Friday, August 01, 2008

HOW TO KNOW YOU KNOW YOU KNOW IT

Knotes on Richard Dawkin’s article “Is God a Computer Virus”, New Statesmen Dec 1992

by Tim Reeves 18/9/93

Revised January 1997

1) RELIGIOUS RAMBOS exercising their believing muscles, nervous wimps in religion, wild red blooded Catholics, and virtuoso believers skilled in the arts of believing the unbelievable, are all some of the characters one meets in Richard Dawkin's article "Is God a Computer Virus” (New Statesman, Dec. 92). I found the subject matter of the article laughably caricatured and I wasn't sure how seriously the proposition was to be taken. But having heard and read Dawkins in the past I think he is serious, although he takes far from seriously those who are the subject of his thesis. His ideas do have a bearing in some quarters, especially the cults, but for myself I found it difficult to identify the faith of some of the people I meet, or my own faith, with what Dawkins describes. However, if Dawkins is right, then it is unlikely that I could make such an identification, because it is no doubt part of the survival strategy of the "faith virus" to be difficult to detect by victims. It is, therefore, difficult for a person of faith to oppose the faith virus theory by attempting prove that they are not a victim, because the theory probably implies that the virus is likely to induce its victim to try and do this any way in order to enhance its survivability. Thus my opposition, as a person of faith, will hardly count as evidence. In this respect Dawkins faith virus theory is remarkably like the faith virus itself in that one can say of both, to quote Dawkins, "Once the proposition is believed it automatically undermines opposition to itself"!! The faith virus theory is also self-referential like the faith virus. But I am not going to be too hard on Dawkins here; Self reference, particularly of the self supporting stable kind, as I will go on to show, is not necessarily a bad thing. But let us note the irony in Dawkins thesis !

2) THE PENULTIMATE PARAGRAPH of the article is really the most interesting bit. Here, after considering and lampooning (harpooning?) those wallowing in the sea of faith, this solid, no nonsense, bah-humbug biologist attempts to put his intellectual anchors down on what he thinks is the firm bedrock of science. As we know, this bedrock, in a philosophical sense, is far from firm. Who is going to tell him ?

3) AS DAWKINS SMUGLY throws out an anchor in the penultimate paragraph it seems to me that his anchor simply catches on to the very raft on which he is standing. His justification of science in terms of exacting selective scrutiny of concepts, non-capricious ideas, evidential support, repeatability, progressiveness, independence of cultural milieu etc., itself appears to be a scientific view of science, presumably based on some juxtaposition of a theoretical conception of science and observations of it. Now, I don't want to be misunderstood here; some might think that this scientific self referencing is sufficient to rubbish Dawkins, but for myself, not only do I tend to agree with his views on science (although they need further scrutiny), but I find no a priori problem with self-description, self-reference, or self-justification. For the moment, however, let us be aware that it is happening, covertly, in this penultimate paragraph, where Dawkins anchors science to science, and let us, once again, make a note of the irony.

4) RUSSELL'S PARADOX, which was a famous contradiction arising from self-referencing or self-descriptive statements, was solved by doing not much more than simply disallowing such self-referencing. However, this solution, although valid, was highly artificial. Self-description and self-reference can and do exist, but if we allow them to exist in our knowledge there is a price: Self-description and self-reference are forms of feedback, and therefore if we accept them we also have to accept that in analogy with systems where feedback exists, we will have the possibility of both stable and unstable conceptual behaviour. The stablility of non-contradictory thinking contrasts with the unstable world of contradiction where we find a cognitive analogy to the oscillatory or chaotic behaviour produced by certain types of feedback. The liability of unstable cognition is a consequence of the human ability to have knowledge about knowledge, and it becomes a possibility as soon as we allow even subtle updates in what we know about our knowledge to register themselves as part and parcel with that knowledge. Of course, in mathematics, one can attempt to rule out this conceptual feedback, but in the real world of cognition it exists, and Russell's solution, although fine for set theory, is only an artificial device.

5) I HAVE A THEORY that at least part of the reason for the demise of 18th century rationalism was the rather unnerving effects of conceptual feedback. With the early success of science and the consequent feeling that the race was onto a good thing, it is not surprising that eventually a rational view of rationalism would be attempted. Thus, as in various philosophical endeavours understanding sought to understand itself, what was to prove a very dangerous loop was quietly closed, and a trap was set for any who might leave the straight and narrow. A little knowledge was to prove a dangerous thing, and so in a series of philosophical debacles the painful signals of conceptual feedback started to flow like blood in a previously constricted limb. Extreme empiricism in the form of positivism discovered unstable feedback as soon as people started asking whether the verifiability principle was verifiable. Kant, in his search for a-priori synthetic knowledge about the world, failed to get to the other side of the cognitive interface we have with it, and was left dumbfounded by the result that mind appeared to be justified by mind, and he virtually lost contact with the "external" world. Darwin sensed the possibility of unstable feedback as he mused over how an evolutionary system, which appeared to be governed only by a survivalist ethic, had any obligation to produce minds that could understand evolution. The ulterior motives that sometimes lurk behind reflections such as these can be highly self-destructive. On many issues (but certainly not all) high standards of empirical verification and/or testing are possible, and this is capable of supporting a healthy level of scepticism because providence allows its satiation with sufficient empirical demonstration. However, this scepticism has a tendency to become more extreme, thoroughgoing and demanding, perhaps as a result of a proud desire for intellectual self sufficiency founded on "absolute" knowledge. And so, as if in a judgment on the abuse of providence, this scepticism is permitted to start to doubt and therefore undermine the a-priori methods, assumptions, and mental toolkit that providence supplies in order for scepticism to go about satiating itself in the first place. Thus, without taking the utility of these gifts of providence for granted, human scepticism remains deeply unsatisfied. It is as if the stomach, in it’s craving for food, was to start digesting itself.

