Saturday, March 31, 2007

Movie Review: The Lives of Others

The Lives of OthersThe Lives of Others (Das Lenen der Anderen) is a compelling political thriller/drama set in East Germany in 1984 before the Berlin Wall came down. George Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) are writer and actor, respectively, living together in East Germany. They are well known as intellectual celebrities in the socialist state. They do not, however, always adopt the party line in their thinking. The Minister of Culture in East Berlin becomes interested in Christa-Maria and asks Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), a secret agent of the Stasi, to check her out. Wiesler sets up surveillance in a flat above them and everything about their lives is recorded and checked to see whether they are loyal to the state or not. Wiesler is ruthless but, as the surveillance proceeds, he becomes increasingly interested in their lives and finds himself having to deal with his shifting thoughts and feelings and his growing disillusionment.

The Lives of Others is a virtuoso piece of film making for this debut by director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. From the moment the film starts we are drawn inexorably into the narrative. The plot is superbly paced and perfectly structured and the actors are all outstanding with an inspired, ironic script with moments of genuine humour. It is also one of the few films to have a gratifying conclusion.

The Lives of Others is a deeply satisfying and profoundly thought-provoking movie, particularly when our post-9/11 world seems to be tending toward the loss of some rights, including privacy, in the name of national security. The Lives of Others has very deservedly won more than 33 awards, including the Best Foreign Film at the 2007 Oscars. If there is any such thing as a perfect movie, this one must come close. It is a must see movie!

My Rating: ***** (out of 5)

Positive Review
’A thoroughly compelling political thriller, at once intellectually challenging and profoundly emotional.’ - Claudia Puig/USA Today

Negative Review
’The Lives of Others wants us to see that the Stasi -- at least some of them -- were, like their Gestapo brethren, “just following orders." You can call that naive optimism on Donnersmarck’s part, or historical revisionism of the sort duly lambasted by the current film version of Alan Bennett’s "The History Boys." I, for one, tremble at the thought of what this young director does for an encore.’ - Scott Foundas/LA Weekly

Content Advice
Some sexuality/nudity


Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Banana - an atheists worst nightmare?

Here is a good example of the sort of argument that gives Christian apologetics a bad name. Check out the video... can you see any problems with the reasoning?

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Monty Python - The Argument Clinic

Sit back and check out this classic skit from the Monty Python team on the nature of argument. There are two forms of argument demonstrated/articulated in this skit: can you identify each one?

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Apocalypse Wow!

Check out this Father Matthew Presents... clip for a great little introduction to the meaning of the book of Revelation. He has a unique presentation style!

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Movie Review: Scoop

ScoopWoody Allen’s latest movie, Scoop, is a wonderfully entertaining crime comedy for the whole family. The story opens on a ship travelling to the afterlife with Death silently standing on the deck. On board, among others, is Lee Strombel (Ian McShane), a highly respected investigative journalist whose death is being mourned by his colleagues. He starts up a conversation a secretary who believes she may have been poisoned by her boss, the aristocrat Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman).

In the meantime, a highly enthusiastic American journalism student, Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson), is visiting London and decides to attend a magic show by the Great Splendini, aka Sid Waterman (Woody Allen), a small-time stage magician. During the performance, Sondra agrees to be a participant in Splendini’s disappearance act. Sondra is placed in a box where she will be "spirited away" by the Great Splendini. While in the box, however, she is startled to discover the ghost of Strombel who appears to Sondra and, desperate for a last great journalistic scoop before the ship of death docks at its destination, tells her of his suspicion that Lyman is the infamous Tarot Card serial killer that has been terrorising London. Sondra convinces Sid to help her investigate the story. As the investigation proceeds, Sondra becomes confused as she falls in love with the object of her investigation.

Scoop is complete nonsense, of course, but superb nonsense it is. The mostly predictable plot twists and turns are lifted above the mundane by the witty dialogue, superbly delivered one-liners from Allen and Johansson, and the on-screen chemistry between Allen and Johannsen. Woody Allen has found a way to write himself into this story as a father figure for Johannsen and Scarlett is delightfully "normal" in her role. Apparently Allen wrote the script for Scarlett Johanssen after working with her on Match Point.

After all the serious movies we’ve had of late, Scoop is an absolute delight and shows that Woody Allen has returned to what he does best. It is not a classic, but definitely entertaining.

