Rational Perspectives

Rational Perspectives

Posted by Beast Rabban

Richard Dawkins – Enemy of Reason?

Over the next few weeks, Channel 4 in Britain are screening a two-part series, Enemies of Reason, in which Richard Dawkins puts aside his career attacking religion for the moment to go after ‘astrology, tarot, psychics, homeopathy and other forms of gullibility’. It’s fair to say that the profusion of New Age and occult practices has been a concern of very many people, not just atheists, who are afraid that unscrupulous frauds are exploiting people’s natural desire for contact with the divine and transcendent to enrich themselves. There have been a number of cases in cities like Philadelphia and elsewhere where the city authorities have attempted to prosecute fraudulent and exploitative psychics. However, while Dawkins and his supporters believe that he is qualified, as an exponent of atheistic reason, to do what James Randi and CSICOP have been doing for the past three decades or so, it’s questionable whether Dawkins himself is any less superstitious or unreasonable than the New Age hippies he’s now targetting.

Indeed, if you’re looking for an ‘enemy of reason’, then in very many ways Dawkins himself fits the bill. Here’s why.

 Firstly, Dawkins’ own worldview is philosophically threadbare. It’s a throwback to the Logical Positivists of the 1930s. Adopting a rigidly Naturalistic approach to philosophy, they declared that only empirical science was rational and derided ‘disreputable’ metaphysics. Dawkins’ oft-repeated pronouncements that religion has no object could have come straight from A.J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic. Ayer declared that only language about concrete objects could be meaningful, and so religious language about God was absurd, meaningless. And where Ayer went, Dawkins follows.

However, the very rationality of the universe is problematic for philosophers. The British philosopher, Roger Trigg, in his book, Rationality and Science, points out that the very success of science in explaining the cosmos requires a philosophical explanation that has to be apart and beyond science itself. For theists raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the intelligibility of the cosmos isn’t surprising. The Bible describes God creating the world through His transcendent Wisdom – the Logos, or Word – of the Bible. Sir Francis Bacon, the pioneering theorist of the scientific method, argued that the world was rationally ordered by God’s divine reason. It was intelligible, and so, following the Medieval doctrine of the Two Books, nature could be read by Christians, and would reveal something of the nature of its author.

 Bacon wasn’t alone either, and his views in that regard weren’t revolutionary or even particularly innovative. St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Contra Gentiles has a chapter setting forth the view that ‘the consideration of creatures is useful for instruction of faith’. He recognised that the philosopher and the theologian saw nature in different ways, yet nevertheless stated that knowledge of creatures served to destroy errors concerning God. The rational exploration of the nature of the created world was a product of medieval theology. Indeed, historians of philosophy have noted that by the 14th century, 40 per cent of the medieval university arts syllabus was devoted to questions of natural philosophy. Medieval theologians debating the nature of God used the same Aristotelian logic natural philosophers used when examining nature, and were strongly interested in the way the cosmos operated. The quodlibet debates in which theological scholars argued about the nature of God are permeated with scientific discussions which are actually tangential to the main theological points in question. God Himself was considered to be supremely rational and conceived in the same logical terms. The British astronomer John Barrow, in his book, Theories of Everything, pointed out that if you removed the word ‘God’ from much medieval philosophy and replaced it with ‘mathematics’, the passages would still make sense. As well as being an Age of Faith, some historians and philosophers have argued instead that the Middle Ages were also an age of reason, before that concept was appropriated by the atheist philosophes of the Enlightenment.

Yet Dawkins ignores all this, and simply repeats the tired, and increasingly falsified view of antichristian historians like Draper that the Middle Ages saw the suppression of science, and science and religion are implacable enemies. Yet Dawkins’ scientism is itself unable to explain the rationality of the cosmos.

 Now the Logical Positivists themselves wrestled with that problem, and eventually rejected their narrow focus of empirical science. As Karl Popper realised, to explain the success of science, you had to return to metaphysics. Even A.J. Ayer himself towards the end of his life admitted he was wrong. Yet Dawkins himself carries on taking the intelligibility of the cosmos for granted. When challenged on this point, about science’s need for metaphysics to make sense of science’s very success, Dawkins’ admirers rather than accept the point simply fall back on a flat denial of such a need. Instead of presenting a set of arguments against metaphysics or God, they merely repeat that the existence of God isn’t scientific, and ask rhetorically why you should want to believe in God to move beyond science.

