Monday, March 3, 2008


Unlike Christopher Hitchens's "god is not Great", written from an historical/literary point of view "THE GOD DELUSION", by a respected biologist, contains actual science-based arguments.

Evolution of Memes

Richard Dawkins previously wrote "The Selfish Gene" (1976) where he introduced the word "meme" (from "mimeme" derived from the Greek "mimeisthai" which means "to imitate"). The word "mneme" was used by others in a similar way as early as 1927 (from the Greek mimneskesthai" which means "to remember").

A meme is the cultural equivalent of a gene. Dawkins wrote: "DNA is a self-replicating piece of hardware. Each piece has a particular structure, which is different from rival pieces of DNA. If memes in brains are analogous to genes they must be self-replicating brain structures, actual patterns of neuronal wiring-up that reconstitute themselves in one brain after another."

The etymology of the word "meme" itself is an excellent example of the evolution of the cultural equivalent of genes. “Meme” is one letter shorter than “mneme” and far easier to pronounce. A challenge arose in 1980 when E.O. Wilson introduced a new word, "culturgen" for the same concept. That word has all but died out as “meme” survived and replicated in the natural human selection process. Clearly, the word “meme” is the “fittest” (best fits into the human cultural environment and brain structure).

A Personal God IS a Delusion – But is it a Useful Myth?

Although I agree with Dawkins that the concept of a personal God, external to the Universe, is, strictly speaking, a delusion, I am surprised at the vehemence with which he attacks it. He minimizes the significance of the fact that the various religions which survived and reproduced over millennia and encompassing the belief systems of billions of people are the “fittest” beliefs (best fits into the human cultural environment and brain structure, regardless of whether or not they are literally true). As such, they must have provided some real benefit to believers and the societies that promoted and still cling to religious beliefs.

About half-way through the book, he finally acknowledges, however grudgingly, the facts. He writes [pg 163 …166]:

[W]e should ask what pressure or pressures exerted by natural selection originally favoured the impulse toward religion. … Religion is so wasteful, so extravagant; and Darwinian selection habitually targets and eliminates waste. …no known culture lacks some version of the time-consuming, wealth-consuming,hostility provoking rituals, the anti-factual, counter-productive fantasies of religion.

David Wilson and Group Selection

Dawkins searches, in vain, for rational explanations for the survival of the God delusion. He mentions David Wilson [pg 170] a colleague of Howard’s and one of my favorite professors at Binghamton University who Dawkins rightly calls “the American group-selection apostle”.

Group selection makes the claim that groups, including religious associations, which promote cooperative, altruistic behaviors, survive at the expense of less religious groups. While I accept multi-level selection (gene level and meme level), I am not sure that true, pure altruism exists and have gone round and round discussing this with Wilson.

David Wilson has an annual “Darwin’s birthday” event at his home that my wife and I have attended. He gave me a plastic knock-off that is like a “Jesus fish” but this one has feet and the word “Darwin” on it. He also gave me a copy of his excellent book, Unto Others .

I agree with Dawkins that what appears to be altruism is actually kin selection (favoring those with common genes) or reciprocal altruism (helping others of the same or different species in return for a benefit). In complex human society it is often difficult to know who is kin or who may provide a reciprocal benefit, so we generalize the concept and indoctrinate our children to help all older people, cooperate with all neighbors, and so on. That is an “accidental” side-effect of kin- and reciprocal altruism, but it never-the-less benefits those societies who imprint generalized cooperative behaviors, so long as altruism is not taken too far.

Dawkins ultimately rejects group selection and is left with the only remaining alternative, that religion is an unintended byproduct of something else. What is this “something else”? Well, he concludes [pg 174-176] it is “obey the tribal elders … For excellent reasons related to Darwinian survival, child brains need to trust parents, and elders whom parents tell them to trust.”

Religion as a “Mind Virus”

Religion, Dawkins asserts, is a mind virus that feeds on the need for a child to obey elders without question, just as computer viruses are based on the need for a computer to follow instructions. The implication is that all societies of the past have had the mentality of children. With the advent of the age of reason we have the opportunity to grow up and reject religion once and for all. I find that “logic” kind of haughty and simple-minded.

Perhaps, with the rise of science and modern technology and so on, literal belief in a personal God is no longer as adaptive as it was in the past. In coming centuries, we humans may modify our beliefs to something like what Dawkins calls the “Einsteinian religion”, or the “Gaia” of Lovelace, or some other science-based concept of that unifying thing we all feel that is larger than all of us.

Scientists who Invoke "God" - Is such Belief Genuine Religious Feeling?

Dawkins knocks Stephen Hawking [pg 13] for ending his A Brief History of Time with a reference to God. Hawking wrote:

However, if we discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable by everyone, not just by a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason -- for then we should know the mind of God.” [Emphasis added]

Dawkins, quoting only the phrase I have highlighted, criticizes Hawking for being "dramatic (or was it mischievous?)".

Dawkins includes Einstein’s famous references to religion and God [pg 15]:

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.

I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists ….

God is subtle, but not malicious … God does not play dice …

Did God have a choice in creating the Universe?

I am a deeply religious nonbeliever. This is a somewhat new kind of religion.

What I see in Nature [notice uppercase “N”] is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism.”

Is Scientific Pantheism “Intellectual High Treason”?

Dawkins, in a statement worthy of Anne Coulter, dismisses [pg 19] the metaphorical use of the word “God” by scientists as “intellectual high treason” because it deliberately confuses the distinction between the personal God of “supernatural religion” with the Pantheistic God of “Einsteinian religion”.

