Science

Judging a book by its cover: a review of Sam Harris’ Waking Up

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Waking Up is a difficult book. You may be tempted to assume, by its conspicuously short page length and tranquil, sky-blue cover, that it will be light reading, but light reading it is not. Sam Harris, author, horseman, skeptic-extraordinaire, has set out to discuss the inherently difficult topic of the nature of consciousness, particularly in its relation to contemplative practice and – for sad lack of a better word – spirituality. For the novice (and that’s me), digesting the non-duality of consciousness and the elimination of self made for a tough, but enjoyable journey. I’ll spend the next few minutes discussing why I felt it worthwhile.

First, a little more on what I mean by difficult. It’s not that there are loads of technical descriptions or assumed knowledge by the author – it’s that the nature of what’s being discussed, subjective experience, is just hard to connect with. Consider this short excerpt: “Subjectively speaking, there is only consciousness and its contents; there is no inner self who is conscious.” It doesn’t matter how deftly or how many ways someone describes something like that to you, to grasp it at all you need to at least glimpse it yourself. Oftentimes throughout the book I felt like Harris was taking great pains to describe a stranger to me in physical detail, and then asking me to go out and find said stranger in a crowded gymnasium. Flatly, it’s hard, both for the teacher and the student. Harris is aware of the difficulty, hence the constant encouragements throughout the book to put into practice what he’s describing – to actually take time out of your day to meditate and practice mindfulness. The second complication is that one needs to have thought somewhat deeply about the nature of consciousness before, otherwise much of the book – particularly chapter 2 – will be difficult to comprehend (for a crash course on the “hard problem” of consciousness, I recommend Steven Pinker’s article in TIME). These two in combination had me on the frustrating edge of comprehension for much of the middle of the book, only to lose it all a moment later. Fittingly, this seems to mirror the experience of beginning contemplatives, who struggle mightily, for hours or even years, to take the first steps toward enlightenment.

But struggles often lead to reward, and while I was initially skeptical of the book, I had that bittersweet feeling of melancholy as I finished its final pages, not wanting it to end. If nothing else, Waking Up has piqued my interest in contemplative thought and meditative practice – concepts I’ve dabbled with but never to any serious degree. Even if one reads the book and never again sits cross-legged on a cushion to meditate, there are useful self-help tips that can be applied almost immediately. For example, the basic act of mindfulness, or being aware of the present moment, can be used to assuage negative emotions and thoughts. The next time you are feeling angry, take a second to just notice that you are feeling angry. Just pay attention to the feeling. The same can go for anxiety, loneliness, etc. You’ll find that the act of awareness will almost immediately relinquish the negative effects of the emotion – it’s quite difficult to stay angry when you are concentrating on how angry you are. (I was happy to see this technique discussed, as I’ve been doing a version of it since I was a kid, without knowing it was connected to anything called mindfulness). Along with tips like these, there are also short descriptions and exercise on how to meditate (you can find Harris’ guided meditations here), backed up by evidence supporting the health benefits, which are primarily cognitive. At its core, that’s what Waking Up is – a self-help book. Harris, who seems to have led an interesting life traveling far and wide in search of transcendent experiences, is here relaying what he’s learned – all within a rational framework – simply because these practices interest him and have helped him personally by reducing, not entirely but in small bits, suffering.

Perhaps most importantly, Harris has staked a very public claim on turf formerly thought to be the exclusive domain of the religious (or at least the wacky). By writing Waking Up, one of the most famous skeptics of our generation has swiftly divorced the meditative and contemplative practices from their traditional, often irrational foundations in Eastern religion and co-opted them into a rational framework aimed at inducing psychological well-being. It’s perhaps not surprising that, old as they are, some religious traditions have managed to make insights into human happiness and suffering, and once we slice away the supernatural baggage, there’s something left that even the fiercest skeptic can find useful. The old idiom, “even a broken clock is right twice a day” passed through my mind more than once as Harris summarized religious traditions dealing with enlightenment and transcendence. In addition to self-help, the overriding theme of the book is that one doesn’t need religion to lead a spiritual life. This, I think, is particularly important today as more and more people question the foundations of their religions but do not leave due to the perception that humanism, skepticism, atheism, etc are devoid of transcendence or spirituality. Harris’ book then, is timely, and I hope an inviting argument for those who feel they have been missing something in their lives since leaving religion, or for those who haven’t yet left.

