Category Archives: Religion/atheism

Peter Atkins: On Being

Peter Atkins’ “On Being” is a wonderfully short book, coming in at just over a hundred pages. It’s a book about the nature of existence (of both the universe and of us).
It’s very much a pro-science book (Atkins was a professor of chemistry at Oxford University) and an anti-religion book (he’s a committed atheist). The main thrust is that given time science will be able to answer just about all of our questions concerning the fundamental nature of the universe, such as how it all started and what it actually is.
I like his description of the way that science is exploring the moments following the beginning of the universe (the Big Bang, as I wish it wasn’t called), slowly probing the edge of knowledge and cautiously pushing back the frontiers of knowledge until we hopefully understand the nature of the beginning of the universe itself – and his contrasting this cautious and slow approach with the religious approach of devising an appealing creation myth and leaving it at that.

Atkins is accused of being a dismal nihilist by his critics (mainly because they themselves find nihilism dismal), but I for one find myself thoroughly enjoying the possibly nihilistic stance of his work. Nihilism is a tricky thing to define anyway, as it has a certain amount of latitude in its definition. For instance it could be argued that although there may be no ultimate purpose to life, that doesn’t imply that it has no meaning to it. Meaning in this way may be defined as an emergent property.

I was pleased to find that a fair few pages of the first section of the book – which deals with the beginning of the universe – covers the concept that although the universe seems indubiously substantial to us (i.e. made of very solid stuff – at least in the regions such as stars and planets that punctuate the vast tracts of empty space), it is in fact made of Nothing!
This concept is very much along the lines that I describe in my own book on almost the same subject as Atkins’ book. It’s actually similar to the extent that he endows the profound nothing that lacks space and time the name Nothing with a capital N. Just as I do in my book. Click the image below to read the relevant chapter of my book.

meaning-of-life-book-button

Peter Atkins: On Being
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The Wonders of Life: Brian Cox. Review

Brian Cox is the perfect person to front the excellent new BBC series, The Wonders of Life.
The series takes on the not inconsiderable task of attempting to explain current theories on the origins and nature of life (even though Professor Cox is an astrophysicist and thus no doubt acquired quite a lot of the information that he imparts in the programmes from other, perhaps less televisual, personages than himself).
The first programme does ramble a bit, and it’s sometimes easy to get lost and to forget exactly why he’s (for instance) standing in front of a waterfall describing the first law of thermodynamics. The amount of time apportioned to different topics is poorly handled too. There’s an extended section showing Cox swimming with jellyfish (because they are all very photogenic) and saying nothing of particular significance,and then later he mentions the importance of mitochondria but doesn’t have time to explain exactly what it is.
As for the explanation of dna, I think it was the worst one I’ve ever seen, especially when there are orangutans swinging in trees in the background distracting you from what’s being said in the first place. There wasn’t a single mention of the double helix structure of the molecule, just images of pages and pages of the letters CATG as if it was just computer code (and a bad explanation of what it actually was). The single graphic showing the double helix molecule was on screen for less than a second at the very end of the explanation, wasn’t announced, and didn’t relate to the commentary.

The central argument in the programme is that life is a straightforward, naturally occurring phenomenon that came about as an inevitable part of the evolution of the universe – stars form, planets form, life forms. It’s as simple as that. Mundane almost (but only mundane in the way that everything in the universe is bother mundane and incredible at the same time).
Life is in essence a particularly complex interaction between various forms of energy and matter (and matter’s actually a very stable manifestation of energy rather than something different and ‘solid’, so it’s all about energy really). Professor Cox quoted Schrödinger on this point, stating that there was nothing mystical about the origins of life, but he could have quoted from any number of people.
On the subject of numbers. Professor Cox uses quite a few of them in his programme, which I thought was, at times, too many numbers. In one sequence he stood in front of a waterfall to explain the concept of the conservation of energy. To paraphrase: “If 0.5 kilograms of water falls 30 metres down the waterfall behind me, it converts its potential energy at the top to other forms of energy at the bottom, using the formula kilograms times metres squared divided by time squared…” – see, you’ve drifted off already! Lots of people shut down when it comes to numbers. Maybe Professor Cox likes using them because they are evidence of scientific rigour. The other trouble with the waterfall as an example of energy changing from one form to another was that you couldn’t actually see the energy in the water being changed. It just fell over a cliff. A much better example, in my opinion, would have been a waterwheel (of the type found in mills). With a waterwheel the water can be seen to turn a wheel rather than just cascading downwards. The water’s potential energy can be seen to be converted to kinetic energy. Instantly understandable, and not a number in sight. Also very photogenic, especially with Professor Cox standing in front of it.
That’s a relatively minor presentational quibble though.

