Enemies of Reason


Still enjoying the success and notoriety afforded by his best-selling book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins has followed up with a documentary series (just screened on British television) called The Enemies of Reason. The series tackles the ‘epidemic of irrational, superstitious thinking’. This time, however, the target is not religion (or as he puts it, ‘primitive religious beliefs’). According to Dawkins, the threat of irrational thinking seeps deeper, revealing itself in society’s indulgence in things like astrology, New Age mysticism, clairvoyance and alternative health remedies.

With some justification, Dawkins enjoys a reputation for intellectual trend-setting. His groundbreaking work, The Selfish Gene (1979), helped popularise the gene-centred view of evolutionary biology. And with growing concerns about the political implications of religion within much of the West, his strictures on reason are consonant with the emergence of a new orthodoxy towards belief and science.

Richard Dawkins

If we are to believe Dawkins, the problem of irrationalism is more disturbing than we think. ‘There are two ways of looking at the world: through faith and superstition, or through the rigour of logic, observation and evidence through reason.’ And where superstition ‘profoundly undermines civilisation’, reason is ‘the source of our progress, our safeguard against fundamentalism and those who profit from obscuring the truth.’ It is the values of the Enlightenment that are the bedrock of Western culture.

The message is clear. Much like the logic of fixing a single broken window before vandals begin to break them all, we should beware of cultivating in our children a belief in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy (dare we even mention God?), lest they grow up into fanatics.

But if this seems a little alarmist, Dawkins seems to have many intelligent people on his side. A poll conducted by the well-regarded British magazine, Prospect, in November 2005 placed him third in a list of the world’s 100 top intellectuals. (If anything, the poll was more of a popularity contest for Prospect’s informed but Left-leaning readership than a measure of intellectual influence first and second on the list, respectively, were Noam Chomsky and Umberto Eco.)

However for all that is persuasive about Dawkins, he seems to indulge in precisely the kind of fundamentalism he so violently denounces. If we are indeed the heirs to the Enlightenment, science and logic must be accorded with supreme value. Where they are not, we have worthless dogma, and we descend into the kind of mysticism only the irrational (and by implication, stupid) can countenance.

But why must we subject everything we do to the discipline of reason understood as absolute truth?

It is a question not asked often enough. Yet were we to submit to reason in such a way, civilisation would be much impoverished and deprived of authenticity. There are no shortage of Dawkins followers, for instance, prepared to explain away the meaning of life in terms of nothing more than a quest to perpetuate our genes, as though we were soulless automons of biological instinct.

In any case, reason alone does not allow us to make sense of things like literature, art, or music, for some of humanity’s greatest achievements. There is an absurdity in insisting we should judge Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or Monet’s water lilies, or even Hamlet, on the basis of scientific reason.

One of the problems for Dawkins, and his followers, is that he draws on a misreading of the Enlightenment legacy. While often designated simply as The Age of Reason, the Enlightenment was never a homogeneous movement.

There is, for example, a big difference between the French Enlightenment (associated with thinkers like Voltaire and Diderot) and the Scottish Enlightenment (led by philosophers Adam Smith and David Hume). Where the leading lights of the French Enlightenment would have agreed that all problems could be answered definitively according to the standard of reason and positive science the voices of the Scottish Enlightenment sounded a different tune. Thus for David Hume, ‘reason is ought and to be the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.’ Not for him the kind of scientific reason Dawkins would link to the Enlightenment.

The broader point is that the conflict between reason and science, on the one hand; and faith, superstition and religion on the other, is in a way a false one. For science has as its goal that of prediction and control: through observation and evidence, and the formulation of general laws, we can forecast the future. But why must faith or religion be judged by the same goal?

Indeed, reason does little to explain why our lives must have meaning. It provides us with no narrative with which we can structure our decisions, and no ethical guide to action. Granted, we should use science to help resolve issues where there are disputes of fact; but before such things come to bear, we need to know which questions are to be asked in the first place. Faith and religion might have a justified role in our lives after all.

Saying this should not consign one to being an ‘enemy of reason’. There are good reasons for us to live and let live, and to understand the Enlightenment not so much as a movement for the ascendancy of science and so-called reason, but as a movement which connected reason to the emergence of individual autonomy. The value of reason lies not in truth but in its ability to be put to use in the pursuit of what we conceive as the good life.

Even those sympathetic to the Dawkins-inspired wave of faith- and religion-bashing might ask themselves: we might place our faith in things which are not accountable to scientific rigour, but if it doesn’t hurt others, what’s the harm?

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