My Rating: **** (out of 5)

Positive Review

’The film is a pleasure that doesn’t rank with Allen’s best but satisfies far more than most American comedies.’ - Shawn Levy/Portland Oregonian

Negative Review

’Scoop is about 50 minutes of plot padded with 40 minutes of Woody being Woody.’ - Pete Vonder Haar/Film Threat

Content Advice

Some sexual content

USA: PG-13

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Sam Harris's Circles of Belief

Sam Harris, the author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, has had an opinion piece published in the LA Times entitled God’s dupes. In this essay, Harris suggests that a moderate believer in a religious faith inadvertently shelters those who are more fanatical than oneself from criticism.’ Along with this assertion he expresses a desire that the spell of religion be broken en masse because, for Harris, ’[e]verything of value that people get from religion can be had more honestly, without presuming anything on insufficient evidence. The rest is self-deception, set to music.’

Implicit in Harris’s essay is the argument that religious fundamentalists, like terrorists, are sheltered from criticism in our society by moderate religious believers who are hanging on to the self-deception of their religious beliefs. In supporting this idea, Harris asks the reader to imagine a series of concentric circles where, as one works toward the centre, one finds increasing levels of ’diminishing reasonableness’. As we move outward from the centre, we obviously find, according to Harris, increasing reasonableness. In order to make this ’spectrum of belief’ clearer, I have placed the descriptions of Harris’s various examples on a continuum. You can click on the image to the right see my As I describe Harris’s points along the continuum, I will apply them to Christianity - clearly one of the faiths that Harris has in mind.

On the left side of the continuum is true belief. Here we would find the fanatical Christian fundamentalist who, according to Harris’s model, would be completely irrational and would, probably, condone violence to further the cause. Christians who blow up abortion clinics might be an example of this category of believer. Harris describes these people as ’maniacs’.

Moving to the right on the continuum, we meet the person who shares the beliefs with the true believer but without the zealousness that leads to fanatical and extreme behaviour. In relation to Christianity, these people may, to continue the example above, be against abortion but wouldn’t engage in acts of violence to further that cause.

The next position to the right on the continuum is for those who essentially agree with the first two groups on belief but disagree on minor points. So a Christian who accepts all the fundamental beliefs of the first two groups but who, perhaps, disagrees on minor issues such as style of worship, would sit in this group.

Continuing to the right is the moderate, liberal believer who is quite happy to live with doubt and uncertainty and may disagree with many (most? all?) of the doctrines of mainstream Christianity (for example).

Although Harris doesn’t include the last position I have included on the continuum, it is the logical right-most point in the trajectory of rationality that Harris wants us to accept. Here we would find the unbeliever (ie, unbeliever in terms of religious faith) who has abandoned, or never adopted, religious beliefs and, instead, acquires ’[e]verything of value that people get from religion ... more honestly, without presuming anything on insufficient evidence.’ Clearly, this is where we are meant to find individuals such as atheists.

This ’spectrum of belief’, it seems to me, is quite useful. But does it make sense to suggest, as Harris does, that the existence of people at any point on the continuum ’shelter’ those to the left of the continuum from public criticism and condemnation? Harris’s implication is quite clear: if we are to ensure that the true believer (e.g. terrorists) are exposed to the censure of society, we need to rid the continuum from those who stick with some form of belief or faith despite how "rational" they might be. It would seem that, for Harris, there shouldn’t be a continuum of belief at all. We need to have everyone at the most "rational" position of religious unbelief. That is, in matters of religion, atheists who are "obviously" rational and who eschew any hint of religion. Anyone else clearly engages in various forms of religious irrationality.

Although Harris hasn’t come out and said it explicitly, his ’spectrum of belief’ approach clearly implies that, for him, any person who has any form of religious belief is providing a shelter for those who are religious ’maniacs’ and who perpetrate wars, terrorism, and other evils in the name of religion. All this is really to say that religious believers, however moderate, are in the end, and in some sense, responsible for these evils. After all, if you provide protective shelter for a murderer, aren’t you complicit?

Despite the possible practical usefulness of Harris’s spectrum of belief, the use he has made of it is completely inappropriate. It only works if Harris sees himself (and those agreeing with him) outside the spectrum altogether. Harris does this by not mentioning the right-most category of unbelief in describing his spectrum. That means that Harris understands himself to be completely separate from the continuum of belief. He does this by only applying the spectrum to religious beliefs. But if Harris wants to work on the principle that those to the right on the continuum are somehow responsible for the evils on the left, then he needs to use this continuum for all forms of belief because it is clear that all belief systems have, at some time, been used by some people, for evil. Let’s look at one belief system - evolution.

