Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Wittgenstein, explained. - By Clive James - Slate Magazine

Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the great philosophers of the 20th century. Clive James provides an interesting introduction to this impotant shaper of thought. You can read Clive James's Slate article here.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Inconvenient Christians

American evangelicals are on the move in regard to climate change. A good example of how Christianity doesn’t need to end up being so heavenly minded we are no earthly use!

In the Beginning (Economist)

atlas of creation

The Economist has published an article called In the beginning which describes the spread of the creationism vs evolution conflict beyond the borders of America (where it has been predominately situated until now). The story is in response to the global publishing of The Atlas of Creation by prolific Turkish author. According to the article,
THE “Atlas of Creation” runs to 770 pages and is lavishly illustrated with photographs of fossils and living animals, interlaced with quotations from the Koran. Its author claims to prove not only the falsehood of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, but the links between “Darwinism” and such diverse evils as communism, fascism and terrorism. In recent weeks the “Atlas de la Création” has been arriving unsolicited and free of charge at schools and universities across French-speaking Europe. It is the latest sign of a revolt against the theories of Darwin, on which virtually the whole of modern biology is based, that is gathering momentum in many parts of the world.
The article includes a brief history of the conflict between evolution and creationism (unfortunately calling it a conflict over ’religion and reason’). It is a biased history which needs to be balanced by reading books such as, Doubts About Darwin and Darwin Strikes Back. It is interesting and significant, though, that the conflict over origins has broadened beyond Christianity and beyond the United States with potentially dangerous consequences.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Book Review: The God Delusion

