A large majority of Americans celebrated Christmas -- literally, the Mass of Christ -- yesterday, including Christians whose religious services are not called Mass. Even atheists like Richard Dawkins celebrated the holiday for its secular joys.
Don't know if "small blessing" is appropriate, but I am profoundly glad there's no mention of the alleged "War on Christmas," otherwise I'd be typing for a LOT longer. Skipping ahead of some fluff...
Yet here at the end of one year and the start of another, during days of religious significance for most of us, should we not permit ourselves to reflect upon the "big questions"?
If so, start with the smallest of them: Have you noticed that atheism is suddenly front page and big business?
Sam Harris has had two bestsellers attacking religious belief: The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. Add those to Dawkins' The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great, Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell and Frederick Crews' Follies of the Wise, and believers confront an intellectual assault of dramatic proportion.
It's a good thing that atheists can get published, and that more of us have the courage to do so. Thank the FSM for Blogger, WordPress, and so forth. Text often falls short of implications and tone, but he sounds like he's saying atheists speaking up more often and standing up for their (dis)beliefs is a bad thing.
Jeff Randall, the editor at large of London's Telegraph, who describes himself as a weak believer, recently complained about the "extraordinary ... [and] tyrannical minority" of militant secularists who exhibit "hatred against those who adhere to biblical values."
1. I think we can all safely say, even without prior knowledge, that Jeff Randall is an idiot and/or a liar. Since when was publishing more books "militant?" Granted, my brother used that adjective to describe Deepak Chopra recently, with a touch of exaggeration and humorous irony, but I don't think anyone really knows what that word means anymore.
2. What kind of "weak believer" talks about "biblical values?" Which "biblical values?" Slavery? Genocide? Absolute piety? Fashion? What? Shouldn't "weak believer" imply something about near-agnosticism, and some recognition that values are pretty much universal? It's a weird, nebulous term that I can't parse.
3. Where's this "hatred?" To my incomplete knowledge (Got some relevant books for Decemberween, but haven't started reading them yet), there's no hate whatsoever in those books: Just a lot of emphasis that faith is inherently opposed to reason.
There is, of course, at least another side to this story. Many brilliant people remain both scientists and believers. Even Steven Weinberg, who once wrote that the "more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless," told me several years ago that he finds plausible something like the "Force" of Star Wars movie legend. So this notorious atheist finds a kind of divine reality to be consistent with his explorations of subatomic particles.
My gut says that someone seriously misinterpreted. In case Weinberg actually does believe in that sort of stuff, I have a feeling Infophile would jump to set him straight.
Of course, someone will feel obligated to point out midochlorians or however they're spelled, so I might as well be the one. Please, no groaning in the comments.
Moreover, as Newsweek reported in its Dec. 18 edition, heavyweight cosmologist Paul Davies thinks that those who study nature closely "proceed on the assumption that there is a coherent scheme to the universe to be uncovered. ... That's also an act of faith."
Can you say "Equivocation?"
Sure, I knew you could.
We work on the assumption that the universe follows consistent rules because, so far, the rules we've uncovered are consistent. Also kind of pointless to map something if it keeps changing.
How about this: We'll continue working on that assumption until someone proves the rules we've uncovered aren't consistent.
Readers who think about the words on this page know that intelligence exists in our world. What accounts for it? And why are the "laws" of nature (isn't a lawgiver required?) mathematical?
1. Intelligence is accounted for by evolution, neurology, and so forth. We don't have a complete picture, but I'm not about to put up a brick wall called "magic" because we don't know everything yet.
2. I think we've established that you can say "equivocation." "Law" as scientists use the term doesn't imply any sort of lawgiver. The rules of the universe are the rules of the universe. So far, we don't see any source. There may be no source.
3. The answer to the last question is "Mu." If the laws were different, math would be different in the same way. The concepts are inseparable. Sounds a lot like another nut I've read about. Just imagine him in a basement giggling and saying "Dude!" and "Maaaaan" between every sentence, and you'll have a good idea of how these people sound to me when I read them.
If, as Weinberg quipped, nature is "pointless," then it is also, as Davies countered recently, "incomprehensible." But scientists who probe its mysteries keep uncovering additional layers of its comprehensibility.
Pointlessness and comprehensibility are separate concepts. Just because Erler can't deal with a pointless universe doesn't mean it's incomprehensible. We'll keep uncovering more knowledge about the universe, but it seems likely we'll eventually bump into that little curse of Gödel's.
And the fortunate faithful believe that they know what ambivalent philosophers and agnostic scientists seek to learn.
If they're so fortunate, I'd like to see them prove it.
See also: AA's take