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Calculating God
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I'm currently reading Calculating God by Robert Sawyer. It was recommended a few years ago by a friend, but I just never got around to reading it. I am now, and it's a very strange experience.

I'd never read anything by Sawyer, and he does write well. The prose helps the story clip along at a swift pace. The narrator is likable, and Sawyer deftly blends humor and sadness.

The downside is, the thing is basically an advertisement for Intelligent Design.

Here's the story: An alien lands its ship in front of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, goes inside, and asks to see a paleontologist. The paleontologist is the narrator, Tom Jericho. It turns out that the alien wants to study the history of life on earth, since life has undergone an identical pattern of mass extinctions on the only other two planets with intelligent life that the alien has studied, including its own. Why? Well, the alien (along with all the scientists on its planet and all the ones from the other intelligent alien race) is convinced that god exists, and that god manipulated conditions to bring about intelligent life.

When Jericho tells the alien that he doesn't believe in god, the alien asks: "Are you the most senior paleontologist at this institution?" Jericho says no, but that his boss doesn't believe in god either. The alien is disappointed, and when Jericho informs the alien that on Earth the issue of religion is considered a matter of faith, the alien responds:


"I do not speak of matters of faith," said Hollus, turning his eyes back toward me. "Rather, I speak of verifiable scientific fact. That we live in a created universe is apparent to anyone with sufficient intelligence and information."


Okay. So most of the book consists of conversations between Hollus and Jericho, with the alien trying to "educate" him on the existence of god. What's his main argument? The anthropic principle, which is pretty weak sauce. For those who didn't catch it, the argument is in league with the Banana Argument. The idea is that the universe is suited to our existence, thus it must have been made that way for us. A 12 year-old could figure out the flaws in that argument.

We get other gems too, like this one in response to the fact that all intelligent life in the universe is between 50 and 500 kilograms and between 1.5 and 2 meters in size:


"It is true everywhere, not just on Earth, because the smallest sustainable fire is about fifty centimeters across, and to manipulate fire you need to be somewhat bigger than it. Without fire, of course, there is no metallurgy, and therefore no sophisticated technology."


I think a ten year-old could figure out the problem with that nonsense.

So where did god come from? Again, the wisdom of the alien:


"I suspect the being which is now the God of this universe was a noncorporeal intelligence that arose through chance fluctuations in a previous universe devoid of biology. I believe this being, existing in isolation, sought to make sure that the next universe would teem with independent, self-producing life. It seems unlikely that biology could have started in any randomly generated universe on its own, but a localized space-time matrix of sufficient complexity to develop sentience could reasonably be expected to arise by chance after only a few billion years of quantum fluctuations, especially in universes unlike this one in which the five fundamental forces have less divergent relative strengths."


Yeah, good stuff. Creationists like to use the metaphor of a tornado blowing through a junkyard and assembling a 747 by chance, then comparing that to evolutionary processes, which is ridiculous, because evolution doesn't assemble full-blown complex structure in one fell swoop, but works through naturalistic processes to assemble complex structures over long periods of time. And yet, here Sawyer is invoking a version of the tornado-747 example to explain the existence of god. He just popped into existence in a previous universe, due to random quantum fluctuations. Sounds plausible, no?

And I had to roll my eyes when Sawyer invoked the complexity of microscopic structures, ala the bacterial flagellum that ID proponent Michael Behe and others invariably cite as "evidence" that god intervenes in evolution, because they're just way to complex to arise through mutation and natural selection.

It's almost like Sawyer wallowed in creationist literature before writing this book. But what's strange about that is that there's a fair amount of good science in there as well, and the narrator evokes a clear love of paleotology and science in general.

So it's a weird book, a schizophrenic book. Its arguments for god, taken for granted by the more technologically-advanced aliens, are somewhat justified within the context of the book (where Sawyer can stack the deck any way he wants) but are silly and juvenile otherwise.

And yet I can't put it down. So I guess I'd recommend it, provisionally. Very provisionally.


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