How Can We Trust Science in Richard Dawkins’ Middle World?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In the last chapter of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, he introduces the metaphor of Middle World.  The idea of Middle World is that the human sensory organs have only evolved in order to help humans survive in a world of medium-sized objects moving at relatively slow speeds (compared to the speed of light).  Dawkins observes that “our brains are themselves evolved organs: on-board computers, evolved to help us survive in a world — I shall use the name Middle World — where the objects that mattered to our survival were neither very large nor very small; a world where things either stood still or moved slowly compared with the speed of light.”

We are ill-equipped to deal with the vast distances to other galaxies or the sub-atomic world.  In fact, the way we perceive objects is misleading.

Science has taught us, against all evolved intuition, that apparently solid things like crystals and rocks are really composed almost entirely of empty space. The familiar illustration represents the nucleus of an atom as a fly in the middle of a sports stadium. The next atom is right outside the stadium. The hardest, solidest, densest rock, then, is ‘really’ almost entirely empty space, broken only by tiny particles so far apart that they shouldn’t count.

Our senses, then, do not give us an accurate picture of reality.  According to Dawkins, “Our brains are not equipped to imagine what it would be like to be a neutrino passing through a wall, in the vast interstices of which that wall ‘really’ consists. Nor can our understanding cope with what happens when things move at close to the speed of light.”

If Dawkins had stopped at this point, all would be well.  Nobody would argue that we are ill-equipped to see sub-atomic particles, that our sensory organs are limited.  Dawkins doesn’t stop here, though, because he wants to hammer home just how limited we are.  What we really perceive as reality, argues Dawkins, is only a mental model.

What we see of the real world is not the unvarnished real world but a model of the real world, regulated and adjusted by sense data—a model that is constructed so that it is useful for dealing with the real world. The nature of that model depends on the kind of animal we are.

Once the mental model concept is introduced, it is my contention that Dawkins ends up eviscerating our very ability to know anything about reality.  He is arguing that we really don’t know what reality is like because we only have the mental models that our species has evolved, and those mental models have proven to be incomplete and inaccurate time and again. In fact, humans are constantly surprised by just how wrong our models are.

But wait!  There is a savior that will rescue us from our ignorance.  Dawkins elates, “Science flings open the narrow window [of Middle World] through which we are accustomed to viewing the spectrum of possibilities. We are liberated by calculation and reason to visit regions of possibility that had once seemed out of bounds or inhabited by dragons.”

How can this be, though?  On the atheist worldview, do not science, calculation, and reason all depend completely on the severely limited human brain which has consistently given us inaccurate mental models of reality?  How is it that the very organ which has constantly misled us about reality will be our savior?  Isn’t this the classic case of the blind leading the blind?

Dawkins, like most atheists, just assumes that human reason magically works, that science marches inexorably to the Truth. But on the atheist view, reason and the ability to do science, all comes from the evolved human brain, an organ that, according to Dawkins, can’t be trusted to see the world as it really is, an organ that fools us.  There is no soul, no rational God that guarantees that our reason actually works.  So, I ask, how can we trust science in Richard Dawkins’ Middle World?

  • The Chisel

    um… Bill, I think you’ve not only taken Dawkins out of context, but also seem to have missed the point entirely.

  • Greg G

    The Chisel, Ummm how has Bill taken Dawkins out of context. Dawkins has implied that we cannot know anything about the real word but in that self defeating statement he “appears” to know something about the real world, i.e. that we can’t know anything about it. How can this be if in fact our brains are limited and sheltered from reality? Is he a god and thus not bound by his limited brain?

    Same atheist argument without scientific reason, different person….

  • Greg G

    The Chisel, Ummm how has Bill taken Dawkins out of context. Dawkins has implied that we cannot know anything about the real word but in that self defeating statement he “appears” to know something about the real world, i.e. that we can’t know anything about it. How can this be if in fact our brains are limited and sheltered from reality? Is he a god and thus not bound by his limited brain?

    Same atheist argument without scientific reason, different person….

  • Andrew Ryan

    You’re making an argument similar to Alvin Plantinga’s argument against naturalistic evolution. Science does indeed allow us to overcome our mental shortcomings. The proof is in the pudding – science works and has been shown to work.

    The only way you can argue against science working is if you stake a case for solipsism. Consider the following two possibilities right now:
    a) Thanks to computer science, I was able to read what Bill wrote on a computer screen and reply to it, and you are now reading my reply on another electronic device. or…
    b) Science doesn’t work, and therefore the entire experience must be a fantasy for either you, me or Bill.

    Now, completely fantasised experiences get uncovered as soon as you start trying to share it with someone else – eg, if I didn’t Skype my mom last week, how come she had the same recollection of of the experience as me last night?. Given that, possibility b) basically boils down to solipsism – whoever is experiencing reading this website is, in fact, an isolated brain getting false stimuli, not interacting with any other humans.

