National Catholic Register

Commentary

Pitchforking God from the Universe

BY George Sim Johnston

March 14-20, 1999 Issue | Posted 3/14/99 at 1:00 PM

 

The hottest ticket in London this winter was not for a rock concert or the latest Tom Stoppard play, but for a debate entitled, “Has Science Killed the Soul?” Richard Dawkins, who holds the Chair of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford (endowed with Microsoft millions) drew a crowd of 2,300 to hear him discuss the death of the soul with the American evolutionary scientist Stephen Pinker.

It was not exactly a debate, since both men are fervent neoDarwinists who think that natural selection explains everything from the sonnets of Shakespeare to sliced bread. (They do not stop to consider whether the destruction of the unfit, which is what natural selection does, can explain the origin of the fit.) The evening was actually an evangelical rally of Darwinian triumphalism. What Dawkins and Pinker were proclaiming was the victory of science over religion, the pitchforking of God from the universe by men in white smocks.

Dawkins surprised nobody by affirming that science has indeed killed the soul. The idea that we are animated by an immortal spiritual substance is, according to Dawkins, “circular and non-productive” for a scientist. A biologist or physicist can dispense with the supernatural, and so, therefore, can everyone else.

This is a classic Dawkins argument, which can persuade only those who are not paying attention. What he is saying is that since a scientist does not use God as an explanation for anything, God therefore does not exist. But this is to confuse the very different jobs of scientist and theologian. A scientist deals with secondary causes. That is what scientific methodology is all about. But since a scientist never invokes a First Cause, that does not mean that there is no First Cause. This is an inadmissible leap of logic, but Dawkins gets away with it.

Pinker, the latest star on the pop-science circuit, agreed with Dawkins that the human conscience is no more than very complicated matter. The brain, like the Apollo spacecraft, is a complex device crammed with other complex devices. When we think, nothing is happening beyond a collection of chemical interactions. Thought and free will are nothing but matter in motion.

Pinker said nothing that we haven't heard already from crusading materialists in the scientific community. In fact, he and Dawkins are simply echoing Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin's bulldog, who in 1874 said that the will and mind are the sheer results of molecular changes in the brain. Huxley believed that “we shall sooner or later arrive at a mechanical equivalent of consciousness.” Pinker likewise told the audience that he couldn't quite explain how the chemical reactions in the brain turn into thought but that it is only a matter of time until someone will.

But hold on — there was a question from the floor: Wasn't their argument a bit like saying that a TV program is created by the innards of a TV set, when we all know that it comes from elsewhere? In response, Dawkins cracked a joke and made an ex cathedra pronouncement about how evolution and not God explains everything. But he did not answer the question.

What Dawkins and Pinker are peddling is not science, but anti-theism tricked up as science. It is an intellectual con game that gets wide play in the media. Both make sweeping statements about God without showing any sign of having spent three consecutive minutes thinking about the subject. There are at least three glaring anomalies in their arguments:

First, Dawkins and Pinker keep using words like “design” and “beauty” to describe the universe. But these words only make sense in a universe that is ordered and purposeful — that is, in a universe that points to the existence of a Creator. In using these theistically charged words, they are trying to have it both ways.

Second, they never acknowledge that evolutionary theory cannot answer the most fundamental question of all: Why is there a universe? Darwin cannot tell us how something came out of nothing. He can only tell us how something turned into something else, and his explanation even for that is not always convincing.

Third, if it is true that the mind is no more than an accidental whirl of atoms, then there is no such thing as free will. If that is the case, then we cannot trust any products of the mind, including the utterances of Dawkins and Pinker. Dawkins tells us that we are puppets of “selfish genes” whose only interest is survival. Fine. But who wants to listen to a puppet's discourse on metaphysics? The gene-driven motions of Dawkins' brain apparently have not revealed to him this elementary contradiction in his position.

This is the Achilles' heel of most modern philosophies. Their truth claims are self-canceling because they deny the existence of free will. If the will is not free, intellectual discourse is a dark and futile enterprise. Yet, the “scientific” nihilism of people like Dawkins and Pinker has become common cultural coin. That is one reason why Pope John Paul II had to issue an encyclical, Fides et Ratio, defending the traditional prerogatives of reason. One of the ironies of the closing of the millennium is that the Catholic Church finds itself the main defender of reason in the public square. Who would have thought it?

George Sim Johnston, a New York-based writer, is author of Did Darwin Get It Right?