In 2006 the eminent biologist Richard Dawkins published his best-seller ‘The God Delusion‘. Six years later Rupert Sheldrake, a biochemist, published his response, ‘The Science Delusion‘ (2012). Dawkins dismisses God while Sheldrake dismisses science. Who if either wins the argument? We start with ‘The God Delusion’.
Dawkins’ title is intentionally aggressive, implying that anyone who believes in God is suffering from a delusion. Dawkins defines his target as the belief that ‘there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us‘.
But people who believe in God would not put it that way. Some, for example, might simply say that they believe in God and that God is eternal Love. They might feel hurt to be told that they are deluded.
It is easy, and sometimes useful, for Dawkins to target outmoded religious dogma and practice. The assertion that God created the world in 7 days (and so on) is an easy target. Whether it is a useful one to get worked up about is questionable since, as yet, there no complete and rational alternative: neither Darwin’s theory of evolution nor the science of cosmology explain the event of creation. In contrast, the scandal of state-subsidised religious schools is a tricky target yet a laudable one. But such topics of detail take attention away from the real issue.
Dawkins knows that he cannot prove that God does not exist so he makes the weaker assertion that the existence of God is ‘improbable’. But God is not a horse running in the Derby and there is no rational basis for betting on the probability of his existence.
The great biologist Stephen Gould wrote a book about the rules for engaging in arguments such as this. In effect Gould says that in any argument about science and religion, the participants must recognise two Zones of thought:
Zone 1 – The material world of science which examines things as they are.
Zone 2 – The non-material human world of the mind and morality where we wonder who we are and how things ought to be.
Dawkins has read Gould’s book but does not heed his wise advice. Wielding all his scientific weaponry, he storms across the boundary in a flood of words that drowns the main issue.
For starters, he derides an astronomer who, in conversation, once suggested that ultimate questions about the universe were the province of the chaplain. Dawkins wishes he had scored a point by replying ‘Why not the chef?’ But that would have been an own goal: the chef’s expertise is cooking, Zone 1. Whereas the chaplain’s expertise is religion in Zone 2 where the chef’s expertise is irrelevant.
Dawkins cites Einstein in support of his attack on religious belief but Einstein would not have given this book a favourable review. Einstein believed that there is a metaphysical world beyond the scope of science. Or in Shakespeare’s words, ‘there are more things in heaven and earth… than are dreamt of in your philosophy’ (Hamlet). As a knowledgeable Darwinist, Dawkins knows that homo sapiens is in a fortuitous state of evolution, confused by the ‘human condition’. Perhaps Dawkins should renounce materialism and align himself with Einstein and Hamlet.
Now let us turn to ‘The God Delusion‘. Throughout, Sheldrake makes one thing very clear: he rejects materialism. Fine. He only needed to point out the fundamental flaw of materialism and he would win a knockout. Unfortunately he goes on to make a huge error: he equates materialism with science. But materialism is a personal philosophy or belief; whereas ‘science’ is the application of human reason to the physical world. Materialism (and its partner, reductionism) are worthy targets but science is not.
In his attempt to refute materialism he makes claims which go against mainstream scientific opinion. For example:
– He suggests that people claiming to live without food and water for months may be drawing energy from the air or the quantum vacuum.
– He defends homeopathy on the grounds that people get better if they think they are being treated. This is close to approving of doctors lying to their patients.
– ‘Nature’ is in ‘morphic resonance’ with its past, present and future. If one person starts skateboarding others learn by ‘resonance’.
– Sheldrake disputes the scientific view that the fertilised egg contains all the information required to produce an offspring. He claims that genes do not determine the form of organisms. A developing embryo responds in ‘morphic resonance’ to the ‘morphic fields’ of its species.
He does however almost land a punch. Materialists believe that matter is unconscious, a tenable opinion. But they also believe that consciousness is an illusion. That belief is absurd, almost madness. How can materialists deny the reality of their own consciousness? But consciousness does pose a dilemma. Either (1) Consciousness is a non-material phenomenon; or (2) Some degree of consciousness exists in matter. In option 2, the degree must vary from its high level in humans, through a much lower level in higher animals, down to the lowest level in insects, worms and plants. Sheldrake adopts option 2 and includes stones, molecules and all matter. Sheldrake sees the dilemma while Dawkins apparently does not. But by preferring option 2 to option 1, Sheldrake fails to land his punch.
To sum up, neither author wins the argument. Sheldrake could have won had he not confused materialist philosophy with science and not indulged in pseudo-science. Dawkins comes across as by far the better scientist and debater but takes aim at a target that a materialist can never destroy: human aspiration for a world not of the flesh but of the spirit.