Saturday, September 18, 2010

G.K. Chesterton on Postmodernism

If you received your education from a state university, then it's likely that you've never heard of G.K. Chesterton - one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.  A man of prodigious wit and acuity, Chesterton wrote penetrating essays on a variety of cultural and philosophical issues.  In one of my favorite essays of his, Chesterton addresses a major tenet of postmodernism - hostility toward metanarratives.

A metanarrative is any theory that would attempt to unify and explain all human experience.  It is essentially a "worldview" - a deep conviction about the nature of reality that informs the way we view the world, and the way we live our lives.  Christianity, atheism, Darwinism, and Marxism are all examples of metanarratives, because each of them attempts to offer a "story" that explains the world and everything in it.

Postmodernists are known for their extreme skepticism toward metanarratives, and any theory claiming universal truth in general.  But their skepticism is not simply an unbiased doubt of general theories, it is also the moral position that metanarratives are bad.  Postmodernists correctly see how blind dogma has hurt people.  And so they reject all dogmas on moral grounds; refusing to consider the possibility that one of them might be true.  While it is commendable to want to protect people from harmful ideology, taking a moral position against anything is spurious for the postmodernist, since he is not supposed to believe in objective morals in the first place.

As a consequence of their skepticism toward the universal, postmodernists emphasize the value and importance of knowing "particulars" - specific, individual details of experience - and discriminate against any theory that would attempt to generalize, or make sense of those particulars.  So, for example, a postmodernist might want to know the moral practices of an obscure tribe in Africa; but he would find it offensive to ask if the tribe's practices are morally right.  Similarly, for many postmodernists it is important to hold strong opinions on music or politics, but passe to have any opinion on the meaning of life.  In other words, postmodernists have an intolerance for life's most interesting and (I think) important questions: why are we here? what is good? how can we know?  They want the details, but vehemently oppose any attempt to see the "big picture."  

Despite all that, I am sympathetic with some postmodern sentiment.  I think it is good to know and experience the minutia of life.  And I agree that we can often get so caught up in "getting answers" that we miss a lot of important details.  It is also true (a four-letter word for postmodernists) that, when we put too much confidence in human reason, we can become arrogant and develop a false certainty that is harmful.  The postmodernist is right about all that.  However, it does not follow that there is no truth, or that we are incapable of knowing some truth, or that attempting to discover universal truth is somehow bad.  That is a silly idea that is impossible to live out, even for the postmodernist.  After all, postmodernism itself is a metanarrative.

No one has articulated the absurdity of the postmodern attitude better than G.K. Chesterton.  So, I will simply leave you with these brilliant and prescient words that he wrote in his book Heretics, in 1905:

General theories are everywhere condemned; the doctrine of the Rights of Man is dismissed with the doctrine of the Fall of Man.  Atheism itself is too theological for us today.  Revolution itself is too much of a system; liberty itself is too much of a restraint.  We will have no generalizations... We are more and more to discuss details in art, politics, literature.  A man's opinion on tram cars matters; his opinion on Botticelli matters; his opinion on all things does not matter.  He may turn over and explore a million objects, but he must not find that strange object, the universe; for if he does he will have a religion, and be lost.  Everything matters - except everything.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Artificial Intelligence or Religious Hype?

I read a fabulous article in the New York Times the other day titled "The First Church of Robotics."  The author, Jaron Lanier, is a computer scientist and technology guru who recently published a book titled You Are Not a Gadget.  In the article, Lanier argues that the religious beliefs of many computer scientists often lead them to anthropomorphize technology, and as a consequence, dehumanize people.

We've all seen a movie about a robot or computer that became "self-aware," and manifested human-like characteristics.  From Terminator to Wall-E, the concept of artificial intelligence is a popular one that makes for great science-fiction.  It also serves as an effective marketing gimmick. 

The belief in A.I. rests on the metaphysical assumption that consciousness is something that simply "happens" whenever a material object (e.g. a computer) reaches a certain level of complexity.  While that assumption may or may not be true, it is certain that scientists have come nowhere near achieving it.  It is likely that they never will.  Unfortunately, you wouldn't know that from the way new technologies are marketed and hyped in the press.

By describing their products in anthropomorphic terms, computer scientists have grossly overstated the "intelligence" of their technological innovations, probably for advertising purposes.  A "smart-phone" sounds much more snazzy than a regular phone.  Doesn't it?  And who's not impressed with the i-Tunes "Genius" feature?  "It's so smart.  It's like it knows me better than I know myself."  But most of these innovations are simply algorithms.  They are not "smart" in any human sense of the word.  And scientists know this implicitly.  As Lanier points out, "Engineers don’t seem quite ready to believe in their smart algorithms enough to put them up against Apple’s chief executive, Steve Jobs, or some other person with a real design sensibility."  In other words, they would never let an algorithm design their next product.  They leave that to real people.

Marketing isn't the whole story however.  The tendency of computer scientists to anthropomorphize computers is also due to their own metaphysical assumptions, i.e. their religious beliefs.  Lanier explains:
The influential Silicon Valley institution [Singularity University] preaches a story that goes like this: one day in the not-so-distant future, the Internet will suddenly coalesce into a super-intelligent A.I., infinitely smarter than any of us individually and all of us combined; it will become alive in the blink of an eye, and take over the world before humans even realize what’s happening....Some think the newly sentient Internet would then choose to kill us; others think it would be generous and digitize us the way Google is digitizing old books, so that we can live forever as algorithms inside the global brain....Yes, it sounds nutty when stated so bluntly.  But these are ideas with tremendous currency in Silicon Valley; these are guiding principles, not just amusements, for many of the most influential technologists....which suggests something remarkable: What we are seeing is a new religion, expressed through an engineering culture. [emphasis mine]
It may seem like a harmless thing for computer scientists to believe wacky sci-fi theories and anthropomorphize technology as a result.  But Lanier thinks this has a negative effect on society.  "[B]y allowing artificial intelligence to reshape our concept of personhood, we are leaving ourselves open to the flipside: we think of people more and more as computers, just as we think of computers as people."  I agree.  And in my view, dehumanizing people is always a bad thing, even when it's unintentional.

