December 28, 2011

The only real difference between the Christian conception of hell and the atheist view of death is that the atheist doesn’t believe he will be aware that he has ceased to exist in any meaningful way once he passes.

Merry Christmas All!

December 25, 2011

Science, Faith, and the Multiverse

December 24, 2011

Good bit from Alan P. Lightman in Harpers on the overlap of theoretical physics and faith. He shares what I think is an apt analogy about where we are currently as observers of the universe:

If the multiverse idea is correct, then the historic mission of physics to explain all the properties of our universe in terms of fundamental principles—to explain why the properties of our universe must necessarily be what they are—is futile, a beautiful philosophical dream that simply isn’t true. Our universe is what it is because we are here. The situation could be likened to a school of intelligent fish who one day began wondering why their world is completely filled with water. Many of the fish, the theorists, hope to prove that the entire cosmos necessarily has to be filled with water. For years, they put their minds to the task but can never quite seem to prove their assertion. Then, a wizened group of fish postulates that maybe they are fooling themselves. Maybe there are, they suggest, many other worlds, some of them completely dry, and everything in between…

The wizened old fish conjecture that there are many other worlds, some with dry land and some with water. Some of the fish grudgingly accept this explanation. Some feel relieved. Some feel like their lifelong ruminations have been pointless. And some remain deeply concerned. Because there is no way they can prove this conjecture. That same uncertainty disturbs many physicists who are adjusting to the idea of the multiverse. Not only must we accept that basic properties of our universe are accidental and uncalculable. In addition, we must believe in the existence of many other universes. But we have no conceivable way of observing these other universes and cannot prove their existence. Thus, to explain what we see in the world and in our mental deductions, we must believe in what we cannot prove.

Atheists often point to science as the methodology that will free us from reliance on faith – but as I have pointed out previously, atheists have to take a number of aspects of reality by faith or simply as ‘brute facts’. And as our knowledge of the universe expands so to do the number aspects of it that must simply be accepted, since they cannot be explored through observation or experimentation. The ‘multiverse’ appears to be one of those aspects of reality.

While it is undoubtedly true that science has many advantages over other methods of exploring the natural world; it appears certain though that the elimination of the need for faith isn’t one of them.

Friday Fun-ness – Christmas Edition

December 23, 2011

The Sugar Plum Fairy from the Nutcracker by P.Tchaikovsky – on a ‘glass harp’. I wonder if this started as a party trick?

Kim Jong Il and Sam Harris

December 22, 2011

The recent death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il brought to mind a claim by Sam Harris that I had wanted to write about some time ago, but never found the time to. Sam Harris’ statement was in his September blog post on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. He wrote:

Whatever else may be wrong with our world, it remains a fact that some of the most terrifying instances of human conflict and stupidity would be unthinkable without religion. And the other ideologies that inspire people to behave like monsters—Stalinism, fascism, etc.—are dangerous precisely because they so resemble religions. Sacrifice for the Dear Leader, however secular, is an act of cultic conformity and worship. Whenever human obsession is channeled in these ways, we can see the ancient framework upon which every religion was built. In our ignorance, fear, and craving for order, we created the gods. And ignorance, fear, and craving keep them with us.

Here Harris engages in unprecedented sophistry. Obviously in and of itself the fact that Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot and the Ils killed tens of millions of people and imprisoned tens of millions more is itself ‘evil’. It is in fact the worst sort of evil in human history. And the regimes that conducted this evil did so without ever resorting to a belief in God or gods – which is the ordinary definition of a religion. Harris of course realizes this but to say so would show that atheism is as capable of atrocities as any other belief, so he twists that definition. Instead of the ordinary view of religion, Harris re-defines religion as any act of cultic conformity and worship of a leader. In saying this Harris displays an egregious, and sadly all too typical weakness amongst New Atheists, that being ignorance of history. The Marxist ideology which led to these regimes was wholly secular – and the movements which installed Stalin and Mao and the Ils weren’t mere devotions to particular leaders, but were the result of the acceptance of the truth of Marxist ideals. These leaders gained power because of the acceptance of a bad secular political and economic philosophy; they didn’t impose this philosophy on the societies in which they ruled. The fact that Harris misses this is wrong-headed and dangerous because it is precisely this sort of ignorance that allows such ideals to grow and metastasize into monstrous regimes.

