Life on Earth

Ian Wishart has kindly responded to my recent post on chapter four of his book The Divinity Code. Rather than create a bulky ongoing commentfest, I prefer to post further articles (mainly because Blogger’s comment system combined with my layout equals shit).

One of my criticisms was that Ian’s application of the anthropic principle assumed that earth life is the only kind of life. At least, that is the premise that would have to be added to make the reasoning sound. I made a separate criticism that his argument assumed that life is special enough to demand more explanation than any other kind of physical phenomena. While I made the points separately, they can be made together. Here is Ian’s argument.

1. Life requires exactly earth-like conditions to arise.
2. The chances of earth-like conditions arising are impossibly small.
3. Therefore it is unreasonable to believe it happened by chance.
4. Therefore it was done on purpose.
5. Therefore God.

I suggested that there was an implicit assumption that earth life was the only kind of possible life – or else the first premise is false. If earth life is not the only kind of possible life, then the first premise becomes “earth life requires exactly earth-like conditions”, which is tautologous and therefore true, but invalidates the argument. To illustrate this, I made an analogous argument:

1. Ryan requires exactly Ryan’s Life conditions to arise.
2. The chances of Ryan’s Life conditions arising are impossibly small.
3. Therefore it is unreasonable to believe it happened by chance.
4. Therefore it was done on purpose.
5. Therefore God.

The Ryan argument seems obviously silly, because the chances of anyone else’s life being just right for them to arise is just as unlikely as Ryan’s life. The earth-life argument seems less silly because while we’re familiar with the idea of other potential people, we’re less familiar with the idea of other potential forms of life.

We know from everyday experience that there are millions of people who could correctly think, “Fucking hell, if Mum and Dad hadn’t had that last oyster 27 years ago, I wouldn’t be here!” It requires more thought to imagine the possibility of other potential kinds of life which could reflect on their existence and say, “Fucking hell, if we didn’t orbit a binary star system, we wouldn’t be here!”

Ian has recently been given a similar response, where someone has replaced “earth life” with “Cambridge cosmologists”. Ian quotes their counter-example:

1. If an all-powerful god made the world so that Cambridge Cosmologists would thrive, then Cambridge Cosmologists would thrive
2. Arguably Cambridge Cosmologists do thrive
3. Conclusion: An all-powerful god made the world so that Cambridge Cosmologists would thrive.

His respondent adds, “The problem with this argument is that Cambridge Cosmologists can be replaced with anything (including yours truly or tape-worms) and therefore is vacuous.”

It’s worth noting here that this is not really the argument that Ian was putting forth in chapter four. There is nothing like the first premise (“If God made the world so that Cambridge cosmologists would thrive, then they would”) in his argument.

Ian’s response is thus:

Your context is set too vaguely. If Cambridge Cosmologists, and only Cambridge Cosmologists, appeared to exist, this would be a closer analogy to the situation we currently find ourselves in…

It’s not an entirely adequate response to Mr Cambridge, but I’m not going to go into that, because Mr Cambridge’s email was not an entirely adequate response to Mr Wishart.

What it shows, though, is that I need to be more clear in my Ryan’s Life analogy. Presumably, what Ian is saying to me by quoting his response to Mr Cambridge is that my analogy would only be analogous if I was in fact the only person to exist. That’s fair enough, given how difficult an analogy it was. I’ll make it a bit clearer.

Ryan = earth-life.
Ryan’s Life = the conditions on earth that give rise to earth-life.
Other people = other potential forms of life.
Other people’s lives = other potential lives that give rise to non-Ryan people.

The surprise that I am Ryan and not someone else is analogous to the surprise that earth-life exists and is not some other kind of life. It is analogous not because Ryan is the only person who exists, but because Ryan is the only person who is Ryan, amongst others who are not. The difference is that we can see other people, other potential lives, but we cannot see other potential forms of life. That was, in fact, my whole point – that this is why it’s intuitively compelling to believe that earth-life is unbelievably special, whereas it’s not intuitively compelling to believe that Ryan is unbelievably special. Because we have examples of alternatives to Ryan, but no examples of alternatives to earth-life.

