My Favorite Holiday Treat? Richard Dawkins

By Mark Trodden | January 5, 2007 10:29 am

The holiday season is typically a time when most of us over-consume in almost every category possible. I am certainly no exception to this. From dinners with friends, to the chocolate tucked away in every nook and cranny of the house, I certainly ate more than my share. And the special bottles of wine our friends and we opened on Christmas day would alone count as over-the-top.

However, by far my most enjoyable consumption of the holidays was Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, which I truly ate up.

Dawkins’ demolition of religion takes a straightforward, pedagogical and clear path through the common arguments for a deity, the different flavors of belief, the fallacy of design and the beauty of evolution. In the second half of the book, he also takes on some of the commonly discussed arguments for religion as a moral compass, and then finishes up with a discussion of why he feels it is so important to speak out against religion, particularly in today’s society.

The first half of the book is, for my money, excellent. The arguments are not particularly complex, nor are they phrased in particularly scholarly terms. They are based on the simple, clear fact, that there exists not one shred of evidence for one or more deities in the universe. Dawkins’ discussion of this is, at every step, to be seen through the lens of evolution. While most of the time he focuses on purely biological (genetic) evolution, he also hypothesizes here and there about memes (units of cultural imitation – something that should be familiar to any of us that have spent significant time in the blogosphere), when discussing how something as extravagant and expensive as religion is able to propagate and evolve.

My only quibble with the first part of the book is when Dawkins takes a few pages to go beyond the evolutionary explanation of the illusion of biological design to describe the possibility of a similar explanation of the illusion of design in the values of the fundamental physical constants – the anthropic principle.

The discussion of the actual anthropic principle is perfectly fair and the cursory sketches of how various hypotheses about quantum gravity (the string theory landscape and eternal inflation, or Smolin’s proposal that black holes may spawn daughter universes with different values of the constants) might provide a mechanism through which to invoke it, are also fine. However, Dawkins does take a somewhat dismissive attitude to physicists who are thus far unconvinced by these suggestions. In fact, invoking Susskind’s book, he writes

Susskind (2006) gives a slendid advocacy of the anthropic principle in the megaverse. He says the idea is hated by most physicists. I can’t understand why. I think it is beautiful – perhaps because my consciousness has been raised by Darwin.

Ignoring the snotty tone (if I enjoy it when he’s using it on creationists, I guess I have to stomach it here), I do think this is an unfair comparison. Physicists holding a healthy skepticism about the anthropic principle are not comparable to people who are skeptical about evolution. In the case of evolution, way before Darwin and Mendel there was obvious observational evidence that some traits were passed from generation to generation (kids frequently look like their parents, for example). This made it perfectly reasonable for Darwin to hypothesize that whatever is responsible for this (without knowing the details) could provide the agent through which natural selection might become effective. The explanatory power of the hypothesis of natural selection became clear quite quickly (and made immediate predictions), and our later understanding of genetics has filled in many of the remaining gaps.

In the case of physics, attempts to construct a theory of quantum gravity, such as string theory, are extremely exciting to many of us, and there are many reasons to be impressed by the theoretical progress that has been made. From these theories, there are now some indications that the values of some physical constants (the cosmological constant is the most frequently discussed) may have an anthropic origin. However, there are presently no experimental reasons to think that these theories are the correct description of quantum gravity, and we do not even know for sure that the anthropic explanation is inevitable within these theories (experts are still arguing about this point). Therefore, most physicists are not particularly concerned with whether the idea is beautiful or not, but whether or not it is correct. What Dawkins is seeing is not resistance to the idea because physicists are not as fully immersed in the idea of evolution as he is, but rather the scientific method at work, with rightful skepticism and restraint until more details and connections to experiment are achieved.

Nevertheless, despite my slight disagreement with Dawkins’ tone in this section, it didn’t affect my overall delight in the book.

Much of the second half is devoted to arguments against the idea that religion might be good for society even though it preaches a completely incorrect view of reality. I enjoyed these parts, learned some things, and agreed with much of them. However, I did find them intrinsically less interesting than the first parts. This is because I tend to think that the arguments being refuted are like arguing that because people smoking marijuana commit less violence, are typically more friendly and open, and see the world as a happier place, we should all spend our time high (in fact this might be better, because even then we’d acknowledge that we were taking the drugs in order to see the world in a false way).

If you haven’t read Dawkins’ book, I highly recommend it. If you are truly brainwashed into religion, I doubt you will get much out of it. However, although it is fun for atheists like me, I would like to hope that its true power is in the effect it might have on religious people who have some doubts. It is a clear and unvarnished refutation of every argument for religious belief. To this end Dawkins even felt the need to include a discussion of the arguments for gods put forward by many of history’s great minds.

Scientists, of course, don’t care how famous the person is, just whether the argument is sound and can be tested. We therefore should not need to be told why not to fall for such arguments, for they are all basically refuted by the lack of evidence for a deity. Nevertheless, in the press significant weight is attached to the pronouncements of religious scientists, and religions themselves use them to great effect. I was therefore grateful to Dawkins to taking on these famous arguments and their proponents, to counteract this publicity.

I’ll leave you with part of one of my favorite passages, in which Dawkins quotes anthropologist Pascal Boyer:

Boyer did research on the Fang people of Cameroon, who believe …

“… that witches have an extra internal animal-like organ that flies away at night and ruins other people’s crops or poisons their blood. It is also said that these witches sometimes assemble for huge banquets, where they devour their victims and plan future attacks. Many will tell you that a friend of a friend actually saw witches flying over the village at night, sitting on a banana leaf and throwing magical darts at various unsuspecting victims.”

Boyer continues with a personal anecdote:

I was mentioning these and other exotica over dinner in a Cambridge college when one of our guests, a prominent Cambridge theologian, turned to me and said: `That is what makes anthropology so fascinating and so difficult too. You have to explain how people can believe such nonsense.’ Which left me dumbfounded. The conversation had moved on before I could find a pertinent response – to do with kettles and pots.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion, Science and Society, Words
  • Matt

    My problem with Dawkins and his ilk is that he’s making the already piss-poor state of science in this country worse. He’s fighting religious idealism with scientific idealism. A pragmatist, even an athiestic pragmatist, would look at the US and say, “OK, religion is so entrenched in the culture that no amount of measured arguments against it is going to make it go away. So let’s see what we can do to get all those believers to swallow a teaspoonfull or two of the scientific method.”

    Instead, when the most vocal scientists claim that there is no room for faith in science, even more believers are going to walk away thinking that there is no room for science in their faith. Which is just utter nonsense – it isn’t a binary choice. An athiest might wish it were, but hanging on to that ideal won’t do much to serve the state of science in this country in the long run.

    My other beef with Dawkins is that, while I enjoy his keen wit and intellect, his repeated insistence that religion is somehow the prime factor in war and violence is almost shockingly dogmatic and naive. We humans don’t need much of an excuse to attack one another. Without religion, we’d find some other convenient excuse in a heartbeat. I loved the Southpark episode that made the same argument – for those that haven’t seen it, Dawkins actually founds a utopian future society without religion. But now the great wars of the future are between “The United Athiest Alliance” and “The Allied Athiest Union”. Or something like that anyway.

  • http://yourdailyllama.blogspot.com wolfgang

    > religion is somehow the prime factor in war

    It is pretty much established fact that Stalin and Mao were the worst mass murderers in history and both were atheists.
    Hitler of course is a close third (although he is certainly first in terms of psychopathy) and he was not religious in the usual sense either.

    Of course, this cannot excuse all the slaughter done by the catholic church etc., butI would think there is no empirical evidence that atheists make for better people …

  • http://yourdailyllama.blogspot.com wolfgang

    I forgot the obvious point; If you think scientists are rational and better people than you may consider the work of famous and rational scientists like Edward Teller, John Von Neumann, and many others.

  • http://quantumfieldtheory.org nc

    You can see where Dawkins is coming from. He reads Susskind’s enthusiastic account of the M-theory landscape, and accepts that there is some kind of evidence for it. For example, maybe Dawkin’s read Hawking’s Briefer History of Time which only discusses string theory and no alternatives.

    Dawkins then concludes that natural selection, which has already been shown to be true in biology, is also needed to solve the problem of all the Standard Model solutions implied by the 10^500 different possible states of the complicated 6-dimensional Calabi-Yau manifold. Everything in physics is solved by Darwin.

    I’ve read all of Dawkin’s books, which despite being popular and mainstream are actually quite deep, unlike the superficial fare of textbook explanations. However, Dawkin’s is a defender of mainstream ideas. He famously had a dispute with Stephen Jay Gould just because the latter put forward a slight modification to Darwinian evolution, suggesting that evolution is discontinuous unlike Darwin’s continuous change. (In fact, since information comes from the discrete data sotred in the 4 letter code of DNA, you would expect any changes to be discrete, albeit “smeared out” by continuously varying environmental factors like food supply and external temperature, so the length of the tail of an animal will not superficially always appear to vary discretely [unless a major block of DNA gets lost or added between one generation and the next, so an animal is born with the tail missing or whatever].)

    So I’m suspicious that Dawkins is extremely conformist, and would be a stringer if he was in physics. Does anyone know if he has ever championed a non-mainstream cause in his life?

  • http://evolutionarydesign.blogspot.com/ island

    Kettles and pots

    How dare you compare witches to, to, to… … … GOD!?!?… lol

    I love to read Richard Dawkins, and I have always held much respect for him as a scientist, which is where I’d rather he stayed, but anyway…

    I can’t help but notice that Richard Dawkins believes that the universe appears designed, so he must also believe that it IS designed without the “megaverse” to lose this most apparent implication in. How can that be wrong?

    And Lenny thinks that the universe appears designed without the landscape, as well. So much so, that Lenny says that we will be hard pressed to answer creationists if the landscape fails!… which I fully expect will be the case. How can that be wrong?

    Now, I know that this isn’t the angle that scientists would pursue if the constraint on the forces is strongly anthropic and we are not here by accident, so what they’re really admitting to is that the observed universe is governed by a strong anthropic cosmological principle, until somebody proves definitively that this is not the case. Given the admissions of these and other leading scientists throughout the years, there is NO WAY that my logical conclusions about what they believe can that be wrong, unless they’re just lying to us, right?

    So what I’d like to know is where I can find the vast body of honest scientists who surely must be researching this MOST OBVIOUS implication with all the earnest of loopy and stringy theories, given the extreme significance to the most accurate cosmological model and principle that this carries. Not to mention QG and the ToE. An honest scientist would expect to find major sponsorship and many people researching the number one most apparent suspect, given even the most remote possibility that this is true, so why don’t they really believe what the physics is telling them?!?!?’

    What the hell is wrong with these people?

    Is this why atheists like Paul Davies are forced to take money from organizations like the Templeton Foundation… since dishonesty runs rampant among scientists who only CONDITIONALLY ADMIT that the universe appears to be under a strong anthropic constraint?

    I thinks so.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Great review, Mark. I really wish that Dawkins had stuck mostly to arguments against the truth of religion, rather than whether it makes people better or worse. He’s given his critics an easy way to caricature him and change the subject, by claiming that Dawkins wants to criminalize religion or that he thinks a non-religious society would be utopia. (It’s already happening in this thread!)

  • http://yourdailyllama.blogspot.com wolfgang

    Sean,

    Dawkins claim (and Mark’s and yours) is that religion is ultimately bad for society and thus that an atheistic society would be better.
    I don’t think I change the subject when I mention that atheistic societies have a pretty bad track record so far.

  • Matt

    Sean, for clarification, Southpark did the charicturing, not me. I just thought it was funny.

    But my main criticism of Dawkins is his joining the YECers in turning the religion/science debate into an ideological polemic, which is not only dogmatic and simplistic, but also harmful to science in the long run.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    wolfgang, could you point to where I’ve actually made the claim you attribute to me?

  • http://yourdailyllama.blogspot.com wolfgang

    Sean,

    according to Wikipedia you are “an outspoken atheist” (and of course regular readers would agree).
    I guess it is possible (although unusual) to be “an outspoken atheist” and at the same time think that religion is not bad for society.

    If this is the case, I apologize for my statement,

    but then I would suggest you write a blog post clarifying that while you are an atheist you do not think religion is bad for society and thus atheism would improve our lives or something similar.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Yeah, me too Wolfgang. I mentioned above that I agreed with a lot of what Dawkins said in the latter half of his bok but went to great pains to point out that I thought it wasn’t really relevant to why I am an atheist. I am an atheist because religion is incorrect and tere is no evidence for the existence of a god.

