Saturday, April 25, 2009

Dawkins's Dune

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.



James Drake said...

Steve Grand points out that you and I are more like waves than permanent 'things'. I first came across this idea within the context of what it really means for us to be embodied. When considered a little abstractly, our bodies are instantaneous instances of coherence, sustained by material waves of food, water, and their digestive byproducts. I think I recall reading it in The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology by Hans Jonas, but that's from a single reading more than two decades ago.

It was a Google-alert of mine for references on the Web to The Last Superstition that fortuitously brought me here for the first time this morning. I finished a careful first reading in December but need to follow with others to fulfill my objective of really understanding and remembering its arguments.

To introduce myself, I completed a Ph.D. from UCLA in atmospheric sciences long after getting a BS in physics from Harvey Mudd College. My longtime avocation is political philosophy, since I had an intro course to it from one of Leo Strauss's students.

Lawrence Gage said...

Good to meet you, James.


Joe said...

Your point here is that life is and has something else beyond accidental patterns of matter, which may well be true, but can’t be proven using science or philosophy.

Life is a whole system, from the day of its creation. That system (which may have only a few interdependent parts, a one-celled organism for example, or a virus) relies on itself to take external matter (that outside the interdependent system) and incorporate it within the interdependent system. And so perpetuate the whole system. Up to a point. And then the system dies and decays, becoming external matter, etc. because it has lost its organizing principal, its system.

But all that is true of the barchan. It starts by being created and presumably grows as a result of positioning and external circumstances, but also on a subatomic level from the interactions that occur within its parts or grains of sand, perpetuates itself, decays and dies, etc.

Now you say that: “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…”

But that makes the only difference between the barchan and plant one of degree not kind and so repeats Dawkins error. According to your analysis the sand grains themselves only make up “part” of the dynamics, and so aren’t sufficient to make up the “more” of the dynamics required for life. But with “more” sand grain dynamics the barchan would have the same organizing principle that life has: an “intimate connection between the dynamics of a plant and the dynamics of its parts.”

“Intimate connection” defines life. But how? We can’t really use science because science can’t show how a baclan has life -- in the sense that we point to it and say that is life. Science can show quantity - x number of things and/or connections equals life. “Quality” of connection can’t be examined -- science can’t judge good or bad, and it is meaningless to talk of a “quality” connection (in this context) being the intimate connection of life.

This topic does relate well to the name that creature post. Because there and here you are using philosophy where science fails to try and examine life.

I don’t think, though, that your attempts fare any better than a scientific approach; the “accident” of the philosopher as observed in nature doesn’t exist any more. Science has intruded in that realm as it has with so many things once known as philosophy. Science has shown that everything affects every other thing. (The statistical averages that we observe and call “reality” are averages, so the effects may be small, but they exist.) There are no accidents.

I don’t think, with all due respect, that with these examples philosophy can effectively respond to the what is life question anymore. Science has taken these philosophical constructs and shown those constructs rely on invalid perceptual suppositions.

But we still know life “is” -- we know we are having a true perception of a true “thing” when we point to something and say that is life. And we know we are having a true perception of a true “thing” when we point to something and say that is not life.

And so who cares if science and philosophy fail to explain that thing?

What is more interesting is that we can’t point to something and say we can prove scientifically or philosophically you are life. But we can point to it and say you are life. We are perceiving some “thing” that we can’t prove and we know it is true.

Lawrence Gage said...

Joe, what do you mean by "prove"? What do you mean by "explain"?


Joe said...

I think proof is best explained by the language of those disciplines, so proof is whatever is generally accepted there as proof.

Can science prove or explain life?

Scientific proofs involve:
1. Observations.
2. Hypothesis.
3. Deduction and predictions using the hypothesis.
4. Confirming (or not) the deductions and predictions

Science can’t meet 2. or 3) at least:

It can’t meet 2. because it can’t formulate a hypothesis proving life exists. Viruses and crystals may “grow” and reproduce. Science can’t really define why a virus is living and a crystal not living. But they are!

