Science doesn’t disprove God: Where Richard Dawkins and new atheists go wrong

Richard Dawkins and the new atheists suggest human consciousness can be cloned in a lab. But they can't prove it

Topics: Atheism, New Atheism, Richard Dawkins, Religion, Editor's Picks, Books, Why science does not disprove god,

Science doesn't disprove God: Where Richard Dawkins and new atheists go wrongRichard Dawkins (Credit: AP/Manish Swarup)

Advances in paleontology and physical anthropology since the nineteenth century have brought us close to an understanding of how the human species has evolved over many millions of years—from fish to reptiles, to early mammals, to primates, and finally to a hominid that was remarkable seemingly only for its upright gait. This is indeed an accomplishment; however, these advances have been seized upon by New Atheists to explain away the remarkable arc of human history, whereby we became the creators of breathtaking technological and cultural achievement totally unique in nature.

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In 1974, the American paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson discovered in the Afar region of Ethiopia one of the most important “missing links” between humans and apes: a three-and-a-half-foot-tall hominid he called Lucy (so named because the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” happened to be playing on the tape deck around the time of the discovery). Lucy is part of a genus of hominids called Australopithecus, which have been discovered at various sites in Africa and dated to between 3.9 and 1.7 million years ago. As time progressed, these hominids walked more and more upright (relying less on their arms, as evidenced by their posture and the shortening of the arms) and their cranial capacity increased as they approached human form.

The fossil record, collected, organized, and studied over more than a century by dedicated physical anthropologists and archaeologists, reveals the story of the emergence of human beings on planet Earth. Our common ancestors with chimpanzees seem to have lived in Africa around 7 million years ago. Successive hominids then evolved away from our ape relatives. Australopithecus ramidus is the first of them, dated to about 5 million years ago, followed by Australopithecus anamensis, found in the Turkana region of Kenya, with a larger cranial capacity, living some 4 million years ago. Then came Australopithecus afarensis, found in the Afar region of Ethiopia—Lucy being the prime example of this hominid—walking more upright and with a still larger cranium.



The australopithecines (as these species of hominid are called) diverged from our ancestors about 3 to 4 million years ago and there emerged a species called Homo habilis, whose fossils were discovered in Tanzania by Mary and Louis Leakey in the 1960s. With a cranial capacity of six hundred cubic centimeters, Homo habilis had less than half our brain size, but twice that of the more advanced australopithecines. This was a hominid that lived roughly 2 million years ago (estimates range from 1.7 to 2.3 million years), stood about four feet three inches tall, and could make stone tools (hence the habilis, meaning able or handy).

Then came a very hardy and wide-ranging species called Homo erectus (upright-walking man), a creature that lived in Africa and in many locations in Asia, including Java and China, and is known to have used fire (as Teilhard de Chardin helped prove) and to have made more advanced stone tools than before. This hominid lived from around 1.5 million years ago till about six hundred thousand years ago and had a cranial capacity of more than one thousand cubic centimeters. Peking Man, an example of this species, lived in caves southwest of Beijing about seven hundred thousand to six hundred thousand years ago.

Homo erectus is an ancestor of modern humans through a number of intermediaries, prime among them Homo heidelbergensis, whose remains have been found in Germany as well as in Africa. Homo heidelbergensis, which lived between five hundred thousand and three hundred thousand years ago, had about our cranial capacity (with a range of from eleven hundred to our average of fourteen hundred cubic centimeters) and made stone tools. This primate is believed to have been the ancestor of both modern humans and Neanderthals.

What do we learn from the fossil record? We clearly see here an evolution over time that is characterized by increasing size—from three feet to close to six feet in height over several million years; the improved ability to walk upright; better manufacture and use of stone tools; emergence of the exploitation of fire; and a marked increase in the size of the brain. What do these trends mean? Humans clearly were not “created” in one act by God. They certainly evolved from our common ancestors with the apes to more and more advanced creatures that become more like modern humans. And at some point in time—one that we have not identified—we “become” human. Becoming human entails a mode of symbolic thinking and making art, as evidenced through the cave paintings of early humans who lived in Europe in the Paleolithic era.

Earlier hominids, while they fashioned stone tools that allowed them to kill and butcher animals, did not create art—at least not much of it. Every once in a while, a stone artifact that looks like it might have been carved as a primitive statuette is reported to have been found, and there is some ambiguous evidence of the manufacture of paint, but we have no definitive proof that any of the hominids that preceded us on Earth possessed an artistic ability.

