By Richard Dawkins, Mariner Books, January 16, 2008, 978-0618918249 Dawkins religiously steps through every “credible” argument for a god. He debunks the gap theory, irreducible complexity, and a variety of others. What I found interesting about this book is that I haven’t thought about these arguments much on my own, because they rely on the god axiom: which Dawkins explains in detail.

As an atheist I don’t think about the god axiom much. I also don’t assume that the made up god(s) in my culture is any different from the gods of other cultures. Familiarity neither breeds contempt nor truth. Most religions take their gods as right, unequivocially. I think this simple fact (awareness of the myriad religions/gods) is what convincrd me that the supernatural can’t be true. If you talk to a Nepalese, he’ll tell you Buddha is obviously god (or really, not a god, but never mind).

What I enjoyed about this book is that Dawkins truly reasons about the supernatural in this book. The elegance and his usual eloquence are what makes this book a great read.

There are fair number of quotes. The book is fairly long (464 pages in paper technology and 7206 locations on the Amazon Kindle). Also, Dawkins has done his research (as usual), and found some incredible pithy quotes from Einstein, Wittgenstein, Voltaire, etc.

It’s a great read up until the end. If you are an agnostic, you need to read this book. I think anybody needs to read this book. However, it’s unlikely to inform anybody with strong beliefs about the existence of the supernatural. It’ll be many, many more centuries before we turn the tide on the supernatural, I believe. Just like it took 500 years to pardon Galileo Galilei.

[k975] The religious views of the Founding Fathers are of great interest to propagandists of today’s American right, anxious to push their version of history. Contrary to their view, the fact that the United States was not founded as a Christian nation was early stated in the terms of a treaty with Tripoli, drafted in 1796 under George Washington and signed by John Adams in 1797: As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Musselmen; and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

[k1021] ‘If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in this exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you.’ I find the following advice of Jefferson, again in his letter to Peter Carr, moving: Shake off all the fears of servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call on her tribunal for every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear. Remarks of Jefferson’s such as ‘Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man’ are compatible with deism but also with atheism. So is James Madison’s robust anti-clericalism: ‘During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less, in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.’ The same could be said of Benjamin Franklin’s ‘Lighthouses are more useful than churches.’

[k1211] I have found it an amusing strategy, when asked whether I am an atheist, to point out that the questioner is also an atheist when considering Zeus, Apollo, Amon Ra, Mithras, Baal, Thor, Wotan, the Golden Calf and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I just go one god further.

I think that we can and do talk about art scientifically these days just like we think we understand what causes people to believe in out of body experiences. Functional mafnetic resonance is an eztremely powerful technique to analyze why the brain acts particular ways. Consider that we can today clearly distinguish (for the majority of cases) between speaking to a god and mental illness. In the past all mental illness was considered the work of a malovent spirtual being (e.g. a devil).

[k1236] [Steven Jay] Gould carried the art of bending over backwards to positively supine lengths in one of his less admired books, Rocks of Ages. There he coined the acronym NOMA for the phrase ‘non-overlapping magisteria’: The net, or magisterium, of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the old cliches, science gets the age of rocks, and religion the rock of ages; science studies how the heavens go, religion how to go to heaven. This sounds terrific – right up until you give it a moment’s thought. What are these ultimate questions in whose presence religion is an honoured guest and science must respectfully slink away?

Truth be told, I was afraid to highlight this section, for I didn’t want to offend people. “Throw them a sop” seems so harsh until you compare it to most opininion columns, especially about sports and even more oddly about their “own” team. Another interesting question is why do theologists (even from extreme places like Iran) leave so many decisions about how the world works (such as the mystery of converting mass into energy) to science and only take over when science cannot explain something yet. Theists are also quick to invoke scientist who support their theories, and never not mention the scientifically validated points of people who question the theories.

[k1265] I suspect that both astronomers were, yet again, bending over backwards to be polite: theologians have nothing worthwhile to say about anything else; let’s throw them a sop and let them worry away at a couple of questions that nobody can answer and maybe never will. Unlike my astronomer friends, I don’t think we should even throw them a sop. I have yet to see any good reason to suppose that theology (as opposed to biblical history, literature, etc.) is a subject at all.

