Tuesday, December 05, 2006


“Sublimely non-tendentious,” that’s the phrase I’ve always attributed to Alfred North Whitehead—a man who began his career as a Cambridge mathematician collaborating with Bertrand Russell and ended that career as a Harvard philosopher and metaphysician. Two things you can count on when reading Whitehead. First, he will look at the big picture. Second, he will generously give to all historical players the credit due to them. I make these points to contrast Whitehead’s modus operandi with the scattershot pettiness that pervades Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion.

Here’s a sample taken from Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World—a stunningly insightful text based on the Lowell Lectures of 1925: “The Reformation and the scientific movement were two aspects of the [historical] revolt which was the dominant intellectual movement of the later Renaissance. The appeal to the origins of Christianity, and Francis Bacon’s appeal to efficient causes as against final causes, were two sides of one movement of thought.”

And again: “I do not think…that I have even yet brought out the greatest contribution of medievalism to the formation of the scientific movement. I mean the inexpugnable belief that every detailed occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents in a perfectly definite manner, exemplifying general principles. Without this belief the incredible labours of scientists would be without hope…. My explanation is that the faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivation from medieval theology.”

To simplify, both the Reformation and modern science arose out of a “movement of thought” that, in the case of science, rebelled against final causes. Yet, ironically, the confidence that modern science displays in its intellectual project rests upon an unconscious faith in the universe’s detailed rationality that was derived from medieval theology.

Don’t look for anything like this kind of subtle analysis in The God Delusion. What you’ll find, instead, is page after sarcastic page of attacks against any foe Dawkins considers an easy target: Pat Robertson, Pastor Ted Haggard, Ann Coulter, a small fundamentalist school in Northeast England (to which 7 of Dawkins’ 374 pages are devoted), Pastor Fred “God Hates Fags” Phelps, Dr. James Dobson, and, of course, G. W. Bush—who supposedly invaded Iraq because he was told to do so by God. Even poor Carl Jung is made into a kook by Dawkins for believing “that particular books on his shelf spontaneously exploded.” (I’ve read a number of works written by Freud’s unfaithful protégé and have yet to encounter the concept of spontaneous book combustion. Dawkins, however, as with the comment about President Bush and Iraq, doesn’t bother to provide references for these claims.)

When it comes to magnanimity, here’s a sample of the author’s generosity: “To be fair, much of the Bible is not systematically evil but just plain weird.” This comment shows the contempt Dawkins consistently displays for ideas that don’t conform to his own—a bio-creed that includes the following affirmations: life emerged on earth due to random interactions of material elements; life evolved from its primitive forms to its current complexity because of natural selection; no god is needed to make sense of these (or any other) phenomena.

In truth, Dawkins’ entire book is an exercise in contempt—summarily dismissing Thomas Aquinas’ theological arguments and devoting less than 100 breezy pages to the whole issue of God’s existence. The rest of Dawkins’ book discusses—with the jaundiced eye of an H. L. Mencken in biological drag—how religious beliefs are given undue social deference, why Einstein’s references to God aren’t religious, why eastern religions aren’t religions, why religion developed (socio-biologically), how the Bible is a jumble of historical trash, how religion promotes intolerance and undermines science, how Hitler may have been Catholic, why Stalin’s atheism doesn’t matter, why society doesn’t need religion to be moral, why Jefferson was probably an atheist (the non-mentioned God-statements on the Jefferson Memorial to the contrary notwithstanding), why studying religion to understand literary references is ok, and why parents indoctrinating their children with religious beliefs should be viewed as child abuse. (The depth of Dawkins’ political thought is shown by his failure to ponder for one second the implica­tions of a government that can tell parents what beliefs they can and cannot transmit to their offspring.)

Far from being a serious philosophical book, this ill-edited and garrulous diatribe contains just about anything that crosses the author’s mind—including numerous quotes from that popular author, atheist, and graduate student, Sam Harris. What one won’t find in The God Delusion is serious curiosity about the essential nature of the universe. The billions upon billions of stars and galaxies that Carl Sagan invoked with semi-mystical awe, become, for Dawkins, a mere premise for his theoretical conceit that random interactions could have produced the phenomenon of life on earth. (With so many planets, it had to have happened somewhere!) Never mind the fact that scientists endowed with that mysterious chemical characteristic known as consciousness can’t, with purposeful intent, replicate that vital accident. And never mind that scientists like DNA-theorist Francis Crick were so baffled by the complexity of early life forms that they toyed with a panspermia hypothesis according to which space aliens brought life-seeds to earth. And finally, never mind the embarrassing fossil-record confession by the late Harvard biologist, Stephen Jay Gould, that “most species exhibit no directional change during their tenure on earth” and that in any local area, “a species does not arise gradually by the steady transformation of its ancestors; it appears all at once and ‘fully formed.’”