It's sad to me that someone would even need to write a book titled You Are Not a Gadget.  One would think that would be common sense.  Unfortunately, it's not.  I'm glad we have level headed, clear thinking scientists like Lanier.  He offers some practical advice to help break the materialistic spell our culture as fallen into:
Seeing movies and listening to music suggested to us by algorithms is relatively harmless, I suppose. But I hope that once in a while the users of those services [e.g. Netflix, Pandora, etc.] resist the recommendations; our exposure to art shouldn’t be hemmed in by an algorithm that we merely want to believe predicts our tastes accurately. These algorithms do not represent emotion or meaning, only statistics and correlations.
And Lanier's advice to his fellow computer scientists?  Believe what you want, but sell technology without all the "metaphysical baggage." 

Amen, brother.

A special thanks to Jocelyn for sending me the original article.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Discovering Plato's Musical Code

The political and social commentary website Electric Politics has an excellent podcast interview with Jay Kennedy, the discoverer of Plato's musical code (I recently wrote about the discovery here at WOF).  The podcast is approximately 40 minutes long, but it's worth listening to.  Kennedy gives the backstory to his exciting discovery.

The interviewer, George Kenney, is interested in the political implications the discovery may have.  What I found more interesting however, were the comments toward the end of the podcast about the implications we should draw for how to reconcile science and religion.  According to Kennedy, Plato and the Pythagoreans would both suggest that, "We should worship Nature, worship its order, and worship its beauty.  But we don't need the myths of the old religion.....Religion and science can be united and one, if we just worship what is beautiful in Nature."  In other words, we can reconcile science and religion, if we'll just adopt the religious assumptions of the ancient Greeks.  I could be wrong, but I detect some Hellenophilia in that suggestion.

Thanks to George for alerting me to the podcast.

Friday, July 30, 2010

INCEPTION and the Philosophy of Mind

Christopher Nolan is one of my favorite directors.  So naturally, I saw Inception opening night.  Apart from its visually stunning effects and complex storyline, I was excited by some of the ideas presented in the film, and their relevance to the philosophy of mind.  In fact, I think Inception may unwittingly provide some naive answers to one of the major problems I've been researching - mental causation.

In the philosophy of mind, a major topic of debate is how the mind - something that is popularly thought to be immaterial - can cause effects in the physical world.  That is, how can a person's mental states (i.e. beliefs, desires, etc.) lead to physical events (e.g. raising one's arm)?  Beliefs and desires aren't physical things, are they?  How much do your beliefs weigh?  What is the volume in cubic centimeters of your desires?  If mental sates aren't physical, then how can they "cause" physical events?  This is commonly referred to as the problem of mental causation

Dualists (of which there are a great variety) suppose that mind and matter are two ontologically distinct entities.  In other words, dualists believe the mind (including its mental states) is real, even though it is immaterial.  Physicalists on the other hand deny this, and instead claim that there is no "mind" in the immaterial sense, only the brain.  This is because physicalists deny that anything non-physical exists.  Thus, it is no surprise that dualists and physicalists offer different solutions to the problem of mental causation.

One obvious way physicalists try to get around the problem is by denying that mental states are non-physical.  They would apparently do this by defining a "mental state" as a particular configuration of brain chemistry at a given time.  So, my "desire" to drink some water is really nothing more than my neuro-chemistry being in a dehydrated state, which leads to me pouring myself a glass (this is an extreme simplification, but you get the idea).  As I see it however, the physicalist position has a major problem; a problem that Inception will help to illustrate.

The goal of the main characters in the film Inception is to implant an idea in a person's mind (don't worry, I'm not giving away the plot), in the hopes that the idea will eventually grow and cause the person to act how they want.  It's not exactly brain-washing, but sort of.  Through the use of ideas, you're causing a person to think and act a certain way, while making them believe it was their own choice, so to speak.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character illustrates this concept in the film by telling someone, "Don't think of pink elephants."  Inevitably, the person ends up thinking of pink elephants, and the cause of him thinking it was the verbal command not to!  Thus, Levitt's character successfully implanted the idea of pink elephants in the man's mind.  In my view, this concept provides an entertaining illustration of why the physicalist position on mental causation fails.  Here's why:

In order to deny that mental states are immaterial, physicalists appeal to something called the "Completeness Principle."  According to this principle, every physical effect must have a sufficient physical cause.  In other words, if an effect is physical, then it can always be traced back to an initiating cause that is also physical.  The causal chain is "complete" in its physicality.  Any appeal to a non-physical cause is superfluous.  Physicalists boast that the completeness principle enjoys centuries of empirical support through science.  Even so, I think the principle is, well, incomplete.

As Inception illustrated, our communication through language often results in physical effects.  The verbal command, "Don't think of pink elephants" causes a person to think of pink elephants.  Likewise, the command, "Please pass the salt," results in the physical action of someone raising their arm, grasping the salt, and handing it to you.  Let's do a little experiment.  If you're reading this right now, raise your right arm over your head and then put it back down again.  Did you do it?  C'mon, humor me a little.  Okay, if you did it, what was ultimately the cause of you raising your arm?  If we could trace the chain of causation back, where would it start?  Can we agree that the initiating cause of you raising your arm was my suggesting it?  If so, was that a physical cause?  I don't see how it could be.  Can we measure my suggestion?  Does it have a weight or volume?  No, it does not.  If we can "send" ideas through language, and ideas are immaterial, and those ideas cause physical events, then the completeness principle is false.  It follows that physicalism is false.

