Open letter to Richard Dawkins

Mr. Dawkins,

Let me start off by saying, presumably rather unoriginally, then I am a big fan of your work. Your writing of course, but most of all your public defense of atheism, and openly addressing the dangers of religion in the media.

I have read the God Delusion with great interest at a time I was not convinced one way or the other in the ‘spectrum of (a)theism’. The book however, sparked an interest in thinking critically about the consequences and purpose of ‘faith’. An interest I hold to this day. I even gifted a copy to my father, at the time at least someone who visited church reliably. Although I never found out whether he was truly religious or not, he has stopped visiting church all together within a year after reading The God Delusion, so if there’s some (secret) place you’re keeping score, I suppose you could count this as +2. (All though he will never admit it would have anything to do with your writing).

Satish Kumar, enemy of reason

However, I write you in regard to the conversation you’ve had with Satish Kumar back in 2007. Most of all, I sincerely wonder how you look back on that conversation now.

The 2007 interview as part of the Enemies of Reason series.

First, I did not know Satish Kumar prior to the interview, and am not particularly interested in him now. And all though his name comes up a few times in this open letter, the main point is not a defense of him or his philosophy (as will become clear in the final part). The point I want to raise concerns yourself and the things you’ve written about throughout your carreer.

Second, it is perhaps because of the ‘evolution’ of your arguments for science and critical thought this interview, and its conclusion, stood out to me and was disconcerning in a way.

Third, I believe you might have been both wrong and right when you said the disagreement with mr. Kumar seems to be mostly semantic. As any philosopher would know, definition is crucial. Mr. Kumar did not do a very good job of defining the words that are so important to understanding his world view. Furthermore, as you point out, he does himself a disservice by using words nowadays overused by new-age con artists you interview throughout the very interesting series ‘Enemies of Reason’.

“Quality is the metaphysical, quantity the physical, the spirit, see things within the context”.

It sounds exactly like the new-age spirituality language used to peddle overpriced herbal products by people wearing glasses inlaid with diamonds.

However, I believe mr. Kumar presented a perfectly rational worldview without metaphysical, supernatural or any other unscientific ‘reasoning’. His view therefore should have been open to reasonable, intellectual debate about the merit of his world view rather than the scrutiny of the semantics he used to express it.

Spinoza

When looked at his words from within the context of the series (no pun intended), the words are just of the type one expects to hear from the con man rightfully subjected to your scrutiny. And whenever a con man uses the word spirit he would usually be referring to insubstantial consciousness or human interference from ‘the metaphysical world’, granting him boons from beyond the realm mere mortals experience or projecting human-like attributes (love, self-determination) to inanimate objects. I believe it to be quite clear mr. Kumar meant neither of those.

It seemed to me he meant ‘spirit’ to be the ‘purpose’ (or better; ‘function)’ of ‘matter’. Something he defines as it’s ‘quality’. Or something which Spinoza would call ‘it’s nature’.

“In the spirit of the law.” could be translated to “That which the law tries to achieve.” or its “function”.

Mr. Kumars view makes a lot more sense if we add the first half of the conversation about always looking at ‘things within context’. Within context, everything has its function as part of a large chain of events. On the philosophical level, the rock (the composition of the rock from parts out of the whole) has a function. Just as our own human composition has a function (or rather, functions).

Defining function

As I’m writing this, we get to the semantic issue once more, because now ‘function’ has entered the equation. I’m going out on a limb here (I’m neither a philosopher and English is not my first language) in saying this function merely implies the matter (wether it’s a rock, a bird or a human) is parts of the whole (the atoms/energy/stardust that makes up everything in the universe) that have taken on a particular form in this particular moment in order for it to be used to move a stage up a chain of events. As in ‘a rock can function as a weapon to kill an animal to survive the night’ because of its current composition. A flower can be observed and be enjoyed on an aesthetic level, which has a psychological and biological function, or feed a bee, help evolve a species by providing certain nutrients. (In this way, the function does not need to be human related, which seems to be the debate during the intervention).

Just to clarify, this ‘function’ is very different from the religious claim of divine purpose or intent, and is not even necessarily related to the ‘why are we here’ question (which would be at the very end of the aforementioned ‘chain of events’, if anything — obviously we don’t know -yet).

Survival, evolution, or merely the action and reaction of energy within the universe is sufficient for the purpose of explaining ‘function’, or ‘spirit’. We do not need to know the end(goal) in order to observe things are happening. Which is exactly why I think, on a philosophical level, I think mr. Kumars thoughts we worth exploring more than you seemed to give them credit for. As again we find the ‘God’ of Spinoza in this chain of events, this ‘context’ as mr. Kumar explains it, or ‘nature’ as Spinoza defines it. A view, which as far as I know is completely compatible with science. It merely states things just ‘are’, but they all ‘are related’. Simple chemistry or biology would surely attest to this claim. And I doubt you would have denied Spinoza the opportunity to really explore his thoughts, no matter how the vocabulary seemed to strike the wrong chord with you.

Your counter-argument is of course still valid — where I believe you to say in order to understand things, do things or get things done, components can be sufficient, if not a better/more useful way to look at the world. Although I believe mr. Kumars counterpoint was equally valid when it comes to the application to his own personal project: the environment.

The arrogance of science

Just for the sake of argument, I’ll interpret mr. Kumars argument to be the following:

If ‘we’ all would know the function of a tree in the big picture (the trees ‘spirit’ within the context of of the world we live in), one could, philosophically argue ‘we’ would be better informed about the consequences of removing the tree from the entire equation and therefore would be less likely to do so.

This makes rational sense, even though one could debate, as you pointed out with the example of the computer, whether this is the most effective approach. Again, what struck me is the way mr. Kumar paints a picture without any need of meta-physical / supernatural intervention, but is scrutinized as if he had.

Now, one could argue, if what I believe about mr. Kumars philosophy is true, he is not bringing much new information to the table. Everything is connected, and we should be more aware of the relationship between the different entities of matter in order to be more aware/understanding of the consequences of altering this balance. There’s not much revelation there.

Which brings me to the point of this message — because by your own initiative, the topic of the arrogance of science was brought into the conversation. This topic comes up time and time again, and often seems to be the last line of defense for the religious. “You don’t have all the answers either so who are you to say what’s wrong or right?”. What struck me enough to write this lengthy ‘letter’ was that I felt this time was the first, the only time, the objection was actually justified.

What was most disconcerting is that you undoubtedly possess the intellect to have understood him, but seemed to choose not to. A trait usually reserved for the antagonists of your books.

In truth, I hope this message is 9 years late and a dollar short. But I can’t help but wonder how you think back on that even in particular. Perhaps you’ve drawn your own conclusions upon rewatching/editing the interview, or perhaps you feel I’ve re-written rather than interpreted mr. Kumars view which nullifies the point I’m trying to make.

Either way, I hope this message finds you well, because you are, and probably forever will be, a hero to me.

Kind regards,

Rick van der Wal