Beckwith: Dawkins Unwittingly Endorses Purpose in Nature

Logan Paul Gage

Over at the First Things blog On the Square, Francis Beckwith carefully shows how even Professor Dawkins cannot escape the common sense perception that the world is filled with agency, and those agents have a proper function. To get at all this, Beckwith describes Dawkins’ lambasting of Kurt Wise, the young-earth creationist who did doctoral work under Stephen Jay Gould at Harvard.
Dawkins writes:

I find that terribly sad . . . the Kurt Wise story is just plain pathetic–pathetic and contemptible. The wound, to his career and his life’s happiness, was self-inflicted, so unnecessary, so easy to escape. . . . I am hostile to religion because of what it did to Kurt Wise. And if it did that to a Harvard educated geologist, just think what it can do to others less gifted and less well armed.

Now Beckwith’s point is not to defend young-earth creationism. Rather it is to call Dawkins to consistency. If one believes, as Dawkins does, that our perception of purpose in the natural world is merely an illusion, then one cannot chide another for not fulfilling his non-existant purpose. In other words, Dawkins’ critique of Wise depends upon saying, “Dr. Wise has a purpose that he is not fulfilling, and I judge him by this universal standard to have erred in his acceptance of creationism.” Dawkins must accept this hidden premise of purpose, or else he must revoke his critique of Wise. For if intrinsic purpose is an illusion, and human beings have no proper congnitive function from which Wise has deviated, then by what standard can Dawkins claim that Wise has erred?
Beckwith notes that if design in living systems is really an illustion, then

this means that [Dawkins’] lament for Wise is misguided, for Dawkins is lamenting what only appears to be Wise’s dereliction of his duty to nurture and employ his gifts in ways that result in his happiness and an acquisition of knowledge that contributes to the common good. Yet because there are no designed natures and no intrinsic purposes, and thus no natural duties that we are obligated to obey, the intuitions that inform Dawkins’ judgment of Wise are as illusory as the design he explicitly rejects. But that is precisely one of the grounds by which Dawkins suggests that theists are irrational and ought to abandon their belief in God.
So if the theist is irrational for believing in God based on what turns out to be pseudo-design, Dawkins is irrational in his judgment of Wise and other creationists whom he targets for reprimand and correction. For Dawkins’ judgment rests on a premise that–although uncompromisingly maintained throughout his career–only appears to be true.

As Daniel Dennett has said, Darwinism is a Universal Acid; it eats through all our old notions. If only Dawkins would take this to heart. To see a similar philosophical consequence of Darwinism that Dawkins has trouble maintaining, see this post.

Logan Paul Gage

Logan Paul Gage is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Dr. Gage received his B.A. in history, philosophy, and American studies from Whitworth College (2004) and his M.A. (2011) and Ph.D. (2014) in philosophy from Baylor University. His dissertation, written under the supervision of Trent Dougherty, was a defense of the phenomenal conception of evidence and conservative principles in epistemology.