Only our species is able to make and interested in making images of what we see around us. An artistic sense seems to be one aspect that separates us from all other living creatures and those that have inhabited the Earth in the past (perhaps with the exception of Neanderthals—that question is still open). And this artistic capacity represents our unique ability to think symbolically—something that our nonhuman ancestors probably could not do. Our art is very old: at least as old as forty thousand years, the age of the Paleolithic paintings that have been discovered in the El Castillo cave in Spain.

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When did consciousness arise, of the kind that we humans have? Are hominids such as Lucy more like apes or like us? And when does self-awareness arise in the animal world in general? Where is the invisible boundary in evolution at which an animal-like creature becomes human-like? We have hardly any answers to these questions.

This notion of emergence is one that has been addressed in philosophy, but never explained well by science: We don’t know how a universe emerged. We don’t know how from the chaos and fuzziness and unworldly behavior of the quantum, the structured universe of macro objects we see around us came about, with its causality, locality, and definiteness—none of which are characteristics of the quantum realm. We don’t know how self-replicating life emerged from inanimate objects. And we don’t know how and why and at exactly what point in evolution human consciousness became a reality. The inexplicability of such emergent phenomena is the reason why we cannot disprove the idea of some creative power behind everything we experience around us—at least not at our present state of knowledge.

Here is what Richard Dawkins says about the emergence of human consciousness:

Imagine that an intermediate species, say Australopithecus afarensis, had chanced to survive and was discovered in a remote part of Africa. Would these creatures “count as human” or not? To a consequentialist like me, the question doesn’t deserve an answer, for nothing turns on it. It is enough that we would be fascinated and honored to meet a new “Lucy.” . . . Even if a clear answer might be attempted for Australopithecus, the gradual continuity that is an inescapable feature of biological evolution tells us that there must be some intermediate who would lie sufficiently close to the “borderline” to blur the moral principle and destroy its absoluteness.

Dawkins does make an interesting point: to whom do we accord “humanness”? But he skirts the main issue: To what extent can evolutionary theory answer this question? Evolutionary science cannot indicate to us the location of the point on the continuous evolutionary scale, which Dawkins believes is there, at which human consciousness arises. Evolutionary theory is unable to tell us how life began, how eukaryotic cells evolved, how intelligence came about, or how consciousness arose in living things.

The question about consciousness is key to everything we are discussing. Modern cognitive science relies on the principles of evolution and posits that consciousness is something that can be produced artificially. Life-forms become more and more advanced through evolution, and eventually consciousness is the outcome. Thus, many cognitive science practitioners believe that machines can develop a consciousness as well, although this has never happened. Consciousness has never been produced in the lab, not even close.

Their thinking is that in the same way that a computer can be “taught” to play chess so well that it will defeat a human, the machine can actually be taught to think and feel like a human being. But despite formidable attempts by computer scientists and cognitive science experts, they have not accomplished this. We can make a computer do many things, but we cannot make it react like a person—with consciousness, including self-awareness and free will.

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At the 2011 Ciudad de las Ideas conference, I was pitted (together with Dinesh D’Souza and Rabbi David Wolpe) against the evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban, the cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus, and the skeptic Michael Shermer. We were taking part in a debate on whether life has a meaning. My opponents argued that meaning is something that can be created artificially and that in fact a machine can create meaning for itself. Thus, they argued, there is no design or purpose in our universe. “We are all robots,” Robert Kurzban announced.

I argued that we humans have never been able to create consciousness, and that therefore it does not follow that consciousness is likely to just arise on its own in a machine. We can build more and more powerful computers and robots—but these computers and robots will not have free will or self-awareness. The other side maintained that eventually they will. But if we have not ever built a machine that developed consciousness, then how can we claim that life and consciousness and free will can be developed in a lab? And without anyone being able to exhibit how these qualities that make us human come into existence, “scientific atheism” cannot prevail.

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In his book “The Singularity Is Near,” Ray Kurzweil fancifully imagines a future civilization in which computers that have developed a consciousness build even more powerful computers for their own needs. But this scenario is fictional. We have not created even a shadow of consciousness in any machine thus far. Consciousness, symbolic thinking, self-awareness, a sense of beauty, art, and music, and the ability to invent language and pursue science and mathematics—these are all qualities that transcend simple evolution: they may not be absolutely necessary for survival. These attributes of the human mind may well be described as divine: they belong to what is way above the ordinary or the compulsory for survival. The origins and purpose of consciousness and artistic and musical and literary and scientific creativity remain mysterious. Why would evolution alone bring about such developments that appear to have little to do with the survival of an individual or a species?

