Would you believe (as Maxwell Smart would’ve put it) I designed our A&S syllabus to bring us to Dawkins’ discussion of “All Fools Day” precisely today?
If so, I’d be flattered. And you’d be gullible, in just the sense he’s about to explain.
But here we are in chapter six (“Hoodwink’d With Faery Fancy”) of Unweaving the Rainbow, back on one of his and one of my favorite themes, childhood indoctrination. I’ll bring baseball into it, if I get half a chance. [A prayer from Dawkins (!) for his daughter... God Delusion on ch'hd indoctrination]
On All Fools‘ Day one year, when my sister and I were children, our parents and our uncle and aunt played a simple trick on us…
The short version of this delightful recollection is that young Richard and his sister went for a blindfolded “aeroplane” flight, much as Red and Rover regularly do with eyes wide open. (American kids are more credulous, naturally.) Their father & uncle provided the sound-and-motion simulation to create a virtual experience they wouldn’t question, at that age. “We had simply been sitting on a garden seat… the tree branches brushing against us had been wielded by our mother and aunt… It had been fun while it lasted.”
Childhood is of course a time of natural credulity, hence vulnerability to nonsense. That’s good, because lots of childish nonsense is great fun. And it’s bad, because lots of childish nonsense paves the way for intransigent adult nonsense. “It never occurred to us to wonder why we must be blindfolded. Wouldn’t it have been natural to ask what was the point of going for a joyride if you couldn’t see anything?” No, not really. “We just didn’t have the sceptic’s turn of mind… such was our faith in our parents.”
That flight was on all fours with Santa, the tooth-fairy, angels, heaven, and so much more nonsense that adults in America don’t know how to question.
But there was a time in our species history when “an experimental and sceptical turn of mind” was more likely to get you get you dead. (Remember Douglas Adams’ whale?) Maybe that’s why so many of us continue to shun it, at our peril. But let’s admit: shunning skepticism is still more likely to get you invited to church and other modern forms of safe-haven inclusion. There’s a risk factor grown-ups (another name for skeptics) must swallow, to affirm their incredulity. Growing up is no bowl of petunias, as not only Dawkins’ pal Adams but also the author of Childhood’s End tried to tell us, but it’s crucial. Clarke’s Third Law (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”) won’t make the crate fly.
But there comes a time when we ought to notice, here on our pale blue dot (threw that in for you, James), that “the universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant,” less magical and far more wondrous. A spiritually-mature worldview (let’s say) “that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern sciednce might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”
Meanwhile, “human children have wide open ears and eyes, and gaping, trusting minds for sucking up language” and folk wisdom. “It must be so because Mummy and Daddy said it was.” How sobering is that, parents! “Trusting credulity may be normal and healthy in a child but it can become an unhealthy and reprehensible gullibility in an adult. Growing up… should include the cultivation of a healthy scepticism.”
Also worth noting in today’s reading: all that talk of barcodes, by which Dawkins means to symbolize “precise analysis” rooted in a pervasively-digitized information environment, brings us closer to what Michael Shermer has called the “soul of science” and an echo of the claim Sam Harris has been trumpeting lately that scientific precision should also help clarify our values. Shermer:
Morality and purpose are inextricably interdigitated — you cannot have one without the other. Fortunately, nature grants us the capacity for both morality and purpose, culture affords us the liberty to reach for higher moral purposes, and history brings us to a place where we can employ both for the enrichment of all.Through natural evolution and man-made culture, we have inherited the mantle of life’s caretaker on earth. Rather than crushing our spirits, the realization that we exist together for a narrow slice of time and space elevates us to a higher plane of humanity and humility: a proud, albeit passing, act in the drama of the cosmos.
This suggests the next step on our evolutionary walk (or our next flight-destination), doesn’t it? Humility should make us more skeptical, less obstinately gullible, and a lot less stubbornly persistent in the delusions of childhood. But we’re going to have to stop giving our children away those first seven years.