I have never heard a reasonable answer from theologists or laymen to the following question(s). It seems so obvious a question to me that there should be no, for example, Christian broadcasts on Saturday (or Sunday?). For a more clear example we should have people held to their own religious standards and killed for adultry or for working on their sabbath (whichever day it might be).

[k1269] Similarly, we can all agree that science’s entitlement to advise us on moral values is problematic, to say the least. But does Gould really want to cede to religion the right to tell us what is good and what is bad? The fact that it has nothing else to contribute to human wisdom is no reason to hand religion a free licence to tell us what to do. Which religion, anyway? The one in which we happen to have been brought up? To which chapter, then, of which book of the Bible should we turn – for they are far from unanimous and some of them are odious by any reasonable standards. How many literalists have read enough of the Bible to know that the death penalty is prescribed for adultery, for gathering sticks on the sabbath and for cheeking your parents? If we reject Deuteronomy and Leviticus (as all enlightened moderns do), by what criteria do we then decide which of religion’s moral values to accept? Or should we pick

[k1310] NOMA [Non-Overlapping Magisteria] is popular only because there is no evidence to favour the God Hypothesis. The moment there was the smallest suggestion of any evidence in favour of religious belief, religious apologists would lose no time in throwing NOMA out of the window.

The following discusses a study by the Templeton Foundation. Dawkins discusses it at length in the text preceding the following quote.

[k1372] The results, reported in the American Heart Journal of April 2006, were clear-cut. There was no difference between those patients who were prayed for and those who were not. What a surprise. There was a difference between those who knew they had been prayed for and those who did not know one way or the other; but it went in the wrong direction. Those who knew they had been the beneficiaries of prayer suffered significantly more complications than those who did not.

[k1381] It will be no surprise that this study was opposed by theologians, perhaps anxious about its capacity to bring ridicule upon religion. The Oxford theologian Richard Swinburne, writing after the study failed, objected to it on the grounds that God answers prayers only if they are offered up for good reasons. Praying for somebody rather than somebody else, simply because of the fall of the dice in the design of a double-blind experiment, does not constitute a good reason. God would see through it.

[k1385] But in other parts of his paper Swinburne himself is beyond satire. Not for the first time, he seeks to justify suffering in a world run by God: My suffering provides me with the opportunity to show courage and patience. It provides you with the opportunity to show sympathy and to help alleviate my suffering. And it provides society with the opportunity to choose whether or not to invest a lot of money in trying to find a cure for this or that particular kind of suffering…Although a good God regrets our suffering, his greatest concern is surely that each of us shall show patience, sympathy and generosity and, thereby, form a holy character. Some people badly need to be ill for their own sake, and some people badly need to be ill to provide important choices for others. Only in that way can some people be encouraged to make serious choices about the sort of person they are to be. For other people, illness is not so valuable.

[k2017] Russell’s (I almost said immortal) reply. Mightn’t God respect Russell for his courageous scepticism (let alone for the courageous pacifism that landed him in prison in the First World War) far more than he would respect Pascal for his cowardly bet-hedging? And, while we cannot know which way God would jump, we don’t need to know in order to refute Pascal’s Wager. We are talking about a bet, remember, and Pascal wasn’t claiming that his wager enjoyed anything but very long odds. Would you bet on God’s valuing dishonestly faked belief (or even honest belief) over honest scepticism?

[k2133] After Darwin, we all should feel, deep in our bones, suspicious of the very idea of design. The illusion of design is a trap that has caught us before, and Darwin should have immunized us by raising our consciousness. Would that he had succeeded with all of us.

[k2310] We have a cautionary tale here, and it is telling us this: do not just declare things to be irreducibly complex; the chances are that you haven’t looked carefully enough at the details, or thought carefully enough about them. On the other hand, we on the science side must not be too dogmatically confident.

[k2345] There is, then, an unfortunate hook-up between science’s methodological need to seek out areas of ignorance in order to target research, and ID’s need to seek out areas of ignorance in order to claim victory by default. It is precisely the fact that ID has no evidence of its own, but thrives like a weed in gaps left by scientific knowledge, that sits uneasily with science’s need to identify and proclaim the very same gaps as a prelude to researching them.

