June 2009


I’ve written a review of Bas van Fraassen’s new book, Scientific Representation: Paradoxes of Perspective. You can read my review here.

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I come up in an interesting review of Bill Maher’s sometimes fascinating, sometimes unfair movie Religulous.

It’s unfortunate that Maher steers clear of more thoughtful religious people, because there is here an opportunity for common cause. In a recent interview with atheist philosopher Bradley Monton, Casey Luskin confesses that in many ways he feels more kinship with an atheist like Monton who inquires deeply into the big questions than he does with his Christian brethren who do not.

Secular and religious thinkers all can commend together intellectual humility, reason, open-mindedness, and dialogue in the interest of the truth; that is, we can find common cause if it is a quest, if naturalism is not the foregone conclusion to which we must all submit at the start.

And this is the problem. Maher’s supposed doubt does not go both ways. While Monton acknowledges that though he is an atheist, he is not certain about his atheism, Maher is all too certain that the totems of twenty-first century scientific materialism are beyond question. Essentially, Maher is commending doubt, disbelief actually, to religious people, and for the most part, giving a pass to himself and his fellow “rationalists”. Luskin asks Monton: “What do you think happens when a person tries to pretend that there is no reason or room for any doubt or self-introspection in their worldview?” Monton replies:

“I think that leads to dogmatism, in part, and this sort of emotional reaction to the people who are on the other side. Because, if you think that the other side has nothing going for it, you’re going to dismiss them and react badly to them… Unfortunately what I’ve been encountering lately are more atheists who seem to be completely, incredibly dogmatic about their view, and then, at least in my personal experience, I’m encountering Christians who are more sympathetic.”

Maher, regrettably, resembles Monton’s observation. The difference between Maher and Monton, I suspect, is that Monton is regularly brushing shoulders with Christian philosophers of the highest intellectual caliber, philosophers who do in fact acknowledge uncertainty and doubt about their own worldviews. For example, he cites William Lane Craig, a leading Christian apologist, who nonetheless acknowledges that “atheism is not an implausible worldview”. Let us hope that it is the likes of Monton and Craig, who do exemplify mutual respect and intellectual humility, that show us the way forward.

William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchens recently had a debate about the existence of God at Biola University, and apparently Craig was the much superior debater. (I almost wrote “Craig won”, but then I worried that that makes it sound like God exists.)

An interesting informal discussion by an atheist is here. He writes:

I have little to say about the points of the debate itself because Craig gave the same case he always gives, and Hitchens never managed to put up a coherent rebuttal or argument. I will bring up one point that I liked, though. After Hitchens finished elaborating a list of religious atrocities, moderator Hugh Hewitt jumped in and asked Craig to explain how atheists had committed atrocities in the 20th century, too. Craig responded admirably:

“Well, this is a debate, Hugh, that I don’t want to get into because I think it’s irrelevant… I’m interested in the truth of these worldviews more than I’m interested in their social impact, and you cannot judge the truth of a worldview by its social impact – it’s irrelevant.”

Hitchens jumped in and said, “I completely concur,” and explained that he mentioned religious atrocities as an example of how bad people use God to justify any and all wicked actions.

So that was good. Otherwise, it was what I expected. One person was conducting an academic debate, the other thought he was hosting a polemical talk show, and there was little connecting the two performances.

Here’s a fascinating new development from the world of quantum physics: physicists (based in Boulder) were able to set up a quantum system where the mechanical vibrational states of two separated systems were entangled.

Jost and colleagues entangled the vibrational motions of two separated mechanical oscillators, each consisting of one beryllium and one magnesium ion. Each pair behaves like two objects connected by a spring 4 micrometers (millionths of a meter) long, with the beryllium and magnesium moving back and forth in opposite directions, first toward each other, then away, then back again. The two pairs perform this motion in unison, even though they are 240 micrometers apart and are located in different zones of an ion trap.

To entangle the motion of the two oscillators, the NIST group first placed four ions together in one trap zone in a particular linear order (Be-Mg-Mg-Be), and entangled the internal energy states of the two beryllium ions. The team then separated the four ions into two pairs, with each pair containing one of the entangled . Finally, the scientists transferred the entanglement from the beryllium ions’ internal states to the oscillating motions of the separated ion pairs.

Mark Sharlow has written a solid paper critiquing Dawkins’ argument from complexity against the existence of God — the core argument in Dawkins’ book The God Delusion. The paper is called “Playing Fast and Loose with Complexity: A Critique of Dawkins’ Atheistic Argument from Improbability”. It’s not mind-blowing philosophy, but I think it does a nice job explaining some of what’s wrong with Dawkins’ argument. 

(And just to make clear, one can reject Dawkins’ argument for atheism while still being an atheist.)