Monday, December 27, 2010

'True Grit' review

** SPOILER warning. There are some, though it's a remake of a classic film, so it shouldn't really matter

The remake, as an institution in Hollywood, is justifiably reviled by most people. Generally when a film gets a remake it's precisely the kind of film that didn't need one--usually a classic or a widely appreciated film. If there wasn't this existing fan base or interest level, then the studios wouldn't bother remaking it. The irony being that there are thousands of bad films that might have had a novel concept, or a unique story, but which weren't executed well that actually need to be remade, but wouldn't generate any popular interest. Meanwhile these very good films that have followings and get remakes almost always do so with the result of an unnecessary and inferior product. But I suppose this is inevitable as the remake has shown itself to be effective economically.

So why was I feverishly anticipating the remake of True Grit, when the original is already heralded as a very fine Western? Simply enough, because of my faith in the Coen brothers. They are, first and foremost, auteurs so they wouldn't remake a film frivolously. For them to undertake the project there was undoubtedly something fresh that they felt that they could bring to the material. Additionally, it's only been a few years since the Coens gave us No Country for Old Men, which was kind of a brilliant neo-Western, so I felt confident they would be able to deliver the goods in the context of a more conventional Western as well.

While the Coens pretty consistently deliver fine products, some of their offerings don't quite meet my expectations--partially due to the fact that my expectations are always sky high, mind you-- while others exceed them, and True Grit is definitely an instance of the latter. This movie has everything. Vibrant characters given life by stellar performances, the Coens' signature comedic and moral sense, taut pacing, brilliant dialogue, and exquisite imagery. Bridges as Cogburn is unforgettable, and Steinfeld's Mattie Ross is a stunning performance. Roger Deakins' once again shows why he's probably the best cinematographer in the business. Carter Burwell has more to do this time around as True Grit features an excellent and noticeable score, while Burwell's 'score' on No Country For Old Men is one of the most subtle--bordering on nonexistent--scores of all-time. The script, while largely remaining true to the source material, features some distinctly Coen bros. flourishes that work superbly. I could go on about the technical quality of the film, but let's move on.

The comedy in the film is absolutely brilliant and is most pronounced in the first half of the film. The courtroom scene, the scene where Mattie is negotiating, and the scene in Mattie's bedroom are all laugh-out-loud hilarious and feature excellent comedic performances, though they aren't the only funny moments. Damon's portrayal of La Beouf and his exchanges with Cogburn and Mattie are all quite funny. The Coens are sticklers for particulars, and it's the details that really give the film its pulse. Many of the secondary characters are very memorable and often in comedic roles. But don't get it twisted; this isn't a rollicking burlesque. Even in the first half, one of the funnier gags is punctuated with the hanging of three men--which isn't really funny. This moment is a nice microcosm of the tone of the film; characteristic Coens humor mixed with the violence of the West.

Far from being a cynical deconstruction of the American west--which wouldn't be unexpected coming from the Coens--True Grit remains true to the source material and is a simple, honest-to-goodness, classical Western. Though it does have some slightly modern touches. For example, the violence of the West is portrayed in a more realistic light than most Westerns. Mattie Ross stares in horror as men get killed. Cogburn is truly saddened when he is forced to kill a man in self-defense. On a horse ride through an area where some minor characters bodies lay, Mattie and the camera focus intently on the fallen bodies, bringing back memories of the characters. And, most significantly, when Mattie gets her vengeance and kills the man who killed her father, it isn't a triumphant moment; in fact the kickback from her rifle thrusts her into a situation where she ends up badly injured and her life is in danger. Whereas in a typical Western bad guys are often just fodder for the good guys' guns, and their death is quick, silent and celebrated triumphantly. Minor characters especially get no hint of reverence as the camera barely even bothers to watch them hit the ground after they've been shot.

When the brothers Coen do adaptations rather than original works they have a knack for locating material perfectly suited to their cinematic sensibilities. Fargo, No Country for Old Men and now True Grit are all perfect examples of this. With True Grit the Coen brothers have further proven that they can make serious, artistic films that should also serve as crowd-pleasing popular fanfare, if crowds knew what was good for them. At once a traditional, conventional Western, and at the same time something more, True Grit is memorable film and a fine addition to the Coen Bros. oeuvre.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Obama - Closet Atheist?

No, these aren't fanatical, fringe, right-wing ravings. The speculation that Obama is actually an atheist has been primarily popularized by commentators on the left, such as Bill Maher and Christopher Hitchens. Most political commentators won't venture into such highly theoretical realms, but I've heard the sentiments echoed many times by normal, everyday leftist types. Their reasoning being that someone as apparently intelligent as Obama couldn't possibly believe such irrational hogwash. Which is, of course, nonsense itself, but the rest of their case does make some sense.

The hypothetical motive that they propose is fairly obvious; atheist politicians in America are still taboo, to say nothing of an atheist president. Anyone with high political ambitions must profess faith of some sort in order to have any chance at being elected. And--perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not--Obama found Christianity late in life right around the time he was beginning his political career in Chicago.

If Obama is a religious person he tends to keep his convictions private, as he virtually never invokes the name of God (much less Jesus) except when concluding a speech with "God bless America", or when promoting religious relativism. The leftist atheist speculates that this is due less to his faith being a private matter than to his faith not existing at all. Further, if he was in fact sitting in the pews listening to the likes of Jeremiah Wright he didn't to seem to be very attentive as during his campaign he quickly denounced Wright's typical, standard-issue rhetoric, despite the fact he had been hearing it every Sunday for many years. Supposedly. Additionally, Obama is pro-choice and his political ideology in general could be described as secular progressivism--these are positions that shouldn't be easily reconcilable with his faith. All of these facts form the foundation for the conspiracy theory that Obama is actually a closeted atheist.

As conspiracies go this one is more coherent than the vast majority of them. It isn't too outlandish and doesn't require any bizarre assumptions. It doesn't have any gaps in logic, as far as I can see. It doesn't leave any significant pieces of information ignored or unaccounted for. It pinpoints a precise motive. However, the alternative explanation--that he is in fact a Christian, but a liberal or 'private' one, who, as a liberal that takes the 'wall of separation' between church and state seriously (much more seriously than he should), feels he shouldn't mix his personal faith with his public, secular duties--is at least equally as likely. The thing that's interesting to note is that even if the alternative explanation is true it still isn't a flattering portrayal of the man. If he's not an undercover atheist then he's a man who misunderstands the doctrines of his faith and the principles of the Constitution in equal measure.

Christians are not called to a personal, private life of devotion. We are called to love humanity and to spread the good news of Jesus Christ's death and resurrection for the sins of the world. Now that's obviously more difficult to do than it sounds, and I certainly fail on this count as often as any Christian, but I don't think I'm holding Obama to any unreasonably high standard here. I'm not suggesting he should use his position as public servant to evangelize, but if he were merely to speak aloud the name of the Creator--his Lord and Savior--occasionally, then that would satiate me and quiet the rumblings of the conspiratorial atheists. But he remains conspicuously silent.

If we are to chalk his silence up to his unwillingness to breach the inviolable 'wall of separation', then he is merely ignorant of the countries founding principles and what the first amendment actually says and means. Or perhaps he feels that it's one of his professional duties to translate his specific, personal religious convictions into broader, universally applicable morals. Which is an understandable inclination, but this leads one to wonder where his primary allegiances lie; With God? With the American people? With his constituency?

So, while we can't say anything conclusively, all of the possibilities are fairly grim:
  • Our president is a man who has no faith but cynically professes it for his own political ambition.
  • Our president is a Christian who believes that his pieties can and should be kept private, despite every indication to the contrary contained in scripture.
  • Our president believes there exists a 'wall of separation' between church and state that prevents, or at least strongly discourages, public expressions of faith by public officials, again despite all the evidence to the contrary.
It doesn't look as if there is any refuge for Obama on this count. Either the conspiracy theorists are right, or--almost just as bad--they're wrong. While the evidence that Obama is an atheist is sparse and speculative, the evidence that he is religiously confused or disingenuous is quite strong.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Neil deGrasse Tyson and The Worst Argument Against Design Ever

I saw a Youtube clip recently of the astrophysicist and atheist Neil deGrasse Tyson arguing against the notion that the efficiency and intricacy of the design in the universe that we observe must be attributable to a divine creator. There are many ways that opponents of the design argument attempt to respond, but this one was new to me. Tyson pointed out that human beings eat, drink and speak all using a single hole in their head. How much more efficient would it be if we had been blessed with two holes, one for gestation and one for communication. Imagine! If only Neil deGrasse Tyson were the creator of the universe, what a wonderful world this would be.

