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 ;-).


  1. Jenny, do you have Dawkins at gunpoint there? The smile looks a bit forced and we can't see your left hand.

  2. Did this discussion ever get uploaded?

  3. Hmm, it should have done. I'll investigate what happened to the video.