Archive for June, 2011

Can Science Kill God?

June 29, 2011

Today, I found this post from Andrew Sullivan’s blog site The Daily Dish: (Sullivan quotes and comments on a claim made by J. Anderson Thomson.)

J. Anderson Thomson claims it “is no longer a question of whether religion shall wither away, just when.”:

There is a massive, irreconcilable conflict between science and religion. Religion was humanity’s original cosmology, biology and anthropology. It provided explanations for the origin of the world, life and humans. Science now gives us increasingly complete explanations for those big three. We know the origins of the universe, the physics of the big bang and how the basic chemical elements formed in supernovas. We know that life on this planet originated about 4 billion years ago, and we are all descendants of that original replicating molecule. Thanks to Darwin we know that natural selection is the only workable explanation for the design and variety of all life on this planet. Paleoanthropologists and geneticists have reconstructed much of the human tree of life. We are risen apes, not fallen angels.

But in what sense are we risen? Merely by intelligence? And isn’t it worth exploring why we first experienced our alienation as having fallen rather than risen? Maybe we have risen intellectually, but feel fallen spiritually – because we have a semblance of a sense of the transcendent?

And couldn’t religion, having been abused for so long and put to so many inappropriate purposes over the centuries, actually free itself from this trap and relate to truths beyond science and experiences of the whole? That is the real work ahead. And it will come within the churches or outside of them. The hierarchy will be the last to know.

Thomson writes, “We are risen apes, not fallen angels.” Well, there is no evidence that we were ever angels, but there is abundant evidence that we are related to other primates. Whether we are “risen” or “fallen” is open to debate—and it is certainly a meaningless distinction in Darwinian terms. So a third possibility is that we are neither risen nor fallen. Maybe it’s not useful to think in Biblical terms about our differences from other species.

Andrew’s premise is that we are “alienated.” But isn’t any species “alienated” from the experiences of others? One could say we don’t live close to nature insofar as we wear clothing, cook our food, fly in planes, live in climate-controlled houses, etc., but these are just the things we do as humans; it is our nature to do them. We protect ourselves from inclement weather and disease, and we invent countless ways to make our lives more comfortable and enjoyable. The word “alienation” is warmed over from Sartre and Marcuse. Maybe cats and dogs would feel “alienated” from all the perks of being human if they could figure things out…

When things go awry, is it because we are “fallen” (Biblical language), or is it because we are insufficiently “evolved” (the language of science)? Have we “lost” something that we once had (innocence, as in the Garden of Eden)? Or could it be that we just haven’t yet realized our full potential?

Andrew’s language is itself pre-scientific and actually unhelpful in understanding some of the dilemmas of being human.

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Melanie Phillips: The World Turned Upside Down

June 27, 2011

Melanie Phillips

I imagine that Melanie Phillips, author of “A World Turned Upside Down” (2010), has witnessed and personally experienced some startling “inversions” in her time. So have we all. Things we once thought true have been proved false, shame has been transformed into pride, the honorable has become dishonorable… It must seem that the world has been turned upside down or that we’ve walked through the looking-glass and into a moral maze.

But it’s worse than upside down: we can’t even find our feet. Not only is the ground shifting, but everywhere we step seems to have a different vector of gravity.

As a journalist and editor, Ms. Phillips would have been expected to help her readers decipher the world, and she was by nature and upbringing a person in need of a strong moral compass. A 2003 New Statesman profile talks about her compulsion to control, order, and label everything—people and objects—that come within her sphere.

On November 15, 2010, Ms. Phillips spoke at the Wednesday Morning Club in Los Angeles, CA. (Video here.) What can a speaker cover in 32 minutes? Not much. But Ms. Phillips was not to be deterred. Her topic was the sad state of Western civilization and the pre-eminent causes of its decline—its repudiation of logic, reason, and evidence, and its abandonment of Judeo-Christian values (these are, in her view, synonymous). The culprits in this cosmic drama are the educated elites, proponents of global warming science, environmentalists, militant atheists, extreme gender feminists, anti-imperialists, anti-colonialists, anti-Americans, anti-capitalists, anti-Zionists, multiculturalists, moral and cultural relativists, and materialists.

I am not “for” everything she is “against.” I have my own qualms about multiculturalism and moral relativism, and I have no opinion whatsoever about some of the issues in her inventory. What caught my attention was her methodical segmentation of the world and the desperate, unshakable certainty with which she expresses her personal views about such a vast array of topics. In an artful framing maneuver at the beginning of her talk, she very pointedly champions rationality, as if to pre-empt any charges that she has gone off the rails. That frame also includes fulminations against those who have “demonized” her in the past—a clear signal to her audience about their own reception of what she is about to say.

Spending the first several minutes of a 32-minute speech declaring one’s victim status and defending one’s sanity sets a tone of highly charged subjectivity for what is to follow.

Ms. Phillips strikes me as belonging to a class of people who feel they must express an opinion about everything that happens in the world, whether or not they are insufficiently informed. We’ve all met them at cocktail parties or watched them bloviate on talk shows. The path from journalist to public intellectual to windbag is strewn with half-baked notions; with any luck, a sufficient number of these offerings will rise to the occasion and impress an audience.

Such is her journalistic side and her media persona; she is constantly engaged in public discussion, often on topics about which she has little expertise, and yet she is expected to forcefully express her opinions convincingly and on the fly. And so she often finds herself on the defensive, challenged by experts and intellectuals. Nevertheless, she must exude confidence. Received pronunciation is, of course, as important as knowing the right people—Ms. Phillips is said to be in Prince Charles’ circle.

