Dawkins is not a good theory

Written by Eike Pierstorff

Slate has an interview with Richard Dawkins (if you don’t know who that is the following will mean nothing to you) who is asked the explain the criticism towards his person. He answers by alleging that “some people fear clarity”.

I’m sorry, but that is a shmuck’s answer – “they don’t like me so so they must fear me”. I cannot judge Dawkins the biologist but I have read some of the stuff he has published on atheism. I have to say I rather dislike Dawkins the atheist because he is not at all clear.

The case for atheism can be summed up in four words, “there is no god”; that’s pretty much the be-all and end-all of it [1]. The added rhetoric actually adds very little, all that “who would want to believe in the ghastly god of the bible anyway”. Duh, it’s christians [2].

It wouldn’t be so bad if he sticked to biology as his area of expertise. He doesn’t do that, presumably because that would involve rather technical arguments that people without a background in biology (such as, for example, me) would have a hard time to understand. Instead he dabbles in history, sociology, philosophy and related disciplines, and he isn’t even particulary good at it, mostly because he presents the issue as a disjointed series of smoking guns instead of carefully building his case on the preponderance of evidence.

In constrast, an extremely good example of careful reasoning is Sean Caroll’s lecture “God is not a good theory” in which Caroll explains how the idea of god does not contribute to our understanding of the universe around us. Again, I cannot judge Sean Caroll the theoretical physicist [3] but I can judge if  his is an coherent argument.

Caroll’s lecture starts with  careful defitions – what, in the scope of the lecture, is meant by “God”, what is a theory, how do we judge (again, in the scope of the lecture)  if something is good or less so. Subsequent arguments follow from, and are build on top of, prior ones. And most importantly, he comfortably stays within his own area of expertise. God is a bad theory not because Hitler paid his church taxes but because the laws of physics already explain anything that God was supposed to explain; HE is not necessary [4].

So while the outcome is the same – god’s non-existence does not depend on the quality of the arguments for it – I find Sean Carrol’s approach much more preferable. Dawkins is much more antagonizing, and however how noble the intentions these days that always end with two factions on the internet throwing shit at each other [5]. I think this is not a good approach – if all I want to do is shout at other people I do not need the pretext of scientific argument in the first place [6].

What it boils down to is that Dawkins says that religions turns people into assholes and that therefore we should eliminate religion. However since it has turned out people can be assholes without help from any religion I’d posit that Dawkins atheism does not do anything to explain general assholery; it is not necessary and hence a bad theory.  Rather than stop being believers it might be prudent for all people if they’d tried and stop being assholes instead.

  1. Please note that is not so much about atheism vs. religion and more about what standard of argument one should accept in public discussion. If you are a believer then by all means proceed; I’m an atheist, not a missionary.
  2. I’m talking here mostly about “The God Delusion”, a book that, without a prominent name attached to it would not have survived copy editing, or at least shouldn’t have. You can keep all quips about my own copy skills (spelling!) to yourself.
  3. I have read, and would recommend his books “From Eternity to Here” and “The Particle at the End of the Universe“. However I found them more entertaining than enlightening – I would be troubled to explain the physics of a boiling water kettle, so I don’t think I’m in any position to discuss quantum mechanics etc., or to be a judge if Caroll’s theories are correct. Not that the very same predicament stops other people from doing so.
  4. There is an awful temptation to mention Occam’s razor at this point. However that would be terribly unfair – “Plurality must never be posited without necessity” was meant by Ockham to be an argument in favour of the existence of god, not against.
  5. And constantly claiming victory over each other on their respective blogs and forums (forae ?).
  6. Admittedly this describes Dawkins followers rather than the man himself.

Al Qaedas Expense Records

Written by Eike Pierstorff

As published by the Associated Press:

Over 100 receipts retrieved from a building believed to have been used by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghrebʼs local accountant shows an organization intent on documenting even the most minor expense.

