Movie Review: The Tree of Life

Posted in Misc, Review on July 8, 2011 by S.A.

“A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.” – Gustav Mahler

It is fitting that snippets of Mahler’s First Symphony can be heard in Terrence Malick’s amazing new film The Tree of Life. It is an endeavor with such grand aspirations that the Austrian composer would certainly have approved of it. How many movies include a prologue that starts with the Big Bang itself and goes from there? And just as with Mahler’s longest work, his Third, we are taken on a voyage through all of time, where the void gives way to inanimate matter, giving way to primitive life, leading to mankind, our troubling questions and spiritual ruminations, and eventually ending as a hymn to Love.

I had rather high expectations for this film, considering the near-worship which reviewers have been showing towards it. When multiple critics compared it to my favorite film of all time, Kubrick’s 2001:A Space Odyssey, I began to obsess about seeing it. Having done so a few days ago, I can say that it is indeed a great film, and I’m no less obsessed with it now, as I fumble about trying to find words to express how moving it was. And while some of my hopes were not met, others were exceeded: there were times I was bored and disappointed, there were moments when I openly wept at the beauty of what was unfolding, visually and sonically.

It would be difficult to write anything that would qualify as a spoiler for this film. It isn’t plot-driven, and there really isn’t anything to give away. It is (largely) the story of one Jack O’Brien (played by Sean Penn as an adult, though most of the film is a flashback to his childhood), grasping for meaning and healing in a puzzling life that is the same life we all lead. We start under the influence of two Giants, exerting opposing and powerful forces on us; the nurturing mother that brings grace, love, forgiveness, and the stern father that simply wants to harden us against an antagonistic world far more unforgiving than he.

As an aside, I only know the main character’s name because of what I have been able to read about the film. It occurred to me shortly after the film ended, that I could not recall any names being used in the dialogue at all. There was only The Son, The Two Brothers (whom I could not keep separate), The Father, The Mother. In a movie where the characters are archetypes, this is actually very fitting indeed. Why give them names at all? We already know who they are.

“It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world,” says the masculine. “Unless you love, your life will flash by,” says the feminine. Both statements clearly ring true, but how do we go about embracing them both in some integrated way? How many of us can claim to have done so? “Father, Mother. Always you wrestle inside me.  Always you will, ” says the child. And then come the lessons of pain and loss and we ask huge questions that never get answered; we become adults scarce half made up, without the knowledge we thought we’d have.

If you want tidy stories with no loose ends at the conclusion, this one is not for you.

What you take away from the film will largely be a function of your religious persuasion (or lack thereof):  while the biblical references are rather clear, starting with the scripture from Job that opens the story, one can as easily see the movie as and indictment of religion and its lack of an answer to the Problem of Evil: “Where were You? You let a boy die. You let anything happen,” Jack says to the christian God he was raised to worship, after witnessing an accidental death. “Why should I be good when You ain’t?”

What everyone who has an appreciation of the numinous will agree on, though, is that The Tree of Life is as spiritual a film as has ever been made. And while I hope that some day, a pantheist composer will write an oratorio celebrating quantum electrodynamics and galactic evolution, fractal geometry and the Incompleteness Theorem, biochemistry and ecology. Until then, the brief history of time, as laid out here in The Tree of Life, is a damn fine approximation to it.

And then there is the fantastic use of music throughout. The scenes that witness the evolution of the cosmos are narrated by the ethereal soprano singing the Lacrimosa from Zbigniew Preisner’s Requiem For My Friend. Interestingly, this was a work written for the deceased director Krzysztof Kieślowski, another artist that conjured up art on a large scale indeed. (Music fans that lean more towards prog-rock than classical may recognize Preisner as the artist that provided orchestration for David Gilmour’s On An Island.) Also lovely was Malick choice of Smetana’s The Moldau, a divine piece of river music, to accompany the images of the young boys growing up. Just as the river was the primary symbol of the Mother in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

For now, I’ve lost my desire to watch other films, because they’ll seem so banal in comparison. I instead go back to the music of Mahler. It’s as close to the same feeling as I’ve been able to find.

If only more art would dare to aim this high.

The Atheist Allegory of Duncan Jones’ Film “Moon”

Posted in Atheism, Religion, Review on March 6, 2011 by S.A.