  • Danny Z

    There are other problems with Dawkins’s arguments against religion, even beyond those brought up by Matt and wolfgang. The main one I see is that he’s got an incredibly narrow and, dare I say, ignorant perception of what religion is. All his arguments are against the existence of the specifically Abrahamic idea of an omnipotent creator god. If all religions shared this concept it would be an excellent argument against religion. Unfortunately for Dawkins this is far from the case. There exist essentially atheistic religions, such as Buddhism and Jainism. Also unfortunate for his crusade is the fact that the stories about creation are not the central aspect of what constitutes a religion. Many religions don’t even HAVE creation myths (Buddhism and Taoism being two excellent examples). For example, certain sects of Buddhism postulate that the universe has no beginning at all, that it constantly creates and destroys itself in the eternal dance of cause and effect, so the idea of a creation myth is completely meaningless. Though it’s more of a hobby for me than anything else, as someone who appreciates the vast diversity of religion it’s deeply galling to hear him talk about “religion” as if all of them are clones of the Big Three.

    Unfortunately, he’s a fundamentalist of the same cloth as the creationists. His particular fanaticism just happens to be directed by scientific materialism instead of biblical literalism. His statements about how religion is the source of all evil hold just as much logical water as the creationists’ claims of the opposite. People do wonderful and shitty things to each other no matter what philosophical bent they are, and to say otherwise is to completely deny the evidence of history.

    Science will not defeat fanaticism with fanaticism. This war is not about coming out on top as The Only Truth. That will never happen, and it’s best if we accept that. This war is about getting the what we need to continue the progress that our future depends on. Acting like the people who want to eradicate science isn’t going to help us get what humanity needs. WE have to be the grown-ups here. They’re sure not going to.

  • http://evolutionarydesign.blogspot.com/ island

    But my main criticism of Dawkins is his joining the YECers in turning the religion/science debate into an ideological polemic, which is not only dogmatic and simplistic, but also harmful to science in the long run.

    Somebody give this man a cigar.

    It’s really funny too, because extreme proponents either side will simply go into a state of silent denial when their bluff is called for contradicting science to the point of the absurdities that I like to point out, but there is also an equally ideological anti-geocentric mentality among scientists that Carter called, well, “anticentist dogma”.

    But when you look at CMB map, you also see that the structure that is observed, is in fact, in a weird way, correlated with the plane of the earth around the sun. Is this Copernicus coming back to haunt us? That’s crazy. We’re looking out at the whole universe. There’s no way there should be a correlation of structure with our motion of the earth around the sun — the plane of the earth around the sun — the ecliptic. That would say we are truly the center of the universe.
    -Lawrence Krauss

    Okay, so we can and should look for ways to “explain away” the implication, but not looking for ways that the first most apparent implication might be true… is pure anticentrist dogma, not science.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Perhaps I should just write a post explaining that, when I say over and over again that my beef with religion is that it’s false, not that it’s bad for you (about which the evidence is much murkier), I really mean it! Or maybe, this being the internet, it wouldn’t make any difference.

  • Matt

    I think I’ll step in and defend Sean here and say as long as I’ve been reading his posts, I’ve never seen anything to indicate he thinks anything of the sort. Nor have I recoiled at the type of dogmatic smugness that pervades dawkins.

    Sean doesn’t exude certainty the way Dawkins does. I can’t stand certainty. It bugs the crap out of me in the religious-minded. And even more so in the realm of science. Science is suppose to be the hallowed home of uncertainty. Yes, a tea pot in orbit between earth and mars is highly improbable, but the fact that science allows for the minute possibility is what makes it so philosophically powerful and unique. No amount of evidence to the contrary will change a religious person’s ideas about the universe. But bring them a valid picture of said tea pot, and every scientist on the planet will be an instant convert. Every scientist but Dawkins, who has staked his professional reputation on the tea pot’s not being there.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Danny Z, have you read his book? Dawkins explicitly explains what he is talking about and explains what he thinks about all diferent shades of religion. I’d look at that before denouncing him. If you have read it, I don’t understand why you’d write your comment.

  • Vince

    “If you are truly brainwashed into religion, I doubt you will get much out of it.”

    Phew! That’s one less book to worry about! I tell you, Mark, I have lots of books I need to read, many of them physics books, so having one less book to read is really good. I better go tell my perfectly rational friends who were once atheists but who decided to believe in God and religion, of their own free will, that they don’t have to read this book since they won’t get much out of it. I think they were brainwashed, I don’t know. It’s hard to brainwash rational grown-ups who were once atheists. But people don’t really have to brainwash others to convert them over to believing in God, what with all the miracles that happen, like a group of people praying for and with someone with a deadly disease like cancer, followed by a visit to the good doctor (who didn’t incorrectly diagnose the patient) who tells them the cancer completely disappeared. I’ve talked with people who have reported them and I don’t think they’re lying to me. Nor do I think all those scientists out there who report a value of G = 6.67 x 10^-11 Nxm^2/kg^2 are deceiving me. Nor do I thinkNor do I think the Gospel and other New Testament writers were trying to deceive me and that’s just one reason why religion or belief in God will never go away.

    The miracles, Mark! The miracles! They’ve happened many times to many rational people. Cool!

  • http://yourdailyllama.blogspot.com wolfgang

    Sean,

    in your own review of Dawking’s book you wrote
    “I’ve mostly seen this stuff before, and already agree with the conclusions. ”
    I thought this means you agree with Dawking’s conclusions.
    My fault, I guess.

  • Danny Z

    I haven’t read this particular book, no, and I’ve never said I was talking about it specifically. I was talking about his work in general; I apologize that I didn’t make that more clear.

    He’s done quite a lot more ranting on the subject than this one book, however. He’s written quite a few essays–not to mention his participation in several documentaries–on the subject as well, many of which I’ve read. Whether or not he disclaims in this particular instance, the point remains that he consistently oversimplifies the argument to the point where its grounding in reality becomes dislodged, whether he says his views are about a specific belief or not, and his polemics do nothing but degenerate the possibility of meaningful dialogue that will lead to constructive solutions. His attitude only reinforces the stereotype of scientists as condescending know-it-alls, which makes it harder to get people who might listen to give you the time of day. Sure, his high-brow snark can be very amusing, but it can only hurt the cause of science in the long run.

  • http://www.gregladen.com Greg Laden

    Instead, when the most vocal scientists claim that there is no room for faith in science, even more believers are going to walk away

    Matt: I understand what you are saying and I think you are essentially correct that being politic is important.

    But there is a hard and fast reality here and I’d like you to look at it from the point of view of science educators and researchers. The truth of the matter is that there is no room for faith in science. Period.

    Given this, it should be the responsibility of the faith-folk to deal with that problem. The starting point for negotiations here should be that faith be firmly barricaded outside the classroom and the laboratory. That has to happen as surely as crazy ideas about the laws of thermodynamics and nuclear decay rates need to be barricaded outside the engineering of power plants and nuclear submarines, and belief in bigfoot should be barricaded outside the fish and game department’s budgeting for wildlife surveys, and belief in alien spacecraft flying all over the place needs to be barricaded outside of planning for airport radar systems. Period.

    This is not a fight that science educators and scientists have chosen. It is a fight being forced onto us. We, therefore, should be setting the terms of the argument and simply not allowing compromise within our own sphere any more than the guy who lives across the street from you who does not like your taste should be allowed into your house to put up his favorite wallpaper.

    Cheers,

    GTL

  • http://sandwalk.blogspot.com Larry Moran

    There are many different versions of the anthropic principle. The one Dawkins is referring to is described on page 144.

    The anthropic answer, in its most general form, is that we could only be discussing the question in the kind of universe that’s capable of producing us. Our existence therefore determines that the fundamental constants of physices had to be in their respective Goldilocks zones.

    In other words, it’s not a big surprise that the fundamental constants are exactly what is required for us to be here. It can’t possibly be any other way.

    So, the only question is whether it’s possible to have a universe with other values for the physical constants. Some physicists think not. It they are correct, then we’re just very lucky that the only possible universe just happens to be compatible with life. That idea is perfectly in line with the anthropic principle so physicists who believe in fixed constants can’t be “skeptical” about the anthropic principle.

    Other physicists think there can be an infinite number of universes with a multitude of different physical constants. Whether these universes actually exist (multiverse) or not is irrelevant. The fact remains, we inhabit the rare universe that’s compatible with life so it’s not a suprise that the constants are “fine tuned.” Physicists who believe this cannot be “skeptical” about the anthropic principle.

    That leaves only one group of physicists who are truly skeptical. Those are the theists who think that God made the universe and the physical constants.

    Mark, is that the group you’re referring to? It doesn’t seem like it to me. You seem to think there are atheist physicists who are skeptical about the anthropic principle. Do you have a different interpretation of the anthropic principle and, if so, could you share it with us?

  • http://sandwalk.blogspot.com Larry Moran

    Let’s all walk on tippy-toes so we don’t offend some of our colleague who believe in silly superstitions. That’s the strategy that scientists in North America have been following for the past 100 years.

    How’s it working so far? :-)

  • Matt

    Greg,

    I couldn’t agree more. There is no room for faith in science. (I realize now that I articulated my thinking poorly in that sentence). Intelligent design being the most obvious point in favor of your argument – trying to to create some faithy-version of science cripples both the science and the faith. Religion should absolutely be kept out of classrooms, labs, public policy, funding decisions, etc. The problem is that in attacking absurd ideas like ID, the scientific community assumes that the battle must be waged against religion as a whole, when in fact, he real offender is one confused subset of religion.

    I’m sure there’s much to pick apart in that statement, so instead let me focus my argument more generally (can I do that? Focus generally? Hmm ..) I’m trying to argue that while a scientist should never attack a problem with a set of sacred, unchallengeable assumptions, science has plenty of room for PEOPLE of faith, once both sides accept that science and faith seek to answer very different questions about the universe.

    Maybe I’m being idealistic myself, and my hope that a different tenor from the scientific community might be more winsome with the majority of this country is naive. But I can’t help but shake the thought that ID itself was a christian reaction to the more vocal and arrogant tone of the scientific atheism in the past several decades.

    Remember that (despite the countless obvious examples to the contrary), for most of the history of the scientific method, the church was an invaluable ally to science/natural philosphy. Mendel, Newton, the Royal Society, etc. Even early Islam contributed to huge advances in science. Somewhere recently (in this country, anway – the islamic world got set on the wrong track centuries ago), this has changed. The religious folks aren’t likely the be the peacemakers in this war. Maybe it’s asking too much of scientists to suggest toning town the attacks when so much is at stake. But it seems to me to be the only truly pragmatic solution.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    My coments about physics in the above post have nothing to do with whether the scientist in question is religious or not. To be clear, when I refer to skepticism about the anthropic principle, I mean skepticism about it being the correct reason why we observe the value of, say, the cosmological constant, to be what it is. For it to provide an explanation, and not just be an observation, the initial things one needs are a mechanism to allow for a landscape of possibilities and a way to populate that landscape. Further, this framework has to have predictions that can be tested.

    I don’t believe or not believe in fixed constants. Rather, I’m proud to say “we don’t know” and to continue working to try to figure out how to develop, frame and test hypotheses, until one starts predicting and passing experimental tests. Most physicists are in this camp I would guess, and are most definitely skeptics in the correct sense of the word.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Hi Matt,

    But I can’t help but shake the thought that ID itself was a christian reaction to the more vocal and arrogant tone of the scientific atheism in the past several decades.

    ID was a reaction to the court decisions banning the teaching of creationism in schools. The christian right then had to try to find a back door mechanism to try to get it in. You can read the leaked Discovery Institute “Wedge Document” to see the thinking.

    This kind of disgusting behavior, to deliberately mislead people and try to replace scientific progress by dogma is not something we should seek to find common ground with, or hide from. It is something that we should fight.

    If scientists pretend that other, patently false, ideas might be right, just to appease, for example, christians, then I want no part of that.

  • Belizean

    Sean wrote:

    Perhaps I should just write a post explaining that, when I say over and over again that my beef with religion is that it’s false, not that it’s bad for you (about which the evidence is much murkier)…

    This is a mature position with which I sympathize.

