Ignoring a Herd of Elephants – A Review of The Dawkins/Williams Debate

Posted on 2012/02/24


Feature Images - Ignoring a Herd of Elephants  – The Dawkins:Williams Debate

[To watch the debate between Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams that took place on the 23rd of Febuary 2012, follow this link: http://fsmevents.com/sophiaeuropa/]

If only I could think of which chess piece Richard Dawkins embodies, I would try to make some cleaver metaphor out of the noble game. We have the Bishop, Dr. Rowan Williams; the Knight, Sir Anthony Kenny; and Richard Dakwins, the… what?

Perhaps a castle? That’s it. Dawkins is a rook; always thinking in straight lines. And no doubt one of those rooks that evolved though the natural selection of a pawn promotion.

To torture the analogy further, there is the Archbishop, who moves in mutually exclusive directions from Dawkins. Meanwhile, the philosopher Anthony Kenny, who makes a living from thinking in ways that others do not, snakes around the board trying to pin down both the rooks and the bishop, hoping to develop a discussion on some common topic.

At least this was what I hoped the debate would be like.

As we watch the chancellor of Oxford University introduce the speakers at the Sheldonian Theatre, Dawkins is sat to the right of the Bish, presumably so the latter is able to hear him. Rowan has frequently remarked that he was born deaf in his left ear and, for this reason, judges it to be ‘purely ornamental’.

If Dr William mentions his ear again this afternoon, I’m sure Dawkins would be quick to add that the functions of the ear also include a sense of balance and bodily position.

When the chancellor draws his obligatory preamble to a close, I and many others from around the world wait in anticipation as we view the opening moves of the debate, streaming live via the Oxford University website.

As they begin, I am reminded of the Archbishop’s peculiar cadence and tone, so common amongst Church of England apologists that I can only presume one must receive training for it at divinity school. However, Rowan’s particular patter is quite unique insofar as he sounds almost indistinguishable from someone satirically impersonating a priest.


Early on in the debate, the chairman feels the need to establish some philosophical fundamentals. (1) That There is such things as (objective) ‘truth’. (2) They believe in (deductive) ‘logic’. (3) That they believe in ‘science’.

I once remember David Miller (a philosopher of science at Warwick University) remaking to me that the first in this list might be considered, “the minimum philosophical qualification for sanity.”[1] At the very least, it is the minimum qualification for a debate of this kind to proceed with some common goal.

Surprisingly, the Bish launches straight into the problem of intentionality. Why do we seem to be the only part of the universe that can mean things with our language? We are ‘conscious language-using subjects’, and Rowan suggests this should be the focus of the debate.

A philosophically subtle beginning, and I am apprehensive whether Dawkins will have studied enough philosophy to be able to engage with this material. This is vindicated when Dawkins speaks about, “getting a model of the universe inside our heads,” no doubt causing a wince from the entire Oxford Philosophy Department.


After intentionality is rather ignored by the Prof, Dr Williams decides to drop the C-bomb into the debate. Consciousness. More specifically, the ‘hard problem of consciousness’, as philosopher David Chalmers puts it. The ‘one person perspective’ that seems require more than physical laws to explain.

In reply, Dawkins asserts that there is no reason to suppose that the scientific program of investigation won’t yield the secrets of intentionality and consciousness as well. Any suggestion that this is beyond our capabilities often makes people “resort to an unsatisfactory resolution to the problem”. This is essentially the position called ‘The God of the Gaps’ – the historically embarrassing position that mysterious and unexplained phenomena are, in some way, explained by God.

Incidentally, I happen to disagree with Dawkins concerning the ability of scientific inquiry to ‘explain consciousness’. If physics is the collection of conscious experiences into guessed patterns (our conjectured ‘laws’) then I don’t see what this has to say about the nature of conscious experience itself. Surely it supposes conscious experience?

I don’t know, and neither does Dawkins. But I think what should also be transparently clear is that neither does the Archbishop of Canterbury!

At one point, Dr Williams astonishingly says, “some of us believe we are capable of a relationship with that unconditional creative energy that we call god.”

Now, forgive my unsophisticated misunderstandings, but does this sounds like white noise to anyone else? It reminds me of the sort of deliberate obscurantism we hear from ‘psi advocates’ – those who believe in psychic abilities.

