Saturday, May 28, 2011

Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion”;
Being A Poison Pen Letter To A Friend Regarding That Book.

As I told you I read Dawkins’ “Climbing Mount Improbable” in which he explains why arguments against evolution are invalid. He uses the analogy of standing before a vertical cliff and wondering how some lifeform managed to “jump” to the top (for example, evolution of the eye appears to have been an impossible evolutionary task when one thinks of a lifeform without vision that suddenly manages the mutation that allows for vision). He notes that many organisms that lack vision can nonetheless sense light (leaves of plants turn toward sunlight), so vision does not “start from scratch”. Also, he examines two methods of vision that evolved separately (I don’t remember the details on that but it had to do with the arrangement of the light collection node and the projection surface). Anyway, he notes that organisms did not have to jump to the top of the cliff; rather they took the “easy way around” and climbed the slope over periods of millions of years. Actually Christie gave me that book; she is very much into evolution science. That was the best book on evolution I have ever read.

Christie continues to be disturbed by the fact that fundamentalist Christians don’t want evolution taught in public schools (K through 12), and have usually been able to prevent that. I point out that few school teachers know enough about evolution to teach it, and even if they did their students would not have the slightest notion of what they were talking about (whether or not Santa Claus exists or not might be a more appropriate topic for both the teachers and students). Indeed, if teachers just concentrated on teaching their students how to read and write, and how to calculate a 15% tip on a $12.50 lunch, the issue of evolution (and teaching religion or anti-religion) would evolve away very quickly.

I recall a university colleague who did not understand the concept of evolution—oh, he would say he “believes in” evolution, but he had no idea of what that meant. Once in Belize with a group of students, one student was eating papaya and eating the seeds as well. I told the student he should not eat the seeds [I have heard that papaya seeds are used in India to induce abortion, so they are probably toxic, and anyway seeds of all fruits need to be either bitter or toxic so that the consumer will spit them out, or so small and indigestible to pass through the body of the consumer and come out viable and fertilized—such as tomato seeds]. My colleague John heard my comments to the student and attempted to correct me. “Why would papaya seeds tend to be toxic?” he asked. Because they are not bitter or extremely small, I told him. “So?” he asked. John, why do you think plants make fruit that animals find good to eat? “They come that way!” he responded. Come from where? You see he actually believes in continual creationism (as do fundamentalist Christians, and anyone else who rejects evolution, if they took the time to understand what they believe); he does not know that plants produced fruit to get animals to spread their seeds—that is, evolutionary processes assured that surviving plants either produce winged seeds that fly on the wind, or lucked on some method to get animals to spread their seeds. In either case a tasty seed is usually an evolutionary dead-end. [I know there are exceptions: Nut trees produce seeds that are delicious and attract squirrels to eat them; however squirrels store their food and often have life spans so short they don’t return for the nuts they “planted”. Note however that most nuts are encased in shells that are too hard for larger animals (that would not plant them) to break open, or have a poison spot (such as the buckeye) which would kill the larger animal but which the squirrel can avoid by nibbling around the poison spot.]

On another occasion I was in a Maya farmer’s corn field with an historian from OU. I noticed that the farmer would chop weeds with his machete as he walked through, but there was one “weed” that he did not cut. So, I asked him about that plant. I think he called it “calalu” (but can’t remember for sure); he said they did not plant it but always allowed it to grow as a volunteer because it produced “a very nice leaf” (used as a condiment and in concentration for children with diarrhea). Then he added something very important: He said “we (Maya) have always known about this plant; it produces seeds on the top in April and when we pass by in the forest we always grab a handful and scatter them about—that way, he said, there will be more of them next year.” Later I told my historian colleague: My God, we have just witnessed the evolution of agriculture! He responded “what are you talking about?” Don’t you understand what just happened? “People discovered agriculture 10,000 years ago, he said!” Imagine some hunter 10,000 years ago discovering a corn field! [Never mind that corn is symbiotic with humans—so much so that almost all the seeds would rot inside the husk if the hand of man did not pull it open. And note that the seeds of wheat and other domestic grains have “wings” that fall off when they are rubbed in your hands because humans preferred to have grains with easily removable “chaff”, and those grains now depend upon humans to plant them rather than the wind. If humans ceased to exist almost all our domestic plants and animals would die with us. The exceptions such as horses and pigs that survived as wild animals in the New World were exotic species and those brought by the Spaniards were half-wild already.]

