Category Archives: science

Revisiting the Argument for Atheism: Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian

Given that atheism appears to be a rising trend in the US, it’s worth taking a look back at one of the seminal arguments against the Christian faith and see how well it holds up. Besides his numerous contributions to mathematics, history and philosophy, Bertrand Russell’s contribution to the modern atheist movement is significant. Russell comes from a long line of religious skeptics which goes back to David Hume and Immanuel Kant and finds modern expression in Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens among many others. Mr. Russell may have been a gifted intellectual in many respects, but his 1927 essay, Why I Am Not A Christian, is not only logically inconsistent, poorly argued and uncharitable towards Christianity, it reveals a paradox at the center of the atheist worldview which, in my opinion, few atheists have acknowledged let alone sufficiently addressed.

By staking a monopoly claim on rationality, reason, and by extension, the scientific method and the entire realm of scientific discovery, atheists have essentially positioned themselves as the new arbiters of morality. While atheists have busied themselves dismantling the edifice of religious morality using the tools of logic, they have simultaneously claimed that a new secular moral order can be constructed from these tools alone or, in some of the more extreme cases, that moral principles do not matter at all. That’s the core conceit of Why I Am Not A Christian, and the very philosophical error that places Russell in the same company as Karl Marx. Though Russell wrote extensively on morality and ethics, a condemnation of faith or a failed attempt at logical refutation isn’t a sufficient replacement for a system of morality and ethics, however flawed it may be in certain respects, that’s been developed over centuries. Russell deserves credit for making the attempt, but moral relativism and utilitarianism have proven themselves pretty weak substitutes.

Russell’s essay is worth reading for the simple reason that he attempts to actually refute the intellectual arguments for the existence of God.  It’s a phenomenon that’s mostly absent from the contemporary cultural discussion, but there is, in fact, a set of intellectual arguments for the existence of God that were famously articulated by Aquinas in the Summa Theologica. There is a widespread, and arguably bigoted, perception amongst atheists that Christians are knuckle dragging, anti-science mouth breathers who have neither a willingness or ability to engage in formal debate. Since the argument has already been fought by the likes of Russell, atheists generally take it as given that the debate is over, and engagement with these arguments is unnecessary. Conversely, Christians have largely retreated, been ignored, or simply failed in the intellectual arena against the likes of charismatic and intelligent atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins. Given that atheists lay claim to being the superior logicians, it’s surprising to see how lazy and weak Russell’s arguments actually are.

The First Cause Argument

Though he can be forgiven for making this claim since what came to be known as the Big Bang Theory was introduced the same year he made this speech, Russell’s opening volley is completely contravened by the weight of current scientific evidence in favor of the Big Bang Theory. The religious skeptic’s argument against First Cause ends up being torpedoed by the weight of current scientific evidence.

That argument, I suppose, does not carry very much weight nowadays, because, in the first place, cause is not quite what it used to be. The philosophers and the men of science have got going on cause, and it has not anything like the vitality it used to have; but, apart from that, you can see that the argument that there must be a First Cause is one that cannot have any validity.

Well, Mr. Russell, I hate to pull Hitchens’ Razor on you, but what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.  Why aren’t there any more specifics on the multitude of theories that supplanted a causal theory of cosmic expansion? This was a missed opportunity to specify how science contravened faith, and he dismisses it with a hand wave. Naturally, the Big Bang Theory lends itself to the First Cause argument to which Russell retorts with a reductio ad absurdum that persists to this day.

If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause.

The obvious rebuttal to this claim has already been spelled out by Aquinas, and Russell bypasses it like it’s inconsequential. If there if there is motion in the universe, and all motion requires a mover, and the moved cannot be the mover, ergo, there must be an original unmoved mover. The laws of the universe that govern our world flow from the Big Bang, and thus far, science has nothing definitive to say about what preceded the Big Bang. But even if one finds Russell’s argument persuasive, the ramifications of his argument should be troubling to any rationally minded person who values objective truth. If one removes the possibility of causality in explaining the universe or human action, you’ve arbitrarily excised a significant line of philosophical inquiry and a key tenet of the scientific method.  And to everyone who considers it a given that science and faith are incompatible, just remember that the most significant scientific theory explaining the origins of the universe came from a Catholic priest.