The Archbishop also declares that he believes ‘the soul’ survives death, yet, as is necessary for the leader of the Church of England, is decidedly vague about what this means.


They then move to free will. Dawkins suggests that consciousness might be an ‘illusion’ in the sense that it is not as whole as we may suppose. This is likely in reference to the work of Dan Dennett and Sam Harris. Dawkins has heard lectures given by these two men at various conventions, including his own ‘Richard Dawkins Foundation’.

In opposition, Anthony Kenny asks Dawkins why, in his books, he seems to object to ‘genetic determinism’, yet seems to be an advocate of regular ‘determinism’?

To this, Dawkins offers a very important distinction.

Genetic determinism is to suppose that our fates are entirely determined by our genes. I think a great many people have adopted this fatalistic superstition, perhaps in replacement of astrology or some other waning hobby. Indeed, one frequently sees newspaper article that proclaim ‘scientists have discovered a gene for X’ which prompts many people to excuse others abhorrent behaviour because ‘they can’t help it’.

Now, Dawkins makes it quite clear (and made it quite clear in his book ‘The Extended Phenotype’) that this is not his position. However, he does suppose that our lives are determined by the ‘natural laws’ of the physical world.

This position differs from ‘genetic determinism’ as it notices that an organism isn’t a closed system, and its behaviour is greatly influenced by its interaction with the world, which is not constrained by the particular genes one has inherited, but by the occurrences of the rest of the universe.


Then a question arrives: ‘Do you think that human scientific knowledge can be wholly explained by biological evolution?’

I think the questioner was asking how a materialist (who thinks the conscious mind is a product of the objective material world), can explain how we can come to ‘know’ things, if we are ‘merely’ products of biological evolution.

I don’t think Dawkins offers a satisfactory answer to this problem, and I humbly offer my own.

Ignoring the problem of consciousness (which is discussed above), I think we can plausibly describe what is special about our brains, and what makes us unique from other organisms. In short, we have a great ‘mental plasticity’ that allows us to adapt our behaviour. Other organisms seem to have a plateau of capability, and there are some problems they could never solve. Only random mutations and natural selection of generations of the species will allow them to reach solutions to these problems.

In contrast, we can achieve these solutions within the lifetime of one human, through the utility of our brains and our technology. Karl Popper puts it as follows:

‘While animal knowledge and pre-scientific knowledge grow mainly through the elimination of those holding the unfit hypotheses, scientific criticism often makes our theories perish in our stead, eliminating our mistaken beliefs before such beliefs lead to our own elimination.’[2]

Thus, we might say the extraordinary (although not necessarily supernatural) ability of human brain is that it allows us to refute guesses by means other than our elimination!

How does the brain work, and how did it evolve? No one has yet figured this out. But let’s not pretend, as the Archbishop was hinting, that the solution lies with any ideas about ‘a relationship with God’.


For one exciting period, toward the end of the debate, they finally get around to discussing some claims of Christianity.

When asked about theodicy – a religious explanation for why God seems to allow ‘unfortunate circumstances’ to occur – the leader of the Church of England, and his sophisticated theology, has absolutely nothing to say. He confesses that he cannot explain why children die early on in their lifetimes, and cannot account for the prevalence of pain and suffering throughout human history.

Dawkins, in contrast, speaks of how death is the essence of natural selection. Indeed, this is the selection (as mentioned above).

In addition to Dawkins’ remarks, I would add that the subjective experience of ‘distress’ is not something that is necessarily part of the process of natural selection. We can have a terribly painful and distressing life, yet still go on to reproduce, and our descendants survive. Of course, this is dissatisfying for us, and we attempt to reduce this subjective distress. We seek to enhance the wellbeing of human existence. We create cures to non-lethal diseases. We create contraception. We invent technology to emancipate ourselves from the toils of food production.

Indeed, we might call that program ‘scientific inquiry’.


Next: original sin and the interpretation of Genesis.

Dr Williams thinks the writers of Genesis were, “inspired [by God] to pass onto their readers what God wanted them to know.” And by this he means original sin, confessing that the story of Adam and Eve is only an allegory for the intrinsic sinfulness of humanity. He rather absurdly claims throughout history, this is mostly what people draw from the narrative, and hardly anyone has believed it literally.

It is a shame that Dawkins doesn’t dispute Dr William’s retroactive process of separating the bits are that salient from those which are false. It would have been a great opportunity to draw attention to the fact that this enterprise seems to be informed by the light of advancing scientific discovery!

