Photo: Richard Arculus, www.flickr.com/photos/29261553@N08/2742916836
I begin with a lengthy quotation:
“So, cumulative selection can manufacture complexity while single-step selection cannot. But cumulative selection cannot work unless there is some minimal machinery of replication and replicator power, and the only machinery of replication that we know seems too complicated to have come into existence by means of anything less than many generations of cumulative selection! Some people see this as a fundamental flaw in the whole theory of the blind watchmaker. They see it as the ultimate proof that there must originally have been a designer, not a blind watchmaker but a far-sighted supernatural watchmaker. Maybe, it is argued, the Creator does not control the day-to-day succession of evolutionary events; maybe he did not frame the tiger and the lamb, maybe he did not make a tree, but he did set up the original machinery of replication and replicator power, the original machinery of DNA and protein that made cumulative selection, and hence all of evolution, possible.
“This is a transparently feeble argument, indeed it is obviously self-defeating. Organized complexity is the thing that we are having difficulty in explaining. Once we are allowed simply to postulate organized complexity, if only the organized complexity of the DNA/protein replicating engine, it is relatively easy to invoke it as a generator of yet more organized complexity. That, indeed, is what most of this book is about. But of course any God capable of intelligently designing something as complex as the DNA/protein replicating machine must have been at least as complex and organized as that machine itself. Far more so if we suppose him additionally capable of such advanced functions as listening to prayers and forgiving sins. To explain the origin of the DNA/protein machine by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer. You have to say something like ‘God was always there’, and if you allow yourself that kind of lazy way out, you might as well just say ‘DNA was always there’, or ‘Life was always there’, and be done with it.
“The more we can get away from miracles, major improbabilities, fantastic coincidences, large chance events, and the more thoroughly we can break large chance events up into a cumulative series of small chance events, the more satisfying to rational minds our explanations will be.”
— Dawkins R., “The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design,” W. W. Norton & Co: New York NY, 1986, p.141.
This passage from a book by Richard Dawkins is the subject of this essay. I have quoted it at length in order to be fair to the original and in order that the present essay can be self-contained.
When I first read this passage, many years ago, I remember being puzzled by it. It sort of “threw” me. It seems at first as if it is a display of lucid rational argument, and it appears to carry the sort of force which a good argument carries. But, as I will explain, once you look at it more carefully both the lucidity and even the very notion that the above quotation is a reasoned argument become questionable.
There are several strands of thought that have become tangled to create this muddle. In order to untangle them, the following is divided up into sub-headings.
1. Education and intellectual progress
The difficulty is, firstly, as follows. In the course of the book Dawkins is giving a clear presentation of Darwinian evolution by variation and natural selection. He brings in high-level discussion and draws his inspiration from informed and insightful sources, such as Charles Darwin, Peter Medawar and William Donald (“Bill”) Hamilton. Then when he has a point to make with reference to religion or theism, he reaches for the phrase “some people say” and then introduces a line of thought that is drawn largely from popular religion. But that is not how intellectual work is done. Intellectual work, especially in science, involves trying to question seriously your own assumptions, and it often involves taking the trouble to read what other intellectually gifted people have said on the subject before you. But the passage quoted above gives the impression that its author has never read any of the Gifford Lectures, and possibly has either not read any major theologian from the past hundred years, or has read but mischievously ignored them all in order to make his point to a readership that is ignorant of what serious thinking about God is like.
If Prof Dawkins had taken the trouble to walk down the corridor and ask, for example, a thoughtful Christian doing high-level work in biology, what he or she thought about the origin of life, he would not have encountered a simple appeal to a miracle. He would have encountered a carefully-considered scientific answer. And if the possibility of a miracle were up for discussion, then he would have encountered a carefully thought-through, and indeed quite subtle view, one which fully acknowledged the caution with which appeals to miracle ought to be made.
