Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Problem with God: Interview with Richard Dawkins #2

The Problem with God: Interview with Richard Dawkins, Beliefnet, 15 December 2005. The renowned biologist talks about intelligent design, dishonest Christians, and why God is no better than an imaginary friend. Interview by Laura Sheahen.

Continued from part #1 with my comments (bold and in square brackets) on an interview with Richard Dawkins. The interviewer's questions are bold and in italics.

You said in a recent speech that design was not the only alternative to chance. A lot of people think that evolution is all about random chance.

That's ludicrous. That's ridiculous. Mutation is random in the sense that it's not anticipatory of what's needed. Natural selection is anything but random. Natural selection is a guided process, guided not by any higher power, but simply by which genes survive and which genes don't survive. That's a non-random process. The animals that are best at whatever they do-hunting, flying, fishing, swimming, digging-whatever the species does, the individuals that are best at it are the ones that pass on the genes. It's because of this non-random process that lions are so good at hunting, antelopes so good at running away from lions, and fish are so good at swimming. [Dawkins, after a bit of bluster, "That's ludicrous. That's ridiculous," commits the fallacy of equivocation on the word "random," i.e. "allow[ing] a key word in an argument to shift its meaning in the course of the argument":

"To commit the fallacy of equivocation is to allow a key word in an argument to shift its meaning in the course of the argument. 'Equivocation is from the Latin for, literally, "equal" (equi) "voice" (vox). A word is used univocally if it has the same meaning throughout a given context, equivocally if one or more other meanings are equally possible. ...When the change in meaning of a key word during an argument is especially subtle, the conclusion will seem to follow clearly from the premises and the argument will appear considerably more sound than it is. ... The fallacy of equivocation is especially easy to commit when a key term in an argument happens to be a figure of speech or a metaphor. By interpreting the metaphor literally we sometimes persuade ourselves that an argument is sounder than it is. ...Equivocation is not confined to figurative expressions, for the vast majority of our words have more than one meaning, any of which can occasion the fallacy. " (Engel S.M., "With Good Reason: An Introduction to Informal Fallacies," St. Martin's Press: New York, Fourth Edition, 1990, pp.97-98).
That is, Dawkins is asked, in effect, whether "evolution" is "random" in the sense of "chance". He first defines "random" in the sense of "not anticipatory of what's needed" and then says "Natural selection is anything but random." Now natural selection also is "random in the sense that it's not anticipatory of what's needed." Remember, it was Dawkins himself who coined the term "the blind watchmaker" (emphasis his), to make the point that, "Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process ... has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind's eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all" (my emphasis):
"Paley's argument is made with passionate sincerity and is informed by the best biological scholarship of his day, but it is wrong, gloriously and utterly wrong. The analogy between telescope and eye, between watch and living organism, is false. All appearances to the contrary, the only watchmaker in nature is the blind forces of physics, albeit deployed in a very special way. A true watchmaker has foresight: he designs his cogs and springs, and plans their interconnections, with a future purpose in his mind's eye. Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind's eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker." (Dawkins R., "The Blind Watchmaker," W.W Norton & Co: New York, 1986, p.5. Emphasis original).
So by Dawkins' own definition of "random," namely "not anticipatory of what's needed," natural selection is "random."

Dawkins also commits the fallacy of equivocation on the word "guided". There clearly is a vast difference between "guided" in the sense of "by [a] ... higher power" and "guided" by a "blind, unconscious, automatic process" that "has no purpose in mind. ... has no mind and no mind's eye. ... does not plan for the future. ... has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all"! I have added the above examples to my "Problems of Evolution" book outline, PE "Fallacies used to support evolution ... Equivocation."

Also, It should also be pointed out that, as Dawkins well knows but he rarely mentions, it is not just "natural selection" but the natural selection of random mutations. In other words, natural selection is utterly dependent on what random mutations supply it with. This is clear in another quote by Dawkins in which he explains the lack of a lens in the eye of Nautilus as due to "the necessary mutations cannot arise":

"Actually, Nautilus is a bit of a puzzle in its own right. Why, in all the hundreds of millions of years since its ancestors first evolved a pinhole eye, did it never discover the principle of the lens? The advantage of a lens is that it allows the image to be both sharp and bright. What is worrying about Nautilus is that the quality of its retina suggests that it would really benefit, greatly and immediately, from a lens. It is like a hi-fi system with an excellent amplifier fed by a gramophone with a blunt needle. The system is crying out for a particular simple change. In genetic hyperspace, Nautilus appears to be sitting right next door to an obvious and immediate improvement, yet it doesn't take the small step necessary. Why not? Michael Land of Sussex University, our foremost authority on invertebrate eyes, is worried, and so am I. Is it that the necessary mutations cannot arise, given the way Nautilus embryos develop? I don't want to believe it, but I don't have a better explanation." (Ibid, pp.85-86)
Now since natural selection (i.e. differential reproduction) is utterly dependent on random mutations, then "evolution" (the question that Dawkins was actually asked) is not "anything but random." So Dawkins is deceiving himself (or worse) and his readers, by his own wanting-to-have-it-both-ways rhetoric.]

