Monday, March 9, 2009

What's it all about?

Prof Dawkins should be pleased. Not only is my son's stuffed lemur named after him, but I deferred my enjoyment of the premiere America's Next Top Model, Cycle 12, for him.

It's wonderful go somewhere and come home feeling like you might be just a little bit smarter.

(That's not exactly what Top Model does for me.)

This is especially true when you don't get out much because you have a new-ish baby, and because you have a new-ish baby, you are still a little stupid in general.

This past week, I had the surprise opportunity to attend Richard Dawkins' lecture at the University of Minnesota, entitled "The Purpose of Purpose," As PZ Myers put it, "This talk presented an overview of how we should look at the appearance of design in the universe, for a general public."

The house was packed, which was a wonderful thing to see. Being an atheist in America can make you feel isolated, especially during the faux Great Awakening we have been suffering these past years, and when one is surrounded by data showing that America is only ahead of Turkey for public acceptance of evolution, and 63% of Americans believe that "humans and other animals have either always existed in their present form or have evolved over time under the guidance of a supreme being." Plus, as a bonus, "64% of Americans support teaching creationism alongside evolution in the classroom."

What's a Science Fan to do?

The "Why Question" is one that humans always pose, and Prof. Dawkins suggests that the question of purpose is only sensible when one is considering a machine or an object, but it does not work when you attempt to apply it to something such as The Matterhorn. Purpose has been pondered for ages, and humans usually relate purpose back to themselves, such as the example Prof. Dawkins gave: it was once believed that cattle and sheep were given life in order to keep their meat fresh until we are ready to consume it. Yeah, why not? That meat would be bad in under a week if it were just hanging out in a field without the divine spark.

We laugh at such things now. But which of our divinations of purpose will be laughed at by coming generations?

People are still using objects to illustrate the genius of god's creation, even when that creation has been highly altered by humans, such as the famous case of the banana man (which should, of course, be a mystery novel). I see something like that, a man demonstrating how a banana is perfectly formed for the hand of man, while Kirk Cameron of TV's "Growing Pains" looks on, and am silenced with wide-eyed, open-mouthed wonder, eventually followed by the laughter of disbelief, but many, many people see that and nod in all-knowing understanding.

The questions after the lecture were generally rambling and disappointing. One of the questioners exhibited a common problem that believers have when they are confronted with atheists: they cannot comprehend life without a god, or "meaning" without a god. They think that because we don't have a god, we must have replaced him with something, like smoking for alcohol or French fries for smoking. They think that we must be attending the Church of Evolution with Pastor Darwin, everyone in the congregation donning matching white beards, and that we race about, reducing everything we see to its material parts, incapable of wonder and joy. That because we don't have a god, we have no reason to do good, no framework for morals. That because art or music appears to have no evolutionary purpose, it must therefore be useless, and we do not appreciate it. Even love must be alien to us, as we do not have, nor do we want, the love of a god.

But fear of divine judgment does not seem to be a good motivation for doing good. Nor does doing good to get god's attention and approval. Furthermore, it does not seem that More Religion in America has made us more caring, more responsible, more diplomatic, more accepting, or more healthy. In my ethical sensibility, Doing Good and behaving responsibly are societal issues as well as a personal ones: everyone benefits, including me. That sounds like a pretty good deal.

When it comes to a sense of wonder about the natural world, I think it's reductionist to say "god made it." For me, appreciation and a continuing sense of wonder come from a deeper understanding of how things work. Music and art, poetry and literature: these are all human achievements that are deserving of credit to their creator, not to a god or his 33 year old virgin son. It is a wonder that humans have come so far in such a comparatively short period of time and have invented not only progressively more complicated forms of technology for making our lives easier (go figure out that one), and that we have found beautiful ways to express ourselves to other humans.

I still have a sense of purpose, and it's pretty much to take care of myself so that I will be capable of taking care of others. You know the thing they tell you on the airplane: put your oxygen mask on before assisting others? That sums it up pretty well.

p.s. The French Fry should never be a stand in for something else. The French Fry should be loved and appreciated for the beautiful thing that it is.

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