Of course, some people have never felt a yearning for the spiritual life. And for those folks? Well, Waking Up is still worth the price of admission, if for nothing else than Harris’ 13 page take down of NDE-peddler, Eben Alexander (Dr. Heaven). While it doesn’t fit quite smoothly into the rest of the text (at times the book is clearly a mash-up of previously written material), Harris offers, next to Esquire’s piece, perhaps the most comprehensive criticism of Alexander’s ludicrous claims to have proven that we survive our deaths. If the premise of Waking Up seems too gushy for you, and you miss the good old excoriations of patent nonsense, then fear not: Sam Harris is still your guy.

And with that, I (whatever “I” even means anymore!) end, and encourage you to read other reviews, or check out the first chapter, available for free online. Now, off to meditate. Namaste.

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Richard Feynman is not allowed to have sex.

A few days ago, a blog article was published by Matthew Francis called, “The Problem with Richard Feynman“. It got picked up by a few outlets, including 3 Quarks Daily. In the post, Francis argues that legendary physicist Richard Feynman should not be thought of as a hero – despite his significant contributions to science – because of some disreputable behavior and attitudes sprinkled over his 70 so odd years on earth.

I obviously agree that Feynman was flawed (so are you, dear reader, and so am I), but he certainly wasn’t flawed enough to deserve demotion from hero status, at least in my opinion (and also in the opinion of most commenters on the post). On the contrary, having studied Feynman pretty closely, I’ve always thought that one of the most remarkable things about him was that his heart seemed as big as his brain. One only needs to read the letter he wrote to his first wife, some 16 months after she passed away from tuberculosis, to get a sense of this. You might also watch this full-length documentary featuring interviews with several friends. The more I learned and continue to learn about Feynman, the more I feel a genuine respect, almost love, for the guy.

And so I had to respond to Francis’ bizarre post, which goes so far as to accuse Feynman of being a “sexual predator”:

…what if a hero was a sexual predator, someone who admitted to some really creepy behavior? What if this person also happens to be a Nobel laureate, a founder of a whole field of research, and an admirable thinker on a number of complicated topics? How do we deal with the two realities together?

In short, how do we cope with the problem of Richard Feynman?

Sexual predator? One has to assume – since Francis provides little evidence to support such a claim – that this accusation is in reference to Feynman’s admitted womanizing, chronicled in his autobiographies and elsewhere. The specific “facts” Francis lays out are as follows:

“Feynman pretended to be an undergraduate to get young women to sleep with him. He targeted the wives of male grad students. He went to bars and practiced a technique that isn’t so different from the reprehensible “game” of the pick-up artists (PUAs).”

That’s it. That’s all Francis points to. Those things make someone a sexual predator? Were the undergraduates underage? Were the wives of male grad students assaulted? Were the women in bars Jedi-mind tricked? Might it not be possible that women sometimes want sex, that Feynman was charming and seductive, and that these two forces occasionally found one another? Is Feynman not allowed to have or pursue sex (if that’s the criteria for being a sexual predator, who on earth isn’t?)? I’m not condoning affairs or leaving behind pregnant girlfriends (another accusation of Feynman strangely not covered in Francis’ article), but can any thinking person, with the limited knowledge we have about Feynman’s life, honestly equate these items to sexual predation? The answer is no, they can’t. Which means Francis either isn’t thinking or isn’t honest in this particular post.

