Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Hard to Believe

Great to see Richard Dawkins on the tv last night (with support from Derren Brown, explaining cold reading – “I’m getting something about the dog sleeping in the hall – oh, you don’t have a dog? Well perhaps a painting of a dog, or some sort of painting in the hall? You have recently put a picture up in the hall? He (the spirit on the other side) doesn’t think it’s a good idea to hang that painting there…) Notice how the dog vanishes…

No, I haven’t quoted him perfectly, but he does it awfully well.

Dawkins by BrownI have a lot of glee watching Dawkins, and love the fact that Derren (another sceptic) doesn’t claim anything more than cunning and ingenuity, while all these other people claim psychic powers, and contact with the dead, etc.

My only quibble arises from Dawkins’ complete lack of interest in ‘intuition’ or ‘creativity’ or ‘emotional value’, etc – when he dismisses astrology, spiritualism, faith healing, etc. I do agree with him that the rise of irrationality feels depressing, but that resembles the despair of the intelligent confronted by the stupid, at times. Rather like saying “you can’t possibly enjoy soap operas, you should go to the real opera“ (say). I think certain ‘harmless untruths’ may give people support or reassurance, just as the placebo effect can (apparently) heal people.

I found him hilarious destroying Sun Sign astrology (first of all by comparing the stereotypical model by using national characteristics to point out how unacceptable they would seem to most modern people “Germans, you work hard and play hard, and sometimes people think you don’t have much of a sense of humour” “Chinese, you appear enigmatic to people around you…” “British, you need to learn to loosen up…” - and then by handing an identical trivial newspaper description to various ‘signs’ to see if they recognise themselves…and not improving on chance.

Still, it’s a cheap shot if you think of astrology as a complex language evolved over centuries, and attempting to describe the human personality, just as have various schools of psychology, or groups studying consciousness, and not a system of omens and influences…but that perhaps just shows my own lingering attachment to that particular language, having actually put some time into studying it (without coming to ‘believe’ in it).

And of course, watching water diviners (in Spanish the verb divinar means ‘to guess’!) try to guess which bin contains water and which contain sand, and not beating chance, and then rationalising madly, seems hilarious until you stop to consider which of your own beliefs you would hold onto, even confronted by clear evidence (my smoking has nothing to do with this cough, of course!)

Still, over all, I enjoyed the programme, but know it will make no difference at all. I have tested expression of my own cynicism and scepticism with my online study group for the last three years, and they have convinced me that I have no right to claim that magick doesn’t work (for instance) as it works (appears to work) for them. Like the water diviners they feel sure that something useful happens, and (like the placebo) I don’t feel inclined to disagree any more – especially around creatives, as whatever trick works to elicit creativity seems OK to me, even superstitious behaviour, or accidental imprinting (feeling unable to write without a cigarette and a glass of whiskey).

And I get tired of defending the view. I liked Dawkins' description of the universe as wonder-full, and the word 'mundane' as describing the world around us, which could and should fill us with wonder, rather than needing the 'invisible' or 'spiritual' to somehow make it more exciting. I don't believe in that 'unseen' myself, but have always leaned towards a Zen-like view of elimination of abstractions, and direct perception of what surrounds us. When cold, you can burn the wooden statue of the Buddha...

I don't imbue my surroundings with imaginary 'hidden power', but I do imagine a lot of wars get fought over holy buildings, people trampling on or burning crosses, and flags, and other symbols in which they have invested value.


The Purple Gooroo said...

Dawkins seems like an O.K. chap to me--but he also seems to be a dogmatic evolutionist as well (if this is the same guy we're discussing). I mean, I'm all for the guy debunking organised religion and that--but he seems to be just another "true believer"--only in his own favourite theory.

Toby said...

Yeah, well, maybe - I have heard this 'true believer' argument before - one of the slicker counters from the religious (think Intelligent Design)...to say Atheism 'is' also a belief, or that 'Skeptics' are just as rigid in their approach as 'True Believers'.

I had the same problem when I decided to call myself a Freethinker rather than an atheist (why define myself with a negative religious term?) - and cunning people deliberately misread the term and said they had freely chosen to believe in God (!)

One can't argue with such slippery thinking...

Dawkins argues for a scientific approach to the mystery of the world (which he doesn't deny) and I can only agree with him there - that we need to value the work of those who have deliberately exposed their work to peer-review, double-blind experiments, repeatability and other forms of verification. All the knowledge we have (which we might call 'scientific') seems hard-won in the face of glib subjectivism and rigid superstition (things passed on unverified and unchecked, and never updated) - and, of course, burning at the stake and other forms of bullying.

I consider Science (or rather the scientific approach) fairly brave, even now.

The Purple Gooroo said...

Oh, I understand - don't get me wrong..evolution *seems to me* to be far more plausible than some old man with a beard waving his arms around and things magically appearing..but I can also see that sombunall evolutionists screaming back at the 'God-squad' that "evolution *is* fact" seem to be as rigid in their beliefs as the faithful religionists. They seem to forget that it's still only a theory, not completely proven yet.

Admittedly, I'm not really sure if Dawkins fits in with the screamers--I'm only going by what I read about him in a couple of articles and interviews. I just had that impression of him, is all.

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