science

Boingboing pointed out that Peter Watts has put another novel on the web. I liked his previous two, and enjoyed his presentation on the biology of vampires.

I’ve just finished reading Blindsight. It’s a first contact novel, but ultimately the aliens are secondary to the interplay between the humans, and to the book’s take on evolution and consciousness (which, unlike the result of Strictly Come Dancing the other week, I won’t spoil for you). Readers who bought Watts’s books also liked Greg Egan, as Amazon might say (they probably liked autopope too), so it helps if you don’t mind the exposition and are conversant with your Searle, Penrose and Dawkins (or at least, not worried by having to look stuff up). At least one reviewer I’ve seen totally failed to understand what was going on, it seems: it’s the SF writing Singularity again.

The book is bleak, hard science fiction, full of ideas, and leaves you with that slightly altered-state aftertaste you get from the best science fiction. Plus, you know, vampires in space. I liked it.

I’ve been watching the video of Richard Dawkins in Lynchburg, speaking at the Randolph-Macon Women’s College as part of his book tour. The Q&A session (video link) after his book reading is great fun. Students and staff from the nearby Liberty University, a fundamentalist Christian college, had come along to debate with him, so questions from them dominated the session. I think he dealt with them fairly convincingly.

There was one moment towards the end of the session when he seemed lost for words, which I found interesting. One woman (not from Liberty) asked him whether anger was a common feeling for people going through de-conversion. Dawkins was uncertain, and said he’d never considered it (he’d considered that people might be afraid when de-converting, but not angry). He threw the question open to the audience: “Is that a common experience?” “Yes!” “Anger against whom or what?” “Clergy people, authority figures” said one woman, clearly, above the clamour of other voices saying what I suppose were similar things. “Thank you, I have learned something this evening,” said Dawkins, and went on to say as much in his tour journal.

Dawkins isn’t the sort of atheist who’s angry with God for not existing, or with the church because the priest put the fear of hell into him, or whatever. His outspokenness is down to an impatience with people who just don’t get it, it’s not personal.

But the same cannot be said of every supporter of Dawkins on his shiny new website, as Maryhelena pointed out. She thought that Dawkins, lacking a psychological understanding of de-conversion, was possibly unleashing a destructive anger. She went to saying that it was counter-productive for a de-convert to be angry, as the decision to leave a religion is a philosophical one, and everyone is ultimately responsible for their own philosophical opinions. I replied saying that it wasn’t quite as bloodless as she’d made it sound, that I thought it was possible to attach some blame (negligence, mostly, rather than malice) to religious teachers, and that some amount of anger might actually lead to people doing useful things rather than just talking about it. Her response made more sense to me, since I agree it is counterproductive to become trapped in your anger, attractive though that can be.

I’m still left with the feeling that some negligence attaches to religious teachers, especially those who teach the young and impressionable (hey, who’s for a class action suit against CICCU?) But perhaps part of my feeling is a manifestation of the regret I feel that I didn’t think harder myself. In that case, I suppose, it should motivate me to continue to think, and to provoke others to do the same.

I was part of an interesting discussion last night at a party. We got onto science and religion, and one of our number, who I’ll call F, was pretty steadfast in asserting that science and religion were the same sort of thing. Her reasons were partly that science grew out of religion, I think, and partly that both are engaged in a search for truth.

We got side-tracked a bit by trying to define religion in a way which doesn’t include ballroom dancing, say (funny clothes, weekly meetings, rituals… hmmm). Like the judge asked to adjudicate between erotica and pornography, we know religion when we see it, so we agreed that Christianity was a religion, say, so we could talk about that rather than religion in the abstract.

The scientists (or at least, people who’d studied science as undergraduates) argued that the methods that religion and science were the key difference between them. Christianity typically begins with the statements of the church or of the Bible, science typically begins with a hypothesis which is confirmed (or refuted) by experiment. While it’s not true to say that there’s no valid knowledge outside the scientific process, where Christianity does make claims about things happening outside people’s heads, those claims are susceptible to science, per Dawkins.

F made the point that we might eventually supersede the scientific method with something else, and that science might lead us to evidence for the existence of God. Both of these are things which are possible but haven’t happened yet, I suppose.

She also pointed out that people like Dawkins would want to exclude bad or fraudulent scientists from our definition of science, but were happy to rail at the worst of Christianity, people who most Christians think are crazy. In other words, Dawkins is aiming at straw men. I didn’t get a chance to think about this properly, but in the Dawkins case, his argument in The God Delusion is intentionally very broad, and takes in the mainstream version of Christianity as well as the fundamentalists. I’d also add that science is better at correcting for bad science than Christianity is at correcting for bad Christians, precisely because it is actually possible to show someone’s science to be wrong.