Warning: LONG POST! Richard Dawkins is probably the most well-known atheist in the world at the moment. In his book The God Delusion (Dawkins 2006) he argues against what he calls the God Hypothesis and presents an alternative view. Here they are side-by-side: The God Hypothesis There exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us. Naturalistic Evolution Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution. The God Delusion attempts to disprove the first but never proves the second. These statements come in Chapter 2 after he has made two general observations in the first chapter:
  1. Physicists and other scientists, who use the word "God" in a metaphorical sense, are frequently misappropriated by religious people who want to co-opt their statements to bolster their belief in God.
  2. Religion has an inappropriate dominance in the world and is afforded a level of respect and advantage that it doesn’t deserve and is privileged in ways that other worldviews are not.
Both of these statements are, in my view, geenrally true. And Dawkins makes a good case for these using recent events to illustrate them. In Chapter 3, Dawkins turns to a discussion of the traditional philosophical "proofs" for the existence of God. It is clear that Dawkins doesn’t have much depth of understanding of these truths (or, if he does, he doesn’t show it). He presents them simplistically and superficially and doesn’t engage with any of the extensive Christian literature discussing them. Even Christian apologists accept that some of the arguments criticised by Dawkins are flawed. And yet Dawkins never discusses this. He frequently engages in ad hominen attacks and disparages professional theologians whom he believes have nothing to say of any worth. Instead of dealing with the best of Christian apologetics, Dawkins is essentially responding to immature understandings of faith and belief and believes that, by undermining these, he is dispensing with all arguments in support of believing in God. Dawkins also critiques the suggestion, by a number of people, that science and religion deal with completely separate domains of knowledge and that each should keep to their own area of inquiry. Many Christians would also critique this approach so Dawkins’ criticisms are not unique to atheists. Once again, Dawkins descends into disparaging remarks with statements like, ’What expertise can theologians bring to deep cosmological questions that scientists cannot?’ For Dawkins, theologians have nothing to offer and he arrogantly suggests that scientists are much more capable of dealing with cosmological issues. Dawkins’ discussion of the nature of the Bible once again avoids any engagement with Christian scholars who have rigorously and critically dealt with the issue. Dawkins’ comments on the Bible reveal a shallow, decontextualised understanding of hermeneutics and exegesis. He shows no understanding of the differences between the canonical gospels and the gnostic gospels, arguing that the canonical gospels were chosen arbitrarily from the larger sample of gospels that included the gnostic gospels. All this shows how deficient Dawkins’ knowledge of the historical development of the canon is. Dawkins is a clever rhetorician with statements like this:
Although Jesus probably existed, reputable biblical scholars do not in general regard the New Testament (and obviously not the Old Testament) as a reliable record of what actually happened in history...’ (p. 97)
Notice how Dawkins implies that the those who disagree with this position are not reputable? This is complete nonsense. There are also reputable scholars (eg, N T Wright) who most certainly do believe that the gospels describe actual historical events. Dawkins makes the ridiculous statement that ’[t]he only difference between The Da Vinci Code and the gospels is that the gospels are ancient fiction while The Da Vinci Code is modern fiction.’ (p. 97) One wonders whether he has actually read either of them. One could go on interminably showing how Dawkins’ discussion of the arguments for God’s existence avoid interacting with the best Christian scholarship - apologetic and philosophical. But I suppose that, if Dawkins views theologians with such disdain, why would he wish to listen to dialogue with them? The next chapter entitled Why There Almost Certainly Is No God is a slight (but only slight) improvement. When Dawkins moves into his discussion of evolution then he becomes most articulate - clearly he is an expert in this area. But there are problems here as well. He persistently lumps Intelligent Design (ID) theorists in with creationists when ID theorists, themselves, make it very clear they do not wish to be seen that way. But the fallacy of guilt by association ploy works well for Dawkins. If he combines them then he doesn’t have to deal with ID theorists on their own terms and the reader is led to believe that there is no real difference between the two positions. In addition, Dawkins incorrectly describes ID theory as nothing more than the old ’God of the gaps’ theology so popular in previous years. Dawkins is just plain wrong about this as any reading of ID theorist literature would show. ID theorists make it very clear how ID theory is quite different to gap theology. Also, Dawkins’ critique of irreducible complexity demonstrates that he doesn’t understand what ID theorists are actually saying. In fact, Dawkins caricatures irreducible complexity as a position where, whenever we can’t understand how something has happened