At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Richard Dawkins and the Amateur Philosopher Syndrome (APS)

Richard Dawkins is a scientist who is apparently either extraordinarily bored with his discipline, or hopelessly oblivious to its limits.

From his tireless defenses of atheism to his recent tweet on abortion, Dawkins, you see, spends very little time, it seems, sticking to what he knows.  Instead, he is busy away treating his background in science as the supreme credential for making pronouncements on all matters religious and moral.  

Dawkins’ is a textbook case of Amateur Philosopher Syndrome (APS)—the delusion that because one is an expert on the physical, one is an expert on the metaphysical—the stuff that scientists have traditionally left to the philosophers and theologians to study. 

Just this past weekend, he got people talking about him after he fired off a tweet regarding abortion in which he said that “any fetus is less human than an adult pig.” 


When a biologist, as a biologist, uses the term “human,” we expect for it to refer to that which is, well, biologically human.  A human fetus, then, is obviously more human than a pig, for the latter isn’t human at all.  Dawkins, however, uses “human” here in a moral sense, for he is interested in showing that abortion is permissible. “‘Human’ features relevant to the morality of abortion,” he tweets, “include [the] ability to feel pain, fear etc & to be mourned by others.”

To be clear, there is nothing in the least bit scientific or descriptive about Dawkins’ comments on this score.  His training in science no more qualifies him to speak to the moral standing of abortion than does a person’s experience as a janitor or a dishwasher endow him with any special authority to do the same.      


And his handling of the abortion issue shows this in spades.

Dawkins reasons here as if what he’s said hasn’t been said thousands of times over by abortion apologists.  Worse, he proceeds as if he was utterly ignorant of the fact that even those philosophers who have used his argument have conceded that it is fraught with pitfalls.  This ignorance, though, is a common symptom of APS.

 If Dawkins is correct and an entity is human only if it is sentient (able “to feel pain, fear etc.) and “be mourned by others,” then our duties to pigs, rats, bats, and all sorts of other animals are no different than those that we owe to one another, for all of these are sentient and, in the right contexts, capable of being enjoyed and mourned by others. Furthermore, those members of the human race who are less sensitive to pain than others must thereby be deemed less human than others, and those humans whose sufferings or death fail to elicit the sympathies of their fellows must then be relegated to the ranks of the non-human.   


This is where Dawkins’ logic leads.  But afflicted as he is with APS, Dawkins apparently hasn’t thought it through. 

Dawkins’ position on abortion is just as amateurish as his stance on the question of theism, belief in God’s existence.  Not unlike most people, Dawkins thinks that science has it within itself to undermine belief in God’s existence. This is probably the one big blunder of which both theist and atheist alike are guilty.  The reality is that science can no more disprove or prove God’s existence than can a painting of the ocean establish the number of gallons that the ocean contains.

In short, in theory science has no bearing on religion, for each speaks to a world separate from the other.  


The world of the scientist is an abstraction.  It consists of causes and effects, bodies, structures, processes, material forces, objects and categories of various sorts—e.g. genera and species, etc.  By definition, this is a “natural”—a purely natural—world, a universe that doesn’t allow for any intelligence or mind that isn’t ultimately reducible to matter in motion.  The methods of science insure this.

In contrast, the world of religion (and morality) is comprised of, not causes, but reasons; not matter, but mind; not objects, but subjects; not forces and processes, but intentions and purposes.  It is a world of believers and unbelievers, moral agents and moral patients, virtues, vices, duties, rights, good and evil.


In conflating these two worlds into one, Dawkins destroys them both.  In bringing morality and religion before the tribunal of science, Dawkins betrays an astonishing ignorance of the characters of morality, religion, and science.              


This, though, is exactly what we should expect from one ravaged by Amateur Philosopher Syndrome.




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