Turn to Your Left at the End of the Sky

The End of Solitude

The property that grounds the self in the post-modern age is visibility [link to original article]… 

The End of Solitude

As everyone seeks more and broader connectivity, the still, small voice speaks only in silence

What does the contemporary self want? The camera has created a culture of celebrity; the computer is creating a culture of connectivity. As the two technologies converge — broadband tipping the Web from text to image, social-networking sites spreading the mesh of interconnection ever wider — the two cultures betray a common impulse. Celebrity and connectivity are both ways of becoming known. This is what the contemporary self wants. It wants to be recognized, wants to be connected: It wants to be visible. If not to the millions, on Survivor or Oprah, then to the hundreds, on Twitter or Facebook. This is the quality that validates us, this is how we become real to ourselves — by being seen by others. The great contemporary terror is anonymity. If Lionel Trilling was right, if the property that grounded the self, in Romanticism, was sincerity, and in modernism it was authenticity, then in postmodernism it is visibility.

So we live exclusively in relation to others, and what disappears from our lives is solitude. Technology is taking away our privacy and our concentration, but it is also taking away our ability to be alone. Though I shouldn’t say taking away. We are doing this to ourselves; we are discarding these riches as fast as we can. I was told by one of her older relatives that a teenager I know had sent 3,000 text messages one recent month. That’s 100 a day, or about one every 10 waking minutes, morning, noon, and night, weekdays and weekends, class time, lunch time, homework time, and toothbrushing time. So on average, she’s never alone for more than 10 minutes at once. Which means, she’s never alone.

I once asked my students about the place that solitude has in their lives. One of them admitted that she finds the prospect of being alone so unsettling that she’ll sit with a friend even when she has a paper to write. Another said, why would anyone want to be alone?

To that remarkable question, history offers a number of answers. Man may be a social animal, but solitude has traditionally been a societal value. In particular, the act of being alone has been understood as an essential dimension of religious experience, albeit one restricted to a self-selected few. Through the solitude of rare spirits, the collective renews its relationship with divinity. The prophet and the hermit, the sadhu and the yogi, pursue their vision quests, invite their trances, in desert or forest or cave. For the still, small voice speaks only in silence. Social life is a bustle of petty concerns, a jostle of quotidian interests, and religious institutions are no exception. You cannot hear God when people are chattering at you, and the divine word, their pretensions notwithstanding, demurs at descending on the monarch and the priest. Communal experience is the human norm, but the solitary encounter with God is the egregious act that refreshes that norm. (Egregious, for no man is a prophet in his own land. Tiresias was reviled before he was vindicated, Teresa interrogated before she was canonized.) Religious solitude is a kind of self-correcting social mechanism, a way of burning out the underbrush of moral habit and spiritual custom. The seer returns with new tablets or new dances, his face bright with the old truth.

Like other religious values, solitude was democratized by the Reformation and secularized by Romanticism. In Marilynne Robinson’s interpretation, Calvinism created the modern self by focusing the soul inward, leaving it to encounter God, like a prophet of old, in “profound isolation.” To her enumeration of Calvin, Marguerite de Navarre, and Milton as pioneering early-modern selves we can add Montaigne, Hamlet, and even Don Quixote. The last figure alerts us to reading’s essential role in this transformation, the printing press serving an analogous function in the 16th and subsequent centuries to that of television and the Internet in our own. Reading, as Robinson puts it, “is an act of great inwardness and subjectivity.” “The soul encountered itself in response to a text, first Genesis or Matthew and then Paradise Lost or Leaves of Grass.” With Protestantism and printing, the quest for the divine voice became available to, even incumbent upon, everyone.

But it is with Romanticism that solitude achieved its greatest cultural salience, becoming both literal and literary. Protestant solitude is still only figurative. Rousseau and Wordsworth made it physical. The self was now encountered not in God but in Nature, and to encounter Nature one had to go to it. And go to it with a special sensibility: The poet displaced the saint as social seer and cultural model. But because Romanticism also inherited the 18th-century idea of social sympathy, Romantic solitude existed in a dialectical relationship with sociability — if less for Rousseau and still less for Thoreau, the most famous solitary of all, then certainly for Wordsworth, Melville, Whitman, and many others. For Emerson, “the soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude; and it goes alone, for a season, that it may exalt its conversation or society.” The Romantic practice of solitude is neatly captured by Trilling’s “sincerity”: the belief that the self is validated by a congruity of public appearance and private essence, one that stabilizes its relationship with both itself and others. Especially, as Emerson suggests, one beloved other. Hence the famous Romantic friendship pairs: Goethe and Schiller, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Hawthorne and Melville.

