Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Dawkins, Riemann and the Laughing Bones

There are three things I have never understood : the bizarre adulation accorded to Richard Dawkins, the Riemann Hypothesis and gambling. The first two need no further comment. The third, however, has come up because of this sudden transatlantic spat over online gambling. The British, I note gloomily, are the big players in this business, and, by stopping winnings being paid out in the US, Congress has lopped several billions off their revenue. 'Protectionism' is being muttered darkly and various gleaming men in tight suits - think Fat Tony in The Simpsons - have been complaining in low threatening voices on TV. I'm with congress. I just don't get gambling. I understand betting on games - poker, horseracing etc - in which one's input of skill, wisdom or information plays some significant part. But I emphatically do not understand betting on roulette and the like. The odds are rigged in the house's favour and, over time, you are bound to lose unless you quit the moment you are ahead. Some exotic scams apart, any belief that you can beat this is pure faith. You need to believe that you in particular are blessed with a special ability to overcome the most elementary workings of chance. You must, in short, be insane, which is why, I suppose, the grand Mayfair clubs are dressed up by lunatic interior designers to look like asylums. British governments have, because of the lottery, been forced, disastrously, to open the up the gambling market. Congress will have none of it. Go, Congress, let Fat Tony sleep with the fish. (The Laughing Bones are dice in The Grateful Dead's Candyman - lovely metaphor, lovely song.)


  1. I agree with you about the Riemann hypothesis, Bryan. In fact, anything to do with number theory, and, in particular, prime numbers, sends me Lethewards.

    However, Richard Dawkins is a national treasure! His latest book, 'The God Delusion', is a fabulous polemic against religious belief. I was disappointed, Bryan, that you didn't review it in last week's Sunday Times. I agree with those reviewers who accuse Dawkins of lacking political and social 'realism', but it's refreshing to see someone whose primary aim is to state the truth, rather than to use the truth selectively to shape the world in some way, (which I take to be political realism).

    I did chortle, however, at Dawkins's latest piece of political correctness on p115. Here we find Dawkins drawing attention to 'Northern hemisphere chauvinism': "In Australia and New Zealand, you can buy maps of the world with the South Pole on top. What splendid consciousness-raisers those maps would be, pinned to the walls of our northern hemisphere classrooms. Day after day, the children would be reminded that 'north' is an arbitrary polarity which has no monopoly on 'up'."

    Note, however, that when the north pole of a compass needle points in a particular direction, because like magnetic poles repel, the north pole of the compass needle must be pointing towards the south magnetic pole of the Earth. Therefore, our maps of the world already have the south pole on top.

    All of which has nothing to do with gambling...

  2. Gordon,
    First I note you are employing pseudonyms elesewhere. Thanks - it makes for a nice, exotic mix.
    Dawkins is an odd one. I am not aware any of his science is strictly original - it mainly comes from Hamilton as I understand it - though, plainly, he has advanced the case of neo-Darwinism through the brilliance of his writing.
    You say his primary aim is to state the truth. I would say 'a' truth. Scientifically, it is perfectly possible to imagine new discoveries in the future - say of an inbuilt tendency towards complexity in matter - which would not disprove Darwinism but, as it were, slightly dethrone it. His truth may well be more of the moment than he would care to admit.
    Furthermore, the very PCness - which you so rightly note - of the man undermines his role as Mr Rational and Truth Teller. He has, he admits to me, many irrational opinions that he cannot justify. Nothing wrong with that, so do we all, but I think these irrationalities affects his science. Why, for example, shoould it be part of his science to engage in the debates he does? Certainly, they cast doubt on how seriously the layman should take his objectivity.
    Finally, preaching the folly of religion to a nation as secular as ours is surely preaching to the converted, telling people excatly what they want to hear. Also, why does he not consider religion as an adaptive strategy? Plainly, its prevalence though human history suggests it must be.

  3. Bryan, I don't post any messages except under my own name. I think people should take responsibility for their own opinions. I am intrigued though: which other posts did you think were mine?

    Regarding the intended audience for 'The God Delusion', I think, to be fair, that Dawkins has one eye on the United States; this is why he bangs on about Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers so much. This is certainly not preaching to the converted!

  4. Gordon,
    Sorry. Just worked out what happened. New comments send me email alerts. These come up with odd address depending on whether they are anon or whatever. I picked up a load on my Blackberry this morning and the addresses were somehow confused as if you had sent some under another name. This may have just been an artefact of my faling sight. Never mind. Delighted you are you.
    Fair point about Dawkins' audience. But shouldn't he, in his terms, be ruder about Muslims than Christians in the present climate?

  5. I don't know, you technophiles and your Gooseberries!

    To be fair again to Dawkins, he does acknowledge that most of his attention is drawn to those religions which, by upbringing, he is more familiar with, and he doesn't remain silent about Islam. On p26, discussing the Danish cartoon hysteria, he states that "if you don't take [Islam] seriously and accord it proper respect you are physically threatened, on a scale that no other religion has aspired to since the Middle Ages."

  6. I hope you'll forgive the insertion of this piece written a while back about the rationality of atheism.

    As many people consider the belief in a deity/intelligence behind reality to be irrational with the obvious implication that atheism is the rational view I thought it might be interesting to examine the rationality of this view.
    To begin with an analogy let us say you were to enter a concert hall and listen to an extremely complex symphonic piece and upon subsequently enquiring as to its composer you were told that it had no composer but that it had simply emerged, authorless from the void. Upon expressing surprise you are told that this reaction is irrational ie does not correspond to reason. This would seem to be the position of atheism towards something of infinitely greater complexity than the most elaborate of mere symphonies ie the universe.
    What then what are the explanations of this emergence from the void? Well there are 2 possible positions. Firstly that it actually has not emerged at all but has been in a state of beginningless, perpetual existence. Rationality though tends not to look favourably on things being in states of perpetual, beginningless existence. Reason, in other words, would have problems with the dead- end explanation for the arising of something's state of being amounting to- "It has just always been there". Not exactly compelling.
    The more orthodox and possibly atheism-friendly stance is that yes, the universe has had a beginning, it did arise. Using reason I deduce that prior to its existence or becoming reality there was something we can call "not existing". What was the nature of this "not existing"? Well it of course must be the absence of anything, hence a state of absolute nothingness. Using very simple logic I deduce that absolutely nothing is capable of emerging from a state of absolute nothingness.
    And from there to electrons banging off each other or whatever-an enormous leap has been made amounting to explaining the existence of the universe with "Well first of all, you have a universe and from there....."

    Anyway that's that. I find all this debate about the existence of the spiritual, mystic (all these fucking words dividing up experience) utterly maddening and tedious, like having to debate the existence of a piece of music. Atheism seems to amount to some bizarre desire to view life as some crazy magic trick without recourse to a magician. Give people enough time and they can succeed in entangling themselves in all kind of knots, and without a clue of where the knot began. Probaly most intellectualising amounts to something like, one begins with 2+2=5 and from there you get farther and farther from truth as you go along. Or perhaps it could be seen in traditional terms as the original spiritual rebellion having progressed to the point where some of the revolutionaries have hit upon the interesting strategy of denying the existence of the Supreme Intelligence/God against which they reacted. Silly ego.

  7. Forgive? I welcome, Andrew, and will consider a response, though I probably agree.