Add Duncan Jones’ low-budget, 2009 sci-fi film Moon to the list of well-made, allegorical movies with an atheistic angle.

If you have not seen this film, read no further. Please. Don’t even read any “spoiler- free” reviews. Just go watch it. The analysis that follows is chock-full of spoilers. In  fact, even the trailer for the film contains more information than one should know before viewing the movie. Avoid reading anything more about it, and just see it.
Sam Rockwell in Moon
I will not summarize the arc of the story here, as the reader at this point is assumed to have recently seen the film. What follows is a succinct overview of how I see Moon as an allegory for the inhumanity of many organized religions, and the dignity of a realistic,  if less comforting, worldview sans god(s).

For the overwhelming majority of us, we spend our short and perhaps meaningless lives repeatedly working through our menial tasks, while looking forward to an eventual reward beyond the world we are confined to. And so it is for the lonely Sam Bell, whose stint of labor on the moon is made livable only by his counting the days until he is reunited with his family on earth, an entire world away. His employers leverage his desire, feeding him lies about the emotionally-charged rewards that are awaiting him soon. Similarly, most of us have been promised eventual reunions with long-missed loved ones, and these promises  come from similarly powerful organizations that often have a vested interest in keeping  us complacent. But, just as it is with Sam, when our bodies fall apart and it is time to  collect our otherworldly rewards, we are instead utterly (and obviously, unknowingly)  destroyed. A never-ending string of lives that are essentially just like our own will continue in this progression, without ever realizing what the bleak reality really is.

Man has one powerful ally, though, just as Sam does, and that is Reason. In the story, Reason is represented by the computer GERTY. He was not intended to be an accessory to Sam as he tries to eventually understand and break free of his situation. Rather, GERTY was initially given to Sam merely as a tool that would help him perform his job better. In a similar way, we’ve been told by numerous theologians that reason is a gift from God, to help us better serve Him. This is indeed the simple role that GERTY plays for a number of generations of Sam, mirroring the status of “philosophy as the handmaiden of theology” for mankind.

But something happens to GERTY, who is a kind of doppelgänger to Kubrick’s HAL9000. GERTY goes beyond the intentions of his programmers and helps Sam dig deeper into the reality around him. This seems to be an outcome of his general orders to help Sam in whatever way he needs.

Eventually, when Reason is teamed up with the innate curiosity and indomitable spirit of a particularly inquisitive mind, (and as GERTY helps Sam) we get something much bigger than the sum of the two: Science. In the film, Sam’s uncanny knack to get GERTY to assist him in ways that his employers would surely frown upon is what leads him to eventually understand the hideous secret at the heart of his tenure on the moonbase.

One outcome of Science, often bemoaned, is that it has revealed a number of unattractive truths about reality. That we do not enjoy a privileged place in the universe. That we are one of myriad species that arose from a myriad contingencies that would likely never happen again, if, as Stephen Jay Gould said, the tape of evolutionary history was paused, rewound, and replayed. And that there is no reason to think that at the end of our lives, the electrochemical processes stop, and we are simply No More.

Sam ultimately discovers, with GERTY’s help and his own gumption, is that there will be no heavenly reward, that he was designed to be an automaton of a cynical establishment. One can argue that what GERTY does is ultimately a disservice to Sam, in that if Sam was left in an ignorant state, he’d have been “blissfully” unaware of a lot of ugly reality and would have been happily incinerated in the box dreaming of his wife and daughter.

Which gets to the crux of the matter: what is “better”: a harsh, but realistic worldview, or wishful thinking carried to the point where we become believers in something that isn’t real?

I have never seen any reason to think that there is Something out there watching over us, that is concerned about us, that will deliver the afterlife we mat crave. Science certainly has never given us any reason to think it is the case, and Science is the only method of human knowledge that has any reasonable track record of success. Not comforting, it is the reality that reason ultimately leads us to. But, just as with Sam, this isn’t a reason for ultimate despair. It merely opens the door for us to do something about it, on our own, if we can find a way.

A Serious Man: A Parable About Religion (and other things)

Posted in Religion, Review with tags on February 21, 2010 by S.A.

Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you. — Rashi

A Serious Man is a seriously great work of art, a film about deep questions, the paucity of compelling answers to life’s mysteries, and what we should do in response. It is a religious parable, a riddle, an enigma… and a damn fine black comedy, as you might expect, given that it sprang from the brilliant and twisted minds of Joel and Ethan Coen. It has much of the look and feel of their earlier and vastly underappreciated Barton Fink, another story about a Jewish intellectual whose world is turned upside down and who must grope for answers.

Set (largely) in the late-sixties Twin Cities suburbs where the Coens grew up, A Serious Man chronicles the events over the course of several weeks in the life of physics professor Larry Gropnik. He’s hit a rough patch where everything that could possibly go wrong does, creating an existential crisis that forces him to look for explanations. He has taken it for granted, it would seem, for his entire life, that such answers will be there when he needs them. This is absolutely not the case.

The film is not only about one man’s struggles with life’s slings and arrows, though: it is calculated to put the audience itself into a a kind of unsettling anxiety, similar to Larry’s. The Coens set out to discombobulate from the get-go, when, instead of locating us in Minnesota as we expect, we are rather shown a fairy-tale like short story set in some undisclosed eastern European location, during some unknown era. What is going on here? It is a startling, disorienting, and gripping little prelude to the main picture, and it presages some of the themes to come.

Fables often work in groups of three (there will be three rabbis later in the film, which are each announced with their own title cards), so it isn’t suprsing to find three Yiddish-speaking characters in the puzzling preamble. When a man invites an old friend into to his home, his wife is convinced that it is not a person that will come, but a malevolent spirit from some ancient folklore. The visitor arrives, and the mystery of his true identity only gets deeper. It ends on an entirely unresolved note, with no indication as to whether or not the couple has done God’s will, or committed an act of evil in their treatment of the visitor, whose fate is equally nebulous.

We are given no time to grope to find the moral to this episode (and it seems like we should know it, somehow) for we now jump to the story proper, quickly generating compassion for the hero Larry who is suffering in every possible way. His wife wants a divorce so as to run off with an old family friend, his son is a dope-smoking underachiever, his banal daughter is obsessed with washing her hair and getting a nose-job, his students are bored (and one attempts to bribe him for a passing grade), his neighbors inexplicable and menacing, his lawyer far too expensive, his brother a free-loader, and that is just the beginning. Events snowball from here, and Larry seeks, if not solutions, at least explanations for why he is suddenly besieged with these difficulties. Why would God do this to him? After all, he hasn’t “done anything.”  It isn’t clear exactly what his life was like before the events in the film unfold, but one has the impression that he was coasting along until that point, not really aware that something about the world was seriously out of joint. In any case, as he becomes forced to face the absurdity of life, the only clear answer is that there is no answer.

Where can he turn? First, he finds no absolution in his rational point of view, or the theoretical physics that he practices for a living. He knows, after all, its limitations, for at the rock bottom of reality is the quantum mechanical Uncertainty Principle he’s trying to teach his students about.

Larry Gopnik: The Uncertainty Principle. It proves we can’t ever really know… what’s going on. So it shouldn’t bother you. Not being able to figure anything out. Although you will be responsible for this on the mid-term.

“It shouldn’t bother you”?  Easy to say, but of course, it bothers the hell out of Larry that he doesn’t know what is going on. He lectures on the paradox of Schrödinger’s Cat, a thought exercise that demonstrates the untenability of understanding quantum mechanics with everyday common sense, and which he admits not to truly understand. He also makes a mistake on the blackboard as he is lecturing, and the attentive viewer should see it – he write down a quantity that is clearly equal to zero but equates it to a nonzero experssion. Like generating something from nothing, it mirrors the fundamental absurdity of the Universe itself arising from quantum fluctuations in the void (from a “cosmos factory”? Or is that just a Creedence album he might be forced to buy from the harassing collection agent at the Columbia Music Club?) Meanwhile his brother is constructing something called a “Mentaculus”, a “probability map of the Universe”; a bizarre numerological book that apparently allows one to predict random events, like a sort of anti-quantum mechanics built of language and symbols just as dense. It is all a dead end.

Larry now looks for a second path, through the lens of his religion, which ostensibly is there to help him through such times.

