The end of god-1: The death of the three classical gods

God is still dead.

More than a hundred years after the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche put those famous words “God is dead” into the mouth of one of his characters, implying that the Christian concept of god had become untenable, this statement has become even more true, the point driven home with new evidence from science and relentless logic by the advocates of the so-called ‘new atheism’.

Much attention has been paid to the arguments made by the new atheists who have forcefully pointed out that not only are the evidentiary and intellectual foundations for the existence of god and the afterlife weak and shallow, but that religion is itself more of a force for evil than good in the world, either actively so or as an enabler. This group, whose public faces are Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger, and Sam Harris, have managed to bring these arguments to the forefront of the public debate.

The basic issue can be identified by the answers to two fundamental questions:

Is there any credible reason to think that god exists in any form? The answer is no.

Even if god is a fiction, does the concept have a net positive utilitarian value that makes it worth preserving? The answer is no.

The next series of posts will flesh out the developments since Nietzsche’s time that have provided a more empirical basis for his conclusion.

To anticipate a common objection, it is perhaps necessary to first acknowledge that it is logically impossible to disprove the existence of a god whose properties are carefully defined so as to avoid detection, so believers can always seek refuge in the tiny loophole that logic provides them. But what has become increasingly clear is that to believe in god today is to make a willful decision to go against reason and evidence, and is clearly an irrational act.

The many powerful arguments against the existence of god and in favor of atheism have been around for a long time, going all the way back to the ancient Greek philosophers. (See my series of posts on the history of western atheism). So what exactly is new about the new atheism that has given it so much force that has enabled it to achieve such prominence?

To answer that question we need to look at the kinds of arguments advanced in favor of the existence of god. There are three different kinds of arguments, each one implying the existence of a different kind of god. In discussing with religious people about the existence of god, it is important to first clarify which god they arguing in favor of because otherwise, as I will discuss later, religious apologists tend to slide from one god to another, making a coherent discussion difficult.

Most of the arguments put forward by most religious people are in favor of the ‘Personal God’ theory. By pointing to admirable people who happened to be religious and arguing that they were directly influenced by god, by giving personal testimonies of experiencing the presence of god in their lives, by suggesting that singular events (alleged miracles) show god’s existence by violating natural laws, appealing to the historical validity of religious texts, arguing that without god there would be no basis for morality or no explanation for altruism, etc., such arguments advance the idea of a peripatetic god who is always active everywhere, listening to each and every person, and responding to some of their prayers. The Personal God is credited with many good things that occur and although allegedly omnipotent, is curiously and inexplicably passive about preventing the many evils that occur on a daily basis.

A subset of Christian believers in the Personal God also believe in the literal truth of the Bible, that the Earth is 6,000 or so years old, that Adam and Eve were real people, that Noah’s flood was a historical event, and so on.

The existence of another kind of god (the ‘Ultimate Creator God’) depends on the argument that it seems reasonable to suppose that for every complex thing in existence, one needs an even more complex thing to design it and bring it into being. Since many aspects of the world are complex, one could extend this argument up a ladder of ever increasingly complex designers and creators to assert that one needs an ultimate grand designer and creator, which is this particular god.

The third god (the ‘God of the Gaps’) is almost identical to the Ultimate Creator God conceptually, but instead of invoking a chain of causality ending up with god as a prime designer and creator, takes a more direct route by pointing to specific things in nature (such as the human eye, the wings of birds, etc.) that seem (to these believers at least) far too complex to have come about by natural laws and processes, these believers assert that these are exceptions to natural laws and required direct creation by god. In other words, god is not simply an ultimate explanation for all things but is instead an immediate and direct cause for the existence of many things, though far more selective in intervening in worldly affairs than the Personal God. The God of the Gaps is invoked to directly explain the existence of the hitherto otherwise unexplained.

The three kinds of god suggested by these arguments imply very different properties.

The Ultimate Creator God is one who is very hands-off. After initially carefully creating the universe and its laws with the goal of bringing the present form of life into being, he (for the sake of convenience I am going to treat god as being male) is assumed to leave things strictly alone. It is assumed that the Ultimate Creator God wanted, for some reason, to have humans in their present form eventually emerge from the initial cosmic soup, and thus had to carefully fine-tune the laws and initial conditions so that billions of years later conditions would be just right so that this is exactly what would happen. This is actually quite an incredible feat of planning and reverse engineering, but this is god we are talking about so this task is presumably a piece of cake for him.

The God of the Gaps has either inferior engineering skills to the Ultimate Creator God or is one of those perennial tinkerers who is never content with the original plans and ideas and keeps changing things as they go along. Either his initial plans had glitches that failed to produce important developments like the eye or the wings of birds and he had to step in and create them fresh, or such things were not in the initial plans at all and after observing his animal creations crashing into each other, this god suddenly had the brainwave that eyes would be a good eye and retrofitted them.

The Personal God seems to be the most inept of the three, a busybody who is constantly interfering in each and every person’s life whether they want it or not. This god is the ultimate micromanager, never sticking to a plan but always stepping in to change things, violating his own rules if need be to achieve some immediate end, answering some prayers while ignoring others, preventing some bad things from happening while allowing colossal evils elsewhere, and creating such disorder and anarchy that it is hopeless to expect to find any pattern or reason in his behavior. As a result, many people just declare his intentions to be inscrutable, surrender their freedom and autonomy to him, and pray for him to tell them what to do about everything. Curiously, it is this seemingly most inept god of the three that most religious people seem to find appealing.

Next: The demise of each god

POST SCRIPT: The scandalous situation in Gaza

Juan Cole describes the inhumane sanctions imposed by Israel on the people of Gaza that is threatening over a million Palestinians with greater hunger.

The Israelis already have the Gaza Strip under military siege, carefully controlling what and who goes in and out of it. They have now cut off most fuel, and the United Nations has been forced to stop distributing food aid.

In addition, the Daily Telegraph reports that “The fuel blockade means pumps have already been turned off, causing water shortages and sewage problems, while the vaccination stocks at Gaza’s main hospital were spoiled after it had to turn off its refrigerators.”

