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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2857

The problem with Dawkins’ anti-God crusade

By Vasantha Raja

Richard Dawkins, the prominent ‘anti-God crusader’, in his recent hard-hitting rebuttal of religion The God Delusion, has presented his atheistic case in ‘no-nonsense’ terms. The book amounts to a declaration of war against theism.

His anti-God offensive seems to include at least two mutually exclusive targets: One - to ridicule the biblical interpretation of God and Creation; two – to undermine the Intelligent Design hypothesis, whose appeal is gathering momentum among scientific/philosophical circles at present.

The first is an easy target, and I myself have no quarrel with his censure on this account. As to the second, however, his arguments seem to fail to refute the powerful insights ID theorists continue to develop – which in my view will eventually prove to be positively fruitful for the scientific method itself.

The crux of his arguments, above all, seems to reveal his empiricist prejudices that inhibit development of a heuristically rich model as a methodological guide for all branches of science. In other words, Dawkins’ approach amounts to a dogmatic defence of a world outlook (model) that is clearly being brought into question by the latest discoveries of science, particularly in the field of biology.

The question is whether his line of argument prevents science from transcending the methodological strictures it inherited from post-renaissance empiricism.

The model of evolution revealed in ontogeny – the evolution of an organism from a fertilized egg to a fully-grown adult – does not seem to have influenced Dawkins’ neo-Darwinist thinking. A DNA, for instance, is impregnated with the full potential to determine the general form of the final product.

The incredibly complex amount of biological information contained in a ‘seed’ to basically determine the hierarchical development of a product is a normal occurrence regularly around us. If you plant a lemon seed, for instance, and provide the right stimulants you know what to expect: a directional process of a growing (evolving) lemon tree.

But, strangely enough, neo-Darwinists seem to resist any effort to find out whether a similar mechanism has been taking place during the evolution of life, from its inception right up to the emergence of human intelligence. For, Dawkins’ ‘crane’ - natural selection - could well turn out to be mere hurdles to stimulate in-built mechanisms to come into play.

In other words, the question is whether a model similar to the one revealed in ontogenesis should replace the neo-Darwinist model to overcome the limitations of the Darwinian approach.

Already, some biologists are involved in experiments along similar lines. The all-female team working under Susan Lindquist has demonstrated that when an organism comes under stress from its environment a number of hitherto unseen genetic changes can occur simultaneously. [Incidentally, one of their students is reported to have said: "Darwin better watch out. The women’s movement is in full effect."]

Thus, environmental hurdles must have been just part of the mechanism that periodically brought out the inherent potential of evolving genes. Whether these seemingly separate parameters – the evolving genes and the environmental hurdles - have been parts of a well-coordinated grand design is another interesting aspect related to cosmological evolution.

And, one day, if the ‘original seed’ that blew up in the Big Bang is found to be brimming with ‘information’ to guide the evolution of the universe as a whole – of which phylogenesis and ontogenesis are mere parts - then the starting point of our universe will turn out to be far more complex than any part of subsequent developments - not a simple beginning as Dawkins would like to have.

If we substitute the ‘seed-product’ model demonstrated in Biology to the evolution of our universe - with the backing of the anthropic principle - the ‘simple’ unit that exploded some fifteen (perhaps, thirteen and a half) billion years ago must have contained all the necessary ingredients to determine the subsequent processes.

Thus, Dawkins will not be able to dodge the ‘statistical improbability’ argument in relation to the ‘seed’ either. We will be once again trapped in the ‘egg-chicken dilemma’ – an ‘Intelligent Designer’ to cause the ‘Big Bang Egg’, and a ‘Big Bang Egg’ to cause the ‘Designer’, and so on ad infinitum.

To break this vicious circle we may have to resort to a ‘higher order’ that transcends space-time concepts, to which question I shall return below.

First, let us turn to what Richard Dawkins calls his central argument against ‘Intelligent Design’ in his own words:

"One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect…has been to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises. The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself. In the case of a man-made artefact such as a watch, the designer really was an intelligent engineer. It is tempting to apply the same logic to an eye or a wing, a spider or a person."

And, Dawkins continues, "The temptation is a false one, because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable." [The God Delusion, pp 157-8]

This is obviously the well-known argument against Aristotle’s ‘Unmoved Mover’ in a modern form - the statistical improbability of an un-evolved intelligent presence (being).

Dawkins’ way of getting round the difficulty is to bring in a ‘crane’ (his euphemism to picture the role of natural selection) that gradually lifts ‘simple beginnings’ to ‘complex formations’. But, this does not seem to fit in with many other ubiquitous evolutionary processes we see all around us.

Perhaps, the time is ripe to give up the empiricist yearning to see simple beginnings to explain all subsequent wonders of the universe. A highly complex seed fertilized with the necessary ingredients to determine the systematic evolution of higher products would be a better model.

Then what about the ‘chicken-egg’ problem? Perhaps, the answer lies in getting rid of the empiricist epistemological assumptions that force us to pose the wrong question.