Contra Harris, the existence of places like the Soviet Union and North Korea show us the critical importance of transcendent beliefs. Rights and liberties that don’t emanate from an immaterial order (as those in the US do) invariably must emanate from the state, and the state is invariably subject to the corruption of human ambition. This is why in declaring their independence from Britain the American founders didn’t appeal to democracy or science or economics in and of themselves, but instead rooted the rights liberties of man in an endowment by a transcendent Creator. That is in fact the only reasonable place from which certain rights can emanate.

North Korea and South Korea are perfect exemplars of these principles in action. Though not explicit in its Constitution, historically the South Korean notion of rights developed as a product of Western (particularly American) influences on political thought. Rights in South Korea are inherent, not bestowed by the state. North Korea on the other hand was modeled after a Soviet style totalitarian society. The ascendency of the Dear Leader in North Korea was a product of the dominance of the secular state not particular religious behaviors. Such ‘cultic conformity’ occurs whenever humans have no authority to answer to but their own coupled with the power to carry out their will.

The only bulwark against such monstrous behavior is the very thing Sam Harris and his co-secularists would eliminate – a set of transcendent truths rooted in the nature of God and his purposes for humanity.


December 22, 2011

“Philosophers and theologians often cite World War 1 as the end of “the modern era,” a period of optimism in the progress of science and the perfectibility of human nature and society.  The “progressives” of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries believed — with much justification — that the irresistible march of scientific knowledge would offer not only mastery of the physical world but also mastery of the psychological and social worlds.  We were extricating ourselves from the backwardness and the superstitions of the pre-modern world (the achievements and the philosophical and scientific syntheses of the “Dark Ages” prior to the “Enlightenment” were conveniently forgotten), and were forging a new world order, spreading the light of knowledge (and therefore peace and joy) through Europe’s far-flung colonies around the globe.

World War 1 shattered that belief.  It was the most scientifically developed nations, and the most politically developed ones as well, that fought each other until they were savagely red in tooth and claw.  In the Great War, science was the great leveler, the machine that mowed down a generation and cared nothing for title and rank.  Europe staggered out of World War 1 far less confident in its own virtue, and far less confident that the world was growing brighter with every passing decade.”

– Timothy Dalrymple, War Horse: A Modern Epic on the End of Modernity

Havel and Hitchens

December 20, 2011

With the deaths this last week of these two great voices for freedom, there have been many remembrances and much analysis on the impact of each man. In a recent article in the American Spectator, writer Paul Kengor does a brief yet insightful comparison of the two men highlighting the understanding Havel had that Hitchens lacked:

Václav Havel was not just a man of politics and intellect, but a man of the arts, theater, literature — and, yes, of God. He exhorted the West and the wider post-modern world to seek “transcendence.” Hitchens might have figured God “the ultimate totalitarian,” but Havel saw God as the solution to totalitarianism, as tyranny’s antidote, as the fountainhead of freedom. This was something Havel deeply admired about America and its roots — its fusion of faith and freedom and the recognition that the latter cannot genuinely exist without the former. “The Declaration of Independence states that the Creator gave man the right to liberty,” Havel concluded in his July 4, 1994 lecture at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, home of that very sentiment. “It seems man can realize that liberty only if he does not forget the One who endowed him with it.”

While it is proper to call Hitchens a crusader against tyranny, he only slowly abandoned the Marxist beliefs which dominated his youth. When Havel began his anti-communist activities in Czechoslovakia, Christopher Hitchens was working as a student at a Cuban ‘summer camp’ with his fellow leftist students helping to support the burgeoning Castro regime. While Václav Havel sat in prison for voicing opposition to the repressive Communist regime, Hitchens was writing for The Nation, penning critiques of American foreign policy, much of which was aimed at curbing the spread of Soviet sponsored communism. Havel was a man of action in the middle of the fight; Hitchens was an observer who rarely suffered for his anti-authoritarian views.

In many ways this explains why Havel, despite not being a believing Christian understood the need for transcendence in the postmodern world; mere words are not sufficient to battle the tyranny of the state. Such a battle requires truths that are rooted in permanence beyond the material world. Hitchens on the other hand saw the threat of an oppressive state but his militant atheism never allowed him to articulate a substantive basis for human rights and liberty nor did he need to – he was comfortably ensconced in the West where such rights were already recognized.

As a result, in the end Václav was a reformer while Hitchens was a political gadfly.