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Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Platonic Idealism of Richard Dawkins

A while back James Chastek made an interesting observation about genes, as defined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene.

Lloyd Gerson objected to Dawkins’s selfish gene theory by noting that nothing – genes included – lives any longer by reproduction. It’s not as if anyone thinks that having kids will add years to your life. But Dawkins’s whole theory of the gene can be viewed as a response to this since he denies that genes are the chemical bits within the cells, or anything else that can live or die. While “gene” is more a placeholder for a unit of genetic information than an agreed upon structure, no physical structure is a gene but merely encodes them. Asking “where is a gene?” is like asking where the song Chopsticks is. There is probably sheet music for it somewhere, but we wouldn’t destroy the song by burning that page; there are particular performances of it, but the song doesn’t cease to exist when the performance does; and all this is just as true of my memories of the song or your ability to play it. Anything with a particular, concrete existence – whether in ink, air, neurons or soul – merely encodes the song.
 The gene, which generalizes to the meme, is exactly what Plato called form, and which has proven a concept that Western thought has found it extremely difficult to live without. Dawkins’s teaching on genes is just an instance of the Scholastic axiom that first actuality is for the sake of second, or that the structure of things is caused by something we want them to do.  We explain the structure and powers of a human being in exactly the same way we explain the parts of a can opener – we engineered it by starting with an action we wanted to happen. For Dawkins, this action is simply the continued existence of the gene by its continual encoding, and which makes it a unit of natural selection.
But does the gene pre-exist its encoding, or does it need the encoding to exist? The two are obviously incompatible, and the first renders the second superfluous. But we can solve the paradox easily if we recognize that the gene isn’t striving to avoid non existence, but to communicate the existence it has. In other words, it isn’t existence or survival that the gene is striving for but incarnation. The gene transcends material existence, but it did not view this transcendence as something to be grasped at.

12 comments:

  1. Technically calling a gene selfish is supposed to be a metaphor, though admittedly for a concept with minimal explanatory power (whatever there would tend to be more of, there will probably be more of). Hence the misleading analogy.

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  2. Technically calling a gene selfish is supposed to be a metaphor, though admittedly for a concept with minimal explanatory power (whatever there would tend to be more of, there will probably be more of). Hence the misleading analogy.

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  3. "But does the gene pre-exist its encoding, or does it need the encoding to exist?"

    Any either individual gene or individual's genome or generic created kind genome pre-exists in God's eternal mind.

    Both those He chose to create, and those whom He left for novelists to create.

    Susan Pevensie was never born, but obviously God knows her genome much better than either I or CSL (the original author) or Neil Gaiman or any other fan fic writer does.

    Obviously, since this appeals to existence and foreknowledge of God (of every created and of every only fictitious creature*), this is not what Dawkins wants in order to save his idea.

    *(as well as of any creature not even given fictional actuality)

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    1. That's why it's irony.

      Being unversed, Dawkins did not see the Platonic and incarnational aspects of his woo-woo "genes".

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  4. I'm not sure how "meme" differs from "soul" in this formulation (at least "soul" in the monad sense). Of course I am not a philosopher or scientist.

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    1. You'll have to forgive Dawkins, he doesn't know what "soul" means. He thinks it means "white glowy smoke" (just like how he thinks "God" means "guy with white beard on cloud").

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  5. Unfortunately, the reply button does not function here. I'll reply to both TheOFloinn and Mark Magagna at low point of comment thread.

    "Being unversed, Dawkins did not see the Platonic and incarnational aspects of his woo-woo 'genes'."

    What does that say about Anglicans, considering he was one prior to his apostasy?

    "I'm not sure how 'meme' differs from 'soul' in this formulation (at least 'soul' in the monad sense). Of course I am not a philosopher or scientist."

    Meme refers to "idea" (as existing in one human mind or a series of human minds). A soul is also an immaterial form, but self subsistent, therefore one which God chose to actually create.

    Obviously, God knows both the genes and the souls of all the persons He did NOT chose to create, including Susan Pevensie and Tristram Thorn.

    This doesn't mean soul and genome are identical. Even genome pre-existing to actually being one materialised in physical chromosomes.

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    1. As Msgr. Ronald Knox said, "If you have a sloppy religion you get a sloppy atheism."

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    2. Well, some Anglicans had a very sloppy Anglicanism!

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    3. The word "soul" seems to be used equivocally.
      1) "Soul" means "form" of a body. specifically "soul" of a human being is the form of a rational animal.
      This "soul" is impersonal. We can't say Dawkins's soul or Susan's soul.
      2) "Soul" in the religious sense that God infuses into each human being at conception. this is a personal soul, perhaps better termed a "spirit".

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    4. Wrong.

      Precisely the form which is the form of a RATIONAL animal is the form which is a SPIRIT.

      However, the form of a horse or a horsefly is a non-rational, non-spiritual and impersonal soul.

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    5. @Gyan: We can certainly speak of the soul generically for all rational beings, but each rational being has his own specific rational form. Even as regards mere physical form each of us has a different form. Only among inanimate kinds is one form pretty much like ever other one of the same kind. You seen one hydrogen atom, you seen em all.

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