As Cole comments, “This Israeli government action is an unvarnished war crime. It is known as collective punishment. There was already hunger and malnutrition among Palestinian children, which will now be worsened.”

The emptiness of TV news shows

As I have repeatedly said, I rarely watch TV anymore, and don’t have cable at home, still using rabbit antennas to receive a few broadcast stations on the rare occasions when I want to watch. The one exception is when I am traveling. Since I initially feel disoriented and lack access to the books, magazines, and normal activities I have at home, and since I initially find it hard to read or write in the unfamiliar surroundings, I tend to turn on the TV and flip through the vast number of stations. And each time, I am amazed that despite the large numbers of channels that there is so little I want to see.

A few months ago, the day after the ‘Super Tuesday’ primaries, I flew to San Francisco for a conference. Arriving at the hotel, I turned on the TV to CNN to find out what had happened in the elections. Wolf Blitzer was on in The Situation Room and the ‘news’ consisted of the endless repetition of half-baked analysis and idiotic speculation about what it all means and what might happen in the future, mixed in with advice on strategy for the candidates. It essentially consisted of one pair of commentators after another coming on to say essentially the same things. The commentators were carefully paired as ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ or ‘Republican’ and ‘Democrat’. The reason for this careful labeling is that it is not what these so-called Villager commentators and analysts actually say that is important (in fact it is mostly inane speculation, pollspeak, and gratuitous dispensing of advice to candidates), but these labels give the viewer guidance on what the allowable range of ‘respectable’ opinion is and discourages them from thinking outside those boundaries. I think that the more you listen to such shows, the less likely you are to think independently.

Glenn Greenwald picks up on one of the most infuriating aspects of the Villager media that I have also noticed. “The single most dishonest and propagandistic tactic of establishment journalists is to take their own opinion and assert as a fact that “most Americans” agree with them, even when that assertion is indisputably false. David Brooks [of the New York Times] is probably the single most frequent purveyor of this deceit, but the bulk of establishment pundits regularly deploy the same method — simultaneously holding themselves out as Spokesmen for the Regular People while showing complete contempt for what they actually think by lying about their views.”

Greenwald goes on to describe the Villager mentality:

What the Beltway Establishment believes more than it believes anything else is that the U.S. should continue to intervene in other countries, dominate the Middle East, and rule the world by superior military force. Thus, no matter how many Americans come to reject that mindset, affirming that mentality will remain a prerequisite for Seriousness and for being approved of by the Beltway class. Any politician, Democratic or Republican, who rejects these basic orthodoxies, no matter how unpopular the orthodoxies become, will be relegated to “cuckoo land.”

The real goal of the Beltway class is to eliminate all real differences, all meaningful debate, on these central questions. The Beltway class demands bipartisan agreement on the most important issues. Along with the belief that crimes committed by the revered Beltway elite should never be investigated and especially not prosecuted, they venerate this harmony above all else.

What amazes me, apart from the inability to of the hosts of these pundit programs ask these people on what basis they claim to know what “most Americans” think, is the vacuous nature of the commentary. Can people actually watch this stuff for more than, say, 15 minutes without throwing something at the TV? Thank goodness for the internet where I can get just the information I want without also having to listen to the drivel of the so-called political analysts.

POST SCRIPT: Torture

Tom Tomorrow’s cartoon captures the vacuity of the news programs in the way they have ignored the big story: that officials at the highest levels of this government knew and approved of the torture program.

An Atheist’s Creed

In the course of writing many posts on science and religion and atheism, it struck me that I was tangentially making many statements about what I, as an atheist, believe. I decided to summarize those scattered thoughts into one coherent statement. Of course, I am not presuming to claim that all atheists subscribe to this statement. The creed is purely a personal one.

An important point of clarification is necessary. When the word ‘believe’ is used in the creed, it is in the scientific sense of the word. Scientists realize that almost all knowledge is tentative and that one knows very few things for certain. But based on credible evidence and logical reasoning, one can arrive at firm conclusions about, and hence ‘believe’, some things such as that the universe is billions of years old or that the force of gravity exists. It is in this sense that the word ‘believe’ is used in the creed below, as an implicit acknowledgment of our lack of absolute certainty.

This use is in stark contrast to the way that the word is used by religious people. They not only believe things for which there is little or no evidence or reason, but even in spite of evidence to the contrary, and defying reason.

Some religious apologists try to exploit the fact that the same word belief is used in both situations to suggest that atheism is as much an irrational act of faith as belief in god. This is sophistry and is simply false.

An Atheist’s Creed

I believe in a purely material universe that conforms to naturalistic laws and principles.

I believe that the life we have is the only one we will have, that the mind and consciousness are inseparable from the brain, that we cease to exist in any conscious form when we die, and that it is therefore incumbent on us to enable each person to live their one life to the fullest.

I believe in the power of science and reason and rationality to further deepen our understanding of everything around us and to eventually overcome superstition and erase the petty divisions sown by religion, race, ethnicity, and nationality.

I am in awe of the beauty, vastness, and complexity of nature and the universe, and the fact that all arose purely by the working of natural laws.

I believe in the power of ideals such as peace and justice and shared humanity to inspire us to create a free and just world.

I believe in kindness, love, and the human spirit and their ability to overcome challenges and adversity and to create a better world.

I believe in the necessity for credible and objective evidence to sustain any belief and thus deny, because of the absence of such evidence, the existence of each and every aspect of the supernatural.

I refuse to bow, prostrate myself, or otherwise cower before the deities of any religion.

I am neither tempted by the fiction of heaven or any other form of eternal life nor fearful of the fiction of hell.

I choose to live the dignified and exhilarating life of a free-thinker, able to go wherever knowledge and curiosity takes me, without fear of contradicting any dogma.

Neoconservatives, Al Qaeda, and Curveball

A year ago ago, I wrote a series of three posts (part 1, part 2, and part 3) about a fascinating BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares that charted the parallel rise of two groups: the neoconservatives in the US (whose ideology was formulated by University of Chicago philosopher Leo Strauss) and the radical Islamists (led by an Arab intellectual Sayyed Qutb).

