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Pat Tillman’s Atheism

The Tillman Story (DVD cover)

In the 2010 documentary film, The Tillman Story, the story of Pat Tillman and his tragic death at the hands of “friendly fire” is retold. Tillman was the NFL star who gave it all up to join the military cause in Afghanistan after being inspired by 9/11 to do something for his country. He did not do it for the glory or publicity, and gave up a lucrative football career for what he perceived to be a worthy cause. After his death the U.S. government implemented a publicity campaign to use Tillman’s death as a tool to promote the war as a cause so worthy that even a highly-paid NFL star believed it to be worth the sacrifice. What the government failed to mention is that Tillman was killed at the hands of his fellow soldiers during a “fog of war” incident in a steep and narrow slot canyon in which there was much confusion about where enemy fire was originating. It’s a very disturbing film to watch—infuriating in fact—and Jon Krakauer’s book, Where Men Win Glory, presents the story in excruciating detail in a compelling narrative.

Pat Tillman was an atheist. At his funeral his younger brother Richard got up to speak, visibly upset, noticeably inebriated, and with beer in hand proceeded to thank everyone for their warm sentiments, but upbraided those like Maria Shriver and Senator John McCain who made religious overtones in their sentiments, noting about his brother Pat: “He’s not with God, he’s fucking dead. He’s not religious. Thanks for your thoughts, but he’s fucking dead.”

Later in the film there is a radio interview presented with Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich, who was the Regimental Executive Officer at Forward Operating Base Salerno on Khost, Afghanistan, under which Tillman was serving at the time of his death, and who led the military investigation into Pat’s death. I found the following exchange to be among the most disturbing things in the entire film that was missed by most reviewers, starting in reference to the grieving Tillman family who were at the time vigorously pursuing an investigation into Pat’s death and the government cover up of it:

Kauzlarich: “These people are having a hard time letting it go. It may be because of their religious beliefs. I don’t know how an atheist thinks, but I can only imagine that that would be pretty tough. If you’re an atheist and you don’t believe in anything, if you die what is there to go to? Nothing. You’re worm dirt. It’s pretty hard to get your head around that.”

Host: “So you suspect that’s probably the reason this thing [the family’s persistence in getting to the bottom of Pat’s death] is running on.”

Kauzlarich: “I think so. There’s not a whole lot of trust in the system or faith in the system.”

So…if you’re an atheist it means that you’re not going to buy into the belief that death—even a tragic, unnecessary, and friendly-fire death—will somehow be made acceptable by the belief that all will be made right in heaven where all the good Conservative Christian soldiers will meet up once again. This is very disturbing. What this knucklehead nincompoop is saying is that if the Tillman family were good Christians they would have gone along with the patriotic platitudes of the military in assuaging everyone’s grief by pretending that it was all done in the name of god and country. But since the Tillmans are atheists it means that they actually want truth and justice now! How inconvenient. How pathetic. And this is yet another point against religious belief: it leads you to blur your focus on the here-and-now and let slip your grip on reality, and allow yourself to be manipulated by those who have neither the conscience nor the courage to stand up for what is right and true.

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Mr. Deity and the Believing Brain

Mr. Deity seeks help from Michael Shermer to make his creatures more gullible.

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The Immortalist

A Review of Transcendent Man: A Film About the Life and Ideas of Ray Kurzweil. Produced by Barry Ptolemy, Music by Philip Glass, inspired by the book The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil. Digital release March 1, DVD release May 25.

cover

Beware the prophet who proclaims the end of the world, the apocalypse, doomsday, judgment day, the second coming, the resurrection, or the Biggest Thing to Happen to Humanity ever will happen in the prophet’s own lifetime. It is our natural inclination to assume that we are special and that our generation will witness the new dawn, but the Copernican Principle tells us that we are not special. Thus, the chances that even a science-based prophecy such as that proffered by the futurist, inventor, and scientistic visionary extraordinaire Ray Kurzweil—that by 2029 we will have the science and technology to live forever—is unlikely to be fulfilled.

