Explanation and Understanding

It’s Writers’ and Readers’ Week at the International Festival of the Arts and Richard Dawkins is in town. When I first saw he was on the programme I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go and hear him or not. I’m still not sure but I doubt I would have a choice now; his sessions will be sold out.

I feel ambivalent about Dawkins because he comes across as being utterly convinced that he is right. Complete certainty bothers me. Even though I often sound completely certain myself, I am easily convinced that there is another point of view worth considering and, even though I sometimes pour scorn on other people’s opinions, I sometimes get a sneaking sympathy for anyone who is viciously attacked by a third person. Thus, when I picked up Dawkins’s The God Delusion six months or so ago, I expected it would make me angry. It didn’t. Instead, I agreed with almost everything in it. Dawkins gets wound up at times but, for the most part, he presents what I believe is a pretty good argument against the notion of a Supreme Being.  Where I tend to part company with him, though, is in his capitulation to the power and beauty of science.

Here is a quote from a report of an interview Philip Matthews conducted with him recently (the Dominion Post magazine, Saturday 27 February 2010). In response to the question “What is it about science that really gets your blood running?” Dawkins answered:  

“It’s so thrilling, so exciting to feel that during our few decades in the sun we have it in our power to understand why we’re here. To understand the really remarkable detail. To know where the world comes from, why it’s here, how old it is. Why life is here, why life is the way it is. Why humans are here, why humans are the way they are. How the universe is going to go on in the future.

“This is absolutely enthralling and anybody who wastes their life by not getting to grips with these great questions of existence, given that in the 21st century we have that privilege, is really not living life to the full and that’s tragic.”’

Perhaps the key to the problem I see here is Dawkins’s use of the word ‘understanding’. Science gives us a certain kind of explanation, arguably the best kind. The history of thought is littered with the dead claims of people who said ‘Science will never be able to explain X’ but, nonetheless, I am bothered by the assumption that explanation is the same thing as understanding.

Take, for example, a violin. You could explain to me how it worked. You could explain in some detail how to play it. You could tell me its history or how it’s made or tuned. You could expound the theory and the physics of music. You might even give me reasons why the particular sounds of the violin appeal to (a lot of) human beings. All of this might help me understand the violin but none of it is sufficient. Unless I hear it played, and played well, or, better still, unless I play it well myself, I don’t believe I can be said to understand the violin.

(Note that understanding, here, is not the same as appreciation. It is not necessary to like the violin in order to understand it. Someone who listens to Yehudi Menuhin or Stephane Grappelli and thinks it is the most awful sound he has ever heard nevertheless understands the violin in a way that a person who was born deaf does not.)

Scientific explanation is based in a particular point of view: one that involves maintaining the distance and the detachment of an observer and using reason to interpret and extrapolate that which is observed. Understanding, to my mind, requires the point of view of an active agent, someone who is engaged and involved in all the different ways in which a human being can be engaged and involved. In this sense, doing science leads to an understanding of only one thing: doing science.

Of course, the questions Dawkins asks in the above quotation can all be answered by scientific explanation. Why are we here? Well, we are here because we evolved through the process of evolution. What does this mean? Basically, the physical conditions in the universe, as it developed over many millions of years, permitted the precise molecular combinations that constitute the human genome and the biological structures based on it and, in addition, the random or chaotic flow of events that in fact occurred where such that that genome and those structures did indeed come into being and did survive. Or, to put another way, in the words of an old rugby song best sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne:

We’re here because
We’re here because
We’re here because
We’re here.

This explanation is important. For one thing, it eliminates any hope that there is a supreme being that created us for a purpose. I am not sure, however, that it gives us all we need to know to understand what being alive means. Nor am I sure that I would be wasting my life if I remained ignorant of the Darwinian explanation.

Dawkins seems in awe of the fact that he has got rid of God. Isn’t it wonderful, he says, that all this (i.e. human life) could come into existence by means of this simple Darwinian principle? I am as prone as anyone to feel the special aesthetic thrill that comes from a great idea but I also think that ideas are only one ingredient in understanding. The wonderful thing is not the principle but the fact of being alive and it is wonderful precisely because there is no good explanation for it.

Every idea has its time. Tomorrow evolution will have gone the way of Newtonian mechanics – it will be old hat – but, with luck and good management, human beings will still be waking up in the morning.

2 Responses to “Explanation and Understanding”

  1. Claire Beynon Says:

    What a satisfying post, Chris – thank you. (A subject dear to my heart, too.)

    I stand alongside you when it comes to discussions around the difference between knowledge and understanding. Beliefs claimed and arguments stated too emphatically tend to set the alarm bells ringing. When it boils down to it, all any of us can do is hypothesize – scientists, artists, theologians, taphonomists, archeologists.. alike.

    I couldn’t imagine living in a world where everything was pin-downable and had its place. Fixidity is a disturbing thought! Is it not our world’s infinite mysteries that keeps us attentive and engaged… We inhabit a conundrum that is alternately puzzling, appalling, arresting, beautiful (and so much more).

    I’d opt for an open-ended dialogue between curiosity, wonder and doubt any day… as you suggest, the minute we try and put our pin in a theory, so the wriggle begins! We’re eager to know what’s largely unknowable – but perhaps this is where things like patience, listening and empathy find their voice?

    Just musing… I really enjoy your blog, by the way. Have been a regular visitor since Bookman Beattie first announced it a month or two ago.

    Hope all’s well with you and Barbara up in the North – Claire

  2. Chris Says:

    Thanks, Claire. And glad you like the blog.

    Barbara and I are doing pretty well.

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