Category Archives: Atheism

Review of Cosmos Episode 1: Giordano Bruno Steals the Show

When I was a kid I loved Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.  My dad recorded the shows on our new VCR and I watched the episodes over and over again, the way children like to do. Cosmos made me want to be a scientist, which eventually I did become, if only for a few years, before turning to ethics. Carl Sagan did a good job.

I re-watched the original Cosmos a few years ago, some of the episodes with my kids.  They are still fun to watch, but I realized something in seeing them again. Sagan made mistakes. Big mistakes, as with Hypatia and the burning of Library of Alexandria (I read a letter in graduate school by one of Hypatia’s friends, the Catholic bishop Synesius whose side protected her in what was effectively a class-based civil war – not quite the simple raving Christian hoards that Sagan described). That discovery was saddening to me, but I knew Sagan was an atheist, and I know that people get blinded by their biases, even otherwise very intelligent people.

I was looking forward to the new Cosmos.  But I saw the trailer and Bruno getting burned, so I knew it was just going to be more of the same. but I didn’t know how much more of the same it would be.

I’m not sure exactly how long it lasted, but is seemed like the segment on Giordano Bruno went on for about 20 minutes. Bruno is interesting, and Tyson made a few attempts to clarify the ridiculous cartoonish depiction of Bruno’s life (e.g., saying he was not really much of a scientist, and his theories were untestable). But the  question remains. Why so much time on Bruno? Why Bruno at all? Galileo is the usual guy for this stuff. Why a cartoon? Why not re-enactments with humans like in the original Cosmos?

Here are my thoughts. I think they chose Bruno because somebody said Galileo was getting a bit old, let’s find another scientist that religious people persecuted. Then they hit a problem. There really are not that many besides Galileo. In fact, there aren’t really any more good examples, at least not in Catholic Europe, where the Church over the ages was stuffed full of scientists and scientists-wannabes, including (quoting Wikipedia):

Nicolaus Copernicus, Gregor Mendel, Georges Lemaître, Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, Pierre Gassendi, Roger Joseph Boscovich, Marin Mersenne, Bernard Bolzano, Francesco Maria Grimaldi, Nicole Oresme, Jean Buridan, Robert Grosseteste, Christopher Clavius, Nicolas Steno, Athanasius Kircher, Giovanni Battista Riccioli, William of Ockham

And so on. Thanks, Wikipedia. So, it is hard to make your case with at least 99 of 100 examples against you. But try anyway. Bruno is the #2 go-to for this “war on science” stuff, so him it had to be.

Problem was, Bruno was not much of a scientist, he was a weird mystic hermeticist who liked to insult people. Becky Ferreira at Motherboard gets it right:

[T]he truth is that Bruno’s scientific theories weren’t what got him killed. Sure, his refusal to recant his belief in a plurality of worlds contributed to his sentence. But it’s important to note that the Catholic Church didn’t even have an official position on the heliocentric universe in 1600, and support for it was not considered heresy during Bruno’s trial…

Bruno was a walking, talking shit storm, with a black belt in burning bridges…

For years, he’d set up shop in some city, find new patrons, and promptly make enemies of them with his combative sarcasm and relentless arguments. Even fellow Copernican pioneers Galileo and Kepler had no love for Bruno. In fact, in light of his difficult personality, it’s kind of a mystery that he survived as long as he did.

The many-worlds idea was interesting, but the Church had already talked about God’s infinite creative power 300 years before and decided it was no big deal. What was a big deal was living in an honor-based culture and going around insulting people. After a while he had insulted everyone who could protect him, and that left him pretty much in the hands of the Inquisition.

I make no excuses for the Inquisition.  They shouldn’t have turned Bruno over to be burned. Quite frankly, lighting people on fire is not a good argument. It does not make your case. Resorting to physical strength makes you look rationally weak, and they had fine rational arguments on their side. Stupid idea to kill Bruno, wrong thing to do. But seriously, he wasn’t being killed for his science. Nobody cared about that stuff compared to him insulting the honor of the Virgin Mary, denying the Trinity and transubstantiation, other theological stuff.

Okay, enough.  The other question is: why a cartoon? Obviously, having the creator of “The Family Guy” running the show might have had something to do with it. That’s a reason from the past, a mechanical reason for it. But what was the teleological reasoning? They could have chosen another means had they so desired.

I think they chose a cartoon for several reasons, #1 being in order to appeal to children.

