Sunday, 1 December 2013
The God Delusion or the Science Delusion?
This entry is a book review, but one that is, so to speak, most unusual. The book that I am writing about here, which I read in the early summer of 2013, is called The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. It is a book about delusions, for the book is full of them from the very beginning till the very last word on the final page.
On the front cover of the paperback version that I read, there is a quote by Ian McEwan ending “…a magnificent book, lucid, wise, truly magisterial.” It is none of these things. It is an abysmal book, incoherent, foolish, and truly undignified. It is highly damaging to the image of science and scientists, being also a book totally devoid of any merit – scientific, philosophical, literary, religious, or anything else! Yet it is a book with a specific value, which I will comment upon at the end of this review.
Much is made in this book of the violence, killing, hatred and the damage to people that is associated with religion. But, as no attempt is made to place this in context, I will do so here. Look around and look back across history, and what do you see? Killing, violence, hatred, exploitation, slavery, cruelty, and much more, and sometimes on a colossal scale, and often without any link to religion. This, it seems, is the way of men (it would be unfair to blame the world’s woes on women), and finding an ideology on which to ground this barbarism, only helps in the process of self-justification. And there are many such ideologies: atheism, science, socialism, capitalism … The list seems endless, and I have not even mentioned religion, so now I will. Some religious people do some very dreadful things, but this is not a reason to reject religion. Science also does many bad things, but no sensible person would want to reject science.
The point is this: if not religion then something else! And, a matter often overlooked – most times all the bad things come forth from a small minority of highly deluded people seeking to impose their will on the world, and, sadly, many good people are led astray, which should also serve as a warning about the content of this book. I do not underestimate the potential of religion to deliver that which is terrible, but I also do not underestimate the potential of science to do the same. Both also have the potential to deliver that which is good, and both do – the challenge is to make both better, so that there is less of the bad and more of the good!
So what is The God Delusion really about? After reading it I came to the conclusion that it is nothing more than a poorly informed tirade by an angry person who sees evolution at work in everything and, being caught up in the world of science, thinks that he is rational, but is unable to see that the book is highly irrational for the very reason that it is nothing more than a tirade, and one that is masquerading as a piece of rational work. The agenda is clear – religion is no longer needed for now we have science to explain the universe and what it contains, and given what (the author thinks) religion does to people, it is time to wage war on it to rid the world of this remnant of the past.
If this book represents science then we are in trouble! But it does not represent science – it misrepresents it, misuses it, and applies it to that which it is not applicable, seeking, in doing so, to set up science as being the one best of way of engaging with the world, which, self-evidently, it is not.
In many respects what is offered in this book illustrates one of the inherent problems with science – its hubris and its tendency to result in the delusion that the limited aspects of reality that science can handle, is the totality of this reality. Against these things we must respond, for what is offered in the pages of this book is far worse than what it seeks to replace. And I will now endeavour to highlight aspects of the book which should be setting alarms ringing in the minds of thoughtful and reflective readers.
To begin, I note here that towards the end of the book, when discussing the topic of inspiration, the author states “… the method of argument I must employ (in addressing inspiration) is rhetoric rather than logic.” The author, it seems, is implying that throughout the rest of the book he has used logic, rather than rhetoric, but actually the whole book is a discourse based on rhetoric, mostly using pathos (appealing to the emotions – look at these terrible things that religion does) and ethos (I am scientist dealing only with evidence and that which can be proved – so trust me). Logic is also occasionally deployed as part of the rhetoric. There is nothing wrong with using rhetoric of course, but let us be clear that this is what it is, and not science.
Should I here say something about literalism? I think I should for this is often mentioned in the book. Dawkins criticises literalists, who do take what are often allegorical stories, literally: people are free to see the story of David and Goliath in a literal way, but what is important is not whether there was a giant called Goliath and a boy called David, but the interpretation of the story as a metaphor – it is a way of explaining something else (as many know for it is an often used as metaphor in the modern world); people are free to see the story of the Tower of Babel in a literal way, but again, it is not important whether there was ever a Tower of Babel – what is important is the deeper meaning of the story (and this tale in particular is one that Dawkins and other scientists need to learn from, for it seems as though he and others like him have become likes gods, and seek to assail the heavens).
