The latest strip from Calamities of Nature.
I woke up this morning convinced it was Friday. Needless to say, the realization it was only Wednesday threatened to undo the little bit of sanity that I’ve been holding onto this week, and that was quickly exacerbated by the first new story I came across on my Facebook feed “Asteroid 2011 AG5 My Pose Threat to Earth in 2040.” A long week and threat of annihilation from above? And all of this before coffee? So in an attempt to “rebalance” before facing today (and the rest of the week), I turned to a little comedy.
Here’s a clip from Ricky Gervais’ “Science” show, where he tackles the inconsistencies in Noah’s Ark. It’s very funny stuff (and I typically don’t like stand-up). I’ve decided to pass it along, in case you, too read about the asteroid or woke up this morning thinking it was Friday.
I recently came across this letter by Albert Einstein, written to Erik Gutkind, in 1954. Einstein had just read Gutkind’s book Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt, and this letter was his response.
Translated Transcript (from Letters of Note):
Princeton, 3. 1. 1954
Dear Mr Gutkind,
Inspired by Brouwer’s repeated suggestion, I read a great deal in your book, and thank you very much for lending it to me … With regard to the factual attitude to life and to the human community we have a great deal in common. Your personal ideal with its striving for freedom from ego-oriented desires, for making life beautiful and noble, with an emphasis on the purely human element … unites us as having an “American Attitude.”
Still, without Brouwer’s suggestion I would never have gotten myself to engage intensively with your book because it is written in a language inaccessible to me. The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. … For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstition. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong … have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything “chosen” about them.
In general I find it painful that you claim a privileged position and try to defend it by two walls of pride, an external one as a man and an internal one as a Jew. As a man you claim, so to speak, a dispensation from causality otherwise accepted, as a Jew of monotheism. But a limited causality is no longer a causality at all, as our wonderful Spinoza recognized with all incision…
Now that I have quite openly stated our differences in intellectual convictions it is still clear to me that we are quite close to each other in essential things, i.e. in our evaluation of human behavior … I think that we would understand each other quite well if we talked about concrete things.
With friendly thanks and best wishes,
The letter was sold at auction in May of 2008, and not surprisingly one of the bidders was Richard Dawkins.
The same site had other interesting letters by Einstein on religion. Here are the links, and all are worth a read.
Earlier today, I wrote about Ian McEwan’s book Atonement in my “Day 4″ post of the Thirty Day Book Challenge. In an attempt to shake off the melancholy that writing that post had inevitably brought on, I went through my archives of saved videos for this one, an interview of McEwan by Dawkins. McEwan is keenly intelligent and deeply insightful as to human nature, characteristics which surely contribute to his wonderful writing, but which also show so beautifully in this interview. When you have a few minutes to spare, sit and watch, you will be glad you did.
I’m too sick, and my head too fuzzy with medication, so instead of attempting to construct coherent sentences, I’m going to let thirty others, who are known for their eloquence, speak about a subject that comes up in this blog every now and again… religion, and its counterpart, skepticism.
Dr. Jonathan Pararajasingham, a British neurosurgeon, created a series of videos regarding the debate between belief and atheism. The first two videos feature academics and theologians discussing both belief and disbelief, with the aim illustrating his central argument that “the more scientifically literate, intellectually honest and objectively skeptical a person is, the more likely the are to disbelieve in anything supernatural, including god.”
In the third video of the series, which I came across on this site, Dr. Pararajasingham compiled video of thirty renown authors discussing atheism. My favorite has to be Ian McEwan (starting at 9:28), although Douglas Adams and Christopher Hitchens are pretty outstanding, too.
Here are the authors included in the video, in order of appearance.
1. Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Science Fiction Writer
2. Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Laureate in Literature
3. Professor Isaac Asimov, Author and Biochemist
4. Arthur Miller, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Playwright
5. Wole Soyinka, Nobel Laureate in Literature
6. Gore Vidal, Award-Winning Novelist and Political Activist
7. Douglas Adams, Best-Selling Science Fiction Writer
8. Professor Germaine Greer, Writer and Feminist
9. Iain Banks, Best-Selling Fiction Writer
10. José Saramago, Nobel Laureate in Literature
11. Sir Terry Pratchett, NYT Best-Selling Novelist
12. Ken Follett, NYT Best-Selling Author
13. Ian McEwan, Man Booker Prize-Winning Novelist
14. Andrew Motion, Poet Laureate (1999-2009)
15. Professor Martin Amis, Award-Winning Novelist
16. Michel Houellebecq, Goncourt Prize-Winning French Novelist
17. Philip Roth, Man Booker Prize-Winning Novelist
18. Margaret Atwood, Booker Prize-Winning Author and Poet
19. Sir Salman Rushdie, Booker Prize-Winning Novelist
20. Norman MacCaig, Renowned Scottish Poet
21. Phillip Pullman, Best-Selling British Author
22. Dr Matt Ridley, Award-Winning Science Writer
23. Harold Pinter, Nobel Laureate in Literature
24. Howard Brenton, Award-Winning English Playwright
25. Tariq Ali, Award-Winning Writer and Filmmaker
26. Theodore Dalrymple, English Writer and Psychiatrist
27. Roddy Doyle, Booker Prize-Winning Novelist
28. Redmond O’Hanlon FRSL, British Writer and Scholar
29. Diana Athill, Award-Winning Author and Literary Editor
30. Christopher Hitchens, Best-Selling Author, Award-Winning Columnist
One of the benefits of being sick with this miserable cold has been that I’ve only had the energy to read and not do much else. Last night, after deciding to go to bed at an unusually early hour, I looked at my shelves and decided that Bertrand Russell would make for good company on the plague ship (as I have now re-named my bedroom), and provide a nice counter-point to the darkness of the German Romantics that I’ve been reading too much of lately.
I first read Russell in high school; it was his essay, “How I Write.” I remember liking it, but the stronger memory is of my literature teacher getting into trouble for assigning that reading. It was a Catholic school, after all, and Russell was not known for being kind to religion. That incident only served to pique my interest all the more, and by the time I started college, I had read a substantial amount of his work, including last night’s read, Why I Am Not a Christian.
By the time I first read him, I must have been in my junior year of high school, and I had certainly already started to question my faith. As I previously wrote, that process of questioning started in the early eighties after watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. A question that always plagued me during those early years of questioning, however, dealt with morality. As someone raised Roman Catholic, morality was something relatively external; there were a set of rules you lived by, and if you transgressed, you were a sinner. If you had no religion, how would you know what was good? I found my answer in Russell, before I was even able to crack the spine of the book, in the preface.
The world that I should wish to see would be one freed from the virulence of group hostilities and capable of realizing that happiness for all is to be derived rather from cooperation than from strife. I should wish to see a world in which education aimed at mental freedom rather than at imprisoning the minds of the young in a rigid armor of dogma calculated to protect them through life against the shafts of impartial evidence. The world needs open hearts and open minds, and it is not through rigid systems, whether old or new, that these can be derived.
Needless to say, a thorough reading of the book and its many essays (especially “What I Believe”) drove the point home that morality, true morality, did not have to come from a preset set of rules, but that it was and should be something internal. According to Russell, morality sprang from a confluence of love and knowledge, or as he states, “love guided by knowledge.”
So this morning, as my daughter watched her cartoons and I ran around the house singing the Spiderman theme song (thanks Marc), I remembered a BBC interview with Russell that I watched a while back. There was a part of it where he was asked what he would say to future generations, what hopes he would have for us and our children. I was lucky enough to find the exact clip, and here it is. Everyone must watch this.
The full interview can be found here, and is definitely worth the watch. He is a beautiful mind and a beautiful man. “Love is wise, hatred is foolish.” Indeed.
This little clip is from one of my favorite BBC shows, QI. It gave me a pretty good laugh this morning, so I thought I’d share.