Eating and talking at the same time, without any interruption of the constant inane chatter that fills our lives. Seriously, what a lovely thought! The creator of this universe must have been smoking something when he decided it would be a good idea to make us occasionally stuff our yap-traps with sustenance. Did he not realize that we only have a limited time on this Earth, and that if we waste a great deal of it chewing, swallowing, maybe even thinking in silence, then we'll be unable to fulfill our purpose for this life which certainly must be to maximize our number-of-words-per-lifetime ratio? How shortsighted and foolish of him! No, an omnipotent being couldn't make so obvious and egregious an error, so I'm forced to conclude that no such being exists. My reasoning is exquisite, wouldn't you agree?

I believe that I have surpassed my mockery quota for the day. Suffice it to say that this argument is not only asinine, but is so in such a self-satisfied, unreflective, and arrogant manner as to be quite loathsome. Hopefully my abusive mockery made plain the ways in which the argument is utterly nonsensical, but if not, allow me to elucidate.

Tyson's argument assumes that humans are designed in a suboptimal way because our design prevents us from being able to speak incessantly. Undoubtedly Tyson also believes that the fact that the human body requires 8 hours of sleep a day is an epic tragedy--after all that's one-third of his life that is doomed to wordlessness. I know of very few humans who would admit without shame that they believe that their own words are so precious that they should never meet an occasion where they are forced into silence. Indeed there's many a fine proverb, from both East and West, that speaks of the wisdom and virtue to be found in silence. Listening, meditating, thinking, praying and, yes, eating. Not only is our value as humans not measured in the number of words we are able to utter, but there's some good reason to believe that a human's wisdom is often inversely proportional to the number of words they produce. As much as that pains me--a wordy person--to admit. If we are going to speculate as to the wisdom and efficiency of the creation then, if anything, this observation by Tyson bespeaks a profoundly thoughtful and efficient design plan of the creator. God may in fact have devised the human body in such a way--with a single hole for the dual purposes of gestation and speech--specifically to give the world some respite from the incessant, inane jabber of the likes of Neil deGrasse Tyson. Who, in between meals, still managed to find the time to use his tragically limited number of words to formulate this preposterous argument.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Evangelical Secularism and The First Amendment

According to the "wall of separation" between church and state which is implicitly extant in the first amendment of the Constitution--or so say the imaginative hermeneutics of our courts--espousing one's own religious convictions while in the employ of the state is strictly forbidden. After all, if a single individual who is employed by the state expresses a particular religious view is that not equivalent to "Congress passing a law respecting an establishment of religion"? I think we can all see clearly that this is precisely what the founding fathers meant to protect against.

I'm being facetious, of course. There is no such "wall of separation" in the Constitution--just as there is no "right to privacy" guaranteeing abortion on demand--and not even the most convoluted, inventive interpretive lens can get you there. Only a brazen act of willful defiance of the text combined with some creative fiction could ever reach such a conclusion. At least such an initial act is required to get where we are today, though presently you also have so many years of legal precedents--based on that initial fiction--which serve to fortify it.

And, OK, perhaps stating any religious opinion isn't strictly forbidden, but suffice to say that, for instance, a Christian professor at a public university has to tread very carefully when it comes to speaking some of his most strongly held religious views, whereas an ardent, zealous, evangelically secular professor need not fret in the least.

If the establishment clause is taken to mean that individuals employed by the government are not to make any religious declarations whatsoever while carrying out their official secular duties as educators, should this not also extend to pronouncements of irreligion? Should not this imagined "wall of separation", if we are going to acknowledge and respect it, also mean that preachings of unbelief be similarly forbidden? If the "wall" is hard, fast, and sturdy should it not drown out all the external chattering of belief and unbelief alike?

Yet you'd be hard pressed to find any examples of professors at public universities being chastised for extolling the virtues of secularism or denouncing the evils of religion. While instances of professors being scolded, or even fired, for "preaching" or for "spewing hate speech" are (or at least were) quite numerous, and are on a rapid decline only because everyone knows the score.

Evangelical secularism is rampant and unchecked in our public institutions, thanks largely to a few malignant acts of judicial malpractice, and their perpetuation. It should go without saying, but the role of justices in our system is to adjudicate. For the Supreme Court this often entails entering pretty murky waters where vague and imprecise language abounds, to be sure. Nevertheless, while vague language can often have multiple possible meanings, depending on the perspective and the chosen interpretive framework of the reader, this does not mean that it can have any meaning.

If we are to assume a default, neutral position in our roles as public educators, why is it recklessly assumed that a secular stance is a good default? The neutral position on the question of religion is not secularism; secularism is one extreme on the spectrum of ideas concerning the subject of religion. Our institutions themselves are secular, yes, but not the people who populate them. And that is the distinction that needs to be drawn; individuals working for the state are still individuals, not the state itself, and they have no constitutional obligation to feign neutrality on matters of religion--should they arise--or to keep their pieties private. There are plenty nefarious cultural and social influences which serve to bolster the nasty idea that religion should be a strictly private matter, we don't need official U.S. law worsening the matter.

Alas, of course, there is not much practical to be done on this count. It's not as if there were a single existing law I could point to that I would like to repeal. There are decades of legal precedents that need to be wiped clean, or amendments to the Constitution that need to be passed to counteract them in order to undo the damage. Neither of those remedies constitutes a small task in the least. Though, in the former case, if the wails of despair from the left over Citizens United are to be taken seriously, perhaps this isn't as difficult as I imagine it to be.

But there's an alternative, less radical solution, which I have hinted at. Namely: we keep our scandalous and false reading of the Constitution much the same as it has been to date, only we apply similar restraints on those proclamations of irreligion and unbelief as we do to religious opinions. Atheism is a strictly religious idea (or non-idea); it's the idea that all religions are false, and thus there is a wall of separation between atheism and the American secular state, as counterintuitive as this may seem. This is only a 'solution' in that it remedies an existent inequity; it doesn't address the initial judicial malpractice. It only makes consistent the application of that 'interpretation' of the Constitution which we have chosen to adopt. That's a start, anyway.

I don't mean to insinuate that the vast majority of professors at public universities are consciously going out of their way to spread atheistic, secularist doctrine. Certainly the vast majority of physics, mathematics and English professors throughout the country carry out their jobs without often having the cause or opportunity to share whatever their personal convictions on these subjects happen to be. In the liberal arts and humanities departments, however, you're sure to see a steep incline in this type of thing, though often in subtle forms, or in the guise of 'simply relaying facts'. And then some smaller percentage of the time you'll find the more egregious, overt manifestations of the kind of thing that I'm objecting to. How prevalent it happens to be is besides the point though; if a "wall of separation" exists, then it exists between the state and all religious positions, including anti-religious sentiments.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Armond White Writes for 'First Things'?

Armond White is notorious--at least in film geek circles--for praising universally panned schlock--such as Norbit or G.I. Joe--while giving scathing reviews to comparatively sophisticated, intelligent entertainments. If a film has a 99% or a 1% on the Rottentomatoes Tomatometer his is probably amongst the lonely reviews found in that very narrow band of dissenters. His reviews are often well-written and interesting, if unconvincing, and clearly willfully provocative. And it often seems like the review is just a pretense to garner himself attention, and a chance to speak on some tangentially related subject.

