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Saturday, December 02, 2006

Dawkins and God

Richard Dawkins has been foremost among Darwin's defenders for many years, speaking and writing to popularize and refine the Theory of Evolution. He also coined meme - the idea that ideas are replicated, altered, and selected and thus can evolve.

Not long ago Dawkins was spreading a meme about Brights:
Think about your own worldview to decide if it is free of supernatural or mystical deities, forces, and entities. If you decide that you fit the description above, then you are, by definition, a bright!
No shit? Where I come from calling yourself "bright" is a good way to get your ass kicked. Glibly denying any lacking in your worldview is another.

Dawkins rationalizes his bright idea like so:
I don't know whether gay - meaning homosexual - just happened, or whether it was launched. Either way, it has been a successful meme. The new definition is in the dictionary, and it is used more or less universally by heterosexuals. Did some syndicate deliberately release gay into the memosphere? Or did it spring up spontaneously, then take off as a brush fire? I don't know how, or when, gay got its start, but 2003 is seeing the deliberate launch of a new meme. It is bright, and we are at its birth. The bright meme is intentionally imitating gay's provenance in the explicit hope of copying its success.

The gay meme improved the image and, I dare add, the happiness of a once unpopular minority. Similarly, bright is intended to come to the aid of another beleaguered community in the US: those who, in the most religiose country in the Western world, have no religion, who are variously labeled atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, philosophical naturalists, secularists, or humanists.
Lately Dawkins is pushing a related but more in-your-face strain of the Bright meme. Not content with his own disbelief Dawkins would like all believers to stop. Now preferably. It's called New Atheism:
Richard Dawkins, the leading light of the New Atheism movement, lives and works in a large brick house just 20 minutes away from the Shelley memorial. Dawkins, formerly a fellow at New College, is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science. He is 65 years old, and the book that made him famous, The Selfish Gene, dates from well back in the last century. The opposition it earned from rival theorizers and popularizers of Charles Darwin, such as Stephen Jay Gould, is fading into history. Gould died in 2002, and Dawkins, while acknowledging their battles, praised his influence on scientific culture. They were allies in the battle against creationism. Dawkins, however, has been far more belligerent in counterattack. His most recent book is called The God Delusion.

Dawkins' style of debate is as maddening as it is reasonable. A few months earlier, in front of an audience of graduate students from around the world, Dawkins took on a famous geneticist and a renowned neurosurgeon on the question of whether God was real. The geneticist and the neurosurgeon advanced their best theistic arguments: Human consciousness is too remarkable to have evolved; our moral sense defies the selfish imperatives of nature; the laws of science themselves display an order divine; the existence of God can never be disproved by purely empirical means.

Dawkins rejected all these claims, but the last one – that science could never disprove God – provoked him to sarcasm. "There's an infinite number of things that we can't disprove," he said. "You might say that because science can explain just about everything but not quite, it's wrong to say therefore we don't need God. It is also, I suppose, wrong to say we don't need the Flying Spaghetti Monster, unicorns, Thor, Wotan, Jupiter, or fairies at the bottom of the garden. There's an infinite number of things that some people at one time or another have believed in, and an infinite number of things that nobody has believed in. If there's not the slightest reason to believe in any of those things, why bother? The onus is on somebody who says, I want to believe in God, Flying Spaghetti Monster, fairies, or whatever it is. It is not up to us to disprove it."
It is ironic that such a prominent man of science and reason can miss the point so badly. Decades ago other great men ruthlessly applied these principles only to discover fundamental, insurmountable limits to what humans can know or understand. Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems utterly destroyed the classic basis for atheism: the assumption that man alone can sort everything out without any need to invoke God.

The achievements of science are truly breathtaking but as it turns out the most profound intellectual results of the last century inform us that hard study and cold reason will only go so far. Dawkins impishly focuses on the infinite trees we can't disprove and completely misses the forest. He is unable or unwilling to grasp that God is not Thor, a fairie, or a Flying Spaghetti Monster - God is all of these and the infinite other things we cannot know.
Science, after all, is an empirical endeavor that traffics in probabilities. The probability of God, Dawkins says, while not zero, is vanishingly small. He is confident that no Flying Spaghetti Monster exists. Why should the notion of some deity that we inherited from the Bronze Age get more respectful treatment?
Dawkins can tear down all the Bronze Age straw men he likes. Rather than delighting in the hyperbole of a Flying Spaghetti Monster Dawkins would be better off soberly considering the implications of Shrödinger's Cat or Maxwell's Demon.

The elephant in the room that he will not and cannot address is the meme that infinity itself is just another name for God. Gödel himself embraced the spiritual and theological components of mathematical philosophy. Reading other explanations of Incompleteness and its implications what is hard to escape, even when put in the most dry and secular terms, is a sense of wonder and delight far superior to Dawkins' ignorant sarcasm.

If memes are like genes then it's fair to see attempts to manipulate ideas as similar to the unnatural selection responsible for such wonderous advances in animal husbandry and cultivation. The very existence of civilization depends upon the free exchange and improvement of ideas. Pushed to the extreme however, whether by activist atheists or Islamofacists, the intentional hunting down and killing off of "unacceptable" or "foolish" ideas is nothing short of eumemics.

I'll take my thinking free, thanks. Without Mr. Dawkins or anybody else telling me what is or isn't allowed.


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