Richard Dawkins comes to town

Saturday morning, 10am, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

Richard Dawkins has been woven into our lives if not our rainbows for a few decades now. I can still remember reading The Selfish Gene. It’s somehow associated with a bus from up north heading down to London, sitting near the front, with big views either side of the motorway. Yes, it changed how I view the world.

Before last Saturday, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, I’d not heard him speak in person. Interviewed by Matthew Stadlen, who he knows well, it seems, not least from previous interviews, he was as direct and blunt as I’d expected.

One cheerful discussion was around whether ‘altruistic’ rather than ‘selfish’ would have been a better title for that famous book. But it wouldn’t have had much of a zing to it, but there’s certainly a good case for arguing that genes are operating altruistically, since our survival, and progression up the evolutionary ladder, is tied intimately to our genes. Where they go we follow.

Genes have our interests at heart, though watching The Mating Game last night I was rivetted, as, accompanied by David Attenborough’s whispered, I-don’t-want-to-interfere’ voice, a male praying mantis manages to get its head bitten off by a larger female and yet, abdominally alive for several hours, still manages to mate. At the same time it provides the female with sustenance to feed the brood which will in due time follow. The male is allowed no time to rejoice in successful procreation.

Back from the jungle to Cheltenham. What I miss, and I’m more aware of this from a front-row seat, so not more than a few yards away, is the absence of a human dimension in his projection of himself as a scientist. Human beings of social, cultural, mixed-up, error-prone, imperfect beings. The human dimension doesn’t get a look in.

Take religion as the classic example – and Dawkins’ favoured territory. For my part, it’s so closely tied with ideas of love and compassion, and security, and re-assurance, and atheism does such a bad job of providing any substitute, that you’re throwing out a great chunk of human civilisation if you dismiss religion. The easy target of a personal god is only one manifestation. The instinct to believe or, if not to believe a such, then find re-assurance somewhere beyond ourselves, is innate to human beings.  Science, you could argue (and it would be interesting to do so!), is skeletal without it.

On climate change there was something similar. Dawkins didn’t mention the human dimension, and all the actions that will be required of us if the no-more-than 1.5% increase above pre-industrial levels is to be achieved. (‘What are your thoughts on Greta Thunberg’ would have been a good question.) He accepts Global Warming, and responded (I read) positively to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. If only, he once commented, Gore rather than Bush has won the presidential election in 2000. A few hanging or dimpled chads changed the world. But his focus last Saturday was only on the science.

We have the surveillance state that is China on the one hand, and the spectre, so appealing to one section of Republican opinion in the USA, of scary Peter-Thiel-style libertarianism on the other. We need to promote the human dimension across the board, at all times, in all things. The religion-versus-atheism debate is old hat. Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, agnostics, atheists – we’re all in this together. Science must be and remain the servant of humanity, and without that context it can become so easily, as China demonstrates, the instrument of an authoritarian state.

(I’d like to chip in here with comments on Steven Pinker’s new book, Rationality. But I haven’t dipped into it yet. One comment from a Guardian interview from last month: ‘If only everyone were capable of reasoning properly, Pinker sometimes seems to imply, then our endless political arguments would not occupy so much of public life.’ There’s the rub, of course. We don’t reason ‘properly’, and the application of reason doesn’t always lead to the same conclusions.)

Dawkins signed off with his thoughts on the transgender debate. Men and women are defined by their chromosomes and whether or not they are born with a penis. That is the biological definition. How they define themselves to themselves and to others is up to them.  No questions from the audience, so no debate ensued. But Dawkins had been clear, as always – the science must prevail.  

How will they see us fifty years from now?

Impute a moral basis to society and you’re immediately on dangerous ground. If it’s hard to define morality in individuals how much harder is it to define morality in society. To keep the subject at a practical level I’m taking the UN declaration on human rights (see below) is a starting-point. But, as the issue of climate change exemplifies, it is only a starting-point. We have a responsibility to our own generations – but also to future generations.

American writer, Rebecca Solnit, in ‘Hope in the Dark’ (new edition 2016) asks ‘how human beings a half century or a century from now will view us … when climate change was recognised, and there was so much that could be done about it .. They may … see us as people who squandered their patrimony … regard us as people who rearranged the china when the house was on fire.’

