A Pernicious Confusion

24 Oct ’06

The launch of “The God Delusion” by ‘Darwin’s rottweiler’, Richard Dawkins, has me thinking of the nonsense that Macleans apparently features on its cover this issue – a seeming drive-by titled “The Internet Sucks”. I haven’t read it (and were it not for ITBusiness.ca’s coverage, probably wouldn’t have learned of it – the last Macleans I read was in my doctor’s waiting room and was 3 years old). But I’ll take Shane Shick’s word for it on this point:

Given that it’s easy to talk about what’s wrong with the Internet, [Macleans writer Steve] Maich spends precious little space talking about what’s working. Based on the authority of a single professor, he concludes that the Internet is useful but has failed to offer anything new to the world. “The internal combustion engine, refrigeration, even air conditioning, had profound impacts on our lives, making the impossible practical. The Web does nothing of the sort,” Maich writes. “E-mails replace faxes and phone calls. Online shopping replaces sales that used to be made through a catalogue. And for all but the most socially isolated, every hour spent trolling through chat rooms replaces an hour that might otherwise have been spent in real, live conversation.”

I’ll leave the evisceration of this breathtakingly trivial argument to others – Shane is off to a pretty good start (is Mike Masnick in the house?). But Dawkins’ new book does provide a timely example of why the internet is so important – it could get Dawkins’s arguments – and his extraordinary gift for clarity – in front of every human on the planet who has access to a connected computer. And from them, to everyone else. And if there is a better way of arresting our descent into tribalism, mysticism and superstition, I haven’t heard it.

By the way, “a pernicious confusion” is from the Salon interview with Dawkins, and is Dawkins’ description of the confusion that religion exploits to claim that phenonomena for which there is not yet an accepted scientific explanation must have a mystical origin:

There are two ways of responding to mystery. The scientist’s way is to see it as a challenge, something they’ve got to work on, we’re really going to try to crack it. But there are others who revel in mystery, who think we were not meant to understand. There’s something sacred about mystery that positively should not be tackled. Now, suppose science does have limits. What is the value in giving the label “religion” to those limits? If you simply want to define religion as the bits outside of what science can explain, then we’re not really arguing. We’re simply using a word, “God,” for that which science can’t explain. I don’t have a problem with that. I do have a problem with saying God is a supernatural, creative, intelligent being. It’s simple confusion to say science can’t explain certain things; therefore, we have to be religious. To equate that kind of religiousness with belief in a personal, intelligent being, that’s confusion. And it’s pernicious confusion.

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