6) THE PHYSICAL SCIENCES are served by a meritocratic elite, holders of strange and deep secrets who express themselves in obscure technical and mathematical language that not many can fathom. This knowledge, some may say, and many appear to accept, is the key to the mystery of life, the universe, and everything; every academic subject is just a footnote to physics; the physicist Richard Feynmann called the social disciplines pseudo science, and the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawkin writes the wave function for the universe! Whether right or wrong, the attitudes underlying this sort of thing, are asking for trouble; some of the gut feelings at the bottom of both religious and secular humanism are offended here.

At the heart of humanistic endeavours there seems to be a necessity to have a basic a-priori optimism about the possibilities open to human achievement and its ability to eventually attain peace, justice and fairness. If this, what sometimes appears to be crass optimism, didn't exist it is unlikely that humanistic projects, like Marxism (and Fascism), for example, would ever get off the ground. Hence, it may be felt that a situation where an intellectual elite hold the keys of all knowledge just can't be right; it cuts across humanistic optimism; it isn't fair, it isn't accountable, it isn't egalitarian; surely the universe is amenable to a more socialist approach? Worst of all, I suspect, is that it also cuts across some people’s own taste for intellectual hegemony. So, it is with great glee that some of these people pounce on the discomfiture of science found in the great feedback debacles, where the physical sciences appeared to lose something of their absoluteness. Moreover, Kant had showed that the human element must be highly active in the pursuit of knowledge. So, in the battle for academic and intellectual hegemony there have been those who, jealous of the position and achievements of the physical sciences, have so emphasised the human element in the quest for knowledge that one can be forgiven for thinking that they are suggesting this element is all there is to it, and that human and cultural studies are therefore more fundamental. Some of the more extreme disciples of social historicism, objective idealism, dialectical materialism, existentialism, and subjective idealism appear to be consumed by ‘science envy’. There may be something to be said for all these points of view, but when they become fortresses in the battle for intellectual domination, the trappings of offence and defence do not help toward an impartial consideration of them. It is as if opthalmists were to claim that the meaning of life, the universe and everything is to be found by studying the eye. After all, a case could be made for this in as far as much of life revolves round sight! The motives behind the intellectual anti-science culture are not only clear, but it is also clear that it is a culture that has potentially worse conceptual feedback problems than the physical sciences. The latter may claim, (although it can never assuage absolute scepticism) that the world of physical laws is unchanged by thought and culture, and that science therefore has the effect of anchoring knowledge. But if, in contrast, knowledge is only part and function of culture, then as it seeks to know that culture (of which it is a part) it will in turn change that culture, thus in turn altering itself. Therefore, it will find itself following a moving target leading, perhaps, to a runaway feedback situation resembling a dog chasing it's own tail. Perhaps a run around of this kind is precisely what is happening in our society!

7) CONCEPTUAL FEEDBACK is inevitable, but an important question is, is the feedback we are interested in stable? If it was not possible to attain stable knowledge we could not know about this instability ourselves in a stable way because if we did, then it would, of course, contradict this condition of universally unstable knowledge. However, if some truly stable knowledge existed, then a stable belief in stability could be part of that stability, and therefore, a-priori stable conditions admit the possibility that we could know of this stability in a stable way. (Got that?) At least a modicum of a-priori stability is required for stable knowledge; we would not be the creators of this stability - it would just have to be accepted and exploited, as probably happens in the physical sciences. Moreover, the physical sciences seems to be blessed with a high proportion of solid and reliable types who tend not to endlessly analyse their assumptions, thus closing the feedback loop, but instead are inclined to go ahead and exploit their "hard", "firm", "soft", and sometimes thoroughly "wet" brainware to the full. No wonder the social and human disciplines find progress more difficult! If some of the students of these disciplines concentrated less on making a style out of defining and redefining themselves, of constantly being insecure about making assumptions, and of tampering with a mental toolkit they don't understand, along with various other behavioural affectations, then they might find progress easier! I therefore have great sympathy with Dawkin's implicitly self-referencing, but stable, characterisation of science. However, one may ask what, apart from gut reaction, makes Dawkins object to some of the equally stable "faith viruses" he describes?

8) THE ARTICLE FAILS to elucidate the reason for this gut reaction because it gives little space to the question of just what characteristic makes a virus a virus. If all that characterises a virus is that it is a resilient self-perpetuating packet of information then I suppose one might argue that knowledge of how to open a door is a virus. That latter is a concept that spreads from human to human and even cats and dogs have been observed to catch this very successful cognitive virus. In this sense any useful piece of information becomes a virus. But what marks out a useful piece of information from a virus is the former’s role in relation to a larger context; what distinguishes the door opening concept from a virus is that the former takes part in a wide symbiosis: Without the door opening concept life as a whole would become very difficult, whereas without a virus life is not difficult; on the contrary life's identity and stability is usually enhanced by the absence of a virus, whereas the absence of useful information not only diminishes life’s identity and stability, but may even make life impossible because life is dependent on useful information. In contrast, life is not necessarily dependent on a virus, although the virus is inevitably parasitic upon life and therefore necessarily dependent on it. In a strange inversion of transactive justice the virus may even exact a cost on the host for the privilege of helping to maintain the viral identity; namely chaos in the host. In a word the virus gives nothing and takes all just short of the final extinction of the host. So, is the God concept of this ilk? I would say no; it is part of a wider symbiosis, and a lot more than that!

