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A Nightmare In Reverse: Thoughts on President-Elect Trump

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Treasure Island Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada June 18, 2016.   REUTERS/David Becker - RTX2GYKG

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Treasure Island Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada June 18, 2016. REUTERS/David Becker – RTX2GYKG

This morning marked the fifth consecutive on which I was assaulted by the reality that Donald J. Trump will be the forty fifth president of the United States. The same Donald J. Trump who lied to the American public as a matter of course throughout a campaign branded by blatant demagoguery, factual illiteracy, and innumerable displays of grotesque character. Each morning, my mind strains and twists for some buoy of hope that I may still be asleep—a nightmare in reverse.

While it’s true that we do not yet know whether a Trump presidency will result in a literal nightmare, we can take little comfort in the fact that the spectrum of possibilities includes the fall of the republic. Mirroring his campaign, we are beginning to see a flurry of decisions and statements that in previous years would each result in sustained scandal (a climate skeptic leading the EPA transition; Steve Bannon as Chief Strategist; a transition team full of family members), but which are coming so fast that the media and public is forced to move from one issue to the next. This is a precarious situation—the executive mistakes have the potential to pile on so quickly that the most rotten and consequential will not be given their due.

Even if the Trump presidency escapes catastrophe, it has caused permanent damage in at least one way: lowering our standard of qualifications and fitness for the position. Trump has now proven that one need not have governance experience, policy expertise, establishment connections, or even consistent principles to be elected leader of the free world. Roll the dice enough times with these lowered qualifications and with these stakes, and disaster will ensue. Whether it happens during Trump’s reign or sometime in the future is anyone’s guess.

What we should do now is recognize that our actions can have a greater or lesser chance of bringing about the as-still-hypothetical disaster scenarios we fear, and being disciplined enough to engage in only the former. This will require humility and a steeling of nerves. We’re going to face policy positions we do not like, and we must pick our spots for outrage carefully. Challenge Trump too early on divisive issues (e.g. identity politics) and he will strike back with ferocity, and with the full backing of Congress. The ideological Right is so giddy with its control of the House and Senate that I have little hope that any issue that is not existential (e.g. climate change, NATO) or any action that is not unconstitutional will sever their honeymoon loyalty to Trump. If I were the Democratic establishment, I would be prepared to compromise beyond normal comfort levels early with congressional Republicans—particularly if this acquiescence blunts the most insidious Trumpian initiatives—and to wait to mount, if deservedly, a full-bodied political attack nearer the midterms. This strategy would of course need to be carefully applied, as many Republicans will use the threat of Trump’s scariest proposals to try to force capitulation to lesser evils as seen by Democrats.

In the meantime, I suggest we, as the opposition, keep our eyes on two things. First, any legitimate and realized steps toward authoritarianism or fascism. The suggestion of acquiesce above emphatically applies only to actions which are constitutional—if Mr. Trump steps beyond that line or if institutional checks fail, we must improvise a response. Second, we must keep our eye on the ultimate goal: bringing a divided nation back together. Unless we do this, any progress, now or in the future, can be unwound. Anger and resentment cannot override reason, tolerance, and empathy—to let that happen risks further division which ultimately can and will lead only to violence.

Trump is as unlikely a figure as one can imagine to bring about the unity we need. His campaign was the antithesis of unity.

Here’s hoping he can surprise us once again.

Guest post: Reza Aslan goes after Bill Maher

Jerry Coyne was kind enough to share a short rant I wrote about Reza Aslan’s recent appearance on CNN. Here is the post is full. If you’re not already following Why Evolution Is True, you should be:

Why Evolution Is True

Just a short while ago I put up a post and video about Bill Maher going after Islam on his show. Maher’s words were prompted by the Pennsylvania kid who was arrested for “desecrating” a statue of Jesus; Maher’s point was that in a Muslim country (if they even allowed statues of Muhammad, which they don’t), the kid would have been killed. The video on that post has now been removed from YouTube, but another one has sprung up here.