It is amazing to me that the originator of the idea that memes evolve in a way similar to genes can be so blind to what is happening! Memes evolve by building upon previous memes. The pagan “rebirth of the Sun” winter solstice meme evolved into Christmas when early Christian authorities co-opted that time period for the birth of Jesus, and, later, when Jewish authorities glommed onto that same time period and elevated Chanukah to a higher significance than it originally claimed. Similarly, IMHO, the traditional supernatural God meme is evolving into a more naturalistic Pantheistic meme. Perhaps the Gaia idea that the Earth biosphere has developed some sort of Global Consciousness will ease the transition. Perhaps it is even true!

Dawkins Quotes Carl Sagan:

A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe [note upper case “U”] as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.

Perhaps, when Sagan talks of a new religion, he is describing the naturalistic yet genuine religious beliefs of Hawking and Einstein and Spinoza. It seems to me it is better to believe in something than in nothing. Sagan also wrote:

In many cultures it is customary to answer that God created the universe out of nothing. But this is mere temporizing. If we wish courageously to pursue the question, we must of course ask next where God comes from. And if we decided this to be unanswerable, why not save a step and decide that the origin of the universe is an unanswerable question? Or, if we say that God has always existed, why not save a step and conclude that the universe has always existed. [Emphasis added]

Scientists are in the same boat with religious believers when they conclude the Universe (like the God of literal believers) always existed! Where did all that energy and matter come from? Where did all the wonderful Laws of Nature that scientists struggle to discover come from? Like the religious believers who say that God always existed, and He created the Universe, scientific believers, in Sagan’s words, “save a step” and assume the Universe always existed! The origin of the Universe is, like the origin of God, an unanswerable question.

Bashing the God of the Old Testament

According to Dawkins [pg 31], the OT God is “… jealous and proud of it; a petty , unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

Mischaracterizing Intelligent Design

Dawkins mentions intelligent design (which he calls “creationism in a cheap tuxedo”) on nine pages of this book, but he does not appear to understand it. Intelligent design proponents claim the origin of life on Earth by purely random processes is highly improbable and therefore conclude the initial biological cells were planted here on Earth by some extraterrestrial designer. After that, some of them accept the scientific explanation that something like evolution and natural selection took over and resulted in the wide variety of species on Earth. That theory, per se, is certainly possible. Life on Earth may have been planted by some visiting alien life form. Of course, this raises the question of the origin of the alien life forms.

I, like Dawkins, believe life originated on Earth through un-directed mixing of atoms and molecules. Though highly improbable from a statistical point of view, it seems clear to me that life originated by random chance either here on Earth (or on some other planet in the Universe and was later seeded here).

Dawkins Agrees “Chance is not a solution”

On the positive side, Dawkins [pg 119] realizes that, given those first primitive biological cells, subsequent evolution was anything but a random process.

... the greater the statistical improbability, the less plausible is chance as a solution: that is what improbable means. But the candidate solutions to the riddle of improbability are not, as is falsely implied, design and chance. They are design and natural selection. Chance is not a solution, given the high levels of improbability we see in living organisms, and no sane biologist ever suggested that it was.” [Emphasis added]

Dawkins Belief there is “A generalized process for optimizing”

He goes on his apparently subconscious defense of pantheism [pg 139]:

It is clear that here on Earth we are dealing with a generalized process for optimizing biological species, a process that works all over the planet, on all continents and islands, and at all times. … if we wait another ten million years, a whole new set of species will be as well adapted to their ways of life as today’s species are to theirs. This is a recurrent, predictable, multiple phenomenon, not a piece of statistical luck recognized with hindsight. [Emphasis added
Dawkin’s “generalized process for optimizing” is Omnipresent (“all continents and islands … all times”), Omnipotent (“whole new set of species”) and Omniscient (“as well adapted to their ways of life as today’s species”). Change it to “Generalized Optimizing Device” and we have our familiar Pantheistic “GOD”. QED :^)

Opposition to Homosexuality by the “American Taliban”

In another passage worthy of Ann Coulter, Dawkins [pg 289] notes the Afghan Taliban punishment for homosexuality was execution by being buried alive and compares that to a statement by what he calls the “American Taliban” Rev. Jerry Falwell who said “AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals; it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.” One does not have to agree with Falwell to recognize Dawkins’s analogy as an awful exaggeration.

Ira Glickstein


Howard Pattee said...

My interpretation of religion is that it is motivated by primitive instincts like fear, curiosity, mystery, and basic desires that cannot be satisfied by rational inquiry or by intentional choices in our behavior. Religious stories are all that is left for those who have the need to address these instincts. In other words, religion is an attempt to mitigate the unsolvable problems of our existence.
One should expect a variety of stories about such unsolvable problems, but at the same time some stories are more emotionally effective and socially valuable than others. Apparently, one very effective story is that long ago God revealed his commandments to special individuals, and these words are recoded in inerrant sacred texts.
I haven’t a clue why so many people believe this type of story.

AskAPMP said...