At this point a physicalist may interject and deny that ideas are immaterial things, because they are always in material form.  Have you ever experienced an idea separated from matter?  Probably not.  You hear ideas through sound waves - material particles vibrating at particular frequencies.  You see ideas through print - ink on a page, pixels on a screen.  You even think about your own ideas with the use of your brain - a labyrinthine amalgam of chemicals, tissue, and electricity.  Ideas cannot be separated from matter.  The physicalist is right about this.  However, it does not follow that ideas and matter are the same thing.  The simple fact that the same idea can be communicated through a variety of different material mediums shows that the idea is not the same thing as the matter which expresses it.  The ideas that I'm expressing to you right now are not merely pixels on a screen.  The ideas are the meaning those pixels happen to represent, not the pixels themselves.  We could change the pixels without changing the meaning (ideas).  And in the case of one's brain, ideas can actually change the physical medium.[1]

We may summarize the argument thus far.  Call it "A Naive Argument Against Physicalism:"

1.  If physicalism is true, then the completeness principle is true.
2.  The completeness principle is false.
3.  Therefore, physicalism is false.

Since this argument is a work in progress, I welcome suggestions, comments, and criticisms.


1.  Read a little about "neuroplasticity."  Thinking certain ideas can actually change the physical structure of your brain.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Modern Myths of Science and Religion - Part 2

This is the second in a series of posts to critically examine popular misconceptions of the relationship between science and religion.  The first post examined the "Myth of Religious Neutrality."  This post will examine what historian David Pingree called "Hellenophilia" - the myth that the ancient Greeks invented science.

Like many young college students, I was taught during my undergraduate that the ancient Greeks were the first people to think scientifically about the world, because they were the first civilization to jettison religious explanations of nature.  There were concrete benefits to this Greek new way of thinking, no doubt.  It's good that we don't still attribute lightning to the finicky moods of Zeus.  However, the more I study the history and philosophy of science the more I think the popular view I was taught in my undergraduate is wrong.

The late historian of science David Pingree was particularly annoyed by the popular bias in academia toward the ancient Greeks.  In fact, he made up his own word for it - "Hellenophilia."  In an article in the history of science journal, Isis, he explains what he means by this:
...[A] Hellenophile suffers from a form of madness that blinds him or her to historical truth and creates in the imagination the idea that one of several false propositions are true.  The first of these is that the Greeks invented science; the second is that they discovered a way to truth, the scientific method, that we are now successfully following; the third is that the only real sciences are those that began in Greece; and the that the true definition of science is just that which scientists happen to be doing now, following a method or methods adumbrated by the Greeks...[1]
In my experience, the reasoning employed by the typical "Hellenophile" goes something like this:  "Science can only offer natural explanations.  No theories involving gods, spirits, or any other kinds of superstition are allowed in what we call 'science.'  If a theory does involve one of these prohibited explanans, then it is not science.  It is religion.  And since the ancient Greeks were the first people to stop explaining nature in religious ways, and to start offering natural explanations, then they were the first people to do real science."  As I see it however, this view is wrong for two primary reasons.

First, it is philosophically prejudiced.  As I explained in my last post, no one's view of the world is completely free of religious commitments.  Everyone has metaphysical assumptions about what holds divine status (yes, even atheists).  And these assumptions will inevitably have some influence on how we interpret reality.[2]  The ancient Greeks were no different.  For instance, their metaphysical assumptions about the nature of the heavenly (divine) realm led them to incorporate "a strong prejudice in favor of circles or spheres rotating with uniform motion" into their astronomy.[3]  In other words, their religious assumptions influenced the kinds of theories they allowed into their science.

Unfortunately for the Greeks their assumptions were wrong, and their science suffered because of it.  Hellenistic astronomy had deep flaws which led to inaccurate predictions.  It was not until later - when the Greeks began to compromise their metaphysical commitment to circular and uniform motion - that their science was able to improve in its level of accuracy.[4]  Thus, the Greeks did not completely jettison "religious" explanations from their science, as the Hellenophiles say.  They simply exchanged one kind of religious assumption for another.  To say that the Greeks were the first people to think "scientifically" is merely to express a philosophical preference for the particular kind of religious assumptions that the ancient Greeks held.

Secondly, it is historically ignorant to say that the Greeks invented science.  Ancient Babylonian astronomers carried out the longest scientific research program in human history, and achieved a level of quantitative prediction that far surpassed the ancient Greeks.  Moreover, they did this nearly 400 years prior to Hellenistic astronomy.[5]

From approximately 740 BC to 60 BC, Babylonian scribes observed the daily motions of the celestial bodies, and recorded their observations in the Astronomical Diaries.  Within this huge set of observed data, Babylonian astronomers discovered mathematical patterns that allowed them to successfully predict future astronomical events, to a great degree of accuracy.[6]  If this is not science, then I don't know what is.  There's one problem though:  Babylonian astronomy was highly superstitious and largely motivated by astrology.  Can we still call it science?  According to the popular Hellenophilic view we cannot, even though it was more quantitative and had greater predictive power than Greek astronomy.

What do you think?  Must a theory be completely void of "religious" or superstitious assumptions in order to be considered "scientific?"  Was Greek astronomy completely void of religious assumptions?  Which was more scientific, Greek or Babylonian astronomy?  These are very difficult questions to answer.


1.  David Pingree, "Hellenophilia versus the History of Science," Isis, Vol. 83, No. 4 (Dec., 1992), p. 555.

2.  See Roy Clouser (2005), The Myth of Religious Neutrality.

3.  David Pingree, "Hellenophilia versus the History of Science," Isis, Vol. 83, No. 4 (Dec., 1992), p. 557.

4.   Apollonius (c. 220 BC) and Hipparchus (c. 140 BC) introduced "eccentric models" of orbital motion in an attempt to correct the inaccuracies of Greek astronomy.  This was an aesthetic compromise however - a step away from the metaphysical commitment to geometric beauty held by their predecessors.

