Ungodly Science: Dawkins

Since we are on the subject of John Gray, let’s look at his most recent review: a withering attack on arch-atheist Richard Dawkins. The occasion for this lambasting, which assumes the form of a book review, is Dawkins’ self-important and yawn-inducing autobiography, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist. So it’s not like Dawkins wasn’t asking for it, but I wonder whether the review (“The Closed Mind of Richard Dawkins”) is entirely fair. Though I am ignorant of such matters, I sense a sub-current of sneering British politics or classicism running throughout. Some fairness might have been achieved had Gray observed that there are three incarnations of Richard Dawkins and each deserves to be evaluated independently. By treating Dawkins as a seamless and ungodly whole, the good gets swamped by the bad and we lose valuable context.

The first Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and science writer. This Dawkins has performed many valuable services, even if the particulars of his selfish-gene case are the subject of major scientific dispute. Disputes are the stuff of science and the ensuing debates over genes, functions or purpose, and levels of selection have been invigorating and healthy. And popular science books like The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution are just splendid, indeed masterful. It would be churlish not to acknowledge and applaud these contributions to the larger culture.

The second Dawkins is the scourge of creationists and religious fundamentalists of all stripes. I don’t have a problem with this Dawkins, though I doubt he has persuaded fervent believers of their cognitive errors. To the surely limited extent that books like The God Delusion have converted any of them, then more power to Dawkins. In religiously bizarre places like the United States, where 150 million people are creationists, someone has to get down in the cultural gutter for these kinds of fights. But those who do so run a risk: combat with zealots can lead to zealotry. As Nietzsche once observed in a different context, those who stare long into the abyss should be wary of the abyss staring back. Confrontations with creationists may have similar effects.

This brings us to the third Dawkins, the one with whom I do have a problem. We can get a sense for this Dawkins, overweened on science, in books like The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True. What’s really true – or the nature and structure of “reality” – is a difficult philosophical problem, cosmological conundrum, and open scientific question. While some skepticism and modesty is surely in order when it comes to subjects like this, Dawkins has no doubts. And it is on this issue that Gray, who is also an atheist, blasts Dawkins:

[I]t is Dawkins’s identification with Darwin that is most incongruous. No two minds could be less alike than those of the great nineteenth-century scientist and the latter-day evangelist for atheism. Hesitant, doubtful, and often painfully perplexed, Darwin understood science as an empirical investigation in which truth is never self-evident and theories are always provisional. If science, for Darwin, was a method of inquiry that enabled him to edge tentatively and humbly toward the truth, for Dawkins, science is an unquestioned view of the world. The Victorians are often mocked for their supposed certainties, when in fact many of them (Darwin not least) were beset by anxieties and uncertainties. Dawkins, by contrast, seems never to doubt for a moment the capacity of the human mind—his own, at any rate—to resolve questions that previous generations have found insoluble.

For all his fervent enthusiasm for science, Dawkins shows very little interest in asking what scientific knowledge is or how it comes to be possible. There are many philosophies of science. Among them is empiricism, which maintains that scientific knowledge extends only so far as observation and experiment can reach; realism, which holds that science can give an account of parts of the world that can never be observed; irrealism, according to which there is no one truth of things to which scientific theories approximate; and pragmatism, which views science theories as useful tools for organizing and controlling experience. If he is aware of these divergent philosophies, Dawkins never discusses them. His attitude to science is that of a practitioner who does not need to bother with philosophical questions.

It is worth noting, therefore, that it is not as a practicing scientist that Dawkins has produced his assaults against religion. As he makes clear in this memoir, he gave up active research in the 1970s when he left his crickets behind and began to write The Selfish Gene. Ever since, he has written as an ideologue of scientism, the positivistic creed according to which science is the only source of knowledge and the key to human liberation. He writes well—fluently, vividly, and at times with considerable power. But the ideas and the arguments that he presents are in no sense novel or original, and he seems unaware of the critiques of positivism that appeared in its Victorian heyday.

[Evangelical Atheism] testifies to how shallow, crass, and degraded the debate has become since Victorian times. Unlike most of those who debated then, Dawkins knows practically nothing of the philosophy of science, still less about theology or the history of religion. From his point of view, he has no need to know. He can deduce everything he wants to say from first principles. Religion is a type of supernatural belief, which is irrational, and we will all be better off without it: for all its paraphernalia of evolution and memes, this is the sum total of Dawkins’s argument for atheism.

