Monday, June 11, 2007

Ilusions & the so-called delusion of God

The following is my editorial from the ISCAST Bulletin soon to appear on the web (

The picture on this edition’s cover is of mammatus cloud below the anvil of a cumulonimbus (thunderstorm) cloud. The anvil is the upper part of the thunderstorm, made of ice crystals. Mammatus cloud can form in a variety of environments and cloud types, but the common element in its formation is gradients of temperature, moisture and momentum (wind shear). They are often indicative of potentially severe weather when associated with a thunderstorm (as this one was). They are associated with instability below the cloud base. It was a nice change to see it in the city.

The interesting thing about mammatus is not only the meteorology, but also the etymology. Mammatus comes from the Latin mamma, meaning breast. The lumps reminded someone of a woman’s breast! Of course, they don’t really look like breasts, but they look a little like breasts. This isn’t merely a sign of sexual preoccupation, but also of the human ability to find patterns and similarities (whether they are there or not). Most people can find patterns in clouds; resembling faces, mythological beasts, or even in the impact cloud of the September 11 plane explosions, the face of the devil! Most of the time, we are aware of the fact that what we see isn’t really there.

This reminds me of something that Richard Dawkins wrote in Unweaving the Rainbow and then recycled in The God Delusion. Dawkins has refers to a hollow face that rotates. When the outward side rotates, we see it moving the way it actually moves. When the reverse side rotates, the brain fools us into thinking that it is actually rotating the other way. Anyone with an interest in M C Esher will be familiar with other sorts of optical illusions. For Dawkins, this is illustrative of the ‘fact’ that God is a cognitive illusion, and—joining the growing list of ‘hairy chested’ atheist books of late—a harmful illusion.

Of course, Dawkins commits a couple of mistakes here. He seems to fall prey too much to the power of his own analogy. The illusions he lists do not fool anyone. We know what we should really be seeing, and the cognitive dissonance which results points out the fact that they are illusions. What is the cognitive dissonance in the case of God? There are some genuine ones, such as gratuitous suffering, death, natural and human evil. However, there have been answers (however unsatisfactory) for some time. Dawkins pays little regard to these issues (apart from a brief and savage aside on the soul-making theodicy of Richard Swinburne). However, where is the parallel with the rotating face? We have a valid expectation of how things should be (the face will rotate consistently in one direction). What is our valid expectation in the way the universe works? Having recently spent a fair bit of time thinking about Ecclesiastes, it seems to me we don’t necessarily have enough information with which to form one. We have eternity placed in our hearts, yet also we don’t appear to be able to see the whole divine plan at a glance. What I mean is not that there isn’t a genuine biblical teleology (purpose), but that an observation of the everyday means it isn’t obvious from an empirical basis—hence making Dawkins’ claims
seem a bit grand.

Furthermore, one might say that there is a genuine case that beauty (as per Polkinghorne), and the very existence of the universe (ontology) suggest that the idea of God not existing is the illusion!

I’d also add that if God uses natural processes to achieve his ends (and I take issue with Dawkins quoting Peter Atkins approvingly of describing such an idea as depicting a lazy God), then one might expect human beings to have all of the cognitive equipment to envisage God, not as some sort of wish fulfilment, but as the necessary tools to seek after, find and worship God.

This is all off the top of my head, but I am hoping that by the time of COSAC, and the delivery of my paper, some of these thoughts will be clearer.

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