The Concept of Reality

The other day, I had a debate with a conservative friend on Facebook, on the relativity of truth.  In order to justify many of the Hindu right’s silly claims about cows (i.e. cow urine contains gold, cow dung can be used as protection against radiation, cows exhale pure oxygen…), he was forced to say that even science was manipulated.  This was amusing, because it was usually me arguing for the relativity of religious ‘truth’ against right-wing absolutists!

A few days after this, Kellyanne Conway came up with the terminology ‘alternative fact’, and things became purely Orwellian.  If one can dispute recorded facts based on one’s political conviction and force people to support it based on muscle power, then ‘facts’ become whatever you want to believe – or in an authoritarian society, what the government wants you to believe.  We have come from a “post-truth” world to a “post-logic” world.

The Phenomenal World

This took me back a few years.  In the most excellent discussion forum available on the Joseph Campbell Organisation website in those days (alas, no more existing), this was one topic which was hotly debated – and ironically, I was on the side which was arguing that an absolute reality did not exist!

Before you start carting me off to the loony bin, let me elucidate.

unknown-1769656_960_720

The classic example of this is colour.  There is no way to prove that the ‘red’ I see and the ‘red’ you is the same, unless you can inhabit my brain or vice-versa; this is very evident in the case of a colour-blind person who sees everything in shades of grey.  The same thing can be said for taste, smell etc. It is all subjective.

There are three movies which look at this philosophical conundrum in creative ways: The Matrix, Vanilla Sky and Inception.  In The Matrix, the narrative is very straightforward; reality is an illusion created by an oppressive authority which has to be transcended to see the ‘actual’ reality.  In Vanilla Sky, the protagonist is living in a fantasy world; he has to take a ‘leap of faith’ to ‘open his eyes’ to reality – but we never see what it is.

Inception is easily the most intriguing film of the three.  Here, we have a team of people diving into recursive layers of reality within a person’s mind –dreams within dreams within dreams – and planting an idea inside.  However, by the time these multiple levels are negotiated, the characters and the audience are both left with a bewildering sense of disorientation.  And the film abruptly ends with a tantalisingly open-ended scene.

Truth vs Facts

In the discussion referenced above, somebody came up with an iron-clad argument for the existence of non-subjective truth – verifiable facts.  For example, even if we want to believe that Stephen King wrote Slaughterhouse Five, we cannot – because it can be verified for a fact that Kurt Vonnegut did.  In fact, the evidence of our senses here will compel us to accept something our brain does not want to.

But there are other things like the existence of God, the relative merit of communism vs capitalism, women’s rights etc. which are, indeed, matters of opinion.  Our problem is that we club these also along with ‘facts’ – and the line between fiction and fact gets blurred.

It is at this point of our discussion that we came to our most prickly issue – scientific facts.

The Method of Science

The majority of people who claim to be spiritual look upon science with some distrust.  They believe that science is too reductionist, too dismissive of individual experience, to provide a comprehensive picture of reality.  They are quick to point out that science relies on sensory data of individuals to arrive at results and conclusions – sensory data which is necessarily tainted with the individual’s bias.

While this argument is valid, science bypasses it by its method of experiment and observation.  Multiple experiments are carried out by different individuals, the results are recorded, and conclusions are arrived at based on the confirmation or refutation of a hypothesis based on observations.  So scientific ‘truth’ is in fact based on verifiable facts.

All right, so far?

Well… not quite.  What about the interpretation of facts?  It is also done by fallible human beings.  And facts are open to interpretation in different ways.

So I choose to call science ‘Constructive Falsehood’.  Even with the knowledge that we are relying on imperfect interpreters, the sheer number of independent observations gets it as clear to objectivity as we can.  So generally, we can accept the results of scientific experiments as ‘truth’ – with the understanding that this can be overturned the moment new knowledge comes to light.

Interpreting Reality

lantern-1982669_960_720

Even to this, the naysayers have their argument.  How does one conclude that something is chance?  How do we accept that human mind cannot influence the outcome of an experiment?  This argument is especially pervasive in cases of New Age fads like ESP and precognition.

Unfortunately, science cannot answer this, because science does not deal in absolute certainties but reasonable ones.  The ideal scientist would say that “the argument has no reasonable scientific evidence.”

