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Restoring a Sense of Mystery  to Science

Reflections on "Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder" by Richard Dawkins, Richard Dimbleby Lecture, BBC1 Television, November 12th, 1996

In his Richard Dimbleby Lecture, Richard Dawkins sought to address a major problem for the scientific community in the late 20th Century: there is a popular trend away from science to practices which are antithetical to science (astrology, the para-normal, telepathy, UFO- mania, and related activities popularly known as "anti-science". Furthermore, he addressed a perception which continually surfaces in society that science does not satisfy the human psyche, necessitating other avenues to be explored. Since Dawkins' professorial chair is in the "Public Understanding of Science", his views are of interest to many people. This article interacts with Dawkins' analysis and suggests an alternative. 

Dawkins' perspective of "science"

Dawkins refers to his hearers giving Aristotle a tutorial and says that we can know more than Aristotle about the world. Why? Because science proceeds by a process of incremental addition. He says: "The point is only that science is cumulative, and we live later." This assertion is repeated: "... science advances, cumulatively." Such a perspective is commonly associated with a positivist view of science. 

There has been much debate over this understanding of the nature of science - and it is necessary to say that it is controversial. A notable alternative has been developed by Thomas Kuhn (The structure of scientific revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 1970): science develops in a cyclical way, with each cycle initiated by a paradigm shift (a scientific revolution). The cycle continues with scientists seeking to "fit" data into the new conceptual framework, but discovering anomalies as they proceed. Eventually, there are sufficient anomalies to precipitate a radical reinterpretation: a scientific revolution and a new paradigm. Without elaborating on this controversy, it is worth noting that there have been many cul-de- sacs and blind turns for the scientific enterprise. At very least, these suggest that we need to address human factors in science and the presuppositions of scientists in our perception of scientific progress. However, in the context of other things that Dawkins says, the positivist view of science is vital to his basic position. He needs to promote positivistic science in order to differentiate his worldview perspective from all others (which he regards as speculative, at best), and also to present science as a solid foundation of truth on which to build a philosophy of life. 

Within positivistic science, "facts" are very important. They are unchallengeable. They are true. We can build our ideas on them, knowing that they will not fail us. Dawkins provides us with some "facts" from physics (astronomy) and from chemistry: 

It is important to note that these examples are drawn from the empirical sciences - and although the "facts" are quite "high level" (the conclusions of much empirical work), they are verifiable by anyone who wants to seek experimental confirmation. Furthermore, it is worth making the point that probably Aristotle (and maybe the other Greek philosophers) would not find these "facts" very convincing! For Aristotle, it was almost axiomatic that the earth was at the centre of the universe - without that, nothing in his scheme of things makes sense! The suggestion I am making here is that Dawkins is unconsciously playing down the role of human presuppositions in scientific work. 

Then, Dawkins proceeds to give biological examples of "facts": 

These examples are gathered, not from the field of empirical science, but from historical science. Here the methodology followed has to be different; the facility of testing hypotheses is restricted and the empirical element is lacking. Dawkins moves too easily between the empirical sciences and the historical sciences to retain a defensible argument. "Facts" in the historical sciences are likely to have even more input from human presuppositions than "facts" in the empirical sciences. 

Thus, when Dawkins says "Our belief that we share ancestors with chimpanzees, and more distant ancestors with monkeys, will never be superseded although details of timing may change", he is DEDUCING that which he asserts. The belief does not emerge clearly from scientific investigation, but it is a consequence of a presupposition which is brought to this field of study. The presupposition behind most contemporary research into origins is that of naturalism: nature is all there is. By adopting this premise, scholars seek to explain origins by purely natural processes: where there is no role for an intelligent Designer or a master-Craftsman. By contrast, whereas naturalism starts with something like "In the beginning were the particles", the Christian starts with "In the beginning was the Word". 

Dawkins says that those "who deny the very possibility of objective truth" (and by this he means truth gained by the pursuit of science) have "a little philosophical learning". This is a broadside against a large group of academics who have challenged the positivist view of science. It indicates the nature of the problem that exists in attempting to dialogue with Dawkins and others who think like him. 

Dawkins' concern about the hostility shown to "science"

There is a very disturbing reaction to science apparent in contemporary culture. Dawkins writes cogently about a number of examples, and Christians will share most, if not all, of these concerns. My interest is whether Dawkins' diagnosis of this malaise is correct or not, and whether he himself may be part of the problem. 

Why are people turning from science? Could it be that they are not turning from science, but from the naturalistic philosophy that drives contemporary science? Some people find "meaning" in the arts and feel alienated from the impersonality of science. Others seek "meaning" in astrology, science fiction, and the para-normal. Dawkins feels he has the answer: they don't understand what makes scientists "tick"; they don't appreciate what an exciting world we live in. So the basic response must be to educate people and to show them how they can become enthusiastic about science. 

Furthermore, according to Dawkins: 

What he might have added (but chose not to do so) was that the early scientists perceived this mystery as coming from God, the Creator. And their God was not capricious, whimsical or frivolous: he is faithful, dependable and he governs the cosmos he has made in a way that reflects his character. This was fully sufficient to inject meaning, purpose and a sense of fulfilment into their activities as scientists. 

Later, of course, came the deadening influences of rationalism, unitarianism, the Enlightenment, and scholarly autonomy. These drained the meaning and the mystery from much of the practice of science. Dawkins thinks that his view of science still retains it, but I question this. 

Dawkins writes: 

What Dawkins appears to be missing is that people are more than minds and intellects. "Study what is" may satisfy some of the needs of mankind, but such activities do not touch the heart of the matter. "Study" is not to be equated with finding "purpose". The problem for many is that the more they study, the more meaningless life becomes! These are people who set out as though "God is dead": they find that their conclusion is "man is dead". 

Christians should not align themselves with Dawkins, as he preaches a religion of scientism and promotes the philosophy of naturalism. We have a better way: one that is faithful to God and his revelation of himself and one that is faithful to science as a means of "thinking God's thoughts after him". Science is a meaningful activity because we are studying the handiwork of a personal and wise Creator - our response is intellectual, emotional, aesthetical and worshipful. There is purpose and meaning in this pursuit because everything about God is overflowing with purpose and meaning! 

Kuhn, T. 1970. The structure of scientific revolutions, 2nd edition, Chicago University Press, Chicago. 
Dawkins' lecture is on the World Wide Web at this URL.

David J. Tyler (December 1997)

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