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Richard Dawkins, Meet Francis Schaeffer: Or, Irrational Rationalism

14 August, 2008

Francis Schaeffer used to say that our modern (postmodern?) sense of despair and lack of meaningfulness flow from our autonomous rationalism, our attempts to make ourselves and our own reason (or intuition or whatever) the sole judge of everything. Schaeffer saw this as a divorce we try to make between the natural and the supernatural — but however much we try to only make room for and base everything upon what’s natural and rational, we can’t get away from the supernatural, what we think is ‘irrational’. Schaeffer thought a great example of this in contemporary life is the spectacle of philosphers who adopt strong rationalistic ideas on things, only to draw completely unwarranted ‘irrational’ conclusions from those ideas in the end. I think Schaeffer was on to something….

Take Richard Dawkins, for example: he’s a vehement atheist who hates Christianity with a passion and thinks religion is the cause of all the world’s ills. His alternative to religion is thoroughgoing evolutionism. In other words, the world from top to bottom, inside and out, is utterly explained by evolutionary chance, biological process, total materialism — you get the idea.

But what happens when we apply such ideas to culture and society, to relationships, family life and friendships? Social darwinism is a pretty scary thought, even for Dawkins. In fact, he has repeatedly written against applying the evolutionary nature of reality to our social views. For example, in response to the (in my view legitimate) suggestion that applying evolutionary theory to human values and society has at least contributed to such atrocities as Nazism, ‘racial cleansing’, and the like, Dawkins responded like this:

…natural selection is a good object lesson in how NOT to organize a society. As I have often said before, as a scientist I am a passionate Darwinian. But as a citizen and a human being, I want to construct a society which is about as un-Darwinian as we can make it. I approve of looking after the poor (very un-Darwinian). I approve of universal medical care (very un-Darwinian).

Now, maybe I’m not as ‘bright’ as Dawkins, but I find this curious indeed. Dawkins, we must remember, holds evolution to be the end-all and be-all of all existence, the thing that explains and contains all reality–in other words, there is nothing that exists in our world that is not a product of evolutionary processes and explainable by appeal to evolutionary process. That’s the way the world is.

So how on earth does Dawkins come to the conclusion that human society and values should actually be as ‘un-Darwinian’ as possible? Are we following the logic here? Everything, including human life, exists because of evolutionary processes–>We should organize human life on the basis of more or less anti-evolutionary values.

What is the basis for Dawkins’ claim that everything that is meaningful for interpersonal human relationships and values should flow from something that is the polar opposite of how things actually work in the universe? It seems Dawkins feels he can make this admittedly broad leap in his reasoning simply because ‘it is one of the classic philosophical fallacies to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. In other words, just because evolution is the way things are, doesn’t mean we ought to treat each other likewise. Is this good reasoning? Does Dawkins let himself off the logical hook here?

Well, no actually — on the contrary, he provides a vivid example of exactly the kind of completely unwarranted ‘irrational’ conclusions that Schaeffer spoke of. You see, the problem isn’t the distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ — the problem is that in Dawkins’ worldview, there is nothing outside of or apart from the all-encompassing evolutionary process that we may base our social values on. If everything is the result of evolution and part of the evolutionary process, where do we get an ‘ought’ that is anything other than evolution?

Maybe a clear way to highlight Dawkins’ irrational rationalism here is to substitute evolution for something else…like the color purple. In this case, the Dawkins quote above would go something like this:

…what is ‘purple’ is a good object lesson in how NOT to organize a society. As I have often said before, as a scientist I am utterly convinced that everything in the universe is purple and operates on the principles of purpleness. But as a citizen and a human being, I want to construct a society which is about as un-purple as we can make it. I approve of looking after the poor (very un-purple). I approve of universal medical care (very un-purple).

See what’s really going on here? If everything in the universe simply is purple and is explained by purpleness, where do you get the idea that something should be some other color? For that matter, if everything is purple, how do you even know it’s purple!? If everything in the universe is the product of and is explained by evolutionary theory, where could Dawkins possibly get the notion of basing anything on something other than evolutionary theory, much less against evolutionary theory?