Both groups saw liberal ideas as leading to moral decay. Both saw themselves and their followers as an enlightened elite that was superior to the ignorant masses. They both felt that it was up to them to reverse this decay by any means necessary. They adopted the strategy of advancing myths such as religion and nationalism in order to keep the people ‘virtuous’.

Both groups also believed in scaring the daylights out of ordinary people, in order to keep them fearful and thus easily manipulated. The radical Islamists used terror, including assassinations of political leaders and other forms of violence against their own people to intimidate their opponents. The neoconservatives and the US and British governments overplayed the strength of al Qaeda and the danger of terror posed to the West by the Islamists because that fantasy enabled them to frighten the public and carry out domestic policies at home and military actions abroad that otherwise might have been opposed.

The three-hour documentary shows how the neoconservative fantasy about threats was used to drive disastrous policies such as the attack on Iraq. It is quite amazing to see political leaders and opinion makers in the US and Britain flatly assert that they have convincing evidence for things that we now know to be absolutely false.

The documentary is now available online. It is well worth the time to watch it.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

It is by now firmly established that the US public was deceived into supporting the invasion of Iraq. Part of the propaganda was led by the neoconservatives, who have long sought American dominance in that region. What might be stunning to those less cynical about the lack of integrity of political leaders than I am is the extent to which the American and British governments lied to their own people about things they knew to be false, using the flimsiest of cover stories.

Perhaps the most disgraceful element of the fraudulent case was the role of the alleged Iraqi defector known by the codename ‘Curveball‘. His ‘testimony’ was used to build up lurid tales of the danger posed by Iraq.

Curveball was a liar who knew what the US wanted to hear and told his interrogators exactly that, knowing that they would run with it. He was the source for nearly all the lies in Colin Powell’s speech at the UN, backed by the head of the CIA George Tenet. But even he must have been bemused by the lack of any attempt to verify his stories even though there were numerous warning signs that his story was not credible. Even more amazingly, Powell and Tenet based their public statements on this information even though American intelligence interrogators were not allowed access to Curveball by the Germans who were holding him. They simply passed on the information received from the Germans up to their superiors.

US weapons inspector David Kay, sent to Iraq by the Bush Administration after the invasion to find the alleged weapons of mass destruction, reveals in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel the extent of the deceit that was perpetrated by the government and its intelligence agencies.

In the interview Kay delivers a warning: “I feel disillusioned. I think that ‘Curveball’ was the biggest and most consequential intelligence fiasco of my lifetime. It shows how important effective civilian control of the intelligence services is, because non-transparency is extraordinarily dangerous for democracy. In an intelligence service, people who don’t make waves are rewarded. I am worried that the same mistakes could be repeated all over again.”

One error Kay makes is in labeling what happened as ‘mistakes’. Those were not mistakes. They were deliberate acts of policy and will be repeated whenever it again becomes convenient to do so.

POST SCRIPT: Health care

Dr. Vincent Navarro has an excellent and informative article dealing with the politics and history of attempts at health care reform in the US.

Navarro is Professor of Health Policy, Public Policy, and Policy Studies at the Johns Hopkins University. He has written extensively on economics, health, and social policy, and has been advisor to many governments and international agencies. His books have been translated into many languages. He was the founder and president of the International Association of Health Policy, and for almost forty years has been Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Health Services. He is also a founding member of Physicians for a National Health Program.

Podi Singham, 1925-2008

(My mother Gnaneswari Singham, universally known by her childhood pet name of Podi, died on March 23, 2008 at the age of 83. A thanksgiving service was held for her at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Thimbirigasyaya. Colombo, Sri Lanka on Saturday, April 19, 2008, 5:30 pm. Below are two photographs of her, one taken in her late teens and the other in her mid-50s, followed by my tribute to her given during the service.)

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When my sisters Shanti and Rohini asked me to give one of the tributes to my mother, I wondered how I could condense a lifetime’s relationship with someone so special into a few minutes. I decided not to talk about her international championship quality bridge playing, which you all know about. I also decided not to talk about the thousands upon thousands of hours she spent volunteering on behalf of so many organizations, trying to make the world a better place by helping others in need.

I decided that rather than tell you a lot of stories about my mother, stories that can be multiplied many times by all of the people here whose own lives have touched her and been touched by her, I would instead dwell on what I learned from her attitude about the big questions of life and death.

We are all familiar from childhood with Aesop’s fable about the ant and the grasshopper. During the summer, the grasshopper sings and has a good time while the ant is busily building a home and storing away food for the coming winter. When winter comes, the grasshopper is cold and hungry and goes to the ant for help but the ant turns him away saying, “You sang all summer so now you can dance all winter.”

When children are told this story, they are supposed to admire the thrifty little ant and to deplore the grasshopper’s careless ways. But I must say that I always thought that the ant was a highly unlikable character. After all, what kind of person would turn away someone in dire need?

My sympathy for the grasshopper comes from my parents. If we think of the ant and the grasshopper as representing two extremes of behavior, my parents were definitely closer to the grasshopper than the ant. While they were not wasteful, my parents were more concerned with living fully here and now than preparing for the distant future. They never seemed to be too concerned about accumulating material wealth. And, most importantly, they never turned away other grasshoppers that came to them for help. My mother would always be willing to listen to those in need and try to help in any way she could.

My mother was a voracious reader, of newspapers, books, and magazines dealing with a wide variety of things so that you could carry on a conversation with her on almost any topic. I am not sure if she ever read the works of the philosopher Robert Ingersoll, but I am certain that she would have agreed with his philosophy of life when he said: “Happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now. The way to be happy is to make others so.” My mother lived according to that philosophy. She would try to help others be happy and then share in their joy.

I also learned from my mother the importance of being kind and friendly to others and treating everyone, without exception, with respect. It was a source of humor in our family that irrespective of what part of the world she was in, any time she was seated next to someone for more than five minutes, in a waiting room, on a train or bus or plane, whoever that person was or from whatever station in life, she would strike up a conversation and pretty soon they would be laughing together like old friends.

I learned from her that it is a waste of time whining to others about your own problems because they have problems too. It is better to just face up to whatever hand that life gives you, deal with it as best as you can, and then move on. Life is too precious to be spent on self-pity, and constantly complaining about your own misfortunes doesn’t get you anywhere.

