Science, Metaphysics and Metaphorical Ladders: When Science is Theology

Science, Metaphysics and Metaphorical Ladders: When Science is Theology December 7, 2015

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Anti-Theologies Are Theologies, Part I

For those who think that metaphysics and theology are antiquated disciplines that have no place in our scientific age, please think again. Take one prominent contemporary example—Richard Dawkins. Like Freud, he is an anti-theology theologian in disguise. The anti-theological Dawkins presents theological or metaphysical claims. His fundamental thesis that the gene is selfish and that it governs all reality is not a hypotheses that Dawkins could readily jettison on the basis of empirical observations. Rather, it serves as a ruling construct that governs his approach to the data.  This is how theology and metaphysics function.  In other words, theology and metaphysics function as overarching frameworks that interpret various kinds of data.[1]

Dawkins’ Selfish Gene reflects a metaphysical dogma that rules his biological framework. Systems biologist Denis Noble makes this basic point in The Music of Life: Biology Beyond Genes.[2] Accounting for Dawkins’ own confession in An Extended Phenotype[3] that there is no experiment that could prove his metaphorical claim of a gene-centered view of reality (that is, the selfish gene),[4] Noble goes on to offer an alternative reading of the biological domain.

Instead of moving from the ground up the ladder from the gene, as Dawkins does, Noble proceeds to work down the ladder from the entire biological web to the gene. Noble refers to Dawkins’ thought experiment as a “metaphorical polemic.”[5] While Noble does not deny Dawkins’ gene-centered view has its merits in providing insights into life, it is not at all sufficient to describe life’s fullness.[6] It is one thing to take Humpty Dumpty apart; it is quite another to put him back together again.[7] Noble’s systems biological approach is an attempt to do just that. And while he also believes that neither Dawkins’ gene-centered view nor his alternative web-oriented view is a matter of empirical science,[8] he believes his perspective provides more explanatory power for understanding biological life.

The transformation is dramatic. As Noble argues, “This is a major change. It has implications beyond the purely scientific. It means changing our philosophy, in the full sense of the term.”[9] Noble puts Dawkins’ metaphorical framework on its head. Instead of genes swarming about in “gigantic lumbering robots” (namely humans), which genes have “created” (Dawkins’ metaphorical account),[10] humans are “highly intelligent beings” who imprison genes and are “the ultimate rationale for” genes’ “existence” (Noble’s metaphorical account).[11]

Later in his book, Noble claims that metaphorical accounts are useful ladders that one can discard when finishing climbing them for understanding reality[12] (for example, up from the gene, or down from the system to the gene). However, my sense is that Dawkins often forgets that the model is only a metaphor. It reminds me of Nietzsche’s claim that truths are dead metaphors, and we have forgotten that they are nothing more than metaphors.


Anti-Theologies Are Theologies, Part II

When climbing up Dawkins’ reductionistic gene ladder, one also has opportunity to inspect several of the rungs to see if they will hold you as you seek to find your footing. One of those rungs concerns the phenotype. If the gene is the fundamental reality, what does that make the phenotype, namely, all those characteristic traits and dimensions that make us the particular entities that we are? I may not have Socrates’ nose, but my nose is distinctive enough, as is yours. And yet, what worth do such characteristic traits like noses, height, and, more importantly, our distinctive relationships, have? The answer is as clear as the nose on your face—not much worth, as with any reductionist, atomistic view of reality.

Fortunately, we are not left with only this picture of reality. In contrast to Dawkins’ metaphorical portrayal, Noble depicts a world in which “The genome needs to be read through the phenotype, not the other way round.”[13] That suggests that we must account for the relational nexus of our existence and one another’s distinctive particularity to find the meaning of life rather than approach one another in autonomous and atomistic terms whereby we engage one another generically. This generic approach effectively homogenizes the gene, seeing it falsely as the essential and basic meaning of all of life.

Would not this gene-based account of life also favor selfishness, namely, the survival of the individual gene or its kin? It would appear so, if Dawkins’ reductionistic account is any indication. But again, as with Noble’s contention that Dawkins’ reductionistic account of moving upward from the gene to the phenotype, Dawkins’ view on kin selection is not without its detractors. Here it is worth noting that Dawkins and E. O. Wilson have been in a bit of a row since 2012 over whether or not kin or group selection is at the heart of survival. The row centers on Wilson’s move from a kin selection to group selection view in his book, The Social Conquest of Earth.[14]

Regardless of what plays out in the biological debate on selection and survival, I am interested in the subject in relation to ethics: can we, or better, should we ever move beyond tribal agendas to work for the benefit of the global community, as Martin Luther King, Jr. claimed in his opposition to the Vietnam War? He exhorted his listeners:

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies. This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing, unconditional love for all men.[15]

Let’s hope so, for the sake of the survival of our species, and not just the fittest tribes, races, classes and nations among us.