With that out of the way, what about the fact that Feynman was sometimes “mean” to others? Shouldn’t such moral depravity disqualify him from being lauded as a hero? That seems to be the gist:

And let’s face it: Feynman frequently unkind toward men too. In his memoirs, he tends to spin things to make himself into the smartest one in the room, and to make even his friends look like losers by comparison. Excessive self-deprecation is one thing, but it seems a trifle unfair to take potshots at friends in a medium where they can’t defend themselves.

A trifle unfair to take potshots at people who can’t defend themselves: say, like accusing a dead scientist of being a sexual predator? This entire criticism – that Feynman was occasionally mean or derisive – is almost too silly of an accusation for grown ups to even bother with, but I have to wonder what memoirs Francis is reading and whether or not he’s missing a bit of the point. For example, when Feynman comes across as the “smartest one in the room” in his essays, it’s almost always as a foil to some pompous or stuffy authoritarian figure or self-proclaimed expert. We all know Feynman perpetuated the “myth of Feynman” and that many of his stories and essays were heavily exaggerated or apocryphal (another reason it isn’t entirely responsible to use them to impugn), but we also know that Feynman was intensely honest and quick to admit when he knew little about a subject or specialty: “I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about…I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.” To see just how far the above passage stretches reality, here are a few quotes literally picked out in under two minutes by flipping at random through Feynman’s “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman”, that contradict Francis:

At that particular time I was not quite up to things: I was always a little behind. Everybody seemed to be smart, and I didn’t feel like I was keeping up.

I was ready to put my hand up and say, ‘Would you please define the problem better,’ but then I thought, ‘No, I’m the ignoramus; I’d better listen.

I felt so stupid…He was always deflating me like that. He was a very smart fellow.

If Francis’ post had stuck with a premise like this: Feynman gets all kinds of attention for great things he did, but he was also human and did some bad things too and we have keep those things in mind – I wouldn’t have had a problem with it, and I don’t think many others would have either (other than that it’s maybe too obvious to merit a post). But to go so much further, to say that we shouldn’t consider Feynman a hero and – most egregiously – to accuse him of being a sexual predator, that’s where it all goes off the rails.

Francis’ final paragraph begins thus: “Feynman is no hero to us, brilliant as he was.” I’m not sure who the us is – the representatives of the website? – but Feynman is in fact a hero to me and to many others and will continue to be so. I’m not ignoring his flaws. I’m aware of them. Just as I’m aware of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s flaws. It’s just that I’m much more aware of these individual’s strengths, which are what we look to in heroes. Strengths are what inspire us. And inspiration is the reason we need heroes.

Richard Feynman’s rigorous defense of the scientific method, his intellectual integrity, his contagious enthusiasm for life and learning, his immense contributions to human knowledge – these qualities and more like them far overshadow the ill-advised romantic dalliances for a reason: they’re rare.

Deepak Chopra/Deadbat Chopstick semi-feuds with Brian Cox on Twitter

If you follow “spiritual” guru Deepak Chopra on Twitter, you know how annoying he can be, especially when he feels challenged. He regularly gets into social media semi-feuds with actual scientists, and I say semi-feuds because most of his opponents don’t bother to reply. That leaves Deepak by his lonesome, furiously spitting out 8,000 (mostly nonsense) tweets with no response. It reminds me of grade school, when you could watch a bully self-destruct in real-time as his victim employed the effective tactic of simply ignoring his oppressor.

