Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Book Club: The GOD Delusion

The GOD Delusion
Richard Dawkins 2006
Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston; New York

This book has been on the shelves, when it hasn't been sold out, for a few months, and many others have already reviewed it - including P.Z. Myers. I reviewed his review previously, in a weird sort of meta-review. A Google search for ["God Delusion" Review] resulted in about 523 000 hits, in contrast to the 58 100 hits for ["My Tank is Fight" Review]. In other words, I'm pretty late getting on the bandwagon for this, even though I paid full retail price for this book and deliberately chose to buy only recent non-fiction books. Oh well, hopefully I can say something about this book that hasn't been said before by too many people. I'll probably drift off onto tangents in this review; I'll try to keep those to a minimum, and create separate posts for such musings.

The GOD Delusion is divided into 10 chapters of varying length. Chapter 1 is, not surprisingly, the introduction, in which Dr. Dawkins describes himself, his motivations for writing this book, and some of the reactions he expects to get from it. Here he defines "God" in two ways: first by devoting a few pages to "Einsteinian" religion, in which the word "God" is used as a convenient shorthand synonym for "the entire universe" or "that which generates awe". The second definition of "God" is in the more widely-appreciated "supernatural entity with a particular interest in humanity" use of the word, and he makes great pains to distinguish between the two definitions, because the Einsteinian form has generated so much confusion in the past; the oft-quoted saying of Dr. Einstein "God does not play with dice" is presented to really mean something different, and altogether more reasonable, than "No sparrow's fall goes unnoticed". Chapter 1 is also where we are presented with Dr. Dawkins' particular style of presentation and argument. Detractors, and expected detractors, are allowed to speak their own words, with the author's commentary presented after the (often shockingly insensate) quotations. Certain co-arguers, for wont of a better term, particularly Daniel Dennett, are also quoted at length, so much so in certain parts of the book I wondered about the necessity of purchasing one of that philosopher's recent works (I wonder no more: I want Breaking the Spell, and his other books).

The next two chapters present a coherent definition for the target of this book: the scientific hypothesis that God exists, and was responsible for various activities such as the creation of the universe. This book is consistently placed in the "Science" section at bookstores - but it doesn't belong there. More than once, Dr. Dawkins refers to The GOD Delusion as a book about religion - and one strong theme of this book is that religion is the opposite of science. However, given the relentless, pure-reason, well-argued thrust of this book, I'm not particularly surprised that book stores are reluctant to place it in the "Religion / Spirituality" section anywhere near such pap as is placed upon those shelves.

This brings us to chapter 4, the heart of Dr. Dawkins' argument. The probability argument against God can be boiled down to, essentially, God's existence is unlikely because God must be very complex and the probability of a complex thing spontaneously generating is extremely unlikely. Dr. Dawkins establishes this argument through sections demolishing both the supposed simplicity of God, and by demonstrating how probability applies to God.

The anthropic principle is often used by theists as "evidence" that God must exist, since look how fantastically unlikely it is that we'd be here otherwise. Dr. Dawkins points out the stupidity (or lies) of this argument by demonstrating that the anthropic principle is an alternative to the God hypothesis, not support for it. Evidence that supports the anthropic principle is evidence that directly contradicts the existence of God, since the anthropic principle explains the fact of our existence (and the existence and characteristics of the Earth, the solar system, and the rest of the universe) without resorting to God in any form. Dr. Dawkins summarised the chapter at the end in six points, working through the logic from the observation that the universe is complex through to the hope that Physics will soon find its "crane" (as opposed to a "skyhook") as good as Biology's Evolutionary Theory.

Dr. Lee Smolin's hypothesis about black holes and multiverse / universe selection is discussed, as an interesting hypothesis that relates to the anthropic principle (we exist because black holes exist, essentially), but isn't required to be true for the anthropic principle to hold. I read Dr. Smolin's The Life of the Cosmos a few years ago, and I really liked it - the basic argument is well laid out, with lots of support.

Anyway, back to The GOD Delusion. Chapter 5 is a discussion of the possible origin of religion in early human evolution, in which Dr. Dawkins presents his hypothesis relating to childhood learning. Dr. Myers talked about this in his review, and I've already discussed this in my meta-review of Dr. Myers' review. The next few paragraphs here are a disparate collection of haphazard musings based on notes I wrote down while reading this book.