We then talked about reality as a construct and F said that maybe there wouldn’t be gravity if people didn’t believe in it. Nobody was willing to jump out of the window and try this, although someone did drop a cracker on the table to confirm that they even keep it on at weekends. We did say that it was easy to see how that might be the case if solipsism were true, but it was hard to see how many minds agreed on a reality if each of them had the power to change it (which sort of begs the question, since we were assuming that people do agree). I mentioned that people on uk.religion.christian who think that matter arises from consciousness, and not vice-versa, who might believe something similar to F.

At the end of it all, scribb1e and I were struck by the failure of the majority, who were scientists or mathematicians by education, to connect with F, a liberal arts person, and vice-versa. I hope F didn’t feel too put upon. More than that, though, I wondered how many people hold similar sort of views to hers, who I never meet because I mainly have these sorts of discussions with scientists.



[ LJ Poll 855650 ]

The Fabric of the Cosmos was given to me by one of the many ex-physicists at work. I’d previously read Greene’s The Elegant Universe, and found it interesting but perhaps a bit long: I suspect that attempting to get a whole book out of explaining string theory without using mathematics might have been a bit ambitious.

The Fabric of the Cosmos is lovely to read. Greene takes a couple of questions as his theme: Are space and time a “thing”, or merely about the relationship between things? Where does our perception of an “arrow of time” come from? He begins with Newton and Leibnitz and works forward through Special Relativity, General Relativity, quantum mechanics and modern attempts to unite the latter two, introducing concepts like entropy and inflation theory along the way.

Greene has a gift of explaining technical concepts clearly. Sometimes he chooses an appropriate analogy, but more often it’s a straight explanation written with the clarity of someone who has a deep understanding of the subject themselves but still retains some idea of how hard it was to learn it. I learned some things which I’m pretty sure were new to me rather than things I knew and then forgot (for example, I don’t think anyone ever explained that a flat, Ω=1, universe can either be spatially infinite or have toroidal topology).

Personal digression into “when I was at Cambridge” nonsense: My own, somewhat limited, success as a physicist relied mostly on my ability to do really evil calculus: given some likely looking equations, I’d just dive in and emerge, gasping, with the answer. My supervisors were always writing remarks like “more words, please!” on my work (oddly enough, these days my code is pretty well commented). Nevertheless, I did OK on the Cambridge course, which was basically about testing your ability to do this stuff really fast in an exam and to think on your feet in supervisions. This was fine until the later years when they started to ask questions which tested actual understanding, and I hit my head on stuff like the Feynman path integral like Asimov hitting calculus and realised I couldn’t just do the maths anymore. I don’t really have a physicist’s intuition, but in my defence, I mostly didn’t have people like Greene as lecturers (with some notable exceptions), but rather the “101 Great Moments in Calculus” sort. They almost certainly had the deep understanding, but they weren’t so good with the the words either. I’ve no idea whether it’s still like this, and it’s probably my fault for not reading around the subject in the stupidly long vacations that Cambridge undergraduates get. Nevertheless, there should be more educators like Greene.

Greene also conveys something of the wonder and strangeness of the universe. Space is big, as someone once said, but it’s also odd. Its constituents behave in ways which are so different from everyday objects that it’s hard to believe these objects are built up of such stuff.

I was reminded again that the majority of the universe is so unlike Earth that it beggars belief that some people could believe it was all put here for our benefit (“He also made the stars”, apparently) or that an entity who could create the whole thing would be concerned with the inhabitants of an insignificant little blue-green planet.

Rant over. Green writes engagingly. I’d recommend the book to people who want to know the secrets of the universe.

Continuing my theme, there was story a little while back about a quantum computer that can do calculations without actually running. I was annoyed that nobody in the popular science press seemed to get further with an explanation than “ooh! quantum! straaange!”. Luckily Sean Carroll rides to the rescue, with an explanation involving puppies and lettuce. Great stuff.

Apparently (as in, I read on some blog somewhere), one of Channel 4‘s newspaper adverts for Richard Dawkins‘s Root of all Evil? programmes was a picture of the New York skyline with the Twin Towers intact. It was captioned “A world without religion”.

From this you can tell that the UK’s most famous atheist meant business. Watching the introduction to the first programme, The God Delusion, it’s obvious Dawkins is worried by the apparent resurgence of militant religious faith, both Islamic and Christian, and has decided to draw his own line in the sand. Over the course of the two programmes, he outlines his case against religion.

<lj-cut text=”1: The God Delusion”>His argument in The God Delusion is that the methods of science and religion are totally incompatible. Religion is about accepting things on authority, and believing them on faith. Science is about setting up models and constantly trying to disprove them. Dawkins makes the point that something which has been accepted for a long time gains a certain religious weight, regardless of whether there’s any evidence for it, citing the Assumption of Mary as a doctrine which is not even in the Bible, but which grew in popularity over time until it received papal approval.