The Natural Law Argument

Russell’s argument here is essentially that it is too simplistic to say that the phenomena of the natural world or the cosmos can be explained away by saying Goddidit. He further contends that because Newtonian laws of gravitation were overturned by Einstein’s more complete theory of General Relativity, “natural laws are really human convention”.

Utter bollocks.

Scientific law gets called law because it explains phenomena that are constant, immutable and unchanging. There isn’t a single scientific law that has been invalidated or overturned since the time Russell wrote this piece.  Whether we’re talking about Special Relativity or Pascal’s Law or Planck’s Law, scientific law gets called a law because it reveals the machinery of the natural world expressed as a mathematical equation and can be reproduced under controlled conditions.  It is the continuous discovery of natural law which forms the foundations of a body of scientific knowledge from which technological innovation arises. Why a self-professed man of science like Russell argued something so asinine is beyond me.

The Argument From Design

The argument from design essentially asserts that if the conditions of the creation of the universe were altered ever so slightly, life as we know it would not exist.  Russell dismisses this out of hand. At this juncture, I’m going to refer readers to an excellent piece by SJ Thomason which steps through all of Russell’s arguments and explains why considering the possibility for design does not preclude scientific inquiry, but expands it.

Russell then goes completely off the rails and starts sounding like a proto-SJW in the remainder of this section. If God is omnipotent and omniscient, why did we get the KKK or the Nazis? The obvious rebuttal is that humanity was given free will.  It is entirely up to us to distinguish right from wrong and choose accordingly.  That is the challenge of being alive.

The Moral Arguments For Deity

This is the core failure of Russell’s argument, and by extension, the entire atheist enterprise in my opinion.

I am not for the moment concerned with whether there is a difference between right and wrong, or whether there is not: that is another question.

The atheist argument poses a deep conundrum because it is either implicitly or explicitly a call for a secular moral order. The atheist, by and large, most definitely has a sense of right and wrong because not only would any atheist seek punishment for the murderer, rapist and thief, atheists mostly busy themselves lambasting the evils of religion. If the atheist attacks a religious moral tenet in favor of a secular moral advancement, he is positioning himself as an arbiter of morality. If the atheist rejects the idea that faith is the foundation for moral realism, then you have consigned the entire realm of morality to the relativistic world of political ideology, or worse, scientism and utilitarianism. The atheist that claims a “belief in science” over faith is not only peddling a ridiculous fallacy since good science does not require belief in the first place, but is glossing over the larger issues of morality and ethics. One cannot have sound science without sound ethics, and I would contend that it is a precondition for any serious quest for scientific knowledge. The sciences of the natural world are neutral on morality and ethics. Few people would embrace it today, but eugenics were once considered cutting-edge science. On the other hand, the modern social sciences make no effort to hide the fact that they are both normative and subjective, but affect a pretense of being the engines of modern moral progression simply because they live under the broad banner of science. Gender studies, critical race theory, and climate change “science” now form a de facto secular moral order from which any dissent is met with censure and opprobrium. Committing violence in service of the advancement of political goals and being a self-appointed judge of who deserves to be punched for having the wrong political opinions are not only explicitly sanctioned by the progressive political class, academics and celebrities, but they are evidence of moral virtue.

At its core, the atheist argument is a negation of belief, and an active embrace of non-belief. It also falsely asserts that faith and reason are mutually exclusive faculties, and the existence of one automatically short circuits and precludes the exercise of the other. If this doesn’t lead to a state of pure nihilism, it creates an inherent cognitive dissonance with respect to positive engagement with humanity itself. By and large, humans generally strive towards a very general notion of Doing Good and Making a Difference. Happiness, love, friendship, loyalty, forgiveness and charity are all abstractions which cannot be quantified, and yet, these abstractions are the mythical sky wizards that every atheist presumably chases in his own life under the guise of “science” or “reason”. Every act performed which carries an expectation of positive good, whether it’s money donated to a soup kitchen or a vote cast for a politician, is its own act of faith. If an atheist truly has any hope for humanity, he must, at some level, have belief in humanity’s capacity for good. This all by itself is an act of faith. It is the Golden Rule in practice. Cynicism and nihilism are easy.  Finding reasons to be hopeful about humanity is a far deeper challenge which pretty much requires some level of faith.