It works the other way, too.  Evolution is currently the only scientific theory which explains the origin of species, without positing an a priori cause. However, it can point only to reasonable evidence in support of its claim – it can never ‘disprove’ that God was behind it!  (Which is why theories like Intelligent Design still have followers, I guess.)

Once we dig deeper and deeper into the mechanics of the reality we see and feel, however, we see the safety net disappearing from underneath us.  At the quantum level, what is matter?  Not the solid thing what we have come to experience, for sure.  What is an atom?  What is an electron?  Is light comprising particles or waves?  What is time?

No absolute answers…

An Empirical Model

In engineering, we do a lot of mathematical modelling.  Fluid flow, heat transfer, mass transfer, chemical reactions… all are modelled mathematically based on experience, and the empirical equations derived out of the models are used to predict the physical and chemical behaviour of substances in the ‘real’ world.

And it works.  I can use a fluid flow equation quite accurately to predict the flow of a fluid through a pipeline.  When the pipeline is actually built and operated, the fluid behaves remarkably like the equations did in my computer.

So – this is what science does: it gives us an empirical, workable model for the universe which can be used to interpret and predict phenomena.  In their different paradigms, each scientific model is valid insofar as its interpretative and predictive powers are accurate.  So at a macro level, Newton’s classic physics works: at relativistic level, we have to use Einstein’s equations: at quantum levels, we have to take the help of Max Planck.  None of these models are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; they are ‘useful’.

cube-1963036_960_720

 

—————————————————–

So, to sum it up – no, we don’t know what reality is in an absolute sense (we may never know).  There is no absolute truth.  But there are verifiable facts within a paradigm; and as reasonable individuals, we need to accept these facts even if they go against our belief systems.

This is how we have come so far.  If we let go of it, we slip over – into ‘La La Land’.

Advertisements

What Am I? – A Review of “Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction” by Susan Blackmore

The Self is illusion – so says the Buddha; and Susan Blackmore agrees, albeit with more scientific evidence as backup.

***
Nicolas_P._Rougier's_rendering_of_the_human_brain

The Hard Problem

We are sure that there is a world outside, filled with inanimate and live things. However, we can experience this world only through our senses: the colours, the smells and the feels. They are all we have, to form our idea about our environment. However, they are dependent upon the experiences of our brain, therefore by nature subjective – and when we come to abstract concepts like pleasure and pain, they have no existence other than in the mind.

“Mind” – the fateful word! What is it? Even if we are not read up on philosophy, we assume that it exists independently of our physical body. That is, most of us subscribe to some sort of dualism. All the world’s religions, other than Buddhism, posit an indestructible “soul” (although there is a difference between the Hindu Atman and the Levantine soul, a point which I shall touch upon later).

The best-known duaFrans_Hals_-_Portret_van_René_Descarteslist theory about the mind is the one proposed by Rene Descartes, the famous Seventeenth Century French philosopher. According to Descartes, the mind is non-physical and resides in the pineal gland in the centre of the brain. However, the problem of the interaction of the non-physical mind with the physical brain is not so easily solved, therefore most scientists and philosophers prefer a monistic explanation – either the mind being fundamental, or the body. Modern science takes the materialistic view that the mind arises from mental processes.
But this does not solve the problem of how a physical brain, made purely of material substances, can give rise to conscious experiences which scientists call the ‘qualia’, the indescribable experiences. This is traditionally called the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness, a term coined by the Australian philosopher David Chalmers in 1994.

***

What does being conscious mean? For example, is my computer which takes inputs from me, interacts with me, and provides output in some way conscious? Most of us would instinctively say no: we are conditioned to think only biologically “live” entities as conscious. But then, is a tree conscious? It is born, lives and dies: reaches towards light, and uses its roots to feed itself. Again, most of us would say no – it has no brain. But then, is a bat, which has a brain, conscious in the same way that I am conscious?
Big-eared-townsend-fledermaus
“What is it like to be a bat?” – This question was made famous by the American philosopher Thomas Nagel 1n 1974. He said that if there is something it is like to be the bat, that is, if the bat is self-aware of being itself, then it is conscious: otherwise it is not. Nagel was using this argument to challenge materialism: since consciousness is subjective, we can never know objectively what it is. What we are talking about here is phenomenal consciousness, which is where self-awareness comes from – which is to be differentiated from access consciousness, which we use for thinking, acting and speaking.

