Sunday, June 24, 2012

Finding Rembrandt

"Aha!" -- Argument Against Motive

Recently I blogged on the movie Prometheus. In particular I discussed the controversial issue of Intelligent Design that the movie touched on (and was criticized for). There has been much heated debate on the topic—from scientists, philosophers, theologians to internet trolls pontificating on the matter. However, a lot of the discussion generate more heat than light.

A problem I have observed is prejudice. The issue has become so politicized that it is difficult to raise the topic without attack-dogs barking from both sides. Though I consider myself a design theorist I do not follow all that is proposed by the Intelligent Design movement. At this time I choose to remain agnostic on some of the specific points in the debate.

A problem I will address in this post is what I call MOTIVE MONGERING. When either side engages in motive mongering argument the conversation quickly degenerates from a useful discussion about the data into nasty accusations and mudslinging.

Recently I tried to engage a young and scientifically minded skeptic who aggressively promotes Darwinian evolutionary theory in his blog (he is a self-styled agnostic-atheist) and utterly despises the Intelligent Design movement. I applauded his article “Some preliminary thoughts on developing a scientific form of intelligent design” that appeared to move the discussion to a more fruitful level.

In his article he stated, “Intelligent design, as a cultural movement, is demonstrably religious in nature. The vast majority of its proponents and supporters are evangelical, conservative Christians, and a large proportion of its outreach programs are aimed at churches and other religious institutions. While the main leaders of the movement actively deny it, hiding behind a fa├žade of seeming scientific credibility, even going so far as branding themselves academic martyrs and mavericks, it is an easy and obvious conclusion to draw.”

I commented that even granting this to be true, in the end it’s an irrelevant point. I argued that this approach is in fact being used as a squid tactic to avoid any legitimate discussion on some pertinent matters.

To illustrate my point I gave this illustration – Finding Rembrandt

An important art find is being investigated by art experts to determine its date and origin. A Rembrandt scholar is among the experts investigating the find. After studying the evidence they come together and discuss the matter. The Rembrandt scholar excitedly makes his suggestion and the conversation follows –

Rembrandt Scholar (RS from here on): “This is a Rembrandt (R from here on).”

Other Art Experts (OAE from here on): “Excuse me?”

RS: “I think this is a R.”

OAE: “You think? Do you have evidence directly linking this painting to R or are you just making a ballpark guess?”

RS: “Well, I can’t make a direct physical link from this work to R but upon looking at the painting itself e.g. the theme (mythological and religious), the strokes, color combinations, materials, etc, all are consistent with what is known of R’s works. And plus the fact the dating of this art—early to mid 17th century— indicates that it matches the time when R was producing a lot of work. It is also significant that this work can be traced to have come from Amsterdam.”

OAE: “Ok, but you don’t have direct physical evidence that links this work to R, right?”

RS: “Well, that’s correct. But if it looks, sounds, feels, smells like a R then maybe it is a R—you know what I mean?”

OAE: “Tell me, what’s your expertise?”

RS: “I’m a R scholar. Did my PhD on the history of art with a focus on R. I confess I like the guy. I like his work.”

OAE: Looking at each other and some rolling their eyes mocking, “No offense but we suspect that you may be seeing what you want to see in this painting. It’s understandable, I mean, we all at times suffer from that error. This is an important find and you’re a R scholar, and so you will be tempted to see R in this work, but perhaps the things you see may not really be there.”

RS: “You’re misunderstanding me; I’m arguing that the physical data strongly suggests that this is R, and I can argue from the evidence. Of course I’m happy to see R fingerprints in the work but I’m arguing that the raw data cries R. I’m not imposing R on it.”

OAE: “I’m going to be blunt here. Being a R scholar makes your proposition that this is R very suspicious. I believe you’ve compromised your judgment by your prior commitments being a R scholar.”