This may come as a shock to you but many university professors (outside the biological sciences) have little notion of what evolution means. K – 12 teachers are more likely to buy into the silliness that evolution is somehow an alternative to belief in a Creator, and either (most likely) reject it, or “believe in it” and teach atheism. Who could subscribe to the notion that the Creator of the universe could not have devised evolution (so He would not have to step in to rework his creation every time environmental factors changed)? I don’t want those sorts teaching evolution (or religion or atheism) to our children.

The greatest minds that have ever existed on this earth have examined the issue, with virtually no exceptions they claim to have found no evidence to support or preclude a Creator, and then someone comes along and tells us the whole thing has just been a delusion! Dawkins is very intelligent and he is one of our best teachers on evolution. He (and many other thinkers) notes correctly that “there is no need to resort to a Creator” when explaining life on earth or any other natural factors. IF IT WERE OTHERWISE the subject of whether there is or is not a Creator would never have come up! [Doesn’t the fact that some of the most intelligent people who have lived on this earth have asked the question already prove definitive evidence is absent? Is this a very simple idea or am I missing something?] Evidence of a Creator would make humans akin to surfs owned by a feudal Lord, with no question about who holds the power and who is the slave, and quite obviously “free will” would be impossible.

To subscribe to the notion that lack of evidence for the existence of a Creator proves that there cannot be a creator is silly. Assume that you are God and you want some lifeforms to have free will. Could you conceivable provide some evidence of the fact that you created them? How could free will exist if there were definitive evidence of a Creator (who might slap you down every time you deny him)? Is salvation available only for those who are intelligent enough to figure it out? Have you ever heard of a religion (that makes any sense at all) that subscribes to the notion that belief in God is other than by FAITH AND FAITH ALONE? Here we have a “cultural universal” (faith based belief in God); indeed, archeologists identify burial with tools as evidence that the primate is a humanoid (because they must have believed in life after death). And then someone comes along and tells us it has all been a delusion. Are you kidding me? I don’t need to read Richard Dawkins’ book to know with absolute certainty that there is no evidence or proof for the existence of a Creator. I already know that! I also know absence of evidence for a Creator does not prove or even suggest there is no Creator (our inability to even approach that issue suggests, to me, the opposite). [And I do recognize the fact that it is impossible to provide evidence for the non-existence of a Creator, or for that matter for the non-existence of those fierce (but beautiful) women in Amazonia that kill their male children and capture unfortunate Spaniards to be cruelly used as sex slaves for decades—my heart goes out to them.] But, surely a person who claims to be an atheist could come up with a single bit of evidence that his beliefs are based on something other than “if I can’t see Him, He must not be there”!

A couple of years ago I read “Universes” by Leslie; he pointed out that “according to our current understanding of physics” the universe at the time of the “big bang” could have produced any values for the four fundamental forces, and that if those values were varied by even one millionth of a part that “life as we know it“could not exist anywhere in the universe. Therefore, he stated, we must believe either this universe was “fine tined” for life (a Creator), or there must be many billions of universes so that one could have the precise values needed for “life as we know it”. [Some fundamentalists attempt to make the same argument on the basis of the “Rare Earth” theory producing “life as we know it”; however, we know there probably are billions of planets in our universe so it is highly probable that at least one would have the conditions that occur on earth, and the anthropic principle demands that we “life as we know it” observers are located on the “life as we know it” giving planet.] I knew when I read Leslie’s book that he was wrong because it suggests we may be approaching some evidence for the existence of a Creator. I proposed several scenarios that would disprove his theory (such as the possibility that life or awareness could have evolved in any universe—would not necessarily even have a physical form—perhaps the stars arrange themselves into organisms that have awareness, etc.). But I did not anticipate what physicists have now discovered—that the fundamental forces vary through our universe (the “alpha factor”) so that “life as we know it” occurs precisely in that portion of our universe where “life as we know it conditions exist”. Are we surprised?