This isn’t lost on Ian, and he’s provided a few arguments that, in fact, earth-life is the only possible kind of life. Biochemists have suggested that only carbon or silicon has the versatility and stability to be a basis for life, and carbon moreso than silicon. That narrows “life” down to “carbon-based life”. A fair enough argument. The problem is that carbon is fairly prevalent in the universe, and we don’t really know what other potential self-replicating patterns of matter could arise involving it.

We can speak of the unlikelihood of an entire cell forming spontaneously. We can speak of the lower unlikelihood of RNA forming spontaneously. We can speak of self-catalysing molecules – some of which we have produced. But we don’t have comprehensive knowledge of every possible self-replicating molecule and the chances of it forming spontaneously in conditions earth-like or not. We really don’t know the odds, though we do know that there’s an awful lot of time and an awful lot of space for them to play out. In other words, we have no reason to conclude that exactly earth’s conditions are required for carbon-based life to arise – still only the tautology that exactly earth’s conditions are required for exactly earth’s carbon-based life to arise.

Those paying close attention will note another analogy here. There’s no end to my statement, “We don’t know all the possible arrangements of matter and their likelihood of spontaneously occurring.” We can never know. Isn’t that analogous to the God of the Gap of the Origin of Life? A “Get Out of Argument Free” card?

Well, perhaps, and I suspect that’s the attitude of many scientists. “We don’t have a definite naturalistic explanation for the origin of life on earth, therefore there is a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life on earth that we don’t know.” It’s not even worth throwing “yet” on the end of the statement, because we can never know for sure, as I mentioned earlier.

Again, we’re back to the odds. Scientists assume there is a naturalistic explanation for life on earth – either one they’ve imagined already or one that have not – because there always has been in the past. Schizophrenia is not caused by demons. Palsy is not caused by fairies. Lightning is not caused by gods. Rainbows are not placed there by God. Mental states are not souls, but directly alterable chemical processes. Almost everything in the past that was previously given a supernatural explanation now has a proven naturalistic one. What are the odds that this one is different?

Let’s say you line up a thousand people, and you ask each one, “Have you ever lied?” Each one tells you they haven’t. Then you come back with a lie detector and ask them all again, “Have you ever lied?” The first 999 were lying, but when you get to the last guy, it turns out he died earlier that day. You can’t test him with the lie detector.

What do you believe about him? That he was the one guy in a thousand who actually had never lied? Do you believe neither that he had ever lied nor that he had? Or do you believe that he was the one guy in 1000 who had never lied, because some people are telling you so, and it’s just dumb luck you can’t prove for sure that he lied?

That’s the reason for the “faith” in naturalistic explanations of the origin of life. It’s a habit born from centuries of experience. It’s just unrealistically unlikely that this is the time that supernatural explanations trump naturalistic ones, after the last thousand examples of naturalistic explanations trumping supernatural ones.

But I digress. Back to the matter at hand. I claim we can’t know the odds of life spontaneously occurring somewhere in the universe, sometime from its beginning to its end, even if we limit ourselves to carbon-based life. To me, it’s a safe assumption that life of some sort is inevitable in the universe – there’s a lot of universe. If those incalcuable odds are different, I could be wrong, and life may well not be inevitable. It may be incredibly unlikely. Let’s look at a different part of the argument, the most fundamental:

Even if life of any kind is incredibly unlikely, why does that demand special explanation? There are innumerable things in the universe that are incredibly unlikely. It’s incredibly unlikely that the third neutron from the left of the exact centre of Alpha Centauri is moving in the direction it is. Why does this particular phenomenon – life – demand special explanation when nothing else does?

DC: The Improbability of Earth

A month ago (yes, a whole month), I reviewed chapter three of Ian Wishart’s The Divinity Code. Towards the end, I said:

Ian declares at the end of the chapter that this is going to be a major theme of his book. There are so many things that “could have” been different, therefore we are so lucky to be here that it is unbelievable that our being here is not the result of sentient intention.

