Wednesday, December 19, 2007

BOOK REVIEW - For the God Question, a Biological Perspective

reposted from:
Chris Street comments are in bright green;
highlights in yellow blockquotes.

The God Delusion. By Richard Dawkins. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, New York, 2006.
ISBN-13: 978-0-618-68000-9. 406 pp. Hardcover, $27.


That a book so forthrightly titled (no subtitle necessary!) and forcefully argued as The God Delusion could reach and make an extended stay on the upper strata of the best seller lists over the past months may tell us something about a shifting cultural climate. It may be a changing Zeitgeist (a term the author employs late in his book for just such welcome raisings of consciousness) to counter the excesses of those who have aggressively pushed a narrow religious agenda upon the mainstream.

The book’s success certainly tells us something about the unique abilities of its author, Richard Dawkins. Dawkins, who has made his name as a distinguished biologist and literate explainer and defender of evolution, is, as a public person, also legitimately deserving of his publisher’s moniker as “the world’s most prominent atheist.”

The two—scientist and atheist—don’t necessarily go hand in hand, but Dawkins here meshes his scientific knowledge and scientific worldview with a welcome freshness and directness in examining all aspects of the “god” question, a matter often treated with kid gloves and a philosophical abstruseness intended, if not to be understood, at least not to offend. Dawkins works very hard to be understood, bringing his considerable knowledge, insight, and clarity of expression to his cause.

Dawkins also hopes not to offend—I think he really does try to couch his arguments to appeal to the higher impulses of intelligent believers. But not giving offense is not the highest item on his agenda. In fact, society’s “hands-off” attitude toward religion, an “undeserved respect” by which generations of people have been raised to give religion a free pass, allowing it to avoid the no-holds-barred critical scrutiny all democratic societies apply toward politics and everything else, is one of the things Dawkins very much wants to change.

“I am intrigued and mystified by the disproportionate privileging of religion in our otherwise secular societies. . . . What is so special about religion that we grant it such uniquely privileged respect?”

A number of other such big consciousness-raising themes resound throughout these pages.

1.Atheism can no longer be marginalized and ignored. It is a respected intellectual tradition. Atheists and agnostics far outnumber Jews and even most other religious groups. Dawkins hopes to raise the consciousness of people who have had religion pushed on them and wish they could leave that tradition: “To be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one,” he writes. “You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled.”

2.The God hypothesis is a scientific question, one that can, in principle at least, be answered empirically with a yes or no result. The existence of God is thus subject to legitimate scientific scrutiny, bringing to bear all we are learning in the research laboratory to a question that used to be considered one of opinion only. “The presence or absence of a creative super-intelligence is unequivocally a scientifically question, even if it is not in practice—not yet—a decided one,” he writes. Did Jesus have a human father? Was his mother a virgin? Did Jesus come alive again, three days after being dead? “There is an answer to every such question, whether or not we can discover it in practice, and it is strictly a scientific answer.”

3. Evolution by natural selection is the creative force that provides all the biological complexity we see on Earth. This “illusion of design” fools those unfamiliar with evolution (the majority of people, unfortunately) into thinking a master designer must be at work. Biologists know that no such hypothesis is needed.

4.Arguments for God’s existence all have pungent counterarguments. Dawkins himself spends some time on a number of them: The Argument from Beauty, The Argument from Personal “Experience” (the most convincing to those who have had one, “the least convincing to anyone else, and to anyone knowledgeable about psychology”), The Argument from Scripture, The Argument from Admired Religious Scientists, Pascal’s Wager, and Bayesian Arguments.

He has fresh things to say about all such arguments. How do you account for inspired works of art, the religious mind asks? Answers Dawkins: “Beethoven’s late quartets are sublime. So are Shakespeare’s sonnets. They are sublime if God is there and they are sublime if he isn’t. They do not prove the existence of God; they prove the existence of Beethoven and Shakespeare.” “Visions” and other personal experiences of God seem astonishing to the beholder, but “the formidable power of the brain’s simulation software . . . is well capable of constructing ‘visions’ and ‘visitations’ of the utmost veridical power.” He cites data showing that an overwhelming majority of members of the National Academy of Sciences and Fellows of the Royal Society are atheists. So much for admired scientists sharing the religious sensibility.

As for scripture, which means so much to so many, Dawkins cites chapter and verse of utter contradictions and the calls to violence and child-abuse and murder and wonders if religious people have even read the book they admire so highly. Even so, it doesn’t really matter. “Although Jesus probably existed, reputable biblical scholars do not in general regard the New Testament (and obviously not the Old Testament) as a reliable record of what actually happened in history, and I shall not consider the Bible further as evidence for any kind of deity.” He quotes the “farsighted words” of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote to John Adams, “The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” (One of his subthemes is that the founding fathers of the American republic were not the “Christians” imagined by today’s religious right but something very close to deists, agnostics, or, yes, even atheists.)

