Robert Sawyer

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Robert Sawyer’s “The Neanderthal Parallax” – Faith, Scientism, and Humanity

neanderthal-sawyerI recently finished reading Robert Sawyer’s trilogy “The Neanderthal Parallax.” I found the plot intriguing, but the worldview issues the books brought up had great difficulties in how they were conveyed and the kind of hidden premises smuggled in. Every story has a worldview, and the worldview of these books was surprisingly hostile and disingenuous particularly to Christians. I have enjoyed Robert Sawyer’s work in the past, but feel forced to interact with these books in a fairly critical fashion. There will be SPOILERS in what follows. I’ll not summarize the plot, but interested readers can see summaries on Wikipedia. I have written a review of the books here.

Faith

Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of the books is that Sawyer seemingly did not put anything close to the amount of research and care into his portrayal of faith as he did his portrayal of biology, cosmology, and the like. On the latter topics, great detail is put into explaining aspects of various sciences and even invented science that Sawyer employs to support the plot. But people of faith are put up as frequently hypocritical but also lacking in erudition and thoughtfulness.

The central faith figure is Mary Vaughan, a specialist in ancient genetics. She consistently is put forth as the faithful counterweight to the faithlessness of the Neanderthals. However, she is a Roman Catholic who reveals objects to parts of her church’s official doctrines. She rejects the doctrine of original sin, for example. Having her put forward as the example of a religious person makes this even more difficult to swallow.  I’m not suggesting that there are no people who have great cognitive dissonance in their beliefs–obviously many people do. The problem is that Sawyer uses Mary as the central image of Christianity throughout the novels, but she is woefully inept at even holding to the faith she claims for herself.

At one point in Humans, Ponter is talking to Mary at the Vietnam Memorial about life after death(188-207). He simply asserts that if you can’t see something it doesn’t exist. But of course this is as absurd as he claims “Gliskins'” (homo sapiens sapiens as opposed to the Neanderthals) belief in things like God is. I cannot see my own thoughts, yet they exist. Neither can I observe other people’s mental life, yet I am not irrational in believing that the people around me are also having thoughts.

In Hominids, Ponter speaks to Mary about the Gliskins’ viewing of a Mass taking place and again basically asserts that Christian belief in deity is absurd on its face. Mary struggles to articulate even the slightest defense of the Incarnation and other central Christian doctrines. Again, plenty of believers would struggle in this fashion, but Sawyer uses Mary as a kind of foil for all of Christianity. She’s got the best defenses Christians have to offer, and she can’t do anything but stutter when challenges to her faith are raised.

At several points, Big Bang Cosmology is challenged as something the Gliskins cling to because of their necessity of belief in a finite universe to support deity. Yet not only was Big Bang Cosmology initially rejected by the scientific community for this and other reasons (and only later accepted due to the mounting evidence for it), but even were the universe infinite, it would hardly follow that it is uncreated, as Ponter asserted without challenge. Sawyer seems to be unaware of–or at least makes his characters ignorant of–the entirety of Scholastic thought on the topic of continuous creation. Thomas Aquinas admitted this as a possibility. Thus, for Christians it is hardly an either/or of either eternal universe or finite universe. Either fits in with various strands of historic Christian theology. But again, Sawyer seems to have been either ignorant of this or willfully ignoring it to portray belief in deity in a more negative and indefensible light.

All of this wouldn’t be as unfortunate if Sawyer didn’t put discussions like this forward as if they were the best defenses Christians could come up with for their positions. Had they been simply believers who were also uninformed or insincere, it would not be as great an error. But Sawyer paints these interactions as though the defenses are the best Christians can come up with. As we have just surveyed very briefly, this is mistaken. I enjoyed the stories Sawyer put forward here, but his portrayal of people of faith is deeply flawed.

Religious Experience

Sawyer uses the books to explore the notion of a God part of the brain which, when triggered, can set off religious experiences. In Humans, it is discovered that Gliskins have a part in their brain which is able to have “religious experiences” triggered through electromagnetic interaction, while Neanderthals do not have a corresponding part of their brains.