or happens, it gets labeled as irreducibly complex. This is completely inaccurate. A quick browse of Dawkins’ bibliography at the back of the book, which lists books he has cited or recommends, shows he hasn’t referred to one of the major scholars in the ID movement and who has done significant work on design inference, William Dembski. Either Dawkins has read Dembski’s work and has ignored it, or he hasn’t read it and, therefore, does not understand how ID scholars define the concept of design and how it might be identified scientifically. This is a major oversight by Dawkins who is clearly more interested in mere rhetoric to support his position than careful reasoning and argument which actually dialogues with his opposition. In fact, Dawkins spends more time quoting people who agree with him than actually engaging with the work of those who don’t. When Dawkins turns to the anthropic principle - the fact that the universe seems built for human existence - he makes a profound claim. We know that our universe supports life because we are here to talk about it. Wow! His major criticism of the inference to a Creator from the evidence that the universe appears built for human life is that we are left with the problem of Where did the Creator come from? Dawkins seems to forget that all theories of origins are left with where the first materials for the universe come from. Even cosmological theories have to either postulate something existing eternally or everything coming from nothing. Another arm of Dawkins’ argument is that, if the assertion of a Creator is true, then the Creator would need to be more complex that anything that exists. And yet, traditional theology argues that God is simple. How could something so complex as the universe be created by a simple God. Dawkins sees a contradiction here. But Dawkins doesn’t actually understand the concept of simplicity in relation to God. As Erickson (1986) defines it, simplicity refers to the unity of God as a being. God ’is not a composite and cannot be divided.’ (p. 152) An additional problem with Dawkins’ argument, though, is that the so-called simplicity of God is only one model of God proposed by Christian theologians. Dawkins doesn’t discuss the complexity of the debate of the nature of God but seems to choose the particular theological positions that suit his need to shoot down his opposition. Dawkins does an excellent job of describing the anthropic principle, but his critique leaves much to be desired. In Chapter 5, Dawkins turns his attention to "The Roots of Religion". If there is no Creator, and natural selection is the best explanation for the origin and development of all things, then Dawkins needs to provide an evolutionary explanation for religion. The striking thing about his discussion is the number of times terms like presumably occur. Evolutionary explanations for the occurrence of religion across cultures are pure conjecture. Dawkins begins this chapter with the statement that ’[e]verybody has their own pet theory of where religion comes from and why all human cultures have it.’ (p. 163) Indeed they do, including Dawkins. For Dawkins, the a priori assumption is natural selection. This is the absolute given for Dawkins. And given this assumption, Dawkins must find a suitable explanation that is driven by natural selection. So Dawkins explores a number of possible theories. Is it the need for consolation? Does it protect people from stress (the evidence is mixed on this)? Is it a placebo that prolongs life? These immediate (proximate) cause possibilities don’t really interest Dawkins. Appropriately, he is interested in ultimate causes. Might religion be the result of group selection? Group selection is the ’idea that Darwinian selection chooses among species or other groups of individuals’ rather than natural selection of individuals. Dawkins finds this theory wanting. Dawkins’ own view hypothesises that religion is ’a by-product of something else.’ (p. 172) Maybe
[t]he religious behaviour [is a] misfiring, an unfortunate by-product of an underlying psychological propensity which in other circumstances is, or once was, useful. On this view, the propensity that was naturally selected in our ancestors was not religion per se; it had some other benefit, and it only incidentally manifests itself as religious behaviour. (p. 174)
What is that benefit? Dawkins suggests that it might be the result of adult authority figures passing on stories to children that originally had the intent of protecting them. It is worth quoting this central paragraph from Dawkins:
Natural selection builds child brains with a tendency to believe whatever their parents and tribal elders tell them. Such trusting obedience is valuable for survival ... But the flip side of trusting obedience is slavish gullibility. The inevitable by-product is vulnerability to infection by mind viruses. For excellent reasons related to Darwinian survival, child brains need to trust parents, and elders whom parents tell them to trust. An automatic consequence is that the truster has no way of distinguishing good advice from bad. The child cannot know that ’Don’t paddle in the crocodile-infested Limpopo’ is good advice but ’You must sacrifice a goat at the time of the full moon, otherwise rains will fail’ is at best a waste of time and goats. Both admonitions sound equally trustworthy. Both come from a respected source and are delivered with a solemn earnestness that commands respect and demands obedience. The same goes for propositions about the world, about the cosmos, about morality and about human nature. And, very likely, when the child grows up and has children of her own, she will naturally pass the whole lot on to her own children - nonsense as well as sense - using the same infectious gravitas of manner. (p. 176)