She may be right, but new generations have always had the ability to adapt to their circumstances. Their world is the ‘new’ normal. Radicals will challenge it, as ever. And conservatives defend, as if the world had always been this way.

We must always beware complacency. Politics (not society as while) has over the last forty years lost its moral narrative. So many would argue. Some on the political right would counter that society shouldn’t have a moral narrative: the market, the free market, is the best determinant of human fortunes, and the state should interfere in only the most minimalist of ways. This also includes any attempt at world governance, so the United Nations and its various agencies, the WHO and the like, will always be suspect.

The Preamble to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a reminder of how moral purpose was defined in 1948 – and a marker against which we can judge our present society.

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom, … Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations

(NB The Preamble refers to ‘peoples’, not ‘nations’.)

Steven Pinker (psychologist, and author of ‘Enlightenment Now’, published in 2018) might not dissent, but he has an optimism which many of us wouldn’t share. He sees the progress in reducing inequality around the world (primarily in China and developing countries) as proof that moral purpose is still embedded in our society. Looked at in numerical terms there’s also been a massive reduction in violence (see ‘The Better Angels  of Our Nature’, published in 2011). This, he’d argue, is the working out of reason, the highest Enlightenment ideal.

There are powerful counter-arguments against both positions.  Inequality, and indeed poverty, and violence are still deep-woven into our society. Natural or man-induced calamities could have catastrophic consequences.

Reason, for Pinker, underpins progress and progress is essential, and sustainable. Take the environment as an example. He sees the damage done by carbon emissions, but the answer, he argues, is not to rail against consumption. Consumption is tied to many human goods, not least keeping cool in summer, and warm in winter. To quote from Andrew Anthony’s 2018 interview with Pinker in The Guardian, ‘how do we get the most human benefit with the least human damage’.

Pinker is right. We need, all of us, to take great care in lambasting consumption. Most people might well agree in principle, but demur when it affects them. We cannot avoid in society as currently constituted the kind of focus on science and technology, working in a capitalist context, that Pinker would advocate.

But how does Pinker imagine we got to where we are now? He rests too comfortably in the present. His argument for reason of necessity plays down the role the passions have played in driving social progress over the more than 250 years since the ‘Encyclopedie’ was published in 1750s France.

The old working class has to a great degree been ‘brought into the community – as voters, as citizens, as participants’. (See ‘Ill Fares The Land’, by the historian, Tony Judt, 2010) We didn’t get there simply by the exercise of reason. We avoided revolution, in Western Europe, but not by much. Post-war society addressed the five wants (squalor, want, ignorance, disease, and idleness) highlighted in 1942 by William Beveridge head on. But we’re now faced with what Judt described as ‘the social consequences of technological change’, as the nature of work changes radically. Judt was prescient. The historian, Peter Hennessy, has recently put forward five wants for a post-Covid times: solving social care, social housing, technical education, climate change, artificial intelligence.

Finding answers will require passion and moral purpose, and the application of enlightened and far-sighted ideas. Consumption will not get us there. (Though high levels of consumption are imperative if we’re to keep the economy firing at the level it will need to do if goals are to be met. High ideals, in the old phrase, butter no parsnips.)

Yes, capitalism will drive the foreseeable future as it has the recent past. (How it might be reconstituted is a whole other subject.) But it will challenged by, and ultimately will have no choice but to come to terms with, crises of inequality, population, resource exploitation and climate which could spell the world’s demise.

Pinker is not wrong: we have made progress in the context of human values and living conditions. But we are also radically dis-connecting from the natural world, changing permanently our ways of communicating, and our environment. We are heading into territory we don’t understand. We may or may not have the wherewithal to deal with this new dispensation when we get there. Dis-connect is high risk. Having the wherewithal doesn’t mean it will in any sense be a good place.

Science in this sense cannot be morally neutral. And does sometimes get on a roll, and head in directions which are high risk.  The theory of evolution took on a life of its own. The splitting of the atom opened a Pandora’s box we have no way of closing. Neuroscience and AI are working in tandem toward higher forms of intelligence which may yet radically change who we are as human beings. *

Rebecca Solnit imagined an observer in fifty tears time who is very much a replica of a typical individual in our own time. But we may be moving into very different spaces by that time.