Modernism decoupled this dialectic. Its notion of solitude was harsher, more adversarial, more isolating. As a model of the self and its interactions, Hume’s social sympathy gave way to Pater’s thick wall of personality and Freud’s narcissism — the sense that the soul, self-enclosed and inaccessible to others, can’t choose but be alone. With exceptions, like Woolf, the modernists fought shy of friendship. Joyce and Proust disparaged it; D.H. Lawrence was wary of it; the modernist friendship pairs — Conrad and Ford, Eliot and Pound, Hemingway and Fitzgerald — were altogether cooler than their Romantic counterparts. The world was now understood as an assault on the self, and with good reason.

The Romantic ideal of solitude developed in part as a reaction to the emergence of the modern city. In modernism, the city is not only more menacing than ever, it has become inescapable, a labyrinth: Eliot’s London, Joyce’s Dublin. The mob, the human mass, presses in. Hell is other people. The soul is forced back into itself — hence the development of a more austere, more embattled form of self-validation, Trilling’s “authenticity,” where the essential relationship is only with oneself. (Just as there are few good friendships in modernism, so are there few good marriages.) Solitude becomes, more than ever, the arena of heroic self-discovery, a voyage through interior realms made vast and terrifying by Nietzschean and Freudian insights. To achieve authenticity is to look upon these visions without flinching; Trilling’s exemplar here is Kurtz. Protestant self-examination becomes Freudian analysis, and the culture hero, once a prophet of God and then a poet of Nature, is now a novelist of self — a Dostoyevsky, a Joyce, a Proust.

But we no longer live in the modernist city, and our great fear is not submersion by the mass but isolation from the herd. Urbanization gave way to suburbanization, and with it the universal threat of loneliness. What technologies of transportation exacerbated — we could live farther and farther apart — technologies of communication redressed — we could bring ourselves closer and closer together. Or at least, so we have imagined. The first of these technologies, the first simulacrum of proximity, was the telephone. “Reach out and touch someone.” But through the 70s and 80s, our isolation grew. Suburbs, sprawling ever farther, became exurbs. Families grew smaller or splintered apart, mothers left the home to work. The electronic hearth became the television in every room. Even in childhood, certainly in adolescence, we were each trapped inside our own cocoon. Soaring crime rates, and even more sharply escalating rates of moral panic, pulled children off the streets. The idea that you could go outside and run around the neighborhood with your friends, once unquestionable, has now become unthinkable. The child who grew up between the world wars as part of an extended family within a tight-knit urban community became the grandparent of a kid who sat alone in front of a big television, in a big house, on a big lot. We were lost in space.

Under those circumstances, the Internet arrived as an incalculable blessing. We should never forget that. It has allowed isolated people to communicate with one another and marginalized people to find one another. The busy parent can stay in touch with far-flung friends. The gay teenager no longer has to feel like a freak. But as the Internet’s dimensionality has grown, it has quickly become too much of a good thing. Ten years ago we were writing e-mail messages on desktop computers and transmitting them over dial-up connections. Now we are sending text messages on our cellphones, posting pictures on our Facebook pages, and following complete strangers on Twitter. A constant stream of mediated contact, virtual, notional, or simulated, keeps us wired in to the electronic hive — though contact, or at least two-way contact, seems increasingly beside the point. The goal now, it seems, is simply to become known, to turn oneself into a sort of miniature celebrity. How many friends do I have on Facebook? How many people are reading my blog? How many Google hits does my name generate? Visibility secures our self-esteem, becoming a substitute, twice removed, for genuine connection. Not long ago, it was easy to feel lonely. Now, it is impossible to be alone.

As a result, we are losing both sides of the Romantic dialectic. What does friendship mean when you have 532 “friends”? How does it enhance my sense of closeness when my Facebook News Feed tells me that Sally Smith (whom I haven’t seen since high school, and wasn’t all that friendly with even then) “is making coffee and staring off into space”? My students told me they have little time for intimacy. And of course, they have no time at all for solitude.

But at least friendship, if not intimacy, is still something they want. As jarring as the new dispensation may be for people in their 30s and 40s, the real problem is that it has become completely natural for people in their teens and 20s. Young people today seem to have no desire for solitude, have never heard of it, can’t imagine why it would be worth having. In fact, their use of technology — or to be fair, our use of technology — seems to involve a constant effort to stave off the possibility of solitude, a continuous attempt, as we sit alone at our computers, to maintain the imaginative presence of others. As long ago as 1952, Trilling wrote about “the modern fear of being cut off from the social group even for a moment.” Now we have equipped ourselves with the means to prevent that fear from ever being realized. Which does not mean that we have put it to rest. Quite the contrary. Remember my student, who couldn’t even write a paper by herself. The more we keep aloneness at bay, the less are we able to deal with it and the more terrifying it gets.