 Now this is irrational. You aren’t supposed to want to seek a deeper explanation. Just accept that the universe is intelligible. Don’t ask why. Just believe science is sufficient to explain everything, even when it needs an explanation for itself.

Then there is the nature of Dawkins’ fervent belief in evolution. Dawkins has stated that even if there were no good evidence for Darwinism, he would still believe in it, as it is to him the best explanation around. This is actually a statement, not of scientific scepticism, but of blind faith. He has admitted that even if the evidence were not good – and supposedly even if the evidence actually contradicted Darwinism – he would still believe it, as it is to him the best explanation. Well, it explains the venom with which he attacked Dr. Mike Behe’s Edge of Evolution in his review, and the paucity of any arguments based on science. Dawkins’ attitude to Darwinism is one based on faith, not sceptical reason, which could lead to its rejection.

The point becomes clearer when you find out how he claims he turned to Darwinism. He was, he said, raised as an Anglican (Episcopalian) Christian. Then when he hit his early teens and started to find out about the other religions in the world, he started having doubts. He was then a pantheist for a little while, before reading Darwin when he was 15. It was this experience which led to him to reject theism when he ‘really understood Darwin’. Thus, he believed in Darwin as a solution a metaphysical crisis of religious worldview, rather than as a simple scientific hypothesis.

And it could be argued that Dawkins’ own conception of evolution is essentially superstitious. It’s a religious abuse, a substitute for God, an idol, rather than a rational worldview. I’ll explain why.

 For theists who accept evolution, Natural Selection is merely the process by which God creates the wonderful profusion of creatures that populate our splendid, beautiful world. Only God creates. But for Naturalists like E.O. Wilson, who admitted wishing to set up a religion of evolution, and indeed Dawkins, evolution becomes a kind of God-substitute as Creation itself. One can draw a comparison between this view and the ancient Israelites’ explanation for the rise of Paganism among the peoples around them. There’s one passage in the Apocrypha where the origins of paganism is considered to be due to pagans seeing the order of the stars and their movements, and natural processes elsewhere on the Earth, and seeing them as gods in themselves, rather than God’s creation. Dawkins and Wilson effectively do the same, mistaking the ordered process of creation in evolution with notions of transcendence. In doing so, they’ve created an idol. And as the British philosopher Mary Midgeley amply demonstrates in her book, Evolution as a Religion, the language in which evolutionary scientists like Dawkins, Wilson, Jacques Monod, Theodosius Dobzhansky and co is absolutely saturated with religious motifs and assumptions.

 Dawkins himself makes no secret about the intensely mystical feelings he has when contemplating the cosmos, though he strongly denies that these are in any way ‘religious’. In answer to a question from the audience in 1997 when he appeared at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature promoting his boo

4 Responses to “Rational Perspectives”

  1. JOR Says:

    I obviously disagree with your theological views, but I mostly agree with you here about the philosophical incompetence, not just of Dawkins but of the whole crowd of ‘Brights’. I think a good case could be made that gross fideism and their kind of anti-intellectual empiricism are two sides of the same coin, i.e. they’re in agreement about something erroneous, but draw different conclusions from their errors.

  2. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Jor. It’s great to have you over here reading this! I’m glad you also partly agree on my comments on Dawkins and the Brights.

    I do think you’re right to make the comparison between fideism and the Brights’ empiricism – Dawkins’ philosophical views seem to me to be so naive and unexamined that his position is a kind of fideism itself, though the credo is materialist, rather than transcendental.

  3. JOR Says:

    Well, having seen how people with scientistic views react to philosophical reasoning, I think you’re right that it amounts to a kind of fideism, or at least something closely analagous.

  4. beastrabban Says:

    Yeah, I’ve come across the same observation on another Christian website, though it was made by a Spanish materialist rather than a theist. He was remarking on how shockingly poor the philosophy being touted by Dawkins and co. actually was. His comment was that British philosophy was in serious trouble if Dawkins was the best we could offer.

    Of course, Dawkins ain’t. He’s just the loudest voice pronouncing on a philosophical issue. I have to say, however, that this does seem to betray a weakness in British culture. In the UK and the other Anglo-Saxon nations philosophy does seem to have a far lower status than it does in Continental Europe. I’ve seen it remarked that empirical science in British culture has the status that’s accorded philosophy on the Continent as the supposed preferred method for discovering truth. Hence the scientism of people like Dawkins. My guess is that in Britain at least we could probably learn something from the Continent and give philosophy a bit more respect. It would certainly raise the standards of intellectual debate.

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