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Sat, 18 Jun 2011

Dawkins and Scientism: Exploring the Connections

In this blog I have written a lot about Richard Dawkins' atheism ("The Anti-Dawkins Papers" plus other posts in the atheism category). However, there is one important question about Dawkins that I've never fully addressed. Does Dawkins' position in The God Delusion amount to "scientism" - the attitude that science is the only legitimate way of knowing the truth, or at least is far superior to other ways of knowing the truth?

If you read The God Delusion carefully, you cannot help feeling that Dawkins is preaching scientism. Dawkins doesn't seem to think that nonscientific ways of knowing have much importance to our understanding of the nature of reality. He even tries to reduce the question of the existence of God - a philosophically loaded problem with many conceptual complexities - to a problem that can be settled by science alone [1]. He does acknowledge at least one nonscientific way of knowing: he mentions philosophy, and especially moral philosophy, in a positive way [2]. However, his worldview clearly is driven by one way of knowing: science.

You don't have to go by general impressions like these to recognize that The God Delusion promotes scientism. Here are some examples that reveal Dawkins' scientistic view of things. (Note that I said "scientistic," not "scientific.")

First, there is his discussion of philosophical naturalism near the beginning of the book [3]. Not all of the beliefs he attributes to naturalists are necessary for naturalism. He describes a materialistic or physicalistic view of the mind and takes it to be part of naturalism. In reality, you don't have to embrace this view to be a philosophical naturalist. Instead, you could adopt another view of mind, such as neutral monism or a double-aspect theory, and still be a naturalist. (That is exacly what Spinoza did [4].) However, Dawkins ignores these other possibilities. He adopts the view of mind that we would end up with if science alone could solve the mind-body problem. The other possibilities raised by philosophical analysis (a nonscientific way of knowing) just get ignored. This is a scientistic move if there ever was one.

Second, consider the main argument in The God Delusion. This is the "argument from improbability" set forth in chapter 4. I've already exposed the mistakes in this argument elsewhere (see this paper). Here I'll just point out that the main mistake is a glaring example of scientism. What is this mistake? It's the attempt to make an estimate of probability on a hypothetical entity that is defined in advance to be supernatural. Probability estimates for complex systems depend on the laws of nature (read this paper for details and examples). Once we define God as supernatural, we cannot safely assume that if there were a God then the usual laws of nature would apply to God. (If all the laws of nature did apply to God, then we could understand God as part of the framework of nature, so God wouldn't count as supernatural.) But this serious conceptual problem doesn't stop Dawkins. He goes ahead and applies an argument based on the laws of nature to a conjectured being defined, in advance, so that the laws need not apply to it. Nice trick if you can do it!

Note that I am not claiming there is a supernatural God - though probably some angry Dawkins-heads will accuse me of claiming this, just because I disagree with Dawkins about something. I don't even claim that such a being is probable. (Follow these links for my opinions on theism and the supernatural.) I'm just pointing out a feature of one of Dawkins' arguments. The implicit, underlying logic of that argument seems to be something like this: God (if there were one) would be supernatural; but natural laws would apply to God anyhow, because, well, they're science; therefore, we can go ahead and apply natural laws to that blatantly nonnatural being without any worries. If that isn't scientism, then what is it?

Third, when Dawkins defines "God" [5], he brushes aside the philosophical conceptions of God that are scientifically untestable. He leaves us with only a supernaturalistic conception (an easy target for scientific skepticism) and a simple sort of pantheism that he can easily absorb into atheism. I dealt with this stunning omission at length in the first Anti-Dawkins Paper (follow this link for the details). Dawkins claims that the existence of God is a scientific problem [6], but he is able to make this claim only because he has done some serious cherrypicking, leaving out the ideas of God that are not scientifically testable. Again, if this isn't scientism, what is it?

Fourth, in one spot Dawkins bitterly criticizes the idea that "other ways of knowing besides the scientific" might be relevant to the God question [7]. Can that leave any doubt about the role of scientism in his position?

Fifth, in his discussion of dualism, Dawkins describes monism in a way that clearly restricts it to materialistic monism [8]. He doesn't even bother about monism in general, which includes not only materialism, but also viewpoints like double-aspect monism and neutral monism. In effect, he dismisses all forms of monism except the most scientific-seeming one - the one that requires almost no philosophical reflection. He equates monism to that single form of monism. This is another splendid example of scientistic bias.

Followers of Dawkins will, no doubt, point out passages in Dawkins' book where he seems to disagree with scientism. To preempt the most obvious rebuttal of this sort, I will point out the best example of such a passage. In Chapter 4, during a discussion of the improbability of God, Dawkins writes "I am not advocating some sort of narrowly scientistic way of thinking." [9] I am confident that Dawkins was sincere when he wrote that statement - but how can the statement possibly be correct, in view of what he says elsewhere about naturalism, improbability, monism, ways of knowing, and the definition of God? True, his position isn't an exceptionless scientism - he mentions some forms of philosophy favorably - but his position still is both narrow and scientistic. His anti-scientistic remark seems silly when you consider what's in other parts of the book.

Dawkins' position in The God Delusion amounts to a form of scientism. It is not scientism of the absolute sort that disallows all nonscientific knowledge, but it is scientism nonetheless, even if it allows some wiggle room for other ways of knowing.




References to The God Delusion (TGD) refer to the following edition: Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston and N.Y.: Houghton Mifflin, 2006).

[1] TGD, especially chapter 4. See also p. 55.

[2] See for example chapter 6.

[3] TGD, pp. 13-14.

[4] If you have any doubt that Spinoza's naturalistic worldview is more than just physicalistic, read Will Durant's chapter on Spinoza in Durant's book The Story of Philosophy (N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1953).

[5] In TGD, chapters 1 and 2; see especially pp. 12-13, 18-19, and 31.

[6] TGD, especially chapter 4. See also p. 55.

[7] TGD, p. 154.

[8] TGD, pp. 179-180.

[9] TGD, p. 155.


Post edited slightly 7/5/2011.


posted at: 03:59 | path: /religion/atheism | persistent link to this entry


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