Friday, February 01, 2013

[Travelogue] Antarctica, part 5, or My Date with Richard

On Christmas day the weather turned 'round on us again and it was so windy we couldn't make any landings at all. We ended up doing a scenic tour of Drygalski fjord, and even that turned out to be a little dicey because of how hard the wind was blowing.  We learned later that the boat doing the same tour a few days behind us wasn't able to make any landings on South Georgia at all.  Such is the way of the Antarctic.

So we headed to sea, towards the northern tip of the Antarctic peninsula.  We wouldn't see land again for three days, which gave me plenty of opportunities to chat with my fellow passenger, Richard Dawkins.

Regular readers of my blog will know that I am at once a big fan of his (I think "The Selfish Gene" is one of the greatest books ever written) and a harsh critic, not just of Richard, but of the strident rhetoric employed by all of the so-called "new atheists."  I believe that religion thrives because it fulfills a legitimate human need, and that secular movements would prosper more if they recognized that fact rather than try to sweep all religion under the rug as worthless nonsense at best, and the source of all evil at worst.  Yes, religion is fiction, but it is not merely fiction.  We are story-telling animals, and fiction can be powerful JuJu, a fact that we ignore at our peril.

I was salivating at the prospect of having the opportunity to make that argument to The Man himself.

The four of us (me, Richard, Nancy, and Richard's wife Lalla) had dinner together that night, and to make a long story short, Richard was much more receptive to my argument than I ever imagined he would be.  He basically just said yes to everything I said, and a conversation that I expected to last an hour or two was over in five minutes.  Suddenly I was at a loss for what to say next, but it's not every day that one gets to have a private conversation with someone of Richard's stature, so I decided to press my luck.  Shooting from the hip I said, "Why don't you start a church?"  He responded, "That sounds like an interesting idea, tell me more."

So I did.  Of course, I was making it up on the spot, but I must have done a reasonable job because at the end of the pitch he said, "Sounds good, why don't you write up a proposal?"

I was flabbergasted.  In my wildest dreams I have never imagined that he would be so receptive to the idea, and at that point I was truly speechless.

So the conversation turned to ties.  Yes, I know, it sounds deadly dull, but Lalla is an artist and one of the things she does is make hand-painted ties.  She paints animals, and Richard was wearing one of her ties (penguins, of course).  Beautiful work.  Lalla, if you're reading this, I still want one :-)

One of the stories Richard was fond of telling was wearing a warthog tie when he was invited to lunch with Queen Elizabeth.  The queen, evidently not a big fan of warthogs, asked him, "Why do you have such an ugly animal on your tie?"  He replied, "If it is an ugly animal how much greater the artistry to fashion it into such a beautiful tie."  What a great line.

I stayed up late writing up a draft proposal for what I ended up dubbing the Church of Natural Cosmology.

(To be continued...)


Paul said...

"I was flabbergasted. In my wildest dreams I have never imagined that he would be so receptive to the idea, and at that point I was truly speechless."

The cynic in me wonders whether he wasn't just humouring/patronising you to keep the peace/not ruin his holiday. Particularly given that he knew that you would both be on the same boat together for some time. I can imagine he gets embroiled in religious debates all the time - even he must get tired of it some times... Or perhaps his wife does and made him promise this time not to let it ruin their holiday! ;-)

To test the theory, you could have tried convincing him of something actually ridiculous to see how he responded... Actually, suggesting that Richard Dawkins starts his own Church *does* sound pretty ridiculous...

This is quite an unflattering thing to say about Richard Dawkins so I hope it's not actually true and that he wasn't just "humouring" you. I wasn't there: this is just my reaction to your transcription of what was said.

On another note: did you ever bring up the "AI in a box" thought experiment with him? I would be quite curious to know what he thinks of strong AI...

Ron said...

That's possible. But I did a "control experiment" later in the trip. Stay tuned :-)