A central scene in the entire series is near the end of Hybrids in Times Square, New York City. The Earth’s magnetic field is resetting and it triggers religious experiences, UFO sightings, and the like among the crowd gathered as this part of the Gliskin (homo sapien, remember) brain is triggered. People are crying out to their deities, fending off invading aliens, and the like all over Times Square. From this, Mary Vaughan’s faith is finally shattered:

The Pope had some ‘splainin’ to do.
All religious leaders did…
“It’s all a crock, isn’t it?” [Mary] said [to Ponter].
…”Look, I’ve changed my mind. About our child… Our daughter should not have the God organ…” (389)

Thus, we find that in Sawyer’s universe, the notion that we can induce religious experiences in the brain (and other types of experience like UFOs) means that these experiences are baseless in reality. Mary decides that her child should not have the capacity to have religious experience because it is all “a crock.” The Pope and others have some “‘splainin’ to do.” Presumably they are expected to take this as some kind of major challenge to their respective faiths.

The main problem with this is that we can conceivably trigger all sorts of things in the brain. It does not seem too outlandish to suppose that if we triggered a certain part of the brain, we might bring up a memory. If we extrapolate more, Sawyer’s vision of electromagnetically triggered religious experiences could be on par with memories as well, which could (in this scenario) be triggered in the same way. Should we start to distrust our perceptions or memories if we are able to trigger them with various impulses? Certainly not. This way lies (true) madness: distrust in our own memories and senses.

So what is left? What does the notion that religious experiences might be triggered by various brain activity demonstrate? Just that: religious experience may be triggered through manipulation. Full stop. This doesn’t in any way undercut evidence for theism or other beliefs from religious experience any more than our capacity to trigger scents, sounds, or memories would undercut our rational basis for believing this things to be real (or about real events).

Social Ills?

Sawyer uses the trilogy to attack all kinds of perceived and real social ills, from our treatment of the environment to gun control laws, and the like. But the question is how can he realistically put forward any kind of inter-cultural critique when the whole view he puts forward in the books is ultimately subjective. Mary Vaughan suffers a grotesque act of violence in a rape scene, but this is only used as an instrument in the plot (see my discussion here). Any moral critique Sawyer offers through his characters falls hollow because his only basis for it is some vague concept of pragmatism and self-preservation. Thus, it seems there is no ultimate basis for his criticisms of various ethical wrongs, and his use of several of these as mere instruments to advance the plot betrays this inability to provide an objective basis for right and wrong.

Conclusion

I’ve already written much on the difficulties with worldview in these novels. There are many more I could discuss. Again, I want to emphasize that it is very true that many Christians and believers would struggle to articulate their faith, be unable to defend various aspects of it, and not agree with at least some teachings of their church body. The problem is that Sawyer portrays this as the best Christianity can come up with. I was deeply disappointed to see that the overall thrust of the books was ultimately a kind of attack on my own faith, without any reasonable portrayal or interaction with stronger versions of it. Would that Sawyer had put the time into his depiction and study of faith as he had with the science behind this science fiction. For further reading, check out my reviews of the trilogy.

Links

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Book Reviews: “The Neanderthal Parallax” – Hominids, Humans, and Hybrids by Robert Sawyer– I wrote a review of the trilogy on my other interests site. This review brings up some of the other worldview issues in the books, in addition to a brief summary of the plot outline and look at the science fiction elements.

Aliens that believe in God: The theological speculations in Robert Sawyer’s “Calculating God”– I write about a different Robert Sawyer book that I did enjoy quite a bit, Calculating God. I even wrote a second post discussing abortion, fundamentalism, and other issues the book raised.

Source

Robert Sawyer, Hominids (New York: Tor, 2002).

—, Humans (New York: Tor, 2003).

—, Hybrids (New York: Tor, 2003).

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Abortion, fundamentalists, physicalism, and evolution: Sawyer’s “Calculating God” and some contentious issues

I have already written on Sawyer’s Calculating God and how it presents–in great detail–the teleological argument. However, Sawyer’s scope in this masterwork of science fiction was not limited merely to a discussion of heady philosophical and scientific arguments for the existence of God. Instead, he touched on a whole spectrum of controversial issues, giving answers that were often embedded into the narrative itself, and always thought-provoking.

Fundamentalism, Religion, and Abortion

Sawyer lumps fundamentalism in with the discussions about abortion. Unfortunately, fundamentalism is portrayed in the worst possible light, not unlike in the work of Ben Bova. The religious fundamentalists here are extremists bent on destroying anything that counts as evidence against their worldview. As such, they are first introduced as blowing up an abortion clinic (86-87). Frequent readers of my site know that I write often from a pro-life perspective but also that I am very much opposed to violence in this opposition. Unfortunately, such principled opposition is not portrayed as an option in Sawyer’s work.