Chapter four, “The Improbability of Earth”, continues this theme, so it’s worth recapping the three thoughts with which I ended the last review:

1. The assumption that it is intelligible to speak of what “could have happened” in the universe.

2. The assumption that earth life, or even sentient life at all, is special enough to require special explanation.

3. The assumption that there aren’t “other universes” which fall victim to exactly the sentient-life-less fate we’re told we narrowly avoided, and that this just happens to be one in which sentient life is possible.

Now, both (1) and (3) are more applicable to the preceding chapter than to this one, because while the preceding chapter was about the way the universe happens to be, this chapter is about where in that universe earth happens to be located. The arguments of the chapter can be summed up as follows:

1. Current hypotheses regarding the origin of life on earth are inadequate.

2. A life-producing earth-like planet is so unlikely as to be practically impossible.

3. Scientists believe in God, therefore you should.

There are several assumptions underpinning the arguments in Chapter Four.

The assumption that earth life is the only kind of possible life.

My working definition of “life” is “any self-replicating pattern that has the potential to evolve”. In other words, “any self-replicating pattern that can vary from one generation to the next and exists in an environment of scarcity/competition”. That category includes earth life, but also includes any such self-replicating patterns of which we have not yet conceived or we have not yet discovered.

Wishart spends a lot of time explaining how earth is inexplicably tailored for the arising of life. To be clearer, he is talking about how earth is inexplicably tailored for the arising of earth life. Put in those terms, it doesn’t seem quite so incredible. The reasoning goes like this:

1. Incredibly unlikely things require special explanation.
2. (Unspoken assumption: earth life is the only possible kind of life.)
3. Earth life required exactly earth’s conditions in order to arise.
4. Earth conditions are astronomically unlikely to occur exactly like this.
5. Therefore life requires special explanation.

Without the unspoken assumption, the odds of life arising increase by an order of the number of every possible – existent or non-existent – planets with conditions that could give rise to any kind of life (not just earth-like life).

If this is still not clear, consider this analogy:

1. Incredibly unlikely things require special explanation.
2. (Unspoken assumption: Ryan Sproull-like people are the only possible kind of people.)
3. Ryan Sproull required exactly Ryan’s Life in order to arise.
4. A person’s life conditions are astronomically unlikely to occur exactly like this.
5. Therefore the existence of a person (me) requires special explanation.

Because we’re familiar with other kinds of people, the flaw in the argument seems obvious to us. But because we’re not familiar with other potential kinds of life (existent or not), the flaw in Wishart’s argument is not so immediately apparent.

It may well be that life of any kind is still unlikely enough to fit Wishart’s criteria for requiring special explanation. Just because life in general is more likely than earth-like life, that doesn’t mean that it is as inevitable as some scientists erroneously believe that earth-like life is. But really, we don’t know what these increased odds are, because we don’t know all of the possible forms of self-replicating patterns in the universe.

All of Wishart’s arguments are based on earth-like life. Many are based on theories of the spontaneous arising of complex life in the form of the simplest cell possible. It may seem like “the simplest cell possible” would be a simple form of life, but really, even a simple cell is incredibly complex. For this reason, molecular biologists have long since abandoned theories of such cells instantly forming, in favour of cells themselves having evolved from simpler processes. No conclusion has yet been reached (see next section).

Wishart refers to a Dawkins argument that addresses the unlikelihood of earth-like conditions arising.

[Dawkins] disarmingly concedes the point. Yes, he admits, we appear to live on a unique planet. Yes, the moon is crucial for the existence of life [note the implicit equating of “life” with “earth life”]. Yes, we inhabit the Goldilocks zone.

“Earth’s orbit,” he agrees, “is so close to circular that it never strays out of the Goldilocks zone.”

Faced with all of this, Dawkins tries to convince readers that despite everything having to be “just right”, science still has a natural answer.

