Richard Dawkins on the limits of science

November 2, 2006 | By | 12 Replies More

In a recent interview published in Salon.com, Richard Dawkins was asked what we should do when science cannot provide answers we crave.  Here’s what he said:

There are two ways of responding to mystery. The scientist’s way is to see it as a challenge, something they’ve got to work on, we’re really going to try to crack it. But there are others who revel in mystery, who think we were not meant to understand. There’s something sacred about mystery that positively should not be tackled. Now, suppose science does have limits. What is the value in giving the label “religion” to those limits? If you simply want to define religion as the bits outside of what science can explain, then we’re not really arguing. We’re simply using a word, “God,” for that which science can’t explain. I don’t have a problem with that. I do have a problem with saying God is a supernatural, creative, intelligent being. It’s simple confusion to say science can’t explain certain things; therefore, we have to be religious. To equate that kind of religiousness with belief in a personal, intelligent being, that’s confusion. And it’s pernicious confusion.

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Category: Meaning of Life, Religion

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Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Skblllzzzz says:

    There are things science can not explain *yet*. Maybe science will never even get around to explaining a lot of things, but that does not mean that the scientific method can't lead to an explanation of these things.

  2. "Now, suppose science does have limits. What is the value in giving the label “religion” to those limits? If you simply want to define religion as the bits outside of what science can explain, then we’re not really arguing. We’re simply using a word, “God,” for that which science can’t explain. I don’t have a problem with that."

    Well do you want to use the label "religion" or do you want to use the label "God". Religion is man-made, God is not. The problem with labeling the "bits outside of what science can explain" is you end up with a man-made label, subject to man's definition. Religion is not such a mystery, it is man's way of dealing with the unknown. God can speak for Himself and provides information about what science cannot measure. But since science cannot measure it, it doesn't exist. The phrase "not invented here" comes to mind.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    It's an awfully big assumption that "God" is not man-made.

  4. Dan Klarmann says:

    LJC: The danger of labeling everything we don't yet know as "God" is that the term "Atheist" would then imply that these people must believe that they know everything. No Atheist of my acquaintance would agree to that definition. I've read arguments against the validity of atheism as a system of belief using that definition of God.

    Anyone with a grounding in science understands that there are measurable limits to what can be known. Heisenberg, Goedel, and complexity/chaos theory explicitly map some of those limits, as well as describing the tools needed to get sense out of any observations near those limits.

    There is plenty of room between what we already know and those limits, but the gap is progressively closing.

    Just because there are limits to the so-far-mapped seas of knowledge is no reason to label the area beyond as "Here Be Monsters". Nor should we cede the as-yet unexplored areas permanently to faith.

    Faith and religion are apparently sociologically useful (in a Darwinian sense). But when reason illuminates territory previously only described by faith, I believe that faith should give way in those details.

  5. "But when reason illuminates territory previously only described by faith, I believe that faith should give way in those details."

    I don't have a problem with true science adding to our knowledge of reality. It is the intellectual elitism of the technocrats who corrupted our schools with changes that created gross public ignorance that make me want to cuss. The chaos in schools today is beyond belief. But instead of placing the blame at their own door steps, the elitists use the chaos as proof of the irrationality of ordinary humans and the need for more technocrats to manage them.

    A worldview based on Darwin's theory of evolution robbed man of his position of value as a child of God and he was relegated to the irrational animal kingdom. With such a pessimistic view of mankind in general, it was easy for the more intelligent ones to rationally assume that they had arrived at a higher point of evolution and therefore deserved to rule the rest of the species {actually the whole planet}. This viewpoint is self-serving as well as self-fulfilling. The idolatry of science worships a piece of meat elevated to godhood {rulership} by infidels.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Gee, Larry. Is your interpretation of Darwinism the only possible one? I don't think so. I proudly think of myself as an animal http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=231 mainly because I am one (and I'm whispering . . . and you are one too!).

    I don't think of myself as "higher" or more rational (only that I am more humanly rational). I don't think of myself as a God.

    What if you weren't a "child of God" in the first place? And why is it a step down to be a child of the Earth, a cousin of all other living things?

    I suppose you are one of the many people who blames the teaching of evolution for the current chaos in many schools. I would suggest that you visit your local prison (probably more chaotic than your local school) where you won't hear any spontaneous Darwin talk.

    I would make you this bet. Find me a few schools where Darwin is studied very seriously and you'll find LESS chaotic schools, not more chaotic.