Many of us know that Abrahamic holy texts often only make sense if seen as being allegorical, and that they should not be taken literally, and so one would expect, should Dawkins. Apparently not though, for after criticising literalist, the author then becomes a literalist himself and proceeds to characterise God based on literal interpretations of the Torah (or the Old Testament if you are more familiar with Christian texts). But of course he has no choice but to do this, for when the stories that lead Dawkins to this erroneous conclusion are taken as allegorical, then the foundations of his arguments crumble, and his perspective on religion is exposed for what it is – just another dogma.
That Abrahamic religions have failed to communicate more widely the allegorical nature of these holy texts is true, but looked at in context, this is not surprising given that one is here dealing with the human mind, which struggles with the complexity underlying religion, as the author well demonstrates by writing such a book as The God Delusion. I note here also, that until recent times (early 20th century), the Christian churches were mostly faced with uneducated and illiterate masses, so it is not surprising that messages and interpretations were simplified. Perhaps one problem is that religion has not moved on sufficiently to recognise that today they are dealing with more highly educated people who have a greater inclination not to just accept what they are told?
This now leads me to briefly mention the tone of book, which focuses on belittling and ridiculing religious people. The phrase people who live in glasses houses should not throw stones comes to mind for there is plenty to ridicule in scientists as well, which I do in my fiction writing to illustrate the point that most humans have beliefs that are open to ridicule, and none more so than scientists, engineers, and technologists, but unlike Dawkins I do this in the spirit of opening peoples’ minds to this and to help them find better ways of being scientists, engineers and technologists (www.cheshirehenbury.com), and not to turn people away from science, engineering and technology. I have the same approach to religion and free market economics as well.
The God Delusion well illustrates that it is easy to ridicule, for on pages 195/196 of the book there is something relevant in the form of commentary about the sophisticated knowledge that Australian aboriginal people have that allows them to survive in a very unforgiving environment, but with this goes (it is claimed) stupid beliefs when it comes to matters spiritual. The question (posed by an Australian philosopher of science) is how can we be simultaneously so smart and so dumb? The God Delusion (and some other things found in modern science) demonstrates that the comment is also relevant to scientists and their beliefs. In this case one can also observe, relatively advanced knowledge but stupid beliefs, so how can they be simultaneously so smart yet so dumb?
And this leads me to comment about Dawkins’ coverage of the purpose of religion. He writes about its potential, in a rather derisory tone, to offer comfort to the bereaved (and the dying) and to give meaning to life. Yet there is one matter, central to religion, which Dawkins does not explore in his book, in terms of its meaning, purpose and value, and that is spirituality. I noticed this on reading the paperback version. I thought this a rather strange omission and assumed that I had perhaps missed this discussion, or perhaps misunderstood it, and seen it as a discussion about something else, which is easy to do. So I bought an eBook version and used the search facility to find how many time Dawkins mentions the words spirit, spiritual and spirituality and in what context. First the numbers: spirit is mentioned 19 times, spiritual on 5 occasions, and spirituality is referred to 5 times. But there is no discussion about what spirituality means and how spirituality can be developed, its value, or that this concept can be found outside religion as well.
So I am left wondering about this colossal omission and the possible reasons. Perhaps it did not suit the author to refer to it or to use it to help account for the behaviour of some religious people where it can be observed, religion has clearly gone wrong, or has failed to have the impact that it is supposed to have. But perhaps there is another reason why spirituality is not explained and explored?
On pages 58 and 59 there are insights into a possible explanation. Here you will encounter the rather surprising statement (concerning Buddhism and Confucianism) “there is something to be said for treating these not as religions but as ethical systems and philosophies of life.” I say surprising because that is just what religion offers: ethical systems and philosophies of life. Moreover, say and think what you like, but Buddhism is a religion and one that is worth studying and understanding, for it helps to explain human behaviour, and what we need to do to change that behaviour. Here I will not go into explaining Buddhism, but it is an eastern religion and in many ways alien to the western mind, for it deals with the delusions that stem from the mind and the results. Dawkins is in effect advocating a religion that sees him, and everyone else, as suffering from delusions of the mind!
So I think a picture is starting to emerge of a certain lack of knowledge about religion, which is reinforced by the statement on page 58: “For my purposes the differences (he is referring to Abrahamic religions) matter less than the similarities.” Really? I suppose in one sense he is right, that the complexity of three very different religions does not matter if one is engaged in a negative and incoherent assault against that which one does not understand and does not likes – facts and evidence have little relevance when minds have closed in on fixed opinions.