Of course, this is all highly creative conjecture. Dawkins, however, makes the point that he is not so much interested in this as an accurate portrayal of what the real reason for religion is. This is merely an ’... example of the kind of thing ...’ that might be at the heart of the fact of religious experience. Dawkins appeals to the ’developing field of evolutionary psychology’ (p. 179) in support of his case. In essence, this view asserts that,
... just as the eye is an evolved organ for seeing, and the wing an evolved organ for flying, so the brain is a collection of organs (or ’modules’) for dealing with a set of specialist data-processing needs. There is a module for dealing with kinship, a module for dealing with reciprocal exchanges, a module for dealing with empathy, and so on. Religion can be seen as a by-product of the misfiring of several of these modules, for example the modules for forming theories of other minds, for forming coalitions, and for discriminating in favour of in-group members against strangers. (p. 179)
This is the heart of Dawkins’ view. He writes that ’[t]he general theory of religion as an accidental by-product - a misfiring of something useful - is the one I wish to advocate.’ He goes on to say that ’[t]he details [of this theory] are various, complicated and disputable.’ (p. 188, emphasis supplied) Indeed they are. Following all of this conjecture, Dawkins turns to his own controversial theory of memes for an "explanation" of the details of a possible selection theory of religion. I will not go into detail regarding meme theory here. I don’t know enough about it. Instead, I will refer the reader to Alister McGrath’s excellent book, Dawkins’ God which includes a telling critique of Dawkins’ meme theory. McGrath points out a number of critical problems with the idea of memes:
  1. ’Darwinism itself seem[s] very poorly adapted to account for the development of culture, or the overall shape of intellectual history.’ (McGrath 2005, p. 126) In particular, ’... the model [of memes] is singularly uncompelling, perhaps because it is singularly inappropriate. Biological and cultural evolution have their points of similarity; they seem, however, to proceed by quite different mechanisms.’ (p. 128)
  2. ’... the meme idea is ... inadequately grounded in the evidence... Dawkins talking about memes is like believers talking about God - an invisible, unverifiable postulate, which helps explain some things about experience, but ultimately lies beyond empirical investigation.’ (p. 129)
  3. A ’flawed analogy between gene and meme’ (p. 130ff.)
In other words, there are lots of problems with Dawkins’ meme theory. In Chapter 6, Dawkins turns to the origins of morality. It opens with a sensational series of tirades from clearly deranged fanatics against Darwinism and Darwinists. (Dawkins doesn’t give even one example of a positive Christian response.) The rest of the chapter is an argument that ’a sense of right and wrong can be derived from our Darwinian past.’ (Dawkins 2006, p. 214) Dawkins presents an argument, in this chapter, that you ’... do not need God in order to be good - or evil.’ (p. 227) Dawkins describes research by Hauser and Singer who showed that ’... there is no statistically significant difference between atheists and religious believers in making [moral judgments in relation to the research scenarios].’ I have some sympathy for this conclusion. Christians too often assume that the only basis for any morality is the existence of God. But as many people point out, there are many pragmatic and utilitarian reasons that we might wish to behave well in a society. The next chapter, Chapter 7, is, perhaps, the weakest part of the entire book. Dawkins’ primary intention is to show that people, in general, do not get their morals from the Bible - including Christians. Dawkins parades in front of his reader the most difficult, bizarre parts of the Bible he can find and that have some of the most challenging theological questions attached to them - Old and New Testaments. He catalogs what he sees as the evidence that the God of the Bible is a vindictive, angry, people-hating, self-aggrandizing, sadistic, etc etc etc being. His point is to show that even Christians don’t get their morals from the Bible because they don’t believe that Christians should be vindictive, angry, people-hating, self-aggrandizing, sadistic etc etc etc people. So, according to Dawkins, even those who believe in the Bible don’t live by what the Bible teaches! This whole argument is complete nonsense. Dawkins is raising school-boy arguments against the Bible. He completely ignores any scholarship on Biblical hermeneutics, the range of understandings of the theology of the Bible, or consideration of the text in its historical and cultural context. He also completely ignores the enormous amounts of scholarship on Christian ethics and the way moral principles are derived from Scritpure. Dawkins is completely biased and selective in his presentation of the content of the Bible. Dawkins then turns to respond to the suggestion, made by some, that atheism has produced its own evil. He specifically discusses Hitler and Stalin (along with some others). Dawkins’ argument? Those who perpetrated