This month's issue of First Things, which is an explicitly Judeo-Christian publication which focuses on religion and public life, features a negative review of Disney's Tangled by none other than Armond White himself. In the review he focuses on the way that the modernized version of Rapunzel removes all elements of faith and transcendence from the original Brother's Grimm fairytale. At first I found myself somewhat perplexed by this. I've read many of his reviews before and none gave me any inkling that he was a particularly pious fellow. But then it hit me. What does Armond White do? He's a professional contrarian and provocateur; and there could hardly be anything more provocative and controversial in the world of Hollywood than writing, in the pages of a religious journal, about it's overt secularization and how it is a bad thing.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Freedom and Virtue

The United States is notorious for prizing its freedoms, and for extolling the virtues of freedom globally. And rightly so, in my mind, because the alternative to political freedom is tyranny, and tyranny leaves much to be desired in terms of a just political system. There are some dangers associated with granting mere freedom--in the sense of unrestrained voluntarism--the elevated status of virtue, and our culture largely reflects the consequences of this elevation.

Freedom as a political goal is indeed a righteous goal, if only because the alternative is intolerable. This political form of freedom is achieved largely by restricting and dispersing the power of the state, through a system of checks and balances, so that people's rights and freedoms are retained. The problems arise when, as a society, consciously or subconciously, we begin to attribute value to our rights and our ability to choose. While obtaining and preserving basic fundamental freedoms is a noble political goal, that does not mean any decision we freely make is a noble decision. This should be obvious, but as a culture we have absolutely conflated the good of freedom from tyranny with the 'good' of the freedom to make poor choices (which is no good at all).

So where freedom is at stake there are two entities to consider: the individual and the potential restrictive or coercive agency, most commonly in the form of the state or a despot. It is good to prevent the potential usurper of freedom from doing its usurping. That doesn't mean that the actions of the individual, in the absence of this illegitimate coercion, are necessarily worthy or virtuous actions. Only that they should be permitted. This is the sense in which political freedom is a 'good' thing, though not a good thing.

David B. Hart has written about this subject at length (most memorably in his essay 'Christ and Nothing'), and I tend to mostly agree with him. He asserts that the modern, American model of freedom--the one that I've been describing--is not the classical, Christian model of freedom. The latter having more to do with the freedom of human beings to choose to align themselves with the greater good, the absolute good, the good of God. As opposed to the freedom to follow our own spontaneous desires to any end, including wicked ends. I would only add that, while this is an important distinction to make for individuals and for our culture, on a the level of law the latter form of freedom must be preserved at the political level. This is to make what I feel to be a necessary distinction between political and personal realms.

Compared to a centralized government controlling the economy, the free market is good. Compared to government censorship, the freedom of speech is good. Compared to absolute power, a dispersal of powers is good. Etcetera. Which is not to say that any of these things are good in any absolute or moral sense--any of the these freedoms can be abused--only that they are superior to the alternatives. They are neutralities where their negation would constitute coercion and tyranny. We tend to think of the negation of an evil, in this case coercion and tyranny, as necessarily good, and the prevention of tyranny is in fact good, but what is left in its wake is not necessarily good, it's merely a blank space within which to operate.

And it is precisely at this point where we as a society confuse the context of an action for the action itself, conferring virtue to any action taken within the sphere. Apparently concluding that because freedom is precious and difficult to achieve that therefore anything we choose to do with it is similarly precious. This clearly mistaken notion is at the heart of our cultural malaise and vacuousness. It is this confusion that has spawned our banal consumer culture. The negative consequences have numerous manifestations.

Although tyranny is evil, freedom is not virtue. It is what we do with freedom that has the capacity--and only the capacity--to be virtue.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Christopher Hitchens and Christian Morality

I recently viewed a clip on youtube that was an extract from a debate with Christopher Hitchens. In the clip Hitchens is arguing against the morality of certain Christian principles. For example he argues that the call to follow and trust in Christ fully, without care for tomorrow, is immoral. He seems to believe that it's an irresponsible notion. Falsely, of course, but never mind. Of course if you don't believe that Christ was the only son of the one true and living God, then giving up everything to follow an eccentric first century Jewish rabbi would surely be folly. The reason that Hitchens' objection is novel and more worthwhile to engage with is that he says that this doctrine is immoral and would be even if he granted the central truth claims of the Christian faith. He lists the virgin birth and Christ's death and resurrection and says that he's "willing to grant all of it", and even then it still wouldn't make these doctrines moral.

One gets the impression Hitchens is trying to grab our attention. If God exists and Christ was his son whom he raised from the dead for our sins, then it seems to logically follow that the creator of the universe and the creator of morality would know a little bit about the subjects. When someone rejects these truth claims then it logically follows that they will also reject the morality that is derived therefrom. But when someone grants the truth claims and still rejects the morality that follows logically therefrom, then you have a novel and interesting claim.

However the reason it's novel is because it's baldly incoherent. If you grant the truth claims then you are necessarily granting that Christ is the creator of the universe. If you are granting that then you also necessarily must grant him all authority. If he has all authority then anything that he claims is moral is actually moral, regardless of how unpalatable Christopher Hitchens happens to find it to be. If the creator of humanity and the creator of morality says that morality is one thing, and one of his creatures says it's another, is there room for debate as to who is correct on the matter?

I have to imagine that Hitchens feels that granting the virgin birth and the death and resurrection of Jesus does not grant the entirety of Christian truth claims. That it doesn't necessarily follow from those facts (as he has graciously granted them to be) that, for example, God exists, is triune and created the universe. However there is hardly any other way to make sense of these facts, if facts they are granted to be. Just imagine a series of if-then statements that get us to our conclusion.

- If Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead then it was God who did it.
- If God rose Jesus from the dead, then God exists.
- If God exists and rose Jesus from the dead then God is the author of morality.

That's a fairly simple, linear, unobjectionable series of necessary postulates to Hitchens singular granted fact.

Hitchens is a self-described contrarian and provocateur, so I imagine he feels as if it's his place to challenge and confront us in unique ways. The Bible tells us there is nothing new under the sun, but granting Christian factual truth claims while rejecting its moral truths seems to be rather novel. Perhaps there's an implicit clause in the verse from Ecclesiastes. "There is nothing new under the sun--save specific examples of nonsense".

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

David B. Hart vs. The New Atheists

I'm a certified David B. Hart fanboy. I love reading his writings on any subject. But he's most prolific and noteworthy in his battles with the New Atheists. I've collected links to all of his articles at First Things on the subject, as well as one link to his book on the topic. Some of the links you have to be a subscriber to the magazine to access, but at least 2 of them are available to all.

The Desirist's Unsatisfiable Desires
Believe it or Not
Origin of the Specious
Daniel Dennett Hunts the Snark
The Dawkins Evolution
Beyond Disbelief
Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies

Hart's prose is phenomenal and I enjoy his haughty, provocative aesthetic. His penetrating insights cut to the heart of the matter and do so with finesse. He has a broad knowledge of history, encompassing not just the 'raw data' but a keen sense of how and why history works as it does. Hart is on the front line in the fight against the New Atheists, and consistently makes significant advances against their often unreflective and incoherent materialism.

One might ask why, as a Christian, we should expend so much energy bothering to refute atheist arguments? Rather than simply be a living example of Christ. We know the atheist is wrong, but arguments aren't going to convince them that they are. Especially not the entrenched, professional atheist who has so much at stake. So why bother?

There are a few important reasons we must contend with them directly. To meet them on the intellectual battlefield, as C.S. Lewis says. The first reason is that scientific-minded atheists are staking a claim to reality. The Christian faith is strongly grounded in historical, factual claims about physical events. Therefore our claims of what the facts of history are and how they are to be interpreted immediately and naturally conflict. But why try to argue the truth of Christ to a hardened heart? Indeed, but in this struggle there's more at stake than just the fate of the combatants in the ring. 'New Atheism', primarily in the form of anti-God literature, is a million dollar industry and is winning many converts with its gospel of lies, untruths and deceit. There are many sincerely undecided and educated people who are being convinced that Christianity is an intellectual and factual non-starter. So there is actually a lot at stake in confronting and refuting their arguments.

Beyond counteracting their anti-Gospel, it's also important that Christians be able to vigorously defend their faith for our own sake. We are called to test everything and hold on to the good. We can't allow that dangerous and false perception that Faith resides in one sphere, while fact and reason reside in another, and that the two things are unrelated, to fester and harden in people's minds. It's incumbent upon us to make clear the ways in which the two are inextricably related.