On the whole Professor Cox is excellent, and is the perfect presenter for a programme the implications of which some people will find unsettling – that implication being that we, as life forms, are nothing particularly special.
People of a religious or spiritual bent may be uncomfortable with the idea that life is a mundane emergent property of the universe. They want us to be special in some mystical sort of way. They feel threatened, understandably. But Professor Cox is anything but threatening (although I wish my wife would stop telling me how gorgeous he is – so he’s definitely not being invited round to my house for dinner). His screen persona is one of intense niceness and boyish wonder. He doesn’t seem to have any axes to grind, chips on his shoulder, points to score, personality defects to compensate for. It’d be hard to pick an argument with him (in contrast to, say, Richard Dawkins). You feel that there’s no reason why he’d want to say that life is simply the manifestation of highly complex physical and chemical processes other than because it’s probably true. And because it’s amazing.

Find out more about my own book on the nature of life, Where Are We, What Are We, Why Are We.

More on Brian Cox

The BBC series The Wonders of Life

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The Significance of Dreams and their use as a Guide to Life

I recently heard someone in a radio programme mention that “All religions pay great attention to dreams.”
Whether this is true or not I don’t know, but to me it doesn’t mean that dreams are therefore to be taken seriously. It indicates that people of a religious sensibility sometimes see significances where there aren’t any (A phenomenon known as apophenia).

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Universe not created by God, says Hawking

Stephen Hawking is in the news today. The title of this post is the headline of an article about the man in today’s Guardian newspaper. Similar headlines abound elsewhere, with the entire front page of the Independent newspaper being devoted to Britain’s most famous scientist.
He’s in the news because in his latest book, The Grand Design, co-written with American physicist Leonard Mlodinow, he states that we will soon be capable of understanding the laws of physics that lie behind the Big Bang, and that we will thus be able to eliminate any need to invoke a god to explain the genesis of the universe. Hawking states that the answer may well lie in a version of string theory known as M-theory (Invoking God is sometimes known as G-theory).

I think that there’s a flaw in the logic here. Not necessarily in Hawking’s logic mind you (I haven’t read the book yet, so I don’t know what he actually says – it’s not published until next week), but in the logic of the newspaper reports. It’s not true that if science comes up with the explanation for the Big Bang it will eliminate a need for God. There is no need for God to begin with, whether we understand the Big Bang or not. It seems to me that even if we never manage to understand the ultimate laws of physics that lie behind the universe we still have no need for God whose primary role seems to be to tidy up the lose ends.
What’s more, I expect that unravelling the laws of physics and explaining the Big Bang won’t dent the faith of believers in any way at all. Why would it? They will quite reasonably simply ask “Who created these laws of physics, if not God?” (On this point, I’d personally argue that the ultimate laws of physics are probably incredibly simple, while any God must by definition be incredibly complex, so invoking a complex God to produce some simple laws of physics actually produces more problems than it solves.)

The newspaper reports tell me that the book sets out to contest Sir Isaac Newton’s belief that the universe must have been designed by God as it could not have been created out of chaos. That expression – created out of chaos – which I assume is lifted from the publisher’s press release, is a little misleading. Newton himself may have thought that the universe was created out of chaos, but I think that nowadays it’s more commonly thought that the universe was much more likely to have been created out of something that’s altogether more simple than chaos – it was created out of the unimaginable simplicity of nothing at all. You can’t get less chaotic than that.
As Hawking states: “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.” In other words, something just popped into existence, and from there on in there was no stopping it. That was when the complexity and the chaos began.

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Links:
The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow. Bantam Press
The Guardian: Universe not created by God, says Hawking
The Independent: God didn’t create universe, says Hawking

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Alternative Concepts of the Afterlife

David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas, has written a book called SUM: Forty Tales from the Afterlives.
It’s a work of fiction, being made up of forty descriptions of alternative versions of the afterlife: all the product of Mr Eagleman’s fertile imagination.
I mention the book partly because it sounds very interesting (I’ll be ordering a copy as soon as I’ve finished writing this article), and partly because it sounds as though it’s got an uncannily similar structure and purpose to a work of fiction that I wrote myself.

The work of mine to which I refer was written in the 1990s, over a dozen years ago. I sent it round to a few literary agents at the time but none of them were interested. Either it wasn’t a very fashionable subject back then – it predates the current explosion in interest in religion and atheism – or it just wasn’t not very good. To this day it remains unpublished. Here’s a (slightly updated) sample from the book so that you can decide on its merits or otherwise for yourself.

The Concept Behind the Book

The premise of the book is the conceit that although the world appears to be becoming an increasingly uniform place in terms of culture, with the mass media disseminating fewer and fewer ideas to more and more people, each community or town on the planet has its own unique belief system and set of myths that are fully functioning just below the surface comformity. These beliefs and myths have been preserved for many hundreds of years, since the time that communities were isolated islands of habitation in a world in which travel was extremely difficult and communication was even harder, allowing each community to develop its own concepts independently and unhindered. They are deeply held convictions that to this day go unnoticed by the casual outside observer (or even by generations of relatively recent incomers to the community).

My book is a portrayal of the hidden belief systems adopted by communities within the British Isles, because that’s where I live and where I have had an opportunity to investigate the phenomenon. Exactly the same hidden belief structure can be found in every community in the world – including your own.
Here’s an example if such a belief.

