Monday, October 16, 2006

What mystery?

Just read the Salon interview with Richard Dawkins, whose book, The God Delusion, is ranked #6 in Amazon sales. I'm an atheist, like Dawkins, and always have been.

The most interesting part of the interview, for me, was the discussion of the grand "why" questions.

Dawkins says: ...Now, the mere fact that you can frame an English sentence beginning with the word "why" does not mean that English sentence should receive an answer. I could say, why are unicorns hollow? That appears to mean something, but it doesn't deserve an answer.

The Salon interviewer, Steve Paulson, rebuts: But it seems to me the big "why" questions are, why are we here? And what is our purpose in life?

Dawkins: It's not a question that deserves an answer.

Paulson: Well, I think most people would say those questions are central to the way we think about our lives. Those are the big existential questions, but they are also questions that go beyond science.

Dawkins: ...Those of us who don't believe in a god will say that is as illegitimate as the question, why are unicorns hollow? It just shouldn't be put. It's not a proper question to put. It doesn't deserve an answer.

Paulson: I don't understand that. Doesn't every person wonder about that? Isn't that a core question, what are we doing in this world? Doesn't everyone struggle with that?

Dawkins: There are core questions like, how did the universe begin? Where do the laws of physics come from? Where does life come from? Why, after billions of years, did life originate on this planet and then start evolving? Those are all perfectly legitimate questions to which science can give answers, if not now, then we hope in the future. There may be some very, very deep questions, perhaps even where do the laws of physics come from, that science will never answer. That is perfectly possible. I am hopeful, along with some physicists, that science will one day answer that question. But even if it doesn't -- even if there are some supremely deep questions to which science can never answer -- what on earth makes you think that religion can answer those questions?


You know what? Dawkins' interviewer thinks questions about humankind's grand purpose are a universal. They're not. I've never found reason to dwell on such things. I certainly don't "struggle" with these questions—I've scarcely even mused absentmindedly about them. I'll grant you that plenty of people do ponder the meaning of life, but then, plenty of people express a belief in a higher power. (To each her own.) I just might buy Dawkins' book.

Edited to add a link to Pharyngula, including a clip of Dawkins' appearance on Stephen Colbert's show.


Lynnea said...

Ooh, I listened to a recent podcast from NPR with Dawkins talking about his book. I am all twitter pated to get it. I came from a deeply, strictly religious background, now am atheist. I found Dawkins to be so pragmatically honest. No pussy footing around with this guy.

Mona Buonanotte said...

I read an interview with him in, oh, 'Discover' magazine or something...he is infinitely fascinating.

I've never had inclination to ponder why we're here. The point is, we ARE. Now we all have to decide what to do while we are here.

Anonymous said...

Oh so happy to hear from other atheists. I've been thinking about this business of god and faith lately, due to the killings at the Amish school a couple of weeks ago. According to what I heard on NPR, the shooter wrote in his note that he was "angry with God" for the death of his infant daughter years earlier. Now I understand that the man had to have been deranged, but his thinking seems to me to be only an extension of sentiments like "God sent us our son home safe from Iraq" (implying what about the people whose son was killed --- that God doesn't like them very much?). It makes me crazy when people posit divine intervention in their lives. And I was saddened by another aspect of what I heard on NPR about the same story --- the reporter ended a story about the killings by saying something along the lines of "...and the Amish are now left wondering what it is that God is saying to them." AAAARGH! These poor people have just had their community devestated, five of their children are dead and five more injured in an act of opportunistic and random violence. What COULD God possibly be saying to them? that they should have had armed security guards surrounding their rural one-room schoolhouse?

Dawkins is wonderful --- he's rational and eminently reasonable. For more of a rant about the evils of religion, read Sam Harris's "The End of Faith."

Mignon said...

Great post. I have no time or inclination for theological rhetoric. It's just noise to me. Hollow unicorns, indeed. It's terribly frustrating when someone brings god into a spirited discussion. It's like a bringing a snowboard to a baseball game.

No Nym said...

Atheism is an abomination unto Nuggan. And Om. And Thor. And Zeus. And Cthulu. And Quetzacotl. And Osiris. And Kali. And also that pipsqueak Yaweh.