On Monday, Reza Aslan, the Great Muslim Apologist, went on CNN to attack Maher and defend Islam, and a reader sent me the link along with a critique of Aslan’s critique.  Usually readers just send me links and a few words, but when a reader gives me a longer take, I always worry about unconscious theft of ideas if I post the link with my own commentary. If my take is similar…

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Update: My own semi-feud with Deepak’s fans

Somewhat appropriately, two of Deepak’s fans engaged me in a brief semi-feud after reading this recent post about a semi-feud between Chopra and physicist Brian Cox. Anyway, you can look it all up in the comments section if you want – do tell me if I was too harsh. You can also look the discussion up on Twitter, since both individuals felt compelled to write their own full length responses and then push those responses through their various social media networks all day. Would it be absurd to remind them that I’m a stranger musing on things for fun and hardly worth scribbling out responses to? But I guess we humans are lonely.

What really gets my goat about the whole thing? How tantalizingly close I was to being tagged by the guru himself on Twitter. Look here, so close!

Deepack

How could he miss it?! Flabbergasting when you consider how regularly he tags the entire internet on his tweets.

If you do decide to track the littler of the little feuds, keep in mind that the second commenter – that’d be the physics student from Canada – seems to have retired his internet presence. As of today I can’t find his blog response to me anymore, and his Twitter account has been deactivated. I hope he comes back – I offered to let him write a blog post on why he thinks a singularity is essential, as opposed to some physicists who argue that it’s probably not necessary. And I meant it too – I’d be happy to let him post. Though I did make the offer before seeing this over at Why Evolution is True:

Kohli

Now, if you’re a Deepak fan reading this and thinking about responding, you know what my advice is? Relax. Be content in the cosmic consciousness. Life’s too short to write a response that no one will read. And if you remember nothing else, remember this: knowledge results from the doorway to bliss.

(Just kidding on that last part – it’s from a Deepak Chopra random nonsense generator)

If you must say something, be warned that this will likely be my response:

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The Atheism Tapes: Colin McGinn (Episode 1 of 6)

I first watched Jonathan Miller’s BBC series, The Atheism Tapes, a couple years ago when it was available on Netflix. At that point I wasn’t terribly well studied in philosophy or religion, and as I feel marginally more so now, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit the collection. To that tune, I’ll plan to post all six episodes, along with a few of my thoughts, over the next couple of weeks. To kick us off, here’s the conversation between Jonathan Miller and English philosopher Colin McGinn:

On losing faith: It’s always fascinating to learn how individuals came to believe or disbelieve particular religious claims. In McGinn’s case, a required divinity course in high school sparked an intense interest in ethics and existential philosophy, which led to a brief but semi-serious relationship with the Bible. As a consequence, McGinn now says he knows much more about the Holy Book than many religious devotees – and I have to say, I’m not surprised. While I’m by no means an expert, Christians seem to make a sport out of not reading the Bible, and the ones that do seem to make another sport out of not knowing the historical context for the Bible (I’m reminded of this 2010 Pew survey, where atheists/agnostics outperformed believers on questions of “religious knowledge”). Anyway, when McGinn gets to college – a familiar tale – he promptly drops his faith. He recalls forcing himself to attend some type of religious service during this time, but immediately categorized it all as “rubbish” without much hesitation. The transition was made perhaps a bit easier by McGinn’s reading of Bertrand Russell at the same time, which served as an introduction to an ethical and moral framework unfettered by supernatural origins.