There is an analogy, it seems to me, with the previous generation’s experience of boredom. The two emotions, loneliness and boredom, are closely allied. They are also both characteristically modern. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citations of either word, at least in the contemporary sense, date from the 19th century. Suburbanization, by eliminating the stimulation as well as the sociability of urban or traditional village life, exacerbated the tendency to both. But the great age of boredom, I believe, came in with television, precisely because television was designed to palliate that feeling. Boredom is not a necessary consequence of having nothing to do, it is only the negative experience of that state. Television, by obviating the need to learn how to make use of one’s lack of occupation, precludes one from ever discovering how to enjoy it. In fact, it renders that condition fearsome, its prospect intolerable. You are terrified of being bored — so you turn on the television.

I speak from experience. I grew up in the 60s and 70s, the age of television. I was trained to be bored; boredom was cultivated within me like a precious crop. (It has been said that consumer society wants to condition us to feel bored, since boredom creates a market for stimulation.) It took me years to discover — and my nervous system will never fully adjust to this idea; I still have to fight against boredom, am permanently damaged in this respect — that having nothing to do doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The alternative to boredom is what Whitman called idleness: a passive receptivity to the world.

So it is with the current generation’s experience of being alone. That is precisely the recognition implicit in the idea of solitude, which is to loneliness what idleness is to boredom. Loneliness is not the absence of company, it is grief over that absence. The lost sheep is lonely; the shepherd is not lonely. But the Internet is as powerful a machine for the production of loneliness as television is for the manufacture of boredom. If six hours of television a day creates the aptitude for boredom, the inability to sit still, a hundred text messages a day creates the aptitude for loneliness, the inability to be by yourself. Some degree of boredom and loneliness is to be expected, especially among young people, given the way our human environment has been attenuated. But technology amplifies those tendencies. You could call your schoolmates when I was a teenager, but you couldn’t call them 100 times a day. You could get together with your friends when I was in college, but you couldn’t always get together with them when you wanted to, for the simple reason that you couldn’t always find them. If boredom is the great emotion of the TV generation, loneliness is the great emotion of the Web generation. We lost the ability to be still, our capacity for idleness. They have lost the ability to be alone, their capacity for solitude.

And losing solitude, what have they lost? First, the propensity for introspection, that examination of the self that the Puritans, and the Romantics, and the modernists (and Socrates, for that matter) placed at the center of spiritual life — of wisdom, of conduct. Thoreau called it fishing “in the Walden Pond of [our] own natures,” “bait[ing our] hooks with darkness.” Lost, too, is the related propensity for sustained reading. The Internet brought text back into a televisual world, but it brought it back on terms dictated by that world — that is, by its remapping of our attention spans. Reading now means skipping and skimming; five minutes on the same Web page is considered an eternity. This is not reading as Marilynne Robinson described it: the encounter with a second self in the silence of mental solitude.

But we no longer believe in the solitary mind. If the Romantics had Hume and the modernists had Freud, the current psychological model — and this should come as no surprise — is that of the networked or social mind. Evolutionary psychology tells us that our brains developed to interpret complex social signals. According to David Brooks, that reliable index of the social-scientific zeitgeist, cognitive scientists tell us that “our decision-making is powerfully influenced by social context”; neuroscientists, that we have “permeable minds” that function in part through a process of “deep imitation”; psychologists, that “we are organized by our attachments”; sociologists, that our behavior is affected by “the power of social networks.” The ultimate implication is that there is no mental space that is not social (contemporary social science dovetailing here with postmodern critical theory). One of the most striking things about the way young people relate to one another today is that they no longer seem to believe in the existence of Thoreau’s “darkness.”

The MySpace page, with its shrieking typography and clamorous imagery, has replaced the journal and the letter as a way of creating and communicating one’s sense of self. The suggestion is not only that such communication is to be made to the world at large rather than to oneself or one’s intimates, or graphically rather than verbally, or performatively rather than narratively or analytically, but also that it can be made completely. Today’s young people seem to feel that they can make themselves fully known to one another. They seem to lack a sense of their own depths, and of the value of keeping them hidden.

If they didn’t, they would understand that solitude enables us to secure the integrity of the self as well as to explore it. Few have shown this more beautifully than Woolf. In the middle of Mrs. Dalloway, between her navigation of the streets and her orchestration of the party, between the urban jostle and the social bustle, Clarissa goes up, “like a nun withdrawing,” to her attic room. Like a nun: She returns to a state that she herself thinks of as a kind of virginity. This does not mean she’s a prude. Virginity is classically the outward sign of spiritual inviolability, of a self untouched by the world, a soul that has preserved its integrity by refusing to descend into the chaos and self-division of sexual and social relations. It is the mark of the saint and the monk, of Hippolytus and Antigone and Joan of Arc. Solitude is both the social image of that state and the means by which we can approximate it. And the supreme image in Mrs. Dalloway of the dignity of solitude itself is the old woman whom Clarissa catches sight of through her window. “Here was one room,” she thinks, “there another.” We are not merely social beings. We are each also separate, each solitary, each alone in our own room, each miraculously our unique selves and mysteriously enclosed in that selfhood.

