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February 2010

Dawkins on Haiti

Richard Dawkins is in fine fulminating form today in The Times. In a piece titled 'Hear the rumble of Christian hypocrisy' he lays into the 'religious mind' that exploits natural events for 'petty moralistic purposes'. He's talking about Haiti, of course, and the ludicrous televangelist Pat Robertson opining that the earthquake is divine retribution for a 1791 pact that the Haitians made with the devil to help rid them of their French masters (don't ask).
As with the Indonesian tsunami, which was blamed on loose sexual morals in tourist nightclubs; as with Hurricane Katrina, which was attributed to divine revenge on the entire city of New Orleans for organising a gay rally; and as with other disasters going back to the famous Lisbon earthquake and beyond, so Haiti's tragedy must be payback for human 'sin'. 
I often get the feeling Dawkins rather likes people like Pat Robertson for saying what they think loudly and brutally, a kindred spirit. His real target is the 'nice, middle-of-the-road' religious type who disowns the frothing fundamentalists while at the same time supporting what he believes to be equally nonsensical propositions about 'creation groaning under the weight of sin', and a 'god-man' having to atone for it by letting himself be tortured and executed. 

No one does righteous indignation quite like Dawkins:
Educated apologist, how dare you weep Christian tears, when your entire theology is one long celebration of suffering: suffering as payback for "sin" - or suffering as "atonement" for it? You may weep for Haiti where Pat Robertson does not, but at least, in his hick, sub-Palinesque ignorance, he holds up an honest mirror to the ugliness of Christian theology. You are nothing but a whited sepulchre.
Magnificent stuff. I wouldn't express myself in this way, but I agree with a lot of what Dawkins says about religion. So much of it is mad, incomprehensible or of doubtful value. Yet he and some other militant atheists share a curious literal mindedness with the fundamentalists, each looking to scientific facts or the scriptures as a source of absolute truth and certainty.

Those like me who don't follow any particular creed have to rely far more on an inner moral intuition to guide us about what is right and wrong, as of course atheists and humanists themselves do. If we read religious literature at all we pick and choose, taking inspiration from what makes sense and discarding the obviously obsolete or nonsensical. Interestingly, and whether or not you take them seriously, this is exactly what channelled 'spirit teachers' say we should do.

And yes, this relativist approach is adopted - necessarily - by 'nice middle of the road' theologians and clergymen. At my local church I've frequently listened to some blood-curdling passage being read from the Bible  - eg. Abraham setting out to slaughter his son at God's command - and then heard the vicar, a kindly decent man, and equally aghast,  devote his sermon to explaining why it's not really like that, and why, on the whole, we should not pay too much attention to that sort of thing.  Yet at the same time he accepts as gospel a lot of propositions, mostly dreamed up by Paul, Augustine and various committees, that I have difficulties with.

My sense about why religion is important is informed largely by religious and paranormal experience, of the kind that critics like Dawkins think is obvious spurious, on the grounds that what goes on in our heads is a matter of chemical reactions - nothing more. That's the big conclusion of Darwinism, and it doesn't surprise me that he hammers on at it. For instance I recall he says somewhere in The God Delusion that no one should attach any significance to mystical experience who has 'the slightest understanding of the powerful workings of the human mind'.

Unlike Dawkins, I want to know why the mind behaves in the way that it sometimes does. That seems like a scientific attitude, and I believe my approach to religion to be empirical, as his is.

I accept that paranormal experience has not been proved in any formal scientific sense, but I think the evidence, both anecdotal and experimental, is pretty persuasive of a process that cannot be explained in terms of current scientific understanding. I also think it poses a serious challenge to the idea that what we call the mind is merely brain activity and nothing more.  Why do people have near-death and mystical experiences? Sceptics can find flaws in the 'proofs' offered by paranormalists, but there's no convincing explanation - Sue Blackmore's efforts notwithstanding - of how such a curiously structured set of imagery, sensation and experience can occur so widely, leaving people with the conviction of having experienced God.