5.  The Hellenistic period of astronomy seems to begin around the time of Eudoxus, Plato, and Aristotle - all of which lived c. 370 BC.

6.  For an in-depth treatment on this, see N.M. Swerdlow (1998), The Babylonian Theory of the Planets.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Modern Myths of Science and Religion - Part 1

This is the first in a series of posts to critically examine popular misconceptions of the relationship between science and religion.  These misconceptions can rightly be called myths, because they continue to be believed and perpetuated in popular culture, despite being debunked by the latest scholarship.  The myth I will address in this post is what philosopher Roy Clouser has called "The Myth of Religious Neutrality."

There is a widely held belief today that science and religion are fundamentally opposite ways of explaining reality.  As Stephen Hawking recently put it, "[R] based on authority, based on observation and reason."  This view can be summarized in the "Faith vs. Reason" dichotomy, and it is ubiquitous throughout our culture.[1]  Examples of it can be found in everything, from popular TV shows such as "House," (which I love) to bestselling books like The God Delusion.

A part of this popular view is the idea that religion has historically kept people in the dark - the darkness of superstition and ignorance - while science has progressively liberated society from that darkness.  For instance, people used to think lightning came from Zeus, until we discovered static electricity.  We believed disease was punishment from the gods, until we developed germ theory.  You get the idea.  Thus, most people think science and religion are either in conflict, or don't overlap, or both.  Christopher Hitchens gives a biting articulation of this view, in his book God Is Not Great:
...[Science] offers the promise of near-miraculous advances in healing, in energy, and in peaceful exchange between cultures.  Yet millions of people in all societies still prefer the myths of the cave and the tribe and the blood sacrifice [Religion].  The late Stephen Jay Gould generously wrote that science and religion belong to "non-overlapping magisteria."  They most certainly do not overlap, but this does not mean that they are not antagonistic.  Religion has run out of justifications.  Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important.[2]
The take away message from Hitchens and others is that if religion has anything left to say, it is irrelevant in the light of science.  It's important to notice that, within the view I've been describing, there is a tacit assertion that science is entirely objective and free of religious assumptions.  As we will see however, that is not exactly the case.

C.S. Lewis once wrote, "What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience."[3]  Lewis's point was that everyone holds certain metaphysical assumptions - beliefs we assume to be true without verification.  And those assumptions influence how we interpret the world.  This is certainly the case with religious believers.  It is equally true of scientists.

In his book, The Myth of Religious Neutrality, philosopher Roy Clouser argues that religious belief is necessarily among the assumptions that all people have.  According to Clouser, everyone believes in a self-existing entity - i.e. something that does not depend on anything else for its existence.  For some people, this entity is God.  For others, it is the universe itself, or simply energy.  Either way, we all hold to some assumption about what is 'ultimate' or 'prior' to everything else.  Clouser says this is what we mean by "the Divine."

Some scholars have criticized Clouser's definition of the divine, but it seems to agree with the view held by many philosophers - everyone from Aristotle, to Leibniz and Spinoza - that whatever metaphysical 'substance' is 'ultimate,' or exists 'on its own' is what we mean by "God."  If this is the case, then all scientists have an assumption of what is divine.  Whether they are like Newton and believe the divine entity is a personal God, or they are like Stephen Hawking and believe the divine entity is the embodiment of the laws of nature, their assumptions will likely influence the way they interpret the world (i.e. the theories they formulate to explain reality).

If Clouser's thesis is correct, then religious assumptions have played a major role in scientific theories from the very beginning.  In the next post, I will discuss how religious assumptions heavily influenced the theories of what many scholars say were the first people to think "scientifically" about the world - the ancient Greeks.


1.  I think the "Faith vs. Reason" dichotomy is a false one.  To see why, read my previous post here.

2.  Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Toronto: McCelland & Stewart, 2007) page 282.

3.  C.S. Lewis, Miracles (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996) page 2.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Plato's Secret Music: Science and the Divine

According to a recent NPR report, historian and philosopher of science Jay Kennedy has discovered a hidden musical code embedded in the writings of Plato.  NPR is not the only news organization to report on Kennedy's findings.  However, the report concludes with some interesting comments from Kennedy, on what he thinks the implications are for science and religion.  His remarks provide the perfect opportunity for me to share some things I've been learning in my graduate studies.

In his research, Kennedy discovered there was a reference to music every twelfth line of Plato's manuscripts.  He also knew that ancient Greek music was based on a twelve-note scale, instead of the eight-note scale we use today.  Thus, he reasoned that the pattern found in Plato's writings was not merely a coincidence.  Rather, it was put there deliberately.

Music is mysterious and beautiful; it is also mathematical.  The Pythagoreans - followers of the philosopher-mystic-mathematician Pythagoras - believed math, and consequently music, held divine status.  They literally worshiped numbers.  Kennedy proposes that Plato was a closet Pythagorean, and that he wanted to convey this divine message to discerning readers by embedding a secret code in his writings.

The idea that math holds divine status is still around today.  Recall the comments from Stephen Hawking, discussed in my previous post, when he said, "What could define God [is thinking of God] as the embodiment of the laws of nature" (i.e. the mathematical laws of physics).  Judging from his comments, I suspect Hawking may be a modern day Pythagorean.  In fact, this view seems increasingly popular among those who want to reconcile science and religion, without allowing room for belief in a personal God.  Hence, Kennedy's remarks:
'Plato's philosophy shows us one way to combine science and religion,' Kennedy says.  'The culture wars we're having today — about evolution for example — see science and religion as two polarized opposites.  Plato's hidden philosophy shows us that he combined an emphasis on mathematics with an emphasis upon beauty, music, art and divinity.  The founder of western culture, in fact wanted us to combine science and religion.'
Kennedy sounds hopeful that promoting the Pythagorean view might help calm the war between evolutionists and creationists.  Given the politicized nature of the debate however, I can't see many creationists being soothed by the suggestion that God is simply a math equation.  Nevertheless, Kennedy's research touches on a larger body of historical facts, which, if taken seriously, could change the way we think about the relationship between science and religion.

