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Faith and Physics

The God Delusion,by Richard Dawkins, Bantam Press, 416 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0593055489

The first thing to be said about Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion is that it is a good read. In fact it is a romp – a high-spirited, no holds barred polemic, witty, with lots of interesting little stories, wide-ranging in its subject matter and taking on opponents he imagines coming at him from all angles – the sort of thing Christians used to be good at in happier times.

A number of reviewers have complained that Dawkins treats their deepest feelings and beliefs with open contempt; but Christian apologists down the ages could hardly be said to have treated the deepest feelings and beliefs of pagans, Muslims, Jews and other varieties of Christian with sensitivity and respect. As far as religious polemics are concerned, it has always been a matter of “if you don’t like the heat, get out of the kitchen”; Dawkins is only following a path that has been well worn by his Christian adversaries.

I do, of course, hope he is wrong in his central proposition, since if he is right my religious feelings will have to be satisfied with the enormous size of the universe, its great age and the huge statistical improbability of the wonderful things that surround us on our own small planet – all of which somehow fails to impress me if it is not informed by some sort of consciousness, especially one with whom I can enter into personal communication.

Dawkins’s great effort throughout all his books has been to show that the Darwinian principle of natural selection provides a sufficient, simple and elegant explanation for all the diverse phenomena of living nature. Thus he strives to demonstrate that all the changes that are necessary to produce complex organisms can pass through a succession of stages, each one very slight in itself and each of them (this is the great challenge he faces in his 1996 book Climbing Mount Improbable) beneficial in itself. Beyond this, he is distinguished by his argument that the unit pushing the process along must be the smallest, most elementary one: the gene (a thesis that would have been impossible in Darwin’s day before the gene was discovered). Animals, ourselves included, can therefore be represented as machines – “lumbering robots” – fashioned by genes to facilitate their own self-replication.

Interestingly, The God Delusion concedes that physics has not yet found a formula as neat as natural selection to explain how the universe, or our small part of it, could have reached the point at which the biological process of natural selection could start. But, and I have no reason to doubt it, it is only a matter of time before such a formula is found. Meanwhile, given the right physical conditions on planet Earth, all that was needed to kick the biological process off was a “replicator” – a combination of molecules able to reproduce itself (he develops this idea in chapter 2 of The Selfish Gene). With respect, however, it seems to me that more than that is needed. A combination of molecules able to reproduce itself, or that actually does reproduce itself, is one thing. But here we are talking about some sort of force that obliges the replicator and its successors to reproduce themselves – obliges them so powerfully that they have to adopt fabulously ingenious strategies for doing it. Physics has certainly not yet come up with a force of this kind and I haven’t found any clear explanation in Dawkins’s own writings of how such a force could have developed in biology.

Of course, when we say that animals are “fashioned” by genes, or that replicators “adopt fabulously ingenious strategies”, we are talking metaphorically. A very large amount of Dawkins’s prose is “metaphorical” in this sense, and that is one of the reasons why he is so entertaining and so popular. My own tendency only to be interested in the phenomena of consciousness – will, memory and intelligence (to use St Augustine’s psychological analogy for the persons of the Holy Trinity – De Trinitate, Book X) – is very widespread and Dawkins uses it as one of his interesting series of explanations as to why people believe in gods. In the action of the gene we seem to be talking about a will to survive, or, even more strangely, to reproduce; an ability to learn from experience, which evokes the notion of memory; and an ability to formulate and exercise strategies of quite staggering brilliance, evoking the idea of intelligence. These are all characteristics necessary to the working of the process of natural selection as he describes it and yet they are not attributes that we ever encounter in our normal experience independent of consciousness.

I do not wish to suggest that genes are conscious; or that “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower” is God. But Dawkins’s own data and argument do suggest that something resembling the characteristics of consciousness can exist, and can exercise considerable influence on the physical world, independently of the physical structure of a brain, a thesis that will surely give some comfort to the religious mind, without, in any way that I can see, inhibiting further scientific research.