This reminds me of Terry Pratchetts adage that chaos will always triumph over order because chaos is better organized (seeing that, in contrast, most orderly governments are easily capable of mislaying a few billion bucks). Plus it makes me somewhat afraid that the CIA will hatch a plan to poison all african macaroni supplies as pasta seems to be the main staple of terrorists.

    What Krugman said

    Written by Eike Pierstorff

    (in his column about the Fear Economy, that is)  –  Ignaz Wrobel (a.k.a. Kurt Tucholsky) said a rather similar thing some 84 years ago [1] :

    Eine der schauerlichsten Folgen der Arbeitslosigkeit ist wohl die, dass Arbeit als Gnade vergeben wird. Es ist wie im Kriege: wer die Butter hat, wird frech.

    Es ist nicht nur, dass die Koalitionsrechte der Arbeiter und nun gar erst die der Angestellten auf ein Minimum zusammengeschmolzen sind, dass ihre Stellung bei Tarifverhandlungen immer ungünstiger wird, weil bereits das Wort ›Tarif‹ bedrohliche Wettererscheinungen in den Personalbüros hervorruft … auch die Atmosphäre in den Betrieben ist nicht heiterer geworden. Zwar jammern die Arbeitgeber: »Wir können die Untüchtigen so schwer herauskriegen – heutzutage kann man ja niemand mehr kündigen … « keine Sorge: man kann. Und so wird Arbeit und Arbeitsmöglichkeit, noch zu jämmerlichsten Löhnen, ein Diadem aus Juwelen und ein Perlengeschmeide.

    One of the most horrific consequences of high unemployment is that employment is dispensed as an act of mercy. It’s like it used to be in the war, he who has the butter scorns the have-nots.


    1. in Die Weltbühne Nr. 42, 14.10.1930

    History has vindicated me

    Written by Eike Pierstorff

    In 2008 I gave a lecture (read here – german only) on apocalyptic themes in science fiction. I was chastised for being unfair after I suggested that cyberpunk renders the genre meaningless as it only predicts things that are happening anyway. If you don’t read german, I used Darko Suvins definition (which I suspect Suvin has nicked from german studies, specifically from the definition of “Novelle” (novella)) that says science fiction explores the consequences of a ‘novum’ (‘unerhörte Begebenheit’ in the classic german definition) that is introduced earlier in the story [1] and I pointed out that if the imagined world is just as, and in the same way, fucked up as the real world there really isn’t much of a novum to explore. People, as far as they still listened at that point, disagreed heavily.

    Now, earlier this december Charles Stross wrote in his blog that the “Halting State” trilogy (not cyberpunk, but close enough) would not actually get a third installment because real life has turned out to be pretty much congruent with the plot of the two published novels. Which of course makes the whole excercise pointless.

    I’d say when it comes to authorities in contemporary science fiction Stross is as big as it gets, so as far as I’m concerned I’d say that history has vindicated me [2].

    1. Of course when Suvin wrote this most science fiction actually was written in the novella format. Now that the genre expresses itself mostly in multi-volumned tomes is Suvin still relevant or do we need a new definition ? Discuss.
    2. Somehow I had hoped that I do not need to point this out, but since I was asked –  of course  that headline was supposed to be funny. Hahaha.

    Artikel auf suchradar.de

    Written by Eike Pierstorff

    Für meinem Arbeitgeber habe für die Weihnachts-Ausgabe des Suchradar einen Artikel zum Thema Web Analytics verfasst. Das Spannungsfeld “Web Analytics und Datenschutz” blieb dabei erstmal weitgehend ausgeklammert…. ist letztlich ein netter, kleiner Werbeartikel für die Leistungen die ich bei meinem Arbeitgeber erbringe.


      Season’s Greetings

      Written by Eike Pierstorff



        Written by Eike Pierstorff


          Reading list

          Written by Eike Pierstorff

          Postal services are rather unreliable at the moment, what with the weather and all, and more often than not I have to pick up my parcel from the post office instead of having them delivered to my home. Since this pretty much defies the purpose of ordering stuff on the internet I decided that, instead of following the price-reduced meanders of the electronic amazon basin I would actually (physically!) go for a walk to pick up some new reading material. Luckily  one of the finest sources for phantasy and science fiction is within walking distance.