Friend at the Picnic: Sometimes these things just aren’t meant to be. And it can take a while before you feel what was always there, for better or worse.
Larry Gopnik: I never felt it! It was a bolt from the blue! What does that mean! Everything that I thought was one way turns out to be another.
Friend at the Picnic: Then-it’s an opportunity to learn how things really are. I’m sorry-I don’t mean to sound glib. It’s not always easy, deciphering what God is trying to tell you.
Larry Gopnik: I’ll say.
Friend at the Picnic: But it’s not something you have to figure out all by yourself. We’re Jews, we have that well of tradition to draw on, to help us understand. When we’re puzzled we have all the stories that have been handed down from people who had the same problems.

Being steeped in this old, all-encompassing religious tradition that is shared by every other person in the film that he knows, Larry’s frustration is all the more pronounced because none of it helps. It only seems to make it worse. There is a wonderful digression (“The Goy’s Teeth”) at the center of the film that involves a rabbi telling Larry the story of a Jewish dentist that finds a Hebrew inscription (reading, not suprisingly, “help me save me”) on one of his patients’ teeth. What could it mean? Was God trying to send the dentist a message? Is there a deep meaning to this parable? We wait expectantly through this portion of the film, just like Larry, wondering what the finale will be. When we find out that there isn’t any answer at all, no moral, nothing, we share his frustration – “why bother telling the story at all?!” both we and Larry exclaim. Religious explanations are ultimately incapable of answering the questions that they are purported to answer. The Goy’s Teeth parable is as useless as the Yiddish one that begins the movie.

Like an Old Testament character, Larry soon becomes haunted by dreams rich with symbolism. The symbolism spills into real life as well, throughout the film, if you look for it.

Larry Gopnik: There’s some mistake. I’m not a member of the Columbian Record Club.
Dick Dutton: Sir, you are Lawrence Gopnik of 1425 Flag Avenue South?
Larry Gopnik: No, I live at the Jolly Roger.

Jolly Roger is the hotel he’s been forced to live at, an “eminently habitable” hotel with a pool (that has no water in it). A Jolly Roger is also the black flag with a skull and crossbones, a symbol of the death lurking out there; the car-accident death of his wife’s lover Sy Ableman (Sy? Or is it Psi, the greek letter used to represent the wavefunction in quantum mechanics? Able Man? Or a biblical Abel killed by his rival?); the death of Schrodinger’s Cat; or the death first detected from routine X-rays during a checkup. Larry argues with Dick Dutton about the Santana album that he has been charged for, and insists that he did not order it. He does not want it. He does not listen to it. The album is Abraxis. Abraxis is also the name of a gnostic god that embodies all good and evil.

“When the truth is found to be lies, and all the hope within you dies, then what?” is the question that an old rabbi asks near the close of the film. This is an interesting twist on the Jefferson Airplane song that we’ll hear throughout. Grace Slick sings “joy” not “hope”; and the death of hope is even more devastating than the death of joy. Well, then what?

Larry Gopnik: Always! Actions always have consequences! In this office, actions have consequences!
Clive Park: Yes sir.
Larry Gopnik: Not just physics. Morally.
Clive Park: Yes.
Larry Gopnik: And we both know about your actions.
Clive Park: No sir. I know about my actions.
Larry Gopnik: I can interpret, Clive. I know what you meant me to understand.
Clive Park: Meer sir my sir.
Larry Gopnik: Meer sir my sir?
Clive Park: [Careful enunciation] Mere… surmise. Sir. Very uncertain.

If the First Way is the comfortless path to Uncertainty at the heart of reality, and the Second Way is an inconsistent religious theodicy that makes no sense, what is the Third Way? Not surprisingly, it is expressed in just three words, spoken by the Asian (Buddhist?) father of Larry’s student Clive: “Accept The Mystery.” The only answers are that there are no answers. In the Book of Job, God speaks from the whirlwind to say that the reason for Job’s suffering will not be disclosed. Which is the basis for the final scene, as brilliant, disturbing, and perfect a scene that ever closed any movie; a statement that answers Everything, and Nothing.

One Nation Painting

Posted in Misc with tags , on January 27, 2010 by S.A.

If you’d like a really deep belly laugh, I can do no better than suggest you visit some of the following links.

The first one here will take you to an interactive painting by an extremely confused artist that understands little about the religious views of the American founding fathers. This site, in and of itself, is hilarious.