Science can’t meet 3. because it can’t make any predictions (and assuming arguendo the failure to form a hypothesis is ignored.) Can science predict how to make life? No - it can’t make it either. Can science explain life by predicting how it might develop? No - evolution is an explanation of the past but not predictive.


Can philosophy prove or explain life?

Philosophy can’t prove or explain life either. Its proof system -- logical philosophy -- is incapable of proving or explaining life, because any proof attempts to recapture ground philosophy ceded to science. Life is a material phenomenon and philosophy is kicked out of the way in explaining material things with the finality of Bishop Berkley’s foot.

So neither science nor philosophy can “prove” or “explain” life.

Lawrence Gage said...


Thanks for your thoughts.

The problem is that scientific "proof" as you call it relies on the fallacy of affirming the consequent. Certainly "if it rains, my sidewalk is wet" but just because the sidewalk is wet doesn't mean it rained. Any success science has in describing reality is not, strictly speaking, proof. I'm not here denying that it has truth value or that science has helped us establish real things about the world, but simply that the method of "proof" you cite is not as certain as you seem to believe.

That said, you need to prove your assertion that "any proof attempts to recapture ground philosophy ceded to science." It has never been demonstrated that the old philosophy doesn't apply to nature or material reality. I'm not talking about erroneous Aristotelian cosmology, but rather the underlying principles--often called metaphysics, but more accurately called natural philosophy. Principles like causality, truth, evidence, and even proof have no "scientific" basis, but come from philosophy.

In any event, the statement that "science doesn't need philosophy" is not open to scientific support (how could it be proven empirically?), but is a philosophical statement. So to deny science's need for philosophy you are already engaging in philosophy. The one who claims science can do without philosophy has refuted himself simply by speaking.


Joe said...


By the way, thanks for the blog.

My point is and has been that neither the discipline called science nor the discipline called philosophy can prove or explain life.

Science fails as set forth above. Philosophy leads into science in the material area -- so much so that Gödel, perhaps the greatest logical philosopher ever, said that 1+1=2 has to be taken on intuition -- it can’t be proven through logic.

You have said that natural philosophy -- the other end (from logical philosophy) of the discipline called philosophy --- can explain life.

It can’t. Natural philosophy fails because it uses words. But words can’t explain what life is because words are too imprecise. Any definition used in natural philosophy of life fails because it can be read to encompass other non living things.

Nor, with all due respect, am I using philosophy. I am simply pointing to an area -- a lacuna in the disciplines that doesn’t permit either of them to prove or explain life. That doesn’t use language in the philosophical since, but rather in the notational sense -- there is no there there.

Lawrence Gage said...

Joe, what's wrong with philosophizing about matter? Gödel's proof is about mathematics, not philosophy; if anything it limits what a mathematical system can say.

Words' imprecision is actually their strength, which is certainty. As Mike Augros points out, take two statements:

1. Some things move
2. Light moves at 3x10^8 m/s

and ask yourself: which is more precise? which is more certain?

Obviously the first is more certain because the certainty of the second depends on it. The second also requires all sorts of preliminaries about special apparatus, measurement, etc., whereas the first is simply evident to our senses.

You wrote: "Any definition used in natural philosophy of life fails because it can be read to encompass other non living things." I don't follow.

Please explain what you mean about philosophical vs. notation sense. Please keep in mind that implicit in anything you say is the claim that it is about reality.


Anonymous said...

RD is more rationalist than makes sense to me, but he has said publicly that he is an arch rationalist even amongst his colleagues. Someone's got to be it.

I found the book to be beautifully written and the content consistently fascinating.

Okay, he's a hard head (not as bad as Dennet, though!) but he's a brilliant and fascinating hard head. I don't find his writing egotistical at all - he is scrupulous about crediting others' ideas and respectful of colleagues with differing hypotheses. If you noticed a little preening, well, I never noticed it.