“The great majority of planets in the universe are not in the Goldilocks zones of their respective stars, and not suitable for life [now Dawkins making the earth-like life assumption]. None of that majority has life. However small the minority of planets with just the right conditions for life may be, we necessarily have to be on one of that minority, because here we are thinking about it.”

Simple, really. Using Dawkins’ logic, you can wave all the unlikely preconditions aside, put it down to blind chance, and say, “Well, here we are, then, so it must have happened naturally.”

Richard Dawkins’ fatal mistake here is the assumption that his very existence and ability to ponder the probability of it all proves in itself a natural first cause.

A subtle misreading of Dawkins’ argument lies behind Wishart’s responses. To hear Wishart tell it, Dawkins’ argument is, “We are here, therefore it happened naturally.” That is not what the quoted argument is saying. Instead, it is saying, “If it happened naturally, here we would be. Here we are, so it could have happened naturally.” And it is in response to the design argument, “Here we are, so it couldn’t have happened naturally.”

The Assumption that Not Knowing Means God Did It

We don’t currently know for sure how life arose on earth. Without a time machine, we will never know for certain. Hypotheses can be forwarded that fit the observable facts, but by their very nature they are untestable. We cannot observe what happened millions of years ago, and we cannot reproduce conditions that include millions of years of time. There is a gap in our knowledge and there will continue to be so.

So unlike many other objects of enquiry in science, there cannot be conslusive proof of a given abiogenesis hypothesis. This also means that conclusive proof is an impossibly high standard to demand from origin-of-life theories. Any argument that rests on the lack of such inconclusive proof is an argument that rests on an unfalsifiable premise, and so is flawed.

What we have with appealing to God when science has no conclusive explanation is the “God of the gaps”. The gaps continue to shrink, as scientific explanation expands, but the gaps are still there, and so the God of the gaps persists. What we have here is a situation where the gap will never completely disappear – it is beyond the ability of science (unless we sort out time travel) to conclusively fill the origin-of-life gap. And so it is a place where the God explanation can sort of surviveo forever if needs be.

Wishart is a big fan of pointing out improbabilities. What are the odds that, with every other phenomenon having a naturalistic explanation, the one that cannot have a conclusively proven naturalistic explanation is the very phenomenon that has only a supernatural explanation? Incalculable, but I’d say they’re pretty slim. They’re certainly slim enough for me to give naturalistic explanations the benefit of the doubt.

The Assumption that Life is Special

This is the really big one, of course. We can give Wishart’s arguments the most possible benefit of the doubt, and yet this assumption remains. We can give his argument the unwarranted assumption that life of any kind is so unlikely as to be practically impossible. We can give his argument the unwarranted assumption “God did it” is an appropriate response to something that demands explanation. But we are still left with the anthropocentric assumption that life demands a special explanation.

To be more clear, the assumption is that life demands a more special explanation than any other phenomenon does. In other words, two hydrogens and an oxygen forms water, splitting uranium atoms releases energy, gravity pulls everything together – all of these could be true and it would just be a boring old universe anyone could imagine floating around. Add life – especially sentient life – and suddenly it becomes a universe that demands an explanation.

There is simply no logical reason for this leap. The formation of a particular kind of crystal may be incredibly unlikely and rare, and occur in this universe, but that does not mean that the universe now requires special explanation, nor does the occurrence of this crystal require special explanation. The same holds true for life. While life may be very important to the living, its importance does not hold outside of its own self-reflection, regardless of the odds of it occurring.

There is no objective standard of importance against which we can judge ourselves to be more important than a quasar, and so there is no means of singling this universe out among the infinite imaginable potential universes against which we compare this one when we say that it is unique, life-bearing and important.

I may write a little more on abiogenesis and potential non-earth-like forms of life later.

DC: The Moment of Creation

Chapter Three: The Moment of Creation

Haha, okay, now things finally get a bit interesting.

