Sunday, October 22, 2006

A Scientist examines Belief. . .Book Review, some notewothy quotes..

THE GOD DELUSION By Richard Dawkins. 406 pp. Houghton Mifflin Company. $27

Book Review: Beyond Belief By JIM HOLT NY Times, Oct. 22, 2006

some quotes: Paschal: Of note of how a scientist attempts philosophy or rational understanding of God, and God-questions. (and fails)...

Richard Dawkins, who holds the interesting title of "Charles Simonyi professor of the public understanding of science" at Oxford University, is a master of scientific exposition and synthesis. When it comes to his own specialty, evolutionary biology, there is none better. But the purpose of this book, his latest of many, is not to explain science. It is rather, as he tells us, "to raise consciousness," which is quite another thing.
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. . .These, in a nutshell, are the Big Three arguments. To Dawkins, they are simply ridiculous. He dismisses the ontological argument as “infantile” and “dialectical prestidigitation” without quite identifying the defect in its logic, and he is baffled that a philosopher like Russell — "no fool" — could take it seriously. He seems unaware that this argument, though medieval in origin, comes in sophisticated modern versions that are not at all easy to refute. Shirking the intellectual hard work, Dawkins prefers to move on to parodic "proofs" that he has found on the Internet, like the “Argument From Emotional Blackmail: God loves you. How could you be so heartless as not to believe in him? Therefore God exists.” (For those who want to understand the weaknesses in the standard arguments for God’s existence, the best source I know remains the atheist philosopher J. L. Mackie’s 1982 book "The Miracle of Theism.")

. . .It is doubtful that many people come to believe in God because of logical arguments, as opposed to their upbringing or having “heard a call.” But such arguments, even when they fail to be conclusive, can at least give religious belief an aura of reasonableness, especially when combined with certain scientific findings. We now know that our universe burst into being some 13 billion years ago (the theory of the Big Bang, as it happens, was worked out by a Belgian priest), and that its initial conditions seem to have been "fine tuned" so that life would eventually arise. If you are not religiously inclined, you might take these as brute facts and be done with the matter. But if you think that there must be some ultimate explanation for the improbable leaping-into-existence of the harmonious, biofriendly cosmos we find ourselves in, then the God hypothesis is at least rational to adhere to, isn’t it?

. . .Short of such a miraculous occurrence, the only thing that might resolve the matter is an experience beyond the grave — what theologians used to call, rather pompously, "eschatological verification." If the after-death options are either a beatific vision (God) or oblivion (no God), then it is poignant to think that believers will never discover that they are wrong, whereas Dawkins and fellow atheists will never discover that they are right.

...Dawkins's gullible-child proposal is, as he concedes, just one of many Darwinian hypotheses that have been speculatively put forward to account for religion. (Another is that religion is a byproduct of our genetically programmed tendency to fall in love.) Perhaps one of these hypotheses is true. If so, what would that say about the truth of religious beliefs themselves? The story Dawkins tells about religion might also be told about science or ethics. All ideas can be viewed as memes that replicate by jumping from brain to brain. Some of these ideas, Dawkins observes, spread because they are good for us, in the sense that they raise the likelihood of our genes getting into the next generation; others — like, he claims, religion — spread because normally useful parts of our minds "misfire." Ethical values, he suggests, fall into the first category. Altruism, for example, benefits our selfish genes when it is lavished on close kin who share copies of those genes, or on non-kin who are in a position to return the favor. But what about pure “Good Samaritan” acts of kindness? These, Dawkins says, could be "misfirings," although, he hastens to add, misfirings of a “blessed, precious” sort, unlike the nasty religious ones.

...But the objectivity of ethics is undermined by Dawkins's logic just as surely as religion is. The evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson, in a 1985 paper written with the philosopher Michael Ruse, put the point starkly: ethics "is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate," and “the way our biology enforces its ends is by making us think that there is an objective higher code to which we are all subject." In reducing ideas to "memes" that propagate by various kinds of "misfiring," Dawkins is, willy-nilly, courting what some have called Darwinian nihilism.

...He is also hasty in dismissing the practical benefits of religion. Surveys have shown that religious people live longer (probably because they have healthier lifestyles) and feel happier (perhaps owing to the social support they get from church). Judging from birthrate patterns in the United States and Europe, they also seem to be outbreeding secular types, a definite Darwinian advantage. On the other hand, Dawkins is probably right when he says that believers are no better than atheists when it comes to behaving ethically. One classic study showed that "Jesus people" were just as likely to cheat on tests as atheists and no more likely to do altruistic volunteer work. Oddly, Dawkins does not bother to cite such empirical evidence; instead, he relies, rather unscientifically, on his intuition. “I’m inclined to suspect,” he writes, "that there are very few atheists in prison." (Even fewer Unitarians, I’d wager.) It is, however, instructive when he observes that the biblical Yahweh is an "appalling role model," sanctioning gang-rape and genocide.