Richard Dawkins: The Untutored Philosopher


written 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.”

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, i.e., there is nothing you can see, touch, taste, smell, or hear from which you can deduce that all knowledge concerning reality is acquired through the five senses. This is a philosophical claim (not scientific) and cannot be justified or grounded in any sensory experience.

Dawkins has thus placed himself on the horns of an epistemological dilemma. Either all knowledge concerning reality is acquired through the five senses or it is not. If all knowledge concerning reality is not acquired through the five senses, then Dawkins is obviously mistaken in his claim. But if all knowledge concerning reality is acquired through the five senses, the belief itself that “all knowledge concerning reality is acquired through the five senses” could not itself be known since that belief is not acquired through the five senses, and so Dawkins is again mistaken in his claim. So if Dawkins is wrong he is wrong, but if he is right he is wrong as well. Dawkins’ epistemology is self-refuting, and it is on this incoherent, irrational view of knowledge that the entire rest of his book is based.

Scientism Isn’t Science

Science is good, but science isn’t everything. Science is only one way to discover what is true, but it is not the only way. Anyone who says otherwise is no longer practicing science but rather “scientism.” This is the view that “science is the only paradigm of truth and rationality…Everything outside of science is a matter of mere belief and subjective opinion, of which rational assessment is impossible.”[3] While there are both weak and strong versions of scientism, Dawkins seems to make his bed in the camp of strong scientism, according to which you can’t know something unless you can prove it scientifically (using, of course, the five senses). This is an attempt to elevate science and sensory experience to an illegitimate and unreasonable level, and in so doing Dawkins has left the realm of science and thrown his gauntlet into the philosophical arena:

The theorist who maintains that science is the be-all and end-all—that what is not in science textbooks is not worth knowing—is an ideologist with a peculiar and distorted doctrine of his own. For him, science is no longer a sector of the cognitive enterprise but an all-inclusive world-view. This is the doctrine not of science but of scientism. To take this stance is not to celebrate science but to distort it.[4]

No doubt Dawkins’ scientism is influenced by his prior commitment to philosophical naturalism. Ironically, even this commitment (to philosophical naturalism) shows that his philosophy comes before his science, thus again undermining his own limited self-refuting epistemology. We could ask Dawkins how he knows philosophical naturalism to be true, a belief which would be impossible for him to justify based on anything he can see, touch, taste, smell, or hear. The very fact that Dawkins deals with the topic of epistemology in chapter one of his book before moving on to scientific issues again demonstrates the priority and presumption of philosophy over science (as well as the inability of science to justify his philosophy), a point which Dawkins seems completely oblivious to.

Science Presupposes Philosophy

Philosophers of science understand that science is dependent on philosophy, not philosophy on science. You can do philosophy without science, but you can’t do science without philosophy. Even the question “What is science?” is philosophical in nature (not scientific) and therefore should be addressed by philosophers of science. The project of science could not even be undertaken without taking certain philosophical assumptions for granted. Some of the philosophical presuppositions that science assumes are the following:[5]

  1. The existence of a theory independent, external world
  2. The orderly nature of the external world
  3. The knowability of the external world
  4. The existence of truth
  5. The laws of logic
  6. The reliability of our cognitive and sensory faculties to serve as truth gatherers and as a source of justified beliefs in our intellectual environment
  7. The adequacy of language to describe the world
  8. The existence of values used in science (for example, “test theories fairly and report test results honestly”)
  9. The uniformity of nature and induction
  10. The existence of numbers and mathematical truths

Not only must science assume the truthfulness of each of these philosophical presuppositions, but sensory experience will never be able to serve as the justification or warrant for these beliefs.

In a 1998 debate, William Lane Craig faced off against Peter Atkins on the question “What is the Evidence For/Against the Existence of God?” During the debate, Peter Atkins made the claim that science can account for everything and is “omnipotent.” When questioned by Atkins regarding what science can’t account for, Craig lists the following five examples of things that cannot be scientifically proven but that we are all rational to accept:[6]

  1. Logical and mathematical truths
  2. Metaphysical truths
  3. Ethical beliefs about statements of value
  4. Aesthetic judgments
  5. Science itself

To help illustrate the limits of science and sensory experience, consider the following statements:[7]

  1. I know A and non-A cannot both be true at the same time and in the same sense.
  2. I know 2 + 2 = 4.
  3. I know it is morally wrong to torture babies for fun.
  4. I know what I ate for breakfast last week.
  5. I know truth is when a belief, statement, or idea corresponds with reality.
  6. I know Abraham Lincoln was the sixteenth president of the United States.

If Dawkins’ view of knowledge is correct, we could never know the truth of any of the propositions listed above. Not a single one of these propositions is known to be true through the five senses. Not one of them can be proven scientifically and yet an individual would be completely rational in accepting each of them as genuine objects of knowledge.

The first four sentences above are examples of knowledge by acquaintance, i.e., “the object of knowledge is directly present to one’s consciousness.”[8] Knowledge by acquaintance is knowledge by intuition. This intuition is “a direct awareness of something that is directly present to the consciousness.”[9] Sensory intuition, which Dawkins seems to accept, is only one form of knowledge by acquaintance. But there are others as well, including intuitive knowledge of our own mental states, the laws of logic, and basic mathematical principles.

Through introspection, or attending to one’s own awareness of mental states (thoughts, feelings, sensations, desires), an individual may obtain first-person knowledge of these propositions. This presents a problem for scientism which entails that all knowledge is acquired in a third-person way, i.e., as an outsider using her senses to acquire knowledge about a distinct being or event. If first-person introspective knowledge is possible, then scientism is false.[10]

For example, sentence (1) is the law of non-contradiction, an undeniable law of logic. You cannot see, touch, taste, smell or hear the laws of logic, nor can you know them to be true through sensory experience. Sentence (2) is a basic mathematical fact which, like the laws of logic, is necessarily true. Science presupposes both logic and math so that any attempt to prove logic and math using science is arguing in a circle. Sentence (3) is known to be true through moral intuition. Anyone who does not know that torturing babies for fun is morally wrong is himself morally handicapped. Objective moral values are not something you can know or perceive through sensory experience. These first three propositions are self-evident, a priori truths.

