Richard Dawkins & Steven Pinker: Is Science Killing The Soul - Page 4
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In this sense, our question tonight means, Is science killing soulfulness? Is it killing esthetic sensitivity, artistic sensibility, creativity? The answer to this question, Is science killing Soul Two?, is a resounding No. The very opposite is the case. But it is a question worth pursuing, because there have been many people, from genuinely great poets all the way down to Brian Appleyard and Fay Weldon, who've given a strong Yes answer to the question, Is science killing the soul? It's Soul Two that Keats and Lamb meant when they thought that Newton had destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow when he unwove it.

"Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven;
We know her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things,
Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine‹
Unweave a rainbow . . ."

Well, I've written a book which is one long reply to that particular kind of anti-scientific attitude. In the sense of Soul Two, science doesn't kill the soul, it gives the soul constant and exhilarating re-birth.

Turning back to Soul One -- in the first chapter of Steve Pinker's book How the Mind Works he says, "I want to convince you that our minds are not animated by some godly vapor or single wonder-principle. The mind, like the Apollo spacecraft, is designed to solve many engineering problems, and thus is packed with high-tech systems, each contrived to overcome its own obstacles." In the same paragraph, he moves on to Soul Two when he says, " . . . I believe that the discovery by cognitive science and artificial intelligence of the technical challenges overcome by our mundane mental activity is one of the great revelations of science, an awakening of the imagination comparable to learning that the universe is made up of billions of galaxies or that a drop of pond water teems with microscopic life." Well, awakening of the imagination is a pretty good definition of Soul Two. And in that sense, far from killing the soul, science may prove to be its greatest awakener.

Carl Sagan wrote, shortly before he died,

"How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant'? Instead they say, 'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.' A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths."

Well it's common enough for people to agree that religions have got the facts all wrong, but "Nevertheless," they go on to say, "you have to admit that religions do provide something that people need. We crave a deeper meaning to life, a deeper, more imaginative understanding of the mystery of existence." Well, in the passage I've just quoted, Sagan seems to be criticizing religions not just for getting it wrong, which many people would accept, but for their deficiencies precisely in the sphere in which they are supposed to retain some residual virtue. Religions are not imaginative, not poetic, not soulful. On the contrary, they are parochial, small-minded, niggardly with the human imagination, precisely where science is generous.

Now, there are, of course many unsolved problems, and scientists are the first to admit this. There are aspects of human subjective consciousness that are deeply mysterious. Neither Steve Pinker nor I can explain human subjective consciousness -- what philosophers call qualia. In How the Mind Works Steve elegantly sets out the problem of subjective consciousness, and asks where it comes from and what's the explanation. Then he's honest enough to say, "Beats the heck out of me." That is an honest thing to say, and I echo it. We don't know. We don't understand it.