Religion, as I understand it, argues that the world accessible to the senses is contingent on, and in some sense responsible to, another world which is not immediately accessible to the senses and does not in any way operate according to the same rules, the same “natural laws”, as the world accessible to the senses. This world is more analogous to what we think of as consciousness than to what we think of as matter. The thesis of the other world is, in very general terms, common to almost all religious systems, including all the different varieties of “paganism” and “animism”. It is perfectly possible not to believe in this other world, and also to discredit it intellectually, chiefly on the grounds of the different ways in which such worlds are furnished in different systems. However it is not possible to disprove it: indeed Dawkins accepts that it is impossible absolutely to disprove the existence of God. More to the point, I believe it is largely impervious to what Dawkins presents as a knockdown argument – that the existence of God is so improbable as to be virtually out of the question.

Dawkins’s argument is in summary that “any God capable of designing a universe, carefully and foresightfully tuned to lead to our evolution, must be a supremely complex and improbable entity who needs an even bigger explanation than the one he is supposed to provide”. But this is to treat God as another thing added to the multitude of things in the universe and subject to the same laws and principles as other things in the universe. From the earliest days, however, traditional Christianity – the chief target of Dawkins’s polemic – has treated God as unknowable and incomprehensible in essence, and consequently not a thing like other things. This incidentally helps explain why Christian theologians attached importance to the “substance” of God, a terminology Dawkins finds ridiculous. The point is that this “substance” of God is radically different from the substance of anything else. An emanationist system, such as Hinduism, Buddhism or the various systems associated with Platonism, will argue for one continuous substance linking the highest (the divine) to the lowest throughout the universe. A creationist religion, such as Judaism, Christianity or Islam, will argue for a sharp break in continuity between the non-created (the divine) and the created (everything else).

The Mystical Theology traditionally ascribed to St Paul’s disciple St Denys the Areopagite famously gives a “negative” definition of God. It gives a list of the things that God is not and since it is a very comprehensive list (including, for example, both “being” and “nonbeing”), Dawkins might read it as an early exercise in atheism. Yet it is one of the most important and influential texts of the early Christian church. It is obvious that anyone who understands God in these terms has to understand the jealous and wrathful lover of the Old Testament in metaphorical terms. And this is indeed what we find. In the monastic writings such as those collected in the Orthodox Philokalia (compiled in the seventeenth century but including material that goes back to the fourth century) there is much smiting of the Amalekites and dashing of the children of Babylon against the rock. But this is always understood metaphorically, as part of the individual soul’s struggle with the passions. And since that struggle is a very turbulent one the metaphor works well. Dawkins’s own books are, as has been noted, largely metaphorical (ascribing purpose and intention to the workings of “natural selection” – itself often treated as if it is a real entity that does things) so he is hardly in a position to complain.

But even a literal interpretation of the Bible is not without its merits. The Jewish Bible recounts the history of the people of Israel and that history is varied; it includes a wide variety of different political experiences which, when Christianity spread it through the world, enabled a wide variety of different peoples with different political experiences to identify with it. Its very cruelty and violence corresponded to people’s real experience of the cruelty and violence of the world. It was more realistic than the unrelentingly benevolent God of Platonism or of eighteenth century deism. Nor can it be said to have necessarily promoted cruelty and violence. The Jews themselves, the people most utterly absorbed in contemplation of the Torah, were determinedly and as a matter of principle pacifist for nearly two thousand years until the nineteenth century and the rise of Zionism. Zionism had to engage in a conscious assault on the traditional, biblical, idea of what it was to be a Jew. Since this assault was largely secularist, Dawkins would presumably approve.

