Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

March 9, 2008

90 Minutes with Richard Dawkins

Filed under: books, culture, media, religion — Tags: , , , — codesmithy @ 1:00 pm

Richard Dawkins came to University of California at Berkeley on his University Tour. Unfortunately, I ran into some traffic on the way over, and hence arrived late. Late, as it turned out, just wasn’t going to cut it. The event sold out. There was a book signing afterwards, but having left my hardcover edition at home I didn’t feel like picking up another copy just for Dawkins to sign it. Resigned to my fate, I returned home from the bust.

In the bigger scheme of things, it is no great loss. I had already read “The God Delusion.” I’m already an atheist. I’ve watched quite a few of his presentations online. I highly doubt he would have covered any ground that I was previously unaware of. The draw of going to such events are the questions from the audience, but those tend to be very hit or miss.

Although, it was my personal failure for not arriving early enough, only having seating for 705 people seems to guarantee some people would be left out. If they would have gone with Zellerbach Hall, everyone interested would have been able to attend. I imagine the student group setting up the lecture didn’t do so because of the cost differences, and possibly because they didn’t believe Dawkins would be able to sell out Wheeler Auditorium. If that is the case, Dawkins seems to be a character of unanticipated popularity.

Thus, I always find myself at a little bit of a loss looking at the best sellers list. There are many fine books on the paperback non-fiction best seller list. “The God Delusion” is sitting above Friedman’s “The World is Flat” at 14. However, look at 5 on the list, “90 Minutes in Heaven”? It has been on the list 71 weeks whereas Dawkins’ book has only been on the list for 9.

To my surprise, Amazon recommends buying “90 Minutes in Heaven” with “23 Minutes in Hell” by Bill Wiese, thus exposing a fatal flaw in Amazon’s recommendation system. It should be recommending “Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time” by Michael Shermer, but I digress. Although, I’m still searching for “56 Minutes in Purgatory” so I could rest easy knowing there was a modern version of the Divine Comedy, but so far no luck.

However, the underlying point is here criticism. Dawkins has been criticized a lot, from an absurd caricature on South Park to endless litanies of his shrillness and stridency in advocating atheism. It is telling that the New York Times has not reviewed “90 Minutes in Heaven.” However, Jim Holt plays his role as an enabler for religious belief with an excellent review of “The God Delusion.” I want to say, there is nothing wrong with the review. It is well written. Points are well-argued with context, although I might not agree with all of them. I honestly wish all reviews were done as well as Holt’s of “The God Delusion.”

It is unfortunately the intrinsic state of atheism to be unable to deliver an absolutist knockout blow. The crux of the problem is Descartes’ evil deceiver. We can be confident in our own thinking, but since our perceptions of the world are fallible, it is necessary to admit we could be mistaken about everything else. However, the probability of this being the case is very low. This uncertainty is why many philosophers go reaching to god, just like Descartes did. God provides a way to assert something with absolutes, however introducing god produces as many issues as it answers. It is also true that this abstract, necessary metaphysical god to assert certainty is very different from one that we would associate with any religion. It is at best a metaphysical crutch that allow seemingly sensible people to cram all their superstitious belief into and pretend it is OK. Hence, atheists are caught in a catch-22 with the superstitious enablers who apparently want to run away from Occam’s razor.

Again, the issue isn’t the review. It is what the New York Times chooses not to review. Holt complains of logical sloppiness in Dawkins’ book. How about holding that standard to “90 Minutes in Heaven?” What, one of their reviewers could not find time to read a 208 page book in one of 71 weeks it has been on the best sellers list? It is in the nonfiction section no less. I’ll bet there is more truth in “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien than “90 Minutes in Heaven,” but at least O’Brien had the decency to call his work fiction.

Look at what people are claiming about Piper’s story:

The first is that he was dead for 90 minutes. I don’t know that I’ve heard of anyone being dead for that long and being resuscitated. The second is that if they were, they were in fact helped by a physical or medical technician to be revived. Don Piper was not, he simply came back to life for no apparent reason other than God. The third is that he came out with no internal injuries which given his circumstances was improbable to the extreme. That is why I give him great credibility.

I don’t know if the author of the post actually knows how credibility is supposed to function, and I highly suspect it is a marketing piece but still let’s take the post author at his word and assume he read the book. Piper “came back to life for no apparent reason other than God.” Piper rose from the dead with no help. The man was not breathing, his heart was not pumping, he was dead for 90 minutes and just woke up. We know brain cells die within 5 minutes of not receiving oxygen, and this man survived 90. Piper can help write a book and preach afterwards. How is this not one of the most talked about medical case studies in history?

If Dawkins deserves to be publicly criticized for his “tone [being] smug and the logic occasionally sloppy.” Doesn’t Piper deserve the same? Dawkins isn’t the one claiming to have gone to heaven and to have been raised from the dead by God with no physical earthly help, after all.

February 15, 2008

Richard Dawkins and Madeline Bunting Discuss Religion

Filed under: culture, religion, science — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 1:14 pm

Richard Dawkins and Madeline Bunting have a discussion on some of the topics raised in Dawkins’ book “The God Delusion.”  Dawkins’ main contention was quite simple: the existence of an omnipotent and omniscient being is a scientific question.  A universe with a God in it is quite different from a universe without one.  Science can and should aid our reasoning in determining the basic truth of statements such as: did Jesus have a father?

Bunting does a respectable job of waffling through the discussion.  She criticizes Dawkins’ strategy, complaining that confronting people’s beliefs is not a proper way to get them to like you.  Ironically, Blunting has particular difficulty in explaining exactly what belief is and whether or not she believes Jesus had a father.  She was, at that point, displaying a classic case of cognitive dissonance.  Her eventual out was her ill-defined “emotional” truth.  Truths that at their heart are personal and subjective.  Why particular Biblical claims fall into this category when they can clearly be objectively verified, Blunting fails to properly explain.  The most likely explanation is that they simply have no other refuge.

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