Looking through this month’s copy of the Fortean Times, a monthly dedicated to reporting the weird and bizarre, I was particularly struck by two letters to the magazine from readers defending Dawkins from criticisms made by two of the FT’s long-term columnists, Noel Rooney and The Hierophant’s Apprentice, and the columnists’ replies to the letters. What I found particularly remarkable about the comments of Dawkins supporters wasn’t their defence of Dawkins’ attacks on religion, but the fact that they found his views Fortean. The author of one of the letters stated that ‘I consider Dawkins to be most ably informed on the excesses of religion and the myth of belief and to be doing a particularly fortean job in exposing the fallacies of religions, the religious and the religious principle in all its forms’. 1Now there is some similarity between Dawkins’ views on the paranormal and the type of philosophical scepticism adopted and recommended by Charles Fort, the compiler and publisher of weird and scientifically inexplicable facts after whom the Fortean Times is named. Dawkins’ view that if the paranormal exists, then it is ‘perinormal’, that is, it is not totally outside science but will eventually become incorporated into a scientific paradigm when enough evidence is accumulated to allow this, is close to Fort’s own observations that previously damned data – facts ignored or denied by conventional science – may become accepted by science through a change in the scientific paradigm, or the Dominant as Fort himself termed it. Nevertheless, at the risk of slavishly defining Forteanism according to Fort’s own personal philosophy, something that Fort himself did not want and which Noel Rooney in his reply also criticises, there’s a big difference between Dawkins’ scepticism towards the supernatural and Forteanism.
Dawkins own scepticism is very much that of 19th century Positivism, which believed, following the theories of Auguste Comte, that religion and metaphysics had been superseded by science. Indeed the university chair Dawkins holds, that of Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, has a strongly Positivist tone, suggesting that there is a single, absolutely authoritative view of science about which the public must be informed, but must not question. This is not an ‘anti-science’ view. I recall one scientist, who certainly showed Dawkins’ concern for better communication of science, making the same arguments in an opinion article published in the ‘Forum’ column of New Scientist in the 1990s. Fort, on the other hand, while not religious, directed his scepticism very much at science and the claims of scientists who presented as objective fact a view of reality based not so much on evidence as on their own, personal beliefs, in defence of which they excluded and suppressed any scientific data that could not be fitted into it, or which actively appeared to contradict it. Fort’s Book of the Damned begins by stating this very clearly:
‘A procession of the damned.
By the damned, I mean the excluded.
We shall have a procession of data that science has excluded.’ 2
Fort’s scepticism, rather than being Positivist, appears to be closer to that of the ancient Greek Sceptics like Pyrrho and Heraclites. These ancient Greek Sceptics believed that reality was fundamentally unknowable, in that nothing definite could be said about it, and so argued for a complete detachment from belief. 3 The great Sceptical philosophers, Carneades, was notorious for being able to argue both for and against a given position with equal force. While he also considered that reality was fundamentally unknowable, he considered that some impressions were more persuasive than others, and more servicable through closer inspection and corroborating impressions. They were thus more credible, though not more certain. 4 Fort’s view that everything was in a state of intermediacy, and striving to become ‘more nearly real’ while gradually blurring into everything else, was also similar to the view of the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus that everything was in a state of flux, and that nature operated through the union of opposites, stating that ‘Combinations – wholes and not wholes, concurring differing, concordant discordant, from all things one and from one all things’. 5 Fort’s scepticism towards dogmatic science was also shared by the militantly atheist Nietzsche, who also considered reality to be a flux that was only imperfectly caught and described in the net of language, and declared that any view that claimed objective validity was a ‘shadow of God’ that oppressed humanity.
Alhtough they aren’t Sceptics, in many ways the adherents of Intelligent Design have a far more Fortean approach to science than Dawkins. As Intelligent Design, by suggesting that living creatures are the product of an intelligent designer rather than chance Natural Selection, is very much contrary to existing orthodox evolutionary science, its supporters are, like Fort, critical of the claims of scientists to proceed through the dispassionate evaluation of objective evidence. Philip Johnson, one of the leading proponents of Intelligent Design, has supported his arguments in this regard using the views of the physicist and philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend. Feyerabend, like Thomas Kuhn, considered that scientific progress largely consisted of the change of one set of self-consistent scientific concepts with another, only marginally based on the empirical evidence and not really constituting anything like progress in knowledge. 6 Although a controversial view, the history of science does provide examples of the way scientists have acted to suppress facts that do not support their current paradigm, and supporters of Intelligent Design have documented and publicised these incidents. For example, a recent post for the 26th May, ‘Can Science be Unbaised’, at the Intelligent Design site, The Design of Life, by Jane Harris Zsovan noted the intense controversy surrounding the views of Steven Shapin and Simon Shaffer in their book, Leviathan and the Air Pump. Examing the debate about the usefulness of experimental in constructing a true model of the world between Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes, Shapin and Shaffer concluded that scientists were no more objective in their view of the world than other people. In November 2007, Shapin and Shaffer in an edition of the Canadian TV science programme, Ideas, that after their book came out they suffered personal abuse and even threats of sacking from their colleagues, because of their rejection of the claim that science proceeds through complete objectivity. Thus, Denyse O’Leary, another leading supporter of Intelligent Design, has stated on her blog that ID is not the first or even the only scientific debate in which one side has been attacked and declared to be ‘anti-science’ by another.
Now this does not mean that Dawkins’ view of evolution is necessarily incorrect. It just means that in this instance, his view of science is less Fortean than that of the supporters of Intelligent Design, even though they aren’t sceptics like Fort himself. However, I do find interesting the recommendation of one of Dawkins’ defenders in their letter that Dawkins’ successor as Professor for the Public Understanding of Science should be invited to take part in the Fortean Times’ annual Unconvention and debate the motion ‘this house believes that all science undergraduates should be made to read Charles Fort’s The Book of the Damned’. 7 My guess is that they wouldn’t, especially if the similarity between Fort’s views appeared to support the wider philosophy of science expressed by Intelligent Design.
1. Philip Bolt, ‘Dissing Dawkins’, in Fortean Times, no. 237, (2008), p. 74.
2. X, ed., with introduction by Bob Rickard, Charles Fort’s Book of the Damned (London, John Brown Publishing 1995), p. 1.
3. ‘Scepticism’ in J. Speake, ed., A Dictionary of Philosophy (London, Pan Books 1979), p. 314.
4. ‘Scepticism’, in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 314, and ‘Carneades’ in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 56.
5. Aristotle, On the World, 396b7-8, 20-25, cited in Jonathan Barnes, Early Greek Philosophy (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1987), p. 114.
6. ‘Science, Philosophy of’, in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 320.
7. ‘Dissing Dawkins’, Jason Mills, Fortean Times, no. 237, (2008, p. 74.