Biblical realism too, one would have thought, corresponds quite well to at least one aspect of the Darwinist understanding of the natural world. Dawkins refers a little dismissively to the great eighteenth century “natural theologian” William Paley, but he himself, and Darwin too, could be presented as part of an intellectual tradition that leads back to Paley. Paley wrote detailed and delightful accounts of the ways in which different parts of the natural world interact, of how everything in it appears to be designed for a purpose. Paley of course took this as proof of the goodness of God. His benign view of the workings of the world was however difficult to reconcile with the less benign view of that we find in the Old Testament. Darwin’s vivid descriptions of the violence that accompanies the evolutionary process could be said to have restored the credibility of the Old Testament as a moral description of the way things are.

The point to be emphasised, however, is that the earliest forms of Christianity argue for a God who is unknowable in his essence and therefore not amenable to any calculation of probabilities based on any logic we can possibly imagine. There is no question of wondering how many hands he would need to do all the things religion expects him to do. This is not a doctrine evolved in recent years as a panicky response to the advances of scientific knowledge. The gulf of incomprehension between Dawkins and the Christian tradition on this point is immense. For Dawkins, to say “omnipotent” is to say “improbably complex”. For traditional theology, to say “omnipotent” is to say “beyond all understanding and logic”. It is true that Thomas Aquinas and his school muddied the waters by declaring that God had to be rational (this is actually the central theme of the discourse by Pope Benedict XVI which caused the recent furore in the Muslim world). Dawkins’s brief objections to Aquinas’s “proofs” of the existence of God are actually similar to the objections raised by the fourteenth century anti-papal theologian William of Occam; and a similar dispute occurred in Islam in the twelfth century between Averroes (Ibn Rushd – greatly admired by Aquinas) and al-Ghazali. Both Occam and al-Ghazali insisted that God was not amenable to reason. In the Christian tradition, Occam is seen as preparing the way for a scientific world view by liberating human reasoning from the toils of theology. In the Islamic tradition al-Ghazali is seen as cutting off the development of a scientific world view by conveying the idea that human reasoning is impotent.

But even Aquinas, I believe, sees God’s rationality as an act of grace, not as a force to which God himself is subject. God was not a product of the rules of the universe. He made the rules himself and we “trust” him to abide by them. “Trust”, incidentally, is the principal meaning of the word “faith” not, as Dawkins seems to think, “belief”. Merely believing in a set of propositions is not a Christian virtue; “even the devils believe – and tremble” (James 2.19).

Dawkins has much in common with Aquinas: he wants to believe that the complex evolves out of the simple. The simple must precede the complex. This is a very Aristotelian assumption and is one of the reasons why Aquinas argued the idea that God is simple, though what he meant by this is that God is not divided into parts – there’s not one part of him here and another part of him there. Everywhere he is – and he is everywhere – he is entire. I would have thought, however, that the scientific notion of simplicity was undermined by our ever increasing awareness of the complexity of the atom and of the possible – indeed almost certain – existence of “worlds” that are inaccessible to the senses and not susceptible to the normal rules of logic. I would myself suggest that the consciousness of every sentient being in the universe is such a world.

The idea of other worlds operating according to a different logic – where, for example, the complex might be evolving into the simple – is not an idea that should pose any problems for Richard Dawkins. I don’t suppose that as our “photographs” of dark matter improve we will begin to discern angels and devils and heavenly cities or rivers of fire, but those we already have do confirm the thesis that the visible universe is accompanied by and perhaps structured around at least one much larger invisible one. Dawkins evokes the many alternative universes whose existence is suggested by quantum theory – readers of old Superman comics will be familiar with the idea. None of this quite corresponds to the alternative worlds I have in mind which are, as I have already said, more like what we think of as “consciousness” than what we like to think of as “matter”. But, in common with most of humanity throughout most of human history, and with the “idealist” school of philosophy, which continues to the present day and includes the names of Berkeley, Kant and Schopenhauer, I take the view that the material worlds exist only as a series of attributes of consciousness. They are such things as dreams are made of, and the fact that they function following strict rules only confirms the argument, since what are rules but intellectual constructions, functions of consciousness?

