Richard Dawkins: The Untutored Philosopher

by Aaron Brake

Dawkins the Epistemologist

Richard Dawkins is often heralded as a brilliant scientist. Unfortunately he often resorts to shoddy philosophy. Several examples of Dawkins’ philosophical ineptness have been pointed out over the years, one of the more prominent being that his self-described “central argument” in The God Delusion is not even logically valid.[1] In a more recent book, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True, Dawkins again leaves the realm of science (perhaps unwittingly) and tries his hand at philosophy. But regrettably the results don’t fare any better.

The very title of Dawkins’ book should cause us pause: The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True. Notice the subtitle of this book is philosophical in nature, i.e., How We Know is an epistemological question, not scientific. Epistemology is a branch of philosophy (not science) which deals with how knowledge is defined, what we know, and how we know it. It is an area of study Dawkins simply isn’t qualified to address, and this becomes painfully obvious as one continues reading. In chapter one, Dawkins summarizes his view of knowledge which functions as the epistemological foundation for the rest of his book:

We come to know what is real, then, in one of three ways. We can detect it directly, using our five senses; or indirectly, using our senses aided by special instruments such as telescopes and microscopes; or even more indirectly, by creating models of what might be real and then testing those models to see whether they successfully predict things that we can see (or hear, etc.), with or without the aid of instruments. Ultimately, it always comes back to our senses, one way or another.[2]

According to Dawkins, all knowledge concerning reality comes through the five senses. If you can’t see, touch, taste, smell, or hear it, you cannot know it. How we know what’s true “always comes back to our senses, one way or another.”

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Self-Refuting Epistemology

For those familiar with the concept of self-refutation, Dawkins’ view of knowledge should be glaringly problematic. A statement or philosophy is self-refuting when it does not meet its own standard or criteria for truthfulness or rational acceptability. For example, the statement “There is no truth” is self-refuting since the uttering itself is taken to be true. Self-refuting statements are necessarily false, i.e., there is no possible world in which they are true. This is because they violate a very fundamental law of logic, the law of non-contradiction. This law states that A and non-A cannot both be true at the same time and in the same sense. In the example above, the self-refuting statement affirms A (“truth exists”) and non-A (“truth does not exist”) at the same time and in the same sense, and is therefore necessarily false.

What about Dawkins’ theory of knowledge? How is it self-refuting? Recall the title of Dawkins’ book: The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True. Dawkins is purporting to tell us how we come to know what is true, and according to him, we know what’s true through the use of our five senses. As he states, it “always comes back to our senses.” We can thus phrase his epistemology this way:

All knowledge concerning reality is acquired through the five senses.

The problem with this view is immediately obvious. The belief “all knowledge concerning reality is acquired through the five senses” is not itself acquired through the five senses…


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