Book title: A Devil's Chaplain: selected essays by Richard Dawkins
Author: Richard Dawkins
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Publication Date: 2003

I thought it would be interesting to trawl though A Devil's Chaplain in search of common ground between Richard Dawkins as a naturalistic scientist and myself as a Christian philosopher. In this article I will highlight and then comment upon ten points of agreement with Professor Dawkins:

Truth matters
The law of non-contradiction means that contradictory beliefs, including religious beliefs, cannot both be true
When it comes to religious beliefs, a fair judgement of evidence should trump personal dislikes
People who seek to represent a religious tradition should do their best to ensure that they are appropriately qualified to do so
Nature is beautiful and interesting, and science is a valuable tool for understanding it
Science cannot disprove the existence of God
Science cannot disprove the existence of souls
Science cannot distinguish right from wrong
The theory of evolution assumes that gradualism is true
Genes digitally encode information

As will become apparent, although I am concerned to affirm truth in the writings of Richard Dawkins, these ten points of agreement are sometimes rather trivial - or even reveal flaws within Dawkins' naturalistic worldview. So I will inevitably end up 'damning with faint praise'. But faint praise is better than none.

 

Truth matters

Truth obviously matters a great deal to Richard Dawkins, and this is as it should be: 'if I am asked for a single phrase to characterize my role as Professor of Public Understanding of Science, I think I would choose Advocate for Disinterested Truth' (p. 37). 'The First Noble Truth of theism (and of common sense),' says philosopher Stephen R L Clark, 'is the reality of truth itself.'1 Truth can be defined in words of one syllable: 'If one says of what is that it is, or of what is not that it is not, he speaks the truth; but if one says of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, he does not speak the truth.'2 Truth is the exclusive property of beliefs and propositions that correspond to the facts. Hence, according to Thomas Aquinas, 'truth in the mind . . . isn't determined by how the mind sees things but by how things are: for statements - and the understanding they embody - are called true or false inasmuch as things are or are not so . . .'3 Aquinas pointed out that from the mere acceptance of any truth, from the mere acceptance that there is a fact, flowed an appreciation of the ground rules of logic:

Aquinas . . . says emphatically . . . that something is something. Perhaps it would be best to say very emphatically (with a blow on the table), "There is an Is." That is as much monkish credulity as St Thomas asks of us . . . Aquinas insists very profoundly, but very practically, that there instantly enters, with this idea of affirmation, the idea of contradiction . . . Therefore there has already entered something beyond even the first fact of being; there follows it like its shadow the first fundamental creed or commandment; that a thing cannot be and not be. Henceforth, in common or popular language, there is a false and true. I say in popular language, because Aquinas is nowhere more subtle than in pointing out that being is not strictly the same as truth; seeing truth must mean the appreciation of being by some mind capable of appreciating it . . . In other words, the essence of the Thomist common sense is that two agencies are at work; reality and the recognition of reality; and their meeting is a sort of marriage, because it is fruitful; the only philosophy now in the world that really is fruitful. It produces practical results, precisely because it is the combination of an adventurous mind and a strange fact . . .4

F C Copleston explains that 'Aquinas . . . uses the proposition 'I exist' as an example of a proposition which I know to be true if I enunciate it. And in knowing it to be true I know that I can attain truth.'5 As Thomas wrote, 'the meaning of true consists in a matching of thing and understanding, and matching presupposes diversity, not identity.'6 These first principles (the reality of truth, facts, diversity, logic and knowledge) are, as Peter Kreeft says, 'indubitable. Only hypocrites and mad-men pretend to doubt the Law of Non-contradiction.'7

 

The law of non-contradiction means that contradictory beliefs, including religious beliefs, cannot both be true

Richard Dawkins does not doubt the law of non-contradiction, and he sees that the law of non-contradiction has inescapable implications for religious beliefs: 'it can't be true that different religions claim are right in their own countries, because different religions claim that opposite things are true' (p. 248). As I pointed out in Part Two, metaphysical naturalism claims that there is no supernatural reality, that everything can therefore be explained (at least in principle) naturalistically; and that if something cannot be explained naturalistically (e.g. a miracle), then it cannot be true and believing such a thing must depend upon the dogmatic and blind faith of unfounded religious 'tradition', illegitimate 'authority', or subjective 'revelation'.