My knowledge of sentence (4) is warranted based on my memory which I have direct access to, not on anything I can see, touch, taste, smell, or hear. Sentence (5) is a metaphysical claim concerning the nature of truth itself. Science cannot tell us what truth is but rather must presuppose its existence like the laws of logic. What truth “is” is not something you can see, touch, taste, smell, or hear. Sentence (6) is a historical truth which I know to be true based on expert testimony and good authority. Truths of history are not grounded in or justified by sensory experience.

Finally, each of the six sentences above express true propositions. But propositions themselves are abstract, immaterial, universals which are not sense-perceptible. If all knowledge concerning reality is acquired through the five senses, we could never know the propositional content of our own thoughts, beliefs, and ideas.

Dawkins the Philosopher of Mind

Dawkins seems to somewhat anticipate a critique of this sort, and so he attempts to head it off at the pass:

Does this mean that reality only contains things that can be detected, directly or indirectly, by our senses and by the methods of science? What about things like jealously and joy, happiness and love? Are these not also real?

Yes, they are real. But they depend for their existence on brains…These emotions are intensely real to those who experience them, but they didn’t exist before brains did. It is possible that emotions like these—and perhaps other emotions that we can’t begin to dream of—could exist on other planets, but only if those planets also contain brains—or something equivalent to brains…[11]

Here Dawkins moves from epistemology to philosophy of mind, another branch of philosophy (not science) which Dawkins is not only unqualified to address, but one in which the truth of the matter simply cannot be known through sensory experience. Whether genuine immaterial mental states and properties exist or whether the mind is nothing but the brain, this isn’t something that can be known to be true by anything you can see, touch, taste, smell, or hear. Thus by claiming to have knowledge in this area Dawkins once again undermines his own limited self-refuting epistemology.

Leaving this aside for the moment (and the fact that mental states and properties are not identical to brain states and properties), notice that Dawkins is still completely missing the point. Even if Dawkins could offer up a reductionistic account of consciousness and the mind (which he hasn’t) so as to rid them from his ontology, the way emotions such as joy or jealously are known is through direct awareness of one’s own mental states, not sensory experience. There is nothing you can see, touch, taste, smell, or hear that grounds the knowledge you possess of your own emotions. Rather, they are directly present to your consciousness. So Dawkins has explained nothing by asserting that emotions are dependent on the existence of the brain. Rather, he has only attempted to explain away.

Furthermore, the claim that these emotions are dependent on the brain is extremely controversial. Dawkins here offers no arguments, only assertions. If, for example, disembodied spirits or immaterial beings such as God or angels exist, then there is no reason to think these entities could not experience emotions of joy, anger, jealously, etc., without a material brain. That is because (as substance dualists would argue) these emotions are immaterial mental states (not material brain states) which take place in the immaterial mind (not material brain). Dawkins may object to even the possible existence of such immaterial beings and dismiss them as illegitimate counterexamples, but then he would simply be begging the question by once again assuming the truth of philosophical naturalism, a philosophy itself which cannot be known to be true through sensory experience. Dawkins again would be undermining his own naïve and inadequate epistemology.


Richard Dawkins’ commitment to scientism and philosophical naturalism, if left unchanged, will continue to pervert both his science and his philosophy. His epistemology is self-refuting, evidenced by his own inability to remain consistent with it in his writings. No doubt Dawkins is very knowledgeable in many areas of science, but this knowledge isn’t transferred by osmosis to other fields such as philosophy. Much of his philosophy is rubbish, and, to use Dawkins’ own words, “It is amazing how often people resort to this type of nonsense.”[12] This begs the question, “Why then is Richard Dawkins so popular?” William Lane Craig perhaps has answered this best:

Dawkins is so popular because people are so unsophisticated in their thinking. I am just appalled, honestly, when I read the stuff that’s out there on the internet, how inept and sophomoric people are. I’m afraid that many young people just have never been exposed to good, rigorous argumentation with regard to these matters and therefore they’re taken in by these Dawkins types because they’ve never really read sophisticated treatments of these problems. And to a certain extent I think the church bears a responsibility for this because we’ve so dumb-downed our preaching, and our Sunday school classes, and our devotional thoughts, that we’re not equipping Christians to be sophisticated in their grasp of Christian doctrine and theology, much less in what good reasons there are to believe it. But, in general, our educational system I’m afraid has been terribly dumb-downed so that people cannot think logically, they’re uninformed, and they’re unfamiliar with the sophisticated literature that is out there on these topics and so they are taken in by this sort of sophomoric material that people like Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens put out. [13]

[1] See William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 170-172.

[2] Richard Dawkins, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True (New York: Free Press, 2011), 19 (emphasis his).

[3] J.P. Moreland, Love Your God With All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1997), 144.

[4] Nicholas Rescher, The Limits of Science, as quoted in Moreland and Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003), 346.

[5] Moreland, Love Your God With All Your Mind, 147.

[6] You can view this portion of the debate here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJrMFv6QoX0

[7] For more on knowledge and intuition, see Moreland and Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 71-91.

[8] Ibid., 72.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Thanks to Sanjay Merchant for the insight and commentary in this paragraph.

[11] Dawkins, The Magic of Reality, 19.

[12] Ibid., 234.

[13] You can view Craig’s comments here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6gpJuztzOH4

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