Christian Long

Richard Dawkins: Our Queer Universe

In TED Talks on May 5, 2010 at 9:58 pm

Reflection by KYLE M.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Richard Dawkins:  Our Queer Universe

After feeling obligated to offer Mr. Dawkins largely disapproving sentiments in the first TED video I analyzed, I’m overjoyed to report that his presentation on the “queerness” of our universe serves as nothing less than a vessel of utter redemption.

In his previous video on being a militant atheist, Dawkins came across as blunt, strident, and oblivious to the principles referred to as “common courtesy.” Though I do indeed share his fundamental viewpoint, he presented it rather poorly, and I’d imagine his speech only served to further alienate those he seeks to convert.

Still, despite our philosophical disparity, there were two qualities evident in his first presentation that were undeniably positive: his spectacular method of speaking, and the breadth of his scientific knowledge. In this particular talk, all of the tactless ranting has been done away with, and his strengths shine brighter than ever before. His voice is confident and pleasant to listen to, and he consistently uses humor to keep his abstract and heavy material accessible and intriguing.

Dawkins begins what is likely the most powerful TED presentation I’ve yet seen with a bold declaration, and it only fully sinks in when the speech comes to a close: he affirms that the universe is not only stranger than human beings do suppose, it is stranger than they ever can. One might be tempted to label this a baseless prediction on the capacity of human understanding, but Dawkins effortlessly demonstrates that such is not the case; instead, it ultimately requires no guess work or leaps of logic on his part: the reason human beings are unable to fully grasp the nature of reality is simply intrinsic to how we’ve evolved to perceive it. He states that we’ve developed within a narrow “middle world”, and our construct of reality is entirely at the mercy of this restricted spectrum.

Take, for example, the human mind’s inability to truly process what it would mean to travel at the speed of light. Dawkins explains this by merely pointing out that evolution never presented a need for a consciousness to build an accurate model of the idea, and thus we will never be able to understand it. He also points to the inherent “queerness” of quantum physics; animals do not operate in terms of the very small, so how could they ever be able to fully understand its character?

His argument is further bolstered by more scattered examples of our species’ limited perception, and while none are conclusive on their own, they compound into a potent, cohesive defense of his assertion. Perhaps the most striking offering comes in his comprehensive deconstruction of a human being’s concept of solidity; “matter is a useful fiction,” proclaims Dawkins, and his support of such a controversial claim is immensely fascinating. He asks the audience to simply recall any fond memory lingering in their mind before dropping his bombshell: while one envisions oneself as being there, the startling reality is that no atom currently present in one’s body ever partook in the given event. Solid objects are essentially nothing more than waves, yet it was evolutionarily beneficial to see ourselves as solid; therefore, our understanding will always be based on this innate model, and cannot conceivably surpass it.

Though these ideas are clearly scrumptious food for thought for the scientifically inclined, they would ultimately be empty observations with a central point to acknowledge; it comes as no surprise that Dawkins is able to tie it all together with beautiful finesse. His central case is that as we can only view the slightest sliver of the universe, that which is improbable to our senses may very well be, to borrow from his powerful diction, “inevitable.” This could serve as an intellectually fulfilling explanation for the origin of life, for example. If we consider the amount of stars and planets in the universe, if something as “queer” as life originating was only one in a billion billion…it would still have to happen at least once, no?

Viewing this video was something of a bittersweet experience.

On one hand, I was absolutely invigorated by Dawkins engaging ideas and omnipresent wit, and was happy to see him sticking to what he does best: making grand concepts digestible for the uninitiated. Yet I can’t help but lament the fact that these presentations are all too much of a rarity for Dawkins; his fame (or infamy, depending on one’s perspective) is mostly based on his vocal atheism, rather than his scientific genius. With the user-friendly and passionate persona on display in this video, Dawkins could very well go on to being the world’s foremost popularizing force of scientific awareness…yet he insists on sticking to his intolerant guns.

Mr. Dawkins, if you are to ever read this: please, with all due respect (and make no mistake, there is quite a bit of that), stay within the boundaries of science!

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