Jerry Coyne’s website brought the most recent Twitter semi-feud to my attention yesterday, this time between Deepak and rock-star English physicist Brian Cox. I’m a big fan of Brian Cox – he’s almost a perfect meld between Dawkins and Sagan in that he’s especially adept at expounding the wonders of science (ala Sagan) and equally intolerant of nonsense, woo, and superstitious thinking (ala Dawkins…also, Cox is British). Anyway, Cox ends the feud with a knock-out blow, what I believe the internet calls a “pwn”. Here’s the summarized feud (though you should check out some of the responses from followers of each):

1pm on the 19th, Deepak posts some of his regular science-sounding nonsense:

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The next morning, Brian Cox, an actual scientist, decides to correct Deepak with this tweet:

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Which unleashes a rapid pack of “Deepak crazies” who swarm Brian’s twitter feed (if you think Deepak is defensive, you should see his followers):

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And all the while Deepak is of course tweeting out 9,000,000 of his own responses:

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And tries to throw the hammer down with this one:

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Which sets him up for this wonderful pwn:

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Now Available: The Unbelievers with Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss

After a long wait, the anticipated documentary, The Unbelievers, is now available on iTunes, Amazon, etc. If you’re not familiar, it follows two scientists and well-known religious skeptics Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss as they travel around the world debating apologists, delivering lectures, and having public conversations about science and reason in enormous concert halls (what makes me giddy is that these halls are all full). The best description of the style I’ve heard is a rock-documentary for scientists. The film is fast-paced, moving from hotel to hotel, city to city, event to event – and culminates during the 2012 Reason Rally in D.C., which turned out to be the largest secular gathering in recorded history (and was somehow completely ignored by the major media).

You can see the trailer below. I rented the flick last night ($4.99 in the US on iTunes) and did really enjoy it, despite being – appropriately – skeptical. I read some initial reviews, like this one in the NY Times, that seemed to focus too much on what the reviewer wished the movie had been instead of what it was (if I recall correctly, John Updike had a rule about book reviewing where he would try to avoid doing just that, no doubt because he found it annoying when his own books were reviewed that way). In order to move at its breakneck speed, The Unbelievers assumes the viewer is already familiar with the standard arguments for and against religion, and so there are no prolonged or deep discussions of the issues. Maybe a bit more character or issue development would have been nice, but that wasn’t what this film was trying to do. And no, none of the “good” arguments for or proponents of religion are featured, but the movie only covers a short tour and I think was intended to simply be an accurate representation of that small slice of time. Richard did have a debate with the Archbishop of Sydney – supposedly a sophisticated theologian – during period the film covers, but it’s pretty clear in the film (and if you watch the full debate below) that he’s far from deserving of that adjective.

In addition to the travel scenes, the movie is book-ended by interviews with a few celebrities commenting on unbelief, including Woody Allen, (the always brilliant) Ricky Gervais, Cameron Diaz, Werner Herzog, Sarah Silverman, and many more. I had assumed they would be interspersed throughout the film since their names were used so blatantly for advertising, but they come in just two small segments. Finally, if you stay through the credits, you’ll see a moving tribute to Christopher Hitchens, when the following scrolls up on the black screen amidst the music and slowly stops, right centered:

“For Christopher.”

Krauss has a similar touching scene in the movie, where before a debate with a Muslim apologist he retires to read “his Bible”, a paperback edition of Hitchens’ god is Not Great, saying a bit longingly that  “Christopher always inspires me.” The two were good friends prior Christopher’s passing and you see immediately how much Krauss (and the entire secular movement) misses him.

The film debuted at #1 in several outlets yesterday.

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Misquoting Einstein: Walter Isaacson doctors a quote (maybe)…

If you’re not already familiar with Aspen Institute CEO and acclaimed biographer Walter Isaacson, you should be. His most notable works are Einstein: His Life and Universe and the recent Steve Jobs biographies. Both get two thumbs up from me – the first actually sparked a pretty intense fascination with Albert Einstein, which has continued to this day (somewhat embarrassing example: I have a portrait of Einstein above my bed…). And when you combine that personal fascination with an equally intense interest in religion and philosophy, and you end up with someone (me) who has read pretty much every quote attributed to Einstein having anything to do with faith or lack thereof. That will be my only claim to credibility on this issue – simply  that I’ve read a lot about the subject – and so I hope you don’t find me too bold for suggesting that, in the clip below, Walter Isaacson has pretty egregiously (in my opinion) misquoted the man. If anyone can find proof Einstein said what Isaacson claims he said, I’ll be happy to retract – but until then, let the venting commence.