Of course there are various pitfalls that come with the territory. Pride can take over and winning arguments for your own self-satisfaction can become central, rather than the ultimate goal of glorifying Christ. But we don't have to fall prey to this. Rather we must allow fact and reason to be incorporated into our living testimony. How could they not be? Doing this often requires introspection and questioning of many of our own long held, traditional assumptions. Many times resulting in a new, deeper understanding of our own faith, as well as a more sound and convincing apologetic to share with others.

Friday, October 15, 2010

More on Atheism, Science and Morality

A few days ago I wrote a short response to Sam Harris' presentation at TED on the topic of how science can determine moral values. Then today David B. Hart's new article at First Things is on essentially the same topic. His is a response to an article on Philosophy Now by Joel Marks in which Marks--a former Kantian ethicist--has come to terms with the obvious: that morals can't exist without God. And since he is thoroughly convinced of the nonexistence of God, he is therefore compelled to reject the existence or morality. Yet he also can't resist the urge (it seems) to continue to make moral judgments, arguments and pronunciations, so he comically tries to justify a kind of amoral morality. Anyways, Hart's response piece is excellent as usual. I think the crux of the matter is brilliantly summarized in this excerpt from Hart's piece:

I am predisposed to think that real and uncompromising atheism, whose intrinsic “metaphysics” is real and uncompromising naturalism, always requires some element of magical thinking in all three of the classical or “critical” philosophical realms: ontology, epistemology, and ethics. But even if that is an unjust assumption, it seems to me hardly debatable that no purely naturalistic approach to ethics has ever succeeded in producing anything resembling a compelling or attractive moral imperative.

Choose whichever you like—standard utilitarianism, Rawls’s theory of justice, attempts to ground moral thinking in evolutionary biology or neurophysiology—you will always find, if you subject your preferred ethical naturalism to sufficiently unflinching scrutiny, that at some primal and irreducible point it must simply presume a movement of good will, an initial moral impulse that, with a kind of ghostly Gödelian elusiveness, can never be contained within the moral system it sustains. All the polyphony of nature falls mute when asked to produce one substantial imperative, unless one believes (explicitly or tacitly) that the voice of nature has its origin and consummation in the voice of God.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Sam Harris, Science and Morality

Sam Harris has been making the rounds promoting his new book on how science can determine morality. I saw him on The Daily Show promoting it and someone also recently linked me to this presentation at TED by him on the same topic. While many atheistic champions of modernity begrudgingly concede the moral argument--that morals can not be made sense of without God--they instead assert that 'morality' is only a human construction. That morals are relative. That we create right and wrong, it doesn't exist out there somewhere waiting to be discovered and defined. Harris wants to attempt to rescue morality on behalf of secular modernity. He makes the argument that morals can be made sense of based on naturalistic causality. By understanding the facts and applying reason to them. And that, given enough time and analysis, with all facts properly understood and accounted for (mostly in the field of neuroscience), morality can be defined precisely and exactingly by science.

While Sam Harris makes many statements that I essentially agree with in this argument--most specifically that moral questions do have right and wrong answers--the manner he goes about arriving at that conclusion is sloppy at best, and a complete non sequitur at worst. Throughout the presentation he uses a fallacious appeal--not to science, which he hardly gets into at all--but to supposed common sense or things that are 'obviously true'. Without ever showing why these supposedly obvious things are actually true. And while in almost every instance I agree with his common sense conclusion, there is groundwork laid in our collective conscious which is largely responsible for what we consider to be 'obviously true'. In many cases the 'obvious' answers that he points to are not deductions from scientific fact and reasoned argument but from a moral mindset inherited from Christianity. Of course post-Enlightenment it has taken various non-Christian forms, but it is the Christian event in history (along with the God-authored conscience) which informs and creates that moral sense. To be fair this doesn't invalidate his argument, my point is only that the argument is imprecise, dishonest and manipulative. The heart of his argument has another problem altogether.

Even if science could determine, for example, the objective answers for how to achieve maximum happiness for the greatest number of people it still won't have solved the problem of morality. It still won't have accounted for or dismissed the Ted Bundys or Islamic fundamentalists and their 'obviously wrong' answers. Harris is implicitly asserting a philosophical presupposition that has not been affirmed by science and couldn't ever be. Namely that the goal of this life is to live for as long as possible and to achieve maximum happiness for the most people while minimizing suffering for the most people. This is not the end of a syllogism, this is not a scientific fact, this is an assumption of Harris'. It's his starting point. And if the Taliban or Ted Bundy or the entire planet reject this presupposition out of hand, which they are entirely within their rights to do given an atheist worldview, then there is nothing compelling them to abide by the 'correct conclusions' of a materialist moral calculus. If they believe that the point of life is to cause death and destruction rather than to facilitate life and happiness then the atheist has no means for telling them that they are wrong, other than their own personal opinion. No amount of scientific data, no matter how comprehensive or conclusive, could ever show them to be necessarily wrong. All that Harris can (theoretically, though probably not actually) do is say 'Here are the guidelines to follow that best assist in humans flourishing and thriving'. Which A) is irrelevant to those who do not find value in humanity flourishing and thriving and B) is not an instance of science answering all moral questions, it is science answering a particular moral question given a presupposition of materialistic, humanistic utilitarianism. A presupposition that science has not and could never validate via empiricism and reason.

Science is the study of what physically is; morality is the question of what should be. What kind of world we want to fashion, how we should treat people, what we ought to do, what we ought not to do etc. Harris mentions in his argument the traditional view of many Western modern thinkers. That they accept that science can not determine morals or values. Harris then simply asserts--rather than demonstrates--that science can in fact answer these questions. When in reality the traditional view is exactly correct and Harris does nothing to refute or even address this traditional understanding. As David Hume put it "You can not get an ought from an is."

Monday, October 4, 2010

'The Social Network' review

Facebook: The Movie. Doesn't sound like the most compelling premise for a film. It actually sounds like one of Hollywood's really bad ideas that would be marketed to teens, be directed by some studio hack and stars Justin Timberlake. Well, it did end up starring Justin Timberlake. Other than that, though, it completely defies expectations.

Then again my expectations were a lot different once I heard that the script was written by Aaron Sorkin and the film was directed by David Fincher, who is my favorite living director. At that point my interest in the film heightened immensely. Once the trailer came out I was even more intrigued. It looked to be a serious film exploring themes of weight and significance. And finally, once the early critical reviews began to hit--with the consensus being that it was one of the best films of the year, with reviewers making comparisons to Citizen Kane, Network and Rashomon--my anticipation peaked. For the most part the film didn't disappoint, though it may not have reached the lofty heights that many reviewers marked out for it.

The film follows the rise of Mark Zuckerburg, a Harvard student computer-programmer-slash-hacker, portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg in a mesmerizing performance. The story is told in a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards, alternating between the events surrounding the creation of Facebook and later depositions of lawsuits where Zuckerburg is being sued. The press leading up to the release of the film made it seem like the film would be a harsh and supremely unsympathetic portrayal of Zuckerburg, though it didn't strike me as such. Sure, he's young, brash, arrogant, and makes some mistakes, but none so egregious that they can't be understood or easily forgiven. If the film is unfairly critical of Zuckerburg then he must be a saint in real life.

Meanwhile, to counterbalance his faults, he's crafty, insightful, driven and talented. Moreso than any of his friends or competitors, and it's these attributes that end up putting him on top. Not intellectual property theft. Not dastardly, ruthless business tactics. But his own abilities, combined with being in the right place at the right time. Of course not everyone sees the film this way, which is the first sign of a great piece of art. Many see in Zuckerburg and his deeds the exact opposite of what I've just described.

Fincher turns in one of his most subtle and straightforward pieces of direction here. In most of his films his direction comes to the forefront and makes itself known, but not here. Though his usual dark palette is still present, and his work is no less deft. This was probably a conscious decision which allowed the brilliant script of Sorkin's to shine. The script features an electrifying pace which propels the film along and keeps tension in the proceedings. It's witty, funny and exciting. Considering what the film is about, where it's set, and all the other on-paper statistics about it, it easily could have been a very dry and dull film, but it isn't. And the cast successfully breathes life into the material. With Eisenberg leading the way everyone else follows suit; the film features many fine performances. Most of the characters being fairly unlikable in their own unique way, but at the same time compelling in that unlikability.

