I will argue that Dawkins is wrong in the sense that his notions of warmth and awed wonder refer to something entirely else than those implied by at least some opposing views.
What's immediately obvious is that some people feel that science takes something away from life. This goes at least as far back as 19th century romanticism (1):
One of the romantics’ central aims was to (re)enchant nature in the
face of what they regarded as a threat from modern science. The threat
was embodied primarily in the worry that modern science alienated
(rational and free) human beings from nature, which, through the lens
of this new science, had been viewed as a domain of brute, determined,
mechanical causality (§5.1). Aesthetics is capable of (re)enchanting
nature insofar as it brings out a different conception of nature as
organic rather than mechanic.
Through the lens of modern science, nature was regarded as an
inanimate, mechanistic domain of dead and meaningless matter that is
composed of separate atoms and thoroughly determined by efficient
causality. Modern science “dissected [nature] atomistically like a
dead corpse” (Eichendorff, EW 5: 423). The romantics regarded this
approach to nature as reductive as much as they regarded it as
“dissecting”: it reduces nature to mere matter, devoid of the features
that the romantics took to be essential to it, like holistic unity,
self-organization and life. The growing sense of man’s alienation from
his natural surrounding was seen as a product of this reduction of
nature: human beings seemed alienated from nature exactly because the
rational, soulful and sense-making character that is usually
associated with them is opposed to a mechanistic and deterministic
Third among the consequences is the threat to any awe-inspiring stance
towards the world. Not only can the divinity once attributed to nature
no longer be found therein, but modern science was also seen as posing
a challenge to any attempt at a secular alternative to religion. Seen
as fully accessible to the calculative part of the human mind, nature
becomes transparent and devoid of any mystery or human-transcending
power. Are we left without a source of wonder, awe or reverence in our
modern world? According to the romantics, the way out of these
worrisome consequences requires that we recognize that modern science
is reductive not only in terms of its object—nature—but also in terms
of its methodology: modern science employs merely what Wordsworth
called the “independent intellect”. The romantics understood this as
calculative reason when it is isolated from non-calculative reason,
sensibility and imagination.
Are such accusations of science justified and arise due to its inherent nature, or are they instead based on a misunderstanding of it?
Phenomena such as warmth, awe, wonder, inspiration, fear, hope, meaning, love, grief etc. are the domain of our primary subjective experience. Scientific understanding can be interpreted as a move from subjectivity towards objectivity; in the process, our subjective experience is abstracted away. Science doesn't attempt to explain the world as it is to us, but as it really verifiably is. Scientific approach to understanding the world as it is to us refers merely to understanding of why and how the world is to us as it is (e.g. in neurobiological terms), but in a universal manner agnostic of individual experience. Thus, science objectifies nature, or in more romantic terms, depersonalizes it. The move away from subjectivity can be understood as a reduction of experienced warmth in some sense of the word. This is probably why Edgar Allan Poe calls science “a vulture, whose wings are dull realities” (2).
For example, consider a relationship someone has with her loved ones. This relationship is significant to the person because it involves shared experiences, appreciation of character traits, etc. The loved ones are appreciated as individuals. Thinking of them only in terms of organized organic matter that is perceived as appreciated due to evolutionary benefits is a dehumanizing abstraction. Similarly, contrast marveling at a magnificent old tree that has provided shade to generations and withstood decades of storms to viewing it in terms of biophysical interactions.
What about the argument that scientific understanding enhances our appreciation of perceived reality, instead of diminishing it? This is the problem that Richard Feynman talks about in (3):
I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I
don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say "look how
beautiful it is," and I’ll agree. Then he says "I as an artist can see
how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and
it becomes a dull thing," and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First
of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me
too, I believe, although I might not be quite as refined aesthetically
as he is, I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I
see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells
in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I
mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter;
there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also
the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order
to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that
insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic
sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of
interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the
excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t
understand how it subtracts.
