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Archive for November, 2010

I have been wondering about the purpose of death lately: what is it for and why does so much of life indulge in it? After all, in some respects single-cell creatures can be thought of as being immortal. Yet we humans replace cells all the time, hardly remaining the same person from year to year, so why do we slowly decay? Why do we die?

The answer, I though, might be that death started as an evolutionary advantage. What I am suggesting is that all really early organisms on Planet Earth were immortal: nothing ever died of old age before about 600 million years ago. Things did die, of course, but only when actively killed by outside forces, such as having a moutain fall on them. Then, about 550 million years ago, some creatures learnt how to die. They would reproduce then auto-destruct, leaving their offspring far better able to survive and flourish.

The very early planet was a tricky place to live, with conditions appropriate for life being rare and the total quantity of nutrients (or ‘food’) in each of those places being limited. Conditions could also change rapidly, both over distance and time. Single-cell beings divide rapidly and so random change can lead to rapid evolution, with each generation taking comparatively little food to produce. However, for more complex life reproduction is slower and more resource intensive, so that a greater proportion of the total available food is locked into each generation.

If the parent generations of more compex organisms do not die, there is competition for resources between parents and offspring: they are in direct competition with each other. This leads to a massive reduction in the chance that sufficient evolution will occur before (1) all the food is gone, or (2) the environment changes to make life untenable. This is because the genetic advantage of change through the generations is diluted if the original genes have as much chance of reproducing as the altered ones – it would be like Neanderthals still having as much chance of reproducing today as the most successful of society intelligentcia.

If the parent generations do die, then only those with the greatest chance of having altered genes will be competing for food. In each successive generation, only individuals with genes altered by natural selection will survive to produce the next generation. This will result in a far greater chance that changes will be compounded over the generations and so useful, pronounced adaption will occur. The death of the parent generation will also release food back into the system, increasing the chances that their offspring will adapt before the food runs out.

The species that died therefore survived, out-evolving their immortal cousins and populating the planet with their offspring. That is why about 1 billion years ago there was an explosion of complex life on Earth: it had learnt how to die. Of course, death would really come into its own as an evolutionary force once sexual reproduction had been invented. Death and sex: perhaps life really is the ultimate Gothic story.

Death and sex helped fuel the explosion of complex life on Earth.  Perhaps that is why they are both a part of life for all complex organisms on the planet today.

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The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins is, in many ways, an excellent book. At least, I think so & what greater acolade could anyone wish for? Unfortunately, my high praise is not without caveats. There are several passages or aspects of the book that just don’t ring true, which appear to my uneducated eye as having flaws. These I expand upon below, as Dawkins’ Five Delusions; I have included page numbers to give some indication of the passages I am talking about, although I realise that different editions will have different layouts.

Delusion 1, p.101: The book quotes the following cunning paradox about God: If God is omniscient, then He (or She) knows what will happen in the future, including the actions He will take. Since He knows what He will do, He cannot change that action. This therefore means He is not omnipotent, as His ability to do something different is gone.

Does this hold true? Is it possible that by being omnipotent He can be any place at any time, possibly even every place at every time?

His being outside of the rules that bind the rest of us is almost the definition of God – He made the rules up in the first place, so they don’t affect Him. Otherwise it would be a bit like someone making a chess set and afterwards having to move diagonally or only in straight lines. Time and place surely have little meaning to Him, so future, past & present are as one. There would be no instance of Him knowing ‘what He will do’ as much as knowing ‘what He did’ or even only ‘what He is doing’, even if for us it hasn’t happened yet.

There is therefore no problem about knowledge of future actions binding those actions or making the knowledge false, since there are no future actions – God is omnipotent and omnicognisant all at the same time (so to speak). To believe in an all-powerful God is to negate any paradox.

Delusion 2, p.147. 0.000000 0.000000

There is a problem with intelligent design, as it does not get around the thorny question of who created the Intelligent Designer in the first place. This would be trickier than creating the material universe, as the Designer would necessarily be more complex than the thing He created.

