Just got back from a Physics lecture theatre to watch the live stream of a debate between Richard Dawkins[1] and Rowan Williams, chaired by Anthony Kenny,[2] and introduced by the Chancellor.[3] The topic of the debate was the ultimate origins of mankind and, eventually, the universe.

I went along with Balliol’s temporary Chaplain who is from the US and a Romanian Orthodox Christian who is an academic at the department of psychiatry here in Oxford. They saw an incoherency in Dawkins that I didn’t, but pointed out that Williams did very well in presenting a modern Christianity—I agree, for the legions of Dawkinites watching, it was great to have this perspective put out there, to break various prejudices about what religion involves.

It seemed to me that things actually got interesting at only two or three points. And most of these were instigated by Kenny making a distinction in terminology, clarifying meaning, in order to allow both participants in the debate to properly state their positions in order that said positions could interact. It was, therefore, very frustrating to watch Dawkins particularly (maybe Williams should have been more vigorous in pursuing these lines) dismiss these thoughts. At one point Kenny distinguished epistemic and metaphysical possibility, and Dawkins said that he didn’t know what those terms meant; at another Dawkins told Kenny that he perhaps should have invited a philosopher instead, because he wasn’t one.

At these points we saw the Dawkins who has attracted so much criticism for being, basically, rude, come out; similarly towards the end of the discussion when his frustration with religion was coming through. But this is not what I’m concerned with. It is also the case that I am a philosophy student who thinks that philosophical problems are always worth discussing; not everyone agrees, so it may be thought that I’m just interested in the wrong things; again this isn’t my point.

My criticism is that I do not understand why Dawkins refuses to engage with the dialectical tools that philosophy has spent the past few thousand years developing, tools designed precisely to allow progress to be made in these sorts of discussions. It does not take much to learn a few pieces of terminology; you do not have to acquaint yourself with super-technical analytic philosophy to do this. And it might have allowed both parties to make a lot more progress.

One other thing to say briefly: Dawkins has this picture which he expresses very nicely in the last chapter of The Greatest Show on Earth (and probably elsewhere too) about how the idea of two things competing in order to survive, adapting to allow this to happen, is in fact a very simple physical principle: if two things are trying to occupy the same place or do the same thing, the one that does is best will survive. Gradually through the addition of a great deal of complexity we end up with animals and humans suffering in their conflicts with each other for survival.

This picture is very compelling. The problem—and I appreciate that this criticism is simple-minded—is that there is a massive amount of faith in the power of present science to fill in the many, many gaps. This is why I remain a sceptic about questions about the origin of life and the universe. What we can do is work on the science that affects our lives now and about the dialectic that informs us as to how we should live them now.

One final thing to add. I keep seeing parallels in the development of thoughts like this and the foundations of western philosophy found in Plato that I am studying this term. There is so much that we assume that goes all the way back there. At some point maybe I will be able to write such connections down and see if they are any good.

[1] Balliol undergrad

[2] Sometime master of Balliol

[3] Again, Balliol