In the next few posts, I will share some things I've been learning in my graduate studies about the historical interaction of science and religion - i.e. how science and religion have interacted.  It will surprise you.  It may even change your view on how science and religion should interact.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Stephen Hawking is Wrong on Religion

Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking is arguably the smartest man in the world right now.  His book, A Brief History of Time, has sold millions of copies and made him a veritable icon of scientific knowledge.  Despite all that, Hawking's view on the relationship between science and religion is unfortunately mistaken.

In a recent interview with Diane Sawyer, Hawking made some comments that implied science and religion are fundamentally opposed, and that science will win.  Here's a brief excerpt from the article:
[E]xploring the origins of time inevitably leads to questions about the ultimate origins of everything and what, if anything, is behind it all.

"What could define God [is thinking of God] as the embodiment of the laws of nature. However, this is not what most people would think of that God," Hawking told Sawyer. "They made a human-like being with whom one can have a personal relationship. When you look at the vast size of the universe and how insignificant an accidental human life is in it, that seems most impossible."

When Sawyer asked if there was a way to reconcile religion and science, Hawking said, "There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works."
The line that separates science from religion is not as clear as Hawking's comments make it seem.  Here's why:  scientific knowledge depends entirely upon reason.  But, as it turns out, reason cannot be explained scientifically.  Any attempt to do so only ends up defeating itself.

As Hawking correctly pointed out, science is based on observation and reason.  No scientific theory is formed without the employment of human reasoning.  Thus, the validity of reason is crucial to the practice of science.   Now, if it turned out that we had good reasons to suspect human reasoning is unreliable, then the validity of science would be in question; since the validity of science is dependent on the validity of human reasoning.  C.S. Lewis made this same point in his book Miracles, and then took it a step further:
All possible knowledge, then, depends on the validity of reasoning....Unless human reasoning is valid no science can be true.  It follows that no account of the universe can be true unless that account leaves it possible for our thinking to be a real insight.  A theory which explained everything else in the whole universe but which made it impossible to believe that our thinking was valid, would be utterly out of court.  For that theory would itself have been reached by thinking, and if thinking is not valid that theory would, of course, be itself demolished.[1]
Lewis' point is this:  for any scientific theory, if that theory calls into question the validity of human reasoning, then the theory fails; because that same theory will involve the use of reason.  And if we can't trust reason, then we can't trust the theory.  Thus, the theory will have defeated itself.

It is clear from the interview that Hawking believes science has shown God's existence is "most impossible," because the universe is so big, and human life so apparently insignificant.  In other words, for Hawking, a scientific view of the world will be atheistic.  However, if science really entails the belief that God's existence is "most impossible," as Hawking says, then we have reason to doubt the validity of human reasoning, and therefore reason to doubt Hawking's claim.

If there is no God, then our reasoning abilities are the result of some material process of nature - such as Darwinian evolution.  In other words, if God does not exist, then our rational faculties were most certainly built through irrational means.  This is a problem for the following reason:  whenever we suspect that a person's belief is not based on reason, but instead is based on some material or irrational process, we reject his belief as unjustified.

For instance, when people say things like, "You only think this is the best sandwich you've ever had because you're so hungry," or "She believes I am her son because she has Alzheimer's," or "You only believe in God because it makes you feel safe," they are rejecting a particular belief because they suspect it is based on material/irrational processes - hunger, brain deterioration, a feeling of safety.  In other words, most people would agree that if a belief is based on something irrational, then the belief is unjustified.  If Hawking's view of the universe is correct however, then this is not only true of the particular beliefs just mentioned, it is true of all our beliefs, including Hawking's!

If there is no God, and Darwinian evolution is true, then human reason came about through a blind irrational process of nature that simply preserves things that give organisms a better chance of surviving and reproducing.  If that is the case, then human reason is invalid.  Think about it.  If you asked someone why they believe the earth is round, and they answered, "because it will help me to stay alive and produce more offspring than my competitors" you would say their belief was unjustified.  If Hawking's view of the universe is correct, then any belief we may hold - our rational process in its entirety - is ultimately based on its ability to help us survive and produce more offspring.  This calls into question the validity of all human reasoning.  But, as we established earlier, scientific theories depend on reasoning.  If we can't trust human reasoning, then we can't believe any scientific theory.  Thus, if Hawking's view is correct, then we should doubt it.  His view defeats itself.[2]

If science cannot adequately explain human reason - lest it undercut its own validity - then what is left as an explanation?  It will be some view that leaves open the possibility of the supernatural - some view that doesn't see God's existence as "most impossible."  Religion then becomes a valid option.  Science and religion are not fundamentally opposed.  In fact, they need each other.


1.  C.S. Lewis, Miracles (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996) pages 21-22.

2.  For an in depth treatment of this argument, see Alvin Plantinga's "Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism," in his book Warrant and Proper Function.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Jon Foreman Hates the Religion Show

Jon Foreman, the lead singer of popular rock band Switchfoot, has released a few solo recordings over the past couple years.  His first solo full-length, Limbs and Branches, is a wonderful collection of folky pop melodies; full of acoustic guitars, Mexican-style horns, and lap-steel.  Most of the lyrics are inspired directly from biblical scripture.

Foreman has always been pretty open about his Christian faith, he’s just chosen not to use it as a marketing gimmick – a brand – to sell his music.  That’s why he would deny that Switchfoot is a “Christian band” – not because he isn’t a Christian, but because Switchfoot’s music isn’t only for Christians.  Many people have a hard time understanding the difference.

