Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Dawkins and Robinson 2: Understanding Science

Towcestarian, in response to my last post on this subject, says Marilynne Robinson has 'no particular understanding of science'. This charge has periodically been levelled at me ever since I published Understanding the Present in 1992. That book, I now see, was a Robinsonian tract. Obviously, if this means I do not understand the maths of quantum theory or the finer aspects of plate tectonics, then I would have to agree. Usually, however, it means I do not understand some broader issue such as the scientific method and its freedom from ideological bias. With this I cannot agree and, indeed, I generally find I know more about these matters than those prominent scientists who refuse to take philosophy seriously or who lack a historical sense. The whole point of Robinson's position - and mine - is that it is often scientists who do not understand science. Dawkins bases his own position on a degree of certainty and finality about a scientific theory - Darwinism - that is utterly alien to the spirit of science. This is not to say Darwinism is or may be wrong, only that its primacy may well be relativised by later discoveries. In the case of Dawkins' specific interpretation of Darwinism as expressed in The Selfish Gene, this has alreay happened. The absolute centrality of the gene is now widely disputed if not wholly discarded. The greatness of Robinson's essay arises from, among other things, a very profound understanding of the scientific method. She also understands that the institution of science, being a human construction, frequently fails to live up to its own highest ideals. In a nutshell: the ideology of scientism is an affront to the spirit of science.


  1. Well said, Bryan. It's a brilliant essay by Miss Robinson - and you have to acknowledge that, whichever standpoint you argue from. Towcestarian, to describe the article as 'drivel' is hardly worthy of comment and it's a measure of Bryan's ineffable generosity of spirit that he should bother to reply to your post in an effort to enlighten you.
    The argument comes down, I would suggest, to whether you think there is something separate from and outside the world as we perceive it - a creator - or this material existence came into being spontaneously and it's all there is. Clearly, Towcestarian you are on the side of the latter, but what I would like to see is some argument as to why, rather than negatively defining yourself by trying to insult those, like Miss Robinson, who take the former view.

  2. In actual fact Bryan, one of the reasons I hold you in respect is that you clearly do make an effort to understand the science you're writing about. For example, in 'Understanding the Present', you clearly understand that a chaotic system is still, typically, a deterministic system; unpredictability is an epistemological concept, whilst determinism is an ontological concept. As another example, when you wrote a Sunday Times' article about the 'Millennium Simulation' in cosmology a couple of years ago, I think you were the only non-specialist journalist to recognise that the claimed size of the simulation was actually the result of tessellating together a number of copies of the actual, much smaller cell which had been simulated. The main criticism I would make of the science in 'Understanding the Present' is your account of quantum theory, but this is understandable given the amount of nonsense which physicists speak about quantum theory. It's very important to distinguish clearly between what the formalism of quantum theory actually says, and the interpretation of the formalism. For example, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (HUP) does NOT itself entail that the position and momentum of a system cannot be simultaneously definite. Any state of a system in quantum theory provides a probability distribution over the possible position values, and a probability distribution over the possible momentum values. These probability distributions each have a mean value and something called a 'variance', which measures the degree of spread around the mean value. The HUP says that the product of the position variance and the momentum variance must always be greater than a certain value, related to Planck's constant. This is simply a fact about the information provided by a quantum state. People who endorse a 'hidden variables' interpretation of quantum theory hold that the quantum state provides an incomplete description, and a theory which supercedes quantum theory will specify simultaneous definite values for position and momentum. Sorry, I digress!

  3. Bryan,

    Yes it's a good essay. A point I would make is that it would appear from what I have read that Dawkins is unaware of the Omega Point idea promoted by cosmologist Frank Tipler in his book "The Physics of Immortality". (I have always loved that title.) Tipler's idea is that God is the end product of the spread of intelligence throughout the universe, and will create a sort of cyber heaven in which all are resurrected at the end of time, which will subjectively last forever prior to the final collapse of the universe.

    There are, of course, many bones to be picked with Tipler's ideas, and the book is not an easy read. The main problem is that it was written at a time when it was thought the universe may well stop expanding and collapse into a big crunch, but then it was discovered that the current expansion is accelerating. (Although this is so poorly understood it is still possible for a collapse to occur.) Tipler now believes that intelligence throughout the universe will in fact engineer the slow down and collapse of the universe, so he hasn't given up easily!

    I personally find Tipler's suggested method of resurrection very dubious (as he believes in a multiverse interpretation of quantum physics, he thinks all versions of all people will be recreated, and one of them will therefore have to be "you" as in your own universe.)

    Most cosmologists thought Tipler's book was just balmy, but despite my own criticisms, the basic idea has always had appeal to me. The idea that God is there at the end of the universe, and was destined to be there from the very start, gives a sense in which God can be understood as yet to come but in another way already part of the big spacetime picture of the universe.

    I don't think Tipler suggests this (it is some time since I read the book) but I also like the idea that a God at the end of the universe through some time warping method sets the Big Bang off, so that God is in that sense fully the creator of the universe too.

    The whole theory is, I think, process theology taken as far as it can be, and with a claim for scientific proof it thrown in.

    Anyway, my point is that Dawkins' rather simple minded concept of God seems to fail to take into account one rather scientific sort of idea about how God could exist.

  4. I would also like to add a very small point to Robinson's discussion of violence and atheism - Dawkin's 'why would anyone go to war for the sake of an absence of belief?' which Robinson rightly counters with examples from modern authoritarianism. It has often been argued that certain forms of authoritarianism were not absence of belief at all, but secularised manifestations of belief and therefore perfectly capable, to use Dawkin's own criteria, of belligerent intent.

  5. I think, Steve, that Dawkins would classify Tipler's God as some hybrid of a deist or pantheistic god. As Dawkins says on p19 of 'The God Delusion': "The metaphorical or pantheistic God of physicists is light years away from the interventionistic, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs and rabbis, and of ordinary language. Deliberately to confuse the two is, in my opinion, an act of intellectual high treason."

    Tipler is, however, hugely entertaining. You might be interested to know, Steve, that he has a new book out next year, entitled 'The Physics of Christianity':

    Presumably, 'The Physics of Islam' remains to be written.

    If you want a preview, you can read how Frank explains the physics of the virgin birth, resurrection etc here:

  6. Wow. Thanks for the references Gordon. Tipler should be expecting a severe rubbishing when he publishes that book. We he ever get published in a science journal again? :)