There are a few interesting tidbits beyond the central argument of chapter 5. On pages 175 and 176, Dr. Dawkins describes a soldier as one who is trained to act as an automaton, an unthinking extension of the commander's will. I think this is a severe mischaracterization of modern militaries and soldiers. Yes, soldiers are trained to obey orders - but they are also trained to think about certain types of problems (often spatial / geographical) in certain ways, improving their problem-solving skills for certain situations - for example, modern combat. Much later, on pg 233, Dr. Dawkins states that soldiers are trained to kill. This is incorrect; soldiers are trained to defeat their opponents, a larger pool of options than merely killing exists. I don't want to go off on too much of a tangent here, so I'll post a more thorough exploration of my opinions of soldiers and militaries later.

Children are a favourite subject and example throughout this book. Dr. Dawkins describes children as automatic creationists, given that natural selection is counter-intuitive to humans. He's trying to make a point about creationists being juvenile in their thinking patterns, but I don't like his example. I just spent about 10 minutes throwing search terms at Web of Science, but I couldn't find an article describing some recent research I heard about a few weeks ago, which I suspect is mentioned somewhere here. If I remember correctly, a group of Finnish (Swedish?) teachers and researchers set out to discover how difficult the concept of Natural Selection would be for young children to grasp, and found that five-year-olds had little trouble with concepts like heredity (things look like their parents) and differential survival (some things will die more often than others).

As a weird example of my brain function, Dr. Dawkins' reference on pg 187 to a book by Lionel Tiger triggered an association. Tiger talks about studies in which it was demonstrated that written words that a person agrees with are actually easier for them to see - at low light levels, words you like will be visible on a sheet of paper while words you don't like will not appear. Then I looked again at the glossy dust-jacket for The GOD Delusion. It shows up so poorly in many photographs because it's very high-gloss silver - and the word GOD is written in low-contrast white. Is this some method of attracting attention, either of atheists who focus on the word "Delusion", or of theists who see both "GOD" and "Delusion" at the same time? Or am I just way out on a strange limb, here?

On page 188, Dr. Dawkins talks about "homeopathic magic", a term I don't like - it's redundant. His stated example is the horn of rhinoceroses (rhinoceri?), poached in Africa for sale in China as an aphrodisiac. I have seen evidence that this practice is based on a further delusion - belief in the magical powers of rhino horn are actually very rare in China, but the African poachers think it's widespread. So perhaps a more relevant example could be found?

I'll write a separate post about where my brain went when I read the bit on page 192 about genes competing "...not by direct molecule-to-molecule combat...". What if there are genes that litterally fight molecule-on-molecule? I've been reading too much about transposable elements lately, I suppose.

There's an excellent analogy of developmental biology on page 197. I'll just quote Dr. Dawkins here:

There is no one-to-one mapping between genes and units of anatomy or behavour. Genes 'collaborate' with hundreds of other genes in programming the developmental processes that culminate in a body, in the same kind of way as the words of a recipe collaborate in a cookery process that culminates in a dish. It is not the case that each word of the recipe corresponds to a different morsel of the dish.

(emphasis by Dr. Dawkins) Many atheists and agnostics have speculated or argued that religion was designed (intelligently) by ancient cynical con-men as a tool to control society and enrich themselves, based on the fact that those in high religious regard often do wield high political and social powers. But an argument about memes and memeplexes results in the presentation that it's more likely that religions have themselves evolved as memeplexes, without conscious goals or design for any purpose other than their own continuation. It's a powerful argument, especially when the exception of Scientology (probably designed from scratch by L. Ron Hubbard) is presented, and the idea of evolutionary dynamics dictating the fates of faiths is an idea I find amusingly ironic.

Chapter 6 examines human morality and ethics. The arguments are continued in chapter 7, with a harsh dissection of the Old Testament of Christianity's bible. The basic point of these two chapters is that religion is not required for moral behaviour, that arguments from theists decrying the amoral lives of atheists are based on stupidity, ignorance and fear, and that nobody really uses religion as a basis for morality anyways - if they did, we'd very quickly lock them up as deranged criminals, after their spree of infanticide, genocide, rape, assault and general unpleasantness.

My mind wandered off to another strangeness during the discussion of ethics (trains running over pedestrians) among the Kuna tribe of Central America (page 225). Dr. Dawkins claims the Kuna are a "tribe with little contact with Westerners and no formal religion". I find the absence of formal religion among any group of humans as either highly unlikely or a major difficulty for Dr. Dawkins' arguments about the roots of religion! The story itself, attributed to work by a Harvard biologist named Marc Hauser, seems fishy - the Kuna are asked about hypothetical ethical dilemmas, involving crocodiles and canoes rather than trains and rail switches. But there are no crocodiles in central America - those big green scaly things are alligators. And alligators can quite reasonably be thought of as having a mind and intentions, where a runaway train self-evidently does not. This might impact ethical dilemmas based on predatory reptiles.