Unfortunately, physics has no more answers than religion on this question, as it cannot explain what is outside the universe or what existed before it or how it was created. Just postulating that there is nothing beyond the universe and that it has no beginning is rather trite. It is similar to the suggestion that God removed all evidence of his existence to allow belief to flourish, so the less proof we find the more we should be convinced He’s real.

Delusion 3, p.172. Dawkins says that there are 6 fundamental constants of the universe, such as the strong force. He states that the odds of their being a God to set these six values to be exactly right for us to exist is at least as improbable as them all being those values by random chance. But why? Surely the opposite is true: if God chose the values there would be no chance in it at all, so there would be a 100% probability of them being exactly what we need. To say that the existence of an intelligent force capable of setting the values of the 6 constants is less likely than the universe being as it is misses the point entirely: this would only be true if God was created by the system, not if He created the system. The intelligent design of God and the probabilities of chance are mutually exclusive systems. Imagine a man throws 100 dice. Are the odds of the man existing on earth to throw the dice greater than the odds of him getting the 100 numbers in the order in which he gets them?

String theory & the strong anthropic principle suggest that it is almost impossible for the fundamental constants of the universe NOT to exist in this universe. But then, what made sure strings exist in the first place?

Delusion 4, p.265. Dawkins stated that most people are not parasitic bullies, as this is not a viable option: if we were all bullies, there would be no one left to bully. Actually, most people would be parasitic bullies if they thought they could get away with it. If everyone acts as a bully, the problem is not that one has nobody to bully (one does: anyone weaker), but that one would be bullied by those more powerful. This is why bullying is prevalent in schools, where there is only a small pool of people and there is always a biggest bully (or several). In the wider society this is unlikely, so just about everyone could be bullied by someone. There is also the potential for average people to rise up and overthrow the despot. In the dark ages and pre-history the smaller communities tended to give rise to despots, but even then the strategy was dangerous. Bully too much and there could be a revolution, which would lead to the extermination of the despot’s genes.

Some morals may be hard wired into humans, but very few. There is almost nothing that is not acceptable to some society somewhere in the world.

Delusion 5. The entire book makes the unstated assumption that what we see is what we get: that the universe we can perceive and understand is the only truth and reality there is. This is basically an assumption that God does not exist, which makes the entire book nothing more than an enjoyable read. The message of the book should be posted on the front page as ‘In a universe without a god, God cannot exist’, which would go a long was to reducing the academic struggle for the reader over the next few hundred pages.

General observation on religion. I can’t help thinking that many religions are suspiciously paternal in flavour. Could it be that children are designed to think that their parents are omniscient and omnipotent, so that they will do just as they are told and therefore have a greater chance of surviving to reproductive age? When we grow up this may disappear, leaving doubt, responsibility and fear where before there was the comfort of being protected and guided. Perhaps this void is replaced with God the Father, directing and protecting us. Perhaps that is why we invented gods, which reflect the cultures from which they were spawned: violently fickle in Rome where parents could legally kill their children, rigorously patriarchal in the Catholic Europe.

Interestingly, more primitive cultures have a higher degree of shared parentage within small tribal groups, which dilutes the father figure. In these societies nature is the most potent force and is perceived as being more powerful than the wider parental group, so these societies tend to have more elemental and natural gods rather than paternal gods.

On the other hand, the ubiquitous nature of souls and the concept of an afterlife is a natural extension of humanity’s conceptual intelligence.  One has to know oneself to know the rest of world, to predict how the world around one will act and to manipulate it. To compete fully against an opposing tribe, one has to understand their thought process; one has to understand what it is to be a person and to think. A natural extension is to have self awareness, self conceptualisation and a horror of not existing any more. Souls continuing in an afterlife overcome this horror. This self conceptualisation is the darkness behind the eyes of Terry Pratchett or the lifts in the Hitch Hiker’s Guide building of Douglas Adams.

Post script. There is a tiny weeny problem with the critiques above: I am fairly stupid & Dawkins rather an egg-head. So, please feel free to enlighten me as to my errors & mistakes.

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