Friday, November 04, 2016


Richard Dawkins
(Surely that's not the hand of God on his shoulder)

Netflix is streaming three Richard Dawkins films — he’s trying to rub out religion and replace it with science but my news feed tells me that the scientists feel he’s just not getting it and not really understanding science at all, even though Stephen Pinker is nice to him.  They both strike me as old-fashioned, even out of the loop.

I’m not exactly aligned with Pinker or the scientists, but I really do NOT think Dawkins is being anything but a dimwit about life.  He’s just a nice English gentleman of a prosperous class that can’t see any other people unless they’re like him.  And people listen to him because they would be pleased to be like him.  He’s a kinder, gentler, less affluent Trump.

Everyone is always praising empathy and its ability to let us feel what others feel.  It’s probable contribution to evolution is allowing us to work together so long as it’s just a matter of understanding what we’re doing.  If we have strong differences, empathy goes nowhere, barriers arise.

But more than that, nice guys like Dawkins assume that feeling what other people feel will lead us to give them pleasant experiences.  He evidently has not seen people who lean in and lick their lips with pleasure when they see suffering.  They don’t notice the glittering salivating of those who enjoy cruelty and tormenting others in order to enjoy their reactions.  

Have you been watching the repeated reblogs of the photo of the face-pierced man in the Philippines?  We WANT to feel what he feels, which is plainly extreme pain.  Torture is of keen interest to many people.  Curiosity, not empathy, is the drive.  What no one cares to feel is the numb gray life of an impoverished and demoralized person.  Maybe there’s nothing to empathize with.

All the furor about human sex that Dawkins remarks upon in his gentlemanly way — oh, those gorgeous, sensuous lemurs!  But they only have sex once a year!  (Though they appear to be great cuddlers!) The keeper TELLS him that the real competition is over food.  Dawkins doesn’t seem to understand that the whole world is about economics: who gets to eat. 

There are two more Dawkins movies on Netflix, so I’ll see whether he gets around to that.  I suspect these films were made before much of the reframing about how human behavior works when you include the limbic brain with the pre-frontal lobe of the brain.  He seems to believe that if a person rationally thinks through life, that will be definitive.  But even St. Paul asked why he did “what he would not do.”

Part of the problem — as usual — is that Dawkins sees “religion” as a system and “god” as an anthromorphism.  But religion, particularly in its “moral” dimension, is much more a complex of necessities related to the ecology — like care for those who cannot work (babies, ancients, sick and handicapped) which depends upon the resources present in the place — than it is immutable rules one must accept.  Particularly, as he says, since the rules evolved from life in the desert tribes ruled by patriarchs who could enforce devastating penalties.  He’s right there.  But what about the new rules we’re evolving about destruction of the environment and producing unwanted children.

It’s the same old story.  Some nice educated Englishman thinks he’s discovered the primal origins of “religion” and “morality” but it turns out to be merely the result of a nice English education.  His “universal” conscience turns out to be what his mother and nanny taught him.  All the golden rule and politically correct considerations drop away by simply shifting definitions.  

Pinker says slavery is gone.  It is not.  Both labor and sex slavery continue to exist because for some people that’s the only way they can get food and shelter, miserable as they may be.  The next step — however moral — is death.  It is a preference that dies, but echoes.  The news feeds today are noting that currently in the US more youngsters die of suicide than car crashes.  (Assuming there is no overlap.)

Religion is the creation of human institutional structures that capture wealth and sing with emotion until they are susceptible to imposing tyranny and destroying progress.  Jesus came along and opposed this.  So they killed him and went right back to their hierarchies and bureaucracies over his dead body.  Remarkably, there are always new versions of Jesus, saying “You don’t need all this stuff: vestments, buildings, encrustations of cheesy wealth like Trump hotels and casinos."

On Aeon recently one discussion was about inevitability, predictability, whether one thing leads to another in true cause and effect, creating patterns which to humans seem like thought-creations, or whether it’s all random, or whether there IS a pattern but we have minds too limited to detect them.  (Our increasingly penetrating technologies DO let us see underlying patterns we didn’t know about before, like microbe infections, or the dynamics of DNA so acute we can trace the spread of prehistoric hominins.)

But also today the science feeds about brains have been talking “hallucination” (a deliberately provocative term) — the idea that what we see is what we expect because we’ve seen it before and made a place among our neurons for that sight.  It takes impressive evidence to shift our paradigm, especially if we’re living lives as nice as Dawkins’.  And the evidence does arrive — people have epiphanies and revelations or maybe just the slow realization that the marks on this film in the drawer comes from radioactivity or the deaths of microbes come from penicillin accidentally dripped into a Petri dish.

I’m fond of saying that geology is next to theology (sod both cleanliness and godliness) because it shows in deep time, big history, how things come about.  So — using that trope — I say that there are deep tectonic forces under all human activities, beyond just survival.  I would like to call them desire rather than faith, hope rather than morality.  I think they are physiological, organic, produced by the land and culture, and by the brain’s most advanced capabilities, such as weaving possibilities out of realities.

Dawkins wants to emphasize the wonder and exceedingness that science can present, but the scientists say that approach leads straight into the arms of new dogma..  It brushes aside all the humanities — the art, the music, the dance, the sculpture, the poetry that also explore the world.  Here again, he’s a nice, clean, businesslike modern man who eschews the mess of shame and guilt.  The most embarrassing moments of the film are with his dog.  Clearly, he never reads “Terrierman,” the blog of a truly thinking person.

His claim is that a man can be called out of his denial of humanity by taking the hand of a little girl whom he is supposed to be leading to a death chamber.  I expect that’s right.  But why is it a “little” and a “girl.”  Isn’t that just giving a break to a brute by picturing him as secretly wired to be protective?  Why isn’t the same empathy triggered by the human skeletons behind barbed wire?  It’s because guards get to eat.

More about this later.

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