Richard Dawkins, Philosopher?

Richard Dawkins just said the most interesting thing I’ve heard from him in a long time:

And the role and value of philosophy was touched on, and Dawkins had the interesting thought that I’d not ever heard expressed, that there was something amiss with the fact that philosophers centuries before Darwin could not have come up with the idea of evolution themselves.

“Philosophers let us down. They should have got it. Why didn’t they?”

Ah, yes: Richard Dawkins, philosopher.*

If Evolution Could Be Derived From Philosophical Principles Alone…

If the reporter represented him accurately, and if Dawkins thinks philosophy “centuries before Darwin” should have been able to come up with the idea of evolution, then it follows that Dawkins thinks evolution could have credibly been derived from philosophical principles alone, apart from scientific evidence. From that it follows that credibility in this sphere is achievable apart from scientific evidence.

I don’t know how often I’ve been told that Intelligent Design is mere philosophy without science. Note carefully: the charge has rarely if ever been, “It’s philosophy poorly done, and done without science besides.” The charge has never taken the quality of the philosophical work into account. Rather it’s been that merely by being just-philosophical, ID was unscientific, and being unscientific, it wasn’t credible.

Let’s map that out more clearly. The implied syllogism has always been,

  1. No theory regarding origins can be credible if it is entirely philosophical.**
  2. Intelligent Design is entirely philosophical.
  3. Therefore Intelligent Design cannot be a credible theory of origins.

Premiss 2 is wrong, but I don’t want to debate that again here. (Goodness knows I’ve done it often enough!) Instead I’d love to ask Dawkins whether he disagrees with the host of atheistic evolutionists I’ve run across who think Premiss 1 is true. Unfortunately, however, other than sharing a Washington Post online op-ed page with him once, I’ve never had any expectation of being able to get his attention. So let’s forget that idea.

… Is It Really Scientific?

But that’s not all we can do with this idea that Dawkins has brought up. You see, even though I think Dawkins may be projecting some 19th- to 21st-century bias onto the world of philosophers centuries ago, still there’s a sense in which he is correct. In fact he sounds an awful lot like Smith, in a dialogue I wrote about two-and-a-half years ago. Here’s an excerpt:

JONES: Thanks. Now again, suppose we had Darwin’s outline of evolution, with no real evidence for it, except of course for the evidence he included in the book. How would you explain life as we see it?

SMITH: Well, I’d have to conclude there was some kind of evolutionary process, since life couldn’t have just sprung suddenly into all this complex variety. I think I’d be attracted to Darwin’s theory just on the strength of the idea, and the examples and evidence he wrote into The Origin of Species.

JONES: So if there was very little substantial evidence for evolution, you would probably be attracted to it anyway?

SMITH: Yes, because it makes so much sense….

Already we’re seeing how “sense” — i.e., philosophy — could attract someone to evolution even apart from evidence.

The dialogue continues, and Smith readily agrees that “if there’s some theory of life that has to be true just because some widely held metaphysical theory requires it to be true, that theory of life would have trouble being classified as being scientific;”

He also agrees that if anyone thought such a theory was scientific, we’d have to suspect they were falling for confirmation bias  I think Dawkins would probably assent to that, too, in spite of what he said this week.

Really? Are you sure?

Then this:

SMITH: … As Dawkins said, it took Darwin to make it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. It’s the only theory that works, based on naturalism.

Which isn’t much different from saying evolution could have been inferred philosophically long before the scientific revolution. Continuing:

JONES: But naturalism is a theory about the ultimate nature of reality: it’s a metaphysical theory. It’s a metaphysical theory that seems to require that evolution be true, with or without evidence. Based on what you’ve agreed to just now, doesn’t that start to make it sound like naturalistic evolution isn’t so scientific after all?

SMITH: But we have evidence for evolution, not just some metaphysical theory!

JONES: Didn’t we talk about that already? [Sorry — you’ll have to read the original dialogue to see where that happened — Tom] Didn’t you agree that if someone came up that answer, “you’d be very suspicious it had more to do with confirmation bias than with science”?

SMITH: But this is science! And evolution is FACT!

JONES: That’s what you say. It’s what a lot of scientists say, I know. Yet it’s also the same thing you just described as looking very suspiciously like confirmation bias in action. And I have to wonder, doesn’t that fact bother you even a little bit? Doesn’t it bother you that you’ve reached the same conclusion with evidence — and your interpretation of that evidence — that you said you would have been “attracted to” with no evidence at all? Doesn’t it bother you to realize that you don’t need evidence to reach the conclusion you’ve reached?

That’s another question I’d like to run by Richard Dawkins. If I had the chance.

*My apologies to those who have read The God Delusion and know something — anything! — about philosophy. I regret to inform you I cannot be responsible for damage done to your clothing or furniture as a result of snorting out your Chardonnay in laugher upon reading that.

**N.B.: Nothing is entirely philosophical; it’s impossible even to define philosophy such that that could be the case. I’m using the phrase here as shorthand for the kind of reasoning Dawkins apparently had in mind: reasoning of the sort that was accessible to philosophers “centuries before Darwin,” including natural philosophers, assuming he is aware there was such a thing. I’ve chosen it as shorthand partly because I’ve heard that very language from atheist evolution-promoters who seemed actually to think some things could be “entirely philosophical.”

Image Credit(s): Colin Grey,

3 thoughts on “Richard Dawkins, Philosopher?

  1. Thanks. To me, if I clearly digest the topic, it is heartwarming to note their are scientists who are not of atheist-evolution extraction! Therefore, ride on. I strongly reason like any other sphere of life that the scientific domain has been infiltrated.

  2. Evolution has massive evidence to support it. It is no longer a topic of debate in educated, secular circles. There is no conspiracy, my Christian friend. Just as their is no conspiracy in the scientific consensus that the earth is a sphere, there is no conspiracy in the scientific consensus that all living things evolved over millions of years. It is not an anti-God conspiracy. It is science.

  3. If your analogy was meant to be illustrative, then fine; if it was meant to be instructive, it fails, for the scientific conclusion that is spherical is orders of magnitude less layered-over with theory and philosophy than the conclusion that evolution is true.

    By the way, I’m usually more careful than I was in this post to specify I’m talking about naturalistic evolution. This is the version of evolutionary theory that suggests not only that evolution (descent with modification) happened but that it happened by unguided naturalistic processes.

    Descent with modification has scientific support. (Not as unbreakably strong as many say it has, but support nevertheless.) Dawkins believes the naturalistic version of it is also scientifically supported. That’s where he goes off the rails, both scientifically and philosophically, for science is incompetent to distinguish between the two versions of evolution.

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