Gavin Weightman

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Gavin Weightman


0 God, science and the absurd

  • Thoughts
  • by Gavin Weightman
  • 22-02-2012
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Reading a review at the weekend of the book The Science Delusion by Rupert Sheldrake reminded me of a very pleasant afternoon I spent with the author a few years ago. My book about early wireless, Signor Marconi's Magic Box, came out at more or less the same time as his Seven Experiments that could change the world.

We ended up in the studio of BBC radio London talking together on the day time show hosted by Robert Elms It turned out we both had an interest in homing pigeons, not as bird fanciers but from the point of view of science and history. His publisher had ordered a cab to take him back home to Hampstead and I shared it with him. We ended up having a drink in his back garden and later exchanged books.

I had always been fascinated by the ability of homing pigeons, all descendants of the wild blue rock dove, to find their way back to a loft, though they might be flying over land that was quite unfamiliar to them. This interest was re-kindled by my research in to early wireless for in wartime there was a serious debate about which was more useful for sending messages, the brand new technology using electro-magnetic waves, or the humble homing pigeon. Rupert Sheldrake was interested in the birds because their ability to find their way back to a loft had never been explained by mainstream science. He told me of an experiment he had organised himself in which homing pigeons had found their way from a ship at sea back to a loft on another ship though the vessels were not visible to each other. The point was that there were no visual clues to guide the birds. In his book Sheldrake had concluded "...after nearly a century of dedicated but frustrating research, no one knows how pigeons home, and all attempts to explain their navigational ability in terms of known senses and physical forces have so far proved unsuccessful."

While researching the use of wireless in the First World War I had come across some extraordinary stories about homing pigeons which I was able to add to Sheldrake's store of inexplicable homing achievements. Another of his examples of verifiable behaviour which science cannot explain is the ability of dogs to find their way home or to know when their owner is about to arrive home. Though Sheldrake began life as a very well respected mainstream scientist his questioning of received wisdom has not gone down well with the scientific community. In fact he is a kind of scientific heretic refusing to accept the basic tenets of belief.

He is a thinker Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, could do without: a scientist questioning science just at a time when Dawkins has fired his broadside at religious belief. However, I believe Rupert Sheldrake makes a very good point. He cannot accept the view Dawkins takes that science can explain everything. The implication is that occurrences that appear to defy our knowledge of physics or chemistry must be illusory, or, in the case of the homing pigeon, not worth bothering with. An amusing example of one of Sheldrake's experiments can be found at

You cannot prove that God does not exist anymore than you can prove that there is such an entity as the Almighty. I was brought up as an agnostic and I retain that point of view. I am a "Don't Know" for the very good reason that belief is not knowable. The fact that I do not believe there is a God does not mean there is not one.

This was the view my father, John Weightman, took and when he was in his eighties he wrote a book with the title Reading the Bible in the run-up to death. He was a French specialist and had been sent a new French translation of the Bible by a publisher. Reading it he decided to have a last go at the Good Book and penned his treatise a couple of years before he died. He found nothing favourable about religion and was frankly horrified by the cruelty of the Old Testament. God was forever saying that people should be stoned to death. He had a chapter entitled That Unpleasant Person God. But he remained agnostic simply because to be an atheist you were claiming that you were certain about something which could not be verified.

My father remained until the end an agnostic, and more significantly I think, an absurdist. He took comfort from a quiet acceptance that there was absolutely no discernible purpose in life at all. The natural world in which one species preyed cruelly on another was simply " one big practical joke." The mistake of religious believers was to seek "meaning" in life when quite evidently there was none. Although he did not meet either of them I think he would have been more at home with Rupert Sheldrake than Richard Dawkins.