Sunday, December 13, 2020

Book Review: Outgrowing God

The year 2020 will certainly go down as a memorable one,  given our struggles to cope with a global pandemic.  When not out and about -- which was often -- I managed to pick up a great habit of reading at least 30 minutes every day.  This practice has given me relaxation, joy of continually learning and new insights to life. 

Of numerous reads this year, I felt compelled to write a review on Outgrowing God, by Richard Dawkins.  If memory serves, I wrote a review on his earlier work, The God Delusion, back in 2009.  Indeed the two books have many similarities and it feels a bit deja vu to read his latest e-book. 

Since taking a more leisurely stride in reading, no notes were taken along the way.  Relying on raw memory, Dawkins' key reasoning on why we do not need a god was: 
  • Assuming the biblical recordings of Abrahamic God (in Judaism, Christianity and Islam) were largely accurate, and that itself is a big "if", the Almighty is simply too cruel, jealous and unforgiving to be the god we wish Him to be.  For instance, the stories of God induced wars, along with human and animal sacrifices, paint a dark picture of the all-knowing.  Moreover many social norms and laws of the time were reflected in the stories from the Bible -- the treatment of women as men's properties is one prime example -- making the world's most popular book anything but timeless.  This leads one to believe the biblical writings are merely accounts from 2000 years ago by authors with motives.  And the motives were often political.  Just look at how the Roman kings used Christianity as a means to control their citizens.  It is also not difficult to tie the "success" of a religion and its god(s) to the might of the civilizations that worshipped them.  The colonization of the world by seafaring European powers in the last 300 years, brought Christianity to almost all corners of the globe.  If China or India were the victors in conquests, the religious landscape in today's world would very much differ.  Does this make you wonder why anyone should take a leap of faith in any religion? 
  • The other argument for atheism involves the age old debate between grand design vs evolution.  This topic was also explored in the The God Delusion. The designer camp claims the universe (and life) is so elegant that it surely must have a designer. Most people give God the credit.  The evolution camp claims however, that there is an alternative to the top-down approach to life's creation.  The bottom-up approach, via natural selection over eons, allows for the creation of sophisticated lifeforms one step at a time.  After all why else would God create a jaguar, the fastest hunter on land, and then an antelope who can hop sharp turns out of harm's way?  Perhaps the two theories can best be summed up with an actual example.  Consider the famous cathedral Sagrada Familia. Although it has been in construction for hundreds of years, there are complete blueprints to every detail that will ensure its completion one day.  Now consider a termites mound, which looks quite like an exquisite mini cathedral from the outside.  The termites surely has no blueprint to follow in building their castle.  However, engrained in their DNA is a number of simple life choice patterns they follow to contribute their building blocks to the mound.  Over time and combined with the simplistic behavior of many other worker termites, a complex structure can be erected even by relatively unsophisticated organisms. 
  • The book goes on to say evolution may have a part to play in evolving our need to believe in "agents" and superstitions, as they are instrumental in ensuring our survival.  The ability to fear is a good thing when we were easy prey to so many animals in the wild.  Even if there is no god, it is still important from an evolution perspective for the mass public to believe and fear one. 
Personally, I find various concepts in this book repetitive of The God Delusion.  Dawkins tried hard however, to use different examples to illustrate his arguments from over a decade ago. Although his arguments are sound in general, they are not bulletproof when drilled.  For instance, there is no elegant answer to the question of who started off the Big Bang. In the end, we are left to wonder whether there is indeed a creator but maybe it is not the kind-hearted god we should all revere deep down. 


Saturday, June 6, 2020

Monty Hall Problem from a Movie

Time flies and it has been two years since my last post.  Somehow this important pastime has not seen much investment of my time in Hong Kong.

I was watching the movie 21 the other night, which was about a team of MIT students breaking bank at Vegas casinos.  The movie was entertaining as it has (some) action, romance, a twist, and most importantly, math, packed into two hours of lights-out.  I learnt how to improve your odds at Blackjack, by working in a team and assigning a count to a table based on the number of dealt high and low cards. 

The part that really caught my attention however, was when professor Rosa was teaching the Monty Hall problem through his interaction with his A-student and soon-to-be recruit, Ben Campbell.  This problem is often depicted in the form of a game show.  The grand prize, a car, is waiting behind one of three closed doors.  When the contestant picks Door A, the game show host, who knows exactly which door the car is behind, opens a door that is empty, say, Door C.  At this point, only doors A and B remain.  The host offers the contestant a chance to switch his pick to Door B.  Should he take the bait?  The answer is a definite yes.

Why?  Before any door is opened, the probability of the contestant picking the correct door is 1/3. No contention here.  This means that the probability of the car parked behind either of the other two doors (B and C) is 2/3.  So far so good. By opening Door C which leaves someone empty-handed, the probability of Door A being the winning door is still 1/3 because there is no change in information for this door.  However, when the empty Door C is opened, there is new information in the "other two doors" category.  The odds of 2/3 now goes solely to Door B. Hence your odds for switching from Door A to B have suddenly doubled!

Many people failed to comprehend the above when the solution was first presented.  My guess is most of your friends will probably not do the switch, even after you attempt to explain the math behind this - I have tried it on a few without success.  Anyway, please heed my advice if you do end up in a game show offering cars behind closed doors!