To remember this, to hold oneself apart from society, is to begin to think one’s way beyond it. Solitude, Emerson said, “is to genius the stern friend.” “He who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from traveling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” One must protect oneself from the momentum of intellectual and moral consensus — especially, Emerson added, during youth. “God is alone,” Thoreau said, “but the Devil, he is far from being alone; he sees a great deal of company; he is legion.” The university was to be praised, Emerson believed, if only because it provided its charges with “a separate chamber and fire” — the physical space of solitude. Today, of course, universities do everything they can to keep their students from being alone, lest they perpetrate self-destructive acts, and also, perhaps, unfashionable thoughts. But no real excellence, personal or social, artistic, philosophical, scientific or moral, can arise without solitude. “The saint and poet seek privacy,” Emerson said, “to ends the most public and universal.” We are back to the seer, seeking signposts for the future in splendid isolation.

Solitude isn’t easy, and isn’t for everyone. It has undoubtedly never been the province of more than a few. “I believe,” Thoreau said, “that men are generally still a little afraid of the dark.” Teresa and Tiresias will always be the exceptions, or to speak in more relevant terms, the young people — and they still exist — who prefer to loaf and invite their soul, who step to the beat of a different drummer. But if solitude disappears as a social value and social idea, will even the exceptions remain possible? Still, one is powerless to reverse the drift of the culture. One can only save oneself — and whatever else happens, one can still always do that. But it takes a willingness to be unpopular.

The last thing to say about solitude is that it isn’t very polite. Thoreau knew that the “doubleness” that solitude cultivates, the ability to stand back and observe life dispassionately, is apt to make us a little unpleasant to our fellows, to say nothing of the offense implicit in avoiding their company. But then, he didn’t worry overmuch about being genial. He didn’t even like having to talk to people three times a day, at meals; one can only imagine what he would have made of text-messaging. We, however, have made of geniality — the weak smile, the polite interest, the fake invitation — a cardinal virtue. Friendship may be slipping from our grasp, but our friendliness is universal. Not for nothing does “gregarious” mean “part of the herd.” But Thoreau understood that securing one’s self-possession was worth a few wounded feelings. He may have put his neighbors off, but at least he was sure of himself. Those who would find solitude must not be afraid to stand alone.

William Deresiewicz writes essays and reviews for a variety of publications. He taught at Yale University from 1998 to 2008.

January 26, 2009 Posted by | Christianity, Philosophy, Spirituality | 1 Comment

Analysis of the Trial of Sir Thomas More

Article on the trial of Sir Thomas More:

For instance, did you know that we have no copy of the oath which More famously refused to take? That no official transcript of the trial was made? That we are not certain whether there were one, three, or four formal charges? That, contrary to current legal practice, the more grave the case, the fewer the rights of the accused? That More’s civil rights, as defined by English law at the time, may have been more or less respected? In other words, there was nothing procedurally unusual about More spending years imprisoned in the Tower of London, undergoing several interrogations, being suddenly brought to court for trial, and hearing the charges against him (read in Latin) for the first and only time. And there was considered nothing untoward in having judges sitting on the bench with a vested interest (to put it mildly) in seeing More condemned, such as an uncle, a brother, and the father of Anne Boleyn.

December 4, 2008 Posted by | Christianity, Government, Philosophy, Politics, Spirituality | , | Leave a comment

Rationalism in Politics

What has been wanting on the right at the start of this century is a true “conservative disposition” — the disposition to enjoy what is rather than pining for what might be (to paraphrase Himmelfarb), to enjoy the givens and the goods of life without subjecting them to social or political validation.

Rationalism in Politics, despite being clouded by the “fumes of tradition”, is a breath of fresh air.

His [the Rationalist’s] mental attitude is at once sceptical and optimistic: sceptical, because there is no opinion, no habit, no belief, nothing so firmly rooted or so widely held that he hesitates to question it and to judge it by what he calls his ‘reason’; optimistic, because the Rationalist never doubts the power of his ‘reason (when properly applied) to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action. Moreover, he is fortified by a belief in a reason’ common to all mankind, a common power of rational consideration, which is the ground and inspiration of argument: set up on his door is the precept of Parmenides–judge by rational argument. But besides this, which gives the Rationalist a touch of intellectual equalitarianism, he is something also of an individualist, finding it difficult to believe that anyone who can think honestly and clearly will think differently from himself.

