by Paul CopanMarch 2nd, 2011 43 Comments
by Paul Copan
Last week, Richard Dawkins spoke here in Ft. Lauderdale at Nova Southeastern University on “The Fact of Evolution.” The following week, I spoke on “The Fact of God”—also delivered at Nova Southeastern. It was a direct response to Dawkins’s naturalistic worldview as well as a number of the comments he made at his lecture. My talk was followed by a very spirited discussion with a number of atheists in attendance. Well, “spirited” is euphemistic. One atheist who attended wrote to me, apologizing for the rude behavior of his fellow-atheists as they engaged with me!
Next week I’ll begin posting my response to Dawkins at Parchment and Pen. I’ll do so in a short series rather than giving my entire talk in one large chunk. But what I want to do here is discuss the question I posed to Richard Dawkins during the Q&A and then comment on his response to it. After all, since I couldn’t offer a rebuttal when I was on campus, I do so here!
One observation before I comment: During the Q&A time, when someone identified himself as a believer in God (or could be suspected of it), Dawkins at times sidestepped questions, ending with a quick jab at “religious” people being terrorists and or ignoramuses. For example, he called any advocate of old-earth creation “the not-completely stupid creationist.” His anti-religious quip to me was another such instance. So give a listen to the brief audio clip here—and then you can read my comments….
There I was—the first one in line during the Q&A. I asked Dawkins how he could claim that the naturalist id rationally superior to the theist since, according to his book River Out of Eden, all of us are dancing to the music of our DNA. Our beliefs are the product of non-rational, deterministic physical forces beyond our control—whether we’re theists or naturalists. In fact, if the naturalist is right, it’s only by accident—not because he’s more intellectually virtuous than the theist. That is, the naturalist has accidental true belief (which is not knowledge) rather than warranted true belief (which is knowledge).
Dawkins gave the odd reply that it’s kind of like Republicans and Democrats—with each group thinking they’re right and the other group wrong. But on what grounds could either side think they are more rational than the other? Dawkins then added that he supposed that whatever view “works” the correct one to hold. But here’s the problem: what “works” is logically distinct from “true” or “matching up with reality”—since we may hold to a lot of false beliefs that help us survive and reproduce, even if they are false. Indeed, naturalistic evolution is interested in survival and reproduction—the “four F’s” (fighting, feeding, fleeing, and reproducing). Truth, the naturalist philosopher Patricia Churchland argues, is secondary to these pursuits According to another such naturalist, the late Richard Rorty, truth is “utterly unDarwinian.”
To top off his answer to me (without addressing how to ground rationality), Dawkins dismissively quipped that science flies rockets to the moon while religion flies planes into buildings. Many in the audience applauded his rhetorical flourish. (How could a guy with a charming British accent be mistaken, right?!) His “bumper sticker argumentation”  reminded me of what St. Augustine said about the dismissive “Christian” answer to the sincere (Manichean) question: “What did God do before he made heaven and earth?” Augustine disliked the mocking answer that North African Catholics would give back to this heretical sect: “He was preparing hell…for those prying into such deep subjects.” (This actually reminds me of the unthinking dismissiveness of Dawkins here!) Yet Augustine refused to evade “by a joke the force of the objection.” He wrote:
It is one thing to see the objection; it is another to make a joke of it. I do not answer in this way. I would rather respond, “I do not know,” concerning what I do not know rather than say something for which a man inquiring about such profound matters is laughed at while the one giving a false answer is praised. 
Such responses from Dawkins are no doubt one of the reasons that atheist philosopher of science Michael Ruse declares: “The God Delusion makes me embarrassed to be an atheist.” 
The problem with Dawkins’s response is threefold. First, as one of my friends commented on Dawkins’ quip, it was science that built the airplanes capable of flying into a building, and it was Nazis during World War II who developed rockets to fly into space! No, it’s not “science vs. religion” here. Rather, people with differing motives and agendas can use science properly—or misuse it for evil ends. In fact, modern science is rooted in the biblical worldview, building on the foundation of Bible-believing thinkers such as Copernicus, Newton, Faraday, Boyle, and many others, as, say, Stanley Jaki has argued in his book The Savior of Science.