There are intelligent people who have been taught good science and evolution, and who may choose to believe in something religious that may seem to fly in the face of science. What do you make of that?

It's certainly hard to know what to make of it. I think it's a betrayal of science. I think they have a religious agenda which, for reasons best known to themselves, they elevate above science. [Note that neither the interviewer, nor Dawkins, defines what this "something religious that may seem to fly in the face of science" is. Both she seems to, and Dawkins the atheist does, take it for granted that the "something religious" is false and the "science" that it "seem[s] to fly in the face of" is true. But of course if Christianity is true (which it is) then it is the task of science and scientists like Dawkins to adjust itself to that truth, e.g. that the twin philosophical pillars underpinning Darwinism, namely Materialism (i.e. matter is all there is = there is no God) and Naturalism (i.e. nature is all there is = there is no supernatural= there is no God), are false . If science and scientists don't adjust to that truth, that is a "a betrayal of science" due to an anti-" religious agenda which ... they elevate above science"!]

What are your thoughts about the despair some people feel when they ponder natural selection and random mutation?

The idea of evolution and natural selection makes some people feel that everything is meaningless--people's individual lives and life in general. If it's true that it causes people to feel despair, that's tough. It's still the truth. [No doubt there are some people who have felt "despair" when they "ponder[ed] natural selection and random mutation," but I never have. As I stated in my webbed testimony:

I would have no problem even if Darwinian evolution was proved to be 100% true, because the God of the Bible is fully in control of all events, even those that seem random to man (Prov. 16:33; 1Kings 22:34). Jesus said that not even one sparrow will die unless God wills it (Mat. 10:29-30), which means that God is fully in control of natural selection. But if the Biblical God really exists there is no good reason to assume in advance that Darwinian (or any form of) naturalistic evolution is true!
And of course the same answer applies to Dawkins and his atheistic ilk in respect of Christianity being true: If it's true that it causes [some] people to feel despair, that's tough. It's still the truth"!]

The universe doesn't owe us condolence or consolation; it doesn't owe us a nice warm feeling inside. If it's true, it's true, and you'd better live with it. However, I don't think it should make one feel depressed. I don't feel depressed. I feel elated. [I have read somewhere, words to the effect, that it is all very well a rich and famous Oxford professor, married to a beautiful, titled, actress, as Dawkins is, to "feel elated" at a meaningless universe, but a Third World peasant with he and his family and friends caught in a seemingly endless cycle of poverty, hunger and disease, might think differently about this life being all there is. And while the "universe doesn't owe us condolence or consolation ... [or] a nice warm feeling inside" (how could it?) that does not mean that the Creator of the universe cannot give His free gift of "consolation" (Rev 7:17) to those who will accept it (John 1:12), which gives me (and hundreds of millions of Christians like me) "a nice warm feeling inside," that is based, not just on ephemeral feelings, but on objective fact (1 Cor. 15:12-20)!]

My book, "Unweaving the Rainbow," is an attempt to elevate science to the level of poetry and to show how one can be-in a funny sort of way-rather spiritual about science. Not in a supernatural sense, but there are uplifting mysteries to be solved. The contemplation of the size and scale of the universe, of the depth of geological time, of the complexity of life--these all, to me, have an inspirational quality. It makes my life worthwhile to study them. [This is the same Dawkins who has just admitted that "everything is meaningless," and wrote that, "there is, at bottom ... no purpose":

