The Wrong Question

I wrote this essay in 2009, when Dawkins’ book first came out.

[dropcap]F[/dropcap]amed anti-theist and biologist Richard Dawkins has written a new book entitled The Greatest Show on Earth. No, it’s not a history of the Ringling Brothers—it’s his apologetic in defense of evolution. In the first chapter, Dawkins spends considerable time lamenting the large percentage of humanity that still believes in something as fanciful as Intelligent Design. He goes on to declare that evolution is an undeniable fact—something as real and self-evident as the earth itself. That is, except for the fact that you can’t see it. And this leads him to compare evolutionary scientists to forensic investigators piecing together the evidence of a crime scene after the fact.

But in his analogy, Dawkins misses the point. He’s right, of course—scientists are similar to forensic investigators in the sense that they want to answer how something occurred. But there is one major difference: to the forensic investigator, answering How is only a means to an end. It is not an end in itself. It is subordinate to the larger and more significant questions of Who and Why. Those are the ultimate questions, and the questions to which everyone craves answers.

Without answers to the questions of Who and Why, a case remains ultimately unsolved. There may be a full and detailed understanding of How the death occurred, yet without these answers, the victim’s family is left in the agony of unknowing. They want a reason, a motive. They want a perpetrator.

But in Dawkins’ universe, there is no Who or Why. Who made this? No one. Why are we here? No reason. It could be said that Dawkins is being unreasonable. He has gone to great lengths to remove these most human of questions from the arena of thought simply because he does not like where they lead.

Yet, these are the questions everyone is really asking, and they are quite reasonable. Despite great progress in scientific explanations of How things work, Dawkins’ case remains, and will remain, unsolved because he hasn’t yet answered them. Theology remains and will remain because it has.

In short, Dawkins’ atheism is too simple. It is not satisfying. It is no more satisfying than knowing, to continue the analogy, that your child was violently murdered by no one. Deep in the human consciousness, we know there’s more to the story. There’s the Story, and it starts in the beginning.

I predict failure for Mr. Dawkins’ crusade to turn the world zealously after a question it isn’t asking. No, the world is far too wonderful and man too mystical for atheism to flourish. Yet, I suspect Mr. Dawkins will not realize his mistake. He will continue to puzzle over those who will not accept his answer to the question they didnt’ ask. He will go on asking a question which, by his own reasoning, is ultimately irrelevant. So Mr. Dawkins, keep asking How as long as you wish. I will simply ask you in turn a question that has much deeper and profounder implications—a question which strikes at the very heart of human nature: Why do you ask?


8 thoughts on “The Wrong Question

  1. Sam, you’re assuming that there must be a Who and Why. Regardless of whether or not there is a Who, Dawkins’ book The Greatest Show On Earth makes the case for the How, and this case stands on its own whether or not we know the Who or even if there is a Who. The “forensic evidence” supports the theory of evolution beyond reasonable doubt, and the theory does not require a Who to work.

    Perhaps there is a Who, but evolution is the How. This book by Dawkins doesn’t try to answer whether or not there is a Who because that’s not the purpose of the book.

    After having many conversations with you, Sam, I feel that one of your deepest held convictions is that a worldview must be satisfying in order to be accepted as truth. You mention in your essay above that atheism as a worldview is not satisfying. You wantthere to be a Who and a Why.

    But reality is not determined by what is satisfying to our desires. Perhaps a Who is not necessary. Maybe a Who does exist, but we can’t use what is satisfying to our deepest desires to determine that.

  2. Leighton,

    You are right about me. I believe a good philosophy should be satisfying in the sense that it should answer all the questions. I think a philosophy (and atheism is a philosophy) is a poor one if it leaves the majority of human questions unexplained.

    So when I say a philosophy should be satisfying, I mean that it should fit like a key in the lock, and it should open the door. It should complete the puzzle and all the pieces should fit. Now, I am not arguing that just because a philosophy is satisfying it is right. Just because a philosophy attempts to answer all the questions does not mean it answers them all correctly. But is my contention that the right philosophy will answer all the questions, that it will answer the Who and the Why, and, yes, the How, because it is reasonable to assume there are answers to these questions.

    I find that atheism, and its corresponding scientism and positivism, doesn’t even come close to this kind of completeness, and that is why atheism will never flourish. That is why atheism will always be the demesne of the minority, despite the best efforts of the evangelical atheists.

    The simple fact is, explaining How doesn’t come close to explaining everything. It is one question of many. Just because How is the only question science can explain does not make the other human questions invalid, though that is what atheists will tell you.

    Like it or not atheism tends toward nihilism. Of course some people, such as yourself, can generate enough meaning from a meaningless world to be happy. But for most people, including some atheists with whom I’ve talked, atheism does not produce happiness, much less a spontaneous joy. If nothing means anything, then everything means nothing, and this includes our best attempts at self-generated meaning. Our self-generated meaning becomes a delusion, a fairy-tale, a lie we tell ourselves as a comfort. This knowledge does not make one happy.