Christianity, on the other hand, claims that there are supernatural realities (e.g. God, angels, minds), and that not everything can be explained naturalistically (e.g. miracles), and that if something cannot be explained naturalistically then it might nevertheless be true - whether or not we should believe it depends upon the evidence. Ruling out supernatural explanations a priori, Christians point out, depends upon faith in the philosophical dogma of naturalism. Both views can't be true.

 

When it comes to religious beliefs, a fair judgement of evidence should trump personal dislikes

Richard Dawkins allows that 'if religious beliefs had any evidence going for them, we might have to accept them in spite of their concomitant unpleasantness' (p. 160). I disagree with the premise that all religious beliefs are unpleasant. Indeed, so does Dawkins, since he frequently accuses Christians of believing just because their beliefs are pleasant, 'comforting delusions' (p. 13) when compared to the concomitant unpleasantness of naturalism - 'the daemonic alternative urged by my matured Devil's Chaplain' (p. 13).

Then again, there are serious philosophical reasons for thinking that we might well have to take religious beliefs seriously even if they don't have any evidence going for them. Dawkins incorrectly assumes that the only rational way to form one's beliefs is on the basis of evidence. If that were so, then one could not form any rational beliefs, since the belief that 'the only rational way to form one's beliefs is on the basis of evidence' is not a belief that can be supported by evidence. The exceptionless demand for evidence undermines itself by implying a vicious epistemological regress. These problems aside, Dawkins is surely right to place a higher value on paying attention to evidence than to personal feelings about whether a belief is pleasant or not. And in implying that if a religious belief could produce sufficient evidence in its favour, then he might have to believe it however he felt about the concomitant implications of belief.

 

People who seek to represent a religious tradition should do their best to ensure that they are appropriately qualified to do so

Writing about the appearance of pundits and commentators on television and radio programmes, Dawkins says, 'I don't want to sound uncharitable, but I submit to radio and television producers that merely being a spokesman for a particular 'tradition', 'faith' or 'community' may not be enough. Isn't a certain minimal qualification in the IQ department desirable too?' (p 153). That is to say, just because someone is a bishop does not necessarily mean they are qualified to speak with authority about genetic engineering, or artificial intelligence, or neuro-theology, or whatever. Apologists should 'always be prepared to give an answer [apologia: reasoned defence] to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.' (1 Peter 3:15) That means not only having a good grasp of one's religious tradition, but a good grasp of the issues to which one is seeking to relate that tradition. Apologists must seek to integrate their knowledge into a consistent worldview with no artificial division between the sacred and the secular, between the truths of the faith and the truths of reason. All truth is God's truth.

 

Nature is beautiful and interesting and science is a valuable tool for
understanding it

Richard Dawkins proclaims that 'the real world, properly understood in the scientific way, is deeply beautiful and unfailingly interesting. It's worth putting in some honest effort to understand it properly . . .' (p. 43). While Professor Dawkins and I undoubtedly have rather different opinions about what the proper 'scientific way' to understand nature is, we can at least agree that science is an extremely valuable and useful tool for appreciating the natural world and uncovering its beauty at every level. Of course, we also have rather different ideas about the nature of beauty. I see beauty as an objective feature of reality that reflects the character of God, who is the objective standard of beauty. Dawkins sees beauty as nothing but our subjective appreciation of reality.

 

Science cannot disprove the existence
of God

'Science has no way to disprove the existence of a supreme being (this is strictly true)' (p. 149). I wholeheartedly agree. Natural science is in principle incapable of ruling out supernatural realities. Whatever is discovered by science is logically compatible with the existence of God.

On the other hand, science at least provides data that might form the basis of argument's for God's existence (e.g. arguments from the existence of natural laws, the beginning of the universe, the fine-tuning of the universe, the pre-requisites or process of evolution, the structure of various biological realities in particular, the beauty of nature). Those arguments might even employ a scientific form of argumentation from empirical data to best explanation (cf. the theistic arguments of Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne, or of the Intelligent Design Movement).

