Speaking at the Cheltenham (England) Science Festival in 2014 skeptical wag Richard Dawkins had this to say:
“Is it a good thing to go along with the fantasies of childhood, magical as they are? Or should we be fostering a spirit of skepticism? I think it’s rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism … Even fairy tales, the ones we all love, with wizards or princesses turning into frogs or whatever it was. There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog –it’s statistically too improbable.”
With these words, Dawkins seems to seek to suck the last fertile juice of creative insight from the fabric of the modern world. Whether fairy stories are true or believed is unimportant, what they symbolize is what counts. Questioning the statistical mechanics needed to transmute a frog into a prince misses the point of the story entirely. Its intention is to train the mind to see possibility and wonder in everything, never to dismiss, to seek promise, to love all creation, the magic that grows from looking for the best in others, beyond obvious first judgments.
Such ways of thinking fuel the originality that is the driving force behind great scientific discoveries. Without it, Darwin is unlikely to have had the courage to undertake studies that led to him turning away from the accepted Creationist beliefs of his time.
By telling fairy stories to our children, we teach them our values and caution them against self-indulgent temptation [Snow White and that gorgeous red, but poisoned apple, Frodo’s struggle against the temptation of the ring, the dangers of following the Pied Piper, that Star Wars ‘force’ that will always be with us!]. More than this, every culture has a rich tradition of myth and legend. It is how the Greeks explored and advised on every aspect of psychology, relationships, emotions and parent/child relationships with images we still use today. Every kind of decision we might make is explored through the travails of Odysseus, his tragic homecoming, Oedipus’ relationship with his parents, the compassion of Prometheus, and, especially suited for Mr Dawkins, Icarus!
Myths, folk rhymes, tales and literature lie at the heart of our culture, its words, music and fine art. They are built into the way we speak and the names we give to things–even planets and other heavenly bodies. Throw out fantasy and you throw out love and intimacy with each other. You throw out originality, the right to challenge reason in the quest to discover a higher reason.
Endangering the growth of original scientific discovery
So, Dawkins’ view of scientific knowledge speaks against the creative tools that inspire, and hence endangers the growth of original scientific discovery. He represents a contemporary in-vogue, conveniently self-indulgent, simplistic view of the nature of knowledge. This sees the Universe as a virgin resource, with a technology for us to manipulate and exploit for our pleasure and ego-satisfaction. Nothing is real until it is discovered and categorized. No consequences need to be allowed for, unless the need to do so has been statistically established. All other ways of looking at the world are ‘unscientific’, even ‘dangerous; harmful for our children to know about’.
While packed with brilliant cleverness, such an approach to knowledge acts as an intellectual strait-jacket that contains our modern world, but empties it of wisdom. For thousands of years, philosophers have taught that the existence of things is dependent upon causes. When causes cease so do the objects, ideas and experiences dependent upon those causes cease to exist. Everything is subject to change and there are rules by which change occurs. Hence, while the modern view of ‘scientific method’ is invaluable in explaining and adapting our experiences, it is limited solely to relative truth. Because reductionist science is incapable of providing absolute answers, it is a dangerous distortion to make it the final arbiter of education.
The intrinsic nature of scientific understanding has changed over the years–not always making linear progress. The Greeks were wiser than the Romans, who were wiser than most of the barbarians that followed. We re-discovered much of the best of both classic cultures and have made great new advances over the last 300 to 500 years. Yet today’s ‘scientific method’ is just not equipped to describe and understand everything. The supposed ‘endgames’ it takes us to (e.g. the 19th century atom, now the 21st century Higgs boson) turn out to be gateways to vast new worlds to investigate.
Wise people looking back on us from the future will wonder why we ignorantly ignored so much of our esoteric and philosophical heritage. They may well turn upside down what scientists today assert as indisputable; just as Darwinists today wonder at the limitations of their 19th century predecessors. Indeed, are not today’s Darwinists the same people-types as Darwin’s 19th-century detractors?
In the history of ideas, Dawkins and his adherents are mere adolescents, drunk with the immature power of the early success of the 17th- to 18th-century Enlightenment. Like tempters at a teenage party, thrown when the parents who know better are away. The pleasures they offer will soon sour into a terrifyingly arid morning after, as we seek to rebuild ourselves, our family, our societies and our very planet from the consequences of ‘pleasures’ we never really wanted at all. A world frighteningly like the one William Butler Yeats went on to prophecy nearly a century ago in the second verse of his The Second Coming:
“…..a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand; a shape with lion body and the head of a man, a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, is moving its slow thighs, while all about it wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.”
How like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where mechanical science takes all responsibility for procreation. Test tube fetuses are created in five clear categories, suited to their designated social roles from Alpha (governing) to Epsilon (unskilled workers); a world where everyone knows their place. Entertainment is spectacularly commercialized. Sexual experience is entirely recreational and chemically created. Nothing is left to chance in an intrinsically static society.
A neutral space of objective judgment
The tragedy of Dawkins’ position is that most would share his wish to eradicate the delusional fundamentalism that has been behind horrendous slaughter and unhappiness for millennia. Young minds need a neutral space of objective judgment free from such destructive prejudice. Unfortunately, Dawkins’ dogmatic scientism is not such a place. It just moves minds from the frying pan of religious fundamentalism to the fire of linear-reductionist fundamentalism. Intolerant ideas cause actions that isolate and make us suffer. When we stop trying to rub our opponents’ noses in our prejudices, the horrors we think come from their prejudices will lessen. Then we might see what others were getting at all the time and start to lead happier richer lives together. Then, Richard will arise, refreshed with the water of wisdom, and all will be happy to shake his welcoming hand.
This article originally published in the Astrological Journal, September 2014 Vol. 56, No 5.