Friday, November 26, 2010

Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer

Emily has already reviewed this book, and written a great summary of it here. I think I had a slightly different take on the book than she did, so this will definitely not be a repetition of what Emily already wrote! This review contains heavy spoilers because I feel like I have to get into the ending events of the book to review it to my satisfaction. Skip to the last paragraph if you don't want stuff given away!

Calculating God follows a Canadian paleontologist who I will refer to as Straw Man Atheist or SMA. SMA is one of the first humans to interact with aliens who visit earth to learn about the planet in their quest to make sense of the universe. SMA is an atheist, who reads like he was written by someone who has never spoken with an actual atheist. Most of what he believes is shallow, and his reasons for his beliefs are flawed. He doesn't read like an atheist would be, he reads like someone's characture of an atheist. He has beliefs he should be able to defend with good arguments, but lets them fall down like a house of cards when questioned. Hence, Straw Man Atheist.

I have an aversion to books that blend science and fiction in unclear ways with an apparent agenda. I know Emily probably will disagree, but I felt like this book had a very clear agenda in that everything turns out to be the work of a god and everything SMA believed turns out to be false. I am not super knowledgeable in physics, astronomy or biology, and the way that Calculating God was written sort of made the boundary between real science and what the author was making up unclear. To me at least. Maybe I am just ignorant though. I just felt like this book would be a very convincing argument for intelligent design, or the presence of an impersonal god, if you knew a little bit less about the science at stake than I do. That seems like a less than ethical way of doing fiction to me.

Being slightly educated in physics and biology, I was aware of several flaws in the evidence for god presented by the spider aliens to SMA. For example, it jumps on punctuated equilibria as creationists and intelligent design enthusiasts love to. Which is really, incredibly meaningless. Of course the fossil record is incomplete and jumpy, we are lucky anything gets preserved in the unlikely process of fossilization. Even if the earth had no fossils, there would be sufficient evidence for (not divinely guided) evolution within our genetics. Another flawed argument that is central to Calculating God is that because the fundamental constants of the universe are so dang perfect for human life, god must have caused them. It is certainly not clear that life couldn't be formed under different parameters. I recently read in a book or article (that I am struggling to find again...) that some scientists modeled different combinations of variables and found that if you varied different ones simultaneously you could get all kinds of suitable universes, in theory. For example if the fundamental constants are 1, 2, and 3 and say that for life to exist they have to sum to equal six, you might say that if you changed any one constant the universe would be unsuitable for life. BUT you could change two or three at once and still sum to six and be suitable, like changing them to 1, 1, and 4. All of the arguments for a god's existence in Calculating God that are based on reality and not the fictional worlds in the book's setting are ones that are easily refuted, and have been refuted soundly. By scientists, not fiction writers. Calculating God makes it seem like science needs a god-entity to have started the universe and bumped along evolution. Neither is true. Science does just fine without some entity having survived from a previous universe and set up ours, in reality.

One section in the book that made it abundantly clear what the author really thinks of atheists was when SMA and his alien friend were discussing morality and religion. SMA asks the alien how his or any race could have morality without god. So apparently even Sawyer's SMA thinks that there can be no morality without god. I, and the atheists I know, think otherwise. It seems clear that morality based on after-death rewards and punishments alone is no morality at all. If you are only good for the sake of getting rewarded after death, how is that morality? If the only thing that stops you from killing, raping and stealing is the assumption that such behavior will send you to hell, is that morality? Further, a quote from Steven Weinburg: "With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion." The SMA character ceased to be believable when he said that morality had to come from god, and I lost any faith I had that Sawyer was unbiased.

Towards the end of the book, when the inhabited planets are nearly destroyed by a proximate supernova and then miraculously saved, the book got a lot less subtle. I found it strange that everyone leaped to the conclusion that life from another planet had caused (or accelerated) the 'nova and the god entity stopped it from killing the universe's sentient life. It seemed strange to me that the characters never even considered the (more obvious and plausible) explanation that the star went 'nova because that's just what stars do and it was the aliens who stopped it. You can't tell me that it's impossible for the aliens to have blocked the supernova if you are assuming it's ok for them to have freaking caused it!!

The end of the book was less interesting, because it was written hurriedly and at a high level, but it also made me a lot less uncomfortable because it was clearly based on fiction rather than something science has actually dealt with. It was really nice that there was a reason for cancer after all, and that all of what the (non-SMA) characters believed all along was true.

This book is interesting and thought provoking. It did make me think about my assumptions about the world, but certainly not change them. I found most of the discussions between the main characters to be interesting. My main complaint is just that the author has an agenda and uses what I consider to be dirty fictional tricks to push it. I don't know that I would necessarily recommend this book because of its agenda and the aspects that frustrated me about it, but I did more or less enjoy reading it.


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