One song on Limbs and Branches, “Instead of a Show,” seems to be a scathing condemnation of the religious hypocrisy prevalent throughout much of Western Christianity – or perhaps I should say “Churchianity.”  That term (which I cannot take credit for) more accurately identifies the subject of Foreman’s criticism.  His problem obviously isn’t with Christian doctrine – the biblical narrative and teachings of Jesus – since Foreman is a believer himself.  Rather, his problem is with the religious hypocrites that comprise part of the Church institution.  The lyrics of the song are worth quoting at length:

I hate all your show and pretense
the hypocrisy of your praise
the hypocrisy of your festivals
I hate all your show

Away with your noisy worship
Away with your noisy hymns
I stop up my ears when you’re singing ‘em
I hate all your show

Instead let there be a flood of justice
An endless procession of righteous living
Instead let there be a flood of justice
Instead of a show

Your eyes are closed when you’re praying
You sing right along with the band
You shine up your shoes for services
But there’s blood on your hands

You turned your back on the homeless
and the ones that don’t fit in your plans
Quit playing religion games
There’s blood on your hands

Ouch.  Difficult lyrics to hear for many Christians, no doubt.  But, critics beware, this song cannot be dismissed as merely a spewing of bitterness from a cynical musician; as Foreman states in a video, the lyrics are straight out of the Bible!  Isaiah 1, to be exact.  In this passage, God is rebuking the religious hypocrisy of the Israelites:
I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts, they have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them.  So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen.  Your hands are covered with blood.  Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from My sight.  Cease to do evil, Learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (14-17, NASB)
The parallels are obvious.  The implications are profound.  According to the biblical narrative, the Judeo-Christian God has always hated religiosity, and moral hypocrisy.  He doesn’t want piety and ritual.  He desires relationship and justice instead.  Unfortunately, you would never know this from the actions and teachings of many religious Christians today.  Nor would you know it from the anti-Christian caricatures put forth by those who hate Christianity.  Thus, it is refreshing to be disabused of a misconception which is common in our culture – that Christianity is synonymous with religious hypocrisy.  The truth is that religiosity is synonymous with religious hypocrisy.  And Christians should know this better than anyone, since Jesus himself condemned the religious hypocrites of his time.  It is refreshing to be reminded of the true heart of the Christian doctrine; not from a bitter critic who hates the faith, but from a talented and sincere Christian believer such as Jon Foreman.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Rock 'n' Roll, Rebellion, and Religion

Rock and Roll music has always carried with it connotations of rebellion. One could even say that rock music is a form of rebellion. But the kind of rebellion that gave birth to rock and roll is a far cry from the rebellion we see associated with it today.

For much of its history, rock music has acted as the soundtrack for generation upon generation of angst-ridden white, middle-class teenagers. From Elvis to Everclear, rock and roll has been an outlet for young people to express their dissent from the moral and religious traditions imposed on them by society, to attack the abuses of the government and various other institutions, and to denounce injustice in general. What resulted in the 60s was a revolution of free loving, authority disrespecting youth. And this trend has continued to our present day. While it has done a lot of good (like co-opting with the civil rights movement), it has also degenerated into a less authentic form of rebellion.

Some of the hippest and most “avant garde” rock music has actually been quite despairing, thoroughly postmodern, and ultimately nihilistic – even when it sounds light hearted. Whether it be the quirky and psychedelic sound of The BeatlesSgt. Pepper’s,” the sullen melodies of Joy Division’sCloser,” or the angry pounding of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (three bands I love, by the way), a lot of critically acclaimed rock music seems to share a common perspective – that existence is absurd.

The existentialist philosopher Albert Camus is probably the best known proponent of the “theory of the absurd.” For Camus, the universe is irrational and meaningless, yet he recognized that humans desire rationality and meaning. According to Camus, these two “facts” create the tension and angst that humans feel, and this led him to the conclusion that “existence is absurd.” A lot of rock music shares his perspective. It expresses the joys and pains of human existence divorced from any overarching purpose or meaning. And despite all its optimistic associations (i.e. world peace, free love, etc.) a lot of rock music has at its heart a completely pessimistic view of the world. This is the condition of many of our modern rebel rockstars.

When we take a closer historical look at the cultural perspective that gave birth to rock and roll however, we see something completely different than we see today. In many ways, we see something more authentic. The early rockstars, or pre-rockstars I should say, had several characteristics that our modern rockstars are lacking.

First, they were truly oppressed. The first rock note ever sung did not come from the throat of an angst-ridden, existentialist white kid in a beatnik coffee house somewhere in affluent San Francisco. It most probably bellowed out of the gut of a poor and oppressed African-American in a rural chapel somewhere in the obscure South. Rock and roll started as a hybrid of blues, gospel, and country. Both blues and gospel music are very much the creations of African-American culture, which grew out of slave culture. A fellow by the name of David Townsend is working on a (as yet unpublished) manuscript on the historical origins of rock and roll. He has made the same observation as I have. He writes:
Rock ‘n’ roll is an African-American hybrid, but its strongest root is the very suffering, and survival, of generations of slaves, who learned how music could help a man to transcend earthly pain for awhile….It’s also easy to understand the strong bonds between the Blues (and later R&B and rock ‘n’ roll) and Gospel music: from a secular point of view, singing about the Lord lifting you up and singing about the Blues fallin’ down like rain are spiritually equivalent acts.
These people truly had something to lament about; something to cry out in opposition against. The comfortable, middle-class white kids on the other hand, not so much. What? They suffered because the cultural norms prevented them from sleeping around and experimenting with drugs? I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t move my heart quite the same way.

Secondly, as Townsend so astutely points out, the pre-rockstars had faith. The African-American culture of the pre-rock era was very spiritual, and specifically Christian. Gospel music is the sound of a soul crying out to her Creator. Many of the modern rock counterparts on the other hand do not believe in a Creator to cry out to; they deny any objective purpose or meaning in life. They believe only in a cold and indifferent universe. The pre-rockstars’ religious beliefs informed them that the world is meaningful and life has purpose, and this belief helped give birth to an exciting and ground breaking new musical style. Many modern rockstars on the other hand believe life is absurd, and they sneer and mock religious beliefs in general.

