Douglas Adams – author, humorist, and great admirer of science – was fond of telling a story about how televisions work. Here's how his friend, Richard Dawkins, related it in his "Lament for Douglas Adams" (Adams died of a heart attack in 2001 at the age of 49).
A man didn't understand how televisions work, and was convinced that there must be lots of little men inside the box, manipulating images at high speed. An engineer explained about high-frequency modulations of the electromagnetic spectrum, transmitters and receivers, amplifiers and cathode ray tubes, scan lines moving across and down a phosphorescent screen.
The man listened to the engineer with careful attention, nodding his head at every step of the argument. At the end he pronounced himself satisfied. He really did now understand how televisions work. "But I expect there are just a few little men in there, aren't there?"
It's hard to give up religious fantasies. I know. I haven't been able to completely do this myself. I've got a couple of imaginary little men running around inside my psyche, holdovers from the true believer phase of my life when I hosted legions of them.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing. I don't worry too much when I find myself talking to a dead relative or deceased guru as if the person could actually hear me. Yet when I read Dawkins' piece today in "A Devil's Chaplain," Adams' story made me think.
When am I going to get rid of all of those little men? Why do I keep them around? Wouldn't there be more room for reality in my life if my imaginary friends weren't taking up valuable psychological real estate?
These are easy questions to ask. It isn't nearly so easy to find honest answers. Or to adjust the way I live my life to be more congruent with what I consider to be true.
I don't believe that little men are inside my TV set. Nor do I believe that their metaphysical equivalent are hard at work maintaining a spiritual side of the cosmos.
Yet when there are gaps in my understanding of what life is all about, including where I came from before birth and where I'm heading after death, it's tempting to fill those not-knowing voids with just a few little men.
A commenter on a Wired Science post about the Republican presidential candidates' take on evolution said this about the attempt of some candidates to meld creationism and evolution:
The problem with these answers, as paraphrased from Douglas Adams: "It's as if you were to show an ancient person a T.V., and they exclaim, 'Look at all the little men in there!', and then you teach them about electricity, photons, cathode ray tubes, etc, and they say 'Oh, alright, I understand how a T.V. works now, really I do... But don't you think there might be just a few little men in there?'"
These half measures between creationism and evolution are displays of ignorance, and are philosophically undefendable. They make less sense than either of the two ideas on their own, and in the case of creationism, that's really saying something.
If you're going to believe in little men inside your TV set, maybe it's better to have the television filled to the brim with them than to have it thinly populated. A little bit of religion could indeed be more ridiculous than a lot.
Love the little story that Professor Dawkins wrote. Other than that, pretty self-explanatory.
Posted by: Ashwin | July 21, 2007 at 12:41 PM