Twitter was full of people mentioning they had let their kids stay up late to watch Cosmos. And some mentioned how great it was that the Catholic Church got so ripped down in front of their kids eyes. That bothers me a lot, because it is lying to children. It is just as bad as followers of 6-day creationism denying science in order to protect their religion – it is followers of scientism denying history in order to protect their ideology.

They say Americans are ignorant of science because of religion, but now we can also be ignorant of history because of “science.” Thanks, Cosmos.

All right, now I’m going to say something nice. I liked Tyson’s tribute to Sagan at the end. That was beautiful.

I will be watching more episodes of Cosmos. Maybe they will mention the Big Bang model was first proposed by the Catholic priest Georges Lemaitre.  Maybe they won’t. I hope Tyson and crew will surprise me, but after this first episode I don’t expect much.

The Transhuman Visions Conference – My Synopsis

On February 1st at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco, the Brighter Brains Institute convened the first Transhuman Visions conference.

I found the event to be really interesting and I will be participating in future conferences, not only as an audience member, but also as a speaker (at their May 10th conference on Transhumanism and Religion). Though I must admit, I do not consider myself to be a “transhumanist” – I am a bit of a skeptic about such things, and too academic to join all-out. But I find the ideas fascinating and excellent fun for stretching ideas of all sorts – technological, scientific, philosophical, religious, etc. – to their breaking points. And, of course, also seeing what ideas do not break; those are the particularly interesting ones (the infinity of God vs. the desired “infinity” of humans is one I have definitely been thinking about – that is an idea that will be hard to break).

If you want to read more about the conference, I did a write-up for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics website at Santa Clara University.  Here is a taste:

While I see no intrinsic moral problems with extending healthy human life as long as we can (realizing that important related questions of justice, cost, accessibility, side-effects, etc., would also need to be addressed), I do not think material immortality is possible in this world. As material creatures subject to entropy, we must eventually break down and die. The existential denial of our own mortality is an evasion, not a solution. But transhumanism does not stop at evasion; it is a social movement with a lot of highly motivated and intelligent people, and is actively researching solutions of many types. I was very impressed by several of the people I spoke to. Some were there because they were deeply concerned about the health of their loved ones and they saw transhumanism as the chance to save their loved one’s lives.

I am looking forward to future conferences.

Science Proves Religious People Are Stupid and Atheists Are Smart

Where to begin with this one?

A group of researchers have performed a metastudy purporting to show that atheism is correlated to high IQ and that religiosity is not (sorry, it’s behind a pay wall).

Normally I like metastudies, but this is just bad. Seriously. There are so many things wrong with this I cannot address them all. So I will just pick five:

1) Racist sources

2) Secular education

3) “Religions” are all the same, and “atheists” are all opposed to them in the same way

4) Garbage in garbage out

5) Your IQ is not worth… ____

One. Continue reading

Miracles – Can We Believe Them?

Lucas Mix – GTU alum, university chaplain, and astrobiologist – has a new post over at his weblog that is worth a read if you have ever wondered about miracles. I’ll just give a quote and let you read the rest:

For good and ill, the clockwork metaphor of Newton and Descartes is no longer familiar, so start with something you know:  video games.

Let us say that God is video game developer.  She codes for a massive multiplayer environment that we will call the World…

With that beginning, we can talk about the modes of interaction our developer has with the program.

A)     She wrote the program: Creation.  Pretty straightforward.

B)      She maintains the program, not only by keeping the server running, but by patching, allocating memory, and making upgrades.  Christians call this “sustaining” or continual creation.

C)      She might act as a player, taking on an avatar and playing by the rules everyone else plays by… Indeed, this is quite close to what most Christians believe of Jesus Christ…

I’m sympathetic towards this metaphor too, as are a whole bunch of atheists who call it “the simulation hypothesis” (which I’ve talked about here), and yet still call themselves atheist (can’t quite figure that one out). Read the rest at Lucas’s Weblog.

As for me, on the question of divine action, ever since I’ve been a Christian I’ve figured that accepting the creation of the world is a pretty big miracle right there. Everything else is minor by comparison. So, like Lucas, when it comes to miracles, I say “no big deal” for God, just a “big deal” for us.

Physicists to Test Simulation Hypothesis (AKA Theism)

Huffington Post UK has a new very brief article stating that physicists at the University of Washington are going to test the simulation hypothesis – the theory that we are all living inside a giant computer simulation.

The simulation hypothesis has become something of a popular idea as of late, boosted by people such as transhumanist philosopher Nick Bostrom and atheist author Sam Harris.