On reasons for disbelief: McGinn is asked to “surgically” articulate the reasons for disbelieving in God. He categorizes the reasons into two categories: 1) the “no-evidence” argument(s) and the 2) arguments against or contrary arguments. In the first category, McGinn’s position is simply that there is no good, independent evidence that justifies belief in any of the Christian (substitute any modern religion here) doctrine – or at least no more evidence than there is for Zeus or Isis or any other of the 1,000 ancient Gods. There is no positive evidence for theism, and as yet no theory that would need to invoke God to explain something else (the argument from design was the last solid argument of this type). In the contrary arguments category, McGinn highlights the argument from evil as one of the strongest. Very simply, if God has the following three traits – omnipotence, omniscience, and omni-benevolence – why is there rampant suffering in the world? The contradiction as implied by the traits is that God knows there is suffering, is powerful enough to stop it, doesn’t want people to suffer, and yet we have loads of suffering. The standard apologist argument is to invoke free will here (ala, God gave us free will and as a consequence we can sometime promote suffering through independent choices), but this obviously doesn’t account for naturalistic causes of suffering like earthquakes, tsunamis, diseases, etc. The only other counter is that God created it this way – and I’m putting it crudely here – to bring out the best in people. That is, suffering is here because it helps give other people perspective on life. But as McGinn rightly points out, if that’s the case, God is well…a jerk…since that answer would so obviously devalue certain lives over others.

On the ontological argument: When asked to give arguments for belief, McGinn cites the ontological argument as a “beautiful” one, but by that he of course doesn’t mean it’s at all convincing. You can find much better expositions of Anselm’s famous proof elsewhere, but just to summarize, it’s that 1) God is the most perfect/powerful being conceivable 2) Suppose this most perfect being lacked existence 3) Existence is surely a property of being perfect/powerful 4) Therefore God must exist. McGinn a little strangely claims that no one has ever been able to pinpoint what was wrong with the argument, though I thought Bertrand Russell himself did so nicely (perhaps I’m wrong). Anyway, the most obvious fallacy to me has always been that the argument begs the question, but since McGinn didn’t bring that up, I’m now wondering if that’s wrong in some technical philosophical sense. McGinn’s main problem with the argument is that things like “perfection” and “powerful” are not well-defined. What does it even mean to say the “most perfect being conceivable”? Does that make any more sense than “the most perfect football game conceivable”? You can say “the most perfect football game I’ve ever seen” but when you jump to “the most perfect football game conceivable” suddenly no one knows what you mean, including yourself. A few sentences can work that way – “the most perfect conceivable triangle” being one, since it’s well-defined.

On morality coming from God: McGinn is asked to explain Plato/Socrates’ old argument demonstrating that morality does not come from God. Very simply…if God says rape is good, is rape good? Most of you, hopefully, would answer no, suggesting that God’s affirmation of some particular action wouldn’t actually make that action moral. Therefore, a particular action is good or bad independent of God. If this weren’t the case, what would we really be talking about when we referred to something as “moral” – it would just be the subjective opinion of God. So while it’s okay to say God is encouraging us to partake in moral behavior, it’s wrong (or at least odd) to say behavior is moral because God says so.

On why people persist in believing despite the reasons not to: In contrast to many who attribute religious belief to human beings’ innate fear of death, McGinn’s personal theory is that religious belief stems from a kind of cosmic loneliness that’s a consequence of a sealed-off consciousness. I’ve not heard this argument before (or it didn’t register the first time I watched these) and I’m very much attracted to it. McGinn’s of course right that it’s very hard to accept that we are alone and nobody cares. To make things worse, we humans have a certain type of consciousness (maybe it’s the only type) that is sealed off from everyone else. No one can get in our heads with us, at least not really, and this creates an existential loneliness. God, McGinn argues, is a wonderful antidote to that. He knows us in our minds, which no one else can do, and that satisfies a deep craving.

On using the word “atheist”: Like Jonathan Miller, McGinn is reluctant to call himself an atheist, since it connotes a type of “professional atheist” demeanor and is associated with negative stereotypes. He thinks it’s pretty pointless to be inveighing against a non-existent entity all the time, which the word “atheist” suggests. Instead, McGinn classifies himself as an anti-theist, which is a person actively opposed to religion, in that he thinks it’s harmful to society, individuals, etc. He names another category which he think is the way the world will eventually go – “post-theism” – or the “healthy state of mind” where you’ve put all that behind you. The ideal society, to McGinn, would be one where the question of religion didn’t really come up, or when it did, it would be in a “those silly people used to believe X” context.

I used to consider myself a post-theist, actually, but living in Texas, it’s more or less impossible to reach that healthy state of mind.

