Sunday, May 04, 2008

Krauss and Dawkins on the purpose of the universe

Couple of months back the Templeton Foundation had asked several scientists and scholars, Does the universe have a purpose? Dawkins was not included in the group. However, here he is answering a question about purpose of the universe (with Lawrence Krauss), and I think his answer gets to the heart of the matter and makes a lot of sense.

The above clip is from a dialogue between Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins (an extension of an online conversation: Should science speak to faith?) and you can see the whole session here.

However, here is another clip where they are talking about this belief, usually promoted by creationists, that in order to accept evolution one has to be an atheist or that evolution necessitates a disbelief in God.

But here Dawkins not just makes the same claim but he also adds that "[his] goal is to kill religion". Hmm...where is the science PR firm when we really need it. Yes, he clarifies mildly later that you don't have to be an atheist to believe in evolution - but I'm not sure if he really believes that. I actually like Dawkins (and his consciousness awareness regarding atheism), but he routinely goes too far in linking science/evolution to atheism. This bit about directing messages different audiences is fine - Krauss to people who are religious or those who are taking a more nuanced view of religion, and Dawkins to atheists only - but Dawkins is the most prominent contemporary scientist and his audience does not include just atheists. So there is a mismatch here. He is considered as the spokesperson for science and his message is heard far beyond the core group he is referring to here. The consciousness raising is great, but how many people get turned off to science, and evolution, in particular, after he gives them an option between evolution and atheism? Part of the problem is that Dawkins is defining religion only in terms of belief in the supernatural (and since there is no evidence for it, he wants it to go). But for most people, religion serves lot more functions - provide social structure, suggests ways of living, address moral questions, etc. All of these can come from alternative systems - but, at present, for 85% of the US population they don't. So we have to realize that when Dawkins talk about the destruction of religion, it is not interpreted simply as letting go of the supernatural, but also the associated social structure. For most, despite the evidence, if it comes down to evolution or religion, the choice is quite straight forward - and this is the danger in Dawkins' approach.