 

Science cannot disprove the existence
of souls

'Science cannot tell you whether anybody has a soul . . .' (p. 34). If people might have souls for all science can tell, then people might be more than science can reveal (they might even be made in the image of the God whom science cannot disprove). Whether or not naturalism is true depends upon whether or not there are realities beyond those realities that naturalistic science can detect. To restrict reality to only that which can be detected by naturalistic science, as Dawkins does, is to enforce a naturalistic worldview by an arbitrary, question-begging fiat.

 

Science cannot distinguish right
from wrong

'Science has no methods for deciding what is ethical' (p. 34). Richard Dawkins combines this premise (which I accept) with the self-defeating scientistic premise that the only way to know the truth about reality is through science and evidence (a premise I do not accept), to arrive at the conclusion (which I do not accept) that ethics is a wholly subjective and relative matter. I combine this premise with the premise that there are objective moral values informing how humans ought to behave, to conclude that naturalism is false.

The problem is that because Dawkins recognizes that science 'has no methods for deciding what is ethical,' he is unable to propose any sufficient grounds for deciding what is ethical, because he only recognises the validity of naturalistic and scientifically demonstrable realities. Dawkins is right when he says that scientific Darwinism doesn't justify moral Darwinism:

I can show that from a Darwinian point of view there is more Darwinian advantage to a male in being promiscuous and a female being faithful, without saying that I therefore think human males are justified in being promiscuous and cheating on their wives. There is no logical connection between what is and what ought . . . The Darwinian world is a very nasty place: the weakest go to the wall. There's no pity, no compassion. All those things I abhor, and I will work in my own life in the interests of thoroughly un-Darwinian things like compassion.8

However, the crucial point is that Darwinism provides no grounds for saying that someone who takes the opposite moral point of view is in any absolute sense wrong to do so - either way it's all just a matter of factually unjustified choice:

If somebody used my views to justify a completely self-centred lifestyle, which involved trampling all over other people in any way they chose - roughly what, I suppose, at a sociological level social Darwinists did - I think I would be fairly hard put to it to argue on purely intellectual grounds. I think it would be more: 'This is not a society in which I wish to live. Without having a rational reason for it necessarily, I'm going to do whatever I can to stop you doing this.' . . . I couldn't, ultimately, argue intellectually against somebody who did something I found obnoxious. I think I could finally only say, 'Well, in this society you can't get away with it' and call the police.9

In other words, in the final analysis 'might makes right' and the Darwinian 'law of the jungle' rules. As the relativist philosopher Richard Rorty affirms, 'there is no neutral, common ground to which a philosophical Nazi and I can repair to argue out our differences.'10 The choice between lifestyles, between Nazism and Liberal Democracy, is nothing but a nonrational manifestation of a Neitzschian 'will to power'. Dawkins himself admits, 'I realise this is very weak, and I've said I don't feel equipped to produce moral arguments in the way I feel equipped to produce arguments of a cosmological and biological kind. But I still think it's a separate issue from beliefs in cosmic truths.'11 It is a separate issue in that truths about an amoral reality can never discredit Dawkins' moral choices. But it is not a separate issue in that truths about an amoral reality can never validate them, nor discredit Hitler's moral choice to exterminate the Jews. As Brian Appleyard comments:

scientific man . . . may construct private absolutes of faith and morality, but, in public, he must inhabit a fluid, relative world. So, for example, his moral choices cannot be made by referring to an outside order or system, they can only be his choices. Given that, he will always be aware that there are different choices made by other people. He cannot argue absolutely against these different choices, he can only say that he thinks they are wrong . . . There is only relative right or wrongness; there is no absolute form of either . . . he cannot even tell his children with any conviction that they must believe what he does because it is true. They can simply point out that he is offering them not a fact but just another opinion among countless others.12

 