As Cornelius Van Til pointed out so well, in their irrational rationalism atheists must assume the existence of the Creator of heaven and earth and his order for creation, even while they argue so forcefully against him — like a child who climbs up on his father’s lap in order to slap him in the face.

  1. 14 August, 2008 8:20 am

    The genius Dawkins, with his necessary contradictions (necessary for him to wander aimlessly through life without running every stop sign or entering every exit ramp) clearly includes himself with the foolish masses condemned in Rom 1:21. Sigh, all that academic training used for denying the obvious, “God is, and I am not he.”

  2. 14 August, 2008 1:02 pm

    Off Topic:
    I have to ask, where does one get a WSC skull-cap like the one you’re wearing in the pic?

  3. 14 August, 2008 3:32 pm

    Call the school and ask for the bookstore 760 480 8474. Pretty cool huh. My friend Beglin is supposed to be knitting me a granola style one but he’s lagging by about 2 years and counting.
    Thanks Rick.

  4. 15 August, 2008 9:34 am

    So simple when you put it this way!

  5. 15 August, 2008 9:54 am

    thanks Dave of the Blue Fish project. what a great blog u have. fun read. i checked out the inspired preaching book on BWM. looks like something i should pick up.
    thanks for reading.

  6. 15 August, 2008 11:09 am

    Enjoying your blog too.

  7. 17 August, 2008 7:42 am

    spot on.
    Reminds me Aristotle’s Rhetoric: he said when assessing a speaker’s “pitch”, to look for:
    “logos” (their explanation of what they’re saying)
    “pathos” (their passion behind what they’re saying)
    and most importantly, “ethos” (not the ethics they espouse, but how they themselves live)

  8. Peter permalink
    17 August, 2008 10:08 am

    I don’t really understand what this article is trying to say.

    Dawkins (and most rational people) understand that the process that has sculpted life to the current position we are in is evolution.

    That doesn’t mean we need to apply it to every thing we do in life.

    Animals in the wild don’t act in a way where they are thinking about evolution – they just do what their instinct says they need to do to survive.

    Similarly, homo sapiens has lived for approx 200,000 years without knowing how evolution works – they just got on with trying to survive.

    What Dawkins is actually saying is that just because we understand that evolution happens, doesn’t mean we should wilfully try to apply it to society.

    There is a difference between a natural process and humans trying to apply a philosophy to life.

  9. 18 August, 2008 3:01 am


    I think you’re missing what I’m trying to say. I’m not making a scientific point; I’m making a *presuppositional* point about where Dawkins claims to be coming from, on one hand, and where he wants to go, on the other.

    As a scientist, he doesn’t just advocate evolution to one degree or another — he dogmatically opposes ANY attempt to explain the universe or its ‘meaning’ in any terms that lie outside the scope of the evolutionary process. It’s not just that he doesn’t feel he needs to account for a ‘god’ in order to do his work, or that he feels the evidence leans toward the nonexistence of ‘god’. It’s that he strongly and completely opposes anything outside of evolutionism as an explanation for or way of accounting for the universe. Like I said, ‘dogmatic’ atheist (which, I have to say, doesn’t endear him to most other atheists, who I suspect would just as readily substitute ‘fundamentalist’ for ‘dogmatic’ when describing Dawkins.)

    So my point is that, on Dawkin’s totalizing presuppositions, he doesn’t have the ideological ‘space’ or the philosophical resources that would enable him to *consistently* say that anything *should* be ‘un-Darwinian’. I thought the purple metaphor worked well at this point, but maybe you don’t agree: again, if everything in the universe without exception is purple, then where do we get the idea that something should be another color (much less the *opposite* color), and that doesn’t even begin to address the question concerning how we recognize the purpleness of everything in the first place (for what do we have to contrast it to?).

    I’m glad that Dawkins wants to be as un-Darwinian as possible in his social values and views. I just don’t think he could ever get those social realities he values (un-Darwinian), from the only reality that he thinks exists (Darwinian).


