Thursday, September 30, 2010

Neil deGrasse Tyson stops a religious troll

The final audience question posed at the Sept. 28 symposium featuring Tyson and Dawkins was a hostile one. Here is a video record of the question and Tyson's riposte:

Richard Dawkins & Neil de Grasse Tyson at Howard University (2)

Nothing terribly original was said, but presumably the goal was to stimulate the imagination of the audience via the two fields of expertise represented here: evolutionary biology and astrophysics. Both Dawkins and Tyson emphasized the way science has enlarged our vision of the universe beyond our given natural biology of mid-range physical beings evolved to engage mid-range natural objects. Of course trying to extend our imagination through millions of years of biological evolution involves a stretch, but it seems that astrophysics' challenge to the imagination is much greater. Whether feigning incomprehension or serious, Dawkins admitted as much, asking Tyson to explain the notion of an expanding universe and what it means to be on the edge of it. Tyson rose to the challenge and attempted to explain it via analogy with a ship in the ocean. He claimed it need not so mysterious, but I believe he is incorrect.

Dawkins' explanation of evolution did not demand as much. Tyson acknowledged the counterintuitive nature of quantum mechanics, the dependence of physics on mathematics, and the fact that theoretical physics provides explanations that, in the ordinary intuitive sense, we do not understand. Science begins with sense experience, but instruments extend our range far beyond our innate sensory ability, detecting entities and phenomena we cannot directly perceive, and mathematics extends our ability to map reality beyond our limited and not completely reliable senses. Interestingly, once the counterintuitive nature of contemporary physics was acknowledged, Dawkins interjected the thought that mathematics becomes intuitive, so that physicists are able to navigate their terrain like pilots. He suggested an analogy with surgeons, who intuitively feel what they are doing with micromanipulating instruments, and in the future might conduct their surgeries mediated by virtual reality devices.

Tyson in turn introjected Dawkins' specialty into a consideration of exobiology, i.e. extraterrestrial life forms, and especially intelligent life forms. How do we know that we are intelligent in comparison to related animals whose difference from us might appear minuscule to a much more intelligent alien intelligence? Dawkins ran with this subject. Tyson reiterated his usual complaint against science fiction aliens being too anthropomorphic. Their discussion of the genetic code and what could conceivably be different indeed stimulated the imagination.

The questions subsequently posed by audience members were varied, but for now I will dwell only on one of them. Someone mentioned an impending abolition of the Philosophy Dept. at Howard University and asked for comments on the philosophy of science. Tyson responded that philosophy contributed to science until the 20th century, but with quantum mechanics became useless. While philosophy has other worthy objects of study, Tyson sees no further contributions by philosophy. Physics is high tech; armchair science is no longer possible.

Dawkins pointed out that philosophers could have easily thought of natural selection but did not. There are some good philosophers of biology, but these are the ones who are so thoroughly immersed in the science that they double as scientists.

I found Tyson's remarks especially revealing of how the scientific mind differs from the philosophical mind, and in this case I think he is dead wrong. He admits the largely counterintuitive nature of physics (while minimizing--at least this time around--the same viz. cosmology), and claims that philosophy of science is superfluous, when the revolutions in physics in the 20th century presented philosophers--and philosophically minded physicists--with the greatest challenges they ever faced. The nature of physical explanation and the theories that have emerged are far from uncontroversial, and the attempts to popularize them among the general public are fraught with pitfalls the scientists do not seem to understand. Tyson repeatedly warned against hubris, but how confident can one be now that physics is in for another revolution on account of dark matter and dark energy? (And I will add, what can Hawking possibly mean when he suggests that the universe was created out of nothing? Is this truly an empirical statement, and not philosophically controversial?)

Dawkins doesn't have this big of a problem as far as strictly biological evolution is concerned, but what about the metaphorical extension of biological evolution into social evolution? Is the concept of the "meme" a genuine scientific concept, or merely sloppy ideological reasoning by analogy? What about the sociobiology war of the 1970s?

All this and much more is fodder for a whole lot of additional discussion, as well as the question of applied science in the real world that is driven by big money, big business, and the military, which might not respect the integrity of pure research that characterize the scientific objectives of Tyson and Dawkins.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Richard Dawkins & Neil de Grasse Tyson at Howard University (1)

I attended the dialogue between Richard Dawkins & Neil de Grasse Tyson on "The Poetry of Science" at Howard University in Washington at noon on Tuesday, 28 September. The two speakers were at their charming best. Tyson cracks more jokes and makes more pop culture references, but Dawkins interjected a few quips as well. I've seen them both before separately but not together.

I'll report more on the intellectual content more later. In particular, I want to say something about physics and philosophy, a theme which Tyson addressed.

I noticed that the demographic of the audience did not reflect the demographic of Howard University itself: this event attracted a lot of white science buffs and atheists, which seemed to constitute the majority of the audience. Why that is, I do not know: perhaps the students were in class or on lunch break between classes.

Atheism was not the subject of this discussion, but a couple audience members brought up the issue of religion in the Q & A. The final questioner apparently thought he would bait the speakers, or so I gathered from the tone of his question. After referencing Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy, the questioner asked: if you were about to be executed, what would you have to say, relying on your knowledge of science alone? Tyson took that question, responding: "I would ask to be buried rather than cremated, so that my body would provide nutrients for other organisms just as I have fed off the nutrients from the organisms preceding me."

