Richard Dawkins writes really silly things about science and philosophy

[image: Dawkins at the University of Texas at Austin in 2008, Wikimedia; this is essay #279 in the Figs in Winter series]

I’ve known Richard Dawkins for decades. Not in the sense that we are pals. But we have crossed paths a number of times, once because I invited him to give a public talk at the University of Tennessee, another because we both contributed to a stimulating symposium on “Moving naturalism forward” organized by cosmologist Sean Carroll. I have never seen eye-to-eye with Dawkins. I think his famous “selfish genes” view of evolution is too narrow. I maintain that his influential concept of memes is nothing but a misleading metaphor. And I think his criticism of religion is crude and ineffective.

But over the years the most annoying attitude that Dawkins has displayed, as far as I’m concerned, is his relentless criticism of philosophy, coupled with a hopelessly naive view of science. And this past weekend he’s done it again. I woke up Sunday morning to the following tweet:

“Science is not a social construct. Science’s truths were true before there were societies; will still be true after all philosophers are dead; were true before any philosophers were born; were true before there were any minds, even trilobite or dinosaur minds, to notice them.”

Now, I normally don’t bother responding to tweets, even of famous people. And I even more rarely write a whole essay about them, such as the one you are reading now. But Dawkins is too influential an author, and what he writes has serious potential to do harm, to both philosophy and science, so here it goes.

Let us proceed sentence by sentence, to unpack the various problems with Dawkins’ view. “Science is not a social construct.” God forbid. The words “social construct” have come to signify — for the likes of Dawkins — a really, really bad thing. He interprets this to mean something along the lines of entirely arbitrary, made up, completely disconnected from empirical reality.

But as philosopher Helen Longino very clearly explains, science is a social activity in the entirely uncontroversial sense that it is carried out by human beings. This means that, inevitably, science is characterized by social structures, including power structures. Science doesn’t mean just laboratory experiments or particle accelerators, it also means research grants, professorships, universities, and so forth. This, contra Dawkins, doesn’t mean that the products of science — knowledge about the world — is itself arbitrary. But it does mean that there is a lot more to science than the naive view Dawkins holds of it. He once quipped that he considers himself a son of the Enlightenment. So did I, when I was a teenager. Then I grew up and gradually developed a slightly more nuanced view of human knowledge.

Science’s truths were true before there were societies.” This is very sloppy language. What he means is that the facts about the world that science studies are, presumably, mind-independent. Saturn would have rings regardless of whether Galileo ever trained his telescope toward the planet. But there are two important issues to consider here. First off, how scientists interpret the empirical evidence changes over time. Galileo initially thought that Saturn’s rings were satellites, because nobody had ever seen rings around a planet. Looking at the very same data, geologists once believed continents to be fixed, now they think they move. Physicists keep changing the way they think about the subatomic world. Indeed, that’s how science makes progress. “Truth,” whatever one means by that word, is at best approximated by science as a human activity. It is not immutable and perennial. Because truth too is a human construct.

Second, Dawkins is — unwittingly, I’m sure — making a lot of unsubstantiated, or at least undefended, philosophical assumptions here. For one, he seems to espouse what philosophers call a correspondence theory of truth. Which is fine, so long as he realizes that that’s not the only such theory out there, and that one cannot decide empirically, that is “scientifically” which account of truth is most appropriate. Moreover, we don’t really know whether facts about the world are actually unchanging and independent of human (or trilobite, or dinosaur) minds. I think that’s a reasonable assumption, as I reject, for instance, idealism as an ontological account of existence. But, again, I cannot provide any scientific evidence for my (and Dawkins’) position. I can defend it philosophically, though.

Will still be true after all philosophers are dead.” And here comes Dawkins’ predictable jab at philosophers. I’m not sure what his problem is, though he is certainly not alone among prominent science popularizers. Other names of people utterly ignorant of philosophy who nevertheless can’t stop pontificating about it include Neil deGrasse Tyson and Lawrence Krauss. Bill Nye (“the Science Guy”) used to be in the same camp, but has changed his mind once things were explained to him. Kudos.

Dawkins & co. seem hell bent on fighting against a particular windmill, known as “postmodernism,” which they interpret as the pernicious notion that there are no truths, all is opinion. This is, arguably, not exactly what postmodernists mean, but at any rate that battle has been fought, and won, back in the 1990s. Time to move on. Even if one were to be extremely charitable to Dawkins, Tyson, Krauss, and others and accept their account of postmodernism, that school of thought represents a fraction of philosophy, and it was in great part philosophers of science who demolished the most extreme versions of the postmodern criticism of science. We are your allies, Dick, not your enemies.

The rest of the tweet is simply an elaboration on the first part, so I will leave it as is. Now, one might feel in a generous mood and assume that by “science” Dawkins didn’t really mean the social activity and its structures, only the corpus of knowledge that continually emerges from such activity. But that would be extremely sloppy, and hence unforgivable in an excellent science writer. Also, it wouldn’t be in accordance with everything else we know about Dawkins’ attitude toward science and philosophy. Therefore, I’m not inclined to be generous here.

The problem is that Dawkins (and Tyson, and Krauss) has a large platform, not only on social media, of course, but through his writings and public appearances. He is one of the most recognizable public intellectuals and interpreters of science of the latter part of the 20th century and the onset of the 21st. Which means he has a huge responsibility to get things right. Not only an intellectual responsibility, but a moral one. And that is why he and his fellow naive sons of the Enlightenment need to be called to task whenever they write silly things, whether it is a Sunday morning tweet or a whole book.

As Dawkins’ former arch-rival, the evolutionary biologist and science popularizer Stephen Jay Gould maintained, science and philosophy — and indeed more broadly the sciences and the humanities — ought to cross-fertilize each other, steering away from sterile diatribes (in which, to be fair, some philosophers too have a tendency to engage) and instead working together for a better understanding of the world (science) and a better way of living in the world (philosophy).

_____

Post Scriptum: the following day, after receiving a barrage of criticism, Dawkins tweeted:

“OBVIOUSLY by ‘science’s truths,’ I meant the truths about the real world that science aspires to find, NOT scientists’ beliefs during any particular historical era — phlogiston, etc. My point was only that there’s such a thing as objective reality — denied by postmodern pseuds.”

First off, no, it wasn’t obvious, regardless of whether you then try to dig yourself out of a hole by using OBNOXIOUS CAPITAL LETTERS. Second, as explained above, “truth” too is a human concept, not a thing out there in nature. We strive for such concept to correspond to things out there, but at any particular time it is far from obvious whether that’s actually the case. Second, it’s interesting that he picks on phlogiston and not contemporary examples, like the multiverse. That’s the point: science is a social construction in the very important sense that it is done by human beings, who are fallible, biased, greedy, and so forth. Third, as we have seen, the existence of “objective reality” is a philosophical assumption, not a scientific fact. Lastly, there he goes again with the postmodernists.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store