The yearning for justice and righteousness; more specifically, the desire to do right by for our fellow man and leave a positive legacy for posterity is hardwired into the human consciousness at some level. However, it is not a forgone conclusion that any given human will make choices that will expand and spread virtue, and it is entirely possible that many will be actively constrained and thwarted in their ability to exercise it or possibly even violate others in one way or another.

As Thomas Sowell argued, the world is roughly divided between those who subscribed to a “constrained” vision of humanity which posits that human nature is fixed and unchanging or an “unconstrained” vision which asserts that humans can be molded by social forces and institutions. Atheists mostly belong to the latter camp. Sadly, no one gives a shit about “a rational proof for secular ethics” or any other lofty philosophical disquisition on morality and ethics. Bertrand Russell wrote a bunch of stuff, but who reads it except for philosophy nerds and academics? The study of neuroscience in hopes of uncovering the “moral landscape” as Sam Harris describes it seems like little more than a recipe for pharmacological and technological micromanagement of the human will. The yearning for justice appeals to human emotion, and subsequently, humans tend to respond more positively to narrative and allegory when it comes to formulating notions of morality and justice. This is why Biblical allegory and mythology have been far more effective vehicles for the transmission of moral lessons than philosophical dialectic.

I further contend that it’s far easier to denigrate the Christian faith and morality than it is to proffer a positive alternative. There are no consequences to proclaiming yourself an atheist.  It takes no courage to heap scorn and ridicule on Christians as the enemies of Real Social Progress© and scientific discovery. According to the contemporary progressive orthodoxy, the only real moral transgressions are “bigotry”, white on black police brutality, climate change “denial”, the absence of consent in sexual relations for white, middle-class female college students, saying anything negative about Islam, and pretty much anything uttered by a conservative, libertarian or Christian. But the outrage is strictly confined to the narrative as it’s defined within the walls of academia, the media echo chamber which dutifully parrots every bit of brainless tripe dispensed from the social justice priesthood, and the gender ideologue foot soldiers who dominate Twitter and Tumblr. And by and large, this is where the yellow brick road of atheism has lead: to the sanctuary of the Church of Progressivism. Few atheists would admit it, but political rhetoric and social “science” have replaced the priest’s sermon.

Atheism has become a new orthodoxy which has largely ceded moral authority and agency to the leftist political class, their agenda and apparatchiks in academia.  There are exceptions, but this is the trend.  It seems like little more than a license to condescend to Christians, denigrate Christianity as the font of subservience and totalitarianism, and generally be miserable, nihilistic curmudgeons. Like all progressive thought, it’s not edgy, contrarian or new. With few exceptions, it’s just a standard accompaniment to a predetermined list of progressive political goals.

I wasn’t enthusiastic about making this argument since atheists are definitely the cool kids in the class, but if this is the quality of the argument from one of atheism’s greatest thinkers, then color me unimpressed.

The Crumbling Edifice of “Settled” Climate Change Science

​For those of you who like to indulge the notion that you are with the Angels and on the Right Side of #SCYENCE and #Hxstory by supporting the climate change agenda while blithely ridiculing skeptics as clueless, sub-human, knuckle dragging mouth breathers who’ve been duped by the petroleum industry, it’s time to acknowledge the climate change project for what it actually is: a political agenda. This is not a scientific endeavor and I’m not convinced it ever was one to begin with. Calling your opponents Climate Deniers© does not make you intelligent nor is it a sufficient intellectual or scientific argument. On the contrary, it makes you look like a dittohead and a stooge and nothing more than an unwitting pawn for power hungry politicians. 

You can no longer stand smugly on the sidelines and ridicule skepticism as “anti-science” pretending that this is a totally humanitarian, objective, scientific endeavor when the field is so obviously rife with political pressure and flooded by government money.

In a recent piece in Reason, Ronald Bailey discusses climatologist Judith Curry’s resignation from the Georgia Institute of Technology and the highly politicized field of climate science. 