An underappreciated element of the film is probably the score by Trent Reznor. It's very strange, and in it's strangeness, as well as the fact that it works very well, it reminds me of the score from There Will Be Blood. It causes the film to kind of palpitate and pulse, but not in an unearned way.

I will offer one piece of criticism that kind of goes against the grain. Many reviewers singled out the opening scene as being one of the best of the film, usually stating that for a basic dialogue scene it was exhilarating and brilliant. I actually felt that the opening scene was one of the weakest things about the film, though I see what it is that people liked about it. I imagine the people who loved it are also fans of Gilmore Girls, Juno-type, ultra-snappy, too-witty, unrealistic dialogue. But it just comes off as pretentious to me. The dialogue itself is actually fine, but Sorkin's script is too cute here with how it's structured. Perhaps it's preferable to a more traditional dialogue structure in that it is more lively, but the novelty is outweighed by the fact that it's annoying and showy. Luckily for me this trend doesn't hold for most of the film. The script stays sharp and fresh throughout without being cute and drawing attention to itself.

The film is primarily a psychological profile of Zuckerburg, but it has some larger concerns as well. While you're watching it you might not notice it, but when viewed from the outside you can see that the film is making social commentary on this new moment in history. About technology and how we relate to each other. It's best encapsulated in Sean Parker's statement that "We used to live on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we'll live on the internet!" It's a seemingly ominous declaration, but there's at least an element of truth to it, if not a great deal of truth. Why is this the case? Should this be the case? Should I embrace this change or rage against it? What significance does it have for humanity going forward? What is different about this new kind of social living from the social living of days past? Are these channels of communication more or less direct? How do these changes affect everything about our lives? These are some of the things the film causes you to think about when reflecting on it, though not necessarily while watching it. The Social Network is a phenomenal film that is primarily a smart, funny, witty piece of entertainment, but is also an observation on the first step of the next evolutionary phase of human socialization.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

World Record and Will Ferrell

Aydin, Elizabeth and I broke a world record today with the help of Will Ferrell. We broke the record for the most costumed superheroes gathered together in one place. The event was put together to promote the release of the animated film Megamind which stars Ferrell. We went dressed as Supergirl, Supergirl and Superman respectively.

We had a lot of fun seeing the other costumes of other people, taking pictures with some of them, and getting our picture taken by a lot of different people, websites, and news organizations. The highlight of our day had to be when Will Ferrell came out on stage, he came right up next to us and I got to shake his hand. Aydin was stoked to get that close to 'Buddy the Elf'.

The DJ was playing dance music and Aydin drew large crowds as she was showing off her phenomenal dance moves and cuteness. She was the only person dancing and everyone with a camera wanted to capture the magic.

Reuters interviewed our family which was fun too. The event featured free food and some carnival games as well. The head of Dreamworks movie studio Jeffrey Katzenberg as well as the director of the film came out and greeted the crowd. The climax was when Will Ferrell came out and announced that we had indeed broke the world record. We smashed the previous record of 1501 with an astonishing number of.. 1580. OK, so we barely broke it. A world record is still a world record.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Truth on the Surface

So much of the modern search for truth has been an attempt to get to the root causes, the bare essentials. This causes that which causes that; this is a function of this which is a function of that; this makes up this which makes up that--in other words reductionism. The idea being that if we understand the most fundamental laws and building blocks of life, the galaxy, the universe etc. that we will understand everything more fully. But as we focus on the fundamentals, on the essentials, and attempt to deconstruct surfaces as nothing other than mere eventualities of something else 'more true', the truths of the surfaces themselves become lost. I would argue that surfaces can be just as, if not more, true than those 'fundamentals'.

We all know what it means to view or experience beauty, but if you take a painting by Michaelangelo, a composition by Mozart, or a film by Kurosawa and deconstruct it scientifically, which you can do, all that remains is a sterile set of facts. In this process of breaking down the beauty you will have lost the beauty because the beauty is contained in the surface, in the harmony, in the composition, in the way the various elements of a piece play on one another to yield something greater. Similarly you can reduce human beings to nothing other than a collection of organs, and then a collection of living cells, and then a collection of atoms, which are composed of subatomic particles. So you could say, correctly in a sense, that we are nothing but a collection of particles and energy operating under certain physical laws. So the question is whether or not 'beauty' is merely a human delusion, something that we experience but which has no real meaning or ontology. The question is whether or not humanity is merely a particular collection of particles that we have chosen to delineate from other particles. The question is whether or not the parts that make up the whole are really all that there is, or whether the whole is something actually and meaningfully different from the sum of its parts.

This is the achilles heel of the scientific 'rationalism' of the Enlightenment. It can't account for beauty, it can't affirm humanity as anything other than a collection of particles, and it can't find any basis for values. But our fellow man, beauty, truth, justice, love; all of these things are self-evident truths that we all experience and are familiar with. Granted, these are truths that are contained in surfaces, but they are truths all the same. Where common sense and every day experience are successful at revealing these truths a rigorous scientific reductionism remains impotent.

And, if you're a Christian, you are familiar with truth contained in surfaces as the foundation of your faith is contained in the particularities, idiosyncracies and physical, human personage of Jesus Christ. In his bodily death and bodily resurrection. Not in some other-worldly essence or 'fundamental', not really in any set of precepts, but in a particular first century Jew. Who was certainly a collection of particles, cells and organs, but who was just as certainly something more than that.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Retrospect for 'Retrospect For Life'

The song "Retrospect for Life" is featured on the 1997 album by Common One Day It'll All Make Sense, the eagerly awaited follow up to his masterpiece Resurrection. The song features the vocals of Lauryn Hill singing lines from Stevie Wonder's Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer. The song was the first single released for the album. Living in 2010, an era where the first single to a rap album is almost required to be some catchy club-friendly tune which can easily translate into a ringtone, the idea of a mellow, soulful, conceptual track about abortion being the lead commercial single for an album seems almost inconceivable. And even in 1997 it was far from typical, but then Common isn't your typical artist.

The song is about a man reflecting on the decision that he made with his current girlfriend to abort their child. The first verse of the song is addressed to the aborted child; the second verse is addressed to the girlfriend. While I would hesitate to call the song 'Pro-life' it is certainly anti-abortion. For me there is no distinction between those two things, but some people believe that a woman should have a legal right to terminate a pregnancy, even though they believe it's the wrong thing to do. Such people might correctly be labeled 'anti-abortion', but not 'pro-life'. I believe such a position is confused, but that isn't the point of this piece. The point is that Common might merely be espousing an anti-abortion position rather than a Pro-life one.

In the first verse Common reflects on what it would have meant for him to have a son:

You would've been much more than a mouth to feed
But someone, I woulda fed this information I read
And someone, my life for you I woulda had to lead
Instead I lead you to death
I'm sorry for takin your first breath
First step, and first cry

And he goes on to address his own hypocrisy:

Nerve I got to talk about them [people] with a gun
Must have really thought I was God to take the life of my son

These lines are both clever and profound. In the first bar he's referencing the ideals that he professes in his own music. Namely the fact that he opposes much of the violence in popular rap music, as well as the violence he sees within urban culture in general. Yet here he is performing an act of the most heinous violence against his own son for his own selfish purposes. While the second bar is a brilliant double entendre.

The song is not intended to be an ideological treatise on abortion or to even comment on the arguments that surround the legal and moral aspects of the issue. Instead it's approached in a manner that comes off as introspective and self-searching rather than as demagoguery. The downside to this is that some of the very human thoughts and emotions contain some very pitiful rationalizations which the narrator wanders through. Such as: "But I wasn't prepared mentally nor financially / Havin a child shouldn't have to bring out the man in me / Plus I wanted you to be raised within a family / I don't wanna, go through the drama of havin a baby's momma / Weekend visits and buyin J's ain't gon' make me a father" While these thoughts and concerns are certainly understandable, one should rightly point out that they are concerns that should probably be addressed before impregnating someone. Plus they ignore the viable option of putting the child up for adoption. Ultimately, though, the rationalizations lose out as a decidedly anti-abortion conclusion is reached, most poignantly at the end of the first verse: "from now on I'ma use self control instead of birth control / Cause 315 dollars ain't worth your soul / 315 dollars ain't worth your soul / 315 dollars ain't worth it."

