Well, all this is interesting to me, anyway, and that's what matters here. The Internet is a terrible thing for someone like me, who finds almost everything interesting.
Friday, July 22, 2011
"Calculating God" by Robert J. Sawyer
In Calculating God (2000) by Robert J. Sawyer, a spider-like alien lands a spaceship in Toronto and walks into the Royal Ontario Museum, asking to speak to a paleontologist. From the very first page, the story grabbed my attention - and held it throughout the book.
The alien, Hollus, may look weird (although she's only superficially similar to a giant spider), but she has a great sense of humor. And the paleontologist, Tom Jericho, is an appealing character who happens to be dying of lung cancer, to the dismay of his wife and young child.
Sawyer quickly sets up the central theme of the book. Jericho is an atheist, but the aliens (there are two different species on a ship orbiting the Earth) claim to have scientific evidence of God. They trot out the standard creationist line about how the universe has been "fine-tuned" for life, but they also have additional evidence.
In particular, it turns out that both alien planets suffered identical mass extinction events - five of them - exactly when the Earth did. They speculate that this was God's way of nudging evolution towards sapience. (Hollus is at the museum to study the evidence of this on Earth.)
So far, this might seem to be like something from the publishers of the Left Behind novels - Christian propaganda. But this "God" isn't really anything Earth religions would embrace. Indeed, the aliens think that it's a natural creature from a previous universe which not only survived the end of that one and the beginning of ours, but actually adjusted the parameters when this universe began.
So this might be our creator, but I'm not sure it qualifies as a god. To my mind, one of the fundamental characteristics of gods is that they're magic (or "supernatural," if you wish). A natural creature might have god-like powers, but it's not really a god, is it? If highly-advanced aliens had created our universe, would we worship them as gods? I doubt it. Not most of us, at least.
I also wonder about these aliens leaping to that "God" explanation, just from the evidence that someone or something has been manipulating all three planets. This is evidence, since coincidence is not at all plausible in a situation like this. But an advanced alien species could have done the same thing (and for roughly the same reasons, too). It wouldn't have to be a "god."
Nevertheless, as I say, Sawyer quickly grabbed my interest and held it through the whole book. The situation was interesting, and the characters were appealing. But I must say that I had a real problem with the end of the story.
I don't like to put spoilers in my reviews, but I just can't talk about this book without completely giving away the ending. But I'll put that below the fold. If you think you might read Calculating God, you probably should stop here. SPOILERS
For the rest of you, here's how the story unfolds: The red giant star, Betelgeuse, begins to go supernova, which will wipe out all life on Earth, and on both alien planets, too. But suddenly, some vast... thing emerges from a tear in space to shelter all three planets. Apparently, "God" has saved us from annihilation.
The alien ship decides to travel there, a trip that will take about 400 years (but far less than that subjectively, of course), in the hope of speaking to God. And Jericho decides to go with them. After all, he only has a couple of months left to live, and the aliens can put him in stasis for the trip.
When they arrive, "God" takes DNA from all three species to create a new being. Apparently, this has been the plan all along. The new creature, God's offspring, would become the god of the next universe. As Jericho dies, it's... the end.
But what does this mean for human beings? By then, presumably, the rest of humanity is either extinct or retreated into a computerized virtual world. (We learn earlier in the book that those seem to be the fates of all intelligent species, when they reach a technological level very near our own.)
At least Jericho gets to die, having outlived his wife and child - and likely his species - by hundreds of years. But what about Hollus, the alien, who never saw her children again and who survives to face this same bleak reality. Is there any point to not just flying the ship into the nearest sun?
The rest of this book was great, but the conclusion of Calculating God was deeply unsatisfying. You know the ending I wanted? At the end of this, I wanted them to encounter another ship, a faster-than-light vessel crewed by all three species, all of whom are still alive and vigorous.
All of the other sapient species, those which had either destroyed themselves or retreated into a virtual world, had been alone in the galaxy at the time. But this time, there were three species alive at the same time, at about the same technological level, and in contact with each other. I really wanted to see the synergy between them make a difference, so that they'd avoid the fate of other intelligent species.