Dawkins’s field of expertise is evolution, so it’s not surprising that he uses it as an example of a subject where science is under threat from religion. He takes us to Colorado Springs, home of New Life Church, which Harpers called America’s most powerful megachurch. In conversation with Ted Haggard, the pastor, Dawkins seems adversarial from the start, comparing his service to a Nuremberg rally. Dawkins seems particularly angered when Haggard claims that evolution teaches that the eye evolved “by accident”, telling him that he obviously knows nothing about the subject. Haggard calls Dawkins intellectually arrogant, and later throws him off the mega-church’s compound for “calling my children animals”.

For all his fearsome reputation, with the exception of his reaction to Haggard, Dawkins is pretty polite to his interviewees. He visits Jerusalem, and listens to both Jewish and Islamic people talking about the Dome of the Rock site. When talking to Yusuf Al-Khattab, a Jewish convert to Islam, Dawkins remains polite until Al-Khattab’s most outrageous statements. When the theist tells Dawkins “You dress your women like whores”, Dawkins snaps back “I don’t dress women, they dress themselves”.

After hearing the Jerusalem theists, Dawkins seems to despair. Each side is implacable, committed to their holy book and their truth.

In the second programme, The Virus of Faith, Dawkins is concerned with how religion is spread to children, and with the morality taught by the religious scriptures.

<lj-cut text=”2: The Virus of Faith”>Dawkins points out that assigning children to a religion seems bizarre: we do not label children as “Marxist” children or “Conservative” children. He compares sectarian education to speciation: information stops flowing between populations, and eventually they see themselves as totally different.

Dawkins visits the rabbi of some Hassidic Jews in London who school their children themselves, and a private school using the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) curriculum. I’ve written about ACE schools before: I think they come into the “mad, but probably harmless” category, as they’re privately funded schools which only a few parents would care enough to send their kids to. However, if Dawkins’s statement that the Blair government is making it easier for religious schools to get public money is true, that’s slightly more concerning.

Dawkins then moves on to his meme theory, although he doesn’t use the word meme, but rather, the much stronger “virus”. He points out that children are predisposed to believe what they’re told by their parents: this is necessary for survival. Religion piggy-backs on this, the cuckoo in the nest.

Dawkins talks to a psychologist who counsels people who have had an abusive religious up-bringing, and then visits a pastor in the US who organises Hell Houses, who tells him that the best age for children to visit such a performance is 12. Dawkins is unfailingly polite, while in the background the pastor’s peformer prances about pretending to the the Devil officiating at a lesbian wedding.

Dawkins moves on to the morality preached by the religious texts, and notes that “the God of the Old Testament has got to be the most unpleasant character in all fiction”, before quoting examples like Deuteronomy 13 and Numbers 31. He does allow that Jesus was a good bloke, but considers Paul to have made up the doctrine of original sin and substitutionary atonement, calling it sado-masochistic (and not in a good way, either).

To illustrate just what going to the Bible for morality leads to, Dawkins then visits Michael Bray, a supporter of Paul Hill, a pastor who murdered a doctor for performing abortions.

Dawkins knows, and says, that not all Christians agree with Bray and Hill, but points out that people like them are a problem for Christians, since the alternative is a selective interpretation of the Bible, which leads to the question of whose selection is correct. He turns to the ructions in the Church of England caused by the debate over homosexuality. Dawkins talks to Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford, who gives the standard liberal rationalisation of the Bible passages on homosexuality.

Dawkins argument against liberal Christianity is that it is redundant: if we can pick and choose from the Bible, why do we need it at all? Our picking and choosing implies that there is a higher standard than the Bible, so why not just use that?

Dawkins goes on to say that altruistic behaviour arises out of our genetic predisposition to co-operate. We have an idea of the sort of society we’d like to live in, and an empathy towards others. He cites attitudes to racism and homosexuality as examples of how a modern morality is better than the Biblical one.

Finally, Dawkins plays up atheism as life-affirming: if the here and now is all we have, we’d better make the most of it.

As a post-script, over the credits, the announcer said: “Turn over to More 4 now, where historian Michael Burley argues that a faithless world has lead of a collapse in the fabric of society: A Dark Enlightenment. On Channel 4 next: Celebrity Big Brother“. Well, I laughed.


So, what did I make of it all? I’m in broad agreement with Dawkins, in that I’m worried about playing the Netherlands (a handy bit of flat ground where generations of Europeans have staged wars) in a battle between two armies of crazy people.

I don’t think his ambition to stop the religious indoctrination of children is a realistic one: while public money should not be going into religious schools, the right of parents to bring up their kids as they like is not something the government should mess with, except in extreme cases. It’s sad that some kids end up scared to death of hellfire and need the services of the counsellor he talked to, but there’s not much a government can do about that.

