Wednesday, October 11, 2006

apologize or else

Richard Dawkins
has written widely on the (non-)existence (probable) of God.

In his latest tome, I believe he commits 3 errors of argument, and several mistakes in terms of the tactics he uses, as well as
potentially leading us strategically down a dead end. While I don't disagree with some of his goals or many of his conclusions, I just wanted to point this out (amongst all the other noise:)

Firstly, there's a tendency to be unimaginative about alternative possible universes. There is a lot of material in the God Delusion dedicated countering arguments about
the existence of God from the complexity of the Universe. Understandably, given Dawkin's background, the argument that complexity emerges from the (simple) evolutionary (selection/crossover) processes is used widely, and reasonably. However this begs the question: why is the universe suited to the hierarchy of systems that allowess complexity (counter-intuitievely, negative entropically etc etc) to emerge? there are LOTS of alternative organisations that one could imagine of the laws of physics upwards that would not lead to such a possibility. The fact that energy, time and matter are organised arccording to a remarkably simple set of rules that do allow this is, obviously, remarkable - it doesn't prove the existence of god, but it is very very hard to argue about the probability of laws being this way rather than another way - we don;t have necessary priors to do the Baysian inferencing - we don't even have the level of evidence that SETI folks use in arguming about the probability of intelligenyt species on other planets (in other solar systems tec etc) _ we don't have alternative physical universices to look at except in simulation, and precious few (even in Sci Fi literature) have the ability to cook up
viable alternatives and examine their relative likelihood in the "best of all possible random choices". [footnote:- there was a competition in the New Scientist, I think, a few years back to see who could achieve most for the human race with the smallest change to the laws of physics - the winner was someone who observed that altering the speed of light by a very small amount could make the threshold for fission and fusion bombs impossible to achieve on earth, but let all of chemsiitry and important physics liek the stable fusion process in stars, continue largely undetectably the same. More please:-]

Secondly,there's a failure to look at a LOT Of anthropology literature - a common failing of Oxford academics (Penrose is similar in lapses of citation of colleagues elsewhere:) which addresses the question both of diversity and numbers of (e.g. languages, but also) religions. There are reasons why diverse languages evolve rapidly, and they are to do with increased survival of the gene pool (in line with Dawkins' own theories). A good summary of some of the ideas behind this is in
"Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language" by
Robin Dunbar, which referenecs a lot of evidence anthropologists haev gathered on the topic (not just nice headline grabbing stuff about potlatch or cargo cults).

Thirdly, Dawkins says that children may be natural thesists - well I'd love to know his evidence (admitedly, there is the Israeli study, but Jewish studies conflate culture, race and religion, and so are not good at pulling out any inate religiosity, imho) - anecdote: a Latin teacher tried to claim a bunch of religious views as fact to a class of ten year-olds that I happened to be in. The class objected - he said "you are too young to decide not to believe", to which they ALL retorted: "So are we not too young to believe, by the same argument" - this was in a church school - yet the children were able to see that "default off" was just as good as "default on" in the face of no evidence - I bet there's plenty of evidence that default behaviours are established by culture VERY early by peer pressure and example (c.f. gender role/behaviour etc).

I believe that Dawkins does no favours to his case by including a tactic that too often includes ad hominem remarks - for the examples of ludicrous behaviour (e.g. televangelists), he will preaching to the deaf or the converted. For some other examples, we may (or may not) know who is talking about:)

More seriously, I question the entire strategy behind writing the God Delusion. While I see there are many dangerous religious extremist groups trying to set global agendas today, I feel that taking them (that is to say, the extremist components) seriously at all (and taking them alongside the moderate reglious) is an error - as John Sladek said (quoted) in Roderick at Random, if there's somethign more dangorous than a disbelief in the existence of intelligent robots, it is too much of an unhealthy belief in their existence.

Finally, a note on humour. All the humour in Dawkins' work is quoted - does the man actually have his own sense of humour, or just the ability to recognize it in others? Douglas Adams wasn't just funny: He was also succinct:)

Vonnegut said that the true message of the New Testament is not
"turn the other cheek". It is that people should check who the Mr Big is behind someone before they plan to crucify them. There's lots of simple examples like this that Dawkins could also use to stengthen his arguments through simplicity. Or not.

Joke: what if life was just a hologram of a french 19*19 board game - Le Go d'Illusion ? :-)

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