Philosophy

9th May
2008
written by simplelight

In the first week of my freshman year in college I went to a talk that was given by 4 people who had been disabled as a result of attempted abortions. Their mother had subsequently given birth to them. This video reminded me of that formative hour of my life.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yLi_Q74RH9Q]

1st April
2008
written by simplelight

Sixteen months ago, Arthur C. Brooks, a professor at Syracuse University, published “Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism.” The surprise is that liberals are markedly less charitable than conservatives.

Here are some of the findings:

  • Although liberal families’ incomes average 6 percent higher than those of conservative families, conservative-headed households give, on average, 30 percent more to charity than the average liberal-headed household ($1,600 per year vs. $1,227).
  • Conservatives also donate more time and give more blood.
  • Residents of the states that voted for John Kerry in 2004 gave smaller percentages of their incomes to charity than did residents of states that voted for George Bush.
  • Bush carried 24 of the 25 states where charitable giving was above average.
  • In the 10 reddest states, in which Bush got more than 60 percent majorities, the average percentage of personal income donated to charity was 3.5. Residents of the bluest states, which gave Bush less than 40 percent, donated just 1.9 percent.
  • People who reject the idea that “government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality” give an average of four times more than people who accept that proposition.

Brooks demonstrates a correlation between charitable behavior and “the values that lie beneath” liberal and conservative labels. Two influences on charitable behavior are religion and attitudes about the proper role of government.

Brooks gave a talk at the Heritage Foundation in December 2006 where he expanded on his research.

5th February
2008
written by simplelight

William Kristol had a great quote in his editorial in the NY Times yesterday:

 The American conservative movement has been remarkably successful. We shouldnt take that success for granted. Its not easy being a conservative movement in a modern liberal democracy. Its not easy to rally a comfortable and commercial people to assume the responsibilities of a great power. Its not easy to defend excellence in an egalitarian age. Its not easy to encourage self-reliance in the era of the welfare state. Its not easy to make the case for the traditional virtues in the face of the seductions of liberation, or to speak of duties in a world of rights and of honor in a nation pursuing pleasure.

That’s the kind of soaring rhetoric that would be good to hear from some of the Republican candidates.

30th January
2008
written by simplelight

My post two days ago has been honored with some critiques. 

Dan over at Fitness for Occassion makes the following two points which I would like to comment on:

  1. If God could potentially be incredibly unethical, as SL posits, then how would moral truth come from God?
  2. [Atheism] is not a religion, not a system of beliefs.  It is simply the idea that God does not exist.

On the first point: I’m not sure that the existence of moral truth (or absolute truth) in humanity is a very strong argument for the existence of God. (But I do believe it is part of an argument). However, the point that Hitchens made was that the fact that the Andromeda galaxy is going to obliterate earth in 5 billion years proves that God is either a) nonexistent or b) not good. To which I say, not true. First, it might not happen. Second, I hope our little band of humans will have made a plan given the 5 billion years advance notice of our destruction. Third, God is the standard for Truth. This was Richards’ point on the necessity of a resting point for any set of beliefs. This is the failure of relativism. If we don’t take some absolute, external criterion as our yardstick for measuring truth then we’re left with nothing. As I said, Hitchens didn’t even bother to address that point.

On the second point: Atheism has always been more than a single idea that God does not exist. To say “I am an atheist” conveys a lot more information than to say “I don’t believe in sentient pink unicorns”. The existence or nonexistence of God is a fact which touches on almost every aspect of life: what we strive for, what we uphold as ideals, what our purpose is, and what kind of society we would want to build. That makes it, if not a religion, at the very least a system of beliefs. Every atheist I know is arguing about a lot more than the mere existence of God.

If atheism is going to make an argument about how society is going to be organized (which Hitchens was doing in the debate) then the rest of us would like something a lot more substantial than a one line statement about something that doesn’t exist. We would like answers to: What informs your system of jurisprudence?  What values does your society hold dear? What exactly does “self evident” mean in our defining documents? Where do our rights come from and who guarantees them? What motivates our concern for the poor? That’s why atheism needs a foundation. Because the next time an atheist says that they’re going to eliminate a few million people I’d like an answer more comprehensive than it’s based on “a simple idea”.

30th January
2008
written by simplelight

First Things has an interesting article on the link between atheism and violence. I don’t believe that most atheists press their thinking to the ultimate conclusion of their philosophy.  After witnessing the venom at the debate between Hitchens and Richards I might revisit that idea, though.