The temporal term ‘first’ in the ‘first-cause argument’ may be the culprit here. Perhaps, ‘General Cause’ or ‘Background Cause’ might have been a more appropriate word. Then we can get round the difficulty by showing that the concepts applicable to ‘space-time phenomena’ are not appropriate to understand the ‘General Background’ that gives rise to such ‘space-time’ phenomena – Big Bangs and evolving universes.

One may point out, for instance, that Mother Nature – who brings about temporally and spatially limited material processes – occupies a higher order, and that she is infinite, transcendental, intelligent, compassionate, creative and what not, so that the questions of statistical probability are irrelevant and inappropriate in relation to ‘Her’ being.

Dawkins calls this the ‘sky-hooker’ hypothesis as opposed to his own ‘crane’ image to picture gradual evolution. This expression is humorously used to refer to the apparent means by which an aircraft remains airborne.

But the euphemism is inappropriate here. For, the ‘Intelligent Higher Order’ can set the universe to self-evolve according to precise laws. Thus Mother Nature (God) is not a puppeteer. Thus, the scientists need not resort to ‘miracles’ to explain away gaps in scientific knowledge. The task is to bring out Mother Nature’s intelligent design for our universe.

Clearly, it is not arbitrary to postulate Mother Nature to be conscious, intelligent, compassionate etc., for the simple reason that we already have concrete evidence of different levels of such attributes as products of nature’s (energy’s) evolution. Also, it is not illogical to think of Mother Nature as occupying a transcendental plane that cannot be wholly understood in worldly terms.

As the anthropic principle – a principle Richard Dawkins wholeheartedly endorses – implies, the simplest unit that blew up billions of years ago must have already contained all the subsequent developments in some form. Thus, it cannot be simple.

On the contrary, it must have been incomparably more complex than a DNA. [The dialectical ‘seed-product’ model revealed in biology may eventually become a general model applicable to all evolutionary processes – cosmological evolution being the most general of all, at least from humans’ perspective.]

Hegel saw dialectics as the objective model embedded in all developing processes, from seed to product. For him, forms of dialectics are not a set of arbitrarily drawn rules but objectively abstracted structures that correspond to the contents.

Internal contradictions of opposing forces, he thought, generated the self-movement of processes that pass through progressively higher stages - quantitative changes within structures to bring about sudden qualitative leaps into more complex higher structures.

Charles Darwin did not see the evolution of living creatures quite in this manner. He saw only one side of the ‘contradiction’, the natural selection. The other side he saw as a result of gradual random mutations of individual genes. So, like a ‘crane’ [to use Dawkins’ expression] nature’s hurdles lifted some life-forms as survivors that fit to thrive under new circumstances, he thought.

But fossil records told a different story. While random mutations could explain quantitative changes within particular species, they could not account for the change of one species into a qualitatively different new species.

The notion of ‘gradual evolution’ faced a barrage of insurmountable difficulties in trying to explain the passage from one species to another using the concept of ‘gradual and random mutation’. The gaps in fossil records, and thus the evolutionists’ failure to demonstrate the ‘gradual transition’ of one species into another, provided a field day for creationists to ridicule the evolutionists.

It is a pity that evolutionists, including Richard Dawkins, are still trying desperately to stick to their notion of ‘gradual evolution’ in the hope one fine day scientists would produce ‘evidence’ for the slow transition. This may amount to a kind of ‘waiting for Godot’, like in Beckett’s play.

Fortunately for ‘dialectical evolutionists’, as opposed to ‘gradual evolutionists’, recent discoveries in biology provide the answer. It is this:

Now, we know that in terms of the DNA content of different life-forms the gap is very minute indeed, though the biological information contained in those tiny differences is immense.

As some biologists have shown the possibility of suddenly activating dormant parts of the DNA by creatures under pressure, perhaps it is the deliberate effort on creatures’ part that enable some to ‘jump the hurdles’ by giving rise to latent aspects of DNA to produce new life-forms capable of overcoming the problems.

In other words, the potential for producing new life-forms may have already been there right from the beginning. Nature’s periodical hurdles of natural selection – which, by the way, are themselves forms of evolving energy – are merely playing the role of prompting appropriate creatures to bring out hidden aspects of their genes to the surface.

Seen in this light, the problem of gaps in fossil records vanishes; for, the transition from one species to another is not gradual, but sudden - a qualitative leap.

If this was the case, then the entire evolutionary pattern of our universe, including Richard Dawkins’ ‘crane’ – i.e. the hurdles of natural selection – may be part of Mother Nature’s grand design to produce consciousness, intelligence and even universal compassion for individual ‘souls’ to qualify and enter a transcendental arena beyond the limited phenomenon of space-time existence. [Read my ‘Is our evolving universe an intelligent design’ and poem ‘Tsunami Dilemmas’ in]

Let us now try and sketch a tentative model, if we can, that can at least vaguely capture our intelligent/compassionate Mother Nature’s purpose in creating temporary processes, like our own universe, which are full of opposing attributes such as good/bad, beauty/ugliness, compassion/violence and so on.