While the first verse dealt more with the past--with the act that had taken place and the narrator's remorse--the second verse is more about the present and future. Addressed to his girlfriend it's an exploration of their relationship and where it's headed. How the abortion brought certain issues and emotions to the surface which now have to be dealt with. Ideally these would be the type of things that people in a mature relationship would consider and discuss before choosing to have sexual relations, but in the real world they often don't come up until after the fact.

Happy deep down but not joyed enough to have it
But even that's a lie, in less than two weeks, we was back at it
Is this unprotected love or safe to say it's lust
Bustin, more than the sweat is somebody you trust
Or is it that we don't trust each other enough
And believe havin this child'll make us have to stay together
I want you in my life cause you have made it better
Thinkin we are in love cause we can spend a day together?
We talkin spendin the rest of our lives
There's too many black women that can say they're mothers
but can't say that they're wives

The strength of the song is the personal, probing depth of the perspective that is taken. Rather than addressing the issues in a detatched or external way, they're addressed from from within. Its scope isn't limited to the question of abortion itself, but includes the nature of family, relationships, love etc. and how they are all interrelated. It's a powerful and poignant exploration of the abortion issue from a human perspective, with all the imperfection that that entails.

Monday, September 13, 2010

'The Grand Design' Review

When I picked up The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking I was expecting a fairly in-depth look at some specifics about M-theory and how it might be a possible candidate for a 'theory of everything' in physics. I figured that the supposed theological and philosophical implications of this would be tangents which the media had blown out of proportion. I was mistaken. The Grand Design is appropriately--though ironically-- titled and has a very broad scope focusing on 'the big questions', the history of science and the current most complete scientific understandings as they supposedly relate to those questions. All done with a minimal amount of mathematical detail, easily understandable language, and a large number of illustrations and metaphors.

It made for a quick and enjoyable read. As an overview of the history of science it's a wonderful little guide. And I was startled that the entire purpose of the project seemed to be to address the 'big questions'--most prominently the question posed by Leibniz "why does something exist rather than nothing?"-- by tracing the historical responses to those questions, both 'religious' and more modern scientific 'answers', culminating with M-theory. I was startled because serious physicists, including Hawking, tend to shy away from addressing such questions in their work, preferring to let the work and its implications speak for themselves--if indeed there are any implications for 'the big questions'. This made the project much more interesting for me as it makes it of more direct relevance to issues that I'm interested in. Unfortunately the book doesn't really address the philosophical and metaphysical issues that it purports to address at all.

In the second paragraph of the book Hawking proclaims that "philosophy is dead" and that it has been replaced by science. It seems he neglected to have one philosopher--or at least logician--proofread his work, as directly on the heels of that pronouncement he launches into a defense of the philosophical proposition that scientific determinism is true. A philosopher would have been able to inform him that all of his methods and conclusions rest on various philosophical presuppositions. So from the very outset he begins to undermine himself by failing to properly set up the terms of the conversation.

At least twice in the book he contrasts a scientific understanding of the world that has been proven to be true against a specifically Young-Earth creationist proposition that has been proven to be false in a seemingly self-satisfied way, never bothering to differentiate between Young and Old Earth creationism. Revealing himself to be fairly uninformed as to the various positions that are held on the issues at hand. However when it comes to the metaphysical arguments of natural theology--such as the Kalam cosmological argument and the teleological argument--he does seem to have some grasp of the significance of those arguments and addresses them head on, for the most part. In my estimation his lack of comprehension of the relevant philosophical terms--such as 'nothing' and 'being'--prevents him from making a sound rebuttal to those arguments, though he does seem to grasp how the arguments work. Indeed, one entire chapter reads almost like something out of Reasons to Believe's catalog where he extensively lists all of the fine-tuned parameters of the universe. He believes the fine-tuning is essentially due to chance--if quantum fluctuations result in 10^500 universes, one of them will have the fortunate properties of this one and it will appear to be designed and appear to be fine-tuned for life. Despite his alternate explanation of the fine-tuning of the universe, this account of how the universe is fine-tuned is very well laid out and can actually be a useful source to cite. The universe is magnificently, precisely fine-tuned for human life: Stephen Hawking says so himself.

The book concludes abruptly and strangely stating that "Because gravity exists the universe can and will create itself from nothing." Which, even if that statement is true, doesn't even address Leibniz's question of "why is there something rather than nothing?" All it does is describes how one physical state--subatomic empty dimensional space governed by the laws of quantum mechanics--transfers into another state. Or how something goes from being something to being something else. Secularists who are more rigorous logistically and philosophically correctly attempt to dismiss the question as either meaningless or nonsensical. This is actually the proper approach. Either the question can't be answered or the answer is supernatural. Hawking's whole project then, as exciting as it may appear to him, is doomed from the start. And precisely for philosophical reasons, philosophy which he deemed to be irrelevant and useless.

Physics, as an investigation of mechanisms internal to the universe--or if not the universe the 'multiple histories of the universe' as Hawking would have it--is impotent to address the question of the source of being. Fine-tuning without a fine-tuner? The Grand Design without a Grand Designer? If these notions seem incoherent on their face, that's because they are. And though Hawking attempts to explain why such nonsensical notions might actually in fact be the case, he doesn't present any compelling evidence why we should believe that they are. Indeed, M-theory has not been experimentally confirmed, and it's difficult to see how it ever could be. Not to mention that even if it ever was empirically confirmed it would still fail to address the 'big questions' that this book claims to address.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Kurosawa's 'Rashomon' & The Gospels

The primary Christian source of truth is the Bible, and more specifically the Gospels. God has chosen to reveal his word to humans in the physical person of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, and has transmitted the account of Jesus' life and death, not via a supernaturally engraved tablet, but using human witnesses with their own particularities, linguistics, idiosyncracies and quirks. And, in order to preserve the truth at the heart of their witness, He has built in redundancy as a means of accounting for the varying perspectives and indiosyncracies of the witnesses. Thus the truth is not lost, but is revealed and indeed heightened through their cumulative witness. Living in an age where we have become acutely aware of the significance of perspective and presuppositions, this method for transmitting truth seems appropriate.

Note that I'm not saying that the Gospels reveal anything less than absolute truth, only that they do so through a collection of subjective perspectives. But those slightly varying perspectives only serve to reinforce and give depth to one another, rather than to counteract each other.

In the film Rashomon directed by Akira Kurosawa a trial takes place. An incident occurred that was witnessed by the participants. In the trial the witnesses are questioned and they give testimony as to what took place. As the story progresses the film shows each person's account of the events. It becomes clear through their testimony that the way each witness perceived the events was colored by their own temperament, personality, emotional state, expectations and selective memory. And though each account is quite divergent as to the specifics and particularities, there is a significant amount of overlap to the narratives such that a picture of what 'actually' happened emerges from the cumulative accounts--despite the fact that each singular account is highly affected by the prejudices of the particular witness. When we account for the differing perspectives and personalities, the account of the event becomes quite clear. In some ways even more clear than if, for instance, we had sterile evidence of exactly what transpired--like perhaps videotape evidence.

In Rashomon the accounts given by the parties are quite disparate. Although a cohesive narrative can be derived from the widely varying accounts, the degree to which the details of the accounts diverge from one another is extremely high. This is obviously more interesting dramatically than having four accounts that are mostly identical, with very small degrees of variance between them--which is what we have with The Gospels. Still, I think Rashomon serves as a beautiful filmic analogy on the nature of truth and how human witnesses--as imperfect as they are--can serve to reveal truth, sometimes a deeper truth than a list of brute 'facts'.

This message isn't the most immediate interpretation of Rashomon. In some ways you could say that the message of the film is largely the opposite of what I have said. That it's about how truth is unavoidably lost in flawed human recollections. Take this excerpt from the film for instance:

Commoner: Well, men are only men. That's why they lie. They can't tell the truth, even to themselves.
Priest: That may be true. Because men are weak, they lie to deceive themselves.
Commoner: Not another sermon! I don't mind a lie if it's interesting.