Some reviewers have accused Dawkins of attacking extremist straw-men. Since many of his targets in the programme were Americans, I’m not sure how true that is: the perception on this side of the pond is that America is 51% populated (and 100% governed) by people who think they have an invisible friend who likes laser-guided munitions but doesn’t like the gays. The fact that the atheists in Colorado Springs had formed a support group speaks volumes.

Dawkins’s interviewees might be unrepresentative in another sense. We might place the religious on two axes: how crazy are they, and how much do they think about stuff? All of Dawkins’s religious interviewees were people who had thought about stuff and were crazy anyway. In that sense, they’re the dangerous sort: the people who will tell other, simpler souls, to, say, vote against gay marriage, or in extreme cases, to fly airplanes into buildings. The religious people I know in Cambridge are largely not crazy and have thought about it. In that sense, they too are unrepresentative.

Most theists haven’t thought about it very much, and are varying degrees of crazy. Dawkins’s argument about them seemed to be that they’re the soil in which the real nutters grow. I’m not sure that’s a good enough reason to condemn all religion, especially when Dawkins has given us plenty of other good reasons. As an acknowledged Internet expert on kooky religious groups, I can tell you that to my knowledge, none of CICCU‘s alumni have ever flown an airplane into a building. Something else is going on, as I’ve said before. I wish I understood what it was.

In any case, the selection pressure on variant strains of theism seems to favour craziness at the moment, although I’d concede that some of those pressures are coming from sources external to the religion in itself, such as politics. Some of the pressure is merely from the fact that being crazy means you’re more enthusiastic (check the etymology), excited and exciting. You make converts, you stand on street corners, you write threatening letters to the BBC, and so on. The Bishop of Oxford is right: liberals should be more outspoken about their liberalism. And rationalist atheists, it seems, should start forming support groups. The Root of All Evil was part of an attempt to turn the tide, and despite its flaws, I welcome it for that alone.

Dawkins’ reaction as he walked back from his talk with Michael Bray was that he’d quite liked Bray, who didn’t seem to be an evil person. He quoted the physicist Steven Weinberg: “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion”. I think that’s my take-home verse.

Those of you who missed the programmes or who are Foreign may obtain the videos of both programmes by waiting for them to fall from the back of a passing lorry or by fishing them from the torrent of information that is available on the Internet. Verbum sap., as E.E. “Doc” Smith used to say.

Peter Watts came up with the presentation on the biology of vampires I mentioned a while back. He’s finally published two of his novels, Starfish and Maelstrom, on the web. You can download PDFs of them on his site.

The books tell the story of some physically and chemically modified deep sea divers, working on a powerstation built on a geothermal vent in the deep ocean, who find something unexpected down there (and no, it’s not aliens :-). The books have been described as dystopian, but I didn’t find them particularly depressing, possibly because I was enjoying the ideas so much. Watts’s characterisation is better than that of certain other writers with great ideas, though, with people who are believable, if not always very pleasant.

The other night at bluap‘s, I was muttering at somebody about parasites which alter a host’s behaviour to benefit the parasite, and mentioned that I’d read on Watts’s site that a parasite which affects rats and cats also affects humans, making women more friendly and less choosy sexually, and making men cantankerous and unkempt. I couldn’t remember the name of the beast, but it turns out that the organism in question is toxoplasma gondii, which is a parasite endemic in cats. According to the Times, it has the effects in humans I remembered. I think I was making slightly ranty comparisons to the unequally yoked doctrine of evangelical Christianity at the time, as that was where the conversation had started. Unlike Unequally Yoked, it’s not clear whether toxoplasma does benefit from modifying human sexual behaviour, or whether that’s a side-effect of the lack of caution it induces in the brains of the other mammals which host it. Still, it’s fascinating stuff, and the sort of thing which Watts explores in his books.

A discussion on cosmology in challenging_god lead me to find a Slashdot story on the recent paper from Fermilab which says that the expansion of the universe may be accounted for without the need for dark energy. That in turn lead me to an excellent Scientific American article which explains the whole expansion/horizon/redshift thing very coherently. I think I knew what the authors say, but had not connected the assortment of half remembered facts into a coherent whole (come to that, I’m not sure I’d connected them into a coherent whole when I first learned them, either, although I don’t think the lecturer committed any of the fallacies the article refers to). Scientific American seems consistently better than New Scientist at this sort of thing: the only reason for buying New Scientist is the back page.

It appears SixApart bought LiveJournal. OMG! sixapart awaits your obeisances. bradfitz wonders what to do with all that money (link courtesy of marnanel). It’s fun to watch the drama, but I can’t say I care much.

BoingBoing linked to Edge’s question to (and responses from) various scientists, luminaries and latte-drinking iMac users: What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it ? So, how about the rest of you?