So here is the million-dollar question: is consciousness an add-on to the physical brain, something which arises out of neural activity yet independent of it (the ‘ghost in the machine’)? Or is it intrinsic to complex brain processes and inseparable from them, and the idea of an independent consciousness an illusion?

Blackmore subscribes to the latter viewpoint, following the path of the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett. This book is devoted to proving that the self is an illusion, based on the findings of scientific research.

***

The Theatre of the Mind and the Stream of Consciousness

Susan Blackmore says we more or less view our mind as a theatre, where the self sits, seeing the show through the eyes, experiencing smells through the nose, and hearing sound through the ears – our daily 4D movie show. Also, we add the time element to it, experiencing it as flowing like a stream (hence the term ‘stream of consciousness’). According to Dennett, this is all bunkum. There is no centre point in the mind where everything comes together – it is all processed in parallel.

760px-Cartesian_Theater.svg

Image courtesy: Jennifer Montes

The amount of scientific research the author manages to bring to the table to prove her point are impressive. First, the human brain is analysed in detail, how various parts are related to various activities of the consciousness – also how damage significantly changes human perception in weird ways. Having linked mental processes firmly to physical activity, Blackmore attacks the concept of ‘stream of consciousness’ by establishing that the events the brain processes do not enter consciousness at all unless verbally probed – that is, we become aware of doing something only when we introspect. So there is no ‘stream’ as such, rather multiple processes which are gathered into a coherent stream later on.

The Grand Illusion

Still there must be something like a consciousness to do all this activity. Blackmore does not disagree – we do feel a ‘conscious self’, but in scientific terms, it is an illusion. She presents an extensive list of interesting experiments to prove that perception is largely subliminal. Even if we are not “aware” of what we perceive, the brain functions just the same. The self, instead of an entity, is a ‘bundle of sensations’, to borrow the words of David Hume. This is also very near to the concept of the ‘Anatman’ – the ‘not-self’ – posited by the Buddha (a man much ahead of his time, it seems!).

However, Blackmore goes further in denying the self – she refuses to equate it with any brain process. Quoting Dennett, she says that the self is a total illusion created by the way we use our language:
Daniel Dennett

Finally, a completely different approach is provided by Dennett. Having rejected the Cartesian theatre, he also rejects its audience of one who watches the show. The self, he claims, is something that needs to be explained, but it does not exist in the way that a physical object (or even a brain process) exists. Like a centre of gravity in physics, it is a useful abstraction. Indeed, he calls it a ‘centre of narrative gravity’. Our language spins the story of a self and so we come to believe that there is, in addition to our single body, a single inner self who has consciousness, holds opinions, and makes decisions. Really, there is no inner self but only multiple parallel processes that give rise to a benign user illusion – a useful fiction.

It seems we have some tough choices in thinking about our own precious self. We can hang on to the way it feels and assume that a persisting self or soul or spirit exists, even though it cannot be found and leads to deep philosophical troubles. We can equate it with some kind of brain process and shelve the problem of why this brain process should have conscious experiences at all, or we can reject any persisting entity that corresponds to our feeling of being a self.

I think that intellectually we have to take this last path. The trouble is that it is very hard to accept in one’s own personal life. It means taking a radically different view of every experience. It means accepting that there is no one who is having these experiences. It means accepting that every time I seem to exist, this is just a temporary fiction and not the same ‘me’ who seemed to exist a moment before, or last week, or last year. This is tough, but I think it gets easier with practice.

In the same way, Susan Blackmore also negates free will. Quoting an interesting experiment by Wegner, she argues that the same unconscious impulses give rise to the action and the thought behind the action: only thing is that the thought occurs a fraction of a second before the action, so we conclude that we have willed it!

(This is a truly radical approach. I must confess, even though it is argued flawlessly, it is a bit hard for me to accept. But I must admit that I have lived with this consciousness for such a long time that it is very difficult to let the chap go!)

***

This is a good book, which talks on a difficult subject in a readable manner. The author’s erudition and credentials also cannot be faulted. However, a couple of caveats:

Firstly, this is not an introduction to the subject – it is an introduction to particular theory of consciousness. History of scientific and philosophical research on the subject is largely ignored, and competing theories are presented only so that they can be refuted. I am definitely interested in the subject, and shall be reading more – and not just Dennett’s theory.

