Thursday, December 28, 2006

Why Are Unicorns Hollow?

Before becoming a pastor, I taught a few years of mathematics in a high school. Although my time there was short, they made a great impression on me. Those years have influenced and shaped my thinking ever since. My only regret is for the poor students who suffered me as a teacher. I was fresh out of college and ready to take on the world.

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.

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.

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.

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.


Stushie said...

Excellent commentary, James. Well parsed.

thekingpin68 said...

Hi James,

That is a good article. I am not expert on Dawkins, but I saw him on Charlie Rose of PBS and Dawkins basically indicated that religious people were not educated. Dawkins seemingly trusts in scientific empiricism at the expense of philosophical theology and therefore fails to see that science does not answer issues such as first cause and the meaning of life. A more reasonable approach would be to pursue truth both scientifically and philosophically.



Harry said...

I don't think you guys get the point of what he's saying, which I really find quite sad. I don't know how theology will ever be weeded out when the general populace are not good at critical thinking.

His point is that there is no purpose to life. It may not be a reality that you want to deal with. Most religious types are weak in spirit when it comes to accepting the nature of the world, that's why they are drawn to it in the first place. You are here because you replicate, if you didn't your bloodline would cease to exist. This is true of both organisms AND culture. There is no purpose to it, no reason, just heredity, mutation and selection. It only requires these three rules and order emerges from chaos. So sad that people are to stuck in their ways to accept the truth. There is not God, there is no purpose, deal with it.

P.S. I hope you don't moderate this comment, though given religions past I certainly expect it.

Anonymous said...

You claim Dawkins is begging the question? I certainly don't see where in the transcript you've provided. I take it you believe his conclusion is that "God should be excised from human thought." I see nothing in the dialogue that is a reformulation of this.

If you'd be so kind as to point it out I'd me much obliged.

If this is not the conclusion you take him to be supporting, then please tell me what the conclusion and indicate where he uses it as a premise.

Else, I really think it intellectually unfruitful to falsely accuse arguments of fallacies they don't commit.

Rui said...

You seem to find meaningless that all those philosophers and scientists would disagree on the "why" question but this is exactly the problem: interpretation, own thoughts and personal belief, which clue is exactly the fact that every person has its own personal feeling and answer about it.
This, as the belief for god, proves it wrong. There's not one idea, shared by everyone, but everyone has its own idea. You could be honest and follow the rational path, truly, to agree that if god would be there, its essence would be shared by anybody, by construction, and it's clearly not.
God is a personal view, taken as an easy answer to meaningful questions.

Andrew said...

I disagree, the question what is the meaning of life has no answer. It is an interesting question to think about, but it is as pointless as "why are unicorms hollow" simply because there is no need for life to have a meaning.

Sylwester said...

Last summer I read GEB. this summer I have read The greatest show on earth, The Jesus mysteries and I'm currently reading Hawking's Grand Design.

Hofstadter tries to write about systems and they work like universes. WHen you are in your universe you have to follow it's rules. A system cannot explain itself and if you let information outside leak into the system chaos.

Dawkins focuses on evolution and I'd guess he doesn't look for the originas of the soul like Hofstadter. He is convinced there is no god and that if there was one it won't matter since she will not interfere with what he has started.

Jesus Mysteries looks at the origins or Christianity. Most importantly Jesus is not his only name and he is not a historical figure but a a mere mythological god used for getting nonbelivers into the next pahse where the real meanings behind the stories gets unravelled. Great thinkers and early scientists were a part of these so you might find math and symbolics in the bible because of that.

For the Grand Design I belive Hawking doesn't care about the origin of species nor if there is a god as long as they both don't mess with his quantum physics..

So what if the science fiction film Matrix was true? According to Hofstadter we wouldn't know this and I belive all of the above books along with your blog would have looked the same (or different, but similar).

Back to Dawkins I think he point out the fact that looknig for some things like why might not be useful for him since he things there might not be a why in the same sense there is no why to some thing I do out of boredom or interest that serves to deliberate purpose other than to my own amusement.