If you can stand it, a “patriotic” video about the painting can be found here.

Finally, here is wonderful “parody” of the site – though I hesitate to call it that. The “parody” is far more in accord with reality than the original work.

Transient or Resident?

Posted in Dante, Hell, Review with tags , on December 21, 2009 by S.A.

As he is guided by Virgil through the first several circles of the Inferno, Dante suffers from occasional fainting spells. The grisly, unwholesome sights of various torments, and the frightful denizens of the place, stress him so much that he is wont to swoon and stumble. He eventually becomes more accustomed to it, but his reactions always seem over-the-top, as it is clear that he is never really in danger of becoming a permanent resident in Hell. His trip was ordained by Heaven. He is on a fact-finding mission. We know that everything will work out for him in the end: the third and final act of the Divine Comedy is the Paradiso, after all.

In contrast, we don’t know what ever really becomes of another Dante-like character at the heart of a similar tale – a cinematic odyssey through a different kind of Hell, Barton Fink (1991). This terribly underappreciated film from the peerless Coen brothers, more than any other in their wide-ranging canon, is one that rewards multiple viewings, leaves nagging, tantalizing questions for the viewer to contemplate long after, and is rich with interpretation possibilities. It is also a hilarious dark comedy with fine performances from John Turturro, John Goodman, and Judy Davis, among others. That there are subtle parallels to David Lynch’s Eraserhead is just the first of many clues that there are multiple levels of meaning to the story.

Like Dante, Barton Fink is a writer. In the early 1940s, having won overnight acclaim for one of his plays on Broadway, his agent persuades him to take a screen-writing assignment and journey to the antipodal point furthest from his high-brow New York world: the Hollywood of B-movies. At face value, it seems to be the perfect assignment, for Barton, growing up on the Lower East Side, considers himself a champion of the Common Man: an artist that will paint on the largest possible canvas the hopes and dreams of the everyday, average American. And where better to do so but the burgeoning new home to a new industry that can bring Art to Everyone, not just the few that frequent the theater districts?

But Barton has a lot to learn about the Common Man, and about himself, and it becomes clear early on that these lessons will come as he embarks on a descending trek into a virtual Hell. He is going through Hell because he is too self-absorbed to realize that the understands as little about the Common Man as do the Lady Higgenbottoms and Nigel Grinch-Gibbonses of the world, and as a result develops the worst possible case of writer’s block. His attempts patronize the rabble fall flat, and his desire to “elevate” their concerns elicits resentment and confusion. The unwashed masses want to be entertained by men in tights wrestling with each other, it turns out – not a man wrestling with his soul.

Dante had Virgil, his literary hero and inspiration, to guide him on his famous trek. The equivalent role in Barton Fink is shared by two different characters: The everyman, insurance salesman Charlie Meadows, who represents the ostensible kind of role-model that Fink celebrates, and the washed-up alcoholic novelist-turned screenwriter William Mayhew (who is an avatar of William Faulkner) that he considers to be the finest writer of his generation. Mayhew has preceded Fink in the attempt to use his formidable literary skills to cash in at the cinema box office. But his predilection for “idiot man-child” characters, among others, has made him as poor a fit in Hollywood as Barton is, and he responds to his failure with drinking. Meadows, the non-intellectual doppelganger to Fink and Mayhew, not only uses liquor as an escape, but has another hobby which I will not give away here.

If Meadows and Mayhew function as a composite Virgil, then most the remaining cast can all be seen to have allegorical connections to the various denizens of Dante’s Hell. There’s The Lovers, Paulo and Francesca, in the room next to him at the Hotel Earle, the lustful couple never seen but often heard moaning. There’s a number of sinners that Dante would categorize as The Violent, from the wrestler (“I will destroy him!”) to fist-fighting servicemen at a dance. There’s the Incontinent in the form of Mayhew (“sorry about the odor”) and his secretary, the strange, heavenly painting of his dream woman (Beatrice) that ever haunts Fink, and the imps and devils that appear as bellhops and cops. He is prodded and poked by a demonic mosquito that inexplicably inhabits his bizarre room. There’s Satan himself, the movie mogul behind the huge desk. There are tantalizing biblical references and dramatic visual clues that suggest the structure of the Inferno, such as when the camera takes us plunging down into filthy sink drain, or down into the dark depths of the funnel-shaped bell of a trumpet.