The attempt to see the divine as a filler-in of gaps in scientific knowledge is profoundly misconceived. This is very well known in both philosophy and theology. Really. It is first year undergraduate or indeed high-school stuff; very basic. (See, for example, remarks from Karl Barth, Pope John Paul II and others on the quotations page here.) The reason this fact does not filter through very well into popular religion is that whereas it is easy to rule out various wrong ways to think about this (the “God of the gaps” etc.), it is not easy to state positively what is the right way. It is not easy to state correctly the relationship of the natural world to its foundation. This is subtle. Difficult. Also, it is not something you can merely toy with in your head; it is challenging to the will as well as the intellect. It is not easy to present in a book or in a blog. It involves metaphysically subtle ideas. It is harder to understand than Darwinian evolution. It does not replace Darwinian evolution but elucidates what it is that Darwinian evolution has been an expression of.
2. Miracles and the origin of life
Now let’s return to the point at issue, namely the origin of life on Earth.
When we ask ourselves about the origin of life, we must simply take an interest in the fact of the matter, not pre-judge the outcome. I suspect that this event was within the ordinary patterns of the natural world, and I also strongly suspect that those patterns have their origin in a grand act of self-giving from the same source that people encounter when they encounter mercy and grace and beauty and are called out of themselves in wonder and humility. But maybe I am wrong about the origin of life. Maybe it involved a special creative act from that same source. If it did, then so be it. There is nothing intellectually second-rate about that. The intellectually feeble position would be to say that the only possible or most likely cause is a miracle, in an area where our scientific knowledge is very incomplete. The origin of life is a case of that kind, so we are definitely cautious about assuming something miraculous there. The jury is out, but many of us would bet on natural process in this case.
This does not mean one can never, with intellectual integrity, take the miraculous seriously. For example, the case of a person found to be more fully alive after they had certainly died is different. There our scientific knowledge is complete enough: we know that this would not happen according to the ordinary patterns of the natural world. Of course one may then appeal to the naturalistic explanation that the reports are mistaken, and the events leading up to and following on from the experience in question are not impressive enough to offer credibility to the whole account. Such a line is always available, but irrelevant to my present point. The logic here is not about arguing the merits of accepting these particular reports at face value. I am using this example merely to illustrate the fact that the proper understanding of miracles does not invoke them in order to fill gaps in scientific knowledge. Rather, they are events that demand intellectual humility before something that re-configures our world-view in a way that makes profound sense, while always remaining uncertain.
In the case of the origin of life, there is a good chance that it lies within the normal workings of nature, as I already said. Note, however, that the origin of life remains a significant event. It is not like a meteor making another random crater on the moon, or a puddle evaporating. It is a remarkable example of the emergence of deep potential that was already present but previously lay hidden in the patterns of the world. It signifies. It is both a sign and a wonder.
3. Lazy way out
I have not yet dealt with the more difficult issue here. This is the whole nature of what constitutes explanation, what science is, and where religious response fits in. This is much more subtle and there are some real difficulties here, which Dawkins does not grapple with, although he does express some valid sense for where the difficulties lie.
Consider the following:
“To explain the origin of the DNA/protein machine by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer. You have to say something like ‘God was always there’, and if you allow yourself that kind of lazy way out, you might as well just say ‘DNA was always there’, or ‘Life was always there’, and be done with it.”
Now I do, yes, think that the origin of the laws of mathematics and physics, and of the universe that embodies them, and therefore the origin of the DNA/protein machine, is, in the end, or the beginning, a non-contingent reality that is not fully expressed or contained in the natural world. So, one which is, in that sense, supernatural. I am not sure about the word “Designer” however; it is not the first word that springs to mind. It seems to veer off to one side of the reality to which I refer. Better words might be “co-worker,” or “truth at work in love” or the phrase “One Who is Who that One Is”. This is not “to explain precisely nothing”, but to state what I think is the case. I also think it is the case that the Sun is huge ball of hydrogen and helium undergoing nuclear fusion, and that my brain is a collection of neurons, etc. etc.
The question here is, am I “invoking” a supernatural co-worker “in order to” explain the origin of the DNA/protein machine? The answer is, yes and no. No, not as part of the scientific enterprise, I am not. I would not do that nor recommend that anyone do that. But yes, as the reason for why there is a scientific enterprise in the first place, I am. Yet even here I give a qualified yes. The appeal to God is not made “in order to” achieve anything except pure truthfulness. It is not made in order to do a job, such as to explain a puzzle. It is not made as a means to an end, so that I can understand the world. No, it is a form of self-giving or self-opening. It is a way of saying, “I don’t know”. It is a way of saying “I don’t know but I am willing for the truth of things to be as it is, whatever that might be.” Or, perhaps, there is a note of unwillingness too. It is also about making a protest: about saying that we object to the practice of objectifying the whole world. We are going to have a go at receiving the world, including people and other animals in it, for whatever it and they may be, and we hope that it may be about goodness and beauty and courage and forgiveness.