Back on the ethics of atheists, Dr. Dawkins speculates about atheists in prison, but notes that since disbelief is strongly correlated with both education and income, which are strongly negatively correlated with prison, it's hard to make any supportable claims about the superiority of the atheist's ethical system. Two points here: one, Dr. Purrington of Swarthmore college in Pennsylvania recently asked the EvolDir mailing list for help aquiring data on prisoners with PhDs in Evolutionary Biology (and related disciplines), and "control" data about prisoners with PhDs in Divinity or Theology. Two, there have been a few studies linking rates of violent crime, teen pregnancy, and some other ethical things with icreasing frequency of strong religious belief. The data are out there already, and I think a good meta-analysis along these lines would be fun to read.

The whole argument about the progression of the Zeitgeist, the general feeling in a society of what's right, and what's going on, is very well written. Carlo and I have discussed things like this in past, each of us (I think Carlo said it first) saying things like "have you noticed that the most technologically advanced societies are those that pay the least attention to traditions?". Dr. Dawkins here lays out these discussions and arguments in fine detail, and I really like what he says. I'll post a short idea I had here sometime, about predicting the future of societal attitudes.

Dr. Dawkins occassionally has problems with quotes - he talks about some things that Donald Rumsfeld said, without providing a direct quote, in opposition to Dr. Dawkins' usually strategy of giving enough rope. He also repeatedly refers to "the American Taliban" without once formally defining the word "Taliban" or really laying out why he finds the former Afghan government and current American Fundamentalist Christian policy-makers so creepily similar. I get his points; I just would have liked a clearer comparison rather than page after page of well-written ranting.

Chapter 9 has attracted much attention, both from idiots and from others. I have seen several on-line atheists write that they would not go so far as Dr. Dawkins to label religion as child abuse. His examples, cases of religiously-motivated terrors visited upon children, certainly qualify as abuse, but it is more difficult to make the link directly back to religion itself. I'm happy with the label, but many others may not be so easily persuaded. Certainly the point about terms like "Christian child" or "Muslim child" are non-sensical the same way a term like "Liberal child" would be is well taken, probably by many more people. Unfortunately, before chapter 9, Dr. Dawkins uses the terms "child" and "childhood" ambiguously. Before I started chapter 9, I wasn't sure he was going to discuss religion as abuse of children or as abuse of childhood. Those are not fully interchangeable concepts. He means the word "child".

The final chapter, strangely titled "a much needed gap?" (I don't really get it, sorry), is excellent. Dr. Dawkins goes through the four supposed benefits of religion and religious belief: explanation, exhortation, consolation and inspiration. The first two are dealt with in short order, partly because the previous nine chapters have covered much of that ground. Consolation, and religion's ability to do it, is discussed and disposed of over a handful of quote-rich pages. This is Dr. Dawkins at his best - presenting what dissenters have said, and then thoroughly demolishing them with overwhelming argument, reason, example, and skill. Inspiration is where science completely destroys religion - all gods presented by all religions have always been too small, too feeble, too vulnerable to the real beauty of the universe, to ever compete with the sheer joy of scientific knowledge, the pursuit of that knowledge, and the wonder that comes from contemplating questions that could not have been asked at all in an earlier age. Carl Sagan is quoted many times, along with several other important scientists and philosophers.

The last few pages deal with contemplation of scales of time, space, and probability that we humans did not evolve to cope with. It's an interesting little discussion about what, for example, odds of one in a billion really mean when presented in a universe of untold billions or trillions of stars and planets. However, there's a quote on page 371 that I suspect is not completely true. Steve Grand says (among other things) "Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event [in your childhood] took place." I remain unconvinced that certain atoms, notably of elements like Calcium and Strontium or that are bound into long-durability molecules such as myosin, are experiencing rates of turnover in my body sufficient to replace all of them over a decade or two. The much-mentioned idea that each of us contains Strontium-90 in our bones in place of a few Calcium atoms as a result of (mostly American) above-ground nuclear tests during the 1950's argues against such fast turnover rates.

There's a little mistake (I think) on page 372: water boatmen (insects of family Corixidae) are described as not needing three-dimensional modelling software in their brains because they live on a two-dimensional surface. I'm pretty sure corixids actually spend most of their time in the 3D world below the surface - it's water striders (Gerridae) who may lack good 3D video cards.

