Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Erika's New and Hot, Week 9, and review of The God Delusion

"Two days after the flyby, New Horizons took a picture of this alignment of two of Jupiter's moons, Io and Europa. The blue plume on top of Io, left, is dust particles arising from an eruption of the volcano Tvashtar."

“Jupiter Gets Its Close-Up” http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/08/science/space/08plan.html?ex=1180584000&en=bd5a5970cc36b077&ei=5070

This article was really exciting, and it also reminded me of the first major undermining of humanity’s special place in the world: the heliocentric model. When Copernicus published On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres in 1543, the book (describing a heliocentric system) went largely ignored. Galileo first brought the heliocentric model to the public consciousness (and therefore the Church’s) with a series of discoveries he published in 1610 in The Sidereal Messenger. One of the most disturbing observations he made was that Jupiter has four moons (it actually has four moons and dozens of smaller ones he could not see with his telescope). That knowledge significantly undermined the argument that Earth was special and deserved to be in the center of the universe—who were those moons shining for? If Earth wasn’t the only planet with a moon, maybe it wasn't so special. Just under four hundred years later, we’re not only able to see all of Jupiter’s moons, but we can send missions there (and beyond) to take photographs. Galileo might have been unsurprised to hear that Io, one of Jupiter’s moons he observed, is incredibly active, but I bet this photo of a volcanic eruption would have significantly unsettled his contemporaries. It’s a remarkable photo. He might have been a bit sad, though, that we’re still having debates about whether literal interpretations of the Bible should be taken over empirical evidence…

Here is my review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion. I initially tried to publish it on Amazon, but it was over the word count so it didn’t appear, and now Amazon won’t let me publish this (shorter) version because it thinks I already have reviewed that book. So I’ve posted it here, sorry.

The God Delusion

This book succeeded in its stated goal of convincing me to accept my atheism. In the first chapter, Dawkins presents a scale of 1 through 7 on the question of the existence of God. I could only agree with 6; like Dawkins, I would respond, “Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. ‘I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there’” (51). While I found Dawkins’ style belligerent (for a mild example, a letter from the president of a historical society “damningly exposes the weakness of the religious mind…every sentence drips with intellectual and moral cowardice” (16-17)), I had difficulty finding holes in his arguments. However, his arguments raised tough questions, and I did not agree with all of his responses.

For instance, he firmly believes it is child abuse to deny a child the right to think critically, but instead to teach unquestioning faith in authority. I also believe in and value critical thinking above all others. For science, it would be horrible to believe in unexplainable mysteries and accept things unquestioningly. A group of people taught to obey authority figures could be led to commit atrocities. At the same time, I am not so sure that our empirical mindset is unquestioningly better. Dawkins makes a good point that few people raised in a well-educated, open-minded society would choose to live like the Amish, or in Saudi Arabia. Yet the Amish or Saudis who would choose to live in our society would necessarily have already accepted our paradigm- within their own, they would not want to, just as within the standards of our society, we would not want to live in theirs. That does not make us objectively “right.”

Dawkins wants the child to choose. I don’t know how that could be achieved- either he/she would learn to believe in science (empiricism, evidence), and therefore not believe Scripture, or learn to believe that truth is found in authority (sacred books), and therefore be unconvinced by empirical evidence. I believe it is better for people to think critically and question authority, but I don’t know if that is objectively true- how could I prove it- so how could I force everyone else to accept my source of truth?

Dawkins makes the optimistic assertion that there is no separate realm for faith because, ultimately, everything is a scientific question that could be solved by science. There is no room for God- the gaps in science are being filled, and the theologians’ desire to leave some questions unanswered is detrimental and hopeless. I agree, but I don’t believe that science can answer everything. Natural selection and a scientific origin of life do not and cannot give any ultimate meaning to life. I think there is none, but that answer is beyond the scope of science. I cannot think of a feasible experiment to demonstrate whether life has any meaning, even though it is a yes or no question. Dawkins finds meaning in that we are lucky to be here, but that is just his opinion. I agree that theologians have no monopoly on answers to those sorts of questions, but they do have special knowledge of particular answers, and if people want to find the answers in one specific book, it is reasonable that they would turn to those most learned in such matters. Probably, anyone’s answer is as good as anyone else’s, but since I can’t determine an experiment to determine which answer is scientifically true, I would not prevent anyone from seeking an explanation based on ancient documents that have withstood the test of time. I don’t agree that everything can be answered by science, or that there is no room left for God, despite my personal opinion.

I found Dawkins’ explanation of morality unsatisfying. He explained how morality would have been evolutionarily useful, and I agree. Christians certainly act no more “Christian” than atheists, and many horrible things have been done in the name of religion (though I don’t agree with him that the world would have been much better off without it- I think religion has been an excuse for, not the cause of, wars). However, he gave no reason for why we should still act morally, even though it was once evolutionarily advantageous and we still feel the urge to do so. He makes fun of people for fearing atheism because they don’t think people would act morally without feeling supervised. To me, that is not the question he should have addressed: removing any idea of ultimate meaning or purpose, what is the value of a human life? How does one find meaning in helping others, if humanity is just the current end product of an amoral process? For me, the danger in this mechanistic view of the universe lies not in its removal of a mind-reading punisher, but rather in the meaninglessness of it all. That we are the way we are because of impersonal mechanisms like natural selection is remarkable, but it does not make my life or my actions meaningful, as I would feel if I could believe we had been put here for a purpose. Dawkins finds science an inspiration, but that is his personal opinion. In The God Delusion, his advocacy of fearless critical thinking about every topic left me searching for a meaning of life that would stand up to such scrutiny, and his inspiration by science did not sway me. His book allowed me to say that I am an atheist, but I understand why the religious might want to protect their children from such doubts, however cowardly that may seem.

1 comment:

The Barefoot Bum said...

Good post, and nice to see someone reading Dawkins sensibly and critically.

I don't know that Dawkins is belligerent; he's certainly contemptuous, but reading the letter, the contempt seems well-deserved.

He does believe that it is abusive to raise a child without teacher her to think critically. That's a value judgment, though, not an objective truth—and it's a value judgment I agree with. In a purely objective sense, there's no basis in objecting to anything; at some point all of anyone's ethical beliefs reduce to how she feels about something. It is, however, the case that much of what we object to (slavery, rape, exploitation, murder, mopery on the high seas) is, where it appears, ultimately "justified" by uncritical acceptance of authority.

As you yourself note: "A group of people taught to obey authority figures could be led to commit atrocities." In fact, I would phrase this more strongly: "Only people taught to obey authority could be led to commit atrocities." (Ignoring those few who just commit atrocities on their own; they are not led to do so.)

I think that science can answer the question about the ultimate meaning to life. You have figured it out: "I think there is none." Meaning is something that humans create: It is up to you to create your own meaning to life—but such self-created meaning is not, of course, ultimate.

I don't think Dawkins account of morality is particularly inspired, either scientifically or philosophically, but I don't think that's his fault. The study of morality has been so long corrupted by authoritarian religion and establishment philosophy that very few people have any coherent ideas about where to begin. I think science will eventually address the issue sensibly, in the disciplines of psychology, sociology and game theory, but the field is still very new and the domain very complicated.