9) THE NARROW CONFINES of extreme forms of reductionist materialism, dialectical materialism, social historicism, objective idealism, existentialism and subjective idealism may be dogmatic about what can be, but for myself I found that I could never claim to know enough to be able to say "there is no God". For all I knew the notion of God could be both intelligible and real. Take the issue of intelligibility: Is the concept of God so diffuse that it is meaningless? Dogmatic "intelligibility atheism", like "ontological atheism" founders on the inevitable finiteness of experience and knowledge; my concepts of complex things such as "personality", "human beings", social interactions and even complex computer behaviour may also be rather diffuse. But clarity comes with experience and learning, and, moreover, there seems to be a rough rule that the less trivial and more significant something gets the less amenable it is to the immediate senses and lower cognitive functions. If God existed, then like many social entities, there was going to be a problem for me in grasping both the meaning and reality of God. No "proof of God" was ever likely to be found that was big and complex enough and I could no more expect to "see" God than I could expect to "see", other than metaphorically, a personality or a society. What should one do when faced with these uncertainties? Should one commit oneself to atheism, God, or nothing at all? To me there seemed to be no middle way. Like a man in an aircraft going down in flames, I had only two options: stay with the aircraft or bale out. But I had an advantage over the man in the burning aircraft: He could make a wrong decision; the plane may or may not crash badly or he may or may not muff the parachute drop. Christian living appeared to do good things to people, things that a thorough going secular philosophy failed to do. So even if this God business was rubbish I had little to lose by giving it a try. Born out of uncertainty and the need to act was the realisation that, as Pascal noted, opting for God was the better half of the bet. I couldn't go wrong. So I made my choice and it turned out to be the best thing I ever did! And so it should have been; absence of proof or disproof proves nothing; if God was logically meaningful and ontologically real, and moreover personal and relevant to my existence, then positive evidence was obliged to come along eventually. It has been said that assertions of existence are scientifically intractable because one has to look all over the place to prove or disprove them; however, the logic changes a little if that which is asserted to exist comes looking for you!

10) LACK OF BALANCE is how I would describe Dawkin’s article in New Statesman. In trying to maintain a balance myself, I would acknowledge that there might be circumstances to which Dawkin’s ideas apply, but there are also religious connections to which they do not. For myself, and some other nervous wimps in religion, Dawkins ideas are inapplicable because experience, evidence, reason and philosophy play an important role in nuturing and maintaining faith. For example, the inevitable level of giveness in the universe, the consciousness discontinuity, historical evidence re the life of Christ and His resurrection, personal experiences and the synchronous nature of certain events in one's life, all act in the germination and maintenance of faith. Of course, in comparison with the kind of secular intelligentsia that Dawkins represents one might appear as a mistaken fool about all this, but, nevertheless, we are talking here of something far removed from the sort of "faith" described by the article. In the article we find reference to a kind of fideist and gnosto-dualist faith that is self supporting in the sense that it loves itself more and more as it is less and less contaminated by the profanity of evidential or reasoned support of any kind.

Much more could be made of the "compost" of experience, and evidence that help nourish the seeds of faith during growth, but I would like to pick up something which is more in line with the theme of self-reference.

11) DAWKINS IS RIGHT, in a sense, that a faith like the Christian faith does have a considerable conceptual stability arising out of its self-referential nature. However, this self referential stability exists not in the way described in the article, but as a result of the Christian belief in a loving personal God. To see this, contrast it with the opposite view, namely, that the world, apart from oneself, is primarily and fundamentally apersonal and/or disinterested. Influenced by a belief (for such it is) of this sort, one may rightly question and feel sceptical about whether one's knowledge represents anything at all; apersonal parties and/or principles, by definition, carry with them no a-priori absolute guarantee of the representational nature of any knowledge. The belief that the universe is primarily disinterested and/or apersonal is not only inclined to violate the foundation of knowledge, but it may start to undermine itself as one may wonder whether this belief itself actually represents anything. The result is that you are either left with nothing or next to nothing, or less honestly you fudge the issue by becoming philosophically diffuse and won't dare admit to holding to anything resembling a belief in truth. At most there might be an acknowledgement of the utilitarian value of beliefs (presumably itself a belief). This tendency toward nihilism, or at best "minisculism", instability and confusion contrasts with the stability of a belief in a personal loving God. If I hold such a belief I am more likely to see accurate representational knowledge as an outcome of God's love for me. Needless to say, the very belief in a loving God is itself seen as the providential outcome of that love because it is believed to be imparted by a God who desires to reveal to us not only truths, but above all Himself. This belief is self-referencing, but it is, of course, highly stable because it is self-affirming. Moreover, it encourages a proactive growth in knowledge, as this growth no longer seems a pointless exercise; in this context knowledge is believed to mean something. Therefore, if there is a God, the belief in God will further reinforce itself as further knowledge and experience of God's love and providence is sought for, and inevitably gained. This growth and reinforcement will depend on that knowledge and experience being of the corroborating kind; but for it to start at all one must first start with God. My view is that to do so is to concur with an essential component of one's metal toolkit. There is no way one can from an absolutely sceptical basis "prove" this starting point without getting into unstable conceptual feedback cycles; we just have to assume it and exploit it. We are absolute dependents whose first premise is "In the beginning God ...."


c. T.V Reeves 1993

2 comments:

James Knight said...

