Monday, June 16, 2008

The God Delusion, Ch. 5

Having shown to his satisfaction, if to no one else's, that there's almost certainly no Deity, Professor Dawkins next assays to consider where the whole business of religion came from anyway. He concludes in chapter 5 that religion is an evolutionary misfiring, or by-product, of something else. By way of explanation he invites us to consider the self-destructive behavior of moths which spiral into a flame. Why do they do this? Well, over the eons they have evolved light sensors that enable them to navigate by the moon and the stars. These luminous objects are very far away and seem to the moths like stationary beacons in the night sky, but when artificial light was introduced into the moths' environment the lights were so close that they appear to shift as the moth moves, requiring any moth that's fixing on them to also deviate from a straight-line path to keep the light at a fixed point. The result was that the confused moth takes a spiral path toward the light, or something like that.

Professor Dawkins doesn't trouble himself to explain why moths need to navigate by celestial objects in the first place since they don't migrate and spend much of their adult lives confined to a localized area. When they do travel it's along chemical trails of pheromones produced by females. So why would they have evolved these light sensors? But this is a digression. His point is that the spiraling behavior of moths is really a by-product of something else and that likewise religious behavior in humans is a by-product of some other behavior which evolved because it conferred a selective advantage.

Dawkins avoids the simpler explanation that religion itself confers a selective advantage and thus humans evolved it. This is an unacceptable explanation, even if it has the merit of being less cumbersome, because if it were the case Dawkins would have to admit that atheism is a maladaptive mutation, and he certainly doesn't want to have to make the case that atheists are genetic mutants.

So what is religion a by-product of? It turns out that all we have are guesses, but one guess is that natural selection produced in children the tendency to believe whatever their parents and other elders tell them, a bit of news that'll surprise most parents. This aids the children in survival. Parents tell kids about God so kids grow up believing in God.

It's not clear whether children lose this gullibility as adults, but if they do why do they retain belief in God when they don't retain other childhood beliefs like belief in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy? Why, too, do so many people come to belief as adults? Why isn't Dawkins himself religious since he received a lot of exposure to it when he was a child? If one's belief about God is a result of psychological misfires in the brain then isn't atheism also a result of such a misfire and thus can't we conclude that atheists don't believe in God because of evidence but because of some psychological quirk? Professor Dawkins doesn't help us with these questions. He's in too much of a hurry to rush on to his next grievance against the religious - their irritating tendency to be dualists - which he also sees as a holdover from childhood.

There are other guesses as to what religion is a by-product of, of course, - love, projection, wishful thinking - but the general idea Dawkins wants to advance is that it's a by-product of something advantageous for survival.

Another reason why religion has survived and diversified has to do with memes. A meme is like a mental gene. It embodies an idea or set of ideas (called a memeplex) that spreads through a culture. For example, the belief in human rights is a meme, as is any belief. Natural selection acts to weed out unsatisafactory memes in the same way it culls unfit genes. Religious beliefs are also memes which have spread, not because they are true, but because they afforded those who held them some survival advantage.

Dawkins is obviously pleased with this explanation for the widespread occurrence of religion even though the theory is completely speculative and even self-defeating. After all, if all our beliefs are merely memes then so is atheism a meme, so is Darwinian evolution a meme, and, indeed, so is belief in memes a meme.

He closes the chapter with a rambling discussion of cargo cults, religions that spring up among primitive people when they encounter for the first time the "magic" of modern technological society. He notes that ignorant people often regard the radios and machines of visiting Europeans as being supernaturally produced because they never see them being made or repaired. None of this, like much else in the remainder of the book, has anything at all to do with whether God exists.

Dawkins is apparently convinced that the existence of God and the manner in which some people express their homage to that God are one and the same thing. He seems to think that if he can discredit religious beliefs then he can discredit belief in God. Perhaps this is the strangest "God delusion" of all.

