Science

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey – First Episode Review

Whoa, folks. I’ve just returned from a special pre-screening of the new Cosmos reboot (to air this Sunday at 9/8 central on FOX…and 9 other networks), and was really blown away. I’m a huge fan of the original series and was worried it wouldn’t live up, but based on what I’ve seen tonight, it stands a good chance.

First, the visuals are stunning. I imagine it’s a little like what watching the original Cosmos was like (which at the time had groundbreaking special effects). I was lucky enough to see it the big screen at a planetarium, which made it that much more impressive. The show’s host, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, also delivers. He’s got just the right type of presence – cool, knowledgeable, in love with science – a great guy to show you around the universe. As for the science, at least in the first episode it’s pretty well known stuff – they don’t spend a great deal of time on explanation, but maybe that will come in later episodes as the first was a general tour of what the series will be about. Then again, the pacing is perfect, so maybe less specific or detailed explanation is a bonus. The episode moved from one astounding thing to the next, and I never felt bored or like I was watching NOVA (which I love, by the way, but is a different tone than what Cosmos needs). The music is also terrific, but there’s no memorable riff like Vangelis provided – at least not that I recall. But several things are back from the original, including verbatim quotes (e.g. “we are all made of starstuff”), the ship of the imagination, and the cosmic calendar. The animations – which I was initially concerned about – are very well done, and the first episode flashbacks focus on the life of Giordano Bruno and his persecution by the Catholic Church (by the way, if anyone noticed what looked like Jesus rising up toward heaven in the trailer…it’s actually Bruno…which makes much more sense).

My favorite part of the episode is near the end, when Neil gives a brief, personal tribute to Sagan. The two first met when Neil was an unknown 17 year old from the Bronx – Carl was kind enough to invite Neil to come up to Cornell to tour his lab, and spent an entire Saturday with him, inscribing a signed copy of one of his books, and even driving Neil to the bus stop and giving him his home number in case he had any trouble getting home. Neil gives a great line, something like “When I was touring Ithaca, I had some idea I wanted to be an astrophysicist, but I also came away knowing what type of man I wanted to be.” The tribute features some old footage of Carl, and it’s quite stirring – I actually got a little choked up.

The two friends I came with – who had never seen the original – were also impressed. They seemed mesmerized by the size of the universe and the cosmic calendar – the exact reaction I’m hoping millions of people around the country will have.

Here are a few photos from the event – it was happening live in a few other cities across the U.S., and Neil, Ann Druyan, and Seth MacFarlane also sat for a Q&A after the screening (which I wasn’t able to stay for but you can view here).

Cosmos about to play on the big screen at the UT-Arlington Planetarium.

Cosmos about to play on the big screen at the UT-Arlington Planetarium.

The line stretching out the door for the Cosmos Premiere at UT - Arlington.

The line stretching out the door for the Cosmos Premiere at UT – Arlington.

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Play by Play: William Lane Craig vs. Sean Carroll

Last week I posted my initial thoughts after watching the Craig v. Carroll Greer-Heard Forum debate, and admitted that I wasn’t adequately summarizing my favorite part, Carroll’s closing remarks. You can skip to them by watching the video yourself, but interestingly, this poker forum (yes poker) has a really good play by play summary thanks to user Zumby – Carroll himself actually posted it via Twitter earlier today.

I’ve pasted Zumby’s description of Carroll’s closing below (emphasis is mine):

“Carroll’s Closing Remarks

Confesses a bit of frustration as Craig just recapped arguments Carroll believes he already dealt with so says he will take the opportunity to speak directly to the Christian audience.

But first he notes that Craig repeatedly claimed to be “astonished” by the claim that universes don’t need outside causes and quotes David Lewis that “I do not know how to refute an incredulous stare” and says that he gave an explanation of why this is the case. Carroll claims that “popping into existence” is not the right phrase to use when talking about the beginning of the universe. The right phrase is “There was a first moment in time”, which is a much less astonishing claim. The question is then “Are there models like this?”. Carroll always laughs away the claim about his diagram, asserting that Craig has not understood what the arrows are representing. On Boltzmann brains, Carroll reiterates that Boltzmann brains are a model-dependent problem, and in this model they are not a problem.