The next part of the quotation above is an example of where I feel there is an appearance but not the reality of a rational argument. DNA is part of the natural world, embodied in time and space, and it does not really make any sense to suggest that DNA was always there. Equally, it does not make sense to suggest that physically embodied and temporally expressed life was always there. But one cannot argue logically from these examples to a statement about the foundations of the natural world, about the very nature of reason and truth, which is what we are talking about when we talk about God. It can, possibly at least, make sense to say that reason and truth was always there. This is no more a lazy way out than it is lazy or a way out to say anything else truthful and coherent.
Of course Dawkins might acknowledge something abstract such as reason and truth in the origins of how things are, without agreeing that that sort of origin could also listen or forgive. My aim here is not to convert anyone all in one go, but I do want to give a hint or a flavour of where people like me are coming from. The way of life we have embarked on is in keeping with the felt experience, and the fact that, actually, truth is, in a strange, subtle way, quite forgiving. That is, as I say, a hint, not the whole story.
4. Explanation and complexity
Behind the specific question of the origin of life on Earth there is the larger question of the origin of complexity in general in the universe. That is what is really driving the rhetoric here. For readers who recognize this and are waiting for a reply, I want to signal that I realise that this is the larger issue and I have begun to address it above, and will address it further below, but a full reply will have to be postponed for another post. For the moment I am mainly trying to show that the insults are unwarranted and although there is plenty of unintelligent religion in the world, there is also some intelligent theistic thinking to be found, but we need to put in the effort to find it. In the work of Prof Dawkins the false step comes right at the beginning, in the assumption that the only meaningful discourse available to humans is one in terms of entities, or abstract hypotheses, things that you can turn this way and that in your head, and consider at arms’ length. Talking about Absolute Reality in those terms is the logical equivalent of talking about the kilogram mass of a cello concerto, or the electric charge of parent-hood. It fails utterly. It just does not begin to grasp the nature of what we are encountering, or how we should go about learning, in this most deeply challenging area.
5. Breaking out of the system
I emphasized in the first section (“Education and intellectual progress”) the subtlety and difficulty of organized thought about metaphysics and what makes science possible. This is, in part, the difficulty of getting away from a completely self-contained system of belief, such as the one called “naturalism” in which the only things that are allowed to be called “real”, or even enter discussion, are things that are wholly embedded in the natural world, or principles and ideas that one can write down and consider passively.
In such a system, you the human individual are the judge of all that is real, and you have, at a profound level, pre-judged the nature of reality: it is seen wholly as something that can be captured in passive language, pinned down in analytical discourse, in a concept, a neat argument, a useful tool. Such an assumption fails to see that reality might be beyond you but calling to you, at a level and in ways that do not completely fit into abstract analysis, but can only be adequately responded to by giving, receiving, learning, journeying, growing, serving, without the comfort of a fully-grasped intellectual thesis to underpin it all. The rock on which you build is not a scientific case but a set of attitudes about how to live: to allow your heart to mourn, to notice and hold back when your ego is in danger of crushing others, to be hungry and thirsty for a better realisation of humanity in yourself, to be merciful, and pure of heart, and a peacemaker, and one who bears the consequences of others’ ill-will without returning it. And one of the required components of getting yourself fully into such a way of life is to accept that it is not possible to do it completely in and of yourself; you need help. Help from where? Help from the very reality you are trying to do business with when you are thirsty for things of this kind; help from the source which both offers you breath and life through natural processes, and which also stands ready to engage with you yourself: with your will and your uncertainty and your honest doubt and tentative hope.
The more we can get away from the idea that the nature of reality is to be assumed at the outset, not explored and discovered, the more progress we will make.
Andrew Steane, Oxford 2015