I find it interesting that Dawkins invokes the concept of a “zealous Popperian” when the book is very much evidence-based, and doesn’t allow for non-evidence-based discussions, other than his opinion, of course. While agree with (and very much enjoy) Dawkins’s views and writing, he is as absolute the supernatural as Popper was about the concept of objective knowledge.

[k2365] When challenged by a zealous Popperian to say how evolution could ever be falsified, J. B. S. Haldane famously growled: ‘Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian.’ No such anachronistic fossils have ever been authentically found, despite discredited creationist legends of human skulls in the Coal Measures and human footprints interspersed with dinosaurs’.

[k2445] St Augustine said it quite openly: ‘There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity. It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn’ (quoted in Freeman 2002).

[k2445] Another of [Michael] Behe’s favourite alleged examples of ‘irreducible complexity’ is the immune system. Let Judge Jones himself take up the story: In fact, on cross-examination, Professor Behe was questioned concerning his 1996 claim that science would never find an evolutionary explanation for the immune system. He was presented with fifty-eight peer-reviewed publications, nine books, and several immunology textbook chapters about the evolution of the immune system; however, he simply insisted that this was still not sufficient evidence of evolution, and that it was not ‘good enough.’

[k2501] Earth’s situation in the solar system is propitious in other ways that singled it out for the evolution of life. The massive gravitational vacuum cleaner of Jupiter is well placed to intercept asteroids that might otherwise threaten us with lethal collision. Earth’s single relatively large moon serves to stabilize our axis of rotation,68 and helps to foster life in various other ways.

Asking the right question is one of the ways I think about software - even down to the lowest levels of code. Without the right question you can find yourself lost in a maze of useless code.

[k3065] When we ask about the survival value of anything, we may be asking the wrong question. We need to rewrite the question in a more helpful way.

[k3227] Dennett has offered a helpful three-way classification of the ‘stances’ that we adopt in trying to understand and hence predict the behaviour of entities such as animals, machines or each other.82 They are the physical stance, the design stance and the intentional stance. The physical stance always works in principle, because everything ultimately obeys the laws of physics. But working things out using the physical stance can be very slow. By the time we have

[k3232] For an object that really is designed, like a washing machine or a crossbow, the design stance is an economical short cut. We can guess how the object will behave by going over the head of physics and appealing directly to design.

Again, the following section on our thought processes and how they might have evolved was quite interesting to me with respect to programming. If we have a bias to intentionality, it would explain why debugging software (or anything else) is so difficult. It’s been my experience that our “intuition” is to apply a reason for almost everything we see. When debugging, this reason, hunch, whatever, is almost certainly always wrong. I need to go back to first principles to understand what the observations are telling me, and build up a evidence-based theory of operation. For example, at bivio, we often talk about the “physics” of the Web (or really Web browsers). To understand this physics is quite hard, because it has evolved over many software years (and perhaps is the most widely programmed protocol). As with natural evolution, many of the standards on the Web make no sense at all, and imho, ignore the physics of software in general. This is why I think debugging is so hard. It requires us to take the physics stance when it is most difficult: understanding the unintentional effect of a faulty design.

[k3242] The intentional stance is another short cut, and it goes one better than the design stance. An entity is assumed not merely to be designed for a purpose but to be, or contain, an agent with intentions that guide its actions. When you see a tiger, you had better not delay your prediction of its probable behaviour.

[k3382] Martin Luther was well aware that reason was religion’s arch-enemy, and he frequently warned of its dangers: ‘Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.’85 Again: ‘Whoever wants to be a Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason.’ And again: ‘Reason should be destroyed in all Christians.’

[k3942] As Einstein said, ‘If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.’ Michael Shermer, in The Science of Good and Evil, calls it a debate stopper. If you agree that, in the absence of God, you would ‘commit robbery, rape, and murder’, you reveal yourself as an immoral person, ‘and we would be well advised to steer a wide course around you’. If, on the other hand, you admit that you would continue to be a good person even when not under divine surveillance, you have fatally undermined your claim that God is necessary for us to be good.

