Professor Richard Dawkins swiftly assured his audience that Science In The Soul, the title of his new collection of writings, does not suggest that he has undergone any sort of conversion to a belief in the soul. At least, not the sense of soul that he termed “Soul 1”: the supernatural, immortal self that lives inside of our bodies. His sense of soul – “Soul 2” – is the sense of self produced by the material brain that allows one to have a poetic, emotional and, yes, spiritual response to scientific discovery.
It was a celebration of Soul 2 that Dawkins shared with the packed audience of the Opera House. In the subtitle of the book, Dawkins describes himself as a “passionate rationalist”, and the true value of this event was sharing that passion for science. He decried the “non-stick frying pan” approach to science, which insists that it must have financial and practical value. The non-stick frying pan was invented as a result of the space race, but Dawkins insists that all exploration and discovery is a noble venture that should be pursued for its own sake.
Like his two souls, I sometimes think there are two Richard Dawkins. One, the geneticist and advocate for science, the other the anti-religion polemicist. Personally, I like to keep the two separate – Unweaving The Rainbow and The God Delusion are both terrific books in their own ways, but they belong on different shelves of the library. The former interests me more, and I think interests Dawkins himself more. When asked if he has religious friends and gets into arguments with them, Dawkins replied simply that he tried not to be a bore about religion, because religion itself is a bore.
But Dawkins 1 nevertheless finds himself saddled with Dawkins 2, and whilst it was Dawkins 1 who engaged with smart host Sean Dettman, from sponsors JICAS, it was Dawkins 2 who members of the audience were keen on talking to. Which was a pity in a way, because I would have preferred to hear more of Dawkins’ enthusiasm for science: his view that Carl Sagan should have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, or how his youth was made luminous by the visionary headteacher that shaped his school, or how moral philosophy can help to answer questions of how and why people are much nicer to each other than pure Darwinian principles would suggest.
Dawkins 1 rarely has to defend his ideas in the way that Dawkins 2 does, and I got the sense that Dawkins has little interest in playing that game anymore. However, he did recount one bizarre anecdote where a book review he wrote that said that anyone who didn’t believe in evolution was “stupid, ignorant or insane” led to him being sued in Texas for $51million. Why not $50m?
On stage, Dawkins himself cut a slightly subdued figure, as if he is a bit tired of recounting the same old anti-religious arguments (which is fair enough, considering that he is right). But the passion is still there in the extracts that he read from his book, in his interesting speculation on where human evolution may take us, in his refusal to be as pessimistic as his fellow scientists, and in his bemusement at the viral spread of his coined word “meme”. Amongst the swarm of controversy Dawkins attracts, we should never lose sight of the fact that he, like his hero Sagan, is a hugely talented writer who just wants to communicate ideas. He knows that words are ideas, and a Festival of Words is a festival of ideas. To stop listening is to deny the spread of ideas.