Critiques of previous chapters in The God Delusion can be found here:


Left or Right

No doubt you've heard people speak of the difference between being left or right "brained," but perhaps you were unsure what it meant or which of the two describes you. If so, you might want to read this interesting little self-assessment which AOL featured recently:

Are you a genius at certain jobs but feel like a half-wit when trying to complete other types of work? The two sides of the brain each have distinct preferences and capabilities, and your strong suits and weaknesses are frequently based upon the side of your brain that is dominant. Take this quiz to find out whether or not you are a right or left brain thinker and check out the career choices that might be best for you.

1. Are you better at math and science than art and literature?

YES - People who are left-brain thinkers are often better at and enjoy math and science over art and literature, making them perfect candidates for a career in engineering.

NO - People who are right-brain thinkers are often better at and enjoy art and literature over math and science, making them perfect candidates for a career in grant writing.

2. Do you love playing sports outdoors over reading indoors?

YES - The great outdoors and athletics are favorites of people who are right-brain thinkers, and a career that can combine the two, like one as a recreation director, is perfect.

NO - Staying indoors and reading are favorites of people who are left-brain thinkers, and a career that can combine the two, like one as a librarian, is perfect.

3. Do you prefer verbal communication over physical communication?

YES - Left-brain thinkers love to work things out by talking, enjoying jobs like career counseling, where they are very effective.

NO - Right-brain thinkers are more likely to think that actions speak louder than words and prefer showing their worth without words. A career path of yoga instructor would fit their preferences.

4. Would you rather draw pictures freehand instead of putting together a model airplane?

YES - People who are right-brain thinkers aren't fans of tremendous structure and prefer having some creativity at work, which makes marketing a perfect career for them.

NO - People who are left-brain thinkers are in need of structure and prefer having specific guidelines at work, which makes computer programming a perfect career path for them.

5. Do you like being in groups more than being alone?

YES - Group-oriented people are usually right-brain thinkers, making a job in retail a good fit for their lifestyle preference.

NO - Loners are usually left-brain thinkers, making a job in accounting a good fit for their lifestyle preference.

6. When given instructions, are lots of pictures easier to understand than lots of text?

YES - Right-brain thinkers love picture explanations over textual explanations, and this visual preference usually lends well to a career in interior design.

NO - Left-brain thinkers love textual explanations over pictorial explanations, and this preference usually lends well to a clerical career.

Most people are doubtless a blend so I suppose the question is in each case do we tend to have more of one of these traits than another.


Damning with Faint Praise

DaveScot at Uncommon Descent shares this pithy thought with us:

We often hear from Darwinists that "the theory of evolution is as well tested as the theory of gravity". Strangely though, we never hear physicists saying that the theory of gravity is as well tested as the theory of evolution.

Anyhow, I was just reading yet another Darwinian Narrative on the genetic similarities and differences between man and chimp but how we don't really know which differences are the important ones. In point of fact, we don't really know if the DNA differences are even significant. The only thing we really know is that a chimp is a chimp because its mother was a chimp. Beyond that, it's nothing but guesswork.

Then I thought about how this compares to the theory of gravity. We know enough about gravity so that we routinely spend billions of dollars launching interplanetary unmanned exploratory spacecraft that, with exquisite precision predicted long before the craft is launched, it moves about the solar system, arriving at known points within meters and seconds years after it is launched and after having traveled circuitous routes for billions of miles.

Contrast that with how well we can predict what it takes to turn a chimp into a human. That, my friends, is a true example of how well the theory of evolution has been tested. It hasn't been tested at all. It's nothing but WAGs and hand waving. Gravity, on the other hand, is indeed well tested. And that's why you'll never hear a physicist saying the theory of gravity is as well tested as the theory of evolution.

To compare evolutionary theory to gravity, as many Darwinians do, is to damn with faint praise. We know almost nothing about gravity. We don't know what it is, how it "pulls" on objects, how matter produces it, how it can seem to travel at infinite speed, or how it can warp space. All we know is that it can be described in mathematical formulas and, as DaveScot points out, the mathematics can be employed to impressive effect, but no such mathematical precision inheres in evolutionary theory.

About the most we can say about the similarities between evolution and gravity is that they share in common the fact that they're both believed to exist.