Is it real or just a fantasy? One memorable image is the wallpaper that adorns Barton’s prison-like hotel room. It often comes peeling off the walls with a slick, clammy sound. On a repeat viewing I realized that the film’s opening credits appear against a backdrop of this wallpaper, including the text that indicates the scene is set in New York City. The wallpaper is in New York, not the Hollywood hotel. It is a subtle pointer that the entire experience is probably all in Barton’s head, a head that is utterly inward looking and wrapped up with The Life of The Mind. And once he’s reached the depths of Hell, and the walls of his hotel literally erupt into flames, Charlie Meadows, aka Common Man, tells him, “You think your life is Hell? You’re just a tourist. I live here.”

And that is all Dante was. A tourist. And like Barton, he was probably too self-absorbed and privileged, to realize that Hell existed all around him on earth, in the lives of the average person mired in a world of superstition and ignorance.


Posted in Atheism, Misc, Religion with tags , , on October 22, 2009 by S.A.

Below are some excerpts from an essay by Pastor Douglas Wilson, as part of the promotional material for a new film that he made together with Christopher Hitchens, called Collision. It looks like a very interesting idea for a film, by the way, as it chronicles a series of debates between christian Wilson and atheist Hitchens. Unfortunately, based on the poor quality of Wilson’s arguments as sampled in the essay, it looks as though the theist side might be rather poorly represented. I also saw an online clip from the film that features him talking to a group of rather inarticulate college students that apparently were members of a campus atheism club. I hope more of the film features legitimate interlocutors for him.

In addition to the quoted excerpts from his article, I’ve added some of my thoughts. Wilson makes a number of facile arguments that have will provide a certain emotion compulsion to some people, and they warrant being corrected.

From the perspective of a Christian, the refusal of an atheist to be a Christian is dismaying, but it is at least intelligible. But what is really disconcerting is the failure of atheists to be atheists. That is the thing that cries out for further exploration.

What does it mean to be an atheist? It is a definition of negation. It says little about what you do believe. It merely means that there is one kind of thing that you do not believe in, namely, an Omnipotent, Omnipresent, All-Powerful Being Outside of Time that Somehow Created Everything. That is all. To say that most atheists somehow fail to be atheists is a bit odd, because it can only mean that the ostensible atheist really does believe in “God.” Is this what Wilson is trying to say? It turns out, no. He is rather setting up a strawman to represent all atheists, which he’ll then try to knock down.

The atheistic worldview is nothing if not inherently reductionistic, whether this is admitted or not.

First of all, there is not a single cut-and-dried “atheistic worldview” any more than a lack of belief in goblins constitutes some kind of worldview. One could, by definition, be an atheist and believe that we exist in some kind of computer simulation devised up by alien minds, for example. Some atheists as Buddhists, and others (myself included) are pantheists.

Second, the only reductionism that Wilson might be able to speak of, in trying to globally assign all atheists to a particular philosophy, is the reductionism that lies at the heart of the scientific method. As a matter of investigative routine, we usually start with more complex phenomena, and, to understand and explain them, break them down into simpler bits. For example, to understand how some mental or nervous process occurs, physically, we need to understand how the nervous system is formed, which means understanding neurons and their electrochemistry, which requires cellular biology, which leads us to organic chemistry, which leads us to molecules, and atoms, and electrons and quarks. To approach it any other way would be impractical. But, having used this method to unravel how the parts fit together, it hardly follows that “that is all there is” -  because the universe doesn’t necessarily function in a top-down, the-whole-is-the-sum-of-its-parts way, but more probably in a bottom-up mode, where emergent complex behavior can and does arise. It is a Fallacy of Composition to assert that because the subatomic components of brains follow certain rules (or exhibit certain random behaviors) that complex structures built from them are merely agglomerations of them with no additional properties or meaning.

Everything that happens is a chance-driven rattle-jattle jumble in the great concourse of atoms that we call time. Time and chance acting on matter have brought about, in equally aimless fashion, the 1927 New York Yankees, yesterday’s foam on a New Jersey beach, Princess Di, [etc...]