Addressing the audience, Carroll points out that very few people become theists because they think theism provides the best model of cosmology. There are better reasons to become a theist: community, sense of the transcendent, fellowship with fellow man etc. 500 years ago, Carroll would have been a theist. These days, there is not empirical support for theism. So what should a modern theist do in light of the finding of science? One thing would be to deny science, as the creationists do. A second way is to deny the implications of science and to say none of the finding of science has altered the fundamental view of reality put together 2000 years ago. Carroll see’s two problems with this approach. First, it’s wrong, as he has tried to show in this debate, but strategically it’s a bad move as it marginalises [sic] theists as a part of the wider intellectual community. This is an important time for discussing the future of our species, and clinging to outdated beliefs may isolate theists from being part of the discussions. But there is a third option. We admit we were wrong 2000 years ago. But, this person could reasonably say, religion is much more than just theism. There is a place for insight about the human condition, to feel camderadrie with your fellow man. Perhaps naturalism can learn from religion and the lives of the saints. Naturalism may have replaced theism, but has not replaced religion. The lives we lead now are not dress rehearsals. What matters is what we can do to make the world better. There are hard questions of meaning and morals. Naturalism has picked the low hanging fruit. We will get there faster if we all climb together.” – User Zumby on TwoPlusTwo.com

 

The Universe to Scale…Get Ready to Scroll

Ever since reading Bill Bryson’s magnificent A Short History of Nearly Everything a few years ago, I’ve been fascinated by the actual size and scale of our own solar system. Sure, we’ve all seen the textbook diagrams and homemade models with foam planets – but have you any idea how wrong those are? The actual solar system is so large – there’s so much space between planets – that it simply cannot be accurately represented to scale in any convenient way.

That is, until this lovely website came along. (Well, it’s still not entirely convenient – you have to scroll over half a mile to reach the end). Spend a few minutes here exploring the actual vastness of space, and those foam models will never look the same.

For more misleading science diagrams/anecdotes, check out this video by mental floss:

Debate is up! William Lane Craig vs. Sean Carroll at New Orleans Greer-Heard Forum

Good folks, the much talked about debate between William Lane Craig and Sean Carroll is now available for viewing on YouTube (embedded below). The proceedings from the second day, which you will recall included presentations and responses by two members from each side (Alex Rosenberg and Tim  Maudlin with Carroll and Robin Collins and James Sinclair with Craig) don’t seem to be available yet but should be shortly. After you watch, I recommend you check out the comment section of Sean Carroll’s post for some opinions on how he fared.

Enjoy (and post your thoughts below)!

The Main Event:

This is not a dress rehearsal: Sean Carroll vs. William Lane Craig – Greer Heard Forum 2014

UPDATE: The debate is now available to watch here!

Well, the much anticipated debate between Caltech cosmologist Sean Carroll and theologian William Lane Craig happened this weekend in New Orleans and was – at least to me – as enjoyable as expected. The event was hosted by the Greer-Heard Forum and consisted of a formal debate between the headliners on Friday night and subsequent readings, discussions, and responses to papers by two members each from Team Naturalism (Tim Maudlin of NYU and Alex Rosenberg of Duke) and Team Theism (Robin Collins and James Sinclair). The entire ordeal was streamed live – yes I spent my Friday night and Saturday afternoon watching – and ended with a short panel discussion and Q&A.

All in all, it was an entertaining forum and I was very grateful the event was streamed. In case you weren’t one of the 10,000 people or so watching live and still want to see the proceedings, stay tuned as the videos should all be made available on YouTube in a couple of days (likely on the Tactical Faith page). I will make sure to update this post with the links as soon as they’re ready.

Now, why was I so excited about this debate you ask? Haven’t I grown tired of listening to William Lane Craig distort science in order to prop up his arguments for theism? Don’t I think these debates are really a waste of time and that no one actually leaves with their mind changed? Well, WLC is grating on the ears (and head….because of the induced face-palming), and I think I would have avoided this debate had his opponent been anyone other than Sean Carroll. You see, Sean has a few things that many naturalists (and he prefers that term to atheist as it’s more comprehensive of his worldview – and I think I agree) sadly don’t: not only does Sean have all the good arguments, he can communicate them well and is likable. That last quality seems a little shallow – yes ideas should stand on their merit not the personality of the one espousing them – but debates like this are part performance art, and it’s difficult to get people to consider your point of view if you come across as, well, unlikable. Finally, Sean is without a doubt an expert on cosmology, and could pretty easily (it was a little embarrassing actually) shut down WLC’s naive arguments hinged on misunderstandings of the literature. Finally – I said finally already so finally, finally – Sean is fairly well versed in philosophy and not as dismissive of the practice as some other cosmological experts that have debated WLC.

