Allen Orr talks about metaphysical imagination.
Dawkins’s problems with philosophy might be related to a failure of metaphysical imagination. When thinking of those vast matters that make up religion – matters of ultimate meaning that stand at the edge of intelligibility and that are among the most difficult to articulate – he sees only black and white. Despite some attempts at subtlety, Dawkins almost reflexively identifies religion with right-wing fundamentalism and biblical literalism. Other, more nuanced possibilities – varieties of deism, mysticism, or nondenominational spirituality – have a harder time holding his attention. It may be that Dawkins can’t imagine these possibilities vividly enough to worry over them in a serious way…[P]art of what it means to suffer a failure of imagination may be that one can’t conceive that one’s imagination is impoverished. It’s hard to resist the conclusion that people like James and Wittgenstein struggled personally with religion, while Dawkins shrugs his shoulders, at least in part because they conceived possibilities – mistaken ones perhaps, but certainly more interesting ones – that escape Dawkins.
I love the ‘part of what it means to suffer a failure of imagination may be that one can’t conceive that one’s imagination is impoverished’ bit. It seems true, and amusing, and a useful warning, all at once. To put it another way, it describes an interesting variety of cognitive distortion, and I’m fascinated by cognitive distortions. I’m especially fascinated by those infintitely regressing kinds, that you can’t tell you have because the ability to detect them is precisely the distortion you have.
But at the same time, I’m not entirely sure it’s a fair point overall. I haven’t read The God Delusion (nobody gave it to me for Xmas, the bastards), but I’m not entirely sure it’s a fair point in general, independent of the book. That’s because one of the striking things about orthodox, common or garden, churchy, public religion is how unimaginative and impoverished it is. How narrow, confined, hemmed in, and uninspiring it is. I don’t deny that metaphysical speculation can be imaginative, but I’m not convinced that religion generally is. Religions have creeds and dogmas and orthodoxies, and orthodoxy is not conducive to metaphysical imagination. The ‘more nuanced possibilities’ may be of interest, but I’m not sure all discussions of religion have to deal with them.
Ben Goldacre talks about imagination (in a way) in Bad Science.
People who like science usually just happen to think that the story it can tell us about the world is more interesting, more intricate, and more beautiful than anything anyone could make up and put in a holy book…I’m just not very interested in religion. Maybe if there was a religion that was invented after the enlightenment, after the invention of the microscope, the discovery of the atom, that incorporated a bit more of what we knew, it might have a bit more oomph. But when you stand up “made in seven days” against the amazing findings of comparative anatomy, and everything that suggests about convergent and divergent evolution, the way that my hand is the same structure as a bat’s wing, the way that the green toed sloth has a symbiotic relationship with algae that provides it with green camouflage against a forest background, and more, I’m sorry, I know whose books I’m buying this Christmas. From the moment we started to work out what was going on with the stars we realised that we weren’t the centre of attention in the universe, and the rules had to be rewritten. From a starting position of glorious pointlessness, we generate meaning for ourselves.
Yes. ‘Made in seven days’ just doesn’t…sing.