Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Book Review - The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

Having time on my hands has given me the opportunity to do something that in the past I have had little time to do, and that's read.

The most recent book that I have finished is the much debated The God Delusion by well-known evolutionary biologist and Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, Richard Dawkins. The reason that I am writing about it on a science-based blog is that Dawkins sets up his book as one side of the Science vs. Religion battle.

This intrigued me from the outset, being someone who did not, and still does not, believe there necessarily has to be a divide between the two areas. It could be argued that Dawkins is the world's most celebrated atheist, and I was keen to see what all the fuss was about. Perhaps having sabbatical time has also allowed me to ponder the big questions of life. My scientific background that has placed me either in scientific organisations or studying scientific courses over the last 11 years has led to me to marvel at the wonder of science, whilst my schooling at an Anglican school allowed me to see some of the best and worst of religion - for instance, on the good side, our Reverend was open-minded and gave out the Christian studies prize on occasion to atheists who presented reasoned arguments for their positions. On the bad side, it was announced to the school assembly of over 1000 boys that God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, which I'm sure further confused and possibly depressed a percentage of the angsty teenagers already struggling with their identity.

The opening salvo in the new release version that I read was Dawkins' response to criticism of previous releases. Immediately, the book was defensive and dogmatic. You can hardly blame someone for defending themselves against criticism, but this position immediately set the staunch stance against which there is no alternative for Dawkins. The language is strong and the message stronger. Dawkins considers religion, whether moderate or extremist, nonsense.

I have to admit that it took me around 200 pages to get into the book. The early part of the book deals with his arguments as to why God almost certainly does not exist. His definition of God for his arguments refers to a personal God, one that deliberately created the Universe and us, and listens to our prayers. His central argument is that, if there is a God that designed and fine-tuned us into the complex beings that we are, then He himself must indeed be more complex, and so who designed Him? Dawkins uses this argument to turn on its head the Creationist argument that we are so complex that we must be designed by a designer - if this is true, then God must be even more complex, and so who designed him?

For me, simply asking the question "who designed the designer" is not an answer in itself - it is entirely question begging. I personally do not believe that a God hand-crafted us each step along the way - I'm pretty happy with evolution. What, however, I do not believe is that Dawkins' little bit of nifty philosophical footwork answers our questions. It asks more. A question is not an answer. The assumption that the laws of nature are a given is completely question begging and not addressed. And can you really define what is complex outside of what we know in the Universe?

Perhaps this is not the point. At this stage of the book, it is the personal God that Dawkins is attacking, and not the God who started the Universe and then took a step-back, or the God that simply is the universe and the laws of nature - deism and pantheism respectively. Deism for him is "watered down theism" and pantheism is "sexed-up atheism". Throughout the book he credits scientists who could be defined as pantheists or deists as atheists unwilling to say as much or after the Templeton Prize. Perhaps these scientists simply disagree with him as opposed to not being as brave to "come out of the closet".

On a side note, and it is briefly mentioned in the book, there are people out there who do think that we are the results of more complex beings, and indeed that we are living in a computer simulation. Nick Bostrom uses probability theory to state that there are 3 propositions that could be true:

1) The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage is very close to zero;
2) The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero;
3) The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one.

The conclusion is that "unless we are now living in a simulation, our descendants will almost certainly never run an ancestor-simulation."

Interesting... Perhaps there is a "God" out there running our lives, and perhaps he is a posthuman creature of super-intelligence. Dawkins allows this argument with an off-hand remark, but not the God argument.

As I write, I realise that I am being critical - this is probably only fair given the strength of Dawkins' language. However, there are many good parts to the book. His arguments against fundamentalism are striking, and even though for me these sections were preaching to the converted, they are still powerful. Examples from the Bible and Koran regarding literal interpretations have particular impact.

But these examples are somewhat undermined by his anecdotal evidence and unbalanced arguments. He states the religion is at the heart of much evil in the world and can quote many examples of where religion has caused much suffering. This is undoubtedly true. However, to then say that Stalin's evil actions had little to do with his atheism - and Stalin did kill priests simply because of their religion - was going too far.