In bible study this evening, one woman mentioned that the retold story of Noah in the New Testament book of Peter (our topic) is "an allegory". An allegory is a fable, a short moral story, usually having animals as characters, and so, she was not far off the mark. The bible is, in my opinion, a vast collection of moral stories, or stories with a moral, fables, larger myths, if you will, fit into a historical context where government (the most wastfull institution, in my opinion over religion) ruled by fear. The bible posed organization by rules that were enforced not necessarily by a spear, torture, or crucifixion, but by more spiritual or social means. If you did not walk the line, in this life you were an outcast, and in the next you may suffer a far worse eternal prison. The bible had great uses, for promoting the happiness and prosperity of a people oppressed by pagan rule (Egypt, Rome, etc.). The rules and wisdom we can gain from it today, can make us richer in spirit and even material things, if we just have faith. Yes, that may even mean believing in God or a supreme entity or being. And after all at the very basic semantic level what are we talking about when we talk of that supreme being? We are talking about love. John Lennon said, it is all we need. I agree. I prefer it to the alternative, which instead of integrating the air we breath, the dirt we live on, the wind we feel, and the fire that warms us, into life for our blue and green planet, appears to in so many ways want to eradicate life. Evil eradicates life. I prefer God and love, and the continuation of life.

Ira Glickstein said...

Howard and AskAPMP: Thanks for commenting!

Howard outlined his interpretation of religion as stories that "attempt to mitigate the unsolvable problems of our existence". Such stories are often attributed to a long-ago revelation to "special individuals". Howard observes "I haven’t a clue why so many people believe this type of story."

The fact is many people throughout history, including many today who have had every benefit of science-based education and knowledge and technology, find comfort in these stories.

AskAPMP provides an answer that I find quite satisfying. These fables are moral stories that help enforce the rules necessary for successful civilizations. They are an alternative (or, I would say a supplement) to the enforcement of laws by the strong arm of governments. These allegories, in myriad forms, date from long ago and have survived and reproduced and evolved over the centuries, proving their value to human civilization (if not their literal truth:^)

Ira Glickstein

PS to AskAPMP: You appear to be a newcomer to this Blog. If you would like to become an Author, please send an email to me and I will have BlogSpot send you an invitation.

Howard Pattee said...

My puzzlement was not clearly expressed. I am not puzzled by why people have moral principles and find love better than hate. I think these principles derive from natural biological instincts modified by rational thought.

What I don’t have a clue about is why people prefer to believe that these principles are supernaturally revealed by God to only a few old prophets, and their texts are then forever frozen as sacred.
In science when we learn something new we update our thinking. In science, new texts have more authority than old texts. In religion “ancient authorities” are the final word.
I find, along with most of my close friends, that this frozen aspect of established religions is a great obstacle to our spiritual growth.

AskAPMP said...

Pascal, Plato, Copernicus, and many others were ancient authorities who established science as we know it today. Without ancient Euclidean geometry and the the Pythagorean theorem (proved in ancient Greece or earlier, perhaps predating the Bible), for example, more contemporary societies would not have been able to build grand places of worship where contemporary religious figures; the Pope, Archbishop of Canterbury, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Pat Rogers, Dalai Lama, and a long list of notables of every cloth continue to update our perceptions of what religion is and should be to a degree that may have good King James "turning in his grave" as it were.

Ira Glickstein said...

Howard wrote: "...In science, new texts have more authority than old texts. In religion 'ancient authorities' are the final word."

Say what? The history of science is loaded with examples of new theories, supported (according to their proponents) by empirical evidence being resisted by mainstream scientists and later found to be true (or not).

For example, (from WikiPedia) "Continental drift refers to the movement of the Earth's continents relative to each other. The hypothesis that continents 'drift' was first put forward by Abraham Ortelius in 1596. However, only with the development of the theory of plate tectonics in the 1960s a sufficient geological explanation of the cause of their movement could be found." It took nearly half a millenium for that piece of true science to be accepted by the mainstream.

Another example, cold fusion (from WikiPedia) is "a controversial effect reported by some researchers to have been produced from nuclear fusion at conditions near room temperature and atmospheric pressure. ... The idea was brought into public consciousness by an announcement made in 1989 by the chemists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann at the University of Utah that they had generated excess heat that they believed at the time could only be explained by the occurrence of a nuclear reaction. ... More than 490 reports in peer-reviewed journals have suggested unexplained phenomenon from cold fusion experiments,including nearly 200 published reports of anomalous heat, and over 60 of anomalous tritium production ... [including some] research reports in peer-reviewed journals ..." Although not accepted by mainstream science, the jury is still out on cold fusion. (I think it is not true.)

I agree with Howard that science has an excellent method for confirming or disconfirming scientific theories, but that method sometimes takes years or centuries to work itself out. Even in science, theories that have been around for a long time and accepted by the mainstream have more authority than new ideas that have not been fully tested by the scientific method.

In the case of religious "revelations" said to have been made by God to special individuals there is no clear formal method for proof or disproof. Some "revelations" are immediately accepted by the masses while others are rejected by most contemporaries but later accepted by mainstream religions.

I do not believe in a personal God who reveals special truths to favored individuals. On the other hand, I do believe that "holy scriptures" that have survived more or less intact for centuries and millenia must have had some special "fitness" to have survived and reproduced so long. Though not necessarily literally true, these stories are true in the sense they satisfy some deep psychological need of many people, including many who have had the benefit of science-based educations. (Like the statue of the mayor that looks more like the mayor than the mayor himself, these beloved stories have a level of truth far deeper than mere factuality :^)

Even new scientific theories and great inventions seem to come as "revelations" to specially inspired individuals. How many scientists knew as much, or more, about physics and advanced mathematics as Einstein at the time he came up with his Earth-shattering theories? It is true new theories come to the mind that is ready for them, the mind that has the background knowledge to understand and extrapolate and so on, but how many well-prepared minds come up empty?

