Dawkins and Lightman: Civil, even in opposition

Matthew d'Ancona

Matthew d'Ancona watches two great thinkers argue without exchanging a single angry word

21 September 2018 09:03

Here’s a paradox to savour: ours is an era of radical polarisation in which two bald men will argue over a comb on Twitter, sometimes for days. Social media is often little more than a digital pub fight, a clash between two or more gangs that venture forth from their echo chambers to trade virtual punches in the form of vitriolic posts.

Yet, last night at Imperial College, London, two of the world’s most distinguished public intellectuals showed that it is possible to argue about the meaning of life, the origin of the universe and the existence of God without exchanging a single angry word, ad hominem argument or demotic discourtesy.

I was lucky enough to moderate the conversation, hosted by the how to: Academy, between Richard Dawkins and Alan Lightman, and, in many years of chairing such events, I have rarely witnessed such a civil and enlightening exchange.

Neither man held back intellectually: the debate was substantial and the differences real. But the two scholars extended to one a measure of respect that is depressingly lacking in so many forms of social discourse today. This was not a matter of professional solidarity (both men being members of the academy and formidable scientists). Rather, it demonstrated a shared commitment to what Jürgen Habermas has famously called the ‘public sphere’.

Richard Dawkins, Matthew d'Ancona and Alan Lightman.

Dawkins, a former Professor of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, author of the global best-seller, The God Delusion, and father of the term ‘meme’ in its modern usage, is a formidable proselytiser for Darwinian principles, atheism and the primacy of science.

Lightman has a more complex pedigree: he too is a child of the laboratory, a physicist by training who has served on the faculties of Harvard and MIT. But he now holds a chair in the practice of humanities at the latter institution, having chosen to straddle the divide between science and the liberal arts: a true Renaissance man, in fact, whose next project is a novel set in South-East Asia.

He began his remarks by describing a moment of epiphany in Maine, in which he had stared at the stars, and sensed a connection with ‘the vast expanse of time’ and ‘to the long-distant future… compressed to a dot.’ His point was that there are forms of human experience and emotion that cannot be reduced to scientific description and explanation.

Lightman remains a materialist to the extent that he does not challenge the realm of science or its theoretical methods. Instead, he suggests that there is, as he put it, ‘a second body of truth’ that is better explored in the numinous projects of human creativity than in the reduction of everything to quantum physics and the interaction of neurons.

As in his compelling, recent book, Searching for Stars on An Island in Maine, Lightman insisted last night that we must recognise and embrace this second sphere of understanding and – crucially – extend respect to those who believe in God, even if we do not agree with them.

Lightman insisted that we must extend respect to those who believe in God, even if we do not agree with them.

Over to Dawkins. Anyone who has seen the Big Beast of the atheist jungle in action knows that he is capable of the most acerbic rhetoric and, when necessary, intellectual destruction of those he considers absurd, theocratic or hostile to science. But he was visibly intrigued by Lightman, and engaged with his argument in a manner than was both characteristically firm but also occasionally playful.

‘You can’t out-transcendent me!’ was his opening gambit. And anyone familiar with Dawkins’s book, The Magic of Reality, knows that he is an enthusiast for humanity’s capacity for awe, wonder and profound emotional experience. Where he differs from Lightman is that he doesn’t believe that God or a distinct realm of transcendent meaning are required for these impulses to be explained.

Pressing home this point, he quoted the late Carl Sagan: ‘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.”’

Dawkins admitted that he found Lightman ‘rather mystifyingly fond’ of the word ‘God’, and wondered why he felt the need to use it. Underpinning his own argument was a central distinction: Darwin had essentially explained how the incredible complexity of life had come about without divine manipulation. Physics would eventually spawn its own Darwin – or school of Darwins – to decode the software of the universe and show definitively that it was not the work of an external programmer.

‘You can’t out-transcendent me!’ was Dawkins’ opening gambit.

Of course, many physicists, most notably Larry Krauss, have already argued that the universe came from nothing and that this is not as bizarre as it first seems. Lightman reserves judgment. As he puts it in his book: ‘It may be that quantum physics can produce a universe from nothing, without cause, but such an accidental and unanalyzable origin for EVERYTHING seems deeply unsatisfying, at least to this pilgrim.’ Dawkins feels no such qualms.

No less enjoyable were the questions posed by the 800 audience members – on topics ranging from the relationship between science and Hinduism, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, the burqa, Big Bang, the possibility of conceptual sciences recognising the reality of what we now call ‘supernatural’, and the biological origins of faith.

The part of me that enjoys dialectic is generally sceptical of those who say that they will agree to disagree. But on this occasion it was exactly the right conclusion to draw. Lightman and Dawkins left the stage to their book signing and then headed off to a congenial dinner together; two titans of scholarship, profoundly at odds in the realm of ideas, but impeccably friendly in the realm of human exchange.

And they, after all, had been discussing the very meaning of life. There is a lesson in this for the rest of us: embroiled as we are in the daily Babel of digital chatter and rage over trivia, forgetting how much more rewarding it would be to look to the stars, and talk to one another with dignity and respect about the majesty of the heavens, and what it all might signify.

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