Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Richard Dawkins as Theologian

When I read Richard Dawkins's works I am appreciative of his knowledge about the various aspects of modern day biology, as well as his ability to write coherently in the English language.

The problem I have with Dr. Dawkins is not that he takes his scientia too seriously, however, but rather that he does not seem to take it seriously enough.

One of the signs of a clear thinker is that he knows the limits of what he knows. Dr. Dawkins does rather well in this regard when he is explaining various topics regarding the biology of "Darwinism" as he prefers to call what others call the scientific theory of evolution. However, what I found missing in one of his well known works, The Blind Watchmaker, is any kind of definition of the concept of "life", which would help to clarify better the subject matter of biology, and hence the limits within which biologists can engage in proper scientific reasoning. Every science takes its subject-matter for granted or as given: there is nothing controversial about that. But if one does not have some definition of that subject-matter in mind, how does a scientist know where his subject-matter ends? How does he limit his attention to that subject-matter? Which is another way of asking how does he know he has not strayed from his subject-matter?

It is no secret that Dr. Dawkins is an atheist. One of his more recent works, which I have not yet read, is The God Delusion. No sane person would acknowledge the existence of, or believe in, a delusion, which justifies my labelling Dawkins as an atheist.

And yet, Dr. Dawkins appears to have a view of what God would be, were he to exist. As he writes toward the conclusion of The Blind Watchmaker, "if we want to postulate a deity capable of engineering all the organized complexity in the world, either instantaneously or by guiding evolution, that deity must already have been vastly more complex in the first place" (p. 316, emphasis added).

It is worthwhile thinking about the logic behind that assertion.

The first thing missing, however, is a definition of "life" that would somehow give us a key to the relationship between it and complexity, or organized complexity. Is there any biological principle that would warrant this assertion? If biology does not have God for its subject-matter, i.e., if "God" forms no part of what biology studies, on what biological basis can any objection to that "delusion" be made? If it is not within the province of biology to verify that God can exist, can it be within its province, or competence, to assert that he cannot?

Elsewhere in the same book, Dr. Dawkins indulges in this same kind of excess (i.e., exceeding the limits of his subject-matter) when he does define what "we" mean by "miracle". Apparently, what he means by miracle is "coincidence".

In the index of The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins lists three references to the concept "miracle". Here they are, in page order:
Chance, luck, coincidence, miracle. One of the main topics of this chapter [chapter 6] is miracles and what we mean by them. My thesis will be that events that we commonly call miracles are not supernatural, but are part of a spectrum of more-or-less improbable natural events. A miracle, in other words, if it occurs at all, is a tremendous stroke of luck. Events don't fall neatly into natural events versus miracles. (p. 139)
So, what do we mean by a miracle? A miracle is something that happens, but which is exceedingly surprising. (p. 159)
It is the contention of the Darwinian world-view that both these provisos are met, and that slow, gradual, cumulative natural selection is the ultimate explanation for our existence. If there are [other versions which admit exceptions in particular cases] ... they cannot be the whole truth, for they deny the very heart of the evolution theory, which gives it the power to dissolve astronomical improbabilities and explain prodigies of apparent miracle. (p. 318, and the last sentence in the book).
And, in various places, Dawkins asserts that miracles are "coincidences".

Again, we find an exceeding of the subject-matter. Dawkins uses the term "supernatural". What does that mean to a Darwinist, or, more pertinently, what does it mean to Richard Dawkins? In realist philosophy based on Christian doctrine (such as that of Thomas Aquinas), "supernatural" has a meaning and a definition, and it is different from the meanings of "natural" and "praeternatural". Non of those definitions has anything to do with ghosts, phantoms, or faeries at the bottom of one's garden. What does "supernatural" mean in the context of biology?

The only thing that is logically consistent here is this. If "God" is nothing but a delusion of the human mind, then "miracles wrought by God" cannot exist either.

As I see what I'll call Dr. Dawkins's problem here is a lack of any true depth in his concept of being or existence. In reality (i.e., in what exists) there are both actual beings, as they are studied by the sciences, and there are potential beings. The latter are no less important than the former, and a realist philosophy gives (temporal) priority to potency (potentia) over act (actus). This was probably the critical insight of Aristotle, regardless of whether one views Aristotle as a theist or an atheist.

Aristotle's definition of "change" was "the act of what is in potency in so far as it is in potency". What does that mean in English? It means that change is the actuality (whether qualitative or quantitative) which occurs to something in the process of becoming something else.

Evolution describes a natural process, and the evolution of "species" can be described generally using the Aristotelian definition of change. So we can see from that a good illustration of the truth of Aristotle's philosophical/scientific definition. Evolution describes the change by which one species becomes another species. What existed only potentially, now exists actually in a transition from potency to act. I think that permits us to say that evolution in the scientific sense describes a natural process.

The curious thing is that these philosophical principles were highly developed during the Middle Ages, and have survived down to our times, and yet, no mention is made of them by Dr. Dawkins.

[Cf. Anthony Flew review of The God Delusion.]

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