November 23, 2008 Posted by | Books, Economics, Government, Philosophy, Politics | , , , | 1 Comment

Bring Back the Sabbath

Stilling the eternal, internal murmur of self-reproach

God stopped to show us that what we create becomes meaningful to us only once we stop creating it and start to think about why we did so. The implication is clear. We could let the world wind us up and set us to marching, like mechanical dolls that go and go until they fall over, because they don’t have a mechanism that allows them to pause. But that would make us less than human. We have to remember to stop because we have to stop to remember. 

November 3, 2008 Posted by | Christianity, Philosophy, Spirituality, Thoughts | | Leave a comment

The Limits of Knowledge

This just in: there are absolute, logical limits to the ability of any method (including the scientific one) for acquiring knowledge to produce a comprehensive theory of the world

Well, call off the search for a theory of everything. Physicist David Wolpert, in an article published in the prestigious Physica D (vol. 237, pp. 1257–1281, 2008), has shown that — at best — we can achieve a theory of almost everything. Wolpert’s work is very technical, but its implications are spectacular. Unlike the above mentioned limits to knowledge, which come out of empirical disciplines, Wolpert used logic to prove his point, following in the steps of the famousincompleteness theorem demonstrated by Kurt Godel in 1931. (An accessible summary of Wolpert’s discovery can be found in an article by P.-M. Binder in Nature, 16 October 2008.)

Basically, Wolpert — building on previous work by Alan Turing — formalized a description of “inference machines,” i.e. machines capable of arriving at inferences about the world (human beings are one example of such machines). Wolpert focused on what he calls strong inference, the ability of one machine to predict the totality of conclusions arrived at by another similar machine. Wolpert then logically proved the following two conclusions: a) For every machine capable of conducting strong inferences on the totality of the laws of physics there will be a second machine that cannot be strongly inferred from the first one; b) Given any pair of such machines, they cannot be strongly inferred from each other.

Of course, the article ends with the obligatory sideswipe at creationists.

Reference to original paper:

Physical limits of inference

Physica D: Nonlinear Phenomena, Volume 237, Issue 9, 1 July 2008, Pages 1257-1281
David H. Wolpert

October 23, 2008 Posted by | Mathematics, Philosophy, Science | | Leave a comment

American Philanthropy

Another article on differences in philanthropy: the short version is that people who are a) American, b) conservative, and c) religious give a lot more of their time and money.

Brooks has uncovered other fascinating findings. In 2000, the Americans who attended a house of worship at least once a week were 25 percent more likely to give charitably than those who participated in a religious service less frequently or participated in no religion at all. Further, religious people donated nearly four times more in dollars per year than secularists. And religious persons were 23 percent more likely to volunteer their time.

Interestingly, households headed by a conservative gave 30 percent more dollars to charity in 2000 than households headed by a liberal, though liberal-headed households tend to have higher incomes. Both these facts—the higher income of leftists, and the greater giving by conservatives—run counter to the mythology that the left holds in both Europe and the United States.

As the author says, this runs counter to the the mythology of the Left.

July 8, 2008 Posted by | Christianity, Philanthropy, Philosophy, Spirituality | , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Life So Fragile

In the first week of my freshman year in college I went to a talk that was given by 4 people who had been disabled as a result of attempted abortions. Their mother had subsequently given birth to them. This video reminded me of that formative hour of my life.

May 9, 2008 Posted by | Christianity, Philosophy, Spirituality, Thoughts | Leave a comment

Conservatives Really Are More Compassionate

Sixteen months ago, Arthur C. Brooks, a professor at Syracuse University, published “Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism.” The surprise is that liberals are markedly less charitable than conservatives.

Here are some of the findings:

  • Although liberal families’ incomes average 6 percent higher than those of conservative families, conservative-headed households give, on average, 30 percent more to charity than the average liberal-headed household ($1,600 per year vs. $1,227).
  • Conservatives also donate more time and give more blood.
  • Residents of the states that voted for John Kerry in 2004 gave smaller percentages of their incomes to charity than did residents of states that voted for George Bush.
  • Bush carried 24 of the 25 states where charitable giving was above average.
  • In the 10 reddest states, in which Bush got more than 60 percent majorities, the average percentage of personal income donated to charity was 3.5. Residents of the bluest states, which gave Bush less than 40 percent, donated just 1.9 percent.
  • People who reject the idea that “government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality” give an average of four times more than people who accept that proposition.

Brooks demonstrates a correlation between charitable behavior and “the values that lie beneath” liberal and conservative labels. Two influences on charitable behavior are religion and attitudes about the proper role of government.

Brooks gave a talk at the Heritage Foundation in December 2006 where he expanded on his research.