Secondly, materialism and monism is taken as a given. True, the Levantine concept of an indestructible soul occupying the destructible body cannot be treated scientifically (though it’s a valid religious concept)– but the Hindu concept of Atman and Brahman is slightly different.

The Mandukya Upanishad talks extensively of consciousness. It posits four ‘Purushas’ (we may think of them as various types of consciousness). The first one, which is outward-looking and connected to the waking state, experiences the ‘real’ world. The second one, which is inward-looking and connected to the dreaming state, experiences the phenomenal world. The third one, which is connected with dreamless sleep, experiences the real and phenomenal worlds at the same time. And the fourth one, the most profound, goes beyond all these experiences and transcends the phenomenal existence. I guess it is here that the Atman identifies with the Brahman.

The concept of the Brahman in Hinduism can be most closely approximated as ‘un-distilled sentience’: a sort of cosmic consciousness of which each and every atom of reality is but a part. The individual Atman is but an imperfect reflection of the Brahman: the realisation that it is part of the big whole is said to be the whole purpose of enlightenment.

At the present level of scientific knowledge, materialism seems to be the only valid worldview. But in the light of quantum phenomena, is the concept of reality as sentience wholly off the mark? I don’t think so.

Susan Blackmore could have dwelt a bit more on the philosophical aspects of the question also, I feel. But maybe it’s unfair to expect it from a book which is basically scientific in nature.

The Philosophy of Hatred

I have finished reading Godless: the Church of Liberalism by Ann Coulter. Whew! I didn’t think I would survive the ordeal.

Ann Coulter is a prominent right-wing media personality in America. However, it is not her conservative views which get her attention: it is the outright hatred she has for the “other”, and the purposefully rude way in which she expresses her opinion, that does it. Liberals hate her, and she revels in it.

I read this book to see whether Ann is as black as she’s painted. Well, she’s blacker. I did not think a human being could spew so much hate and still remain sane (unless it’s all an act to gain media attention, as some of her detractors say, which is quite possible).

Ann Coulter’s main argument in this book is against the separation of the Church and the State. As a conservative Christian, she would like to see the USA become a theocracy; however, this is effectively prevented by the constitution which is secular. So she goes on to attack secularism itself as a godless religion, rather than a logical frame work where all kinds of thoughts can coexist side by side.

The book is very badly written, with plenty of her pet peeves surfacing time and again, interspersed with snide remarks and name-calling, so there is no coherent central argument. However, the main points Ms. Coulter tries make can be summarised as:

  • Liberal thought is a godless religion, less logical than Christianity, which is being forced on Americans through public institutions and state schools.
  • Liberals want to live a life free of any moral code.
  • Liberals are hell-bent on supporting criminals who have done heinous crimes against humanity, and time and again have sent prisoners out on parole who have again committed more serious crimes.
  • Liberals are in favour of abortion, just because they don’t mind killing babies to enjoy indiscriminate sex.
  • Muslims are a danger to the world. President George Bush is right in attacking Iraq and killing Saddam Hussein. However, Liberals support Islamic terrorists.
  • Liberals support public school teachers who (in her opinion) are a bunch of overpaid slackers, responsible for Americans’ decline in the intellectual field.
  • Liberal science has no evidential support: the deleterious effects of pesticides, global warming, the fact that AIDS attacks heterosexuals as well as gays, the benefits of embryonic stem cell research… these are all myths created by liberals to further their political agenda. Anybody who speaks out against these is hounded out of the scientific establishment.
  • And most importantly – the theory of evolution (which she calls “Darwinism”) – is absolute nonsense.

Most of the “arguments” (if they can be called that) the author presents for each of the above are pretty shaky – most of them are straw men, and will convince only the already converted. She is in fact preaching to the choir. However, she purposefully misrepresents facts. These half-truths are more dangerous than outright lies; even those who dislike her rhetoric may fall for the veneer of truth in her analysis.

(I did a quick research on two cases which Ann Coulter presented as proof of the liberal penchant for loosening inhuman criminals on society. The first, the case of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti in the 1920’s who purportedly murdered two payroll carriers, she presents as an open-and-shut case. What is more, she says that their liberal supporters were aware that they were guilty, but still lied to the authorities and public. However, it seems that there is plenty of evidence to believe that Vanzetti was innocent; and Sacco’s guilt is not proved beyond doubt. More importantly, there is every reason to believe that the defendants were not given a fair trial.