I believe the same is true of spiritual revelation. I don't have to believe in a personal God who spoonfeeds these inspired individuals, but I do believe they were mightily inspired as evidenced by the longevity of their revelations.

Ira Glickstein

AskAPMP said...

Prof, I agree with you. I'd like to add that many religious institutions, and churches have made a major contribution albeit largely unrecognized to educate most of the human race in the way of science, math, and of course, religion. Governments by their nature rule best when people are ignorant of their ways, and so lax in educating their populace, but churches rely upon the catechism of their members. Take for example, the Church of Scotland (my church) that played a leading role in the provision of universal education in Scotland (the first such provision in the modern world), largely due to its desire that all people should be able to read the Bible.

Howard Pattee said...

As I have said before, Ira and I have no basic disagreement about our personal religious beliefs. From what AskAPMP has said I doubt I have any basic disagreements with him (her?). AskAPMP points out that “a long list of notables of every cloth continue to update our perceptions of what religion is and should be.” I certainly agree that is as it should be. Unfortunately, that is not the way it is!

What continues to puzzle me (and what neither of you has addressed) is why the large majority of followers of established religions do not think this way.

For example, most Christian churches consider modern religious scholars like Crossan, Borg, Karen Anderson, Elaine Pagels, Stephen Mitchell, et al. who are trying to update religion (just as AskAPMP wishes) are treated as extremist liberals and even apostates. They have had no significant effect on the continued rise of fundamentalism. Ira and I would be excommunicated from most churches and beheaded in Islam.

A large majority of members of mainline churches, Catholics, Episcopalians, Baptists, Lutherans, Mormons do not believe in evolution and think that a zygote is a human being. Many believe the earth is 6000 years old. They have strict scripture-based “moral” codes concerning the most private and personal behaviors like sexual orientation, abortion, end-of-life assistance. The Pope says you should withhold drugs as you die because suffering has redemptive value.

Of course, all this ignorance and moral nonsense is trivial compared to the continual brutal killing in the name of religion. It goes on today as it has gone on for 5000 years. The “fitness value” and “deep psychological need” that Ira sees in ancient religious texts I could just as well interpret, based on the historical evidence, as the need to kill those who don’t believe the same scripture.

Ira Glickstein said...

Thanks Howard for your comments. Although IMHO they are quite extreme, you are in no danger of being excommunicated from this Blog :^)

Let me take you to task a bit for the following examples of hyperbole:

1) "Ira and I would be excommunicated from most churches and beheaded in Islam."

Both you and I have been invited and have given sermons at our places of religious worship.

Despite my views denying a personal God and accepting evolution and the age of the Earth, I have been warmly accepted and attended classes by our Lubovitch Chasids (extreme orthodox). I believe you would be welcomed at almost any mainline US Church. Either of us would be welcomed at nearly any US Mosque as a guest or if we had a sincere desire to join. Do you know anyone who has been excommunicated recently? Spinoza comes to mind, but that was a few hundred years ago!

2) "A large majority of members of mainline churches, Catholics, Episcopalians, Baptists, Lutherans, Mormons do not believe in evolution and think that a zygote is a human being."

Lack of belief in evolution by a majority of Americans is (sadly) true. Perhaps if it was properly taught as *not* totally random it would be better accepted. As for a living human zygote, which is the union of a living human male sperm cell and a living human female egg cell, it is certainly alive and certainly human. It has not yet drawn a breath or graduated high school, but that was true of my three daughters as I watched them emerge and take their first breaths while the umbilical cord was still attached. Do you doubt my daughters were living human beings before their first breath? Do you doubt that that living human zygote, given normal care, will in time graduate high school?

You and I, for practical reasons, may oppose laws that punish early term abortion or even late-term abortion when the mother's life is in danger or the baby is severely defective, but I do not think we should define them as less than human beings. My father was still a human being when I asked the doctors to withdraw all life suport, including oxygen and IV, and let him die six days after a massive brain hemorage.

3) You define as "ignorance and moral nonsence" the "strict scripture-based 'moral' codes concerning the most private and personal behaviors like sexual orientation, abortion, end-of-life assistance."

If you and I come back in 50 or 100 years, we will see if "reasoned" approaches allowing gay marriage and killing babies and speeding the demise of elders will have made for a more successful society! Perhaps societies that adopt these new-fangled reason-based "moral" codes will thrive. Perhaps they will be buried by less "reasonable" societies that cling to time-tested faith-based moral codes.

Please keep up your excellent comments and do not take my objections as in any way detracting from my continuing high respect and regard for you and your opinions.

Ira Glickstein

Howard Pattee said...

I agree, I sometimes make my points with hyperbole, but I don’t worry about it because Ira will catch it!

However, I think Ira is out of touch with the worldwide rise of fundamentalism. Suppose I use excommunication in its literal sense of rejection of person who was in communion with a group including not only churches but families. This is common among fundamentalists. A recent Science article (2/22/08, pp. 1034-1036) “Crossing the Divide” by Jennifer Couzin, tells just such a story of Stephen Godfrey whose fundamentalist family rejected him because he studied paleontology and decided the Earth was older than 6000 years.

I was a member of the Williamstown Ecumenical Association, a group of local clergy who were trying to find some common ground among their Christian sects. The fundamentalist made such discussion impossible. They made it clear that I would not have been allowed to discuss my ideas in their church. I suspect that your Jewish conservatives are more tolerant.

One of our residents, John Chandler (a professor of religious philosophy at Williams College and also its last President) studied the demographics of Islamic and Christian conservatives and concluded that they way things are going we can expect “religious clashes that will eclipse the bitter wars of the 16th century.” This was his conclusion before the Iraq war. He thinks Bush’s invasion is simply feeding the flames of religious conflict.

