The EO Wilson interview on Salon is worth watching a commercial for; he’s an interesting and smart fellow, even where I disagree with him. I’ve put a few excerpts below the fold just in case you really detest jumping through those capitalist hoops.
I’ve talked with some atheists who’ve suggested what they really need is a spiritual atheism. They need the sense of awe. They’re competing with religious traditions, with very powerful stories, that have been passed down through the ages.
Yeah, that’s true.
Does the scientist, does the non-believer, need that as well? Can the non-believer have that?
The answer to the second question is yes. The answer to the first question — do they have it? — is usually no. The problem with secular humanism is that it does lack it. I think it was Camille Paglia who talked about Foucault and the almost religious awe that the French post-structuralist philosophers once had in France. She compared it to the power of the Judeo-Christian tradition and said 3,000 years of Yahweh beats one generation of Foucault.
Would you be comfortable saying that science can have a sacred dimension?
Sacred, yes, in the sense of spirituality. This would be based upon a deeper understanding of just how intricate and surprising the universe is. The story of the origin of life on this planet — the time scale, the magnitude of it, the complexity of how it has been put together — all of that engenders in me even more awe than I ever felt as a devout Southern Baptist growing up.
What does “spirituality” even mean? Honestly, to me, when people say “sacred” and “spiritual”, they might as well be mumbling “bloyble” and “plimptyplop”—the words are just nonsense referents to stuff they’ve been told is crucially important all of their lives, but actually has no substance at all. I think the problem with secular humanism isn’t an absence of a non-existent “spiritual” side (which is nonsensical on the face of it—don’t tell atheists they need to believe in ghosts in order to persuade people), but a general lack of ferocity, since it is hard to fight for disbelief, and an opposition that consists of dedicated, experienced zealots who have had many generations of training in the art of lying. What we need are more people who are as fervent about telling the truth and embracing reality as the other side is in parroting wishful thinking.
Awe is good. Appreciating the majesty of the universe is good. Demeaning it by coupling it to false and non-existent concepts like gods and spirits is bad.
I think Wilson already knows this, though.
You’re saying scientists, for the most part, don’t have existential crises?
That’s correct. Most are not religious. They’re quite happy with what they have. Therefore, scientism — or science as an alternative religion — is not in my opinion a valid comparison. I don’t see it as having the qualities of a religion, in terms of obeisance to a supreme being or of an urge to proselytize.
Suppose, miraculously, there was proof of a transcendental plane out there. Would you find that comforting?
Sure. Let me take this opportunity to dispel the notion, the canard, that scientists are against transcendentalism, that they want to block any talk of it, particularly intelligent design. If any positive evidence could be found of a supernatural guiding force, there would be a land rush of scientists into it. What scientist would not want to participate in what would be one of the greatest discoveries of all time? Scientists are simply saying — particularly in reference to intelligent design — that it’s not science and it’s garbage until some evidence or working theory is produced. And they are suspicious because they see it coming from people who have a religious agenda.
Exactly. Anyone who talks about “scientism” or calls evolution a religion is already on the other side, and is apparently entirely clueless about how most scientists actually think.
And he’s exactly right about that primacy of evidence. I’m a fairly hardcore atheist (No, really…it’s true. Maybe it doesn’t show through very well here (if you’re blind), but I’m an unbeliever) but if there were actually some solid, testable evidence of a Designer, I’d be very interested. Waving a bible at me isn’t evidence, though, nor are the ignorant whinings of the incompetents at the Discovery Institute, nor the Trilemma, nor Pascal’s Wager; the godly have a long way to go to persuade me, and largely it’s because the pathetic standards of evidence they find convincing is indisputable evidence only for the fact that they’re not thinking very well.