Thursday, January 05, 2006


“Presumably because mental constructs like blame and responsibility, indeed evil and good, are built into our brains by millennia of Darwinian evolution. Assigning blame and responsibility is an aspect of the useful fiction of intentional agents that we construct in our brains as a means of short-cutting a truer analysis of what is going on in the world in which we have to live.”

I posted the Dawkins’ piece without any commentary on my part because I thought it would be more fun, for a change, to let other commenters chew it to pieces. And, indeed, you’ll all done a swell job.

But before the piranhas have totally devoured his bloated remains, I want to have a final bite at the corpse.

One of the stock objections to Christianity is that a Christian must commit “intellectual suicide.” Not only is that a stock objection, but a stock phrase—parroted ad nauseum.

And a number of you have pointed out that, in fact, Dawkins, the doctrinaire atheist, is the one putting a bullet in his brain.

But it’s important to observe that there is a screwy logic to his position. Given his starting-point, his conclusion is inexorable.

If naturalistic evolution is true, then men are simply meat machines. There is no rational, incorporeal soul which is the seat of human personality.

Naturalistic evolution is a strictly physical process which operates on strictly physical organic and inorganic materials. That’s the whole point. We’re a sack of chemicals.

If so, then mental properties must be reducible to material properties.

If so, then consciousness is just an illusion.

It is easy to belittle dualism. Gilbert Ryle famously caricatured dualism as a “ghost in the machine,” while Daniel Dennett, his modern mouthpiece, caricatures dualism as a homunculus piloting the cockpit of the brain—as though there were a miniature person inside the skull looking out the windshield of the eyes. It reminds me of a scene from “Men In Black,” about a little alien using a synthetic body as a spaceship. And Antony Flew’s parable of the invisible gardener is in the very same vein.

Very cute. Very clever. Even if you can’t remember the argument, or never read the argument, the witty illustrations stick with you.

There’s only one problem with all of this. Once you deny the mind, you have nothing left with which to think or argue.

Dawkins speaks of the “useful fiction of intentional agents.” There is no real person behind the eyes—thinking, feeling, and intending. That’s a grand illusion or evolutionary construct. Our selfish genes have tricked us into believing that we are intentional agents.

But Dawkins’ problem is that he must assume dualism in order to mock it. Notice how he objectifies the situation, as if he could stand outside his neural programming and cast a backward glance with serene critical detachment.

Somehow he’s able to put enough distance between his fictitious self and his brain to detect his fictitious self. Somehow he’s privy to the magical tricks of the Blind Watchmaker.

Of course, you’re left to wonder what self there is to detect a fictitious self. Looks like the recessive image of a mirror within a mirror, within a mirror, ad infinitum.

So, in order to make his case for atheism, Dawkins must tacitly assume a God’s-eye view of “a truer analysis of what is going on in the world in which we have to live.”

And the value of this exercise is that the reasoning is reversible. If this is, indeed, an inevitable consequence of his evolutionary starting-point, and if that conduces the Darwinian into an argumentum ad absurdum, then if, contrariwise, our consciousness is, in fact, real, evolution must be false.

If you bash your brains out every time you step on the garden rake of evolution, then it’s time to turn the rake over, facing down.

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