The theory of evolution assumes that gradualism is true

'The larger the leap through genetic space, the lower is the probability that the resulting change will be viable . . . Adaptive evolution must in general be a crawl though genetic space, not a series of leaps' (p 86). Elsewhere, Richard Dawkins describes this gradualist approach to obtaining biological complexity as 'Climbing Mount Improbable.'13 Improbable because the theory stipulates, as Steven Vogel puts it, that 'nature in effect must transmute a motorcycle into an automobile while providing continuous transportation. The need for growth without loss of function can impose severe geometrical limitations.'14

The late Stephen Jay Gould admitted that, 'our inability, even in our imagination, to construct functional intermediaries in many cases has been a persistent and nagging problem for gradualistic accounts of evolution.'15 Gould also pointed out that, 'the fossil record with its abrupt transitions offers no support for gradual change . . . All palaeontologists know that the fossil record contains precious little in the way of intermediate forms; transitions between major groups are characteristically abrupt.'16

Nevertheless, naturalists like Dawkins and Gould, who assume that evolution must be true because it is the only plausible theory able to fill in the explanatory gap left by the exclusion of intelligent design, have been content to say that even though we have no idea what path organisms took up Mount Improbable, they must have taken some path or other. For example, Dawkins says that 'however daunting the sheer cliffs that the adaptive mountain first presents, graded ramps can be found the other side and the peak eventually scaled' (p. 211-212). How does Dawkins know that these 'graded ramps can be found' in advance of showing what they are and without even looking for them? Because his justification for this assumption is philosophical and not scientific: 'Without stirring from our chair, we can see that it must be so,' (p. 212) explains Dawkins, 'because nothing except gradual accumulation could, in principle, do the job . . .' (p. 212). What job? The job of explaining life naturalistically! Richard Dawkins' conclusion rests upon his philosophical, 'in principle', presupposition that there is no designer (who clearly could do the job of explaining biological complexity).

Absence of evidence for precise histories of how Mount Improbable was supposedly conquered by a series gradual functional and advantageous mutational steps is not necessarily evidence of an absence of such ascents. But the improbability of the hypothesis counts against it for anyone without an a priori commitment to a naturalistic explanations. As William A. Dembski explains:

Darwinism is committed to a sequence of manageable steps that gradually transforms A into B. In consequence, there has to be some sequence . . . where each transition from one step to the next can readily be accounted for in terms of natural selection and random variation. Thus, for instance, in a Darwinian explanation of the bacterial flagellum, we know that bacteria lacking a flagellum (and also lacking any genes coding for a flagellum) had to evolve into bacteria with a flagellum (and thus possessing a novel genetic complement for the flagellum). If Darwinism is correct, some step-by-step Darwinian process had to take us from the former type of bacteria to the latter. So how did it happen? How could it have happened? Nature somehow filled in the details, but Darwinists somehow never do. This is a fault in Darwin's theory, and intelligent design is rightly drawing attention to it.17

In fact, some biologists now think that for a certain class of biological systems the task of climbing 'Mount Improbable' is (to all intents and purposes) the task of climbing Mount Impossible, and that the pervasive absence of evidence for the climbing of 'Mount Improbable' has now been transmuted into evidence of absence:

Climbing Mount Improbable requires taking a slow serpentine route up the backside of the mountain and avoiding precipices. For irreducibly complex systems that have numerous diverse parts and that exhibit the minimal level of complexity needed to retain a minimal level of function, such a gradual ascent up Mount Improbable is no longer possible. The mountain is, as it were, all one big precipice.18

Charles Darwin himself admitted that the existence of a single irreducibly complex system would falsify his evolutionary hypothesis: 'If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.'19 Dawkins asserts that 'not a single case is known to me of a complex organ that could not have been formed by numerous slight [un-guided] modifications. I do not believe that such a case will ever be found.'20 However, following in Darwin's footsteps, he concedes that 'if it is - it'll have to be a really complex organ, and . . . you have to be sophisticated about what you mean by 'slight' - I shall cease to believe in Darwinism.'21 Biologist Michael J Behe of Leigh University argues that the biomolecular level of life, unknown in Darwin's day, is full of 'irreducibly complex' molecular machines:

