According to Richard Dawkins and Francis Crick, Humans are Just Atoms in motion?

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“In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”1

According to Richard Dawkins in his book River Out of Eden: A Darwinian view of Life, humans are nothing more than chemical reactions, guided purely by genes acted upon by blind physical forces.

According to Francis Crick co-discoverer of the DNA molecule “you, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules… you’re nothing but a pack of neurons.”2

These are two very bold statements, and it seems you will find people on either side of the fence. Some will totally agree with this reductionist view of life, whilst some will abhor the very thought that humans could be reduced to essentially nothing.

I think firstly – as Professor of Science and Religion – Alister McGrath would say, we need to take both statements seriously. Whilst I don’t personally agree with the view of life portrayed by Dawkins and Crick, I completely and utterly respect them both as people and scientists, and so in challenging their opinions I want to do so respectfully.

Are Dawkins and Crick Correct?

Yes, it is possible that they are correct…however I don’t think the evidence points in favour of them being correct. Let’s take just three points below in order to unpack what I am suggesting.

  1. If Dawkins and Crick are correct, then morality is subjective

This is to say that if humans are nothing more than a ‘bag of neurons’, how do we decide what is right and wrong? A typical response is that “humans just know”, philosophically however, this is illogical and easily refutable; it doesn’t provide an answer at all and it barely even addresses the question at hand.

In this worldview (where there is no God), the human mind is the highest entity. This poses a huge problem because, which human mind decides what is morally acceptable? Theresa May? Trump? Hitler? You? me? If one person decides that they want to go around stealing money off strangers, it has no bearing on someone else who decides that they want to go around giving strangers £50 notes. Remember, according to Dawkins there is “no purpose, no evil, no good” to life, everything is relative and so you cannot suggest in life what ‘OUGHT’ to be done, you can only suggest what ‘IS’. But then what do we do with all the war in the world, and murder, and rape and terrorism? Are all these things ‘not actually evil’? And what do we do with seemingly good things like charity, and selflessness? Are these things ‘not actually good’? Most likely any person with a degree of reasoning capacity would almost undoubtedly agree that raping and then murdering an innocent child is evil, however as soon as they do this they step outside of the Dawkins Crick subjectivism, into the theistic worldview of objectivism. In the theistic worldview, God is the moral standard who is above the human mind and so his commandments (which flow out of his nature) dictate right and wrong. In this way, you can say that certain things ARE right and wrong. However, anyone who ascribes to the Dawkins Crick view, must maintain that right and wrong and purely subjective (which I think is impossible to hold to), because there is no God – or in other words ultimate/objective standard. In this then objective morality seems to point away from this Dawkins Crick view of life.

  1. Humans innately have a deep sense of wonder and meaning. If Dawkins and Crick are correct, these senses are nothing but illusions

According to English writer Jeanette Winterson “We cannot simply eat, sleep, hunt, and reproduce – we are meaning seeking creatures.If the Dawkins Crick view is correct, then Jeanette is wrong as ‘meaning’ is just an illusory chemical component produced by our “selfish genes”. So, which view seems to be more evidentially based? Meaning seems to be embedded into the very fabric of human existence. Every morning that you get up out of your bed you are exhibiting meaning and purpose, every time you go to school, or university or work, or spend time with friends or family, you exhibit meaning. If meaning and purpose exited the world despair would be the only logical position available. Suicide has a strong correlation with a sense of meaninglessness. Professor of psychology Todd Kashan lists 5 signs that relate to suicide rates and amongst that list is ‘hopelessness’, the idea that it isn’t likely that things are going to get better.4

Philosopher Richard Rorty believes that meaning is entirely man made, he suggests that “We invent meaning – including our ideals of identity purpose and value”.5 There are a couple of problems with this view. Firstly, as I have already raised in the first point, who decides who’s meaning is correct? Another way to state it is, what happens when you have two directly conflicting ideals trying to occupy the same space? Survival of the fittest maybe? How do you adjudicate between the two since ultimately, it’s all relative? Secondly, logically and philosophically speaking, the very claim that meaning, purpose and value are subjective IS in itself an objective claim about meaning value and purpose. The phrase ‘we invent meaning’ is an objective claim about how meaning relates to human beings throughout all time and space, and so on the outset, this view is actually self-refuting as it doesn’t actually escape the objective view of meaning which it is trying to do.

A final point to make is on the concept of God and meaning. If there is a God, then there is a possibility of objective meaning to life as it is God who grants us life and the meaning to which we live. Now I think that there is strong evidence to support the existence of God such as the ‘Kalam Cosmological Argument’, the ‘Teleological Argument’ and the Argument from the longest piece of information known to man…DNA, (there is no time to go through each of these these here). If it is true that God does exist, then it lends much credibility to the correlation between faith and objective meaning/purpose. As C.S Lewis boldly maintained “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.”6

3. If Dawkins and Crick are correct…then they are wrong

This is probably the most devastating blow against the Dawkins Crick view. The point again made is that if Dawkins and Crick are right, then they are wrong. So how is this possible? J.B.S Haldane was a British-born Indian geneticist, biometrician and physiologist who opened new paths of research in genetics and evolution. He summarized the fundamental issue with the Dawkins Crick view in a quote in which he says:

“If my mental processes are determined solely by the motion of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true…and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.”7

If we understand what is being said here, Haldane points out the fact that the Dawkins Crick position is a self-refuting position from the get go. It can’t even get itself off the ground simply because of the fact that if the view turns out to be true, then it doesn’t just undermine the worldview of theism, it also undermines every single worldview known, including Dawkins and Crick’s own atheism. So, in attempting to prove their worldview, they actually end up disproving it in the end.

I think after going through these three points, it seems clearer that the evidence supposedly in favour of the Dawkins Crick view, is obsolete. Humans are meaning seeking creatures and when we take the evidence logically on board, it suggests to us that we are more than just “a pack of neurons”. We are bio-organism with a mind, a heart a soul and a spirit and all these components plus many more make up the complexity that is…the human being.

 

References

 

[1] Dawkins, RD, 1995. River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life. 1st ed. United Kingdom: Basic Books

[2] Francis Crick, The astonishing Hypothesis: The scientific Search for the Soul. London: Simon & Schuster, 1994, 3; II

[3] Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? London: Vintage, 2012, 68

[4] Dr Todd Kashdan. 2017. Why Do People Kill Themselves? New Warning Signs. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/curious/201405/why-do-people-kill-themselves-new-warning-signs.

[5] Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minneapolis Press, 1982, xlii

[6] C.S Lewis, Essay Collection. London: HarperCollins, 2002, 197, 21

[7] J.B.S Haldane, Possible Worlds, 1927, p.209

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