I also read “god is not Great” by Christopher Hitchens, anxious to hear evidence, based on facts, logic, and reason, of the nonexistence of a Creator, knowing full well that such evidence is as absent as is evidence for the existence of a Creator. Alas, the book did not deal with that subject, and indeed does not even raise the issue of whether there might be a God (creator, intelligent design, fine tuning, etc.). Rather, the book deals with religion! The list of horrors perpetrated in the name of religion or by persons claiming religious faith is not novel or disturbing to me, and I do not doubt the validity of those stories. Obviously, one could write another book (and I suggest that Hitchens could write that book) in which the great and wondrous deeds of adherents to religious faith could be laid out, and would be equally true. And, he could write another book outlining the horrors perpetrated by persons who do not claim any religious beliefs. [Actually his brother did write such a book which I have not and will not bother to read—I wouldn’t have bothered with the Christopher book either if I had not been challenged to respond to it by a friend]. Hitchens tells us that nastiness is possible (though presumably unlikely) among persons who claim to be free of religion (communists, Nazis, etc.), but concludes that they were (must have been?) religious movements after all. Apparently he thinks all religious persons are evil and perhaps atheists are not. He notes that Martin Luther King was a good guy, and therefore must not have been religious. Hummm; King who claimed to be a Christian preacher was actually an atheist and communists who claim to be atheists are actually religious!

If you and I were honest with ourselves we would both have to admit that we are agnostics. Absent evidence of the existence or non-existence of a Creator, all religious persons and all atheists can only base their beliefs on faith and faith alone. The difference is that most religious persons admit that. [The exceptions are those like our nephew who studies apologetics and maintains he has found some evidence for a Creator—but when questioned on that will resort to Biblical quotations which he accepts as the “Word of God” on the basis of faith; and our sister who has conversations with the Lord all the time—but I cannot figure out who is the God and who is the servant since she always seems to be telling God what to do.] Most atheists, on the other hand, pretend they have some information that precludes the existence of a Creator. Their “evidence” consists of: 1) proof that religious persons have done evil things—DAAAAH; 2) proof that some religious belief could not be true (Noah really could not have swallowed the whale—DAAAAH); and 3) demonstration that there is no need to resort to a Creator to explain life on earth and other natural phenomena. [If you are aware of some other “proof”, please pass that on to me.] The first two are so obvious they do not deserve our attention, and the third proves nothing and is absolutely essential for existence of free will, which we know we do exercise.

Likewise, we must all be agnostic regarding the existence of intelligent life on other planets. We simply have no information or logic that would demand, or preclude, intelligent life elsewhere. Some of us prefer to believe intelligent life (beings with free will, and capable of wondering whether there is a Creator) does exist elsewhere (or in many places) in our universe. It seems to me that our universe is too extravagant to have been created (even by an omnipotent Creator) for just one form of intelligent life located on this grain of sand in our obscure corner of the universe. From the point of view of a mechanical universe, there must be many thousands of planets with earth-like conditions and life seemed to have no problem evolving on this earth (probably several times in various forms) and we continue to discover living organisms in environments previously thought to preclude “life as we know it.” And of course I see no reason to believe intelligent life could not have evolved in any sort of environment—there may be intelligent life on the moon that we cannot observe or otherwise detect. Someone else might prefer to believe humans are the only intelligent life in the universe, but I see no advantage in preferring to believe that. If they are right they will never be able to prove it; if I am right it is not inconceivable that they will one day be forced to admit that they were wrong, and will be like those Spaniards in the New World wondering how those folks made it through the “great flood.”

