By Dr. Michael W. Fox
Richard Dawkins' polemics may stimulate healthy debate but I see them as a distraction from the central issues of human responsibility for the anti-life conditions our species has created on Earth, and what must be done in terms of planetary CPR---conservation, preservation and restoration....Also the consensuses within scientific disciplines and their various paradigms, which serve to temper unfounded conclusions, can also constrain intuitive and innovative discovery. Most notably, science can never tell us with certainty what we and other animals are feeling, but must rely upon analogy, correlation and probability.
Richard Dawkins, the Oxford University biology professor who gained
notoriety with his book “The Selfish Gene” has recently cast himself as a
high priest of scientific determinism and rational materialism in his book
“The God Delusion”. While admitting that “Science cannot answer moral
questions” he insists that “Science is the method of getting at what is
true”. So we must question our perceptions, feelings, existential knowledge
and take the leap with him to debunk religious belief and faith based on
mystical thinking, mythological fiction and superstition which lead to
irrational values and perceptions.
This is all very well especially if one believes that truth will set us free. But can the kind of truth that the Dawkins mode of scientific enquiry and presumed authority really set us free from cosmic misconceptions? Might it not instead make us prisoners of yet another way of structuring reality and way of being based on the kind of anthropocentric thinking and inherent reductionism and dualism that excommunicates metaphysics and decries shamanic, mystical, empathic and poetic experience? Communion with the co-inhering divinity or mysterium tremendum, and with the powers and inherent wisdom of our living Earth and emergent, sentient cosmos may be limited by the scientific method, along with our understanding of human nature. The net result in the objectified and amoral reality such an approach assumes would limit us as a species and culture.
Scientific determinism and rational materialism are the hallmarks of a subspecies I have termed Homo technos, technocratic man. The world-view advocated by Dawkins masquerades as progressive, evolutionary, but it ultimately impoverishes the human, spiritually, emotionally and intellectually, and also ethically for ethics and moral decision making are derivative of these aspects of human nature and not, as Dawkins admits, from the ‘truths’ science may reveal.
The inherent limitations of the scientific method of enquiry with its theories and preconceptions, which can limit and bias data collection and interpretation, need to be recognized. Also the consensuses within scientific disciplines and their various paradigms, which serve to temper unfounded conclusions, can also constrain intuitive and innovative discovery. Most notably, science can never tell us with certainty what we and other animals are feeling, but must rely upon analogy, correlation and probability.
There are many ways of seeing and of determining what is true. The arrogance of humanism mirrors the hubris of scientism so vehemently expressed by Richard Dawkins.
His polemics may stimulate healthy debate but I see them as a distraction
from the central issues of human responsibility for the anti-life conditions
our species has created on Earth, and what must be done in terms of
planetary CPR---conservation, preservation and restoration.
Prof. Dawkin’s world view is extremely reductionistic, the reductio ad absurdum point being evident in his assertion that science is the way to truth. It is analogous to some claiming that their religion is the only way to salvation. He cannot ignore the fact that objective, amoral science has paved the way to weapons of mass destruction, chemical warfare against other life forms, genetic engineering and military-industrial global corporate hegemony! Scientific freedom, like religious freedom, cannot be dissociated from personal and collective responsibility.
In one of my books, “Bringing Life to Ethics: Global Bioethics for a Humane Society” I have argues that science can indeed help answer ethical questions and give clarity to moral issues---such as revealing the similarities of neurochemical sentience and consciousness of animals and ourselves---as can the core principles of the world’s major religions that advocate the Golden Rule. Science without ethics is unsafe, and ethics without science is unsound.
When all is said and done, and acknowledging that there are many scientists who are practicing Catholics, Buddhists as well as atheists and agnostics, the kind of intellectualism touting science as the new religion of reason that Richard Dawkins is popularizing today is not without merit, absurd and even offensive though it may seem to some. It may help purge both science and religion respectively of hyper-rationalism and irrational human-centered beliefs and values by revealing the inherent flaws and delusions in all our thinking. Above all it may catalyze a more pluralistic, non-secular multiplicity of paths which help enrich and guide the human experience toward the truths we seek, for, as the late Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin observed, “All paths that rise, converge.”
The author is a veterinarian and bioethicist.
Return to: Animals: Tradition, Philosophy, Religion