I think that it was this lack of self-absorption that attracted people to her. Here is one example. When I became seriously ill with polio at the age of six, my parents immediately set about trying to do the best for me which involved taking me to England for medical treatment as soon as possible. Since my father could not go immediately due to work demands, my mother by herself took my sisters and me to England to start my treatment. Imagine, back in the 1950s when overseas travel was a daunting challenge, here was a thirty year old woman setting off to a strange and distant country requiring a month long sea voyage, while taking care of three young children, one of whom was very sick and barely able to walk and another who was a one year old infant.

But almost immediately, my mother made many friends on that ship and pretty soon she had an army of volunteers eager to help her. For example, she told me that she would put our clothes in the washing machine in the laundry room and then go back to the cabin to take care of us. But when she returned later to complete the chore, she found that another passenger, a stranger, had taken all the clothes out of the washer, and dried, ironed, and neatly stacked them, because that person has seen that my mother had her hands full. Other people would volunteer to take care of her children for hours on end so that she could enjoy the voyage more, and my mother became a fixture at the captain’s table. The friends she made on that trip remained friends all her life.

Just as she was always willing to help others, people helped her in all manner of ways. They did not do this out of pity. People enjoyed helping her because rather than being self-pitying or mournful, she faced up to life’s challenges cheerfully. Her positive attitude to life, her graciousness, and her playful, even occasionally mischievous, good humor seemed to bring out the kindness and goodness in others.

Her attitude to death, like her attitude to life, was also very matter of fact. She saw death as part of the cycle of life and did not fear it. When I was in Sri Lanka in January, she and I spent many, many hours just talking. In most of our conversations, we recalled all the good times that we had shared. But we also spoke about death and she did not shy away from this topic that people tend to avoid, even though she sensed that it was imminent. My mother was a smart woman. She knew what the recurrence of her cancer meant. She knew that while surgery was unavoidable, it carried with it serious risks. But she reassured me many times that she was not afraid. She said that she had had a long and good life. She had done so much, traveled to so many places, seen so many things, had such good health until the very end, made so many friends, experienced so much of the richness of life that to wish for even more, to ask that it be extended indefinitely, was to be greedy and ungrateful. She said (using a metaphor from cricket, a sport of which she was a big fan) that she had had a very good innings and if the match was to end, then so be it.

Her faith in god undoubtedly played an important role in her ability to face death so matter-of-factly. She told me that she believed that god would not give her a challenge that she could not meet and so she had put her life in god’s hands and was ready for anything.

Richard Dawkins begins his book Unweaving the Rainbow by saying: “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born.” My mother would have agreed with him that we, all of us, are lucky just by virtue of having experienced life.

My parents, the grasshoppers, did in the end accumulate a lot of wealth. But it was not in the form of money or possessions. Their wealth took the far more valuable form of rich life experiences, precious memories, and treasured friends.

To the end, my mother was preparing us to not be sad when she died, typically worrying more about our happiness and welfare than her own. I know that she would want us to celebrate her life, not to mourn her death.

I would like to thank all of you here for being a part of that life. I know that all of you meant a lot to her. Each one of our lives is a thread that she used to weave the glorious tapestry of her own life.

We are all lucky to be alive and to have lived. Although we miss her terribly, I know I also speak for my sisters when I say that that the three of us had an extra share of luck to have had such a kind, generous, fun-loving, and altogether wonderful person as our mother.

The propaganda machine-15: The armies of the right

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In this final post in the series, I want to look at the big picture.

If you think of the ideological wars as being fought by armies, then to understand the role of the third tier pundit class one has to see them as non-commissioned officers (NCOs), the sergeants if you will, the ones who actually lead the ordinary soldiers, which in this case is that segment of the public that agrees with them. The pseudo-scholars who occupy the think tanks are the middle level officers. The very top brass, the generals, are the corporate owners, other big business interests, and the extremely rich people who create and underwrite the think tanks and create the media outlets. One key difference between real armies and those involved in the propaganda wars is that in the real armies the very top brass are highly visible in the media while the NCOs are invisible. In the propaganda army, however, it is the NCOs who are visible with the top brass being invisible.

The third tier pundits are part of the public face of the propaganda machine, the ones who are constantly rallying the troops with incendiary language and ideas. They play important roles in the tactical day–to-day battles but they are also dispensable once they have served their purpose. The think tankers play more strategic roles, formulating the plans that the third tier pundits carry out.

But I think that, financially rewarding as it must be to sing the song that your corporate paymasters pay you to sing, there is a price paid by these hired guns. The think tank ‘scholars’ and third tier pundits are clearly academic wannabees who could not make the grade in academia, and it must eventually chafe them to not have the freedom that genuine academics have to freely go wherever their investigations take them. This is not to say that these people are saying things that are contrary to their beliefs. I think they are perfectly sincere, at least most of them for most of the time. The way the filtering system works is that it draws in people who already think the way that these right-wing funders want them to think, so initially at least there is compatibility.

But in general as people grow more mature and have more experience of life, they tend to realize that the world is a complex place and that the Manichaean worldview of good and evil and the simplistic sloganeering of their youth is rather childish. There surely must come a moment when even the most obtuse third tier pundits or think tank hacks realize that they are trapped in an intellectual prison. They cannot change their views or even take more nuanced positions because that would get them summarily ousted from their sinecures.

This must cause them to look longingly at academics who have much greater intellectual freedom and can modify or even switch positions without risking getting tossed out on their ear. If I am convinced otherwise, I can change my mind about any issue at all and say so. But the think tankers and third tier pundits can’t. They are pretty much stuck in their one role, singing the same tune forever and ever. This must rankle the third tier pundits and think tank ‘scholars’ at some level, however much they may try to rationalize it, which may explain why they attack academia so much.

I think Michael Berube got it just right about third tier pundits when he analyzed the potential source of David Horowitz’s unhinged ranting against universities. He said that it must be because Horowitz, someone who fancies himself as an intellectual, envies academics because he himself is not free to say what he wants the way that university academics can.

