The problem with scientists – Happy 70th Birthday Professor Dawkins

Posted by on March 26, 2011 in Thoughts | 4 comments

Today is the 70th anniversary of Professor Richard Dawkins’ birth.

I am writing this as a congratulations to him on his birthday and as a way to let you know why I hold him in the highest esteem among people living today. His writing has helped me form a worldview that is not only rational, but still filled with wonder and beauty. Surprisingly, some would find that to be a bit of an oxymoron, “to be rational AND have a beauty filled existence”. Let me explain,

I have heard this claim, or something very like it, often:

“The problem with scientists/rationalists/atheists is that by taking God out of the equations, you strip all the beauty and wonder from the universe. You take away all the possibilities of wonder and replace it with facts. You take childhood dreams and analyse them until all we are left with is why things happen.”

I have even been accused of this or similar by my non-believing girlfriend, which is surprising. Well sorry folks, but you are plain wrong. Let me explain to you why you are wrong, very very briefly.

The universe is beautiful. As it stands, right now, the universe is filled with beauty and wonder, much more than we know, and much more than I will ever see. The universe and everything in it is created from particles which are created in the last dying breaths of stars. Galaxies form and dance in circles due to the gravitational pull of super-massive black holes. Stars are immense storms of gas and plasma, constantly spewing gigantic plumes of flame up into space. Our planet has been in just the right position in the solar system for life to form, and while relatively unlikely compared to all the other places a planet could fall, it is common enough that we now believe there could be thousands of planets capable of sustaining life in our galaxy alone. Through scientific endeavours, humanity has managed to improve the living standards of billions of people on earth, and given time and resources, we may even be able to extend that improvement on to all living creatures on this planet. We all live and love and die. We all experience joy and pain, happiness and despair, and these are just some of the emotions we are capable of.

These things, and many many more, are beautiful. We think they are beautiful because the appeal to us on a level that is betond just analysis, on a level where awe and beauty run hand in hand. We don’t require there to be a God for there to be beauty.

Douglas Adams sums this up so beautifully with this quote:

“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

What surprises me most is that there is a misconception that we need the possibility of fairytales, dragons, gods and magical castles to live a meaningful life. I mean, it’s not as though I would say to a child of four “There are no dragons, so stop playing that stupid fanciful game with dragons in it.” There is a place for imagination, and the time to let your imagination run wild is when you are a child, because this is part of the process of learning. After all, imagination is part and parcel with innovation, and innovation is progress. We don’t require gods to have imagination, just as we don’t require gods to have a sense of morality, justice, ethics, love, conscience, pity, or any other of the so called “admirable human traits” that many so willingly ascribe to God’s omniscient powers.

Richard Dawkins says this about the beauty of being alive:

“After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked—as I am surprisingly often—why I bother to get up in the mornings.”

This is exactly how I feel about humanity. I am not a scientist by profession, but am a person of scientific method in my life. And I see the universe as the thing of beauty and wonder that it is. In part, I thank Professor Dawkins for this viewpoint, and his courage and passion to the rational and the real.

So Happy 70th Birthday Professor Dawkins, here’s to you and your work, to your rationality and your passion, your drive and your incredible strength of conviction. I owe you a lot, and for that I thank you. And I thought you might get a kick out of this little comic strip from XKCD.

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  1. I think Feynman desribes the beauty of a scientific outlook on the world brilliantly:

    “I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

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    • Yes, the scientific mind is a wonderous thing!

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  2. Oh so true! As atheists and scientifically oriented people we can not only see the beauty of a flower and nature but go beyond that and see its internal workings…a rainbow sort of way of looking at things. Whereas, religious people tend to see the black and white of explanations pertaining to the wonder of the universe.

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  3. I’ve often wondered at the fact that perfectly intelligent people can wear mystical blinkers over their metaphorical eyes, and need to add something to reality to make it better and beautiful rather than see the beauty and majesty that’s already there and appreciate it as it is.

    The idea of the supernatural, even aside from the lack of real evidence, to me just seems so shallow and uninteresting compared to the findings and implications of science.

    Supernature as a concept is not even necessary, but so many people insist that there must be something ‘more’ to the universe…Why?

    A mystical worldview just seems to make the universe look dull and boring the way I hear believers describe it to me, a failure of the imagination.

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