Dawkins’ assault on theology turns on his unfavourable comparison of theology with science. Theology is a fantasy subject because it lacks rigorous methodology. There is no unprejudiced gathering of data followed by careful examination, and then hypothesis validated by experiment finally confirmed by peer review. Great scientists as he is, I think, nevertheless, that Dawkins has misunderstood the nature of science. Science is not only made up of facts but facts and meanings, literal truths and metaphorical interpretations of them. Facts may be certain but meanings never are. Because we are human we always clothe facts with metaphor and nothing is so misleading as the metaphor of the bare fact. Science is so dangerous because its discoveries are so awesomely certain their certainty is all too easily transferable to the meanings they inevitably beg.
The whole history of science shows us that scientists have not only always taken imaginary meanings to be as certain as the facts they have enlarged, but that these meanings have always been shown by a later age to be wrong. Descartes and Boyle thought that Galileo’s mechanics were so certain the universe was necessarily a system of corpuscular particles marshalled into geometric shapes by the laws of mechanics, with the implication that belief in God was mandatory, for how else could the laws and the geometry be explained in the first place? Newton’s mechanics were so much more fully explanatory, people like Laplace (but not significantly Newton himself) thought the wholly self-explanatory rational universe that had been discovered by Newton was beyond doubt or question. Now the intellectual obligation was not to believe in God. ‘Is there any place for a divine creator in your book, m’sieur?’ asked Napoleon. ‘I have no need of that hypothesis, sire’ replied the famous cosmologist ‘it explains everything and predicts nothing’. The likelihood of any new law of physics being discovered, opined the great American scientist Michelson on the eve of quantum mechanics, lay in a remote place of decimals. Darwin made one of the greatest discoveries in the whole of science. But in The Origin of Species, Natural Selection (the capitals are his) is presented in language so mythological it would happily clothe any god. In any age of great discovery the discoveries that scientists make are so overwhelming, metaphor is always confused with fact.
Is putting scare quotes round the apparently purposeful behaviour of genes and describing them as “purposeful” really part of the rigorous methodology of science? To say that when we describe genes as behaving purposefully what we really mean is that they are purposeless but no matter we’ll call it “purposeful”, doesn’t strike me as intellectually rigorous. Dawkins has entirely misunderstood Aquinas’s argument from design which is not at all what he thinks it is. Aquinas has a rather better explanation for how tiny unintelligent scraps of matter can behave with apparent intelligence. Because the great discoveries of science always beg questions greater than themselves science is always, paradoxically enough, theological. Or should we say “theological”?