Hi Tim,

Yes the drift of your feelings about Mr. Dawkins is roughly similar to my own. I have in the past written book reviews of his work and reviewed some of his TV documentaries. Dawkins’ Climbing Mount Improbable, The Blind Watchmaker, The Selfish Gene, River Out Of Eden, Unweaving The Rainbow, and The Ancestor’s Tale, have helped improve my knowledge of evolution and other areas of biology and zoology. Moreover, some of his essays in A Devil’s Chaplain are worthwhile too although some are pretty interminable (as is so often the case when a man reaches a point of ‘illustriousness’ where he, or his publisher, mistakenly thinks everything he has to say is worth reading - heck, this even affected some of the greats like Evelyn Waugh, John Keats, Jane Austen and, although it seems irreverent to say, PG Wodehouse too). But I digress.

As good a writer as Dawkins is, I do not, however, feel the same about the God Delusion, I think it a pretty poor addition to the otherwise impressive Dawkins canon. Anyone with even the smallest nose for philosophical argument would have no trouble picking out the obvious flaws in Dawkins’ work (particularly The God Delusion). In my Crisis Within Atheism series on Network Norwich I have an essay (split into two parts) about what I think are the real root problems of the cognitive methods employed by The Four Horsemen of the Counter-Apocalypse, as they are now known, Messrs. Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, and Harris - you can view them here and here.

Looking at Tim’s article, it brought back memories of nostalgia - hard to believe that article was written in 1992 (although I was only fifteen then and probably didn’t read his work until a bit later). Funny to think that the New Statesman is now written largely by mediocrity.

Perhaps, Tim, a question you might like to ask yourself (if you haven’t already) is this: If you believed that all religions were mythological would you be writing passionately for the other side? Would you be one of those who constantly sought to educate people about the fatuity of their religious beliefs? It’s a question I’ve asked myself many times and while I hope that I wouldn’t be as disdainful as Mr. Dawkins, I suspect I might be the sort of writer who encouraged religious people to question their beliefs a bit more (as a Christian I do that anyway, with followers of other religions). I am a Christian, primarily, because I think it is based on truth - and as a man who first off found himself being born and then found himself with a degree of reasoning power (compared with the lower mammals) I decided that whatever else I did in life, I would always try to pursue the truth, in the hope that I could find some.

I am not a Christian because I happen to prefer that over any other belief system, I am a Christian because I believe Christianity to be true. As far as searching for the truth goes, I do at least have some sympathy with Mr. Dawkins on such matters as ‘pursuit of what is true’. Of course, most of us have sympathy with him regarding the contentious issue of schools teaching young-earth-creationism as truth (that the world was created in six days, less then 10,000 years ago) it is miseducation - innocent children being saddled with demonstrable falsehood.


Dawkins is, to borrow a biblical metaphor, so obsessed with the specks in the eyes of the religious types around him, that he fails to see the plank in his own eye. Tim alludes to Dawkins’ invective against ‘the virus of religion’ his ‘meme’ argument in which he criticises faith for preying on the young and impressionable, often drawing the parallel with gene pools that become isolated and therefore develop separately. So, he argued, children become associated with the faith of their parents and are not encouraged to question or seek truth for themselves. Dawkins asserted that it is natural for children to simply accept the things that they are told by their parents so that they will survive. Thus, he argues, the virus of faith reproduces itself and spreads. The impressionability of a child's mind means that to impose one's personal reality (as Dawkins would put it) on a child is at best irresponsible and at worst a form of child abuse.

The question about whether religious superstition is a dangerous virus, passed on by clerics, teachers and parents is certainly one that must be tackled. Tim, you are right to introduce the concept of ‘opening doors’ as a worthwhile turning point (I have educed similar turning points in some of my own writing). Is the virus analogy a useful analogy? Maybe, maybe not, depends on your standpoint. But if it is, let’s take it further. Viruses are transmitted from person to person in ways which medical science can explain. But the ways they are passed on, and the effect they have on individuals is also strongly influenced by the social conditions in which they live. Viruses spread more quickly, and harm more gravely, in conditions of poverty, inadequate housing, poor nutrition, lack of freedom and democratic accountability, and lack of access to medical services. It is worth pointing out that the same is often true of religious inculcation and the conditions in which it operates, so it is true that ‘proliferation studies’ must give some consideration to the areas in which proliferation is occurring.

For any Christian who may sympathise somewhat with Dawkins’ concerns about education, let us recall that, in the Bible, education is primarily the responsibility of the parent, not the state. Dawkins’ concept of state-sponsored atheistic education is actually not dissimilar from that practiced in the former Soviet Union, and we all know what happened there.