First, the contested quote. Isaacson claims, starting at about 2:30, that Einstein said this: “There’s a spirit manifest in the laws of the universe, in the face of which we must be awed and humbled. To me, that is the closest feeling I can have to a cosmic religion and to me that explains my faith in a creator and a faith in God.”

The first part seems to be paraphrased from Einstein’s reply to a sixth grade girl in 1936, who was asking him, “Do scientists pray?” I’m familiar with the quote, printed in full below:

Scientific research is based on the idea that everything that takes place is determined by laws of nature, and this holds for the actions of people. For this reason, a scientist will hardly be inclined to believe that events could be influenced by prayer, i.e. by a wish addressed to a supernatural Being…Every one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe – a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.

I take no issue with Isaacson’s paraphrase of the section above, but you might notice that the phrase, “and to me that explains my faith in a creator and a faith in God” is noticeably absent. Why? Well, my claim is that Einstein never said it – and never would have said it because it’s so incommensurate with his views as expressed elsewhere. I was actually pretty shocked upon hearing it, and began searching my main sources (mostly the inter-webs and Max Jammer’s thorough, Einstein and Religion) in vain for any quote invoking the word “creator” or “faith in a creator”. I even re-read Isaacson’s chapter, “Einstein’s God” but turned up nothing. I emailed Isaacson about a week ago (he responded to a letter from me back in high school so I’m hopeful) to see if he can give me the source, and if he can I’ll happily update this post accordingly. Until then, I’m assuming it was a misquote.

Now, why do I care? Isn’t this a small difference? No, not really. Saying something like “faith in a creator” reeks of deism or even theism, which are contrary to Einstein’s actual views, most readily described as pantheism (again, see Jammer’s Einstein and Religion). Einstein is already one of the most quote-mined figures of the 20th century, and is frequently taken out of context by both believers and nonbelievers alike. We don’t need to fuel this fire, and tacking on phrases, even small ones, is how misattributions are born.  People, particularly of such esteem as Isaacson, need to be careful when quoting others, especially those who are long dead and can’t defend themselves anymore. It’s an issue of respect and an issue of intellectual honesty – we all want Einstein to agree with us (who wants to be in disagreement with a genius?), but if there is no evidence he agreed with our views, we’ve no right to argue as such, and certainly no right to liberally paraphrase. My speculation is that Isaacson is religious in some way himself, and was, in the above clip, projecting some of his own views onto Einstein.

As for Einstein’s actual thoughts on religion, I recommend you read Jammer’s book, but I will try to give a short summary. First, he explicitly stated multiple times he did not think of himself as an atheist (think Sigmund Freud for what he meant by atheist). He invoked God many times in public statements about the harmony of nature and the Universe (though he meant Spinoza’s God, which is pantheistic, more or less, if you can understand what Spinoza is saying), and even described himself as “religious” in a cosmic sense. All of this has been used by believers to make assertions Einstein was one of them, but that is clearly false. He was straightforwardly not a believer in a “personal” God of any sort – which means he was adamantly not a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim. He did not believe in a God who intervenes or rewards or punishes or has anything whatsoever to do with humanity. In other words, he didn’t believe in a God anything like what most people think of when they think of God. Jammer concludes that this made Einstein more or less a “practical atheist”  because what’s the difference between there being no God and there being a God who doesn’t interact at all with the fates of humanity? I get Jammer’s point, but disagree slightly – I do in fact think there’s a big difference between those two hypothetical realities (one would suggest some sort of teleological direction in nature, the other would suggest chaos and nothing more, though a pretty cool brand of chaos). Moreover, if what you care about is the fundamental truth and nature of the Universe – which I suspect is what Einstein cared about – and not necessarily humanity’s role or involvement in it, then again, there’s a big philosophical difference between those two worldviews that I imagine would play out practically in some form during one’s life. Now, if Einstein were around today, what do I think he would call himself? My guess is that with the softening of terms that has happened since his death, he would likely call himself an agnostic when talking generally (in the Carl Sagan vein), and an “atheist” when confronted about Judeo-Christian beliefs.

