Life, Atheism and Complex Adaptive Systems

God the Father by Julius Schnorr, 1860

God the Father by Julius Schnorr, 1860

One of EC’s readers recently accused WC of being an atheist.

That’s kind of a personal comment. And largely irrelevant to the issues WC raises in this blog.

That same reader demanded that WC “come out and admit” that WC is an atheist.

A private message to that reader: Get stuffed.

A public message to WC’s other readers: let’s talk about this.

But WC is willing to talk about the larger issue. Almost six years ago now, WC was privileged to spend part of a day birding with Dr. Murray Gell-Mann. Among the many, many topics that came up as we drove around interior Alaska looking for Dr. Gell-Mann’s target birds, was the subject of atheism. It actually arose in  discussion of the roots of the word; Gell-Mann is a skilled linguist as well as a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. The discussion wasn’t on the Greek ἄθεος (atheos), meaning “without god(s),” (From ἀ- (a-not) + θεός (theósgod)) but rather on where the Greeks got the word idea from. Was it a thematicization of Proto-Indo-European *dʰh₁s-? Or did it come from Phyrigian δεως (deōsto the gods)? The subject was interrupted and never resumed by the sighting of a Hoary Redpoll.

But WC’s impression is that Gell-Mann seems to see nothing to discuss in the entire God debate. The index in his best known lay book, The Quark and the Jaguar, does not contain an entry for “God.” Gell-Mann calls life a “complex adaptive system” which produced interesting phenomena such as the jaguar and Murray Gell-Mann, who discovered the quark. To paraphrase Herman Wouk, Gell-Mann is a Nobel-class tackler of problems, but for him the existence of God is not one of them.

For folks like Gell-Mann, the existence or non-existence of God is a meaningless question, almost a waste of time. it’s far less interesting than how a complex adaptive system like life came into being. Among biologists who study complex adaptive systems, there are some who think that such systems and an inescapable consequence of evolution. It’s much more interesting than an abstract, unfalsifiable issue like the existence of God.

For the most part, WC’s thinking runs with Gell-Mann’s here. The existence of non-existence of God is a distraction involving something that cannot be proven or disproven. Why waste neurons on the issue. Focus instead on studying life itself.

At the same time, WC does occasionally enjoy acting as a provocateur. And there are few things in American culture better guaranteed to be provocative than a debate over the existence of God. It may be the unreconstructed lawyer in WC. Sometimes a sharp, informed debate can be fun. But that’s a different critter than a world view.

But, generally, a debate about the existence of God isn’t either informed or rational, and rapidly devolves into fallacies and the waste of bandwidth. And that’s in the best case. Bear in mind that as recently as 400 years ago, WC’s world view would have gotten him burned at the stake.

But there’s little point in WC’s ignoring his own observations. Let’s not waste any more bandwidth on the subject of atheism.



4 thoughts on “Life, Atheism and Complex Adaptive Systems

  1. Very Good, Sir… by the by Happy New Year to you and your other half! Thank you for your entertaining blog, the photos, and posts!

  2. I agree. Why waste time on whether there is a god or not, and the rabbit hole arguments that go nowhere? I’ve always told friends who want to engage in this mental/emotional conversation they ought to get a more interesting obsession.

  3. WC, I’ve always enjoyed your commentary but WOW! Birding with Murray Gell-Mann? You’re my new hero! Happy New Year!

  4. What jdf65 said! And speaking of new years, what a timely good time to have an eight hundredth birthday celebration coming up in June! Happy early birthday Magna Carta!

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