Imagine my delight, then, when, in his last chapter – for no reason that I can see other than sheer scientific rigour and intellectual exuberance, or perhaps a simple desire to lift himself up to the heights already occupied by religion – Dawkins suddenly concedes a large part of the idealist argument. He emphasises the fact (and of course it is a fact) that it is only as an attribute of consciousness that the world can be known. And our consciousness is only able to know the world in a very limited, carefully calibrated, way. He delights me further by interpreting “physical” reality or “matter” in terms of vibrations or “waves”, and says we are only able to respond to a very small band of the possible frequencies. But once it is conceded that matter can only be known as an attribute of consciousness it is surely just a small step towards suggesting that it might only exist as an attribute of consciousness, a small step but one that requires the existence of a consciousness – or, awkward as the word is, consciousnesses – different from and unimaginably greater than our own. That is to say God, or gods.

If we can be understood as radio receivers surely it is not difficult to imagine the existence of one, or several transmitters. “Such bandwidth!” as Dawkins exclaims, and indeed why not? Any theory of the universe – theist or non-theist – has to start with a given. Why should the given be thought of as a manifestation (vibrations, matter) rather than something that is capable of manifesting (a transmitter, consciousness). Dawkins’s books seem to me to be full of building blocks that could be used to construct an argument for the existence of God (he could with a little tweaking be turned into the William Paley of the twenty-first century). All the scientific parts of his book would be left unchanged, but the unscientific polemics against God and in praise of the wonders of the unaided material world would be replaced with equally unscientific praises offered up to God.

But perhaps instead of “building blocks” I should have said “memes”. This is the most entertaining of Dawkins’s innovations in the theory of natural selection. On first sight it looks like a very witty parody of the “selfish gene” theory – in fact on second, third and fourth sight it still looks like a very witty parody of the “selfish gene” theory.

The Selfish Gene argues that everything in biology, ourselves included, is driven by the need for genes to reproduce themselves (a “need” which itself, as I have remarked, remains unexplained). The theory of the “meme” argues that everything in the world of consciousness and culture is driven by the need for “memes” to reproduce themselves. As genes are the simplest elements in biology (though they are far from simple) so memes are the simplest elements in culture – individual ideas, tunes, images, advertising slogans. They replicate themselves by jumping from one person to another in conversation, just as genes pass on their likenesses from one person to another in the sexual act. As the sexual act is a submission to the imperious demands made by the genes, so human conversation is a submission to the imperious demands made by the memes. Dawkins does believe that “we” can challenge the genes and the memes. For example he sees “God” as a sort of rogue meme, one that is actually harmful to our own preservation as a species and therefore to the replication of other, superior memes – such as, dare we say, “natural selection”. But it is difficult to understand what, in this way of looking at things, “we” are supposed to be. Surely “we” are just a collection of genes and memes.

The whole idea bears a remarkable similarity to the Christian idea of the individual driven by demons and angels; but Christianity does allow for the existence of the individual person as an ontological reality – a hypostasis, as the theologians would say. A number of passing remarks seem to suggest that Dawkins – bluff, plain-speaking English empiricist that he is – has little time for postmodernism, deconstructionism or other fancy foreign notions, but all this sounds very much like the postmodernist, deconstructionist denial of the “subject”. There is a well-established line of religious argument (the Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev, a follower of Dostoyevsky, is an example) that the destruction of God will necessarily result in the destruction of Man, and Dawkins’s genes ‘n’ memes theory could be cited as a case in point.

Dawkins is not just arguing that religion is stupid, or that it is an obstacle to scientific thought. He regards it as positively wicked. Its influence, he believes, has always been malign. Of course he has little difficulty in finding examples of religiously motivated wickedness; but he faces an obvious riposte, which is that in the relatively short period in which militant atheism has been able to act as a force in the world it seems to have done quite a good job in catching up with religion in the oppression and mass-murder stakes.

