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Dawkins Is More than Zeal

January 20, AD2014 22 Comments


Oftentimes the new atheists, including Richard Dawkins, are dismissed as offering nothing new, but simply expressing an evangelic fervor in spreading atheism. This could not be further from the truth in the case of Richard Dawkins. He has made a fundamental contribution to modern philosophy in the area of human knowledge; epistemology. By identifying human knowledge as the inference of mathematical probability from material reality, Richard Dawkins has laid the philosophical cornerstone of modern relativism.

Dawkins’ major contribution to modern philosophy

According to Dawkins all design, i.e. all intelligibility, has as its source, the human mind. It is only in human artifacts that material reality displays intelligibility. Material reality itself is irrational. The complexity of material reality merely gives the illusion of human design, i.e. intelligibility. The fountain of this complexity is mathematical randomness, the probability of which can be inferred from material reality. Mathematical randomness renders material reality irrational in itself. However, that randomness can be humanly organized by means of the human logic of mathematics. It is the inference of mathematical probability that renders material reality knowable and subject to scientific investigation. Because the individual human mind is the sole source of intelligibility, the individual human is the sole arbiter of everything. Viola, modern relativism.

The irrationality of material reality does not eliminate causality according to Dawkins, because mathematical probability is causality. It is in explaining the cause of biological speciation that Dawkins elaborates his philosophy of causation as mathematical probability. Dawkins’ argument is a counterproposal to the argument of Intelligent Design. Intelligent Design identifies biological speciation as complexity irreducible to probability, to randomness, i.e. to chance. According to Dawkins (The God Delusion, page 119-121) the possible explanations of the riddle of improbability of biological complexity are not design and chance as proposed by the proponents of Intelligent Design. Rather, the alternatives are natural selection and chance.

Proponents of Intelligent Design, in viewing design and chance as alternatives, identify causality as all or nothing. In such a scheme, causality is a discrete variable of 1, a complete explanation, or 0, i.e. chance and no explanation at all.

Dawkins claims that natural selection changes causality into the continuous variable of probability, ranging from 0 to 1. He notes that the evolution of a complex biological organism such as the mammalian eye in a one-off evolutionary event would be so improbable as to be a matter of chance and “no sane biologist ever said that it was” (The God Delusion, page 120). However, natural selection solves the problem of improbability by replacing a single, large stage with small sub-stages in which natural selection terminates each sub-stage, keeping it small. Thereby, natural selection increases the numerical value of probability of each sub-stage. Natural selection “breaks the improbability up into small pieces. Each of the small pieces is slightly improbable, but not prohibitively so”. (The God Delusion, page 121)

In this manner natural selection increases the probability of evolutionary success. Natural selection modulates the amplitude of causality. Causality is not a discrete variable of absence equal to 0 or presence equal to 1. Causality is a continuous variable, which has a range of amplitude from 0 to 1. Causality is not yes or no. Causality is mathematical probability, shades of grey. In Darwinian biological evolution, natural selection modulates the amplitude of mathematical probability, the amplitude of causality.

Dawkins’ philosophy does not explain away causality as does the philosophy of Hume. Hume essentially denied causality as simply a habit of human expectation. Hume identified causality as the human habit of associating sensual impressions as sequences, where such sequences are happenstance outside of the human habit leading to expectation of the sequence.

Dawkins does reject the traditional notion of causality, but as all, in contrast to nothing, which is chance. In accord with tradition, Dawkins rejects chance as an explanation. Dawkins does not reject causality. He refines it as having amplitude. He refines causality as mathematical probability, which varies in magnitude and which can be inferred from material reality. Indeed, according to Dawkins such inference is the very mode of the human understanding of material reality. In Dawkins’ philosophy, causality is characterized by degree. It is the degree or amplitude of causality, which is inferred from material reality as mathematical probability.

Dawkins’ philosophy and atheism

In the perennial philosophy, the existence of God is the conclusion of an argument based on the inherent intelligibility of material things. More than that, the very concept, the very definition of the word, God, originates in the conclusion of that philosophical argument. The conclusion is not, therefore, God exists. The conclusion is, therefore, unlike material things, which do not explain their own existence, though otherwise fully explicable in their intelligibility, there must exist a being whose intelligible nature and existence are identical; this being we call God. If material reality is not inherently intelligible, then there is no argument. Then the word, God, has no definition, and there is no being to be so named.

