Monday, March 27, 2006

Richard Dawkins: Accidental Friend of Intelligent Design?

Does Richard Dawkins really lend succour to intelligent design lobbyists? Only if you listen to the intelligent design advocates.

March has seen the publication of a new 30th-anniversary edition of Richard Dawkins’ classic The Selfish Gene, as well as a Festschrift edited by two former students, Alan Grafen and Mark Ridley (now distinguished evolutionary biologists themselves, though Ridley (not to be confused with Matt Ridley) has perhaps focused more on textbook writing than research). Among all the praise being heaped on Dawkins as this anniversary is celebrated, a few dissenting voices are to be expected. And the Guardian’s Madeleine Bunting has once again stepped up to the task (I responded to a previous column of Bunting’s, in which she trashed Dawkins’ recent two-part documentary The Root Of All Evil? here).

The latest piece is much more reasonable in tone than her previous attack, and makes a point that others have made, and which I expect many more will be sympathetic to: that Dawkins, and other evolutionary thinkers and atheists such as Dan Dennett, do a disservice to the battle against creationism and intelligent design — indeed, the charge is that they undermine the case for teaching evolution in classrooms, and provide support for the claims of religiously motivated groups that want evolution dropped from curricula.

Bunting points out that some intelligent design ‘theorists’ (yes, they’re sneering quotation marks) actually like having Dawkins around, so well does he serve their ends:
William Dembski (one of the leading lights of the US intelligent-design lobby) put it like this in an email to Dawkins: “I know that you personally don't believe in God, but I want to thank you for being such a wonderful foil for theism and for intelligent design more generally. In fact, I regularly tell my colleagues that you and your work are one of God's greatest gifts to the intelligent-design movement. So please, keep at it!”
And it’s not just intelligent design advocates who think that Dawkins and Dennett are bad for the argument for teaching evolution (and therefore good for the intelligent design movement):
Michael Ruse, a prominent Darwinian philosopher (and an agnostic) based in the US, with a string of books on the subject, is exasperated: “Dawkins and Dennett are really dangerous, both at a moral and a legal level.” The nub of Ruse's argument is that Darwinism does not lead ineluctably to atheism, and to claim that it does (as Dawkins does) provides the intelligent-design lobby with a legal loophole: “If Darwinism equals atheism then it can't be taught in US schools because of the constitutional separation of church and state. It gives the creationists a legal case. Dawkins and Dennett are handing these people a major tool.”
A whole bunch of issues are tied up in this one small paragraph (I’ll return to the legal aspect below). First, it’s not clear that Dawkins argues that Darwinism ineluctably leads to atheism, except in perhaps a qualified sense. For Dawkins, one of the best arguments for positing the existence of a creator, or God, is the argument from design: that the natural world provides evidence, through the existence of complex, intricate structures such as eyes and wings, of a designing hand. For Dawkins, natural selection blows this argument out of the water. So if you previously accepted God on the basis of the argument from design, then you can drop that because there’s a much better explanation for the apparent design in nature: natural selection. If this is the case, then you might not have any reason left for asserting the existence of a God. If I don’t believe that something exists, because I have no reason to, am I thereby denying this thing exists, or merely saying that although it could exist I have no reason to believe that it does, so I do not assent to the belief that it does? That is, is this atheism or agnosticism?

Well, logically I think it amounts to agnosticism – but in that case, we’re all agnostic about more things than we could ever enumerate. But if we not aiming for logical certainty (which we can never have about matters of fact, scientific claims included), but merely describing as ‘belief’ those claims we think highly likely to be true, then we might be more entitled to adopt the label of atheist. In this slightly weaker sense of atheism, evolutionary biology might contribute to atheism but does not necessarily lead to it: you could imagine that an inscrutable creator set the universe running, and allowed natural selection to do the heavy lifting of creating the diversity of life of earth (this might make the idea that humans were created in God’s image a bit tricky to sustain). But if this is so, then why are so many evolutionary biologists, and scientists generally (particularly the scientific elite), so often self-proclaimed atheists, in this weaker sense?

