Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The God Delusion

Definitely a book of the sort that Dubya would never touch. However, religious fanatics (like Dubya) are still welcome--to the trap, as will soon be explained... (By the way, I'm still reading a lot these days, but not reviewing many of them here, mostly in light of the apparent lack of interest as evidenced by the scarcity of comments.)

Analytic Review of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

Much of this review is going to be scientifically critical of the book, even though I think it's an excellent read and well worth your time. If the search engines are properly doing their stuff, then I believe this review may most likely be found most often by religious fanatics desperately looking for ammunition to use against Professor Dawkins. Well, plenty of ammunition to be found here, but it's fundamentally a trap, so I feel obliged to give you fair warning.

To any religious fanatics among the readers: In order to really understand the criticisms here, you need to adopt a scientific frame of mind, which is fundamentally poisonous to your religious frame of mind. Just parroting the arguments won't work. If you don't actually understand the arguments, it will only take a few moments of discussion to expose you as a mindless parrot, though it's more likely that you'll mangle the arguments even before you can finish presenting them. To actually use these arguments, you have to understand them, and to understand them, you would have to destroy the foundation of your own religious fanaticism.

Let me try to suggest an analogous approach that you religious fanatics should be able to appreciate. Imagine that you really wanted to study the merits of competing religions. The scientific approach to your religious faith would require you to perform some kind of scientific experiment, such as comparing your religion to some other religion. The most obvious experiment would be to abandon faith in your current religion and start to believe in some other religion. It won't work to just study the rituals or watch how the members behave and join in. In your faith-based reality, you must HAVE the faith or the faith has no meaning to you. Of course, you can't do this, because that would mean that your original faith had become wrong--until you switched back to it. However, you can't even imagine doing that kind of experiment because 'faith doesn't work that way'.

You religious fanatics are crucially unable to deal with the reality of truth in the limited way we humans can deal with that truth, which is also a partial and evolving truth--and therefore you can't actually deal with the reality of scientific criticism. You think probabilistic estimates of truth are a weakness, whereas they are just a reflection of our human limitations and the way the real world works. The point of science is precisely that we can get better--but we can never become perfect. We can acquire more knowledge, but we can never acquire absolute knowledge of the actual world. (The world of mathematics is a special case--but as noted below, it lacks the attribute of existence.) In contrast, the point of faith is to pretend to perfection--which always breaks down to some simplistic and empty shortcut, such as 'faith in Jesus' or 'the Bible is the inerrant word of God'.

If you are a religious fanatic, you might as well stop now. You'll never be able to understand or use these criticisms. Dawkins would apparently argue for trying 'to save you' from your ignorance, but I regard that as basically preposterous. I think the mind of a religious fanatic is damaged beyond any hope of freedom or wisdom. (Shades of Dijkstra's reaction to BASIC?) In the best case, you might switch to a less harmful form of fanaticism. Your ignorance is proud and willful--where 'proud' is defined by your 'saved' status and 'willful' is your own will. I'm reminded of a religious fanatic I know who likes to projectively blame the willful part on the so-called will of god. God's chosen people, eh? (What a clever meme, but the book's treatment of memes is also good, and I won't comment further on that topic.)

I also must confess that I'm quite unconcerned about wasting your religiously fanatical time in some relatively harmless reading if you choose to ignore my polite warning. Most religious fanatics believe in miracles, though I'd regard it as a kind of miracle if I 'reached' the mind of any sincere fanatic.

Now let's go back to the more general target readership, which in the case of this typical blog, is just a projection of the author's own style of thinking. I claim to be a rational scientist of sorts, so I hope that a rational scientist will be entertained or even enlightened.

Time for an overall summary: I think this book is quite good, handling many complicated topics with deftness and some humor. In most places I'm in complete agreement with the author. I think, there are a couple of places that could be improved, and only one place where I think substantial rewriting is called for. That's a short passage of a couple of pages, and in such a large book, that's quite a good job by the author. Going a bit beyond the scope of the book, I would also like to comment on the fundamental logical collapse of religion into evolution.