Transcendent Man is Barry Ptolemy’s beautifully crafted and artfully edited documentary film about Kurzweil and his quest to save humanity. If you enjoy contemplating the Big Questions in Life from a scientific perspective, you will love this film. Accompanied by the eerily haunting music of Philip Glass who, appropriately enough, also scored Errol Morris’ film The Fog of War—about another bigger-than-life character who thought he could mold the world through data-driven decisions, Robert McNamara—Transcendent Man pulls viewers in through Kurzweil’s visage of a future in which we merge with our machines and vastly extend our longevity and intelligence to the point where even death will be defeated. This point is what Kurzweil calls the “singularity” (inspired by the physics term denoting the infinitely dense point at the center of a black hole), and he arrives at the 2029 date by extrapolating curves based on what he calls the “law of accelerating returns.” This is “Moore’s Law” (the doubling of computing power every year) on steroids, applied to every conceivable area of science, technology and economics.

Ptolemy’s portrayal of Kurzweil is unmistakably positive, but to his credit he includes several critics from both religion and science. From the former, a radio host named Chuck Missler, a born-again Christian who heads the Koinonia Institute (“dedicated to training and equipping the serious Christian to sojourn in today’s world”), proclaims: “We have a scenario laid out that the world is heading for an Armageddon and you and I are going to be the generation that’s alive that is going to see all this unfold.” He seems to be saying that Kurzweil is right about the second coming, but wrong about what it is that is coming. (Of course, Missler’s prognostication is the N+1 failed prophecy that began with Jesus himself, who told his followers (Mark 9:1): “Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.”) Another religiously-based admonition comes from the Stanford University neuroscientist William Huribut, who self-identifies as a “practicing Christian” who believes in immortality, but not in the way Kurzweil envisions it. “Death is conquered spiritually,” he pronounced.

On the science side of the ledger, Neil Gershenfeld, director of the Center for Bits and Atoms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sagely notes: “What Ray does consistently is to take a whole bunch of steps that everybody agrees on and take principles for extrapolating that everybody agrees on and show they lead to things that nobody agrees on.” Likewise, the estimable futurist Kevin Kelly, whose 2010 book What Technology Wants paints a much more realistic portrait of what our futures may (or may not) hold, asks rhetorically “What happens in 40 years from now and Ray dies and doesn’t have his father back? What does all this mean? Was he wrong? Well, he was right about some things. But in my observation the precursors of those technologies that would have to exist simply are not here. Ray’s longing for this, his expectation, is heartwarming, but it isn’t going to happen.” Kelly agrees that Kurzweil’s exponential growth curves are accurate but that the conclusions and especially the inspiration drawn from them are not. “He seems to have no doubts about it and in this sense I think he is a prophetic type figure who is completely sure and nothing can waiver his absolute certainty about this. So I would say he is a modern day prophet…that’s wrong.”

Transcendent Man is clearly meant to be an uplifting film celebrating all the ways science and technology have and are going to enrich our lives. I don’t know if it is the music or the cinematography or the subject himself, but I found Transcendent Man to be a sad film about a genius who has been in agony since the premature death of his father at age 58. Fredric Kurzweil was a professional musician who Ray’s mother says on camera was never around while his charge was growing up. Like father like son—Kurzweil’s own workaholic tendencies in his creation of over a dozen companies starting when he was 17 meant he never really knew his father. As the film portrays the tormented inventor, Kurzweil’s mission in life seems more focused on resurrecting his patriarch than rescuing humanity.