Lastly, the pre-rockstars believed in moral ideals. One of the beliefs informing the African-Americans’ conviction that the oppression they were suffering was wrong, was the belief in an actual right and wrong! It is certainly difficult to denounce anything as evil if you believe that good and evil are superstitious concepts and that right and wrong are nothing more than cultural conventions. This is the point were the skepticism of the modern rockstar undercuts his authenticity. G.K. Chesterton articulates the problem better than anyone in his book Orthodoxy:
But the new rebel is a sceptic, and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it….Thus…As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then, as a philosopher, that all life is a waste of time….He calls a flag a bauble, and then blames the oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away that bauble….In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.
Chesterton was writing in England in 1908. But his point is still timely and relevant today. We could update his argument a bit as follows: The modern rebel rockstar has no loyalty; therefore he can never really be a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern rockstar doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. Thus, he plays at a political rally where he cries out that war is a waste of life, and then sings a song about how all life is a waste of time. He claims that national sovereignty isn’t important, and then he disparages the U.S. for invading a sovereign country. When he plays at “Rock the Vote,” he attacks politicians for trampling on morality; when he plays at the University, he attacks morality for trampling on the youth. Therefore the modern rockstar in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything. His rebellion has become a gimmick.

A lot of this may not sit well with some of you. Something may not quite make sense yet. After all, isn’t religion opposed to rebellion? That depends on what you mean by “religion.” If you mean a rigid dogma, then yes. If you mean faith in a Creator, or higher purpose, then no. The pre-rockstars were true rebels. Their rebellion was that stubborn refusal to give up hope that we call faith. In the face of injustice and oppression, the pre-rockstars refused to take on a pessimistic view of the world, despite their suffering. They defied the temptation to succumb to defeat – to believe in nothing. They lamented and despaired at times, yes. But, like the Biblical psalmist, their lamentations were an expression of their faith, not a denial of it. They never gave up the hope in a higher purpose. They never gave up hope in real goodness and justice and retribution. They never gave up hope in God. And they did all this in the midst of true suffering.

In stark contrast, the modern rockstar has resigned himself to a pessimistic defeat. He mocks faith. He sneers at morality. He sees existence as absurd. He believes only in a meaningless and indifferent world. His rebellious exterior is nothing but a facade. He is merely thrashing at the wind. For, deep down he has no real reason to fight; he has defeated himself. And his rebellion does not come from a place of true suffering. It comes from a place of ennui; in the midst of comfort and luxury. Faith amidst suffering is the most authentic form of rebellion. Pessimistic ennui is just a poser.

Let me be clear. I am not arguing that a rockstar must be an oppressed Christian to make good music. Most of the Christian rock music I’ve heard sucks, in my opinion. And I love all the bands I’ve mentioned or implicated in this article so far, not many of which were/are Christians to my knowledge.  Actually, I’m not arguing for what makes good music at all.  I’m only arguing for what makes authentic rebellion.  Nor have I claimed that all secular rockstars, including the ones previously mentioned, are complete nihilists (even Camus was opposed to nihilism). I’m making a generalization based on observation and my personal experience in the music industry. My intention with this article is really to point out the contrast between the cultural perspective that gave birth to rock and roll, and how far we have drifted from that perspective. We have forgotten our roots; no, we have even come to resent our roots. And that’s unfortunate. Furthermore, I am arguing that the original perspective which gave birth to rock and roll is much more authentic and genuine than its modern counterpart, for the reasons I mentioned above.

That is why someone like Johny Cash – who lived through the Depression in the poverty stricken South, exercised his demons, and then later found his faith and made peace with God – can take a song like Trent Reznor’s “Hurt” and make it even more powerful, with nothing but an acoustic guitar, a piano, and his voice. I like both versions, personally. But there is certainly something different, more subtle and pure, and – dare I say, real - about Cash’s version. Reznor’s original version is powerful in itself. Trent makes you believe that he really believes what he is singing, and that’s one of the marks of a great artist. However, somewhere, in the very back of the mind is a nagging doubt. It is the subconcious and almost invisible feeling that, despite the beautiful melancholy of the song, it just isn’t true. Because, “by rebelling against everything, he has lost his right to rebel against anything.”

* P.S. *

If you enjoyed this article, you might find the following blog article interesting:

It’s a blog frequented mostly by atheists, anti-theists, and other kinds of “free-thinkers.” I primarily want to draw your attention to the comments of people listing bands whose music they think could be categorized as “atheist-rock.” The Beatles, Nirvana, and Nine Inch Nails are mentioned numerous times; as well as Muse.

Here’s an excerpt from comment #4:

“I think if I could be said to have any religion, it would be rock ‘n’ roll. Rock and various other popular musical genres have been sort of elbowing religion out of its former privileged places in culture, and that’s fine with me. I say we just declare rock ‘n’ roll to be atheist music…”

Oh ye of little faith. ;)

Linnea Gabriella Spransy: Of Fractals and Free Will

Linnea Spransy is a painter of a different kind. When I first saw one of Linnea’s paintings, I was amazed. At first glance, it didn’t look like a painting to me. I could have easily mistaken it for a microscopic image of an organic molecule. The thing that amazed me the most was the surprising “coincidence” that Linnea’s method of painting would give rise to something so natural looking – something so organic and beautiful. You see, Linnea uses the mathematical fractal as a parallel for how she creates her artwork. Her paintings are composed of basic lines. She gives her self simple “rules” by which to steer these lines. The lines accumulate until (in her words) “unanticipated articulations begin to emerge.” The result is surprising and beautiful. Linnea literally doesn’t know what her paintings will look like until she’s done with them. Cool, huh?

