I saw a very interesting discussion this afternoon between TV show host Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins from 2010 in which, naturally, the topic of religion arose – as unexpectedly as guest personalities somehow always being asked about their new book – and specifically Christianity, which Dawkins described as emerging from:
“..a wandering tribe of Middle Eastern persons. Why would they have any more wisdom about the origin of the world, or the origin of anything else? ..that particular myth is the myth that just by sheer chance [the Judeo-Christian myth] happens to have come to our civilisation.
There are thousands of myths in the world and none of them are any better than any of the others..some of them are a lot more poetic than that one, but that’s all you can say.”
This central premise is what creates the gulf between the spiritual-minded or those of faith, and the scientifically-minded: that useful knowledge can only come from the intellectual accumulation of facts as a harvest of experimentation, and that other sources of knowledge are all equal – in being pretty well worthless. But on the evidence of Dawkins’ own well-researched – and admittedly, thoroughly readable – the Magic of Reality, we can completely discount this idea.
The idea that logical thought is infallible is understandable for one who built their life and career on logic, and on the conclusions of those who came before him. Such a process is also seductive and rewarding, as all new discoveries remain tantalisingly out of reach until they become intellectual possessions. But this certainty about logic has a puzzling corollary: the history of science shows that what is certain one moment is often jettisoned the next, or thrown into the shade by a new dimension of complexity which renders the first conclusions childishly naiive by comparison.
The only obstacle in the way of progress is certainty, and in a field with a history of dramatic overturns certainty must also be a sign of some kind of ignorance. I believe Neils Bohr said that science advances, funeral by funeral. If he didn’t say it, he should have done so: the Universe must hold an almost limitless amount of information, laws and concepts for the human mind to slowly grasp, therefore the only way one can call themselves an expert is if they feel they already know about all there is to know. But as the amount we do not know must be vastly greater than what we do, only someone open to new ideas will be likely to find them. This might explain the giant leaps made in every field by those who stdiously avoided traditional thought. Nor is mass opposition any measure of knowledge: as Einstein said, when an infuriated Hitler produced a panphlet entitled, 100 Scientists Against Einstein, “If I were wrong, one would have been enough.” Genius seems to find things nobody else is even looking for.
Anyway, despite the root of psychology, brain research, physics, molecular biology, and even cosmology still being in dispute – leading to different theories covering each, with their own adherents – by and large the world of science considers itself based on certainty; otherwise it would be obliged to call itself a creative art or belief system or perhaps a faith, and that wouldn’t do at all. In view of all the upheavals in the field, each greeted by derision and opposition in its time, only breathaking arrogance – more an animal trait than a highly evolved one – could casually dismiss anything beyond its grasp as worthless:
“For the genome is littered with dead genes. Huge wastes of DNA territory comprise a graveyard of discarded, superseded old genes (plus meaningless sequences of nonsense DNA that never functioned) with occasional islands of current, extant genes that are actually read by the translating machinery and turned into action. Dead, untranslated genes are called pseudogenes.”
..Richard Dawkins, “Dawkins on Darwin,” published in The Times UK, February 11, 2009
As time moves on, science is finding that there seem to be very good reasons for the DNA’s habits of preserving certain components, as you might expect from a mechanism able to maintain a consistency of data duplication – terabytes of information – over a 400 million year period in the case of some ancient species which survive to this day: something man’s technology falls dismally short of. We are lucky if data survives five years on a modern piece of gear without developing a fault, or, without being abandoned by a much better idea – a condemnation of the skills which produced the previous model. DNA has now been classed as a branch of information science, although this delayed conclusion should have been intuitively obvious from the start. Intuition, as we are sternly reminded, plays no part in science; only facts. Well, as long ago as 1820, Charles Babbage intuitively proposed that there must be a medium in which organic life could be coded very much in the way computer software was, forseeing a mechanism equivalent to DNA more than a century before anyone else. He was written off as an eccentric by the wise men of his day.
Babbage conceived of God as a man of science and a programmer, who uses natural laws to create the cosmos. Instead of ‘perpetually interfering, to alter for a time the laws he had previously ordained; thus denying to himself the highest attribute of omnipotence’, a celestial program had been devised at the time of the creation.
