Ideas & Philosophy — 08 October 2012
Dawkins the Agnostic, and the limitations of Science

Sharif Hafezi

Richard Dawkins is known throughout the world as a prominent advocate for atheism and evolution, however he admitted in February 2012 that he has some doubt over whether a God could exist.

In a debate with Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, Dawkins remarked that he was less than 100% sure that a God does not exist, stating “I think the probability of a supernatural creator existing is very very low.” He further mentioned that he was “6.9 out of seven” sure of his beliefs. The chair, Sir Anthony Kenny, then asked “Why don’t you call yourself an agnostic?” To which Dawkins confirmed that he did.

For some theists this will be seen as a major climb down from someone so antagonistic towards religion. However if one scrutinises his words then they will realise this isn’t any different to his previous positions. In fact this uncertain approach is the nature of science whose conclusions cannot determine the definitive nature of an observation.

This may seem counter-intuitive to today’s world where science has assumed the role which once was the preserve of religions and where scientists are now consulted on origins of life and the universe in order to define a meaning to one’s life. Rowan Williams thus painted an archaic picture of a man who represented an outdated philosophical outlook in comparison to the scientific, evidence based approach of Dawkins.

However, is science the only basis for knowing the world around us, can science answer all questions and will this lead to certain knowledge? These key questions require a thorough analysis of the scientific method so that its role and limits can be identified.

Firstly science is not in the business to ascertain truths and certainties but the probability of a conclusion and theory. This is because science is a methodology to understand and interpret the events we sense in the universe. Historically a debate among philosophers centered around the knowledge of ideas, epistemology, can we know truth, are we trapped in an unending skepticism, is knowledge known prior to experience or posterior to it? For centuries in Europe such ideas and methodological approach to knowledge were confined in the paradigm of religion, specifically Christianity. As such any theory that ran contrary to Christianity was banned and adherents to these irreligious views were punished. This led to an inevitable clash which began to question the very essence of knowledge and methodology to ascertain that knowledge. Thus not only was there a break from religion but also the rationalism that believed in innate knowledge or knowledge necessary prior to experience. As a result many new philosophers began to argue that humans are a blank slate, tabulsa rasa, and that the only thing we can ever know for certain is what we experience.

However these new natural philosophers began to ask the uncomfortable questions as to whether experience alone can establish certainty. David Hume proposed that our senses are liable to mistakes thus if we can only know through our experiences which relies on our senses then how can we be 100% certain of our knowledge? His answer was we can never be 100% certain of any observation but only have a propensity or probable assumption of the truth through our senses. This in fact comforted many empiricists as they felt certainty was akin to dogma which would result in decay and ultimately decline due to not being able to question previous positions and thus move forward with better substantiated theories. Bertrand Russell, the famous philosopher and mathematician stated, “To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.”

Philosophers then began to refine this empirical (knowledge through experience) approach by developing the scientific method. In brief the scientific method is the isolation of a variable and defining a question that one seeks to answer which one may then hypothesise about. Then an experiment is designed to test ones hypothesis in order to answer a particular question. The testing recording and observation is repeated as often as one can in order to obtain a conclusion.

There are key points that stand out from this process, firstly that the conclusion is induced rather than deduced. The difference between deduction and induction can be seen with the following famous example, all men are mortal, Dawkins is a man therefore Dawkins is mortal. The conclusion is deduced, meaning that the particular conclusion is derived from a general statement (all men are mortal). Thus deduction is correct and absolutely true so long as the general statement is true and the conclusion validly follows from the premises.

Induction works in reverse where particular events or observations lead towards a generalised conclusion. For example if a scientist wishes to find out the boiling point of water he would take a beaker of water and heat it till it reached it’s boiling point. He would note down that at 100 degrees C the water had boiled thus he would conclude a general statement all water boils at 100 degrees C. This general conclusion was built on a particular observed event this means that the conclusion can never be 100% definite.

For instance, how do we know that another beaker of water may not buck the trend and boil at 110 degrees C? This shows that the conclusion or theory developed from the scientific method is based on the assumption that the particular experiment can be generalised and that other such future events will follow the same pattern of the previous experiment. This assumption gives the ability of the theory or conclusion to predict future events. Therefore a well substantiated theory that helps to predict future events starts to become the paradigm by which we describe the universe.

An example of this is dark matter, observations were made that galaxies rotate and that the rotation of stars towards the edges of galaxies were equal to the speed of rotation of stars near the centre. According to laws of gravity the stars at the edge of galaxies should break away from its orbit due to its speed but because the laws of gravity are considered true, rather than denying that or modifying the laws it was used to describe the existence of a new substance, dark matter. So although dark matter is ‘invisible’ an observation is seen which is assumed to be an effect of a hidden variable. This point also illustrates that science is firmly rooted in the belief of causality and such causes can only be naturalistic that is to say following a set of laws.

