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  • The God Delusion - Richard Dawkins
    by Zettel at 16:07 on 29 April 2007
    Science and Philosophy have one thing in common: at the fundamental level of explanation both end in metaphor. To his credit Dawkins having been rigorously logical and empirical throughout TGD, acknowledges in his final chapter that he will have recourse to what he calls rhetoric in order to express his passionate belief that science can offer an inspirational conception of ourselves and our place in the universe. His account, unlike those offered by religion, is rational, not irrational; and based upon and responsive to, not dismissive of, empirical evidence. Having demolished ruthlessly, and convincingly, the worst expressions of religious prejudice and the literal delusions of wilfully blind faith, he accepts that even if not true, religious belief and practice have as a matter of fact proved both an inspiration to improve human behaviour and a consolation to us in the face of an indifferent universe and the absolute certainty of death. Dawkins is never more persuasive or engaging than when his sincere sense of wonder at the natural world in all its breathtaking diversity emerges. His sometimes irritatingly preening prose and frequently dismissive intellectual arrogance, drops away and a sense of genuine wonder and awe at the natural world his passionate intellect has driven him all his life to try to understand, comes through. Only here do we sense a welcome degree of humility before the enormity of the issues he tries throughout the book to discuss. Better late than never. For me, the inspirational half of this works. But you have to have a pretty robust commitment to an impersonal scientific detachment to derive any real consolation from his austere conception of the world and our place in it.

    This is a timely and important book. It is devastatingly effective in its implacable demolition of the disprovable and disreputable false claims of creationism as against the comprehensively evidenced and rigorously demonstrated truths of Darwinian evolutionary theory. Any open minded reader will be overwhelmingly convinced of one thing: that any seriously credible conception of a supreme being or religious metaphysics must accommodate the truth of Natural Selection not deny it. Dawkins convincingly establishes this as a necessary, if not sufficient condition for a coherent religious conception of human life. Even though he does not himself believe such a coherent conception is tenable. His case against religion is never more convincing or unanswerable than when demolishing creationism as an account of the development of human life. If he is less convincing on the origins of biological life and the beginning or even development of the physical universe it is perhaps because the first is a pre-condition for Darwinian evolutionary theory not an element within it; and cosmology and inorganic science have no definitive counterpart to the process of natural selection to account for the present state of the physical world we inhabit. Dawkins's efforts to construct a Darwinian-like account of the development of the non-biological world raise more questions than they answer.

    If Dawkins reserves his greatest anger and for what he sees as the wilfully harmful irrationality of religious belief, especially as proselytised by religious hierarchies, he also reserves some contempt for equivocating scientists unwilling to be honest in their scepticism about belief and for lacking the courage to admit the truth of their non-religious convictions. To this non-scientist his science sounds rigorous and convincing; his history comprehensively researched; and most of the time his logic soundly thought through. It must be said that his scientific beliefs drive his philosophical judgements and here for me, he is on much shakier ground. It stands in need of justification, but many of his remarks especially about the origins of life and the beginning of the universe are open to similar objections to those he advances against religion.

    A review cannot explore these in detail but first Dawkins shares an endemic problem in science, an inadequate and unjustifiably simplistic reductionist account of language and its relationship to our understanding of ourselves and the universe. This is critical and never better demonstrated by the way the intentionality of language, and the philosophically challenging problem of consciousness and its relationship to human agency, action and will, are glossed and unrecognised. For example: For Dawkins, the world is complex, comprised of immense diversity yet revealing consistent patterns indicative of order. We can agree with his view that this orderly complexity is statistically improbable and stands in need of some form of rational explanation. He argues persuasively that seeing this order as a form of conscious design, therefore standing in need of a supernatural designer, is a false conclusion based upon a fallacious premise. Among the many traditional argument for the existence of God he addresses, his dismissal of the argument from design is convincing. He argues that the gradual accumulative steps of Natural Selection over millions of years are more than adequate to account for the successful adaptation of organic life to survival. This process is sufficient to account for the statistical improbability of the complex order found n the natural world without needing any recourse to a supernatural designer-creator.

    And yet: he admits that Darwinian evolutionary natural selection can account for the development of biological life but not its origination. Philosophically one must ask in what sense is this iterative process of billions of individual minute changes 'selection'? If we track back through from the present state of an organism, through the fossil record we can perhaps see how millions of incremental physical changes brought this creature to this stage in this form. But the sense in which these are correctly described as 'selected' is ambiguous. After all the National lottery machines 'select' or 'pick' or 'choose' a series of balls. At each 'selection' it is this ball not the remaining others that are selected. But it is precisely the intended essence of this selection process that the 'selection' is random, chance, luck. I am not saying that ENS is 'like' selecting lottery balls. But I am saying that we can intelligibly use the notion of a selecting, choosing, picking process that not only is random but is intentionally so. For Dawkins, the statistically improbable orderly complexity of the natural world cannot be generated by randomness, or chance, or luck. The continued survival through adaptive change is what removes the randomness from this process it seems. But Dawkins wants it both ways, this orderliness is not generated by conscious intentional design yet is not random. But any present state of any creature can only be understood as 'adaptive' post hoc. And adaptations can be seen as variably successful. Anyone seeing the recent March of the Penguins documentary would not only laugh out of court the idea that these delightful creatures, though well adapted to withstand extremes of cold are almost perversely ill adapted to successfully hatching their eggs and bringing their offspring safely to maturity. My point on Dawkins's argument is just that it rests on mere existence self-authenticating the notion of selection not its non-randomness.

