Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Richard Dawkins and Susan Blackmore in Conversation

Susan Blackmore tries to rotate the microphone stand using sheer force of will!

Last night, the University of Bristol Atheist, Agnostic and Secular Society were thrilled to be hosting eminent evolutionary biologist Professor Richard Dawkins and memeticist Susan Blackmore in collaboration with the British Humanist Association (BHA). It was the biggest event the society has ever put on, attracting over 300 excited people, crammed into Chemistry LT1.

Though great friends, Blackmore was immediately keen to stir up disagreement with Dawkins by asking if he would change his opinion on genes as the sole operators in evolutionary processes now that more evidence of group selection has been presented. Dawkins responded that he was still unconvinced, but would change his mind if overwhelming evidence was provided, decrying the castigation of politicians as "flip-floppers" if they change their opinions on a matter when presented with new evidence. He himself had had to change his mind on the handicap principle, the principle that some creatures such as the peacock have a handicap in order to emphasise their fitness to mates, when new evidence demonstrated it was a likely explanation.

One of the stranger moments of the conversation was over Persinger's "God Helmet" with which the inventor claims he can recreate near death and religious phenomena using magnetic fields. Blackmore said that using the helmet was a similar experience to being on LSD and welcomed the idea that these sorts of euphoric experiences could be studied scientifically. Dawkins, by contrast, experienced nothing at all and was one of the 20% of the population apprently unsusceptible to the technique. Blackmore's reaction was to invite Dawkins to take LSD with her which he politely decided to pass no comment on!

Questions followed the main discussion beginning with discussion of religions as memes and both defended their analogy with genes by pointing out that the evolutionary concept worked identically for both systems which involve elements of memory, replication, mutation and selection. Dawkins suggested there might even be interaction between memes and genes, with past positive sexual selection in favour of those having spiritual experiences changing the evolution of our brains.

The inevitable question on free will came up which Dawkins quickly responded to by quoting Christopher Hitchins who when asked "Do you believe in free will" responded "I have no choice!" Elaborating further, he said that he felt he did, but couldn't justify this at an intellectual level. Blackmore also denied the existence of free will saying "I watch what she does with interest!" Furthermore, she said that we must move beyond  qualify the non-existence of free will with "but I live as if it exists". It is possible to believe that we are all machines, yet this should not lead to dispair, because humans are magnificently intricate and  amazing machines.

Perhaps the most controversial question was the one on cognitive dissonance  and how easy it was to hold two conflicting ideas, such as science and religion or empiricism and faith. Susan said it was possible if you considered the person who learnt religion when they were young and science when they were older - the cost of reconcilling those two systems in your head might be more than that required to hold conflicting principles. Dawkins found the concept highly distressing! He even went as far as to defend calling for people with religious convictions to be fired from certain professions, justifying his argument with a thought experiment of an eye surgeon who believes in the stork theory of human reproduction.

The event closed with some contemplation about the future of atheism and humanism.  Blackmore wanted the BHA to do more events with group participation such as group singing. Dawkins countered that Humanist Hymns would be excruciating! Andrew Copson, CEO of the BHA added that this approach had been taken by some 19th Century Humanists resulting in asinine hymns with lyrics like "aren't people lovely?"

Richard Dawkins and Susan Blackmore with Andrew Copson, Jenny Bartle and the Bristol AASS Committee

The discussion went very well and has been recorded so should be up on the internet somewhere very soon! Jenny, President of the AHS, and I joined Bristol AASS, Copson, Blackmore and Dawkins for dinner where we discussed, amongst other things, Blackmore's past as a parapsychologist and the ethics of eating in-vitro human meat. Jenny mentioned that if they made 10 clones of Dawkins' heart, she would gladly eat one if it was going spare ... I think he was glad he wasn't sitting next to her ;-).

Monday, 7 May 2012

SPUC-OFF: Pro-Choice Counter-Protest

The weekend before last saw anti-choice groups from across the country performing "roadside vigils" encouraging motorists to return us to the dark days of illegal abortion. Quite why they decided to target this demographic is uncertain - presumably they had watched Clarkson's uncontested chauvenist ramblings on Top Gear and hoped they might garner the support of opinionated 4x4 drivers belching their way through the city centre.

The vigil in Bristol was attended by Bristol Students for Life and promoted by the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC), both of whom I have written about before. With only a few days notice, several Bristol groups rallied for a counter-protest, outnumbering the anti-choicers 4-to-1 despite the short amount of time in which to organise.  An interesting addition was the Bristol Anarchists who had promised the day before the protest to "be occupying the space and engaging [the anti-choicers] directly."

Bristol Feminist Network, University of Bristol Feminist Society, University of Bristol Atheist, Agnostic and Secular  Society, Bristol Secular Society and many others joined forces to counter-protest
The day itself was a damp but we were roused by many chants including "get your roasaries off my ovaries" and "pro-life, that's a lie, you don't care if women die!"

The anarchists carried out their promise to "occupy the space" by placing their pro-choice placards in front of the anti-choice placards.  I don't know if I entirely approved of that action because it was denying the anti-choicers their right to speech and would feed their victim-complex. Nonetheless, it lead to an amusing cat-and-mouse game where the anti-choicers and anarchists would move about trying to block each others' signs. Even the police, not well known for tolerating anarchists, decided not to intervene when the anti-choicers requested their assistance.

Members of the University of Bristol Atheist, Agnostic and Secular Society

Gav from the Bristol Secular Society
At the end of the two-hour protest and counter-protest both groups disbanded peacably. However, the apparent increase in anti-choice activity in recent times is worrying - not because they are winning the argument but because their activities are becoming ever more desperate as the prospect of banning abortion slips ever further from becoming a political possibility.  For example, the "prayer vigils" intimidating pregnant people attending the BPAS clinic in Bedford Square are utterly immoral and borderline illegal. 

There is a danger that the situation in the UK could degrade to the tragic situation in the US where vigils staking-out abortion clinics and attacks on abortion doctors are more common, putting vulnerable people at risk. We must be careful not to allow anti-choice groups to position the pro-choice position as pro-abortion (which is isn't) and to make sure our response to them continues to be clear, measured and rational.