Mostly for the sake of politeness, I had better clarify my usage of "religious fanatic". One of the weaknesses of this book is that it seems to basically lump all religious people together, and it seems the only metric of interest is whether they are more or less harmful.
The basic view in the book is that all of the religious followers are just harmful.

In contrast, I think there are legitimately religious people who are NOT fanatics and who are basically harmless (with apologies to the shade of Douglas Adams as admired by the author). My view is actually closely related to what Dawkins addresses under the label "NOMA", for "non-overlapping magisteria". The book addresses this topic fairly well, so all I'll note is that there are some religious people who can accept the world as it is, even including science and logic, which uniformly forces them to reject any literal interpretation of the founding documents of any of the conventional religions, obviously including the Bible and going right up to the latest and most amusing Scientology tracts. Such people basically hold that there is another sphere of meaning beyond the ken of science, even though most of them also try to pick and choose some conventionally religious elements to fit into their larger view. However, the sincerely religious people of this ilk are not defensive about their beliefs, and very few of them would even be motivated to read this book or its reviews. (At the same time, I have to note that such people seem very scarce, at least in my experience. Also, I think that a super-intelligent god would have been aware of information theory before we discovered it in the last century, and such a god would therefore have used information theory to make sure any messages were not mangled in transmission.)

The topic of atheists actually leads to one of my anecdotal disagreements. He argues that atheists are not religious fanatics, and that agnostics are just fence sitters. I have actually known a very devout atheist, and I would not be so kind. He was just as fanatical as any religious fanatic I can recall, and with no better justification. As regards the agnostic side of this question, Professor Dawkins regards himself as an agnostic, though very close to the atheist end of the scale of religious belief. I also regard myself as an agnostic, though basically because a negation cannot be proven. At the same time, I'm convinced you need to use extremes of mental gymnastics to imagine such a diabolical god who would lie to our faces on such a scale. Should we give some credit to the Christians who blame Satan while somehow exonerating God for his poor delegation skills?

The part of the book that reviews the various arguments for the existence of god is quite good and seems complete (though my own academic studies of these topics were many years ago). He also does a good job of surveying the arguments against the existence of any god, though he doesn't actually mention one of my current favorites: Most of the so-called mainstream religions insist that man was created in God's image while at the same time insisting that God is perfect and powerful. However, given how imperfect we human beings are, there has to be some kind of contradiction there. I can actually partially resolve the paradox by considering the mathematical domain of mental models, say of the triangle or of a perfect line in Euclidean space, but the problem of that approach is that existence is NOT one of the attributes of such mental models, and even physical space itself is ultimately curved and 'imperfect'. We all have awareness of that sort of shadow of perfection, but the real world cares not. It simply is as it is (which is broadly addressed in the book under the topic of the anthropic principle).

One of the specific arguments that bothered me in spite of his disclaimers and vague references to competing hypotheses was the notion of evolutionary selection in favor of gullibility in children. Rather I would argue for evolutionary selection in favor of being lovable, where obedience to the parents is only one of the favored attributes of being lovable. I regard generalized belief in authority figures as an extension of the child's faith in the parents, and especially faith in the 'godlike' primary caregiver. It's basically hard to raise children, and lovable children have a much better chance of making it, even today, though much more so in the hunter-gatherer days in which virtually all of our own evolutionary development took place. (As far as the development of our culture is concerned over the last few thousand years, our own evolutionary development is essentially negligible, as I've noted elsewhere in relation to the Fermi Paradox. I actually was lucky enough to persuade Bill Maher to ask a related question to Professor Dawkins on his Real Time program, if you like tenuous personal links.) The medical evidence is that most children didn't even survive their first year, no matter how lovable they were and how much their parents actually loved them. I do acknowledge that seems to be a naturally rebellious period in adolescence, but I suspect that is probably desirable in an evolutionary sense for disrupting nuclear families and encouraging genetic diversity--but the child's religious views have been determined and solidified well before that point.

