Issue 19, 1 April 2007 -- 38th Apollo Anniversary Year

  1. Book now! -- BROHP 2007: "Space Really Matters"
  2. Book, new! -- Professor Dawkins versus God, by Stephen Ashworth

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(1) Book now! -- BROHP 2007: "Space Really Matters"

The BROHP Conference, entitled "Space Really Matters", will be held during 12-14 April at Charterhouse School, near Godalming in Surrey. If you are interested in UK space endeavours past, present or future this is the place to be.

The quality of the speakers and the range of topics covered all promise that this will be an even better event than in previous years.

The conference is sponsored by EADS Astrium, Space Connections and BNSC.

Don't miss ANOUSHEH ANSARI, GEORGE ABBEY and STEVE SQUIRES, who will be amongst the international guests at The SIR ARTHUR CLARKE Awards on the evening of 14 April.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

"Yet another superb programme ... I can think of no better way to spend the Easter weekend" -- Prof. John Zarnecki (Open University)

"The best three-day space event on the planet" -- David Ashford (Bristol Spaceplanes)

"Three of the most useful days in the UK space calendar" -- Alan Bond (Reaction Engines)

* * * * * * * * * * * *

For more go to: http://www.brohp.org.uk/
Or: http://www.spaceuk.org/index.htm

Our web sites are run by:
brohp--at--spaceuk.org -- Nick Hill
cath--at--bfo.org.uk -- Cath Bashford

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(2) Book review: Professor Dawkins versus God

by Stephen Ashworth

The controversy between the scientific and religious views of life has recently flared up again with the publication of Professor Richard Dawkins's book The God Delusion (Bantam, 2006).

Clearly this debate should be of considerable interest to anyone contemplating human evolution into astronautical space, and who is not fixated on technology to the exclusion of the human values which have made that technology possible.

In general, I found Dawkins's book highly entertaining. It is racy and outspoken, and pounces unerringly on many of the absurdities promulgated by official monotheistic religions.

The idea that religions should command exaggerated "respect" just for being religions is an easy target (p.20-27, referencing the Danish cartoon flap), as are the morally depraved stories in the Bible of genocide, human sacrifice, rape, incest, intolerance and obsessive jealousy -- "the Bible story of Joshua's destruction of Jericho, and the invasion of the Promised Land in general, is morally indistinguishable from Hitler's invasion of Poland, or Saddam Hussein's massacres of the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs" (p.247). Modern American religious fundamentalism is compared with that of Afghanistan (the "American Taliban"), particularly in the case of the anti-abortion violence carried out by extremist Christians who, like some militant Muslims, openly announce themselves as bound only by religious law, not the democratic laws of their country (p.292). The indoctrination of children into one religion or another before they are old enough to make their own choices is roundly condemned, and its absurdity is shown up by imagining young children forced to adopt their parents' Marxist or Keynsian beliefs before they are old enough to understand economics.

These are all things that have long needed to be clearly and forcefully said, and Prof. Dawkins has done the world and the future a huge service by saying them with unmistakable lucidity.

Yet overcoming the high social barrier to criticising religion is an enterprise which carries its own costs. In order to get his message across that barrier, Dawkins has, I think, chosen to over-simplify some difficult problems.

In chapter 4 of The God Delusion, he gives as his "central argument" his reasons as to -- in the words of the chapter title -- "Why there almost certainly is no God".

Dawkins achieves this by taking the popular argument that God has to exist in order to explain how the complex and seeming improbable structure of the universe can arise, and turns it on its head by simply noting that God himself must also be a complex structure whose existence would require further explanation.

Unfortunately, this central argument is marred by a bad case of circular reasoning.

Dawkins writes: "However statistically improbable the entity you seek to explain by invoking a designer, the designer himself has got to be at least as improbable. God is the Ultimate Boeing 747" (p.114 -- referring to Sir Fred Hoyle's dismissal of life's arising by chance as being much like the improbability that if a hurricane blew through a scrapyard it would happen to assemble a Boeing 747).

Dawkins continues: "To suggest that the first cause, the great unknown which is responsible for something existing rather than nothing, is a being capable of designing the universe and of talking to a million people simultaneously, is a total abdication of the responsibility to find an explanation. It is a dreadful exhibition of self-indulgent, thought-denying skyhookery" (p.155). In other words, "the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable. We need a 'crane', not a 'skyhook', for only a crane can do the business of working up gradually and plausibly from simplicity to otherwise improbable complexity" (p.158).

That sounds clear enough. But does it address the point at issue?

The question is surely this: given that the universe contains examples of both organised complexity (such as life) and disordered simplicity (such as gas clouds), do the complex systems always emerge from simpler ones, or is there at least one complex system that is intrinsic to the universe, having always existed?

Dawkins's answer is: complex systems must always emerge from simpler ones, therefore any given complex system (such as God) must have emerged from a simpler one. But this does not answer the question; it rather merely chooses one of two possible answers as an axiom, and reasons from that. This is what I referred to above as circular reasoning.

