“Now they [DNA molecules] swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence.”
– Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene
“Now they are trapped in huge colonies, locked inside highly intelligent beings, moulded by the outside world, communicating with it by complex processes, through which, blindly, as if by magic, function emerges. They are in you and me; we are the system that allows their code to be read; and their preservation is totally dependent on the joy we experience in reproducing ourselves. We are the ultimate rationale for their existence.”
– Denis Noble (in response to The Selfish Gene)
The point Noble was making, and one which even so staunch a materialist as Dawkins was willing to concede, is that there is no scientific test to decide between these two views. These both speak to the facts as they stand, and no amount of extra empirical data could alter this situation.
Unfortunately, Dawkins seems to have missed the larger point here.
That is, this shows that there are at least some (and probably a great many) questions that are about subjects other than science. Like many (but by no means all) scientists, Dawkins tends to assume that only those methods he’s personally comfortable with and trained in is the only means of getting at truth.
He seems to have no idea that this assumption is, itself, a philosophical (rather than scientific) position.
This is the basic contradiction of scientism: that it is, itself, not established by science. But there is another point to be made here. One that is, in my view, much deeper and more significant.
For those that know a bit about metaphysics, Noble’s description of genes is vaguely aristotelian, whereas Dawkins’ is basically cartesian. This is significant in that it illustrates, contrary to popular opinion, why talk of aristotelian teleology isn’t answered by appeals to science. Science simply has no way of testing whether or not teleology exists in a particular system.
That is, whether or not a thing in the universe “points toward” something else (say, a match pointing to the creation of fire or a day-dream pointing toward Paris) is basically ignored when doing science. It has never been genuinely ruled out as a possibility.
But I say “basically ignored” rather than simply “ignored” because science (at least as it has been practiced in the last four centuries) tends to presume teleology in the same way that it presumes math and logic.
That is, as David Hume pointed out, the modern materialist has no basis whatsoever for believing that science works. Inductive reasoning is, to such a person, simply a kind of magic that has created all the wonders of the modern world.
Induction, and therefore science, assumes that there are patterns to reality: that like situations will produce like results. This is perfectly explicable in terms of teleology: all things have particular effects that they “point toward”.
The idea that science opposes teleology (and the rejection of materialism it implies) is more an accident of history than anything like a rational argument. Like so many things, it enjoys credibility by a vague association to the mythos of science without actually having been supported by evidence.
And when people begin to assert that teleological systems (such as our minds and wills) can be explained away by science, the fact that scientism is being confused for science becomes all the more obvious. Dawkins is simply a relatively recent example of those who have fallen into this trap.
What is less obvious is that this would be science “explaining away” its own foundations. And, for this reason, real science will never do this. Science is, and always has been, anti-materialist.