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Some reflections on Dawkins

BILL TONER SJ  ::  A few weeks ago I was sitting in a quiet Dublin pub with a Jesuit friend talking about Richard Dawkins and the impact he seemed to be having on religious belief through his books such as The Blind Watchmaker and The God Delusion. As is well known, Dawkins’ main area of interest is evolution. He relies heavily on the process of evolution to show that there is no need for a concept of a God or Creator to explain the existence of the living beings that we have on our planet. For Dawkins, evolution is a mechanical process which was set in motion as a result of a couple of primeval accidents. This process, he believes, led inexorably to a proliferation of stable structures – ‘machines’ – of greater and greater complexity, of which the human being is probably the most interesting production to date. Dawkins generally writes convincingly about the process of evolution, especially in The Selfish Gene, with many original explanations for curious anomalies of animal behaviour that do not at first sight appear to confer any evolutionary advantage. He argues well the case for his view that, once set in motion, evolution did not need continuous prompting by some superior being to ‘achieve’ what it has achieved.

However, as we sat in the Dublin pub, it struck me how little of what we could see around us had evolved. Certainly, Dawkins and many others would assert that the people sitting there drinking had evolved (though in fact it would probably be more logical to claim only that their distant human ancestors had). But none of the artefacts we could see had evolved – the bar counter, bottles, drinks, television sets, tables, stools, pictures and posters, clothes and so on. All of these had been designed and manufactured by human beings, just as had all the material objects outside in the city, houses and shops, cars and buses, streets, bridges and office blocks. And the capacity to envision and design these things is dependent on human consciousness, and on the capacity to reflect, which the standard theory of evolution is at a loss to explain. Dawkins himself concedes that the emergence of subjective consciousness is “the most profound mystery facing modern biology”

Not every writer on evolution has been so reluctant to take on the puzzle of the emergence of consciousness in the process of evolution. The French palaeontologist and Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin explored the issue at great length in The Phemonenon of Man. Basically, Teilhard argues that consciousness “bursts forth” during the process of evolution because it has always been there, in what Teilhard calls the ‘within’ of matter. In the world, he states, “nothing could ever burst forth as final, across the different thresholds successively traversed by evolution, which has not already existed in an obscure and primordial way… a certain mass of elementary consciousness was originally imprisoned in the matter of earth”.

An unexpected ally of Teilhard in his scrutiny of the ‘within’ of matter is Frederick Engels. Engels was the philosophical brain behind the theory of dialectical materialism, exploited by his friend Karl Marx to provide an ideological foundation for his particular brand of Socialism. Engels also focuses on the ‘within’ of matter but particularly on the concepts of motion and becoming. “We have once again returned” he says, “to the mode of contemplation of the great founders of Greek philosophy; that all nature, from the smallest thing to the biggest, from grains of sand to suns, from ‘protista’ to man, has its existence in eternal coming into being and going out of being, in ceaseless flux, in unresting motion and change”. He goes on to say, “the motion of matter is not merely crude mechanical motion, mere change of place; it is heat and light, electric and magnetic stress, chemical combination and disassociation, and, finally, consciousness” (emphasis added). Engels speculates whether the future ‘dead remnants’ of our solar system will ever again be converted into the raw material of new solar systems. He goes on: “Here again either we must have resource to a creator or we are forced to the conclusion that the incandescent raw material for the solar systems of our cosmic island was produced in a natural way by transformations of motion which are by nature inherent in moving matter…”

It is remarkable that the fascination of modern biologists with evolution has been such that they have neglected to pay much attention to the raw materials that drove evolution forward. Dawkins is frankly cavalier in this regard. In The Selfish Gene he speculates about a ‘primeval soup’ of water, carbon dioxide, methane and ammonia which may have constituted the seas some three to four thousand million years ago and from which, at some point, a particularly remarkable molecule was formed by accident which had the “extraordinary” property of being able to create copies of itself. Yet at the end of the day Dawkins would have to concede that the ‘matter’ that he glosses over is somehow the raw material of the incredible encyclopaedic collection of all that makes up the natural world and human civilization, good and bad. What kind of ‘raw material’ could have contained in embryo art, music, literature, science and technology, but also love and hate, work and play, war and peace, religion and spirituality …the list is truly endless? The real question is not why is there something rather than nothing, a question that excites few people, but why that ‘something’ is an amazing buzzing, sometimes wonderful and sometimes awful universe where people love and laugh and cry and create artefacts some of which are quite useless for their survival as a species.

If we were to depict the three decisive phases or processes that have brought life on earth to where it is at the moment we might simplify them like this:

Matter >>>>> Evolution >>>>> Human Consciousness

We can concede that Dawkins has cast interesting light on the middle process, evolution. But in relying on evolution to call in question the existence of a creator, Dawkins spends a lot of time advancing over ground that has long ago been conceded by most of the mainstream churches. Clearly the writers of the Book of Genesis had no scientific knowledge of the exact process by which the flora and fauna of the earth was put in place. In fact it was to be a long time before modern theologians came to realize that though this was an interesting question, it was not a matter of great importance in the ‘economy’ of salvation. The presence of God was to be looked for elsewhere, or, at least, God was to be conceived as working in a different way in the world than was commonly perceived by the ancients. St. Ignatius of Loyola, writing c.1540, simply asks us “to reflect how God dwells in his creatures: in the elements giving them existence, the plants giving them life, in the animals conferring upon them sensation, in man bestowing understanding”.

However, the questions relating to the existence and nature of matter and to the mystery of human consciousness are on a different plane to questions about evolution, and Dawkins has nothing of great significance to say about them. The question why matter exists, with all its amazing potentiality, seems accessible only to wonder and not to science, and belongs perhaps to the domain of mystics rather than physicists. Perhaps, sadly, most scientists become programmed not to ‘do’ Wonder; in fact if they did, it might inhibit them from seeking to solve those puzzles that can be solved. As for human consciousness and the power of reflection, at least most scientists have conceded that conscious experience is beyond the reach of science precisely because it is an experience, a personal event that admits of no description that can be communicated to others except by analogy, or admits of no observation except one’s own. To quote David Chalmers: “No explanation given wholly in physical terms can ever account for the emergence of conscious experience”. And yet, mysterious as it is, it is this human consciousness that is the indispensable key to all human progress.

Notes for the Curious

The quotations from Dawkins are all taken from The Selfish Gene, OUP paperback version, pp.14-15, & 59. Those from Engels are taken from his brief Introduction to the Dialectics of Nature, written in 1875, but not published until much later, in several different versions; I have used the version to be found in Marx Engels Selected Works published by Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1950, see pp.65-71. Engel’s term ‘protista’ means primitive organisms existing in addition to flora and fauna. Teilhard’s Phenomenon of Man was published in English by Collins, London, in 1959, and the quotation is from p.71. The quotation from Chalmers is from p.93, of The Conscious Mind, OUP, 1997.