Atheist Snowflakes

The other day a thoughtful neighbor dropped her library book off with me: Richard Dawkins, The Magic of Reality: a coffee table type book, very well and intelligently illustrated, author Dawkins one of the world’s great scientists: inventor of the concept meme.

I’m reading it, and loving it. But I come upon a passage that drives me crazy:

What, no myths? p 94.
Dawkins had been doing a very good job of looking at the world through a “knowledge” of “science.” Myths from around the world are referred to as attempts to explain things: all very good, well done. Myths are referenced that account for “night and day,” and for “seasons.” Then he introduces the world of the very small: dust mites, bacteria, atoms … Good, very good: every twelve year old should read this book, repeatedly. But then he says that there are no myths to explain dust mites. Before microscopes there was no awareness of dust mites, so there are no myths about dust mites.

Dawkins is close to saying something true, important, profound; but he slips over into ignorance, prejudice, unexamined assumptions: the opposite of science. Dawkins writes, “In fact, unsurprisingly, the stories in holy books don’t contain any more information about the world than was known to the primitive peoples who first started telling them! If these ‘holy boooks’ really were wirtten, or dictated, or inspired, by all-knowing gods, don’t you think it’s odd that those gods said nothing about any of these important and useful things?”

He was doing fine until the unexamined assumptions. “All-knowing gods” prescribes a narrow range of theologies, palming them as broad-brush. An atheist should learn to be specific about which god isn’t being believed in, just as a religious should be prepared to answer a few questions, eschatological questions for instance. Few of the old time gods make claims about omniscience. Why should omniscience suddenly become a requirement for divinity? Judeo-Christianity is hardly consistent on the matter.

2013 08 10 Whoops, I jumped here before I should have jumped: I get to it below though: Until we’ve published all revelations, mastered all perfectly, we have no business talking about what gods or mystics did or didn’t say. The court doesn’t admit any of the evidence, then says that “the evidence fails to show …” That’s not science, that’s a controlled stage, for lies, illusions.
(I’m here today though to notice other hot water that Dawkins is in: on Semitism.

I’m reminded of the claim I’ve heard all my life, starting in grammar school, that no two snowflakes are alike. How many trillions of trillions of snow flakes must there be in the world at any one time, most of them out of sight and out of reach, in the arctic, on top of a mountain, under a glacier. Did my grammar school teacher really examine every one of them? with no lapses of attention? Did she think of examining the snow flakes on Mars? on the moon? on Aldeberan? There may be planets with more snow fakes than the Milky Way has stars!
I would have respected the teacher who theorized about snow flake uniqueness in terms of structural probabilities.
I bet organic molecules duplicate structure occasionally: I bet it’s at least possible for snow crystals.

But back to assumptions about divine messages: Does Dawkings really imagine that all messages from all candidate gods got published, are known, are clear? Are no messages ever repressed, overlooked?

In Judaism on the one hand and Christianity on the other, the god’s messages get sabotaged left and right: no assumptions can be made about which stories the congregation heard let alone understood.
Does Dawkins imagine that the Spanish Inquisition tortured heretics but that atheists are routinely liberal? open-minded? practice no censorship?

Christians are famous for knowing that they’re hypocrites: do scientists know how unlikely the theoretical good habits of science are to be uniformly found among people dressed in white lab coats? on somebody’s payroll as “scientists”?

Generalizations such as he drifts into there should be based on perfect knowledge of all myths ever offered; not just those that found their way into a particular library.
No, no: humans aren’t honest enough for science. Or for theology. All we have for the most part are bullshitters, posing.

But Dawkins’ book is a terrific set of poses. Too bad his atheism is so careless, so common, so simplistic.

Grr, another draft would be smoother.

2013 01 22 Here’s a related question, I hope you see that it’s related:
Einstein wanted to believe in a deterministic universe, in the teeth of quantum physics. He did, Boehr didn’t. One’s right, one’s wrong: or, they’re both wrong. (Could they both be right?) Now: let’s say that Einstein’s belief is “inspired”: let’s say it’s inspired by a god. Let’s say that Einstein doesn’t believe in this god but does accept the inspiration. Does it matter?
If the pigeon in the psychologist’s cage thinks that pressing the lever gets him a seed, and that the seed, and the lever come from a god, does it matter? What if the lever and the lab and the psychologist come from Acme Costume Company? Does it matter what pigeons or people believe? If the truth is one thing, what should the belief matter?