An especially lachrymose moment is when Kurzweil is rifling through his father’s journals and documents in a storage room dedicated to preserving his memory until the day that all this “data” (including Ray’s own fading memories) can be reconfigured into an A.I. simulacrum so that father and son can be reunited. Through heavy sighs and wistful looks Kurzweil comes off not as a proselytizer on a mission but as a man tormented. It is, in fact, the film’s leitmotif. In one scene Kurzweil is shown wiping away a tear at his father’s gravesite, in another he pauses over photographs and looks longingly at mementos, and in another cut at the beach Kurzweil recalls the day his father “uncharacteristically” phoned him just days before his death, as if he’d had a premonition. Although Kurzweil says he is optimistic and cheery about life, he can’t seem to stop talking about death: “It’s such a profoundly sad, lonely feeling that I really can’t bear it,” he admits. “So I go back to thinking about how I’m not going to die.” One wonders how much of life he is missing by over thinking death, or how burdensome it must surely be to imbibe over 200 supplement tables a day and have your blood tested and cleansed every couple of months, all in an effort to reprogram the body’s biochemistry.

There is something almost religious about Kurzweil’s scientism, an observation he himself makes in the film, noting the similarities between his goals and that of the world’s religions: “the idea of a profound transformation in the future, eternal life, bringing back the dead—but the fact that we’re applying technology to achieve the goals that have been talked about in all human philosophies is not accidental because it does reflect the goal of humanity.” Although the film never discloses Kurzweil’s religious beliefs (he was raised by Jewish parents as a Unitarian Universalist), in a (presumably) unintentionally humorous moment that ends the film Kurzweil reflects on the God question and answers it himself: “Does God exist? I would say, ‘Not yet.’” Cheeky.

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The Eternally Boring Hereafter

A review of Clint Eastwood’s film Hereafter

/// ATTENTION! Spoiler Alert! ///

After a string of highly successful and critically acclaimed films by Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino, Invictus, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, etc.), I fully expected his latest, Hereafter, to be so well written (screenplay by Peter Morgan—Frost/Nixon, The Queen) and so compelling that stories about near-death experiences would skyrocket and that I would be preoccupied for months dealing with media inquiries about “true stories” of the hereafter. Alas, and with some relief, this will not happen as Hereafter is possibly the worst film Eastwood has ever directed.

If the hereafter is anything like its filmic namesake, then it will turn out to be glacially slow, eternally boring, and pointless, with seemingly random plot lines aimlessly wandering about the ethereal landscape. I wanted to like this film, despite my skepticism on its subject, because I like Clint Eastwood productions and I’m a sucker for a well-produced story, able and willing to suspend disbelief long enough to get emotionally involved. I tried but failed to do so with this film. It’s a bomb. Don’t bother to see it in the theaters, and don’t even waste a couple of bucks on a Netflix rental.

The only redeeming part of the film was the striking opening scene of the tsunami in Southeast Asia that sets the background for the first plot line. An attractive French reporter leaves her lover in their hotel room to go shopping for his kids among the street vendors below. When he hears a disturbing sound and looks out the window he sees the ocean receding, followed by a massive body of water rushing back in to the shore and slamming into buildings and leveling everything in its path. From the woman’s street level view tucked in among buildings she can only see trees felling and chaos approaching with only enough time to realize that there is no time to do anything about it. She is swept up in the tsunami’s leading edge and slammed about cars, building debris, trees, and the like, until she is whacked on the head unconscious. Cut to minutes later when she is being given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation by rescuers, to no avail. They give up and move on to the next victim, whereupon she comes to life, after a brief encounter with the hereafter, which Eastwood portrays as a fuzzy, nebulous place with people walking about aimlessly. It’s a portent of things to come.

The second plot line is Matt Damon’s psychic character George, a former psychic who gave up fame and riches because his “gift” is also a curse. A cross between James Van Praagh and John Edward, George concedes to a reading for a client of his sleazy brother (Jay Mohr) and scores several hits. The brother encourages George to quit his job at a San Francisco dock and return to the psychic world, but he will have none of it as it’s just too emotionally traumatic to read people’s inner thoughts (that much I suspect is true, if any of it were true, which it isn’t). Matt Damon’s love interest is the beautiful Bryce Dallas Howard, whom he meets at a cooking class, but after nearly an hour’s worth of romantic buildup to some sort of coming together, she departs the film for good after George reads her and conveys the message that her deceased father is sorry for the naughty things he did to her as a young girl.

