In September 2019, New Scientist magazine excelled itself in its ongoing promotion of scientific materialism. On its front cover¹ it announced two headline articles: ‘The True Nature of Consciousness, We’re Finally Cracking the Greatest Mystery of You’, and ‘Richard Dawkins: How we can outgrow God and religion’. If the first were true, that would be a significant achievement, given that explaining consciousness has been described as the ‘hard problem’, because no one can understand how something supposedly material, the brain, can generate something non-material, mental. If a problem seems insoluble, however, perhaps the wrong question is being asked. What if the brain does not generate consciousness? What if consciousness generates the brain? This is what spiritual traditions have always maintained, and some modern philosophers and scientists concur².
The editorial accompanying the main article³ hasn’t got that message, however, since its subtitle was: Despite decades of effort, we have been unable to understand how our brains create consciousness. The author of the article, Michael Graziano, also hasn’t got the message, since he asks: “How does the brain, a physical object, generate a non-physical essence?”
The article’s title makes the grandiose claim: ‘True nature of consciousness: Solving the biggest mystery of your mind’, and the subtitle was, ‘Far from being a mystical “ghost in the machine”, consciousness evolved as a practical mental tool…’. This is presented as a statement of fact, but is actually an unfounded assertion, without evidence, merely an assumption based upon a preconception of materialism and the truth of Darwinian evolutionary theory. It is much closer to the truth that consciousness is indeed a ghost in the machine. (This is therefore another example of the superfluous and pointless use of the word ‘evolved’ — see my recent blogpost.)
The Richard Dawkins article⁴ is an interview with him, following publication of a new book Outgrowing God: A beginner’s guide. Much of the interview covers material familiar to anyone acquainted with his thought, so I’ll just focus on one point. The interviewer says that the book picks factual holes in the Bible and points out logical inconsistencies and absurdities. During his reply Dawkins says that many believers are “actually quite shocked to learn how little support there is for any Bible stories. Many people in America are not aware that, for example, virtually nothing in the Old Testament has any evidential support at all”, and therefore that the evidence for anything in the Bible is extremely flimsy. He mentions Adam and Eve, Noah, and goes on to say that “there’s no evidence that there was a Jewish captivity in Egypt, for example, which is shocking to some people”.
This is hardly an argument against the existence of God. At best, it could be seen as an argument against the Jewish God. But what about the God of the Hindus, the Sufis, the Gnostics, the Native Americans, and so on? Supposed inaccuracies in the Bible say nothing whatsoever about the existence of God or otherwise, and should not be used as an argument for atheism.
Dealing with his specific point, Dawkins seems to be making the same error for which he criticises believers, namely that the content of the Bible is meant to be taken literally. The figure of Noah is a difficult question, so remote in time that it would be hard to come to any definite conclusion about historicity. It’s worth noting, however, that many cultures all over the world have a global flood story, including a Noah-like figure, albeit with different names. The story of Adam and Eve is clearly allegorical, and not meant to be taken literally, even though some Christians do so. (This will be the subject of a future article, so I won’t deal with it now.)
Let’s look closer at the question of the captivity in Egypt. Dawkins is presumably referring to the absence of any mention of it in the Egyptian records, and the lack of archaeological evidence. Is the story meant to be taken literally, however? According to the Jewish Kabbalist Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi: “The history of the Exodus (is) an analogue of an individual’s escape from the physical bondage of the body, represented by Egypt, and his soul’s struggle with psychological slavery in the desert as he strives to reach the Promised Land of the Spirit. (In the accounts)… are revealed the inner stages of initiation, trial and rebellion that led up to the realization that the secret of Existence is that it is a mirror in which man reflects the Image of the Divine so that God may behold God”⁵.
So a Jew, albeit one from an esoteric tradition, clearly recognises that the Exodus is not a story that is intended to be taken literally, for those who have ears to hear, but is actually the story of humanity’s spiritual search to reunite with the Divine. This is the same story that is told in all branches of the Perennial Philosophy: Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism, Gnosticism, esoteric Christianity, and so on. As an aside, I understand that the phrase ‘in slavery in Egypt’ was actually used by the Egyptians themselves to describe the human situation of being a soul trapped in matter.
So, how is the suggestion that there is no evidence for a literal exodus a reason to reject religion or God? On the contrary this story reinforces what is believed to be the spiritual truth of all ages, the Ancient Wisdom of the Perennial Philosophy. Perhaps it is time for Richard Dawkins to outgrow atheism.
1. issue 3248, September 21st 2019
2. see, for example, Amit Goswami, The Self-Aware Universe: how consciousness creates the material world, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1995
5. Kabbalah and Exodus, Gateway Books, 1988, Preface