Back to the UN Charter and its focus on ‘the dignity and worth of human person’. We vest in them specific meanings which we cannot take for granted.

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* The Economist, referring to academics who worry about existential risk, which could be super-eruptions, climate collapse, geomagnetic storms and the like, comments that they ‘frequently apply a time-agnostic version of utilitarianism which sees “humanity’s long-term potential” as something far grander than the lives of billions on Earth today: trillions and trillions of happy lives of equal worth lived over countless millennia to come’.   The Economist is referring specifically to Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute.  We should indeed be engaged deeply  in such matters. But while doing so let’s never forget – the worth and the moral worth of each individual in the here and now has to be our starting-point.

Militant atheism and the spiritual path

Now that is quite a a title for a post…

I’ve just finished reading Sam Harris’s Waking Up – subtitle ‘searching for spirituality without religion’. When he claimed Chris Hitchens as a friend, I was instantly worried. And then I had the usual stuff about religions being mutually incompatible so no-one can possibly believe that ‘all religions are the same’. Well, we don’t believe they’re all the same – but we do find an underlying unity. He should have asked us first – but he hares off on the hackneyed ‘violence of religion’ tack, and even finds a Zen story where a disciple hacks a finger off – and then is suddenly enlightened.

The sad thing is that Harris has gained some kind of spiritual understanding over many years as a seeker and meditator, and he’s especially keen on, and good at describing, Dzogchen Buddhism (‘focusing on the intrinsic selflessness of awareness’). But he fails completely to recognise that it’s a specifically religious search for understanding in this life that led to the revelations that he now, as a militant atheist, has the benefit of.

And then we have the following on drugs: ‘The power of psychedelics is that they often reveal in a few hours depths of awe and understanding that can otherwise elude us for a lifetime.’ Having been down that route, and experienced the ecstasy, I know that selflessness – the experience of non-self, anatta – and drug-induced ecstasy are two very different things. The path – I almost want to say ‘true path’, but that really does sound too religious! – is step-by-step, unfolding, learning, consolidating – I say learning, but it’s not learning in the sense of acquiring knowledge – it is simply that awareness that opens up beyond self. And where you find a differently kind of joy and peace from anything you’ve experienced before.

And a final grumble – no, more than a grumble. This is serious stuff. Reading a review of John Bew’s book, Realpolitik: A History (premise – pragmatism dictates that the overtly and obviously moral route can’t always be the one to follow – politics has sometimes to be about compromise), there’s a reference to Barack Obama drawing on the wisdom of the theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. Obama has tried to articulate a liberal realist world view – avoiding misconceived adventures on the one hand and isolation on the other…

Why is that relevant to Sam Harris’s book? Because Harris and his like go on about the evils of religion but overlook that it’s not violence but compassion that drives religion. And that the spiritual without compassion is selfish and not selfless. Compassion has to be at the heart of politics, and I believe that Obama has tried to do just that, and his successes and failures are indicative of how hard it is to follow that path in today’s world – and yet how essential it is to try.

Religion when taken over by the power-brokers of the world for their own ends has caused many a disaster. But religion allied to compassion, in the minds of a follower, disciple or believer (however you wish to describe yourself), has been the ultimate force for good in the world. (Now that I admit is a challenging statement – and meant to be such!)

I heard Steven Pinker speak about his then new book, Better Angels Of Our Nature, a year of two back. It’s predicated (and brilliantly argued) on the role of violence in human history – how over centuries and millennia we’ve created social and political structures to contain that violence, allowing the creation of stable, or relatively stable, societies and government. (And how violence continues to decline, even allowing for two world wars and many other horrific events.)

Pinker argues that the primacy of reason and enlightenment values from the 18th century onwards allowed empathetic values, not least compassion, to find expression. The pattern of history for me is very different – violence and compassion have existed side by side throughout recorded history – compassion is hardly a recent phenomena, and it’s in the exercise of that compassion that we as human beings have found our greatest fulfilment.

Compassion and religion have always been closely interconnected. And if you’re a militant atheist, that poses a problem.

My recommendation to Sam Harris would be – get off your podium, stop preaching, and get out there in the world. And if you do, you’ll find yourself working alongside some wonderful people – of all faiths, and none, including humanists. We all work together. We just don’t call each other names.