Saturday, December 30, 2006
"There is no God, and Mary is His Mother"- George Santayana, Catholic atheist.
I have finally finished Daniel Dennett's book "Darwin's Dangerous Idea". It was perhaps the most difficult book I've read, or finished I should say. It assumes a lot of knowledge in alot of fields and a broad array of background reading in subjects from Architecture to Artificial Intelligence.
The primary theme of this book centers around "cranes" and "skyhooks". Cranes are building blocks of design that create from the ground up through incremental advances. Skyhooks are deus ex machina of one sort or another (usually over-arching unexplainable "miracles" of design).
This book is primarily a refutation of the attempts to invoke "Skyhooks" to explain life/evolution. From the ground floor, the design of nature seems incredibly complex. Our first intuition is obviously to invoke a great big skyhook to explain it all. But as we inspect the cranes of invention we notice that we can gradually understand how things develop in a way which is non-miraculous (I know, it's called reductionism). Take something like Calculus for example. How could someone possibly determine how much snow fell overnight even though the rate of snow varied throughout the night several times, and varied gradually? From the ground floor it seems impossible to understand Calculus. But when we inspect the cranes of Algebra and Trigonometry, we can see how and why Calculus works, and the miraculousness of it fades away as the cranes are understood.
In debates over nature, people continuously invoke skyhooks whenever explanations fail. The skyhooks are invariably replaced by explanatory cranes, and the critics construct ever more skyhooks to keepsake their precious sense of the mysterious. This book is a refutation of the major historical skyhooks.
The first 105 pages of the book are fairly easy to read and I enjoyed them enough to make a deal with devil at the crossroads that I would finish it. After 105 pages it becomes similar to having a discussion with a very smart schizophrenic who keeps citing books and authors he assumes you already know inside and out, while dancing around like a word-salad in a mirrored rat maze. Daniel Dennett doesn't believe strongly in segues. You might read a thousand words on three different subjects wondering where in the hell he is going, and the payoff is not always sweet or rewarding or particularly enlightening. It's like his editor encouraged him to use as many words as possible to explain even the simplest of points. But in this day and age where critics cherry pick and distorts one's views, it is no wonder why these science books are all over 400 pages long. They hold your hand and slowly say it and repeat it then say it again in another form trying their damnest to make it as hard as possible for someone to mischaracterize their ideas. They will anyways, of course.
There have been many assaults on Darwin's dangerous idea- that there are no skyhooks, only cranes. Even those who accept evolution mischaracterize it or do not really accept that it is all just cranes. Just algorithms. Just selection. Just blind. We look up at the precipice of design and insist a designer, or a conscious inventor of an underlying cosmic principle. But yesterday's skyhook is tomorrows well understood crane.
Dennett comes down hard on Steven J. Gould's attempt to poke holes in orthodox Neo-Darwinism. The press and media were excited that the foremost American evolutionary theorist of his time (Gould) would try punching holes in neo-orthodox Darwinian thought, yearning for a place to store the mysterious skyhook they long for. But over the years according to Dennett, Gould's ideas, though helpful in clarification were not the grand dramatic assault hoped for. Take Gould's famous idea of punctuated equilibrium for example- the idea that slow change isn't explanatory enough to account for evolution, but that evolution happens in fits and starts. Gould hoped to find repositories for skyhooks in this theme, as did the multitudes of mysterian onlookers. According to Dennett, Gould was looking for some extraordinary revolution to pin his name to, and although he clarified certain aspects of evolution, his idea was not revolutionary at all. Overall, the attack on neo-Darwinism by Gould and others has been trounced by the overall scientific concensus. They have clarified issues, but it is still the concensus that Darwin's idea was correct, only now we know it was more correct in more ways than he had imagined. It is still the concensus that cranes are the builders, and the need for skyhooks stems from ignorance and a lack of creativity. There may be a skyhook somewhere, nobody denies this. But there has not been one found yet, despite how eager we are for the supernatural.