Bunting raises a separate point about the creationism/evolution ‘debate’, and responding to this helps, I think, address this question and show why the criticisms of Dawkins and Dennett are misguided:
Across the US, the battle over evolution in science teaching goes on. Just in the past month there have been bills in state legislatures in New York, Mississippi, Nevada and Arkansas promoting intelligent design. Last November the Kansas education board promulgated a new definition of science that allowed for supernatural explanations of natural phenomena. A school district in Kansas rebelled last month, accusing their board of “an utterly false belief that evolutionary science and the scientific method is based on atheistic philosophy. Promoting this false conflict between science and faith erects unnecessary barriers.” At the heart of many of these local controversies is the firmly held belief that Darwinism leads to atheism, indeed that it is atheism. Across the US, a crude and erroneous conflict is being created between science as atheism and religion.
We’ve now switched topics: from a conflict between evolution (and its supposed sequela, atheism) and theism (belief in God), to a conflict between science and theism in general or the claims of specific religions. Now I think there is a much stronger conflict in the second pairing than the first. Here’s why. You can – although I don’t advise it or think that it is necessary – to accommodate both evolutionary biology and religious beliefs (although I do think this requires a double-standard in your epistemology). I’m not entirely sure how people adopt both of these systems of knowledge to their own intellectual satisfaction, but my incredulity is not a strong argument against the possibility of the feat.

However, the conflict between science and religion, in contrast to evolution and theism, seems deeper. I’m not talking about the content of these respective bodies of knowledge, although there is certainly conflict there. I mean that they conflict in a much more fundamental way, in what they deem to be appropriate means of obtaining knowledge about the world, and what counts as a reasonable basis for belief. The empirical methods of science – measuring, collecting, experimenting, analysing – are utterly at odds with religious notions of revelation (through personal experience or scripture), and faith is the antithesis of empirical investigation. It is, for a non-believer like me, very hard to see how you can think that empirical methods are appropriate in the wide range of domains that scientists have applied them — working out the structure of atoms, sequencing genomes, sending people to the moon, unravelling the mysteries of the brain — and yet think faith is a useful or reliable route to knowledge in thinking about something as important as whether there is a creator and moral law-giver running the universe. If you accept faith, why not go the whole hog and abandon evidentiary standards altogether?

This isn’t just a flippant challenge: how do you demarcate between where you use faith, and where you use reason and evidence? Similarly, if you base your beliefs on evidence and rational arguments, you might well find (like I do) no reasons to suggest that God exists. And I think this is why the scientific elite generally tends towards atheism: not because the specific claims of their disciplines are utterly incompatible with a religious conception of the universe (you can always tweak your scientific and religious models to mesh with one another), but because of the approach to knowledge that they follow. Scientific investigation just doesn’t tend towards theism and belief in God, which even believers will acknowledge requires faith. For me, and for Dawkins and Dennett too, the reason evidence and rationality don’t lead to a belief in a God is that there isn’t one there to provide such evidence. But I wouldn’t bother getting into a long argument trying to prove a negative — that the evidence of modern science absolutely rules out any sort of creator. Science just makes such a creator redundant.

So I don’t agree that the conflict between science and religion is erroneous, and the existence of religious scientists doesn’t automatically refute this (I have in mind people such as Kenneth Miller, who robustly defends evolutionary biology against creationism, and yet at the same time is religiously devout). There could be any number of reasons that people, hold scientific and religious beliefs simultaneously: they don’t understand the nature of the epistemological conflict between science and religion; they ignore this conflict so that they can believe in an nice afterlife or a foundation for morality or whatever; and so on.

The legal point Ruse alludes to seems pretty weak. Just as not believing in UFOs doesn’t make me a UFOlogist of any stripe, so not believing in a God or the claims of any specific religion doesn’t make me theistic or religious in any sense. I’m simply not a theist — I’m an a-theist. So omitting God from discussions of how the world came to be is not analogous to the religious, faith-based conviction that you have to bring God into the picture (intelligent design, despite it’s claims to be an empirical ‘science’, is really a sophisticated attempt to sneak God in the back door as a prelude to the complete overturning of naturalistic science). You don’t need to invoke God to explain organic diversity because evolutionary theory does a much better job — so does that mean that it’s atheistic, and merely an alternative religious view? This has to be nonsense. You don’t need to invoke God to explain chemical reactions, or the motion of billiard balls, so are chemistry and physics fundamentally atheistic? Are they mere religious claims that, by Ruse’s logic, could be struck out of science classrooms because they infringe the separation of Church and state? You can see where this would lead: you couldn’t teach anything. The legal case against teaching religion because it's a de facto atheistic discipline, and therefore a religious doctrine just like any other, is very poor.

