Debate Magazine

Ungodly Science: Dawkins

By Cris

Since we are on the subject of John Gray, let’s look at his most recent review: a withering attack on arch-atheist Richard Dawkins. The occasion for this lambasting, which assumes the form of a book review, is Dawkins’ self-important and yawn-inducing autobiography, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist. So it’s not like Dawkins wasn’t asking for it, but I can’t help but wonder whether the review (“The Closed Mind of Richard Dawkins”) is entirely fair. Though I am ignorant of such matters, I sense of sub-current of sneering British politics or classicism running throughout the review. Some fairness might have been achieved had Gray observed that there are three incarnations of Richard Dawkins and each deserves to be evaluated independently. By treating Dawkins as a seamless and ungodly whole, the good gets swamped by the bad and we lose valuable context.

The first Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and science writer. This Dawkins has performed many valuable services, even if the particulars of his selfish-gene case are the subject of major scientific dispute. Disputes are the stuff of science and the ensuing debates over genes, purpose, and selection has been healthy. And popular science books like The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution are just splendid, indeed masterful. It would be churlish not to acknowledge and applaud these contributions to the larger culture.

The second Dawkins is the scourge of creationists and religious fundamentalists of all stripes. I don’t have a problem with this Dawkins, though I doubt he has persuaded fervent believers of the errors of their ways. To the surely limited extent that books like The God Delusion have converted any of them, then more power to Dawkins. In religiously bizarre places like the United States, where 150 million people are creationists, someone has to get down in the cultural gutter for these kinds of fights. But those who do so run a risk: combat with zealots can lead to zealotry. As Nietzsche once observed in a different context, those who stare long into the abyss should be wary of the abyss staring back. Confrontations with creationists may have similar effects.

This brings us to the third Dawkins, the one with whom I do have a problem. We can get a sense for this Dawkins, overweened on science, in books like The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True. What’s really true – or the nature and structure of “reality” – is a difficult philosophical problem and ongoing scientific question. While some skepticism and modesty is surely in order when it comes to questions like this, Dawkins has no doubts. And it is on this issue that Gray, who is also an atheist, blasts Dawkins:

[I]t is Dawkins’s identification with Darwin that is most incongruous. No two minds could be less alike than those of the great nineteenth-century scientist and the latter-day evangelist for atheism. Hesitant, doubtful, and often painfully perplexed, Darwin understood science as an empirical investigation in which truth is never self-evident and theories are always provisional. If science, for Darwin, was a method of inquiry that enabled him to edge tentatively and humbly toward the truth, for Dawkins, science is an unquestioned view of the world. The Victorians are often mocked for their supposed certainties, when in fact many of them (Darwin not least) were beset by anxieties and uncertainties. Dawkins, by contrast, seems never to doubt for a moment the capacity of the human mind—his own, at any rate—to resolve questions that previous generations have found insoluble.

For all his fervent enthusiasm for science, Dawkins shows very little interest in asking what scientific knowledge is or how it comes to be possible. There are many philosophies of science. Among them is empiricism, which maintains that scientific knowledge extends only so far as observation and experiment can reach; realism, which holds that science can give an account of parts of the world that can never be observed; irrealism, according to which there is no one truth of things to which scientific theories approximate; and pragmatism, which views science theories as useful tools for organizing and controlling experience. If he is aware of these divergent philosophies, Dawkins never discusses them. His attitude to science is that of a practitioner who does not need to bother with philosophical questions.

It is worth noting, therefore, that it is not as a practicing scientist that Dawkins has produced his assaults against religion. As he makes clear in this memoir, he gave up active research in the 1970s when he left his crickets behind and began to write The Selfish Gene. Ever since, he has written as an ideologue of scientism, the positivistic creed according to which science is the only source of knowledge and the key to human liberation. He writes well—fluently, vividly, and at times with considerable power. But the ideas and the arguments that he presents are in no sense novel or original, and he seems unaware of the critiques of positivism that appeared in its Victorian heyday.

[Evangelical Atheism] testifies to how shallow, crass, and degraded the debate has become since Victorian times. Unlike most of those who debated then, Dawkins knows practically nothing of the philosophy of science, still less about theology or the history of religion. From his point of view, he has no need to know. He can deduce everything he wants to say from first principles. Religion is a type of supernatural belief, which is irrational, and we will all be better off without it: for all its paraphernalia of evolution and memes, this is the sum total of Dawkins’s argument for atheism.

This is admittedly harsh, perhaps even intemperate, but it rings true. John Gray, for his part, is not without his foibles, particularly when it comes to the fraught subject of “religion.” While I find much that is valuable in Gray, particularly a healthy skepticism toward blind-secular faith in progress, we can and should interrogate him on these matters. But those are posts for another day, when I complete the series on Progress.


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