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?