John Milton’s take on it:
In discourse more sweet
(For Eloquence the Soul, Song charms the Sense,)
Others apart sat on a Hill retir’d,
In thoughts more elevate, and reason’d high
Of Providence, Foreknowledge, Will, and Fate,
Fixt Fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute,
And found no end, in wandring mazes lost.
Of good and evil much they argu’d then,
Of happiness and final misery,
Passion and Apathie, and glory and shame,
Vain wisdom all, and false Philosophie:
Yet with a pleasing sorcerie could charm
Pain for a while or anguish, and excite
Fallacious hope, or arm th’ obdured brest
With stubborn patience as with triple steel.
Not a scientific proposition, certainly. Nor, to my mind, to be dismissed solely on the grounds it isn’t one or that Milton must have been a brain-washed idiot.
That’s one of my main objections to Richard Dawkins’ method of arguing; not so much that it’s wrong but that it misses the point. Someone can advance the hypothesis that King Lear was, in fact, written not by William Shakespeare but by Sir Francis Bacon. It’s an highly improbable hypothesis, to my mind, and one that I’m happy to ignore unless — which I admit as a theoretical possibility, however slight — someone can adduce convincing evidence for it. However, someone can also advance the hypothesis that
no unhypnotized observer, if such an observer existed, could read it [Lear] to the end with any feeling except ‘aversion and weariness’. And exactly the same is true of ‘all the other extolled dramas of Shakespeare, not to mention the senseless dramatized tales, Pericles, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, Cymbeline, Troilus and Cressida.’
As Orwell says,
One’s first feeling is that in describing Shakespeare as a bad writer he [Tolstoy] is saying something demonstrably untrue. But this is not the case. In reality there is no kind of evidence or argument by which one can show that Shakespeare, or any other writer, is ‘good’. Nor is there any way of definitely proving that — for instance — Warwick Deeping is ‘bad’.
There are ways of arguing against Tolstoy’s criticisms of Shakespeare, but, ultimately, there would be no way of convincing him that he’s wrong — or of convincing me that he’s right — in the way you might convince someone that Bohemia has no seacoast. Nor, indeed, would many people think that the merits or otherwise of The Winter’s Tale depend on its geographical accuracy, any more than is Tolstoy’s account of the Battle of Borodino susceptible to criticism as a work of military history.
Sir Peter Medawar was of the view
That there is indeed a limit upon science is made very likely by the existence of questions that science cannot answer, and that no conceivable advance of science would empower it to answer […] . I have in mind such questions as
- How did everything begin?
- What are we all here for?
- What is the point of living?
Doctrinaire positivism — now something of a period piece — dismissed such questions as nonquestions or pseudoquestions such as only simpletons ask and only charlatans profess to be able to answer (The Limits Of Science, p 66)
Clearly you don’t need religion to answer such questions, but it seems perversely to miss the point if you complain that they’re being answered in a non-scientific manner.