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Hans Blumenberg, Descartes, & the agony of modernity

A few secondary bibliographic references:

Three Intellectual Histories of Modernity: Arendt, Blumenberg, and Dewey
by Colin Koopman

Collective Self-Legislation as an Actus Impurus: A Response to Heidegger’s Critique of European Nihilism
by Hans Lindahl

Hans Blumenberg's Philosophical Anthropology: After Heidegger and Cassirer
by Vida Pavesich

Descartes as a Moral Thinker

"'I think, therefore I am', said Descartes, and the world rejoiced at the perspective of the expansion of individual personality and human powers through the liberation of the intellect." — C.L.R. James et al

The watershed marked by the philosophy of Descartes has long been recognized. The dualism of Descartes' philosophy has often been linked to his historical and social position, e.g.:

Descartes' Dualism (Extract) by Albert William Levi

One can find such treatments also in the Marxist tradition (e.g. C.L.R. James & the Johnson-Forest Tendency, quoted above):

Descartes & Marxism: Selected Bibliography

There is, of course, the perennial favorite which deals not with Descartes specifically but with the contradictions of Enlightenment, unsatisfactorily in my view: Dialectic of Enlightenment by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. See also my web guide/bibliography:

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Here is a book I just discovered which is alleged to challenge common wisdom about Descartes:

Steiner, Gary. Descartes as a Moral Thinker: Christianity, Technology, Nihilism. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2004. See also at Prometheus Books.

There is one brief passage on Marx, and, surprisingly, Steiner finds an affinity between Descartes and Marx. Otherwise, the book appears to be innocent of Marxism. Looking through the bibliography, the one author I'm tempted to pursue is Hans Blumenberg (also known for a debate with Karl Löwith).

Here is the publisher's product description:
Although commentary on Descartes is extensive, the importance of morality in his thought has been all but overlooked in contemporary English-language scholarship. Considered to be the first modern philosopher, Descartes is often interpreted as a wholly secular thinker who acknowledged no authority above the human will. In this important reassessment of the great French philosopher, Gary Steiner shows the influence of Christian thought on the moral foundations of Descartes's philosophy.

Descartes's commitment to Christian piety and to the autonomy of human reason stand in an uneasy tension with one another. In DESCARTES AS A MORAL THINKER, Steiner examines this tension between the "angelic" aspirations in Descartes's Christian commitments and the "earthly" or technological aspirations reflected in his endeavor to use reason to ground scientific practice. Steiner provides a close analysis of all Descartes's texts and correspondence that bear on morality. By placing Descartes's work in historical context, Steiner demonstrates Descartes's indebtedness not only to Galileo and Bacon in developing his conception of autonomous human reason but also to Augustine and Aquinas in conceptualizing the human condition and the role of belief in God. Providing a detailed survey of German, French, and English scholarship on Descartes, Steiner concludes with an in-depth examination of contemporary debates about secularization, nihilism, and modernity in such thinkers as Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Hans Blumenberg, and Karl Lowith. Steiner shows how Descartes's own ambivalence about the relation between faith and reason can shed light on contemporary controversies regarding what Blumenberg calls "the legitimacy of the modern age."
This bears looking into. I think this will inadvertently confirm the incomparable greatness of Baruch Spinoza.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Maoist Critique of Maoist Atheism

Critiquing Religion Without Understanding It: Avakian’s Away With All Gods! by Pavel Andreyev

Andreyev effectively critiques Bob Avakian's slipshod arguments. It is unfortunate that these occasional pieces should be puffed up into a major intellectual statement. Andreyev's critique itself is flat and lacking in insight. In exposing Avakian's lapses in fact, logic, argumentation, and historical knowledge, Andreyev sticks to the surface. Worse, he relies on another pompous ass, the Maoist philosopher Alain Badiou, intellectual flavor of the month in the Anglo-American world, as a counterweight to Avakian's misunderstanding of Christianity.

The section "A Suggested Alternative Approach" (p. 11), a proposed alternate narrative on the history of religion, is as insipid as Avakian's approach. There's nothing dark about religion as presented in this narrative; the view here is indistinguishable from the Whiggish view of liberalizing religion. There's nothing perverse or vicious about Christianity per se as one would find in Edmund G. Cohen's The Mind of the Bible-Believer, for example.

Avakian approaches the issues of anti-Semitism, Zionism, and Islamism, about which Andreyev offers no additional insight. Avakian's many criticisms of Michael Lerner are critically scrutinized, but Andreyev is mainly perturbed about Avakian's failure to indict Lerner for being a Zionist. There is no criticism, however, of the pompous middle class pandering to popular religiosity and the vacuous moralizing of the "politics of meaning". While Avakian's constant accusations of patriarchy in religion are banal truisms, to take one outstanding example, Andreyev never rises above truism himself.

Andreyev does not intelligently address Avakian's slapdash treatment of African-American religion: he criticizes Avakian's ultraleft elevation of Malcolm X above Martin Luther King, Jr. only by pointing out the religiosity of Malcolm X (pp. 17-18).

Andreyev continually points out Avakian's obtuseness in argumentation. One example treated at length is Avakian's sophomoric scoffing at the concept of the Trinity. Andreyev claims, apparently accurately, that Avakian has no understanding of the nature of myth. But who does Andreyev rely on but Karen Armstrong, a religious liberal whose approach to history and religion could not be more insipid and intellectually contemptible.

I've despised Maoists since my first encounter with one in high school decades ago. Childish irresponsible simpletons they were and will always be. How unfortunate that Andreyev's review is fundamentally no less idiotic than the book under review.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Black atheists in the media

I have a lot to catch up with, but here's the latest:

Black atheists turn social media sites into a gathering place
By Kia Miakka Natisse
The Griot, 09/12/2010

Several black atheist online groups are mentioned. Atheist Nexus is mentioned, but not my specific group:

Black Freethought (on Atheist Nexus).

This used to be by far the largest group on the web in the English-speaking world, but it has been since overtaken by at least one of the once-dormant Facebook groups. There is an explosion of public black atheist, freethought, and humanist activity, and this article documents recent developments. It's at least one small ray of light in an increasingly dismal world.