    The problem that I, as an atheist, have with Dawkin’s position is that it is, by contrast, sophomoric. His views on the subject seem to be stuck at the level of realization that many atheists reach in adolescence.

    He fails to acknowledge, for example, the societal need for an effective means of mass suppression of inherent human impulses (which, incidentally, can be entirely atheistic as it is in China). He naively believes that argument alone is sufficient to dissuade people from committing acts of murder or theft. [As if cogent arguments to this effect exist; they don’t.]

    To me he is like a child raised from birth within an old mansion, who — noticing that the mansion’s support columns are inefficiently designed — begins to demolish them with a sledge hammer. The proper procedure is to erect superior supports, before demolishing the existing ones, lest the entire edifice collapse on one’s head.

  • Matt

    Mark,

    I’m apparently doing a really terrible job of saying what I mean. I agree, agree agree, a thousand times over. (And I know the roots of ID/creationism, just was being semantically lazy). We shouldn’t try to compromise with ID, with literalist creationism, no, no no. That’s absolutely where you should fight.

    When religion confronts science with deception and falsehood, fight.

    But when religion lands on ground where science has nothing to say (like a unobservable, untestable, unmodelable spiritual realm outside of reality) what’s the harm in science remaining silent? Rather than hollering “But that’s absurd! We can’t test it or model it!”

    You proudly claim “I don’t know” in your previous post about the AP. Bravo. All I’m suggesting is that more of that might help all the people who voted for Bush calm down a bit, without sacrificing any of our hard-fought ground in the fight against all forms of spaghetti-monsterism.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    wolfgang (#18), did you even notice that the entire point of the very same paragraph from which you got that quote was to explain that we should stick to arguing that belief in God is false, not that it’s harmful? You can see why extra posts to emphasize the point would be a waste of electrons — people read what they want to read, no matter how clear you may try to be.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Hi Matt,

    I really don’t spend too much of my time arguing with people who believe in an “unobservable, untestable, unmodelable spiritual realm outside of reality”. I wouldn’t even know what people who believe in such things mean by “spiritual”, since this hypothesized realm has no interactions, by definition, with our own. Why not call it “blue” or “cocky” or “dumb” rather than “spiritual”, since we have no way of assigning qualities to it other than our imagination. But the fact is that most religious people do think that in some way, their god or gods intervene at some level in the universe, and it is precisely that kind of wooly thinking that we should not have to be quiet about.

    Belizean, we’ve been down this road before, of course. I don’t go around killing people, Sean doesn’t, I expect you don’t, and none of us need the belief in an invisible man to stop us.

    I hear the argument that Dawkins is sophomoric again and again and I really do not think it holds any water.

  • http://yourdailyllama.blogspot.com wolfgang

    > did you even notice t

    Yes I did notice that you state
    i) you agree with Dawking and
    ii) but lets only argue about his 1st point,
    because it is simpler (I would say ‘trivial’).

    I came away with the impression that you agree also with his points 2) and 3) as would be natural for an atheist, but did not want to discuss it too much.

    I understand now that I misread your blog post.

    > You can see why extra posts to emphasize the point would be a waste of electrons

    I would agree that blog posts about a topic which has been discussed for more than 1000 years without any tangible conclusion would most likely be a waste of time and electrons.

  • Matt

    Mark,

    OK. Fair enough. Maybe making diplomats out of scientists is a bad idea.

    Cheers, and thanks for the great site.

  • invcit

    Mark,

    When you are inside religion, it all seems much less wooly. Religion is a collection of different beliefs that more or less support each other to form a worldview. To us it may not seem to be so consistent, but to a believer us pointing out inconsistencies seems like nitpicking, because most of the beliefs support each other. An analogy would be that we wouldn’t be willing to give up all of physics just because our current theories seem to predict a cosmological constant that is off by a huge amount. Of course we know what the difference is – our scientific worldview has been put together very carefully by performing experiments and thinking really hard, whereas religion seems more or less arbitrary from the standpoint of evidence (though for many, compelling psychologically). But to reach such an insight coming from a religious background requires a lot more than seeing a few arguments refuted by an atheist. I know this from experience, having grown up in a religious home. Of course I was aware of the arguments, but it is difficult to shift one’s whole worldview, especially when it means to start disbelieving personal experiences, such as feeling the presence of god, and similar things. I think most people simply do not have the intellectual “drive” required to overthrow their whole world.
    This raises an interesting, if somewhat sneaky, question: what is the most effective way to convert someone to atheism?

  • http://quantumfieldtheory.org nc

    “… what is the most effective way to convert someone to atheism?”

    That’s obvious: solve quantum gravity completely, explain the big bang singularity, dispense with a creator. Until you discredit the last mystery in the universe, freaks will continue to believe in paranormal and such like, even getting papers on to arXiv about it, for example http://arxiv.org/abs/physics/0312012

  • From so simple a beginning

    Regarding comment #18 , I went through Sean’s review too. And what I see is this


    1. Does God exist? Are the claims of religion true, as statements about the fundamental nature of the universe?
    2. Is religious belief helpful or harmful? Does it do more bad than good, or vice-versa?
    3. Why are people religious? Is there some evolutionary-psychological or neurological basis for why religion is so prevalent?

    All of these questions are interesting. But, from where I am sitting, the last two are incredibly complicated issues about which it is very difficult to say anything definitive, at least at this point in our intellectual history. … [emphasis mine]

    What more do you expect ?

    And regarding Matt’s comment (#27) , we should be very careful before conceding to an “unobservable, untestable, unmodelable spiritual realm” . It would be scientifically unethical to give it any more respect than an unobservable, untestable, unmodelable ether or a phlogiston, for example. What disturbs me most is that many ask implicitly for a greater respect to religion as compared to other untestable theories.

    Why should we give it anymore respect than the theory that we are all living inside a ‘Matrix’ ? By signing “Non overlapping Magisteria” treaties with untestable religion, we are tilting the balance against ‘Matrix’ theologists, for example.

    To give a tongue-in-cheek answer to Belizean(#26) , may be one should explore the possibilities of controlling human impulses by convincing people that a Matrix exists ;)

  • From so simple a beginning

    Oops ! sorry about that. Didn’t notice the later comments by Sean(#28)
    /wolfgang(#30) .

  • conical flask

    Belizean:

    dawkins devotes a lot of space in the book to refuting the argument that we need religion because otherwise we would lose our morality. He points out that there is good evidence of innate (probably genetically determined) morality. There is a very interesting discussion of a study which found that humans all over the world, even obscure tribes who have no religion, hold similar moral and ethical principles.

    nc (post 4): dawkins has indeed championed a non-mainstream cause in his life – read The Selfish Gene. In that book he put forward the idea that natural selection takes place at the level of the gene, rather than at the organism or species level. This has since become the orthodoxy.

  • Corcinn

    I suppose it’s no surprise people are rushing to mischaracterize what Dwakins has actually written.

    Ferex, from Belizean:

    He fails to acknowledge, for example, the societal need for an effective means of mass suppression of inherent human impulses (which, incidentally, can be entirely atheistic as it is in China).

    Begs the question of what “inherent impulses” humanity needs surpressed. The statement says a bit more about you than Dawkins, methinks.

    He naively believes that argument alone is sufficient to dissuade people from committing acts of murder or theft. [As if cogent arguments to this effect exist; they don’t.]

    I challenge you to find any such opinion written by Dawkins. Gonna produce? I doubt it.

    Clearly, religion has proven sufficient to prevent acts of murder or theft in the real world. Heh.

    To me he is like a child raised from birth within an old mansion, who — noticing that the mansion’s support columns are inefficiently designed — begins to demolish them with a sledge hammer. The proper procedure is to erect superior supports, before demolishing the existing ones, lest the entire edifice collapse on one’s head.

    What an odd little person you are. You fallacy is, of course, asserting that the mansion’s support columns are made of religion.

  • http://www.pieterkok.com/index.html PK

    I have not read the book yet, but I have seen an interview of Dawkins by Jeremy Paxman. In that interview, Dawkins very clearly states that it is not so much that God does not exist, it is that his existence is extremely unlikely in the light of the available evidence (or lack thereof). This strikes me as an eminently scientific attitude.

    One should not mistake Dawkins’ forceful argumentation with naivety.

  • Vince

    Remember, folks. You can’t show that God doesn’t exist. So “belief in God is false” is meaningless.

    Mark said: “I really don’t spend too much of my time arguing with people who believe in an ‘unobservable, untestable, unmodelable spiritual realm outside of reality’. I wouldn’t even know what people who believe in such things mean by ‘spiritual’, since this hypothesized realm has no interactions, by definition, with our own. Why not call it ‘blue’ or ‘cocky’ or ‘dumb’ rather than ‘spiritual’, since we have no way of assigning qualities to it other than our imagination.”

    Good question, Mark. Well, presumably this other realm is where God “lives”. Now, God being good and all, this means that when we enter this realm we will be living in eternal happiness. Since photons do not enter this realm, we shouldn’t call it “blue”. Since no form of pride will enter this realm, we shouldn’t call it “cocky”. Since we will be in the presence of an omniscient being, we shouldn’t call it “dumb”.

    I hope this helps, Mark. Remember the miracles, Mark. And remember that belief in the existence of other universes means belief in the existence of unobservable, untestable, unmodelable realms outside of our universe. Well, you can only detect them through gravity. Similarly, you can only detect Heaven through the existence of miracles. See, Mark, string theorists and religious people have a lot in common.

    “But the fact is that most religious people do think that in some way, their god or gods intervene at some level in the universe, and it is precisely that kind of wooly thinking that we should not have to be quiet about.”

    Right on, Mark. You haven’t forgotten about the miracles after all. Remember, there are many accounts of miraculous cures of fatal diseases and the doctors have no idea how. And they usually are associated with some sort of prayer. Now you can call that a coincidence, but I won’t.

  • Vince

    Oh and let’s not forget about our intellectual abilities, our ability to reason, and our ability to exercise free will. If believe that such things are a result of particles and forces, well then, you must show this. And as far as I know, nobody has succeeded. Therefore, I shall go on thinking that God is somehow involved in giving us those abilities and that we really do have free will, and nobody can tell me that I shouldn’t. Nor can anyone tell string theorists or loop quantum gravity theorists that their theories are wrong, since we don’t have any data either way.

    Wow, the human mind is pretty mysterious, eh? So, there’s quantum gravity and the human mind: two things we need to explain.

  • http://growthratenlgn.wordpress.com Tyler DiPietro

    Oh and let’s not forget about our intellectual abilities, our ability to reason, and our ability to exercise free will. If believe that such things are a result of particles and forces, well then, you must show this.

    Particles and forces? Surely you do not expect such a reductive explanation for how the mind works, anymore than you do for evolution. You need to go to a bit higher of a level than that. Neuroscience and cognitive psychology have gone a long way in establishing that electro-chemical stimulation in our brain is behind our behaviors, what we lack an overarching explanation for is subjective experience. While we don’t have an explanation, it is not quite an “explanation” to defer to some ineffable “ghost in the machine”.

    Therefore, I shall go on thinking that God is somehow involved in giving us those abilities and that we really do have free will, and nobody can tell me that I shouldn’t.

    And I’ll go on thinking that the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Invisible Pink Unicorn copulated to produce them. You can think whatever you want, but what you are thinking in this case is not and explanation for anything. It’s taking a gap of current knowledge and stuffing God into it.

    Remember, folks. You can’t show that God doesn’t exist. So “belief in God is false” is meaningless.

    One can write a relatively simple program to generate things that we cannot prove are false. Would you say the statement “There are specially adapted invisible cows roaming mars at sonic speed” is meaningful? How about the rejection of that claim?

  • Vince

    Oh, and let’s not forget healings from the touch of a priest known as Padre Pio. Before you go tossing out belief in anything not explainable by fermions and bosons, make sure you chit-chat with those people first. Oh and let’s not forget Padre Pio’s stigmata. So far, it hasn’t been proven that they were fake, and hence I will believe in them since I can, rationally, because no other alternative has been shown. So, if string theorists won’t be chastised on this blog for believing in unobservable strings, unobservable universes with unobservable galaxies in them and different unobservable laws of physics and physical constants, then please don’t chastise people for believing in “spiritual realms” and God, both of which have more indications of actually being there, not to mention have more to offer to this reality than the former.

    Of course, our questions will be answered when we die. Well, they will be answered only if there is something “on the other side”. If not, it doesn’t matter since our minds will stop functioning, and there will be, well, nothing.

