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Pop!Tech Richard Dawkins

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POP!TECH BRINGS TOGETHER THE WORLD'S LEADING THINKERS TO SHARE INSPIRATION AND IDEAS IGNITING CHANGE AND UNLOCKING HUMAN POTENTIAL THIS IS PART OF THEIR ONGOING CONVERSATION POP!TECH POP!CAST Presented by Lexus Hybrid Drive GIVES MORE TO THE DRIVER. TAKES LESS FROM THE WORLD. Richard Dawkins - Pop!Tech 2006 I was asked to talk about faith, and not being an expert on faith and fundamentalism FAITH like Dr Martin -- I greatly enjoyed listening to him -- I'm going to talk about faith as a scientist. Faith to me means belief in the absence of evidence. And I want to begin by illustrating the difference between faith-based belief and evidence-based belief in the form of a spoof issue of The Quarterly Review of Biology, a well-known biological journal. I've invented a special issue on the question of, How did the dinosaurs come to an end? Did an asteroid kill the dinosaurs? I've got a list of imaginary papers that might be submitted to The Quarterly Review, on this question: Did an asteroid kill the dinosaurs? First paper, "Iridium layer at K-T boundary and potassium-argon dated crater in Yucatan indicate that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs." Perfectly sensible, respectable scientific paper. "The President of The Royal Society has been vouchsafed a strong inner conviction that an asteroid killed the dinosuars." "It has been privately revealed to Professor Hockstein that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs." "Professor Holdly was brought up to have total and unquestioning faith that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs." "Professor Hawkins has promulgated an official dogma binding on all loyal Hawkinsians that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs." Well, I hope it's clear that paper number one is the one that I approve of, and I hope that nobody will approve of papers two, three, four, or five. They do seem to me to illustrate precisely the religious approach to what's true about the world. Faith can sometimes be caught like a virus from a charismatic preacher or a presuasive book, but more usually, faith is hereditary. Isn't it a remarkable coincidence, almost everybody has the same religion as their parents. It always just happens to be the right religion. Religions tend to run in families. If we'd been brought up in ancient Greece, we'd all be worshipping Zeus and Apollo. If we'd been born Vikings, we'd all be worshipping Wotan and Thor. How does it come about? Through childhood endoctrination. At Christmas time one year my daily newspaper, The Independent, was looking for a seasonal picture, and they found this heartwarmingly, ecuminical one of a school nativity play. The 3 wise men were played by Shadbreet (a Sikh), Musharraf (a Muslim) and Adele (a Christian), all aged 4. I'm going to make one slight change to that caption. Shadbreet (a Monetarist), Musharraf (a Keynesian) and Adele (a Marxist), all aged 4. [audience applauds] If that headline had appeared, mightn't the parents have been investigated to see whether they were fit to bring up children? The feminists taught me about consciousness raising, Consciousness raising (feminists have shown the way) and I want to raise our consciousness about the labeling of tiny children with the religion of their parents. If we're talking about 4-year-old children, there's no such thing as a Catholic child. There's only a child of Catholic parents. There's no such thing as a Protestant child. There's no such thing as a Muslim child; only a child of Muslim parents. Let's change that picture one more time. Shadbreet (an atheist), Musharraf (a agnostic) and Adele (a secular humanist), all aged 4. I suggest that parents of such children might have been investigated for child abuse. You've all seen maps like this, which map out in color the predominant religions of the world. In a green area you're a Suni Muslim. In a red area you're a Protestant, etc. What a preposterous thing that map is when you think about it. Imagine that a similar map were constructed of the scientists of the world portraying what they feel about the extinction of the dinosaurs. [audience laughing] The point is that although that is ridiculous, all of society--even the secular part of society-- accepts that it is perfectly natural to see a map like the previous one in an atlas of the world, and it's perfectly natural to see in a newspaper headline, "This 4-year-old child is a Christian." "This 4-year-old child is a Muslim," etc. It's not just that religious people accept that, all of us in society have been persuaded, cajoled into treating religion as uniquely allowed to get away with such outrageous labeling. There's a map of Belfast with Protestant areas and Catholic areas; Faith Map and throughout centuries of history, those represent battle lines. There's no other difference between the people who live in Belfast. They're the same color, they speak the same language, they look the same, they sound the same. The only difference is they have different hereditary faiths. Hereditary in the sense that they--Protestants go to Protetstant schools, and their children do and their grandchildren do. Catholics go to Catholic schools, and it goes on down the generations, and they are taught separation. Tradition in Science? Again, this preposterous idea of scientific theories being mappable. It's accepted in religion. Tradition in Religion -- Kill the Prods! Kill the Papists! Kill the Muslims! Kill the Hindus! Kill the Shia! Kill the Sunnis! Arrogant Certainty --Science is unjustly accused of it --How about faith? [faint sound of cell phone ringing] There's a curious noise going on. It's rather a monotonous tune, I think. [audience laughs] Now, science is often accused of arrogant certainty. But how about faith? Clarke's Third Law, Arthur C. Clarke, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Clarke's Third Law is a good illustration of the humility of science, in this case in the guise of technology. We're humble in the sense that we are implicitly acknowledging that the technology of, say, a century's time or 2 centuries' time will apear to us as magical as our technology--as mobile phones, as computers, as Boeing 747s-- would have appeared to an 18th-century person. The same is true of science and its attitude