At his best, Dawkins is the sort of chap with whom Tim and I might enjoy a pint in the Trafford, but at his worst, he lacks any sense of complexity or discrimination and would be similar company to the rest of the bores that seem perennially preoccupied with paradoxes (easy for me to say!) - all uncomfortably like 1984, with its vastly over-simplified binary oppositions – ‘science good, religion bad’. But if Mr. Dawkins is right, that man's mercy at the hands of nature gave the impression that supernatural forces controlled the Earth, and religious worship arose out of ignorance, and the wealth of Biblical scholarship that reasonably and intelligently explains why God behaves like He does is all mythology, then I have no clue where I would go next - probably back to the Trafford.

But if my beliefs are correct; that is, if they help to explain the almost incomprehensible seriousness of rebellion against God, the importance of God exercising moral judgement, and God's incredible love and mercy in all His dealings with mankind, we shall surely claim to have found the right man in Christ. If Dawkins wishes to seek out representatives who - either through liberal dismissal of parts of the Bible, or through extreme over-emphasis of God's judgement - fit in very nicely with his argument, I doubt he’d find much joy with me. Ironically, Dawkins fails to appreciate how religion has contributed to the humanism he is seeking to defend. He used to present atheist humanism as something straight out of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World - all machine-like creatures bedazzled by reductive technology yet blind to what makes us truly human - thankfully since the day when Tim was writing this article, he seems to have altered his judgement for the better.

But there is also a broader point to be made here. An understanding of religion, and the role it plays, cannot be isolated from the specific social and material conditions that give rise to it. To do so means you could end up reaching misanthropic conclusions about why individuals have attachments to religion. For such an acknowledged staunch humanist, Dawkins' own assessments can come across as rather naïve and insular. Not always, but sometimes.

The other problem is that singling out religion for diminished humanism sets up a false battleground. In fact, even today religion expresses much humanism that sometimes appears progressive compared to contemporary thinking. Elsewhere, religion's understanding of truth and selfless commitment to a wider community or cause appears preferable to today's culture of narcissism and navel-gazing. Social norms can produce tyranny as much as organised religion but without the visibility that allows it to be challenged. For me, that's largely a result of a little too much ‘Counter-Enlightenment’, and what punctures the bubble is, at heart, no different from the old Enlightenment focus on individual questioning and daring to know. So perhaps what allows the social norms to be challenged is not so much visibility, as voice and the willingness to listen to individual questions.

Dawkins is right that irrational faith can be dangerous, particularly when faith confronts and contradicts observation. That is precisely the argument at the core of much of the evolutionary debate. It was Darwin's observations that led him to the theory of evolution, and the church's faith that prevented them from accepting it, even to this day. So clearly faith can contradict observation, or at least make the faithful ignore observation. I suppose in a sense it's a semantic distinction in that the definition of faith is 'to trust'. In science, trust doesn't form the basis of scientific knowledge, so in fact they can be complete opposites. Dawkins argument against religion is that it requires faith, and if you can accept a true thing by faith, you can also accept an untrue thing by faith.

I agree with Tim that it is difficult to convince somebody that you have not been affected by the virus problem if indeed such symptoms are a corollary of being infected. In actual fact, I think there are some significant scientific problems with the concept of memes, but I think I can salvage at least the skeleton of the idea and put it to some rather unusual use in looking at the evolution of religions over a long period of time. According to Dawkins, memes are analogous to genes, or to viruses. What’s a virus? A virus certainly isn’t alive in the same way that religious propagation is — it’s a sort of naked gene, a string of nucleic acid with attitude. It gets inside a cell and provokes the cell to make more copies of itself. What’s a meme in the sense of religious propagation? It’s a packet of information with attitude; it is something that gets into a brain and provokes that brain to spread it along to somebody else. This certainly applies to many religions in the world. It is a bit discomfiting for some to admit that the meme idea is, in fact, the very method by which falsehood spreads about the globe, and it takes a degree of absent-mindedness to oppose this view.

Christians quite rightly sustain their faith by personal response to the love of God, which they see in Christ, in the sacraments of the Church, and in their personal experience. But they do need to know that faith has a rational foundation. In fact modern philosophy and science have both arisen from a resolute attempt, initiated by theologians, to think hard about the nature of the universe, and to decide whether it is founded on a spiritual reality or not.

Ha, Tim, I was then going to sign off, but remembered the part in Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker, you know the ‘Me thinks it’s a weasel’ section which is a part of our ongoing discussions.

For anyone who is not familiar with this work, Dawkins took the title of the book from the Rev. William Paley's 19th Century writing. William Paley argued that just as a watch does not come into existence by accidental processes but needs a watchmaker, so the complex mechanisms of the natural world could not have come into existence by chance but need a Maker, namely God. The purpose of Dawkins book is to attempt to show that the amazing complexities of life were brought into existence by the process of 'natural selection' which can be understood in purely materialistic terms. Natural selection has no mind or sight of its own. It is therefore 'blind'. Nevertheless he claims to believe it is the controlling process which has produced the incredible complexity of life we see around us today. Dawkins several times denies that evolution is a random or chance process. However, the way he explains his theory does show that chance or random processes do play a very vital role in the whole process.