What is seen then is a process that has the following features:

1. Inductive process
2. That future experience follows the same pattern as past experiments (reductionism)
3. The assumption of causality
4. Seeking only naturalistic explanations that would follow a set pattern
5. An indefinite conclusion

Karl Popper recognised the indefinite and inductive nature of science and set about developing the idea of falsificationism, an idea that Dawkins himself proposes in his book the ‘God Delusion’. Here a theory can be considered scientific if an experiment can be conceived of in order to falsify it. So Dawkins asked whether the theory of intelligent design with the belief that an intelligent creator beyond this universe created all life can be falsified? Dawkins stated that no experiment could be conceived of in order to prove that a God does not exist thus the theory isn’t scientific and shouldn’t be taught in science lessons. Furthermore falsificationism was assumed to bypass the assumption that the experiment proves the theory. Rather the conclusion is valid until an observation or experiment disproves the theory. Therefore we are not assuming the theory to be correct or true but we are saying the theory hasn’t been disproven.

So it becomes quite evident that the scientific methodology isn’t really about what is factual or definitively true, as this is beyond the remit of science. Similarly questions that cannot be experimented upon or data obtained are beyond the remit of science. Professor Steve Jones noted in the introduction of his book ‘The Single Helix’ that science would be unable to answer questions related to the beginning of life nor whether mice have consciousness as these questions are beyond the capacity to collate data and thus cannot be scientifically concluded upon.

In fact the assumptions that the scientific method are built upon such as causality cannot be proven through science, obviously one needs the principle of causality to utilise science so it has to be presumed even before science can be utilised as a methodology.

This shows that science isn’t the sole basis of knowledge or the sole methodology of thinking. Rather as a method of thinking it is restricted in answering some questions and not all, and that science depends upon other ideas (causality, mathematics etc). Thus it would be more appropriate to say that science is a branch of rational thinking and not the sole basis of thinking. Effectively we are not a blank slate (rasa tabulsa) but rather we use previous information or axioms to help describe events and observations. Similarly certain questions are unanswerable in science but whose truth is undeniable. For example science cannot conclude that the painting of Mona Lisa was painted by Leonardo da Vinci. Observation and testing would be restricted to the observable painting but the knowledge of the painter is transmitted from generation to the next such that doubt is removed something which is outside the remit of science.

Islamic scholars classically described three types of rational knowledge. The first type was a form of synthetic propositions like the part is not greater than the whole, second was the empirical observation and the third was knowledge transmitted through narrations from one generation to the next. A purely empirical approach to knowledge results in absurdities and un-provable assumptions, like causality. Thus thinkers like Sheikh Taqiudeen an-Nabhani described that rational thinking was composed of four components

1. Reality
2. Senses
3. Brain
4. Previous information.

Although this definition also requires further elaboration he was able to describe that the above process was the foundation to thought and that science was a branch methodology to the above.

Therefore when looking at Dawkins answer to his own skepticism to his disbelief in God it isn’t strange but rather part of his methodology. However what is clearly important is to understand that science is built on assumptions which are un-provable by science but necessary for science to work. That the scientific methodology can only arrive at a naturalistic conclusion no matter how implausible the conclusion and that scientific theories like evolution develop into paradigms such that evidence is interpreted by such theories rather than the evidence substantiating it. That doesn’t mean evolutionists do not claim that evidence doesn’t exist to substantiate the theory in origin, however subsequent evidence are viewed in the light of evolution thus giving a ‘positive feedback’ effect to such a theory. And even the most well supported theories are subject to error and doubt with the potential to overturn even well established and substantiated theories such as Newtonian physics on a quantum level.

This leads to a final point, in relation to quantum mechanics which apparently experiments show counterintuitive nature of the observations, physicists like Stephen Hawking have proposed a potential mechanism of a big bang arising from ‘nothing’ in the presence of quantum gravity. Without detailing the physics the question that stands out is whether one can use science that rests on the explicit axiom of causality to obtain a conclusion that denies causality. Indeed such a conclusion would negate the very process of science itself and thereby negates its own conclusion, that is to say it’s a self contradiction.

 

Sharif Hafezi is an Islamic political thinker who has undertaken numerous debates throughout the UK on subjects ranging from belief in a Creator, is secularism failing, Islamic economics, and the failures of global capitalism amongst others.

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(8) Readers Comments

  1. Excellent, we need more such artricles!!!!

  2. I wonder if it is correct to define causality as an idea rather than a process by which the brain operates under? Do we learn causality from our parents by instruction and via our own experimentation or is it an intrinsic quality of our brains? I’m inclined to the latter

  3. Jazak Allah khair Sharif for this excellent rebuttal.

  4. Good Article.

    But by the same logic you use to approach Dawkins, Athiests &; Agnostics, could this not be used in approach to any religious beliefs? I consider Dawkins and Religion the same. On the basis that they both are pretty adamant in what they believe.

  5. Causality is a necessary component for thought, this implies its innate although our explicit expression and self awareness of it is learnt.

    Mysterio, the argument normally levelled by atheists is that religion is built on an unprovable faith as such there is much derision and scorn against religious believers. One key aspect highlighted by the article is that in fact science is built on axioms it cannot prove leading to conclusions that it assumes to be true. Effectively as you’ve pointed out the same attack atheists have levelled against theist could also be levelled against them.

    However that doesn’t necessarily mean we are doomed to an unending skepticism or adherence to unprovable faiths. Rather if we treat science and empiricism as a branch to a rational method of thinking then there can be truths we know for certain. For instance those realities which are described in a ‘necessary way’ like a circle is defined as 2pi.r. Using this approach we can extrapolate some fundamental truths

  6. Jazak Allah khair ! We need more deep study.

  7. Any reasons why Islam countries are struggling? :-)

    • This is what is known as a strawman. :P

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