A response to “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins
The late Francis Crick, who shared the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA, devoted the latter years of his life to the study of consciousness. "You," he wrote, "your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules." (Crick, 1994). His premise was that we are the product of natural forces acting on insensible materials, so it must follow that everything about us can be explained by reference to nature. Crick (who freely acknowledged that he was an atheist) wanted to bring phenomena like self-awareness, free agency and conscious behaviour within the framework of a science that has no place for anything but matter and material forces. This approach brings tensions in the thinking of many, for they regard themselves and other humans as persons, not objects. Understanding persons, acording to this perspective, requires us to consider aspects of human nature that take us beyond science and beyond atheism.
Richard Dawkins has championed atheism for many years, using evolutionary biology as a central part of his argument. He claims that invoking God to explain any aspects of ourselves or the world around us is both irrelevant and unnecessary. According to Dawkins, Darwinism has explained the origin of complexity, so all the traditional “arguments from design” are bankrupt. But if matter is all there is, governed by the laws of physics and chemistry, what becomes of personality, consciousness, morality and free agency? What has Dawkins to say on these issues that are central to our thinking about who we are and what is our place in the world?
In general, Dawkins has avoided these questions. Perhaps the closest he came was when he wrote about the problem of evil and suffering:
The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A.E. Housman put it: `For Nature, heartless, witless Nature Will neither care nor know.' DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music." (Dawkins, 1996, 155)
This bleak portrayal of our activities and involvements as something analogous to Brownian Motion in a deterministic universe is a crude nihilism. Purpose and meaning then has to be our private existential response to materialism. In other words, there is no meaning in anything but what we inject for ourselves.
In Washington DC, at a recent meeting to promote “The God Delusion”, Dawkins was asked a very interesting question relating to himself as a person, as an author, as someone with something to say. The questioner asked if Dawkins thought he was being inconsistent by being a determinist while taking credit for writing his book.
The answer Dawkins gave is that although determinism is his position, he cannot bring himself to live that out in daily life. He described himself as responding “in an emotional way” so that he is prepared to blame people when they act irresponsibly and he gives credit to people where he thinks credit is due. He recognised that this is an inconsistency in his thinking: “But it is an inconsistency that we sort of have to live with otherwise life would be intolerable.”
This is an important acknowledgement that Dawkins’ atheistic materialism creates tensions for us as people. When pressed, he admitted that to live out the full implications of what he is advancing as science would make life intolerable. For the text of the question and the response, please go here. For the audio record of the question and answer (mp3 format, 3m 26s) go here.
It follows from Dawkins’ words about making life “intolerable”, that he does not expect people (or himself) to live out the implications of the “scientific” worldview he is advancing. This effectively means that people have to live a delusion in their private lives whilst holding to a “science” perspective that matter is all there is.
Dawkins’ science is an expression of materialistic philosophy. This version of science was not advanced by the pioneers of science in the 17th Century. Those trailblazers were deeply influenced by the Bible and the Christian faith. Science was the study of God’s creation and it testified to God’s wisdom and infinite power. (These issues are developed in Chapter 2 of “Creation – Chance or Design?”). These early scientists held to the Christian doctrine of providence, and they understood their discovery of scientific laws to lead to a greater understanding of the way God upholds his creation and provides for all his creatures. The next generation of scientists had a much weaker grasp of God’s providence, and natural law was regarded as operating independently of God. Then came the Enlightenment scholars, who pushed God back into being the First Cause (the Creator) and allowed the world to be autonomous. After that, it was not a big jump to dispense with God altogether.
The “mechanisation” of science created many tensions in the minds of the intelligentsia. What was to become of man? What of our consciousness? What of our sense of being free agents? What of our moral code? Man seemed to be a cog in a giant machine, and God (if he existed) was too far off to be of help. Thus was born the Romantic Movement, which set itself the task of recovering our sense of humanity in a mechanistic universe. They failed in this task and turned to despair. For more on this, see Chapter 5 of “Creation – Chance or Design?”
Romanticism did not want man to be a cog in a Cosmic Machine – but how could a place be found where humans could feel at home?
Richard Dawkins finds himself in a very similar position to the Romanticists of the 18th Century. Materialistic determinism reduces mankind to a cog in a giant machine and dehumanises us: something he describes as his "dangerous idea". Materialistic science leads to the destruction of our humanity.
What are Christians to make of all this? How do we respond? Where does the truth lie? We are not those who think mathematics is the essence of truth. We are not starting our building by adopting axioms (like 1 + 1 = 2). Nor do we start with affirmations of our self-existence (“I think, therefore I am”). We are those who start with the eternal Creator God who chooses to reveal himself to man (“I am who I am” – Exodus 3:14). This is the hallmark of Christian philosophy: to start with God who gives substance/meaning/value to all things. For more on this, please see Russell (1992).
For the Christian, this is just the starting point. Man was created in God’s image. We are image bearers. This gives significance and meaning to all those qualities that are regarded as distinctively human. We speak because God speaks. We are creative because God is creative. We have self-awareness because God has self-awareness. The list goes on. Please see Chapter 4 of “Creation – Chance or Design?” for an overview of the eight dimensions of image-bearing.