evil in the name of atheism weren’t really working out atheistic principles; they were operating on some other agenda! In other words, people like Stalin claimed to be atheists but weren’t practicing "true" atheism. And yet, when Christians respond to claims that Christianity has produced enormous amounts of evil in the name of God over the centuries by saying that they may have been Christian in name, but were not practicing true Christianity, Dawkins won’t accept the argument! But if that argument is good enough for Dawkins he should accept it as being good enough for Christians. This chapter in Dawkins’ book is so pathetic that it took me some courage to continue reading. The main point - that morality is socially determined by working toward some form of consensus - is fair enough. But Dawkins is so completely unfair in his presentation of evidence; so simplistic in his understanding of theology; so ignorant (or maybe deliberately avoiding) of the best scholarship in Christianity; that I had little hope for the rest of the book. Dawkins was so patently hostile toward religion (and Christianity, in particular) that he seemed just as fundamentalist than the most rampant Christian or Islamic fundamentalist. As I flicked to the next chapter, I discovered that Dawkins was about to deal with this very criticism of his approach. In Chapter 8, entitled What’s Wrong With Religion? Why Be So Hostile? Dawkins responds to the ’distressingly common’ ’accusation of fundamentalism’ (p. 282) laid against him. It begins with the wonderfully ironic assertion that, ’I do not, by nature, thrive on confrontation.’ Mmm... maybe not. Whether Dawkins is confrontational by nature is not the issue. The fact is, he is confrontational when it comes to his fight against religion. And he admits, by implication, that to be hostile toward religion is appropriate. Except Dawkins labels his approach passionate rather than fundamentalist. He writes:
It is all too easy to confuse fundamentalism with passion. I may well appear passionate when I defend evolution against a fundamentalist creationist, but this is not because of a rival fundamentalism of my own. It is because the evidence for evolution is overwhelmingly strong and I am passionately distressed that my opponent can’t see it - or, more usually, refuses to look at it because it contradicts his holy book. My passion is increased when I think about how much the poor fundamentalists, and those whom they influence, are missing. The truths of evolution, along with many other scientific truths, are so engrossingly fascinating and beautiful; how truly tragic to die having missed out on all that! Of course that makes me passionate. How could it not? But my belief in evolution is not fundamentalism, and it is not faith, because I know what it would take to change my mind, and I would gladly do so if the necessary evidence were forthcoming. (p. 283)
Ah! So the difference between a religious fundamentalist and Dawkins’ passion is that he knows he is right! The evidence proves him right! And how sad it is that those poor deluded fundamentalist souls should die without knowing the truth. The paucity of Dawkins’ pleading here can be seen by reversing the protaganists in the quote. Imagine an Intelligent Design theorist (who Dawkins incorrectly lumps in with ’fundamentalist creationists’) saying this same paragraph to Dawkins:
It is all too easy to confuse fundamentalism with passion. I may well appear passionate when I defend intelligent design against a fundamentalist evolutionist, but this is not because of a rival fundamentalism of my own. It is because the evidence for intelligent design is overwhelmingly strong and I am passionately distressed that my opponent can’t see it - or, more usually, refuses to look at it because it contradicts his a priori assumptions. My passion is increased when I think about how much the poor fundamentalist evolutionists, and those whom they influence, are missing. The truths of intelligent design, along with many other theological truths, are so engrossingly fascinating and beautiful; how truly tragic to die having missed out on all that! Of course that makes me passionate. How could it not? But my belief in intelligent design is not fundamentalism, and it is not faith, because I know what it would take to change my mind, and I would gladly do so if the necessary evidence were forthcoming.
If you can’t imagine an intelligent design theorist saying this, then may I suggest that you need to read more intelligent design literature. Dawkins can rationalise his fundamentalism away all he likes. But, his protestations to the contrary, his language and behaviour are hardly distinguishable from the fundamentalists he is so worried about. Now, it so happens that I actually agree with Dawkins on much that he says in criticism of fundamentalist thinking. It is often dangerous, arrogant, abusive, manipulative, ignorant, and all the other things that Dawkins calls it. The problem is that Dawkins, in his whole argument against ’the God delusion’ is breaking one of the most fundamental rules of critical thinking - the Principle of Charity. This principle states:
If a participant’s argument is reformulated by an opponent, it should be expressed in the strongest possible version that is consistent with the original intention of the arguer. If there is any question about that intention or about implicit parts of the argument, the arguer should be given the benefit of any doubt in the reformulation. (Damer 2005, p. 5-6)