    You know, I think I will take out that book from the library. I’m kind of interested now.

  • http://www.jessemazer.com Jesse M.

    But Vince, there’s a problem with justifying a belief in a particular religion based on miracles, and that’s that the followers of all those other religions also tend to report plenty of miracles favoring their own preferred deity, not to mention plenty of believers in various forms of magic/psychic phenomena who report events which according to modern science would be deemed “miraculous”. It seems to me we can draw three possible conclusions from this:

    1. Human beings have a tendency to exaggerate, lie, fail to recognize mundane explanations, selectively remember coincidences or other unlikely events which are bound to happen sometimes, etc. All reported “miracles” can be explained in this way.

    2. Human beings have the tendencies noted above; nevertheless, some number of the miracles reported by my supernatural belief system are real, while none of the ones reported by other supernatural belief systems are.

    3. Either humans don’t have these tendencies, or they aren’t sufficient to explain a large number of miraculous events reported by people of many different beliefs. Thus, all reported miracles should be taken equally seriously, and the fact that they are witnessed in the context of so many different belief systems can be chalked up to beliefs creating reality/God working in mysterious ways/demons trying to trick us/etc.

    What’s your preferred solution to this problem? If some wiccans report a miraculous medical cure following some ritual they performed, what would you think the most likely explanation would be? Of course I pick 1, because I’ve never seen any “miracle” story that didn’t have a plausible mundane explanation (including lies and exaggerated memories on the part of the people reporting it), and “extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence”.

  • Vince

    Beats me. One can say that if there is a God who cares about human beings, then miracles can happen to anyone regardless of faith. I certainly think everything before “etc.” in #1 is true.

    I’ll give it some more thought.

    Thanks for replying to my comments.

  • Belizean

    Mark wrote:

    Belizean, we’ve been down this road before, of course. I don’t go around killing people, Sean doesn’t, I expect you don’t, and none of us need the belief in an invisible man to stop us.

    Nor do billions of Chinese. The point is about Dawkin’s naive view of human nature, which leads him to dismiss religions atheistic or not as inessential.

    And, yes we have been down this road. To summarize our positions:

    I believe that you are restrained from murder by the Christian customs and taboos that you have internalized as a consequence of your being raised within Western Christendom.

    You believe that your lack of murderous impulses or control over them is entirely natural for human beings, independent of culture, and reinforced by logical reasoning.

  • http://www.valdostamuseum.org/hamsmith/ Tony Smith

    In his Edge 2007 commentary, Dawkins said in part:
    “… The Final Scientific Enlightenment
    I am optimistic that the physicists of our species will complete Einstein’s dream and discover the final theory of everything before superior creatures, evolved on another world, make contact and tell us the answer.
    I am optimistic that,
    although the theory of everything will bring fundamental physics to a convincing closure,
    the enterprise of physics itself will continue to flourish …”.

    Einstein described his final theory as being “… a theorem which at present can not be based upon anything more than upon a faith in the simplicity, i.e., intelligibility, of nature: there are no arbitrary constants … that is to say, nature is so constituted that it is possible logically to lay down such strongly determined laws that within these laws only rationally completely determined constants occur (not constants, therefore, whose numerical value could be changed without destroying the theory). …”.
    ( see Wilczek’s article in the Winter 2002 edition of Daedalus. )

    Mark quoted Dawkins as saying in his 2006 book “The God Delusion”:
    “… Susskind (2006) gives a s[p]lendid advocacy of the anthropic principle in the megaverse. He says the idea is hated by most physicists. I can’t understand why. I think it is beautiful …”.

    Has Dawkins 2007 by advocating a “final theory” with constants “… whose numerical value could … not … be changed without destroying the theory …”
    changed his mind
    from Dawkins 2006 approving Susskind’s landscape whose solutions have constants with a widely varying range of numerical values ?

    Since Einstein stated that his “final theory” is “… based upon … a faith in the simplicity, i.e., intelligibility, of nature …”,
    it seems that his “final theory”, being based on “faith”, should be regarded as the statement of a pantheistic faith-based religion,
    especially since Einstein himself said “… I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists …”.

    As to what is pantheism, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says:
    “… A defining feature of pantheism is allegedly that God is wholly immanent … pantheism denies the theistic view that God transcends the world …
    the most complete attempt at explaining and defending pantheism from a philosophical perspective is Spinoza’s Ethic …
    philosophical Taoism is one of the best articulated and thoroughly pantheistic positions there is …
    There are probably more (grass-root) pantheists than Protestants, or theists in general, and pantheism continues to be the traditional religious alternative to theism for those who reject the classical theistic notion of God. …”.

    So,
    it seems to me that
    when Dawkins says at the conclusion of his Edge 2007 commentary
    “… I am optimistic that this final scientific enlightenment will deal an overdue deathblow to religion and other juvenile superstitions.”
    and
    when Sean says “… my beef with religion is that it’s false …”,
    their statements are clearly not applicable to pantheism a la Spinoza, Einstein, philosophical Taoism, etc.

    Therefore, maybe it would be useful for them to revise their statements by replacing the word “religion” with a word that restricts the applicability of those statements to some subset of theism.

    Tony Smith
    http://www.valdostamuseum.org/hamsmith/

  • Agosto

    “And Lenny thinks that the universe appears designed without the landscape, as well. So much so, that Lenny says that we will be hard pressed to answer creationists if the landscape fails!… ”

    Hee hee, Susskind just gets more hilarious! He thinks he can frighten us into agreeing with his anthropic bullshit by threatening us with religion if we don’t go along quietly. Clearly religious people don’t have a monopoly on the idea that you should believe some things because they are good for you…..I wonder if Lenny will be born again if the landscape implodes. Not, of course, that he would ever admit that that can happen…..

  • Levi

    As a long time reader of Cosmic Variance (and of Preposterous Universe in the old days), I can vouch for the fact that Sean has always been careful to distinguish between the two claims: 1/ Religion is true. 2/ Religion is good for society. The first claim is the one he seems to have strong views about.

    I haven’t read Dawkins’ newest yet, since I’m a bit behind in my reading. Yesterday I finished “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding”, by David Hume, which was written in 1748. It’s the clearest argument I’ve ever seen for why religious beliefs (of all religions) are almost sure to lead to counterfactual claims about the world.

    I have never been able to decide whether the kind of polemics that Richard Dawkins engages in in some (but not all) of his books changes the minds of many religious people. I remember reading a short biographical essay by a biologist, who grew up in a very religious family. She wrote that she never left religion, exactly. It was just that at some point in graduate school she realized she didn’t believe the old stories anymore. There may be no royal road to atheism.

  • John Phillips

    Don’t you just love it when that little bit of fundie that is present in most true believers pops up above the parapet attacking anyone with the temerity not to accord their beliefs the respect they demand, the very same respect they generally refuse to those of differing or no beliefs.

  • Chinmaya Sheth

    Levi writes “There may be no royal road to atheism.”
    Not really, most people don’t take religion literally anyways. And even the ones who do can find that road, might want to see:

    http://www.nakedemperor.netfirms.com/

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19775

    says it all sufficiently completely.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    For you perhaps Arun; certainly not for me.

  • Levi

    What I found interesting about the NYRB essay is that the books by Wolpert and Roughgarden are only mentioned in the first few paragraphs. The rest of the essay is devoted to “The God Delusion”. Dawkins certainly manages to get peoples attention, whether they agree with him or not.

  • conical flask

    the NY times review linked to by Arun hits the nail on the head for me too. I’m a big fan of Dawkins’ books, but The God Delusion is little more than him saying he rejects religion. I agree with pretty much everything in it, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good book.

    On the other hand, despite its deficiencies, it’s probable that TGD will reach out and touch people in a way that high brow stuff like Wittgenstein won’t (because the masses don’t read wittgenstein).

  • Vince

    Wow, this is lots of fun. Thank you, Cosmic Variance.

    “Particles and forces? Surely you do not expect such a reductive explanation for how the mind works, anymore than you do for evolution.”

    But I thought everything in the universe can be ultimately reduced to particles and forces, and blah blah. You know, physical laws. At least that’s the position you should take if you do not believe in any other reality except the physical universe.

    “You need to go to a bit higher of a level than that. Neuroscience and cognitive psychology have gone a long way in establishing that electro-chemical stimulation in our brain is behind our behaviors, what we lack an overarching explanation for is subjective experience. While we don’t have an explanation, it is not quite an “explanation” to defer to some ineffable “ghost in the machine”.”

    What exactly does neuroscience and cognitive psychology have to say about our intellectual abilities? I don’t know, I’m curious. What about how “the mind” chooses an option, thus forcing our fermions and bosons to move around in a certain way?

    “And I’ll go on thinking that the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Invisible Pink Unicorn copulated to produce them. ”

    Material beings cannot copulate to produce something which is immaterial, namely the human mind and human will. Plus, no such monsters or unicorns have been detected (as they should be if they exist as material beings, which they must since they are made of spaghetti and unicorn matter, which we should detect gravitationally and also by bumping into them) around expectant mothers.

    “You can think whatever you want, but what you are thinking in this case is not and explanation for anything. It’s taking a gap of current knowledge and stuffing God into it.”

    Maybe that’s true. But if everything about us can be explained through material processes ultimately derived from the laws of physics, fine. If not, then something immaterial is somehow responsible for them. If the latter, I offer no explanation. I just don’t like the idea that we are ultimately under the control of physics, since to me it means that everything in the universe, including humanity is ultimately meaningless.

    “One can write a relatively simple program to generate things that we cannot prove are false. Would you say the statement “There are specially adapted invisible cows roaming mars at sonic speed” is meaningful? How about the rejection of that claim?”

    Okay, well, you can’t prove that God doesn’t exist is what I was trying to say. As for your claim, by simply visiting Mars you can prove the statement to be false and you’ll find that no such cows exist.

  • Grigory

    Wolfgang:

    You’re certainly right that the worst mass murderers have been atheists. Dawkins and Sam Harris et al. get into that. You have to remember that what they are really criticizing is unfounded belief in any form, whether it be faith in God or faith in German destiny or whatever… it doesn’t matter at all that Hitler, Stalin etc. were atheists. They were also dogmatists, and so they fall under the umbrella of Dawkins’ criticism. When he talks about the dangers of unfounded belief, you can bet that he includes the secular religions of nazism etc.

  • Charon

    I haven’t yet read the Dawkins book, but for those interested I’ll recommend Taner Edis’ The Ghost in the Universe and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. The former addresses religion from the point of view of the modern scientific perspective, and goes into detail on Abrahamic religions. The latter addresses religion from an evolutionary psychology perspective, focusing on why people believe in religions (any religions). Yes, as noted above, that’s a difficult question, and Dennett’s discussion is necessarily sketchy, but it is a question appropriate for scientific investigation.

  • http://www.farrellmedia.com John Farrell

    It is a clear and unvarnished refutation of every argument for religious belief.
    Er, not really. While I respect the lack of enthusiasm for a priori arguments for the existence of God today, quite frankly Dawkins embarrassed himself discussing them. It’s quite clear he wrote much of this book in a hurry. As Thomas Nagle and other non-theists pointed out in their blunt reviews, he might have spared himself some embarrassment by at least acquainting himself with the original texts of arguments he felt free to dismiss as “infantile”. But to write a book against theism without discussing Wittgenstein, James, Swinburne, Hartshorne…will not really win converts. It seems more designed to encourage the already convinced materialist.

    (Nothing wrong with that, of cours.) :)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    John Farrell. I never grow tired of the use of “Er” in comments. I don’t think Dawkins embarrassed himself at all. Any amount of philosophizing will not get one past the point that there is no evidence for anything religion claims, and so Dawkins is unharmed by ignoring such work. Personally, I am uninterested (mostly) in arguments about the utility of religion. It is fantastical nonsense, and that is my problem with it.

  • Vince

    What do you mean? Religion claims healings and miracles, and there have been healings and miracles. There’s some evidence for you.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Vince, no, there haven’t been any such scientifically-documented things. Please stop trolling.

  • http://combingthesphere.blogspot.com Daryl McCullough

    Grigory writes: You have to remember that what they are really criticizing is unfounded belief in any form, whether it be faith in God or faith in German destiny or whatever… it doesn’t matter at all that Hitler, Stalin etc. were atheists.