Most Christians acknowledge God’s sovereignty when they pray. We affirm that he is sovereign in creation, providence and redemption. This implies that Christians also affirm a form of determinism. But we do not endorse biological determinism, nor do we promote physical/chemical determinism. Creation is not limited to material things. The world that God made has spiritual dimensions and, insofar as man is made in God’s image, we also have spiritual dimensions. This is why Christian determinism does not lead to fatalism. This is why Christian determinism does not destroy free agency. This is why phenomena like consciousness, self-awareness, moral sense and aesthetic sense cannot be properly understood by the advocates of materialistic science. They will try, but all, like Francis Crick, will fail.
Who is living a delusion? Not the Christian, who has been brought into the light of God’s truth. Not the Christian, who is able to develop an integrated worldview involving science and the humanities. We do not live in a universe characterised by “no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” Rather, our universe is a rich storehouse of God’s wisdom, speaking continuously of the majest of its Creator. Our world is one where God’s holy nature determines what is good and evil, right and wrong. History testifies to the abiding relevance of moral principles, whether we see righteousness exalting a nation or whether we find ungodliness and godlessness leading to destruction.
There are many delusions in the world. Mankind is particularly susceptible to being deluded. It all started in the Garden of Eden, with the temptation to know as God and to distrust God’s instruction. All delusions are a consequence of rejecting God’s Word – rejecting God’s revealed truth to us. People made religions for themselves, have adopted ideologies that appeal to self, and have pursued many ways independently of God. Richard Dawkins is no exception. His adoption of atheism allows him to develop a worldview that satisfies his intellect, but it is completely inadequate for his heart. He cannot live by his creed, for “otherwise life would be intolerable.”
David J. Tyler.
Crick, F. 1994. "The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul". New York: Scribner.
Dawkins R., 1996. "River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life," London, Phoenix.
Russell, R. 1992. "Biblical foundations for philosophy",
Questioner: Dr. Dawkins thank you for your comments. The thing I have appreciated most about your comments is your consistency in the things I've seen you written. One of the areas that I wanted to ask you about and the places where I think there is an inconsistency and I hoped you would clarify it is that in what I've read you seem to take a position of a strong determinist who says that what we see around us is the product of physical laws playing themselves out but on the other hand it would seem that you would do things like taking credit for writing this book and things like that. But it would seem, and this isn't to be funny, that the consistent position would be that necessarily the authoring of this book from the initial condition of the big bang it was set that this would be the product of what we see today. I would take it that that would be the consistent position but I wanted to know what you thought about that.
Dawkins: The philosophical question of determinism is a very difficult question. It's not one I discuss in this book, indeed in any other book that I've ever talked about. Now an extreme determinist, as the questioner says, might say that everything we do, everything we think, everything that we write, has been determined from the beginning of time in which case the very idea of taking credit for anything doesn't seem to make any sense. Now I don't actually know what I actually think about that, I haven't taken up a position about that, it's not part of my remit to talk about the philosophical issue of determinism. What I do know is that what it feels like to me, and I think to all of us, we don't feel determined. We feel like blaming people for what they do or giving people the credit for what they do. We feel like admiring people for what they do. None of us ever actually as a matter of fact says, "Oh well he couldn't help doing it, he was determined by his molecules.&qot; Maybe we should… I sometimes… Um… You probably remember many of you would have seen Fawlty Towers. The episode where Basil where his car won't start and he gives it fair warning, counts up to three, and then gets out of the car and picks up a tree branch and thrashes it within an edge of his life. Maybe that's what we all ought to... Maybe the way we laugh at Basil Fawlty, we ought to laugh in the same way at people who blame humans. I mean when we punish people for doing the most horrible murders, maybe the attitude we should take is "Oh they were just determined by their molecules." It's stupid to punish them. What we should do is say "This unit has a faulty motherboard which needs to be replaced." I can't bring myself to do that. I actually do respond in an emotional way and I blame people, I give people credit, or I might be more charitable and say this individual who has committed murders or child abuse of whatever it is was really abused in hisown childhood. And so again I might take a …
Questioner: But do you personally see that as an inconsistency in your views?
Dawkins: I sort of do. Yes. But it is an inconsistency that we sort of have to live with otherwise life would be intolerable. But it has nothing to do with my views on religion - it is an entirely separate issue.
Questioner: Thank you.
The “useful fiction of intentional agents”
A link to where Dawkins affirms a determinism that takes away responsibility
“But doesn't a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make nonsense of the very idea of responsibility, whether diminished or not? Any crime, however heinous, is in principle to be blamed on antecedent conditions acting through the accused's physiology, heredity and environment. Don't judicial hearings to decide questions of blame or diminished responsibility make as little sense for a faulty man as for a Fawlty car?
“Why is it that we humans find it almost impossible to accept such conclusions? Why do we vent such visceral hatred on child murderers, or on thuggish vandals, when we should simply regard them as faulty units that need fixing or replacing? Presumably because mental constructs like blame and responsibility, indeed evil and good, are built into our brains by millennia of Darwinian evolution. Assigning blame and responsibility is an aspect of the useful fiction of intentional agents that we construct in our brains as a means of short-cutting a truer analysis of what is going on in the world in which we have to live. My dangerous idea is that we shall eventually grow out of all this and even learn to laugh at it, just as we laugh at Basil Fawlty when he beats his car. But I fear it is unlikely that I shall ever reach that level of enlightenment.”