Sunday, April 13, 2008

Philosopher: Large questions require the language of myth, not shopping bills

Here's British philosopher Mary Midgley's take on Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, in which she makes a valuable point about why most people, including scientists, must use figurative language:
It seems not to have struck Dawkins that academic science is only a small, specialised, dependent part of what anybody knows. Most of human knowledge is tacit knowledge—habitual assumptions, constantly updated and checked by experience, but far too general and informal ever to be fully tested. We assume, for instance, that nature will go on being regular, that other people are conscious and that their testimony can generally be trusted. Without such assumptions neither science nor any other study could ever get off the ground, nor could everyday life. And when we build on these tacit foundations we necessarily use imaginative structures called myths—not lies, but graphic thought-patterns that shape and guide our thinking. This is not irrational; it is a necessary preparation for reasoning. The Selfish Gene is a powerful myth, so is the Science-and-Religion war, so is Gaia, so is the Social Contract and Natural Selection and Progress and the Hidden Hand of the Market. And, when we get to the largest and most puzzling questions, we have to proceed in mythical language which cannot be cashed in detail at all, but which still serves (as Einstein’s did) to indicate in what sort of spiritual universe we perceive ourselves to be living. This is the province of religion. Adding God is not, as Dawkins thinks, adding an illicit extra item to the cosmos. It is perceiving the whole thing differently.

Glad someone said that.

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