The second case is more distressing. Dennis Dechaine was convicted of kidnapping, sexually assaulting and murdering 12-year-old Sarah Cherry in Maine. The way Coulter describes it, the case is airtight: Dechaine is another monster that the liberals are trying to save. But a quick search on the net will bring out the full facts – there were at least two other people who could be guilty. Dechaine’s supporters are asking only for a retrial, not an acquittal, with newly acquired DNA evidence: however, the state is adamant that it will not budge. It seems more of a case of government obstinacy than a conspiracy to free a convicted criminal.)

If Ann had her way, lynch mobs would replace trial courts. She is angry with the drawn-out trials, the pleas for leniency, and the mounting pressure to ban capital punishment. In her opinion, harsh punishment is the only deterrent for violent crime: for all her hatred of Sharia law, one feels that Saudi Arabia would be her ideal country.

(Ironically, for a person hell-bent on the death penalty, she considers herself “pro-life”, which means against abortion. It seems that the conservatives value human life only when in the foetal stage!)

Ms. Coulter singles out some individuals for special treatment – one of the main recipients of her venom is Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. Dukakis is the ultra-liberal: a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union (something akin to a witches’ coven in Ann’s view), he advocated furloughs for even convicted first-degree murderers during his term in office. (Dukakis also declared August 23, 1977 as “Sacco and Vanzetti Memorial Day”, to atone for their “unfair trial and conviction” – sacrilege according to Ms. Coulter.)

Dukakis lost the 1988 election to George H. W. Bush, helped in a large part due to a racist campaign focussing on the convicted murderer Willie Horton Dukakis allowed to go on furlough, and who committed a vicious assault and rape during his time outside the prison. Ann Coulter however, glosses over the campaign itself, playing down the racist angle. According her, Dukakis lost because his liberal views, especially the ones regarding the treatment of criminals, were rejected by the public (even so, Ann’s racial bias is evident throughout: at one point, she calls him the “Greek midget”).

Ms. Coulter uses gutter language to criticise many prominent Democrats including Bill Clinton and Al Gore (her sexual innuendos about Clinton are nauseating), and fawns over Republicans, especially George W. Bush, who in her opinion is a sort of divine incarnation come to rescue America. Needless to say, she considers America’s invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq legitimate – it is “protecting America”. From the hindsight of 2014, when the USA is crawling back from the Middle East with its tail between its legs, her contention that America would have won the Vietnam War had not protests at home forced the government to abandon it seems laughably silly. She writes at a point of time when Republicans are still waiting for the imminent discovery of “Weapons of Mass Destruction” hoarded by Saddam! One could feel pity for her, if she were not so contemptuous of the mothers who have lost sons in Iraq.

According to Ann, all liberals are anti-science: they use the scientific method just to push their agenda on abortion, gay rights, global warming, etc. No wonder, as the conservatives view science as a tool just to help them exploit nature and other human beings. She favours the indiscriminate use of pesticides and the uncontrolled burning of fossil fuels: the protection of environment is anathema to her, as she views it from the biblical perspective as man’s natural bounty, to be consumed at will. The view that man is part of nature will sound like common sense to most normal human beings, but not to conservatives of Ms. Coulter’s ilk. To quote an example: “We believe in populating the Earth until there’s standing room only and then colonizing Mars; they believe humans are in the twilight of their existence.” – I rest my case.

But it is when it comes to the theory of evolution that Ann Coulter really outdoes herself. According to her, evolution is only a theory, having absolutely no basis in fact that the liberals are “forcing” on Americans, by making it mandatory in schools. Creation theory is much more solid in her opinion. Ann is clever enough not to argue for the Biblical creation myth as science: she knows that she will be laughed out of court. Her theory of choice Intelligent Design (ID) as propounded by the biologist Michael Behe, which posits a supernatural intelligence behind the development of various life-forms. Ms. Coulter says despite many scientists favouring this theory, liberals are using their hold on the scientific establishment and academia to keep it out of schools.

