The Schoolman Dawkins

What does Dawkins mean by the term evidence? That seems to depend on the circumstances in which it is applied. In a previous post, I wrote about the challenge to the likes of Dawkins, presented by the testimony of and about Padre Pio.  Subsequently, I discussed the use Dawkins made of Hume in dealing with that challenge.

It has occurred to me since, that Dawkins double standards on evidence align him in some senses with the Schoolmen from the declining years of Scholasticism; or at least with the caricature of them that is retailed by the camp-followers of “The Enlightenment.” In this view, the Scholastics were lost in a world of excessive subtle arguments based on an Aristotelian and Thomist philosophy, splitting finer and finer hairs in a debate hopelessly divorced from the real world. Into this massive but brittle word of ideas was introduced a new realism, throwing away the old edicts, and relying only on observation, evidence and reason.

A basic problem with this caricature is that evidence ain’t evidence. Some evidence can, according to Dawkins, be dismissed a priori; for example, evidence of the miracle of the sun at Fatima, or of the bi-locations of Padre Pio. By what authority is this evidence dismissed? By the absolute authority of a philosophical commitment: that all things, visible and invisible, are material, complete, entire and with no non-material residue. This dogma trumps all evidence. For there can be no evidence that contradicts it. Given the pre-suppositions of the dogma, any evidence which purports to contradict it must necessarily by fraudulent, mis-reported, mistaken or mis-interpreted. Q.E.D.

It turns out that this dogmatic rejection of evidence is not unusual in the history of science, and Michael Polanyi and Thomas Kuhn, most notably, have pointed out.

During the eighteenth century the French Academy of Science stubbornly denied the evidence for the fall of meteorites, which seemed massively obvious to everybody else. Their opposition to the superstitious beliefs which a popular tradition attached to such heavenly intervention blinded them to the facts in question. [Personal Knowledge,II.6.2 Scientific Value]


 Ordinary people were convinced of the fall of a meteorite, when an incandescent mass struck the earth with a crash of thunder a few yards away, and they tended to attach supernatural significance to it. The scientific committees of the French Academy disliked this interpretation so much that they managed, during the whole of the eighteenth century, to explain the facts away to their own satisfaction. It was again scientific scepticism which brushed aside all the instances of hypnotic phenomena occurring in the form of miraculous cures and spellbinding, and which—even in the face of the systematic demonstrations of hypnosis by Mesmer and his successors—denied for another century after Mesmer’s first appearance the reality of hypnotic phenomena. When the medical profession ignored such palpable facts as the painless amputation of human limbs, performed before their own eyes in hundreds of successive cases, they acted in a spirit of scepticism, convinced that they were defending science against imposture. We regard these acts of scepticism as unreasonable and indeed preposterous today, for we no longer consider the falling of meteorites or the practice of mesmerism to be incompatible with the scientific world view. But other doubts, which we now sustain as reasonable on the grounds of our own scientific world view, have once more only our beliefs in this view to warrant them. Some of these doubts may turn out one day to have been as wanton, as bigoted and dogmatic as those of which we have now been cured. [Personal Knowledge, III.9.3 Reasonable and Unreasonable Doubt]

Such examples are multiplied in Polanyi and Kuhn. They demonstrate the overarching role of some underlying structures of belief that are virtually indistinguishable from faith in the way scientists deal with the flux of information that comes to them from their environment, both personal and professional.  These models of reality are many cases simply the internalisation of the theoretical constructs of those scientific disciplines with which an individual is familiar, but all of these are encompassed by his broadest philosophical understanding of the nature of reality.

Philip E. Johnson wrote an article, The Unraveling of Scientific Materialism, in the November 1997 issue of First Things, in which he responded to a piece by Harvard Genetics Professor Richard Lewontin in the New York Review of Books in January, 1997. It’s a interesting article in a number of dimensions, including this quote from Lewontin:

Dawkins’ vulgarizations of Darwinism speak of nothing in evolution but an inexorable ascendancy of genes that are selectively superior, while the entire body of technical advance in experimental and theoretical evolutionary genetics of the last fifty years has moved in the direction of emphasizing nonselective forces in evolution.

Johnson continues:

Lewontin laments that even scientists frequently cannot judge the reliability of scientific claims outside their fields of speciality, and have to take the word of recognized authorities on faith. “Who am I to believe about quantum physics if not Steven Weinberg, or about the solar system if not Carl Sagan? What worries me is that they may believe what Dawkins and Wilson tell them about evolution.”

However, the centrepiece is this direct quote from Lewontin.

We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.

Johnson, rightly, regards this comment as revealing of a systematic rationale operating within the evolutionary biology communities. However, from previous examples, it can be seen that such systematic belief systems are endemic to science.  The question then is, not whether they exist, but whether, and to what extent, they are detrimental. In terms of the title of this posting, are we at present in the midst of the intellectual and religious flowering of the current structures of belief, or are we in the midst of its decline and fall, in a climate that is sterile, self-defeating and inimical to human flourishing?

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