I think we’re finally getting to the real reason David hates professors so much. It has nothing to do with our salaries or our working hours: he hates our freedom. Horowitz knows perfectly well that I can criticize the Cockburns and Churchills to my left and the Beinarts and Elshtains to my right any old time I choose, and that at the end of the day I’ll still have a job – whereas he has to answer to all his many masters, fetching and rolling over whenever they blow that special wingnut whistle that only far-right lackeys can hear. It’s not a very dignified way to live, and surely it takes its toll on a person’s sense of self-respect.

I think that this same phenomenon must eventually drive all the hired-gun third-tier pundits and think tank ideological hacks to great frustration. It is really somewhat sad and pathetic, but it is the path they have chosen.

The world of academia is by no means idyllic. It has its own petty politics and its own ambitious people who seek to subvert its ideals for personal gain. But it is important to realize that the core value around which universities and academia is built is that of the disinterested search for truth, and all its structures (such as tenure and peer review) are designed to foster that goal. Anyone who wants to do otherwise has to willfully work to subvert the system. The core values of think tanks and their third tier pundit hangers-on is exactly the opposite. It is to produce propaganda and anyone who wants to do good research has to find ways to work around that system.

And that is a world of difference.

POST SCRIPT: The state of the economy

Paul Craig Roberts paints a rather gloomy picture of the fading US economy.

The propaganda machine-14: The role of the third-tier pundits

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

This fairly long series on how the propaganda machine was created and operates was necessary in order to understand the original question of how the phenomenon of third-tier pundits arose. The machine provides the soil that nurtures them and allows them to ply their trade. This is why there seems to be almost nothing that the third-tier pundits can say, however idiotic or offensive, that gets them booted off the media, as long as they faithfully advance the values of their sponsors.

The role of third-tier pundits like Goldberg, Coulter, D’Souza, and Malkin is to entertain and create noise and move the boundaries of the discussion to the right by saying the most outlandish things. Their arguments do not even have to make sense as long as they are out there fanning the flames on behalf of their paymasters. The crackpot ideas of the third tier pundits make other right-wing pundits who hold views similar to the third-tier pundits but express them in more sober voices (people like William Kristol, Richard Perle, Charles Krauthammer, Bill Bennett, etc.) seem reasonable.

It is also interesting that nepotism and cronyism run rampant in these circles. Jonah Goldberg’s road was paved by his mother Lucianne Goldberg, who rose to fame as a gossip peddler in the Monica Lewinsky case, William Kristol rode the coattails of his famous father, the neoconservative icon Irving Kristol. John Podhoretz benefited from being the son of Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter, and was recently appointed to the editorship of Commentary, the same journal his father edited. In fact, there seems to be a kind of entitlement welfare system at work for these people.

In the right-wing media world, third-tier pundits like Jonah Goldberg, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, Dinesh D’Souza, Frank Gaffney, and David Horowitz play the role of ‘useful idiots’. By that I don’t mean that they are stupid. Most of them have considerable formal education and some have advanced degrees. They are usually glib and have at least the intelligence to realize that if they are willing to play a particular role, they can secure well-paid employment. But they are essentially hired guns, disposable cogs in the machine, people who realized at a fairly early age that with their ideological bent, they could make a good living by using their rhetorical talents to sign on as low-level soldiers in the ideological wars.

Another advantage (to the pro-business/pro-war elite) of having a class of third tier pundits is that they are disposable because they are pretty much interchangeable. If any of them should become a liability for whatever reason or cease to be effective, they can be got rid of and easily replaced with fresh faces who have little baggage. There are recent signs that Coulter has outlived her usefulness and is falling out of favor, but she can and will be easily replaced.

As Juan Cole says about Goldberg (although his comments apply to all of the third tier pundits):

Goldberg is just a dime a dozen pundit. Cranky rich people hire sharp-tongued and relatively uninformed young people all the time and put them on the mass media to badmouth the poor, spread bigotry, exalt mindless militarism, promote anti-intellectualism, and ensure generally that rightwing views come to predominate even among people who are harmed by such policies.

Previously, Goldberg with the arrogance of someone who lacks self-reflection, actually had the temerity to assert that he was a more credible analyst of Middle Eastern politics than Juan Cole, who is a political science professor whose field is the history of that region, who has lived for many years in the Middle East and speaks fluent Arabic, none of which Goldberg can boast of. This was too much for the usually mild-mannered Juan Cole who then proceeded to slap Goldberg silly, saying:

I think it is time to be frank about some things. Jonah Goldberg knows absolutely nothing about Iraq. I wonder if he has even ever read a single book on Iraq, much less written one. He knows no Arabic. He has never lived in an Arab country. He can’t read Iraqi newspapers or those of Iraq’s neighbors. He knows nothing whatsoever about Shiite Islam, the branch of the religion to which a majority of Iraqis adheres. Why should we pretend that Jonah Goldberg’s opinion on the significance and nature of the elections in Iraq last Sunday matters? It does not.

Goldberg then tried to backtrack, saying that he did not claim to have more knowledge than Cole, just better judgment. This alone shows just how vapid and disconnected with reality these people are, and how their minds work, as Cole immediately pointed out:

Goldberg is now saying that he did not challenge my knowledge of the Middle East, but my judgment. I take it he is saying that his judgment is superior to mine. But how would you tell whose judgment is superior? Of course, all this talk of “judgment” is code for “political agreement.” Progressives think that other progressives have good judgment, Conservatives think that other conservatives have good judgment. This is a tautology in reality. Goldberg believes that I am wrong because I disagree with him about X, and anyone who disagrees with him is wrong, and ipso facto lacks good judgment.

An argument that judgment matters but knowledge does not is profoundly anti-intellectual. It implies that we do not need ever to learn anything in order make mature decisions. We can just proceed off some simple ideological template and apply it to everything. This sort of thinking is part of what is wrong with this country. We wouldn’t call a man in to fix our plumbing who knew nothing about plumbing, but we call pundits to address millions of people on subjects about which they know nothing of substance.

Cole is exactly right. The know-nothing pundit class is a menace to society, distorting public policy and advancing truly harmful actions. The sooner they get the ridicule they deserve and are laughed off the stage, the better.

