A small price that I have paid for the privilege of writing book reviews for First Things is that I have ended up reading four of Richard Dawkins’ books. That is more than anyone should have to read, for though Dawkins writes extremely well, his repertoire of ideas is quite limited. Indeed, everything that Dawkins has to say about the world, aside from his popular expositions of science, could be explained to an intelligent person in a few minutes; it doesn’t take a whole book, let alone all the books he has written. Having nothing new to say, he has decided to say the old things with increasingly unrestrained boorishness. Surfeited as I am with Dawkins’ highly polished put-downs and elegant sneering at his intellectual foes, I am happy to be able to experience his latest book ( The God Delusion ) at second hand through the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s incisive review in the New Republic . Nagel is not impressed by Dawkins’ "attempts at philosophy." One of Dawkins’ pet arguments against God as an explanation of design in the world is that it leads to an infinite regress: “A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right.” As Nagel points out, this argument would only have force if theists conceived of God as a complicated brain rather than as an incorporeal being. It is true that we have no experience of minds that are not associated with complicated brains. And from this fact materialists like Dawkins infer that mind is just a feature of matter that emerges when matter is organized in certain complex ways. As Nagel notes, this inference is also encouraged by the great explanatory success of the physical sciences:
This reductionist dream is nourished by the extraordinary success of the physical sciences in our time, not least in their recent application to the understanding of life through molecular biology. It is natural to try to take any successful intellectual method as far as it will go. Yet the impulse to find an explanation of everything in physics has over the last fifty years gotten out of control. The concepts of physical science provide a very special, and partial, description of the world that experience reveals to us. It is the world with all subjective consciousness, sensory appearances, thought, value, purpose, and will left out. What remains is the mathematically describable order of things and events in space and time.
Nagel is clearly correct about this. Physics is ultimately about quantities¯quantities that are calculated through equations or quantities that are measured with instruments. However, from matter in motion through space and time, and from the equations that describe it, such things as consciousness and sensory experience cannot arise. So, as Nagel says, the project of "physicalist reductionism" is "doomed." It may be that minds of the sort we encounter in living organisms arise as a consequence of the activities of complex physical structures. However, that "consequence" cannot be one that is physically explicable, in the sense that it follows logically from the mathematical laws of physics. There must be other kinds of explanations in the world than the kinds theoretical physicists are able to give. As Nagel puts it,
We have more than one form of understanding. Different forms of understanding are needed for different kinds of subject matter. The great achievements of physical science do not make it capable of encompassing everything, from mathematics to ethics to the experiences of a living animal.
Dawkins regards belief in God as a "delusion." In my judgment, physicalist reductionism such as his is not a delusion but an illusion caused by a trick of perspective. If one’s knowledge of nature remains at the rather superficial level provided by "natural history," one can easily get the impression that everything is built (or builds itself) from the bottom up; in other words, that the most basic level of reality is the ontologically simplest and most trivial, and that everything emerges somehow out of that. For example, we have learned that swirling clouds of gas and dust gradually formed themselves into galaxies, stars, planetary systems, and other orderly structures. On those planets there was some primordial soup or ooze or slime, the atoms of which combined into larger and larger molecules and finally into self-replicating ones. Simpler organisms evolved into more complex ones, and eventually sensation and thought made their appearance. It may seem that science is telling us that the arrow always goes from lower to higher, from simpler to more sophisticated, from chaos to order, from matter to form, from body to mind¯mind only emerging at the very end. However, the deeper understanding provided by the more fundamental branches of science presents us with a very different picture. That order which appeared to "arise spontaneously" from chaos or slime did no such thing. It arose from profound principles of order that were there from the very beginning. The wonderful structure of the solar system emerged because the dust and gas from which it formed obeyed the deep and beautiful laws discovered by Newton. Those laws in turn flow from the deeper and more beautiful laws of General Relativity discovered by Einstein. The slime from which life arose was made of atoms that had all the structure and intricacy and potentiality that chemists devote their lives to studying. Those laws of chemistry are themselves the consequence of the beautifully elaborate laws of electromagnetism and quantum mechanics, which in their turn come from the even more profound structures studied in "quantum field theory." As one moves deeper into nature¯to levels about which the natural historian and zoologist can tell us nothing¯one encounters not less and less form but increasingly magnificent mathematical structures, structures so profound that even the greatest mathematicians are having difficulty understanding them. This is what Pope Benedict was referring to in his Regensburg lecture when he spoke of "the mathematical structure of matter, its intrinsic rationality, . . . the Platonic element in the modern understanding of nature." It is what the great mathematician Hermann Weyl meant when he said, "[I]n our knowledge of physical nature we have penetrated so far that we can obtain a vision of the flawless harmony which is in conformity with sublime reason." It is what the great astrophysicist James Jeans meant when he said, "The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine." At the foundations of the natural world, we do not find merely slime or dust or some dull insensate stuff. We find ideas of sublime beauty. Dawkins looks at mind and sees atoms in motion. Physicists look at those atoms, and deep below those atoms, and see¯or, at least, some of them have seen¯the products of "sublime reason," "a great thought," a Mind. In other words, in nature we see a different arrow: It moves from Mind to ideas and forms, and from ideas and forms to matter. In the beginning was the Logos, St. John tells us, and the Logos was God.

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Articles by Stephen M. Barr


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