Orgel's Second Rule: Evolution is cleverer than you are
Looking up at the peak of design, we lustily invoke skyhooks. Imagine being transported to an advanced alien world where beings of light float in mid-air and communicate telepathically. Who wouldn't invoke skyhooks?
We look at glorious paintings and pieces of music, or my best metaphor- the game of chess, and we think we see the beauty of creativity and expression. Yes they are beautiful and full of clever expression. Reading a chess book once by Josh Waitzken (from searching for Bobby Fisher acclaim) Waitzken talks about the knack for digging into creativity that simple calculative types and mathemitician types are not able to do in the game of chess. There may be something to this idea, but Josh invokes a nebulous skyhook to explain his ability to play well. It implies behind the scenes that there is something more going on in cognition other than the crunching of variations and the drawing from past experiences. It implies a consciousness that is not altogether algorithmic. It implies a skyhook, as Dennett might say. Perhaps this book was old, but I've been following the man vs. machine chess battles, and since the last game between Kasparov and deep blue (Kasparov won the first game but lost the match), the mindless computer algorithms with no creativity whatsoever have been upgraded to the point where they have not only defeated every challenging human in every match, but so far as I know, nobody has even been able to win a single game from the computer since. They have been trounced decisively by an algorithm. Not even a few decades ago, it was commonly thought that chess was too complex a game, requiring too much strategy and long term vision and insight to be cracked by a computer algorithm. That skyhook of Chessic creativity is now another crane. We feel that our best move came from some mysterious intuition, but the algorithm playing behind the scenes in ourheads didn't care to let us in on the details of how it brought our move to cognition so easily. We chalk it up to mystery.
The final chapter of the book is wonderfully written and very readable. I encourage everyone to read these 10 pages. It is not an indicator of how the rest of the book was written, or even it's primary topics, so don't think you should start at page 1 based on the goodness of the final chapter. This book is not for the faint of heart, or anyone who is married. If you have kids and are married, I suggest not even putting this book on your shelf because it could lead to divorce and loss of custody due to inability to hold a job. Watch some sesame street or something, then dig it out of the used book store when you're in your 60's.
Wednesday, December 27, 2006
Monday, December 25, 2006
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
I bought my copy of this book recently but am in the midst of Daniel Dennett's painfully diffuse tome "Darwin's dangerous idea". I made a vow to myself to read it through.
I am so greatly looking forward to Dawkins' lucid writing after slaving away through Dennett's verbose Jackson Pollock spewing of loosely related ideas.
If my own personal history is to judge, I will re-read Dennett's book in 5 years and proclaim it to be one of my favorite of all time. But for now, it is sort of like Mr. Miagee's paint the fence, sand the deck. He gives you a work out, but it is very slow to pay off. However, I appreciate Dennett. He is no shallow thinker. He treads deep honest waters and slowly takes you for a mesmerizing swim. It's one of those books that will fundamentally alter my worldview, but in ways which I have yet to quite fully realize. I have to digest it. I don't enjoy reading it, but it is good to read something over your head once in awhile to force you to stretch out and realize how much you don't know.
I also picked up voyage of the beagle, origin of species, and have the ancestors tale as a bathroom book. I'm spread a bit thin with this reading binge I'm on, but I am obsessed with becoming historically informed on evolution because I am fascinated to no end by the complete ignorance of public discourse on the subject, particularly by people like Francis Collins. Also, Naushaba and I were talking about going to the Gallapagos Islands, and one MUST read voyage of the beagle before that.
Anyways, I wanted to post what I thought was a most extraordinary piece of writing. It is review number one from Amazon.com's page on the selfish gene. I think this reviewer speaks for alot of us. Though I've yet to read the book, I am already very familar with the premise. The book landed Dawkins on the map and was considered #9 on the all time most important science books in history (Discover magazine) behind only:
Darwin (Origin of Species and Voyage of the Beagle)
Galileo (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems)
Copernicus (On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres)
Vesalius (De Humani Corporis Fabrica- an anatomy book)
Einstein (Relativity: The Special and General Theory) .