    It seems completely off the mark to blame the atrocities of Hitler or Stalin on “unfounded belief”. It seems to me that it is the willingness to commit mass murder for one’s beliefs that is the critical factor, not the empirical evidence for those beliefs.

    Including Hitler, Mao and Stalin under the umbrella of religion is just bizarre.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    “…there is no evidence for anything religion claims…”

    There are religious systems that claim that man’s distinguishing feature is that he is a moral being.

    On second thought, agreed, there is no evidence for that.

    The quoted statement is like someone rejecting all of physics because it includes string theory.

  • breck

    This discussion is the most interesting thing I’ve read in a while. I was raised a devout catholic, but after advancing from the neighborhood blue scholar school through an elite university, little of my early faith remains. I do use my Catholic prayers and beliefs on occasion, as a crutch when I’m having a bad day. I love that, I don’t even have to pay for it.

    Anyway, it seems most of us, minus Vince, accept the fact that religions aren’t true. Question 1 is answered definitively.

    What about question 2, are religions “good for society”? I think answers to this question are arbitrary and completely dependent on how you specify what makes something “good”. You could go unlimited ways with this and arrive at opposite answers depending on how you specify “good”: “good” means more peaceful, more income, more scientific progress, etc. Because this question could be argued forever, I am not that interested in it.

    What I am very interested in, is something Belizean said:

    To me he is like a child raised from birth within an old mansion, who — noticing that the mansion’s support columns are inefficiently designed — begins to demolish them with a sledge hammer. The proper procedure is to erect superior supports, before demolishing the existing ones, lest the entire edifice collapse on one’s head.

    Question 2 asks whether or not the new columns are superior to the old ones. I think this isn’t a good question.

    I think a better question is: can we build new columns? Can we replace religion with something else? Or, even better(because I’m a believer in a determined universe), will religion be replaced by something else?

    In 100 years, will many people still be religious? In 1,000 years? If not, I imagine society will be completely different. I can’t even predict the ways, but could we agree that religion is definitely on the way out, and if yes, how long until it’s all but gone?

  • maximo shark

    I wish it were on the way out Breck, but it seems that christian fundamentalism in america is stronger than it was (my only evidence for that is that I hear a lot more about it these days). And islamic fundamentalism is just getting into its stride.

  • http://messiestobjects.typepad.com/ messiestobjects

    ..er… (heh heh). I love science. I love science because it brought me things like penecillin to stop my embarassing drip, and DVD technology to numb my mind in front of the TV with. But I’m afraid I don’t understand atheism, either. How can anyone ascribe to the idea that you know for a fact that God does not exist? Are Pat Robertson’s claims that he speaks to God ridiculous? Of course they are. Is Osama bin Laden’s certainty that Allah is ok with him being a mass murderer in his name insane? Of course it is. Does anyone have proof that God does not exist? Of course not. I myself despise the Catholic Church, and Islam, because it seems they’ve been put on this Earth mainly to cloud men’s minds.
    I agree that religion is mostly harmful. Religion should probably be abolished. But the search for truth has little to do with religion, anyway. To be a scientist, as someone mentioned in a previous comment, means never assuming you know the truth until you can hold the proof in your hand. (Or lab, or mathematically, whatever.) I think being an outright proclaimed athiest is as foolish a stance for a scientist as being a 700 club fan. The most scientifically reasonable stance seems to me to be agnosticism; I believe in an ultimate truth, whether that be God or whether that be a happy cosmic accident, but I have no evidence either way and am willing to keep my mind open. The bible and Koran and whatever other holy books are silly, if not evil fairy tales told by Men. The Universe is God, science is his communication, and it is a scientist’s duty to follow wherever that may lead.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    You are misunderstanding what atheism means. Atheism means that you do not believe in god, not that you will say with absolute certainty that one does not exist. It is true that people often use your meaning, but almost every thinking, writing atheist I know uses the definition I gave.

  • http://messiestobjects.typepad.com/ messiestobjects

    Well alrighty then… but what does it mean to say that you do not believe in God, but that you will not say with absolute certainty that one does not exist? Doesn’t that mean you are not certain of your own belief? What I mean is, that kind of sounds like “I believe God does not exist! However he might, I’m not sure.” That’s a rather uncertain definition of atheism, if you ask me.

  • http://messiestobjects.typepad.com/ messiestobjects

    I mean, if you look up the definition of atheism on wikipedia, it seems to me to be a rather semantic quibbling between those two definitions of it. If you look up agnosticism, it seems to be a much more rational approach and seems to agree more closely with general scientific principles.

  • http://messiestobjects.typepad.com/ messiestobjects

    I suppose it’s all just a matter of how you choose to express your beliefs, in the end. I think that perhaps it is enough for the less easily led among us to say, “That God with that beard in that sky in that book that those nutjobs ascribe all kinds of wacked-out unlikely and unverifiable acts to? Yeah, he’s like Santa Claus. Move alng, folks, nothing to see here.”

  • http://www.valdostamuseum.org/hamsmith/ Tony Smith

    Breck asks “… could we agree that religion is definitely on the way out …”?

    One measure might be the religious affiliation of the elected representatives of USA citizens. As the the affiliations of the 435 members of the House of Representatives and 100 Senators, according to a CNN web page (Reuters article) at http://www.cnn.com/2007/POLITICS/01/03/congress.religion.reut/
    “… for the 535 members of the 110th Congress being sworn in Thursday [4 Jan 2007]:
    Catholic 155;
    Baptist 67;
    Methodist 61;
    Presbyterian 44;
    Jewish 43;
    Episcopal 37;
    Protestant nondenominational 26;
    Christian nondenominational 18;
    Lutheran 17;
    Mormon 15;
    United Church of Christ 7.
    Eastern Orthodox 5;
    Christian Science 5;
    Assemblies of God 4;
    Unitarian Universalist 2;
    African Methodist Episcopal 2;
    Buddhists 2;
    Evangelical 2;
    Seventh Day Adventists 2;
    Christian Reformed 2;
    Disciples of Christ 2;
    Church of Christ 2;
    Congregational Baptist 1;
    Anglican 1.
    Reorganized Mormon 1;
    Quaker 1;
    Church of God 1;
    Muslim 1;
    Evangelical Lutheran 1;
    Church of the Nazarene 1;
    Evangelical Methodist 1.
    No affiliation 6. …”.

    It seems that only 6 out of 535 are not affiliated with some organized religion,
    so,
    since successfully elected politicians tend to reflect the beliefs of their constituents (otherwise some opponent would have defeated them by more accurately reflecting those beliefs),
    it seems to me that it is not true that “religion is definitely on the way out” in the USA.

    Also, if that is the case, I suggest that USA scientists seeking USA public funding should not emphasize any views that science is antithetical to religion, because the USA Congressmen and Senators (529 out of 535 of whom claim membership in a religion) hold the purse strings.

    Tony Smith
    http://www.valdostamuseum.org/hamsmith/

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Not quite sure what you mean by “uncertain of your own belief”. As much as is possible, I’d like to be without beliefs in the sense that anyone religious means them. When I don’t know something about the world I’d like to say “I don’t know” and be proud of it, and work hard to gain understanding. This is the opposite of thinking that faith (in the religious sense) is a good thing.

    In any case, the agnostic/atheist discussion is one that we’ve had here in many threads (you should be able to find them easily enough) and is explicitly discussed in most modern boks (Dawkins is an example), so for a nuanced and thoughtul discussion you could look there.

    Best, Mark.

  • http://messiestobjects.typepad.com/ messiestobjects

    Not believing in God is a belief; that’s all I meant by that. I wasn’t talking about religious faith, either; I dislike religion. You see, we agree: Agnosticism is exactly what you describe, it’s saying “I don’t know”. Atheism is, in itself, a belief. A belief that god does not exist, in your own words; “Atheism means that you do not believe in god”. Agnosticism is the much simpler and more scientifically accurate “I don’t know” which is what you wish to say. That’s all I was trying to get across.

  • http://www.gregladen.com Greg Laden

    Matt:Remember that (despite the countless obvious examples to the contrary), for most of the history of the scientific method, the church was an invaluable ally to science/natural philosphy. Mendel, Newton, the Royal Society, etc. Even early Islam contributed to huge advances in science. Somewhere recently (in this country, anway – the islamic world got set on the wrong track centuries ago)

    Yes, and I would modify this only slightly … only recently, in the US, etc., but in other mainly-christian countries, there is generally not the situation we see in the US and a few other places. You will find a better attitude towards science and very little of this crap in Italy, forchrissakes…

  • Mark Srednicki

    For those interested in understanding *why* religion has such staying power, I highly recommend “A Theory of Religion” and “The Future of Religion” by Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge, and , “In Gods We Trust” by Scott Atrans. All of these authors are atheists themselves, but they make a (to me) very convincing and compelling case for the inevitability of a high level of religion in any human society, irrespective of its scientfic or technological sophistication.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    Another point to remember is that one has to understand religion in order to understand the world of people.

    Let me give you a grossly simplified argument?

    Do you, in rejecting religion, reject the Bill of Rights? What does it have to do with religion anyway? Well, if you’re from a different culture, say, from India or China, and you ask – where did the Bill of Rights come from? Why wasn’t there one in contemporary India or China? you will find that the Bill of Rights stems from a particular conception of man’s place in the universe, namely, one where there is a sovereign God and that God has delegated His sovereignity to man. In the West, rights spring from all these sovereign humans. In traditional India, rights (if they may be called that) arise from the acceptance of mutual obligations.

    Since, in the West you have forgotten the theology that stand behind rights, you imagine that these rights are universal, which is utter BS. In Islam, for example, Allah has NOT delegated legislative rights to humans; only the implementation of given laws is delegated to humans. If any of your politicians could have grasped this and really understood it, there would have been no rush to create a democracy in Iraq. But because you do not understand your own theological roots, having utterly rejected and neglected them, you fall into error.

    This is not to say that human rights cannot be universalized – but there is a lot of hard work to be done then, to disentangle them from their particular origins, and to reinvent them. This work also you are unfit to do because you don’t care about religion.

    Instead of people who understand the world, you have the Dawkins on one side, and the religious nutcase or professional religionist on the other, and both wondering why the world is descending to hell in a handbasket.

    Understand this, if you can – this is not a moron who is writing.
    (Hint: Dawkins is of no help at all).
    http://forums.islamicawakening.com/showthread.php?t=1928

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    I don’t “care about” (in the sense that I know it does not describe the real world) religion, but it doesn’t mean I don’t try to understand it Arun. The entire tone and content of your last comment indicates to me that you probably haven’t read Dawkins, and if you have, you haven’t understood him. By the way, it is the religious politicians (i.e., most of them) that were in favor of the debacle that has become Iraq; atheists I know were almost universally against it, perhaps in part because they were forced to think about the real world consequences, not the imaginary world consequences.

    Still, once more, what is most relevant to me is that religions are false.

  • http://www.pieterkok.com/index.html PK

    Arun, I would say that the the Bill of Rights (and all its cousins) can be traced back to the democratic Greek (and to some extent Roman) tradition. Those societies were not Christian at all.

  • breck

    Tony, very good statistic. I guess religion isn’t going anywhere in my lifetime.

    Mark, I’ll take a look at your suggestions. My favorite theory of why religions are around is the evolutionary explanation: religion makes a society more evolutionarily fit.

  • Chinmaya Sheth

    Since I’ve commented on Hinduism and now I’ve learned a few more things about it I feel like I should comment on Arun (#76) about an issue important to me, Arun writes “In traditional India, rights (if they may be called that) arise from the acceptance of mutual obligations.”
    If you are referring to the caste system then yes it is the heavisest burden on India but not necessarily on Hinduism. The caste system is not an integral part of Hinduism as getting rid of it would not change Hinduism much; it is not in the Vedas and Upanishads. It came about through later not only revisions of the Gita but entirely seperate and personal texts that were trying to manage an ancient society (and the Indian government does have laws against it, but the laws haven’t gotten rid of ill-informed religious views). The central message of Hinduism is not of the caste system but of universal brotherhood; it is a shame that even most “Hindus” don’t know it! This is why, Arun, this universalism is not reflected in “traditional” India. And this is the message of Hinduism for which I think it should be held as equal to any other religion; even though I am an atheist.