When I founded the Free Learning Exchange in 1970 I believed I was inspired by God, by god, by Jesus … by Ivan Illich, by Bucky Fuller … by the universe, by intelligence … (I still believe that!) But of course my definitions of all those things (god, the universe) have changed, and changed some more, in the four decades since. Let’s say you believe that I’m crazy. Does it matter what either of us believe?
How about it doesn’t matter what I believe, doesn’t matter what Einstein believed, but what does matter is what the Kremlin believes, or the post office bureaucrat?!
Evidence cannot be presented to a bureaucracy, unless the evidence supports what the bureau wants.

Is it possible that what you and I believe doesn’t matter and also that the truth doesn’t matter? What theology would dismiss the truth?
Why our current religion, of course: Americanism! There it’s normal to believe that God gave us the Indians’ land, and the slaves’ labor, and English law … and Jesus’ love … and it doesn’t matter how many of Jesus’ followers we also crucify.
God’s opinion doesn’t matter, we’ll never let him get a word in edgewise.

Ah ha! 2013 01 25 Just a few days after posting the above a newsletter from the Straight Dope arrives:
“I was therefore pleasantly surprised to read in the bulletin of the American Meteorological Society that matching snow crystals were recently discovered by Nancy Knight of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The crystals in question admittedly aren’t flakes in the usual sense but rather hollow hexagonal prisms. They are also not absolutely identical, but come on, if you insist on getting down to the molecular level, nothing’s identical. They’re close enough for me. Just shows you, not only is this column at the cutting edge of science, sometimes we have to wait for the cutting edge to catch up.”
Note how many types of mistakes mathematicians will make in such considerations let alone how many types the rest of us will make.
In other words, lots of rhetorical devices lead us into bogs of error, math arguments, logic arguments are no exceptions.

Scientists screw up, Dawkins for example. Mathematicians too. I used to keep a log of brainless examples from the great Isaac Asimov: I am not just picking on Dawkins. I can show you thought errors in Stephen Hawking!

2013 02 28 Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, 2011, has bearing here. People in the west encountered swans, all of them white, till they added Australia to their experience. If the bean counters examine all the snow flakes in Denmark and declare each to be unique, fine. Imagine they then also examine all the snow flakes in Russia. Can they now say that all snowflakes are unique, including all snowflakes in Antarctica? On Io? in the Andromeda galaxy? Generalizations are premature. A faith is switched for an experience. When done in the name of religion, well, that’s familiar; when done in the name of science, it just dismisses the concept science from our bailiwick.
I’ll say that better another time.

2013 07 23 Scientific Epistemology Requires Observation

Also with bearing here is a current article on new wrinkles for Schroedeger’s cat

The strangeness of the world of the very small that allows a particle to be in two states at once may extend to larger scales, two new studies reveal. If the research proves true, that would bolster the validity of a thought experiment suggesting that a cat can be both alive and dead at the same time.

The idea, called Schrödinger’s Cat after the physicist Erwin Schrödinger, who proposed it in 1935, goes like this: Put a cat in a box with a vial of poison gas. The vial opens when a tiny piece of radioactive metal emits an alpha particle (the nucleus of a helium atom) as it decays. Emitting an alpha particle is a quantum-mechanical process, which means that whether it happens in any given stretch of time is basically random.

Quantum mechanics says that it’s impossible to know whether the radioactive decay has happened (and the cat is dead) unless one measures it — that is, unless the alpha particle interacts with the environment in some way that an observer can see. Until that happens, the alpha particle can be thought of as being emitted and not emitted at the same time. The cat is both dead and alive, a state called superposition.

Opening the box is a measurement — one sees the effect of an alpha particle as the dead cat, or the absence of an alpha particle as a live one.

Now I want to launch a new post on the implications of observation as necessary to the epistemology of mathematics. Asimov used to write about getting a boy to count something, one a second, never making an error, for ten thousand years. How many boys making no errors, taking no time for sleep, for meals, to go through puberty, had Asimov actually observed? Mathematicians check one sort of reality while letting every conceivable alternate naivety waltz in sideways.

Watch out for fuzzy thought experiments palmed off as actual experiments. Correctly identified, fuzzy thought experiments are an essential part of thinking; unidentified, unperceived, they’re fallacy heaven.

Schrödinger’s Goat
Dawkins’ carelessness will now also spill over into comments on Edgy Gods, Equality of Meaninglessness.

Reading Notes

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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