One cannot underestimate the importance of "the selfish gene" by Dick Dawkins. The logic of "the gene's eye view" explains so much and is so clearly obvious, but the implication has devastated many people's satisfying view, including my own. When I believed in a view of guided evolution like Collins has or Ken Wilber has or Andrew Cohen has, I really thought that I understood evolution through natural selection, but I did not. I think the only way to truly grasp that evolution is blind is to do years of field work observing and studying nature like E.O. Wilson and Darwin. The idea has led to strong backlashes by those who insists that nature is not just a blind algorithm. I am at the part in Dennett's book right now where he is attempting to prove that Stephen J. Gould was trying desperately to find a way to show that orthodox neo-Darwinism is not true because the implications of the idea were too unsettling for him to take. Gould never succeeded within the science community at doing this in his lifetime. But Dennett illustrates his frustration that the public is too divorced from facts to realize this. The problem is that the human mind is absolutely unwilling to accept the idea (see my reply to the reviewer's post afterwards)
Fascinating, but at times I wish I could unread it., August 7, 1999
Reviewer: Michael Edwards (Healesville, Victloria Australia) - See all my reviews
I wish I could rate this book at 5 stars and 0 stars at the same time. It is a fascinating book, very well-written, and it conveys a real sense of how life works on the biological level, how all sorts of diverse factors interact with each other to create an incredibly complex system (the evolution of life, in this case); it also just as vividly conveys a sense of how scientists come to understand these processes.
I started it many years ago at the suggestion of a friend, thinking I wouldn't find it very interesting, and not much liking the kind of philosophy of life that (on the basis of my friend's description) seemed to lie behind it. But only a chapter or two in, I was completely hooked, and wanted to read more Dawkins.
On one level, I can share in the sense of wonder Dawkins so evidently sees in the workings-out of such complex processes, often made up of quite simple elemental mechanisms, but interacting so complexly to produce the incredibly complex world we live in.
But at the same time, I largely blame "The Selfish Gene" for a series of bouts of depression I suffered from for more than a decade, and part of me wants to rate the book at zero stars for its effect on my life. Never sure of my spiritual outlook on life, but trying to find something deeper - trying to believe, but not quite being able to - I found that this book just about blew away any vague ideas I had along these lines, and prevented them from coalescing any further. This created quite a strong personal crisis for me some years ago.
The book renders a God or supreme power of any sort quite superfluous for the purpose of accounting for the way the world is, and the way life is. It accounts for the nature of life, and for human nature, only too well, whereas most religions or spiritual outlooks raise problems that have to be got around. It presents an appallingly pessimistic view of human nature, and makes life seem utterly pointless; yet I cannot present any arguments to refute its point of view. I still try to have some kind of spiritual outlook, but it is definitely battered, and I have not yet overcome the effects of this book on me.
Richard Dawkins seems to have the idea that religion and spirituality are not only false, but ultimately unable to give a real sense of meaning and purpose in life. Their satisfaction is hollow, empty, and unreal, in his apparent view, and only a scientific understanding of life can give a real, lasting sense of wonder and purpose.
I would question this. While I am not sure what (if anything) there is spiritually, I know that a scientific view of life cannot offer the slightest hope of life after death, and since we're all going to die and most of us don't want to, this is a crippling drawback to the kind of scientific vision Dawkins wants us all to have. If there is nothing beyond death, no spiritual dimension to anything, and everything is just a blind dance of atoms, I fail to see how this by itself can give one a real sense of purpose, however fascinating the dance that Dawkins describes - and it *is* fascinating; let there be no mistake about that.
Because of this, I have the curious feeling of dichotomy about Dawkins' book that it is certainly fascinating on one level, but that I cannot give even qualified emotional commitment to the outlook on life that seems to lie behind it. I would in the end rather have the hope of something wonderful and purposeful that only some spiritual outlook can offer, even though it may be a deluded fantasy, than the certainty of a scientific vision that eliminates any possibility of long-term hope, that condemns us to an empty, eternal death of nothingness in the end. This scientific view may be completely rational; but rationality is not the only important consideration to shape our outlook on life.