Climate “science” asks you to accept some very far reaching predictions about atmospheric temperatures, sea water levels and sea ice levels years from now based on mathematical models.  If there is any soundness to the theoretical underpinnings of this “science”, these models should be predicting accurate outcomes.  And guess what?  They’re not.

Tomorrowland

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Despite being little more than a collection of clichés and preachy feelgood platitudes in a visually stunning cinematic wrapper, Tomorrowland gets a couple points for attempting to counter SF’s, and humanity’s, apparent fetish for visions of self-destruction and apocalyptic doom with a message of optimism and hope.

Tomorrowland tells the story of Frank and Casey, two dreamers bound by shared destiny to save humanity from itself and fulfill the promise of the utopian dream that was revealed to them in the titular city beyond the realm of time and space.  The filmmakers had lofty intentions, but the film’s message is so diffuse and its emotions and characters are so superficial, it ends up being another example of high spectacle that’s low on meaningful content. 

We meet young Frank Walker as he travels to the 1964 World’s Fair with his homemade jet pack in hand to present to judge David Nix.  Though he escapes scrutiny from a yet unformed Homeland Security surveillance apparatus despite carrying a suspicious bomb-like device, Nix is unmoved by his invention since it doesn’t work. Frank insists that it’s valuable because it will teach kids that “anything is possible”.  After this setback, we’re subjected to a highly implausible flashback of a hardass father who’s highly critical of his budding engineer son. You know.  You probably hear it all the time. “My goddamn kid and his fascination with SCIENCE!”

Right off the bat, the film is not only asking us to believe that his father (i.e. toxic masculinity, patriarchy, penis = bad) would disapprove and actively discourage his interest in science and engineering, but empathize with a hero who makes a device whose sole purpose is to inspire hope. And he showcases his creation at the very same World’s Fair which, besides the space program, also happened to showcase another notably hope filled vision of the future, The Great Society. Not because he’s passionate about science and building things. Not because it’s something that will be sold in the marketplace and used by the masses. Not because he wants to drive down the marginal cost, employ people and build a company.

No. The sole purpose of the device is to inspire hope.

Wow, Frank. That sounds remarkably like the thinking of a politician and not a capitalist. 

He is eventually joined by Casey; the daughter of a NASA engineer who dreams of traveling the stars herself. At the outset of the film, she’s arrested for sabotaging the demolition of a NASA launch site which employs her father. Though we’re meant to see this as evidence of Casey’s rebellious nature, her concern for her father’s welfare as well as her scientific and mechanical expertise, it’s also pretty sad that the film asks you to view the sabotage of equipment used to dismantle state property as evidence of a forward thinking, contrarian youth.

We are presented with scenes from Casey’s classes where she’s bombarded with pessimistic doomsayers. Naturally, her English teacher is teaching downer literature like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. On the one hand, it’s nice that Brad Bird is acknowledging that the public school establishment is inculcating cynicism and apathy, but he’s also feeding us another dumb and increasingly ubiquitous cliché; the plucky young female protagonist who wants to “fix it” and is totally into science.  It’s not like this character lines up with a political agenda or anything.  That’s right, folks. Public schools are crushing the optimism of our female youth and totally discouraging civic engagement.

Their lives intersect because Athena, a robot from Tomorrowland, recognized their scientific acumen and optimism and deemed them suitable candidates for admission to the city of the future.  A city where the most creative people could work without interference from politicians, bureaucracy, “greed” or other unnamed impediments.  Apparently, the revolutionary future that awaits us requires abandonment of the profit motive just as Comrade Marx taught us.

Frank was exiled from Tomorrowland and lives a life of seclusion surrounded by an astonishing quantity of technology. He has pulled a Hari Seldon and apparently calculated the destruction of civilization with mechanical precision. Frank sees that Casey’s optimism alters the inevitability of civilization’s demise and they set out to change the future.

This “anything is possible” line is basically the central theme of the film, and it is simultaneously the film’s weakness and strength. It’s great that Brad Bird wanted to offer a hopeful vision for humanity, but the film never really tries to define the action and behavior that contribute to such widespread cynicism and apathy nor does it clearly define virtuous action.  It asks you simply to accept that hope and optimism are sufficient all by themselves.

