Archive for October, 2009

A very "deep" talk

October 31, 2009 Leave a comment

More Krauss

October 22, 2009 Leave a comment

Lawrence Krauss proposes that one way to be able to travel to mars would be a one way ticket.

The most challenging impediment to human travel to Mars does not seem to involve the complicated launching, propulsion, guidance or landing technologies but something far more mundane: the radiation emanating from the Sun’s cosmic rays. The shielding necessary to ensure the astronauts do not get a lethal dose of solar radiation on a round trip to Mars may very well make the spacecraft so heavy that the amount of fuel needed becomes prohibitive.

There is, however, a way to surmount this problem while reducing the cost and technical requirements, but it demands that we ask this vexing question: Why are we so interested in bringing the Mars astronauts home again?

I bet Adam would be willing. I’d be tempted.

Nothing is Interesting to Physicists

October 22, 2009 Leave a comment

How can anyone not be amazed by this?

Karen Armstrong needs to Think Clearer

October 20, 2009 Leave a comment
In a sloppy “Think Again” article in Foreign Policy, obscurantist Karen Armstrong leads the way in making excuses for religion. Not inspiring much confidence in the rest of her piece she begins with an error. “By the time The Economist did its famous “God Is Dead” cover in 1999″ Well, sorry Karen, The Economist never did a “God is Dead” cover. Are you thinking of Time’s “Is God Dead” cover? Or maybe she blended that with The Economist’s obituary of God.

She also uses the point to imply that the “new atheists” such as Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris argue that religion is on its way out. Wrong. I’m not 100% sure about Dawkins but Hitchens thinks that religion is ineradicable and Harris is worried that his battle against faith is possibly quixotic.

Her critique of secularism is a bizarre one. She concedes that “in the West, secularism has been a success” and is “essential”, but goes on to blame “overly aggressive secularization” as having potential to cause a rise in religious extremism. First of all, in those cases, religion is still the problem not secularism. Furthermore, Sam Harris remarks on many occasions that he probably isn’t the best messenger for secularism in Islamic countries and religious moderates probably play an important role for that. But that doesn’t mean his critiques of religion are somehow incorrect.

In the next section of her defense of religion she makes excuses for the role religion plays in causing violence while celebrating it for the good it does. Not really a sober dispassionate judgement. Religion doesn’t breed violence , she writes, but violence itself. Seems like a satisfying answer only for someone that doesn’t understand the problem of infinite regress. She also notes that human nature helps cause violent behavior… really? You don’t say? Who would argue otherwise? She lies, of course, and writes, “In claiming that God is the source of all human cruelty, Hitchens and Dawkins ignore some of the darker facets of modern secular society.” [my emphasis] If anyone can find EVEN ONE instance where either one does so I’ll send the Catholic League a check for $1000.

She then goes on to make excuses for terrorism (not condoning it of course) by arguing it’s always in response to perceived threats by outsiders on their traditions: “History shows that when these groups are attacked, militarily or verbally, they almost invariably become more extreme.”

Setting up another straw man she argues that God is not for the poor and ignorant as she suggests the new atheists insist. They don’t. Sam Harris has been particularly strong proving otherwise when he consistently points out the 9/11 hijackers where highly educated and NOT from poor backgrounds. Also, in his critique of Francis Collins, the head of the NIH, Harris argues that even highly intelligent men like Collins can partition their minds holding contradictory beliefs. She goes on to defend God against a charge no one serious is making.

Armstrong acknowledges religion has been bad for women. This can’t last of course, she has to blame too critical views on the patriarchal Islamic veil. That to her, of course, causes a drive toward fundamentalism. There is a pattern that no matter what problems religion causes secular attempts to combat them draw her critical attention. What is that if not excuse making and obscurantism?

After making some common arguments against science and religion not having to be in conflict she makes the odd claim that an anti-science attitude is less common in Islam. That is basically self-evidently false. I don’t know where she gets any evidence for that – modern Islamic countries aren’t really known for there scientific discoveries, premier commitment to science education, or high acceptance levels for evolution.

She ends, unsurprisingly, by defending sharia law! In that section she writes “Religion may not be the cause of the world’s political problems, but we still need to understand it if we are to solve them.” I don’t know how she excuses religion in one breath than admits it plays a huge role in the world’s problems. To her it’s all about not “giving unnecessary offense.” In other words, “Think Again” atheist, keep your mouth shut.
[update]: The Reason Project printed my introduction to the FP article.

Origins of Morality, A Reply to Francis Collins

October 17, 2009 Leave a comment

Dr. Andy Thomson is back with another wonderful video.