Let us do a thought-experiment by imagining our evolving universe as a school where wondering souls (minds) freely learn through changing circumstances – both on personal and social planes – to cultivate universal compassion. [There is enough evidence from humans’ day to day personal encounters and, more importantly, humans’ social, cultural and artistic activities etc. that this learning process is relentlessly going on.]

If that has been Mother Nature’s purpose in having our evolving universe, then obviously not many reach the target in one lifetime.

[Here, I must confess that the notion of a Judgement Day - when an almighty God choose individuals to be admitted to heaven or to be sent to hell for good, after a trial of one life-episode – seems to me to be an insult to human intelligence. If this was the case, then it would be logical for everyone to wish his/her loved ones to die young so that chances of doing evil things and get cursed to suffer in Hell forever becomes minimal.]

The concept of rebirth – where souls (minds) would be confronted with different circumstances in different life episodes – would be far more intelligible to be added to our model that postulates a truly compassionate creator, Mother Nature. [Read ‘Old Souls’ by Tom Shroder].

So, the ‘soul’ would be seen as a migrating phenomenon from life to life, adopting different identities, different relationships and different circumstances until it reaches the point of enlightenment (Nirvana). Thus, all relationships, encounters and experiences become means of individual souls achieving sainthood.

This would also explain why past-life memories are screened from the present one, even though scientific investigations show under some circumstances that past-life memories could filter into the present life in rare cases. [Read: ‘Reincarnation and Biology’ by Ian Stevenson].

In this setup, a given soul-energy’s next birth and the new circumstances may be understood as a direct outcome of the spiritual development it has reached during its present existence [Theory of Karma?]. Humans’ historical effort to build an equal society, a just, altruistic and cooperative society, may also be seen as part of this learning process.

Mother Nature obviously would not want to make robots. She wants the ‘soul-energies’ to reach total freedom from all limitations – limitations posed by objective circumstances that cannot be controlled by us; the limitations that were necessary for the self-evolution of the mind.

Also, our model may envisage unconditional compassion and true appreciation of beauty as pre-requisites to qualify and reach the level of limitless freedom, power and creativity; for, it is only then can freedom/power be utilised to do good and create beauty from a transcendental existence.

The length of time needed for energy to evolve to the level of consciousness and intelligence (to the age of ‘noosphere’, in Vladimir Vernadsky’s words) perhaps shows how meticulous Mother Nature has been in designing the emergence of living beings with free will, instead of robots or golems.

Different lower levels of this evolutionary process may still be seen in different animal life-forms as remnants indicating the contradictory attributes that went into the formation of mind.

It is none other than Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Selfish Gene’ that brilliantly illustrates how ‘selfishness’ dominated the evolution of life. But then, that was a necessary episode to produce its opposite: selfless compassion.

First, one has to understand the feelings of pleasure and pain in relation to oneself (self-centredness) in order to be able to relate them to others, by identifying oneself with others, by seeing others as a mirror-image of oneself.

This is probably why Mother Nature designed life to evolve as members of species. Because, identity/difference, general/particular, individual/universal as inseparable opposites in unity are indispensable to guide selfishness to reach its opposite.

Even the evolution of pre-historic reptiles, the egg-laying dinosaurs to milk-suckling mammals, finally giving way to human society indicate a certain pattern: from utterly selfish animals, to caring creatures at least for ones family and kind, and finally the human society to facilitate the conditions for universal compassion to emerge.

A close study of animal behaviour, and also the way global consciousness in human society is developing at present, albeit in a contradictory manner, would, I believe, show the point I try to make. Dawkins does not see that process as a systematic transition where, even under the selfish gene’s domination, the conditions for its negation were present.

In other words, even during the ‘selfish episode’, when the selfish gene played the positive role, its opposite, the negative, was present at different levels, but slowly gathering momentum to eventually become dominant and play the positive role.

Unfortunately, he tried to reduce all that to the work of the selfish-gene. Thus he does not see the transition.

But Dawkins has clearly seen that human mind has now reached a point that enables humans to overcome the power of the selfish-gene. In fact, he has become part of the campaign to transcend the power of the Selfish Gene.

He says: "…if you wish to…build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have a chance to upset their designs; something that no other species has ever aspired to."

Later he says: "We are not just survival machines of the gene. Our minds have the ability to transcend the limit imposed by physical genes." Bravo Mr. Dawkins!

Obviously, Dawkins sees his own message to humanity as a personal one from a good human being. For, he does not see himself as part of the design that facilitated the conditions for universal compassion to arise.

What is important, however, is to realise that the evolution of our biological nature is reaching an end. The opposite of selfish gene - the evolution towards the selfless soul – is slowly but surely raising its head. The human soul is slowly becoming aware that "our minds have the ability to transcend the limits imposed by physical genes." And, that is what, in my view, Dawkins’ own message to mankind amounts to.

Perhaps, the signs are there to suggest that humankind is entering the New Age of consciously grasping Mother Nature’s (God’s?) purpose in creating the universe.

- Asian Tribune -

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