It is all too easy to confuse fundamentalism with passion

“Maybe scientists are fundamentalists when it comes to defining in some abstract way what is meant by ‘truth’. But so is everybody else. I am no more fundamentalist when I say evolution is true that when I say it is true that New Zealand is in the southern hemisphere. We believe in evolution because the evidence supports it, and we would abandon it overnight if new evidence arose to disprove it. No real fundamentalist would ever say anything like that.

I have previously told the story of a respected elder statesman of the Zoology Department at Oxford when I was an undergraduate. For years he had passionately believed, and taught, that the Golgi Apparatus (a microscopic feature of the interior of cells) was not real: an artifact, an illusion. Every Monday afternoon it was the custom for the whole department to listen to a research talk by a visiting lecturer. One Monday, the visitor was an American cell biologist who presented completely convincing evidence that the Golgi Apparatus was real. At the end of the lecture, the old man strode to the front of the hall, shook the American by the hand and said –with passion– ‘My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.’ We clapped our hands red.”

Last week I finished reading The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, but I hadn’t time to blog it yet. Now, to be honest, I don’t understand all the attacks it has received. They say it isn’t respectful; it’s as disrespectful as saying New Zealand is in the southern hemisphere.

I think the book is lucid and exhaustive. It’s carefully explained and reasoned; I’m sure that sometimes you’ll find yourself arguing with the author. It’s plenty of references to personal stories and works supporting or attacking his points. This makes the whole book closer and stronger. You don’t get the feeling it’s just plain philosophical lucubration.

If I have something to criticize it’s that sometimes his passion drives Dawkins to weaken his arguments. When you want to proof something is wrong (let’s say, that it rains upwards), you just need one correct argument (proof, experiment) demonstrating it. Maybe it’s difficult to find, but once you get it, it’s all you need (for example, a picture of the water falling downwards). And it’s done. In this sense the book does a good work. However, you may later add that you have more pictures, or that you have found an old text describing the opposite, or even a funny video recorded by an artist living in Argentina. I think in the end this will play against your argument, as it’ll create a messy cloud making it harder to visualize. Sometimes Dawkins lacks conciseness.

It was particularly useful to learn how evolution is a central concept in the way we think nowadays. I knew it was relevant, but I hadn’t realized the importance it has in understanding what’s life (as far as we know). Before evolution we had no clue, now we have one.

All in all I’d say the best word for describing the book is refreshing. Like the word used by Bertrand Russell in his famous essay. Which essay? Ah, ah, if you want to know it you have to read the book :-)

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God is actually a Scientist

wulffmorgenthaler

The following quote comes from The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, the book I try to read while I’m nicely elbowed in the metro (ummm… they hit me more with this book than with others):

The great French mathematician Blaise Pascal reckoned that, however long the odds against God’s existence might be, there is an even larger asymmetry in the penalty for guessing wrong. You’d better believe in God, because if you are right you stand to gain eternal bliss and if you are wrong it won’t make any difference anyway.

[…]

But why, in any case, do we so readily accept the idea that the one thing you must do if you want to please God is believe in him? What’s so special about believing? […] What if God is a scientist who regards honest seeking after truth as the supreme virtue? Indeed, wouldn’t the designer of the universe have to be a scientist? Bertrand Russell was asked what he would say if he died and found himself confronted by God, demanding to know why Russell had not believed in him. ‘Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence,‘ was Russell’s (I almost said immortal) reply.

If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down“. Dawkins is provocative from the very beginning, and far from being pretentious, I think he’s probably right for saying it. Because if you read it, it’ll irreversibly damage every single religious belief you may have, but hey, in the most respectful –meaning carefully reasoned– way. Well, more when it’s finished.

(Many thanks Estebán!)

Update: Many thanks to the avid commentator for the image!