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Chesterfield

At some unknown time in the depths of the dark ages the people of Chesterfield in Derbyshire conceived a new theory to explain the observation that when an animal dies its flesh decomposes and disappears from its body, leaving only the underlying scaffolding of bones that held the creature together.
They observed that the flesh of a dead animal mysteriously transmuted from solid meat and muscle into a seething mass of wriggling, squirming maggots.
Rather than seeing the maggots as scavengers on the dead flesh, the people decided that they were a new manifestation of the dead creature itself. The creature had metamorphosed into a new form and had been reborn.
The people realised that any rebirth must be a progression, because life is nothing if it isn’t a journey forwards to an unknown but better place.
Thus maggots, being the creatures of rebirth and therefore the next manifestation en route to that better place, must be superior to the creature from which they were born.
Today you’re most likely to see maggots when you come across road kill or when you enter a fishing tackle shop, but in the middle ages, when all death was a closer companion to life, the population were familiar with something else that turned into maggots if it wasn’t buried soon enough.
Human bodies.
The inhabitants of Chesterfield concluded that because a person can transform into maggots after death this must mean that maggots are spiritually superior beings to people.
What’s more, maggots don’t remain maggots for long. In their turn they are transformed into yet another creature – a creature that, because it’s the result of yet another level of rebirth, must be an even higher life form than maggots.
Flies.
If maggots are spiritually one level higher than humans, then it stands to reason that flies must be two. Flies must be truly transcendent beings.
The flies of which I talk are the same flies that buzz around your living room on a hot summer’s day irritating you. They irritate not because they are irritating in themselves, but because you are irritable. Your irritability is a sure sign that you are a lower and less enlightened life form than the flies.
Because the true nature of flies has long been known to the people of Chesterfield, to this day flies are welcomed into people’s homes as honoured quests.
At mealtimes special food is often placed on the dinner table to attract flies to share meals with the inhabitants of a household. (Perhaps the fly that comes to the table today will be the reincarnation of a dear but dead relative.)
It is considered a great privilege indeed if a fly should choose to land on your plate while you’re actually eating from it. The larger the fly the better. Bluebottles are particularly venerated, not only because of their large size but also due to their iridescent colouring which is seen as a sure sign of their transcendent nature.
Should a person be lucky enough to have a fly alight on their own plate of food the fly is allowed to sample the dish at its leisure, coating the food with its digestive secretions as it does so (Flies don’t have mouths, only tubes. In order to ingest nutrients they first have to discharge digestive juices onto the food in order to turn it to a liquid which they can then suck up). Only once the fly has flown away can the person finally take the food into his or her own mouth and eat the freshly consecrated dish.
People in Chesterfield often die of food poisoning, and thus soon turn into flies themselves.

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Links: David Eagleman

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Terry Eagleton, Richard Dawkins and the Book of British Birds

“Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.”
This is a much quoted line from Terry Eagleton’s review of the God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.
It deploys a common accusation that’s made against atheists in general: that their knowledge of theology is so superficial that it renders their arguments worthless. This line of attack as an attempt to neutralise atheism should be used with care, as I suspect that quite a few atheists, including Dawkins, do indeed have a very respectable understanding of the philosophies underpinning theology – thus making this particular argument against them worthless itself and showing the argument up for the petty barricade-building that it is.
What’s more, the argument can be turned round. It has to be taken into account that, due to the fact that there are only twenty four hours in a day in which to study anything at all, anyone who’s totally immersed in any one subject must be have an impoverished knowledge of others. The consequence of this is that anyone who has found the time to become fully conversant with all aspects of theology will be sadly lacking in knowledge of other subjects, such as the biology that Eagleton mentions. And a deep knowledge of other subjects, such as biology and all other sciences, is surely essential in order to put theology into perspective. The upshot of this is that an expert on theology is thus rendered unqualified to speak on theology. Following my reading of Eagleton’s argument at any rate.

Eagleton’s declaration of Dawkins’ lack of knowledge prompts the following question: how much knowledge of theology do you actually need in order to form an opinion on its veracity?
To answer this it may be an idea to reframe the question in Eagleton’s own entertainingly rhetorical style.
How much theology (or biology) do you have to know to realise that the Book of British Mythological Creatures is a work of fantasy?

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2009 Templeton Prize won by Professor of ‘Theatrical’ Physics

While on holiday in Ireland recently I came across a press cutting stating that the 2009 Templeton Prize had been won by Bernard d’Espagnat of the University of Paris Sud. The cutting stated that he’s a Professor of Theatrical Physics.
Is this proof that the Templeton Prize is all about suspension of disbelief?

The prize is awarded annually to a person who has, to quote from the prize’s website “devoted their talents to expanding our vision of ultimate purpose and reality”. The prize “celebrates … the quest for progress in humanity’s efforts to comprehend the many and diverse manifestations of the Divine”.

Unfortunately I can’t name and shame the newspaper that was responsible for this humorous editorial slip, as the cutting was too small (It was accompanying an art exhibition that included work by the artist who illuminates the Templeton Prize’s certificates).

More about the Templeton Prize

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