Ian points out the similarities of the creation myths, which seems to be basically that they all involve creation. Those that don’t – such as the Indian notion of an infinite past – are dismissed as “the much simpler view”. Ian does not explain how “stuff was always here” is simpler than “a big invisible man made stuff from scratch”.

Here’s the passage that cracks me up:

Davies argues that God did not cause the Big Bang, because causing, by definition, can only happen within a time-bound realm, not a timeless one. Davies overlooks the transcendence of God, however – virtually all religions argue that a Deity capable of creating the universe is just as capable [of] plunging his hand into it from the outside to stir the mix. I digress, however.

“I digress, however,” is code for, “Let’s not think too much about that part, OK? Cos I’m talking out my arse.”

What Ian is imagining here is a God who sits outside of time and “plunges his hand in” – makes changes – within the time-bound universe. These words are strung together into grammatically correct sentences, but aren’t saying anything at all. To plunge, to act, to change, to cause, to do anything at all… this is an event. To speak of action outside of the context of time is like speaking of shape outside of the context of space. It is simply meaningless babble to say “action outside of time”, because everything we have ever known and meant by “action” is saturated by notions of time. There is a before-acting, a during-acting and an after-acting. Without any of those things, the very notion of making a change or causing anything at all is absurd and meaningless. Not just “so difficult that only an omnipotent being could do it”. Just meaningless.

And this is apparently made meaningful and sensical by the addition of the adjective “transcendent” to the name God. It doesn’t matter what you call God, the statement “action outside of time” means nothing.

So here’s the next bit. Davies suggests that the universe could have come into being via a “quantum event”. The quoted Guardian piece continues:

The larger the time interval, the greater the probability that a quantum event will occur. Outside of time, however, no quantum event is possible. Therefore, the origin of time (coincident with that of space, matter and energy) eliminates quantum tunneling as ‘creator’.

And suddenly Ian takes up the “events outside of time make no sense” standard! “In simple language,” he writes, “there’s still no natural explanation for the Big Bang.” Apparently it’s fine for God to act outside of time, but it’s absurd to talk of quantum events occurring outside of time. Of course, it is absurd to talk of quantum events occurring outside of time, but no more absurd than to talk of anything occurring outside of time.

Forgetting the origin of the universe in general, there are problems with the origins of the physical laws of the universe. Where did they come from? Davies writes:

The root cause of all the difficulty can be traced to the fact that both religion and science appeal to some agency outside the universe to explain its lawlike order. Dumping the problem in the lap of a pre-existing designer is no explanation at all, as it merely begs the question of who designed the designer. But appealing to a host of unseen universes and a set of unexplained meta-laws is scarcely any better.

From which Ian derives, “[Davies] rejects Intelligent Design because, well, it implies a Designer.” Which is not at all what he said. Davies did not dismiss a designer, at least in terms of his quoted statements, simply because he has an emotional aversion to the idea of one. His complaint was that any attempt to find a cause of the laws of the universe in something beyond the universe, be it designer or extra-universal laws, merely brings one back to the same question: where did that design come from?

While Ian’s answer to this question is not explicit, it seems clear that the usual theistic explanation of “God breaks the rules” comes into play. Other things need reasons for making sense; God is the exception.

The choice of Paul Davies as a representative of Big Bang theorists is interesting, as Paul Davies is basically a theist himself. What seems to convince Davies (and Ian) that the universe is designed is the apparent harmony of physical laws, when so many things “could have” been different, and thus not given rise to life on earth.

Ian declares at the end of the chapter that this is going to be a major theme of his book. There are so many things that “could have” been different, therefore we are so lucky to be here that it is unbelievable that our being here is not the result of sentient intention.

At first glance, it’s a compelling argument. It makes a few assumptions, though, that aren’t immediately obvious.

1. The assumption that it is intelligible to speak of what “could have happened” in the universe – that things like “if gravity was just a bit stronger, life wouldn’t be possible” are meaningful statements. Against what other universes are we comparing this one?