Dawkins, in order to argue that religion is a delusion, has taken the very worst forms of religion (especially Christianity) and demolished it. He generalises his attack on religious fundamentalism to all forms of religion rather than dealing with the best forms of religion and restricting his criticism to specific destructive forms (ie, religious fundamentalism). But the error of lumping everything together is part of Dawkins’ strategy, because he not only wants to argue that fundamentalism results in all sorts of evil, but that even ’moderation in faith fosters fanaticism’ (p. 301). For Dawkins, suicide bombers

do what they do because they really believe what they were taught in their religious schools ... not necessarily by extremist fanatics but by decent, gentle, mainstream religious instructors, who lined them up in their madrasas, sitting in rows, rhythmically nodding their innocent little heads up and down like demented parrots. Faith can be very very dangerous, and deliberately to implant it into the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong. (Dawkins 2006, p. 308)
Yes, faith can be very very dangerous. But not all faith is. In Chapter 9, Dawkins turns to the issues of Childhood, Abuse and Religion. This chapter is a compelling read and anyone with any sensitivity to the plight of children would have to agree with its essential point - a lot of childhood abuse (not necessarily physical, but intellectual as well) goes on in the name of religion. Without diminishing, in any way whatsoever, the dark side of religious "education", it must be pointed out that Dawkins once again fails to present evidence showing that it is possible to believe in God without raising your children to be un-thinking fundamentalists. His picture of religious faith and experience is extremely one-sided. I know of Christians, for example, who raise their children with a broad view of the world, survey various intellectual options with them, ask them to think critically about everything they are taught, and have a richly nuanced view of the relationship between faith and reason. As an argument against childhood ’brainwashing’ and intellectual abuse, Dawkins’ discussion is very helpful. As an argument against all forms of faith and religion, it is sadly lacking. In the final chapter, Dawkins asks whether or not humans need God as a psychological/emotional gap-filler for inspiration or consolation. Obviously, his answer is ’No’. Science is all that is needed because it provides all the inspiration and consolation needed by humans. This, of course, is highly debatable. As Dawkins so rightly points out, some atheists are despondent and some happy and there are some Christians who are despondent and some happy. So the argument from emotional need is pointless. I at least agree with Dawkins here. If we cannot be consoled with reality/truth then it is not worth being consoled at all. So, what do we make of The God Delusion? Dawkins has written a passionate, biased, subjective, account of his views in which he occasionally makes some good points. He is highly unlikely to change anyone’s mind with it. In the preface of the book, Dawkins writes:
If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down. What presumptuous optimism! Of course, dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument, their resistance built up over years of childhood indoctrination using methods that took centuries to mature (whether by evolution or design). Among the more effective immunological devices is a dire warning to avoid even opening a book like this, which is surely a work of Satan. But I believe there are plenty of open-minded people out there: people whose childhood indoctrination was not too insidious, or for other reasons didn’t ’take’, or whose native intelligence is strong enough to overcome it. Such free spirits should need only a little encouragement to break free of the vice of religion altogether. At very least, I hope that nobody who reads this book will be able to say, ’I didn’t know I could.’
Dawkins is very rhetorically clever here. At the beginning of his books he divides the whole world up into two groups:
  1. died-in-the-wool faith-heads open-minded people
If one agrees with Dawkins’ view, you must be in the second group. If you don’t, then you are a died-in-the-wool faith-head immune to argument. This is a false dichotomy. As I know from experience, there are people who believe in God and who are intelligent, thoughtful and open to argument. More than that, they value reason highly in pursuing their faith. These people will not label The God Delusion a work of Satan. Instead, they will engage with Dawkins using rational argument in a true dialogue of ideas without resorting to some of the fallacious thinking within the covers of The God Delusion. The only people who will be convinced by Dawkins’ book are those who are already atheist true believers. It certainly won’t (or, at least, shouldn’t) convince a critical thinker whether they be Atheist or Christian. References Damer, TE 2005, Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments, 5th edn, Thomson/Wadsworth, Australia. Dawkins, R 2006, The God Delusion, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. Erickson, MJ 1986, Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan. McGrath, A 2005, Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life, Blackwell Publising.