What I regard as a major area of disagreement in the book involves his Chapter 9, where he thinks there is a special and anomalous status around such usages as "a Christian child" or "a Jewish child". He wants to treat this as a misleading label of belief, and argue in favor of such usages as "a child of Christian parents". However, it seems fairly obvious that it is more a matter of depth and that this usage is similar to some other labels that he does not consider. He compares the religious labels to other belief-based labels that would not be used for children, but he does not consider any examples of deeper labels such as "an American child", "a black child", "a Mexican child", or "an immigrant child". The essential boundary here clearly seems to be the presumption of inherited traits. Few people change their nationality from whatever they were born with, and few people change their religion from whatever their family practiced. He wants to change our consciousness in hopes of influencing people, so that more people would be aware of the possibility of changing their religious beliefs, but I think linguistic usage will follow reality, and I would even predict that there are cultures and languages where his recommended usage already prevails.

Now for what I regard as the largest weakness of the book, a topic which he only addresses indirectly, mostly under the subtopics of 'imaginary friends' (A.A. Milne's Binker) and consolation. I would put it as 'people are weak, and they know it, and they actively desire faith to compensate for their personal weakness'. Faith also addresses the reality that they are also intellectually lazy and foolish, though most of them are less willing to admit to those traits. In particular, I'm reminded of a religious acquaintance who boasts about 'her strength' based on her belief in having a superior crutch. She thinks she has a super-intelligent crutch in the form of a god who has chosen to save her, while she ever-so-humbly professes her unworthiness. Certainly not an unusual encounter, but merely a relatively recent one.

Another way to look at this weakness is that it's quite hard to be a really good and objective scientist. In a complicated world, we don't have the time to check the evidence for everything, so we have to start by taking a lot of things on faith. Sometimes we decide which things, but often not. From this viewpoint, I'd say that there are basically two attributes of scientists. The less important one is the willingness to accept new evidence. That may sound strange, but I think there are a lot of good-enough scientists who are just running on their hunches. In many of those cases, their hunches are well founded and they achieve solid results, but in plenty of cases the main thing they accomplish is to disprove their own assumptions, even if they personally refuse to admit their mistakes. However, the more important attribute of the rare great scientist is an ability to figure out WHICH evidence to search for. Sometimes it involves looking at old evidence differently. In that case, the evidence exists, but no one else can see its true meaning. After all, the ultimate meaning of any evidence is in how we interpret it. The important thing is that the scientist will look at the actual meaning of evidence (even when it is just an improvement on earlier interpretations), while the religious fanatic is looking for 'absolute' meaning as a handout from some god.

There is another major weakness in the book that involves non-religious evil, specifically related to his short section about Hitler and Stalin. This is probably the only place where I felt his argument was quite weak and incomplete. The crucial aspect of both Hitler and Stalin was that they were religious fanatics, but the followers of new cults, not established religions. As much as the old mainstream religions hate the concept of evolution, the process of creating new religions has changed over the years, along with the kinds of religions that are created.

The big-picture perspective is that many new cults have similar periods of militant extremism, often associated with their transition to the status of an established religion. From a sociological and historical perspective, the mechanism is pretty simple to understand. Initially the cult is harmless, most often dismissed as a lunatic fringe. As the cult grows, it may become a threat to the existing society, usually to the religious institutions but sometimes to the existing government itself. If the threat is imaginary or weak, then the cult will soon be crushed and disappear, but in many cases the threat is quite real, and the suppression of the cult fails. Quite often the self-defense period includes a militaristic response by the cult, initially just for survival, but then that same
successful military organization is often used for aggressive expansion. There are many examples throughout history, and Professor Dawkins even cited some of them, though he didn't consider them from this perspective. He did consider the technological ramifications, however, and it was technology that made the scale of these recent crimes possible. It would have been hard for Hitler to create a factory for the mass production of death until after Henry Ford had created the concept of a factory for the mass production of cars... The technology remains morally neutral, and we can only speculate what Genghis Khan would have done with a nuclear weapon. (At the same time, I would argue that technology is, on the long-term average, more often used for good purposes than evil ones. The latest example is the mostly successful handling of the H1N1 influenza, which I believe had the potential to be far worse than the Spanish Flu epidemic after WW I.)