Dawkins tackles this objection in a sub-chapter entitled “What about Hitler and Stalin? Weren’t they atheists?” He is right to say that the case of Hitler is ambiguous (though he certainly wasn’t an atheist; the ambiguity lies in his attitude towards Christianity). There is, however, no ambiguity in the case of Stalin, which he dismisses very briefly with a bald declaration that Stalin’s wickedness had nothing to do with his atheism – “there is no evidence that his atheism motivated his brutality”.

The Bolsheviks were a small, indeed almost minuscule, group of atheists possessed of what they saw as a thoroughly modern scientific world view, who took and held power over an immense territory in which religious world views, chiefly Orthodox Christianity and Islam, were deeply entrenched. It was an astonishing achievement, but it was done, and probably only could have been done, by effectively waging war against the rest of society and in particular its existing political and intellectual culture. Like Dawkins they believed that religious views were stupid. Like Dawkins they believed they were an obstacle to the progress of science and technology, which, like Dawkins, they believed to be a Good Thing. Dawkins sees religious indoctrination as a form of child abuse and suggests that parents should be prevented from engaging in it. He does not suggest how this could be done but it was attempted over a period of seventy years by the Bolsheviks. Stalin is the major name associated with this effort to do what Dawkins believes ought to be done, though Khrushchev launched a fresh wave of oppression in the 1960s (Stalin had let up on it a little in order to develop a united front in the war against Nazi Germany). Dawkins is under a strong moral obligation, if he wants to establish the relative harmlessness of atheism, to take this matter seriously.

But in fact it is not just a matter of atheism. Dawkins is a Darwinist – an orthodox Darwinist, as he insists in The Selfish Gene. The expression “social Darwinism” appears only once in The God Delusion, very much in passing (at least in so far as I can remember: it doesn’t appear at all in the index). Nor do I remember any appearance of the words “survival of the fittest”, yet this – an alternative way of expressing Dawkins’s central notion of natural selection – was among the most influential social and political ideas of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Marx was an enthusiast for Darwin’s teachings, seeing them as complementary to his own, and evolution and natural selection were taught throughout the Soviet education system with never a hint of creationism or “intelligent design”. Unquestionably the determinist character of Darwinist doctrine, which Dawkins on occasion enjoys emphasising, reinforced the Bolsheviks’ confidence in the irresistibility of the process of human evolution which they were engaged in furthering. Communism’s great rivals – economic liberalism and fascism — were also both much taken with the idea. Economic liberalism used it to emphasise the virtues of competition and the need to use all necessary means to open up international markets. Dawkins shows an uneasy awareness of this when in a footnote he quotes Jeff Skilling, “CEO of the infamous Enron corporation”, saying that The Selfish Gene is his favourite book.

The importance of “survival of the fittest” in fascist ideology and racial theory hardly needs emphasising. Dawkins does, to his credit, quote a rather nasty piece of racism from one of his own heroes, TH Huxley. But he presents this as little more than a product of the zeitgeist. It seems to me to be rather more fundamental than that. It is difficult to see why, by Dawkins’s own standards, one wouldn’t regard our civilisation, the civilisation whose development made possible the appearance of Darwin, as more capable and more worthy to survive than the denizens of some African village, sunk in superstition and mental slavery. An unfair point? It is actually such a hugely important point that I think Dawkins, whose great merit is his willingness to look difficulties in the face, will have to address it if he wants, as seems to be the case, to move into the field of politics and moral philosophy. How would a Christian address it? Individual Christians may well admire great men of one sort or another – scientists, artists, statesmen or whatever – but Christianity as such, primarily concerned with the eternal life of the soul, is quite indifferent to them. It is certainly as likely, probably more likely, to find the qualities that interest it in the African village than in the university lecture room.

