Believing in Dawkins

The New Spiritual Atheism

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Chapter Abstracts

1. Introduction

Dawkins is famous for his biology and his atheism. Building on Dawkins develops and defends his atheism. As he reflects on science, Dawkins starts to work out what he refers to as an Einsteinian religion. Einsteinian religion rivals the old theistic religions. Einsteinian religion is naturalistic. But since he prefers spirituality to religion, I will just say that Dawkins is developing a spiritual naturalism. Spiritual naturalism rejects all gods. However, it is not nihilistic. Dawkins presents his spiritual naturalism through fragments scattered across his many books and essays. I show how these fragments support a coherent structure which I refer to as the Cathedral for Spiritual Naturalists. Since Dawkins often relies on Stoic and Platonic ideas, I will use Stoic and Platonic frameworks to build this Cathedral. These frameworks are often implicit in Dawkins; but I will bring them out and make them explicit.

2. Complexity

Dawkins talks about atomic, molecular, biological, and technological evolution. When he talks about evolution more abstractly, Dawkins turns to computer science, information theory, and mathematics. His discussions become more Platonic. All types of evolution involve the gradual cumulative increase of complexity. They involve algorithms that drive flows of matter through abstract libraries whose books are possible things. Paths run from books to books; evolutionary algorithms select paths that slowly and gradually and cumulatively increase complexity. They climb Mount Improbable. Paths become arrows pointing higher on Mount Improbable. Stoic and Platonic ideas provide the larger framework that enables Dawkins to think abstractly about evolution. As things grow in complexity, they grow more reflexive. More reflexive parts mirror more of the whole. All the evolutionary arrows point at infinite self-reflection.

3. Reflexivity

Dawkins often talks about how energy flows governed by thermodynamic laws drive evolution. The Dawkinsian concept of complexity is closely associated with the concept of entropy. Entropy is not disorder; it is energy dispersal. The maximum entropy production principle provides a deeper thermodynamic explanation for the growth of cosmic complexity. It is a principle of path selection. Driven by thermodynamic forces, evolution does design work. Although Dawkins often talks about the illusion of design in his middle works, in his early and later works he frequently and explicitly states that evolution designs organisms. He naturalizes the organic design arguments. He wonders about the values being optimized by evolution. He argues that evolution is not utilitarian; it does not aim to maximize happiness. His discussions of the axiological aspects of evolution rely on Stoic and Platonic ideas. Evolution maximizes the virtues that emerge through competitive struggle. It maximizes the arete that appears in the agon. Arete is beautiful and good. The Dawkinsian picture of our universe closely resembles a modernized Stoicism. The Stoics thought that pneuma (spirit) was the pyr technikon (the designing fire). It self-organized according to an immanent algorithm, the logos. These Stoic ideas can be naturalized through thermodynamics and information theory. Evolution is a kind of naturalized Stoic providence. But the Stoic picture depends on a deeper Platonic picture. For the Platonists, the universe strives to maximize vision; it strives to maximize reflexivity. Maximizing reflexivity is a core idea that organizes many Dawkinsian ideas into a coherent whole.

4. Actuality

From things in the universe, Dawkins turns his attention to the universe itself. Our universe is extremely complex and therefore extremely improbable. It appears to be finely tuned for the internal evolution of complex things. Dawkins repeatedly declares that our universe is beautiful and rationally organized. Some explanation is needed for our universe and its cosmic features. Dawkins considers several possible explanations. He rejects the God hypothesis and the simulation hypothesis. Dawkins considers various multiverse hypotheses from physics. The eternal inflation hypothesis and fecund universe hypothesis suffer from fatal problems. But if the Dawkinsian logic of possibility applies to organisms, then it applies to universes too. There is a library of possible universes. Adopting some Leibnizian ideas, it is the modal library. Its books can be sorted into ranks by complexity. Hence they can be ranked by intrinsic value. Possible universes are books on the slopes of the cosmic Mount Improbable.

5. Cosmology

Dawkinsian principles point to an evolutionary explanation for our universe: our universe is complex (and finely-tuned and beautiful); but all such things emerge through gradual cumulative processes of evolution; hence our universe emerged in some process of cosmic evolution. Dawkinsian principles entail a biocosmic analogy: just as biological replicators drive biological evolution, so also cosmic replicators drive cosmic evolution. The old Stoics took this analogy literally: they thought the universe really was a cosmic replicator. I refer to these cosmic replicators as the animats. By arguing for these animats, I am building on Dawkins; I am completing his arguments. Animats evolve in the space of possible universes. Animatic evolution starts with some ultimately simple object. Dawkins himself explicitly affirms the existence of a natural first cause. He naturalizes the cosmological argument. Since this first cause is utterly simple, I refer to it as the One. But the One is not an abstract object at the top of some great chain of being; on the contrary, it is a concrete thing at the bottom. It is the root of the deepest evolutionary tree; the ultimate ancestor of all concrete things.