At the left of the continuum we would have a fanatical, fundamentalist, zealous evolutionist who is intolerant of those who do not accept, or have doubts about, the evolutionary paradigm. As Woodward has documented in his two books, Doubts about Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design and Darwin Strikes Back: Defending the Science of Intelligent Design, there are plenty of fundamentalist evolutionists who persist in misrepresenting and attacking those who disagree that evolution theory satisfactorily explains the complexity of nature as observed empirically. I am not suggesting that fundamentalist evolutionists have perpetrated violence against those who disagree with them. My point is that one can find "true believers" in any system of thought.

Moving to the right on the continuum, we would find evolutionists who believe absolutely in evolutionary theory but do not have the zeal that leads them to shower ad hominem attacks (for example) on their "enemies". We would then move to the right again and find evolutionists who accept evolution but respectfully disagree with their more fundamentalist colleagues on various minor points. There are quite a large number of evolutionists whom one could identify in this position. Then there would be evolutionists who live with significant doubts and uncertainties about evolutionary "truths" and, therefore, would be considered as more moderate or liberal in their beliefs.

And finally, we come to the unbeliever in evolution. And, just like Harris distances himself from his own continuum, these "unbelievers" consider themselves to be looking at the empirical evidence more fairly and rationally concluding that evolutionary theory should be abandoned - and there are some of these within the scientific community (although the true believer evolutionist wouldn’t consider them as part of that community).

Now, given this, would it be fair to argue that the evolutionist who disagrees with minor points of evolutionary "doctrine" is sheltering the fundamentalist evolutionists from public criticism? Does that mean the moderate believer in evolution is, in some sense, responsible for the behaviour of the fundamentalist evolutionist? Clearly this is nonense.

The point of this example is not to argue over whether evolution is true or not. The content of the belief system is unimportant. What matters is that we can construct the spectrum of belief in any way we want in order to construe those we disagree with as being more irrational than we are and, hence, responsible for the bad behaviour of the fanatic. This elasticity of use of the spectrum of belief makes it completely inappropriate for apportioning responsibility for fanaticism leading to evils of any sort. There will always be humans within any belief system who will be fanatical about their beliefs. That is human nature. But to engage in some sort of guilt by association argument like Harris does in this opinion piece, to blame all religious believers for sheltering those who perpetrate evil, has some of the marks of fundamentalism itself.

There is an underlying arrogance in many of these arguments from atheists. They seem to think that their belief systems are completely devoid of any self-deception and that all their beliefs rest on sufficient evidence. Belief and faith are much more ubiquitous than these people would accept. They seem to believe they have a corner on truth. And they frequently misrepresent religious faith as being divorced from reason.

Harris’s rhetoric is seductive. That doesn’t make it true. Under the heading for Harris’s op-ed piece, is this sentence: ’Moderate believers give cover to religious fanatics - and are every bit as deluded.’ If Harris genuinely believes that all religious believers are the same, that they are all equally deluded, that there is no difference between an abortion-clinic-bombing Christian and Mother Teresa, then I have to wonder who is really deluding themselves.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Book Review: Darwin Strikes Back

Darwin Strikes Back: Defending the Science of Intelligent DesignDarwin Strikes Back is a sequel to Thomas Woodward’s book, Doubts About Darwin. Woodward is an historian of the Intelligent Design movement who, despite his obvious allegiance to it, provides an objective account of the attempts by Darwinian proponents to deal with Intelligent Design. Woodward provides clearly documented evidence of the struggle between the reigning naturalistic paradigm of evolution and the increasingly significant perspective of Intelligent Design.

Darwin Strikes Back is devastatingly clear in showing how Darwinist critiques of Intelligent Design are often misinformed and consisting of vacuous rhetoric that descends to personal attacks, misrepresentation, and avoidance of the real scientific issues in question. Woodward’s scientific explanations are refreshingly clear and compelling and his evidence of the rhetoric on both sides of the debate are carefully documented, allowing the reader to follow up on the literature.

The evidence is absolutely clear that Darwinism is in crisis - the evidence for macro-evolution is completely inadequate (unlike micro-evolution which is accepted by everyone on both sides of the debate). The cracks in the foundation of Darwinism are being exposed, not only by Intelligent Design theorists, but also by those who are highly respected non-theist evolutionary scholars themselves. The resistance to the implications of the empirical evidence by Darwinian proponents is incredible and the way that public "debate" is carried out is shown, by Woodward, to be the opposite of the open, honest inquiry that Darwin himself practiced.

Darwin Strikes Back is must reading for anyone interested in the debate over Intelligent Design - whatever side of the debate one is on.