Babbage speculated that God had created ‘one general and comprehensive law, from which every visible form, both in the organic and inorganic world flows, as the necessary consequence of the first impression of that law upon matter’, this law being responsible for ‘all the combinations and modifications of matter’.
Technologically, this was all quite prescient, as Babbage invented not only the computer but the software to go with it. Babbage’s habit of projecting idealised and perfected forms of his own personality traits onto a universal dimension is consistent with a similar trait in every society which expressed its knowledge and hopes via myths and spiritual literature.
This serves to show that (certainly in complex systems) value is assigned in proportion to our understanding. Whatever yields insight is of the highest value: we cannot afford to jettison the leaps of understanding characteristic of genius. How exactly do these leaps come about – often repeatedly – in a single individual surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands, of similar individuals (often with an even greater intellectual or analytical capacity) all labouring towards the same goal?
Natural intelligence gives an insight of a different form than analytical thought. It can simplify a knotty, complex problem into a concept – a difficult task – allowing the intellect to fathom the details for itself. At other times, it presents fully finished solutions to a mind which has already tried to attune itself to the nature of the problem. While the intellect often complicates a problem by adding detail to it, and then elaborating still further in a fractal-like pattern that feeds on its own curiosity, yet never changes the initial direction of research, natural intelligence can go to the root of an issue and lay the foundation for the long avenue of implications which follows.
The birth of societies can even be attributed to these flashes of inspiration, and its characteristic giant leaps which the intellect unaided seems incapable of. It is as if a pitch black room is suddenly illuminated by lightning searing the form, mass, and colour of every object contained within it onto the mind in one unforgettable flash, after which it becomes a matter of unravelling the details, something the intelect is exceptionally good at. This flash of insight – a eureka moment, or brilliant inspiration which can shape an entire career, followed by schools of thought – is, by far, the most valuable tool in the brain’s arsenal, and the true engine behind man’s evolution. To dismiss it as unscientific is a serious error.
According to Benjamin Farrington, former Professor of Classics at Swansea University:
“Men were weighing for thousands of years before Archimedes worked out the laws of equilibrium; they must have had practical and intuitional knowledge of the principles involved.
What Archimedes did was to sort out the theoretical implications of this practical knowledge and present the resulting body of knowledge as a logically coherent system.”
To emphasise its importance I have decided to try to write a book this year, called something like “Natural Intelligence: the Bridge between Science and Religion.” A superbly talented photographer in America has offered to help out, and through dint of several days of intense hard work we have between us managed to amass a large and thoroughly useful store of enthusiasm.
Natural intelligence from ancient times was the foundation of myth, and, in a highly extrapolated and defined way, combined with the experiences of real people from a particular point in history – such as Guru Nanak, Shankaracharya, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, and so on – the source of more modern religion, and certainly of spirituality, since none of these ideas can arise from intellectual efforts alone. In fact, the intellect is liable to discount them altogether, as we can easily see from Dawkins’ interview with Maher.
No great school ever existed which had not for its primal aim the representation of some natural fact as truly as possible.
..John Ruskin, The Two Paths, 1878 (I have an original copy!)
Natural intelligence is also the force behind great art and music, poetry and literature – because in all these fields, no such height can be reached through intellectual efforts alone. Otherwise the faculty of genius would be a pointless redundancy, something nature is not in the habit of creating. The names of those who became genuinely connected to natural intelligence – even those with personality flaws – invariably resound through history, and are fondly remembered long after their passing.
The remarkable thing is that natural intelligence is also behind the march of science. Of course, the first generation of scientists were born to devout families, or families of a strong moral nature,and the extremely sudden – evolutionarily speaking – appearance of minds which thought in a different way than even their own parents, is a strong indication of how evolution works en masse, and does not wait for the much-belaboured “natural selection” to gradually increase the desired components, while vastly more numerous redundant components explode at the same or greater rate.
Since natural intelligence can only emerge from a brain at least partly remaining in a natural, undisturbed state, it is no surprise that many modern thinkers felt disinclined to tamper with it in the battery farm of state education, earning poor grades for their resistance. Many later achieved their greatest successes after a period in which through various circumstances they were relieved from inordinate pressures and stress, leaving the brain free to follow its own natural trend. Einstein’s breakthroughs came not while studying in University – an environment for which he seemed totally unsuited – but while his mind was free to build its connections undisturbed, in his humdrum and relatively undemanding job as a junior patents clerk.
