Go home, Dick Cheney, you’re drunk.

This won’t be a full post, I just very briefly need to vent my frustration with Dick and Liz Cheney’s new Wall Street Journal op-ed, “The Collapsing Obama Doctrine“.

Anyway, here’s what I put on Facebook a minute ago, and it very nicely summarizes my thoughts:

Things that will make me dislike you: First, you help orchestrate a poorly planned, almost unwinnable war in Iraq under mostly false pretenses that turns into an utter disaster. Second, after a few years of leisure, accident free quail hunts, and mild heart attacks, you have the gall to shout at the next guy for running said war incorrectly.

If you leave a baby on someone’s doorstep, Dick, don’t expect any credibility when you return six years later to criticize their parenting.

I do think Cheney makes some correct points, but just can’t get over the nerve of him having anything but humility over his administration’s decision to go to Iraq in the first place. And then to criticize Obama for not leaving troops in Iraq? When it was Cheney’s administration that oversaw the bilateral agreement mandating that all troops would be out in 2011? Unbelievable.

I’ve been the following ISIS/Iraq conflict pretty closely over the last few days, as all indicators point to this being a game-changing situation for the Middle East (as in redrawing of the map, game-changing). Charlie Rose has had excellent coverage here, here, and herethis NPR article from 2009 summarizes the origins of the Sunni-Shia conflict quite clearly; and my new favorite website, Vox.com, has these helpful notes if you are interested in catching up. I plan to stay tuned, with the civilians of the region in my thoughts.

(If time permits, I will try to write a post exploring the greater influences of religious belief on this conflict. And if I don’t have time, I’ll at least be looking forward to the inevitable such commentaries by people like Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris.)


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.


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…

The Greater of Two Evils: Lt. Gov Elect, Dan Patrick (TX-R)

I live in Texas. That’s a fact. But thankfully, with a little discipline, I manage to forget that fact most of the time (it certainly helps that I live in a major city in Texas, and that major cities in Texas are not really in Texas). Yet every once in a while, I am jolted back to reality by a piece of news I can’t ignore.

The most recent jolt of this kind came on Tuesday, when Texas state senator Dan Patrick defeated long-time incumbent David Dewhurst in the race for Lieutenant Governor. Now, I’m not a Republican. There’s probably not a single social policy issue on which I agree with Lt. David Dewhurst. He’s very conservative, and I mean very – not even close to being considered a “moderate”. Against a competent democrat, I wouldn’t vote for Dewhurst in a million million years.  But in this race, he was unquestionably the lesser of two evils, and I found myself, strangely, rooting for him.  And the reason, my friends, is that the stakes were so high.

Alas, we have now elected this loon into office:

“We as Christians have yielded to the secular left and let them rule the day in this country. When it comes to creationism, not only should it be taught, it should be triumphed. It should be heralded.”

– Texas State Senator Dan Patrick

Yes, Patrick said that at a recent debate in Dallas. He was one-upping Dewhurst on his conservative bona fides – the latter had just uttered an atrocious but otherwise expected advocacy for equal time in the public classroom for intelligent design, creationism, and evolution. The fact that Dewhurst even separated creationism and intelligent design into two categories is proof he’s missing something, but maybe naively I wasn’t expecting an even stupider comment to follow from his opponent. Then again…Texas.

It’s pretty easy to bemoan this type of claptrap – no thoughtful person can actually believe the earth is 6,000 years old or that creationism is tenable enough to come anywhere near a science classroom, much less “triumphed” – the hard part is to figure out whether politicians at this level are thoughtful people. Does Dan Patrick really believe what comes out of his mouth, or is he doing what all politicians do, and saying what must be said to pander to an influential base and get elected? I honestly don’t know. Dewhurst, I’m reasonably sure, is not as backwards as he came across in this debate, but nowadays all big races in Texas devolve into sprints to the right, with each candidate trying to out-conserve their conservative opponent through sound bytes about guns or religion or immigration or Obama.

But does Patrick, who will now wield considerable influence across the state, actually believe creationism should be taught in public schools? My good friend, who follows politics pretty closely and actually interned for a while as a staffer in the House (I think it was the House), says no way. Her opinion, and she seemed sincere on this, was that politicians, particularly those at the state Senate level or above, know they have to say certain things to get elected, regardless of their actual views. She admitted some state House members might actually be that dense, but was pretty sure those at the Senate level didn’t mean most of what they said on social policy issues. I was skeptical, but she also tried to assure me that even if Patrick does believe those things, there are enough checks and balances to prevent any kind of ludicrous position to actually get passed.

I hope so. Otherwise I’m going to have much more trouble forgetting that I’m in Texas.

Some articles for further reading (also linked above):

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):


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.


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.