[k4102] In 2005, the fine city of New Orleans was catastrophically flooded in the aftermath of a hurricane, Katrina. The Reverend Pat Robertson, one of America’s best-known televangelists and a former presidential candidate, was reported as blaming the hurricane on a lesbian comedian who happened to live in New Orleans.* You’d think an omnipotent God would adopt a slightly more targeted approach to zapping sinners: a judicious heart attack, perhaps, rather than the wholesale destruction of an entire city just because it happened to be the domicile of one lesbian comedian.

[k4290] As the Nobel Prize-winning American physicist Steven Weinberg said, ‘Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.’ Blaise Pascal (he of the wager) said something similar: ‘Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.’

[k4880] The saddest example I know is that of the American geologist Kurt Wise, who now directs the Center for Origins Research at Bryan College, Dayton, Tennessee. It is no accident that Bryan College is named after William Jennings Bryan, prosecutor of the science teacher John Scopes in the Dayton ‘Monkey Trial’ of 1925. Wise could have fulfilled his boyhood ambition to become a professor of geology at a real university, a university whose motto might have been ‘Think critically’ rather than the oxymoronic one displayed on the Bryan website: ‘Think critically and biblically’.

[k4889] [Kurt Wise] was too intelligent not to recognize the head-on collision between his religion and his science, and the conflict in his mind made him increasingly uneasy. One day, he could bear the strain no more, and he clinched the matter with a pair of scissors. He took a bible and went right through it, literally cutting out every verse that would have to go if the scientific world-view were true. At the end of this ruthlessly honest and labour-intensive exercise, there was so little left of his bible that, try as I might, and even with the benefit of intact margins throughout the pages of Scripture, I found it impossible to pick up the Bible without it being rent in two. I had to make a decision between evolution and Scripture. Either the Scripture was true and evolution was wrong or evolution was true and I must toss out the Bible…It was there that night that I accepted the Word of God and rejected all that would ever counter it, including evolution. With that, in great sorrow, I tossed into the fire all my dreams and hopes in science.

[k4912] I am hostile to religion because of what it did to Kurt Wise. And if it did that to a Harvard-educated geologist, just think what it can do to others less gifted and less well armed.

[k5129] [Norman St John Stevas], in turn, got [the Beethoven Fallacy] from Maurice Baring (1874–1945), a noted Roman Catholic convert and close associate of those Catholic stalwarts G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. He cast it in the form of a hypothetical dialogue between two doctors.

‘About the terminating of pregnancy, I want your opinion. The father was syphilitic, the mother tuberculous. Of the four children born, the first was blind, the second died, the third was deaf and dumb, the fourth was also tuberculous. What would you have done?’

‘I would have terminated the pregnancy.’

‘Then you would have murdered Beethoven.’

[k5144] For invented [the Beethoven Fallacy] certainly was. It is completely false. The truth is that Ludwig van Beethoven was neither the ninth child nor the fifth child of his parents. He was the eldest – strictly the number two, but his elder sibling died in infancy, as was common in those days, and was not, so far as is known, blind or deaf or dumb or mentally retarded. There is no evidence that either of his parents had syphilis, although it is true that his mother eventually died of tuberculosis. There was a lot of it about at the time.

[k5150] Peter and Jean Medawar had no need to doubt the truth of the story in order to point out the fallacy of the argument: ‘The reasoning behind this odious little argument is breathtakingly fallacious, for unless it is being suggested that there is some causal connection between having a tubercular mother and a syphilitic father and giving birth to a musical genius the world is no more likely to be deprived of a Beethoven by abortion than by chaste abstinence from intercourse.

[k5235] Our Western politicians avoid mentioning the R word (religion), and instead characterize their battle as a war against ‘terror’, as though terror were a kind of spirit or force, with a will and a mind of its own. Or they characterize terrorists as motivated by pure ‘evil’. But they are not motivated by evil. However misguided we may think them, they are motivated, like the Christian murderers of abortion doctors, by what they perceive to be righteousness, faithfully pursuing what their religion tells them. They are not psychotic; they are religious idealists who, by their own lights, are rational. They perceive their acts to be good, not because of some warped personal idiosyncrasy, and not because they have been possessed by Satan, but because they have been brought up, from the cradle, to have total and unquestioning faith.

