Last year Oxford University sponsored what was billed as a “debate” (though it really was a collegial dialogue) between Richard Dawkins and the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. The discussion spanned a range of topics concerning the uniqueness of human beings, the existence of God, and the meaning of life. In addition it was moderated by agnostic philosopher Anthony Kenny who represented a third distinct voice in the discussion. The event is available for viewing here and is definitely worth a watch, especially if you are currently finding yourself weary of the crowds of acerbic and triumphalist interlocutors who often tend to dominate these kinds of discussions. The value of an event like this is not to provide definitive answers but rather to encourage further conversation. And with that in mind I offer the following commentary on some of the points made during the evening.
Early on in the discussion attention focused on the nature of consciousness. In one revealing moment Dawkins conceded that the origin of consciousness is deeply mysterious. But then he added that as a materialist he is committed to consciousness arising from the brain. This is one of the moments at which Rowan Williams could have used a shot of good ole’ apologetic gusto, for he let this point pass by without comment. Dawkins, you must remember, regularly marginalizes people who reason from religious convictions as “faith heads”. But his own philosophical commitment to materialism commits him to retaining faith that the brain produces consciousness (like fire produces smoke?). This despite the fact that all attempts to explain how brain states are identical to mental states or give rise to mental states have failed miserably. This would seem an opportune time to introduce a modified “invisible gardener” parable appropriately tuned to illumine the unfalsifiability of Dawkins’ materialism. Perhaps Williams could have said “I’m rubber and you are glue. The faith head label bounces off me and sticks to you!” Not that it would have elevated the discussion, but it would have been interesting!
Williams also disappointed me when it came to discussing life after death. It’s not that he denied it, but he seemed to have some irrational fear of discussing it in substance dualist terms and this led to him being unnecessarily vague and non-committal about what it means to survive the death of one’s body.
Predictably the discussion soon shifted toward evolution. As a progressive Anglican Williams had no problem with Neo-Darwinian evolution. But both Williams and Dawkins were uncertain about how to explain the uniqueness of human beings. (Interestingly, so far as I can remember, Williams never invoked the term Imago Dei to describe it.) Williams initially framed the discussion of human uniqueness in terms of self-consciousness. Dawkins rightly pointed out that we ought not place too much weight on that property since chimpanzees have a degree of self-consciousness (as may gorillas, dolphins, and some other species). Instead, Dawkins proposed more plausibly that we think about human uniqueness in terms of language ability. While many creatures communicate to each other through surprisingly complex symbol systems (think, for example, of the honey bee dance that can inform other bees in the hive on how to find a verdant field of flowers), Dawkins noted that only human beings have language that includes recursive syntactical structures. (See this helpful essay by James Hurford that identifies two aspects of linguistic ability that make human beings unique.)
How do you get from there (lack of this unique linguistic ability) to here (possessing this unique linguistic ability and the hallmarks of human uniqueness)? Evolution is typically proposed in incremental mutational steps. But don’t we seem to have a leap of sorts? It is at this point that things got really interesting, for Dawkins admitted that occasionally macro-mutational steps can occur in plant evolution and thus he conceded there could be a macro-mutational step that gave rise to a new linguistic ability in a single individual. This individual could, in retrospect, be deeemed the first Homo sapiens.
Now I would ask Christians anxious to drop the label “Adam” asap to restrain their enthusiasm. Nonetheless, there is no denying that this is a really intriguing concession on Dawkins’ part which does in principle give coherence to the idea of first human beings. Both Dawkins and Williams puzzled on the idea of who the first language speaker would speak to. Here’s a possbility. What if two individuals independently experienced a macro-mutation that made human language possible in each? Then, when they encoutered one another, you could have the first human pair who were further created qua human in dialogue with the other:
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)
The one thing that intrigues me about this idea is that we could speak of two original human beings both in terms of a macro-mutational event as well as the mutual constitution of human being that comes through the development of language use with the other.