The problem is that Ruse’s complaint might seem superficially appealing to many people – Bunting included. But it seems more of a scare tactic: “Stop talking about your atheism, which we don’t like (for whatever reasons), and don’t stress the conflict between the scientific approach to gaining knowledge, and the faith-based prescriptions of religion, because we want both to exist in happy harmony”. I can see why people might want such an entente cordiale: it would be ridiculous to dismiss the insights of modern science, yet they want the moral or ‘spiritual’ anchor provided by religious belief (if you grant religious belief these powers, which I don’t). Citing the fact that Dembski likes Dawkins, so he must be bad for science, is no good. The reason Debmski likes Dawkins is that Dawkins is both an evolutionary biologist and an outspoken atheist, and often discusses the two together. Dembski, often addressing already religiously committed folk, can say “See what will happen if you let evolution into your life? You’ll end up a Godless heathen like Dawkins! Resist, resist, resist!”. But this is a cheap rhetorical trick, and Bunting, Ruse and others should not take their lead from Dembski.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The point that Darwinism equals atheism is a bit of a misinterpretation, I think.
It is more simple than that; evolution by natural selection is such a powerfully explanatory tool for the complexity of nature that no further steps are necessary. It is simply a case of Occham's razor.
And I get the impression that this would be Dawkins's take.

Intelligent Design advocates haven't had good press recently, either. A recent BBC2 Horizon documentary detailed slightly embarrassing case of "irreducible complexity" found in Flagellum, and how it was based upon an a understanding which has now been surpassed, yet is taken up without scrutiny by Intelligent Design advocates still.
There's a good page here.

1:48 pm GMT  
Anonymous Chris Lawson said...

To the previous poster: I have one disagreement. Michael Behe's example of bacterial flagella has not been surpassed by later knowledge. The flaws in his argument were obvious *at the time he wrote them*. The scientific understanding of these issues has indeed progressed, but the question of "irreducible complexity" had already been addressed and answered comprehensively, and Behe's knowledge of the flagellum -- indeed his knowledge of each and every one of his other "examples" such as clotting cascades -- was inadequate contemporaneously with his writing. He should and could have known better at the time he wrote Darwin's Black Box. He does not have the excuse that the scientific knowledge wasn't there at the time. He didn't look for the scientific evidence, and the fact that he has never retracted any of his examples despite the mountains of evidence he has been confronted with is the best possible indication that he never had any interest in the real science of evolution. Evolution was and always has been a strawman for Behe.

12:33 pm GMT  
Blogger John East said...

I would like to hear Richard Dawkins response to this rubbish being presented by the creationists. I don't doubt that they are merely carrying out an ad hominem attack, the usual response of those with non-existent or weak arguments.
In the absence of words from the great man himself I will say on his behalf that there is not a single grain of evidence or even the slightest suggestion in the theory of evolution that there is no God. Evolution takes us from the point just after life first “happened” up to the present day. If the creationists want their god to be the first cause of life, when the huge leap from a collection of simple molecules to RNA occurred then that’s fine by me, and I’m sure it would be fine by Dawkins.
Of course, as an atheist, I’m in little doubt that we will eventually fill the remaining pre-DNA gap with science and displace the last vestige of fairytale, but that’s still work in progress.

6:52 pm GMT  
Anonymous Omer said...

I think that the very point is the "cheap rhetorical trick" used by Dembski. That Rhetorical trick is the main - virtually, the only - cause of Creationism, and defence of Creationism of any kind. Everything else, Flagellum, Irreducible Complexity, Bo Free Lunch Theoroms, Noah's Ark simulations, etc, etc, are just smokescreens. The reason Creationists attack evolution is that they think evolution implies atheism. In that sense, Kenneth Miller is a much better advocate against creationism then Dawkins - he counters the main (albeith sometimes unstated) claim of Creationists.

Frankly I'm not sure what that means as for evolutionary biologist. I'd hate to think that we need a mind police for P.R. purposes. What's the point of having a "Free Marketplace of Ideas" if you have to conceal your real views in order to win the fight? If atheists like Dawkins (and myself) would tune down their atheistic beliefs because they are bad for PR, won't we be as dishonest as Creationists?

10:42 pm GMT  
Anonymous Mike Jones said...

My observation is that theists, Christians at least, use evidential methods constantly. However, what counts as evidence ultimately rests on faith. First and foremost Christians accept the Bible as revelation, and in the case of Catholics accept the magisterium as authoritative. Second, they rely on other Christians for confirmation of belief and most important: interpretation of scripture.

See my full comment here.

4:36 am GMT  

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