In a climactic scene between Nix, Frank and Casey, they are shown a fantastical machine which broadcasts tachyons from humanity’s presumably inevitable future doom. Once again, we’re presented with another shopworn cliché in cinematic SF; a doomsday device which can only be dismantled by our protagonists.  The bit about the tachyons is a neat speculation that apparently has some actual foundation in particle physics, but the overall idea is pretty tiresome. 

Upon making this realization, Nix delivers the following monologue which reveals the meat of what the film is attempting to address.

Nix: Let’s imagine… if you glimpsed the future, you were frightened by what you saw, what would you do with that information? You would go to the politicians, captains of industry? And how would you convince them? Data? Facts? Good luck! The only facts they won’t challenge are the ones that keep the wheels greased and the dollars rolling in. But what if… what if there was a way of skipping the middle man and putting the critical news directly into everyone’s head? The probability of wide-spread annihilation kept going up. The only way to stop it was to show it, to scare people straight. Because what reasonable human being wouldn’t be galvanized by the potential destruction of everything they’ve ever known or loved? To save civilization, I would show its collapse. How do you think this vision was received? How do you think people responded to the prospect of imminent doom? They gobbled it up like a chocolate eclair! They didn’t fear their demise, they re-packaged it. It could be enjoyed as video-games, as TV shows, books, movies, the entire world wholeheartedly embraced the apocalypse and sprinting towards it with gleeful abandon. Meanwhile your earth was crumbling all around you. You’ve got simultaneous epidemics of obesity and starvation. Explain that one! Bees and butterflies start to disappear, the glaciers melt, algae blooms. All around you the coal mine canaries are dropping dead and you won’t take the hint! In every moment there’s the possibility of a better future, but you people won’t believe it. And because you won’t believe it you won’t do what is necessary to make it a reality. They dwell on this terrible future and you resign yourselves to it for one reason, because that future doesn’t ask anything of you today. So yes, we saw the iceberg and warned the Titanic. But you all just steered for it anyway full steam ahead. Why? Because you want to sink! You gave up! It’s not the monitor’s fault, that’s yours.

While this monologue is great because it criticizes the fetish for nihilism and asks individuals to take responsibility for their own apathy, it’s also remarkably half-assed, timid and tilted towards the alleged evils of consumer culture and almost completely devoid of any meaningful criticism of the actions of the state. The film never really makes a firm commitment on what constitutes virtuous action or what constitutes morality. The main impression with which I was left was that government scientists are the optimists and dreamers and the study of science all by itself will edify humanity.  Never mind that the government is spying on you, turning faraway countries into smoking craters, contributing to a culture of corruption, incarcerating people by the millions, killing unarmed citizens and seizing property.

Apparently, none of these things are worth mentioning.  But that English teacher who assigned 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 is creating too much damn pessimism. God forbid anyone question the actions of the government. 

In the final scene, we get a montage of new recruits for Tomorrowland.  Naturally, it’s a rainbow of multiculturalism and gender equality. Part of me thinks it’s great that Hollywood is so committed to creating new role models and presenting such an “inclusive” vision of the future, but lately, the crusade for social equality in every media form has become tedious, predictable, hamfisted and positively irritating.

I have come to expect big Hollywood films to glorify the state and its subsidiary social agendas of climate change, multiculturalism and feminism and this was certainly no exception.  Despite the flaws, there’s an attempt at a noble message beneath the shallow platitudes and candy coated veneer.  Unfortunately, I think this film will end up “feeding the wrong wolf” as Casey would say.

Interstellar

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Recommended, but with caveats.

Let’s get the science stuff out of the way first.

I’m not going to quibble about the science in this film at all. Not a bit.

Even if this film represents a new era of scientific realism in blockbuster filmmaking, I do not enter ANY SF film with an expectation of total fidelity to the laws of physics.  I expect a good story and I’m cool with suspension of disbelief within the boundaries of the world that is presented.  If the science and the storytelling are both good, then I’m satisfied. If the science is weak, but it tells a good story and the liberties taken make sense within the story, I’m equally satisfied.