I'll end this over-long review with a little speculation about scales along similar lines to the last few pages of The GOD Delusion. Dr. Dawkins says:

There is a sense in which we animals have to survive not just in Middle World but in the mcro-world of atoms and electrons too. The very nerve impulses with which we do our thinking and our imagining depend upon activities in Micro World. But no action that our wild ancestors ever had to perform, no decision that they ever had to take, would have been assisted by an understanding of Micro World. If we were bacteria, constantly buffeted by thermal movements of molecules, it would be different. But we Middle Worlders are too cumbersomely massive to notice Brownian motion.
(emphasis by me). The description of "our wild ancestors" rings false: if we had, at some point many hundreds of millions of years ago, ancestors that transitioned between "Micro World" and "Middle World", we must have had wild ancestors that did rely on an "understanding" (that is not the correct word) of Micro World. Additionally, each Middle Word animal develops from a single cell. Even if the typical metazoan egg is too large to occupy Micro World, sperm are much smaller. Did the half of you derived from your father have to deal with the phenomena of Micro World?

Image credits:
Corrixidae: a Russian webpage.
Gerridae: Alex Wild.
Cover of The GOD Delusion:


Carlo said...

This is a book that I really want to read (and now I have time to do so).

Dawkins is a guy who I respect like 95% of the time. Once in a while though, the guy just flies of the handle and starts talking about stuff that probably should have been thought out a little better.

The first time I heard Dawkins talk about religion, I thought he was a bit over the top, but then someone asked me, "Do you disagree with anything he actually said?" And when I thought about it, the answer was no.

Dawkins made me realize the useless degree of respect I still held for religion (especially in the elderly). Now I have absolutely no respect for superstitious cultures/religons at all*; Thanks Dawkins!

Carlo said...

*This asterisk has no meaning...

TheBrummell said...

I agree completely (especially about the meaning of the asterix).

1. More than 95% of the time, but less than 100% of the time, Dawkins says great stuff in the form of devastating, well-thought-out arguments. But he is human, so he occasionally makes mistakes. Fair enough.

2. Even when I don't like what he's saying, I usually don't disagree - except the little error stuff, like getting confused about waterboatmen and water striders.

Emmanuel Goldstein said...

Dawkins goes way beyond what science is capable of in making his political and religious pronouncements.

This is not science education, it is propaganda for Scientism.

His book is as fine a statement of the atheist faith, and what they would like to do to the believers, as I have seen.

Many men... more talented intellectually and politically, from the French Revolution, through Leon Trotsky's campaign against religion in the Soviet Union, to Mao's China and the attempts to enforce atheism in Tibet in our own time...have attempted to destroy religon.

All have self destructed.

And reading Dawkins, I see no reason to believe any thing is going to be different this time.

Carlo said...

"Many men... more talented intellectually and politically, from the French Revolution, through Leon Trotsky's campaign against religion in the Soviet Union, to Mao's China and the attempts to enforce atheism in Tibet in our own time..."

Maybe you've failed to realize that authors such as Dawkins, Harris or Dennett are advocating against dogmatism of any kind. Maoist China and scientific rationality are not the same. "Scientism" is bullshit made up by folks like the Templeton foundation. And finally, I don't really see how the French Revolution a) self-destructed or b) tried to 'destroy' religion. It was actually more about removing the catholic church's economic and political power over France (it owned most of France's land). I don't remember the French government banning religion or anything.

Give some sources for your claims or alternatively, if you're just going to spout nonsense, you may as well do it with people who may actually buy it...

TheBrummell said...

...the atheist faith...

As soon as you start spouting oxymorons, I ignore you. Actually, I'll give you one freebie, since you didn't dive into the ad hominem attacks right away.

Please back up your claims - there's no upper limit on comment length here.

a) the French Revolution
Self destructed? Tried to destroy religion?

b) Leon Trotsky's campaign against religion in the Soviet Union
Just Trotsky? Yes, the USSR can be said to have tried to destroy religion, and a valid argument could be made that it self-destructed - but neither indicates that either 1) atheism is factually incorrect or 2) atheism was the cause of the failure of Soviet Communism

c) Mao's China and the attempts to enforce atheism in Tibet

Um, that's not finished yet - China has not, to my knowledge, self-destructed yet. Even if it had, the same arguments apply here as to the USSR, with the addition of the complex differences in popular faiths and religious activities in China over the past 1000, 100, 50 or 20 years.

Certainly, it can be argued that Dr. Dawkins is not particularly effective in his arguing, or that you, personally, remain unconvinced (how can I argue against that point?), but your rantings do nothing to refute any of the claims against religion, irrationality, and faith made by Dr. Dawkins in The GOD Delusion.

I invite you to continue to try, however. Read chapter 1 to find out why Dr. Dawkins' particular brand of atheism is not equivalent to a religion.