For a fuller scholarly analysis of the rise of fundamentalism read Karen Armstrong, “The Battle for God” (Ballantine, 2000)

Your statement that a zygote is “certainly human” is certain only if everyone agrees to define it that way. In practice I think you must distinguish the potential from the immediate or actual. Otherwise, an open-ended time frame makes rational decisions impossible. I appreciate your emotional examples about your children and your father, but that is not going to solve the problem of what is considered potentially human. Every healthy human cell has the DNA to make it potentially human. Parthenogenesis is common among other species and could be made to occur with humans. Also, nature aborts perhaps one quarter of all zygotes because of errors in development. Evolution must deal harshly with errors if natural selection is to work. I’m not sure how much medicine and genetic engineering should fight natural selection. That is going to be a big problem.

Hippocrates’ view I think is scientifically and ethically supportable. Until the brain develops there is no human there. All your other organs can be replaced, even with artificial parts, without changing who you are:

“Men ought to know that from nothing else but the brain come joys, delights, laughter and sports, and sorrows, griefs, despondency, and lamentations. And by this, in an especial manner, we acquire wisdom and knowledge, and see and hear, and know what are foul and what are fair, what are bad and what are good, what are sweet, and what unsavory; some we discriminate by habit, and some we perceive by their utility. By this we distinguish objects of relish and disrelish, according to the seasons; and the same things do not always please us. And by the same organ we become mad and delirious, and fears and terrors assail us, some by night, and some by day, and dreams and untimely wanderings, and cares that are not suitable, and ignorance of present circumstances, desuetude, and unskilfulness. All these things we endure from the brain . . ."

Ira Glickstein said...

Thanks Howard for your reply.

A dog zygote is neither fish nor fowl - but certainly dog. A chimp zygote is neither dog nor human - but certainly chimp. A human zygote is neither chimp nor airplane - it is certainly human.

Zygotes are certainly alive as are each and every bacteria in your gut and mine.

Despite that fact, I am content to allow certain undoubtedly living human beings die or be killed. My father for instance, when he was terminal; those guilty of serious crimes; even innocent children, women, and men who happen to be in a war zone or a terrorist hideout. We call these acts "compassion", "justice", and "collateral damage" respectively, and I think they are often moral acts.

I cannot understand why we have to define those we kill or allow to die as not human. If even Saddam Hussein was human (and he was), why can't we admit a human being in the first months of his or her life is also human? (As I have written before, I do not object to abortion during the first three months of life for any reason or no reason, or during the second trimester for some substantial reason, or even the last trimester for serious reasons.)

As for Hippocrates view that, until the brain develops "there is no human there" when does he (and you) say it develops? By three months there is certainly brain and central nervous system activity, but our moral sense does not develop until about seven years and, even after that we are not considered full moral agents under the law until at least age 12 or 13 and in some cases not until 18 or 21.

I guess the same is true of puppies at early ages but I do not think Hipocrates or you would say "there is no dog there".

Ira Glickstein

Howard Pattee said...

Ira, I think you are begging the question. The question is whether “a zygote is a human being.” If you will look in any dictionary you will see that the definition of “human being” that I used is not the “human species” definition that you are using. I repeat: Your statement that a zygote is “certainly human” is certain only if we agree to define “human” your way.

Hippocrates’ point is that the brain is the only organ that makes us a “human being” with all those characteristic human traits that he lists. Even the Catholic Church agrees that human death occurs when the cognitive levels of the brain are dead. Of course it is a problem defining when the fetal brain begins to function, but at least here is a scientific and ethical argument that human beings are defined by the brain, not by the zygote.

Ira Glickstein said...

to AskAPMP: Your March 7 posting was delayed because I had to approve it and did not get around to it until today (March 8).

You start by addressing "Prof" which is a bit confusing because several of us, including Howard, Joel, Stu and I have taught at universities. I assume you were addressing me because "a PMP" is a "Program Management Professional" and several of my System Engineering students at the University of Maryland are PMPs.

As to the substance of your posting, I agree that churches and synagogues have favored literacy. Up until a hundred or so years ago, religion-sponsored schools have been the main source of broad-based basic education in the US and Europe. However, over the past hundred years, government-organized, secular public education has been the main source of broad-based literacy.

I do not accept your claim that governments in general, and modern governments in particular, are "lax in educating their populace". I think most governments recognize the need for an educated population.

Please provide factual support for that contention if you believe it applies to modern US and other western governments.

Ira Glickstein

Steve Ruberg said...

I haven't read the God Delusion but have a few comments based on Ira's excellent summary. Dawkins says, "With the advent of the age of reason we have the opportunity to grow up and reject religion once and for all." Is it possible that its the other way around? That our origins through evolution have brought us to the point where we can step away from the bonds of evolution and truly attempt to be like God?

Dawkins and others seem to think that religious people such as myself blindly accept every statement we read in Scripture. This is just not the way it works. Rational religious belief is an integration of thousands of years of human experience (rejecting much along the way) arriving at our present view of what the God who created the universe - might - be like. And with that we are then led, for instance, to work for justice for the poor and attempt to provide resources so the poor can succeed. And on a personal, daily level we are led to work at forgiveness, mercy, love, respect, anger control, peacemaking, hopefulness, the list goes on. Does Dawkins offer a workable alternative? Is there really a workable replacement for a loving God as a motivator for human change and subsequently altruism? I'm not convinced.