POST SCRIPT: Wall Street gamblers

Recently I ran a series of posts titled The brave new world of finance about the financial mess caused by the subprime housing loan practices and how it exposed the rampant recklessness with which the big Wall Street financial interests were operating. In the following Terry Gross interview with Michael Greenberger, he provides one of the clearest explanations I have heard about the complex transactions that were going on. Essentially, all these people were gambling with other people’s money.

I must warn you that the very clarity of Greenberger’s explanations makes his prediction that things are even worse than we think somewhat depressing.

The propaganda machine-13: Why journalists perpetuate the myth of a liberal media

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Even a casual glance at the ownership structure of the media should be enough to dispel the notion that the media are ‘liberal’ in any meaningful sense. As for the owners, Robert McChesney writes in The Problem of the Media (2003):

Many prominent media moguls are rock-ribbed conservatives such as Rupert Murdoch, John Malone, former GE CEO Jack Welch, and Clear Channel CEO Lowry Mays. Although some media executives and owners donate money to Democrats, none of the major news media owners is anything close to a left-winger. Journalists who praise corporations and commercialism will obviously be held in higher regard (and given more slack) by owners and advertisers than journalists who are routinely critical of them. Media owners do not want their own economic interests or policies criticized. (p. 115)

The true colors of the media were on open display during the run up to the war in Iraq. The progressive Phil Donahue had his show cancelled by MSNBC in February 2003 despite being their highest rated show at that time. Even before that, Donahue had been tightly controlled by his bosses and told that he had to have two conservative guests for every liberal one.

Of course MSNBC is owned by General Electric, and since wars are always good for GE, they were not anxious to have a war critic like Donahue given too visible a platform. Similarly ABC is owned by Disney, CBS by Viacom, and Fox by NewsCorp. The main news program on PBS, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, is also underwritten by big corporations. Can we really expect any serious unbiased reporting on the power of corporations by such institutions?

Meanwhile, infantile right wing talk show hosts like Glenn Beck, Tucker Carlson, and John Gibson continued to have their shows on TV for long periods despite their low ratings. The last two only recently were cancelled.

One also has to distinguish to some extent between the real powers, which are the owners of the media and are behind the scenes, and the public faces of the media that consists of the journalists whose faces and bylines we are familiar with. Since the major media is located in urban centers, even though their employees are an integral part of the pro-business/pro-war Villager group, they also tend to be urban sophisticates and thus may be liberal on a few social issues such as gay rights and abortion, and are not likely to be rapture-ready fundamentalist Christians. These features are enough to make the right-wing charge of a ‘liberal’ media plausible in the public’s eye.

Of course, it is not possible for the journalists employed by the corporate media to completely ignore the fundamental nature of corporate control of the media. But that situation is finessed by channeling the discussion away from issue of ownership, class, and privilege to a fake populism that panders to and fans the flames of division that do not impinge on the privileges of big business. Hence topics such as race, religion, and sexuality are readily seized on as they appeal to visceral feelings. When people are all fired up about these side issues, they have little energy left to ponder why the gap between the extremely wealthy and them is getting larger by the day, and why the media dwells obsessively on the health of the stock market and other Wall Street interests at the expense of covering (say) labor issues or the lack of access to adequate health care.

McChesney discusses this sleight of hand that diverts people’s attention away from the real issues:

At its most effective, the conservative critique plays off the elitism inherent to professionalism and to liberalism. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the populist airs of the conservative criticism are strictly for show, as they tend to collapse as soon as class – the one unmentionable term in the conservative lexicon – is introduced. In fact, many right-wingers who swear allegiance to the working class hark from well-to-do families and oppose traditional policies to improve the conditions of the working class, even trade unions. The same conservative pundits and politicians who wrap themselves in the military and fire the starting gun at NASCAR races typically dodged the draft themselves, like most other upper-middle class and rich folk. And the same upper-class conservative pundits who galvanize working-class Christians to support right-wing politics with thunderous moral pronouncements sometimes turn out to be liars, philanderers, drug users, and chronic gamblers. (p. 113)

Why are these obvious contradictions not pointed out by journalists? Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo (who once worked within mainstream media and has seen how it operates from the inside) made the interesting observation about the how media censors itself to produce mainly a right wing viewpoint.

So much of the imbalance and shallowness of press coverage today stems from a simple fact: reporters know they’ll catch hell from the right if they say or write anything that can even remotely be construed as representing ‘liberal bias’. (Often even that’s not required.) Indeed, when you actually watch — from the inside — how mainstream newsrooms work, it is really not too much to say that they operate on two guiding principles: reporting the facts and avoiding impressions of ‘liberal bias’.

Marshall says that the arrival of the internet and of bloggers has enabled a better sense of balance, because now there is an avenue for a wider group of people to make their displeasure known when the media acts in a way that is seen as biased or partisan. It is now possible for people without deep pockets to provide at least some countervailing pressure on the Villagers.

On the left or center-left, until very recently, there’s simply never been an organized chorus of people ready to take the Howells of the press biz to task and mau-mau them when they get a key fact wrong. Without that, the world of political news was like an NBA game where one side played the refs hard and had roaring seats of fans while the other never made a peep. With that sort of structural imbalance, shoddy scorekeeping and cowed, and eventually compliant, refs are inevitable.

You would think that the journalists themselves would loudly defend their independence and assert that they are just doing journalism, not bending to ideological winds. But interestingly, the journalists seem to be some of the perpetuators of the myth that the media has a liberal bias. Why is this? McChesney points out the interesting fact that that it is to the advantage of journalists to propagate the myth of a liberal media, because it actually puts them in a good light.

In fact, it is hardly surprising that the conservative critique of the media is so prominent – given that this myth is cultivated to some extent by the so-called liberal media themselves. The conservative critique is in some respects the “official opposition” cultivated by professional journalism itself because in a sense journalists have to be viewed as “liberals,” fiercely independent and out of step with their corporate owners, for the system to have any credibility. Were journalists seen as cravenly bowing before wealth and privilege, journalism would lose credibility as an autonomous democratic force. After all, the quest for autonomy played a significant role in the development of professional journalism in the first place. The conservative critique is also rather flattering to journalists; it says to them: you have all the power but you use the power to advance the interests of the poor and minorities and environmentalists (or government bureaucrats and liberal elitists) rather than the interests of corporations and the military (or Middle America). A political economic critique, which suggests that journalists have much less power and are too often the pawns of forces that make them agents of the status quo, is much less flattering and almost invisible. (When the “left” critique is on rare occasion presented in mainstream media, one suspects it is included so journalists can claim they are being attacked from both sides and therefore must be neutral, nonpartisan, and straight down the middle.) (p. 114)

Next: Back to the third tier pundits.

