On Naturalism, “Blind, Pitiless Indifference” Is Our Lot

As argued by Richard Dawkins.  And, given his worldview commitment of metaphysical naturalism, he’s quite right:

“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

River Out of Eden (Basic Books, 1996), p. 133.

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30 thoughts on “On Naturalism, “Blind, Pitiless Indifference” Is Our Lot

  1. Obviously, Dawkins (and just about everyone else) believes that there is a “right” and “wrong.” He hands out “evil” judgements like beads at Mardi Gras, after all. The problem is that, from a purely naturalistic standpoint, we may FEEL that there is a “right” and “wrong,” but those feelings are merely accidents of biology and therefore have no overriding reality beyond our perceptions of them. For example, we all believe that genocide is purely evil; however, there is no basis to claim that a man who believes that genocide is warranted is *objectively* wrong under a naturalistic philosophy. After all, his biology and socialization makes him go one way, ours makes us go another, right? In the naturalistic philosophy, it makes no more sense to say that an anomalous preference is objectively evil than to say that an anomalous fur color among civets is evil.

    However, even though this is the logical extension of the philosophy, no one really FEELS that it is true. We all have the gut instinct that there is an objective right and wrong, no matter what we feel about it, and therefore genocide and child abuse and so many other things are wrong in some way that goes beyond our individual or collective feelings.

    One of my favorite professors in college was an atheist, and he acknowledged this conflict. He said something like, “I don’t believe in a higher power, so I believe that our sense of morality is a biological and social construct and there is no objective, universal right and wrong. However, I still *feel* as though there is a right and wrong, and I live my life accordingly. I can’t reconcile my beliefs with my actions.”

    As I think you demonstrated well, Chris, Dawkins doesn’t seem as introspective as my old college prof. If he has acknowledged any such dilemma, I haven’t seen it. As you’ve illustrated, he writes at times as though there is “no evil and no good” and at other times as though evil and good are real. I tend to think that the former is his intellectual position, and the latter is his deeper, instinctive belief. I imagine that if he really believed that evil and good don’t exist, he’d have a much harder time writing books about religion. ;)

    • You’re quite right, Desmognathus. You’ve summed it up well. The divide between the naturalistic story of the world and the existence of objective moral values is an unbridgeable chasm. A person can make these abstract statements about there being no evil and no good, or that our sense of “goodness” has simply evolved — but when you try to make that fit with real human experience, it just doesn’t work. If we’re sane, we all believe in real right and wrong, and can’t really accept that morality is just an illusion or an artifact of evolution.

  2. Hi Chris,

    1) is true. This has never been a point of contention.

    2) You deliberately mix up a description of what is and claim it as Dawkins view of what ought to be. A dishonest tactic as old as the hills.

    I quoted you Dawkins view on what ought to be and you just claim he is back tracking from his statement describing the world.

    This could be an innocent error. But not when it has been pointed out to you and you ignore the point and repeat the mistake. Or do you see no difference between is and ought?

    3) This is Dawkins view on how we can be i.e. ought and not is. Have you got it yet?

    Trying to set up Dawkins as back tracking or contradicting himself in these circumstances is simply demonstrating that you don’t see the divide between a description of what we see in the universe and an opinion of what we as human beings should or could try to do.

    For someone who derides Dawkins lack of philosophical and logical chops you are shooting yourself in the foot publicly and repeatedly. It’s getting embarrassing.

    Just read his work. Or what him on that Oz programme a few weeks back.

    It’s called doing your homework I think.


    PS if you want to move attention away from your gaff by claiming that he can’t possibly claim any morale basis for his ideas of ought is known as changing the subject and is an empty and silly argument anyway. I have written on this at length if you are interested. But for now please stick to the topic.

    PPS I think that free will is an illusion anyway – but that is a discussion for the day after tomorrow

    • Hi Psi,
      Appreciate the feedback. There’s probably not much more I can say on this topic that I haven’t already. I think the problem here is that you’re defending Dawkins on the basis of his (mere) assertions, and I’m criticizing him for his lack of logical consistency — of failing to make his various assertions fit together in a logical, coherent manner.

      The fact is, he’s making logically contradictory claims: 1) the universe is wholly naturalistic 2) we dance to our genes and are gene survival machines and 3) human beings can overcome these deterministic processes and make free choices.