No monotheist will be impressed by Dawkins's argument because, to the monotheist, God is by definition undesigned, unevolved and eternally constant. In other words, they choose the other possible answer as axiomatic and reason from that, leading to a dialogue of the deaf.

Both answers are a priori possible: it could in principle be the case that a complex system might one day be found which does not have simpler antecedents. Dawkins would clearly disagree: he thinks that a universe in which a complex -- perhaps mindlike -- structure has always existed is intrinsically impossible. Unfortunately he does not offer any reasons for this, and the strong language involved ("a total abdication of the responsibility to find an explanation [...] a dreadful exhibition of self-indulgent, thought-denying skyhookery") suggests that he may not actually have any reasons which he thinks would be capable of convincing an uncommitted reader.

Another way of addressing the point at issue is to ask this: is mind a product of matter (materialist philosophy), or matter a product of mind (idealist philosophy)? Did mind create (dream up, visualise, will into existence) matter, or does matter (mass-energy, spacetime, quantum fluctuations) create (evolve, construct) mind?

Since both possibilities are a priori conceivable, we must examine the real universe for evidence one way or another, rather than simply assuming one answer to be axiomatic.

What does science say? It tells us that mind (consciousness, feelings, thought) is a product of brains, which are in their turn a product of the properties of organic chemistry. At the same time it tells us that that chemistry and physics are governed by mathematical laws, which are a product of thought, which in turn is a product of mind, leading to Sir James Jeans's famous dictum that God must be the ultimate pure mathematician.

We depend for our conscious existence on matter. Matter depends for its behaviour on abstract structures of thought which we can reproduce in our minds, suggesting they have a mental origin. This is a stimulating paradox, as it suggests that the original mind/matter dichotomy is in fact a false one -- and therefore that the dichotomy between a designed and an evolved universe might also be a false one.

We must further ask: does science in fact explain complex, improbable-seeming systems in terms of simpler ones, as Dawkins assumes it does? I would suggest it does not. What it does in reality is to explain complex, improbable-seeming systems in terms of simpler ones which have the complex, improbable-seeming property of being able to build up complex, improbable-seeming systems.

It's no good explaining an animal in terms of cells, unless those cells actually have the improbable capability to function together as parts of a coherent whole many orders of magnitude larger than themselves (the human body, as I recall, is made up of around one trillion cells). It's no good explaining the motions of the planets in terms of the law of gravity, unless the simple formula we can write down on paper is somehow and most improbably embodied in the basic nature of all particles which possess mass. Science therefore does not reduce complex systems to simple components, but rather it moves the complexity or seeming improbability around from one place (where we don't want it) to another (where we can tolerate it for the time being).

In this way, physics has collected together much of the seeming improbability of the universe and concentrated it in the values of half a dozen fundamental constants of nature, which have to be fine-tuned to their existing values in order to make complex organisation and life possible (Dawkins discusses this on p.141-47).

Dawkins is wrong to state (p.145) that the implausibility is completely removed by postulating a multiverse. For even if we suppose that our universe is merely one branch of a far vaster multiverse, that multiverse must then satisfy the condition that at least one of its branches is capable of supporting life. This remains true even if our multiverse is merely one branch of a far vaster super-multiverse, and so on. However far back you can trace the origin of our planet and our universe, the conditions have to be tuned in such a way as to allow complex life to evolve on at least one planet in at least one galaxy in at least one universe in at least one multiverse in at least one super-multiverse ...

Of course, the argument is that, since we know that life is possible, if you allow the initial conditions of a sufficient number of universes sufficient freedom to vary for long enough, one day a universe will appear with the capability to evolve life. But this still means that the ultimate super-super-super-...-super-multiverse must at the outset have the improbable property of being able to evolve life, though with mind-boggling inefficiency.

In other words, a plurality of universes is no more an explanation of life than a plurality of planets.

Arguably, all the complex systems which we have so far been able to study in detail have emerged from simpler ones. But they have only been able to do so because those apparently simpler systems contained an intrinsic or implicit complexity in their capability to act as the building-blocks of more complex organisation.

The pathway simple-to-complex works in biology -- Prof. Dawkins's area of professional expertise -- because the capacity for complex organisation is built into organic molecules from the outset. But it doesn't work on a cosmological level, because in cosmology it is not clear whether there is any irreducible primordial stuff to make universes out of -- and if there was, that stuff itself would thereby become improbable and inexplicable.

All this argument actually has little bearing on the real bone of contention between atheists and monotheists. The monotheists are not just arguing that some form of intelligence had to exist in order to create the universe, but that that intelligence is an invisible person one can talk to in one's head, that it wants people to act in certain ways and not others, is the ghost author of one or more books on the subject, but not the ghost author of some other books on the subject.

We should agree with the monotheist that our universe as a whole has a certain irreducible complexity built into it at the outset, in the form of the cumulatively creative paths from hydrogen gas to stars to planets to procaryotes to eucaryotes and so on. A universe lacking those potential pathways would presumably have found a simple stable state and settled into it forever.