This is admittedly harsh, perhaps even intemperate, but it rings true. John Gray, for his part, is not without his foibles, particularly his promiscuous penchant for calling just about everything – political movements, social formations, and various worldviews – “religion.” This conceptual categorization could be useful, if well-argued, but simply labeling Dawkins’ atheism “its own kind of narrow religion” is in no way helpful or enlightening. While I find much that is valuable in Gray, particularly a healthy skepticism toward blind-secular faith in progress, we can and should interrogate him on these matters. But those are posts for another day, when I complete the series on Progress.


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3 thoughts on “Ungodly Science: Dawkins

  1. GregJS

    In response to your final comment – about the NASA grant money – under the “Barash, Biology & Balderdash” post: One thing that can be said for the materialist-mechanist paradigm is that it’s VERY good at getting funded. Which is another form of “natural selection,” I suppose.

    Also, I checked out (skimmed, really) the Stephen Asma article and watched a video of Stuart Kauffman; and my search on panpsychism led me to a TED talk by David Chalmers. All three were interesting and worthwhile, so thanks. I enjoy the level/tone of discussion on this blog and being introduced to so many new (to me) resources.

    As much as I could make out, Asma and Kauffman seem to have solidly materialist-mechanist orientations, neither one considering the sorts of possibilities that Chalmers is looking at (subjectivity is fundamental; everything might have some degree of it), whose pov I had apparently been channeling in my comments under that post. It’s handy to have a label for this way of looking at things. Kauffman was interesting in that, even while staying well within the m-m paradigm (he used the words “re-enchantment” and “magic” repeatedly, but I agree with you that he didn’t seem to have a spiritual perspective), he showed how Newtonian determinism can’t apply within the biological sphere because of the continual emergence of those new, totally unpredictable possibilities you referenced. Fascinating.

    Regarding the current and previous post (Secular Prophets): A distinction I’ve found clarifying is that the world isn’t divided between atheists and theists so much as between people who think the ultimate nature of reality can be defined in specific terms (which would include theists of the type who believe that “such-and-such God created the world for such-and-such purpose” AND atheists who believe things like “the ultimate nature of reality is physical stuff” – or whatever else they believe it to be) versus people who leave the ultimate nature of reality undefined and unlimited (who could also be theists or atheists). These two basic orientations to reality lead to huge differences in perception, values, ways of life, and ways of relating to other humans and to the world in general. Not so surprisingly perhaps, modern westernized people tend to fall into the former camp while hunter-gatherers, tribal peoples, and traditional civilizations tend to fall into the latter. (BTW, my understanding of this is based largely on my reading of Calvin Martin, but others as well.)

  2. Nicholas Fulford

    Dawkins draws the battle lines in the conflict between atheism and religious literalists – not allegoricalists. I doubt he has serious problems with those who view their religion through the lens of mythic narrative and archetype, but he does have a legitimate bone to pick with those who use the frame of religion to define the universe.

    Science as a method – for what else is it – is particularly good at developing models that describe what is real and provides a means of culling what is false. Science does not provide very compelling mythic narrative because that is neither its purpose or its strength. Even so, Dawkins fulfils a useful and good role in engaging with the religiously dogmatic; to strip them of the illusionary garments that hide the nakedness of their fearful and eschatological projections. We do not need these conflict inducing intolerances in the 21st century. (We may need good mythic tales, but that is another story.)

    And so while Dawkins is an evangelical of science going on crusade against the creationists, literalists, and fundamentalists of religion; I feel some sympathy. He fulfills a necessary role in doing what Umberto Eco so wonderfully described in Foucault’s Pendulum with the phrase, “Ma gavte la bata.” – meaning kindly remove the cork, (so as to let out the hot air.) He attempts to pull the cork to allow the gas to dissipate. He does a service in this regard, and though it is a pleasure of which I am not proud, I do enjoy watching it done well.

  3. Tommaso

    What is good about Gray’s review is, to my mind, the subtle but powerful historicization. Showing Dawkins as the remnant of British imperial priggishness – this is invaluable.

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