If Dawkins is serious about the content of "why are we here?" being on par with "why are unicorns hollow," he's not been getting enough sleep. Or reading his own books.

Besides, everyone knows that unicorns are hollow so there's room for all the candy.

bihari said...

What really fascinates me is the fact that the why questions are NOT universal. There are people who are unbothered by them, and people who spend a lifetime on them. Whence the difference? I am going to have to look at this book: I'm sure he addresses the question.

Myself, I come down on the opposite side of Pascal's wager from Dawkins, but that just makes me more interested in his book.

Agent 31 said...

Interesting. I'll admit, I do sometimes question the purpose of life, but my answer-to-self has always been, "Well, odds are there is none. And even if there was, it's never going to be obvious to anyone living it, so what's the point in pondering?"

Sure, its easy to invent a reason, as religion does (because unless someone gets actual text messages from god, yes, it's all invented), but does an invented reason for life really merit accepting?

I sort of like Mona's assertion. More importantly, we're here - what are we going to do about it? It's much like that TV show "Lost." Those characters may never find out the nature of their island or why they're all on it, but it must behoove them to figure out what to do with themselves now that they're there. "Why" is irrelevant at this point.

Orange said...

Mr. Tangerine says he has contemplated the grand why questions...when he's depressed. (The rest of the time, not so much.) Whether he implies any link between faith-based ruminations and mental illness, I can't say. *ducking*

DoctorMama said...

I like that -- "It's not a proper question to put."

"Why are we here?" seems like the thing the person in the cartoon asks the guy in the cave on the mountain. I've wondered "What else is out there?" But never why.

bihari said...

Hmm. I don't know that I'd write off Kierkegaard, Thomas Aquinas, Clement of Alexandria, Hildegard of Bingen, T.S. Eliot, Flannery O'Connor, Bach, Shakespeare, Palestrina, Gorecki, (among, um, others) as either mentally ill or wrapped up in happy fantasies invented for their own comfort and succor. To read or hear them and disagree with their beliefs makes perfect sense to me. To write them off as irrelevent, dumb, or deluded would be to miss some invigorating and fascinating debate.

Obviously I find this topic interesting. Thanks for the post, Orange!

Anonymous said...

When I ask myself "Why am I here?", that is just a shorthand for "What purpose do I serve?"

Anonymous said...

To say the "why" question is not universal is one thing. To acknowledge that we are unlikely to have an answer in our lifetimes perhaps irrefutable. But to describe the question itself as "illegitimate" strikes me as rather disrespectful and condescending.

Dawkins and a great many atheists are firmly convinced that there is no God. A great many people of faith are firmly convinced otherwise. A great many others still remain uncertain and ponder. At the end of the day, the existence or not of God is an unprovable proposition and what any of us believes on that score is at heart a matter of faith. The questions we each ponder are just different. To discount as "illegitmate" those who would choose to ponder these questions is unnecessary and hurtful.

I mean, really. Why is "how did the universe begin?" any more valid a question? It certainly isn't going to affect whether or not I choose paper or plastic at the grocery store!

Anonymous said...

I dont write them off and don't know that they are irrelevant- I think they are UNANSWERABLE not UNASKABLE. Big difference.

Of course many people wonder different things here and there but the point is that there is no way to know what "purpose" there is to ANY of this. Pondering is really an act of desperate futility, born from the instincts that make us want to perpetuate ourselves and believe in the legacy of progeny.

Our psychology (I think) is rooted in a drive to survive, improve, create. Some philosophers have said that this movement or impetus to motion is a drive to approach "God" but again- unknown and as far as I am concerned...its like wondering what its like to sleep with Brad Pitt.

Aint gonna happen! :)

Nice to find you again, orange.

Anonymous said...

"like wondering what it's like to sleep with Brad Pitt... "

Ah, and if that isn't a worthy thing to contemplate, I don't know what is! =)

meno said...

Dear Ms. Tangerine,
I've seen you about, so i decided to come over and check it out. This post makes me glad i did. I heard RDs interview on NPR and have his book in the mail from Amazon. I can't wait. It's nice to read about someone who is able to come up with the logical answers that i cannot.