April 1, 2008 Posted by | Christianity, Philanthropy, Philosophy, Politics | Leave a comment

American Conservatism at its Finest

William Kristol had a great quote in his editorial in the NY Times yesterday:

 The American conservative movement has been remarkably successful. We shouldnt take that success for granted. Its not easy being a conservative movement in a modern liberal democracy. Its not easy to rally a comfortable and commercial people to assume the responsibilities of a great power. Its not easy to defend excellence in an egalitarian age. Its not easy to encourage self-reliance in the era of the welfare state. Its not easy to make the case for the traditional virtues in the face of the seductions of liberation, or to speak of duties in a world of rights and of honor in a nation pursuing pleasure.

That’s the kind of soaring rhetoric that would be good to hear from some of the Republican candidates.

February 5, 2008 Posted by | International Affairs, Philosophy, Politics, Thoughts | Leave a comment

Is Atheism a Religion?

My post two days ago has been honored with some critiques. 

Dan over at Fitness for Occassion makes the following two points which I would like to comment on:

  1. If God could potentially be incredibly unethical, as SL posits, then how would moral truth come from God?
  2. [Atheism] is not a religion, not a system of beliefs.  It is simply the idea that God does not exist.

On the first point: I’m not sure that the existence of moral truth (or absolute truth) in humanity is a very strong argument for the existence of God. (But I do believe it is part of an argument). However, the point that Hitchens made was that the fact that the Andromeda galaxy is going to obliterate earth in 5 billion years proves that God is either a) nonexistent or b) not good. To which I say, not true. First, it might not happen. Second, I hope our little band of humans will have made a plan given the 5 billion years advance notice of our destruction. Third, God is the standard for Truth. This was Richards’ point on the necessity of a resting point for any set of beliefs. This is the failure of relativism. If we don’t take some absolute, external criterion as our yardstick for measuring truth then we’re left with nothing. As I said, Hitchens didn’t even bother to address that point.

On the second point: Atheism has always been more than a single idea that God does not exist. To say “I am an atheist” conveys a lot more information than to say “I don’t believe in sentient pink unicorns”. The existence or nonexistence of God is a fact which touches on almost every aspect of life: what we strive for, what we uphold as ideals, what our purpose is, and what kind of society we would want to build. That makes it, if not a religion, at the very least a system of beliefs. Every atheist I know is arguing about a lot more than the mere existence of God.

If atheism is going to make an argument about how society is going to be organized (which Hitchens was doing in the debate) then the rest of us would like something a lot more substantial than a one line statement about something that doesn’t exist. We would like answers to: What informs your system of jurisprudence?  What values does your society hold dear? What exactly does “self evident” mean in our defining documents? Where do our rights come from and who guarantees them? What motivates our concern for the poor? That’s why atheism needs a foundation. Because the next time an atheist says that they’re going to eliminate a few million people I’d like an answer more comprehensive than it’s based on “a simple idea”.

January 30, 2008 Posted by | Christianity, Philosophy, Spirituality, Thoughts | 2 Comments

Atheism and Violence

First Things has an interesting article on the link between atheism and violence. I don’t believe that most atheists press their thinking to the ultimate conclusion of their philosophy.  After witnessing the venom at the debate between Hitchens and Richards I might revisit that idea, though.

January 30, 2008 Posted by | Christianity, Philosophy, Spirituality | Leave a comment

Christopher Hitchens vs Jay Richards

[Update: If anyone has a link to the video/audio transcript please post in the comments]

Last night I attended the debate at Stanford between Christopher Hitchens and Jay Richards. The topic was “Atheism vs Theism and the Scientific Evidence of Intelligent Design” which I felt was a little too broad for a meaningful debate.

My heart at first sank when I saw Jay Richards. He has hair reminiscent of an early Abba member or a really blonde version of the BeeGees. He looked as though he had just put away his surfboard and strolled into the debate. Christopher Hitchens came slouching in making every effort to look like a disenchanted intellectual who is angry with the world but is sustained daily by his special breed of cynicism.

Christopher Hitchens opened for the first 14 minutes and unleashed his standard diatribe against ‘religion’. He seemed a little unprepared but is clearly a gifted rhetorician and quite capable of thinking on his feet. He didn’t say much new and his style was well captured by a later comment from Jay Richards: “A sneer is not an argument and insults do not constitute evidence”. His main argument was that if the world was designed by a creator, it was not a benevolent creator. He frequently resorts to this argument despite it clearly not belonging in a debate on Atheism vs Theism. (Just because one doesn’t like God, doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist).

