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Why The “Why?”

I came across Richard Dawkins’s latest impassioned plea for evolution this morning via Arts & Letters Daily. Dawkins’s medium this time is a book review (Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True), but those familiar with the world of Dawkins will find little new here.  Mostly, it’s the same old tired re-hashing of his war against creationism and all who would resist the idea that evolutionary theory answers all questions worth asking or answering.

And once again, Dawkins gets a little over-excited in his description of what evolution actually is and what it can do:

The evidence is massive, the modern version of the story would surprise and inspire even Darwin, and it cannot be told too often. Evolution is, after all, the true story of why we all exist, and an exhilaratingly powerful and satisfying explanation. It supersedes—and devastates—all predecessors, no matter how devoutly and sincerely believed.

The true story of why we all exist.  Hmmm.  Actually, it seems to me that of the (many) things that evolution can tell us, why we exist is not among them.  It can trace the causal chain back as far as possible and tell a plausible story of how we have come to exist.  It may give us some insight into when and where we first came to exist.  It may do a masterful job of describing what exists, in all of its wondrous variety.  But it cannot pronounce finally upon why we exist.  The question of whether or not there is an ultimate “why” is something that lies beyond the scope of evolutionary theory—or any scientific theory that properly concerns itself with describing what is.

Of course, Richard Dawkins is certainly free to profess his faith in evolution as a comprehensive worldview.  But he so regularly blurs the line between “scientific facts” and what he considers these facts to mean that we may be forgiven for taking statements such as the one above just a little cynically.  Evolution cannot tell us why we exist, no matter how desperately Richard Dawkins wishes this were so.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    Dawkins reaches beyond what science does. To some extent I think Darwin did too in associating the workings of natural selection with philosophical ideas of chance and necessity – although his expression is modest and civilized, quite unlike that of Dawkins.

    Dawkins even seems to place himself and his contemporaries above Darwin. That is itself a great exaggeration.

    Today I have been reading the work of an early twentieth century naturalist and essayist – John Burroughs. He too associates natural selection with truth and God. But his writing is civilized and modest and thoughtful, whereas the writing of Dawkins is crude. Burroughs was, in his day, of course, more famous than Dawkins, and, unlike Dawkins, he was widely respected. Burroughs is still often read today. Dawkins will be forgotten.

    Theology deals with questions of ultimate importance.

    February 16, 2009
  2. I wonder whether Dawkins deliberately tried to deduce non-scientific truth claims from scientific finding or whether it was that he was not aware of his mistake.

    February 20, 2009
  3. You’re not the first person to wonder this, Jeremiah. I think it’s a major weakness in his approach—one he doesn’t seem to realize (or at least acknowledge).

    February 20, 2009
  4. Tyler #

    Even using the theory of evolution the why the what, the how, the when, the where… in my opinion all contain some metaphysical value. How can they not? Even saying there is not “creative force” or “prime mover” and everything is random chance does not remove that metaphysical value.

    How do stem cells know what organ to shape them self into? When and what organ they need to? We can view what they do and observe when they do it… but it doesn’t mean we know what they do and when they know to do it. This is just once case… Explain that to me, and then you can start talking about a comprehensive world view.

    March 5, 2009
  5. I think you’re bang on Tyler. There is an implicit metaphysical structure at work in Dawkins’s worldview that he mostly leaves unarticulated.

    March 5, 2009

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