Dawkins saves his biggest guns for the most powerful argument of all, one that doesn’t depend upon personal subjectivity: The Argument from Improbability. Some observed phenomena about life is correctly extolled as statistically improbable. Theists think the argument falls in their favor. Dawkins sees exactly the opposite. The argument, in his view, “comes close to proving that God does not exist.”

In a core chapter “Why There Is Almost Certainly No God,” he calls the argument the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit. This is reference to the amusing image attributed to the physicist Fred Hoyle. Hoyle said the probability of life originating on Earth is no greater than the chance that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, would assemble a 747 airliner. It is the creationist’s favorite argument, and it seems powerful to those uninformed by natural selection. This is where Dawkins finds that biologists seem to have something up on some physicists who may understand natural selection intellectually but apparently not viscerally. Suggests he: “Perhaps you need to be steeped in natural selection, immersed in it, swim about in it, before you can truly appreciate its power.”

The argument, Dawkins says, “could be made only by somebody who doesn’t understand the first thing about natural selection: somebody who thinks natural selection is a theory of chance whereas—in the relevant sense of chance—it is the opposite.” In fact, as he sets out to show in the chapter (I think successfully), “Darwinian natural selection is the only known solution to the otherwise unanswerable riddle of where the information content [in living matter] comes from.”

The insights of evolution make biologists wary of the way that the idea of chance is so often misinterpreted. “A deep understanding of Darwinism teaches us to be wary of the easy assumption that design is the only alternative to chance, and teaches us to seek out graded ramps of slowly increasing complexity,” writes Dawkins. “The illusion of design is a trap that has caught us before, and Darwin should have immunized us by raising our consciousness. Would that he had succeeded with all of us.”

He notes that the “scientifically savvy” philosopher Daniel Dennett has pointed out that evolution counters one of the oldest ideas we have: “the idea that it takes a big fancy smart thing to make a lesser thing. . . . You’ll never see a pot making a potter.” But as Dawkins points out over and over throughout this book, the incremental processes of evolution through natural selection do just that. “Darwin’s discovery of a workable process that does that very counter-intuitive thing is what makes his contribution to human thought so revolutionary, and so loaded with the power to raise consciousness.”

Again Dawkins clearly summarizes the point: “Chance and design both fail as solutions to the problem of statistical improbability, because one of them is the problem, and the other one regresses to it. Natural selection is a real solution. It is the only workable solution that has ever been suggested. And it is not only a workable solution, it is a solution of stunning elegance and power.”

Along the way Dawkins brings a biologist’s unique perspective to some pesky problems, such as the anthropic principle. Physicists seem to get tied up in knots writing about the anthropic principle, perhaps fearing that it provides fodder for the design hypothesis for the universe. The idea that the universe is apparently finely tuned for life as we know it (us) to exist—six constants have to be pretty much “just so”—is loved by what Dawkins calls “religious apologists,” a fact he finds strange. “For some reason that makes no sense at all, they think it supports their case,” he writes. “Precisely the opposite is true. The anthropic principle, like natural section, is an alternative to the design hypothesis. It provides a rational, design-free explanation for the fact that we find ourselves in a situation propitious to our existence.”

The anthropic idea—more or less that if the conditions weren’t right we wouldn’t be here to speculate about it—“has a faintly Darwinian feel,” Dawkins finds.

“What the religious mind fails to grasp,” he writes, “is that two candidate solutions are offered to the problem. God is one. The anthropic principle is the other. They are alternatives.”

The God solution seems deeply unsatisfying. “A God capable of calculating the Goldilocks values for the six numbers would have to be at least as improbable as the finely tuned combination of numbers itself, and that’s very improbable indeed.” He calls it the “Divine Knob-Twiddler” argument, and again sees that our tendency to resort to it “may have something to do with the fact that many people have not had their consciousness raised, as biologists have, by natural selection and its power to tame improbability.”

I found on every page of The God Delusion passages worth underlining that I want to turn to again and again. Dawkins has created here something not just for the nonreligious and those leaning that way—a powerful call for the respectability and intellectual validity of nonbelief—but a book also full of substance for any scientifically inclined reader. It repeatedly calls forth the powers of natural selection to provide understanding and insight into a natural world that deserves our highest and clearest levels of inquiry and curiosity.

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