Anti-Theologies Are Theologies, Part III

Apart from their rift over kin vs. group selection, I believe Dawkins and Wilson share a common mechanistic and potentially meaningless account of reality. As I noted in my blog on Wilson and the biologicizing of ethics, Wilson presents an emotivist account of ethics which does not provide principles or prescriptions for ethical action, only predictions bound up with sentiments.[16]

Whitley Kaufman, whom I referenced in my post “Should Ethics be Biologicized“, argues that there is a fundamental tension in Wilson’s thought, which Wilson which is left unreconciled.  The same unreconciled tension is present in Modernity, from which Wilson’s own view springs. Here is Kaufman:

Wilson’s strained effort to create a system of ethics based on evolutionary biology reflects a tension in the modern conception of humanity that has been with us since the eighteenth century. In the early days of the Enlightenment, the French philosophes celebrated human autonomy, our capacity for reasoning, and our ability to control the environment and make progress towards an ever-better world. But the tremendous success of the natural sciences at explaining the natural world also created an intellectual project almost entirely contrary to the celebration of autonomy — an attempt to assimilate human beings to the sorts of objects physicists and chemists deal with: externally determined, mechanical things strictly governed by physical law.[17]

For all our autonomy as humans, Wilson—and Dawkins—appear not to be alone in interpreting this as a meaningless universe, which for all its mechanistic determination is still apparently random. Take for example Noble’s statement that “natural selection has been a long, haphazard process. The fundamental drives of the process have been random—gene mutations and genetic drift, weather, and meteoric and geological events.”[18] Themes of causality and contingency come into play, which are more than statistical. On my view, one must distinguish between statistical randomness and ontological randomness. Just as many in the scientific community will accuse the Intelligent Design camp of imposing metaphysical constructs on observation, so Noble appears to project randomness onto reality. It is a widespread, bad habit to project metaphysical accounts on observation of the phenomena without acknowledging the use of metaphorical ladders.[19]

Speaking of metaphysical perspectives, Darwin appears to have been divided in his opinion on the subject of metaphysical randomness. As I noted in a previous post, he vacillated on the subject of whether or not evolution progressed or advanced.[20] But as far as I know, though tempted, Darwin did not waver from his fundamental stance that one needed to look elsewhere than to biology for one’s ethical program. One needed to consider human culture and ethics as distinct arenas that transcended empirical classifications of the biological sort.[21] In other words, he needed to account for a societal systems approach that went beyond consideration of the gene and the biological system respectively, thereby safeguarding against biological reductionism. As one discussion of Darwin and his view of those individuals with various deficiencies argues,

… since our human evolution has given us both the sympathy to care for our fellow humans and the intelligence to institute laws and social programs to help them, shouldn’t we use those mental capacities to try to steer human society in the direction of greater equality? Isn’t that more “natural” to us than unflinching adherence to “the survival of the fittest”? It would be dangerous, however, to rest our case on the extremely slippery concept of what is “natural.” It would be clearer to appeal directly to explicit ethical principles about human dignity, equality, needs and rights (as in Kant or Marx, and indeed in the New Testament) that cannot be derived from any factual statements about evolution.[22]

There is no way of avoiding metaphysical and ethical ladders, whether they be Kantian, Marxist, Confucianist, Muslim, Christian, among others. As with Dawkins’ genetic focus and Noble’s biological systems approach, we should ask of such ethical systems, “Which metaphysical or ethical ladder(s) has more explanatory power?” If we are to move toward a truly comprehensive picture of reality that brings together natural forces as well as human value, we had better start climbing. Otherwise, nihilism, which is by no means a dead metaphor but a live option, may soon overtake us.




[1]Though one can make a case for differentiating theology from metaphysics, for our purposes in this article, theology and metaphysics function as equivalents when contrasted with empirical observation.  One need not have a particular transcendent deity in mind for a system of thought to function as a theology.  In this sense, a “gene” could function as God.  In fact, in my estimation, for Dawkins, the gene is God.  What I call theology, Slavoj Zizek would call ideology.  For the purpose of this discussion, these terms are interchangeable.