  • Adrian Burd

    Mark,
    A nice review. Perhaps another way to view Dawkins’ comments about the anthropic principle is that, as a biologist, he is trying to give something back to physics. Of course, he might also be taking a friendly jibe at folks like John Barrow who said something along the lines of “Oh Richard, you’re a biologist, not a scientist!” (disclaimer: John was my PhD supervisor).

    I’m reading “The God Delusion” at the moment, but already I notice that so many people are misquoting Dawkins. For example, one commentator claims Buddhism and Taoism should be considered immune to Dawkins’ arguments because they do not have the same tradition of Christianity: a careful reading of “The God Delusion” shows that Dawkins is specifically not considering religions like Buddhism (see page 37-38).

    Whilst I agree that the second half of the book is a tad less interesting than the first, I feel Dawkins had to address these points. The “moral” arguments are now so commonly used to argue against atheism.

    Also, I’m afraid that I have to say, there is considerable ignorance and misunderstanding displayed by commentators hereabouts concerning biology and genetics. As a theoretical physicist who finds himself working in an interdisciplinary field, I have had to learn a great deal about these topics. When I read physicists comments on biology, genetics, DNA, evolution and the like, I am frequently (though not always) reminded of discussions about general relativity with non-physicists – I’m sure too many of us have had those types of discussions! Some people just get some very strange ideas into their heads.

    Dawkins cites several books on the history of Christian scripture. Robin
    Lane Fox’s books (“The Unauthorized Version” and “Pagans and Christians”) are both excellent, as is Bart Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus”. I’ve recently picked up (but not yet read) Geza Vermes’ “The Nativity” which has been given very good reviews. I heartily recommend any of these.

    Adrian

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  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    messiestobjects, let me take one more stab at it. Believing in something is a choice. Not having belief is the default. Therefore atheism (not believing in gods) is not the same as saying “I am certains gods don’t exist”. The problem with agnosticism (as Dawkins eloquently explains in his book) is that people do tend to get the idea that agnosticism means that you assign equal weights to the possibilities that gods do or do not exist, when there exists not a shred of evidence for them.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Thanks Adrian; I agree with your comments.

  • http://messiestobjects.typepad.com/ messiestobjects

    Believe me, I get it. But there exists no evidence that they don’t, either… Not trying to be difficult, but I think that your brand of atheism and my brand of agnosticism are rather like the differences in perception between a guy walking forwards and a guy walking backwards side by side to the same destination… after having thought about the subtle differences here all day, I think I’ve realized something that was not clearly defined in this discussion. God, as a construct, means nothing to me in that he could be anything or not. The entire Universe could be a brain cell in God’s head… or not. But I’m open to that possibility. When you and Dawkins are saying God, as someone pointed out earlier, you’re referring to a guy with a beard that actively created a bunch of stuff and not to, say, Buddhist ideas about God. I think we can all agree that religious ideas of God are absurd. It’s absurd to claim you have a book written by him or that you know what he’s thinking. I feel myself that it is less absurd to be open to the possibility that I am a quark in God’s body, literally, although in the end it doesn’t matter to me whether this is the case or not; it’s neat to think about in bed at night when you can’t sleep the same way I imagine you are up late some nights thinking about an intriguing scientific problem. The difference being, of course, you are %99.999999 more likely to solve your problem than I am mine! Anyway, this is what agnosticism means to me. (I’ve said that alot today! I ought to try to make a less sloppy statement about what agnosticism means to me!) Just open to the possibility that there is an aspect of the divine in the Universe which science hasn’t been able to get near. Or not!

  • trond

    For those interested there’s a videotaped release of a recent conference concerning science and religion called Beyond Belief 2006 on Google Video:
    http://video.google.com/videosearch?q=beyond+belief+2006

    One highlight is Neil deGrasse Tyson criticizing Dawkins, leading Dawkins to quote the philosophy at New Scientist:

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-1633003902087274674#1h17m26
    (jumps to 1h:17m:26s)

  • George Ellis

    Sean, I hope when you say “Perhaps I should just write a post explaining that .. my beef with religion is that it’s false” you are not claiming that this is a *scientific* statement. It is actually a statement of your belief position. There is no *scientific* warrent to claim it is true, although you can argue philosophically for it with all your conviction.

    As to the repeated statements above that “The truth of the matter is that there is no room for faith in science. Period.”, I am amazed by its naivety. Every funding application is an exercise in faith – faith (both yours and the granting agencies’) that you will get some worthwile results out of the work you will do with the funds granted. You can’t guarantee this will happen, but you hope it will be the case. Every time you read an experimental paper you do so in the faith that the facts reported are true and have not been misrepresented. The entire edifice of string theory/M theory is a faith based enterprise, as there is no evidence it is in fact a true representation of the physics underlying the real universe – it is pursued by a large community in the faith and hope that this might one day be shown to be true. Faith is a foundation stone of the practice of science.

  • maximo shark

    george ellis, that is simply a ridiculous comment. Faith is in no way a “foundation stone of the practise of science”. Let us recall what faith is: believing in something in the absence of evidence. Science is all about evidence – no scientist believes in a scientific idea without good evidence for it. You seem to be confusing “hoping” and wondering with having faith. When a funding application is made, both the applicants and the funding body hope there will be worthwhile results, but neither have the kind of conviction suggested by the word faith. Reckoning something is probably true is not what is meant by faith.

  • http://yourdailyllama.blogspot.com wolfgang

    > Faith is a foundation stone of the practice of science.

    I would guess it is more than just an issue of the practice of science, but
    rather some sort of fundamental belief.
    As somebody much smarter than me once said
    “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.”

  • John Farrell

    Any amount of philosophizing will not get one past the point that there is no evidence for anything religion claims, and so Dawkins is unharmed by ignoring such work.

    I note though, Mark, that the harshest reviews of Dawkins precisely on that point were by reviewers who were themselves non-theists. (Nagle, Eagleton, Orr). So I doubt they would agree with you.

    (It’s interesting to me in this sense, that even within atheism, there are feuding schools apart from the God question.)

  • Simon

    George Ellis said:
    “Sean, I hope when you say “Perhaps I should just write a post explaining that .. my beef with religion is that it’s false” you are not claiming that this is a *scientific* statement. It is actually a statement of your belief position. There is no *scientific* warrent to claim it is true, although you can argue philosophically for it with all your conviction.”

    The question of what it is that distinguishes scientific claims from philosophical ones (the problem of demarcation) is really not so simple. Is it possible that you’re trading off a false distinction between ‘scientific’ and ‘philosophical’ arguments in order to promote the former over the latter? I think it’s a false dichotomy between scientific and philosophical argument. Here are two arguments for the nonexistence of God, which I’d hesitate to designate either scientific or philosophical:

    The first is to note that the evidence (scientific or otherwise) for the existence of God is as good as the evidence of a flying spaghetti monster, or for that matter any other unobservable flight of fancy – invisible pink unicorns, fairies at the bottom of the garden, little green flying elephants inside the fridge that disappear when anyone looks, etc. If you think that most of this infinite collection of nonsense does not exist, then the probability of the existence of one member of the collection is either zero or very close to zero. Most people when they hear this argument have the immediate reaction that God is special and different from the other made up stuff. But isn’t the reason that God appears special and different from things like unicorns not that God had more evidence in his favor, but because that God happens to be taken seriously by a great number of people in modern western cultures? There were times when Zeus, Poseidon, astrology, for example, were taken just as seriously.

    The second (more interesting) argument is the central component of Dawkins’ book – did you read it? I’m not saying this argument has no flaws – but I think that the flaws are rather interesting.

    The idea is that many aspects of the universe look complicated and as though they were designed for some specific purpose – eyes for seeing for example. An important (scientific) question is how these apparently designed things came to be, and in particularly how they got to be so interesting and complex. It’s important because it seems so terrifically unlikely that complicated things could form randomly, or just be there (hence Fred Hoyle’s example of a hurricane in a scrapyard creating a 747). One possibility is that complex things were designed by a more powerful being of some kind – a God, or perhaps a super-intelligent alien. But any designer that designs something purposely has to be at least as complicated and designed-looking as the thing it designs. (You might doubt this in general, but it is certainly true of things that humans design – the most complicated of which are still less complicated than the human brain.) So then Dawkins argues that if you are trying to explain where unlikely complexity and the appearance of design comes from, saying that God designed it doesn’t help since God is guaranteed to be more comlicated and therefore more unlikely.
    So far so good you might say – we all know that apparent design of biological systems was well explained (in outline at least) by Darwin. But Dawkins next notes that a similar argument refutes claims that fine-tuning of physical constants is evidence for the existence of God. Any God who tuned the constants to unlikely values suitable for life would itself have to be equally fine-tuned and unlikely – and what could account for that? At this point we have more rebuttals of arguments for the existence of God than arguments against. But here Dawkins makes an interesting move: he suggests that we draw a lesson from the evolution of biological systems. The lesson is that the only way for complicated unlikely apparently-designed entities to come into the universe is by a gradual process starting out with comparatively simple beginnings, like evolution. If there was something like a God therefore, it must have evolved from a simple, unintelligent starting point – and this is not I think what most people mean by a God.

    I’m not sure that’s the best paraphrase – but anyway it’s all in the book. There are many places where the argument is loose, but one particularly interesting point was raised in a NY Times review: in physics we are faced with the question of why the entropy of the universe is so low, and we often explain it by saying that the universe must have been in an even lower entropy state at earlier times – basically because there is a pretty good argument that we’re not a fluctuation from a higher entropy state. But isn’t that explaining an unlikely thing in terms of an even more unlikely thing? Sean – I’d be interested to know what your view is on that.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    George, I basically agree with Simon, but let me condense my own view down to the smallest number of words. Either “God exists” is a statement about the universe and how it works, or it’s not. In the former case, I disbelieve it in the same way as I disbelieve various other empirical statements; see here. In the latter case, I think it’s a meaningless feel-good slogan, and don’t really care what your stance toward it might be.

  • http://www.valdostamuseum.org/hamsmith/ Tony Smith

    Simon said “… the central component of Dawkins’ book … any designer that designs something purposely has to be at least as complicated and designed-looking as the thing it designs …”.

    It seems ironic for Dawkins to have made the above argument against G-d, since Dawkins’ most successful book (“The Selfish Gene”) was about a simpler entity (gene) creating, and directing the evolution of, more complex entities (humans etc).

    Note that Dawkins’ argument only applies to what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy calls “the theistic view that God transcends the world”, which view is not held by, and is not applicable to, pantheism.

    Further, Sean referred to his paper “Why (Almost All) Cosmologists are Atheists” which said in part:

    “… The pictures of interest in this paper may be labelled ”materialism” and ”theism.” …
    Materialism asserts that a complete description of nature consists of an understanding of the structures of which it is comprised together with the patterns which those structures follow,
    while theism insists on the need for a conscious God who somehow rises above those patterns. …
    If we believe that the methods of science can be used to discriminate between fundamental pictures of reality, we are led to a strictly materialist conception of the universe. …”.

    Sean’s dichotomy of ”materialism” and ”theism” omits a widely-held religious “picture… of interest”:
    pantheism,
    which (as I mentioned in my comment number 46 here) includes the religious views of Spinoza, Einstein, and philosophical Taoism.
    Since, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
    “… There are probably more (grass-root) pantheists than Protestants, or theists in general, and pantheism continues to be the traditional religious alternative to theism for those who reject the classical theistic notion of God. …”,
    it would be nice for Sean to acknowledge their religious “picture… of interest”
    and to either
    make an explicit argument against it
    or
    say that it is a religion that has not been shown to be “false”.

    Tony Smith
    http://www.valdostamuseum.org/hamsmith/

  • Simon

    In regard to designers being more complex than the things they design, Tony Smith says (in #93):
    “It seems ironic for Dawkins to have made the above argument against G-d, since Dawkins’ most successful book (“The Selfish Gene”) was about a simpler entity (gene) creating, and directing the evolution of, more complex entities (humans etc). ”

    I’m no biologist, and I’m aware that by stepping out of my territory I’m liable to sound like an idiot (as mentioned in #81). But I think you have the wrong end of the stick here. Genes don’t ‘design’ the body in the way that a watchmaker designs a watch, or that God supposedly designed the universe. They are chemically encoded in DNA, and the interactions of DNA with other molecules that eventually produce a body impersonally follow the rules of quantum mechanics. They have no intention. (Obviously a person is involved in choosing to reproduce – but parents clearly don’t ‘design’ their child in the required sense.) Dawkins is quite careful, throughout ‘The Selfish Gene’, to indicate that much talk about genes is intended metaphorically, “selfish” for example. If there’s any sense in which genes are, as you say “creating, and directing the evolution of more complex entities”, it is a metaphorical sense. Not creating like a watchmaker creates a watch. (Adrian – please correct me if I’m off base!)

