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Michael Faraday would find Richard Dawkins terrifying

The pioneering scientist said: ‘There is nothing so frightening as someone who knows they are right’

By on Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The English chemist and physicist Michael Faraday (PA)

The English chemist and physicist Michael Faraday (PA)

I happened to listen to Something Understood early last Sunday morning on Radio 4. Mark Tully had arranged the programme on the theme of “The Boundaries of Reason”. This was part one, with part two to follow next week. As always with Tully, it was a beguiling combination of music, poetry and gentle conversation, designed to contemplate the question rather find answers.

As a religious believer, I enjoyed it. Dickens’s Hard Times was quoted to show the limitations of Mr Gradgrind’s faith in reason alone: “Never wonder” was his motto. Then we got a passage from Wordsworth, on how inspiration comes from letting “Nature be your teacher”. The reference to the horrors of Nazism seemed curiously out of place, though. This abhorrent ideology wasn’t the triumph of reason so much as a mishmash of neo-paganism, nationalism and misapplied Nietzschean ideas.

Critics of the programme would argue that science can include “wonder” – the wonder of the natural world whose secrets man is slowly unravelling – and that emotional experiences such as Tully’s mention of falling in love can be explained by particular brain activity alone. His interview with Baroness Susan Greenfield, the Oxford neuroscientist, was thought-provoking. Greenfield is against “scientism” and the rigidity of thought that implies science has (or will discover) all the answers in the religious sphere. Although not from a faith tradition, she has an open mind and thinks science should not exclude other questions about the human condition. She quoted Faraday: “There is nothing so frightening as someone who knows they are right.”

The programme ended with a passage from Bach as a way of illustrating a particularly sublime fusion of science and music. Next week’s programme is on the theme that “Religion is not unreasonable.”

Is Greenfield’s fellow Oxford scientist, Richard Dawkins, an apostle of “scientism”? I ask because Charles Moore has written a witty review of Dawkins’s autobiography, An Appetite for Wonder (that word again) in the Telegraph, entitled “How dare God disagree with Dawkins”. The title says it all.

Professor Dawkins is very clever and Moore pays tribute to his “amazing gifts of lucidity and intellectual passion”. But there is a caveat: “His passionate eloquence suggests … something that smacks of the religious zeal that Dawkins says he so detests.” He comments that Dawkins “resembles the preacher rather than the cool-headed thinker”. As well as being a great scientist and writer about science, he is also “a world-famous evangelical missionary against God”. Dawkins should ponder Faraday’s remark.

Having written this I have just stumbled upon a quote I once scribbled down, though without the source: “There are three types of people in the world: those who have plumbed the depths of their eternal void and found Love and those who try in vain to fill this void with temporal pleasure; and then there are those who have not yet touched the core of their infinite loneliness.” I suspect Dawkins is the third type.