  10. 18 August, 2008 12:03 pm

    Here, here B!. I love the metaphor….but maybe a different color would have worked better??? Is purple the new black?

  11. 21 August, 2008 4:27 am

    So, to push the metaphor further, Dawkins has, in effect, said, “… therefore the only colour that exists is purple, but I think everyone should paint their houses yellow.”?

  12. 22 August, 2008 3:08 am


    Not only does advocating yellow paint clash with the purple worldview; but in the *only purple* worldview, there’s nowhere to buy yellow paint (to stretch the metaphor perhaps as far as possible!).


  13. Peter permalink
    29 August, 2008 2:33 pm

    I disagree, he is only attempting to explain how life evolved from the point of inception to the present day. Evolution says nothing about how life was created.

    Can you give me some evidence where he attempts to explain anything other than evolution of life, using evolution theory.

  14. 1 February, 2009 6:01 pm

    Great last paragraph – great essay.

  15. drmitton permalink
    16 September, 2009 3:37 pm

    Found your blog looking for something on Dawkins – quick question – let’s say some mad scientist runs around ranting that ‘all the world works with math! Everything comes down to math!’ Would we deride the man for arguing that maybe we should design familes by math? (As in China?) Or that maybe there are other good societal tools other than math?

    IOW, as much as I believe in addition and subtraction it doesn’t follow that I think every couple should have two and only two children. In facat it seems sily to say so and this is the same corner that you’re forcing Dawkins into.

    • 16 September, 2009 4:49 pm


      I like your math analogy, but I think it actually supports what I’m saying if used according to Dawkins’s account.

      We have to keep in mind in the context of the discussion above Dawkins isn’t speaking of things that work according to evolution on one hand, and some things that are simply different or ‘nonevolutionary’ in their conceptuality, on the other. In other words, I think you’re qualifying the force of what Dawkins actually says.

      What Dawkins says is that *everything* is explained by evolution because everything *just is* a result of and function of the evolutionary process. Then he says, effectively, that his social views are *anti-*evolutionary. So, to the math analogy:

      I’m perfectly happy with your example of believing in addition and subtraction, and yet not designing families according to purely mathematical principles. But that’s not what Dawkins is doing. Dawkins is saying that everything is math and explainable in terms of math, but that we should run society according to principles that are anti-mathematical (or at least as unmathematical as they can be according to how we presently understand math). See what I mean? You can’t say ‘everything is math’, and then say we should do something that’s not according to math — in fact, *against* how we understand math to operate. Dawkins is far more radical than your analogy allows, which is precisely what he often gets criticism for from otherwise sympathetic colleagues.

      Hope this helps clarify my position,

      • Eric D. Nath permalink
        24 December, 2010 7:58 am

        I think your discussion would be helped by comparing reality and optimization.

        In any given system their is an optimal solution depending on your goals. Evolutionary processes run their course regardless of human needs, and are therefore not optimal for human happiness. Dawkins is asserting that optimal human happiness is achieved by anti-Darwinian means.

  16. drmitton permalink
    18 September, 2009 4:59 am

    I just don’t see that your conclusion follows. Dawkins (et. al.) says that all natural systems stem from evolution and can be best explained by evolutionary ideas. This is basic biology 101. Then he says that some systems that we design work best or better when these same ideas aren’t used – selection, chance, familial preference, etc. – what’s the problem? Here’s the mistake you make – you consider ‘evolution’ to be Dawkins ‘religion:’ his ‘end all and be all of existence’ but he doesn’t. He sees it as an explantion for natural phenomena and is free to choose other means to meet other problems. Religious people don’t usually have this freedom – thier faith requires that they apply it to every aspect of life both personal and corporate. Evolution is the way that the world works when left alone but we have the ability to work in other ways (e.g. give of our assets to the ‘poor.’) When Schaeffer wrote about the biologist who wouldn’t eat mushrooms at random he made the same mistake.