Nevertheless, if you are aware of the fact that men are interminably flawed and that in any account there is a particular agenda at work, or indeed a need to 'lie', truth can still be salvaged. Especially when we have multiple perspectives of a single event, and the individual characteristics of each witness can be taken into account. So the analogy to the Gospels isn't fully appropriate in this sense, with the Gospels being free of deception. However, the way in which the film serves as an instructive illustration is that both Rashomon and the Gospels feature four different accounts of the same events from different human perspectives, with each of the accounts heightening, complimenting, and enriching the others.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Stephen Hawking and God

I may be responding prematurely here. Stephen Hawking's book is not out yet, so I'm sure the selected excerpts printed in the press don't necessarily do justice to the totality of his argument. However, I'm familiar enough with the most recent discoveries in cosmology and physics, and theories regarding the beginning of the universe to deduce what I think he means, and respond intelligibly to the partly explicit and partly implicit argument that he's making. It's of course possible that the excerpts are taken out of context, or that the book clarifies the argument more. So, with that in mind, my response will be subject to revision.

First I think I should point out that many headlines state something along the lines of "Stephen Hawking says God did not create the universe". It's worth noting that this is not a direct quotation, and that what Hawking actually says is that given the law of gravity, one need not invoke God to explain the existence of the universe. This may be a small distinction but worth mentioning because it does not say that God certainly did not create, or that it is impossible that he created.

So what did he actually say? Direct quotations from the recent press release are:

"Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist,"

"It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going."

"That makes the coincidences of our planetary conditions -- the single Sun, the lucky combination of Earth-Sun distance and solar mass, far less remarkable, and far less compelling evidence that the Earth was carefully designed just to please us human beings,"

The most pertinent one is the first, and I will be focusing on that one. My response will be on two levels. First pointing out that this particular model of the universe that he is referring to is one of numerous models of the universe, and the theoretical multiverse, none of which has been verified empirically. So there is nothing that compels us to accept the conclusions he draws from the model that he is in favor of since that model is not necessarily representative of reality, it is only one of various possibilities. Secondly, even if the model that he supports does in fact turn out to be a true representation of reality, then--even given what he says--God is still not necessarily ruled out. Neither is he made any less necessary.

Note the form that the first statement takes. "Because there is a law such as gravity" - the statement presupposes gravity as a brute fact, as a given, apparently without need for explanation. Why does the universe need an explanation but the law of gravity doesn't? Even if the law of gravity acting on 'nothingness' would inevitably result in the universe (again, which is something that is itself unsubstantiated), this only shifts the question from "where did the universe come from" to "where did the law of gravity come from?" A materialist conception of the universe will invariably run into the problem of an infinite regress until it comes to a true beginning or source beyond which no further inquiry can take place. Saying "because the law of gravity exists, the universe can and will create itself from nothing" is a bit like saying, 100(0)s of years ago when we learned how the Earth was formulated, "because the law of gravity exists, the Earth can and will create itself from nothing." Gravity certainly was instrumental in discovering how the Earth was formed, but it doesn't eliminate the need for further inquiry, but rather immediately poses a variety of other questions that need answering. And the same is true here. The law of gravity is not nothing, but something. This seems to be a very simple categorical or philosophical oversight by Hawking.

The third statement also deserves a brief response, but I'll defer to astrophysicist Hugh Ross who does a very good job of responding to this particular issue in a recent episode of the Science News Flash podcast. But, to paraphrase Ross, Hawking is just mistaken on this point, the evidence does not support what he is claiming.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Playing With Statistics - Humans, Violence and the 20th Century

I recently watched a presentation by Steven Pinker on the history of violence on YouTube. He makes the case that over the course of history, human beings have been steadily becoming less and less violent, contrary to popular claims that the opposite is true. He presents evidence to support his case and, on a macro-scale, I didn't find his presentation to be very controversial. It syncs with most people's intuitive sense of people from earlier times being uncivilized savages and steadily becoming more civilized over time. And the evidence supports this conclusion on large time scales, specifically on the millennial scale. In order to illustrate this fact he produces a graph that compares the likelihood of a man being killed by another man's hand in Europe or the United States in the 20th century--a notoriously violent century--with other 'societies' from earlier times.

And while I agree with his conclusion that on the millennial scale we have become much less violent, there is an inherent fallacy in this chart; he is not comparing apples to apples. Selecting the most violent enclaves of humanity at certain times in the past to compare to the entirety of Western Civilization--which spans nearly half the globe--is a comparison that tells us nothing about the relative levels of violence between time periods because you're comparing unalike entities in their respective periods. An interesting, relevant comparison might be between the most violent enclaves within 20th Century Europe and the United States--like maybe Compton and Auschwitz--with those earlier enclaves of humanity. The earlier savage 'societies' might still prove to be more brutal, but it would be a more honest and illustrative comparison at least.

None of which is to contest his general conclusion on the millennial-scale, but this illegitimate comparison bleeds over into his case for the century scale, which is much less convincing. In his presentation on the century scale he notes the gradual, consistent decrease over time in socially sanctioned forms of violence. And while this is certainly true, it is immediately glaring that he should choose to focus on one type of violence while omitting other types on the century scale. Why would he do this? Because on the century scale, if we start at the Enlightenment like he chooses to do (bizarrely), we see the decrease in all types of violence until the 20th century. Where only 'socially sanctioned' forms of violence and 'one-on-one murder' continued to decrease, but an unprecedented level of mass murder occurred, creating what could rightly be considered a whole new category of violence, representing a quick and drastic reversal of the general downward trend of total violence. But if you omit this monstrosity of the 20th century, then yes, you can make it seem as if the downward trend in violence continues uninterrupted on the century scale.

The graph he presented for his millennial case could also be adapted for the century scale, and made to be interesting and relevant by comparing 20th century Europe and the U.S. to 19th, 18th, 17th et. al. century Europe and the U.S. This would tell us something about the 20th century specifically and whether or not it was an anomoly in the general downward trend of violence, or whether it too was actually a century of decreased violence. The latter seems to be an utterly incredible, indefensible claim, and that is likely why Pinker chooses not to make it. And I suspect that such a graph would hardly congeal well with his thesis, with levels of violence not changing much for a few centuries after the Enlightenment, or trending slightly downward, and then jumping sharply upward.

His presentation seems to suggest that he believes not only that humanity trends--generally, over the long run--towards less violence, but that there are no blips along the way in this downward trend. That the trend downward is steady and virtually unceasing, without interruption. But the evidence of the 20th century defies this suggestion, and his misconstrual and avoidance of the pertinent comparisons and data speaks as loudly as the data he actually does present.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Dostoevsky, Prophecy and the 20th Century

In his masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Dostoevsky explores the consequences of the atheism of the modern scientific age. He famously deduced that "without immortality, all things are permissible." Around the same time as Nietszche, Dostoevsky concluded that, if this was to be the paradigm that shaped the modern world then, taken to its logical ends, the modern world was a rudderless ship headed inexorably into an absolute abyss of despair previously unknown to humankind. Any modern scientific-minded man reading Dostoevsky's work at the time -- or Nietszche's for that matter -- might have taken this to be absurd alarmism. Fantastical melodrama by a passionate artist. The product of the overly active imagination of a devout religious person. Surely humanity need not cling to ancient superstitions in order to maintain moral order and fashion a just, tolerant, free society. Right?

The Brothers Karamazov was written in 1880, just before the start of the 20th century which was the bloodiest century in the history of mankind. Death camps, gulags, communist killing fields, the unleashing of the atomic bomb. The 20th century saw modernity reaching its logical conclusions at an astonishing rate. The rise and reign of various brutal regimes fueled by various fundamentally anti-human ideologies was not an incidental occurrence (and neither was the fact that the opponents of such regimes were, primarily, Western Christian nations). It was not simply an unfortunate coincidence that a bunch of brutal dictators happened to rise to power as technological advances made mass killing more efficient--though that certainly played a significant role. The stunning thing about the 20th century is not the insanity of it, but that there was no insanity to it. It was the direct outworking of the cold scientific rationalism of modernity. It wasn't modernity run amok, but it was modernity taken to its proper logical ends. It's this fact that separates the horrors of the 20th century from those of the rest of human history. That and the sheer scale of those horrors. And it was precisely this inevitable conclusion that Dostoevsky foretold with such insight and precision.