Anyone who has a narrow religious view of life, who is absolutely sure their religion is completely right, would be best off avoiding this book like the plague - it probably won't change their views, but they will quite likely get very upset and outraged. And anyone with an open-minded spiritual view had better at least be prepared to do a lot of thinking, and perhaps be willing to change some of their views, because this book *will* challenge almost any spiritual or religious viewpoint I can think of - whether it is of the open-minded or dogmatic sort.
Some critics of this book have found its reasoning unconvincing, its materialist reductionism too superficial and shallow. But, from my perspective, the problem does not lie here; the problem with the book is that it is *too* convincing, that it is *entirely* convincing. The book makes it very difficult to continue to believe in anything that contradicts its basic premise, but which might be more comforting, and might give a greater sense of hope and inspiration, and provide a real sense of purpose in life.
Such have its effects on my life been that, in my more depressed moments, I have desperately wished I could unread the book, and continue life from where I left off.
It has been said that each of us has a God-shaped hole inside, and that we spend most of our lives trying to fill it with the wrong things. I firmly believe that God-shaped hole is there, that we have inner longings of a wonderful sort almost impossible to describe in words. Whether a God exists to fill it, I do not yet know. But what I am sure of is that, as wonderful as Dawkins' view of nature and of life may be on its own level, it will not fill that God-shaped hole.
I thought this was a wonderful review. It describes what I have gone through as well. Dawkins' ideas not only make sense, they make so much sense that any idea that denies their validity is immediately suspect. In truth, I think that reality leads one to nihilism. Our perception of beauty and grandeur is *also* an illusion set up by our genes. Just as one elephant finds another elephant to be the sexiest imaginable beast, so our concept of "beauty" is equally arbitrary and ungrounded in ultimate reality. All of our imaginable perceptions as human beings are just smoke and mirrors. I've always thought that secular humanists were nihilists in denial. I'm willing to pretend personally. What else is their to do?
"Evolution is God's plan for giving upgrades.You're a fruitfly it doesn't work so well, you need to do more than that. You're a mammal but you still have that thumb that isn't in the right place. Upgrade! You need a bigger brain in order to have your intelligence, upgrade! You need language, upgrade!"
If these statements are not patently absurd to you, you are a creationist. Did the lizard which shoots blood from it's eye have to upgrade from it's prior state of not shooting blood from it's eye? Collins seems to suggest that the dinosaurs were a n experiment that diddn't work so God wiped them out to make way for mammals. This is bordering on psychosis in my estimation. This is a deep and intentional misreading of reality.
Collins shows that a person can be brilliant and inciteful in one area, but terribly misled and forcefully delusional in another. Deciphering the human genome, let me remind you, does not require being informed in evolutionary biology.
Collins believes precisely what he wishes to be true.
He needs to read "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins. See my next post.
"I don't see neuroscience as serious. What they have are nutty little theories, and they do elaborate experiements to confirm them and don't know what to do if they don't work. This book [The Emotion Machine] presents a very elaborate theory of consciousness. Consciousness is a word that confuses possibly 16 different processes. Most neurologists think everything is either conscious or not. But even Freud had several grades of consciousness. When you talk to neuroscientists, they seem so unsophisticated; they major in biology and know about potassium and calcium channels, but they don't have sophisticated psychological ideas. Neuroscientists should be asking: What phenomenon should I try to explain? Can I make a theory of it? Then, can I design an experiment to see if one of those theories is better than the others? If you don't have two theories, then you can't do an experiment. And they usually don't even have one."
~ Marvin Minsky Author of "Society of Mind" and the "Emotion Machine". MIT Professor and AI pioneer.
Quoted from Discover Magazine - January 2007
Monday, December 11, 2006
By Kristin Roberts Mon Dec 11, 3:32 PM ET
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A watchdog group that promotes religious freedom in the U.S. military accused senior officers on Monday using their rank and influence to coerce soldiers and airmen into adopting evangelical Christianity.
