making things clear, willy-nilly; while the Archbishop has, I would guess, a keen sense of what else may be done, and not done, with language, in television debates and elsewhere, and moreover of what may happen in language as distinct from being done with it; and my own feeling was that he faced down a small but nipping dog with the composure of a postman who cannot get through the gate quite yet, but will deliver the mail however long it takes him. The debate also put me in mind of a magnificently titled chapter in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (1930), namely, ‘Science smiling into its beard, or first full-dress encounter with Evil.’
Here, Musil (himself a trained scientist, so he wasn’t writing from prejudice) reflects on the spirit in which modern science destroys various illusions by objective and rational techniques. We are used to thinking (or being told to think) of this spirit as impartial and impersonal, but Musil pictures it with a beard and a smile, dry, ironic, malicious; and each illusion it destroys brings this smile to its face. It’s the smile of the man who tells you ‘there must be a perfectly rational explanation’ whenever you report a spiritual or uncanny experience. Musil’s conception of science relates it to the hunter and the merchant, who kill, gather and accumulate without sentimentality. Science kills by the accumulating of facts, and what it kills is ‘sublimity’. Our illusions compose our sense of the sublime; science destroys them with measurements. Does destruction of this kind create something new, or does it leave us with nothing? When Dawkins explains religion as a Darwinian ‘misfiring’, he thinks to have destroyed its value in the same breath as he has explained its cause. This is an instance (no pun intended) of what philosophers call a ‘genetic fallacy’. But can science really understand value? For value (or meaning), is in the individual and the particular, the human and psychological, not the genetic, nor the cosmic. It is subjective. And can science understand that we may vitally need illusion (a word Dawkins dishonours by calling it ‘delusion’, with the implication of ‘mistake’).
In what sense(s) may we need illusion? And are we stupid if we do so? The answer to the first question is, ‘Because life may be meaningless without illusions.’ The kind of person who needs illusions, Nietzsche described with the word ‘naive’. He did not mean that word disparagingly. At one time, the naive man believed there were gods on Mount Olympus. It made life explainable and gave meaning to events. Was he stupid to believe in the gods, stupider than we are?
It may depend on what you mean by ‘believe’. There’s a kind of believing that is close to imagining. Children do it, adults do it as well. Primitive cultures do it, so do advanced ones. It’s a kind of pretend believing, or make-believe. A philosopher called Kendall Walton has much to say about this. Make-believe is a game, in which one pretends to experience real