Similarly, I prefer to believe there is a Creator. You told me the joke about the Arizona cowboy who had never seen the Grand Canyon, and while driving a herd north reached the canyon edge and said “Whoa boy, there’s something going on here!” Well, at least he noticed! How can someone look at this world and not be struck by the same thought? One tiny example: the sun and moon are almost exactly the same size as viewed from earth—such that you can extend your hand at arms length and find that your little fingernail just covers either one—and notice that an almost perfect solar eclipse is possible. Another example: Project each continent to the opposite side of the world and note that virtually all fit neatly into oceans [a couple million sq miles of overlap occurs for South America and Southeast Asia (the most geologically active places on earth, moving away from each other as fast as possible)—given that 30% is land area why don’t we have a 30% overlap—area of N. and S. America combined?] Note that the area of Antarctica and the Arctic Ocean are both 5,400,000 sq. miles, and (rotated a few degrees) the former fits the latter almost perfectly! Do these seem to be random occurrences in a mechanical universe, right here in our neck of the woods? Or does it seem (as it does to me) that the Creator is playing games with us, and having a big laugh every time the cowboy rides up to the rim of the Grand Canyon and fails to notice it! Another good reason to believe in a Creator: No one will ever be able to prove I’m wrong—even after I am dead. By contrast, the non-believer could be in some deep shit, to hear some believers tell about it. [I don’t buy into the heaven and hell scenarios because it seems to me that a mind capable of creating this universe could not possibly be bothered by what some pitiful human believes or says he believes, but then again, I don’t know anything about it.]

Of course I am also a Catholic. When I became a Catholic, I told the priest that, although I do not disbelieve, I didn’t know anything about God and Creation. He shrugged and said “neither do I.” I told him I wanted to be a Catholic because my family is Catholic: “That is the same reason that I am a Catholic,” he responded, “at least you are making the decision; most of us were born in a Catholic family and accepted it without question.” He was quite a guy (almost certainly an exception to the rule); he had no problem with my lack of information (and not wanting to say I believe something that I do not believe). He arranged a special private ceremony for me with only Pin & Christie, and two of our friends (my God Parents) present, so I would not have to go through the whole rigmarole. But I am still a Catholic and plan to spend eternity with my fellow Catholics in heaven!

I don’t recall if I ever loaned you “The Book” by Alan Watts. That is the only book I have read dealing with God and religion that I found worth reading. So close it is to my own way of thinking that it seemed to me that he was reading my mind (not that I could have written that book). Watts imagines God sitting before a console with many buttons He can push (I don’t remember if he put it this way but this is the way it came to me); you want 50 beautiful women? Push that button and Walla! You want two billion zillion dollars worth of Gold? Just push the button. God got bored—obviously! But there was one button on the console that was labeled “surprise”; He pushed that button and HERE I AM. And I can tell you it has been one hell of a surprise and adventure. It hasn’t always been pleasant or pleasurable, but it has always been interesting! Watts says God enjoys being a Southern Baptist—walking that tightrope between heaven and hell. He & I (and you) got to do that when we were growing up. He & I loved rock climbing, jumping out of perfectly good airplanes, traveling to exotic places, we loved springtime at OU when all the boobies popped out, and lots of other stuff that best be left unstated. I bet He also found it interesting and exciting when He was hung as a horse thief, and when He flew those planes into the Twin Towers, and as He lives your life with your dog in that damn book depository you call your library. I bet He also enjoyed writing the book titled “The God Delusion”.

I expect you to agree with (most of) the content of this letter. If you can find some flaw in my logic please let me know. I will attempt to forward this to Richard Dawkins and expect him to agree as well if he takes the time to think about it, but I don’t expect him to respond. Lyn