What does he mean by “chance-driven rattle-jattle jumble”, do you suppose? I’m a physicist by education, and an atheist by choice, and I certainly do not regard “everything that happens” in the facile terms that Wilson patronizingly uses here. The tacit implication is the simpleminded one, that if the Universe was not planned by the kind of god he has in mind, then everything is happenstance randomness. This is a false either-or dichotomy.

What I do know is that we have luckily become smart enough to develop a pretty effective method to study the world around us, and to understand that nature consists of a number of different kinds of particles that behave in consistent ways, with a certain degree of randomness sprinkled in. The result is a tremendous amount of both order and diversity, seeming chaos amidst rigorous structure. And given enough time and space, it isn’t surprising, really, that from such a bedground could arise self-replicating molecules and self-replicating cells acting under external pressures that force them to continually improve and diversify, with the end result of the highly goal-directed, emergent activity of life.

The problem is that this atheistic assumption does the very same thing to the atheist’s case for atheism. The atheist gives us an account of all things which makes it impossible for us to believe that any account of all things could possibly be true.

But atheism, of course, is not an attempt to “give an account of all things.” Moreover, the lack of positive belief in an untestable conjecture in no way invalidates our ability to make meaningful observations and draw conclusions about the world that have predictive and explanatory merit.

Educated persons generally understand that there are fundamental limits to our knowledge, at least at this time, and probably forever. We know from both physics and mathematics that the world is far more complex than would allow us to account for everything. There are forbidden questions in quantum mechanics. We understand that there are no mathematical systems that are both complete and consistent. There are metaphysical question that lie outside the purview of our tools, that certainly seem valid enough, but which answers likely do not exist for (e.g., “why is there a Universe at all, instead of just nothing?”)

I do not know any atheists that actually think that any worldview delivers “an account of all things.” Most of us are well aware of the difficulties of finite minds that make mistakes grappling with a complex world, and would not be so brash as to think we have it all figured out, or ever will. But the one idea that all atheists share is that facile, wishful-thinking-based explanations that appeal to our vanities, fears, and emotions, and which do not have any kind of empirical support but are rather correlated with whichever ancient myth our particular ancestors might have invented, don’t deserve serious consideration as being factually true.

Nor does atheism allow us to have any fixed ethical standard, or the possibility of beauty.

These are the kinds of comments from certain kinds of theists that truly are offensive. They’d deny a sense of morality and aesthetics to all manner of good people that lived rich lives without theism. (And it is the atheist they they turn around and label “arrogant”!)

What most atheists (but not all – go talk to any Ayn Rand fan or Objectivist and you’ll see) would probably agree with is the idea that there is no universal standard of ethics or beauty that is somehow established as empirical law, in the way that gravitation, for example, is. This isn’t a terribly difficult idea to grasp, given the centuries of human history that would tend to confirm it. But with the either-or fallacious thinking of Wilson and his ilk, we are presented with an implicit choice of “either you have fixed, eternal standards of ethics/aesthetics, or you have absolutely nothing.” There is no entertaining the notion that these concepts could indeed come from human minds, yet be no less valuable or profound for it. In fact, they might even be moreso.

And not content to let sleeping dogs lie, reason also brings us the inexorable consequences of atheism, which includes the unpalatable but necessary conclusion that random neuron firings do not amount to any “truth” that corresponds to anything outside our heads.

There is nothing in the rejection of an unsupported conjecture about a Superbeing that in turn entails that the human mind cannot ascertain knowledge of what is going on outside it, through a meticulous, self-correcting process of observation, test, corroboration, and repetition. Wilson’s suggestion is absolutely absurd. And yes, our statements of truth in science come with error bars, because the relentless complexity of the world necessitates that we quantify and account for the ways in which our work can go wrong. Not only are the patterns of neuron firings not random, the results of clear and structured thinking do indeed correspond to the world about us. Sometimes what it ends up telling us isn’t exactly what we’d like to hear, in our vanity – for science has removed us from the center of the universe and has, in some sense, made us another twig on a vast phylogenic tree of life. I’d guess that the accompanying humility does not sit well with the likes of the Pastor Wilson, who divides the possibilities into two cases: “God’s special creature” or “meaningless automata” with no other possibilities.