Such proselytizing, according to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, has created a core of "radical" Christians within the U.S. armed forces and
who punish those who do not accept evangelical beliefs by stalling their careers.
"It's egregious beyond the pale," said Mikey Weinstein, president and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. "We apparently have a radicalized, evangelical Christian Pentagon within the rest of the Pentagon."
The group asked the Pentagon's inspector general to investigate a video in which some Army and Air Force officers discuss their faith while in uniform.
According to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, the video played for reporters was a promotional tool for Christian Embassy, a group that describes itself as a ministry helping national and international leaders blend faith and work.
The executive director of Christian Embassy, Bob Varney, did not respond to a request for comment.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the Defense Department does not endorse any religion or religious organization or judge the validity of religious expressions.
He confirmed the Defense Department inspector general, the Pentagon's internal watchdog agency, received the letter requesting the probe, but noted it was the inspector general's policy not to say whether an investigation had been opened.
"At this point it would be inappropriate to speculate as to what actions might be taken," Whitman said.
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation said the officers on the video violated military rules by wearing their uniforms while discussing their religious beliefs, giving the appearance of official participation in a religious organization.
That appearance, according to the group, is particularly damaging in the military, where rank carries great influence.
"It associates the power of office with sectarian ideology," said MeLinda Morton, a Lutheran reverend and former Air Force chaplain who said her military career was hurt because she did not adopt evangelical views.
The religious freedom group also raised issues with the content of the video, including a comment from Air Force Maj. Gen. Jack Catton that he would discuss his faith with people who came to his Joint Staff directorate within the Pentagon.
Weinstein compared what he said was radical proselytizing within the military with the Islamist militants U.S. troops are confronting in wars overseas.
"When we're facing a global war on terror against what we call Islamic extremists, it certainly doesn't help when we have apparently a viewpoint from the cognoscenti and glitterati, the leadership of the Pentagon, pushing a particular virulent worldview down the throats of people who are helpless to argue against it," Weinstein said.
Sunday, December 10, 2006
Friday, December 01, 2006
Sam Harris suggests passing this flyer around. There is apparently a better more printable picture on his website. I personally can't think of any Christians *I* know who would bother to read it. My brother needs to read it, but won't. My Jewish friend read it and loved it, but thats easy.
Funny, last night my Pakistani friend had another pair of Mormon kids come to her door. The first time they came she suggested that they read the Koran and convert to Islam (she of course isn't religious at all in truth). This time she told them that she was an atheist. The Mormons asked how she came to be an atheist and she replied, by studying lots of different religions. A great answer, because part of the essence of being a Judeo-Christian of any sort is that you are very very afraid to learn much about other religions, and this immediately puts you on shaky educational ground, especially when they are 17 years younger. If Christians use unreason to debate, then just use the unreason of a different set of unprovable scriptures to debate back. They went on to say something about how even the Christians hated them. Which is true. Naushaba told them she might visit their church if they gave her a free gift.
It's hillarious, my co-worker crazy fundamentalist went on and on about how unbiblical Mormonism is. Gee, how could anyone possibly believe something sooo unbiblical?
And here's a good observation one could use in a debate with a Christian. Christians are fond of pointing out that "something" supernatural must have happened that would spread Christianity around the world. It can't be completely baseless. Well, by that logic "something" must have happened between Jospeh Smith and the angel Moroni that would create a giant new religion spreading across the globe, therefore you "must" believe in Mormonism right? How about Mohammed and the angel Gabriel? Something *must* have happened. Of course the religious meme counters by saying "those religions cropped up because of Satan's deceptions".
I promised I would finish my review of this book. I finished a long time ago, and got caught up with stuff. Its a great book. You can see Dawkins read pertinent excerpts on video from YouTube at Lynchburg Virginia where he makes some hysterically funny comments to some lunatics from Liberty University (the shithole Jerry Falwell founded).
