Saturday, 13 June 2009

The God Delusion

I want to start by saying I have not read Steve Grand’s Creation: Life and How to Make It from which Professor Richard Dawkins takes the paragraph I am about to share with you. I want to say that because I may be interpreting the paragraph, quoted in The God Delusion, in a way that I might not have if I had read the book. But given that I read this today, I wanted to share it now as it maybe of interest to anyone else thrilled by the possibilities of identity:

Steve Grand, Dawkins writes, invites readers to think:

“… of an experience from your childhood. Something you remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all, you were really there at the time, weren’t you? How else would you remember it? But here is the bombshell: you weren’t there. Not a single atom that is part of your body today was there when that event took place… Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made. If that doesn’t make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, read it again until it does, because it is important.”*

*Here there is a footnote from Dawkins who adds: “Some might dispute the literal truth of Grand’s statement, for example in the case of bone molecules. But the spirit of it is surely valid. You are more like a wave than a static material ‘thing’.” (pg 416)

Isn’t that wonderful to think about?

The final section of the God Delusion, entitled Inspiration, reads almost like a poem to science and I am especially grateful to Dawkins’ for his perspective of quantum mechanics through his quoting on page 409 of Richard Feynman, “If you think you have understood quantum theory…you don’t understand quantum theory” and Niels Bohr, “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.” (I am remembering a particularly frustrating conversation I had with a physicist a while back.) Less helpful, however, is the absence of Feynman and Bohr from Dawkins’ “Books Cited or Recommended” reading list at the end of The God Delusion. That does seem a rather negligent oversight, given the scientific thesis. But he does cite David Deutsch’s The Fabric of Reality in the list, which embraces the ‘many worlds’ theory of quantum mechanics.

Reading the God Delusion is a rich intellectual journey spanning a wave of emotions from amusement to rage. Particularly infuriating, for example, are his views on sexual abuse in chapter nine. Particularly funny, on the other hand, is his rebuttal of the ontological argument for God’s existence by imagining two kids arguing it out in the playground (pg 104). Illuminating was his inclusion (in a footnote, bizarrely) of A.N. Wilson’s claim in a biography of Jesus that the (particularly Catholic) understanding of Mary being a virgin came about via a mistranslation of the Hebrew word for young woman, “almah” into the Greek word for virgin, “parthenos”(pg 122). Baffling was his sci-fi digression at the end of chapter two (the tone here is earnest):

“Science-fiction authors, such as Daniel F. Galouye in Counterfeit World, have even suggested (and I cannot think how to disprove it) that we live in a computer simulation, set up by some vastly superior civilization. But the simulators themselves would have had to come from somewhere. The laws of probability forbid all notions of their spontaneously appearing without simpler antecedents. They probably owe their existence to a (perhaps unfamiliar) version of Darwinian evolution: some sort of cumulatively ratcheting ‘crane’ as opposed to ‘skyhook’, to use Daniel Dennett’s terminology.”
(pg 98)

But by the time we get to chapter four, the inverted commas around ‘crane’ have been dropped and there is no more mention of Daniel Dennett:

“I am not advocating some sort of narrowly scientistic way of thinking. But the very least that any honest quest for the truth must have in setting out to explain such monstrosities of impossibility as a rainforest, a coral reef, or a universe is a crane and not a skyhook. The crane doesn’t have to be natural selection. Admittedly, nobody has ever thought of a better one. But there could be others yet to be discovered. Maybe the ‘inflation’ that physicists postulate as occupying some fraction of the first yoctosecond of the universe’s existence will turn out, when it is better understood, to be a cosmological crane to stand alongside Darwin’s biological one.” (pg 185)

That, to me, is exciting, especially as love can act as a cosmic force. The idea of the multiverse and the anthropic principle excites as well.

I am also enlightened from having read sentences like these in The God Delusion:

“The late King of the Belgians is a candidate for sainthood, because of his stand on abortion. Earnest investigations are now going on to discover whether any miraculous cures can be attributed to prayers offered up to him since his death. I am not joking. That is the case, and it is typical of the saint stories. I imagine the whole business is an embarrassment to more sophisticated circles within the Church. Why any circles worthy of the name sophisticated remain in the Church is a mystery at least as deep as the ones theologians enjoy.” (pg 83/84)

And this:

“Time and time again my theologian friends returned to the point that there must be a reason why there is something rather than nothing. There must have been a first cause of everything, and we might as well give it the name God. Yes, I said, but it must have been simple and therefore, whatever else we call it, God is not an appropriate name (unless we very explicitly divest it of all the baggage that the word ‘God’ carries in the minds of most religious believers).” (pg 184/5)

I know people, theists and non-theists alike, who admit they haven't read The God Delusion because they fear they will not be able to stomach Dawkins' tone. Really, it is not so bad. I think he would only really upset a fundamentalist.

(Note: page references correspond to the 2007 paperback edition.)

1 comment:

Paul Taberham said...

Thanks for outlining some of the ideas. I'll come back to it some time.