2. The assumption that earth life, or even sentient life at all, is special enough to require special explanation. As phenomena go, we find ourselves pretty interesting, but if talk of “what if the universe was different” is meaningful, what makes sentience any more amazing than a total dispersal of all energy and matter? We happen to be the kind of phenomena that can reflect on our situation and think, “Fucking hell, that was lucky!” But just because phenomena in some hypothetical other universe lacks such self-reflective ability doesn’t mean that it’s any less “lucky” in the same sense.

3. The assumption that there aren’t “other universes” which fall victim to exactly the sentient-life-less fate we’re told we narrowly avoided, and that this just happens to be one in which sentient life is possible. I put “other universes” in scare quotes, because if “other universes” exist in any way that is relevant or real, then they are really part of what I call “the universe” – which is everything that exists.

Anyway. I’ll save further rants about the anthropic principle to later chapters, as I assume that’s the direction in which Ian will be taking us.

DC: In the Beginning

Chapter Two: In the Beginning

This chapter is dedicated to debunking an idea that is apparently common among some of the people Ian doesn’t like, such as Karen Armstrong. The idea they espouse is that there was an “Axial age” – a time in history when disparate cultures made similar leaps in their thought. In India, Vedanta was showing up, as did Gautama (the Buddha). Plato was doing his thing. Isaiah was doing his for the Hebrews. Taoism in China, etc. Basically, it’s considered a pivotal (axial!) time in the development of these cultures.

Ian’s concern is that some of these thinkers believe that there is an evolution of theism, from animism to polytheism to monotheism (to atheism, apparently), which therefore lends some kind of historical superiority to atheism in the minds of these thinkers. Comparing atheism to monotheism is like comparing Einstein to Newton – “we know better now”. Ian will have none of that.

In order to debunk the evolution-of-religion idea, Ian cites various creation myths from around the world, and shows that similarities and differences don’t follow any kind of evolutionary progression. Monotheism and creation ex nihilo was a very old idea, rather than a later stage of natural religious development, as his targets assert.

Recent Middle Eastern archaeological discoveries suggest that analogies to the Genesis creation stories existed long before the penning of Genesis, in a city called Ebla. Tablets recovered relatively recently from Ebla make references to names that are potentially Hebraic biblical names, like Adam and Eve, and Sodom.

While I don’t find myself as blown away as Ian apparently does by the idea that two Middle Eastern cultures shared similar creation myths (when Adam and Eve are referenced in 2500-year-old Chinese writings, I’ll be impressed), I think he adequately messes with the theory that monotheism is only ever a development out of polytheism, rather than a potentially older idea.

Though, really, it’s a long-winded way to go about things. If the concern is that Some People Say that atheism is the most advanced step of evolution of a natural religious progression, then one need look no further than the confirmed atheists of ancient India. I’ve never been much of a fan of the essentially Hegelian idea of a natural progression of ideas. It has the worrying tendency to imbue recent thinkers with an exaggerated sense of their own importance, as evidenced in just about every German philosopher ever. They all seem to think that no one has got it right in history until them, and they’re the culmination of human wisdom. Hegel finished writing The Phenomenology of the Spirit and thought, “There, I’m the end of history.” Kant called his Critique “a Copernican revolution” in thought and went on to write The Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysic, which could have been titled “all you motherfuckers gotta take me into account”. He was right, but come on, fella. Chill out. And then there was Nietzsche. He thought he was so right that people wouldn’t even understand how right he was for another few centuries.

Of course, no one actually got it right until me. Syntheism all the way, baby.

Anyway. People just think stuff. Ian does a good job here of presenting counter-examples to the evolving-religion hypothesis he finds in Armstrong. That doesn’t greatly concern me, because my views aren’t embodied by the people with whom he is concerned. I do find that with Ian, though. He tends to think that citing people he considers “liberals” gives him some kind of added weight when debating people he considers “liberals”. Kind of a “you don’t like Hawaiian pizza? WELL, LIBERAL HISTORIAN HOWARD ZINN LOVES PIZZA” thing.

Anyway, interesting chapter. Moving on.