Interestingly the discussion of abortion in the book–intentionally or not–reveals some important details about the abortion debate. The alien, Hollus, notes the irony in being “pro-life” while also killing people who perform abortions. Yet in this discussion, Hollus reveals something of note:

Hollus looked at me [Tom Jericho, the main character] for the longest time. “These–what did you call them? Fundamentalist extremists? These fundamentalist extremists believe it is wrong to kill even an unborn child?”

“Yes” [Tom responded].

It may take a moment, but think about it: Sawyer expresses incredulity at this notion through the alien Hollus, yet in what may have been a Freudian slip, calls the unborn “children.” Yes, of course I’m opposed to killing an unborn child! In fact, this dialogue reveals exactly what is at stake in the abortion debate: if the unborn is not a human person, then who cares what you do with it? But if it is, then what relevant status difference is there between a child who is located inside the mother as opposed to outside the mother? Again, I’ve written more on this issue elsewhere, but it is important to note that even in expressing incredulity about this, there is a revealing phrase: child. It is an unborn child killed in abortion.

Disturbingly, the book touches on an issue very relevant to the personhood debate: children who are screened for disabilities. In one scene, Hollus is confronted by a child with Down’s Syndrome. He notes nonchalantly that a similar disease is almost always “screened for” in the wombs of the alien mothers (115-116). Unfortunately, this exact thing is happening right now. Unborn children who are shown as having Down’s Syndrome are being aborted inside their mothers at an alarming rate. I can’t help but see this as a modern eugenics movement: killing those we deem unworthy of life for a genetic reason. The logic that this entails is even more disturbing.

Of course the same fundamentalists who bombed the abortion clinic were also out to destroy any evidence for evolution. They sought to destroy a fossil exhibit which they saw as an affront to God. Thus, I can’t help but think that the way Sawyer presents fundamentalists is a bit disingenuous. Not all fundamentalists are incapable of reason and violent. Indeed, almost no fundamentalists are like this! Thankfully, there are positive examples of religious persons in Calculating God, including Tom’s wife.

In one poignant scene, Tom–who is dying from cancer–struggles with the fact that he has been confronted with evidence for the existence of a god. He considers famous atheists who purportedly went to death, all the while denying God’s existence to the end. Yet Tom himself gets down on his knees to pray. When he does so, though, he considers the words of someone from his past: “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” He can’t help but react violently against this:

Such bull. Such unmitigated crap. I felt my stomach knotting. Cancer didn’t happen for any purpose. It tore people apart; if a god did create life, then he’s a shoddy workman, churning out flawed, self-destructing products. “God,” [he prayed] “I wish–I wish you had decided to do some things differently.” (230-231)

Interestingly, in the book, cancer turns out to actually have a purpose… in the sense of being a side-effect of something great: the ability to fuse genetic codes with other intelligently designed species. Here it seems Sawyer has employed a great deal of imaginative techno-babble to explore the notion of a physical god, but it also has hints of a greater good theodicy akin to that of Swinburne.

Physicalism

The discussion of physicalism in Sawyer’s work is very brief, but enlightening. There is a variety of substance dualism here in the sense of emergence. That is, in Sawyer’s fictional world, intelligence and “mind” emerges from matter once complexity reaches a certain threshold. This is similar to the theories of emergence theorists like William Hasker. I can’t help but find this a bit strange. The people who argue for this type of theory are frequently the same who are very hostile to the notion of anything beyond the physical realm, yet they argue that something aphysical can indeed “emerge” from matter itself. Surely this is a leap of the imagination! That matter has creative force simply because it can reach a certain level of complexity seems to me patently absurd.

Not only that, emergence suffers from a second major problem. Namely, if our “mind” is simply a product of complexity in matter, then our “intelligence” is entirely supervenient upon physical complexity. Indeed, our intelligence is a product of that complexity and therefore cannot operate independently of that matter. Therefore, it is hard to see any kind of properties that our minds would have that would be capable of maintaining free will or even rational thought on this theory. Indeed, I have trouble seeing how this theory would be any different from physicalistic monism.

Evolution

The simple notion of evolution is a given in the book. No, it is not friendly to any who are unwilling to accept the notion of “macroevolution,” as the term is used in relevant literature. All the intelligent beings depicted in the book had evolved from a (potentially distinct) distant ancestor.

