Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Articulating Reason

I went to see a discussion between Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins tonight. I'll see over the next few days if I feel like writing up some of the things that came to mind. But for now, I want to focus on an incident during the Q&A, where a young self-identifying Catholic accused science of being a religion. I was facepalming as she tried to get it out, and I'm sure I wasn't alone on hearing it yet again. But what was interesting was that after she asked it, she first stormed back to her seat, then got back up and went to the microphone and resumed arguing. At one stage it sounded like she was about to burst into tears.

I don't mean for that emotion-laden account to dismiss what she had to say. Her question was hostile, and in the course of arguing implicitly accused Dawkins of thinking George Pell was a paedophile. It would be easy to just dismiss it as inane, but what it seemed to me was that the problem was largely her inability to effectively communicate her point. And on that, at least I would hope, this is something we can all empathise with.

Language, despite it's potential power, is often very limited in how well we can use it to share ideas with others. Our experience of what it's like to see a sunset, for example, is vastly richer than any verbal account. The best writers and poets, in my view at least, aren't the people with the richest vocabulary but the ones who can best articulate what most of us can only experience. It's important to remember that for all our intellectual musings that much of how we see the world isn't something that can be so abstractly expressed.

I tend to think that if she asked the question in a different way that there may have been a different response. It was just silly for her to try to argue that the reason Dawkins disagrees is because she dared to challenge him, but what was not silly was an underlying point about the nature of scientific authority and inquiry. Questions about what it is science can know, and to what extent it can know it; questions about the role of "other ways of knowing"; questions about the potential dogmaticism of science. Putting it that way, the questions seem downright reasonable - or at the very least pertinent to ask.

In that exchange, I think there's an important lesson. Krauss and Dawkins did well in handling the questioner, but such exchanges aren't confined to experienced educators. It's certainly something I've come across multiple times before, and I somehow doubt I'm alone in that. In any case, it's given me pause to think about how to handle questions like that; not to dismiss them as incoherent ramblings of people who haven't thought through properly, but to take them as what they are: attempts to articulate that which does not come easily to us.

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