The third plot line develops around 12-year old twins named Marcus and Jason, who live with their drug-addicted mother in London, England. Jason is hit by a car and killed, leaving Marcus to wander about the city in search of a psychic who can connect him to his brother. Here at least Eastwood had the good sense to depict what most psychics are like—scammers and flimflam artists conning their marks out of a few bucks by talking twaddle with the dead through standard cold-reading techniques. Marcus is dismayed by the idiocy of these pretenders and finally returns to the foster home where he struggles to keep his sanity.

For an hour and forty-five minutes all three of these plot lines run parallel, leaving audience members to wonder when—oh please when?!—will they finally be brought together. Finally, after what feels like an interminable marathon of tedium, George quits his job and takes a vacation in London to visit the home of his favorite author, Charles Dickens. While there he notices a flyer for a lecture about Dickens at a book fair in London, where, per chance, the French reporter is doing a signing for her new book on life after death, which she was inspired to write after an hour and a half of futzing around with her mundane reporter’s job distracted by her experience with the hereafter in the tsunami. By chance, little Marcus finds himself drawn to the book fair where he recognizes George from his web page photos, and begs him for a reading, which he finally gets. Naturally, George is better than those phony psychics, and Marcus encourages George to seek out the French woman so that they may all connect to the dead. George and Marie find a love connection as well and the story ends happily ever after.

Never have I been so relieved for a movie to end. There was one memorable moment, however, and that was the opening line of the opening trailer before Hereafter even started. The trailer was for a January 2011 release called The Rite, staring Anthony Hopkins as an American priest who travels to Italy to study at an exorcism school. (You can watch the trailer here). The line that rather caught my attention as I was settling into my seat, was, “You know the interesting thing about skeptics?” To which I blurted out “No, what?” The answer: “It’s that we’re always looking for proof. The question is, What on earth would we do with it if we found it?” I know what I do with proof when I find it. I publish it! Another character in the trailer then says “I believe people prefer to lie to themselves than face the truth.”

Here, then, in this trailer is the message for belief in the hereafter. If there were proof of it, we would publish it to the high heavens. But, since there isn’t, most people prefer to lie to themselves about it rather than face the truth that it is what we do in this life that counts.

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God 2.0: Is the deity a nonlocal quantum mind?

The “Quantum Flapdoodle” of Deepak Chopra and his notion of the deity as a nonlocal quantum mind

Do you believe in God? In most surveys, about nine out of ten Americans respond in the affirmative. The other ten percent provide a variety of answers, including a favorite among skeptics and atheists, “which God?,” spoken in a smarmy manner and followed by a litany of deities: Aphrodite, Amon Ra, Apollo, Baal, Brahma, Ganesha, Isis, Mithras, Osiris, Shiva, Thor, Vishnu, Wotan, and Zeus. “We’re all atheists of these gods,” goes the denouement, “some of us go one god further.”

I have debated many a theologian who make the traditional arguments for God’s existence: the cosmological argument (prime mover, first cause), the teleological argument (the universe’s order and design), the ontological argument (if it is logically possible for God to exist then God exists), the anthropic argument (the fine-tuned characteristics of nature), the moral argument (awareness of right and wrong), and others. These are all reasons to believe if you already believe; if you do not already believe these reasons ring hollow and have been refuted by philosophers from David Hume to Daniel Dennett.

This last spring, however, I participated in a debate with a theologian of a different species—the New Age spiritualist Deepak Chopra—whose arguments for the existence of a deity take a radically different tact. Filmed by ABC’s Nightline and viewed by millions, Deepak hammered out a series of scientistic-sounding arguments for the existence of a nonlocal spooky-action-at-a-distance quantum force. Call it Deepak’s God 2.0.

