The God DelusionThe God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A brutal and unforgiving analysis of everything related to faith with illuminating discussions on the possibilities of freedom from it. The book starts with what exactly faith is, what it does for us, what it can make possible and then goes on to discuss why the possible benefits of faith are small and easily managed-without while the potential problems are huge and dangerous. It contains a satisfying discussion of atheism and agnosticism and is generally considered to be recommended reading for anyone interested in free-thought and skepticism.
I would have given it 5 stars. But I felt that the book should have more thoroughly dealt with the humanitarian activities of religious bodies, the kind of benefits they have delivered for our society and the price of those gains.
A lot of religious people tend to find solace and justification for mistaken beliefs in the apparent goodness of faith-based charities. The long-term impact of such bodies and the ignoring of secular systems that help the underprivileged that it causes need to be dealt with in a book that seeks to comprehensively disprove the notion that religions are good.

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Ayurveda and the myth of “natural” medicine

There are a lot of ideas circulating in our society some of which don’t have a scientific basis. More often than not they are propagated through word of mouth, anecdotal evidence peddled by people who stand to gain from it’s spread, passed from one generation to the next as ancient “wisdom”, hypocritical media etc..

Besides, people really don’t have the time or the inclination to check the veracity of each and every thing they hear anyway. Sometimes, we got to trust what people say. This makes our perspective of things as shaped by society susceptible to statistical bias and misinformation.

India is a free-for-all country where practically anything goes. The judges decide where Ram was born 6000 years ago, we have the govt. standing by while religious organizations deliberately spread lies for the purpose of attracting poor desperate pilgrims and milking them for their money, where national parties oppose projects of national importance on the grounds that it might damage ancient bridges which were supposedly, as described in a fairy tale, built by “monkey men”, where Homeopathy is a recognized system of medicine requiring qualified doctors etc..

The govt., probably in it’s eagerness to appear tolerant and to avoid trouble with anyone has placed the onus of separating the crap from the real deal on the common man. And people have far more pressing needs than to settle such questions by conducting personal research especially in a country where starvation and desperate poverty are so widespread. People are forced to make choices only when they are in trouble. I am not saying that such things don’t happen in other countries. I just think that we are not being as strict as we need to be.

I had once written about Homeopathy and how it has managed to stage a come-back and is now in full force in our country in this Information-Age when every body of scientific literature worth it’s salt has thoroughly debunked it.

Ayurveda

Aurveda in India comes under the Department of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yunani, Siddha and Homeopathy). It is said that one’s company is reflective of one’s character. Well, then, that doesn’t make ayurveda look too good, does it?

Ayurveda is a 5,000 yr old system of medicine having it’s roots in the Vedas. Many people take the fact that it is such an ancient system of medicine based on an equally ancient text to mean that it has withstood the test of time. But, that is not really logical.

It is more or less obvious that the ancient people had very little understanding of the biochemistry of the human body and that they were limited by contemporary technology(if at all there was any) from achieving any deeper insight into the complexities of the physical processes behind life. This is in evidence in the writings which involve demons and simplistic theories of disease.

Any average person today has access to several orders of magnitude more information than a guy who roamed around 5,000 yrs ago. They were humans like us, puzzled by the same questions and same mysteries that any child would be puzzled by. They came up with some plausible explanations that seemed to make sense to them. They described their thoughts in their literary works and millenia later, these works have come to be regarded as textbooks containing unassailable facts.

Instead of applying rigorous tests to the material subsequent generations came to regard it as sacred truth. Now, Ayurvedic practitioners don’t feel the need for empirical proof for their system of medicine. They just “intuitively” know that it is right and that is all that matters. After all, if you feel it’s right what else is required?

When some system is based upon gratuitous BS that has been shown to be clearly wrong or at least too simplistic, then the chances of it being effective are pretty low. If someone came and told you,

Hey, I am a computer repair man! I have a theory of computers. Every computer is a perfect divine balance of the Pancha Dhathus. They are sand, metal, plastic, wood and soul(some unholistic, unmystic, useless-stic people call it software!).

An imbalance involving the above things manifests itself in the computer being unhappy and acting like a POS(Piece-of-S**t). Based on this I have compiled thousands of pages containing big words which describe a new holistic healing method that can be used to set right misbehaving computers.

Also, it must be said that different computers have different natures. A calculator is less “soul-y” than say… a Mac which is mostly just soul. So, they have to be handled differently. You of course wouldn’t be able to do it as you require a sharply honed intuition to do it.

Do you think you would want to entrust such a guy  with your computer? Obviously, it is highly unlikely that he has a way to solve any problem. But, it is quite possible that in all that stuff he has written up, by chance, there might be something which might be mildly helpful. If you get some time you might want to go through it. But, wouldn’t depend upon him to run your enterprise systems.

No Side-Effects!