Early on, the pressure may have been especially intense because she was the first woman editor at The Guardian newspaper, as well as a Jew. Her reaction to all this pressure was first to faint (on her first day as news editor of The Guardian) and then to become imperious and uncompromising—a management style that proved disastrous for her at the paper but seemed to work pretty well for her as a writer and speaker.

Then there’s her Jewishness, which has imbued her with a sense of history and of her purpose in the world. It seems rather grandiose and megalomaniacal at times: she has divided everything up very neatly, just as she arranged and labeled the decanters on her liquor tray. There are the “ideologies,” or “-isms” on one side (all of which are “militantly secular,” she says), and on the other, there are logic, reason, and truth, epitomized by Judeo-Christianity. The borders between these two are impermeable: there are no Christian environmentalists or anti-Zionist observant Jews. Anti-imperialism, like anti-Americanism, anti-colonialism, and multiculturalism, is also militantly secular. (She does actually say this. Check it out at around 15:15 in the video: “They [the ‘isms] are all militantly secular; they’re all against organized religion and particularly against Judeo-Christian tradition.”)

And, of course, she is not herself an ideologue (16:30: “…the rest of us, who are not ideologues, start with facts and evidence and then arrive at a conclusion…”). In her view, these anti-rational ideologies did not appear historically until Judeo-Christianity began to wane in the West. Ms. Phillips does not identify the pinnacle of rationality in Western Civilization, but presumably it would have occurred sometime in early Christian history around the time of Augustine—or perhaps as late as the thirteenth century. The Renaissance, the European Enlightenment, and the development of modern science brought us to our current sorry state of affairs.

Ms. Phillips covers a lot of ground, but there’s no depth to any of it. She dismisses anthropogenic global warming without even attempting to address the overwhelming scientific consensus supporting it. And here she sounds exactly like a small child who believes that she can make something disappear by closing her eyes: (around 5:40) “The seas are not rising, the ice is not shrinking, the polar bears are not vanishing, there’s been no significant warming since 1995, and temperatures have not increased at all since 1998. …The assumption that climate itself can be predicted or its course changed by anything that we do is absolutely ridiculous.”

Really? She should take that idea to Munich Re, the world’s largest insurer, or to NASA, or to the U.S. Military. She could instruct their legions of scientists and statisticians that they have started with a conclusion, not with the facts. Better yet, she could try getting invited to a Geophysics conference to explain why 70 million tons of carbon dioxide, pumped into our atmosphere every day by humans, has no effect on climate. Or she could inform these scientists that NASA’s thousands of satellite photos showing disappearing Arctic ice are fraudulent.

Ms. Phillips’ own disregard of the facts is absolutely breathtaking, notwithstanding her protestations that she “starts with facts, not conclusions.”

Where does she get her “facts” about global warming? Answer: From Ian Plimer’s 2009 book on the subject (“Heaven and Earth—Global Warming: The Missing Science.”). And who is Ian Plimer? He’s a professor of mining geology and the director of four mining companies. Yes, mining companies. They extract fossil fuels from the earth.

Ms. Phillips may find that she can fudge her history and her socio-politics, and make grand sweeping statements about the Zeitgeist. But peddling deliberate distortions about the sciences is much riskier. Her verdict on Darwinism—that it’s “just” a theory, not a fact—reveals an abysmal ignorance of biological science and of the scientific method in general. The little word “just” is the clue to her cluelessness. I don’t think I want to know her thoughts on germ theory or heliocentric theory.

How, indeed, did she manage to become so “expert” in biology and climatology—both of which require decades of study—that she feels empowered to argue with the likes of Richard Dawkins or James Hansen? If there is any merit to her own theories about these subjects, then she should write them up for the journals where they can be peer-reviewed instead of trying to impress the neophytes.

But Ms. Phillips has anticipated this very objection (at 32:38):

“I now find that to find people who are sane and decent and rational, one has to go to people with no education. The most highly educated are now the most irrational, the most bigoted, and the most intolerant. It is in the intelligentsia where this problem is rooted. The core is the repudiation of the very concept of truth and objectivity by this intelligentsia, who have embraced instead everything that is subjective and relative.”

This “intelligentsia” dominates the universities, the research centers, and the scientific journals. It ostracizes anyone who dares to challenge it:

“Scientists teaching evidence problems with evolutionary theory are fired, scientists expressing skepticism [about] the science of man-made global warming theory find they can’t get grant funding, the scientific journals are closed to them, and they’re subjected to vicious personal and professional attacks.”

Could it just be that the scientific establishment is simply doing its job of weeding out the crackpots—and, yes, the ideologues—through rigorous application of the scientific method? The world of science is not one in which “everyone gets the prize.” The prize goes to those whose ideas can withstand the withering scrutiny of their colleagues; it goes to those who can, by applying very rigorous rules of evidence, disprove the theories of other scientists. Sooner or later the winnowing process brings everyone in the scientific community to a consensus about particular theories, accrediting some while consigning others to the dustbin of history.

Evolutionary theory is the foundation of modern biological science. I can easily imagine the impatience of a journal editor who receives one more sorry and ill-conceived repudiation of it from a scientist working for the Discovery Institute or the Cato Institute.

Ms. Phillips has certainly built a hard shell around herself. If you disagree with any of her premises, you are likely to be too highly educated, and you are almost certainly irrational, bigoted, and intolerant. You have repudiated the truth as it has been revealed to her.

Ironically, Ms. Phillips began her talk by excoriating those who had “demonized” her since she became more conservative in her views: “You couldn’t penetrate [their] point of view. It was impervious to reason itself. Everything was being turned inside out…justice and injustice, victim and victimizer. [There were] insults and character assassinations…”

In preparation for reading Ms. Phillip’s latest book, “The World Turned Upside Down,” it might be helpful to first read Dostoyevsky’s The Double, and then practice standing on your head while reading.