Darwinian evolution is simply assumed as truth in Calculating God. Or is it? The deity presented in the book is not very conducive to undirected evolution via natural selection and chance. It is portrayed as hurling asteroids at the planets where life was developing in order to press a “reset” button on the creatures that were currently dominant there. It also shown that this deity prevented other catastrophes from happening on these planets, thus interfering with natural selection. Indeed, the evolution depicted here is eerily similar to intelligent design, wherein the process is guided by a deity with a specific aim.

Indeed, one could argue that the entire book is an argument for intelligent design, albeit divorced from much of the theological framework that many of that movement’s frameworks operate within. Yet I can’t help but find this part of Sawyer’s argument (if, indeed, the intention is to make the argument that theists have it all wrong) is completely off. After all, the “god” of Sawyer’s universe is imperfect and concrete in the sense of physically existing. But this works against his concept of deity as being capable of coordinating the events it brings about. Granted, he could perhaps continue to increase the power of this deity beyond what is clearly outlined in the book, but there are hints that the deity is capable of knowing what is happening on places where it is not present, that it is capable of knowing what will happen with certain directions for evolution, and what will happen at the end of the universe. These work against the notion of God as a kind of blundering physical entity that just happens to be supremely powerful. Indeed, the god of calculating God may not be as hostile to Christianity as it initially seems. It serves as a pointer towards the true God of spacetime.

Links

Like this page on Facebook: J.W. Wartick – “Always Have a Reason”

Check out my other post on this book: Aliens that believe in God: The theological speculations of Robert Sawyer’s “Calculating God”

I have discussed the use of science fiction in showing how religious persons act. Check out Religious Dialogue: A case study in science fiction with Bova and Weber.

What would it mean if we discovered life? I have reflected on the possibility: Alien Life: Theological reflections on life on other planets.

Our Spooky Universe– I make the case for the intelligent design argument for the existence of God, which is heavily used throughout Calculating God.

Check out my other looks at popular level books. (Scroll down to see more!)

Source

Robert Sawyer, Calculating God (New York: Tor, 2000).

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Aliens that believe in God: The theological speculations of Robert Sawyer’s “Calculating God”

The interplay between worldviews and science fiction is very strong. In any writing, an author’s viewpoint will show through, but I think that it is particularly true in sci-fi. For in science fiction, the author is most frequently presenting a view of the world as it should be or as it should not be. The speculative future can be used as a foil through which the reader views reality in a new way. Often, science fiction will touch upon theological issues.

Robert Sawyer’s Calculating God utilizes science fiction in an extremely thought-provoking way to discuss the possibility and meaning of God in our universe. Before diving in I need to make to things clear. First, just because I analyze a book like this does not mean that I think that everything in it is theologically sound by any means (and believe me, it is not). Second, there will be extremely HUGE PLOT SPOILERS ahead. For those who are just interested in seeing how science fiction can explore faith issues, read on!

Fine Tuning

The most immediately striking and pervasive theme of Calculating God is that aliens show up on earth, and they believe in God. In fact, they take the existence of God to be a scientific certainty. The main character of the book, a paleontologist named Tom Jericho, is very skeptical throughout. Here’s the kicker, though, the aliens have been convinced of the existence of God through the evidence–specifically, the fine-tuning argument. Said argument is presented throughout the course of the book in interactions between Tom and Hollus, an alien paleontologist.

What is surprising is how much depth the book goes into while exploring the argument. Yes, Sawyer does fudge the argument a bit by allowing the aliens the possibility of a grand unified theory of science as well as a few other fictionalized aspects of the argument, but overall the fine-tuning argument he presents is very similar to the modern fine-tuning argument.

Not only that, but the characters Sawyer created go to great lengths to explore objections to and defenses of the fine tuning argument. For example, there is a discussion on p. 144ff (mass market paperback edition) in which Hollus and Tom discuss some objections to fine tuning. Tom is arguing against the probability of God:

“All the actions you ascribe to God could have been the doing of advanced aliens” [said Tom].