Modern man -- perhaps subconsciously recognizing that the 20th century was not an accidental by-product of 'modernity', but in fact was a direct outworking of its fundamental premises -- was quick to search for a new paradigm. That new paradigm was to be 'postmodernity'. Epistemologically the postmodern paradigm says that traditional canons of truth and knowledge no longer hold sway, as those canons themselves are not subject to verification but rest upon various unfalsifiable presuppositions. It says that all metanarratives of 'truth' are suspect, including the scientific foundationalism of modernity. Postmodernity rejects traditional metaphysics.

As I have written elsewhere the postmodern critique of modernity isn't exactly something that modernity itself was not already aware of. Foundationalism always rested on various presuppositions, and was never assumed to be an avenue to absolute truth. However, the postmodern critique does serve to bring this fact to the surface and expose it, where many modernists would prefer that it remain hidden from view. As such the postmodern critique is not without value, but I'm hesitant to say that it really constitutes the large paradigm shift that many claim that it does. As David Hart says, "perhaps postmodernity is simply modernity made fully self-aware." Indeed.

All of which is to say that the postmodern man hasn't successfully evaded modernity. We are still very much a modern world, and especially a modern society. The only true way to avoid the undesirable consequences of modernity is to recognize what was wrong with modernity -- as practiced -- in the first place. And it wasn't its epistemology. It was its incidental -- not contingent -- rejection of the Christian God. Of course modernity would claim that such a rejection is merely an outworking of its scientific rationalism, but nothing could be further from the truth. Nothing about the modern epistemological paradigm was ever incompatible with the Christian claims of truth, once that paradigm is properly understood and its own inherent limits and boundaries are clearly delineated.

But that is not to say that a previous acceptance of the Christian God always resulted in a culture free of violence or iniquity. Certainly not. It is to say that the degree to which Christ is truly declared, proclaimed and followed has a direct correlation to the upward moral mobility of society. The 20th century, being the culmination of a widespread European rejection of the Christian narrative of truth, revealed the consequences of that rejection. And while much of Europe, probably recoiling from the horrors of the 20th century, has embraced a brand of 'moralism' or 'humanism' -- which is essentially a co-opting of Christianity, sans Christ -- and in so doing has tempered some of the more egregious manifestations of modernity, ultimately only a return to Christ himself, full and in total, is the only way to put to bed at last the ugly specter of modernity. So it is up to us to show that what they have decided to call 'humanism', is really a stripped down, neutered version of Christianity, and that it is actually this shadow of Christianity that is granting them some degree of respite from their otherwise doomed existence.

I have the dubious 'privilege' of viewing the events of the 20th century in hindsight, and making what I feel is a somewhat insightful analysis of their significance. The amazing thing about the work of Dostoevsky's, beyond the obvious force of the art itself, is that it was utterly prophetic in its moral vision. He was able to see what I see with even greater clarity and without the benefit of hindsight. Through a glass clearly.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Akira Kurosawa's 'Ikiru' At The Billy Wilder Theater

Last night I was fortunate enough to attend a showing of Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru; one of a series showings of Kurosawa's films by The Archive of UCLA, as a centennial celebration of his unparalleled career. Kurosawa has long been my favorite director, bar none, so I was excited to learn about this opportunity to see some films of his on the big screen for the first time. Though I was also somewhat disappointed to learn that this series of showings was Part 2, with Part 1 showing many of Kurosawa's best and most entertaining films such as Seven Samurai and Rashomon. I suppose I should simply consider myself lucky to get the chance to experience any of his films on the big screen.

The Billy Wilder theater is located in the Westwood district of Los Angeles, near UCLA, on Wilshire boulevard and is a phenomenal little venue. Consisting of a single screen with stadium seating and exquisite picture and sound quality. The Archive continuously presents showings of various older films at the venue, and if you ever have the chance to see anything there I highly recommend you do so. This particular series celebrating Kurosawa's career still has a couple showings remaining, including Kurosawa's adaptations of Macbeth and Dostoevsky's The Idiot.

Onto the film itself. I own Ikiru on Criterion DVD and have seen numerous times. I have always considered it one of Kurosawa's best, and this viewing only heightened my view of it. All of the major movements of the film are handled deftly and with characteristic depth. Given a thumbnail sketch of the plot--an older gentlemen learns that he has months to live and seeks to find meaning in life--it would be easy for the film to come off as trite or banal. But it doesn't at all. The characters are so rich and the events are so well observed that it has an immediacy and poignancy that more contemporary takes on the same subject lack. Not to mention the sheer strength of Kurosawa's craft serves to elevate the entire project.

Weight is added to the proceedings by placing them against a backdrop of a broad critique of the modern bureaucratic state, and the relatively trivial nature of modern work in general. Something that is as relevant today as it was when the film was made in 1952. The montage near the beginning of the film--shot from a first-person perspective of a group of peasants lodging a complaint with City Call and getting the proverbial bureaucratic run around--is hilarious and ingenious.

The 2nd act consists of a desperate Watanabe attempting to 'truly live', but not really knowing how to. And so opting for a binge of gambling, drinking and the social scene. After his adventures prove hollow he latches on to a young female co-worker who seems very 'alive' to him. As he attempts to determine why and how it is that she is 'so alive', he has an epiphany when she reveals that all she does is "work and eat". Which is, of course, what Watanabe thought was the whole problem to begin with. The difference in this girl, he discovers, is that she finds value in the work that she does.

The extended third act where the protagonist's wake is intercut with scenes from the last few months of his life, and the various attitudes and shifts in tone that take place among the bureaucrats in attendance, climaxing with a pledge by all to live up to the excellent example set by Watanabe is executed with precision. The next move by Kurosawa, showing these same bureaucrats months later entrenched in the same dreary, ineffectual business as they were before, is harrowing and depicts the absolutely unavoidable magnetism of bureaucracy for inefficiency and impotence.

Luckily the example of Watanabe himself saves the film for utter darkness, offering a luminous example that we could emulate, even though the bureaucrats in the story were unable to do so.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Historical Inaccuracies and Anti-Christian Bigotry in Film

Why do secular champions of modernity feel the need to fabricate false histories in order to depict Christianity as especially brutal, intolerant or anti-intellectual? You would think that in the history of Christendom there are plenty of legitimately objectionable occurences to decry without making stuff up. A few months ago David B. Hart wrote a brilliant piece in response to the release of Alejandro Amenábar's Rachel-Weisz-starring film Agora in which Christians are depicted as particularly intolerant, brute savages who were opposed to the advancements of Greek science on philosophical grounds, and for that reason murdered the secular, Greek scientist-philosopher Hypatia and destroyed the Great Library of Alexandria. Hart goes on to point out that this 'history' is an utterly fabricated narrative with virtually no foundation in any evidence whatsoever. And, in fact, the evidence that there is paints an entirely different picture altogether.

The key points being that while Christians did in fact murder Hypatia, it wasn't because of her intellectual, scientific pursuits (which were also engaged in by Christians and which Christians did not object to), but because of her role in a political dispute in the city. Of course this doesn't make the act any less heinous or objectionable, but it does refute the narrative context of the supposed reasons for their actions. That is to say; it wasn't their Christianity (clearly), or their hatred of secular science that drove these people to such lengths, but rather specific local, political conflicts of the sort that have occured since the beginning of time, and have been engaged in by people of all faiths and those of no faith. Anyways, Hart's piece describes all of this much more fully and ably, so read that.

Of course it seems Amenábar's film specifically is likely the result of inertia; a facile acceptance of poor history. The interesting, broader theme is the stake that the champions of modernity, of the rationalism of the Enlightenment, have in pitting the 'light' of secular science, knowledge and progress against the 'darkness' of intolerant, ignorant and violent 'faith'. That is, how this narrative ever was introduced and widely accepted uncritically to begin with. Especially by focusing on an era of history where such an opposition was completely unknown. Where pagans, Jews and Christians did science and philosophy side by side. It's an anachronism based on the decidedly modern 'conflict' between the two--though that too is often largely exaggerated or fabricated.