to the mysteries of the universe. J. B. S. Haldane, the great British scientist and polymath said, "Now, my own suspision is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose." "I suspect that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of or can be dreamed of in any philosophy." Richard Feynman compared the accuracy of quantum theory's experimental predictions, to specifying the width of North America to within 1 hair's breadth. This means quantum theory has got to be true in some sense. The predictions are so fantastically accurate, yet the assumptions that quantum theory needs to make in order to deliver those predictions are so mysterious, that even Feynman himself was moved to remark, "If you think you understand quantum theory, you don't understand quantum theory." [audience laughs] David Deutsch in this splendid book, The Fabric of Reality, resorts to-- and I think resort is the right word--the many worlds interpretation of quantum theory. The worst you can say of that is that it's preposterously wasteful. It postulates a vast and rapidly growing number of universes existing in parallel, mutually undetectable except through the narrow porthole of quantum mechanical experiments. These universes all differ in slight ways. In some of these universes I'm already dead. In a minority of them I have a green beard, and so on. The alternative Copenhagen interpretation is equally preposterous. Richard Feynman (1918-1988) "If you think you understand quantum theory ... you don't understand quantum theory" The human mind was not evolved to understand these things, yet the predictions indicate that in some sense they are true. Science is humble enough to recognize that there are--that the universe is queerer than we can suppose. What is it that makes us capable of supposing anything, and does this tell us anything about what we can suppose? Are there things about the universe that will be forever beyond our grasp, but not beyond the grasp of some superior intelligence, some superior super-human intelligence? Or are there things about the universe that are in principle ungraspable by any mind, however superior? The history of science has been a long series of violent brainstorms, as successive generations have come to terms with increasing levels of queerness in the universe. We're now so used to the idea that the earth spins rather than the sun moving across the sky, it's hard for us to realize what a shattering mental revolution that must have been. After all, it seems so obvious that the earth is large and motionless; the sun small and mobile, although it's worth recalling what Wittgenstein said on the subject. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) "What would it have looked like...?" Wittgenstein asked a friend of his, "Why do people always say it was natural for man to assume that the sun went round the earth rather than that the earth was rotating?" His friend replied, "Well, obviously, because it looks as though the sun is going around the earth." Wittgenstein responded, "Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as though the earth was rotating?" [audience laughs] Science has taught us many things against our intuition. Apparently solid things, like crystals and rocks, are really almost entirely empty space. The familiar illustration is a fly in the middle of a sports stadium. Imagine a Fly in the Centre of this Stadium The nucleus of the atom is the fly in the middle of the sports stadium, and the next nucleus is the next fly in the middle of the next sports stadium. The hardest, solidest, densest rock is "really almost entirely empty space broken only by tiny particles so widely spaced they shouldn't count." Why then do rocks look and feel solid and hard and impenetrable? Well, as an evolutionary biologist, I'd say something like this: Our brains have evolved to help us survive within the orders of magnitude of size and speed at which our bodies normally operate. We never evolved to navigate in the world of atoms. If we had, our brains probably would perceive rocks as full of empty space. Rocks feel hard and impenetrable to our hands, because our hands themselves can't penetrate them. It's therefore useful to our brains to construct notions like solidity and impenetrability. Moving to the other end of the scale, our ancestors never had to navigate through the cosmos at anything like the speed of light. If they had, our brains would be much better at coping with Einstein relativity. I give the name Middle World to the medium-scaled environment with things moving at medium speeds in which we have evolved, in which our brains have evolved the ability to understand and take action. Steve Grand, he's the one on the left, Douglas Adams is on the right. In Steve Grand's book, Creation: Life and How to Make It, he is almost scathing with our mundane preoccupation with matter itself. We have this tendency to think that only solid material things really are things at all. Waves of electromagnetic fluctuation in a vacuum seem unreal, and to the Victorians they seemed so unreal that they have to be waved in some material medium, so the Victorians invented the ether to cope with that. A whirlpool for Steve Grand is a thing with just as much reality as a rock, even though a whirlpool only has its shape because of motion. That's a similiar effect; that's a sand dune in Tanzania which moves, which walks at about 17 meters per year, but it retains its shape, because the wind blows the dust in that form. Creation - Life and How to Make It, Steve Grand Another quotation from Steve Grand. He says, "Think of an experience from your childhood, something you remember clearly; something you can see, feel, maybe even smell as if you were really there. After all, you really were there at the time, weren't you? How else would you remember it? But here is the bombshell: You weren't there; not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place. Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made. If that doesn't make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, read it again until it does, because it is important." We are evolved denizens of Middle World, and that limits what we're capable of imagining. Middle World - Reconstruction by Malcolm Godwin, commissioned for The Ancestor's Tale We find it intuitively easy to grasp ideas like when a rabbit moves at the sort of medium velocity at which rabbits and other Middle World objects do move, and hits another Middle World object, it knocks itself out. Carl Sagan (1934-1996) Science has the humility to recognize that there's an awful lot that we don't understand, and maybe that we can't understand. Carl Sagan said, "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 prophet 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 magnificance 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." The arrogance of faith Faith, on the other hand, seems to me to show an arrogance, which is missing from science. I know the truth, and nothing will change my mind. My holy book tells me the truth, and I need look no further. My priest, my pope, my ayatollah tells me the truth; I need look no further. An inner voice in my head tells me the truth. I need look no further, harking back to my Quarterly Review of Biology spoof. So where science is filled with doubt, scepticism, willingness to learn, openness to correction, faith is exactly the opposite. I'm going to tell two anecdotes to illustrate the difference. Kurt Wise is an American geologist, highly qualified, trained at the University of Chicago and at Harvard in geology and paleontology under Steve Gould, no less. But he had a fatal weakness. He was infected with deep faith early in his life, and he couldn't shake it off. And as he grew older, after he graduated, he became increasingly uneasy about the mismatch and the incompatibility between his science, his geology, his paleontology and his scripture. One evening he put it to the test with a pair of scissors. He got a Bible, and he went right through the whole Bible with a pair of scissors, cutting out--physically cutting out every verse in the Bible that would have to go if he were to accept the scientific world view that he'd learned at Chicago and Harvard. I quote, "Try as I might, and even with the benefit of intact margins throughout the pages of scripture, I found it impossible to pick up the Bible without it being rent in two. I had to make a decision between evolution and scripture. Either the scripture was true and evolution was wrong; or evolution was true and I must toss out the Bible. It was there that night that I accepted the word of God and rejected all that would ever counter it, including evolution. With that, in great sorrow, I tossed into the fire all my dreams and hopes in science." I think that's a tragic story. I think that anything, in this case faith, that can do that to a man like Kurt Wise, is a force for evil, and if it can do that to a highly educated scientist like Kurt Wise, just think what it can do to the rest of the population. My contrasting story is of a scientist, an elderly scientist who was a senior figure in my department at Oxford, when I was an undergraduate. For years this old man--when I say old, he's probably about the same age I am now, so I have to be careful. He had taught us and he had believed that the Golgi apparatus, which is a piece of microscopic apparatus inside most cells-- he believed that the Golgi apparatus was an artifact. He thought it didn't exist, and he had written paper after paper after paper on this. He'd lectured to us undergraduates about this. And then one day an American cell biologist came and gave a public lecture in our department in which he demonstrated beyond all possible doubt that the Golgi apparatus was real. Our old man strode to the front of the lecture hall, shook him by the hand, and said, "My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these 15 years." All of us applauded until our hands were red, and none of us will ever have fogotten that incident. That is science at its best. That's the very opposite of faith. That's knowing when you're wrong, and even being pleased to be disproved. That's a bit of an ideal, but that's what he did. What finally baffles me is the way our society, all of our society, has limply bought into the idea that faith should somehow be treated with exaggerated respect. As I said before, even secular individuals have come to accept the idea that faith should somehow be immune to criticism simply because it is faith. Where you would gladly criticize somebody's political views or their artistic taste or their football team or their views on hunting or gun ownership or something like that, when it comes to faith, we are all expected to back off, and say no, no, we can't criticize faith. It isn't done; it's not good manners to criticize faith. Well, I think it's about time we started criticizing faith. The truth is that without this convention of good manners which pervades our society, faith couldn't withstand criticism, because it has no resources with which to do the withstanding. How can you defend a position when there are by definition no arguments in its favor? My suggestion is that we should henceforth abandon our social convention of automatic respect for religious faith. Finally, just to make the point that this "Only a Theory!" -- you all of have seen that in criticisms of evolution -- Evolution is only a theory. It's one of the crosses we have to bear, if you'll pardon the expression. [audience laughs] Isn't it ironic that this 'only a theory' actually stems from the non-arrogance of science, because scientists are careful enough and cautious enough to say that everything they know is only a theory, which is just awaiting disproof. Yet that humility comes back and bites us in the form of a criticism. 'Evolution is only a theory,' which implies that it is in doubt. H. L. Mencken said, "We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart." [audience laughs] Thank you very much. [audience applauds] Presented by Lexus Hybrid Drive GIVES MORE TO THE DRIVER. TAKES LESS FROM THE WORLD. The preceding video is licensed under the Creative Commons Non-Commercial ShareAlike 2.5 License For details please visit For more Pop!Casts, information on Pop!Tech or to learn how to participate visit

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Duration: 24 minutes and 16 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Views: 7,661
Posted by: peder on Jun 22, 2007

Richard Dawkins believes science’s ability to admit ignorance is one of its greatest strengths. On the flip side, he proposes that faith remains arrogant and all too certain of its validity without any rational set of proofs.

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