28th January
2008
written by simplelight

[Update: If anyone has a link to the video/audio transcript please post in the comments]

Last night I attended the debate at Stanford between Christopher Hitchens and Jay Richards. The topic was “Atheism vs Theism and the Scientific Evidence of Intelligent Design” which I felt was a little too broad for a meaningful debate.

My heart at first sank when I saw Jay Richards. He has hair reminiscent of an early Abba member or a really blonde version of the BeeGees. He looked as though he had just put away his surfboard and strolled into the debate. Christopher Hitchens came slouching in making every effort to look like a disenchanted intellectual who is angry with the world but is sustained daily by his special breed of cynicism.

Christopher Hitchens opened for the first 14 minutes and unleashed his standard diatribe against ‘religion’. He seemed a little unprepared but is clearly a gifted rhetorician and quite capable of thinking on his feet. He didn’t say much new and his style was well captured by a later comment from Jay Richards: “A sneer is not an argument and insults do not constitute evidence”. His main argument was that if the world was designed by a creator, it was not a benevolent creator. He frequently resorts to this argument despite it clearly not belonging in a debate on Atheism vs Theism. (Just because one doesn’t like God, doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist).

Jay Richards had the floor for the next 14 minutes and presented a rational, well-thought out argument for theism. He had 6 main points (and a seventh which he added later)

  1. Moral truth – we all know what it is, the question is where did it come from and atheism has no answer to that. This issue was half-heartedly contested by Hitchens and a question from the audience regarding an evolutionary explanation for morality.
  2. A finely tuned universe – basically a brief overview of the anthropic cosmological argument (every physical constant finely tuned for mankind and unlikely to have occurred by chance). Hitchens seemed to feel that the fact that the Andromeda galaxy will be obliterating earth in 5 billion years refutes this argument. Unfortunately his argument went along the lines of: “What kind of cruel god would allow this?”
  3. A beginning to the universe in a finite past – therefore something caused the universe which must be God. He used the phrase “resting point” for the basis of a theistic belief and asked what the basis for atheism was. This is a fairly strong argument. Granted, there are theories which postulate an eternal universe but those seem to be less accepted these days.
  4. Irreducible complexity – he didn’t get into details but cited the bacterial flagellum and asked why it’s obvious that Mt. Rushmore was ‘designed’. This argument obviously runs the risk of each instance of irreducible complexity being knocked down with subsequent research (a point which Hitchens noted). I spent many years doing research on genetic algorithms in computer science and this argument does accord with my experience of computer simulations.
  5. Materialism – the atheist, materialist philosophers all conclude that consciousness is an illusion and feel that this is problematic. For most people, a purely material view of the world leads to a conclusion which seems incompatible with experience. Obviously this is not a proof for the existence of God but Richards’ point was that our subjective experience is more consistent with a theistic philosophy.
  6. Free will – it’s incompatible with a mechanistic worldview. Hitchens’ bizarre response was that if free will was given to us then it can’t be free will.
  7. The origin of biological information (added towards end of debate). They touched briefly on the direction of entropy but unfortunately nothing conclusive from either side. (I’d like to challenge some of the atheists who really know their biology to read this book and provide a rebuttal to the main thesis of the book in the comments below.)

Richards ended with the question: which worldview (atheism or theism) best accomodates all the above observations?

Hitchens then had 4 minutes to respond and, to my mind, did not answer one of the points that Jay Richards had made. For the rest of the debate he attempted to generalize from particular observations (how can we think Mohammad really made a midnight ride into the sky on his horse, how can anyone believe in a God who demands that we kill our children (Abraham/Isaac), genital mutilation in the name of religion, to his point that God does not exist. Along the way he attacked Mormonism, Islam, Catholicism, etc.

Jay Richards maintained his composure admirably, was exceptionally well-informed on every topic while still being likeable, charitable, and theologically rigorous. 

Hitchens’ hubris appears to know no bounds. When asked whether he thought he was more intelligent than everyone else who believes in God he said: “Yes. And the polls suggest that I am too” (!)

Basically there were two messages: one hopeful; and one of despair (he mentioned sex and schadenfreude as his two purposes for living), futility and constant railing against a God who doesn’t exist. Atheism, to my mind, has always been deficient on the inspiration front and it seems a shame to spend one’s allotted time fighting the God you don’t believe in.

