Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Dawkins, Dark Matter, Dead Martians and Gordon Plays God

Deluged with science this morning. Demolishing Dawkins has become a distinct literary form. Here is another fine example by H.Allen Orr, a biology professor, in the New York Review of Books. Meanwhile, we seem to have mapped the invisible by producing a model of dark matter. There is some dispute about the accuracy of this, but, in a wonderfully tortured response to the doubts of others, the lead modeller says, 'The discrepancies are not yet at a level of significance where I am definitively convinced they are something other than noise or isolated defects in our analysis.' As Eric Morecambe used to say, there's no answer to that. There also seems to be a halo of giant stars surrounding the Andromeda Galaxy. This is my favourite galaxy as a sci-fi show on TV called A for Andromeda scared me as a child. That four syllable rumble still sends a shiver. And, in case we thought we were getting on top of this universe thingy, it turns out we may have killed Martians back in the seventies. That decade has a lot to answer for. All this, however, is but a prelude to this. My loyal and learned commenter Gordon McCabe has decided to spend the week creating a universe in his living room using kit purchased from eBay and dabs.com. In a few billion years, I confidently expect this domestic cosmos to produce its own Dawkins, whose book The Gordon Delusion will be a runaway bestseller.


  1. Oh and scientists have found three quasars:
    Odd that it's always scientists who find these things, I never do.

  2. I can't see how Orr has demolished Dawkins. His biggest criticism seems to be that Dawkins can't cope with the more "subtle" theological and philosophical arguments and that consequently he has written a middlebrow book that lacks real substance. Fair enough, he didn't cite thinkers like William James and Ludwig Wittenstein. But let's not forget what he is trying to do. He is trying to reach a wide audience, attack believers' basic beliefs (and the majority are very basic indeed) and hopefully get them to begin questioning their faith in some kind of rational way. I don't think he needs to go too deep. I daresay most believers haven't even heard of James and Wittgenstein or would recognise anything they have to say as having relevance to them. The God Delusion is a popular work, not an academic work, strictly speaking.

  3. I think, Shifty, you are in danger of using the word 'popular' to mean 'not actually right'. Orr's questions are very profound, specifically his point about the logically dubious - in fact, non-existent - linkage between Dawkins's science and his feelings about religion. Dawkins has admitted to me that a large number of his opinions are not rational. I think this should be made clear.

  4. Thanks for highlighting that danger Bryan. Ordinarily, my first instinct is to rule out what is popular when trying to get to the truth. However, it is possible to present complex matters in accessible language without losing the essence of what is at issue. And Dawkins always does this very well for a popular audience and I think the God Delusion is no exception. There are some aspects of all religious beliefs that can be attacked quite legitimately because they lack any empirical or rational justification, such as there not being a scintilla of evidence to support the existence of a creator. And then there are the effects of religions practices on human affairs. It is here that value-judegments can be made that may or may not have anything to do with science, but nevertheless can be supported by a reasonable appeal to widely accepted, positive principles of right human conduct. I don't think Dawkins has confused the two, or as you put it, created some dubious link between his science and his feelings about religion.

  5. Having enjoyed 'The God delusion', I thought I'd get 'Unweaving the rainbow' for Christmas. Imagine my surprise then, when I find, on p37, Dawkins quoting from "thoughtful British journalist, Bryan Appleyard." And this is how you repay him! Shame, Bryan, shame on you!

  6. Does anyone want to hear my joke about the nun?

  7. Jeffrey, yes please. Let's hear it.

  8. As yet, Bryan, it's only at the hypthetical or planning stage. If I or someone else of like mind, were to flesh out this joke it would be a wondrous thing. I'd get my good friend Ronald Searle to illustrate it. He's a dab hand at donkeys, and you should see some of his nuns.

  9. Oops, I seem to have inadvertently called myself Andrew. An error anyone could make, but especially someone as busy as me.

  10. I am reading Dawkins' book, and I don't find anything in it that qualifies the man the delusion that he is a member of an 'elite'. To the contrary, Dawkins is the pot calling the kettle black. Criticism of evolution is not tolerated by the new 'scientism', even when it is on scientific grounds.

    Of course, he discounts evidence that disproves the primacy of "matter", whether it is first hand mystical experience, or even orthodox quantum theory and Bohm's implicate order or Bell's inequality, indicating an interconnected reality.

    Intelligent Design notwithstanding, the question of neoDarwinism being subject to the empirical method is highly relevant. Rupert Sheldrake has made valid criticism of the theory in his A New Science of Life ; physicist Lee Spetner has addressed the mathematics that indicate the 'theory' is flawed.

    Regarding 'Dark Matter', this interview on page one of Holoscience with Dr. Don Scott provides an alternative point of view, to those of you with open minds. The IEEE accepts plasma cosmology:



    Dawkins is willfully blind.

    I think the late Dr. Lewis Thomas spoke with wisdom in an essay, Humanities and Science, in his Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony . He wrote:

    On one occasion, Kelvin made a speech on the overarching importance of numbers. He maintained that no observation of nature was worth paying serious attention to unless it could be stated in precisely quantitative terms. The numbers were the final and only test, not only of truth but about meaning as well. He said, "When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it. But when you cannot--your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind."

    But, as at least one subsequent event showed [the age of the earth and the solar system], Kelvin may have had things exactly the wrong way around. The task of converting observations into numbers is the hardest of all, the last task to be done, and it can be done only when you have learned, beforehand, a great deal about the observations themselves. You can, to be sure, achieve a very deep understanding of nature by quantitative measurement, but you must know what your are talking about before you can begin applying the numbers for making predictions.

    It is the the very strangeness of nature that makes science engrossing. That ought to be at the center of science teaching...Science, especially twentieth-century science, has provided us with a glimpse of something we never really knew before, the revelation of human ignorance. We have been used to the belief, down one century after another, that we more or less comprehend everything bar one or two mysteries like the mental process of our gods. Every age, not just the twentieth century, regarded itself as The Age of Reason, and we have never lacked for explanations of the world and its ways. Now, we are being brought up short, and this has been the work of science. We have a wilderness of mystery to make our way through in the centuries ahead, and we will need science for this but not science alone. Science will, in its own time, produce the data and some of the meaning in the data, but never the full meaning. For getting a full grasp, for perceiving real significance when significance is at hand, we shall need minds at work from all sorts of brains outside the fields of science, most of all the brains of poets, of course, but also those of artists, musicians, philosophers, historians, writers in general.