6. Ontology

Dawkins does not avoid ontology. He worries about the metaphysical question: why is there something rather than nothing? Dawkins offers several strategies for answering this question. But his most thoughtful answer refers to Peter Atkin’s idea that the universe evolved from the self-elaboration of the empty set. This answer relies on set theory. Set theorists are modern Pythagoreans. The physicist Max Tegmark thinks reality is purely mathematical. But Dawkinsian principles entail set-theoretic Platonism: reality contains both abstract objects and concrete things. Abstract objects exist with necessity; so why are there any concrete things? The ontological argument provides one answer: the most perfect abstract object necessarily has a concrete instance. Dawkins sometimes dismisses the ontological argument as infantile; other times he recognizes the power of pure logic. When the ontological argument is naturalized, it justifies the existence of a maximally excellent proposition: the Platonic Good. The Good ensures that all and only the best books in the modal library are instantiated by concrete universes. The Good ensures that all evolutionary arrows maximize reflexivity.

7. Possibility

Cosmological evolution proceeds according to general evolutionary principles. The iterative hierarchy of pure sets is the ultimate Mount Improbable. The animats are the ultimate replicators. As animats beget animats, they climb higher on the cosmic Mount Improbable. They actualize more complex universes. Animatic evolution allows spiritual naturalists to naturalize the cosmic design arguments. The cosmic designer is cosmic evolution. We engage possibilities through our imaginations, and Dawkins encourages scientifically-inspired works of art. Spiritual naturalists can use Dawkinsian ideas to develop aesthetically rich and emotionally satisfying practices. Dawkins talks about how the sublime in nature motivates atheistic mysticism. He uses atheistic mysticism to naturalize holiness, sacredness, and transcendence. Dawkins talks about the ground of being. Atheistic mystics like Comte-Sponville say mystical ego-dissolution reveals the ground of being. The ground of being can be naturalized. It is that relational power which binds all things together into the wholeness of nature.

8. Humanity

Human animals are genetically programmed survival machines. Dawkins argues against mind-body dualism: we are identical with our bodies. But our bodies do not persist through time. Dawkins argues for a four-dimensionalist approach to persistence: a life is a four-dimensional stream of three-dimensional bodies. Dawkins uses a Platonic image to illustrate the flow of time: bodies are illuminated by the spotlight of presence. And he says bodies are blessed by this spotlight; our lives gain value from this light. Spiritual naturalists say it comes from the Good. Dawkins turns to ethics. He cannot be a utilitarian; he has to adopt a version of Kantianism combined with virtue ethics. We ought to maximize vision and maximize beauty. Dawkins rejects Cartesian approaches to life after death. This leads him to incorrectly reject all types of life after death. But many approaches to life after death are consistent with his naturalism.

9. Spirituality

Dawkins says we ought to be grateful for our existence. Although he says gratitude is a vacuum emotion, his own principles imply a Stoic account of gratitude. Evolution is not utilitarian; nevertheless, it is still providential; natural providence generates natural value, the virtue that emerges through competition. For Dawkins, natural providence resembles the Stoic Logos: both suffering and happiness are axiologically indifferent; they do not disturb the serenity of nature. Evolutionary theodicies (call them evodicies) show how evolutionary providence redeems suffering. Dawkins says we have been blessed with life. His principles imply that we have been blessed by value-creating evolutionary algorithms. So we ought to give thanks to evolution. Dawkins endorses an irreligious spirituality. A spiritual way of life involves self-transformation which aims at the good. The good is the virtue of human animality. Spiritual naturalists focus on two spiritual disciplines. Stoicism uses spiritual exercises to cultivate equanimity and amor fati. These exercises include secular forms of Buddhist meditation. Platonism urges you to optimize the numbers of your body. Platonism motivates the hacker methodology: you optimize your numbers through self-experimentation. Spiritual naturalism motivates new ways of communal celebration. We can celebrate nature through ecstatic drumming and dancing. Transformational festivals, like Burning Man, incorporate many Stoic and Dawkinsian ideas. We gather in the desert. We turn the Heraclitean wheel of nature. Everything is on fire; everything burns.