The problem is not simply that those of faith prefer the scriptures as a source of scientific knowledge, a recurring complaint made by Dawkins, especially as regards Islamic Faith Schools or Young Earth Creationists. The problem is also that prominent men of science fail to see past the colorful imagery – which made the best technology of their day – the true nature of myth and scriptures, and the huge advance they represented to primitive tribes. Both positions are equivalent errors in blotting out an entire arm of human thought, creating a lopsided personality with a distorted view of themselves, of their world – and of everyone in it.
“The immense distance between a [primitive African] statue and a statue by Praxiteles is the immense distance between animistic religion and the intellectual insight of a Greek at the higest point of their civilisation.
The Greeks attained a religious equilibrium which can only be called felicity: they lost all fear of the external world – they actually turned sympathetically towards this world, and their art became an expression of what they saw with friendly eyes – an idealisation of Nature.
Man now saw beauty everywhere in living things, and the organic rhythm of life was the quality he tried to express in his art.
Even where great artists have created their masterpieces in apparent isolation from any religious faith, the more closely we look into their lives the more likely we are to discover the presence of what we can only call a religious sensibility. The life of Van Gogh is a case in point.
The sense of glory, which is the offspring of spiritual courage, is entirely absent in the art of primitive man. It is this sense, followed in different directions, which leads to the highest attainments both of classical art and of the Christian art of the Middle Ages.”
..Herbert Read, The Meaning of Art, 1935
In Dawkins’ most recent book, The Magic of Reality, many chapters begin with examples of myths that have attempted to explain various natural manifestations, such as sunrises, earthquakes and even the beginning of the world. He then goes onto explain the scientific reasons behind these events; his stance towards myths has definitely softened – in one place he even refers to “beautiful myths”.
There are some which are quite remarkable in their accuracy as to describing the spirit of certain natural events – which he points out, could not be understood by people at the time. But since these myths came from somone at the same evolutionary level, the irresisitable conclusion is that they emerged from individuals who were somehow more in tune with natural intelligence: we would call them geniuses.
This is an important point, as it shows the existence and influence of such minds from the very earliest times. As Dawkins says in his interview with Maher, primitive simply means behaviour more towards the ancestor. Inversely, therefore, genius must be behaviour more characteristic of future descendants. Since the average future descendant will of course not be a genius, it means the genius is an early arrival at a later evolutionary state.
Therefore the genius is the vital expression of evolutionary truth, since they alone provide the target towards which the rest of the race gravitates, partly by example, and partly again by natural intelligence: the awareness that a truth or idea does indeed represent a genuine advance. And fittingly, the Latin root of the word religion, according to Max Mueller, means a reverence for the Gods or a study of divine things, while the word genius means guardian spirit.
Richard Dawkins has certainly done his homework regarding myths. Take as an example, the ancient Japanese myth that earthquakes resulted from Japan riding on the back of a gigantic fish called Namazu: whenever Namazu flipped his tail, the Earth would shake (p.210). Or the ancient Maori myth that Mother Earth was pregnant with her child, the god Ru: whenever baby Ru kicked or stretched inside his mother’s womb, there was an earthquake (p.211). Or the West African legend that two giants hugging caused the earthquake, and yet another from a West African tribe who believed they lived on top of a giant’s head: the forest was his hair, and the people and animals were like fleas wandering around on his head: earthquakes were what happened when the giant sneezed (p.213).
What Dawkins notices is that all these myths are different. To his scientific thinking, this means – inaccuracy. But what do all these myths have in common? The very important idea that earthquakes are not a result of any Godly malevolence or human sin, events designed to force a reformation of character on the part of the tribespeople. The earthquakes are correctly attributed to forces over which they have no control and which arise from natural activity on a much grander plane of existence from theirs.