There is therefore a creative property of nature which is somehow hard-wired into the fundamentals of spacetime and mass-energy, which has persisted for billions of years and can be demonstrated on a variety of scales, from computer games to galaxies. It is indifferent to wastage on the level of mass extinctions of species, and to suffering, though we should note that human values do feed into it in that progressive human values give rise to a more creative civilisation, one potentially with long-term large-scale creative effects on the universe, through spaceflight and associated technologies.

This propensity of nature is utterly unlike the emotional, paranoid, tyrannical, divine tribal leader depicted in the Bible for the benefit of illiterate people living in a pre-industrial society. The universe has a mysterious creative ability, whose elucidation will keep science busy for a very long time to come. Human intelligence is deeply implicated in that ability. But there is surely no evidence for a universal mastermind resembling a human intelligence in any way, let alone a pre-industrial tribal dictator.

In my view the monotheist case is in any case fatally injured, not by science, but by monotheism itself. Only when monotheists can agree which holy books and patterns of worship are and are not divinely inspired -- say to the same degree that scientists the world over can agree on the speed of light or the mass of the proton -- will they have a coherent case to offer to non-believers. Dawkins does not put it quite like this, though he brings up the closely related point that believers "pick and choose which bits of scripture to believe, which bits to write off as symbols or allegories" (p.238) -- he might profitably have added: and which bits to write off as heresies. Therefore: "Apologists cannot get away with claiming that religion provides them with some sort of inside track to defining what is good and what is bad -- a privileged source unavailable to atheists" (p.246-47).

The alternative is of course an evolutionary morality, which Dawkins discusses on p.262-72, calling it the "moral Zeitgeist".

I conclude that Dawkins is right that the monotheists' God is a fictional character -- but not for the reason he gives.

With a subject as emotive as religious belief, it would be wrong to allow an intellectual argument about the nature of the universe to have the last word. Dawkins ends on a more personal note: "There must be a God, the argument goes, because, if there were not, life would be empty, pointless, futile, a desert of meaninglessness and insignificance. [...] The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it. And we can make it very wonderful indeed" (p.360). And his concluding words are: "I am thrilled to be alive at a time when humanity is pushing against the limits of understanding. Even better, we may eventually discover that there are no limits" (p.374).

To me these sound very like the words of someone who is at the top of a glittering career, with fame, fortune and a loving family. They hardly adequately represent the feelings of those who have suffered greatly from failure, poverty, hatred, imprisonment, torture, accident, sickness, injustice, old age, and plain old broken dreams. As I pointed out in a humorous letter which was published in the November 2005 issue of Prospect magazine, the scientific view of life simply does not have the consoling power of religious stories in the face of the sheer painfulness and emotional desperation of most people's lives most of the time. To an evolutionist, therefore, religious beliefs will still be around for a long time to come -- on Earth, at any rate, if not so much in the highly affluent space and planetary colonies to be expected in the near future.

A couple of concluding points. In his efforts to nail religion as the root of all evil, Dawkins gets into a rather sterile argument as to whether dictators such as Hitler and Stalin count as believers or atheists. It should be obvious that the distinction that matters here is not that of religion versus atheism, but rather extremism or zealotry versus moderation or realism. Atheism can be carried to murderous extremes, just like any other ideology that values cruelty and ideological purity above kindness and common sense, but religion has perhaps been carried to those extremes, or used as a vehicle for them, more often, if only because it has been around much longer.

The question is not whether the world's evils have been perpetrated by monotheists or atheists, but whether they are the work of intolerant zealots or tolerant pluralists, of ideological extremists or common-sense moderates.

My final criticism of The God Delusion is that it treats monotheist religion as monolithic. I, on the contrary, would suggest that there is a vital distinction to be made between two quite different styles of religious belief.

On the one hand there is its public face, focused on exercising authority, power and armed force to control the behaviour of a population -- religion as intolerant political party. On the other, there is its private face, focused on personal devotion behind closed doors to a practice such as prayer, chanting or meditation -- religion as psychological exercise, with friends or on one's own, and having much in common with music, literature, sport and other non-economic recreations. The same belief in God or the same written texts may inform both of these styles, yet while one is in direct competition with liberal politics, the other is a direct beneficiary of liberalism.

I therefore suggest that religion in its private, devotional aspect may well continue -- and continue to be tolerated -- in progressively more advanced societies. But the political face of religion is incompatible with progress, and is therefore incompatible with astronautical evolution.

Professor Dawkins has exposed many fatal flaws in monotheistic religion, particularly when it is used to inspire political ideology. But his uncompromising clarity has only been achieved at the twin costs of over-simplifying difficult questions, and tarring a private devotion valued by millions with the same brush as used on people who carry out mass murder in the name of an imaginary being.

-- March 2007

Personal statement: I define myself by what I am, not by what I am not. I therefore do not call myself an atheist, though there is much that Dawkins says that I fully agree with. I understand that "evolution" was a philosophical term before it became a scientific one, and I am happy to identify myself as an evolutionist in the philosophical sense. -- S.A.

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Astronautical Evolution is an e-mail forum devoted to debate and comment from an astronautical evolutionist perspective. To subscribe / unsubscribe / contribute / comment, please e-mail Stephen Ashworth, sa--at--astronist.demon.co.uk.


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