I propose to give the New Atheists, and specifically Richard Dawkins, a fair shake by elucidating the innovative philosophy implicit in the New Atheism and specifically in Richard Dawkins’ writings.
Typical Assessment of the New Atheism
According to its critics, the New Atheism fails to present any philosophical innovation. That explains why Edward Feser in his book, subtitled “A Refutation of the New Atheism,” spends as much of his book criticizing David Hume’s denial of efficient causality as he does in addressing the work of Richard Dawkins, whom Feser identifies as the “house philosopher of the other New Atheists” (p. 118).
It is strange that Feser should spend so much effort in refuting Hume (1711 – 1776) rather than addressing the philosophy of the New Atheism implicit in the work of Dawkins. Dawkins could hardly have been more emphatic in his firm acceptance of efficient causality, and thereby his implicit, but diametric opposition to Hume’s philosophical rejection of efficient causality. Dawkins states, “Chance is not an explanation … and no sane biologist ever said that it was. … [F]or the moment I want to continue demonstrating the problem … of how to escape from chance.” (The God Delusion, pp. 119-120).
About halfway through his book, purportedly addressing the New Atheism, Feser unabashedly states, “Well, I’m not done kicking Hume, not by a long shot” (p. 140). Why kick Hume, who has been dead for over two hundred years, when our contemporary, Dawkins, as the “house philosopher of the New Atheists,” is opposed to Hume’s philosophical denial of efficient causality and affirms efficient causality by proposing an innovative philosophical understanding of it? The reason is that Feser was oblivious to the innovative philosophy of the New Atheism because it was implicit, rather than explicit.
Philosophical Rationale is Often Implicit
We are all philosophers. In contrast, few of us bother to analyze the rationale supporting our philosophical judgments. When Christians say they believe in God, creator of heaven and earth, they are making a philosophical as well as a religious statement. Very few Christians have made their philosophical rationale explicit as did St. Thomas Aquinas. The rationale leading to their judgment is no less philosophical for its being implicit and no less in accord with that of St. Thomas. Parallel to this, St. Paul states, “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” (Romans 1:20). Yet, St. Paul does not explicitly present any philosophical rationale.
In a January 2018 essay, Feser not only demeaned the New Atheism for its lack of philosophical innovation but for its nearly complete intellectual bankruptcy. “I would say that [the New Atheism’s] key marks are three: first, an unreflective and dogmatic scientism; second, an extremely shallow understanding of religion; and third, an obnoxious, evangelical fervor.”
The Main Philosophical Innovations of the New Atheism
Admittedly, Dawkins does not explicitly express the propositions and judgments of the innovative philosophy of the New Atheism, nor does he use the terminology of Aristotle and Aquinas, but that doesn’t mean his position is lacking a cogent and innovative philosophical basis. A careful reading of Dawkins yields three major and innovative philosophical positions.
- Aristotle erred in his understanding of formal and efficient causality, because he interpreted causality through the lens of a discrete and binary mathematics, of 0 and 1, absent and present, black and white.
The correct philosophical understanding is that the discrete values of 0 and 1 represent the external limits of causality, while causality per se is properly understood as the continuum between these limits. Aristotle’s philosophical appreciation of formal and efficient causality was warped by the constraints of the discrete mathematics he imposed upon causality.
- Aristotle erred in thinking that formal and efficient causality were really distinct from one another. This allegedly real dichotomy between the formal cause (substantial form) and the efficient cause of existence, in the things within human experience, required positing the existence of a being, beyond human experience, which did not suffer from this dichotomy, a being whose nature and act of existing are identical. This alleged being is named God, the creator or the First Cause of both nature and existence.
The correct philosophical understanding is that the formal cause and the efficient cause of the existence of things within human experience are merely logically distinct, not really distinct. This is fully in keeping with the traditional philosophical judgment that the true and the existent are merely logically, not really, distinct. Thus, there is no real distinction, no real dichotomy in causality, which needs to be explained by a singular being beyond our experience whose nature and existence are identical. Theism is no longer required as the answer to a problem of causal dichotomy because there is no real dichotomy between formal and efficient causality.
- Human knowledge fundamentally consists in the inference of mathematical probability.
The philosophy of the New Atheism is a form of scientism as a consequence of these positions. It is not the old-fashioned scientism of logical positivism, which is simply a prejudice, arbitrarily excluding all knowledge not based on measurement. This innovative philosophy does not deny causality but proposes a proper understanding of formal and efficient causality based on the concept of mathematical continuity.
What Prompted These Innovations?
Historically, with the introduction of Darwin’s theory of evolution, it was formal causality that was initially deemed to be properly represented by forms that differed from one another by degree not kind, as Dawkins has demonstrated. In contrast to this understanding based on continuous mathematics, the discrete mathematics employed by Aristotle constrained his understanding to forms as discretely distinct from one another.
Evolution yielded a proper philosophical understanding of formal causality based on mathematical continuity. Yet, it appeared to deny efficient causality, as if the generation of forms, being random, was merely chance. It was due to Dawkins’ search for an explanation of how to escape from such apparent chance that led to the realization that efficient causality was also continuous and only logically distinct from formal causality. The continuous variable, probability, was recognized as a synonym for efficient causality; i.e., the probability of an event.
Dawkins claimed that the gradualism of evolution provided an increase in probability, thereby moving away from Aristotle’s lower limit of 0, namely chance. It was Aristotle’s notion of chance, which superficially appeared to be required by the randomness of generation. Identifying mathematical probability as efficient causality moves efficient causality away from chance with the increasing value of probability. It is thus that proposition #3 above is the most basic and most innovative philosophical proposition of the New Atheism.
Aristotelian philosophy identified human knowledge as the inference of the natures of things based on the apprehension of discrete forms. Consequently, it characterized both formal and efficient causality by employing discrete mathematics. In the innovative philosophy of the New Atheism, human knowledge is identified as the inference of probability based on the observation of change. Consequently, it characterizes formal and efficient causality using the mathematics of continuity.
Critique of the Innovative Philosophy of the New Atheism
Cardinal George Pell, in his debate with Richard Dawkins, asked him, “Could you explain what non-random means?” If the question had been pursued to its full elucidation, it would have been evident that mathematical probability cannot be inferred from material reality. The innovative philosophy of the New Atheism, though moderately cogent and self-consistent, would have been seen to be false. However, Pell let him off the hook by not pressing for a definition.
Typically, the words random and probability are simply admissions of human ignorance. Technically, i.e. mathematically, random and probability are purely logical. Thereby they are irrelevant to the philosophical inquiry into reality. They are defined solely within the context of mathematical sets and subsets and are applicable to reality only via the analogy of illustration, not by inductive inference.
Also, it should be noted that Dawkins’ mathematical explanation of how to escape from chance does not demonstrate an increase in mathematical probability as he claims. Rather, it demonstrates an increase in the efficiency of mutation.
Thus, though superficially cogent, both the innovative philosophy and the mathematics presented by Dawkins’ New Atheism are erroneous. Dawkins deserves credit for a valiant try. Even more so, he deserves credit for drawing attention (1) to the distinction between the efficiency of mutation and the probability of success of natural selection in Darwinian evolution and (2) to the modern philosophical attempt to identify human knowledge as the inference of mathematical probability.