Howard said, "In science when we learn something new we update our thinking." Well its supposed to be that way but working in science as I do my observation is that this is less true than we would like it to be. Egos and the inability to accept a new perspective continuously damage our ability to perceive new discoveries very easily. Human arrogance and limited thinking regularly get us into real trouble. As an example, science told us that plants require nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium (NPK) for growth. This single line of truth - and it is true - has resulted in the disaster that we call modern industrial farming. One true discovery does not explain the entirety of plant ecology. Plant growth and nutrition are far more complicated than simply NPK.

So am I going to take Dawkins seriously just because he has drawn the conclusion that God is a delusion? Hardly. Having read Dawkins' "The Blind Watchmaker" it is my opinion that he is very good a taking a few facts and overextending the conclusions.

Neither side will ever be able to prove that a personal God exists or not. While there is merit in respectfully discussing these ideas in the evening after work or school, we are really arguing about something that can't be proven scientifically. Perhaps Dawkins should turn his substantial biological expertise towards sustainable farming and stay away from a simplifed NPK-like theory for the "God Delusion".

Ira Glickstein said...

Steve, great to see you Commenting again! I'd appreciate it if you would consider initiating a new Topic ("New Post") on any subject you think will be of interest to our group.

As I read your Comment, it seems like you are hedging your bets, saying religious people like yourself don't necessarily "blindly accept every statement we read in Scripture". You also qualify what God "- might - be like." You correctly observe "Neither side will ever be able to prove that a personal God exists or not."

While I agree with Dawkins that a personal god is indeed an illusion, I also agree with you that belief in a personal God may lead us to work for justice. Indeed, I think the message from history is that such belief (even if it is a delusion) is valuable. Perhaps it is even necessary for the success of civilization. Perhaps especially for modern civilization where science and technology have given us humans unprecedented power. History shows we use whatever powers we are granted by our inventiveness, sometimes leading to great advances and sometimes to disaster.

Which bring me to your comments about "NPK" and "sustainable" ve "modern industrial" farming. You call the latter a "disaster". Please tell us why! It seems to me it is good that a small percentage of workers now (over)feeds a growing population whereas in the past it took the majority of the population to raise barely sufficient food. Why would we want to go back to bare-subsistence primitive agriculture?

Ira Glickstein

Steve Ruberg said...

Hedging my bets ... no I wouldn't say that. Just attempting to use reason to interpret thousands of years of human perspective on God.

What God - might - be like ... I believe it is very difficult to describe with certainty what God is like. For that matter, can I describe with certainty exactly what Mary Ann, my wife, is like? Humans, possibly finite, are complex enough to be difficult to describe. God, likely infinite, should be even more difficult to describe, understand, or know.

My comments about plant science were intended as an example of how science many times is not really questioned; or worse is practically worshiped. Many times, our research leads us to a fact and we then overextend the explanations that are really possible with the fact.

But to answer your question ... Modern agriculture is responsible for the very large "dead zone" in the Gulf of MX. Excess nutrients in runoff from farms causes algal blooms which then results in a decrease in oxygen. The ecosystem is damaged. Plants living almost exclusively on a diet of NPK are weaker than plants grown in well cared for soil and so require pesticides and herbicides to protect them; and so further polluting the environment. We are damaging the soil (runoff and chemicals) and really in essence "eating our seed corn". Sustainable farming methods could ensure that our children will actually be able to feed their children. Not in any way a return to "bare subsistence farming". Just a smarter way to use the land in a sustainable way to provide more nutritious food with less yield. Sure I'll try to come up with a topic on that! Thanks for your comments Ira.

Ira Glickstein said...

I'm looking forward to Steve's upcoming Topic on sustainable agriculture.

Back to the God Delusion:

The essence of nearly all traditional religions is found in holy scriptures, generally very old, that recount miraculous events including direct messages by God to certain special human beings.

My ultra-Orthodox Chasidic Jewish friends believe the Hebrew Bible, as interpreted by their leader, is the absolute truth. Many of my fundamentalist Christian friends believe the King James Version of the Bible, in particular, contains absolute truths and that the translations from the original Hebrew and Greek were specially protected by God and that the original Hebrew and Greek were, in essence, writen by men whose hands were guided by God. Many of my traditional Catholic friends believe that when the Pope says he is speaking "ex cathedra" he is infallible.

In light of your admitted inability (which I share) to even describe your own wife with certainty, and your statement that "God, likely infinite, should be even more difficult to describe, understand, or know", what credibility do you give to traditional religious scripture and statements of learned religious leaders?

If all are the absolute truth, how can you reconcile the differences?

If only one of them is absolutely true, how can you choose which one? (Particularly since you have not fully read or understood or checked out more than one or perhaps a few?)

As you know, I respect all sincere claims of knowledge of God, particularly those that have stood the test of time. However I accept their veracity only insofar as they have survived and reproduced and therefore must be of some value to the varied and diverse societies that believe them. In that way, I can accept that there is some significant truth value of all of them that have been around for some time, despite their differences in detail.

It seems to me the difference between a traditional believer is that he or she accepts the literal truth of a *particular* scripture and religious tradition, while a pantheist like me can accept that *all* have captured some essential truth value, even if none is totally, literally true.

Ira Glickstein

LynnaeEtta said...

Ira ~

After months of lurking, I've decided to comment again. I've rather enjoyed reading this discussion - it's been a lively one - and have some thoughts of my own.