A system which meets Darwin's criterion [for falsifying his theory] is one which exhibits irreducible complexity . . . An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced gradually by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, since any precursor to an irreducibly complex system is by definition non-functional . . . Now, are any biochemical systems irreducibly complex? Yes, it turns out that many are ;. . . including aspects of protein transport, blood clotting, closed circular DNA, electron transport, the bacterial flagellum, telomeres, photosynthesis, transcription regulation, and much more.22

 

Genes digitally encode information

Dawkins correctly recognizes the informational nature of the genetic code: 'Genes are digital, textual information, and they retain their hard, textual integrity as they change partners down the generations. Chromosomes - long strings of genes - are formally just like long computer tapes' (p. 105). By saying that chromosomes are 'formally just like' computer tapes, Dawkins is highlighting the mathematical correspondence between the digital information stored on a computer tape and in a gene: 'The genetic code is truly digital, in exactly the same sense as computer codes. This is not some vague analogy, it is the literal truth' (p. 28).

However, recognizing the informational nature of DNA undermines a naturalistic and reductionistic view of biology. We know that computer programs come from minds; so should we not conclude that the information encoded by DNA originally came from a mind? 'If . . . computer programs require an intelligent origin, so too does the message in the DNA molecule.'23

Michael Polanyi argued that 'all objects conveying information are irreducible to the terms of physics and chemistry . . . As the arrangement of a printed page is extraneous to the chemistry of the printed page, so is the base sequence in a DNA molecule extraneous to the chemical forces at work in the DNA molecule.'24 Hence, as Dean L Overman concludes, 'If information is independent from these chemicals, the information did not arise from the chemicals; just as a poem written on a blackboard did not arise from the chalk . . . The mathematical probabilities . . . argue against life arising by accident . . . [Therefore] Life appears to be formed only by a guided process with intelligence somehow inserting information or instructions into inert matter.'25

 

Conclusion

I have reviewed ten points of agreement with Professor Dawkins that form a significant common ground between his views as a metaphysical naturalist and my views as a Christian theist, and have shown that even our agreements sometimes hide widely differing assumptions and interpretations of data. As to whose assumptions and interpretations are the most reasonable, I leave you to judge. But as you do so, Richard Dawkins and I would both agree upon the need to bear in mind the importance of truth, logic, science, evidence rather than personal dislike, 'doing one's homework', and the inability of science to disprove immaterial realities such as God, the soul, or objective moral values:

There is a basic agreement upon the importance of truth and of the laws of logic.
We both value the activity of science and scientific discovery, but I demur from Dawkins' assertion that the scientific gathering of evidence is the necessary precondition of rational belief.
We both agree that paying attention to evidence trumps personal feelings about the concomitant pleasantness or unpleasantness of the belief under consideration (be it Christianity or Naturalism); but I think Dawkins tries to have his cake and eat it by arguing that Christianity is both unpleasant and so pleasant that people believe it simply for its pleasantness.
We agree that if a religious tradition could muster sufficient evidence in its favour, and the strength of that evidence were to be appreciated, then even Richard Dawkins would have to accept its truth on pain of being unreasonable, alleged concomitant unpleasantness not withstanding.
We both agree that simply being religious does not qualify someone to speak about the issues of the day, and that apologists should 'do their homework'.
We both agree that science cannot disprove God, or the soul, or justify ethical decisions. We disagree over the existence of God, the soul, and objective moral values.
We agree that naturalistic evolution requires gradualism to be true. But while Dawkins is content to accept gradualism as a deduction from the assumption of naturalism, I prefer to look at the relevant evidence to assess whether it is plausible or not. If it is plausible, that would not disprove God, since 'Science cannot disprove the existence of God.' But if it is not plausible, naturalism is in trouble.
We agree that genes digitally encode information like a computer tape; we disagree about the ultimate source of the information.