Before I get onto the ‘Me thinks it’s a weasel’ section, I ought to remind people of one of Mr Dawkins’ biggest misunderstandings here. He frequently refers to the famous astronomer and writer Fred Hoyle who, although not a believer in the God of the Bible, rejects Darwinism and evolution as expounded by biologists such as Dawkins. Dawkins accuses Fred Hoyle of misunderstanding Darwinism, when it is clear that it is Dawkins who misunderstands Fred Hoyle. Fred Hoyle is famous for his junkyard illustration. What are the chances of a whirlwind blowing through a junkyard assembling a Jumbo Jet from its pieces scattered about the Junkyard? Of course there is no chance that it would ever happen. Fred Hoyle says that life is so complex that to say it came into existence by chance processes is like saying that the whirlwind assembled the Jumbo Jet.
Now Dawkins claims that Fred Hoyle has missed the point. Dawkins says that evolution of such wonderful mechanisms as the 'eye' do not need such a huge 'single step' increase in complexity. Dawkins says that the increase in complexity comes gradually over millions of years. Natural selection is a cumulative process, which weeds out unhelpful changes in a species and preserves those changes most able to help the species to adapt, compete and survive. Successive increases in complexity are very small but given millions of generations they explain life as it is today.

But has Fred Hoyle really missed the point in quite the same way that Dawkins implies? Fred Hoyle is referring to his junkyard illustration not in relation to the formation of an eye but the formation what he believes are the enzymes necessary for life before cumulative selection can start. Some critics of Hoyle say that he is exaggerating what is needed for the formation of life. However, what is clear is that Hoyle definitely is not talking about the formation of the eye as Dawkins alleges. The junkyard illustration comes at the end of a chapter in which he is discussing the chances of producing the proteins needed by our cells. He tells us that the chances of producing just one protein (which isn't even alive or capable of self-replication) is like a blind-folded man solving a rubic cube by accident. He tells us that such a man would need 100 times the age of the universe to accidentally solve the rubic cube.

Even the relatively simple bacterium is nothing less than a highly complex computer program (the DNA) connected to a highly complex chemical factory (the cytoplasm) with an amazing translation and communication system (the RNA). Even if such a mechanism as a bacterium was not needed at first, and even if Hoyle has exaggerated the complexity necessary for early proteins, Dawkins admits that the formation of a molecule capable of starting the cumulative selection process needed a huge single-step increase in complexity. This does seem to leave an inevitable residue of doubt as to whether a prebiotic soup could possess the properties needed for life to arise spontaneously, particularly as it would seemingly have to be a jump from nothing to bacterium (as anything simpler than bacterium would be too simple to possess the properties of self-replication). This is the subject of his chapter 6 'Origins & Miracles'. He says ‘we cannot escape the need to postulate a single-step (his emphasis) chance event in the origin of cumulative selection itself’ (p. 140).


It seems to me that Richard Dawkins constantly overlooks the fact that Darwin himself, in The Origin of Species, pointed out that his whole argument began with a being which already possessed reproductive powers. This is the creature the evolution of which a truly comprehensive theory of evolution must give some account. Darwin himself was well aware that he had not produced such an account. To clarify matters The Blind Watchmaker tells us what level of complexity Dawkins believes is necessary for cumulative selection to get started? Like Fred Hoyle he too has an illustration. It is not the Jumbo Jet (in the junkyard) but a Xerox copying machine. He says It can copy things but it can't spring into existence all by itself! What is needed in this 'copying machine'? Dawkins tells us it is a 'machine tool' that needs to be guided by RNA. (RNA is a code that is made by the bacterium.) However there is no bacterium at this stage because life has not yet started. Both the RNA and the machine tool have to come into being by the 'single step' that Dawkins says is necessary for this origin of cumulative selection. Of course the example of the Xerox machine or a watch are only illustrations. Dawkins knows that a Xerox machine cannot come into existence by itself in a 'single step' move. However, if I remember rightly he likens the problem of the genesis of life to just that - which leads me to think he was more ambivalent in those days. Personally I think his success as a famous ‘ornament for atheism’ militates against future clarity as regards being objective, but that’s a long and involved theory that we’ll leave for another day.
A critical and unsolved problem in the origin of life is the origin of the genetic code without the aid of God. The molecular apparatus supporting the operation of the code, the activating enzymes, adapter RNAs, messenger RNAs, and so on are themselves each produced according to instructions contained within the code. At the time of the origin of the code such an elaborate molecular apparatus was of course absent. So then how does he explain the naturalistic formation of the cumulative selection, or putting it another way how does he explain how the something comparable to a Xerox machine or a watch came into existence all by themselves? I know I’m only playing devil’s advocate, and I’m only asking these questions from an imaginary third person perspective, but it is easy to see that much of what Tim says about the tautological nature of Dawkins’ points is rather too conspicuous for the assiduous student of biology, like myself.