The other aspect is the change in the kind of religions which appear in the form of cults. My semi-humorous version is that "the standards of historical scholarship were very lax in those days" when the old mainstream religions were crafted. The book does talk a little bit about the historical process of editing the New Testament, but I'd have liked to see more about the Old Testament and the Koran, too. In particular, I've read that most of the Old Testament seems to have been assembled into its current form by two editors, with the first one focused on the five main books of the Old Testament, mostly drawing on Sumerian sources, before the more famous 'Redactor' did the final editing. However, those sorts of stories and fables just wouldn't work these days, and modern religions have very different bases, though several recent religions (such as the Mormons) have copied much of the archaic style. Religions like Lenin's flavor of communism or Hitler's Nazi Party were mostly economic religions, but they were following the traditional historical trajectory of rapid growth followed by suppression leading to a militaristic and extremist response.

Covering these topics properly would have greatly extended the book in this non-biological direction, so perhaps that is why Professor Dawkins treated the topic in such a shallow manner. However, I want to go even further and consider a fundamental paradox that I feel should be addressed. If the religious people insist on rejecting science and the use of our human intelligence to deal rationally with the world, then they condemn us to follow Mother Nature's path--the path of evolution. In the normal course of evolution, there is no planning. Every population struggles at the edge of starvation. The evolutionary process is to let them breed as much as possible, which naturally maximizes the evolutionary competition leading to improvement--though Ma Nature doesn't see it that way. Life is just about finding new niches to exploit, and Ma Nature doesn't worry about the casualties. Plenty more life where that came from--but it's a mighty tough life for those that are living it. (Give the Christian Scientists credit for illogical consistency--but they'll never catch on more widely. Most religious fanatics are quite willing to rationalize to allow for the use of antibiotics over God's will.)

As I was working on this review I checked Google Books (in my Internet lobe), trying to locate a specific quote in the book (only to discover that their page numbers don't match my edition). However, I think it is worth noting that a number of the books I did find were religiously motivated attacks on this book. Professor Dawkins has evidently touched quite a nerve. Actually, he mentions some of his critics within the book itself. I was actually kind of amazed that the fanatics think they can address reason with faith. What are they so afraid of? Yes, I'm personally sure that objective reality will eventually grind their fantasies to dust, but that's the way of the world, after all. (I was not amazed that none of those critics apparently believed in their own criticisms strongly enough to make their books freely available via Google Books. Then again, I'd be unlikely to read one, even if it was free. Right now I'm reading a Buddhist book, which is evidently a response to that popular Christian book about the purpose-driven life.)

Just as evidence of the closeness of my reading, I'll note that on page 175 the word "unparsimonious" was spelled incorrectly, without the first "n". I also was interested by his cryogenic freezing comments on page 402, in conjunction with a note I made considering death as the loss of a unique and inexplicably beautiful pattern.

Once again, to review my overall conclusions, I think this book is an interesting and thoughtful summary of many complicated topics. If you're interested in these topics, and I admit that I am, then you'll find it a good use of your time. However, I'm somewhat befuddled what all the fuss is about.


Robert Bumbalough said...

Hello Shannon from Robert Bumbalough. I saw your link to your review of The God Delusion at John Loftus' DebunkingChristianity blog. My comments were to long for your comments section, so I placed my response as a blog entry on my silly blog.

Thanks for your review

Robert Bumbalough said...

Hello Shannon:I posted my comment on your The God Delusion review.

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Best Wishes