Explaining and Understanding

I posted a comment on Dennett’s reply to Ruse and Bunting this morning – and since the idea I was commenting on is (I think) a fairly pervasive one, and related to this whole question of ‘shut up about your atheism, they might hear you,’ I thought I might as well post it here too. The first para, in italics, is someone else commenting.

on the subject of Dawkins getting up ones nose, it would be all well and good if he was just another academic. He does however hold a position called ‘The Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University’ (according to wikipedia) which means he has the task of communicating his subject to us, the unwashed masses. If people feel he’s getting up your nose, then he’s not doing this right is he.

But having the task of communicating his subject to us is not quite the same thing as not getting up anyone’s nose. It may be that communicating a particular subject is of the very essence of getting up people’s noses – or at least some people’s noses. That’s just how it is, surely. It’s not possible or reasonable to assume that increased understanding of anything will automatically or necessarily pleasing to absolutely everyone. Increased understanding of anything may lead to feelings of displeasure and consequent hostility. In short, understanding is one thing, and liking is another. So it’s just not necessarily true that Dawkins isn’t doing his job right if he irritates some people (we know he doesn’t irritate all people, since he has a good many admirers).

And I think that his arguing that science and religion are in fact not as compatible as ‘let’s all get along’ people like to claim they are, is part of explaining science. The reasons he gives for thinking they are not compatible (in the first part of ‘The Root of All Evil?’ for instance) make part of an explanation of what science is. The fact that science is always in principle revisable and that religion is not is an important difference between them, and understanding that is, surely, part of understanding science.

That’s what I said at Comment is Free. It has since occurred to me that the whole thought is also part of the understanding of science. The understanding that there is a difference between understanding and being pleased is part of the understanding of science, and perhaps the reason science is not compatible with religion. Science by definition doesn’t adjust its findings to make them more pleasing – to make them less likely to get up anyone’s nose; if it does that, it’s not science. Arguably that’s one of the first things one has to get a firm grip on in order to have an Understanding of Science: that it is not and cannot be a popularity contest. Other systems of thought can be, but science can’t.

Mind you – to be fair – the commenter probably meant merely that irritating people can make it difficult to communicate with them, which is a reasonable point. But it also relates to the whole question of tactics, and I think it’s fair to point out that Dawkins is not being perverse in thinking that explaining how science and religion are incompatible is part of increasing public understanding of science.

10 Responses to “Explaining and Understanding”