Friday, February 15, 2013

Deconstructing Dawkins

Francis Beckwith:
Soon after Benedict announced his abdication, the eminent science writer and Oxford professor, Richard Dawkins, sent out this tweet: “I feel sorry for the Pope and all old Catholic priests. Imagine having a wasted life to look back on and no sex.”

If you know anything about Dawkins, you know that he is the quintessential scientific rationalist, denying that anything that cannot be captured and quantified under the categories of the hard sciences, or traceable to them, is outside the purview of reason – and that anything outside that purview is de facto irrational. For this reason, Dawkins, as the pope would put it, has an aversion to asking questions that cannot be subsumed under the rubric of scientific rationalism.

So let us explore the reason that dare not speak its name. Dawkins, as is well known, maintains that reason – understood as equivalent to scientific rationalism, which has established the truth of evolutionary theory – requires that we deny that nature is designed, and thus is not infused with intrinsic purposes or proper ends by which we can issue moral judgments.

Setting aside his ungrounded belief that evolution per se is inconsistent with intrinsic purposes and proper ends in nature, it should be clear that Dawkins’ scientific rationalism means that his anti-papal tweet cannot be a deliverance of reason.

After all, for one to claim that a life of priestly celibacy devoted to Christ and his Church is a wasted life requires that one know what a fulfilled life would look like. But such a life is an ideal, and thus is not like an empirical claim about the natural world. It is not an object of scientific inquiry. One cannot point to it, as one would point toward Pope Benedict or Richard Dawkins, though the intellect can be aware of this abstract truth when assessing Benedict and Dawkins by it.

Just as we know that a blind person ought to have sight because we know what a human being is by nature and how his parts and properties are ordered toward certain ends that work in concert for the good of the whole, we also know what excellence and virtue are before and after we see them actualized in our fellows.

But given his diminished understanding of reason, Dawkins must deny that even he can issue such judgments by means of his rational powers. Consequently, on Dawkins’ own account of reason, his verdict on the pope’s life is the cerebral equivalent of covert flatulence gone terribly wrong: not silent and not deadly.

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