    To summarise then, if you want to argue that science cannot give us a working model of reality, then the alternative you are offering is that we/you/I are just isolated consciousnesses that cannot even confirm the existence of anything else bar ourselves.

    While it may be true that this is a possibility, it is an unfalsifiable proposition, whether one is an atheist, Christian, Muslim or whatever. It is not a problem unique to the worldview of Dawkins or atheists in general.

  • Terri-Lynn Torrez

    You’ve omitted “c) Science only works because of Jesus [citation needed]”

  • Andrew,
    You said that “science works and has been shown to work.” But does science give us the truth about reality? Whether it works or not is totally beside the question. I don’t think Dawkins is merely saying that science works (that seems obvious); he is saying that science gives us the truth about what is real.

    But if we are trapped inside evolved brains that only model reality, and in a severely limited way, then our brains can never get us to what is real. Science reduces to pure pragmatism.

    If you are content to say that science does not tell us what is real, but just what works, then you have truly conceded a lot of metaphysical ground.

  • How have I taken him out of context? I read and re-read the final chapter and used quotes very carefully, not wanting to misrepresent his position. If you can show me where I have erred, I would be glad to make corrections.

  • Boz

    This is the analogy of the map and the territory.

    Our beliefs(models) are the map and reality is the territory.

    In the same way that a map is an approximation of the territory, our beliefs are approximations of reality.

    :

    Bill Pratt, you are asserting that, because our mental models of reality (our beliefs) are inaccurate, because our mental models of reality are only 99% correct, we know nothing about reality. We know 0% about reality.

    This is obviously false.

  • Boz

    “But if we are trapped inside evolved brains that only model reality, and in a severely limited way, then our brains can never get us to what is real. Science reduces to pure pragmatism.”

    This is Epistemological Solipsism, and no-one actually believes this. Their actions betray them. e.g. eating food.

  • Andrew Ryan

    I don’t think you bring up any objection here that my previous answer doesn’t already address.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “If you are content to say that science does not tell us what is real, but just what works…”

    No, that’s not what I said. If science didn’t tell us what was real then obviously it wouldn’t work. Science based on faulty calculations will fail.

    “…in a severely limited way”

    Nope, nobody said the limitations were ‘severe’ – you introduced that.

    “There is no soul, no rational God that guarantees that our reason actually works.

    Please supply a bible verse where God makes this guarantee. Please explain what role a soul would play.

    Finally, it doesn’t work for you to offer the situation ‘World with a God in it’ as a solution to the situation ‘World where you can’t reason anything’. How you would tell the difference between:
    (a) Being in a world where a God guarantees that your reasoning is accurate.
    (b) Being in a world where your faulty reasoning makes you believe you are in situation (a)?

  • The Chisel

    Bill, what I meant in my original post is that really, you’re using semantic hair-splitting and questionable logic to form your conclusion.

    What one should infer from what Dawkins wrote is that we cannot *perceive* the complete universe in its most vast, and most minute scales. He then goes on to state that the logical process used in establishing scientific proof allow us an understanding of those things that we cannot perceive with the evolutionary gifts we’ve been granted.

    At no point does Dawkins contradict himself
    To me the most interesting thing about your blog post is that you use Dawkins’ statement (about our understanding of the universe being limited by our evolution) as your main point to defeat him in your argument. However, in order to use Dawkins’ argument against him you would first have to admit you hold evolution to be an irrefutable fact.

    Having stated that you hold a creationist view, and do not accept evolutionary science either you’re contradicting your own views, or your argument, its logic and context are invalid. So I have to conclude either this or that you have misinterpreted, and misunderstood Dawkins, or generally missed the point completely.

    Please understand I don’t mean to stir the pot, but your post as it stands doesn’t really hold a lot of weight.

  • The Chisel

    Greg G, See above response to Bill’s question.

    Just have to ask, how do we know Dawkins is an athiest?

  • Greg G

    From the Richard Dawkins Foundation website:

    The mission of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science is to support scientific education, critical thinking and evidence-based understanding of the natural world in the quest to overcome religious fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance and human suffering.

    It doesn’t say “I don’t believe in God” but it does…

    Also from his site:

    . I’m an atheist, but people need religion. What are you going to put in its place? How are you going to comfort the bereaved? How are you going to fill the need?

    I dealt with this in the last chapter of The God Delusion, ‘A Much Needed Gap’ and also, at more length, in Unweaving the Rainbow. Here I’ll make one additional point. Did you notice the patronizing condescension in the quotations I just listed? You and I, of course, are much too intelligent and well educated to need religion. But ordinary people, hoi polloi, the Orwellian proles, the Huxleian Deltas and Epsilon semi-morons, need religion. Well, I want to cultivate more respect for people than that. I suspect that the only reason many cling to religion is that they have been let down by our educational system and don’t understand the options on offer. This is certainly true of most people who think they are creationists. They have simply not been taught the alternative. Probably the same is true of the belittling myth that people ‘need’ religion. On the contrary, I am tempted to say “I believe in people

  • Andrew Ryan

    Sorry, where does Dawkins say we cannot know ANYTHING about the real world? Are you even trying to understand his actual point?