The Divinity Code

Well, in addition to receiving a few requests for me to start posting again, Ian Wishart’s new book, The Divinity Code, quotes me extensively. Seeing as I pointed put that whole Marx not-quite-quote debacle in Eve’s Bite, I should have a look at Code and let you know what I think.

Firstly, if anyone’s interested, Ian Wishart did not quote me out of context in chapter 17, and he references the full conversation in a footnote. I am not unhappy with how I was portrayed. Ian did not “pull a Marx” on me. And so he shouldn’t, but for some reason I feel grateful.

Chapter One: The Quest for Fire

This chapter can be summed up as follows.

1. What do we know? Maybe there was an Atlantis. Oooh! Therefore, no one knows what they’re talking about. Therefore, Dawkins and Geering and others don’t know what they’re talking about. Keep reading! Cos Ian knows what he’s talking about.

2. Lots of people believe in God. Not just stupid Americans. New Zealanders do too! And fewer people believe in ghosts and reincarnation and astrology, which are apparently New Age, despite all being pretty goddam old. So lots of people believe in the supernatural. YOU JUST THINK ABOUT THAT. Also, Fox News!

3. Some people say we evolved to believe in God. Ha! How did single-celled organisms know that believing in God would be useful? They couldn’t, therefore theism cannot be an evolved trait.

Ian’s pulled out this bizarre primary-school misunderstanding of evolution before, and I’m quite certain he understands it better than that. But I’ll clarify. Evolutionary theory does not suggest that traits are intentionally evolved. That is, if anything, Lamarckism, or perhaps a New Agey kind of guided-evolution thing. Traits arise randomly, and if they are useful or not an impediment, they survive. The simple rule of evolution is this: What tends to survive, tends to survive.

There are ideas that the tendency for theism is an evolved trait. They tend to go along the lines of assignment of agency to unexplained phenomena. If animals evolve a trait to assume the rustling in the trees behind them is caused by a conscious agent rather than the environment, they are at an advantage. If it is a predator, they are better off running. If it is prey, they are better off hunting. If it is neither, and is simply the wind, they don’t lose much by looking a bit silly assuming agency. Darwin actually cited an example of this – his dog barking at something blowing in the wind.

So it’s possible that the assumption of agency is an evolved trait. That would go some way to explaining the widespread belief in the supernatural with regards to natural phenomena. Animism, believing in spirits for each tree and river, is an example. Lightning as thrown by a god, etc. But really, such beliefs can be explained by sociological and psychological theories no less believable than a genetic-tendency theory.

In fact, the idea that we have a genetic tendency to assume agency doesn’t really deserve the title “theory”, because it’s just an idea. It’s not as ridiculous as Ian makes it out to be, but it’s not the cornerstone of many people’s attitude towards theism either. It’s certainly the kind of thing that would be evolutionarily advantageous, and nothing in the behaviour of animals or humans contradicts the hypothesis, but it’s not a testable theory, unless some odd fellow went about trying to isolate a gene responsible for it, which would be an absurdly difficult and basically pointless venture.

It’s worth noting that “an evolved tendency to assume agency when faced with unexplained phenomena” is a bit more of a complex idea than “the idea that evolution created the idea of God in our heads”, which is the way Ian phrased it. It’s a little like describing gravity as “the idea that chunks of stuff are in love with each other, but like each other less when they’re further away”. It’s easy to dismiss ideas out of hand when you frame them in ways that make even a cursory analysis seem like a waste of time.

But then, that’s just the introductory chapter, and frankly, it’s already much better than Eve’s Bite, which was more of a paranoid diatribe about Capitalised Nouns that are out to get you because everyone’s out to get Christians, which just goes to show how right they are. Eve’s Bite dealt with values, however misrepresented and caricatured, and that makes it a tricky topic to cover without resorting to, “What are you, insane?” The Divinity Code deals with actual concrete arguments, and that is refreshing as all hell. Gives a fellow some traction.

Anyway, next, chapter two.