Saturday 16 February 2008

Richard Dawkins: The Blind Watchmaker

One of the hardest things to accept about evolution is the element of random chance that seems so improbably unlikely to have ended up in us. Fred Hoyle describes it as akin to a hurricane blowing through a junk yard and forming a Boeing 747 by pure chance. Although there is no chance or luck whatsover in the proces of natural selection, there is an element of randomness in the mutation of genes. Dawkins takes this chance and breaks it down by explaining the probabilities and the essential element of building on successive small steps rather then just single impossibly unlikely chance events. I saw a programme on TV last week that reminded me of how this seemingly impossible chance works. It was a show called “The System” by Derren Brown in which he provided a full proof guaranteed way for one lucky punter to always win on the horses. The programme followed her fortunes through 5 successive incredible wins until she had enough confidence and belief in his system to gamble several thousand pounds (which she didn’t have) on the final race. The system worked by initially selecting hundreds of possible punters, dividing them into groups without any knowledge of the other people and giving each group a different horse in the race. The people in the group given the horse that actually won the race were then further split and each new group given a different horse in the next race and so on. Eventually you end up with one person who had to win all of the races. From the perspective of this lucky person in the group it must have indeed looked like pure chance could not have got her into this situation and that “The System” must indeed work. Without the knowledge of all the other failures it provided her with the faith she needed to believe in the system. Dawkins explains evolution by natural selection in much the same way. We are all the lucky lady who made it through and won all those successive races, not because of some divine guidance, not because of complete random chance, but through cumulative successive small pieces of chance over evolutionary time at the expense of those countless millions who took the alternative paths and disappeared from our knowledge.

Sam Harris: The End of Faith

A no holes barred examination of the consequences of blind unquestioning faith. Harris shows how the fundamentalist is happy to kill himself, you and me, not because he is mad, insane or uneducated, but purely because he truly believes in the literal interpretation of his holy text. Harris provides a wake up call to how religious tolerance and the taboo in challenging the validity of a persons faith leads to moderate religious communities that are the breeding grounds for terror and atrocities. The more people that read this book the better.

Lewis Wolpert: Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast

The White Queen told Alice that when she was younger she managed to believe in six impossible things before breakfast. Alice replies that one can’t possibly believe in impossible things which seems perfectly reasonable. So what is the psychological reason why the human mind can believe in angels, astrology, touching wood, not walking under ladders and alien abductions when there is no credible evidence to support such ideas. I find it much more interesting reading about why would be believe in such nonsense rather than delving in to minds of the delusional people who do believe it.

Daniel C. Dennett: Breaking The Spell

As a philosopher Dennett provides a valuable insight in to how and why we have ended up with the religious beliefs we have and why we cling on to them against what I suspect most of us know is our better judgement. “Breaking the Spell” is more sympathetic to the religious believers than Dawkins is in “The God Delusion”, but he draws the same negative conclusion on the value of faith based beliefs.

Richard Dawkins: The Selfish Gene

This book explains the driving force behind evolution by providing a gene centric view of the process. To me, the whole theory of evolution works perfectly when driven by the unconscious goals of individual genes to replicate and form vessels in which to exploit their environment

Simon Singh - Big Bang

What I like about this book is that it explains how we know what we know. It starts from the first ancient discoveries about the diameter of the earth and the distance to the sun and how we calculated it and proceeds through the history of scientific discoveries clearly explaining how we built upon this initial understanding and arrived at the complex view we have of the universe and its origins today.

Thursday 7 February 2008

Life, The Universe and Everything

As a child I was always intrigued by the ultimate question, the one phrased by the late Douglas Adams as “Life, the Universe and Everything”. I tried to make sense of why I was who I was and why and how the world and the universe is here in the first place. I think many adults get this curiosity in the universe beaten out of them and learn to just accept things for what they are, but I remain fascinated on the subject. For a number of years I happily relied on religion to answer these questions. However by delving deeper into the answers presented by religion and attending Alpha courses I found that the whole fabric and credibility of this answer just fell apart under scrutiny and I was left with the underlying need to make a leap of faith that I was unable to convince myself to make. Since then I have been reading a lot of science books and actively trying to expand my knowledge and understanding of the world we live in. I’m sure many of my fine Christian friends, whom I love dearly, will mourn what they will no doubt see as the loss of my faith, but I see it more as waking up to the wonder and natural beauty of the world around me previously hidden by my religious blinkers.