The problem with consciousness is that we don’t really understand what it is. Daniel Dennett writes in his book “Consciousness Explained” that many experts from a variety of fields such as psychology, anthropology, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence have been working on trying to understand what consciousness is, and he notes wryly: “With so many idiots working on the problem, no wonder consciousness is still a mystery.” In his research, Dennett pursues what he sees as Descartes’s dream of understanding consciousness and defining a strict set of logical rules that govern the human mind—something he admits has been a lifelong professional dream. He summarizes his theory about how humans got their consciousness as follows:

There is no single, definitive “stream of consciousness,” because there is no central Headquarters, no Cartesian Theater where “it all comes together” for the perusal of a Central Meaner. Instead of such a central stream (however wide), there are multiple channels in which specialist circuits try, in parallel pandemoniums, to do their various things, creating Multiple Drafts as they go. . . . The seriality of this machine (its “von Neumannesque” character) is not a “hard-wired” design feature, but rather the upshot of a succession of coalitions of these specialists. The basic specialists are part of our animal heritage. They were not developed to perform particularly human actions.

Dennett and his collaborators consider the human mind from two problematic viewpoints: looking at the brain as a kind of computer, and looking at the brain as the result of animal evolution. The human brain is far more than a computer: computers have no consciousness. And to think of the brain as simply something that has evolved out of animal ganglia and primitive brains is also a mistake: there is a giant leap from the brain of a monkey or a dog to the brain of a human being.

Neither approach explains Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Picasso’s Guernica, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or the palaces on Venice’s Grand Canal. Neither do they explain Einstein’s general theory of relativity or Freud’s invention of psychoanalysis. Both the mechanistic and animalistic views of the brain fall flat in their attempts to explain any of these great historic achievements of the human mind. We are not machines, and we are not simple animals, either.

An alternative explanation is that God gave us the mental abilities and that extra something we use in making decisions and in creating great works of art, sublime music, magnificent architecture, beautiful literature, and science and mathematics. Our incredible brains can do all these things because they contain some ingredients that science has not yet found or explained and whose origin remains one of the deepest mysteries in all of science.

In his book “The Selfish Gene,” Richard Dawkins says that machines can have consciousness, or at least can act as if they had consciousness:

Each one of us knows, from the evidence of our own introspection, that, at least in one modern survival machine [by which Dawkins means humans], this purposiveness has evolved the property we call “consciousness.” I am not philosopher enough to discuss what this means, but fortunately it does not matter for our present purposes because it is easy to talk about machines as if motivated by a purpose, and to leave open the question whether they are actually conscious. These machines are basically very simple, and the principles of unconscious purposive behavior are among the commonplaces of engineering science.

Once again, with absolutely no scientific justification whatsoever, a New Atheist wants to reduce the amazing human mind with its hopes, desires, aspirations, abilities, creative genius, goodness, love, and other complex emotions and qualities to a simple machine. Dawkins further writes:

In the chess-playing computer there is no “mental picture” inside the memory banks recognizable as a chess board with knights and pawns sitting on it. The chess board and its current position would be represented by lists of electronically coded numbers.

When Dawkins’s book was originally written, the computer had not yet beaten a grandmaster, but Garry Kasparov’s loss to Deep Blue in 1997 proved that a computer could prevail over the best chess-playing human. Dawkins predicted this would happen based on the fact that computers had been winning against successively better players. But to assume that the human brain, with its consciousness and everything that makes it unique, can be likened to a machine—powerful as that machine may be in its ability to manipulate large amounts of data at an amazing speed and using an immense memory capacity—is wrong. And let’s not forget that a human is programming the computer!

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We are faced here with one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in the history of science: At what point in hominid development and evolution does human consciousness appear? What exactly is our consciousness? What makes us different from animals? What gives us the powers to create and to think symbolically and to develop language?

The magnificent European cave art we find in Paleolithic caverns in France, Spain, and Italy gives us one of the earliest glimpses of the evolution of consciousness and symbolic thinking. According to the paleoanthopologist Ian Tattersall, symbolic thinking is the single most important characteristic of human beings, the one that separates us from all our predecessors, ancestors, and other animals. Symbolic thinking allowed human beings to create amazing art many thousands of years ago. It brought us language, science, art and everything that makes us uniquely human. Neither computers nor animals can do any of these things. So the emergence of consciousness and symbolic thinking remain one of the most formidable hurdles in the path of atheism. We have no good explanation of how consciousness and symbolic thinking came about. These may well be described as divine gifts.

Excerpted from “Why Science Does Not Disprove God,” reprinted with permission from William Morrow, Copyright © 2014 by Amir D. Aczel. All rights reserved.

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