      The glaring problem is, 1) and 2) are inconsistent with 3) — regardless of what statements Dawkins makes about them. I’m not misrepresenting Dawkins. I’m saying his statements are impossible to reconcile with one another. At the least, if he’s going to make these three claims, he owes his readers an explanation of how such a thing could be possible.

      You mention the “is-ought” distinction and think I’m failing to see it here. But again, on naturalism, how can there be an “ought”? I’ve mentioned this quote from Dawkins several times, but it bears repeating: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” Note especially, “no evil and no good.” Here, Dawkins is absolutely consistent with his naturalism. On naturalism there truly is no evil and no good.

      But here in the Selfish Gene he backtracks and tries to smuggle in some free will and some morality. He claims we have the free will to override our genes, and that this is a good thing to do. But what happened to “no evil and no good” and dancing to our genes and being robot carriers of them?

      So my criticism of Dawkins stands. He presents contradictory statements and makes no effort to recognize that there is a problem, much less provide an explanation for how to solve it.

      The bigger issue, though, is the failure of naturalism, since it provides no resources for human free will or objective good and evil (morality).


      • Hi Chris,

        You make simply assertions that Dawkins is being logically inconsistent by making different statements in “ought territory” from those in “is territory”. You continue to ignore me pointing out that they are different territories.

        You go on to claim that naturalism can’t lead to an ought. No one is claiming it can. Dawkins claims his “oughts” as do as do I as opinion based upon the human experience and careful thought. Dawkins says that we can’t seem to see good or evil in the universe out there but he does see it in the context of people. Claiming he doesn’t seems like such a transparent lie that it is getting rather embarrassing that you continue to repeat it!

        To continue to claim that lack of belief in the supernatural means you can’t have a valid argument about morality is also a non-sequitur, albeit one long claimed by supernaturalists.

        To back up your position you should give me reasons why your faith gives you moral guidance. While you are at it how about any convincing evidence that the supernatural actually exists?



        • Hi Psi,
          I see what you’re saying here, and I think you’re right that this is how Richard Dawkins would describe his position on morality — i.e., that morality is foreign to a naturalistic universe, but that human beings can agree on moral rules and try to live by them. I think you’re right about that, but my objection is that we only have one reality, which encompasses both the universe and humanity. If we accept naturalism, then the only morality that exists is the one human beings create. But I think every sane person knows that some things are objectively right, and some are objectively wrong, and that these intuitions aren’t mere illusions or social constructs. There is something real that we’re tapping into when it comes to our moral intuitions, and it’s something naturalism can’t account for.

          That’s not to say that people who aren’t religious can’t lead moral lives. But apart from God, there is nothing to ground objective morality ontologically — just like I couldn’t tell you how long a meter is apart from some objective meter measurement that holds regardless of any particular person’s opinion of how long a meter is.

          That’s why I think naturalists (like Dawkins) are being inconsistent when they reject God, yet insist that objective morality is possible. A subjective morality is possible on naturalism, but not an objective one.


          • Hi Chris,

            We do share a hell of a lot of evolutionary history so I would expect humans to agree a lot on morales.

            Democracy should help where there is disagreement.

            Not having an accurate measure of a metre does not mean we can’t agree between us what a metre is. How is that inconsistent? (In fact that is all that a meter measure is – an agreement by human beings that “this” is a metre).

            Just because Dawkins and I don’t think your god exists and so we should agree on morales base don logical thought and human experience isn’t inconsistent either.

            On the other hand you are being inconsistent if you claim to have some kind of objective morale standard. You certainly kind find it in the bible. Do you eat shellfish? Do you think slavery is OK? Do you wear mixed fibres? Do you think gays should be banished or killed?

            People in glass houses . . .



    • Psi,
      I’m feeling kind of lazy. Since I hunted down that Ruse quote for you, would you track down a specific quote from Dawkins on the grounding for his ethics for me? I’ve found a few places where he uses words like wicked (to ascribing religious groupings to children) and evil (to deny that it is a personal entity), but I’m apparently not looking in the right place to find where Dawkins addresses the foundation of ethics. Online articles, YouTube clips, reliable (well-cited) blogs, etc. are fine.
      Thanks for your help. Sorry if you’ve already given this info and I’m asking you to repeat yourself.