Dawkins’ treatment of that mathematical genius and 17th century philosopher, Blaise Pascal, is typical of his general approach. Dawkins seizes on Pascal’s weakest argument, the wager, and ridicules its obvious flaws. Ignored are the well-known passages that ground Pascal’s (oft-wavering) faith in the inadequacy of the human mind to deal with the enormity of the universe—both the infinitely large and the infinitely small. In Pascal’s words, “The whole visible world is only an imperceptible atom in the ample bosom of nature. No idea approaches it. We may enlarge our conceptions beyond all imaginable space; we only produce atoms in comparison with the reality of things. It is an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere. In short, it is the greatest sensible mark of the almighty power of God that imagination loses itself in that thought.”

Had Dawkins bothered to cite this assertion, he would doubtless have countered it with replies that recur throughout his book. First, the awe that Pascal discusses has nothing to do with religion. Rather, it’s the kind of atheistic wonder that’s typical in scientists like Einstein. Second, this “God of the gaps” argument simply fills in the blanks of our ignorance with a destructive, curiosity-impeding concept. Third—and this is Dawkins’ favorite argument—the complexity of a God who created the world requires explanation. Put simply: Who made God?

Worshipful humility in the face of mind-boggling (possibly parallel) universes is an emotion foreign to Dawkins—though the academic pugilist does admit to feeling very lucky. As for the “Who made God?” argument, this retort (convincing to any skeptical freshman who hasn’t read Aristotle or Kant) ignores the fact that philosophical explanations, as Wittgenstein and others have noted, have to end somewhere. The real question is whether one’s explanation terminates with a meaningless cosmos or with a being who provides a reason for things. Dawkins, without further ado, assumes that the former alternative is the only rational choice. In this way he gives tacit expression to the point of view that Whitehead criticized some 80 years ago:

“There persists…throughout the whole [modern] period the fixed scientific cosmology which presupposes the ultimate fact of an irreducible brute matter, or material, spread throughout space in a flux of configurations. It itself, such a material is senseless, valueless, purposeless. It just does what it does do, following a fixed routine imposed by external relations which do not spring from the nature of its being. It is this assumption that I call ‘scientific materialism.’ Also, it is an assumption which I shall challenge as being entirely unsuited to the scientific situation at which we have now arrived.”

Whitehead continues, displaying the non-tendentiousness to which I previously referred, “It [scientific materialism] is not wrong, if properly construed. If we confine ourselves to certain types of facts, abstracted from the complete circumstances in which they occur, the materialistic assumption expresses these facts to perfection. But when we pass beyond the abstraction, either by more subtle employment of our senses, or by the request for meanings and for coherence of thoughts, the scheme breaks down at once.”

In other words, once we look for a rational ground for complex development, self-consciousness, aesthetics, morality, and the universe itself, Dawkins’ brute facts (which in the world of quantum physics are neither brutish nor facts) look extremely lame. This lameness, I should add, comports nicely with the pleasure-based ethical system to which Dawkins appeals with no particular rigor.

Overall, Dawkins’ “philosophy” amounts to little more than this unintentionally humorous observation by Dr. Edward Tryon that was quoted in a Time-Life book on cosmology, “Our universe is simply one of those things that happens from time to time.” That’s reason according to Dawkins—a man whose cultural and philosophical observations are predictably au courant, consistently dogmatic, and largely unreflective. He is the un-Whitehead, a man who will never (barring divine intervention) appreciate this sublime comment by my philosophical mentor: “In the study of ideas, it is necessary to remember that insistence on hard-headed clarity issues from sentimental feeling, as it were a mist, cloaking the perplexities of fact. Insistence on clarity at all costs is based on sheer superstition as to the mode in which human intelligence functions. Our reasonings grasp at straws for premises and float on gossamers for deductions.”


G.Rap said...