As a software engineer learning my trade in the early eighties, I learnt how to program computers and spent ages composing complex code and algorithms to do the seemingly simple task of just moving a basic object across the screen. My son now plays High Definition computer games with 3D graphics and multiple interactive characters and he thinks nothing of it. Having an understanding of programming allows me to understand the incredible feat of software engineering required to achieve what he just takes for granted. I think that this provides a good analogy to how many people view the world in which they live, they become blasé to the wonders of it and devote their attentions to other more mundane pursuits. Religion does little to unearth the complex programming of the world as it provides the simple premise of creation as an answer to all that we see and hear around us. When religion says that the world and its inhabitants were just created by God it seems rather like ignoring the incredible complexity and truth behind how things really work. Apart from begging the obvious question of where did God from in the first place, religion encourages us to place are heads in the sand and ignore this natural beauty, wonder and complexity of the universe for fear of dislodging the incredulous beliefs lodged into our brains as susceptible children.

Not only does science provides more logical answers backed up by evidence, but it supplies more fascinating answers that ultimately make me more appreciative of the series of seemingly impossibly unlikely events that culminated in me writing these thoughts down. A very basic understanding of evolutionary theory, plate tectonics, quantum mechanics and the expanding universe to name but a few completely blows ancient myths out of the water.

I can appreciate the origin of these myths. If I lived 3 or 4 thousand years ago with no modern knowledge, I’m sure that like the 18th Century theologian and Christian apologists, William Paley, I would draw the obvious conclusion that a complex object like myself must surely have been designed by some sort of sentient powerful deity. I suspect that I would also have assumed that the earth was flat (How could it be otherwise when I’d surely fall of the bottom if it were round). I think I’d also believe that the earth was at the centre of the universe and the sun, moon and stars revolved around the recently created earth as you can clearly see them moving around us and feel that the earth is standing perfectly still. Fortunately I live in a more enlightened time when these obvious assumptions can be proved to be utterly wrong.

So where does all this knowledge and the countless other tomes of incredible human understanding leave God. It seems to me like there are 3 alternatives.

Firstly you could take a fundamentalist viewpoint and completely deny this knowledge and stick to the literal truth of your preferred holy text (Most probably dependant upon the particular flavour of religion chance inflicted upon your parents) in the face of the overwhelming evidence. This must be a very safe place to be, deep behind your high wall of blind faith insulated from the real world and encouraged and spurred on by the community around you that fuels the delusion and provides solace and hope in an after world where you will be proved right. Unfortunately we are all well too aware of the consequences of religious fundamentalism in the 21st century and Islam should not be singled out as the problem religion. Imagine a leader of the free world, who believes in creationism and the literal truth of the book of revelations and that we are close to the glorious day when the sins of the world will all be destroyed and the faithful few will take their rightful place in heaven. Now imagine this guy has the power to press the big red button to bring all these things to pass. I find that much scarier than anything we have seen so far.
The second alternative, I see has been described as “God in the Gaps”. In other words we can use God for a simple catch all situation for all the things science has yet to explain. The problem is that as our scientific understanding expands the gaps are squeezed out. Although most religious communities eventually concede to scientific fact they do tend to lag behind, hanging on to their literal truths until they become completely at odds with modern culture and need to interpret them instead as metaphors. For example I think most Christians, thankfully, would not now recommend the death penalty for adultery as mandated in both Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22, and have more recently started to accept women’s equal place in society (others still need to catch up on this one), but the Christian Church still have a bit of catching up to do with its views on homosexuality. This perpetual updating of the interpretations of the holy texts smacks to be of a set of man made rules reflecting the local culture of its day rather than a divine revelation that remains completely relevant across time and space. I suspect that the attractive feature of this moderate form of religion lies in the fact that science hasn’t yet answered everything, we still do not know what happened before the big bang, why the rules of physics are like goldilocks porridge (not to hot, not too cold, but just right for life on this remarkable planet). Surely this must be the realm of God, a benign God who set up the rules of the universe, who wound it up and set us on our merry way. But why do we need to fill the gaps in our expanding knowledge with supernatural phenomenon when we can see that the gaps are slowly being understood by supplying completely natural answers. Surely these gaps will eventually disappear and those hiding in them will be forced to return to the religious fundamentalist view or abandon their faith completely.

My third alternative is that we accept what we have learnt so far, we stand on the shoulders of the giants who have given us this remarkable understanding and we strive to fill the remaining gaps without resorting to demons, ghosts and fairies. We’ve put Zeus, Thor, Pan, Horus, Odin, Neptune, Mercury, Athena and countless other Gods to bed, let’s free the minds of our children to be able to graciously retire the last of our iron age myths rather than infecting the next generation with a powerful meme that like other viruses has evolved an effective way of surviving and replicating itself.

Amway, I seem to have veered off somewhat from my intended topic on the marvels of scientific discoveries. So I’ve added a few links on the right hand side to some fine books that I feel have contributing to my increased understanding, appreciation and wonder in life, the universe and everything.