  3. Thanks Adam,

    That actual quote is;

    “Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion would fail any introductory philosophy or religion course.”

    Not what was claimed by coolness.

    If I described “coolness” as a really really pathetic quoter, then I would perhaps be called a hypocrite – if it weren’t for the fact that it appears to be true.



  4. Hi Coolness,

    You said this;

    “According to Dawkins there is no wonderful fulfilling and enriching view of the world.”

    Just making up the other side of the debate doesn’t count as debating. It’s just dishonest.

    You also said this;

    “Yes, I’ve read the God Delusion (good argument from that book anyone?”

    Yes over here! – In fact let’s make it easy for you – tell me which argument for god you think he doesn’t address.



    Ps Ad Hominem list;

    a really really pathetic thinker

    Ruse points out that Dawkins wouldn’t pass an introductory course in logic! Funny.

    (BTW can you give us the quote for this?)

  5. Yes, I’ve read the God Delusion (good argument from that book anyone? anyone?) And I’ve read the Greatest Show On Earth. I could care less about the validity of evolution, but his arguments against any sort of divine being are…..well, in the words of Michael Ruse, embarassing. Both of your responses are noted, but miss the point. In the sort of hypernaturalism which Dawkins expounds, there is no wonder. All is predetermined randomness. He doesn’t get it, because he’s a really good biologist, and a really really pathetic thinker in any sort of other field.

    Ruse points out that Dawkins wouldn’t pass an introductory course in logic! Funny.

    “Religionauts”? Really? I graduated from Primary school, and I love to act like it.

    Read some Bradley Monton or some Ruse. Dawkins doesn’t have much to say besides the fact that evolution is true. Once you grant him that, eh. He’s pretty much harmless.

  6. @coolness – actually Alan Turing is my hero.

    But I do like Dawkins.

    I am puzzled by your comment – hace you actually read any Dawkins? Or heard him speak? If so you must have noticed that he is one of the most enthusiastic, optimistic, energetic, positive and excitable people you could imagine. Indeed it is his tiggerish enthusiasm that sometimes gets the better of him and leads to the ill-advised scornfulness that upsets people.

    But he certainly presents and most fulfilling and enriching view of the world, free of the chains of superstition.

  7. According to Dawkins there is no wonderful fulfilling and enriching view of the world. Way to be a philosopher!!!!! Dawkins is your hero!

  8. Yes Dawkins is excellent isn’t he?

    Don’t forget the bit at the end of Selfish Gene about being able, as conscious beings, to rise above the tyranny of the selfish genes.

    A wonderfully fulfilling and enriching view of the world.



    • Hi Psi,

      How are you?

      Maybe we’ve talked about this before, but it seems clear that Dawkins is inconsistent here. We can ask him, “Which is it? Do we dance to our genes, or do we have free will and make free choices?”

      Given his naturalistic worldview, to be consistent, he’ll have to stick with, “We dance to our genes.” That makes perfect sense on naturalism, and on his view that human beings are really just gene-replicating machines. But that position has the unfortunate outcome of making us strictly determined in everything we think and do — which no one really wants to believe, including Dawkins.

      So, he backtracks and says, “But we can rise above these selfish genes.” But, on naturalism, it would take a literal miracle for that to happen. That’s because we would have to break the laws of physics and chemistry and somehow rise above the physical-causal chains that should (on naturalism) determine everything we do.

      My friend, that’s why there’s nothing fulfilling or enriching about naturalism. After all, we’re merely gene transporters completely determined by unthinking laws of physics and chemistry. It’s impossible to “rise above” this, because there’s nothing outside of this system (nature) to make that happen.

      On theism, however, libertarian free will is expected, since we’re made in the image of God.

      • Hi fleance,

        You just make up the other side of the argument all the time do you?

        If you had actually read anything Dawkins had written then you would know that you are simply making up his side of this imaginary discussion.

        This is dishonest.

        Please don’t call me your friend, I don’t want to be tarred with the same brush.

        If you do want to actually discuss things honestly then let me know.


