David: We’re talking about what kinds of things count as knowledge. Now, we’ve talked before and I know you have strong feelings about this. What do you think the status of scientific knowledge is as regards to other kinds of knowledge?
PA: Scientific knowledge is the only way of acquiring reliable knowledge, because it’s evidence based and it’s consensus based. It’s universal, it’s trans-cultural and it’s a way where you can be confident that the knowledge that you’re gaining is reliable. I think another feature is that the evidence comes from all the points of the compass. It comes from biology. It comes from physics. It comes, in a funny sort of way, from mathematics. It comes from chemistry, and so on. And these different rivers of knowledge, where they mingle, don’t annihilate: they support. And so, when there is so much information coming from so many disparate sources, you get the sense that, maybe, we’ve got the right way for eliciting understanding of the world.
David: You use the word ‘reliable’. Are there, therefore, in your view, unreliable kinds of knowledge?
PA: Religious knowledge is probably the paradigm of unreliability because it’s based on sentiment, on authority and on wish-fulfilment. I think those three aspects of religious knowledge undermine its reliability totally.
David: What about the arts then?
PA: Yes, I was going to say. Art, literature, music, I think, are revelations of kinds of knowledge. They don’t give you insight, but they provide you with objects of study. So why does, say, the Goldberg Variations have such a profound emotional pull on one’s heart? It doesn’t reveal anything about the nature of the world until you ask the question: why does this pluck the heartstrings? So it’s evidence about the world that a scientist would use as material to study. For a poet to say that they’re providing knowledge about the world is tolerable, up to a point. They’re providing something to study, but they don’t actually: it’s meta-knowledge, it’s not deep understanding knowledge.
Ard: And you spend quite a bit of time popularising your ideas. Why do you do that? Why do you think it’s important?
PA: Because I want people to share in the joy of science.
PA: That is for people to realise that they can understand, and that the world is not just a random collection of entities: that the world is a coherent place; that entities emerge, have their properties. I think it’s the joy of understanding, really.
Ard: You’re trying to share the joy of understanding?
PA: I’m not sure that…
Ard: Don’t you worry that by telling people that religion is nonsense that you’re taking away some of their joys?
PA: I don’t mind. I can see that I’m taking the blanket away from them to expose them to the cold blast of truth. But the cold blast of truth can be enthralling and enjoyable, more enjoyable than being cloaked in the warm blanket of misconception.
Ard: So you’re trying to… You think you’re helping them in this way?
PA: Not always, because sometimes ignorance is bliss.
PA: That’s the problem. So someone on their deathbed, I wouldn’t say, ‘Come on, snap out of it. This is the truth.’ But someone who is young, who has yet their life before them, I think to imbue them with a sense that the world is understandable is what I, as a teacher, should teach.
Ard: So how about people like me who are religious and scientists? What do you make of that?
PA: Well you’ve got two hemispheres. I would try to build in a kind of corpus callosum to connect your hemispheres!
Ard: Okay. You think I’ve got a split mind? You think I’m like a vegetarian butcher or something?
PA: So you go through life mixing the sentimental and the analytical.
Ard: So do you think my religious sense is the sentimental part of me?
PA: Oh, yes.
Ard: Should I switch that off?
PA: I think you would have a much richer life if you were to switch it off. Then you must ask yourself why you have this sentimental streak in you. I mean, obviously, you’re a much nicer person than I am. I don’t want you to become just a butcher, of course. I want to help sustain the sentimentality, sensitivity rather, of your non-butcher side, but see that the world is simply a wonderful, mechanical place.
Ard: Nothing more?
PA: Nothing more.
Ard: Is that the whole story then?
PA: Yes. Absolutely.
Ard: There’s nothing more than that?
PA: No. Well, what more could there be?
Ard: Would that make us like computers, almost?
PA: I see nothing wrong with that. I mean we’re very elaborate computers. We are machines, in a sense, that take in information and transform it. And some of the consequences of that transformation might be the release of a hormone which makes us feel good.
Ard: Okay. So I agree, I think we are chemical computers. But you’re saying that’s the totality? That’s it?
PA: Well, I don’t see what else there could be.
Ard: On scientific grounds?
PA: Well, just on common-sense grounds.