Open Minds: The Big Idea

Richard Dawkins

Anita : One of the centuries great thinkers,Karl Popper wrote in 19657 that science must begin with myths,and with the criticism of myths.In this week's Big Idea, we're examining the relationship between science and wonder [Ref: R.Stannard "Science and Wonders" Audio: TDKc9051-3],and asking whether the destruction of myths will enrich or diminish the 21st century.Well joining me are Open Minds philosopher,John Pike and our special guest Professor Richard Dawkins,who holds the Charles Simone chair of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University,welcome to the programme both of you. Professor Dawkins,we all appreciate the wonder and fascination that scientists have for the discoveries they make,but did you find yourself having to champion wonder in particular because of the way in which you solved scientific mysteries robbed some people of the wonder they'd felt up till then?

Richard : Yes I think that's part of the effect.I think that people do feel...have felt that explaining something removes the mystery,removes the magic.The other thing that happens is what I call "the anaesthetic of familiarity",that we get so used to living in the real world,because that's where we do live,it becomes so familiar that we forget how amazing it is that we're here at all.We forget how astonishing it is that the simple laws of physics that we see all around in the universe have on this planet produced us over a very long period obviously,but they have produced us.So everything about our life,and about beauty and art and everything that we can produce, has been made by the laws of physics working in an unusual way on this planet,and that's an amazing thing,which people forget because of "the anaesthetic of familiarity.

Anita : They see it all the time,they no longer appreciate it.John Pike, why does scientific discovery snatch the mystery away from people,and why do they resent it so much?

John : Well I think for centuries,there was a need to explain the order that we see in the natural world,and the explanation that people groped towards,was an explanation in terms of some purposive intelligence behind that,and that intelligence was not knowable of its nature,and it was called "God". Increasingly the explorations,and explanations offered by scientists have meant that if we prefer simple and economical explanations of the order in the natural world,and we ought to prefer simple economical explanations,then that just drops out of the equation,the ineffable drops out of the equation. It's no longer necessary to posit some mysterious intelligence that provides purpose in the universe,because we can explain purpose in other,more straightforward,perhaps more prosaic ways.

Anita : Do we have an innate yearning for the ineffable,and a sense of the ineffable? Do we need to dwell with a sense of it,continuously?

Richard : Well I rather fear that in some sense we do. But actually the real explanation in terms of simplicity building up into complexity,is so wonderful that it actually out trumps any spiritual kind of sense of the ineffable,in any case.It is such an amazing thing,that such simple principles as the laws of physics and the principle of Darwinian natural selection can produce everything we see around us,including ourselves,and that surely is a most wonderful thing to contemplate.

Anita : The simplicity and the beauty of that,yes,but the answers that science provides us with,aren't always good.Sometimes the answers they give us are very awkward answers,dangerous answers,answers that suggest dangerous courses of action for us. For example,gene technology,and what it reveals about the nature of being human, John do you see what I'm getting at here? What the knowledge then informs in terms of courses of action we might take?

John : Yes,yes I do,But I'm not quite sure...I'm not sure that the answers themselves are dangerous,the answers are either right or wrong,the use to which we put those answers,seems to me to be something that we ought to consider,and something that we ought to be accountable for.Both scientists and philosophers and people as a whole.We ought to consider very carefully what uses we put scientific advances to.But to describe a scientific advance or a scientific explanation as in itself dangerous,seems to me to be a mistake,that would suggest that we ought to have some sort of constraints on scientific research before it takes place,some a priori constraints on scientific research and I think that would be a mistake.

Anita : In a sense that the wonder of scientific discovery is encroaching on the answers that religion used to provide,is science to a degree moving to take over the function of religion?

Richard : Yes,it's moving to take over that part of the function of religion that was trying to understand the world and ourselves.Religions have always been schools of cosmology and biology,and so to that extent,science is moving to take over. Religion has also held sway over other spheres such as morals.

Anita : Is that where you come in?

John : I hope so,yes! (Anita laughs) And I think it is,I think there's always going to be this sphere of value,of moral value and of ethical enquiry and of actual applied ethical solutions,working out how we should act,how we should deal with life and death situations,and that's the role that the moral philosopher will play,and increasingly moral philosophers are professionally coming into this sort of realm,working in hospitals,working in research laboratories,working on scientific committees,in interacting with the scientific community.

Anita : Because science in a moral vacuum is something that potentially we should fear,still,on and ongoing basis?

Richard : We should fear anything powerful done in a moral vacuum,and science or the technology,you can derive from science is immensely powerful,it's powerful to do evil and powerful to do good,and so it's up to society to set the moral context in which we do anything that's powerful,and that includes science. Scientists have responsibilities as citizens like any other citizens to control,that.But as pure scientists,they are simply working out what is true about the universe,and then society in the form of technology can come along afterwards and use those findings for good or ill.

Anita : So who deals with the politics of science,when the science gets too hot to handle?

John : Well I hope we all do,I hope we all do,I hope both the scientists and the philosophers and the wider community take an interest and share the responsibility for the sorts of policy decisions that need to be taken,and in order to make that an informed and educated debate,a debate from a position of knowledge,then it's certainly important to involve scientists who can perceive quite clearly some of the implications of their research.But also to bring in this sphere of value as well,to work out what sort of ethical moral priorities we have,and to make policy decisions on that basis.So I think it's all our responsibility.

Anita : Professor Richard Dawkins thank you very much,Dr John Pike thank you very much.There'll be more philosophical thought on the Big Idea next week.





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