Linnea was nice enough to share more of her thoughts with me through email. I will quote her at length:
To me, fractals are an interesting visual parallel of the nature of life – how firm boundaries and rules still give rise to variety and surprise. These are surprises that are self-similar and unending, even so, in fractals, they are endlessly unique. Life is similarly composed of many regulations. Admitting this, many people slip into grim fatalism, yet, in my view, regulation isn’t cause for resentment. Far from it! Rules are inherently creative, and, perhaps counter-intuitively, absolute freedom is chaotic and paralyzing. This, I believe, extends into matters of will. We are free to choose, but boundaries which are outside of our control often determine what category of opportunity within which we are free to exercise our will. Yet, limited will is, in my experience, a mercy – and a great one at that. Limits may be the greatest mercy of all and the true guardian of freedom.
Linnea correctly points out that absolute freedom is chaos. This is not only true sociologically – a society with no rules would be anarchy – but it is also true of the universe itself. The world in which we live works according to finely tuned rules, or laws. Those laws are what make our existence possible. Laws, by their very nature, exclude certain possibilities. But this exclusion is not something to resent. It is a reason to rejoice. It is good that we are bound by the law of gravity. If it did not exist, neither would we. There were a lot of possibilities that were excluded in the forming of our world – a lot of potentialities were “ruled out.” And it is because the universe is so exclusive in nature that we can even be here.

For some people however, just being here isn’t enough. They want to be able to do whatever they want. And they consider any limits put on them as an offense. As silly and narcissistic as that may sound, it is unfortunately true for a number of people. I once had someone tell me that we are not truly free if there is anything limiting or even influencing our decisions. By “decisions” the person really meant “options.” Not only do I disagree with that definition of freedom, but I reject that outlook on life as one of a self-imposed impotence.

Take marriage for example. Many people today view marriage as a prison. They see it as a constraint – something that takes away their freedom. Instead, the modern trend is to “keep your options open.” But the true joy of having options comes the moment you commit to one of them and eliminate all the rest. This is not only true of lovers but of anything! The whole point of having 31 flavors of ice cream is to choose one of them! If you never “limit” yourself by making a choice – if you never commit yourself to something or someone, thereby excluding other choices – then all those “options” are for nill. The person who demands “absolute freedom” paralyzes himself, and is therefore the least free person of all. The man who insists on always keeping his options open is practically no different than the man with no options.

This brings us to another point which Linnea touched on. It is the temptation to slip into “grim fatalism.” While the egoists are busy whining over the fact that limits exist, some people are going the other way and touting the limits (the laws of Nature) as the explanation for everything! If all that exists is matter and energy and the laws of Nature, then it follows that there can be no free will. Any action I may “choose” to do can be explained as the necessary effect of some prior cause – be it my genes, my appetite, or whatever. My main problem with this view is that it doesn’t leave much room for……..well, me! The traditional view has been that humans are agents of change. We are “self-movers.” If we so desire, we can introduce new lines of causation into the world with no prior determining cause. In other words, we have free will.

But the traditional understanding of humans as agents has been under attack as of late. Philosophical materialists prefer to define human beings as bags of competing impulses – the strongest impulse wins. Unfortunately for the materialists, there is new evidence that even fruit flies exhibit a kind of agency that can not be explained by internal competing impulses, nor by blind external causes. If there is true freedom at the level of a fruit fly, then I think it is safe to assume there is true freedom at the level of humans. It seems we may be free after all.

What makes the fruit fly study even more interesting, and appropriate for our present discussion, is the scientists discovered that the behavior of the fruit fly exhibits what they call a “fractal order.” I think Linnea is on to something with this whole fractal thing! A relationship that she discovered through art seems to hold true for science as well.

If you’d like to know what freedom looks like, Linnea Spransy’s paintings may give you a good idea. Check out her website here and enjoy the surprise! If you are a philosophical materialist, you may still enjoy it, even though you have no choice in the matter.

Friday, June 11, 2010

John Raux, The Sojourner

I cherish Sunday afternoon naps. That is why I felt terrible interrupting John Raux’s Sunday afternoon nap when I called him on his cell phone.
Of all the ways to be startled into consciousness from a slumbering bliss, a cell phone ring has got to be one of the worst. John didn’t mind. He was polite and cheerful as usual. “I was sleeping on the side of the road,” he said to me laughing. Evidently he felt tired, saw an inviting patch of grass, and that was that. This is one of the many reasons I love John. He does things that many people only ever talk about or think about, but never actually do. He loves life and revels in it, smiling the whole way through.

One of the things John has done that other people only dream about (besides napping on the side of the road) is taking a life altering journey through the mountains, on foot.  In the summer of 2007, from May to the beginning of October, John was not sitting in an office cubicle staring at a computer screen everyday, under fluorescent lighting. No, he was breathing in the fresh mountain air of the Sierra Nevada, feeling the warmth of the sun, and sleeping under the starry sky of the wild. John hiked most of the Pacific Crest Trail and was stopped just 50 miles short of the Canadian border by a snow blizzard. “I didn’t actually think I was going to die, but I was certainly uncomfortable,” John said as he recounted his experience to me.

Perhaps the strangest part of his journey was the flight he took from Seattle to Los Angeles after being snowed out of the remainder of his hike. “I looked out the window of the plane and realized we were flying over exactly the same route I had just hiked. I could look down and see where I had been. What took me more than five months to hike on foot took about three hours by plane. It gave me a really strange sense of time. It felt very surreal.”

John has spent the months since he got back processing his experiences through his art. “My paintings are not merely abstract art that each person can see something different in; like looking at clouds. They are an actual map of my inner processes; the lines and forms of my thoughts and feelings.” His processing has produced a series of paintings and poetry. He calls the series “Meandering Conclusions.”

Since the writing of this article, John as traveled to Nepal and back.  Watch his website here for updates on new artwork.