Tag Archives: richard dawkins

On Rationality and Delusions

This post started as a reply to M Cuffe’s comment on my post on The God Delusion. M Cuffe suggested that I’m merely asserting an individual’s right to be irrational, or ignorant. Yes, I am indeed saying that one has the right to be irrational. But that statement stems from something that I believe is deeper. It stems from what we mean by rationality, and why we think it is a good thing to be rational. I know it sounds “irrational,” but I’m talking about rationality as Persig talked about it in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Stepping back a bit, rationality is quintessentially a worldview. By rational, we mean things that seem normal to our commonsense. So the notion of a nuclear bomb moving or obliterating a mountain is rational, although we have never seen it. You believe it because it is consistent with your worldview. I believe it too, trust me. I was a nuclear physicist not too long ago. 🙂

And a god (or faith) moving mountains is clearly ludicrous to our rationality. I’m not asking people to give equal rational weight to faith and bomb moving mountains. I’m merely encouraging them to examine why they believe in one and not the other. Calling one more rational is just another way of saying that you choose to believe one more than the other. Why?

Thinking along those lines, I come to the conclusion that it is only a question of worldviews or belief systems. I personally subscribe to your worldview based on rationality as well, which is why I consider myself also an atheist (although one of my readers thought I was merely confused :-))

A god as an old man hiding behind the clouds is not consistent with our worldview. But it may have been a metaphor for something else. Let me explain. We have these abstract concepts of happiness, perfection, grief etc. Are these things real? Should we believe they exist? Such questions don’t make too much sense because these concepts are all in our minds. But then, what isn’t?

Let’s take perfection, for instance. Let’s say we assign some human form to it, so that we could explain it to a child or something. We then call it, say, the goddess of perfection or whatever. Over generations, for whatever reason, the notion of perfection disappears from our awareness, but the metaphor of the goddess remains. Now, to somebody who believes in the reality perfection, and therefore the existence of the goddess, it is not a delusion. In that belief system, in that context and worldview, it makes perfect sense. But in the absence of the abstract concept of perfection, the goddess becomes a delusion.

I believe that a large part of our collective wisdom is handed down in the form of such metaphors. Instead of dismissing them as delusions because their context is gone, we should perhaps try harder to rediscover the lost concepts. I also believe such metaphors exist in other fields that seem to work well. Take, for instance, the Qi concept in traditional Chinese medicine, the five elements (or three body types) in Ayurveda and so on. To the extent that traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda work, there has to be some knowledge buried in those practices. If we write off their basis merely because their metaphors are not consistent with our rationality, we may be writing off some potential sources of new or forgotten knowledge.

In addition, I believe that some of our smarter geniuses indeed see delusional metaphors in what we take to be supremely real.

Blind-Sight

In my post on A Plausible God, I cited blind-sight as an example of sensing that does not lead to conscious perception. This remarkable neurological syndrome illustrates the tight interconnection between our sense of reality and consciousness. Larry Weiscrantz and Alan Cowey discovered blind-sight at Oxford about 25 years ago.

Blindness can be physiological, when the physical eye is not functioning properly. Or it can be neurological, when the eye is fne but the visual signal processing is impaired. For example, if our right visual cortex is damaged, we are blind on the left side. When examining a patient with such a neurological blindness on one side, Weiscrantz shined a little spot of light on the patient’s blind side. Weiscrantz then asked the patient to point to it. The patient protested that he could not see it and could not possibly point to it. Weiscrantz asked him to try anyway. The patient then proceeded to point accurately to the spot of light that he could not consciously perceive.

After hundreds of trials, it became obvious that the patient could point correctly in ninety-nine percent of trials, even though he claimed on each trial that he was only guessing. How did the patient determine the location of an invisible object and point to it accurately? The neurological reason is that we all have two visual pathways. The new visual pathway goes through the visual cortex. The old, backup pathway runs through our brain stem to the superior colliculus.

The cause of our patient’s blindness was that his visual cortex was damaged, and it did not get the signals from one eye and its optic nerves. But the signals took the parallel route to the superior colliculus, using the old pathway. This rerouting allowed him to locate the object in space and guide his hand accurately to point to the invisible object. What this syndrome of blind-sight shows us is that only the new visual pathway leads to a conscious experience. While the old pathway is perfectly usable (for survival, for instance), it does not lead to a conscious experience of vision.

An interesting neurological condition, no doubt. But blind-sight is more than that. It is a rather confounding philosophical conundrum. The spot of light that the patient could see — was it real? Sure, we know it was real. But what if all of us were blind-sighted? If some of us started developing a semblance of awareness as a result of our blind-sight, would we believe them, or call them delusional? If there are senses that we can be unaware of, how sure can we be of the “sensed”? Or of our “delusions”?

This post is an edited version of section in The Unreal Universe. The information comes from The Emerging Mind: Reith Lectures on Neuroscience (BBC Radio, 2003) given by V. S. Ramachandran, the director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, San Diego, CA, USA. My book refers to several examples of physiological brain anomalies and their perceptual manifestation from this lecture series.

A Plausible God

In my review of The God Delusion, I promised to post a plausible concept of God. By “a plausible concept,” I mean a concept that doesn’t violate the known principles of science, and should therefore be consistent with the so-called scientific worldview. Mind you, the plausibility of the concept says nothing about its veracity; but it may say something about it being a delusion.

Of all the sciences, physics seems to be the one most at odds with the God concept. Clearly, evolutionary biology is none too happy with it either, if Dawkins is anything to go by. But that analysis is for another post.