I am interested in whether the experiment will conclude anything. I have my doubts, just because metaphysical questions like that don’t tend to be  testable in any conclusive way (that being sort of the definition of metaphysics). And no matter what data they do get, there may be better theories to explain it.We can always come up with more ideas why something is the case – data underdetermines theory

From the perspective of theism, the simulation hypothesis could be either problematic or validating. It does imply a “simulation engineer” after all. And that engineer would be “God.” Maybe not the God theists currently believe in, but perhaps it could be. After all, as Sam Harris notes on his blog, if the simulation hypothesis is correct and we gain the same power to produce simulations as the one we are currently inhabiting, then its just a matter of time before some religion creates a simulation which validates its theology. (And I appreciate Harris’s honesty here, admitting that the idea can undercut his own atheist position.)

A rather strange and humorous idea, I think. I wonder what people will think of next?

My New Article: Teleology and Theology, Aristotle and Cognitive Science

From the abstract:

Recent research in cognitive science has shown that humans innately prefer teleological explanations. Children even go so far as to hypothesize the existence of a deity in order to justify teleological explanations. Aristotle also believed in the importance of teleology for human psychology. This paper investigates the convergence of ideas from the cognitive science of teleology with the Aristotelian understanding of teleology visible in the virtues of techne and wisdom. I argue that Aristotelian psychology and ethics is gaining empirical support, and that this could have important implications for science, philosophy, and theology.

So cut to the chase – what’s the point? Humans evolved to pick up teleology – the purposes of other humans, of tools, and of skilled behaviors. This same sensitivity allows us to ponder the purpose of our own existence and the purpose of the universe as a whole, as well as hypothesize a creator. In other words, this is a major part of what makes us capax Dei – capable of relating to God.

From a theistic perspective this is great – science has shown us part of the religious architecture of our minds, as aspect of what makes us homo religiosus. And equally, from an atheistic perspective this is great; theistically-inclined humans are just misapplying an otherwise perfectly useful cognitive bias – one used to figure out what another human is doing, their purpose, or the purpose of an object – to try to figure out something purposeless, the universe. But notice that the first move is a metaphysical one – the declaration that the universe is purposeful or purposeless. No scientific experiment can tell you the answer to that, it is an assumption, not a conclusion. The data can go either way, depending on the framework it is placed in.

I have to say, I really like this paper. I worked on it a long time. The peer reviewers said nice things about it. I could easily spend more time investigating this sort of work, and at some point I most likely will.

But, alas, one of my committee members always counsels me “Go for the deeper problem!” And so the deeper problem from the cognitive science of the virtues, at least from the standpoint of naturalistic ethics, is how to relate science and ethics – or, in more Humean terms, how to get “ought’ from “is.” So that is what I am doing now.

And then the deeper problem after that is how to let that knowledge make a positive difference in the world, both for the individual and everyone. Currently some of my applications are towards environmental ethics, bioethics and technological ethics more generally, and the ethics of space exploration.

All of this is because I want to know how humans ought to relate to technology. Technology is absolutely essential to our humanity. We lack hair (we need clothes) and our digestive systems are inadequate to eat many foods (we need to prepare and cook it). And yet technology can also be extremely dangerous. Human technology has now reached the point where it can begin to alter human nature itself.

To know what to do, we must first know who we are. Identity creates action. And then action creates identity. Transhumanists will argue that our nature is to transcend humanity. And bioconservatives will argue that that is impossible – that no matter what we may become we will always remain human. Natural law yields virtue and vice. What we think humans are will dictate what we think humans should do. We are manipulating creatures – what will we do when we finally come to target ourselves? In this century, we will find out.

For more info, see my page.

My thoughts on those who rally around Chic Fil-A

My thoughts on those who rally around Chic Fil-A

We live in a world where eating unhealthy junk food is an expression of one’s Christian beliefs. Putting aside that one’s body is one’s temple, I think this sort of expression demonstrates the poverty of popular theology in the U.S. For those who believe that there was something more substantial to the overall message attributed to Jesus as depicted in biblical stories, such as service to those who are less fortunate (e.g., widows, prisoners, and others who live in the lower ranks of society), such demonstrations of piety are simultaneously laughable and pathetic. It is really no wonder that there is an increasing number of religious “nones” (or non-affiliated) in national surveys on religion.

(And don’t even get me started on the reason for this celebration of deep-fried, pink slime … people currently exalting Chic Fil-A are those who revel in throwing the first stone.)