Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion (2007) is probably one of the most overblown rants in the English language published in living memory. Other than revealing how shallow and arrogant the author is (he cannot even condescend to read and understand his opponents' arguments—and admits as much), the book is not very useful.
However, in spite of himself, Dawkins does manage to allow through some glimmers of light. One such point of light is an example that forms part of an argument in which Dawkins is trying to undermine our perceptions of matter and material things, including ourselves, as really being things. As he writes on p. 371:
Steve Grand points out that you and I are more like waves than permanent 'things'. He invites his reader to think...
...of an experience from your childhood. Something you remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all, you really were there at the time, weren't you? How else would you remember it? But here is the bombshell: you weren't there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place...Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made. If that doesn't make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, read it again until it does, because it is important.
To which the appropriate response—the one for which the authors will pause expectantly until you gratify them—is a "Deeep, dude!" uttered with exaggerated awe. (Otherwise, they'll give you a hound-dog dejected look.) The tone of the whole book is similarly, sophistically sophomoric. Notice that if neither you, nor I, nor Dr. Dawkins, nor Dr. Grand are really the same in the past as now, what are we? Furthermore, how can we be said to exist then or now or to the point where any of us can say, "I think such-and-such to be the case," for example, "I think that I do not exist." If "I" do not exist, then how can "I" think? The argument is self-defeating.
Grand is actually right when he says, "Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made," though by his company with Richard Dawkins one has to suspect that he doesn't draw the right conclusions. Dawkins has the world upside-down: our ordinary perceptions (appropriately sifted through philosophical reason) are actually more certain than "scientific" conclusions that would undermine them. As I've already pointed out, if "I" don't exist, how can "I" know the existence of anything else, including scientific evidence? Dawkins manages to make such ridiculous claims only by implicitly exempting himself: it's as if he's a god, above it all.
Anyway, to get to Dawkins's thought-provoking passage:
In a desert plain in Tanzania, in the shadow of Ol Donyo Lengai, sacred volcano of the Masai, there is a large dune made of ash from an eruption in 1969. It is carved into shape by the wind. But the beautiful thing is that it moves bodily. It is what is technically known as a barchan (pronounced bahkahn). The entire dune walks across the desert in a westerly direction at a speed of about 17 metres per year. It retains its crescent shape and creeps along the direction of the horns. The wind blows sand up the shallower slope. Then as each sand grain hits the top of the ridge, it cascades down the steeper slope on the inside of the crescent. (370)
Like an organism, say a plant, the barchan's matter stays with it, without it being completely identified with the particular matter that constitutes it at a given time. The dynamics of the sand that makes up the dune is certainly part of the dynamics of the dune, but notice that for the most part the sand is simply inert and the forces that shape the dune are external and extrinsic to the dune itself, namely, the wind.
In contrast there is an intimate connection between the dynamics of a plant and the dynamics of its parts: the plant can truly be said to be controlled from the inside, that is, intrinsically.2 (It is typical of modern, "scientific" mentality that it cannot recognize intrinsic properties.) This is most evident in the early stages of an organism’s development. This difference from non-living matter is particularly evident in the plant’s initial burst of growth. The principle directing all the action is intrinsic to the seed; in growing, what develops or unfolds is something that is already present. The sprouting seed takes in new matter and incorporates it into the structure of itself.
The parts of an organism are interdependent: they all rely on each other and support each other. For example, the roots bring in the water and nutrients the leaves need to photosynthesize, but the roots can't operate without energy from the leaves: which came first the roots or the leaves? The answer is both. Interdependence means that the whole system has to be present in some way from the beginning, before more matter has been assimilated: it's all or nothing. This is not to say that the living being is somehow independent of matter (manifestly it has to be instantiated by some matter all along), but simply that the matter is secondary, fungible (the form supervenes on the matter). While the matter comes and goes, it is actively involved in recruiting new matter to take its place in forming the organism.
Nature, as Aristotle wrote, is an intrinsic principle of motion and rest. While a barchan and a plant depend on matter without being identical with their matter, the barchan doesn't have a nature and isn't really a cohesive "thing" because its motion is governed from without. But a plant, like every other organism, has a nature—an inner principle—that controls its growth.3
Dawkins and company would have us believe that we organisms are a casual agglomeration of matter, like a barchan. Odd isn't it, that a man who claims to study nature would have such a poor grasp of it?4
1. From the good chunk of Edward Feser's The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism I've already read, I recommend it highly.
2. Notice the word is "intrinsically," not "internally." It's not hard to conceive of something being inside a plant without it being part of the plant. For example, trees often grow around obstacles, like barbed-wire fences. A piece of matter is part of a living being to the extent that it contributes to its life.
3. It is instructive to compare these distinctions with the recent discussion of the (still nameless) fire creature.
4. Bertrand Russell said, "Mathematics is the only science where one never knows what one is talking about nor whether what is said is true." Something of this attitude has rubbed off on modern science.
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007).
Steve Grand, Creation: Life and How to Make It (Harvard University Press, 2001).
Aristotle, Physics II.1.