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
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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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