Second, how can Dawkins condemn “religious” people who fly planes into buildings since they are just dancing to their DNA—just like the naturalist is? They’re just doing what nature has programed them to do. We can further ask: Why isn’t Dawkins denouncing atrocities done in the name of atheism—like those of Stalin, Pol Pot, or Mao Tse-tung? Dawkins gives the impression that it’s only people of “religion” who carry out horrendous evils. Of course, if Dawkins is right, these mass murderers could not justly be condemned since they too were wired by nature to act as they did.
Third, Dawkins himself has elsewhere admitted that he doesn’t know what to do with determinism, and he recognizes something hypocritical in his own emotional reaction to murder or rape. In fact, the more consistent perspective would not be anger but rather argue that such criminals need to have their “faulty motherboard” replaced.
Note the excerpt from the following interview from October 2006:
Here is how the interview on determinism went:
Dawkins:….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.” 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 his own childhood. ….
Manzari: 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. 
Hmmm. You wouldn’t have known determinism was a profound problem for Dawkins, given his evasive response to my question! Of course, Dawkins doesn’t want us to accept the obvious conclusion that his hostility to belief in God just isn’t a “separate issue.” Rather, if he’s right, then his beliefs—on religion or biology—are just as determined by non-rational, material forces as anyone else’s, including the theist’s. They’re both in the same non-rational camp.
This is the kind of self-defeating perspective proferred by the late Nobel laureate, Francis Crick. Human identity—your joys and sorrows, your sense of identity (“you”) and your belief in free will—is nothing more than “the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”  If true, then Crick, like Dawkins, was only accidentally correct—not because of any superior rationality. After all, this belief itself is only the result of “the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules”!
Eighteenth-century philosopher Thomas Reid critiqued David Hume, author of The Treatise of Human Nature and one who held a similar view to that of Dawkins. Hume denied the self, arguing that individual humans are just a bundle of physical properties rather than morally responsible selves or agents: “it is certainly a most amazing discovery,” wrote Reid, “that thought and ideas may be without any thinking being.” Presumably then The Treatise of Human Nature had no author after all! It is only a set of ideas which came together, and “arranged themselves by certain associations and attractions.”  Likewise, this would mean that there is no self or agent whom we call “Richard Dawkins” and who is responsible for writing The God Delusion. Indeed, a large collection of molecules is gathering up the royalties!
I’ll have more to say about Dawkins’s determinism and naturalism in general in future blog posts. But for now, I hope this preliminary engagement with Dawkins’s ideas will generate some good discussion.
 See Edward Feser’s brilliant depiction of Richard Dawkins’s dismissiveness rather than genuine intellectual engagement in his “To a Louse” at http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2011/02/to-louse.html.
 Confessions, 11.12.14.
 From the cover of Alister McGrath’s book The Dawkins Delusion? Published by InterVarsity Press.
 “Who Wrote Dawkins’ New Book?” in Evolution News (October 2006). Accessed February 23, 2011: http://www.evolutionnews.org/2006/10/who_wrote_richard_dawkinss_new002783.html.
 Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis (New York: Scribner’s, 1994), p. 3.
 Thomas Reid, An Inquiry into the Human Mind: On the Principles of Common Sense, ed. Derek R. Brookes, 4th edn., (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 1997), 2.6.13-14, p. 35
- Richard Dawkins: Advocate of Science or Self-Refuting Scientism? – Response to Dawkins, Part III
- Richard Dawkins: A Philosophical and Theological Lightweight? Responding to Dawkins, Part II
- God is Great, God is Good: Why Believing in God Is Reasonable and Responsible
- Reason, Personal Responsibility, and Naturalism’s Counterintuitive Claims: Response to Dawkins, Part IV
- The Moral Indignation of Richard Dawkins