Failing the test of time

October 10, 2009 Leave a comment

On October 6th Andrew Sullivan posted on his blog his thoughts on Karen Armstrong and “genuine faith.” They argue religion is not about beliefs, per se, but about “the practice of daily compassion.” He posts a video Karen Armstrong speaking at TED which you can find through the above link. His post and her video, which he highly praised, prompted me to write him an email.

Hey Andrew,

I really appreciate your work and intellectual honesty. Your blog educates and challenges me everyday. Often I find myself in agreement with you. Yet on religious issues, we’re often at a crux. I just watched Karen Armstrong’s TED lecture you posted and found myself feeling as I usually feel as an atheist when watching or reading similar material. You seem think we’re smug too often (it’s possible), but when she implies that the only way to compassion is through religion I can’t help but feel slighted.

After a quick jab at Europe’s secularism, she argues that religion needs to embrace the golden rule and become a global ethos. Going on she says, “whatever our wretched beliefs, this is a religious matter, is a spiritual matter, is a profound moral matter.” Well, I honestly am not trying to be too sensitive but I’m not religious and think that I can embrace the compassion found in the golden rule. Isn’t she suggesting that only through religion can the world be compassionate with other nations? If so, what does that say about those without religion? If she is not saying that, why is religion necessary to promote as she sees it? Why not just promote the value of compassion itself?

I don’t doubt that for you religion is “the practice of daily compassion.” You and she argue further that it is not about beliefs, but how humans live. From your writings I know you believe Jesus Christ is actually divine — doesn’t that belief matter? Sorry for the repeated questions but, if it is not about beliefs why belong to a specific religion at all? I’m sure I’m right about this but you also have acknowledged that atheists can be compassionate too. I get why religion works for you personally; I don’t understand why anyone such as Karen Armstrong feels the need to promote religion specifically if moral values can be promoted in absence of doctrinaire religious beliefs.

She rightly argues that “our current situation is so serious, at the moment, that any ideology that doesn’t promote a sense of global understanding and global appreciation of each other is failing the test of the time.” If I’m wrong, o.k., but religion seems to be failing that test. For too many people in this world it is a tribalizing ideology. Let’s try directly promoting the values we all find important without the religious baggage. If people become more compassionate yet remain religious despite that secular conversation than great. But I see no reason to promote religion in the hopes that it will have the side effect of increased global harmony.

All the best

Her solution just seems so convoluted to me. First, wrestle religion away from the huge numbers of religious who take their beliefs seriously. Convince them (through reason?) to see religion as Karen Armstrong sees religion and practice it as such. Then promote that version of religion as a means to make the world more compassionate and less tribalistic. Bear in mind that for this to be successful she needs to not only convince moderate and educated Christian Americans but essentially transform religion as practiced by different religions. How this is a realistic strategy is beyond me.

This is what you have to believe

October 7, 2009 Leave a comment

Galbraith fires off

October 5, 2009 Leave a comment

In The Washington Post, Peter Galbraith shares his point of view on Afghanistan and his dismissal.

Afghanistan’s presidential election, held Aug. 20, should have been a milestone in the country’s transition from 30 years of war to stability and democracy. Instead, it was just the opposite. As many as 30 percent of Karzai’s votes were fraudulent, and lesser fraud was committed on behalf of other candidates. In several provinces, including Kandahar, four to 10 times as many votes were recorded as voters actually cast. The fraud has handed the Taliban its greatest strategic victory in eight years of fighting the United States and its Afghan partners.

Belief is Belief

October 1, 2009 Leave a comment

Sam Harris and other UCLA researchers published a study of religious and nonreligious thinking in the brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Lisa Miller at Newsweek reports on the study.

What Harris, his fellow researcher Jonas Kaplan, and the other authors of the study want to address is the idea, which has been floating around in both scientific and religious circles, that our brains are doing something special when we believe in God—that religious belief is, neurologically speaking, an entirely different process from believing in things that are empirically and verifiably true (things that Harris endearingly refers to as “tables and chairs”). He says his results “cut against the quite prevalent notion that there’s something else entirely going on in the case of religious belief.” Our believing brains make no qualitative distinctions between the kinds of things you learn in a math textbook and the kinds of things you learn in Sunday school. Though the existence of God will never be proved—or disproved—by an fMRI scan, science can study a thing or two about the neurological mechanisms of belief. What Harris’s study shows is that when a conservative Christian says he believes in the Second Coming as an undeniable fact, he isn’t lying or exaggerating or employing any other rhetorical maneuver.

In honor of yesterday’s International Blasphemy Day, here is an image of believers’ and atheists’ brains responding to blasphemy.

Harvard Online

October 1, 2009 Leave a comment

Check out this amazing free web series: Justice with Michael Sandel. It’s a course that was put up online from Harvard University.

%d bloggers like this: