Making Sense of Evolution By Bruce Sanguin

Making Sense of Evolution

November 16, 2011 By

The belief that we must choose between evolution and religion is seductive. Biologist, Richard Dawkins, is only one of many atheistic scientists who believe it’s one or the other. Intelligent Design (ID) proponents, freaked out by the capacity of nature to evolve itself through natural selection and genetic mutation, (and thus elbow out the need for a Designer), likewise try to persuade us that it’s evolution or faith.

Thank goodness for the clear-minded intelligence of theologian John Haught, who brilliantly reveals how the common underlying assumptions of both these camps give rise to the false choice[1]. Ironically, the embittered enemy camps share the same mythic God—a cosmic engineer God who intervenes episodically to design a perfect universe. One camp believes in that God and other doesn’t. So, they hammer away at each other. But it’s not a fair fight. The atheists are going to win this one every time, simply by pointing out the existence of evil, evolutionary dead-ends, and vestigial bits that clearly serve no purpose (such as the human appendix). The universe isn’t perfectly designed by a cosmic engineer. (But it is beautiful in its design, and imperfection is part of its beauty.)

Why don’t these atheists pick on someone their own size, like John Haught? Because anybody with real theological chops exposes the superficiality of their worldview, and how they have set up a straw theological man to tear down. They call John Haught an “accommodationist” (accommodating to ID proponents) but they can’t have actually read his theology. He is anything but. They make two basic “blunders” according to Haught. I will deal with one of the blunders in this blog, and the second one next week.

Blunder one: By presenting evolution and natural selection as an alternative to a designer God, they leave their own territory and enter the land of theology and metaphysics. The problem is that they seem to cross this border unconsciously. There ought to be border guards asking them for their metaphysical passports. They are at home when they describe the physical processes of life. But then, by stealth and under cover of the night, they cross the border into the land of metaphysics and make pronouncements about the nature of Ultimate Reality.

Here’s an example: Richard Dawkins new book, The Magic of Reality, is a delightful read when he sticks to science. I am reading it, and it is filling in many gaps from my pathetic science education. It’s written for adolescents and young adults, which is just about perfect for me. But out of the blue at the end of a delightful chapter on diversity, he drops in the following zinger: “Next time you see an animal—any animal—or any plant, look at it and say to yourself: what I am looking at is an elaborate machine for passing on the genes that made it. I’m looking a survival machine for genes. Next time you look in the mirror, just think: that is what you are too. (Emphasis mine). That’s “magical?” It’s terrifying and depressing.

But is it true? How does he know it’s true? Has science led him to that conclusion? But science doesn’t draw conclusions about the nature of Reality, just how that part of reality we call physical reality works. Am I the only one who finds this chilling? Is this any better than having fundamentalist Christians trying to brainwash children into believing that ID is a legitimate scientific theory? I don’t want my children growing up to believe that they are “machines”—didn’t this language go out of style with Newton? Nor do I want them believing that every thought, feeling, and choice is predetermined by a bit of physical matter.

Here Dawkins is no longer acting as the brilliant scientist he is.  He’s morphed into a metaphysician advocating a particular worldview—one could even say a theology. How did we get from describing physical reality—the proper domain of science— to this metaphysical pronouncement about the nature of ultimate reality?

Blunder one, again: natural selection is not an alternative to intelligent design. It is physical process, which partially describes Reality. Darwin’s discovery was brilliant and is still valid today, but there are other valid theories of evolution (See Back to Darwin: A Richer Account, by John Cobb). In the four-quadrant diagram below, philosopher, Ken Wilber outlines the four fundamental perspectives from within which we see and know Reality.

Each quadrant has its corresponding ways of knowing reality (epistemologies). The right hand quadrants are the domains of science—physical, tangible reality. The best method we have for knowing this external dimension of reality that we call “nature” is the scientific method. The left hand quadrants describe the interior, subjective dimensions of reality. The upper left quadrant is the realm of “I” or consciousness. The lower left (LL) quadrant is the realm of “We”, the intersubjective domain, where worldviews arise and evolve.

What Richard Dawkins and other materialists do is to collapse all of reality into their preferred quadrant, the upper right (UR). It’s called reductionism or in Wilber’s terms “quadrant absolutism”. EVERYTHING (the other three quadrants) can be reduced to the physical! If you want to know everything about the reality “machine” take it apart until you get to the fundamental unit of reality—for Dawkins, this is genetic material. Genes have replaced the mythic God for him in the sense that they absolutely control life. It’s not only scientists who can be guilty of this. Spiritual folk who make the claim that they create  reality in an absolute fashion through their consciousness collapse all the other three quadrants down to the upper left (UL).

Even consciousness (UL) is said to be created by the brain (UR).  But it’s one thing to say that consciousness and brain function are correlated (they are); it’s a completely other thing to claim that consciousness can be reduced to the spongy grey matter inside our skulls (it can’t be). Furthermore, when he ends his chapter on DNA with the claim that the young, impressionable reader is nothing more than selfish, physical bits of matter, using her to pass on genetic material, Richard Dawkins is either unknowingly or sneakily migrating into the LL quadrant and presenting a worldview—genetic determinism. I repeat, this is not science. It’s fine for him to weigh in with his opinions—if he would simply preface such pronouncements with something like, “I’m not speaking with the authority of science here. This is just my personal opinion.”

What Wilber proposes is that if you want a theory of everything you need to employ what he calls “integral methodological pluralism” (sorry about that). All it means is that there are methods of knowing reality that are native to each quadrant or domain. If you want to know about physical nature (UR and LR), then the scientific method is by far the best method.

But if Richard Dawkins wants to know reality as it arises in the UL quadrant (the realm of consciousness), he will need to follow the methodological injunctions of the historical religious traditions about how to meditate and then practice for 10,000 hours or so, and then weigh in on whether the Pure Awareness he is experiencing can be reduced to brain function. (There is a correlation, of course. Every quadrant is correlated to the others. But correlation is not to be confused with causation. Just because you can measure Theta brain waves in Zen meditators doesn’t mean that they are caused by the brain).  The problem is that Richard Dawkins is not the least bit interested in what religion has to say about the nature of reality because science, in his view, is the better “alternative”. It’s not an alternative, Dr. Dawkins, it’s just a beautiful and wondrous way of understanding one astounding aspect of reality—the physical.


[1] John Haught, Making Sense of Evolution, See chapter 2 on Design

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