Jay Richards had the floor for the next 14 minutes and presented the a rational, well-thought out argument for theism. He had 6 main points (and a seventh which he added later)

  1. Moral truth – we all know what it is, the question is where did it come from and atheism has no answer to that. This issue was half-heartedly contested by Hitchens and a question from the audience regarding an evolutionary explanation for morality.
  2. A finely tuned universe – basically a brief overview of the anthropic cosmological argument (every physical constant finely tuned for mankind and unlikely to have occurred by chance). Hitchens seemed to feel that the fact that the Andromeda galaxy will be obliterating earth in 5 billion years refutes this argument. Unfortunately his argument went along the lines of: “What kind of cruel god would allow this?”
  3. A beginning to the universe in a finite past – therefore something caused the universe which must be God. He used the phrase “resting point” for the basis of a theistic belief and asked what the basis for atheism was. This is a fairly strong argument. Granted, there are theories which postulate an eternal universe but those seem to be less accepted these days.
  4. Irreducible complexity – he didn’t get into details but cited the bacterial flagellum and asked why it’s obvious that Mt. Rushmore was ‘designed’. This argument obviously runs the risk of each instance of irreducible complexity being knocked down with subsequent research (a point which Hitchens noted). I spent many years doing research on genetic algorithms in computer science and this argument does accord with my experience of computer simulations.
  5. Materialism – the atheist, materialist philosophers all conclude that consciousness is an illusion and feel that this is problematic. For most people, a purely material view of the world leads to a conclusion which seems incompatible with experience. Obviously this is not a proof for the existence of God but Richards’ point was that our subjective experience is more consistent with a theistic philosophy.
  6. Free will – it’s incompatible with a mechanistic worldview. Hitchens’ bizarre response was that if free will was given to us then it can’t be free will.
  7. The origin of biological information (added towards end of debate). They touched briefly on the direction of entropy but unfortunately nothing conclusive from either side. (I’d like to challenge some of the atheists who really know their biology to read this book and provide a rebuttal to the main thesis of the book in the comments below.)

Richards ended with the question: which worldview (atheism or theism) best accomodates all the above observations?

Hitchens then had 4 minutes to respond and, to my mind, did not answer one of the points that Jay Richards had made. For the rest of the debate he attempted to generalize from particular observations (how can we think Mohammad really made a midnight ride into the sky on his horse, how can anyone believe in a God who demands that we kill our children (Abraham/Isaac), genital mutilation in the name of religion, to his point that God does not exist. Along the way he attacked Mormonism, Islam, Catholicism, etc.

Jay Richards maintained his composure admirably, was exceptionally well-informed on every topic while still being likeable, charitable, and theologically rigorous. 

Hitchens’ hubris appears to know no bounds. When asked whether he thought he was more intelligent than everyone else who believes in God he said: “Yes. And the polls suggest that I am too” (!)

Basically there were two messages: one hopeful; and one of despair (he mentioned sex and schadenfreude as his two purposes for living), futility and constant railing against a God who doesn’t exist. Atheism, to my mind, has always been deficient on the inspiration front and it seems a shame to spend one’s allotted time fighting the God you don’t believe in.

January 28, 2008 Posted by | Christianity, Philosophy, Science, Spirituality, Thoughts | 23 Comments

Retelling the Story of Science

First Things has a great article on the intersection of science and faith. Definitely a great read.

If you’re interested in the topic, I highly recommend the book: “The Anthropic Cosmological Principle“.

July 16, 2007 Posted by | Books, Christianity, Mathematics, Philosophy, Science, Spirituality | Leave a comment

Genetic Entropy and the Devolution of Humanity

It is rare to read a book that has the potential to change one’s entire worldview. This weekend I read Genetic Entropy & the Mystery of the Genome. The author is John Sanford, a professor of genetics at Cornell University, inventor of the gene gun, and holder of 25 patents. His essential thesis is that a blind evolutionary process could not have produced humans from single cell organisms. He gives a multitude of cogent arguments why this is so.

Moreover, he makes a very compelling case that, in fact, mutation and natural selection are actually degrading the genome to such an extent that humans will eventually go extinct. The simple reason is that each generation introduces at least 100 mutations which are both deleterious (degrade the genome) and near-neutral (unlikely to be removed by natural selection). The cost of natural selection would have to be extraordinarily high to remove such a large number of mutations from the gene pool. In addition, the rare beneficial mutations are also near-neutral and consequently impossible to select for.

A lot of this resonates with my experience with genetic algorithms where the vast majority of the population has to be wiped out at each generation to prevent non-useful mutations from multiplying.

What I find fascinating, though, is that everyone I have spoken to about this book immediately dismisses it because it “sounds like Creationism”. Perhaps secularism really has risen to the level of a religion: steeped in dogma and unwilling to confront facts.

June 12, 2007 Posted by | Books, Christianity, Philosophy, Science, Spirituality | 4 Comments

Damn Atheists

Am I the only one who has lost patience with the atheists? Apart from the fact that the abolition of theism would leave them without a worldview, most of them spend their time carping from the sidelines but refuse to put together a credo for examination.

