29 January 2007

None so Blind as Richard Dawkins

While driving this weekend, I tuned into NPR and caught a bit of a program about science and religion. It was biologist Richard Dawkins declaring that the question, "What is the meaning of life?" is no more worthy of an answer than, "Why are unicorns orange?"

I was struck by the realization that debating Richard Dawkins on religion would be like debating a congenitally blind skeptic on the reality of color. Dawkins appears unable to have anything resembling a religious experience, and therefore to doubt that anyone else does. Further, he seems to believe that there is in principle a completely naturalistic (or materialistic) explanation of any such experience.

Well, let's get really scientific about it. As a physicist, I can tell you that there is no such thing as color. There are different wavelengths of light, and specific retinal and neural responses to them. But the experience of color is entirely subjective. It's all in your mind.

Dawkins might object to my analogy because there is a neurophysiological explanation for color perception (but not, I hasten to add for its subjective experience). Yet there are also neurophysiological correlates of religious experience - specifically of Western-style experience of mystical union with God, and of Eastern-style experience of oneness with Everything, as documented in Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. The authors take pains to explain that all experience is "all in your mind," and that the absence of an identified sensory organ does not make that experience any less real. Perhaps the brain itself is the sensory organ of religious experience.

Now Dawkins would argue that if there are neurophysiological correlates of religious experience, then religious experience is entirely neurophysiological - no supernatural ingredients required. But just as I cannot prove that there is a supernatural ingredient, neither can he prove that there is not. The only scientifically tenable position is agnosticism - because if your are an agnostic then you can prove that you do not know whether God exists by the methods of unaided reason.

Dawkins' argument that the supernatural cannot exist is equivalent to the argument that everything that exists can be apprehended by the methods of science. But that is something which science itself has known to be false ever since Goedel's Theorem of 1925, in which Goedel proved that within the confines of any finite, non-trivial, non-contradictory set of axioms, it is possible to construct a statement whose validity can be neither proven nor disproven. Therefore, Dawkins' insistence that any question which cannot be answered by science be declared inadmissible is his attempt to turn his erroneous assumption about the universality of science into a kind of Orwellian NewSpeak in order to make all sensibilities become as stunted as his own.

But I have to admire the Religious conviction with which he pursues his mission to make all nations disciples of his atheism.


Anonymous said...

This is a paraphrase of Alan Watts:

The scientific mind tends to be repulsed by areas of life where logic, definition, and order—that is, "knowledge" in the scientific sense—are inapplicable. When this type of mind is faced with the limits of its own power to succeed, order, and control, it feels it is surely reasonable to turn away and explore just those areas of life which can be ordered—-so that the sense of success, of the mind's own competence, can be maintained.

The contemplation of one's intellectual limitations is, for the pure intellectual, a humiliation. But for the person who is something more than a calculator, what baffles them instills wonder. The other aspect of meeting one's intellectual end is a feeling of liberation which comes from the realization that we need not commit such an immense amount of our effort toward the solution of purely imaginary problems. Some basic nonsense is entirely unavoidable, and the vain attempt to construct a completely self-defining system of thought is a vicious circle of tautology. For example, language can hardly dispense with the word "is," and yet the dictionary can only inform us that "what is" is "what exists," and that "what exists" is "what is."

In all its fullness, this admission is precisely faith— the recognition that one must ultimately "give in" to a life-source, a Self beyond the ego, which lies beyond the definition of thought and the control of action. Belief, in the popular religious sense, falls short of this faith, since its object is a God whose nature is knowable. But to the extent that God can be a known object of definite nature, it is an idol, and belief in such a God is idolatry. Thus in the very act of demolishing the concept of the Absolute as a fact about which meaningful statements can be made, logical philosophy has made its most vital contribution to religious faith-—at the cost of its antithesis: religious belief.

Scooper said...


Wow! Thanks for the Alan Watts paraphrase! I had forgotten how right on he could be sometimes. But what gets me is that both Watts and Dawkins make a presumption about the "scientific" mindset - that is both think that Dawkins has it and typifies it.

However, I'm a scientist who works at a large lab full of other scientists, many of whom are religious, and many of whom are conventionally so - e.g., Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims...

Dawkins' view of the world is profoundly un-scientific, in that it lacks the humility to hold back any final conclusions as to its construction (or map) of reality. I find Dawkins's view to be as dogmatic and inflexible as that of any Fundamentalist.

I think I'll give Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel the last word here:

"Without reason we would not know how to apply the insights of faith to the concrete issues of living. The worship of reason is arrogance and betrays a lack of intelligence. The rejection of reason is cowardice and betrays a lack of faith." — God in Search of Man, 20, 1955

canoelover said...

Dawkins always puts me right to sleep...his rigid epistemology is almost juvenile...totally concrete operational. His inability to experience anything that is not empirically driven leaves him with what I consider to be a bland and tasteless world view...a sort of Quaker Instant Oatmeal existence. Instead of Dawkins (or better but still supercilious, E.O. Wilson), read Wendell Berry. He gets it.

Unknown said...

would it be possible if anyone knows the page numbers for this part on religous experience 'in why god won't go away' for i am doing my courseworek on religous experiences being illusions this particular part gives a very different view to much of what i already have

Scooper said...

Your best bet would be to check it out of the library and read it. You can also find parts of it online.

Anonymous said...

The man does not believe science has the answer for every thing, you find this to be true with a bit more research on him, he is merely stating that using reason is a far better way to understand the universe than just thinking that god did it, and leave it at that. He is not rigid and bland, he believes the world to be beautiful and amazing, and even if the final answer remains not answered, it is better then not trying to find it at all.