If Dawkins is right, that human knowledge of material reality is the inference of mathematical probability, then we should all be atheists. If mathematical probability is inferable from material reality, then material reality is not intelligible. There could be no argument for the existence of God. Then, atheism is true. Atheism would not be the disbelief in God, but the contention that the word, God, has no existential definition.

What do some of Dawkins’ critics propose?

Some agree in principle with Dawkins that mathematical probability can be inferred from material reality. They simply do not follow this to its logical conclusion that material reality is therefore fundamentally irrational. Madrid and Hensley (The Godless Delusion, p 130) identify inductive reasoning as the inference of probability. Similarly, Hahn and Wiker (Answering the New Atheism, p 22) identify mathematical probability as inferentially characteristic of the material processes affecting genetic variation.

In contrast, in The Last Superstition, A Refutation of the New Atheism, Edward Feser does not mention mathematical probability even once. He does not address the philosophical implications of the inference of mathematical probability. Feser completely ignores the thesis of The God Delusion, namely that whereas there is a mathematical solution to the improbability of evolution in a one-off event, there is no mathematical solution to the improbability of God. Instead of addressing the philosophy of the new atheism, Feser ably refutes versions of atheistic philosophy much older than that of the new atheists, while giving an excellent summary of the perennial philosophy of Aquinas and Aristotle. Feser’s book is a very worthwhile read for what it does address, in particular the exposition of Aristotle’s four causes of material things, namely the material, the formal, the efficient and the final. These are key to understanding Dawkins’ philosophy.

The crux of Dawkins’ philosophy

Of the four causes, the source of formal and final causality is the human mind, which expresses such causality in material artifacts. Because mathematical probability can be inferred from material reality, there can be no formal or final causality in material reality.

Of the four causes, only material causality is inherent in material reality as the principle of individuation. All material things are of the same nature, differing from one another in their individuality, which subjects them to mathematical probability.

Mathematical probability is not fundamentally the fractional concentration of an element in a logical set. Rather it is the efficient cause of material events. More importantly it is the efficient cause of the very existence of things and thereby the sufficient explanation of their existence. Mathematical probability is the probability of coming into existence.

The Aristotelian solution

Material reality is inherently intelligible in its formal, efficient and final causality. Its formal and efficient causality is the source of measurable properties, which in their intelligibility are mathematically related and the subject of scientific investigation.

Material causality is the principle of individuation which renders material things countable. The individuality of a material thing cannot be separated from its measurable properties. The mathematics of probability, which concerns solely the individuality of logical elements, can be applied to material reality only analogically.

The jargon of mathematical probability in its use of words such as event, outcome, occurrence and result, connotes coming into being. Nevertheless, in reference to material reality, probability has nothing to do with existence and everything to do with human ignorance, i.e. limited human knowledge, including limited scientific knowledge. Probability characterizes knowledge, not reality.

The mathematics of probability involves the formation of other logical sets based solely on the probabilities of a logical source set. Although the elements of the logical sets may have IDs which indicate their possession of measurable physical properties, it is only their logical membership in sets due to their individuality that matters. The IDs are purely nominal tags. It is only in logic that the measurable properties of a thing can be divorced from its individuality. Consequently, the mathematics of randomness, in which only individuality is relevant, cannot be inferred from material reality.

The mathematics of probability applies to logical elements and logical sets. The nexus which permits the analogy of probability by material simulation is the purposeful human ignorance of the causality of selection. For example, the roll of dice is viewed as random by identifying randomness as the human ignorance of the physical forces, which non-randomly determine the actual outcome in each roll. The mathematics of probability may be employed to compensate for human ignorance at the level at which randomness is posited.

The Aristotelian understanding of the four causes recognizes material reality to be inherently intelligible, rendering the mathematics of experimental science inferentially possible. In its further understanding of the material cause as the principle of individuation, it recognizes mathematical probability as analogically, not inferentially, applicable to material reality.

Note: In addressing the improbability of evolution in a one-off event, Dawkins correctly identifies the mathematical framework of Darwinian evolution as cycles of an algorithm of mathematical probability and of the discriminate filtering of the generated random numbers. However, he gets the mathematical details wrong.  Read more here.

© 2014.  Bob Drury.  All rights reserved.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Bob Drury is retired. He has been fascinated with the reasonableness of the Faith since his junior year in high school in the mid-20th century for which the religion text was entitled, "Faith and Reason". That fascination has continued throughout his education in philosophy, math and science. In his essays he hopes to share that fascination with others. Read more at his website, They Have No Wine.

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