“There are… problems with your argument,” said Hollus, politely. “[E]ven if you dispense with the need for a god in recent events–events of the last few billion years; events after other conscious observers had emerged in this universe–you have done nothing to dispense with the relative strengths of the five fundamental forces [its science fiction, so there is an extra force], who designed the thermal and other properties of water, and so on. And therefore what you are doing is contrary to the razor of Occam you spoke of: you are increasing, not reducing the number of entities that have influenced your existence…”

The book is replete with debates like this, and the inevitable conclusion is that, shock of all shocks, God exists. I don’t say that sarcastically, I mean that I was genuinely surprised that the book affirmed God exists. But what kind of God?

God Exists… but?

It should be clear that in Calculating God, God is nowhere near the God of classical theism. In fact, one could almost argue that what Sawyer has offered here is a materialistic supplanting of God. The “god” of this work is essentially a super-powerful alien which is capable of swallowing the enormous energy output of a supernova, while also capable of designing our biology and fixing the constants of the universe during the early stages of the Big Bang.

God’s action is described purely in non-transcendent language. For example, the aliens confirm that god caused ice ages and mass extinctions on all the planets with intelligent life. The way this was accomplished was a matter of some speculation–perhaps God generated a dust cloud by using particles from across the galaxy to shield the planets from light and lower the temperature, or perhaps God redirected an asteroid or two to send them hurtling at the planets with life that needed a ‘jump start’ of evolution (146ff).

So why think that this is an image of god supplanting the classical theistic God? Well, clearly many who use the teleological argument are intending for it to point towards a creator God. What Sawyer has offered is a more naturalistic explanations of these events. Yes, there is a ‘god’ in the sense of a being capable of tampering with the very fabric of our universe, but that ‘god’ is itself trapped within the spatio-temporal boundaries of the known universe. In fact, god is said to subsist by recreating itself via a kind of reproductive method and passing one generation through a Big Crunch (think of a bouncing universe model).

Now what?

Calculating God offers a unique look at theology from a science fiction perspective. The fine tuning argument is presented in full force–even enhanced by some fudging of the science–and it leads to the inevitable conclusion that god exists. Yet this ‘god’ is not at all amenable to the god of Christianity or classical theism. So what should we do with this book?

Well, it is important to note that it is a work of fiction. The author clearly adds in some extra ‘fluff’ to make the fine tuning argument more powerful than it is (and I think it is quite powerful as it stands). And really Sawyer’s shoehorning in of a materialistic entity that is able to fiddle with physics boils down to hand-waving. Again, it is fiction, but it is important to note that Sawyer’s attempt to supplant the God of classical theism simply doesn’t work. Think of it this way: how would a purely physical being, however powerful, manage to transcend the physical universe in such a way as to literally rewrite the laws of physics? Extremely interesting science fiction? Yes. Compelling argument? No.

So where are we left? Sawyer does present the fine tuning argument in a way that is quite compelling, even when one strips away all the layers of fiction over it. It seems to me that, at a minimum, readers are left with a rock in their shoe: how do we explain away all this fine tuning without going beyond the cosmos? Sawyer’s own proffered answer, while entertaining fiction, remains that: fiction.

Other Issues

I have not yet even begun to delve into the depths of Sawyer’s Calculating God. The book covers an extremely broad array of topics related to science and faith as well as the secular-religious [false] dichotomy.  For example, he discusses abortion in a few places, and I think the view the characters favor is very inconsistent. There is also some clear portrayal of the religious “other” as only a fundamentalist who seeks to halt scientific advancements. Yes, Sawyer panders to Christians in a few places, but the overall look at religious persons seems to be fairly negative (apart from Tom’s wife).  I wish I could do justice to each of these topics, so I think I may follow this post up with another touching on more. For now…

Conclusion

Ultimately, Sawyer’s work is a simply phenomenal read. The amount of scientific, ethical, and religious issues upon which it touches is stunning, and readers will be forced to deal with the argument. Sawyer has done an excellent job using fiction for what I think it is called to do: inspire, entice, and force thought. Readers will be uncomfortable. The work will challenge people to really think about the arguments, and to think about the offered solutions.

Links

I have discussed the use of science fiction in showing how religious persons act. Check out Religious Dialogue: A case study in science fiction with Bova and Weber.

What would it mean if we discovered life? I have reflected on the possibility: Alien Life: Theological reflections on life on other planets.

Our Spooky Universe– I make the case for the intelligent design argument for the existence of God, which is heavily used throughout Calculating God.

Check out my other looks at popular level books. (Scroll down to see more!)

Source

Robert Sawyer, Calculating God Mass Market Paperback Edition (New York: TOR, 2000).

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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