Leah Libresco Reviews Dawkins’ An Appetite for Wonder

It’s a fine review.

What strikes me about it is that Libresco, who really does have an appetite for wonder, notices the curious fact of the contrast between Dawkins, who is startlingly un-self-reflective, and Richard Feynman, another atheist science popularizer who really did retain an appetite for wonder:

Part of critical thinking is storytelling, imagining and extending alternatives and noticing how your predictions clash or match with the world around you. Dawkins is adept at this process when it comes to his biology research, but not when reflecting on everyday life.

Ignorance is seldom willful, and understanding our own errors, even if we believe we’ve grown out of them, can help us lend a hand to a friend who is stuck, instead of simply being relieved we are no longer so gullible. But Dawkins does not seem as ready to use his own small errors as a lens on human thinking as he is to describe the mechanics of a duck’s drinking posture.

Moments of pure joy and wonder were what moved C. S. Lewis to believe there must be some kind of God that could fulfill this inborn longing. I am of a much less Franciscan temperament than Lewis, and I have seldom found my moments of joy in a landscape, English or otherwise.

Like Dawkins, I tend to find them in science, mathematics, and computer science—the moments where all your theorizing comes together and you have a sense of the delicate machinery whirring along beneath the world. Or, better yet, when your theory fails its test, and even an error is a piece of data, an invitation to keep looking and inquiring.

Mathematicians are often accused of being secret Platonists because they firmly believe that a proof will turn out to have some elegant form; that truth and beauty are yoked together. I’ve spent enough time in math departments to have acquired the same hope. When I look at the inelegant or ugly acts of cruelty, carelessness, or uncharity committed against me or by me, I try to keep prying them apart, trusting that there is some kind of misdirected love at their heart, and that it’s worth understanding what went awry and trying to fix it. Dawkins’ memoir seems to lack this expectation of the beauty of all mechanisms, including those of the human heart.

Another memoir from another well-known, atheistic popularizer of science could make a better claim on Dawkins’ title. In Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! , physicist Richard Feynman conveys an insatiable appetite for wonder, as lock-picking, spinning plates, bongos, and, of course, physics catch his attention and ours. Feynman shares his joy at being able to misunderstand the world well enough to make predictions, watch them fail, refine his understanding, and learn.

A reader looking for the making of a scientist would be better served by picking up Feynman’s book or Dawkins’ own writing on natural science like The Selfish Gene. In his memoir, Dawkins has too little curiosity about himself to stir the ­imagination.

One of the things that I note about people like Feynman (as, to honest, I noted about Leah when she was an atheist) is that there are atheists and there are atheists.  Feynman (like Libresco) was an atheist who was at home in his own skin.  He didn’t have something to prove against God.  He was not somebody on a crusade against God.  His life was not built on protest against God, with each waking moment spent strategizing how to score a rhetorical point against God and believers.  He was busy being for something, not against something.  Leah has always struck me as the same kind of personality.

Dawkins has always struck me as somebody whose intellectual gifts (which are prodigious and very impressively on display when he is really writing about something he knows and loves) are increasingly being vitiated by his consuming itch to score points against God.  One of the casualities of this is an autobiography that is more bent on reducing humans–including himself–to biological mechanisms than persons.  Feynman was happy to be a smart kid from New York who thought science was really cool, but who also enjoyed being a sort of raconteur who liked hanging around with people and didn’t feel as though the universe had anointed him to rid the world of the curse of religion.  Consequently, you never got the sense you get from Dawkins of his being hollowed-out–like a bore at a party who can only talk about the 9/11 Conspiracy.

This peculiar quality of a life organized around being against rather than being for is not, by any stretch something only atheists fall prey to.  I’ve known many a Christian who has fallen prey to it and indeed have felt the temptation myself many and many a day.  It is the curse that afflicts Reactionary Catholics and is, I suspect, something all humans struggle with  (except those blessed souls who have really made the heart level choice to pursue Light whoever they can).  I’ve met people from all walks of life and many different background, religious and non-religious, who fall on that spectrum.  I think everybody who seeks Light is, in some way or other, responding to the Holy Spirit, even if they don’t believe in Him.  Likewise, I think the most devout believer who relishes being against more than being for, who prefers cursing darkness to loving light, is in a spiritually perilous position.

And I wonder every day where I am on that spectrum.

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