Open Minds: The Big Idea
Anita : One of the centuries great
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
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
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
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.