Anyways, in observing Dawkins' talk about his views he plainly says that there is no adequate explanation for the seeming fine-tuning of the universe. The multiverse idea, where there are so many universes that eventually you would get one with the right constants for intelligent life - is far fetched according to Dawkins. So he is just as amazed by it as everyone else. His view is that the only way we know of that complex intelligence can form is through evolution, so to postulate a god who is already complex is more unlikely than there not being a god. Its a good idea, but it is not satisfying to me. I think there is certainly something beyond comprehension going on, but we would not understand it, and it doesn't appear to care about us, unless somehow we are consciously connected to it, which would be our only semi-religious hope left that hasn't been utterly refuted (imo). The Yogis and Buddhists who have taken the "God-contact" issue to it's finality all but prove it's uselessness, especially it's uselessness at giving us answers that make a difference to our understanding. That path is frought with hallucinatory delusion.
Sadly, any inkling of possibility of a creative intelligence is used by creationsists to bolster their opinions that somehow this makes it likely for Christianity or Islam or whatever story to be true. I can't remember what it was like to have such a small and limited mind.
Dawkins spends roughly a small paragraph discussing the mystery of consciousness if I remember right. So, to me, this book is merely a refutation of theistic beliefs and most deistic ideas, which is fairly easy. Something like the NDE was mentioned maybe once in passing. I think Dawkins sees it is a non-sequitur that NDEs are not evidence of a soul.
To me, all of nature cries out that there is no spiritual reality. Whether there is a creator is not as important to me as whether there is a spiritual reality. My most powerful argument against a spiritual reality would be - all of natural science, evolution, and human/animal behavior. Books like the "moral animal" spell it out. Everything that we think is altruistic, our most meaningful well thought gestures of social caring and our love for our offspring etcetera are nothing but genetically induced "rules of thumb" (as Dawkins would put it) which create social leverage. In fact all our most positive attributes, to their very core are simply schemes of nature. Can someone explain to me how this is not obvious? The feelings are so powerful and well disguised that it takes a tremendous amount of insight, disgruntledness, and education to even *want* to know whether this is really true. It will put you into the fetal position once you realize it. Once you realize it, you will realize that all of us mock humanists are merely nihilists afraid of telling the truth. Our goal is to create a more pleasant fantasy world, not to end the world. So I am not ashamed of calling myself a nihilist the way I define it. May as well play the only game in town.
And have I said how much I love all of you lately?
As Julia Sweeney put it: "It's so hard to accept that even those qualities that I strive to perfect in myself: compassion, love, sacrifice and so forth, stem from the most unwily and advantage-seeking impulses."
Thats a mild and politically correct way of putting it. I would have said something like "no matter how hard we try to be good and loving, we are being fraudulent because even the act itself was derived from a natural process which continuously rewards fraudulence and deception with genetic perpetuation. Altruism is probably the most airtight way of securing social leverage. You fake right and move left, grab the prize, ask forgiveness, then do it again. Wash, rinse, repeat. Wash, rinse, repeat."
I have trouble being in any social setting without noticing the body gestures, the vocal intonations, the choice of words which scream out to my ears "pay attention to me, owe a debt to me, secure me, and notice that I am superior to you".
Praise Jesus. To think there is a loving spiritual reality based on perhaps our most insidious form of self-righteous powermongering- namely our sense of altruism- is unimaginable to me anymore. This is my number one reason for not believing.
As Dawkins said, our present day altruism is based on rules of thumb our brains enact that derived as we evolved amidst small bands of relatives where reciprocity was guaranteed, and you had to play social politics much more carefully. We no longer live in these small communal bands so when we help someone on the street we don't expect to ever see them again and then we wonder "wow, how did my desire to help a random stranger evolve?" Well, when it evolved, there were virtually no such things as "random strangers". But we enact the same rules of thumb our brains developed. Dawkins calls it an evolutionary mistake, -a blessed, wonderful, important mistake
Many of us come to these realizations before ever coming across Dawkins'idea, but this idea secures the mechanism. It is only so so obvious. Every primate does it. Throw in language and sexual selection and it doesn't take a genius to say how humanity got to be where it is.