Every year, as we approach the Enlightenment segment of my European History class, we talk about Pascal’s Wager, and although many students have often expressed frustration at the limitations of his either/or proposition, and several, especially the Catholics, have pointed out the “mind-reader” problem, never has anyone proposed this brilliant third option, and I’ve taught some pretty bright and witty people.
In an interview with ABC in 2010, Diane Sawyer asked Stephen Hawking the following question, “If the universe gave you a gift tomorrow, an answer, what’s the answer you most want?” In response, Hawking, who recently celebrated his 70th birthday, stated,
I want to know why the universe exists. Why there is something rather than nothing.
In seeming response to this question, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss’s new book, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing, is being released today.
I first read Krauss what seems like a lifetime ago when he published his book, Physics of Star Trek, and have, since then, continued to read his many works, my favorite being Quintessence (on the question of dark matter). He recently published a book about Richard Feynman titled Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science, which although I’ve not yet read, is on my list. And now, as stated above, his new book was just released, inspired by an incredibly popular video of a talk he gave titled “A Universe from Nothing.”
Like Dawkins, Sagan, Hawking, and others, Krauss has become a strong voice for the skeptics and rationalists among us, and in this talk for the Richard Dawkins Foundation he does not disappoint. I think he’s quite successful in conveying the idea that a godless universe need not be a “scary” place. According to Krauss,
It motivates us to draw meaning from our own actions. . . and to make the most of our brief existence in the sun.
Here is the video that inspired the writing of this book.
- Lawrence Krauss Writes ‘A Universe From Nothing’ (huffingtonpost.com)
- Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science (quantumdiaries.org)
- Krauss finds something in nothing – Lawrence Krauss – asu news (richarddawkins.net)
You will be missed.
I woke this morning to the news that Christopher Hitchens had died after a long and painful struggle with esophageal cancer. A few days ago I set aside his last column for Vanity Fair to read later, a piece titled “Trial of the Will,” where he questioned the underlying validity and truth of the maxim commonly attributed to Nietzsche, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” It’s a touching peace, one written by someone coming to terms with the suffering that he’s had to endure, and the reality of an end that is coming all too soon. I suppose it was a good piece to be his last.
This morning, Vanity Fair had this to say,
Christopher Hitchens—the incomparable critic, masterful rhetorician, fiery wit, and fearless bon vivant—died today at the age of 62. Hitchens was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in the spring of 2010, just after the publication of his memoir, Hitch-22, and began chemotherapy soon after. His matchless prose has appeared in Vanity Fair since 1992, when he was named contributing editor.
“Cancer victimhood contains a permanent temptation to be self-centered and even solipsistic,” Hitchens wrote nearly a year ago in Vanity Fair, but his own final labors were anything but: in the last 12 months, he produced for this magazine a piece on U.S.-Pakistani relations in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, a portrait of Joan Didion, an essay on the Private Eye retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum, a prediction about the future of democracy in Egypt, a meditation on the legacy of progressivism in Wisconsin, and a series of frank, graceful, and exquisitely written essays in which he chronicled the physical and spiritual effects of his disease. At the end, Hitchens was more engaged, relentless, hilarious, observant, and intelligent than just about everyone else—just as he had been for the last four decades.
“My chief consolation in this year of living dyingly has been the presence of friends,” he wrote in the June 2011 issue. He died in their presence, too, at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. May his 62 years of living, well, so livingly console the many of us who will miss him dearly.
So this morning I’d just like to say thank you to Mr. Hitchens for being a thinker, a rationalist, and a true heir of the Enlightenment. Thank you for promoting free-thought in an age of conformity, and for your intellectual fearlessness. I feel at a loss for words, since his words meant so much to me and to so many others. As stated so perfectly by rational warrior in a short tribute video, “Well done, Sir.”
To read other’s thoughts on the passing of this great man, read this touching series of obituaries from Richard Dawkins’ site.