Of course, he’s not here, so I can’t claim he’s either of those things with any certainty…unless I doctor a quote…

Death is not final? Sean Carroll vs. Dr. Heaven (Eben Alexander)

Sean Carroll is quickly becoming my favorite living scientist and defender of rationalism. He just posted another stellar public debate performance in the Intelligence Squared US series, arguing – along with Yale neuroscientist Steven Novella – against the motion, “Death is not final”. You can catch the full video below.

I’m impressed by Intelligence Squared’s persistence in addressing deeply fractious issues like religion and politics. Sadly, not many mainstream outlets organize discussions on these issues, and I think they do a terrific job of having civil discussions on issues that are sometimes uncomfortable. The moderator, John Donvan, is pleasant, and the format is about as good as you can do for a formal debate (7 minute opening statements, questions from the moderator, questions from the audience, short closing statements). They also do a pre- and post-debate poll from the audience to determine the winner based on the percentage increase or decrease for or against the motion.

SPOILER ALERT

So, highlights?

Sean had near perfect answers in both his prepared and impromptu responses (including the memorable analogy of life being a process like fire and not a substance like air or water) . As one of the commenters on his blog, Preposterous Universe, said, Sean is basically batting a thousand when it comes to these things, and that’s not an easy feat, even when you have facts on your side. But after an impressive debut with Michael Shermer against Dinesh D’Souza and Ian Hutchison, and handily defeating everyone’s least favorite apologist William Lane Craig, and now this debate, Sean has cemented himself as one of the best public defenders of science and skepticism out there. He has a knack for being polite, funny, refreshingly clear and uncompromising, and non-threatening – all characteristics that open up people’s willingness to listen.

This was my first exposure to Steven Novella, and I think he did a good job, but isn’t as practiced a public speaker. He also sadly had to endure an illegitimate poning when Dr. Heaven (more on him in a minute) misquoted the late Carl Sagan. Steven corrected the misrepresentation, and Dr. Heaven doubled-down by quoting a page number from A Demon-Haunted World (essentially the skeptic’s Bible) to boost his credibility, and it got a large audience cheer. Of course the quote was completely misrepresented. Carl Sagan never came close to suggesting there was legitimate evidence for paranormal activity (he just said there were some claims worth investigating, which any open-minded scientist would say). Novella called Alexander out on this, but it wasn’t as forceful and didn’t play as well with the audience.

Now, onto Dr. Heaven (Eben Alexander). This guy burst onto the stage with a cover story in Newsweek maybe a year ago, where he claimed to have had an NDE that proved heaven was real. He then promptly wrote a book, Proof of Heaven, which has been on the best-seller list for quite some time, as one would expect. I suspected he was a charlatan immediately, and this debate more or less demonstrated that – he didn’t seem to understand modern neuroscience (a neurologist, after all, doesn’t necessarily have to) and just seemed to brush off Novella’s alternative explanations and refutations. He also suggested, at first a little sheepishly and then blatantly, that quantum mechanics and consciousness are both fundamentally related since they are confusing and that the latter led Einstein into mysticism (…no…). Most frustratingly, he made the brilliant argument (and I’m not oversimplifying here) that since we don’t perfectly understand consciousness, heaven exists. I was a little disappointed actually. I was hoping (as maybe we all do) that he might have more than personal conviction and bad reasoning skills, but that’s about all Dr. Alexander adds up to (and a little more initial credibility than your Uncle Bob because he was once a practicing neurosurgeon). For additional credibility he likes to tout that he used to be a materialist and skeptic, but I’m not at all convinced that he ever took those ideas seriously in the first place – his description of materialism reminded me eerily of those by religious apologists who you can tell don’t understand what they are talking about. If he had ever been a hardened skeptic, that part of his brain must not have turned back on after the coma, because this was 101 stuff.