Your last comment intrigued me. You said, "a pantheist like me can accept that *all* have captured some essential truth value, even if none is totally, literally true." If it is indeed true that all major religions (or all people?) have captured some essential truth value, how do you go about determining which of their tenants are those essential truth values? By what standard? Earlier you also said you "respect all sincere claims of knowledge of God, particularly those that have stood the test of time. However I accept their veracity only insofar as they have survived and reproduced and therefore must be of some value to the varied and diverse societies that believe them."

Following this line of reasoning, that veracity follows survival and reproduction over generations, centuries, or millenia, on what basis does pantheism ring true? And, to clarify, by pantheism I understand you to mean something closer to relativism, that all religions point to some truth value, as opposed to the classic definition of pantheism, which constitutes a belief in many gods (like the Greek and Roman cultures of 2,000 years ago).

With all due respect, I believe this idea that truth depends on your perspective is relatively new and has not withstood the test of time. I could be wrong - I'm sure you'll tell me if I am! - but from what I understand about religious and scientific history, the idea of an absence of absolute truths (or even a God-type character) came out of the secularism of the 19th and 20th centuries - no more than 200 years in the making! Contrasted with the 2,000 years Christianity has survived and reproduced (in many diverse cultures, I might add - a unique quality when compared to other major religions), the 1,500 years Islam has survived and reproduced and the 4,000 years Judaism has done the same, your idea of pantheism seems rather new!

Just my two cents - I look forward to reading your response! :)

Ira Glickstein said...

Great to have you lurking and especially to have you commenting. (Please consider initiating a new Topic on micro-finance in the third-world and your travels there. Also, please invite your friends and associates to join our increasibly diverse group of amateur philosophers.)

It appears you have confused POLYtheism with PANtheism.

POLYtheism is the belief in many gods, like the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman pantheons.

PANtheism is the belief that the Universe IS God, which is what Spinoza and Einstein (and I :^) believe.

Even Dawkins is a subconscious pantheist when he writes [pg 139]:

"It is clear that here on Earth we are dealing with a generalized process for optimizing biological species, a process that works all over the planet, on all continents and islands, and at all times. … if we wait another ten million years, a whole new set of species will be as well adapted to their ways of life as today’s species are to theirs. This is a recurrent, predictable, multiple phenomenon, not a piece of statistical luck recognized with hindsight." [Emphasis added]

I would call Dawkin's "generalized process for optimizing biological species" a "Generalized Optimizing Device" or, more compactly, "GOD"! For me and most pantheists, natural, evolutionary, competitive processes, both at the biological (gene) and social (meme) level, work to optimize species and societies.

The GOD mechanism works to "reward" certain genes and memes by spreading them far and wide. Other genes and memes are "penalized" by being extinguished. For us, the holy scriptures of the various religions are metaphorical attempts to personalize the GOD process.

The economist Adam Smith personalized the free market system as "the invisible hand" in his 1776 Wealth of Nations in which he claims a multitude of individuals, each pursuing his or her own self-interest tends to also promote the good of their community as a whole. He did not believe there was a literal Hand (directed by a literal mind). His point (and mine) is that the competitive, evolutionary process acts as if there was a Hand and a God.

You make a good point about "relativism".

Strictly speaking, a relativist believes that all societies and customs and moral codes are equally valued. By that standard, we in the West have no right to criticize "primitive" cultures that (in our view) abuse women and children, or impose cruel theological or dictatorial rule, etc.

I am not a strict relativist, but I also do not believe there is an absolutely "right" moral or political code. As I wrote, I use the (evolutionary) "test of time" to evaluate genes and memes. If a given set of genes/memes have survived and reproduced for a long period of time, I have to believe they have captured some significant truth level. Although I certainly wish to live in our Westernized culture, and attend our local synagogue, and generally vote Republican, I do not claim these are absolutely the ideals I would impose or even strongly urge upon everyone else. So, I guess, to some extent I am a moral and cultural relativist.

You wrote: "I believe this idea that truth depends on your perspective is relatively new and has not withstood the test of time." Ouch! You are absolutely correct!

Most societies in the past rejected relativism in favor of some absolute standard. Even today, most countries are ruled by a dictatorial or theological elite. Even in the US and most Westernized countries, overwhelming majorities profess belief in the Christian God and Bible-based morals.

The traditional Christian belief you hold to has stood the test of time for thousands of years. But, as you note, so have Judaism and Islam. I do not believe you have studied all of these in detail, nor the others (Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto, ...) that have survived over time, so how do you know Christianity is the One True Absolute? You came to that religion by accident of birth.

Which of our belief systems will stand the test of time? Yours or mine or some other? I don't know. Come back in 1000 years and tell me!

Ira Glickstein

LynnaeEtta said...

Ira ~

I stand corrected - I should have done my homework on the definition of pantheism vs. polytheism.

Are there others later than Adam Smith that pointed to a pantheistic belief? Just curious - wondering how long the idea has been existence.

I have actually studied Islam to a certain extent - I studied the Koran one semester in college for a class on classic and contemporary Islam - and it deeply challenged my belief in Christianity ("the religion I was born into" as you put it). I am much more comfortable in a system of absolutes, where rules and regulations (and, therefore, expectations) are very clear and defined. It means I know how to conduct myself and regularly evaluate my "standing" if you will with God.

The problem with that, a problem that studying Islam pointed out to me, is that Christianity really isn't about a system of rules and regulations. It's not about some cosmic scorecard, the sum of all your good actions minus the sum of your bad actions being weighed on the scales. It's almost counterintuitive to our evolutionary way of thinking, that good genes will be rewarded and bad genes penalized (as you put it), because it is, at it's core, about following the person and deity of Christ and accepting his goodness in place of my own (because I'll never be good enough!). Certainly Christians tend to pull from Scripture various rules and regulations for the "best" way of doing this, but those that do (myself included from time to time) are missing the point.

