Richard Dawkins wrote this memorable passage in Unweaving the Rainbow:
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?
It’s a beautiful passage that really celebrates the joy of life in a non-religious way. But John Danaher at h+ Magazine isn’t moved by it:
If we stripped away the lyrical writing, what would we be left with? To be more precise, what kind of argument would we be left with?
I want to quote more of what he’s saying, but it’s hard to find a few sentences that make much sense on their own. Danaher is basically judging a work of art by critiquing a few individual brush strokes. For example, he rips apart Dawkins’ use of the word “lucky” for mathematical reasons, saying that the probability of being alive may not be as infinitesimal as the word suggests. He implies that Dawkins wants us to be “grateful” but wonders to whom.
Kristine at Amused Muse is quick to dismiss his challenges:
It is rather amusing to see atheists accused of having no sense of humor, then taken so literally when they joke or employ a colloquialism. I did not see Dawkins’ use of the word “lucky” as an argument strictly championing existence over nonexistence — he is merely stating that the latter is far more likely than the former. We are “privileged” by the mere fact of being the less likely ones, the elite, as it were. Dawkins is making an observation, not a judgment, for the real focus of his quote is not nonexistence, but the ordeal, and consciousness of, our impending deaths.
… Dawkins is not really concerned with being “grateful” for existing, but with putting death, much as it looms over our lives, into proper perspective. Danaher has missed the point.
I’m with Kristine on this. One of the reasons Dawkins’ science writing continues to inspire people is because, like Carl Sagan, he’s able to turn science into art, describing evolution and biology and life itself in a way that isn’t mechanical and dry like a textbook. It’s beautiful prose. To take that kind of writing and assess it in literal (or even scientific) terms means ignoring the glue that’s holding everything together. It wasn’t meant to be read like that.