The changing problems of science and religion

(I will be away on travel this week so will be reposting an old series, edited and updated, that discusses the nature of science and the difference between science and religion. New posts start again on Monday, April 21, 2008.)

In the previous posting, I discussed some of the problems that arise is reconciling science and religion. These problems change with time as our understanding of science changes and the explanatory powers of science encompass more and more phenomena.

For example, in the pre-Copernican era, one could have had a plausible model of god that became much harder to sustain in the light of post-Copernican scientific developments. This was because the universe then was seen as consisting of a spherical Earth located at the center of a finite universe and surrounded by a concentric rotating sphere in which the stars were embedded. (See Thomas Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution for a detailed history.) People thought that the stars were very small objects, and thus the outer sphere containing them could be quite nearby.

In that model, it was possible to think of the heavens as lying beyond this outer sphere and this provided a home for god and angels and so on. There are no major conceptual problems in believing this model. This model enabled people to envision without much difficulty how god could intervene in the events on Earth. All that was required was to imagine god as having pretty much the same powers as human beings did, but just more powerful and extensive. Thus god has more refined senses, sees better, hears better, is more powerful, travels faster, etc. It was not hard to think of god in heaven actually seeing and hearing what was going on Earth, being able to send thunderbolts or other forms of signals from heaven to Earth, or even making a quick trip (either personally or by sending angels) to Earth. Believing that god intervened in everyday events was not that hard to conceive within the framework of a pre-Copernican cosmology.

But Copernicus’ introduction of a heliocentric universe, and the more precise astronomical observations made possible by the invention of the telescope caused some serious problems for such early models, although the theological implications seemed to have taken some time to sink in.

As Kuhn points out (on page 193):

When it was taken seriously, Copernicus’ proposal raised many gigantic problems for the believing Christian. If, for example, the earth were merely one of six planets, how were the stories of the Fall and of the Salvation, with their immense bearing on Christian life, to be preserved? If there were other bodies essentially like the earth, God’s goodness would surely necessitate that they, too, be inhabited. But if there were men on other planets, how could they be descendents of Adam and Eve, and how could they have inherited the original sin, which explains man’s otherwise incomprehensible travail on an earth made for him by a good and omnipotent deity? Again, how could men on other planets know of the Savior who opened to them the possibility of eternal life? Or, if the earth is a planet and therefore a celestial body located away from the center of the universe, what becomes of man’s intermediate but focal position between the devils and the angels? If the earth, as a planet, participates in the nature of celestial bodies, it cannot be a sink of iniquity from which man will long to escape to the divine purity of the heavens. Nor can the heavens be a suitable abode for God if they participate in the evils and imperfections so clearly visible on a planetary earth. Worst of all, if the universe is infinite, as many of the later Copernicans thought, where can God’s Throne be located? In an infinite universe, how is man to find God or God man?

Most of those new problems are metaphysical. The last point mentioned by Kuhn is the one I want to focus on because it represents a physical problem and the one that is of most interest to me as a physicist. If the universe if infinite, then where does god exist? Since telescopes can now observe vast sections of the universe, it strains the imagination to think of god occupying some part of the physical universe because if god is made of the same kinds of stuff as other things in the universe, then how is it that our telescopes and other devices don’t detect anything?

I am not sure (not being an expert of the history of theology) but it may be that it was to solve this problem that popular ideas about god being a non-material entity (and hence undetectable by telescopes) who is everywhere began to gain ground. That way, it was possible to overcome the time and space problems associated with having a material god who necessarily has to occupy the same physical space as us.

But this raises yet other problems. If god is non-material and occupying a non-material space that co-exists with our more familiar material world, then how can he/she interact with the material world to influence it? After all, if (say) god intervenes to change the course of natural events, then it must involve changing the behavior of tangible physical objects and this requires the application of forces to those tangible objects, and such forces fall within the realm of the physical world.

One solution is to forego all interventions by god except in the form of changing people’s minds, and postulate that human beings possess a mind that is independent of the body, and thus occupies a space similar to or identical with that occupied by god. Thus communication within this ‘spirit world’ can take place between god and people. Such models allow for the concept of an after-life.

But this just shifts the problem one step away, and does not solve it. Because then we have the problem of understanding the mind-body relationship of each person and this has all the problems associated with the god-people relationship. If the mind exists independently of the body, then where does it exist? If the mind is a non-material entity, then how does it influence the body (which is material)? And so on. Such concerns were articulated by the mathematician-scientist-philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650). Note that Descartes posed these concerns after Copernican ideas had taken hold and the potentially vast size of the universe became better appreciated, giving such problems a sense of urgency,

The way that I have formulated these questions obviously reveals my physics background. I treat space and time as meaningful physical entities and so cannot easily absorb platitudinous statements like “god is everywhere” without further exploration as to what that statement actually means. I am guessing that most people do not consciously consider these questions either because they do not occur to them or shy away from them because of the discomfort they can cause.

So how does one resolve all these problems created by the assumption of god’s existence in the light of modern scientific knowledge about a vast universe? I think once again people have to resort to Ockham’s razor and each person will choose a position that satisfies him or her. I found that using Ockham’s razor resulted in my dispensing with the idea of god altogether.

Assuming the existence of god creates a vast number of contradictions and complications that can only be dealt with by pleading ignorance and invoking an inscrutable deity, neither of which is very satisfying.

Science, religion, and Ockham’s razor

(I will be away on travel this week so will be reposting an old series, edited and updated, that discusses the nature of science and the difference between science and religion. New posts start again on Monday, April 21, 2008.)