So this "God" had manipulated us for its own purposes? So what? Our parents generally create us for their own purposes, don't they? But that doesn't limit us. We grow up and go on to create our own purposes. And maybe that's what humans and these aliens could do, too, all three working together.
At the end, they could even have cured Jericho of cancer. Sure, his wife and child were long dead, but death happens. Death is a part of life. We accept that, mourn, and, normally, get over it. But Jericho himself could have looked forward to new adventures - perhaps with Hollus - before his inevitable end.
Or not. That's not really the most important thing here. Basically, I wanted human beings and our new alien friends to flip the bird to that "God" and go on about our own purposes. God might have manipulated us for its own reasons, but we'd refuse to be limited by that.
I'm no author, but that would have been an inspiring ending, don't you think? Instead, I thought the conclusion was just... dispiriting. This could have been a great book - the rest of it was really very good - but the ending was very disappointing.
PS. This is our July read in the ClassicScienceFiction group at Yahoo, where one reader expressed concern that Sawyer's presentation would give ammunition to creationists of the so-called "Intelligent Design" persuasion. But that doesn't bother me at all.
For one thing, this is just fiction. But also, I don't think that people believe in creationism for these reasons. Think about it. Scientists tend to be much less religious than non-scientists. And from what I hear, biologists and physicists - the people who know the most about these issues - are even less likely to believe in God than most other scientists.
What that tells us is that people don't believe in God because of these arguments. Instead, they believe first, and only try to use arguments like these to convince others that they're right. And, after all, if the people who know the most about these things are persuaded by them the least, that tells us that these arguments really aren't very good.
Sure, they might sound convincing to the ignorant, to laymen who really don't have the knowledge or the background to tell. But if they really were valid, then biologists and physicists would be the most likely people to believe in God, rather than among the least religious.
I must say, I thought it was particularly funny that Sawyer used the argument here that cilia are "irreducibly complex." Calculating God was first published in 2000, and that idea was a big thing in creationist circles at the time. (Still is, I think, with people who don't know any better.) Michael Behe had pushed the argument in his book, Darwin's Black Box, in 1996. Supposedly, this was scientific evidence for "intelligent design."
The idea was that some things are so complex that the individual parts couldn't have evolved separately. Take one piece away from a mousetrap and it would no longer function. So it couldn't have evolved, but had to have been designed as is. And cilia were his prize example.
That was the situation when Calculating God was written. But then, in 2004, there came the Dover trial (Tammy Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District), where creationists tried to get this through the federal courts. They had a Republican judge appointed by George W. Bush, so they thought they were all set. During the trial, Michael Behe testified about cilia being "irreducibly complex,"...
... And the scientists on the other side just destroyed him. They showed example after example of the biological parts of cilia being used separately in organisms, sometimes one part all by itself, sometimes several of them together. If you take one part away from a mousetrap, it might not function as a mousetrap - or not very well, at least - but that doesn't mean the parts would be useless for everything.
(Incidentally, if you want a great book about the Dover trial, highly entertaining and a real pleasure to read, I strongly recommend Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America's Soul by Edward Humes. It really is a great read.)
Anyway, I really don't think that Robert J. Sawyer buys the arguments he presents so persuasively in Calculating God. This is just fiction, after all, and he needs to set up the storyline. But the argument that cilia are "irreducibly complex" really put a smile on my face.