[k5264] Voltaire got it right long ago: ‘Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.’ So did Bertrand Russell: ‘Many people would sooner die than think. In fact they do.’

[k5413] We should be aware of the remarkable power of the mind to concoct false memories, especially when abetted by unscrupulous therapists and mercenary lawyers. The psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has shown great courage, in the face of spiteful vested interests, in demonstrating how easy it is for people to concoct memories that are entirely false but which seem, to the victim, every bit as real as true memories.137 This is so counter-intuitive that juries are easily swayed by sincere but false testimony from witnesses.

[k5420] Forty years on, it is harder to get redress for floggings than for sexual fondlings, and there is no shortage of lawyers actively soliciting custom from victims who might not otherwise have raked over the distant past. There’s gold in them thar long-gone fumbles in the vestry – some of them, indeed, so long gone that the alleged offender is likely to be dead and unable to present his side of the story. The Catholic Church worldwide has paid out more than a billion dollars in compensation.139 You might almost sympathize with them, until you remember where their money came from in the first place.

[k5630] After a discussion of the Amish, and their right to bring up ‘their own’ children in ‘their own’ way, [Nicholas] Humphrey is scathing about our enthusiasm as a society for maintaining cultural diversity. All right, you may want to say, so it’s tough on a child of the Amish, or the Hasidim, or the gypsies to be shaped up by their parents in the ways they are – but at least the result is that these fascinating cultural traditions continue. Would not our whole civilization be impoverished if they were to go? It’s a shame, maybe, when individuals have to be sacrificed to maintain such diversity. But there it is: it’s the price we pay as a society. Except, I would feel bound to remind you, we do not pay it, they do.

[k5657] The majority of the Supreme Court drew a parallel with some of the positive values of monastic orders, whose presence in our society arguably enriches it. But, as Humphrey points out, there is a crucial difference. Monks volunteer for the monastic life of their own free will. Amish children never volunteered to be Amish; they were born into it and they had no choice.

There is something breathtakingly condescending, as well as inhumane, about the sacrificing of anyone, especially children, on the altar of ‘diversity’ and the virtue of preserving a variety of religious traditions. The rest of us are happy with our cars and computers, our vaccines and antibiotics. But you quaint little people with your bonnets and breeches, your horse buggies, your archaic dialect and your earth-closet privies, you enrich our lives. Of course you must be allowed to trap your children with you in your seventeenth-century time warp, otherwise something irretrievable would be lost to us: a part of the wonderful diversity of human culture. A small part of me can see something in this. But the larger part is made to feel very queasy indeed.

[k6055] Mark Twain’s dismissal of the fear of death is another: ‘I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.’

[k6060] Robust intellects may be ready for the strong meat of Bertrand Russell’s declaration, in his 1925 essay ‘What I Believe’:

I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold; surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man’s place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own.

[k6105] If your pet is dying in pain, you will be condemned for cruelty if you do not summon the vet to give him a general anaesthetic from which he will not come round. But if your doctor performs exactly the same merciful service for you when you are dying in pain, he runs the risk of being prosecuted for murder.

[k6111] But, it might be said, isn’t there an important difference between having your appendix removed and having your life removed? Not really; not if you are about to die anyway. And not if you have a sincere religious belief in life after death. If you have that belief, dying is just a transition from one life to another. If the transition is painful, you should no more wish to undergo it without anaesthetic than you would wish to have your appendix removed without anaesthetic. It is those of us who see death as terminal rather than transitional who might naively be expected to resist euthanasia or assisted suicide. Yet we are the ones who support it.

[k7189] Purgatory is not to be confused with Limbo, where babies who died un-baptized were supposed to go. And aborted foetuses? Blastocysts? Now, with characteristically presumptuous aplomb, Pope Benedict XVI has just abolished Limbo. Does that mean that all the babies who have been languishing there all these centuries will now suddenly float off to heaven? Or do they stay there and only the newly dead escape Limbo? Or have earlier popes been wrong all along, in spite of their infallibility? This is the kind of thing we are all supposed to ‘respect’.