RS: “Common guys, I think I’m competent enough to make my own judgments based on the evidence irrespective of my background. Critique my proposal on the basis of the evidence and not speculate on my motives, conscious or subconscious. Hey, you may be correct that my proposal may just be a projection of my own subjective desires but you will have to demonstrate that on the basis of the evidence and not just accuse me of it. I will not put up with that nonsense. I say it’s R and I am prepared to argue from the evidence. You say no. Fine. But demonstrate to me that my interpretations are demonstrably erroneous. Don’t just reject my proposal in toto on the basis of motive-mongering. How about you—what’s your proposal?”

OAE: “Well, since we do not have physical evidence, not even testimonial or literary evidence, directly linking this painting to any known artist then the best and most rational conclusion we believe is that we don’t know. Source unknown.”

Some observations: 

1.OAE may be correct but they must demonstrate their point and not simply assume its correctness.

2. Motive-mongering argument is never valid; the evidence will speak for itself irrespective of the motive. The evidence will either totally destroy the argument, exposing the motive to be erroneous, or affirm the argument and prove the motive to be correct.

3. The RS has an advantage in this scenario for his expertise is in R and so he has a keener eye to discern a R work when he sees one.

The argument cuts both ways.

Designed or Not-designed

Now to the debate on whether there is a designing intelligence behind nature or none. On the one hand the theist (who believes that God or a Supernatural Mind is behind the universe and is the source of life) may fall into the error of reading too much theism into the data. While on the other hand the atheist/materialist/reductionist (believes that there is no such thing as God or the Supernatural, that nature is all there is) may also read too much his atheism into the evidence. Both errors must be avoided and exposed. But neither is to be disqualified just because of his/her worldview background.

Some questions when dealing with the data –

> Is the data/evidence friendlier toward a design paradigm or a no-design paradigm? 

> Which paradigm best explains the data (Ockham’s Razor may be utilized here)?

There are some data that can fit neatly to either paradigm while others tend toward one of the other.

I stated that I agreed with his following statements –

“But no matter how simple it is to label the central idea behind a movement with the same characteristics as the movement itself, it should be avoided. Ideas are independent of those who put them forward, and the fair assessment of every rival idea and hypothesis is one of the best principles of the modern scientific method...”

I said that this was the right attitude.

I also appreciated his thought that, “The pure idea of intelligent design, removed from its cultural context, is not religious – not necessarily.”

“Now you’re talking!” I said.

Unfortunately, and quite uncharacteristically, for some reason he did not engage.

Any takers?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Prometheus - Whodunit?

This is a selective review of the movie Prometheus. I will focus on a particular theme that drives the movie narrative. WARNING: If you’re still planning to see the movie then stop here. This review will contain spoilers. But do visit again after watching. Enjoy.

Big Movie
Prometheus is big. Big on the box office (earning $50 million since opening). Big on special effects.Director Ridley Scott is big in Hollywood with such hits as Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Blade Runner, the original Alien series et al. But the biggest things about the movie are the questions it asks. Questions that have serious practical ramifications (e.g. social, moral/ethical, legal, political) – “Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going?” Or as Weyland, a character in the film puts it, “Where do we come from? What is our purpose? What happens when we die?” These are questions that have haunted humanity for millennia. We humans are curios critters; we have an itch to “know”. We want to know. We want to know all that is possible to know.

C. S. Lewis states that “One of the things that distinguishes man from the other animals is that he wants to know things, wants to find out what reality is like, simply for the sake of knowing. When that desire is completely quenched in anyone, I think he has become something less than human.” 

And the questions that Prometheus asks are the bottom line questions; “the most meaningful questions ever asked by mankind” (a line from the same character), the sine qua non questions that may help us give some sense of the present and possibly give us answers to the pressing issues we face today. What does it mean to be human? How are we to live? Weyland seems to make this connection. He says that whatever power created life on earth also has the power to save humanity (of course he was thinking of his own desire to have his lease in life extended or perhaps even achieve that most elusive thing called eternal life or immortality).

