Posts Tagged ‘RIchard Dawkins’

My friend Paul Sandstone over at Café Philos has a thread going now that ties in … a bit … with that World Ends Next Saturday nonsense I wrote about a couple of days ago.

Beginning with the the question, “Belief in God is Natural?”, Paul sites early reports on a Cognition, religion and Theology project at Oxford, and carries on from there with what I consider appropriate skepticism.

There are, at this hour, a handful of early reports that the Centre for Anthropology and Mind, which is associated with the prestigious University of Oxford, has concluded its Cognition, Religion and Theology Project — and that the Project has found it’s natural to believe in God.

But I doubt those reports are true. I cannot be certain and this in only a hunch — but it seems like the early reports have misinterpreted the Project’s findings.

The reports are saying such things as, “Human beings have natural tendencies to believe in God…“, and, “Religion comes naturally, even instinctively, to human beings…“, and, “Holding religious beliefs may be an intrinsically human characteristic…“.

Curiosity drove me to dig into the roots of the Oxford study which revealed it is funded by the John Templeton Foundation, an organization whose slogan is “Supporting Science — Investigating the big questions”.


So, who was this Templeton dude? Seems an apt question, since getting an idea of the roots of what are considered “the big questions” may have a lot to do with whatever answers come out of the project.

Well … turns out Mr. Templeton just may have had an agenda when he set up his foundation.

He was a lifelong member of the Presbyterian Church. He served as an elder of the First Presbyterian Church of Englewood (NJ). He was a trustee on the board of Princeton Theological Seminary, the largest Presbyterian seminary, for 42 years and served as its chair for 12 years.

Meanwhile … back at Café Philos …

Now, let’s return to the early reports of the Project’s findings. When those reports say things like, “Human beings have natural tendencies to believe in God…”, they might be subtly misinterpreting the findings. That is, I would not at all be surprised if the Project found a natural human tendency to see agency behind events. But, for a number of reasons, I would be greatly surprised if the Project actually found a natural human tendency to see God behind events. Or even a natural human tendency to see any deity — let alone the deity that gets capitalize as “God” — behind events.

Paul goes on to make many valid points and interesting observations on humans, religion and gods of all shapes and sizes, which brought me to thoughts about apes. (Go figure … )

In the world of brilliant science and big questions, I have a few heroes, one being Frans de Waal, professor of Primate Behavior at Emory University and all-around smart guy.

Dr. de Waal was recently interviewed by a publication called “Religion Dispatches”, during which the subject of religion was raised … or religion as a moral dictate, guidebook, whatever.

Dr. de Waal’s take differs from, say, that of well known atheist … and smart guy … Richard Dawkins … another Paul refers to at the café … addressing the “big question” of tending toward religion as an offshoot of an evolutionary mandate toward compassion. (Waters that have been considerably muddied by what calls itself religion.)

Regarding Dawkins:

Atheists—some of them, at least—have talked themselves into a corner and they don’t know how to get out of it, because we need to find a way of explaining where morality comes from. I think the way to do that is to return to Darwin. Darwin tried to place morality within human evolution. And that’s what I’m trying to do, at least with my primate studies. I’m trying to say, look at the behavior of other primates—there are enough indications that they have what Darwin would call the social instincts needed to get to morality. They don’t exactly have it, but they’re close enough for me to see that there’s a continuity. I think that’s the way out of the dilemma. Talking about whether God exists or not just really doesn’t do any good for that problem.


A study at Oxford may come up with all sorts of illustrations of why humans believe in god, subscribe to religions, drink the Kool-aid, but unless some redefining is done when it comes to either what is god or what is human or what counts where how, what good does it do, and what does it mean?

Frans de Waal:

Where everything started for me was maternal care. It’s advantageous for female mammals to be sensitive to the mood states of their offspring, so they react when their offspring are distressed or in danger. That also explains why empathy is more developed in females than males in many species, including humans. From there it spread to other areas of social life. It’s contagious: if you have a cooperative society, you need to be concerned about the well-being of those you depend on.

If I live in a society where I depend on others, I need to be concerned if those others are doing well, and that’s where empathy and altruism come in. It’s also why we think you find empathy in all mammalian species. It’s not limited to humans, and it’s not limited to primates. It’s probably universal in mammals.

It seems if there is A God guiding Earthlings toward altruism through whatever means, it might be hairy. After all, there were Monkey Gods B.C..

Do we need them, though? Until a chimp waves from a balcony in Rome, I’m thinking … not …

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What’s the difference between a theoretical physicist and me?

For starters, in the last third of my life I’m writing a book about wild sex, but can only dream of getting a grip on mathematical formulas, while today’s premier theoretical physicist … also of a certain age … publishes volumes based on complicated math, and can only dream about wild sex.

Yes, I’m notoriously crap with numbers and Stephen Hawking has ALS.

I would never presume to have anything in my head that comes anywhere close to the vast stores of knowledge the professor carries around. The man is a genius whose dumbing-down for the masses even gives me a massive headache.

I have read “A Brief History of Time” … many times … yet still can’t even begin to wrap my head around a black hole, those massive light-gravity-time suckers that he not only understands, but can prove.

Nope. I’m a simple poet; a writer of fluff and nonsense and speeches and status updates, a mere mortal handicapped from birth with a math aversion.

So … there are some differences.

But, what’s the same? We both dream. And we both think. We both ponder.