        • Hi Psi,

          I don’t think Dawkins’s position could be any clearer, and it’s exactly as I describe it. 1) His worldview is naturalism; therefore, there is nothing above or outside of nature. 2) He clearly states our purpose in life is to preserve genes: “[Genes] are the replicators and we are their survival machines” (Selfish Gene, Oxford, 2006, p. 35). 3) He claims, “We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators” (Ibid., 201). 4) However, his view is logically inconsistent, because on naturalism, nothing, absolutely nothing, can “rebel” against nature, because nature is all there is. To rebel against nature would require suspending the laws of physics and chemistry, which on naturalism is impossible by definition.

          Therefore, Dawkins is just inconsistent here. It’s a self-contradictory position. I’m not surprised, because who in their right mind wants to deny that we have free will? But to preserve free will — the ability to rebel against nature — Dawkins must abandon naturalism, or explain how human beings suspend the laws of nature by their free choices. This is a major failing of naturalism. On theism, however, free will is a benefit of being made in God’s image.

          If you can demonstrate that I’ve misrepresented Dawkins’s view on 1) through 3), I’d welcome you to do so. Or, if you can point to a publication where Dawkins demonstrates how it’s possible for humans to nullify physical laws and conjure up free will, I’d like to read that as well (an argument, that is, rather than just an assertion, as in the Selfish Gene). Otherwise, feel free to retract the charge of dishonesty.


    • It is an interpretive explanation that doesn’t seem to account for the structure that is present in mathematics and physics. Granted those factors don’t produce meaning, but they do represent structure and most known structures are the product of design rather than chaos.
      Since it is an interpretive explanation, it is probably fair to refer to it as a worldview.

      • … most known structures are the product of design rather than chaos.

        They are? So, stars and planets are designed? Living organisms? You should tell biologists, cosmologists and planetologists this. They don’t seem to know that yet.

      • “Most structures that we know the origins of” may have been clearer. The origins of stars, planets, and life seem to me to remain in the realm of speculation (at least for now).

    • Hi Morse,
      It seems to me that an explanation is just another term for a worldview. Since no facts are self-interpreting, we have to bring our interpretive grids to the facts before us — that is, our worldviews.

  9. Yes, he’s very good isn’t he?

    Dawkins also said :

    “I don’t think God is an explanation at all. It’s simply redescribing the problem”

    which is it, in a nutshell.

    • Hi b,
      At some point, the chain of explanation has to end, or we’re left with an infinite regress (and so no explanation at all). God seems the best candidate for an explanation of the universe, since the universe began with the big bang, and thus requires an explanation for its existence.

      • It may well be that there is no such process as beginning or ending. These may turn out to be merely human reactions to ignorance. There are other concepts that are strictly human such as up or down, right or wrong. Life phenomena depend upon parameters and boundaries if human beings are the determining in their measure. Gods and Devils are strictly expressions of crude and primitive human reaction to the unexplained. Imagine this “grain of sand”, “this speck of dust” being the reason and purpose for hundreds of billions of light years of matter and energy. What arrogance! What unimaginably huge and grossly distorted pomposity this mere animal, the human being, has regarding his or her importance and necessity for the trillions of other elements of reality! It is not even childish and ignorance as the result of childishness. It is utter disregard for life, matter and measurable energy placing one’s self as the main ingredient for existence.

        • Hey Joe,

          Interesting observations there. I do agree with you that human knowledge is limited, and it’s useful to keep that in mind. But that wouldn’t imply that the knowledge we do have is illusory or limited in application to human affairs. Math and science (and many other disciplines) are human ideas too, but we don’t normally question the validity of those human endeavors. If we adopt widespread skepticism of human reasoning and knowledge, then we can’t reasonably claim anything.

          The earth is very small in comparison with the whole universe, but it doesn’t follow from that that our planet isn’t significant — or even the most significant planet out there. Of course, if God doesn’t exist, then none of them are significant, since they’re essentially accidental (as Dawkins suggests in the quotation). Remarkably, though, the evidence from physics and cosmology points to a universe fine-tuned for the kind of life forms we are. So it looks very much like the universe was designed with us in mind (see here for example).

          About gods and devils, many people, including me, believe we have experienced God, that He has changed our lives, that we sense His presence, and see Him working in our lives on a daily basis. So in this case we’re not postulating God to explain some set of phenomena (like lightning or volcanic eruptions), but we directly interact with Him in a relationship. In addition, He became a human being in Jesus Christ and revealed His nature and character to His creatures. So God isn’t just a matter of trying to explain something we can’t figure out. He’s made Himself known in the world in many ways.


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