Sadly, these questions are on the one hand largely ignored by the modern, image-driven, overly sensual, mindless pop culture, and on the other are given up by postmodernism’s intellectual equivocations. And thus Prometheus is a breath of fresh air in the often mindless entertainment that Hollywood dishes out. At least it attempts to raise truly crucial questions. However, when it comes to answers Prometheus fall dismally dull.

Designed Life?
The protagonist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) is a person of faith. She “believes”. What? Perhaps in the Supernatural behind the natural? A Spiritual reality beyond physical reality? Perhaps she believes in God as the source of the universe and even the source of life itself—human life in particular? And the cross she’s wearing suggests that her Faith is Christian, though it’s not made explicit. However, what’s explicit in the film is an attack on faith. Just like her father she believes because she “chooses” to believe, with the subtle suggestion that faith is nothing but a matter of “choosing”; just the will to believe even in the face of contrary evidence, or choosing to believe even in the face of grim realities unfriendly to faith.

The film treads on the very weighty topic of abiogenesis (the origin of life on earth). The character Holloway critiques our protagonist’s (his girlfriend) faith by asserting that there’s no need to believe in some religious creator and that aliens could easily have done it; “There’s nothing special about the creation of life. All you need is a dash of DNA and half a brain.” I find this strange and even laughable. So where did that DNA come from?

In the prologue the movie shows that life was seeded by aliens in this planet (and the matching DNA between aliens and humans is given as evidence for that). And thus did not just develop naturally through some cosmic happenstance. And how to account for the “half a brain” (they call it the “engineer” in the movie) that engineered, designed, the creation of life? In their dialogue our protagonist correctly rebuts by asking, ‘Who created the aliens who brought life on earth?’ So it’s like, “Well, these are our parents. Sure. But who are their parents, and the parents of their parents, and…” You get the point. No answers here.

At least the movie says that human life was DESIGNED, even intelligently designed, and did not just naturally pop out of some steamy ancient soup somewhere. And this is where film becomes controversial (as some critics have pointed out). Naturalists or philosophical materialists who are aggressive in their atheism are nervous about the very idea of an “engineer” behind life. They cannot, indeed they must not, allow an “engineer’s or a designer’s foot in the door. It’s nature alone that produced life. They insist. No intelligent engineer. No intelligent designer. In spite of the fact that they can only assert this and cannot demonstrate this scientifically (arguing from ignorance), and in spite of the fact that nature itself seem to suggest the impossibility of life developing spontaneously, and that nature also seem to demonstrate Intelligence (both in the creation of the universe itself i.e. the Big Bang, and in the very structure of life (see, these reductive materialists aggressively assert that life is nothing but cosmic dust that happened to accidentally settle on this accidental planet, that happens to have the right kind of atmosphere, and accidentally is just located in the right kind of solar system, that accidentally just happens to have the right kind of sun and the right kind of moon, and of course all this in an accidental universe. And then the stardust supposedly assembled themselves and then suddenly, I dare say MAGICALLY, the inanimate turned animate, from dead matter to living, from non-life to life, from mud to Manny Pacquiao—all by accident! Just like a rabbit out of a magician’s hat. Hmmm. Now that’s what I call true faith!

From Nothing?
Some scientists such as cosmologist Lawrence Kraus (A Universe from Nothing) are actually trying to argue that nothing can produce something. However, criticisms of his ideas have been merciless.* A major problem is that Kraus' "nothing" is not really NOTHING. He is sneaking in some very REAL THINGS into his "nothing". Kraus still doesn't have a rebuttal to the point in this story --

A scientist goes to God and boldly says, "We don't need you anymore. I can create a human from nothing more than a handful of dust."

"Alright then, let's see." God replies.

"No problem." Says the scientist, and he bends over to scoop up some dust.

"Hey wait a minute," God interrupts. "Make your own dust."

"Huh?" Reacts the scientist. "That's crazy. How the hell do you expect me to do anything!?"