The West African myth of the giant is very effective, as it portrays humanity being practically insignifcant in the real scheme of things, in which more universal elements went about their business without intending to benefit or harm humanity in any way. The idea that man is a small and insignificant element when taken in a global context is an advanced one. They also promote the idea of the Earth as a living entity, which is significant in allowing for the planet’s sometimes unfathomable rhythms and motions, and a very important concept for other reasons which I shall return to in a moment.
In other words, elements in all these myths – fantastic as the imagery may seem when looking for precise diagrams and formulas today – correctly mirror the purely incidental nature of upheavals in the solidity of the very ground on which people lived, no matter how disruptive or damaging they may be, and they embody the highly advanced idea of man’s relative insignificance in the universal scheme of things – a theme one of humanity’s most advanced intellects – Stephen Hawking – often returns to, to hammer his point home.
So the language and imagery might be primitive, but this is normal human communication and doesn’t seem to have been superceded at all. Just ask Stephen Hawking about “human bacteria” on a tiny planet, or Richard Dawkins about the “currant bun” atomic model. My three year old daughter once rushed in from the garden, wailing, “I’ve scratched two of my legs!” It might have seemed funny, but I hardly needed to correct her: the message – even if her vocabulary lacked the word both – was still heartfelt, and clearly understood.
Dawkins’ habit of leaving the observer out of the reckoning might explain why the brain and consciousness are not covered in his book but also leads to simple errors. He declares that his love of a Jules Verne story in which the hero flies to the moon and sees colours undreamed of on Earth, is sadly a fantasy, as we will only ever see all the colours that exist now. “There are no colours outside the range that we are used to.” (p170) He forgets that colour is a projection of five special molecules of the opsin family, which (incredibly) yield electrical impulses in response to photons. But there are some tetrachromatic retinas – in many animals, and seemingly in more than 2% of women – able to perceive not just the three primary colours but an additional one yielding another part of the electro magnetic spectrum altogether which I can neither know or describe.
Bearing that in mind, it is quite possible that the man of the future may be blessed with additional colour vision, just as our ancestors in the distant past – according to Pictet’s study of languages, and as we would expect after evolving from the animal world – saw perhaps only two colours – red and black. How the universe would look to even a slightly altered visual system, it is hard to imagine. How it would look to a massively altered one – whose components might already be encoded in the genes – it is impossible to say.
It has been established that the Himba people perceive colors differently from most Euro-Americans – they easily distinguish close shades of green, barely discernable for most people.
The leading explanation is that the Himba created a very different color scheme which divides the spectrum to dark shades (Zuzu in Himba), very light (Vapa), Vivid blue and green (Buru) and dry colors – probably due to their specific way of life. However other explanations exist that have not been ruled out yet.
The Japanese myth of the giant fish is especially accurate in showing the apparently solid land mass being not fixed but floating on a movable layer of some sort, a seemingly impossible concept at the time but which of course proved to be the case. The Maoris take the idea a stage further by proposing that quakes arise from a process of birth, which has a truth of a different sort, as the tectonic plate movements do give rise to new land formations – on which people can live – over tens of thousands of years – a fact that the Maoris could not possibly be expected to have known intellectually.
The habit of describing concepts visually to express understanding is common even among the scientific. Rutherford describes his concept of the atom in terms of what all could imagine: a solar system, and JJ Thomson’s earlier version was referred to as the “currant bun” model. Both prove to be wildly inaccurate, but neither comes in for criticism! On page 92 Dawkins himself describes carbon as being like a Tinker Toy building set, or a school of fishes, or soldiers marching in formation, in three dimensions.
Sherlock made his move: “Watson, come here – I need you. Arrest this man! Yes, you rascal, this is the myth police!” Spring Heel’d Richard was unrepentant: “It’s a fair cop, you rozzers – but Catholicism is to blame.”
The “Tree of Life” of myth and fable is a good example of persistent imagery. These days, of course it has been replaced by a far grander, more detailed, more technically accurate and impressive analogy – wait until you see it! Can you guess what it is..? Well, it’s sort of – sort of a tree actually. But it has branches and we’ve added names and everything.