    The whole point of the argument in ‘The God Delusion’ is that evolution explains complex and unlikely things in a way that doesn’t posit something even more unlikely: a designer. Here I mean a real designer, not a metaphorical one.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Well put Simon.

  • http://www.valdostamuseum.org/hamsmith/ Tony Smith

    Simon said “… Dawkins is quite careful, throughout ‘The Selfish Gene’, to indicate that much talk about genes is intended metaphorically, “selfish” for example. …”.

    Dawkins (in The Selfish Gene) said:
    “… they [the genes] swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines …
    … we are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes …”.

    Those words are really quite explicit. Dawkins may have written other words trying to soften those quoted (such as by describing them as “intended metaphorically”), but it seems to me that any such softening is a transparent attempt to have it both ways:
    1 – get the impact (and book sales) of dramatic counter-intuitive statements declaring little genes to be in control of big humans; and
    2 – avoid facing all the consequences of those statements by saying that his words were only “intended metaphorically”.

    Of course, people should read Dawkins’ works for themselves and make up their own minds. In doing so, readers might consider that Dawkins said about humans:
    “… We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators …”.

    If we humans can so rebel, then do we do so through free will ?
    If so, does Dawkins have a realistic materialistic mechanism explaining such free will ?

    According to a 14 June 2006 Times Online review by Jerry Coyne entitled “Thirty Years of the Selfish Gene”:
    “… Dawkins has never expressed an opinion about whether we have free will …
    While he is under no obligation to address such things,
    many of us would like to know exactly how he reconciles human freedom with genetic determinism.
    I [Jerry Coyne] suspect that … he is conflicted. …”.

    As to by what techniques humans might “… rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators …”.
    Simon makes a remark that raises a very interesting point:
    “… parents clearly don’t ‘design’ their child …”.
    However,
    with advances in understanding the human genome and in manipulating the genetic material in human eggs,
    maybe human parents will be able in the fairly near future to use their minds to ‘design’ their children,
    so
    that point raised by Simon makes the understanding of free will extremely interesting.

    Tony Smith
    http://www.valdostamuseum.org/hamsmith/

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Tony said: “Of course, people should read Dawkins’ works for themselves and make up their own minds.”

    Yes, they should Tony, because you have interpreted it wrongly. I think Dawkins is very clear in “The Selfish Gene” and I think when he uses flowery language to adorn the discussion of the basic actions of genes it can be quite evocative and beautiful, but in no way is intended to be read the way you have chosen to read it.

    I very much doubt that Dawkins is conflicted about free will. It is an interesting and difficult question that in some sense is more about the fundamental laws of physics than about genes themselves, but there is no more an answer to it in the invocation of gods than there is to any other question.

  • Simon

    It’s interesting that Tony is not the first person to seriously misinterpret Dawkins’ metaphors. There’s a spectacularly wrongheaded (and rude) response to ‘The Selfish Gene’ by someone called Mary Midgley, which begins with precisely this issue.

    This, and Dawkins’ excellent reply can be found here, the former titled “Gene-juggling” and the latter “In Defence of Selfish Genes”.

  • http://www.valdostamuseum.org/hamsmith/ Tony Smith

    Simon says that I am “… not the first person to seriously misinterpret Dawkins’ metaphors.
    There’s a spectacularly wrongheaded (and rude) response to ‘The Selfish Gene’ by someone called Mary Midgley, which begins with precisely this issue. …
    Dawkins’ excellent reply can be found … “In Defence of Selfish Genes”. …”.

    It is NOT accurate to identify my arguments with those of “someone called Mary Midgely”. In doing so, Simon is using the “straw-man” tactic of attacking arguments that I did not make and with which I in fact disagree.

    For instance, Dawkins says in his reply to Midgley:
    “… Midgeley has …[stated]… ‘Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish …’ …”.
    I do NOT take Midgley’s position,
    and I in fact AGREE with Dawkins when he says in that reply:
    “… We define altruism and selfishness in purely behaviouristic ways …”.
    In that context,
    I have no problem with Dawkins’ position that genes are in fact selfish.

    Further, with respect to altruism, Dawkins says in his reply to Midgley:
    “… The evolutionary theory of reciprocal altruism …. The appropriate mathematics is the theory of games, as I illustrated in my simple explanatory model of three ‘strategies’ called ‘cheat’, ‘sucker’, and ‘grudger’ …
    My game-theoretic analysis of ‘cheats, suckers and grudgers’ led to two alternative stable solutions. A population dominated by cheats would not be invaded (evolutionarily speaking) by suckers or grudgers. If, however, a population chanced to acquire more than a critical frequency of grudgers, natural selection would suddenly start favouring grudgers, until they became a runaway majority. …”.
    I agree with Dawkins that with respect to altruism “…. The appropriate mathematics is the theory of games …”.
    Although I might prefer something like a tit-for-tat Prisoner’s Dilemma strategy as an explanation of the evolution of altruism, I think that Dawkins’ use of game theory is the right approach,
    and
    I agree with Dawkins that “… Midgley’s misunderstanding of the theory of reciprocal altruism is a special case of her more general muddle …”,
    so
    PLEASE do NOT attempt to identify my arguments with those of Midgley.

    Where I disagree with Dawkins is in his statement in “The God Delusion” that
    “… any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right. …”.

    I feel that it is possible for simple things to “design…” complex things in the context of the world in which we live, and in fact that the evolution of life on earth is a clear example of such a process,
    so
    I don’t think that Dawkins’ argument of a complex transcendent G-d is a clear refutation of theism.
    In fact, Dawkins himself seems to agree with me on that point, as he says in “The God Delusion” that the argument
    “… comes close to proving that God does not exist …” based on being “… ruled out by the laws of probability …”,
    and
    “close to proving” is quite different from “proving”.

    Further, none of the above arguments deal with my repeated statement that the arguments of Dawkins et al against G-d do NOT apply against pantheism, which includes the religious views of Spinoza, Einstein, and philosophical Taoism.
    As said Adrian Burd said in comment 81, it may be that “… a careful reading of “The God Delusion” shows that Dawkins is specifically not considering religions like Buddhism …”,
    but
    it would in my opinion be nice if Sean et al either:
    state that pantheism has not been shown to be false;
    or
    if they feel otherwise, to explicitly make arguments against Spinoza, Einstein, philosophical Taoism, and against pantheism in general.
    However,
    in this blog thread with almost 100 comments, I do not recall seeing any such arguments.

    Maybe a discussion including pantheism
    (and free will, which as Mark says “… is an interesting and difficult question that in some sense is more about the fundamental laws of physics …”)
    might lead us beyond repeating various belief-mantras either pro or con religion, and get us on a constructive road toward what Arun described in comment 76:
    “… This is not to say that human rights cannot be universalized – but there is a lot of hard work to be done then, to disentangle them from their particular origins, and to reinvent them. …”
    which
    might be a step toward reconciliation of views.

    Tony Smith
    http://www.valdostamuseum.org/hamsmith/

  • http://quantumfieldtheory.org nc

    I agree with Tony Smith, Dawkins is clearly mistaken in his claim that evolution controlled by genes is incompatible with any concept of God.

    However, anyone scientific must utterly reject Dawkin’s selfish gene concept; genes do not control evolution because external influences background radiation cause the mutations of the gene which lead to variations.

    So if Dawkins is trying to popularise the idea that genes drive evolution, rather than organisms, then he is stopping off at an arbitrary point in the long chain of causality. The only scientific thing for him to do, if he claims to be searching for ultimate causes, is to not stop at genes but go on a step and tell us about how ‘selfish background radiation’ drives evolution.

    Everyone gets 140 mSv over a lifetime, but because genes are copied, combined and passed on, their accumulated dose increases endlessly. Over a million years, DNA receives 2 kSv from background radiation, which is 200 times the short-term lethal dose to an individual. That causes a lot of genetic changes.

    It’s ridiculous for Dawkins to claim that evolution is down to selfish genes. That’s like saying that a car goes because of the wheels, accelerator pedal, or engine, while ignoring the fuel.

  • Jimbo

    This is a fantastic polylogue, & I cannot possibly reply to everyone, but for me, 2 points leap out:

    1. Regardless of all these micro-criticisms of Dawkins, `Selfish Gene & GodDelusion’, and the arguments pro/con about the impact of religon on civilization or W.societies, Dawkins is surely the `Leader & Standard Bearer’ of we scientific atheists, & we ought to rally round our leader.

    2. We in the US live under the legal mantle of religon every GD day ! Different from Europe, no lawmaker can get elected to state or national office w/out being affiliated with some organized religon. Libertarians have tried, with dismal results. If we aetheists dream of a govnt. unfettered & undirected by religonists, or at least someone sympathetic to OUR cause, we have got to be perceived as less militant than Dawkins, and someone(I think an Emeritus prof. or Sr. scientist type)must step up to the plate, take the heat, & present a moderate `platform’ of scientific aethism to the public at large…A `Carl Sagan’/`Brian Greene’ type if you will, with charisma to burn…Sean, what’s on your calendar for EY `08 ?

    Lastly, NC you are absolutely correct about radiation-driven mutations, to which our genes are enslaved. Wolfgang, I agree w/U about Teller, but what the hell did Von Neumann ever do that would classify him as an `evil’ aetheist ?
    GodSpeed to All ! Clarence Darrow would be proud !

  • Vince

    Mark said: “Vince, no, there haven’t been any such scientifically-documented things.”

    Really? Have you bothered to look around and do some research on it and/or interview people about it? Tell you what. Why don’t you take a year off from physics, and instead, travel around and do some research into the miracles.

    “Please stop trolling.”

    I’m not trying to troll.

    “If you haven’t read Dawkins’ book, I highly recommend it. If you are truly brainwashed into religion, I doubt you will get much out of it.”

    Please don’t call religious people “brainwashed”. It’s untrue and insulting. I can only speak from my own faith and Church, and it appears as though being a priest is a lot of hard work and inconvenience, so if they really were trying to brainwash people, they’d be much more happier leaving the Church and perhaps get married and get a high-paying job or something.

    Also, I do have to say that religion has contributed greatly to society through the advancement of knowledge in the sciences and engineering and with the charity work that happens throughout the world (assuming you count the poor, diseased, “outcasts” as being part of society). Of course, religion has been the cause of very gruesome things throughout history, but it has also provided many people with motivation and encouragement to help others and to try to make the world a better place.

    Breck said:

    “What about question 2, are religions “good for society”? I think answers to this question are arbitrary and completely dependent on how you specify what makes something “good”. You could go unlimited ways with this and arrive at opposite answers depending on how you specify “good”: “good” means more peaceful, more income, more scientific progress, etc. Because this question could be argued forever, I am not that interested in it.”

    So are you saying that there is no such thing as absolute “good”, and that’s why we can’t tell whether or not religion is “good” for society? Well, then, why is everyone on religion’s case if we don’t know if it’s good or not?

    Okay, gotta go to my Church to receive further instructions on what to say. :)

  • Simon

    Hi Tony,

    I didn’t “identify” your arguments with those of Midgley. I noted that I think you and her both misunderstood some of his metaphors (though she perhaps misunderstood different ones from you). It is not a “straw-man tactic” – it’s a tangential observation. It was not intended to distract from my true reasons for diagreeing with you, which are summarized in #94.

    I also don’t agree with the accusation that Dawkins is engaging in a “transparent attempt to have it both ways”. “Genes ‘directing’ how bodies are made” is a useful metaphor for Dawkins’ purposes in ‘The Selfish Gene’, and that itself (i.e. that such a metaphor is useful) is a dramatic and counterintuitive fact.

    Maybe the following analogy would help: following the simple rule z –> z^2+z_0 and testing for convergence produces the Mandelbrot set. And it’s interesting and counterintuitive (to me anyway) that something so complicated and beautiful results from the ‘direction’ of such a simple rule. But ‘direction’ is only used here as a metaphor. The rule z –> z^2+z_0 doesn’t design the Mandelbrot set in the way that religious people believe God designed the universe. The rule is not an intelligent agent. So it’s not a counterexample to the idea that God-like designers should be as complicated as the things they design. And for similar reasons the behavior of genes is not a counterexample either.