"Exactly." God says.

Actually, in their more honest moments many of these atheists, faced with the staggering challenge of how can life spontaneously come out of non-life (see, seriously entertain the theory known as panspermia i.e. that life did not originate locally but was in some way transported here by aliens or by extraterrestrial debris from somewhere else in the universe. 

Donald Johnson lists some scientists who suggest this: S. Arrhenius., Worlds in the Making, 1908. Francis Crick, “The Origin of the Genetic Code” J. Mol Biol: 38, 1968, p. 367-379. Fred Hoyle, The Intelligent Universe, 1983, pp. 16-17. Bernstein. Max, Jason Dworkin, Scott Sandford, George Cooper, and Louis Allamandola, “Racemic amino acids from the ultraviolet photolysis of interstellar ice analogue,” Nature”: 416, 3/28/02. Also Leslie Orgel (origin of life researcher) 

Even the outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins was caught suggesting this in the movie Expelled. (See

Now this does not really solve the problem. It just moves the problem to some other planet. Who brought life to that alien planet? Who created those aliens? So we’re back to square one.

Now What?
So back to Weyland’s questions, 1) “Where do we come from?” Prometheus says aliens did it. And O my, very unfriendly aliens! Anyway, who created the aliens? No answer. 2) “What is our purpose?” Prometheus is hopelessly confused about this. Aliens supposedly created us and then when we were “born” they changed their mind and wanted us dead. Comforting thought! Hopefully Prometheus II will give answers. 3) “What happens when we die?” Absolute silence.

The character Weyland stated that the power that created us also has the power to save us. Suggesting that humanity needs some sort of “redemption”, a redemption that humanity itself cannot deliver.  But Prometheus tells us the opposite. The aliens that supposedly created us are now hell-bent on annihilating us! So the movie starts with good questions but then leaves us with more questions. Where to for answers?

Faith in an "Alien"
However, according to an ancient Faith, a Faith that does indeed claim to have made contact with an “Alien”, we really don’t have to travel far and wide in the universe to find answers to these age old question. The Faith tells us that a genuine “Alien” actually came and visited us. But he is not like the alien in the Prometheus movie. He is THE Alien, The Ultimate Alien, One who claims, "I am the Alpha and the Omega, who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty." (Rev1:8)

This Alien made many astonishing claims such as “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (Jn14:6) He also said, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" (Jn11:25-26)

C. S. Lewis, a literary genius who was an atheist turned Christian, perceptively observed that we really only have very limited options when it comes to the claims of this Alien. He writes, “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic -- on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg -- or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” – Mere Christianity

Was Jesus an “alien”? He said these words Himself, "You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world.” (Jn8:23) The man Saul of Tarsus whose name was changed to Paul after he personally encountered this Alien, came to the shocking realization that this Alien who transformed him from a murderous religious fanatic to a humble servant, was actually humanity's Maker. He wrote, “Christ is the visible representation of the invisible God, the Firstborn and Lord of all creation. For in Him was created the universe of things in heaven and on earth, things seen and things unseen, thrones, dominions, princedoms, powers--all were created, and exist through and for Him. And HE IS before all things and in and through Him the universe is a harmonious whole. (Col.1:15-17)

And unlike the alien-creator of Prometheus that seeks humankind’s annihilation, Jesus “came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” (Jn12:47)

“I have come as a light into the world, so that no one who has faith in me will go on living in the dark." (Jn12:46)

Jesus Christ claims to give the ultimate answers to those age old questions. “Where do we come from?” From the Personal God who, out of love and generosity, created the universe and breathed life into it. “What is our purpose?” To know God and to have the chance to live with, and enjoy Him for all eternity. “What happens when we die?” We get to meet God personally and give an account of our lives before Him.

One day we will all stand before this Alien who claims, “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.” Rev22:13

*Kraus was eaten up by Craig in a recent debate. Here's a review

Also here

A scathing critique of the movie’s script is here