    If I wanted to be snarky I’d end with ‘Same strawman arguments, different Christian’

  • A Horse

    I suppose the question then becomes that what good is logic if our mental models are so inaccurate and incomplete? After all, isn’t logic, on the athiest worldview, based on the human mind?

  • Andrew Ryan

    No Chisel, Bill is quite entitled to examine Dawkins’ worldview for consistency without sharing that view himself. Just as there is nothing contadictory about an atheist examining a Christian’s worldview. Bill can even say he accepts evolution but still believes that one requires a God to give us reason. But I don’t believe he has successfully made that case here, for reasons I’ve already described.

  • The Chisel

    ok, let me be as consice as possible.

    Yes, bill is intitled to examine (anyone’s) world view.

    I’m saying that Bill is using the *language* in Dawkins statement for his argument – and not the actual content of the statement.

    hence, he has taken Dawkins out of context.

  • Boz,
    Your analogy presupposes that we have access to a map (model) and we have access to the territory (reality). I understand Dawkins to be saying that we only have access to the map and not the territory, so we can never know whether the map is 99% accurate or 0% accurate.

  • Andrew,
    You said, “If science didn’t tell us what was real then obviously it wouldn’t work. Science based on faulty calculations will fail.”

    I don’t see how this is true. Models of things can work and still be grossly inaccurate. I see this in the design of integrated circuits all the time. An engineer will think he has solved a problem with a particular model and that it explains the data, only to find out weeks later that he was just lucky and that his model wasn’t accurate at all.

    There are plenty of philosophers of science who don’t think that science tells us about reality. They believe that science creates models that help us make predictions, and that’s all. I don’t agree with them, but I think that just because a model works, it does not logically follow that it tells you the truth about reality.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Ok, so go to my example of me skyping my mother, then meeting her in person a week later and discussing the conversation we had. Now, if science was completely hopeless at modelling reality, then the technology behind Skyping simply wouldn’t work. So I’m faced with two possibilities – either Skyping works or my mother and I shared the same delusion last week that we had a conversation together.

    Do you find the latter scenario in the slightest bit plausible? I do not. I think I can safely reject that scenario.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Can you provide a quote from Dawkins that supports your understanding that he is allowing for a possible “0% accuracy” model of reality?

  • Walt

    I haven’t read Dawkins book to comment on the specific words used. If Dawkins really said it is impossible to know reality and then says science can know it, then he is contradicting himself. However, even as a theist, but one trained in science, I don’t see a problem with saying that we have mental models of the world and we use tools of science to adjust those models. As a matter of fact, science is all about making models of the world (usually mathematical ones) that are adjusted through the testing of hypotheses.

    But I will also say that science is limited by the finiteness of man. I don’t believe it can ever fully come to understand reality without flaw. I had said that repeatedly in the last 5 weeks I just spent in India when I gave my testimony. I used to see science as my savior, but one day I realized that science is still evolving and can take wrong turns, often is not complete (there are almost always unanswered questions), and God, being eternal, is the only infinite wisdom that truly knows how the world works and can be the only reliable savior. Once convinced God does exist and the bible is reliable (interpretation is another matter), I saw that it made much more sense to trust in God than in science as the ultimate source of salvation.

  • Andrew,
    I agree with you. I don’t find the latter scenario plausible, but it is logically possible if there is no God to guarantee human rationality, logic, and the ability to find truth. I understand that you find analytic philosophy to be a waste of time, but these are the exact arguments that modern philosophers are making.

  • When Dawkins claims that we use evolved mental models, I take that to mean that we cannot know reality itself, but only a model. Models are not the things they model. There is not an identity between the two.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Bill: “I agree it is implausible, but it is logically possible if there is no God”.

    Bill, as I already pointed out, if you consider it possible, and believe it to be an important consideration, then you cannot dismiss it simply through theism. You have no way of ruling out that you are in this solipsist universe, and that any evidence you cite for the God is simply false information.

    So again, theism doesn’t get you out of the solipsism hole. It’s no more a problem for Dawkins than it is for you.

  • Boz

    “I understand Dawkins to be saying that we only have access to the map and not the territory. so we can never know whether the map is 99% accurate or 0% accurate.”

    we have access to the territory by assuming that epistemological solipsism is false. we have access to the territory by observing the world around us.

    And we can know whether the map/models/beliefs are 99% accurate or 0% accurate, by testing our beliefs against the external reality.

    we use evolved mental models, and we can know reality, by aligning the models(beliefs) with reality.

    Do you really believe that epistemological solipsism is true?