Richard Dawkins is a magnet to whom polarized opinions are irresistibly drawn. For those who are spiritually inclined (whatever that means), Dawkins’s unstinting attacks on religion can be deeply disturbing. Such people seem, in many cases, to feel a need to disparage him.
I’ve been reading The Greatest Show on Earth. It’s not specifically a polemic against religion, though Dawkins does take it upon himself, repeatedly, to rip apart the idea of “intelligent design.” He’s a scientist. He’s happy to explain, in detail, the ways in which evolution exhibits no intelligence and no foresight. No intelligent designer could possibly have been guilty of such ineptitude, nor of such cruelty, nor of such flagrant waste.
I happened to mention on Facebook that I was reading this book. A friend who is among the spiritually inclined (whatever that means) took it upon himself to refer to Dawkins as “cartoonish,” “adolescent,” and “immature.” I asked him to provide three quotes from Dawkins’s writings that would support such accusations, and of course he didn’t do anything of the sort. Instead he pivoted to talk about how Dawkins has confronted religious thinkers in televised interview settings.
I’ve never seen any of these interviews, so I can’t comment on them. Quite possibly Dawkins was rude, illogical, or evasive, though I doubt it. The underlying accusation against him, and it may have some merit, is that he mistakes a really bizarre grade-school form of fundamentalist Christianity for the whole of religion — that he fails to grasp the more elegant or refined metaphysical or metaphorical import of the religious texts or religious testimony that he is at pains to debunk.
The preface to the paperback edition of The God Delusion deals with this criticism, and others. I can’t very well quote the whole preface, though it’s worth reading; this one excerpt will have to do: “The melancholy truth,” Dawkins explains, “is that this kind of understated, decent, revisionist religion is numerically negligible. To the vast majority of believers around the world, religion all too closely resembles what you hear from the likes of Robertson, Falwell or Haggard, Osama bin Laden or the Ayatollah Khomeini. These are not straw men, they are all too influential, and everybody in the modern world has to deal with them.”
My friend said that Dawkins “can’t be bothered to confront the very rigorous theological arguments of thinkers like Tillich, De Chardin, and many others.” But why should it be required of any thinker that he waste days or weeks pointing out the flaws in the writings of whatever pundit a complainant thinks he ought to have grappled with? One could as easily criticize Einstein for not refuting Ptolemy.
At that point we started talking about Pierre Teilhard De Chardin. De Chardin was both a paleontologist and a Jesuit priest, so it’s clear he had an axe to grind, spiritually. He was committed to the God hypothesis, and felt compelled to square it with the findings of evolution. His approach, as described in a Wikipedia article, was to assert “that evolution occurs in a directional, goal-driven way.” I no longer have my copy of De Chardin’s book The Phenomenon of Man. Evidently I recycled it years ago. It’s not available in my local public library, nor is it available as an e-book, so I can’t verify the details, but that seems to be a clear statement of his view as I recall it.
The trouble is, it’s hogwash. (For more on the hogwash, see tomorrow’s blog post.) Evolution has no directionality. It isn’t aiming at anything. Evolution doesn’t even rise to the level at which it could be called stupid, because you have to have thoughts and intentions to qualify as stupid. Evolution is a blind, neutral process, and that’s all it is. If you have trouble understanding this, I invite you to read a couple of Dawkins’s books on evolution. The details are all there, laid out in black and white.
My friend began to tremble, all but visibly (on Facebook no one can see you tremble), at my assertion that De Chardin’s view is hogwash. He responded as follows: “In the spirit of seeing things from your point of view, I would like to second your suggestion that we throw De Chardin into the hogwash bucket. Along with, I’m sure you’ll agree, all other thinkers who support the idea of an intelligent consciousness (which is not to say a personal God, per se) behind the curtain of evolution, including, but not limited to: Liebniz, Spinoza, Kierkegaard, Hegel, Shakespeare, Descartes, Da Vinci, Aristotle, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Henry James, Francis Bacon, Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhi, and most importantly, Frank Marino of Mahogany Rush. (Great shredder, too, Frank.)”
I have no idea who Frank Marino is, but the rest of my friend’s list of authorities — and yes, this is nakedly an appeal to authority, one of the types of argument that is not allowed in a debate that attempts any sort of rigor — is shocking in its irrelevance. What possible contribution could Aristotle, Da Vinci, or Shakespeare make to a discussion of evolution? None at all. Henry James was a novelist; possibly my friend meant his brother William James, who was a psychologist and wrote about religion. Gandhi was a politician. Tagore was a poet. Hegel, Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Bacon, and Kierkegaard all lived and wrote before the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, and for that reason none of them could possibly tell us anything at all about evolution.
What my friend was attempting to do here was, I think, to place spirituality (whatever that is) on a pedestal equal in height to the mountain of scientific evidence for evolution. To suggest that the two disciplines are different but coequal, and therefore, by implication, that the study of evolution can shed no light on spiritual matters. Very possibly he meant to imply that it’s the other way around — that we can’t understand evolution other than as a manifestation of some sort of spiritual essence (whatever that might be).