If you want hard science, then read a science book or watch Cosmos.  If you’re someone who simply can’t enjoy an SF film which doesn’t adhere fastidiously to the laws of physics, you should probably skip this film. Seriously. Don’t bother.

That being said, this is the cinematic equivalent of literary realm of Hard SF. All of the fanfare is warranted because there is plenty of real science! The film touches on relativity and the accompanying time dilation effect, wormholes, black holes, and higher dimensions of spacetime. All of the heady shit that makes cosmology, astrophysics, and quantum physics so cool and mind blowing makes it into this movie and is dealt with very convincingly.

Among other things, the characters travel through a wormhole, land on a planet near with extreme gravitational tides, and pass through a black hole including speculations of passing into higher dimensions of spacetime.

All of it is way cool, beautifully rendered and gives you plenty of mind candy to ponder with or without bong hits.

I haven’t a single issue with any of these aspects of the film.

My beefs lie elsewhere.

I have two essential beefs with the film. It is presenting a tortured confluence of collectivism and individualism and its economics require a far greater leap of imagination than any of its wildest scientific speculations.

First and foremost, it is trying to have it both ways with respect to its view of humanity’s redemption of itself.  It is prsenting a near future dystopia where environmental devastation has decimated the food supply thus precipitating a genuine need to seek alternatives, but sends a conflicting message about how we achieve salvation.

The government has imposed mandates through the public schools which require that the majority of the population enter into agriculture in order to meet the global demand for food. History books are being rewritten to exclude space flight because humanity simply cannot afford such extravagance.

So far, so good.  Collectivism run amok.

The hero of the film, Matthew McConaughey, is a former pilot and engineer and teaches his kids to be independent thinkers, to acquire self knowledge, to appreciate the scientific method and to be self sufficient individuals.  He’s the kind of father who both insists that they be able to change a car tire and has a healthy enough irreverence for government property that he would remotely down a drone and dismantle it for parts.

A cast of independent minded protagonists are being established as be a countervailing force against encroaching mindless authoritarianism.

Again, so far, so good.

Where the film starts to go off the rails is that through some mysterious observations made by Cooper’s daughter, they discover NASA hard at work engineering humanity’s interstellar salvation.

So the government has imposed dystopian mandates around employment, the food supply and education, yet they are still funneling billions of dollars into NASA programs which are completely secret. Also, this band of enlightened government scientists aren’t militarized, experience no budget overruns or shortfalls, are rational and pleasant people, and are quietly working on spacecraft which can traverse interstellar distances completely beyond the view of the press and the public.

AND the lead scientist played by Michael Caine serves as a mentor to Murphy so that she may fulfill her intellectual potential and solve the mysteries of spacetime.

So our intrepid, individualistic, free thinking heroes are able to fulfill their purposes and buck the system by…wait for it…working for the government!

Alrighty then!

Furthermore, for all of Nolan’s scientific detail, the film’s economics are about on par with Star Trek.  Wildly speculative to put it mildly.

The film presents not just one, but multiple manned flights through a wormhole which is located near Saturn! This is not a cheap endeavor nor is it one with an economic payoff on the other side.

There are of course the requisite collectivist sentiments which surround it.

“Then get out there and save them. We must reach far beyond our own lifespans. We must think not as individuals but as a species. We must confront the reality of interstellar travel,” says Dr. Brand.

This is a classical collectivist sentiment. The only difference being that it’s being applied as a rationale for going into space in order to achieve humanity’s presumed salvation. The film ultimately reconciles this as well as its wilder scientific speculations with love as the unifying force which transcends the barriers of knowledge and science.

Don’t get me wrong. None of this destroys the film nor does it diminish my enthusiasm for the idea of interstellar travel. Christopher Nolan works very hard at credible world building and the film never fails to engage.

The visual, musical and thematic allusions to 2001: A Space Odyssey are myriad and the comparison is fully warranted.  The two films are companions through and through and “Interstellar” is arguably an update of the ideas which 2001 introduced.

Spoiler alert.  The film’s big visual payoff is neither the passage through the wormhole or the black hole. It’s a visual representation of a tesseract, and it’s pretty bitchen.

Do it.