In the New York Times’ review of Christopher Hitchens’ book, ‘God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything’, the reviewer makes the following astonishing point:

And all the logical sallies don’t exactly add up to a sustained argument, because Hitchens thinks a sustained argument shouldn’t even be necessary and yet wouldn’t be sufficient. To him, it’s blindingly obvious:

Of course, when Christopher Hitchens thinks that a debate doesn’t require “sustained argument” because “it’s blindingly obvious” then the NYT describes the book as “serious and deeply felt”. The review continues:

 … the great religions all began at a time when we knew a tiny fraction of what we know today about the origins of Earth and human life. It’s understandable that early humans would develop stories about gods or God to salve their ignorance. But people today have no such excuse. If they continue to believe in the unbelievable, or say they do, they are morons or lunatics or liars.

Well I guess that settles it. The apotheosis of two thousand years of human experience is the acknowledgement of our prior ignorance and an embrace of our new enlightenment.

Destruction is certainly part of the creative process but at some point I wish the high priests of atheism would assemble and thrash out a manifesto. That way the rest of us can comment. And write witty, engaging books without regard for reason and substance.

May 14, 2007 Posted by | Christianity, Philosophy, Spirituality, Thoughts | Leave a comment

My God is a Set of Equations

I have long held the theory that every conversation, if pursued long enough, naturally and necessarily ends with a discussion about the existence of God and our purpose on earth. A few years ago a long lunch conversation reached this point, and an engineer concluded with the statement: “My God is a set of equations.” To which I replied, “What do those equations describe?”

These days it is fashionable among the intelligentsia to declare with newly-discovered transcendence that religion is a good enough thing (if done in moderation) and science is self-evidently worthwhile but we should never, ever confuse the two. The intersection of science and faith, rationalism and mystery, is best left to the final pages of an epilogue in a serious book on science, or to footnotes in a book on faith.

And yet equations are merely an abstraction of the physical world and the Christian faith claims to worship a Jesus who walked in history and a God who created the physical. Why then, have the last few decades produced an intellectual movement so devoted to a separation of faith and science?

In 1931 Godel published a paper which challenged the basic assumptions underlying mathematics and became a milestone in the history of logic and mathematics. I believe that the world is still coming to terms with the philosophical implications of Godel’s Theorem of Incompleteness. Others have better summarized his theorem but it proscribes the limits of axiomatic logic and shows that provability is a weaker notion than truth; in short, there is Truth that we can’t logically prove.

Nagel and Newman, in their classic book on the subject, Godel’s Proof, conclude with the comment:

Godel’s proof should not be construed as an invitation to despair or as an excuse for mystery-mongering.

That might be. But it does, I believe, suggest that if God is a set of equations, those equations lie in a realm of mathematics about which we haven’t even begun to dream.

November 18, 2006 Posted by | Books, Christianity, Mathematics, Philosophy, Science, Spirituality | 1 Comment

A Thought for Our Times

“In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, love.”

– St. Augustine

September 28, 2006 Posted by | Christianity, Philosophy, Spirituality, Thoughts | Leave a comment

The Pope and the Qur’an

A week ago Pope Benedict XVI gave a speech at the University of Regensberg in Germany. He touched briefly on the question of whether there is an underlying intellectual strain in Islam which promotes violence. Talking to people around me, I have been stunned at the intensity of feeling on the topic given that no one I have spoken to has read either the Qur’an or the actual speech.

Robert Louis Wilken gives a good background on the now infamous Byzantine emperor, Manuel II 

Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, writing about the outcry, summarized the speech as follows:

It was a considered reflection on the inseparable linkage of faith and reason in the Christian understanding, an incisive critique of Christian thinkers who press for separating faith and reason in the name of “de-Hellenizing” Christianity, and a stirring call for Christians to celebrate the achievements of modernity and secure those achievements by grounding them in theological and philosophical truth.

Below is the full text of the speech so that you can judge for yourselves whether the reaction was justified:

Your Eminences, Your Magnificences, Your Excellencies, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen

It is a moving experience for me to be back again in the university and to be able once again to give a lecture at this podium.

Continue reading

September 19, 2006 Posted by | Christianity, Philosophy, Politics, Spirituality | Leave a comment

Sentiments from the 17th Century


by George Herbert

PRAYER the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth ;

Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner’s towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six daies world-transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear ;

Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices, something understood.

March 9, 2006 Posted by | Philosophy, Poetry, Spirituality | Leave a comment

George Bernard Shaw to Henry James

“In the name of human vitality WHERE is the charm in that useless, dispiriting, discouraging fatalism which broke out so horribly in the eighteen-sixties at the word of Darwin, and persuaded people in spite of their own teeth and claws that Man is the will-less slave and victim of his environment? What is the use of writing plays?—what is the use of anything?—if there is not a Will that finally molds chaos itself into a race of gods with heaven for an environment, and if that Will is not incarnated in man.…”

March 7, 2006 Posted by | Philosophy | Leave a comment