A few days ago I was working in my backyard when I noticed that the outdoor thermometer that I had fixed to a fence had disappeared. The mountings were still there but had been pulled away slightly. I thought that maybe the wind had blown it off and so I looked at the ground underneath but the thermometer was not there. There is a bed of pachysandra nearby and I looked nearby in it but no luck. I was baffled.

I pondered the various options for explaining the missing thermometer. One was that the wind had been strong enough to rip the thermometer from its mounting and blow it farther away into the pachysandra. The other was that it had fallen to the ground below and had then been taken away by squirrels or the neighbor’s cat. The third was that neighborhood children had borrowed it without permission for some experiment. The fourth was that the International Outdoor Thermometer Cartel (IOTC) had raised the price of these thermometers to such a high value that organized crime gangs were stealing them and selling them on the black market. The fifth option was that aliens had taken it away as a souvenir of their clandestine visit to Earth.

Given these options, I decided that #1 was the most likely one and looked in the pachysandra over a larger area and, sure enough, I found it.

The reason for this anecdote is that it illustrates that I used something that we all use all the time (whether we are consciously aware of it or not), and that is Ockham’s razor to make choices among competing theories.

According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, the principle behind Ockham’s razor (also called the law of economy or the law of parsimony) was stated by the scholastic William of Ockham (1285–1347), as “Plurality should not be posited without necessity.” The principle is also expressed as “Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.” Ockham did not himself use the word ‘razor’, that was added to his name later by others.

The principle gives precedence to simplicity, but there are two ways it can be used. In the first case (which is more closely aligned with Ockham’s intent), it says that you should not postulate more elements for anything other than the minimum required. For example, in the case of my missing thermometer, if I postulated one theory that a cat had taken it and a competing theory was that a cat that had a striped tail and a scar on its forehead had taken it, then in the absence of any extra information, the former theory is to be preferred. The latter theory just adds elements that do not add any necessary information to the explanation. The application of this version of the principle is fairly straightforward. One seeks the smallest subset of elements of a theory that provides an adequate explanation of whatever you are trying to explain.

The more problematic (but common) use of Ockham’s razor is when you try and apply it to a situation where there are two competing theories that share either no common elements or there exist at least some necessary elements of one theory that the other does not possess. We commonly interpret Ockham’s razor in those situations as requiring us to choose the simpler of the two theories. But simplicity may well lie in the eye of the beholder and it may not be easy to get agreement.

So, for example, in the case of the thermometer that was found some distance away from its mountings, the simpler explanation (for me at least) was that of the wind. If called upon, I could cite Bernoulli’s Principle and the laws of motion to support my preference. That explanation is enough to satisfy me.

But this may not be true for someone else. For someone who is a believer in the existence UFOs and space aliens, a theory that alien vandals landed in my garden, tore the thermometer from its moorings, threw it away in the pachysandra and left in their spaceship, might be the “simpler” explanation. After all, it does not involve the use of calculus.

That is exactly the problem in many of the science and religion discussions. Apart from those people who reject science altogether, the integration of science and religion into one coherent philosophical framework becomes one of the most difficult challenges and there is no simple solution to it. And all of us use Ockham’s razor to resolve it, even though the results are not the same for everyone.

A belief in the existence of god implies that there must be at least some phenomena caused by the intervention of god that lie outside the purview of science. (I am not considering the point of view that god created the world and its laws in one instant of time long ago and then has had a completely hands-off policy since then.)

For example, Biblical literalists will start with the assumption that the Bible is a historical document and that the events described in it (the world was created in six days and is only 6,000 years old, Joshua caused the Sun to stand still, Noah’s flood did occur, etc.) all actually occurred. They will then painstakingly and tortuously try and reinterpret all evidence to be consistent with these axioms. The website Answers in Genesis goes to extraordinary lengths to try and answer questions such as “Where did Cain find his wife?” and “Did dinosaurs live alongside humans?” These are questions that do not trouble anyone who does not treat the Bible as an authoritative source for science and history.

But even those who take the Bible less literally have to confront difficult questions because at some point, the question is going to arise about where you draw the line and ascribe something to the actions of god. Each person will draw the line between god’s actions and the actions of natural laws differently, depending on their personal level of comfort with the explanation.

This is something that believers in any theistic religion have to confront. Some will believe that any event that does not have a ready explanation to hand (a death in the family, an escape from injury, an unexpected recovery from a serious illness) are directly due to god’s intervention to change the course of events. In order to deal with the existence of evil in the presence of an omnipotent and loving god, believers usually end up having to postulate that god’s actions are inscrutable and that we cannot know the answers to at least some of the events that occur in the world.

At the other end, others might believe that god does not actually cause a change in the natural sequence of events but instead exerts his/her influence by working through people. In other words, people are the agents of god’s actions and the sole mechanism by which he/she influences events. So people are cured of illnesses because god inspires researchers and physicians, and so on.

There are also an infinite number of intermediate states between those two extremes. For example, people like the biochemist Michael Behe, who is an intelligent design advocate and author of the book Darwin’s Black Box, accept natural explanations for everything except for a few selected phenomena at the biochemical level (such as the blood clotting mechanism or the creation of the bacterial flagellum) that he feels are unlikely to have been created by natural processes. (See the New Yorker article by H. Allen Orr for a clear description of what Behe’s argument is. Cory also sent me a link to a nice article written by John Rennie, editor of Scientific American, that addresses some of the key points raised by ID advocates.)

Or one can use decide that there is no god (or supernatural entity of any kind), and all that exists is the material world. This is the position of philosophical naturalism or atheism. (I am treating the two terms as effectively synonymous, although professional philosophers might disagree).

So we are left with only Ockham’s razor with which to make a decision but in this case, it is a very personal razor whose use will satisfy only us. I personally find that assuming no god exists makes everything simpler and much more meaningful.

But those who are committed to believing in the existence of god despite the lack of evidence for his/her existence will not agree with me that this is the simplest explanation. They will likely say that having an inscrutable god who for some reason allows unspeakable cruelties is a ‘simpler’ way of understanding the world.

Which position one ends up taking is thus largely determined by deciding which is ‘simpler’ to believe in, which usually means deciding which belief structure you want to believe in and find personally enriching and meaningful, since there is no unambiguous measure of simplicity for incommensurable theories.