As a person who followed the ID debate with interest, I know most of what Ann Coulter says is contrary to facts. ID was thrown out of the science curriculum in schools because it was not science: it did not present any alternative to evolution; rather, it only argued that there was a divine will behind the process. As any college student knows, such a theory can never be refuted as it is not falsifiable. The Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District judgement has become famous not without reason.

This does not deter the creationists, however: they try to sneak ID into schools every now and then. The case of Roger DeHart is a classic example. This is what Ann Coulter has to say about it:

Roger DeHart used to teach biology at Burlington-Edison High School in Washington State, where he supplemented his curriculum with newspaper stories on the Chinese fossils from newspapers like the Boston Globe and the New York Times. He never mentioned God. The ACLU threatened to sue and the school removed DeHart from his class, replacing him with a recent teachers’ college graduate who had majored in physical education. Thus were the students of Burlington-Edison High School saved from having to hear scientific facts that might cause them to question their faith in the official state religion.

This is what Wikipedia says:

In 1997 it became known to the public that longtime biology teacher Roger DeHart had been teaching intelligent design in his curriculum through excerpts of Of Pandas and People and Inherit the Wind. This event brought forth national attention and controversy. From 1986 to 1997, Roger DeHart had subtly posed the intelligent design theory in the classroom. After parents of one of DeHart’s students notified the American Civil Liberties Union, the group threatened to sue the Burlington-Edison School District if DeHart didn’t stop teaching intelligent design. The event sparked large debate, and support groups for both sides were formed. DeHart was later reassigned to earth sciences, and in 2001 he resigned and took a teaching job at Marysville-Pilchuck High School. He taught there for one year before transferring to a Christian school in California.

See the subtle twisting of facts? Goebbels would have been envious! Of course, it is possible that Wikipedia is wrong or controlled by scheming liberals, but I find it much more believable than Ann Coulter.

Richard Sternberg is another example, who as an unpaid research associate at the Smithsonian, published a controversial article about Intelligent Design by Stephen C. Meyer in Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, a journal of which he was the editor. There was a doubt as to whether the article may not have undergone the normal peer-review procedure, so the magazine disowned it. Subsequent to this turn of events, Sternberg filed a complaint against the Smithsonian for harassment; a complaint which did not stick as he had no locus standi since he was unpaid. Sternberg’s impartial credentials are also doubtful since he is an open proponent of ID. However, in Ms. Coulter’s version of the narrative, he is a martyred scientist tortured by the big, bad liberal establishment.

It is also interesting to note that most of the “scientists” quoted in the book belong to the Discovery Institute, which

…is a non-profit public policy think tank based in Seattle, Washington, best known for its advocacy of the pseudoscience “intelligent design” (ID). Its “Teach the Controversy” campaign aims to teach creationist anti-evolution beliefs in United States public high school science courses alongside accepted scientific theories, positing a scientific controversy exists over these subjects.

-Wikipedia.

The Discovery Institute, by their own admission as set forth in their manifesto, follows the “Wedge Strategy”.

The wedge strategy is a political and social action plan authored by the Discovery Institute, the hub of the intelligent design movement. The strategy was put forth in a Discovery Institute manifesto known as the Wedge Document, which describes a broad social, political, and academic agenda whose ultimate goal is to defeat materialism, naturalism, evolution, and “reverse the stifling materialist world view and replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.” The strategy also aims to affirm what it calls “God’s reality.” Its goal is to change American culture by shaping public policy to reflect conservative Christian, namely evangelical Protestant, values. The wedge metaphor is attributed to Phillip E. Johnson and depicts a metal wedge splitting a log to represent an aggressive public relations program to create an opening for the supernatural in the public’s understanding of science.

It is hardly surprising that scientists resist the Discovery Institute’s attempts to gate-crash the science party. It has nothing to do with science, and plenty to do with religion. It is religious dogma’s last-gasp attempt to enter the science classroom through the backdoor, after reason has pushed it out of the front door. Please note that this has nothing to do with religious freedom: it is the attempt to teach religious belief as science which is being resisted. Ironically, as Ms. Coulter bemoans all these true scientists being persecuted by liberals, she is resoundingly silent about the history of the persecution of scientists by the religious establishment.

***

To sum up: the book is nothing but a polemic. It will delight the conservatives and disgust the liberals. However, I see one danger: any neutral person reading the book might believe the “facts” presented by Ms. Coulter, because of the superficial semblance to truth they carry. I would advise such readers with “open” minds to read the other side of the debate also. To balance Ann, I suggest Michael Moore!