"The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A.E. Housman put it: `For Nature, heartless, witless Nature Will neither care nor know.' DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music." (Dawkins R., "River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life," Phoenix: London, 1996, p.155. Emphasis in original)
who is trying to smuggle spirituality, inspiration and worth back into his meaningless materialistic universe. But then it is the same Dawkins who exulted over "apparent design":
"My reason for beginning The Blind Watchmaker was Paley. He really saw the magnitude of the problem of adaptation when most people just didn't see how elegant, how beautiful, apparent design in life is." (Dawkins R., "Interview," in Campbell N.A., Reece J.B. & Mitchell L.G., "Biology," [1987], Benjamin/Cummings: Menlo Park CA, Fifth Edition, 1999, p.412)
as a substitute for the real thing, like a man dying of thirst in a desert exulting over a mirage of a lake! Quite frankly I feel sorry for Dawkins, prevented by his materialist philosophy from affirming real spirituality and real design. Maybe that is why, instead of mellowing with age towards religion in general, and Christianity in particular, Dawkins' "attention has swung from writing about science for a popular audience to waging an all-out attack on Christianity":
"In the meanwhile, Dawkins went on to produce a series of brilliant and provocative books, each of which I devoured with interest and admiration. ... Yet the tone and focus of his writing changed. As philosopher Michael Ruse pointed out in a review of The Devil's Chaplain, Dawkins' "attention has swung from writing about science for a popular audience to waging an all-out attack on Christianity." [Ruse M.E., "Through a Glass, Darkly," American Scientist, Vol. 91, November-December 2003, pp.554-556] The brilliant scientific popularizer became a savage anti-religious polemicist, preaching rather than arguing (or so it seemed to me) his case." (McGrath A.E., "Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life," Blackwell: Malden MA, 2005, pp.8-9)
That is, Dawkins is frustrated that in his sixties, he has found that his scientific materialist `god' has failed to meet his deepest needs, so he takes out his bitterness and rage on what he subconsciously recognises as the God that could!]

[Continued in part #3]

Stephen E. Jones, BSc (Biol).
"Problems of Evolution"


anonymous said...

Great analysis on Dawkins.
Another thought on his idea that NS is not random:
"Natural selection is anything but random. Natural selection is a guided process, guided not by any higher power, but simply by which genes survive and which genes don't survive."

Isn't this just a tight little circle?
What is natural selection but the differential survival and reproduction of genes?
And what is guiding this natural selection? The survival of those genes.
Natural selection, therefore, is not random because it is guided by natural selection.

Stephen E. Jones said...


Thanks for your comment and apologies for not replying sooner.

It is indeed a "tight little circle" - in multiple ways. For example, Dawkins defines a "gene" as "a unit of natural selection":

"If we wish, we can define a single gene as a sequence of nucleotide letters lying between a START and an END symbol, and coding for one protein chain. The word cistron has been used for a unit defined in this way, and some people use the word gene interchangeably with cistron. ... In the title of this book the word gene means not a single cistron but something more subtle. My definition will not be to everyone's taste, but there is no universally agreed definition of a gene. Even if there were, there is nothing sacred about definitions. We can define a word how we like for our own purposes, provided we do so clearly and unambiguously. The definition I want to use comes from G. C. Williams. A gene is defined as any portion of chromosomal material that potentially lasts for enough generations to serve as a unit of natural selection." (Dawkins R., "The Selfish Gene," [1976], Oxford University Press: Oxford UK, New Edition, 1989, p.28)

And he denies that mutation (or anything else) can be directed, and then assumes (since by his definition there is nothing else left) that "It is selection, and only selection, that directs evolution":

"There is a fifth respect in which mutation might have been nonrandom. We can imagine (just) a form of mutation that was systematically biased in the direction of improving the animal's adaptedness to its life. But although we can imagine it, nobody has ever come close to suggesting any means by which this bias could come about. It is only in this fifth respect, the 'mutationist' respect, that the true, real-life Darwinian insists that mutation is random. Mutation is not systematically biased in the direction of adaptive improvement, and no mechanism is known (to put the point mildly) that could guide mutation in directions that are non-random in this fifth sense. Mutation is random with respect to adaptive advantage, although it is non- random in all sorts of other respects. It is selection, and only selection, that directs evolution in directions that are nonrandom with respect to advantage." (Dawkins R., "The Blind Watchmaker," [1986], Penguin: London, 1991, reprint, p.312. Emphasis in original).

I have added the above to my "Problems of Evolution" book outline, PE 9.4.1 "Natural selection ... Tautology (circular reasoning)" [] to jog my memory when I get to that part of the book.

Stephen E. Jones

anonymous said...

Thanks for the reply, Stephen.

I am struck by the ability to say that the system is not random (tautologies and all) when there is nothing non-random about it (in the naturalist's view).

The mutations are random, but are selected by natural selection, which Dawkins says is not random. Well first, if the generation of change is random you cannot remove randomness from the equation.

But natural selection is random. To what is this differential of the survival of genes owing? The impact upon a random lifeform by a random environment on a random planet of random tilt and random atmosphere orbiting a random star in a random solar system etc. etc.

This is like winning a lottery draw which enters me into another draw. And being the winner of that I am entered into another draw. And so on and so on. In the end my name is drawn and I am awarded a colour TV and I remark " the esteemed committee selected me from among thousands of entrants as worthy of this prize."

If it's random down the line isn't it random in the end?