  7. "I would make you this bet. Find me a few schools where Darwin is studied very seriously and you’ll find LESS chaotic schools, not more chaotic."

    I would make you the same bet about finding a school where the Bible is studied very seriously, but even the Amish are now being attacked by the technocrats "civilized" misfits.

  8. Jason Rayl says:

    The "chaos" in public education is the result of a conflict between its original intent and changed circumstances, liberally stirred by uninformed expectations.

    Public schools may have been established to "educate" but they became, by the 50s, institutions serving one paramount purpose–socialization. They were there to teach all the little boys and girls to be members of the community first, scholars second, and when scholastics interfered with the socialization, scholastics were sacrificed.

    Comes the Sixties, when all the asumptions of what it mean to be An American came under severe and long-overdue scrutiny and suddenly there was no single standard to socialize kids to. Hence the turf war that has dominated the street-level infighting over education since.

    The answer? More socialization. Test the little buggers into conformity. There is only one set of "right" answers and through No Child Left Behind we will cram those answers down their throats so they come out the other side Good Citizens. Those who don't get it right, we uncertify or discredit those particular schools.

    The chaos is not Darwin's fault but *&$%^ politics interfering with a teacher's ability to actually teach.

  9. "What if you weren’t a “child of God” in the first place? And why is it a step down to be a child of the Earth, a cousin of all other living things?"

    Why is it a step down for a butterfly to be a caterpillar? The progression is similar even though most caterpillars don't recognize their relationship to butterflies. Our handicap is too many caterpillars that believe using fear to motivate, which turns intelligent caterpillars off. Go ahead and spin your cocoon, just don't get too comfortable in there.

  10. Dan Klarmann says:

    "Higher level of Evolution" is a <a title="Explain this" target="_blank" href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teleological_argument">teleological interpretation of a common misstatement of the premise of evolution. That which we value-judge to be "more evolved" are really just more recent survivors in a long chain of life. Some modern species are genetically simpler than their ancestors, like extremophile bacteria. In humans, can one say whether taller races (like Swedes or Dinkas (in Africa)) or shorter ones (like Eskimos or pygmies) are "more" evolved? It depends on what the local environment selects for. There is no absolute quality that evolution moves toward, no distinct point at which one could say evolution is "done".

    People who are considered more rational are not more highly evolved in the biological sense. However, they generally have gone through more training in thinking than has the average person. Paradoxically, the engineer who designs the bridges your life depends on are generally less trained thinkers than the PhD in literature who serves your latte. The former is a subject specialist, and the latter was trained in general thinking. Apparently, our culture financially selects against higher reason. However, who gets more girls? That's the important question to evolutionists.

    What I.Q. tests is always under question. Also questionable is the usefulness of getting high scores on those tests as a predictor of success in society (wealth, power, comfort). In fact, the most intelligent people I know (according to their Mensa qualifications) are generally middle-of-the-road earners in both blue and white collar genres.

    So citing an I.Q. score does not sway me as much as presenting a broad list of serious books read, or ideas investigated.

    But I digress. I agree that ivory-tower technocrats can be a poor choice to run civil policy. But not as poor a choice as Fundamentalists tied solely to the wisdom of ancient texts, and blind to the benefits of using rational discovery.

    The chaos in public schools is a complex phenomenon. My vote is to blame the parents and sub-culture that denigrate the importance of education. If you pack a school with kids who have no use for learning, then learning is not likely to occur, no matter how well funded or how strict the standards may be. Cultures that believe that knowledge is power have quickly passed the American average, and are now passing the American best in education. It's the culture, not the funding, that nurtures education. Whether the students are taught pure science, or just scientific discovery dimmed through a Biblical lens, those who will learn, will learn. (2 uses of will: Have the desire to, are likely to).

  11. "I believe that all life, all intelligence, all creativity and all 'design' anywhere in the universe, is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection. It follows that design comes late in the universe, after a period of Darwinian evolution. Design cannot precede evolution and therefore cannot underlie the universe." http://www.edge.org/q2005/q05_6.html#dawkins

    This is because "the leading light of the New Atheism" has drawn a line around the {physical} universe {all that can be measured} and therefore he believes nothing exists outside of his line. I admire him for being honest enough to admit that he can't prove it. But to condemn christians as "cop outs" because they know better than to try to prove the existence of a supernatural entity by natural means seems unfair. If evolution is design then it must be preceded by it.

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