Related Links

Monday, March 12, 2007

A Girl Like Me ...

Here is a disturbing mini-documentary on what black girls think of themselves. (Click on the PLAY) Button. We haven’t come very far, have we?

Friday, March 09, 2007

Book Review: Doubts About Darwin

Doubts about Darwin: A History of Intelligent DesignEvolutionary theory has come under attack, in recent years, by proponents of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. Thomas Woodward’s book, Doubts About Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design, is a brilliant history of the Intelligent Design movement.
Woodward takes a rhetorical approach in describing the rise and success of ID. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, divided rhetoric into three categories: logos, ethos, and pathos. Logos refers to the logic of an argument. Ethos is concerned with the credibility of an argument. And pathos relates to the emotional and psychological aspects of persuasion.

In Doubts About Darwin, Woodward looks at the ID movement and evolution within the framework of these three aspects of rhetoric. He shows how evolution is suffering from the burden of inadequate evidence in support of macro-evolution (the evolution of different species) - many of these criticisms coming from atheist or agnostic evolutionary scientists themselves. Proponents of ID, who argue for the possibility of design in nature on the basis of empirical evidence alone, are, according to Woodward, gradually eroding confidence in the alleged factual truth of macro-evolution.

Woodward also describes the high level of credibility of ID proponents such as Phillip Johnson, Michael Behe, and William Dembski. Highly respected scientists who have no religious axe to grind have positively evaluated the writings of the major ID theorists and Woodward tells the story of the increasing credibility of these scholars and how some of the assertions of committed evolutionists are highly questionable when making claims about macro-evolution.

Finally, Woodward charts the highly emotive and biased rhetoric of some highly prominent evolutionists who seem to want to obstruct open inquiry and criticism of evolutionary theory.

I thought I knew quite a bit about the Intelligent Design movement. But until I read this book I didn’t realise how much misrepresentation, distortion, and biased rhetoric has been constructed against the scholars of ID. For example, Woodward’s history makes it clear that ID is not part of scientific creationism that is wedded to a literalist reading of Genesis and a young earth. These are genuine scholars, expert in their respective fields, some of whom are not theists, who are raising serious issues that demonstrate the cracks in the foundation of evolutionary theory. Many of them do not even reject evolutionary theory per se. They are, however, trying to honestly account for the actual empirical evidence and where its examination leads.

Woodward is transparent regarding his own perspective and, despite the fact that he comes from a position favourable toward ID, his history has the distinct mark of objectivity, providing compelling evidence from the writings on both sides of the debate and personal knowledge of important conferences and meetings.

Doubts About Darwin is a gripping tale and Woodward surveys all the major players in the drama along with the arguments on both sides of the debate. A must read for anyone interested in evolution and Intelligent Design.

Related Links

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Movie Review: Man of the Year

Man of the Year (Widescreen Edition)It would seem as though there is widespread disillusionment with government these days. So it is probably timely that Barry Levinson’s Man of the Year has come to our cinema screens.
Tom Dobbs (Robin Williams) is the host of a comedy talk show. During one of his shows, a girl in the audience jokingly suggests that Tom should run for president. As a bit of a joke, Dobbs announces that he will do just that. Unexpectedly, the public applaud his announcement and support him - so he decides to really run. He is successful at winning the race and basks in his success until Eleanor (Laura Linney), an employee of the computer company that provided the new automated voting system for the election, breaks some disturbing news. She finds herself on the run as Dobbs grapples with what he should do.
Man of the Year is not an all out belly laugh as one might expect. Robin Williams is true to form and, because he plays a comedian, has plenty of opportunity to display his own brand of humour. But the movie gets quite serious at times (in an uneven sort of way) and there is also a bit of action. The movie makes some serious points about the state of current politics in the US - some of it relevant to any government. Williams is in fine form and he is supported by the excellent Christopher Walken who plays Dobbs’s political advisor and TV manager.
Man of the Year won’t be the film of the year, but it is a pleasant, humourous (although some of the jokes are pretty thin), thoughtful satire on contemporary politics that doesn’t try to do too much.

My Rating: *** (out of 5)

Positive Review
’The most refreshing thing about Man of the Year is its mingling of comedy and suspense with common decency. Levinson asks his countrymen not just to know their limits, but also to reach them.’ - Michael Sragow/Baltimore Sun

Negative Review
’Halfway through, the jokes stop - the laughs never began - and give way to a tiresome thriller.’ - Kyle Smith/New York Post

Content Advice
language including some crude sexual references, drug related material, and brief violence

USA: PG-13