Elevating, or attempting to elevate, the writing of spiritually inclined people to the point where it is not subject to science-based criticism is a form of special pleading. Religious people love special pleading. As far as I can see, there’s nothing in religion but special pleading. It’s special pleading from top to bottom. As the song puts it, “My god is red-hot. Your god ain’t doodly-squat.” Possibly I’m misquoting the lyric, but you get the idea.
And this brings us to the nub of the question.
It is perfectly true that there are things science can’t investigate. You can think whatever you like about them, and none can gainsay you. One of those things is the nature of conscious awareness. We can do brain imaging and get some notion of how and where conscious awareness arises in the brain, but we have no way of testing the awareness itself in any objective way. We have to rely on subjective statements made by individuals about their own internal experience.
There are also events, rare but by no means unknown, that seem to indicate that the world is not arranged quite as haphazardly as a rugged materialist would have us believe. I’ve had a few of those experiences. Events in the outer world seem (emphasize “seem”) to have a meaning that corresponds directly to my own inner thought processes at a given moment. Carl Jung called this phenomenon “synchronicity.” He defined synchronicity as a meaningful connection among events that is not caused by anything, or at least not by anything physical. The connection is acausal.
It’s not possible to investigate synchronicity scientifically, because we can’t bring it into the laboratory. It happens when it happens, and not very often, but seemingly, in my own experience, at moments that carry a strong charge of meaning. The conditions under which it happens are, by definition, not repeatable, and the scientific method is applicable only to events that can potentially be repeated.
The temptation, for those who are spiritually inclined, is to project Deep Meaning onto their own internal experiences and onto the occasional outer events that seem to support their lovely view of How It All Really Is.
These days, they often drag quantum mechanics into the discussion. Here’s my friend again: “Your cherished modern quantum physics makes it clear that consciousness has a direct impact on the subatomic particles being observed! That is, evolution is a co-creation; it is not separate from the conscious universe that set it in motion.”
It’s a standard ploy, among the religiously inclined, to find God in the gaps. Whatever science has not yet been able to explain, that’s where God is! In ancient times, God was in the thunder and the lightning. In Medieval times, God healed the sick and punished the wicked with plague. (But then the microscope was invented.) In the 18th century God was obviously what made life itself possible; the theory of life involved a so-called elan vital, a mysterious substance that resided only in living things. The theory of the elan vital was cast aside when it was found to have no predictive power and no evidentiary support. There was nothing in it.
As scientific knowledge marched forward, God retreated. Now he’s hiding among the subatomic particles.
What my friend seems to be saying in this passage is that some sort of universal consciousness steers the cosmic rays so that they smack into the right DNA molecules to provoke beneficial mutations, as a consequence of which evolution occurs in a progressive direction, leading to … well, leading to us. The supposed crown of creation.
This is plain hogwash. It ignores the fact that easily 98% of the mutations that happen in a strand of DNA are not beneficial at all. More often, they’re disastrous. As it happens, my sister died prematurely of a disease that was caused by a nasty mutation, but we won’t get into that. The point is, changes in the DNA are random. No consciousness directs them. If they were directed by any sort of conscious process, and this is the point that Richard Dawkins hammers home again and again, the results would be very, very different!
The trouble with believing in cosmic consciousness (or whatever you want to call it) is that there’s no evidence that would support the idea, other than subjective, non-repeatable anecdotes. For a theory to be taken seriously, it has to have predictive value. That is, the theory has to allow us to make predictions that we can test — predictions that will be borne out by different scientists who use the same procedure.
Religion does not do that. Not even transcendental meditation (which I expect my friend practices in some form) can do that. Two people who practice meditation may have entirely different experiences. Not only that, but if they claim to have had the same experience, there’s no way to test the validity of their claim.
Claiming that cosmic consciousness, if there is such a thing, tells us anything about reality is on a par with claiming that prayer works. If you pray hard enough, X or Y will happen. Well, sometimes it may happen, and sometimes it won’t. If it doesn’t happen, the religious person will tell you that you didn’t pray hard enough, or that you aren’t spiritually fit, or that it wasn’t in “God’s Plan.” And if it does happen, wow! Prayer works!
I trust it’s obvious how flagrantly disingenuous this is. It’s hogwash. The same objection applies to the results of meditation. Your guru will tell you what to expect. If you achieve cosmic consciousness, then see, your guru was right! But if you didn’t get there, it’s your fault. You need to meditate harder, or more clearly, or something. Give up eating meat. Wear unbleached linen. Something.
If my friend enjoys a heightened or purified form of awareness, that’s wonderful! I’m happy for him. But when he tries to use his subjective experience to construct a framework that puts cosmic awareness (or whatever he calls it) on equal footing with the rock-hard findings of paleontology and laboratory science, I can do no better than quote one of my favorite British aphorisms:
Pull the other one. It’s got bells on.