What I would also like to point out here is the invalidity of the methodology. The author of the book is doing what all scientist do, reducing that which is highly complex, to something quite simple in relation to the unmanageable complexity of that which science seeks to understand – the universe and all that it contains. This is called reductionism, which involves massive simplification and, you may be surprised to learn, ignoring things that do not fit with current paradigms. I am here referring to matters well understood by those who observe science as a process, but which sadly, are often not well understood by scientists themselves. To discover more about this I suggest that you read Thomas S. Kuhn’s seminal work called The Structure of ScientificRevolutions – it is a real eye opener in terms of understanding the true nature of science, and, opening eyes is one of the reasons I write.
Here I will illustrate the point concerning validity. In criminal prosecutions, scientific evidence is used, but the method followed by the court is not a scientific one. Can you imagine how well justice would be served if a complex criminal case was simplified to make it more manageable? Science has its value, but it is not the sole source of the truth.
Briefly I mention that Dawkins states on page 320, when discussing creationism and evolution, that: “… we would abandon it (evolution) overnight if new evidence arose to disprove it.” Please note that here I am not implying that evolution is wrong (wrong is actually not the correct word to use, but that is another matter), but would Dawkins or any other scientist so easily change their minds? History suggests not. You may be aware that Einstein was unable to change his mind about quantum mechanics, which he opposed, despite the evidence of its power in dealing with the complexity found at the atomic and sub-atomic levels. If you want understand more about this, and find an answer to this question for yourself, then I suggest you read the aforementioned work of Thomas S. Kuhn.
So now I come to another key point about the validity of The God Delusion – actually its lack of validity. Dawkins in his book sets out to prove the improbability of God’s existence and fails in this task in a most public way – such is the price of hubris! His argument in its essence is this: life evolves from simper to more advanced forms, so there can be no designer. This is not a case against the existence of God as such, but one that undermines the creation myth that Dawkins has encountered because he engages in arguments with creationists, and their views are a particular literal interpretation of the Genesis story. So all Dawkins manages to demonstrate, so to speak, is that, what is literal, is in fact allegorical, which of course it is, but without providing an explanation for this allegorical story, which is a pity because by interpreting the Genesis story one can gain insights that science might benefit from.
What one can say here is that, evolution demonstrates itself to be a more powerful paradigm for understanding how life on earth came about, than the other paradigm of creation. That some people still hold to the older paradigm is of no surprise, for this is also found in science as well, when paradigm shifts occur. Darwin himself referred to the issue, well anticipating that his work would not be accepted by the scientific community of the time. In The Origin of Species, he states: “I by no means expect to convince experienced naturalists whose minds are stocked with a multitude of facts all viewed, during a long course of years, from a point of view directly opposite to mine.” So, scientists will change their minds overnight when presented with evidence that disproves their theories? I do not think so!
But to continue with the point about validity, Dawkins also raises the question of how a designer could come about. Good question, but no answer is provided. The implication is that because life evolves … Actually there is no implication, just a statement that God as perceived as a designer, in the context of what many humans understand as design and designing, does not exist, but not that there is no God, which leads me to make some very important points. What follows now lies at core of what is wrong with Dawkins’ book and the arguments, if they can be called such, that lie within it.
First I point out a fact about the theory of evolution. What I want to question here is the universal validly of a theory of evolution that is earth bound. Yes, it provides an explanation of how life on earth developed (at least life that has so far been discovered), but it is based on observations and research of life as it exists on earth. One can hypothesise about its wider applicability, which actually in this case means speculate, and propose that life also developed in similar ways in other part of the universe, but there is no evidence to suggest that Darwinian evolution, as we understand it here on earth, is fully valid elsewhere, and no realistic possibility of undertaking any research at the far reaches of the universe to investigate if life, if there is any, developed in the same way. In other words, Darwinism is not a universal law of nature, and to claim it as such is a delusion. One might say also that to accept it as such is an act of faith, so Dawkins, here becomes like a priest, and is saying: “I believe”. One might also say that there is something insidious about believing in something (the universality of current evolutionary theory) for which there is no evidence.