Playing devil’s advocate again for a moment - Dawkins starts his explanation of how 'life' was started spontaneously, and whatever we concede, the analogy of writing does adequately describe his problem. A natural and fundamental question to ask, on learning of these incredibly, intricately interlocking pieces of software and hardware is: 'How did they ever get started in the first place?' The Christian who is happy to see God working through an evolutionary process has no such worries, but without God, it seems that the development from simple molecules to entire cells is almost beyond one's power to imagine. There are various theories on the origin of life. They all run aground on this most central of central questions: How did the Genetic Code, along with the mechanisms for its translation originate?
Let us return to Dawkins' main point in his chapter on Origins. Remember he estimates that there may be 10^20 (100 billion billion) planets in the universe and that therefore as long as the odds are not more than 10^20 to 1 against the formation of the simplest form of life in a single step move then his theory is valid. He says that these odds are probably ample to accommodate the spontaneous arising of DNA or RNA’. Perhaps Dawkins will say that the first RNA or DNA to appear were simpler than the ones we know of today. He uses letter codes to illustrate the complex sequence necessary. Now let us for the sake of argument assume that the most primitive RNA or DNA at the beginning of life needed only 50 (instead of the thousands Dawkins posits). And let us have a look at his ‘me thinks it’s a weasel’ claim.
What are the chances of random processes in the computer accidentally typing out Dawkins' chosen sentence: 'Me thinks it is a weasel'. If the computer is given this sentence as a long term goal and if it is allowed to select from each random attempt the most favourable jumble of letters and build upon that, then Dawkins tells us that it would take a mere 40 attempts (or 'generations') to produce something approaching the desired sentence. Here we have reached a critical point. Dawkins acknowledges at this point in his discussion that natural selection does not have any long-term goal. It is 'blind'. At this point in the book I thought Dawkins was going to show that 'Me thinks it’s a weasel' could be reached even without a goal written into the program. But no, he drops the aim of the computer reaching the sentence and changes it for computer drawings (p.50).
So he turns away from language (however short and simple) and shows how computer drawings can change to resemble insects. But this is to abandon the very very important point that the supposed development of life is all about the development of language and information (Incidentally I do not see why Dawkins is so pleasantly surprised that his computer program produces insect-like pictures - given his method of selection it is not surprising at all especially as the changes are based on tree like-branching).
Even if we grant that a self replicating molecule of this simplicity could exist, so that the process of cumulative selection could begin, then the progress evolution would have to make to reach, oak trees, elephants, whales and humans would be that much greater - that much is obvious, but not exactly problematic either for the theist. But for the sake of argument, let’s grant that a self replicating RNA or DNA molecule did come into existence by chance processes in the single step move that Dawkins acknowledges was necessary. It is from this basic constituent of 'life' that the necessary process of evolution is supposed to have started. Without God, how does this basic form of life change into the amazing variety of plant, animal and human life all around us today? For reasons I won’t go into now, I think his attempts to offer a satisfactory theory as to why evolutionary theory is fine without God will always be a case of pulling the wool over people’s eyes.
I don’t know about you Tim, but to me, his sentence 'Me thinks it’s a weasel' is a rather feeble and inadequate starting point for life even given 100 million generations, especially, as he acknowledges, natural selection is not aiming at producing anything. It is a blind process that merely preserves random improvements. I said before that in my view, my simulacrum contention does, to my satisfaction, help expunge many of these problem when we debate the complex activity in creation - particularly as this sweeps off the table the ‘new information’ - ‘reconstitution of old information’ problem that seems to underpin his contention, for I do not think that the universe has any ‘new information’ - that is, any material changes are not really new information, as Einstein pointed out, just as building sandcastles on a beach, knocking them down, and building some more is not building any new sand, merely reconstituting potentiality with the same sand.

But let us just suppose for a second that the origin and development of life has a purely physical explanation. That leaves us with the question: what actually is physical matter? To me, it’s the same as asking - what is everything made of? We are faced with various basic alternatives. 1. If we keep dividing up matter into ever smaller and smaller constituents and this process goes on forever we will have progressed in knowledge but not answered the question. 2. Alternatively if we reach a point where we know there is nowhere further to go in the analysis of physical matter we will have reached a particle that is made of nothing else. But something that has no constituent is not really 'matter' at all. Any particle that has finite size cannot be fundamental because it will be capable of being split further. A real fundamental particle (if such a thing exists) must be infinitely small. However since the essence of matter is that it occupies space, such a 'particle' could not be matter. Isn’t that what scientists call in the world of quantum physics - 'ghostly'? Having a degree in physics, you’re better qualified to answer that than I am. Where I’m probing here is with the question - ‘what is matter?’ and will it turn out that it is a question that must lie beyond the bounds of natural science? That’s how it seems to me.

Dawkins’ greatest achievement thus far has been, I believe, to convince the public of something that Darwinists took for granted: namely, that the appearance of purposeful design in biology is misleading, because all living organisms, including ourselves, are the products of a natural evolutionary process employing random variation and natural selection (any society/country that takes for granted the existence of God without question is likely to be a pretty miseducated society/county). Of course, a man like myself who thinks he can resolve the difficulty with ‘simulacrum explanation’ must still bring a Creator into the equation - into a world where one might expect to see appearances of randomness.

As Tim didn’t hyperlink Dawkins’ original article, I have to say I forget whether the blind watchmaker hypothesis is put forward in defence of his ‘computer virus’ contention. My own feeling is that the blind watchmaker hypothesis is, despite all its scientific merits, merely a way of stating the commitment of ‘science’ to naturalism, and as such the existence of a blind watchmaker is, to many, a logical necessity (and if a critic doesn't like Darwinism, his only permissible move is to suggest a better blind watchmaker). A Darwinist only has to imagine how some complex organ or organism might have originated by mutation and selection, and the theory has another confirming example.