In addition, he might have mentioned that the moral worth of Christianity is very questionable once we start to think of it as rooted in the wellbeing of the lifetime of conscious creatures. In other words, moral choices in our lifetimes should not be intimidated by unknowable speculation about what happens to us after we die.


Instead, Dawkins responds by referring to the improbability of the existence of God, as he write in his book, The God Delusion. I disagree very strongly with his views about this.

In short, Dawkins subscribes to the ‘justified true belief’ model of scientific knowledge. He often says ‘evolution is a fact’, and will refer to the high level of ‘confirmation’ it has attained by way of its agreement with many experiments.

In contrast, I maintain that scientific knowledge is never justified, never ‘more probable’ and never confirmed.

Anyway, even if you don’t but that, what separates scientific claims from non-scientific claims is that the former can be refuted by experiment, while the latter cannot. Most ideas of ‘God’ are, by human design, exempt from experimental test, and so are not scientific theories. Thus, we can’t sensible speak of the idea of God as being either ‘probable’ or ‘improbable’.

Nevertheless, even though I disagree with Dawkins about his theory of knowledge, I understand why he says ‘evolution is a fact’, and his counterpart Jerry Coyne has a book called ‘Evolution is True’. If I received countless emails saying ‘evolution is only a theory. Creationism is just another theory too…’, I might start saying ‘evolution is a fact’ as well.


In the middle of all these questions, Dawkins said something that I deeply admire. “Well, I am not a philosopher, and that’ll be obvious. Perhaps you should have invited a philosopher…”

Dawkins has previously spoken about philosophy. Introducing Daniel Dennett at the Atheist Alliance International conference of 2009, Dawkins said, “I’m sometimes tempted to wonder ‘what’s the point of philosophers?’ [laughter from audience] And then I remember Dan Dennett and all is revealed, all is answered.”[3]

Indeed, Dan Dennett would be a very useful person to have around with these questions of intentionality, consciousness and free will flying around the room.

Some may also be familiar with his comments on theology from his essay ‘The Emptiness of Theology’ for Free Inquiry Magazine:

What has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody? When has theology ever said anything that is demonstrably true and is not obvious? I have listened to theologians, read them, debated against them. I have never heard any of them ever say anything of the smallest use, anything that was not either platitudinously obvious or downright false. If all the achievements of scientists were wiped out tomorrow, there would be no doctors but witch doctors, no transport faster than horses, no computers, no printed books, no agriculture beyond subsistence peasant farming. If all the achievements of theologians were wiped out tomorrow, would anyone notice the smallest difference? Even the bad achievements of scientists, the bombs, and sonar-guided whaling vessels work! The achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t affect anything, don’t mean anything. What makes anyone think that “theology” is a subject at all?[4]

So imagine his disdain as he sits there and listens to a philosopher and theologian speak about the nature of free will and consciousness, while there are far more troubling questions he might wish to ask.

  • Why do you pretend philosophical considerations of free will and consciousness are at the heart of your faith, when you are wearing a crucifix around your neck? How do you get from this ‘sophisticated theology’ to ‘Jesus died on the cross for our sins’?
  • Why pretend you aren’t prejudging the nature of free will, when it is an essential prerequisite for your type of Christianity?
  • Why is homosexuality an issue at all for the Church of England?
  • Why do you have state mandated bishops in the House of Lords?
  • Why do you have control over parts of education?
  • Why do you suppose you have anything interesting to say about morality or scientific inquiry?

I can’t help but think that Dawkins has been shackled by the philosophical nature of this debate. It was organised by the University’s Theology Department and seems to have been constructed to make Dawkins appear foolish, sidestepping the many questions he might otherwise posed to the Archbishop.

The debate was an exchange of philosophical questions none of the three speakers had any answer for. Meanwhile, evident to all, a herd of political and moral elephants were in the room. And Richard Dawkins, politely adhering to the format of the debate, was powerless to point them out.


[1] Popper, Karl R & Miller, David (1983) ‘A Pocket Popper’ OUP p 17

[2] Popper, Karl R (1972) ‘Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach’ OUP [Chapter 7: Evolution and the Tree of Knowledge] p 261

[3] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_9w8JougLQ

[4] http://richarddawkins.net/articles/88