          It is strange – I consider myself a Hard SF Fan, but then my purchases tend to be somewhat more diverse, this time stretching from New Wave to Steampunk. So let’s  see what we have here.

          1) Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest
          This was a fun read, enough so that I finished it a day after I bought it. If the book is ever brought to the silver screen undoubtly it will made to look like a steampunk version of Resident Evil, what with zombies and evil scientists roaming an ahistoric Seattle poisoned by a flesh-eating gas. Actually the book is less focused on action (and frankly, prolonged action scenes in books do not work well that anyway) and more on it’s characters – a mother looking for her son, the son looking to clear his dead fathers name, a mad scientist lusting for power and  assorted  crew to provide  an interesting scenery. This is the first of a series and even though I  think the end is a bit weak Iwill definitely read  the follow-ups.

          2) Cosmos, by Carl Sagan
          The late Carl Sagan did a lot to popularize science and frankly the longer he is dead the more he is missed (especially since he talked to those who would listen instead of yelling at those he found annoying, which seems to be the preferred method today). I love the TV-Series Cosmos so I figured I could pick up the book as well. A better tribute to his memory would be to join the Planetary Society (the largest and most influential public space organization group on Earth)  but the last time I tried a credit card was needed to join.

          3) Galileo’s Dream, by Kim Stanley Robinson
          I’m in two minds about KSR. On the one hand I agree pretty much with his politics (except for his advice to “believe in goverment“. I’m not totally opposed to the idea of goverment as such, but as far as he implies I should trust the government my country actually has, well, that would be clearly insane). On the other hand he bores me to death –  to me, he is a competent but rather uninspiring writer. Yet I always return to his books in the hope that one day the artist will be on par with the political theoretician. Who knows, it might be  this time.

          4) House of Suns, by Alastair Reynolds
          Finally something that fits the “Hard SF”-Label.  I love big Space Opera because  it has a certain kind of momentum – larger-that-life people in giant spacecraft doing enormeous deeds on a galactic scale etc.  Alas, the fact that these books are less timid makes them also less relevant – but then there’s nothing wrong with a bit of escapism which Alastair Reynolds readily supplies (and pretty-please with a cherry on top, I’d like to have another Verity Auger-Novel).

          4) The Cornelius Quartet, by Michael Moorecock
          Gibson et al claimed Jerry as the first cyberpunk hero. The rock band Human League claimed Jerry as their inspiration. Cornelius is also the acknowleged inspiration for Alan Moore’s “Watchman” graphic novels; for much of Neil Gaiman’s work in graphic novels; the film “The Crow” and many other works. And I for one know most of the references but not the originals, which over time led to a strange und nearly
          unpronounceable baudrillardesque feeling, so I guess it’s time to do some catching up.

          Also on my reading list is some work related stuff, but I won’t bore you with that ( except to say that you should avoid “Pro Smartphone Cross-Platform Development” by Sara Allen which is a crap book without any redeeming feature).

          But it feels good to do some reading –  I have almost forgotten that there are so many better books than facebook.

            I think these judges have a sense of humor

            Written by Eike Pierstorff

            A german woman living in Zürich wanted to force the FRG to shut down CERNs Large Hadron Collider since, as she argued, it might create tiny black holes that would destroy the earth.

            Today, the Federal Constitutional Court dismissed her case. They argued that “zur schlüssigen Darlegung möglicher Schadensereignisse, die eine Reaktion staatlicher Stellen erzwingen könnten, genügt es insbesondere nicht, Warnungen auf ein generelles Misstrauen gegenüber physikalischen Gesetzen […] zu stützen” (source) – to force the government into action it is not enough to issue warnings based on a general distrust towards the laws of physics.

            I really do think that sentence is extremely funny.