 

Recommended Resources

Note that we are not responsible for the content of any external websites nor for their reliability

Michael J. Behe, 'Darwin Under the Microscope'

Michael J. Behe, 'Molecular Machines: Experimental Support for the Design Inference'

James Kelly Clark, 'Without Evidence or Argument - a Defence of Reformed Epistemology'

William A. Dembski, 'Evolution's Logic of Credulity: An Unfettered response to Allen Orr'

Peter van Inwagen, 'Is It Wrong Everywhere, Always, and for Anyone to Believe Anything on Insufficient Evidence?'

Phillip E. Johnson, review of Climbing Mount Improbable

Moreland, J. P., 'Integration and the Christian Scholar'

Alvin Plantinga, 'Theism, Atheism and Rationality'

Alvin Plantinga, 'Intellectual Sophistication and Basic Belief in God'

Alvin Plantinga, 'On Christian Scholarship'

Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001)

Michael J. Behe, William A. Dembski and Stephen C. Meyer, Science and Evidence for Design in the Universe, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2000)

Thomas Dubay, The Evidential Power of Beauty: Science and Theology Meet, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1999)

Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay, (Leicester: IVP, 2000)

Dean L. Overman, A Case Against Accident and Self-Organization, (Rowman & Littlefield, 1997)

Nancy R. Pearcey and Charles B. Thaxton, The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy, (Wheaton Illinois: Crossway Books, 1994)

Del Ratzsch, Science & Its Limits: The Natural Sciences in Christian Perspective, (Leicester: Apollos, 2000)

 

Footnotes

1. Stephen R. L. Clark, God, Religion and Reality, (London: SPCK, 1988), p. 36. [back]

2. Aristotle, quoted by Peter Kreeft, Between Heaven and Hell, (IVP). [back]

3. Aquinas, Questiones Disputatae de Veritate, in Timothy McDermott ed., Aquinas - Selected Philosophical Writings, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 58. [back]

4. G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, p. 198-200 & 221. [back]

5. F.C. Copleston, Aquinas, (Hardmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1957), p. 49. [back]

6. Aquinas, Questiones Disputatae de Veritate, in Timothy McDermott ed., Aquinas - Selected Philosophical Writings, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 58-59. [back]

7. Peter Kreeft, 'When Philosophy and Life are One', p. 27. [back]

8. Richard Dawkins, 'Nick Pollard talks to Dr. Richard Dawkins'. [back]

9. Richard Dawkins, 'Nick Pollard talks to Dr. Richard Dawkins'. [back]

10. Richard Rorty, 'The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy', quoted by Phillip Johnson, Reason in the Balance, p. 121. [back]

11. Richard Dawkins, 'Nick Pollard talks to Dr. Richard Dawkins', Thirdway, April 1995, vol 18, no 3. [back]

12. Bryan Appleyard, Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Man, (London: Picador, 1993), p. 11. [back]

13. Richard Dawkins, Climbing Mount Improbable. [back]

14. Vogel, Steven, Cat's Paws and Catapults, (Penguin, 1998), p. 23. [back]

15. Stephen Jay Gould, 'Is a new and general theory of evolution emerging?', Paleobiology, Vol. 6 (1), January 1980, p. 127. [back]

16. Stephen jay Gould, 'The Return of the Hopeful Monster,' Natural History, June/July 1977, p. 22 & 24. [back]

17. William A. Dembski, 'Evolution's Logic of Credulity: An Unfettered response to Allen Orr' [back]

18. William A. Dembski, No Free Lunch, p. 290. [back]

19. Charles Darwin, Origin of Species, (1872), 6th edition, (New York University Press, 1988), p. 154. [back]

20. Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, p. 91. [back]

21. Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, p. 91. [back]

22. Michael J. Behe, 'Molecular Machines: Experimental Support for the Design Inference' [back]

23. Nancy R. Pearcey and Charles B. Thaxton, The Soul of Science, p. 243. [back]

24. Michael Polanyi, 'Life Transcending Physics and Chemistry', Chemical and Engineering 45, 62, (1967), p. 59. [back]

25. Dean L. Overman, A Case Against Accident and Self-Organization, p. 89 & 101. [back]