Let’s start by analyzing a physicist’s way of “proving” that there is no God. The argument usually goes something like this:

If there is a God who is capable of affecting me in any way, then there should be some force exerted by that God on me. There should be some interaction. Since the interaction is big enough to affect me, I should be able to use this particular interaction to “measure” the God-intensity. So far, I haven’t been able to measure any such God-related force. So either there is no God that affects me in any way, or there is a God that affects me through deviously disguised interactions so that whenever I try to measure the interaction, I’m always fooled. Now, you tell me what is more likely. By Occam’s Razor, the simplest explanation (that there is no God that can affect me) has the highest chance of being right.

While this is a good argument (and one I used to make), it is built on a couple of implicit assumptions that are rather tricky to spot. The first assumption is that we cannot be affected by an interaction that we cannot sense. This assumption is not necessarily true.

Modern cosmology needs at least one other kind of interaction to account for dark matter and dark energy. Let’s call this unknown interaction the dark interaction. Even though we cannot sense the dark interaction, we are subject to it exactly as all other (known) matter is. The existence of this interaction beyond our senses is sufficient to break the physicist’s proof. A plausible God can affect us, without our being able to sense it, through dark interactions.

But that is not the end of the story. The physicist can still argue, “Fine, if we cannot sense this God, how would we know he exists? And why do so many people claim they can feel him?” This argument is based on the assumptions on conscious experience and sensing. The hidden assumptions in the physicist’s questions (again, not necessarily true) are:

  1. Sensing should lead to a conscious perception.
  2. All humans should have the same sense modality.

An example of sensing that does not lead to conscious perception is the syndrome of blind sight. (I will post more on it later). A patient suffering from blind sight can point to the light spot he cannot consciously see. Thus, sensing without conscious perception is possible. The second assumption that all men are created equal (in terms of sensory modality) does not have any a priori reason to be true. It is possible that some people may be able to sense the dark interaction (or some other kind of interaction that God chooses) without being conscious of it.

So it is possible to argue that there is a God that affects us through a hitherto unknown interaction. And that some 95% of us can sense this interaction, and the others are atheists. What this argument illustrates is the plausibility of God. More precisely, it demonstrates the consistency of a concept of God with physics. It is not meant to be a proof of the existence of God. And that is why, despite the plausibility of God, I am still an atheist.

In retrospect, this argument did not have to be so complicated. It boils down to saying that there are limits on our knowledge, and to what is knowable. There is plenty of room for God outside these limits. It is also a classic argument by those who believe in God — you don’t know everything, so how do you know there isn’t a God?

The God Delusion

I am an atheist. So I agree completely with all the arguments of The God Delusion. As a review of the book, that statement should be the end of it. But somehow the book gave me a strange feeling of dissatisfaction. You see, you may believe in God. Or you may not. Or you may actively believe that there is no God. I fall in this the last category. But I still know that it is only my belief, and that thought fills me with a humility that I feel Dawkins lacks.

Now, it is one thing to say that the concept of God is inconsistent with the worldview you have developed, perhaps with the help of science. The concept is indeed very inconsistent with my own personal worldview, which is why I am an atheist. But it is quite a different matter to discount the concept as a delusion. I believe that our knowledge is incomplete. And that there is plenty of room for a possible God to hide beyond the realms of our current knowledge. Does it mean that we should call our ignorance God and kneel before it? I don’t think so, but if somebody does, that is their prerogative.

You see, it is all a question of what your worldview is. And how much rigor and consistency you demand of it. So, what is a worldview? In my opinion, a worldview is the extension of your knowledge. We all have a certain amount of knowledge. We also have a lot of sensory data that comes in every moment that we have to process. We do most of this processing automatically, without conscious effort. But some of the higher level data and information that we encounter merit a closer analysis. How do we do it, given that we may not know much about it? We use our commonsense, our pre-conceived notions, the value systems our parents and teachers left in us and so on. One of these things that we use, or perhaps the totality of these things, is our worldview.

Let’s take an example. Douglas Adams tells us that dolphins are actually smarter than us and have regular inter-galactic communication. Well, we have no way of refuting this claim (which, of course, is only a joke). But our worldview tells us that it is unlikely to be true. And we don’t believe it — as though we know it is not true.

Another example, one that Bertram Russell once cited. Scripture tells us that faith can move mountains. Some people believe it. Science tells us that a nuclear blast can, well, move mountains. Some people believe that too. Note that most people haven’t directly witnessed either. But even for those who believe in the faith-mountain connection, nuclear energy moving mountains is far more plausible a belief. It is just a lot more consistent with our current worldview.

Now, just because God is a delusion according to Dawkins’s worldview (or mine, for that matter), should you buy it? Not unless it is inconsistent with yours as well. Worldviews are hard to change. So are our stances vis-a-vis God and science, when seen as belief-systems — as the movie Contact vividly illustrates. If you missed it, you should watch it. Repeatedly, if needed. It is a good movie anyway.

It is true what they say about a scientific worldview being inconsistent with any sensible notion of a god. But worldviews are a funny thing. Nothing prevents you from tolerating inconsistencies in your worldview. Although Dawkins goes to some length to absolve Einstein of this lack of consistency, the conventional wisdom is that he did believe in God. The truth of the matter is that our collective knowledge (even after adding Einstein’s massive contribution) is limited. There really is plenty of room beyond its limits for God (or eight million gods, if I were to believe my parents), as I will try to show in my next post.

That, however, is only the tip of the iceberg. Once we admit that there are limits to our knowledge, and to what is knowable, we will soon find ourselves staring at other delusions. What is the point it discounting a God delusion, while embracing a space-delusion? In a universe that is unreal, everything is a delusion, not just God. I know, you think it is just my sanity that is unreal, but I may convince you otherwise. In another post.