***

One last word, especially to Indian readers:

  • Ann Coulter considers liberals’ tolerance of Muslims as treasonous, as she considers most Muslims as terrorists and Islam as a religion of violence.
  • She considers any consideration of the environment as a potential roadblock in the path of development and progress.
  • She believes Democrats develop African-Americans as a vote bank; she believes that illegal immigration is encouraged by them to swell their vote banks.
  • She believes gays and lesbians have no legal rights.
  • She believes there should not be any separation of the Church and the State, and America should be a Christian nation.

…Any of the above ring a bell?

Yes, conservatives are the same everywhere. Their philosophy is one of hatred – hate the “Other”, because they hate you. Kill them, before they kill you. If you listen to them, sooner or later fear will get into your heart – then hatred. From that to murder is only a step. It happened in Germany in the last century.

Beware.

A Review of “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins

In the beginning was the gene.

On 27 December 1831, a young naturalist by the name of Charles Robert Darwin set upon a voyage of discovery on the HMS Beagle which was to last five years and take him all over the globe. He came back with a lot of specimens, copious scientific notes and an explosive theory which was to rock the world of ideas: the theory of evolution by natural selection. Suddenly, God became an unnecessary and unlikely hypothesis: man was pulled down from his high throne as the master of creation: and existence became a cacophony of chance events rather than a carefully co-ordinated orchestra. Naturally, the religious establishment rebelled. But like all ideas whose time had come, evolution hung on with great tenacity to become the widely accepted idea it is today.

I have been fascinated with the idea ever since I was introduced to it in high school. As far as I am concerned, the very argument that theists put forward against evolution is its greatest strength; viz. the complexity of the natural world. According to the believer, such a complex and “perfect” (whatever that means!) system has to have an architect behind it. But the fact is that it is not “perfect” – nature is dynamic. What we perceive as stability is homeostasis, a seething mass of life, eating one another and being eaten; and as nature shifts her stance, so does life, whole species dying out (like the dinosaurs) to make way for others.

But wait! Humans are different, aren’t we? We compete, true: but we also show altruism. People lay down their life to protect their progeny, their brothers and sisters, their countrymen… if we were selfish survival machines, why would we do this? It means we have the spark of divinity within us, doesn’t it?

Well… not exactly, according to Richard Dawkins. It only means we have the “Selfish Gene” within us.

The Selfish Gene needs no introduction. This is one of those iconic “pop” science books which everyone seems to have read, like The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris. I was a bit late (well, about 37 years!) in getting to it. However, the book has lost none of the charm, and the idea any of its power, due to the ravages of time: if at all, it has become stronger.

What is a gene?

Dawkins confesses that there is no universally agreed definition of ‘gene’. We now know that the blueprint for building of each human being is coded in 23 pairs of chromosomes, one of every pair being inherited from each parent. The code inside the chromosome is written in DNA molecules, the famous ‘Double Helix’ that Dawkins terms the ‘Immortal Coils’.

The DNA molecules are replicators. They replicate themselves; they also manufacture proteins, the basic building block of life as we know it. These DNA molecules (some version of them) were the original “life” in the “primeval soup”: they reproduced themselves and competed with one another to survive. Natural selection defined which lasted and which died away.

Dawkins defines a gene (a definition borrowed from G. C. Williams) as “any part of chromosomal material that potentially lasts for enough generations to serve as a unit of natural selection”. In other words, a gene is a copier with high “copying-fidelity”: that is, it ensures that it copies itself without mistakes so that longevity in the form of copies is ensured.

So in the primeval soup, these genes went on happily competing with each other, evolving newer and newer ways of surviving in an environment which got increasingly complex. As part of survival technology, the genes built a lot of machines, bunching together to form gene complexes in the context. The machines got more and more complex, from the single-cell amoeba to the human being.

Dawkins starts the book with the question “Why are people?” This is his answer – so that the gene can survive and replicate. We are nothing but vehicles for the genes, who exist to ensure their survival.