All of these cases show that natural intelligence has had a hand in man’s mental upbringing from the very earliest times, with the inference that if advanced concepts beyond the reach of the average man were available to those with a gift for natural intelligence, it must also be the case that the modern state of knowledge could benefit likewise. To say otherwise would imply that advanced conclusions are only possible at rudimentary stages, which belies evidence of modern inspiration in modern times, and the associated desire to seek it out, to further one’s aims. Inspiration is as much a part of reality as incremental scientific discovery, as the progress of science is filled with leaps of genius. Strangely:
..The ancient civilisations of Greece, China and India all seem to have arrived at the same idea that everything is made from four “elements”: air, water, fire and earth. (p.77)
Nor can natural intelligence be criticised as crudely lacking in precise, factual detail:
In the 1920’s a now famous German scientist called Ernst Mayr did a pioneering study of the birds of the New Guinea highlands. He compiled a list of 137 species, then discovered, to his amazement, that the local Papuan tribesmen had separate names for 136 of them. (p.55)
..Richard Dawkins, the Magic of Reality
Natural intelligence presents itself in surprising ways. I have been studying amino acids, with the hope of building a working hemoglobin molecule, and was a little daunted by the complexity of the structures, and the difficulty in understanding all their functions. One night after studying my sketched images of the molecules intently for about an hour, I had a dream in which three rabbits, one a dirty charcoal gray, were hopping about, followed by a mouse darting from place to place.
I’d hoped for some blinding flash of revelation about amino acids and was disappointed to see such mundane use of dream imagery. Then I realised that the three most common components of the amino acids – carbon, nitrogen and oxygen – arranged themselves in hops from one fixed arrangement to another, whereas the hydrogen ion could move among many more points and had much more flexibility in its arrangement, darting from one place to another in many smaller, though still discrete, steps.
To further bolster this interpretation I realised that the gray rabbit must represent carbon, since carbon in one state can be as soft as charcoal! I admit there is also the old saying, “you can’t catch two rabbits” which perhaps is also near the mark.. I try to do too many things sometimes. My other ambitions this year are to put together a Christmas rock concert with the school band to trump even our last one, write a book, have an exhibition of paintings, and build a working molecule.. and I suppose I had better earn a living and write some software too.
Myths have something else in common which perhaps understandably – as it undermines the purely scientific aim of the book – has nevertheless passed beneath Richard Dawkins’ attention – they propose a personality or intelligence (albeit motivated by concerns and worldviews completely beyond our own narrow existence) behind surprising Earthly phenomena.
Wherever you have a personality, you must also have a consistency which offers the possibility of analysis. For example, the timing of a baby’s kickings in the womb might not be predictable, but the nature of birth is familiar to us, and its importance to the overall growth of the universe can be appreciated. The idea that the universe might be growing is an advanced concept, and significantly more mature than the medieval church’s view. The idea that it is also a living thing is more advanced still.
Recent astronomical findings show that amino acids have been produced in star clouds: it is not a big leap from there to the idea that planets might be seeded with them as part of their normal development. There is nothing unscientific about this; we already know carbon comes from stars. Small wonder we love the sun, and that children unfailingly portray it with a smiling face. There is so much knowledge contained in our natural spirit and our emotions. It is the abandonment of these natural gifts – which do not conlfict with science in any way – that makes scientists sometime seem sterile and inhuman.
When natural forces are represented as having a personality, they become living things and therefore related to us. In the myths, our life is brief and narrow in scope compared to beings with a universal aim and vision. But it takes on a majestic dimension if our own life emerges from and is fed by the materials of a planet, in turn been seeded by a colossal sun.
Suppose then that we have two groups of people: one believing the Earth to be a living, intelligent life form – albeit with a lifespan of billions of years – which has given birth to all life upon it, and granted us the air, water, nutrients, warmth, food and shelter with which to thrive and follow our destiny. Foolish, and primitive? Well, you’ll want to join the other group then. They believe the Earth is a lifeless resource fit only to be consumed and manipulated, or flattened and trashed in accordance with our wishes.
Of these two worldviews, which do you suppose is fit to live in harmony with a planet? And after a millenium of one or the other, on which planet would you prefer to be born? The modern era was bequeathed an unspoilt paradise largely by those who abided by the spirit of the ancient myths treated as absurd in the Magic of Reality. And what kind of shape have we left it in?
Food for thought – and Happy New Year to all readers!