In high school, I had loved geometry. Using reason alone, so I thought, we reconstructed the world. I loved the objectivity and rationality that it proclaimed. When I was the teacher, I tried to instill that same sense in my students. The first day of geometry class, I read to them from Descartes’ "Discourse on the Method." (I told you that my students suffered.)
Anyway, the year was an utter failure. I learned that geometry was not merely a collection of givens, postulates, axioms, and theorems. Beyond reason, there were hunches, hints, and guesses involved. Observation, past experience, and even tradition were important. Students had to learn to think, and this process was more than a system of rational deduction.
I remembered this hard-earned knowledge while reflecting on Richard Dawkins. The author of "The God Delusion" has been getting a bunch of press lately. Dawkins is an avowed atheist, zealous in his attacks on religion. Where many are suggesting that science and religion can be in dialogue, Dawkins will grant no ground to religion. In fact, God should be excised from human thought. Recently I heard a recent podcast of "To the Best of Our Knowledge" from Wisconsin Public Radio which included an interview with Dawkins.
Although the interviewer Steve Paulson asks some intriguing questions that deserve more commentary, I was more interested in hearing what Dawkins had to say.
According to Dawkins, the question, "What is the purpose of life?" is completely illegitimate. The question is as pointless as asking, "Why are unicorns hollow?" As a committed follower of Jesus Christ, I disagree. That probably wouldn’t surprise anyone. However, I find the statement bizarre on a completely rational level.
Interviewer: What about the old adage that science deals with the "how" questions and religion deals with the "why" questions?"
Dawkins: Yes, I think that is markedly stupid if I may say so. What on earth is a "why" question? There are "why" questions that mean something in a Darwinian world. We say, "Why do birds have wings to fly with?" They don’t mean that. They mean "why?" in a sort of deliberative purposeful sense. Those of us who do not believe in religion, supernatural religion, would say, there is no such thing as a "why" question in that sense.
Now the mere fact that you can frame an English sentence with the word, "why," does not mean that English question deserves or should receive an answer. I could say, "Why are unicorns hollow?" That’s a perfectly good English sentence. It appears to mean something but you don’t think that it deserves an answer.
Interviewer: But it seems to me that the big "why" questions are, "Why are we here?", "What is our purpose in life?" Okay, that’s a "what" question. But it’s basically a "why" question.
Dawkins: That’s right it is a "why" question, but it’s not a question that deserves an answer.
Interviewer: But I think most people would say those questions which are central to the way most people think about their lives. Those are the big existential questions. But those are also questions that are beyond science.
Dawkins: If you mean what is the purpose of the existence of the universe that quite simply is begging the question. If you happen to be religious you think that’s a meaningful question. Those of us who do not believe in a god, will say, that is as illegitimate as asking, "Why are unicorns hollow?" It just shouldn’t be put. It is not a proper question to be put. It does not deserve a answer.
Throughout the history of humanity, people have wrestled with a variation of "What is the purpose of life?" Dawkins basically suggests that they were all wasting their time. Plato, Aristotle, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Lao-Tse, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Hobbes, Locke, Jefferson, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx, and even Nietzsche did not think that the question was illegitimate. Of course, each of them would probably find serious disagreement with the others, but that’s not the point. Richard Dawkins suggests that he is smarter than all these guys. With a turn of the phrase, he says the question that has dominated human thought for ages is out-of-bounds.
Later, Dawkins tries to explain why he thinks such thought "begs the question."
Dawkins: ...A legitimate question is "Where do the laws of physics come from?" An illegitimate question in my view is "What is the purpose of the laws of physics?" That implies that there is some kind of deliberate purpose-giver or purpose-thinker...Perhaps, there is a begging of the question. Perhaps, there is an assumption of a purpose-giver. However, human history has suggested many purpose-givers, and most do not require a deity. Besides God, other possible purpose-givers have included nature, reason, history, wealth, or race to name a few. Some have suggested that humanity itself is the purpose-giver. Still others have claimed answered the question, "What is the purpose of life?" with, "There is no purpose."
Dawkins himself is begging the question. Like I did with my students, Dawkins has required a truncated view of human knowledge. If something doesn’t fit with his world view, he proclaims it illegitimate. He sounds as bad as the fundamentalists that he decries.