Monday, 3 November 2014


From “The Pilot” in 1995 comes this article on “Rationality”, which is interesting because it shows that Richard Dawkin’s views, and the intensity and almost evangelical fervour with which he propagates them were still in evidence back nearly 20 years ago.

I think, incidentally, that the Headmaster of Ampleforth is wrong. I do not think one should deliberately plan or induce abortions to get tissues for vaccine programmes, but given that abortions do happen, it seems, to me at any rate, that at least something good could come from that human tragedy.

That would seem to be akin to organ donation from people who die in accidents, whose death is given some measure of meaning by giving life to others.

My own philosophy comes from the sceptical tradition of the pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes, and it is a caution against being too certain about anything, even atheism:

The gods did not reveal, from the beginning,
All things to us, but in the course of time
Through seeking we may learn and know things better.
But as for certain truth, no man has known it,
Nor shall he know it,neither of the gods
Nor yet of all the things of which I speak.
For even if by chance he were to utter
The final truth, he would himself not know it:
For all is but a woven web of guesses

Where I take issue with Richard Dawkins, and where I side with another great (and more generous) thinker, Stephen Jay Gould, is his absolute certainty that he is right. Agnosticism is, I think, a better and more humble option.

A few weeks ago, you may recall, there was yet another Press-induced gefuffle when the Headmaster of Ampleforth refused to recommend to the parents of the boys in his charge that they should accept a Government backed programme of immunisation against measles and rubella. His scruples were based on the fact that the serum sprang indirectly from the tissue of an aborted foetus - a procedure to which he had grave moral objections.

As I followed the inevitable furore that this recommendation engendered, I made a bet with myself that only one person in particular would launch a withering attack on him. I was not disappointed in this for almost immediately a long diatribe in The Daily Something or other caught my eye. It was by Mr Richard Dawkins who teaches, or, as the lawyers would have it, attempts to teach, Zoology at New College, Oxford, an institution for which up until the time of Dawkins' appointment I had some reference. It was he, I am told, who led the campaign which, unbelievably, succeeded in having Christmas trees banned from the College as constituting a nuisance and an obstacle!

What irritated me most about his screed was the condescending and derisory way in which he dismissed all the Headmaster's arguments as though he was both half-witted and maliciously delinquent: it was typical not only of the man but of the narrowness of his vision.

Strangely, I thought, the Headmaster bothered to defend his position. Surely he must have known that to get Dawkins to try to see the views of the religious, let alone areligious, was akin to trying to teach an elephant the niceties of petit point?

But it all set me thinking about our so-called rationality and a book published recently which should be compulsory reading for all who pontificate on any matter of substance - especially, I might add, fundamentalists of any faith and atheists. It is called "Irrationality" by Stuart Sutherland (Constable £12.95). In the book, the author homes in on our reasoning processes - quite regardless of our emotions.

We are pitifully bad at acting rationally. We have a perverse genius for defending our existing beliefs at all costs rather than putting them to the test of serious debate and even the "facts" when they are reasonably established. When we collect evidence, we cheat about it because we only look for that which will support our views whilst wilfully ignoring or discounting anything that doesn't. We try to make patterns of things when there is manifestly no pattern to be seen, and seek for "explanations" that fit our view.

One has only to contemplate the abiding interest in "conspiracy theories" and the bizarre 1sleights of mind that folk indulge in to see the truth of this. witness the TV programme recently where some soul claimed that Marlowe wrote all of Shakespeare and was never killed in the famous pub brawl!

We are, Sutherland maintains, totally unwilling ever to admit that we could be wrong let alone are wrong. Once we have openly committed ourselves to a position, any counter argument no matter how convincing it may be, tends to increase our conviction that we are right rather than to decrease it. We tend blithely to ignore the experience of others if it does not tally with our own or if we have not had such an experience with our conception of what it ought to he or might be like.

It all boils down to the fact that our views are invariably not only reasonable but right whereas those of others are ... well, rubbish. Oh dear, oh dear: I wonder if any of this sets a few alarm bells tinkling?

I might send Dawkins a copy of this tome, but of course his views are so perverse.

One has to draw the line somewhere, don't you know, and he is an atheist. Has to draw the line? Does one?


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