The Indifferent Universe of Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins says at the end of chapter 4 of his book River Out of Eden, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

The phrase “at bottom” is likely intended to exclude the interpretation which would deny the existence of purpose and of good and evil in the obvious sense of such a denial. In other words, denying these things by asserting that there is no purpose at all in human life, and that nothing anyone does or accomplishes is good or evil. It would not even be necessary to argue against such a position. It is sufficiently plain to common sense that this position is false, and even apart from this, the moral reasons to believe it is false would be compelling. And in any case Dawkins clearly believes in the existence of evil in this plain sense.

Nonetheless, there are problems with the claim even in the “at bottom” sense. In order for it to be reasonable for him to maintain his position, he should at least be able to answer these two questions:

(1) If there is no good and evil “at bottom”, why is there good and evil on the surface?

(2) Why do things tend to get better over time?

Developing the first question, why do human beings care about their own good and the good of humanity, if the universe at bottom does not? After all, human beings are a part of the universe. If the universe does not care, it would seem that human beings would not care either.

Or again: even if we can explain why human beings care about their own good, why do apples taste good? Apples could be good for health, and human beings could care about their health, without apples tasting good. It is almost as if the apples themselves cared about humanity.

Dawkins would likely attempt to respond to such questions by giving an evolutionary explanation. But while such explanations are surely a part of the truth, attempting to give a full response to such questions with such an explanation is bound to fail, because in the end it is a question of the working of human mind, and evolution cannot fully explain this.

As an example, consider the question about apples. If apples did not taste good, Dawkins might say, people would not eat them, and consequently they could not contribute to human health. And if similarly people did not eat any healthy foods, they could not survive. Evolution selected for people who could survive, and therefore for people who like the taste of health foods, including the taste of apples.

This may be all very well as far it goes, but the question has not yet been adequately answered. For we can still ask:

(1) Why do people eat things that taste good to them, instead of things that taste bad to them? If people normally ate things that taste bad to them, and rejected things that taste good, then evolution would have selected for people that eat healthy things that taste bad, and all healthy food, including apples, would taste bad to people.

(2) Why does food have any taste at all? Evolution could have easily selected for people who ate tasteless healthy food.

It is fairly evident that no evolutionary explanation will suffice to answer these two questions. The first question, about why people tend to eat things that taste good, rather than things that taste bad, is basically asking why people tend to do what seems good to them, rather than what seems bad. If people simply tended to do what seems bad to them, life would be like a dangerous roller coaster, where you are being “pushed along” on a path that you fear or dislike. But it is completely possible to imagine a life like this. It is not intrinsically absurd, and evolution is fully capable for selecting for such a thing, if it is possible at all. So the fact that this is not how things are, at least for the most part, is evidence that some explanation is necessary besides the fact of evolution.

The second question is similar, in the sense that it is asking why people’s tendency to do things is related to something known to them, rather than being unconscious. Our heart beats without there being any conscious intention for it to do so. Why could we not equally well eat without any conscious intention and without noticing any taste?

There is a debate about whether philosophical zombies are possible. But this debate may well be a red herring, because it may simply be a distraction from the true issues. It is likely impossible for such a zombie to exist, but the entire argument for this conclusion consists in the fact that human beings are in fact conscious. No explanation has been given for why this must be so, except the explanation suggested by St. Thomas: that the generosity of God requires that form be present in every disposed matter. In particular, it is evident that evolution cannot explain why we could not do everything we do, without being conscious, because exactly the same selective pressures would have been at work throughout the entire process.

To put this in another way, if philosophical zombies are impossible, this is because the universe is not indifferent to mind. And what is not indifferent to mind, is not indifferent to good and evil.

Aristotle describes the progress of the knowledge of causes among the ancient Greek philosophers:

From these facts one might think that the only cause is the so-called material cause; but as men thus advanced, the very facts opened the way for them and joined in forcing them to investigate the subject. However true it may be that all generation and destruction proceed from some one or (for that matter) from more elements, why does this happen and what is the cause? For at least the substratum itself does not make itself change; e.g. neither the wood nor the bronze causes the change of either of them, nor does the wood manufacture a bed and the bronze a statue, but something else is the cause of the change. And to seek this is to seek the second cause, as we should say,-that from which comes the beginning of the movement. Now those who at the very beginning set themselves to this kind of inquiry, and said the substratum was one, were not at all dissatisfied with themselves; but some at least of those who maintain it to be one-as though defeated by this search for the second cause-say the one and nature as a whole is unchangeable not only in respect of generation and destruction (for this is a primitive belief, and all agreed in it), but also of all other change; and this view is peculiar to them. Of those who said the universe was one, then none succeeded in discovering a cause of this sort, except perhaps Parmenides, and he only inasmuch as he supposes that there is not only one but also in some sense two causes. But for those who make more elements it is more possible to state the second cause, e.g. for those who make hot and cold, or fire and earth, the elements; for they treat fire as having a nature which fits it to move things, and water and earth and such things they treat in the contrary way.

When these men and the principles of this kind had had their day, as the latter were found inadequate to generate the nature of things men were again forced by the truth itself, as we said, to inquire into the next kind of cause. For it is not likely either that fire or earth or any such element should be the reason why things manifest goodness and, beauty both in their being and in their coming to be, or that those thinkers should have supposed it was; nor again could it be right to entrust so great a matter to spontaneity and chance. When one man said, then, that reason was present-as in animals, so throughout nature-as the cause of order and of all arrangement, he seemed like a sober man in contrast with the random talk of his predecessors. We know that Anaxagoras certainly adopted these views, but Hermotimus of Clazomenae is credited with expressing them earlier. Those who thought thus stated that there is a principle of things which is at the same time the cause of beauty, and that sort of cause from which things acquire movement.

Thus, according to Aristotle, the philosophers came to the knowledge of an agent cause that intended the goodness and beauty found in things. And they came to this conclusion because the universe they observed did not have “precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference,” but properties which would be much more likely to be observed if the universe is, at bottom, not indifferent to mind, and not indifferent to good and evil, despite the random talk of Richard Dawkins.

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5 thoughts on “The Indifferent Universe of Richard Dawkins

  1. […] Sometimes a distinction is made between empirical and non-empirical knowledge, but in truth there cannot be a rigid distinction between these two things, because all of our knowledge is empirical, and thus there can only be differences of degree here. Thus for example the question of whether there is meaning in the universe might be considered a philosophical rather than an empirical issue, but we have given empirical reasons for thinking that there is. […]

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