The God Delusion

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The God Delusion
Richard Dawkins
Review first published December 15, 2006

Climbing Mount Improbable to the top of the Best-Seller List

Zoologist Richard Dawkins made his name originally for his lucid popular science writing in the fields of biological and cultural evolution - his wonderful works The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype are still compulsory reading in this fascinating field - and more latterly for increasingly intolerant, grumpy tracts inveigling against religion. The God Delusion is the latest - and grumpiest - in the second category.

It’s hardly surprising that Dawkins - an evolutionary biologist, after all - should object to religious accounts of the creation of the universe. But that he should do so as trenchantly and repeatedly as he does makes you wonder: Is it just because this stuff sells, or doth the lady protest too much? Is Richard Dawkins perhaps trying to convince himself as much as anyone else?

Science, he says, “flings open the narrow window through which we are accustomed to viewing the spectrum of possibilities”. It is, to quote the late Carl Sagan, “a candle in the dark”. It’s the path to the truth. Without science, the universe has no meaning.

Of course, these are all things which a religious person (which I’m not, by the way) might say about God.

Dawkins says God is nonsense (there are shades of that famous graffiti exchange: “God is Dead – Nietzsche”. “Nietzsche is Dead - God”), but in wishing to annex the epistemological high ground, Dawkins has engaged a piddling match which he simply can’t win. The scientific method, being inductive, can no more reveal the truth about the universe than a holy scripture can. That’s a formal logical proposition, by the way, and not some woolly post-modern nonsense. Brilliant philosophers and scientists, from the Descartes at the dawn of the Enlightenment to Hume at the end of it right down to post-war 20th Century writers like Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, have all grappled with exactly that problem: How *do* we categorise science; an endeavour which seems to move unerringly toward the truth without ever having the tools to achieve it?

For all that, Dawkins is persuasive that we shouldn’t forgo our own considered judgment for that of wise men in funny clothes who claim to be learned in obscure scriptures - then again, this is hardly news to anyone with a tertiary education. But in claiming science as the *true* candle in the dark, Dawkins sets his scientific brethren up to be no better: wise men, only dressed in lab coats and not habits, learned in obscure “scriptures”, to whom we should defer our own judgment (if you think I’m overstating this consider: do *you* understand quantum theory, or even know what it is? Fluid dynamics? Aerodynamics? If not, and you still ride on aeroplanes, then on what basis, other than faith?).

This observation, which owes something to the historian Thomas Kuhn, infuriates Richard Dawkins, but I don’t see any way around it. Kuhn argued, persuasively that the development of science and the particular currency of given theory is far more contingent on ostensibly irrelevant social and environmental circumstances than scientists care to acknowledge: a scientific paradigm provides not only answers to conundrums but the questions, too, so its objective validity is impossible to measure from within the paradigm (or for that matter, from without).

The irony is that Richard Dawkins (who has avowedly rejected Kuhn’s work elsewhere) drifts ever closer to it in the latter pages of The God Delusion - even citing favourably Ludwig Wittgenstein - without ever acknowledging the logical trap he’s falling into.

That it’s been a runaway bestseller is indisputable; exactly why is harder to fathom: it’s not as if it’s bringing anything new to the table: Dawkins rehashes exactly the same old Philosophy 101 arguments that we all remember from those golden years at university when there was time to argue the metaphysical toss, and self-righteously baiting self-righteous Christians passed for some kind of sport.

It’s a sport that Richard Dawkins appears not to have grown out of. Nor has the passing time or increasing maturity tempered his tone. But wailing dogmatically about the perils of dogma isn’t going to persuade anyone who isn’t already part of the congregation.

Nor is it even the most considered entry on the topic in the last year: Daniel Dennett’s “Breaking The Spell”, published not six months previously, is a more erudite, thoughtful, intellectually stimulating and tolerant take on pretty much the same subject.