Building on Dawkins

From the New Atheism to Spiritual Naturalism

Building on Dawkins is currently being written.

The writings of Richard Dawkins contain many fascinating philosophical discussions. These are often short and isolated. Do his scattered philosophical remarks point to a deeper system? Or are they just random? Nobody so far has gone through his writings to try to answer those questions. Perhaps they think it isn't worthwhile. Maybe they think he's just a popularizer with nothing serious to say. Or maybe they think he's just another village atheist, so that they already know what he will say. Both assessments of Dawkins are unfortunate. His writings have made an enormous cultural impact. He has outlined an evolutionary view of life whose philosophical aspects are worth studying. I will argue that his scattered philosophical remarks point towards a coherent philosophical system. Dawkins himself has not done much to develop it. He often fails to draw conclusions from his own premises. He fails to develop his own arguments. As a philosopher, I'm interested in developing them. They reveal a fascinating system.

For example, Dawkins advocates a universal Darwinism. But his idea of universality is impossibly small. He just means that if there is life on other planets, then it evolved. Of course, if your idea really is universal, then it applies to everything. Dawkins frequently expresses frustration with abstract philosophical questions. Here's a famous one: Why is there something rather than nothing? Dawkins sometimes utterly fails to understand the question. Other times, he says it's a stupid question. Still other times, he affirms an Einsteinian faith in the rationality of existence. So you'd think that somebody who really does advocate a universal Darwinism might try to develop an evolutionary answer to that question. Perhaps very general and very abstract evolutionary principles would be sufficient to answer that question. Of course, they would probably be far too abstract to be strictly Darwinian. But they would still be evolutionary.

As another example, consider his near-constant use of ideas from computer science and information theory. Those really are sciences, even if they aren't empirical sciences. Not all sciences are empirical. Mathematics is a science which is not empirical. Much has been written about the possibility that physics rests on purely computational foundations. Perhaps matter and energy, space and time, causality and lawful regularity, all emerge from the principles of information theory. Does gravity really emerge from entropy? Is the universe ultimately a quantum computer? Does it really come from bit? It may well be that information theory, coupled with general evolutionary principles, suffices to explain everything. Although these are speculations, they remain grounded in scientific ways of thinking. Since he so often appeals to ideas from computer science, you'd think Dawkins might be interested in a more general digital metaphysics. But he never talks about it. Many times he points to the way Peter Atkins builds reality up from the empty set. But he doesn't get into it. Why not? An evolutionary theory that built up all complexity from the empty set would indeed be worthy of being called universal.

My goal here is to use the writings of Richard Dawkins to develop a philosophical system which deserves to be called Dawkinsian. I do not claim that Dawkins would agree with every part of this Dawkinsian system. Nor do I care. While I can use his writings as the basis for further logical inference and construction, I do not have access to the ideas inside of his head. Although Socrates never wrote anything down (for fear that others would run away with his ideas), Dawkins did. His writings have implications, whether he agrees with them or not. Besides his writings, I have access to the transcripts of some of his lectures and debates. However, I will try to avoid using them. To write something down is to indicate commitment. And while the transcripts are available on the web today, they may be gone tomorrow. I will therefore focus on his published writings. When he makes mistakes, I will try to correct them in a charitable way. But my goal is not to do critical scholarship. My goal is to develop the philosophical ideas which seem to me to be expressed by his published writings, often explicitly, sometimes implicitly. I won't have much to say about ethics. I will focus instead on issues of logic and existence. So I will use his texts to develop a Dawkinsian metaphysics.