Archive for Richard Dawkins

rationality and superstition

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2019 by xi'an

As I am about to read The Secret Commonwealth, the second volume in his Book of Dust trilogy, I found that Philip Pullman wrote a fairly interesting piece inspired from a visit to an 2018 exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, dedicated to magic and witchcraft. Which I enjoyed reading even though I do not agree with most points. Even though the human tendency to see causes in everything, hidden or even supernatural if need be, explains for superstition and beliefs in magics, the Enlightenment and rise of rationality saw the end of the witch-hunt craze of the 16th and early 17th Centuries (with close to 50,000 executions throughout Europe.

“…rationalism doesn’t make the magical universe go away (…) When it comes to belief in lucky charms, or rings engraved with the names of angels, or talismans with magic squares, it’s impossible to defend it and absurd to attack it on rational grounds because it’s not the kind of material on which reason operates. Reason is the wrong tool. Trying to understand superstition rationally is like trying to pick up something made of wood by using a magnet.”

“Whether witches were “filthy quislings” or harmless village healers, they and those who believed in witchcraft and magic existed in a shared mental framework of hidden influences and meanings, of significances and correspondences, whether angelic, diabolic, or natural (…)  a penumbra of associations, memories, echoes and correspondences that extend far into the unknown. In this way of seeing things, the world is full of tenuous filaments of meaning, and the very worst way of trying to see these shadowy existences is to shine a light on them.”

“I simply can’t agree with (Richard Dawkins’): “We don’t have to invent wildly implausible stories: we have the joy and excitement of real, scientific investigation and discovery to keep our imaginations in line.” (The Magic of Reality, 2011). If we have to keep our imaginations in line, it’s because we don’t trust them not to misbehave. What’s more, only scientific investigation can disclose what’s real. On the contrary, I’d rather say that there are times when we have to keep our reason in line. I daresay that the state of Negative Capability, where imagination rules, is in fact where a good deal of scientific discovery begins. “

Darwin’s radio [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2016 by xi'an

When in Sacramento two weeks ago I came across the Beers Books Center bookstore, with a large collection of used and (nearly) new cheap books and among other books I bought Greg Bear’s Darwin Radio. I had (rather) enjoyed another book of his’, Hull Zero Three, not to mention one of his first books, Blood Music, I read in the mid 1980’s, and the premises of this novel sounded promising, not mentioning the Nebula award. The theme is of a major biological threat, apparently due to a new virus, and of the scientific unraveling of what the threat really means. (Spoilers alert!) In that respect it sounds rather similar to the (great) Crichton‘s The Andromeda Strain, which is actually mentioned by some characters in this book. As is Ebola, as a sort of contrapoint (since Ebola is a deadly virus, although the epidemic in Western Africa now seems to have vanished). The biological concept exploited here is dormant DNA in non-coding parts of the genome that periodically get awaken and induce massive steps in the evolution. So massive that carriers of those mutations are killed by locals. Until the day it happens in an all-connected World and the mutation can no longer be stopped. The concept is compelling if not completely convincing of course, while the outcome of a new human race, which is to Homo Sapiens what Homo Sapiens was to Neanderthal, is rather disappointing. (How could it be otherwise?!) But I did appreciate the postulate of a massive and immediate change in the genome, even though the details were disputable and the dismissal of Dawkins‘ perspective poorly defended. From a stylistic perspective, the style is at time heavy, while there are too many chance occurrences, like the main character happening to be in Georgia for a business deal (spoilers, spoilers!) at the times of the opening of collective graves, or the second main character coming upon a couple of Neanderthal mummies with a Sapiens baby, or yet this pair of main characters falling in love and delivering a live mutant baby-girl. But I enjoyed reading it between San Francisco and Melbourne, with a few hours of lost sleep and work. It is a page turner, no doubt! I also like the political undercurrents, from riots to emergency measures, to an effective dictatorship controlling pregnancies and detaining newborns and their mothers.

One important thread in the book deals with anthropology digs getting against Native claims to corpses and general opposition to such digs. This reminded me of a very recent article in Nature where a local Indian tribe had claimed rights to several thousand year old skeletons, whose DNA was then showed to be more related with far away groups than the claimants. But where the tribe was still granted the last word, in a rather worrying jurisprudence.

Gray matters [not much, truly]

Posted in Books, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 21, 2015 by xi'an

Through the blog of Andrew Jaffe, Leaves on the Lines, I became aware of John Gray‘s tribune in The Guardian, “What scares the new atheists“. Gray’s central points against “campaigning” or “evangelical” atheists are that their claim to scientific backup is baseless, that they mostly express a fear about the diminishing influence of the liberal West, and that they cannot produce an alternative form of morality. The title already put me off and the beginning of the tribune just got worse, as it goes on and on about the eugenics tendencies of some 1930’s atheists and on how they influenced Nazi ideology. It is never a good sign in a debate when the speaker strives to link the opposite side with National Socialist ideas and deeds. Even less so in a supposedly philosophical tribune! (To add injury to insult, Gray also brings Karl Marx in the picture with a similar blame for ethnocentrism…) Continue reading

prayers and chi-square

Posted in Books, Kids, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , on November 25, 2014 by xi'an

One study I spotted in Richard Dawkins’ The God delusion this summer by the lake is a study of the (im)possible impact of prayer over patient’s recovery. As a coincidence, my daughter got this problem in her statistics class of last week (my translation):

1802 patients in 6 US hospitals have been divided into three groups. Members in group A was told that unspecified religious communities would pray for them nominally, while patients in groups B and C did not know if anyone prayed for them. Those in group B had communities praying for them while those in group C did not. After 14 days of prayer, the conditions of the patients were as follows:

  • out of 604 patients in group A, the condition of 249 had significantly worsened;
  • out of 601 patients in group B, the condition of 289 had significantly worsened;
  • out of 597 patients in group C, the condition of 293 had significantly worsened.

 Use a chi-square procedure to test the homogeneity between the three groups, a significant impact of prayers, and a placebo effect of prayer.

This may sound a wee bit weird for a school test, but she is in medical school after all so it is a good way to enforce rational thinking while learning about the chi-square test! (Answers: [even though the data is too sparse to clearly support a decision, esp. when using the chi-square test!] homogeneity and placebo effect are acceptable assumptions at level 5%, while the prayer effect is not [if barely].)

latest interviews on the philosophy of religion(s)

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 1, 2014 by xi'an

“But is the existence of God just a philosophical question, like, say, the definition of knowledge or the existence of Plato’s forms?” Gary Gutting, NYT

Although I stopped following The Stone‘s interviews of philosophers about their views on religion, six more took place and Gary Gutting has now closed the series he started a while ago with a self-interview. On this occasion, I went quickly through the last interviews, which had the same variability in depth and appeal as the earlier ones. A lot of them were somewhat misplaced in trying to understand or justify the reasons for believing in a god (a.k.a., God), which sounds more appropriate for a psychology or sociology perspective. I presume that what I was expecting from the series was more a “science vs. religion” debate, rather than entries into the metaphysics of various religions… Continue reading