    Simon

  • http://www.valdostamuseum.org/hamsmith/ Tony Smith

    Simon says, about a Mandlebrot iteration rule “z —> z^2+z_0″, that “… the rule … doesn’t design the Mandelbrot set in the way that religious people believe God designed the universe. The rule is not an intelligent agent. …”.
    Simon’s statement includes terms like “intelligent agent” and “religious people believe” that are in my opinion not defined clearly enough in that context for me to agree or disagree with Simon’s statement.
    However,
    I will note that some simple math rules (in particular, Wolfram’s Class 4 cellular automata) produce cellular automata that may be capable of universal computation, and it is my opinion that they (particularly if generalized to do quantum computation) may be reasonably considered to be simple things that design complex things.

    On another point, I should make a correction about what I have been saying about Sean and pantheism. In reading some older blog entries, I found where Sean DID deal with pantheism, saying (in his Oct 2006 CV blog entry “The God Conundrum”):
    “… Spinoza’s pantheism, identifying God with the natural world … doesn’t really mean anything …”.

    I disagree. Einstein, a Spinoza pantheist, described (see Wilczek’s article in the Winter 2002 edition of Daedalus) the theory for which he searched as
    “… a theorem which at present can not be based upon anything more than upon a faith in the simplicity, i.e., intelligibility, of nature: there are no arbitrary constants … that is to say, nature is so constituted that it is possible logically to lay down such strongly determined laws that within these laws only rationally completely determined constants occur (not constants, therefore, whose numerical value could be changed without destroying the theory). …”.

    I think that it is quite meaningful that Spinoza’s pantheism gave Einstein “faith” that such a theory can be found, and I hope that someday somebody vindicates that “faith” by being motivated by it to search for such a theory and then finding it.

    Jimbo said “… we scientific atheists … have got to be perceived as less militant …”.
    Although I am not an “atheist”, I agree with “scientific atheists” on a number of points,
    and I hope that an Einstein-type pantheistic view might provide some middle-ground by which “scientific atheists” can engage the vast majority of USA political leaders who identify themselves as religious.

    As Jimbo said “… NC you are absolutely correct about radiation-driven mutations, to which our genes are enslaved …”.

    As NC said “… the idea that genes drive evolution … is stopping off at an arbitrary point in the long chain of causality.
    The only scientific thing … to do, … searching for ultimate causes, is to not stop at genes but go on a step and tell us about how ‘selfish background radiation’ drives evolution …”.

    Once background radiation is brought into play, from a pantheistic view, you get to Dave Rothstein’s possibility of
    “God intervening every time a [quantum event] measurement occurs”.

    Although this is something as to which Sean in his CV blog entry “Natalie Angier’s God Problem”said: “Pretending that there is room for God in the unpredictable collapse of the wavefunction is neither good science nor good theology.”, I disagree with Sean on that point.

    I think the facts that Sean reacted to the Rothstein possibility with what Sean himself characterized as a “snarky “arrrgh””, and that Sean gave no scientific refutation of the Rothstein possibility, indicate that Sean sees that the Rothstein possibility may not be scientifically refutable and that circumstance upset him.

    If you push the search for ultimate causes further,
    and if you consider math to be the language for scientific description of everything,
    then
    maybe B. had the right idea in her comments on Sean’s “The God Conundrum”CV blog entry:

    B. said in comment 24 “… ask where the natural numbers ‘come from’ …”;

    Count Iblis said in comments 27 and 57 “… That’s a good question and that has lead some people to postulate that reality is purely mathematical in nature. … You can define them [the natural numbers] recursively:
    0 = {} (empty set)
    1 = 0 U {0} = {0}
    2 = 1 U {1} = {0,1}
    etc. …”;

    B. said in comment 68 “… in the end you’ll sit in this field of complex numbers, and every one of them is just a point in a plane.
    Does C have a cause? …”.

    If you want to continue the process, you might note that C is the real Clifford algebra Cl(0,1;R), and you can go from there on to real Clifford algebras of arbitrarily high dimension. Since bivectors give you Lie algebras, you get gauge-group-type things, and you might think of spinors as fermions, and think of the vector space as spacetime, and even try to put such things together to form Lagrangians … and see where Einstein-type faith might lead.

    As Jimbo said “… someone (I think an Emeritus prof. or Sr. scientist type) must step up to the plate, take the heat, & present a moderate ‘platform’ of scientific aethism to the public at large …”.

    I wish that Einstein were still around to present his view,
    but since he is not,
    I agree with Jimbo that it would be good to ask “… Sean, what’s on your calendar … ? …”.

    Although I disagree with Sean on some points, he understands science very well, is a good expositor (“Visible Matter as the Olive in the Martini of Dark Matter” is a classic turn of phrase), is at a first-rank university (Caltech, where he “love[s his]… job”), and has a pretty good amount of media exposure to the general public,
    so
    I second Jimbo’s nomination of Sean.

    Tony Smith
    http://www.valdostamuseum.org/hamsmith/

  • Chinmaya Sheth

    Vince writes in #102 “assuming you count the poor, diseased, “outcasts” as being part of society”
    If this is some misunderstanding of my comment in #80; please read it again the whole point was a true Hindu would not consider anyone an outcast. That is the whole point of universal brotherhood.

  • Vince

    I wasn’t referring to your comment. Sorry for the confusion.

  • Nick

    nc said:
    “…anyone scientific must utterly reject Dawkin’s selfish gene concept…”

    Which is more likely? That you misunderstand the selfish gene, or that a great deal of biologists are not “scientific”?

    Have you read The Selfish Gene? There’s a reason why Dawkins goes beyond the individual organism but stops at the gene. Organisms are individuals that eventually die. Genes can be passed on down the generations, with many copies of the same gene spreading through the gene pool. In this sense, genes have the potential to be immortal (metaphorically!). Clearly, how many copies of a gene are in the gene pool, and how long the gene is transmitted down the generations, depend on how good the gene is at getting itself copied. Thus, “selfish” genes, genes that get themselves copied anyway they can, are the successes, and the ones we find in the world around us. You can’t make that concept, or metahpor, work for background radiation. The gene is the logical end point.

  • http://quantumfieldtheory.org nc

    Nick,

    Yes I read it and I made the point that genes get passed on, accumulating more and more background radiation and mutating. Your statement

    “Clearly, how many copies of a gene are in the gene pool, and how long the gene is transmitted down the generations, depend on how good the gene is at getting itself copied.”

    is paraphrasing my comment 100 above, except for the error you now claim that the key is how “good the gene is at getting itself copied”. Actually, the key is whether the DNA gets damaged or improved by combinations caused by radiation and so on. It’s the continual changes in the gene pool which are being ignored here. In place of explaining this fuel for evolution, Dawkin’s chooses instead to describe the gene as surviving by being copied. That’s not evolution. All that can produce is selections from the original gene pool, hybrids and cross-breeds. Evolution of new species is driven by disruption to DNA, not it’s selfishness and preservation.

    The consequence of evolution working at the gene level is that changes are discrete, depending on the discrete combinations possible in the four letter code, DNA. Dawkin’s regularly defended continuous variation (which was Darwin’s theory) over the punctuated evolution argued by Stephen Jay Gould (as explained in comment 4). Discrete changes may be obscured by variations in environmental variables such as food supply, disease, and climate, but all changes are discrete in origin.

  • Nick

    nc said:
    “It’s the continual changes in the gene pool which are being ignored here. In place of explaining this fuel for evolution, Dawkin’s chooses instead to describe the gene as surviving by being copied. That’s not evolution.”

    It’s a rephrasing of natural selection, which is the key non-random part of evolution. Obviously mutations play a part in evolution, and it is hardly “ignored” in his book. His illustrations in the book are constantly imagining some new gene popping up in a gene pool, and then thinking about its affects.

    I’m aware of the disputes about evolution between Dawkins and Gould, and if you think Gould’s vision is closer to reality, that’s fine. I just thought it was over-the-top to say “…anyone scientific must utterly reject Dawkin’s selfish gene concept…”.

  • http://quantumfieldtheory.org nc

    Dawkins’ books are well written and enjoyable, especially Climbing Mount Improbable which deals with the evolution of the eye, but the selfish gene concept seems over the top to me, because genes have no brain, they are merely a code for producing a protein, so are not “selfish”. The evolution of new species is due to external influences disrupting DNA. You would then be forced to say that galaxies evolve over time in a “selfish” way, with bigger ones consuming the smaller ones! This attributing human nature to physical systems is what created all the “Gods” seen in star patterns in the sky in the Ancient Greece…

  • Simon

    nc said:

    “In place of explaining this fuel for evolution, Dawkin’s chooses instead to describe the gene as surviving by being copied. That’s not evolution. All that can produce is selections from the original gene pool, hybrids and cross-breeds. Evolution of new species is driven by disruption to DNA, not it’s selfishness and preservation.”

    Again, I’m not a biologist, but as far as I know the above is just false. The errors that occur during crossing over can include portions of the chromosome accidentally being copied multiple times, or perhaps left out alltogether. Probably much else is possible as well – that’s just the stuff I know about. I believe the above occur far more frequently than radiation induced mutations. Bear in mind that you might receive a lot of radiation over a lifetime, but it’s only one cell that gets passed on to your child.

    Have you read Dawkins’ more recent ‘The Ancestor’s Tale’? It has a nice discussion of recent research on so-called ‘Hox genes’ which drove home to me that the above-mentioned copying errors really are sufficient to pruduce new species.

    Simon

  • maximo shark

    nc,

    “selfish” in this context means only the following: those genes which act in a way that we might call selfish will be the ones that become more numerous in the gene pool. Nobody, including Dawkins, is suggesting genes have a brain or a purpose or any sort of long-term goal. Attributing human motives to them is merely a metaphor which aids our thinking (though as often as not confuses people).

    The concept of selfish genes has become the orthodoxy in biology, after being introduced by dawkins in the seventies. That doesn’t mean you aren’t free to reject it of course, but make sure you understand it first. I repeat: nobody is claiming genes have any sort of goal or purpose. They are just bits of the DNA!

    Note that cosmic radiation cannot considered to be the unit of evolution, because it does not self-replicate.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    maximo shark, Nick and Simon seem to be doing a great job of explaining the point to you nc – thanks all. If you read The God Delusion, there is even a part where Dawkins discussed the selfish gene ide and explains patiently why you shouldn’t mistake this for meaning genes have individual goals and spells out carefullt exactly what the handy phrase means.

  • http://quantumfieldtheory.org nc

    Simon, the radiation “dose” which is important for damage is an amount of energy per kilogram of body mass, so the cell gets the same dose as the rest of the body. For example, a Sievert for a radiation quality factor of 1 is equivalent to the absorption of 1 J/kg, while in old units a rad is 0.01 J/kg.

    The point is that there is a difference in the nature of mutations from crossing over and those from ionization induced disruption. Protein P53 addresses copying errors in normal somatic cell division. Genetic effects don’t actually involve taking copies of copies of copies endlessly like skin cells. Sometimes motion of DNA due to heat causes it to break, but the ends can be reconnected by P53. The ionization due to charged radiation causes more serious disruption than simple breakage.

    The fact is, a woman has her genetic DNA in her eggs, which don’t get copied during her lifetime. So the main influence on those eggs are external factors like background radiation.

  • http://www.pieterkok.com/index.html PK

    The main drive to genetic variation is via chromosomal crossover, not radiation.

  • http://quantumfieldtheory.org nc

    PK, but isn’t that a random mixing of genes, not a disruption of the data within genes? Radiation works at the molecular and atomic level, within genes. If you just shuffle genes around, you are restricted to the existing genes. There is no mechanism there in chromosomal crossover for the production of new genes?

  • Simon

    nc,

    As far as I understand, a gene is just a portion of chromosome sufficiently small that it is unlikely to be split up during crossing over. (At least this is how Dawkins defins it). Roughly, a gene is then a sequence whose elements are one of 4 different molecules (g,c,a,t). A different sequence, or a shuffled sequence is then a different gene. Accidentally leaving out an element of the sequence or copying it twice (the sort of thing that happes on rare occasions during crossing over) creates a new gene.

    Simon

  • Pingback: Thank You, Richard Dawkins | Cosmic Variance()

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.

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