What does surprise me is that the challenge is not recognised, and that it plays almost no part at all in the debate about religion.  That's one reason why the literature of parapsychology deserves to be better known and understood.


'Horizon' on dogs

Paranormalia is still in hibernation, but the books I've been stuck on are nearly done, and as 2010 progresses it will burst into life and soar on butterfly wings to a bright new future, that's the plan anyway.

Was moved to write after seeing the Horizon programme on dogs last week, which tested the ability of humans to differentiate between various kinds of noises that dogs make.  To me the idea is empirical fact. Wherever I hear my five-year old Staffie vocalising in another room I can tell what's on his mind from the sound he makes. Yet the idea was presented as a 'claim', and moreover one that science was distinctly iffy about: dog barks are just 'random noises' and their owners merely imagine they can tell the difference between them.

Apparently no one had actually thought to check this out. Horizon filmed a chap sticking a mike in dogs' faces in different situations and then playing the results back to the owners. No stats, but 'most' of the owners were able to match the bark to the situation. So not just imagination then.

Actually I'm surprised that any of the owners failed at this, as I had no trouble at all: the sounds the dogs made were unmistakably distinct, just as my dog's are. A deep throaty 'wo-wo-wo-wo-woooo' means 'strangers approaching'; a single sharp yelp (I've got locked in the broom cupboard); grrrrrr (this is MY ball); a sort of staccato, high register double bark when he's playing with my son that means, 'I can take you, loser', and other quite recognisable sounds for 'come and play', 'are we there yet?', and so on.

It seems to me that 'science', as an oracular institution, thinks something can't happen until a) it's got around to focusing on it and/or b) it can explain why it happens. There's no in-between category - no statements like, 'well, we're not sure about this', or 'we need to check this out before we talk about it': just, 'it doesn't happen, period'. Implication: it's wishful thinking, all in the imagination. It's this sort of lazy complacency, the gulf between human experience and scientific knowledge, that causes people to have suspicions about science, as much as 'ignorance' or 'poor education', which science thinks are the real reasons.

There are some nice examples of this in Irreducible Mind. Also, Guy Playfair recently reminded me about  the controversy over the ability of bats to navigate in the dark.

In 1794 the eminent eighteenth century Italian physiologist Lazzaro Spallanzani published a paper arguing that bats use their ears for this. There was no conceivable mechanism for it, and idea was denounced the following year by the French naturalist Georges Cuvier, who insisted on what seemed to him the far more plausible explanation, that they use the nerves in their wing tips to stop them bumping into objects. Cuvier's explanation was favoured until the mid-twentieth century, when the principle of echo-location was discovered in the invention of sonar.

The difference between the two scientists was that Spallanzani had carried out extensive experiments, eliminating each of the bats' senses in turn, while Cuvier had relied on his imagination.  As Guy argues, it's an important example of how scepticism can delay progress, which in this case would have saved lives on the Titanic. (See his piece in Skepticalinvestigations.org for details).

Back to the Horizon programme, which was interesting about the evolution of dogs, showing that dogs evolved only from wolves - and not from other canine-type species like hyenas and jackals - and also,  thanks to a fascinating 50-year ongoing Russian experiment with Siberian foxes,  that selective breeding can quite quickly turn vicious aggressive animals into cuddly pets. It aired the theory that dogs were crucial to human social development, in the help they give in herding and hunting, for instance. And it touched on the therapeutic effect of dogs in reducing stress and anxiety, about which there's a growing scientific consensus.

A really interesting Horizon programme would look at Rupert Sheldrake's research suggesting a telepathic link between pets and their owners. In this context the word 'claim' is perhaps more reasonable, given the strength and specifity of the scientific and philosophical objections. But anyone who actually talks to pet owners will soon find that it's another widely reported human experience.  I was with a cat owner yesterday who described, quite persuasively, the responses of her cat to her unspoken thoughts, for instance showing anxiety consistently over a period of two days after she briefly considered whether to get rid of it, and so on. But of course this is just something else that science considers can't happen, and even empirical evidence to the contrary is dismissed as flawed and mistaken.