    You said that I want there to be a Who. Perhaps. Maybe you want everything to have a material explanation, even the deepest human desires. But you’re right, our desires don’t determine reality.

    Maybe reality determines our desires.

    We hunger because we know there is food. We desire sex because we know we can have it. We become lonely because there exists love and relationships. We are curious how things work because we know there is an explanation. We desire because we know there is a fulfillment.

    And yet you would say we ask Why when there is no reason, and ask Who when there is no who simply because these are not scientific questions. But I say it is reasonable to believe that we ask Why because we know there is a reason, and that we ask Who because we know there is Someone. In short, we ask because we know there is an answer.


  3. I understand what you’re saying about our natural desires existing because they can be fulfilled, but the fact that many people desire a cosmic significance and knowledge of a deity is not necessarily evidence for the existence of God and immortality, because whether or not this desire actually does have a real means of fulfillment is impossible to confirm or falsify.

    C.S. Lewis also used your “argument from desire” when he said the following: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

    Lewis argued that every natural desire has a real object of fulfillment; therefore our desire for God must have a real fulfillment. The problem with this argument is that it is circular. You must assume the conclusion in order to say that every natural desire has a real object. If one’s desire for God is the only natural desire which does not have a real object, then the premise of the argument would be faulty.

    Our bodies are made with certain desires and urges, all of which contribute to the successful propagation of our DNA. Our DNA has become tremendously successful at producing “survival machines,” our bodies, which are good at surviving and reproducing themselves, because unsuccessful DNA is continuously being weeded out by natural selection. It greatly benefits our survival and reproduction to have strong urges to eat and have sex. The activities most necessary for survival and reproduction are the most powerful desires we have. Another very powerful desire is the will to live, or to look at it negatively, the fear of death. If an organism had no fear of death, it would soon die and fail to produce offspring. Therefore all humans fear death and want to survive. This desire to avoid death is so strong that we develop means of believing that we will survive death itself. However the fact that no one wants to die does not mean that this desire can actually be fulfilled, any more than my desire to have superpowers like flying, teleportation, and mind-reading abilities proves that those things are possible for me to achieve.

    Ultimately the argument from desire is an argument from final consequences, a logical fallacy which basically depends on reasoning such as this: “We don’t like the outcome of something, therefore it must not be true.” We don’t like the prospect of dying, of being cosmically insignificant, of not being loved by a deity, and so we believe that those things are true, when in fact our desires are not really evidence of what is true.

  4. “Another very powerful desire is the will to live, or to look at it negatively, the fear of death. If an organism had no fear of death, it would soon die and fail to produce offspring.”

    It’s interesting you said that. Often, a belief in an afterlife does exactly that—it removes the fear of death. Many have died with complete peace and without fear because a confident belief in life after death. So your statement that we fear death so much we invented the belief we will live forever is self-contradictory. Instead of increasing the fear of death and therefore increasing our desire to survive in this live and reproduce, it removes that fear of death and allows to “let go” of this life.

    I find all similar attempts at explaining the human psyche based on evolutionary principles are equally self-defeating. Humans are the least evolutionary animals. Very little that we do has anything to do with survival. If survival were the only goal of our existence, we should have stopped evolving a long time ago. Most human traits are more nuisances and inconveniences to the evolutionary process than helps to it. I’ve written on this before, and would be glad to give you specific examples of what I’m talking about if you would like.

    Even if you were right, however, and we invented an afterlife as a survival mechanism (which doesn’t make any sense), why do atheists then spend so much of their time and energy attempting to remove this supposed evolutionary survival mechanism from human belief?

  5. It’s true that Christians (and probably other believers in an afterlife) often approach death with confidence and peace because of their belief in an afterlife, but you don’t see newly converted Christians jumping off of buildings to get to heaven sooner. Believers still have a will to survive–they will still run from danger and try to survive. Christians fight cancer, run from dangerous animals, and avoid dark alleys just like non-believers. Sam, the reason you are alive this moment is because you would rather live than die, even if deep down inside you believe that heaven would be a better place, so you make choices that keep your physical body alive. This urge is evolutionary beneficial.

    I would like to hear your examples of human traits that appear to be non-beneficial from an evolutionary perspective. We have discussed this in the past, and I believe we’ve already established that humans and animals possess many abilities that are side-effects of evolution. Playing the piano is not beneficial to survival, but having dexterous fingers and highly-developed brain functions do benefit one’s survival, and so playing the piano is a nice benefit. Now that most people no longer spend every waking hour struggling for survival, we are able to enjoy some of those side effects.

    The reason atheists are against religion now is because, although the belief in an afterlife may be a symptom of a strong will to survive (not beneficial in and of itself), religion does much to harm the world and we have learned much more about reality than we knew when these religious beliefs formed in ancient cultures. As Carl Sagan said, “It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”

    Again, it’s not the belief in an afterlife that is a survival mechanism–it’s the will to survive. The religious belief is a side-effect of the urge to survive, so there is nothing wrong with seeking to correct false beliefs that arise from natural urges.

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