I'm a skeptic. I think it makes sense to have reasons for what I believe, so I apportion my belief to the evidence. You're welcome to disagree. Please, tell me I'm wrong. I probably don't agree with anyone about everything. Why should disagreement be a problem? Check the Pages section below for series posts and links to book reviews and game posts, as well as contact info. I have varied interests, so there's a little bit of everything here. I encourage you to look around. - Bill
We've all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true. - Robert Wilensky
It doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn't matter how smart you are. If it doesn't agree with experiment, it's wrong - Richard Feynman
The general root of superstition is that men observe when things hit, and not when they miss, and commit to memory the one, and pass over the other. - Sir Francis Bacon
When a whole nation is roaring Patriotism at the top of its voice, I am fain to explore the cleanness of its hands and purity of its heart. - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Speculation is perfectly all right, but if you stay there you've only founded a superstition. If you test it, you've started a science. - Hal Clement
No matter how many times a theory meets its tests successfully, there can be no certainty that it will not be overthrown by the next observation. This, then, is a cornerstone of modern natural philosophy. It makes no claim of attaining ultimate truth. In fact, the phrase "ultimate truth" becomes meaningless, because there is no way in which enough observations can be made to make truth certain and, therefore, "ultimate". - Isaac Asimov
The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion. - Treaty of Tripoli, passed unanimously by the U.S. Senate and signed by President John Adams (1797)
I don't doubt the sincerity of dowsers, but even after we've demonstrated that they can't produce results that are any better than chance they'll still go away believing in their abilities... It is like the mother whose son is caught shoplifting on tape. She wonders why someone would want to frame her child by producing a fake video. - James Randi
During many ages there were witches. The Bible said so. The Bible commanded that they should not be allowed to live. Therefore the Church ... imprisoned, tortured, hanged, and burned whole hordes and armies of witches, and washed the Christian world clean with their foul blood. Then it was discovered that there was no such thing as witches, and never had been. One does not know whether to laugh or to cry. - Mark Twain
Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives' mouths. - Bertrand Russell
A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything. - Friedrich Nietzsche
I have been thinking that I would make a proposition to my Republican friends... that if they will stop telling lies about the Democrats, we will stop telling the truth about them. - Adlai E. Stevenson, Jr.
This is not about proof. Science does not use proof. We favor evidence, and the work consists largely of the slow accumulation of evidence in support of ideas, not magically potent proofs that establish an idea as unassailable. - PZ Myers
No, people don't expect government to solve all their problems. But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life, and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all. - President Barack Obama
The formula was very simple: build this really flexible, really open economy, tolerate creative destruction so dead capital is quickly redeployed to better ideas and companies, pour into it the most diverse, smart and energetic immigrants from every corner of the world and then stir and repeat, stir and repeat, stir and repeat, stir and repeat. - Shekhar Gupta
We are prodding, challenging, seeking contradictions or small, persistent residual errors, proposing alternative explanations, encouraging heresy. We give our highest rewards to those who convincingly disprove established beliefs. - Carl Sagan
We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further. - Richard Dawkins
120 million of us place the big bang 2,500 years after the Babylonians and Sumerians learned to brew beer. - Sam Harris
To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine, but to kill a man. - Michael Servetus, burned at the stake in 1553
Democracy is not about majority rule; it is about minority rights. If there is no culture of not simply tolerating minorities, but actually treating them with equal rights, real democracy can't take root. - Thomas L. Friedman
We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. But so said all who came before us and with just as much apparent reason. - Thomas Macauley, 1830
It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important. - Martin Luther King, Jr.
We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven into an age of unreason if we dig deep into our history and remember we are not descended from fearful men. - Edward R. Murrow
The deepest sin against the human mind is to believe things without evidence. Science is simply common sense at its best - that is, rigidly accurate in observation, and merciless to fallacy in logic. - Thomas Huxley
There is no absurdity so obvious that it cannot be firmly planted in the human head if you only begin to impose it before the age of five, by constantly repeating it with an air of great solemnity. - Arthur Schopenhauer
Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person's life, freedom of religion affects every individual. ... Erecting the "wall of separation between church and state," therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society. - President Thomas Jefferson
To be elected in America, no matter from what party, the candidates have no choice but to year after year pledge to lower taxes further and further. We have become the nation of Ken and Barbie, looking good but very poor at the math. - Rack Jite
Invisible Pink Unicorns are beings of great spiritual power. We know this because they are capable of being invisible and pink at the same time. Like all religions, the Faith of the Invisible Pink Unicorns is based upon both logic and faith. We have faith that they are pink; we logically know that they are invisible because we can't see them. - Steve Eley
We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics. - President Franklin D. Roosevelt
I have been attacked by Rush Limbaugh on the air, an experience somewhat akin to being gummed by a newt. It doesn't actually hurt, but it leaves you with slimy stuff on your ankle. - Molly Ivins
In this world of sin and sorrow there is always something to be thankful for; as for me, I rejoice that I am not a Republican. - H. L. Mencken
Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts. - Winston Churchill