16th July
2007
written by simplelight

First Things has a great article on the intersection of science and faith. Definitely a great read.

If you’re interested in the topic, I highly recommend the book: “The Anthropic Cosmological Principle“.

12th June
2007
written by simplelight

It is rare to read a book that has the potential to change one’s entire worldview. This weekend I read Genetic Entropy & the Mystery of the Genome. The author is John Sanford, a professor of genetics at Cornell University, inventor of the gene gun, and holder of 25 patents. His essential thesis is that a blind evolutionary process could not have produced humans from single cell organisms. He gives a multitude of cogent arguments why this is so.

Moreover, he makes a very compelling case that, in fact, mutation and natural selection are actually degrading the genome to such an extent that humans will eventually go extinct. The simple reason is that each generation introduces at least 100 mutations which are both deleterious (degrade the genome) and near-neutral (unlikely to be removed by natural selection). The cost of natural selection would have to be extraordinarily high to remove such a large number of mutations from the gene pool. In addition, the rare beneficial mutations are also near-neutral and consequently impossible to select for.

A lot of this resonates with my experience with genetic algorithms where the vast majority of the population has to be wiped out at each generation to prevent non-useful mutations from multiplying.

What I find fascinating, though, is that everyone I have spoken to about this book immediately dismisses it because it “sounds like Creationism”. Perhaps secularism really has risen to the level of a religion: steeped in dogma and unwilling to confront facts.

14th May
2007
written by simplelight

Am I the only one who has lost patience with the atheists? Apart from the fact that the abolition of theism would leave them without a worldview, most of them spend their time carping from the sidelines but refuse to put together a credo for examination.

In the New York Times’ review of Christopher Hitchens’ book, ‘God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything’, the reviewer makes the following astonishing point:

And all the logical sallies don’t exactly add up to a sustained argument, because Hitchens thinks a sustained argument shouldn’t even be necessary and yet wouldn’t be sufficient. To him, it’s blindingly obvious:

Of course, when Christopher Hitchens thinks that a debate doesn’t require “sustained argument” because “it’s blindingly obvious” then the NYT describes the book as “serious and deeply felt”. The review continues:

 … the great religions all began at a time when we knew a tiny fraction of what we know today about the origins of Earth and human life. It’s understandable that early humans would develop stories about gods or God to salve their ignorance. But people today have no such excuse. If they continue to believe in the unbelievable, or say they do, they are morons or lunatics or liars.

Well I guess that settles it. The apotheosis of two thousand years of human experience is the acknowledgement of our prior ignorance and an embrace of our new enlightenment.

Destruction is certainly part of the creative process but at some point I wish the high priests of atheism would assemble and thrash out a manifesto. That way the rest of us can comment. And write witty, engaging books without regard for reason and substance.

18th November
2006
written by simplelight

I have long held the theory that every conversation, if pursued long enough, naturally and necessarily ends with a discussion about the existence of God and our purpose on earth. A few years ago a long lunch conversation reached this point, and an engineer concluded with the statement: “My God is a set of equations.” To which I replied, “What do those equations describe?”

These days it is fashionable among the intelligentsia to declare with newly-discovered transcendence that religion is a good enough thing (if done in moderation) and science is self-evidently worthwhile but we should never, ever confuse the two. The intersection of science and faith, rationalism and mystery, is best left to the final pages of an epilogue in a serious book on science, or to footnotes in a book on faith.

And yet equations are merely an abstraction of the physical world and the Christian faith claims to worship a Jesus who walked in history and a God who created the physical. Why then, have the last few decades produced an intellectual movement so devoted to a separation of faith and science?

In 1931 Godel published a paper which challenged the basic assumptions underlying mathematics and became a milestone in the history of logic and mathematics. I believe that the world is still coming to terms with the philosophical implications of Godel’s Theorem of Incompleteness. Others have better summarized his theorem but it proscribes the limits of axiomatic logic and shows that provability is a weaker notion than truth; in short, there is Truth that we can’t logically prove.

Nagel and Newman, in their classic book on the subject, Godel’s Proof, conclude with the comment:

Godel’s proof should not be construed as an invitation to despair or as an excuse for mystery-mongering.

That might be. But it does, I believe, suggest that if God is a set of equations, those equations lie in a realm of mathematics about which we haven’t even begun to dream.

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