I must quickly stress that I am not in any way accusing Dawkins himself of sharing any of these ideas. So far as I can see from his various interventions his political views are not a million miles removed from my own. He was one of the first to sign a petition got up in Oxford University against the invasion of Iraq. But the fact is that “orthodox” Darwinism has already been applied to wider, more human questions and the result was not pretty. It is only very approximately and sketchily that Dawkins indicates his own doctrine could do much better. Yet in the provocative first paragraph of The Selfish Gene he says:

We no longer have to resort to superstition when faced with the deep problems: Is there a meaning to life? What are we for? What is man? After posing the last of these questions the eminent zoologist G.G. Simpson put it thus: “The point I want to make now is that all attempts to answer that question before 1859 are worthless and that we will be better off if we ignore them completely.”

So it would hardly be enough for him to show that his heart is in the right place even though he is a Darwinist; he has to show somehow – and he hasn’t managed to do it here – that Darwinism has some sort of innate tendency to put his heart in the right place.

If he does set about this task he might have some difficulty in distinguishing himself from Christianity in all its divisions and confusion. Sure, he doesn’t approve of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon. But how does he explain it? He treats it as if it is some sort of straightforward emanation from the pages of the Qu’ran; or as if suicide bombers do it because they want to get their hands on the seventy-two virgins. This is a level of “analysis” worthy of the Christian Coalition. No mention of the many years in which the Arab and Muslim worlds have been tortured and bullied and their political evolution distorted by the intervention of the Western powers. Had he been attacking Islam fifty years ago I imagine he might have criticised its “fatalism”, its refusal to put up a fight, inshallah and all the rest of it. Sure, he doesn’t like Christians who bomb abortion clinics. But there are plenty of Christians who don’t like Christians who bomb abortion clinics. He feels that the Christian emphasis on the sacredness of human life acts as an obstacle to scientific progress. But his fellow atheist Peter Singer has argued on perfectly non-religious grounds that programming animals to develop cancerous tumours and then bombarding them with large doses of radiation is immoral. There will be no shortage of people ready to say that such scruples are an obstacle to scientific progress. How much animal suffering did it take to produce Dolly the Sheep (an achievement for which Dawkins has expressed great admiration)? Was that “a price worth paying”? Dawkins complains that as a member of the genus homo sapiens he is discriminated against because no one is allowed, should the occasion arise, to put him down humanely. Given the routine cruelty of our relations with the animal world that is a joke in very poor taste. Dawkins supports the rights of homosexuals. But as someone active in a small way in Gay Liberation in the 1970s I don’t remember that atheists, let alone Darwinists, were much in advance of Christians in the great change in the zeitgeist that has occurred over the past thirty years. Nor indeed was the atheist Soviet Union exactly ahead of the game in this respect.

The theory of natural selection may help us to understand some aspects of the evolution of natural forms. With regard to more purely human concerns – morals, politics, aesthetics (those things in which we may be said to have been made in the image of God) – it has nothing of any value to contribute.

But let me end on a more amiable, irenic note. In his last chapter (my favourite chapter in the book) he quotes AA Milne’s lovely poem about Christopher Robin’s invisible and always reliable friend, Binker. He speculates that that might be what it is like to believe in God. He also tells the story of one of his own friends’ relations with a “little purple man”. He tells us he finds this very moving, and so do I. It is almost worth reading the book for it alone. Recently I was saying good night to a child who was lying in bed surrounded by an impressive array of small fluffy animals. I was struck by the comparison that could be made with myself as an Orthodox Christian, surrounded by my icons. Yes. It is a bit like that. It is wonderful. It is like reaching up to the cosmos, whose enormity fills Dawkins with awe, and holding its hand. I recommend it heartily.

Peter Brooke is the author of Ulster Presbyterianism, The Historical Perspective, 1610-1970, Athol Books, Belfast, and of an account of the life and thought of the French Cubist painter Albert Gleizes, For and Against the Twentieth Century, Yale University Press, London and New Haven.



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