The other major factor of the book that did not sit well with me is his idea that religion deserves far less respect than it gets. He quotes examples where people have been able to do things normally illegal because of freedom of religion, and these are striking. However what struck me was that the world in which Dawkins grew up, the world in which I grew up and the world in which every reader grew up is one shaped by religion. Dawkins' own 10 commandments would look far different if he had grown up in a society not founded on Christianity, but say Buddhism (even though he argues this is an ethical system and not a religion) or in the Muslim world. It was having lived in a world with its roots in Christian mores that Dawkins was able to arrive at his atheist position. Not that he would not have arrived there had he be born somewhere else or raised in Muslim tradition. Not that he would have arrived there if he had grown up in a society where there is no religion. We simply do not know. And we do not know what a world would look like without religion, and even what we think of as "better off" is founded in our religious traditions. What Dawkins wants is a world in which you can express your thoughts and be yourself without impacting others. However, as Orr said, this "better off" world is not better off to "say, a traditional Confucian culture".

Something a friend pointed out to me is that in many ways, today's science is doing what religion used to do (and still does for many) - explain the world around us. Perhaps before we figured out evolution it was all we had to go on. Dawkins may find it untenable that people these days turn to religion, but I think respect is due for the past.

Something that I thought I would read about, but did not, was that perhaps religion is evolutionarily advantageous for us. Dawkins more deals with the idea that religion exploits human characteristics that are selected for - like the common cold exploiting the nasal cavity. However, rather than exploiting us, perhaps religion truly had an evolutionary advantage. I find this an interesting topic. Perhaps religion also evolved rather than exploited.

On the whole, its a book worth reading and there is a lot good about it, even if it is not incredibly well balanced and is more opinionated than scientific. I'm not sure it "raised my consciousness" and I did cringe though when it said Christians have a mental disorder. I am as agnostic as ever.

Listen to this show here.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

We've gone Gold

The Mr Science Show Podcast has clicked over 35000 downloads, which according to the Australian Record Industry, makes for a Gold Record. Now, this is clearly not the same as selling music singles and albums, as I spend money more on web hosting and equipment than I get back from Google ads and my family buying the merchandise, but its not a bad achievement for a part-time hobby.

I fully expect Molly Meldrum (or for international readers, an Australian cross between Simon Cowell, Michael Parkinson and Elton John) to present me with the award soon.

The most downloaded episode is either the story on Stephan Hawking or the Farewell to Movember video depending on which statistics you believe. Downloads increased fairly quickly when we were featured on itunes and The Pod Lounge, and have been pretty steady since.

Less self-promotional posts to come...

Friday, 6 July 2007

UK Wi-Fi Scandal

Wi-Fi in the UK is prominent, offered by cafes, bars, book stores and very often found in schools.

Commonly used to wirelessly connect to the Internet, Wi-Fi hit the headlines when the BBC programme Panorama found that radiation levels from Wi-Fi in one school was up to three times the level of mobile phone radiation, and implied that this was very dangerous to your health, without any evidence to support it.

Panorama’s classroom experiment was hardly scientific, and indeed provided the students a great lesson in how not to do a science experiment. The school even banned the TV crew when it found out about the bad science being conducted.

So what was wrong with this experiment? Well, in order to make sure that they could obtain the very highest Wi-Fi signal possible, the Panorama team started downloading the biggest file they could, despite the fact that the students are never allowed to download such files, and only use their laptops a couple of times a week.

As the readings were being taken, the teacher googled the name of the man who designed the equipment being used. Turns out that the equipment was built by Alasdair Philips, a man who campaigns against Wi-Fi and sells protective equipment against it. Not surprisingly, the readings were “well into the red”, but never explained!

One of the experts presented was Associate Professor Olle Johansson, awarded Misleader Of The Year 2004 in Sweden for his scaremongering regarding electromagnetic fields!

The peak readings were 600 times below the government’s safety limits, and UK experts in the field have spent much of their time recently denouncing the show and distancing themselves from the findings.

Form your own opinions by watching the show below, and the BBC News Watch (like Media Watch in Australia) take on the program.

There is a nice take on it all at Bad Science

Listen to this show here