The Uncertainty Blog gets its 15 minutes…

Well, this was cool. Sean was nice enough to link to my summary of his recent Intelligence Squared Debate. The shout out resulted in a 1,300% traffic increase on this site compared to last month – not bad for the most amateurish of amateur blogs. The most touching aspect of all this attention? I noticed a complete stranger use my (admittedly uncreative) nickname, Dr. Heaven, to refer to Eben Alexander while commenting on a blog post. Maybe it will catch on.

You can now find Sean’s thoughts on the debate here, and Steve Novella’s here.

Update: Since this post, some of the stuff at the Uncertainty Blog has been published over at Jerry Coyne’s website, Why Evolution is True. Those posts have generated and awful lot of traffic, but still nowhere near the amount my review of the Sean Carroll vs. WLC did. I started to wonder why, given that Sean and Jerry both have similar online presences. So I did some searching, and the answer made me smile. Someone a bit more popular happened to share the link, though I didn’t realize it until now (sorry if this fawning makes you cringe…I’ve always been a huge admirer of RD, primarily for his scientific work):

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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.

Let’s Start Sharing Our Charities

If I were in charge of forming social customs, I would institute one that involved sharing your favorite charities around tax time each year. You would proudly and publicly represent a few of your beloved organizations to friends and colleagues, and explain why these organizations earned your support. Personally I would love to learn more about those causes with which I’m not familiar, and would get an additional kick out of the insight into my friends’ passions.

Sadly the above is not a social custom – at least not within my networks – but if it were, the following would be my contribution (in no particular order). Feel free to share your own.

1. Prison Entrepreneurship Club (PEP): PEP has a remarkably intuitive idea – help transform prisoners into productive members of society. Utilizing volunteers, PEP helps recent inmates develop business plans and offers MBA-level courses to individuals committed to turning their lives around and channeling their energy into productive entrepreneurship. I was actually a volunteer for a recent class, and loved guiding my mentee through the process of developing a thoughtful, well-researched, and compelling business plan. Here’s a write-up about PEP from the NY Times.

2. Doctors without Borders: Most of you will be familiar with DWB and the tremendous work they do across the planet providing emergency medical aid during conflicts or disasters. I first learned of DWB while covering the Haiti earthquake for a media organization I used to intern for; I actually got to interview one of the volunteer doctors and was blown away by his dedication. I’ve since come to learn why they are one of the most respected – and needed – aid organizations.

3. Bart D. Ehrman Foundation: A dark horse here. Not many people have heard of Bart Ehrman’s website – Christianity in Antiquity – but it’s fascinating and has an innovative charitable model. Bart is a world-class biblical scholar and author of several best-selling books including Misquoting Jesus and Jesus Interrupted, and uses his website to raise money for charity. In order to read his daily posts, you pay an extremely reasonable membership fee (~$4/month), and all donations go to organizations fighting poverty, hunger, and homelessness.

4. The Planetary Society: Considering how much I love space, I think it’s a little surprising that 2013 was my first year to give to the Planetary Society. The society was started in 1980 by my hero Carl Sagan, and is now run by everyone’s favorite science guy, Bill Nye. Their mission is to “create a better future by exploring other worlds and understanding our own,” and they take on tons of cool projects like scanning the sky for asteroids and identifying earth-like planets in far-away solar systems. They also take on fundamentally important work like advocating for needed science funding and helping educators better inspire a love of science in their students.

5. United Way (of Metropolitan Dallas): Every UW operates independently, and the one where I happen to live is phenomenal. They have really mobilized the community around three issues: income, education, and health, and work with stakeholders of every size and stripe to make North Texas a better place. One thing that is helpful about UWMD is that they run a competitive grant application process where organizations in the stated interest areas have to pass a battery of reviews and site visits in order to get the UW’s approval. Therefore, when you give to the UWMD, you know your money is going only to those organizations that have been been successfully vetted.

***Important Caveat: Not that anyone would, but please don’t rely on just my (or any one person’s) advice regarding where to give. Make sure to do your own research! Sites like Charity Navigator are great for larger organizations like DWB.