A theological blog No 1: Facts and meanings
Atheists commonly take the view that only science is trustworthy because only science follows the rational procedures of unprejudiced gathering of data, hypothesis, experiment and peer review. Everything else is imaginary and mythological illusion. This is a grievous error because it fails to distinguish between facts and meanings. The facts established by science are certain, but the meanings that scientists inevitably attach to them – for like the rest of us scientists are meaning seeking creatures – are not. In every age scientists have regarded the meanings they have attributed to the facts as certain as the facts themselves, only for the science of a later age to have regularly shown that the meanings were not just uncertain but certainly wrong. Even the greatest scientists have mistaken the significance of their own great discoveries. Galileo thought that the sun, or more precisely a mathematical point close to the sun, was the centre of the universe, Newton thought that his laws explained all forms of motion, Darwin projected a myth of competition and extermination onto nature (see my book ‘Loveliest of Men: Darwin and the tragedy of The Origin of Species), Einstein never accepted quantum physics even though his own discoveries were instrumental in its development. There is no scientist today who thinks that Einstein was right.
So it is now. We can be sure that the facts of genetic transmission that Dawkins expounded so briilliantly in The Selfish Gene will be as true in a hundred years’ time as they are today, but the meanings he attributes to them – that science has eliminated a creating God, that organisms are no more than lumbering robots created by the genes to fulfil their own purposes, that although we can only describe the actions of the genes in purposeful language they in fact act without purpose – none of these are as certain as the facts themselves, for all the facts of genetic transmission are actually telling us is that the DNA codes for proteins. They certainly tell us that organisms were not manufactured by God as Paley thought. They do not tell us that there is no God (not that we should go on using this ambiguous, exhausted and misleading term). What the history of science suggests is that in a hundred years’ time science will have developed a world picture in which the significance of genetic transmission will be quite different from how we regard it now, and we do not yet know what that significance will be. But you can bet your life savings that they won’t be the meanings that Dawkins attributes to them now.
In an interesting answer in Climbing Mount Improbable (I can’t remember the page) that Dawkins makes in reply to the charge that it is unthinkable that evolution could have chosen correctly from all the billions of possibilities that were open to it at every stage without some form of guiding intelligence, he makes his answer by invoking an analogy from a sentence in Hamlet: ‘Methinks it is like a weasel’. His point is that if evolution had to find the whole sentence in one fell swoop it would be incredible. But it doesn’t. All it has to do is to find an M then an e and so on. To this his critics reply that it wouldn’t have known that M was the letter to find, unless the whole sentence was already in existence, at least in somebody’s mind. Actually, I think Dawkins might be right and the analogy is misleading. To develop an eye all nature needed to do was to develop a light sensitive patch on some creature’s skin which would give it a competitive advantage, then a more sensitive patch until the whole caboodle of lens and iris and all the rest was in existence. But then again, what use is an eye unless it is being used by a creature that simultaneously has developed all the other attributes that even the most basic of organisms needs? So maybe evolution did need to come up with the whole phrase all at once. What do you think?
That, however, is not my point. My point is that the possibility that evolution could come up with an M without some guiding purposeful intelligence, does not show that there is no guiding purposeful intelligence, because it could equally be the case that it was guided by a purposeful intelligence. The truth of it is that we weren’t there, we just don’t know. But we can be pretty certain that the science of a future age would tell us that it is not the right question. Again and again, science now is telling us that two propositions that could not possibly be true at the same time are true at the same time. The non sequitur ‘science has shown that what was once thought to be a divine miracle is in fact a natural occurrence shows there is no God’ is a mistake atheists regularly make, just as theists so often find evidence in science for events in the Bible as evidence that the Bible is true. Both science and the Bible call for acts of faith because neither gives us a complete picture.
This has never been so true as it is today, for science has now pushed the boundaries of what it knows so far they have escaped our capacity to make sense of them. How can electrons be both particles and waves at the same time? How can two photons communicate instantaneously with each other across the whole universe? Dark matter is by definition dark. What would an infinity of universes look like? What was the nature of the nothing Hawking and Krauss say the universe emerged from in a blinding flash of heat and light (I think they are right for theological reasons but I have no hope of doing the math). We just don’t know the answer to all these questions. Science is now landing us in a wonderful place, the land of just don’t know, but many people still think of it as if it is handing us seventeenth century Cartesian certainties. Only the theologically less well-informed can imagine that in The God Delusion Dawkins is attacking a God that intelligent believers believe in. We don’t believe in such a God either. This is a book that is only saying tautologically the unbelievable is unbelievable. My problem with it is that it seems totally unaware of an idea of God that might be believable, let alone refutes it. The question is not ‘has science disproved religion?’ but ‘given that we know hardly anything, what are the most personally satisfying acts of faith we can make?’ I’m a regular reader of The Humanist but I can’t say I feel very inspired by it. If I have to choose between competing mythologies, and I do, I find the Gospels a much better read.