So who won? Well, WLC technically always loses on substance in these types of things, but does admittedly usually win on style and rhetoric. He’s an extremely practiced debater and I’ve heard tell that he even has a team of researchers who help him prepare. But in reflection – and I’m striving to be as unbiased as possible – I do think Sean Carroll came away on top. This was one of the few formal debates where I’ve seen WLC flustered and actually less organized and clear than his opponent (he’s been known to fall apart in informal discussions but hardly ever in the podium vs. podium battles). Sean repeatedly addressed specific points by WLC, clearly refuted them, and then moved on to offer his own structured arguments against theism. The most frustrating aspect was watching WLC simply ignore Sean’s corrections and refutations, and pretend as if his argument was just as good as before – thankfully Sean pointed this out and I think it was pretty clear to the audience as well.

My favorite part of the debate came during Sean’s closing remarks, when he purposely forwent the opportunity to continue refuting Craig’s ideas and instead spent time addressing the bigger questions of the naturalism vs. theism debate. Nobody becomes a believer because they think God provides the best explanation for our modern understanding of cosmology (that was, by the way, the topic of the forum) – they do so for other reasons, be they fellowship, community, a feeling of transcendence or hope, etc. So why naturalism seems far and away a more reasonable alternative to theism, particularly if you take the implications of modern science seriously, it still doesn’t help provide us with answers to those deep questions of meaning. Answering those deep questions, Sean says, is a challenge for all humanity, and to answer them we’ll need to in some sense start the conversation over. (I’m really not doing this section justice from memory so I’ll make sure to post the link when it’s ready).

In conclusion – Sean did a terrific job and I hope he continues engaging in these types of debates. You can see his own post-debate thoughts here. Also, you’ll notice I didn’t do a point-by-point review of the debate – the cosmological arguments were way too technical for me to make a competent attempt at something like that but you should have luck googling one.

Debate reflection: Lawrence Krauss vs. William Lane Craig in Melbourne

I’ve now watched two of the three “Life, the Universe and Nothing” debates between cosmologist Lawrence Krauss (LK) and apologist/theologian William Lane Craig (WLC), and wanted to share my reflections. While some will undoubtedly try, it is impossible to assert who really “won” in any of these debates – they are (thankfully) better described as dialogues – and you’ll notice that in any event most opinions about such a thing tend to line up with the person’s preferences beforehand. I will try my best to be objective, but to guard against any bias will also make a point to post reviews that differ with mine as I find them. Of course, the best thing you can do if you’re interested is to simply watch the debates yourself.

First, to mimic Krauss’ opening statement in the Brisbane debate (I’ll post my reflections on Brisbane later), I want to lay out my biases in detail. I consider WLC a minor intellectual (case in point, he’s more famous for his activity on the debate circuit and for his Christian apology books than for any scholarly work or major contributions to philosophy), and think he is often deceitful in his use of language and argument. He is, in my opinion, much more style than substance, and has a habit of making sweeping generalizations about areas outside his specialty, namely ancient history and cosmology, as well as taking others’ words out of context and/or distorting their intended views. I have also never seen him (and can hardly imagine him doing so) concede that he was or has ever been wrong. This last point is a major concern, as it’s difficult to trust someone who is not legitimately open to changing his or her opinion given new arguments or information.

Also, in full disclosure, I think the ethos of science – characterized namely by skepticism, peer-review, open inquiry, and test-ability – is more effective at determining truth than the general ethos of religion – characterized namely by deferral to authority, tradition, revelation, and personal experience.

