By John Horgan
Richard Dawkins, the biologist and author, is complicated. I reached this conclusion in 2005 when I participated in a fellowship for journalists organized by the pro-religion Templeton Foundation. Ten of us spent several weeks at the University of Cambridge listening to 18 scientists and philosophers point out areas where science and religion converge. Alone among the speakers, Dawkins argued, in his usual uncompromising fashion, that science and religion are incompatible. But in his informal interactions with me and other fellows, Dawkins was open-minded and a good listener. Over drinks one evening, a Christian journalist described witnessing an episode of faith healing. Instead of dismissing the story outright, Dawkins pressed for details. He seemed to find the story fascinating. His curiosity, at least for a moment, trumped his skepticism.
I mention this episode because it is illustrative of the thinking on display in Dawkins’s newest book, Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist. It consists of essays written over the last several decades on, among other things, altruism, group selection, extraterrestrials, punctuated equilibrium, animal suffering, eugenics, essentialism, tortoises, dinosaurs, 9/11, the problem of evil, the internet, his father and Christopher Hitchens. The book showcases Dawkins’s dual talents. He is a ferocious polemicist, a defender of reason and enemy of superstition. He is also an extraordinarily talented explicator and celebrator of biology. He makes complex concepts, like kin selection, pop into focus in a way that imparts a jolt of pleasure. His best writings are suffused with the wide-ranging curiosity that he revealed at the fellowship in Cambridge.
I posed some questions to Dawkins about the importance of scientific reasoning, the problems of AI and consciousness, and President Donald Trump.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
At the Templeton meeting, you described yourself as an agnostic, because you cannot be certain that God does not exist, correct?
This is a semantic matter. Some people define atheism as a positive conviction that there are no gods and agnosticism as allowing for the possibility, however slight. In this sense I am agnostic, as any scientist would be. But only in the same way I am agnostic about leprechauns and fairies. Other people define agnosticism as the belief that the existence of gods is as probable as their nonexistence. In this sense I am certainly not agnostic. Not only are gods unnecessary for explaining anything, they are overwhelmingly improbable. I rather like the phrase of a friend who calls himself a “tooth fairy agnostic”—his belief in gods is as strong as his belief in the tooth fairy. So is mine. We live our lives on the assumption that there are no gods, fairies, hobgoblins, ghosts, zombies, poltergeists or any supernatural entities. Actually, it is not at all clear what supernatural could even mean, other than something which science does not (yet) understand.
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