In the Middle Ages scholars drew correspondences between the microcosm (the earth) and the macrocosm (the heavens), finding linkages between bodily organs, earthly minerals, and heavenly bodies that made the entire system interlocking and interdependent. Gold corresponds to the Sun, which corresponds to the Heart. Silver corresponds to the Moon, which corresponds to the Brain. Mercury corresponds to the planet Mercury, which corresponds to the Gonads. The four elements of Earth, Water, Air, and Fire were astrologically coupled to the four humor-based personality traits of melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguine, and choleric. In its essence Deepak’s New Age theology is a Middle Ages-inspired correspondence between macrocosm world events and microcosm quantum effects, an upgrade from God 1.0 to God 2.0, well captured in the following chart (inspired by my friend and colleague Stephen Beckner):

God 1.0 God 2.0
omnipresent
fully man/fully God
miracles
leap of faith
transubstantiation
Council of Rome
supernatural forces
heaven
hell
eternity
prayer
the Godhead
the Trinity
forgiveness of sin
virgin birth
resurrection
non-local
wave/particle duality
wave-function collapse
quantum leap
Heisenberg uncertainty principle
Copenhagen interpretation
anti-matter
dark energy
dark matter
space/time continuum
quantum entanglement
general relativity
special relativity
quantum erasure
quantum decoherence
virtual reality

Deepak believes that the weirdness of the quantum world (such as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle) can be linked to certain mysteries of the macro world (such as consciousness). This supposition is based on the work of the tandem team of Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff, whose theory of quantum consciousness has generated much heat but little light in scientific circles.

Inside our neurons are tiny hollow microtubules that act like structural scaffolding. The conjecture is that something inside the microtubules may initiate a wave function collapse that leads to the quantum coherence of atoms, causing neurotransmitters to be released into the synapses between neurons and thus triggering them to fire in a uniform pattern, thereby creating thought and consciousness. Since a wave function collapse can only come about when an atom is “observed” (i.e., affected in any way by something else), “mind” may be the observer in a recursive loop from atoms to molecules to neurons to thought to consciousness to mind to atoms to molecules to neurons to….

In reality, the gap between microcosm quantum effects and macrocosm world events is too large to bridge. In his 1995 book The Unconscious Quantum (Prometheus Books) the University of Colorado particle physicist Victor Stenger demonstrates that for a system to be described quantum mechanically the system’s typical mass m, speed v, and distance d must be on the order of Planck’s constant h. “If mvd is much greater than h, then the system probably can be treated classically.” Stenger computes that the mass of neural transmitter molecules, and their speed across the distance of the synapse, are about three orders of magnitude too large for quantum effects to be influential. There is no microcosm—macrocosm connection. Subatomic particles may be altered when they are observed, but contrary to what Deepak believes, the moon is there even if no one looks at it.

Deepak’s use and abuse of quantum physics is what the Caltech quantum physicist and Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann calls “quantum flapdoodle,” which is when you string together a series of terms and phrases from quantum physics and assume that explains something in the regular macro world in which we live. “The mind is like an electron cloud surrounding the nucleus of an atom,” Chopra writes in his 2006 book Life After Death. “Until an observer appears, electrons have no physical identity in the world; there is only the amorphous cloud. In the same way, imagine that there is a cloud of possibilities open to the brain at every moment (consisting of words, memories, ideas, and images I could choose from). When the mind gives a signal, one of these possibilities coalesces from the cloud and becomes a thought in the brain, just as an energy wave collapses into an electron.”

Baloney. The microscopic world of subatomic particles as described by the mathematics of quantum mechanics has no correspondence with the macroscopic world in which we live as described by the mathematics of Newtonian mechanics. These are two different physical systems at two different scales described by two different types of mathematics. The hydrogen atoms in the sun are not sitting around in a cloud of possibilities waiting for a cosmic mind to signal them to fuse into helium atoms and thereby throw off heat generated by nuclear fusion. By the laws of physics of this universe, a gravitationally collapsing cloud of hydrogen gas will, if large enough, reach a critical point of pressure to cause those hydrogen atoms to fuse into helium atoms and give off heat and light in the process, and it would do so even if there were not a single mind in the entire cosmos to observe it.

God 2.0 has no more basis in scientific fact than God 1.0, no matter how many observers believe it is so.

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