Sunday, 16 June 2013

Learned Ignorance

I think Melvyn Bragg was right when he said, in the "Sydney Institute Annual Lecture" 2012, that self-aggrandisement motivates much of Dawkins' activities as a critic of religion (and not just Dawkins').

Dawkins has written about his science (evolutionary biology) in a way that conveys his excitement about it and made it fascinating to me and hundreds of thousands, or millions of others. (I remember reading the "The Selfish Gene" in my early twenties and finding teh account - the gene's eye view - gripping and profound. Out goes any talk tending to call up advantage to the group; all behaviours are the consequences of the mechanical workings-out of the combinations of genes in individual organisms; but humans are able to get outside this blind working through).

There are moments when we ourselves master the process of speculation and testing and analysis that has been the work of a past great thinker thinking about the natural world (let's leave out the name "scientist" for now). We feel super, as clever as Newton, as clever as Darwin, as clever as Einstein! We are given their work as scientific truths but we can't re-experience, at least not without great imaginative effort, their problem-situations and the enormous leaps they made in the context of the thinking of their day, and the risks they took. We lose a sense of our acquiring philosophy when we take up their thinking and ideas and move straight to "knowledge". It tends to reinforce a sense of completeness in us.

In her book "Absence of Mind" (2010) Marilynne Robinson points to this characteristic "modern" sense of completeness, of having passed a threshold, conveyed in the para-scientific literature that commands so much attention and assent. The one who attains scientific knowledge today feels already vindicated because "Look, Newton was a member of the Royal Society", so if I know what Newton knew, then I too have access to that world. Only what we come to learn is that our equipping ourselves with scientific knowledge has been to adapt us to the modern workplace, to be placed to get a better job. Unlike Newton, I don't attain knowledge of God when my mathematics describes the motion of the satellite. Now I attain a qualification, or a professional accreditation that tells people, say, that I know what I'm talking about when it comes to the motion of satellites. Status accrues, and power and prestige, and this is the platform from which Dawkins and others like him speak. It's not pretty to talk about it, or think about it. One loses sight of the reverence that is the proper response to the profound.

The carelessness, ignorance and complacency with which Dawkins speaks on matters of religion, outside his special area of learning, is, for me, what in 1930 ("Revolt of the Masses"), the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset characterised as "learned ignorance". I don't subscribe to all of Ortega's writing on life in a modern democracy, which contains some dubious vitalist ideas. But Ortega is right that the feeling of having attained certain knowledge (which mathematical science promises) in a specialised field lends to us, or reinforces what is already our belief, the notion that there is nothing to be learned that is not reducible to a scientific account, not reducible, in other words, to terms already understood, clear and unambiguous. It's an attitude which side-steps philosophy. The demand to justify activities not reducible to forms of science (and the very existence of individuals pursuing those activities) is there in the tone of dismissiveness and self-satisfaction. But it is a mistake to give ground and attempt such a justification, because the premises for the demand for justification discredit any platform for a proper response in advance. One is wasting time to bring appreciation that there can be any reasoning on any matter that is yet not converging on science - not aspiring to the model of scientific truth, when the mind one is trying to communicate with so readily relegates one's concern to "mere" matters of opinion. To save this effort, one could direct attention to Karl Popper who was at pains to show to a scientifically-minded and sceptical reader (he addressed the Vienna Circle members promoting and propounding the "scientific world-view") that there are real philosophical problems, i.e. problems that are metaphysical. And Popper was the one to show (and with what assiduous, prolonged effort) scientistically minded philosophers, in  their language, that a project to eliminate metaphysics from philosophy eliminated science too. A metaphysics is taken up when we pursue science, and our knowledge is ultimately conjectural, not proved false yet. Who could ever persuade Dawkins that he has been dealt with? Only Dawkins I think.

I think there are similarities between the conditions that have elevated the grand-standing of prominent "New Atheists" and those that elevated CP Snow and his 1959 Rede Lecture "The Two Cultures and The Scientific Revolution", so brilliantly criticised by F R Leavis in 1962.

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