Second, interested readers will find in the work of Thomas S. Kuhn, accounts about how scientists over the ages have stepped over the boundary and began to apply their paradigms to that which they are not applicable. And this leads my to my final observation that Dawkins is doing just that, forcing something to fit into the box that is defined by the current scientific paradigm, and finding that it does not fit, concludes that this thing called God does not exist. However, imaginative scientific minds, ones that are not closed in on fixed opinions, would recognise in God, a being that does not fit with the current scientific paradigm. This is what is called an anomaly and ultimately such anomalies eventually lead to scientific progress, because at some point a person with the right mindset and a lot of courage, will develop a new paradigm that takes account of these anomalies, and then past work will have to be reassessed: some of it will be reinterpreted and some of it will be discarded. So this is not a matter of creationism versus evolutionary theory, but of a failure of evolutionary theory to account for all life forms which points at some future time, to the development of a more sophisticated theory.
Please here note that neither proposition is provable: that God fits into the paradigm of evolutionary theory, or that God does not – these are just matters of belief, and the problem with scientists is that they are not prepared to admit such and then engage in dressing-up belief as something else that fits with their self-image of science and scientists.
What I have described in the preceding paragraphs is part of what I call the Science Delusion.
I would like here to say that I share a concern in common with Dawkins: it is easy for science to be damaged and subverted, which is a point he makes in The God Delusion. And here you have an example of a scientist damaging and subverting science, which, if you care (and many do not want to) to look more closely elsewhere in the world of science, you will find to be quite a common occurrence. I did say that the book was full of delusions, for science, like all aspects of human endeavour, is founded on some delusion. Delusion you see, is part of what it is to be human, and when we forget that, then madness follows, as Dawkins well demonstrates.
I now turn to the matter of the value of the book and to do this I want to ask a question for you: Why, you ask, has not anyone else pointed out these flaws in The God Delusion? Now we are back to the question: why simultaneously so smart and so dumb? Perhaps it is human, for although some people like to think they are rational, the truth is that all people, including scientists, are very irrational, which perhaps is a very good thing. But there may be more insidious reasons why the nonsense that is The God Delusion is not recognised for what it is: a bag of bones and entrails dressed up with a little good meat.
The first of these reasons is collective denial and delusion, or to put it another way, the tale of the emperors’ new clothes, which is part of the explanation why scientists are simultaneously so smart and so dumb. Scientists, and those that lean towards science, are caught-up, just as most people who subscribe to a belief system are, in collective beliefs that blind them to the truth about how they behave and the relevance, usefulness and applicability of their beliefs. Many scientists cannot see that science is just one of many ways that humans engage with life, the world and the universe. Moreover, collective delusion is a very dangerous thing, and in Dawkins’ book one can see collective delusion on a grand scale and also strong hints where this will ultimately lead, for this is no innocent and harmless piece of work, but the first steps towards … These are matter that I explore in fiction.
The second reason is fear – few are now willing to be the little boy telling the deluded that the emperor is wearing no clothes, for to do so is to commit a heresy and to be seen as opposing progress, to be seen as anti-science, and so forth. This is a very familiar story and it always ends badly for humanity when this happens.
I could go on, but this blog entry is already quite long, so I will now make a final point, which is this: Dawkins and The God Delusion represent an old paradigm based on conflict between science and religion. It is time to create a new paradigm that brings the two sides – religion and science – together once again. Let therefore Dawkins continue with his preoccupation in deriding creationists – they probably deserve each other – for his relevance and value only lies in highlighting the need for a new paradigm. And one can be fairly confident that Dawkins will not be part of this new paradigm, and, for the development of this we should be looking for a new breed of scientist. Once more I quote Darwin, who, continuing on from the point already quoted above, wrote: “I look with confidence to the future, to young and rising naturalists, who will be able to view both sides of the question with impartiality.”
In another of Dawkins’ books, The Selfish Gene, he states, “If superior creatures from space ever visit earth the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilisations is: ‘Have they discovered evolution yet?’” A person obsessed with evolution and seeing it at work in just about everything, would of course state such a thing. Myself, I think that these aliens, being more advanced than humanity, would ask a far more sophisticated question: “Have they realised yet that science and religion are one?” This is perhaps a clue that there is truly, as Rabbi Sacks states, a Great Partnership to be forged by bringing science and religion together.
This is a matter which I am also exploring in my fiction writings, but from 2014 onwards I will also be addressing the matter in my non-fiction writing (initially on my web site – see This is the Journey …), but only slowly, for I know the value here of being slow, of allowing time for people to absorb and reflect upon the journey and what is encountered along the way. The mind obscures the truth.
Written in the spirit of love for humanity, the earth, and the universe, and everything contained therein, as well as that which lies beyond it, which so far, is little understood. Perhaps the time for a small increase in this understanding has now arrived?