The Dawkins Delusion

Let me start off by making it clear that I have not yet read Richard Dawkins book, The God Delusion, but as I’ve said before I’d like to, especially if someone wants to give me a copy. (My favorite books are usually those I haven’t had to pay for.)

However, Alvin Plantinga, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, has read the book, and has written a fairly lengthy critique for Books and Culture entitled The Dawkins Confusion, Naturalism ad absurdum. While Plantigna calls Dawkins “an extremely gifted science writer,” he points out that there is very little science in the book, but rather is mostly “philosophy and theology … and evolutionary psychology.” Plantinga’s critique, therefore, is fitting, as he discusses the philosophical problems with Dawkins’ book. I won’t rehash Plantinga’s article, but rather suggest that you check it out for yourself.

Lately, inspired by blog discussions with friends and my current reading (most notably, Thomas Cahill’s Mysteries of the Middle Ages), I’ve been thinking about the role of science in the bigger picture. While in its early stages science may have been a means of finding truth, the current philosophy of science no longer has such lofty goals. Rather, with modern science it seems that there are no final answers to be found. Religion, too, has its mysteries; as Paul wrote that at present we see in part, although some absolute truth is obviously claimed and the knowledge of truth is the point. Philosophy, too, seeks after truth in its own way, at least it seeks an appropriate way (if not the “true” way) to view the world.

A question that I have, however, is whether science can ever truly be free from philosophy, or if it should be. To limit true science to merely a methodology for finding out how things work is fine; in fact, that clearly expresses its limitations and really leaves the issues of what the findings mean to other disciplines. However, I doubt that many (if not the majority) of scientists would be satisfied, or comfortable, with that. The “origins” debate is a good case in point.

Science often moves into the areas of philosophy, and in my mind should; for each scientific finding begs questions, and often philosophical questions. This is the case especially with the cutting-edge areas of physics and those in search of a unified theory of everything. Quantum mechanics, chaos theory, dark energy, superstring theory, and so on, all raise very interesting philosophical questions.

A problem, however, seems to be that there are very few people capable of competently discussing both the hard science and the philosophical issues. Critical thinking is among those skills which are not automatically transferable from one discipline to another. A brilliant physicist or biologist may think completely illogically when it comes to philosophy or religion (or another scientific discipline). On the other hand, a brilliant logician may not accurately reason a scientific issue through.

It seems that in order for a meaningful dialog between disciplines to take place, there has to be some understanding as to the limitations of the respective disciplines and the difficulties of transferring arguments from one discipline to another. On the other hand, where’s the fun in that?

It would seem, based on Plantinga’s analysis of Dawkins’ philosophical arguments, that Dawkins may not be one of those individuals capable of bridging the current science-philosophy gap.

3 thoughts on “The Dawkins Delusion”

  1. I hope that you do read the book soon. I have read several reviews of it with many mixed opinions, and soon look forward to reading Dawkins himself on his book and ideas.

    The process of science is developed from a philosopher, but the beauty of it is that the self-correcting process catches errors of bias and so in the end we discover the most probable explanation for phenomena.

    And Quixote, I remember in high school physics running into the seemingly opposing answers to the question of whether light is a wave or a particle. The question was then posed as an either/or solution and required further study. The process of science looks at contradictory answers and explores the matter further. It is folly to rest at contradictory answers, it is better to study further. Withing quantum physics, the answer to whether light is particulate or a function of waves seems to be “Yes.”

    One of my favorite writers is John Wilkins, a post-doc in the Philosophy of Science. You may want to check out his blog sometime; his position is that science can’t lead to a conclusion on the existence of God, and so he refuses to allow himself to be referred to as an atheist. You may want to check his blog at http://scienceblogs.com/evolvingthoughts/

    He is less friendly to creationists than I am, so be ye warned.

  2. “Philosophy of science without history of science is empty; history of science without philosophy of science is blind.”
    —Imre Lakatos (1922–1974), Hungarian philosopher of science

  3. Can science be free of philosophy? Never. Every scientific perspective is a philosophy that determines both experimentation and interpretation. A primary example is “hard” science’s insistence on materialism, which assumes the reality only of the physical world. This precludes any discussion of “supernatural” forces because, by a priori assumption the supernatural does not exist.

    Many scientists, however, recognize that philosophic disposition determines and reinforces itself. I see whatever my philosophic lens allows me to see. If I’m convinced that light is a particle, I can prove it with experiments designed to show that. If I assume it’s a wave, I can design experiments to confirm light’s wave-like quality.

    We cannot extricate science from philosophy, nor (as you suggest) should we. Instead, we should fully acknowledge that we are operating within a philosophic outlook, that we have a bias toward confirming “evidence.” Conceding this, it seems to me, is a much better foundation for honest inquiry.

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