Thank you for this pointed critique of the prejudiced, polemical, angry, and reductive Dawkins. Your discussion brings together the points that have needed to be made about all Dawkins' attacks on faith in his prejudiced, polemical, angry, and reductive evolutionary-biology books. He cannot get over the idea that religion is nothing more than a bad way of explaining "facts" we now know better how to "explain." And he cannot seem to understand how much his own thinking, as you point out, is founded, like that of Descartes, on a supreme act of faith--in his own intellect! You have helped move the writing of Dawkins a good bit closer to that spot prepared for it on the dustheap of history. Thank you. (I'm going to link this on my blog too.)

maurile said...

I have not read The God Delusion and so have no comments the review. (I thought Mr. Kirk's review of Freakonomics -- a book I enjoyed very much -- was quite good and quite fair, by the way.) But I do want to respond to G.Rap's comment that Dawkins' books on evolutionary biology -- The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, River Out of Eden, and so on -- are "prejudiced, polemical, angry." They are not.

Dawkins may be a second-rate philosopher; but when he sticks to evolutionary biology, he's the nuts.

(By the way, a big Hi to both of you. I haven't talked to you in a while.)

Grayman said...

Your review might carry more weight if you pointed out any actual errors you think Professor Dawkins has made. As it stands, you've taken an awful lot of words to say "I don't like it!".

Tin Foil Hat Guy said...

I thought your review of Dawkins book was spot on.

But, I do believe that Dawkins' writings present a good case for evolution... for example
A group of random letters formed together to make a few words and an occassional sentence, although the "form of letters" do not seem to have reason or purpose...

See what I mean?


Anonymous said...

"The real question is whether one's explanation terminates with a meaningless cosmos or with a being who provides a reason for things."
Do you have scientific evidence for your choice? Or is this request an "insistence for hard-headed clarity"?

RKirk said...

An insistence on "hard-headed clarity" doesn't mean asking for evidence, it means insisting that answers conform to simple criteria--in Dawkins' case to a set of criteria compatible (or thought to be compatible, e.g. memes) with his own discipline. In the case of Descartes the insistence that ultimate truths be "clear and distinct"--like mathematical propositions. What modern physics has been exploring is the very unclear and undistinct nature of a very un-Cartesian universe.

For Dawkins things should begin in simplicity and move to more complex shape by virtue of the random movement of materials, directed by natural selection. Of course, natural selection doesn't apply to pre-biological life--except as modified by the all-purpose declaration that what survives has been "selected" naturally--a declaration that is indistinguishable from "whatever is, is."

The evidence that something more than random movement and natural selection is at work in the cosmos is the existence and progressive development of exceedingly complex entities in conjunction with a fossil record that, as Gould confesses, presents a pattern of overwhelming stasis. Development according to Dawkins' dogma wouldn't leave a "footprint" like the one we have. And the initial development of life (as Francis Crick's panspermia ideas suggest) is rationally implausible under the random movement theory.

All biological entities have a rational foundation (DNA) that directs their development. It makes more sense to suggest that the cosmos generally has something like a rational foundation than to suggest that the cosmos itself is "just one of those things."

Philosophically, Dawkins' assumption about the fundamental nature of the universe dispenses with rational analysis by arbitrarily putting meaningless in the metaphysical saddle. If that assumption had been present throughout history, there would be no science asking about efficient causes in a world devoid of final causes. (That's the significance of Whitehead's discussion of medieval 'rationalism' and the rise of modern science.)

I suggest you get a copy of Whitehead's book, SCIENCE AND THE MODERN WORLD, and consider what he is saying. It isn't easy reading, I admit, but it is top-notch philosophy and philosophy of science.

James Minges Deal said...

I'm so glad that I stumbled across this review.

I was growing tired of my fellow students' worshiping Dawkins like some sort of intellectual demi-god, when he's really just a bitter scientist with an axe to grind.

Unfortunately, people my age aren't exposed enough to rational voices like yours.

Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

"Your review might carry more weight if you pointed out any actual errors you think Professor Dawkins has made."

Here's the first factual error I found. On page 43, Dawkins claims that John Adams said, "This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!" This is inaccurate and misleading. What Adams actually wrote is:

"Twenty times, in the course of my late reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, 'This would be the best of all possible Worlds, if there were no Religion in it,' !!! But in this exclamati[on] I should have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly [a minister and a schoolteacher, respectively, both mentioned earlier in the letter]. Without Religion, this World would be Something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean Hell."

