Saturday, January 20, 2007

Good Dog, Sammie!

Did you ever wish that your dog could talk? Ever wonder what he would talk about if he could? I’m not sure it would really be all that interesting, since dogs have a rather limited outlook on life. One of my favorite books when I was a kid was Half Magic by Edward Eager, a story about some children who find a talisman that grants wishes, but only “half wishes” - - you have to wish for twice as much of what you want to get exactly what you want. Was Edward Eager some kind of math teacher or something? I don’t know, but the book is great. One of the children, who does not know that she has the talisman, wishes that her cat could talk, and so then the cat can half talk, half not talk, and the results are both surprising and off-putting. You cannot help but agree with both the kid in the story and the cat that it would have been better if the wish had never been made. I promise I’ll come back to this, but now for something completely different.

In a delightful essay for today’s Wall Street Journal Sam Schulman of The American avers as to how modern day proponents of atheism such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris have no new arguments to offer for their position that wasn’t offered by atheists of the 19th century but they lack any of the charm of the 19th century humanist.
What is new about the new atheists? It’s not their arguments. Spend as much time as you like with a pile of the recent anti-religion books, but you won’t encounter a single point you didn’t hear in your freshman dormitory. It’s their tone that is novel. Belief, in their eyes, is not just misguided but contemptible, the product of provincial minds, the mark of people who need to be told how to think and how to vote - - both of which, the new atheists assure us, they do in lock-step with the pope and Jerry Falwell.

How can I relate this to Alec Baldwin, you may ask yourself. Well, funny you should ask. It’s not because Alec Baldwin is like some kind of cat that can half talk and half not talk, even though he is rather like some kind of cat that can half think and half not think. About two weeks ago I saw a program on the discovery channel about human evolution that was narrated by Alec Baldwin. I got to thinking about that show again today as I read this piece by Schulman. In the show actors portrayed humans at various stages in their evolutionary history and, rather more interestingly, in various stages of undress intended to correspond, I suppose, to their place in that history. The more primitive, you see, the more naked. It’s a family channel, but this is science, so you can show anything you like as long as it’s scientifically and historically accurate. But I digress - - this is not what made me think of either Alec Baldwin or Sam Schulman's essay. My real point in bringing this up is the fact that the show ascribed the end of earlier hominid lines to a lack of imaginative thinking. Because they couldn’t imagine a future that was any different from the past or the present, they weren’t able to plan ahead or make tools for changing the future or controlling the environment. Hence they were at the mercy of that environment and when it changed faster than they could they died out. Or so the just-so story goes. Like all such stories in evolutionary biology it is sheer fantasy, but it is thought-provoking fantasy. Is the capacity to imagine things really all that big a deal? Does it really mark the difference between a successful species and a failure? Neanderthal and homo sapiens share 99.5% of their genome. We’re practically kissing cousins, and yet they died out during the last ice age because they saw the world too much like Sam Harris.

Yes, that’s right, Sam Harris. After all, who’s got the more prosaic and, well, Neanderthalian view of the world, Sam Harris or Gerard Manley Hopkins? These atheists, especially these fundamentalist scientistic atheists, seem to think that religion is, well “primitive” in some sense. Dawkins, in particular, has argued that it is merely an artifact of a genetic trait that is valuable in its own right because it causes the infant to develop a certain valuable sort of attitude towards its parents but that later in life is just useless and dangerous baggage. This is rather surprising talk for folks who supposedly know about evolution, but it raises an interesting question. What if the trait that allows us to believe in God is something that is valuable for other reasons? Or, even more interestingly, what if it were a trait that not everyone shared to the same extent? Some traits that are shared by more than one species are not the same in the various species. If we were to compare the eyesight of a human being with that of, say a cat, I daresay we would have to admit that each faculty is adapted to a particular function. Cats do a lot of a certain kind of hunting that requires very intense lateral acuity, and, sure enough, if you have a cat - - even one that cannot talk at all - - you will have noticed that they are much more likely to chase after a toy that is dragged across their field of vision than they are to jump into the air after a toy that you are bobbing up and down in front of them (although that’s not to say that plenty of tabbies won’t go for the bobbing toy as well - - after all, what could be more fun than jumping six feet in the air?). Humans, by contrast, hunt in a very different way and our eyesight is better at things like determining depth of field and color contrast. This does not mean that we can’t see lateral movement, only that we may not be as sensitive to it as a cat. And as for color - - well, cats, for the most part, see colors as very pale shades of pastel, if they can see them at all. And dogs - - don’t even get me started on dogs. My dog can't even see a bright yellow tennis ball that is right in front of his nose. Maybe it's because of the size of his nose that he can't see it, but you'd think he'd at least be able to smell that it was there. But anyway. Do dogs and cats care that they can’t see color as well as humans? No, of course not. No, really, they don’t. Oh please, come on, you know as well as I do that the very idea couldn’t even occur to them. So there they are, blithely going about their business as though a bright red fire truck looks just the same color as a pale Gala apple. It’s not an important difference to them, and so they don’t - - or rather they cannot - - detect it. Some human beings are also color blind, and some are even fully blind right from birth. One sometimes wonders precisely what their cognitive grasp of something like vision actually is. If someone blind from birth asserted that it is obviously incompatible with empirical evidence to assert the existence of a faculty like vision, what sort of response could we make? Would we say, “Look here, buddy, the vast majority of people can see things, so just because you can’t don’t go thinking that nobody can even if they had the right faculty.” Would they be angered by that response? Would they think us obscene for saying such things? Of course, nowadays we have a mechanistic story to tell about vision and how it works, but we didn’t always have such a story, and the blind person would have been wrong about vision even if we did not have such a story - - even if such a story were not possible in principle.

So Sam Harris doesn’t believe in God. Indeed, if one were to examine his writings closely it would become quite clear that he cannot believe in God. Though tempting, I don’t suppose that he is literally a Neanderthal, or even a member of some other species that is only 99.5% the same as homo sapiens, but I suppose that it is just this side of possible that the reason that he cannot believe in God is not so much because of the reasons that he alleges - - that such belief is irrational, or obscene, or even obviously contrary to the empirical evidence. These are the sorts of reasons that a dog would give for thinking that there’s no difference between the color of the fire truck and the Gala apple - - they are the reasons one would expect from someone who does not merely not know what he is talking about, but from someone who cannot even possibly conceive of what he is talking about. If a dog could conceive of color vision, and if a dog were a rational creature, imagine what a low opinion we would have of his rational faculty if the dog were to tell us that, because he cannot make any sense out of the idea that the fire truck is a different color than the Gala apple, it follows rather obviously that there is no such difference, and that those of us who believe that we can actually see a difference in the colors are stupid, obscene, and obviously at odds with the empirical evidence. I think we would just pat him on the head and say “good doggie” and leave it at that.

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