The Literature of the Heretics, pt. 8
“As a scientist, I am hostile to fundamentalist religion because it actively debauches the scientific enterprise. It teaches us not to change our minds, and not want to know exciting things that are available to be known. It subverts science and saps the intellect.” – Richard Dawkins
“Modern masters of science are much impressed with the need of beginning all inquiry with a fact. The ancient masters of religion were quite equally impressed with that necessity. They begin with the fact of sin—a fact as practical as potatoes. Whether or no man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing.” – G.K. Chesterton
I find plenty to disagree with when reading the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens when it comes to their content. But there is also much that I disagree with in how their disagreeable content is expressed. It may seem trivial, but how an argument is presented is, in some respects, equal in importance with the validity of the argument—and in the case of these heretics (Dawkins in particular), his method does much to undermine the very points he is making.
Take, for example, Dawkins’ writings on science. What I mean by that, of course, is take almost everything he has written. Dawkins writes about science in the same way he writes about himself and all of mankind—with a purposeful, but insincere, subjectivity. Of course, he would say. Subjectivity is the one thing required of the scientist! He doesn’t realize that, while the scientific method may thrive on subjectivity, understanding human nature absolutely does not.
Dawkins seems to insist on keeping his explanations of every human decision, every human thought, every human quirk, firmly at arm’s length. He feels a desperate need to rationalize absolutely everything by way of natural selection—every action or thought a human could have can be rationalized as a self-evident quirk of genetics. When a poet describes happiness they might do so by employing the metaphor of a sunny day or the return of a long-lost love; when Richard Dawkins describes happiness he does so as a mixture of proteins that release dopamine into the brain so as to prolong the survival of the species by way of... and from the first word he demonstrates only that he has really never understood the meaning of happiness.
Science, to the heretics, too quickly ceases to be a method by which one looks at the world and instead becomes just as much a religion as the faith they deride. When Dawkins writes that, “...a widespread assumption, which nearly everybody in our society accepts...is that religious faith is especially vulnerable to offence and should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect...” he is absolutely right (and this is something religions should seriously consider), but at the same time he does not seem to understand that he has not merely pulled religion down from its place above criticism, he has replaced it with his own altar of science! God forbid that any of us should second guess a scientific study!
I do try to avoid criticizing a healthy pursuit of science (because I have ventured down this road myself and found great joy here), but I cannot help but criticize the scientists for their utter failure to understand the very things they are so desperately trying to comprehend. An astronomer can become so lost in his telescope that he has forgotten to lie in a field at night and simply stare into the heavens; a biologist can become so lost in his microscope that he has forgotten that the cells he is studying actually make up a creature. Scientists have a tendency to sacrifice their own humanity for the sake of their discoveries. Men like Dawkins have become, for lack of a better (or more fitting) analogy—the extreme Calvinists of humanism. Just as Calvinism in its most extreme form rids humanity of both free will and, in effect, personal responsibility, so also is Dawkins quick ascribe an evolutionary explanation for every decision made by man, removing responsibility from all of us for our actions. Every action is biological; every decision is made with the intent of spreading our DNA, to ensure the survival of our genes.
My opposition to Dawkins in terms of science is not limited, however, to the cold, aloof tone it forces him to take when talking about things that are living and awesome—it has also become clear to me that I ought to no longer give him the benefit of the doubt when he is prattling on about how science frees us from religion, because whenever it proves convenient to do so, he seems willing to neglect the very scientific method he worships! So rigidly and worshipfully does Richard Dawkins view science—so low does he prostrate himself before that particular altar—that he has forgotten (or consciously abandons) one of the core principles of the scientific method. Specifically, he neglects to acknowledge that facts are notoriously difficult to come by, and that the very word—fact—is not a word to toy around with.
Dawkins claims that, “Creationists simply don’t realize that evolution is a fact!” No, they don’t, but neither does the honest evolutionist. Time and again Dawkins refers to the “fact” of evolution, deriding the weak-minded zealots who refuse to believe. Surely Richard Dawkins—a man steeped in science throughout his adult life—is intelligent enough to know that there is something very significant and very special about calling something a “fact.” Richard Feynman—an atheist himself, and one of the greatest, most beloved scientists of the 21st century—loved to boast about how close his theories were to being facts, but consistently stressed the difficulty of facts: “You can see, of course, that...we can attempt to disprove any definite theory. If we have a definite theory, a real guess, from which we can conveniently compute consequences which can be compared with experiment, then in principle we can get rid of any thoery. There is always the possibility of proving any definite theory wrong; but notice that we can never prove it right. Suppose you invent a good guess, calculate the consequences, and discover every time that the consequences you have calculated agree with experiment. The theory is then right? No, it is simply not proved wrong.”
Human evolution is theory, not fact. We could literally watch a species evolve into another before our eyes and it still would not prove that this is how life came to be as it is. I realize that this sounds like nit-picking; like I am quarrelling over a simple matter of syntax or vocabulary, but it really is much more than that. It is indicative of an arrogant form of scientism that simply cannot be taken as gospel. It is evidence of a man so singularly focused on attacking something that he has forgotten the very laws he claims to live by. This is a common danger—our desire to destroy others getting in the way of positive affirmations of our beliefs—that we all must continually guard against. It is especially evident in political disagreements, where we are so quick to point out inconsistency and hypocrisy on the other side that we neglect to notice our own. Dawkins betrays the certainty of his own beliefs by being disingenuous about them.
One need only read the words of the most God-hating scientists to discover the fact that they seem to have universally missed something in their understandings of the universe. Perhaps their views are self-consistent, as an earthworm may be consistent in saying that the whole world is made of nothing but dirt, but they are incomplete. They consistently neglect a great portion of the man-beast they are so desperately trying to explain. It is terribly difficult, after all, to explain a thing that you have never properly understood. One could imagine trying to explain a camel without mentioning his hump or an elephant without mentioning his trunk. The explanation may be accurate and consistent, but few would defend it as complete, or even valuable.
The purely scientific view of man, quite simply, does not understand man. It may have an explanation as to why he has hands, but not why he should choose to use his hands to produce works of art rather than hunt or forage. It tells us why we have hair on our heads, but not why we should choose to shave our heads in solidarity with an illness or to join a monastary... it doesn’t—it simply can’t—tell us these things because it is likely to cause madness, like describing a rainbow to a man born blind.
Real hope cannot be found in science. This is not real evidence for God, of course, but nevertheless one should at the very least stop and consider what sort of hope or meaning they are looking for. If hope is the same thing as increased knowledge, then science may hold some very limited hope—but it is a hope that will fail the very moment one looks out into the abyss and recognizes just how little has actually become known by science. It is like the man who spends his life attempting to comprehend eternity, only to grow old and realize that he is no closer than he was when he began. As Chesterton said, “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”
Real hope is found in embracing the eternal rather than trying to comprehend it. It is found in first understanding creation and then studying it; with much of science it is, tragically, the other way around.