Tuesday, 18 September 2007

I love Richard Dawkins

He's chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford and does it brilliantly.

I read a lot of popular science stuff and listen to lectures, but no one has explained any theory of science as easily to me as Dawkins has Darwin and natural selection. In various articles, the 1991 Royal Institute Christmas Lectures and The God Delusion he does it brilliantly. I guess that's because biology is just easier to explain than fundamental physics which I usually read about, which is heavily mathematical. But anyway I thought I had a familiarity with evolution, it's the stuff we all did in secondary school - random adaptations to the environment, meaning future generations are equipped better to pass on there genes. However, I still had doubts as to the probability of all of life evolving until Dawkins brilliantly explained the 'spreading out of improbability' across thousands of millenia. 'climbing mount improbable' is the analogy he uses, rather than one massive leap from simple single cell bacteria to, say, a human eye it's rather a graduated approach.

The idea of the origin of life is fascinating. I've come across pan-spermia before, but never really gave it much thought. To think that somehow a massively improbable event occurred and a self replicating bunch of amino acids eventually formed DNA and natural selection took over to produce everything in the world. Just wow.

I also like how Dawkins deals with epistemological questions, he tends to treat them as junk and that only the material world exists. There's just something deeply unsatisfying to me about positing a meta-physical world, outside the material universe where god exists. I've attempted to read some philosophy discourse on the matter, but to be honest it just gave me a headache. I don't have any particular strong answers for arguments for a world outside materialism other than that it an axiomatic assumption that we simply do not need to prove. Every theory starts somewhere, we might as well start from the premise only the material world exists and that is all there is. Godel even proved that even mathematics as to have a little faith, it's axioms cannot be proved and inquiry cannot continue past a certain level.

However Dawkins falls into the trap that I'm always accusing economists of - mathematical philosophy without empirical evidence. He posits the multi-verse theory as an explanation of how the fundamental constants (strong/weak force etc) just happen to be at the correct levels in order to create a universe capable of harboring life. Dawkins posits that this may be perhaps one of a multiverse. The constants could be widely different in differing universes in the multiverse, however, due to the anthropomorphic principle - the principle that the universe is the way it is because if it wasn't we would be unable to observe it, we necessarily evolved on the perfect universe, where all the fundamental constants were ideal. If we didn't, we would not be here to observe it.

Whatever the brain world/multiverse theory is, it is not a theory of empirical physics. It's purely mathematical, and as far as I'm aware, not falsifiable much like string theory. It'll forever be a theory of philosophy or like any economic theory you care to adduce. This is precisely the trap that Dawkins rightly concludes that theists fall into - imagining worlds outside the material universe. However, it seems to be fine if you have lots of fancy maths to back up your philosophy rather than extravagant philosophic reasoning.

Some other things about evolutionary psychology interested me too. The idea that natural selection does not necessarily lead to senses capable of interpreting the true, objective universe. Truth is of no Darwinian utility, only passing on genes is; so what makes us think we can trust our senses? This is obviously the old epistemological question of how we know anything. However, I'd argue we aren't slaves to our senses any longer. We, for whatever reason, evolved the mental acuity to perform complex mathematical operations and mathematics gives us an objectivity that, perhaps, our senses lack. Pure speculation, but I think the reason why quantum mechanics seems to make no sense to us is precisely because we've evolved to understand the macro-world, not the quantum one. But mathematics, for some unknown reason, is our gateway into this world. So we can probe deeper and deeper, and hopefully experimentally confirm.