[2]Denis Noble, The Music of Life: Biology Beyond Genes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[3]Richard Dawkins, The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene, with an afterword by Daniel Dennett (Oxford: Oxford university press, 1999), page 1.

[4]Noble, The Music of Life, page 13.

[5]Noble, The Music of Life, page 11.

[6]Noble, The Music of Life, page 11.

[7]Noble, The Music of Life, pages ix-x.

[8]Noble, The Music of Life, page 13.

[9]Noble, The Music of Life, page xi.

[10]Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), page 21.

[11]Noble, The Music of Life, page 12.

[12]Noble, The Music of Life, page 54.

[13]Noble, The Music of Life, page 17.

[14]See the following accounts of the debate:;; (accessed on 12/6/2015). In what follows, I will quote at length from two articles that address the debate and that reveal the complexities involved. One observer claims that both Dawkins and Wilson are wrong, and that they need to concede to peer consensus on the subject, which does not side with either camp: “In this article, I have described Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson as two among many who have been studying kin selection and group selection over a period of decades. I also have claimed that there is a zone of consensus of the many and that both Dawkins and Wilson are outliers who fail to recognize that the days of pitting kin selection against group selection are over.” See David Sloan Wilson, “Richard Dawkins, Edward O. Wilson, And The Consensus Of The Many,” in This View of Life (accessed on 12/6/2015). Another argues, “Recently, a number of authors have argued that the opposition between kin and multi-level (or group) selection is misconceived, on the grounds that the two are actually equivalent—a suggestion first broached by W.D. Hamilton as early as 1975. Proponents of this view argue that kin and multi-level selection are simply alternative mathematical frameworks for describing a single evolutionary process, so the choice between them is one of convention not empirical fact. This view has much to recommend it, and offers a potential way out of the Wilson/Dawkins impasse (for it implies that they are both wrong). However, the equivalence in question is a formal equivalence only. A correct expression for evolutionary change can usually be derived using either the kin or multi-level selection frameworks, but it does not follow that they constitute equally good causal descriptions of the evolutionary process. This suggests that the persistence of the group selection controversy can in part be attributed to the mismatch between the scientific explanations that evolutionary biologists want to give, which are causal, and the formalisms they use to describe evolution, which are usually statistical. To make progress, it is essential to attend carefully to the subtleties of the relation between statistics and causality.” Samir Okasha, “Kin Selection, Group Selection and Altruism: A Controversy without End,” at OUP Blog, January 29, 2015;  (accessed on 12/6/2015). Prior to this concluding assessment, Okasha addresses the complexities surrounding the philosophical problem of causality: “There have been semantic disagreements, in particular over what constitutes a ‘group,’ but this is not the whole story. For underlying the debate are deep issues to do with causality, a notoriously problematic concept, and one which quickly lands one in philosophical hot water…But how are we to distinguish, even in theory, between cases where the group feature does causally influence the group’s success, so ‘real’ group selection occurs, and cases where the correlation between group feature and group success is ‘caused from below’? This distinction is crucial; however it cannot even be expressed in terms of the standard formalisms that biologists use to describe the evolutionary process, as these are statistical not causal. The distinction is related to the more general question of how to understand causality in hierarchical systems that has long troubled philosophers of science.”

[15] (accessed on 12/6/2015).

[16] (accessed on 12/6/2015).

[17] (accessed on 12/6/2015). One can find these contrasting perspectives by taking a look at Wilson’s works, The Social Conquest of Earth and Sociobiology. See his affirmation of such qualities as “simple decency” and “the unrelenting application of reason” bound up with his own version of what he terms “blind faith” in The Social Conquest of Earth (New York: Liveright, 2012), page 297. For his mechanistic side, see the concluding paragraphs of Edward O. Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, 25th Anniversary Edition (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1975/2000), page 575. For contrasting views in Dawkins’ work of wonder in science and meaninglessness in nature, see the following: Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder (New York: Mariner Books, 1998), page x; Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic Books, 1995), page 155.

[18]Noble, The Music of Life, page 52.

[19]T.F. Torrance and Wolfhart Pannenberg both deal at length with contingency as a theological concept. See my colleague Derrick Peterson’s account of their positions: (accessed on 12/7/2015).

[20]See (accessed on 12/7/2015). See in particular the references to Conor Cunningham’s work, Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2010), pages 6-7, 138-139.

[21]See Leslie Stevenson, David L. Haberman and Peter Matthews Wright, Twelve Theories of Human Nature, sixth edition (New York: Oxford university Press, 2013), page 254.

[22]Stevenson, Haberman and Wright, Twelve Theories of Human Nature, pages 254-255.

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