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.

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.

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:

Finally, an atheist protagonist – Matthew McConaughey in HBO’s True Detective

Last week I ventured out to a hole-in-the-wall bar for an acquaintance’s birthday party, and as you do when you’re at these things, began chatting up a couple strangers. The two I spent the most time with happened to be brothers, and we got to talking about our favorite television series’. After going through the usual suspects – The Wire, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, The Shield (okay, that one was new for me…I’ve never heard anyone rave about The Shield) – the younger brother started in on HBO’s new series, True Detective, which he cautiously described as one of the better series he had ever seen. That praise of course piqued my interest, especially since several of my friends had been raving about it for a few weeks. But what really got me hooked was this stranger’s mention of the series’ overt atheism, which he described something like this:

“It’s clear the writer [Nic Pizzolatto] is a militant atheist or something, and he has McConaughey’s character go on these long diatribes every few episodes about atheism and how religion is irrational. I actually find it kind of annoying – I mean I like it because it fits with my personal beliefs – but I’m not sure how well it fits in with the rest of the action.”

So I took up the suggestion of my new-made bar friends and started binge-watching True Detective. It is very, very good – smart, suspenseful, and addictive. And sure enough, Matthew McConaughey, who stars as one of the show’s two protagonists (the other being the excellent Woody Harrelson) is indeed playing an outright atheist. Check out the clip below, which is pretty typical of his diatribes (they actually come only two or three times in the series, at least through episode five – so I haven’t found it as annoying as the bar guy made it sound):

Now I found this a little surprising for two reasons. First, for the obvious one that atheism isn’t discussed too readily on television these days. And secondly, because I was under the impression McConaughey was a seriously religious man. Where did I get that impression? From this section of Keay Davidson’s biography of Carl Sagan, discussing the film adaption of Sagan’s novel, Contact, in which McConaughey starred:

“A religious man himself, McConaughey refused to utter the one sentence that Ann Druyan had hoped would make the film: ‘My God was too small.’ The line was sacrilegious, McConaughey told her. The more she talked to him about it, the more she realized the depth of his intelligent and sincere faith; in time they became good friends.” (Davidson, Carl Sagan: A Life; page 410)

So how do you go from refusing to say a line because it’s sacrilegious, to playing an outspoken atheist on one of the country’s most watched networks? My theory is that McConaughey has matured a bit, and realized it’s fine to play characters that don’t share his own religious views. I also think the change in national climate toward non-belief has helped – playing an atheist was a pretty strange thing when Contact came out, possibly less so now. Of course, the other possibility is that his friendship with Druyan has led him toward skepticism (The Hollowverse still lists him as “appearing to be Catholic” however)…

[Update 3/3: You can go here for a recent interview with McConaughey, where he confirms he does believe in God, and watch his Oscar acceptance here (congrats!) where he also thanks God.]

How does the atheism impact the character in True Detective? Well, it is actually an isolating factor for him – the show takes place in rural Louisiana – but on the other hand the writers do associate atheism several times with intelligence. More prominently, I think, the atheism helps give his character an unfriendly edge – he’s certainly not a happy guy – bordering on nihilism. I’m a little concerned religious believers watching this will think that’s the type of personality atheism must in all cases lead to – sure you’re smart and can figure things out, but now you’re a brooding, unhappy, dismissive, lonely, and arrogant guy. But maybe I’m projecting a bit. There’s no actual reference to his character’s personality being driven by anything other than a bad, bad past.

But enough of this. You should stop reading and go watch True Detective. I’m firing up episode six now…

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.

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.

Watch Now: Sydney debate between Lawrence Krauss and William Lane Craig, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

The Sydney debate between Lawrence Krauss and William Lane Craig has finally been posted. This was actually the second of the three debates chronologically, but for whatever reason was the last to be edited. I haven’t watched yet but am looking forward to it:

Did Jesus look like Bill Murray?

(Sorry, I couldn’t resist that title. My apologies if anyone is offended…including Bill Murray fans.)

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Jesus

It isn’t terribly unusual for professing Christians to claim they have a personal relationship with Jesus. I know many who describe Him as almost a tangible presence in their lives, and I don’t doubt that a good deal of their thinking time is devoted to contemplating His character and desires. But I’ve always wondered what individuals with such a purportedly close relationship picture when they imagine Jesus. Do they picture an amorphous, feature-less essence? Or, since he’s both divine and man, do they imagine a face? A body? If so, who exactly are they picturing? Because it ain’t Jesus.

As you are probably aware, no one alive today has any idea what Jesus looked like (only a handful of people throughout history ever did). There were no portraits or drawings made during his lifetime, and the Bible is frustratingly void of descriptors. The best we get is from Revelation, and I very much doubt this is the image most cling to:

…dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.” (Revelation 1:12–16, NIV)

But ask almost anyone to draw Jesus, and you’d get something back (unlike asking them to draw God). Why? Because Jesus, the image, is part of the collective consciousness – we’ve literally created it over centuries through a process of artificial selection (see Stephen Jay Gould’s famous essay on the evolution of Mickey Mouse), dominated mostly by the West, whereby Jesus has become more beautiful, Aryan, and heroic-looking than we have any reason to suspect he did in actuality.

As far as we can tell, early Christians represented Jesus primarily through symbols like the fish. The first known portrait of Jesus does not appear until 235 (about 200 years after his reported crucifixion), and it already shows signs of historical distortions, whereby the artist down-played any hint of Jewish identity and instead attributed features associated with Greco-Roman society (he has close-cropped hair, for instance, and no beard). While some of the earliest Church fathers like Tertullian and Justin considered Christ’s appearance to be plain or unremarkable, later leaders beginning with Origen, then Jerome, then Augustine of Hippo began characterizing Him as distinctly beautiful (it delights me that they may have done this as a response to an insult from the pagan Celsus, who apparently ridiculed Christians for having an ugly God).

From the second century on depictions of Jesus varied widely, eventually coalescing on the more familiar image we have today, including the beard and long hair (though Paul discourages long hair for men in Corinthians). Thanks, I think, to America, a good percentage of believers now decorate their homes and car dashboards with a drastically caricatured image of Jesus: a handsome, blue-eyed white man of considerable stature (compared to the average for men of his time period) with perfect flowing hair and a cleanly-trimmed beard.

And while nobody knows what Jesus really looked like, we can be reasonably sure he wasn’t atypical for a Galilean Semite of first century Palestine, and would have had darker skin and been well under six feet tall. Just a few years ago, a group from a forensic science department in Israel recreated what they thought Jesus might have looked like based on actual first-century Jewish skulls. You can see and read about the result here: http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/health/forensics/1282186

So, back to my original question. Who do modern Christians imagine when they imagine Jesus? I can’t help but think everyone (Christian and non-Christian alike) has been heavily influenced by the popular depictions, and if they do picture something physical, are likely to imagine something similar to the caricature described above.

But that begs the question – since we know Jesus didn’t actually look like that, won’t believers be a bit surprised to see a completely new face staring back at them in Heaven (assuming they’ve made the team)? Won’t it be a bit jarring? I imagine it might be something like expecting Bill Murray …

Bill Murray

and getting Dan Aykroyd:

Dan Aykroyd

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*For a quick summary of the history of depictions of Jesus, check out this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Depiction_of_Jesus