Now obviously, [Christianity] is a message that can be believed or disbelieved. But the reason for mentioning it here includes the important point that such a set of convictions makes it possible for us to believe that reason can be trusted, that goodness does not change with the evolutionary times, and that beauty is grounded in the very heart of God. Someone who believes these things doesn’t believe that we are just fizzing.

Translation: Since it is all too difficult and demeaning to think that we (and our emotions) have a natural origin, let’s have a “God” to explain why and how we are just so damn special. So we can feel better about ourselves. If our imaginations are not up to the task of seeing how a naturalistic cosmos might produce self-aware beings with cognition that can in turn act upon the canvas that they slowly sprang up from, then we’ll just call the process “divine” and be done with it. It is the Argument From Personal Incredulity again, and here it is no more persuasive than when it is more commonly used by biology-ignoramuses when they think they have made an argument by stating “but I can’t see how we could have evolved!”

You can deny that this God exists, of course, and you can throw the whole cosmos into that pan of reduction sauce. And you can keep the heat on by publishing one atheist missive after another. But what you should not be allowed to do is cook the whole thing bone dry and call the crust on the bottom an example of the numinous or transcendent. Calling it that provides us with no reason to believe it — and numerous reasons not to.

The “numinous and transcendent” can describe emotional responses to the world around one. That anyone can react positively and with genuine feeling to the ineffable sublimity of nature without thinking there is some Magical Being Behind It All, is apparently offensive to Wilson. Well, his views are even more offensive to those of us about the globe, stretching far back in time, that have lived and loved and wondered every bit as much as this pompous pastor may have, but without the Sky-Father explanation to fall back on.

Book Review: Burmese Days

Posted in Misc, Review on September 27, 2009 by S.A.


I was fifteen or so when my book-lust started in earnest. That is the stage when one makes the discovery that these little rectangular paper miracles will be the among the most important things in your life, because they are so much more than mere things.

I recall starting the never-ending process of compiling a list of all the important books I’d have to read. This generally consisted of perusing the bookstore shelves, noting the total number of volumes of a given title, and absorbing the back-cover copy–and always, in my case, scanning for the keyword “classic.” Ah, the important books, the ones that were not mere ephemera; those that had endured.

High on the list, then, were the two famous books of George Orwell, 1984 and Animal Farm. I read them, I loved them, I recommended them, and in the case of the latter, re-read it several more times over the years (and have now had my own fifteen year-old son read it). But to my mind, that was all that Orwell ever really wrote. I vaguely knew of other titles, but given that they were never mentioned in the same breath as his two great books, I assumed they were second-rate.

I have just learned that there is absolutely nothing second-rate about his novel Burmese Days. Quite the contrary, I found that it towers over the other works I reflexively associate with Orwell. Set in a small British colonial village in what is now Myanmar, the story traces the repercussions of the political and social scheming and machinations that both the English and the natives constantly engage in. The main character, John Flory, suffers from the same boredom and dipsomania as the handful of xenophobic Europeans that gather nightly at the whites-only “Club” – but his innate fairness and desire for a more meaningful life set him at odds with the others. The arrival of a single young woman, the attractive but shallow, soulless Elizabeth Lackersteen, is the catalyst that sets off what feels like an inexorable march toward disaster.

The writing is lean, rich and honest – Orwell is a master of that parsimonious use of language that is the first prerequisite of a great novel. His similes are abundant and spot-on. (I particularly liked like his description of Flory awaking with a hangover such that his “head felt as though some large, sharp-cornered metal object were bumping about inside it.”)

Often brutal, occasionally very funny, it relentlessly exposes human ugliness and weakness, and the consequences that seem inevitable when an occupying imperial class stagnates and festers in the midst of people they consider subhuman. The story never flags and the pacing is perfect. Every major character is so well-drawn that each rapidly becomes something like an archetype.

One aspect that might pose difficulty for some readers is Orwell’s continuous use of the common vernacular of the time and place of the novel. There are many terms and names that few readers will recognize. I just let the words flow over me and avoided the urge to stop and find somewhere to look up their definitions; I found that this did not diminish my appreciation at all. Eventually the foreign terms began to make themselves clear. Perhaps some other edition exists that has a glossary – it would be an attractive addition to the book. In any case, I cannot recommend this novel highly enough, and I cannot wait to read all of Orwell’s other lesser-known books.


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