With that said, I will just make the following observations about the dialogue in Melbourne, for which the topic was “Is a belief in God reasonable?”:

  • LK over-stated the similarities between Jesus and contemporary pagan/mythic Gods like Dionysus, Krishna, Horus, et al. The tropes of these mythic stories do have similarities with Jesus, including virgin births and resurrections, but I agree with WLC that the evidence Jesus was a whole-sale copy of any of these Gods is lacking. If anyone knows of credible scholarship in this area, please let me know, as I’ve been unable to find much.
  • I think WLC is (charitably) exaggerating when he says the testimony of the Gospels can be traced to “within 5 years” of Christ’s death. This seems absurdly early compared to the estimates I’ve heard elsewhere, and he would have to get there indirectly because the earliest written accounts we have do not come up until at least 20 years after Christ’s death. Again, any sources on this would be helpful.
  • LK is a bit out of his element in discussing morality and moral philosophy, and does much better when sticking to questions of science and particularly physics. That’s not to say Krauss is wrong, because I actually agree with him, but he’s just not as well-versed as Craig in this area and it gives the impression he’s losing the argument. Yale philosopher Shelly Kagan does a terrific job handling Craig on the question of morality in this debate.
  • Craig’s syllogisms, as Krauss correctly points out, are over-simplistic and based on premises that are likely wrong and very far from certain. Time and time again, what is astounding to me as I watch William Lane Craig present his 6 arguments (he always offers the same six) is how tenable the premises are, yet how certain he seems of their conclusions. The Cosmological Argument, for example, does what’s known in introductory logic as “begging the question” that is, assuming the conclusion in a premise intended to confirm the conclusion. To show how over-simplistic Craig’s syllogisms are, Krauss gave the audience a humorous one: “1) All mammals display homosexual tendencies, 2) William Lane Craig is a mammal … ” In any event, even if Craig’s syllogisms were proved correct, they wouldn’t get you from deism to theism, and certainty not from theism to Christianity. Debate opponents, other than Hitchens, tend to forget to point this out to Craig.
  • To me, the most effective part of Krauss’ strategy in this debate was just to continually ask Craig, “how do you know that?” and to show that there is nothing like absolute certainty in cosmology or ancient history, and that it’s therefore unreasonable to make such grand claims – and God is certainly a grand claim – without equally grand evidence.
  • Krauss effectively argues that Craig’s arguments could be used to support almost all the creation myths. Craig demurs on this, pointing out that few non-Christian creation stories having creation literally coming from nothing, but Krauss again argues that if you take those other stories metaphorically, they could just as well be supported by his syllogisms. He also traps Craig in highlighting the contradiction between saying the Bible isn’t a science textbook on one hand, then pulling out the pieces that agree with science and trying to prop it up as a book prescient of modern cosmology.
  • I think Craig’s weakest argument is the one regarding the resurrection. He – and this makes me pull my hair out every time I hear it – seems convinced that it’s actually more likely that 1) God exists (NOT a trivial assumption) 2) the Bible is true 3) Jesus was divine 4) Jesus rose from the dead and 5) Jewish oral tradition was immaculate, than it is that somebody stole Christ’s body and/or his followers either hallucinated or made-up visions. We have evidence for the latter happening all the time (think of UFO’s or the many cults that go in and out of existence each decade), but absolutely no evidence for someone rising from the dead (or of oral tradition being remotely consistent over large swaths of time). How is the former more reasonable than the latter? Craig seems to distort the alleged visions of Christ into a very narrow band, whereas he images hundreds of people having almost identical, independent experiences of Jesus at the same time. There’s just no objective evidence for that, and it’s such a cartoony, simplistic way to imagine the past that I feel embarrassed for him every time he utters it – he’s just so committed to believing in the Bible that he will ignore any evidence against it.

Before watching this debate, I heard rumors that Krauss dominated. I don’t think that’s the case (I actually think he did better in Brisbane), but I do think he was effective in showing uncertainty as a very real issue in cosmology and history, and thus demonstrated the inherent problems with Craig’s overly simplistic syllogisms.

Krauss seemed at times tired and more than frustrated at having to engage with a man who is so unlikely to ever change his views. As LK pointed out several times, Craig “assumes the answer before even asking the question,” and I can’t think of anything more opposed to reason than that.

 

Watch Now: William Lane Craig and Lawrence Krauss, Melbourne debate now up!

The Melbourne discussion between William Lane Craig and Lawrence Krauss has now been posted (meaning we’re only waiting on the one in Sydney). Jerry Coyne has a good overview of all the events here, and you can read my previous posts as well.

“Is it reasonable to believe in God?”