Like Feynman, it is this appreciation of scientific description that Dawkins is talking about, and feels awed wonder towards. If we define awe and wonder as in (4):
Awe: a direct and initial experience or feeling when faced with
something amazing, incomprehensible, or sublime
Wonder: a reflective experience motivated when one is unable to put
things into a familiar conceptual framework – leading to open
questions rather than conclusions
then reductionist science is in conflict with neither; it's possible to experience both awe and wonder while trying to understand a phenomenon in scientific terms. Perhaps a more fundamental question would be whether the ultimate goal of science is to eliminate all space for awe and wonder by providing a complete understanding of everything; i.e., is it possible, assuming the definitions above, to experience awe and wonder about something when it is understood completely? But that is a different question.
However, I think both Feynman and Dawkins (assuming he would agree with Feynman) miss something crucial here. For scientific understanding to add to the appreciation of an experience, two conditions must be met:
- explanatory reductionism, rather than ontological reductionism is assumed;
- one is at peace with potential implications of scientific understanding, and does not experience cognitive dissonance because of it.
Regarding point 1, I refer to the following definition of explanatory reductionism and ontological reductionism from (4):
Science is typically considered to be reductionist, although there are
also anti-reductionists among scientists and philosophers of science.
What does it mean to be reductionist or anti reductionist? One can
typically find statements such as “heat reduces to kinetic molecular
energy” which means (1) scientists can offer an explanation of heat in
terms of kinetic molecular energy and/or (2) heat just is kinetic
molecular energy. The first is a form of explanatory reduction; the
second, ontological reduction.
Explanatory reduction means, on a somewhat standard view, that one
theory or vocabulary can be translated into another more basic theory
We know more about what heat is if we say ‘kinetic molecular energy,’
than if we just say ‘heat.’ There is more to say, of course, and
someone might object that to know that heat is kinetic molecular
energy doesn’t tell us everything we need to know about heat – e.g.,
that it makes us sweat, that too much of it is not good for our health
or for the earth, that too much of it may cause the icecaps to melt
and lead to geopolitical crises, and so on. Supposedly, some of this
could be explained in terms of kinetic molecular energy, but not all
of it. One could argue that even if we have a reductionist story about
heat in physics and chemistry, we would still need further
explanations in biology and political science, and it’s not at all
clear that the concepts we would need in political science to explain
the social effects of a local drought or a global crisis, for example,
could be reduced to an explanation in terms of elementary particles.
In philosophy of mind and cognitive science, reductionist positions
usually claim that mind is reducible to physical processes, and these
physical processes are standardly understood to be neural processes,
which in turn are reducible to molecular processes. Materialism or
physicalism are standard in cognitive science, and these positions are
usually thought to be reductionist so that neuronal (or, according to
some, perhaps molecular or quantum) processes are thought to be the
base level to which one reduces everything else. Looking in the
opposite direction, one might think that idealists are inflationists
rather than reductionists, but in fact anything like a claim that
everything is mind (as one might find in the eighteenth century
idealist, George Berkeley) is just another form of reductionism where
the base is composed of mental events. Again, however, scientific
materialism is generally the rule in science.
Note that I am using the term ontological reductionism interchangeably with eliminitavism (4):
Eliminativism is a form of reductionism that denies the reality of the
thing that is reduced. If the mind is reduced to the brain, then the
mind is not real; only brain states are real.
If we assume explanatory scientific reductionism, then the fact that objective mechanisms predeterminate subjective experience doesn't automatically negate the reality of subjective experience, or its importance. If instead we assume ontological scientific reductionism, subjectivity becomes a mere emergent illusion underpinned by a more fundamental reality.
Point 2 refers to personal beliefs impacting the response one has to scientific claims. For instance, similarly to what atheists like Dawkins and Feynman are describing, a deeply religious person may experience more awe and wonder because of an added scientific perspective, although for a different reason: she may marvel at how a deity has constructed the world to be full of such and such physical interactions, etc. However, some people may feel that ontological reductionism imposes materialism, which is in contradiction with some beliefs or hopes. In this sense, scientific knowledge can taint experience as a harbinger of unpleasant truths, and stands in opposition to the type of awe and wonder grounded on convictions that science undermines.
(1) 19th Century Romantic Aesthetics. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aesthetics-19th-romantic/
(2) Edgar Allen Poe, “Sonnet—To Science”. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48625/sonnet-to-science
(3) Richard Feynman: The Beauty of the Flower. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbFM3rn4ldo
(4) A Neurophenomenology of Awe and Wonder: Towards a Non-Reductionist Cognitive Science.