of the technological, scientific optimism of the type Dawkins’ espouses was the mechanised, technological carnage of the 20th century. The Victorians had an optimistic belief in progress, and so viewed that scientific and moral improvement would eventually lead humanity into some kind of utopia. Only people took their scientific insights, and turned them to mass death, just like they always had. Surveying the carnage of the 20th century, it’s difficult to have any view of the moral perfectibility of human beings, or see technology and science as purely a blessing.
Now I don’t think Dawkins is blind to all this for one moment, but I do think he has consistently missed the point and undervalued these factors in the decline of science in the West. Chasing after mediums and mystics is all very well, but it fails to address the real underlying causes of the decline of science for something that may be a correlation, not a cause.
And it also raises the uncomfortable question of thoughtcrime. Way back in the 19th century mediumship and witchcraft were expressly considered to be fraudulent under British law, and astrologers, mediums and fortune tellers prosecuted and convicted by the authorities. There were special Committees for the Suppression of Vice established, which, amongst other things, patrolled British society against the depradations of such superstition. All this changed in the 1950s after the prosecution and conviction of Helen Duncan, a celebrated British medium. This caused an outcry as it seemed to the British public to constitute not an attack on medium for fraud so much as an attack on a medium simply for being a medium. A modern, literal, witch trial. With some of the noises from Dawkins and his associates sometimes it can look like Dawkins’ own attitude actually isn’t very far different from the stern 19th century guardians of rationality.
Now mediums and their like may be deluded, but one of the hard-won freedoms of Western society is the freedom to believe what one wishes without coercion by the state. It means that people can believe strange and bizarre things, and hold opinions which can be completely wrong. Nevertheless, providng they aren’t harming others, the dangers in bringing the law to attack these people, simply for their beliefs, should be strongly rejected as an infringement on people’s fundamental liberties, no matter how well intentioned such laws may be.