Dr. Moody, while a seemingly pleasant man, didn’t help his side much. He pontificated a bit dreamily on Plato and Democritus and seemed at times to be arguing with himself on where he actually stood. He also offered hardly any evidence at all (and certainly none that was compelling) for his stance – and this from a man who is supposedly the world’s leading expert on NDE’s.

But I think Sean essentially won the debate by focusing on the following argument: if you believe in life after death, you are saying that established science is not just a little wrong, but very, very, very wrong, and that it has somehow escaped the notice of any experiment ever. The mind existing after the destruction of the brain is simply incompatible with what we know. He admitted that for him, it isn’t even an interesting question anymore because our understanding of physics (yes, including quantum mechanics, Eben) is quite straightforward and eliminates the possibility. He then closed eloquently and reminded everyone, as he’s done before, that life is not a dress rehearsal – it’s all we have, and that finite aspect is what  gives life its meaning.

Oh, and justly, Sean and Steven won the debate, improving the audience position against the motion by 15%, compared to only a 5% increase for the motion.

 

 

John Updike on Intelligent Design

John Updike is one of my literary heroes, so I’m looking forward to reading Adam Begley’s new biography, Updike. After catching an NPR piece with Begley a few days ago, I was prompted to go and look up a Book TV interview I had once seen where Updike is asked to comment on theology and intelligent design. Anyone familiar with Updike knows religion played a role in many of his works – particularly the masterful Roger’s Version – and that he was a consistent if somewhat non-doctrinal and denomination-hopping Christian his entire life. I’ve posted the full interview below, but the section in question starts at 56:36 and lasts about five minutes.

Overall, I was a bit disappointed – as I was the first time I listened to this – to hear Updike cite arguments like the fine-tuning of the universe and the complexity of the organic cell as having convinced him there was a God. He even stoops so low as to cite Michael Behe’s book, Darwin’s Black Box, as showing there are some gaps in Darwin’s theory, and mentions that a whale’s production of baleen seems to come out of nowhere and is “not observed anywhere else in nature”.

For such an astute guy – I’m fine using the term genius in his case – it’s a bit jarring to hear him displaying such ignorance on issues that he seemed to be genuinely interested in, like evolution and Darwinism (he subscribed to Scientific American, for instance). Behe’s arguments, as you probably know, have been demolished by the scientific community. His own university even put up a statement on its biology page distancing itself from his views.  And while the fine-tuning argument gets a lot of play as the best theists have to offer, it’s still not a very good argument at all and has been deftly handled by countless philosophers and scientists. My favorite is Sean Carroll, who covers fine tuning in this debate with William Lane Craig.

The saddest part of the interview to me was when Updike admits he essentially retains his faith (through many bouts of doubt) because he’s afraid to confront a world without God or (such is implied) external purpose.

So why am I so tenacious? In part a fear…I’ve had chronic crises which I’ve made mention of in Self-Consciousness…that the choice seemed to come down to believe or be frightened and depressed all the time.

Which confirms one of my recent theories about belief vs. non-belief – most of it (like most everything) is out of our hands. We are born with and/or develop a particular disposition or ability to countenance a world without God, and it seems to crystallize at some point – very few can break out of it one way or another. Some people just don’t have the constitution to accept a God-less world, and hold onto faith by – in the words of Updike himself – “an act of will”.

But no matter – if it made Updike happy to believe, good for him. I don’t think he was in the slightest dogmatic or concerned with proselytizing. Ian McEwan, in this remembrance, describes Updike as a pretty easy-going Presbyterian that was in some ways quite close to an atheist. I do just wish he had spent more time with scientists, who could have corrected some of his wayward views on the credibility of people like Behe. I can only imagine the treat the world would have been in for had Updike turned his pen more frequently to the majesty of science.