There is no doubt that natural processes produce a degree of variation in existing genotypes, as illustrated by the differences between island species and their close mainland relatives. The question is whether similar processes have the power to furnish the genetic information required for, say, bacteria to become complex plants and animals, or for four-footed mammals to change into bats and whales. Personally I think the answer has shown to be a resounding ‘yes’ - but I’m not relying on naturalism to assert my ‘yes’, so it won’t keep me awake at night. Other types of ‘work in progress’ do contribute to my insomnia, but not this one.

When people ask me whether Darwinism and theism are compatible, a great majority of them normally take the Darwinism for granted and ask whether the theism has to be discarded. It is far more illuminating, however, to approach the question from the other side. Is there any reason that a person who believes in a real, personal God should believe that biological creation occurred by Darwinian evolution? The sufficiency of any process of chemical evolution to produce life has certainly been demonstrated, as has good evidence for the ability of natural selection to produce new body plans, complex organs, or anything else such as variation within types that already exist.

For Dawkins, by coupling undirected, purposeless variation to the blind, uncaring process of natural selection, Darwin made theological or spiritual explanations of the life processes superfluous. Together with Marx's materialistic theory of history and society and Freud's attribution of human behaviour to influences over which we have little control, Darwin's theory of evolution was a crucial plank in the platform of mechanism and materialism - of much of science, in short-that has since been the stage of most Western thought.
Darwin, Marx, and Freud. These three giants of materialism head everyone's list of the most influential makers of the twentieth-century mind-set. Today there are still a few Freudians and Marxists left, but even they would be embarrassed to cite Freudianism or Marxism as examples of empirical science. We now know these ideologies for what they always were: imaginative stories told to advance a materialist worldview, and reinforced by a beguiling pretence of scientific methodology.

Romans 1:18-24 does not speak of a nature that merely raises questions that a naturalistic science cannot answer, but of a nature that points directly and unmistakably toward the necessity of a Creator. Theism asserts that God rules everything; naturalism asserts that nature proceeds on its own, without supernatural influence. But this misses the very obvious fact that God could make some use of random mutation and natural selection in a fundamentally directed creative process. God can act freely as He chooses: that is just the problem for those who would try to constrain God by philosophy.

I like your final passage, Tim. I think you are right when you say “Therefore, if there is a God, belief in God will further reinforce itself as further knowledge and experience of God's love and providence is sought for, and inevitably gained”.. Amen brother - something for which all Christians can be thankful.

I suppose the virus point has one particular truth which you didn’t mention. If Allah didn’t exist, or Mohammed was never a prophet, people would still follow Islam. If Buddha never existed, people would still search for spiritual enlightenment through his legend. But Christianity is very different - it claims we are able to know God personally. If Jesus’ resurrection was a myth, then Christianity would be a myth, and when you think for a second what Christianity claims from its adherents, I doubt many would stick around - I think the Bible promises too much - thankfully God responds and acts on those promises. St John's gospel account of Jesus' life concludes with an open admission that it is - like the modern scientific journal - a persuasive presentation of eye-witness evidence (John 20:30,31). The Bible teaches us that, to those without the Spirit, God's word is foolishness. If we are to ‘hold on to the good’, as it says in 1 Thessalonians 5.21, it is only because many of us have tested everything beforehand.

Timothy V Reeves said...

Thanks very much for the reply James. Very nice to have someone as intelligent as yourself around these quiet backwaters of the blogospehere.

Picking up on some of your points:

If I was atheist I don’t think I would be a crusading atheist because of my view that there are reasonable, and affable people on both sides of the debate who are doing their level best to handle some very difficult material about ultimate ontological questions with capability, integrity, authenticity and courage (like yourself). See for example this short correspondence, I had with Paul Davies who may well be an atheist (although its difficult to tell). He seems to understand the provisional nature of speculations on ultimate ontology. I can do business with people like Paul Davies. The real problems are the extremists on both sides who are quite sure that difficult questions have canned answers. What worries me is what those extremists will do if they get political power. Horrible lot.

I don’t think I would want a drink with Richard Dawkins in the Trafford. It would be like having a drink with a hardened Jehovah’s Witness. There would be an unspoken sullenness and tension in the relationship that comes of knowing that one party is on the hard sell and trying to get one over on the other But I’d like a drink with Paul Davies, although I think he would do most of the talking and I most of the listening.

True, evolutionists do have their work cut out with the Origin of Life question. Evolutionary theory depends on morphospace having a very tenuous spongy structure allowing evolutionary ‘random walk’ to traverse the space all the way from simplicity to complexity. Not that the processes of evolution need have a built in drive toward complexity. The condition of morphological disequilibrium is sufficient to drive it, just as the entropy asymmetry across time explains the formation of stars etc. Some crusading atheists are very wary of the idea of morphological disequilbrium, because it seems to be the thin end of the ‘The universe has purpose’ wedge! There is a demon there they need to face.

The foregoing morphological conjecture is the conjecture I have taken on board, but I only hold it provisionally – it may be that some of the objections of intelligent ID theorists hold good here; I respect their views and take good note of them.

On OOL it is clear that morphology here would involve some very tiny self-perpetuating ‘micromachines’ that are not going to fossilize easily. Moreover, the sheer complexity of life would mean that myriad ‘computational’ steps would be required to build up life’s complexity, of which only the merest sample would fossilize if indeed fossilization of the early stages of life were, in fact possible.