Monday, September 20, 2010

Salem's Lot

The Oracle is trying to decide which is more interesting: Christine O'Donnell having said that she "dabbled in witchcraft," or the political left trying to burn her at the stake.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Hawking Atheism

Richard Dawkins famously praised Darwinism for making it possible for someone to be an "intellectually satisfied atheist." While such satisfaction may be more possible, obstacles remain, and one of the highest hurdles for nonbelievers who wish to be both satisfied and confident would be finding an explanation for the ultimate origin of the universe. Theories positing either the eternal existence of matter or an infinite regression of causes are problematic both scientifically and philosophically. Stephen Hawking has now taken up the cause in a somewhat different way. In an essay that appeared last week in the Wall Street Journal, which was excerpted from a soon to be released book, he reaches this conclusion:

Many people would like us to use these coincidences as evidence of the work of God....That is not the answer of modern science. As recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.

Mr. Hawking is widely regarded as a brilliant theoretical physicist, and one should be careful about accusing him of writing sheer nonsense, but it is hard to try. His use of the term "creation," seems odd, given that the word implies a creator, but he may have decided that it would be less embarrassing than "spontaneous generation," a concept that most high school freshmen have learned is less than reputable. Mr. Hawking confidently asserts that "modern science" ascribes "creation" to "the laws of gravity and quantum theory." Ascribing an outcome to laws of a theory is semantically awkward to the point of incoherence, but perhaps that is why the author chose to use the rather weak verb "allow." Given that Mr. Hawking has already described nicely how the universe appears to be "extremely fine-tuned," this talk of how laws of theories allow spontaneous generation sounds more like make believethan anything real.

Indeed, the rest of the essay is not much better. In spite of the smug, dismissive tone -- Mr. Hawking implicitly lumps all theists with pre-modern Viking myths -- that claims a basis in "modern cosmology," the article is little more than a speculative stab at reaching a conclusion arrived at for reasons that have nothing to do with the facts. His confident assertion that God is "not necessary" hardly seems justified by admissions that he is basing his notions on "a consequence predicted by many theories."

It may be true that Mr. Hawking finds satisfaction in speculative science based on predicted theoretical consequences. Some of us require more evidence than that.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Pastor Jones and Our Desperate Need

Far too much ink and bandwidth has been expended on the threat by Terry Jones to host a church event in which he intended to burn copies of the Koran. However, one question has not received much attention: why did so many people care?

In a nation of 300 million people, Mr. Jones has demonstrated sufficient charisma to gather a following of around 50. He lacks any discernible talent or notable intellect, and he does not come across as particularly articulate -- at his announcement on Friday, he could not even correctly pronounce the title of the man he was hoping to meet in New York. As the pastor of an independent congregation, he is essentially not accountable to anyone and is not a leader beyond his local fiefdom. His views are not consistent with either Christian verities or American values. Yet, he has managed for all intents and purposes to hold the nation hostage in his quixotic quest at self-immolation. His planned event has garnered the attention and approbation of everyone from the President of the United States to the commander of American forces in Afghanistan to politicians and pundits of every stripe to Muslims around the world threatening riots and violence because of his actions.


Modern communication technology provides everyone with a megaphone to the world. While that has many advantages -- it is now harder for hidden corruption to remain hidden, for example -- it has also presented our culture with a challenge that it has not yet answered. How do we decide what is important? A generation ago, a drunk spouting nonsense in a bar was heard by the 10 people within earshot. Today, his tweet might be heard by 10 million people around the world, and sometimes people decide that the rant requires a response.

Mr. Jones, who has the demonstrated capacity to spout nonsense while seemingly stone cold sober, got his response.

One suspects that it is asking too much to expect a culture in which journalists breathlessly gather at a courthouse in hopes of seeing Lindsay Lohan in handcuffs to discern what truly matters. Nonetheless, we desperately need to try.