    • 18 September, 2009 10:49 am


      I’m willing to be shown otherwise, but at this point I don’t see how the fairly modest, ad hoc approach you’re describing applies to Dawkins’s own views. On his own account, he holds that there is nothing that exists in our world that is not a product of evolutionary processes and explainable by appeal to evolutionary process. That’s the way the world is.

      You can’t have such an overarching ontology and then (consistently) account for even the existence of something *anti-*evolutionary, or as he puts it, ‘about as un-Darwinian as you can get’. I’m not saying I disapprove of Dawkins’s refusal to apply evolutionary biology to his social views; I’m saying that his own account of existence doesn’t have the conceptual resources to consistently maintain his social views.

      And as far as the random mushroom thing goes, the point of such a statement is again to point out what is perceived to be an inner tension in someone’s overall worldview. It’s like a philosopher who argues that we have no good reason to believe other peoples’ minds really exist, and then goes home and has a conversation with his wife about what the kids did that day. People live with these tensions every day; I’m simply suggesting that this one’s at the heart of Dawkins’s worldview. He’s not just ‘doing science’, and a whole host of scientists would agree with me on that.


      • N Miller permalink
        11 October, 2009 6:50 pm

        Creed, I think you are getting tripped up by your own language. You don’t seem to recognize the different levels of meaning in abstract concepts like “biological process” and “total materialism”–you lump a lot of stuff that seems quite different to me.

        For example, I see some important semantic differences between “un-Darwinian” (Dawkins’ word) and “anti-evolutionary” (YOUR word). “Un” usually means “not like”, while “anti” usually means “against”. As Drmitton and Peter have both pointed out, Darwin’s work described the mechanism by which life changes and new species appear. Dawkins could only be called “anti-evolutionary” if he said he disliked how evolution works or wished there were some other form of or explanation for speciation. Instead, he says that while he embraces evolution as the sole best explanation for speciation, he prefers to live in an “un-Darwinian” society, in other words, one that operates on different rules and chooses a method of operation that is “not like” the one that appears to rule our biology.

        And that’s the semantic difference I see between what Dawkins *actually* said, and the words you try to put into his mouth. I think you fail to distinguish between Dawkins saying that all of *biological* development and behavior is determined by the mechanisms of evolution, and him saying humans have the ability to influence *sociological* development and behavior with rules that are “not like” those that influence the biological world.

        One of the hallmarks of the theory of evolution is that marginal members of a species, or members born with disadvantageous mutations, fail to thrive and usually die before reproducing, ensuring that the gene pool reflects the fittest, most typical members. Meanwhile, our one species uses its unique ability for conscious thought and social awareness to evaluate whether we choose, as a species, to adapt our interpersonal behavior to something less harsh–for example, providing medical care to members of our species who would not survive to reproduce without it. There is nothing “anti-evolutionary” about choosing to care for other members of one’s species–Dawkins is not saying he “wishes” evolution didn’t work the way it does. He simply says, since we have the intelligence and resources to avoid that harsh reality, he prefers that we do. Indeed, *some* evolutionist research might even support such “altruistic” impulses as simply another aspect of our biological development.

  17. 12 October, 2009 1:15 am

    Guys (I think?)~

    I don’t think we’re speaking of the same thing — I’m not saying anything about evolution or natural selection or (neo-)Darwinian theory. As I thought I’ve made very clear, I’m speaking about what I see as the the contradictory conclusions of the “irrational rationalism” that is Dawkins’s fundamentalist materialist atheism. Again, it’s not difficult to find atheists who are really embarrased by Dawkins and his fellows on precisely this score, even if they agree with many of his positions — do a search on any atheist forum discussing Dawkins.

    Each of you is defending Darwin(ism); but I’m attacking Dawkins. That’s how I intended this discussion to be read. Hope that helps,

    • 8 February, 2011 5:27 pm

      And not just Dawkins, but anyone who “holds evolution to be the end-all and be-all of all existence, the thing that explains and contains all reality–in other words, there is nothing that exists in our world that is not a product of evolutionary processes and explainable by appeal to evolutionary process. That’s the way the world is.”


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