[k6122] The doctrine of purgatory offers a preposterous revelation of the way the theological mind works. Purgatory is a sort of divine Ellis Island, a Hadean waiting room where dead souls go if their sins aren’t bad enough to send them to hell, but they still need a bit of remedial checking out and purifying before they can be admitted to the sin-free-zone of heaven.+ In medieval times, the Church used to sell ‘indulgences’ for money. This amounted to paying for some number of days’ remission from purgatory, and the Church literally (and with breathtaking presumption) issued signed certificates specifying the number of days off that had been purchased. The Roman Catholic Church is an institution for whose gains the phrase ‘ill-gotten’ might have been specially invented. And of all its money-making ripoffs, the selling of indulgences must surely rank among the greatest con tricks in history, the medieval equivalent of the Nigerian Internet scam but far more successful.

[k6150] But what really fascinates me about the doctrine of purgatory is the evidence that theologians have advanced for it: evidence so spectacularly weak that it renders even more comical the airy confidence with which it is asserted. The entry on purgatory in the Catholic Encyclopedia has a section called ‘proofs’. The essential evidence for the existence of purgatory is this. If the dead simply went to heaven or hell on the basis of their sins while on Earth, there would be no point in praying for them. ‘For why pray for the dead, if there be no belief in the power of prayer to afford solace to those who as yet are excluded from the sight of God.’ And we do pray for the dead, don’t we? Therefore purgatory must exist, otherwise our prayers would be pointless! Q.E.D. This seriously is an example of what passes for reasoning in the theological mind.

[k6173] For those of us lucky enough to be here, I pictured the relative brevity of life by imagining a laser-thin spotlight creeping along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything before or after the spotlight is shrouded in the darkness of the dead past, or the darkness of the unknown future. We are staggeringly lucky to find ourselves in the spotlight. However brief our time in the sun, if we waste a second of it, or complain that it is dull or barren or (like a child) boring, couldn’t this be seen as a callous insult to those unborn trillions who will never even be offered life in the first place? As many atheists have said better than me, the knowledge that we have only one life should make it all the more precious. The atheist view is correspondingly life-affirming and life-enhancing, while at the same time never being tainted with self-delusion, wishful thinking, or the whingeing self-pity of those who feel that life owes them something. Emily Dickinson said, That it will never come again Is what makes life so sweet.

Here’s one of the more direct Popperisms by Dawkins. Popper believed that the more correct predictions a theory produces, the more true it is (verisimilitude).

[k6238] Quantum mechanics, that rarefied pinnacle of twentieth-century scientific achievement, makes brilliantly successful predictions about the real world. Richard Feynman compared its precision to predicting a distance as great as the width of North America to an accuracy of one human hair’s breadth. This predictive success seems to mean that quantum theory has got to be true in some sense; as true as anything we know, even including the most down-to-earth common-sense facts. Yet the assumptions that quantum theory needs to make, in order to deliver those predictions, are so mysterious that even the great Feynman himself was moved to remark (there are various versions of this quotation, of which the following seems to me the neatest): ‘If you think you understand quantum theory…you don’t understand quantum theory.’

[k6280] ‘Tell me,’ the great twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once asked a friend, ‘why do people always say it was natural for man to assume that the sun went round the Earth rather than that the Earth was rotating?’ His friend replied, ‘Well, obviously because it just looks as though the Sun is going round the Earth.’ Wittgenstein responded, ‘Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as though the Earth was rotating?’ I sometimes quote this remark of Wittgenstein in lectures, expecting the audience to laugh. Instead, they seem stunned into silence.

[k6346] Steve Grand points out that you and I are more like waves than permanent ‘things’. He invites his reader to think… of an experience from your childhood. Something you remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all, you really were there at the time, weren’t you? How else would you remember it? But here is the bombshell: you weren’t there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place…Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made. If that doesn’t make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, read it again until it does, because it is important.