And one of the things we ponder separately in our parallel universes … his being the rarified atmosphere of academia, while mine is this island … is time.

Over the past days I’ve been watching all the YouTube vids available on the Professor, the topic of time and his theories on traveling through it and have come up with another difference between us.

Professor Hawking sees time travel as an eventual possibility given the physics involved and future potential for building the sort of equipment necessary to take advantage of the laws of the universe and travel fast enough to hit the groove of time’s warping.

I see it as a sure thing for every one of us as soon as we manage to get rid of the sort of equipment that makes it impossible.

Although I have no doubt that he’s spot on with the numbers, it seems the Prof is missing the point … or, rather, making a point that will end up being rather pointless, which is, after all, what theoretical science is often about, adding to the wealth of knowledge humans can mull.

One thing science knows is that the law says nothing in the universe can travel faster than light; Hawking puts this well within even my grasp when he clearly signposts 186,000 miles per second as the universal speed limit. Interestingly, anything approaching that speed has funny things happening to time, and as Einstein so succinctly put it with his E = mc2 thingy — go that fast and you’re no longer you, but the energy of you, which is kind of the same, but different. Go just a bit slower and you’re still you, but what passes for a year in some places happens in a week.

The equation E = mc2 indicates that energy always exhibits mass in whatever form the energy takes. Mass–energy equivalence also means that mass conservation becomes a restatement, or requirement, of the law of energy conservation, which is the first law of thermodynamics. Mass–energy equivalence does not imply that mass may be “converted” to energy, and indeed implies the opposite. Modern theory holds that neither mass nor energy may be destroyed, but only moved from one location to another. In physics, mass must be differentiated from matter, a more poorly defined idea in the physical sciences. Matter, when seen as certain types of particles, can be created and destroyed, but the precursors and products of such reactions retain both the original mass and energy, both of which remain unchanged (conserved) throughout the process.

Yeah … headache stuff, but stick with me …

So … mass / energy. What are we? At the moment, both, and that’s where the time travel thing goes tricky. Check this:

“The brain is the ‘local’ creator of time, space and space-time as our special maps of reality we ‘observe’ and participate in” (Catalin et al., 2005). “Time is a fundamental dimension of life. It is crucial for decisions about quantity, speed of movement and rate of return, as well as for motor control in walking, speech, playing or appreciating music, and participating in sports. Traditionally, the way in which time is perceived, represented and estimated has been explained using a pacemaker–accumulator model that is not only straightforward, but also surprisingly powerful in explaining behavioral and biological data. However, recent advances have challenged this traditional view. It is now proposed that, the brain represents time in a distributed manner and tells the time by detecting the coincidental activation of different neural populations (Hitchcock, 2003).

Linear time “past-present-future” is psychological time. Physical time is run of clocks in a space. Motion that we experience through psychological time happens in space that is timeless; past, present and future do not exist in space. There is no physical time existing behind run of clocks.

Somethings to think on …

The brain creates time. Space is timeless. “Matter, when seen as certain types of particles, can be created and destroyed, but the precursors and products of such reactions retain both the original mass and energy, both of which remain unchanged (conserved) throughout the process.”

And the kicker: Time is a fundamental dimension of life.

Yep. There’s the key to time travel … kick the life habit.

The body of knowledge gathered from Near Death Experiences, a misnomer since the peeps reporting back were not near death but dead, suggest the limits imposed by our biology.

A recent study by Dr. Sam Parnia (despite his acknowledgment that he was initially a skeptic), shows that such patients are “effectively dead”, with their brains shut down and no thoughts or feelings possible for the complex brain activity required for dreaming or hallucinating; additionally, to rule out the possibility that near-death experiences resulted from hallucinations after the brain had collapsed through lack of oxygen, Parnia rigorously monitored the concentrations of the vital gas in the patients’ blood, and found that none of those who underwent the experiences had low levels of oxygen. He was also able to rule out claims that unusual combinations of drugs were to blame because the resuscitation procedure was the same in every case, regardless of whether they had a near-death experience or not. According to Parnia, “Arch sceptics will always attack our work. I’m content with that. That’s how science progresses. What is clear is that something profound is happening. The mind – the thing that is ‘you’ – your ‘soul’ if you will – carries on after conventional science says it should have drifted into nothingness.”

Although Richard Dawkins would disagree with my self-evaluation, I consider myself an atheist. Dawkins, you see, considers us nothing more than our biology, when I see our physical form the least of us but having more to do with science than anything god-given.

What the heck, heh? It’s a Jedi master that sums it up in my book:

Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.

Okay, Yoda is very much not Stephen Hawking, and the limits of the imagination that created him still have that future depending on flying machines. (We’re hooked on gadgets, we are … and I’d blame it on being a boy thing, and could be right about that. Look back at visions of the future past and recognize that we’re not getting around in flying cars, but we ARE connected by the millions, and what comic book ever had Skype superheroes?)

Machines are still where the mind goes because we’ve yet to get a grip on the fact that when the mind goes we have no need of the bloody machines. We are no more our brains, nor our brains us, than our hearts are the repository of our love.

Given the brevity of the human lifespan, it’s no wonder that the idea of traveling through time during it captures the imagination. Truth is, though, I suspect, that it’s old hat to us as we bounce around in time and space, but beyond our capacity to recall … seeing the home movies we have of vacation from flesh and bone only run in our sleep.

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