Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Quotation of the day

It is all too easy to confuse fundamentalism with passion. I may well appear passionate when I defend evolution against a fundamentalist creationist, but this is not because of a rival fundamentalism of my own. It is because the evidence for evolution is overwhelmingly strong and I am passionately distressed that my opponent can't see it — or, more usually, refuses to look at it because it contradicts his holy book. My passion is increased when I think about how much the poor fundamentalists, and those whom they influence, are missing. The truths of evolution, along with many other scientific truths, are so engrossingly fascinating and beautiful; how truly tragic to die having missed out on all that! Of course that makes me passionate. How could it not? But my belief in evolution is not fundamentalism, and it is not faith, because I know what it would take to change my mind, and I would gladly do so if the necessary evidence were forthcoming.

It does happen. I have previously told the story of a respected elder statesman of the Zoology Department at Oxford when I was an undergraduate. For years he had passionately believed, and taught, that the Golgi Apparatus (a microscopic feature of the interior of cells) was not real: an artefact, an illusion. Every Monday afternoon it was the custom for the whole department to listen to a research talk by a visiting lecturer. One Monday, the visitor was an American cell biologist who presented completely convincing evidence that the Golgi Apparatus was real. At the end of the lecture, the old man strode to the front of the hall, shook the American by the hand and said — with passion — ‘My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.’ We clapped our hands red. No fundamentalist would ever say that. In practice, not all scientists would. But all scientists pay lip service to it as an ideal — unlike, say, politicians who would probably condemn it as flip-flopping. The memory of the incident I have described still brings a lump to my throat.

-- Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

(h/t to You Call This Culture?)

3 comments:

  1. According to Greta Christina, this story might well be evidence that even the most well-respected scientist could hold an irrational belief for fifteen years.

    I disagree completely. When we are dealing with limited evidence, holding a mistaken belief is not evidence of irrationality. The only test of irrationality is what you do when you are presented with new evidence, compelling evidence to the contrary: If you change your mind, you're rational.

    Yes, both the skeptic and the religious hold mistaken beliefs. Everyone holds mistaken beliefs; error is unavoidable when we don't have all the evidence.

    It's the response to the evidence that's the substantive, telling basis of differentiation. The religious close their eyes and close their minds, and retreat into their delusional world. The skeptic says, "I was wrong. Thank you for showing me the truth."

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  2. "My passion is increased when I think about how much the poor fundamentalists, and those whom they influence, are missing. The truths of evolution, along with many other scientific truths, are so engrossingly fascinating and beautiful; how truly tragic to die having missed out on all that! Of course that makes me passionate. How could it not?"

    I think that, to be fair, one must acknowledge that this is how many religious folks feel about us atheists. There's a sentiment behind many of those folks' actions that I do not wish to cheapen. Not perhaps specific to your criticism of Ms. Christina, but germane to the the overarching theme, I think.

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  3. I think that, to be fair, one must acknowledge that this is how many religious folks feel about us atheists. There's a sentiment behind many of those folks' actions that I do not wish to cheapen.

    Feel, yes. I have no doubt that religious people are sincere about their feelings, and sincerity is a virtue of no small value.

    But sincerity loses a considerable portion of its value, I think, when it overrides truth and the rational search for truth. It is they themselves, not I, who cheapen the sincerity of their beliefs.

    ReplyDelete

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