“John Cage - 4'33" What pretentious bollocks (I’d rather be dismissed as philistine than a gullible fool).” - Richard Dawkins, tweeted on 19th July, 2015.
The above comment is a tweet sent from the account of Dr Richard Dawkins, once a respected scientist and evolutionary biologist but, in more recent times, a self-important defender of rationality against "pretentious obscurantism". "Pretentious" is a word that Dawkins loves but I wonder if he has ever considered the idea that it might apply to him almost with the truthfulness and precision of a dictionary definition? Whatever the truth of this, Dawkins is one of a modern breed of intellectuals today who gets carried away with his own importance and starts to believe that his views on various topics are not only necessary but important contributions. As a study in a certain kind of modern mind he is a textbook case. Before continuing I should probably point out here that, like Dawkins, I am not a believer in gods.
I take as my subject today just that sparse tweet at the top of the article. It encapsulates, I think, pretty much all that needs to be said about Dr Richard Dawkins. He rushes to judgment (on the basis of his own background beliefs and seemingly without thinking about it) and would rather be thought of as someone without nuance and thoughtful insight who has been exposed to different forms of culture (a philistine) than be called someone who can be fooled through lack of knowledge (gullible).
And it is knowledge (and its regular companion truth) that are the issues here. Dawkins, as his many public utterances amply show, is a man fixated by these things. He venerates them as surely as any religious worshipper has ever venerated their god. Indeed, I'll go out on a limb and say that he venerates them MUCH MORE than many religious worshippers venerate their god. In his Twitter bio Dawkins refers to "the poetry of reality". This is a gloss to make him seem a bit more artistic and touchy-feely than he actually is. For what Dawkins is really interested in is facts. For Dawkins, facts arbitrate all things. There isn't any real space for poetry - of reality or any other kind. Poems aren't about facts. Poems are about interpretations. You can bet that Dawkins doesn't want reality interpreting. He just wants to know what it is in itself. For Dawkins, facts are completely transparent and need no help from interpretations.
So why should Cage’s 4’33” be thought of by a man who likes to present himself as straightforward, rational and concerned with poetry as “pretentious bollocks”? I really do wonder if Dawkins knows what the point of 4’33” was and what the artistic impulse behind it was. I think he must not for, if he did, he might start to realise that maybe he and Cage have more in common than he first imagined. Cage was a man fascinated with “the poetry of reality” too. In fact, so much was he fascinated with this poetry that he tried to reproduce its chaos and randomness in his music. Not only did he admire the poetry of reality, he allowed room for it in his compositions and the performances of his pieces. So why is Dawkins being so churlish and unkind?
Self-importance and pretentiousness certainly play a role here. Dawkins is a man who is happy to go down in a culture war provided he can happily look at his sinking galleon from the captain’s deck and see the prize of truth still firmly lashed on board. Dawkins is a man for whom a plurality of views (such as poems might give) would be an obfuscation. You are not allowed your truth and your experience has no power to mediate anything when Dawkins is in town. William James can go to hell with his ideas that people can believe whatever has the power to convince their will. The truth is one and Dawkins is its disciple (and, presumably in his own mind, its possessor too). So you want to create a piece of music (music for Cage was sounds and silences) which is different every time because it is focusing on the ambience and sounds in the room rather than a piece played from the stage? Pretentious bollocks! How dare you be so innovative! How dare you think outside of my box! Insight should be coming from the stage and you should be playing the music for us, telling us how it is!
In this we see that for Dawkins - in matters of truth as in matters of art - he holds an authoritarian model. This is based on someone at the front (who possesses the knowledge) and they then spread that out to us who are passive recipients of it. In this, Dawkins is not so much a philistine as just one more example of an old way of thinking. Dawkins is a relic and just one more person taking up the cudgels for a reality based in a certain way of thinking, the way that thinks there is one truth and one way things are (his way). Success is in claiming to know this way and having possession of its supposed truth. In this he is exactly the same as pretty much all the religionists he wants to “good-humouredly ridicule”. He is a dog fighting over the bone of knowledge with those he (in truth) despises. He is not unlike them at all. He just has different gods.
For what is it when a man’s deepest fear be that others will think him gullible? How might one fight off the charge of gullibility? Only, it seems to me, by claiming to have the twin weapons of knowledge and truth at your side. But has Dawkins done the philosophical legwork here? Assuming you have the truth and that you know things is something anyone can do. In many cases the world might even let you go on believing it. Indeed, its something everyone always already does. But its being able to show it with some justification that counts. Surely even a gullible philistine like Dawkins can see that saying you have found the best current way of describing how something works or the best current way to describe the human situation with regard to belief in gods does not make that the truth in itself? This latter epithet is but a compliment you pay to your beliefs that you can’t substantiate, perhaps because you think your views are important, right or because you just don’t think about things very much anymore.
Let’s be clear. All of us are at certain points gullible. None of us possess the required amount of perspicuity. Knowledge and truth are items with disputed values and the status they confer on beliefs is even more disputed than that. But only those who worship knowledge and truth fear being thought of as gullible. The world will keep on spinning even though evolutionary biologists feel free to parcel out their ignorant views on the music of world renowned musicians and theoreticians of music. But it does perhaps behoove a man who claims to represent rationality to be a little bit more rational in his views. As it stands, a tweet such as the one Dawkins put out that day just shows him to be what some of his critics would take him to be: a closed-minded agenda seeking targets, a man so trapped in the network of his own beliefs that he sees infidels everywhere people don’t speak in his rationalist vocabulary of knowledge and truth perspicuous to minds like his, a man so committed to a preening self-regard that understanding and appreciating others has given way to a sterile search for, and veneration of, “truth”. Not only is this an exceedingly arrogant belief, it is philistine in its levels of gullibility.