Friday, August 29, 2014

"Keep up the battle against unreason"

Visit Vic's web site
Victor J. Stenger (1935 - 2014)
"Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings."
Unfortunately I never had the opportunity to meet Vic in person. I discovered him in the late 1990s, and he immediately filled the void in my life that was left by the death of Isaac Asimov (who died in 1992) and Carl Sagan (who died in 1996). When I joined Vic's mailing list I was immediately impressed by his accessibility, his kindness, and his willingness to engage with, and listen to, someone like me (who had only just finished an undergraduate degree in mathematics).

When Vic starting writing Has Science Found God? I anxiously waited for each new draft chapter to be sent out to the list so I could read it, but I enjoyed the vigorous debate and robust discussions that resulted from his drafts even more. Vic understood quite well that the growth of knowledge results from "bold conjectures and vociferous refutations," and he lived it too! He not only sought out and encouraged individuals with a wide diversity of opinions and perspectives, but he also treated everyone with respect and listened to what they had to say. His books benefited immensely from this open give and take with people he both agreed and disagreed with.

I made some relatively minor contributions to Has Science Found God? (mostly some copy editing and suggestions designed to make some of the content more accessible to lay audiences, but also a couple of substantive changes which he incorporated), and he was gracious enough to credit me in the preface to the book. As he also notes in the preface: "The original manuscript of this book was mailed to the publisher on September 11, 2001, the day three thousand lives ended abruptly at the hands of Muslim terrorists. While many have assumed that their motives were political, there can be no denying that their fanaticism was fueled by their faith. They fully believed they were acting in the name of God." And as recent events in Iraq and Syria attest, religious fanaticism unfortunately remains with us today.

So to my fellow skeptics, I will leave you with the words that Vic inscribed in my copy of his book: "Keep up the battle against unreason." I can think of no better way to remember him. He will be sorely missed by many of us.

P.S. If you are not familiar with Vic's work, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of one of his books. His 2007 New York Times bestseller would be an excellent choice. And here are a few of my favorite short essays to give you a sense of his clarity and style: one on the theological significance of inflationary cosmology, one on intelligent design, and an early essay on Has Science Found God? from Free Inquiry magazine.

Online statements and tributes to Vic (more coming)...

Saturday, May 10, 2014

You can't always get what you want

You can't always get what you want.
But if you lie sometime, you just might find
Many still believe. Aaaaahhwaw...
(and buy millions of copies of your "nonfiction" book).
In defending the proposition that death is not finalEben Alexander cited Demon Haunted World to claim that "Carl Sagan admitted that [the evidence for] past life memories in overwhelming." Steven Novella called him out on this during the debate and quickly posted the relevant quote afterwards - clearly showing that Sagan thought these claims were probably not valid and that there was only "dubious" evidence for them at the time he wrote the book (it was published almost 20 years ago now). Yet in his own post-debate reflections Alexander not only fails to correct his mischaracterization of Sagan's view on this issue (or mention the audience vote showing he lost), but he then proceeds to cherry pick another Sagan quote - on the suppression of uncomfortable ideas.

But unlike Velikovsky's worlds in collision, Alexander's ideas are not at all uncomfortable to many who desperately want to believe them. And he provides no evidence to support them - only anecdotes and an argument from ignorance (the hard problem of consciousness). I think we know how Sagan would have dealt with Alexander's "overwhelming evidence"...

And since we're quoting Sagan, where are those eloquent words on the actual proposition at hand?
If some good evidence for life after death were announced, I'd be eager to examine it; but it would have to be real scientific data, not mere anecdote.... Better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy...
I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But as much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking...
The world is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better, it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look Death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides...
 - Carl Sagan 

Our lives here are not dress rehearsals. This is the act. This is the one performance that we get.
 - Sean Carroll 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Kathryn Schulz: On being wrong

Some excellent advice for us all to remember...

"Trusting too much in the feeling of being on the correct side of anything can be very dangerous...[T]o me, if you really want to rediscover wonder you need to step outside of that tiny terrified space of right-ness and look around at each other, and look out at the vastness and complexity and mystery of the universe, and be able to say 'Wow. I don't know. Maybe I'm wrong.'"

Reminds me of one of my favorite Asimov essays and Feynman's comments in the BBC interview.