A lot of people have been taken in by this promise of “natural/herbal” treatment that is completely without side-effects and that are in-tune with the body. They delay or withhold treatment sometimes for conditions that can be controlled or treated easily using modern medicine. They keep putting up with the pain and convince themselves that their body is regaining the “balance” and eventually the disease just goes away on it’s own. But, not always! Sometimes, it horribly maims or even kills them. I have seen how people with Arthritis, Cancer, infectious diseases and other such illnesses stick to Ayurveda and end up with irreversible complications and sometimes even reduced chances of survival because of lack of timely medical intervention.

Medicine is not something that healthy people take. It is something that temporarily does something to the body to try and help it to recover. Thus, it has an effect. Now, medicines vary widely in their specificity and some might have other unwanted effects. Doctors prescribe a drug when they think that the benefits outweigh the side-effects. Most of the ayurvedic medicines don’t have side-effects because they don’t have effects. And the ones that do have effects generally tend to be toxic simply because they have been chosen based on bad science.

The dead people never walk around bad-mouthing ayurveda. But, if a single guy finds that his sickness goes away after he started taking ayurvedic medicines, he will talk about it to everyone.

When something claims that diseases can arise due to demonic possession then it should trigger your internal “crap-sense”. When it uses heavy metals and other demonstrably toxic materials in it’s concoctions you should be even more alarmed. When it gets banned in the EU and the US you should be scared of it.

Ayurveda selects medicines based on some assumptions regarding the functioning of the human body. These assumptions are in clear disagreement with science. Thus, the selections are likely to be wrong and ineffective and possibly, even harmful. These kinds of assumptions are used by a lot of other Alternative Systems like Chinese Herbal Medicine which is notorious for using animal parts that have resulted in hunting down of endangered species, acupuncture, Faith Healing, Osteopathy, etc.. All of them have been shown to be hollow and ineffective when properly tested in blinded, controlled studies using statistically sound techniques.

What one needs to realize is that intuition really doesn’t work as a means of arriving at the truth when it comes to stuff that are beyond the realm of everyday experience. This is simply because intuition is not something magical. It is something that is shaped by our experiences and a trait that helps us to take quick decisions in our day to day life. You can use it to come up with new ideas. But, not to test for it’s validity.

You could figure out how to use a computer application using your intuition because it was designed by human beings for use by human beings. Thus, you can easily make educated guesses and quickly figure it out. But, the human body was not designed by anyone and it does not accomplish things in an optimum fashion. A lot of the responses are irrational and inexplicable if you were to assume that it is perfect.

Ayurveda is rightly categorised as a “complementary” system of medicine and no one should rely on it as a primary treatment option. People should also be careful about taking herbal remedies as they might contain dangerous substances. There really is nothing called “natural” medicine. Everything ultimately comes from nature itself and there is no guarantee that everything natural is safe. To figure out what to take, it is best that we rely on the most rigorously tested and accepted bodies of knowledge.

There might be some remedies and rare herbs that have been found to work through trial and error. These herbs must be studied, their active ingredients identified, tested and then they should incorporated into modern medicine. There is really no justification for maintaining separate systems with different standards.

There is no alternative medicine. There is only medicine that works and medicine that doesn’t work.

Richard Dawkins

Lastly, there is this idea that people in the olden times did not suffer from illnesses and that it was probably because of traditional medicine.  The average life expectancy has been consistently increasing and when people live longer they just tend to get more diseases. Modern medicine has not been adequately appreciated at least in some circles for the improvement in the quality of life that it has brought about.

The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins

This book was bought by AKP from Flipkart and it arrived on Friday afternoon. Since he was reading another book, he let me read it first. The 437 page book was so riveting that I finished it by Saturday evening. That is the fastest 400 pages I have ever read.

About the book:

Dawkins is a biologist and has written several books which deal with the subtleties of evolution and the processes by which natural selection operates. Some of these books are The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, Climbing Mount Improbable, River Out Of Eden etc.. But after writing all these books, he realized that a large number of people still really don’t know what evolution is or it’s explanatory and predictive powers. The natural curiosity of these people becomes victim to ideas like Creationism and Intelligent Design, pushed by pseudo-scientists and religious charlatans.

So, he wrote this book which should logically have been written first. The book in classic Dawkins style spreads out the evidence first and provides plausible reasons further backed up by a whole array or independent observations, step-by-step strengthening the position until there can be no reasonable doubt about the fact that evolution is. The evidence is just overwhelming. And, as if that were not enough, he writes about various experiments that were conducted that showed evolution in action right before our own eyes.

While I would like to write a summary of the book, I am sure it wouldn’t do justice to it, as the book is itself a summary and can’t possibly be compressed any further. The insight and clarity that is characteristic of a book by Dawkins would be ill captured by any shorter version of it.

While I always had my reservations about the story of Adam and Eve and for that matter all creation stories, I also never really knew enough about evolution and the kind of evidence that has been accumulated to date to support it. This resulted in me sometimes being curious about more subtle ways that God nowadays is alleged of using to try and bend things to his will, like Intelligent Design, Irreducible Complexity and other such stuff. The book in this respect was a total eye opener.