I'm not sure where I was going with that, except to say that yes, I have studied at least one of the other major religions (you could say two if having read the Hebrew scriptures numerous times counts for studying Judaism) and I don't see my choosing Christianity as a result of birth but rather a result of understanding what sets it apart and embracing that.

One other thought: the universalism that you point to (GOD - which I did read earlier in your blog, I had just forgotten about it!), the existence of some unifying power or rhythm or order, to me points to the existence of God, not the disproval of God.

Looking forward to more of your thoughts!

Ira Glickstein said...

LynnaeEtta, thanks for your comments!

The word "pantheism" apparently was coined in 1705, but the concept goes back to ancient Greece. My beliefs are closest to Spinoza (1632-1677) and Einstein (1879 - 1955). Read more about the origin and varieties of pantheism in: WikiPedia .

I'm not sure Adam Smith was a pantheist, per se. His "invisible Hand" was active in the free marketplace and not necessarily in the whole Universe. The only reason I gave his "invisible Hand" as as example is because most of us, just focussing on the marketplace, can understand how supply and demand moderate prices.

If demand for a given good increases (for whatever reason: change in weather, increased population, etc.) the price will tend to increase. If the price remains high for a period of time, that will attract new suppliers of that good and/or will cause current suppliers to increase production, and that will tend to stabilize the price. Over a longer period of time, invention and capital may be invested in more efficient production technques to produce that good and that may decrease the cost of production and increase the supply and quality, resulting in a decrease in prices, and an increase in availability and consumption of that good.

None of this is necessarily due to some conspiracy among producers or consumers, or government edict, but simply the result of everyone looking out for his or her best interests. Indeed, if producers form cartels, or the government tries to subsidize or otherwise regulate prices, production, and consumption, that may stabilize things temporarily, but, over the long haul, it will delay net benefits.

According to Smith, his "invisible Hand" generally works to the benefit of the commmunity as a whole. Desirable goods are produced by the most efficient means, overpriced or shoddy goods are driven out of the marketplace, and both consumer and producer benefit.

Apply that idea to the entire Universe (or the entire Biosphere of the Earth), and extend the time periods to eons, and you get Dawkin's "generalized process for optimizing biological species" or my Generalized Optimizing Device (GOD).

I have no intention of trying to alter your traditional Christian beliefs - indeed, I wish I could muster that type of literal belief in good and evil and God's Plan for me. It is a great gift and you are fortunate to have it!

Unfortunately for me, I have not found any "absolute" source of truth that I can believe and follow and solidify my standing with God. It is good that you are familiar with Jewish scriptures and have studied Islam that you say "deeply challenged" your belief in Christianity. Generally, challenges that do not break your faith strengthen in.

Rather than draw a small circle around my beliefs and exclude all others, as some traditional religious groups do, I draw a gigantic (actually Universal) circle around my beliefs and all other good-faith religions and include them in!

Ira Glickstein

LynnaeEtta said...


Thanks for the link to Wikipedia; I'll be sure to read up on pantheism and its roots.

With all due respect, I find your last statement rather curious. You said, "rather than draw a small circle around my beliefs and exclude all others, as some traditional religious groups do, I draw a gigantic (actually Universal) circle around my beliefs and all other good-faith religions and include them in!"

What about the inherent contradictions within each of the good-faith religions? Jews and Muslims do not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, but that is a central tenant to the Christian faith. Christians, Jews, and Muslims will all die to defend their one God, whereas Hindus and polytheists center their lives on multiple Gods. These are just a few - there are others, but I think I make my point: while it's great to have a broad (or universal, as you put it) view of the world and system of beliefs, how do you reconcile the contradictions?

Obviously these religions also have a great deal in common, but when the foundational truths (or truth values as I think we were calling it earlier) are at such odds, it requires more faith (or less reason - no offense!) for me to accept all of them as true, or even pointing to the truth.

Ira Glickstein said...

LynnaeEtta: Each religious tradition has certain central tenets that distinguish it from the others. In some cases, I find some of these tenets abhorent (such as the idea that suicide bombers are rewarded with 72 virgins) and I define those religious traditions (not Islam as a whole, just the most radical offshoots) as not within my circle of "good-faith" religions.

Other tenets, such as Jesus as Messiah, or the Trinity, or transubstantiation vs consubstantiation, or the idea that God is separate and distinct from the Universe, or polytheism, or athiesm, or the kosher regulations of Judaism, or many others that I do not believe in or observe, I do not find abhorent or even disturbing. If you or anyone else believes or rejects any of the above, it does not concern me. I know people have killed each other over these issues, but, for me, they are trivial differences, like how many angels can stand on the head of a pin. I do not care to reconcile such differences.

In your final paragraph you say: "Obviously these religions also have a great deal in common". THAT is where I find the TRUTH value of traditional religions (and philosophies). The common elements are the memes that are most "fit" - they interact with the social environment we humans find ourselves in and, like a key that correctly fits in a lock, they open up the possibility of a successful society and generalized optimization of species and social organizations.

Unlike many non-literal believers, who may reject all religions because they find something in each to disagree with, or many literal believers who reject all other religions that contradict theirs, I search all good-faith religions for those common elements I agree with, and there I find my GOD (Generalized Optimizing Device).

Ira Glickstein