    Of course if this process were in a sense genuinely random, that would strengthen not weaken Dawkins's argument against the need for a supernatural designer to account for the apparently 'adapted-to-purpose' structure of living creatures. But the use of 'selection' 'adaptation', even 'process' allows Dawkins to import a degree of law-like, rule-governed order to the outcomes that they may not intrinsically possess. I am not sure why he is so adamant in rejecting the notion of chance or luck but certainly the explanatory power of the theory of evolution does depend upon seeing an intelligible connection between millions of individual events i.e. something has to justify the idea that that they are 'incremental' other that the fact that they are sequential. Dawkins talks of the anthropic principle in other contexts but it seems to me the theory of natural selection itself is just as susceptible to this principle as anything else. And as this amounts to the claim that the fact of existence alone of a living organism in a given form proves that this is the only form it could take. This seems to me either tautologous or vacuous. And I am pretty sure that Dawkins would not be comfortable for Darwin's Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection to be either.

    There is a paradox here in that Dawkins wants to deny supernatural design or agency of any kind and indeed any sense of teleology or 'purposiveness' in the process of evolutionary change. But surely the test of the explanatory power and correctness of say DTEBNS Is not how well it can 'account' for the sequential steps leading up to the present state of an organism, but whether it can produce a measurable and provable prediction of how this process will procede from here. DTEBNS appears to be a scientific theory with no predictive powers. And this seems to be born out by trying to apply this fundamental scientific discipline post hoc. One of Dawkins's unconvincing descriptions of NS in action concerns the way that some creatures developed wings. He needs to establish that the millions of tiny incremental changes are connected in some way other than the fact that they were sequential. This connection is supposed to be generated by the fact that these changes are adaptive, that they contribute to enhanced likelihood of survival. His account here is to me most unconvincing - for example he says that e.g. 1% of a wing is better than no wing at all. Well no. Any more than 1% of a parachute is better than no parachute at all. And surely for the 'theory' to be scientific we must imagine circumstances under which, based upon the observed patterns of evolutionary change leading up to the first however tiny 'adaptation', some testable hypothesis of how this organism will develop or adapt must be in principle possible. The connectedness of these minute changes is expressed in words like 'selection' 'adaptation' thus implying a process sufficiently law-like, rule-governed, are insufficient to justify its description as a theory let alone a scientific one.

    At its most fundamental level DTEBNS as Dawkins wants to use, it purports to give an account of why this organism is this way rather than that way. That this is a process in which patterns are created by a process of discrete events connected by their contribution to an outcome - survival. This assumption seems to go beyond the observable facts. The only sense on which this 'process' can be considered to 'beneficial' 'adaptive' rather than the de facto outcome of totally random, chance events, is that we post-hoc create a connection by taking these events as 'leading up to something'. Now nothing very much hangs on this until we reach a definitive point in what we might call the evolutionary process. This is the point at which as we might put it, matter becomes aware of itself. Until that is, the organism displays what we would call consciousness. It is at this point that the notion of agency, instrumentality enters the picture. This the point at which the randomness, chance events of the living world taken on a notion of connectedness. This consciousness will be connected with the development of language. And now we see the point in human development that becomes definitive. Without language we have no sense of consciousness and without consciousness we can attach no sense to the idea of the 'connectedness' of events, even evolutionary ones. The radical consequence of this that undermines Dawkins's 'scientific' account of the world is that he cannot treat the emergence of language as merely another step in the incremental process of ENS because until there was language it made no sense to say events were connected.

    Therefore the interesting question becomes not when was the dawn of 'creation' but when was the dawn of consciousness. This was the point at which matter became 'aware' of itself. This is the definitive point in the evolution of human beings, the point at which we became 'human' and the point at which agency, intervention, emerges. This is a paradigm shift not an incremental one. You cannot be a little bit conscious any more than you can be a little bit pregnant. And once you have become conscious you cannot go back. We can see now how finding some of expression for this process could well have led to the development of the language of God and Gods and the whole mystery of consciousness. This is the deepest mystery of human experience. And talk of 'God' or Gods may be just one of many ways of trying to express the uniqueness of the experience. Thus contrary to the religious from of expression: Man was not made in God's image: God was made in man's image.