Pretty disillusioning, isn’t it? But Dawkins is far from done. After pulling down humanity from its pedestal as the “pinnacle of creation”, he proceeds to explain all the lofty sentiments such as love, altruism, sacrifice etc. as the result of strategies for gene survival – extremely selfish strategies at that. It is very difficult to stomach for a generation which has been trained to behold human beings as somehow special, and the above sentiments as the proof of their exclusivity which separate them from the “lower” animals. As one disgusted poster said in one of the fora where this book was discussed: “So altruism is like going to the potty? Oh dear!”

But even though disheartening at first, as Dawkins begins to back up his arguments with solid scientific reasoning, it is difficult to dispute him, and difficult not to get excited when he presents his theory with mathematical precision.

Aggression and Stability

One of the most common arguments put forward against evolution is that an uncontrolled state of aggression will lead to a free-for-all and the “stable” environment we see cannot exist. Dawkins explains this with the concept of an ESS (Evolutionary Stable Strategy), which leads to a dynamic equilibrium or homeostasis: he posits a theoretical society populated by pure aggressors (“hawks”) and pure pacifists (“doves”), and proves logically that over a period of time, the number of hawks and doves will stabilise in roughly equal proportion. This is because it is not the survival machines which are having the final say on who will win: it is the genes. This concept is further expanded with fine variations on the behavior – ultimately, every time, a dynamically stable configuration results.

In Chapter 12, ‘Nice Guys Finish First’ (added as part of the second edition), Dawkins takes this theory further and presents a varying set of evolutionary strategies, modelled on Game Theory. It describes in detail various evolutionary stratagems he tried out on his computer (with contributions from a lot of scientists) and the outcomes. This is a fascinating analysis and in my opinion, the most interesting part of the book – but that may just be the engineer in me, who loves anything mathematical!

Altruism

Oh yes. The old stumbling block. The favourite saw of the creationists. If we are all selfish, how does altruism come into the picture? Why do parents sacrifice themselves for their children, why do siblings do the same for each other, why do we co-operate at all? Should we not be at each other’s throats, all the time?

No, according to Dawkins. If we look at it from the gene’s point of view, it all makes perfect sense.

When we are talking of genes, we are talking of gene pools here: a group of genes working together so that the survival of each is maximised. Dawkins makes a brilliant analogy to a rowing team. If a coach is choosing a team, he would over a period end up with a group who can pull in such a way that the winning chance is maximised – an individual rower, however brilliant he is, would find no place in the team if he did not contribute to the group effort. In the case of genes, natural selection plays the role of the coach. Those genes which could not co-operate simply get discarded in the evolutionary race over a period of time.

Also, one should bear in mind that a gene is not a single physical bit of DNA; it is all replicas of a particular bit of DNA, distributed throughout the world. A gene might be able to assist replicas of itself that are sitting in other bodies. If so, this could be the origin of altruism. Dawkins calls it ‘genesmanship’. He spends four chapters explaining how it applies to siblings, offspring, lovers and apparent strangers. In the last chapter (‘The Long Reach of the Gene’), Dawkins extrapolates the above argument to how the gene in one species can extend its reach to another species, possibly to the detriment of the latter, to explain parasitism.

One may take it or leave it, but the arguments are well thought-out and presented with great clarity; with cold, scientific logic. There are no opinions here. It makes fascinating reading, even though the mathematical analysis may put some off!

Memes

The concept of the ‘meme’ is possibly the most revolutionary one expressed in this book. Dawkins defines a meme as a unit of cultural transmission, a basic idea which gets replicated in human brains, in the ‘primeval soup’ of human culture; which, according to him, is in the same state as the biological ‘soup’ was at the dawn of life on earth. To quote the author himself:

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.

According Dawkins, all prevalent ideas (including the idea of God!) is a meme: the meme survives because it has a survival value in the meme pool. If we subscribe to this idea, the whole intellectual arena is nothing but a group of memes grappling for survival – not a very edifying thought. It seems Dawkins appreciates this, because he ends the chapter on memes with the speculation that man has the capacity for genuine, disinterested, true altruism. He says “We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”

I, as a fan of the Jungian idea of the Collective Unconscious, could not help speculating on whether the meme could be embedded way down in the gene itself? Maybe the Collective Unconscious is nothing but little bits of consciousness, embedded inside the DNA, which guided the process of survival? If so, it could be case for Intelligent Design – or rather, Intelligent Evolution.

This is one of those ‘pop-science’ books which are enlightening and enjoyable at the same time. A must-read.