(John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, April 19th, 1817. The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams, edited by Lester J. Cappon, 1987, the University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, p. 509.)

In other words, Dawkins quotes Adams out of context, which is ironic, considering that Dawkins, in his Preface, petulantly whines that his statements are often taken out of context (page 5).

Some would call this blatant hypocrisy.

Johnny-Dee said...

This is very good. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Pathetic response to Dawkins. Lack of reason, lack of focus, lack of respect for the context in which the book is set. Today's fundimentalist makes all those arguments you pretend don't exist because you don't make them. I hear them do it repeatedly and they need to be answered by those of us who do understand science.

I'm sorry you don't like someone standing up to the political correctness of the day. Belief and faith is not good and Dawkins is just pointing out why.

RKirk said...

Anonymous said, "Today's fundimentalist makes all those arguments you pretend don't exist because you don't make them. I hear them do it repeatedly and they need to be answered by those of us who do understand science."

The first sentence deconstructs itself and misspells "fundamentalist." Given that record, I have my doubts about the author's presumed scientific credentials: "those of us who do understand science." Maybe he (or she) should start with spelling and grammar!

Anonymous said...

The first sentence deconstructs itself and misspells "fundamentalist." Given that record, I have my doubts about the author's presumed scientific credentials: "those of us who do understand science." Maybe he (or she) should start with spelling and grammar!

This is the funniest thing I've seen in a long time! ROFLOL

Craig Ewert said...

Comparing Whitehead to Dawkins isn't quite kosher. Whitehead was a philosopher; Dawkins is a polemicist (in this context). His book is a polemic. Witness his targets: "Pat Robertson, Pastor Ted Haggard, Ann Coulter, ... Pastor Fred 'God Hates Fags' Phelps, Dr. James Dobson, and, of course, G. W. Bush". These people aren't philosophical heavyweights, but they are important within modern American culture and politics.

Secondarily, when you say "...life emerged on earth due to random interactions of material elements." you are repeating a common distortion of modern scientific understanding. The major point of biology, chemistry, and physics is that the interactions of matter isn't (entirely) random. It follows the physical laws scientists have laboriously discovered come to understand over these past several centuries.

RKirk said...

I think a thoughtful philosopher who began his career as a mathematician and had special competence in the philosophy of science is the perfect person to criticize an ego-inflated biologist who presumes to address philosophical questions about which he has little competence. (Of course, most folks have little competence in this area; so they usually don't notice this intellectual deficiency on Dawkins' part. Instead, they assume, as is common, that anyone who has expertise in a scientific discipline, is also an expert in other intellectual matters.)

Secondly, the concept of randomness functions within the context of the laws of nature. It doesn't imply, as you seem to assume, a chaotic world devoid of natural laws. Whitehead certainly understood this. Karl Popper, I think, wrote an article in which he noted that "randomness is a form of order."

You seem to imply in your comment that there is some natural proclivity (based on the "laws of nature") to produce life--which there may be. But that idea is certainly NOT embraced by evolutionary biologists and Darwinists who like to boast, with cynical pride, that nature is "non-teleological." If that is the case, then the odds against emergent life (calculated at infinitely unlikely by Hoyle et al.)come into play. If there is a natural proclivity to produce life, then one must ask the philosophical question about the nature and essence of a universe so constituted as to produce the complexity we observe. This, indeed, is the perspective of Aristotle, who, without any religious presuppositions, grounds his metaphysics in the concept of god.

The non-teleological, non-theological philosophical position of Dawkins is rightly summed up by Dr. Edward Tryon, that the universe is "one of those things that happen from time to time"--a completely arational response.

I think you are assuming that the existence of "laws of nature" precludes the idea that those laws can act upon "matter" in random fashion. This isn't so. As Whitehead says, under the materialistic cosmology "brute matter...just does what it does do, following a fixed routine imposed by external relations which do not spring from the nature of its being." "In itself such a material is senseless, valueless, purposeless." The central phrase here is "external relations which do not spring from the nature of its being."

Natural laws are the context for the random movement of matter in space. The laws themselves, divorced from a broader philosophy--or ignorantly magnified into a total philosophy--are valueless and purposeless.