Spirit of the Age: At the altar of the atheists

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"WHAT AN irony," puffed a Dawkins-ite, as he walked into the vast auditorium of Methodist Central Hall, in central London, where this week his hero entered into a debate entitled "Has Science Killed the Soul?". Richard Dawkins, the professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford University, drew a crowd of 2,300 to hear him talk with his fellow neo-Darwinist, the American evolutionary psychologist Stephen Pinker.

However, there was no irony at all. The vast hall opposite Westminster Abbey was built in 1912 for evangelical rallies. And that was precisely what the great audience was here for - to celebrate a new faith in which neuro-science is the new metaphysic and doubt the new dogma. "The seats are unnumbered," said the ticket collector. "Just find your own." Here the survival of the fittest was the code for life.

It was not much of a debate, it has to be said, for Dawkins and Pinker, as is so often the way with high priests, pretty much agreed with everything the other said. But that didn't matter. "The truth is not always to be found somewhere midway between two adversaries. When two people agree there is always the possibility that we might both be right," Dawkins chuckled. He did not seem to countenance the opposite possibility.

Has science killed the soul? If by that we mean what he called Soul 1, the answer was yes. The idea that we have a spiritual immortal part of ourselves science has shown to be "circular and non-productive". But if we meant Soul 2 - the intellectual, aesthetic and artistic power within us - then science has awoken great new possibilities there.

Pinker was less elegant but gave more sense of thinking as he went along. He was also more radical. The mind is not animated by a godly vapour; it is, like the Apollo spacecraft, an enormously complex device crammed with other complex devices. But there is nothing in it beyond a collection of chemical interactions. The mind is just the physiological activity of the brain, there is no ghost in the machine. The complexity of human thinking is reflected by the 3 trillion synapses in the brain. But they were made not by God but by the processes of evolution. When part of the brain is destroyed - by a bullet or by Alzheimer's - part of the person goes.

Even Dawkins had trouble here. "You say it's an illusion that the mind is a single entity, Steve," he began, picking up on Pinker's notion that the mind is a whole load of processes which are distinct and often pull in different directions. How could this be? Pinker wasn't sure but was certain that finding out was only a matter of time. When science fully explained consciousness, sometime next century, then "Soul 1 will be finally killed off", Dawkins said.

Hang on, said a questioner from the floor, isn't that like saying that a TV programme is created by the innards of a TV set, when we all know that it is in reality projected from somewhere outside? Dawkins, in response, told a daft joke about little men inside the TV but failed to address the substantive point that science can't explain the subjective side of life.

It was, he said, just a cheap debating trick to say that what science can't explain can be explained by some other discipline. Perhaps it can't be explained at all. God is just a product of the human desire for perceiving patterns, which was programmed into us because it helped human survival, but which, if not checked, makes us gullible suckers-up of New Age nonsense or the established religions, which are the same thing, only older.

But religion, suggested another questioner from the floor, does also offer consolation to the troubled. Science can't do that. No, said Dawkins, but who wants to be comforted by a falsehood? Surely it makes it all the more worthwhile to get up in the morning and use our brief time on the planet to try to understand what life is all about. He was just grateful to be alive, he said, to his biggest round of applause of the evening.

Grateful to whom he did not specify. The problem for atheists is that they are trapped in centuries of theistically conceptualised language, as is evident when they seem unable to find an alternative word for the "design" of things in nature.

Pinker, no doubt, would here say we are into the problem of making category mistakes. It is like asking "What does a four-dimensional object look like?" or "What was there before the Big Bang?" or "What's outside the finite universe?". Such questions make no sense - they are mismatches. "It's not a problem of science," said Pinker. "It's a problem of how we feel."

That does not make the problem, for us humans, any less real, I felt as I came away. Dawkins and Pinker may be, as they were billed, the two great storytellers of modern science. But their yarns, while good on description, are a bit short on plot, and there is something barren and desolate about the landscape in which they are set.

Science and psychology may have killed off God 1 - the old bloke with the beard, the performer of magic who is a superhuman extrapolation from the limits of the single human form. But what about God 2 - the mysterious abstraction, the unknowable summation of the wisdom of mankind throughout the world and throughout the ages, the ground of our being?

The discoveries of science only magnify rather than diminish such a God. In the face of which, of course, the apt response is not smug uncertainty so much as an open humility. And there did not seem to be an awful lot of that around this week in Central Hall.