Besides that, the book is also highly entertaining and has a few anecdotes that are truly memorable. The arguments that creationists provide to support their world-view when confronted with all the evidence are really funny and make for interesting reading.

The greatest thing about this book though is it is filled with cool stuff. I was a computer student and while I don’t regret that decision I must admit that I did not know a great deal about nature. The myriad kinds of animals introduced in the book and the tantalising facts about more common animals like the dog, dolphin, fish, etc. were truly mind blowing. The scientific explanation of various dating techniques based on tree rings, radioactive materials, fossils, genetic evidence etc. were also very enlightening.

A discussion on the arms -race between animals and the kind of morality that nature displays wound down the book nicely while at  the same time stabbing the dead theories a couple of times more.

And by the way there are some totally awesome pictures in the book.

This is an extremely compressed picture of the Hillis Tree of Life which tries to show the evolutionary relationship between various species. This tattoo is on the back of Clare D’Alberto who is a PhD student in Australia.

A more expanded Hillis Tree(3000 species)  is available here for download.

A highly recommended read for anyone curious enough.

India’s Unending Journey by Mark Tully

I go to the Public Library at Ernakulam with a list of books that I want to read. But, I can almost never find the ones that I am looking for. Instead I just pick up something with a nice cover and end up reading it. I don’t know what will happen to my reading habit once the classes are over. I might become more discriminating and eventually just stop reading altogether.

I have recently been reading a lot of books which have tried to elucidate the necessity and advantages of maintaining a scientific outlook on life. So, I decided that maybe I would read a book that has a different message.

Mark Tully was  a BBC correspondent in India who had a great fascination with Indian culture and ideas, which he says might have been due to his close ties with India since he was very young. From the beginning the book emphasises the importance of believing in a higher power and of religion in our lives. He describes various religious festivals in India, the myths and ideas behind them and the messages that they try to spread. He also tries to drive home the point that all religions speak of the same God or whatever that he calls  a “Higher Power” and that the teachings of the various religions are true in their own peculiar way.

He criticizes the arrogance of scientists and has even named a few including Dawkins.  He says that they discount the value of intuition and “other” ways of knowing things and says that there are certain things that science doesn’t understand. He also admits that he has been unable to obtain even a rudimentary grasp of the field and that he feels as if he is on shaky ground when he argues with people with intellectual leanings.

He also describes his childhood days and the role of the school that he studied at(Marlborough) on himself. He feels that the rationalism and the competitive attitude espoused by the school is not entirely correct. He also describes his attempts at priesthood and the reasons for giving it up.

Mark Tully has also tried to spell out his position regarding economics. He warns people against dogmatic belief in any particular economic model and emphasises the importance of trying to find the middle path.

The underlying message of the whole book is that people need to find balance in everything. That everyone should be open minded. We should value our religious traditions and by way of example he sites the examples of the religious festivals in India and the devotion of the pilgrims, which he thinks makes them happy. He also says that the replacement of religion by materialism as God has resulted in moral bankruptcy in western countries. He feels that secularists are responsible for provoking believers into religious fanaticism and that the state should try to give due to credence to the religious beliefs of people.

There where a lot of other things mentioned in the book. But, I don’t think they added to the ideas that a person might absorb from reading the book.

My take on it:

When reading the book one has this strong feeling that the author is trying to take credit for his failings. He also pushes a very strange kind of reasoning where he admits that he knows nothing about the opposition, but tries to keep harping on how happy the Masses at church made him. He also appears to labour hard to balance his belief in Christianity and his  belief in the validity of other religions, most of which seem to push contradicting ideas.

His treatment of tantric wisdom can impress only the most unread and suggestible of people. While he says that people should not fall for dogmatic beliefs as far as economic theory is concerned and should instead look at what works and what does not, he seems to be glibly oblivious as to how that can sit well with religion which is nothing more than dogma and unreasoning belief.

While he blames religious riots on the poor understanding of religions, he never provides any convincing explanation as to why people should not believe their religious texts literally. He also does not give a convincing explanation of how he balances his religious convictions with that of others. The position that he proposes is a highly metastable one and he never seems to realize that religion in itself can never provide an internal check on itself as it is based on belief which by definition is trust in something that cannot be verified.

His admiration of the vulgar and obscene displays of mass idiocy that some of the festivals in India are, is somewhat sickening despite the vague and “intuitive” explanations he provides. He never seems to grasp that ordinary people with their limited resources and time that they can devote to self-delusion and “doublespeak (1984 by George Orwell)” might be easily lured into superstition and admiration of fake and shallow phenomena. He does not understand or admire the real mysteries and suggests that people do what he has done, which is be amazed by their own ignorance.

He also does not think along common lines about how religion has stymied and sometimes just completely overshadowed debate and action on the real issues, and worse, does not even provide any reasons for his observations.

Reading the book will convince anyone about the difficulties of believing blindly and being human at the same time.

Someone also needs to explain the difference between culture and religion. India has a very different culture and this has influenced what some call it’s religions. This has kind of confused Mark Tully.