Lonley Atheists of the Global Village (Michael Novak)

Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris have all written books promoting atheism and criticising Christianity and other theistic belief systems. Michael Novak has written an excellent critique of each of these books (The God Delusion, Breaking the Spell, and Letter to a Christian Nation, respectively). I haven’t read Harris’s or Dennett’s books, but I am most of the way through Dawkins’ God Delusion at the moment (a review to come shortly!). Novak has provided an accurate sense of Dawkins’ approach. Novak’s critique is definitely worth having a look at. You can read it here.

The Twilight of Atheism (Alister McGrath)

Alister McGrath is a well-known speaker and author who is Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford. His book The Twilight of Atheism explores the nature of belief in the modern world and whether atheism is in decline. He considers the intriguing question of whether it is harder to be an unbeliever now than previously. McGrath presented the 2006 Smith Lecture in Sydney with the same title as his book, The Twilight of Atheism. It is a good summary of the main thesis of the book. You can download a pdf file of the talk here.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Movie Review: Disturbia

imgClearly inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, directors Caruso and Landon have brought us a slick, on-the-edge-of-the-seat thriller in Disturbia - soon to open in a cinema in your suburb. Kale (Shia LeBeouf), after losing his father in a tragic car crash, becomes withdrawn and depressed and ends up punching his Spanish teacher resulting in Kale being placed under house arrest for three months. He has to wear an ankle bracelet that will send an alarm to the police if he moves any more than 100 yards from the control unit in his house. Kale’s single mother, Julie (Carrie-Ann Moss), finds it increasingly frustrating trying to bring home a living at the same time as dealing with Kale’s increasing moroseness and demotivation. She resorts to cutting off the cable TV and his XBox, eventually forcing Kale to take an interest in the neighborhood outside the windows of his home. It’s an interesting neighborhood. A new family has moved in next door and Kale is besotted with their beautiful daughter, Ashley (Sarah Roemer). In another house is a few pre-adolescent kids who play nasty tricks on Kale, knowing he can’t leave his home, and they spend their time watching pornography on cable TV in their bedroom at night unbeknownst to their mother. And then there is Robert Turner (David Morse). As Kale watches the neighborhood through his binoculars and video equipment, he begins to suspect that Mr Turner might be a serial killer he has heard about on the TV news and who is responsible for the disappearance of a girl the police are looking for. Kale draws Ashley and one of his school friends, Ronnie (Aaron Yoo) into his voyeuristic pastime. Is Kale right about Mr Turner? Or his he just suffering from paranoia brought on by his long term confinement in his house? Disturbia is a very entertaining thriller. Caruso and Landon direct with a steady hand and the script by Christopher Landon and Carl Ellsworth develops the tension in some very unexpected ways. The first completely unpredictable shock in the story comes after some good character development that makes us actually care what happens to the people in the story. And there is a brilliant scene involving a digicam. Disturbia is one of the most "enjoyable" thrillers to come along for a while. I’d put it in the same category as the recent The Descent. So grab some popcorn, head to the cinema, and be prepared to grip the edge of the seat for Disturbia. Don’t hold the popcorn, though. It might go everywhere when you jump out of your seat! My Rating: **** (out of 5) Positive Review ’Cool stuff. Cool movie.’ - Peter Travers/Rolling Stone Negative Review None available yet. Content Warning Sequences of terror and violence, and some sensuality AUS: M USA: PG-13 (on appeal) If you like Disturbia you might also like ...
  • American Beauty
  • Rear Window

Movie Review: Meet the Robinsons

Meet the RobinsonsHere’s one for the kids. Meet the Robinsons is a sweet little story for young kids with little to offer adults. Lewis was delivered to an orphanage by his mum when he was a baby and has developed into a gifted inventor whose inventions never quite have the outcomes he’d hoped. He has survived a number of interviews with potential adoptive parents but they haven’t. So Lewis is feeling very unwanted - until a stranger named Wilbur turns up and warns him of an evil Bowler Hat Guy. After the Bowler Hat Guy sabotages one of Lewis’s inventions at a Science Fair, Wilbur whisks him away to the future in a time machine to track down the Bowler Hat Guy. In the future, Lewis meets the eccentric Robinson family and things get more and more complicated until a surprising ending for Lewis. Meet the Robinson is a competent animation but there is little depth and doesn’t match up to the expectations we all have since great movies like Shrek, Toy Story and The Incredibles. But it will keep the kids entertained and has a nice message about family and belonging built in. My Rating: *** (out of 5) Positive Review ’Simply put, it’s terrific.’ - Steven Rea/Philadelphia Inquirer Negative Review ’The characters, starting with Lewis himself, are downright obnoxious. Not counting those singing frogs or the time-traveling T. rex (with its big head and little arms), only Lewis’ sad-sack roommate ’’Goob’’ is remotely sympathetic.’ - Peter Debruge/Miami Herald AUS: G USA: G If you like Meet the Robinsons, check out ...
  • Toy Story 2
  • The Incredibles

Loving Creation (Delicious Living)

There are two equal and opposite errors when it comes to a Christian view of creation. One is to worship the creation instead of the Creator. The other is to neglect creation altogether in worship of the Creator. Peter Illyn, in a brief comment in Delicious Living, calls for a balanced approach to our relationship to creation. You can read his comment here. I like Peter’s favourite bumper sticker: If you love the Creator, take care of creation. Related Links

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Book Review: Objectivism

Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (The Ayn Rand Library, Volume 6)Ayn Rand was a philosopher who developed a system of thought which she called Objectivism. She is, perhaps, best known for her books, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged which still sell well today. She was Russian-born in 1905 and later emigrated to America in 1925. She held various jobs, including a Hollywood scriptwriter. Her third novel, The Fountainhead became a best-seller and, through her main character, Roark, presented, for the first time, her ideas of what a heroic human would look like. At a sales conference at Random House before the publication of her book, Atlas Shrugged, she was asked by one of the salesmen whether she could present the essence of her philosophy while standing on one foot. Here is the answer she gave on that occasion (Rand 1962):
  • Metaphysics: Objective Reality
  • Epistemology: Reason
  • Ethics: Self-interest
  • Politics: Capitalism
She fleshed this out by saying:
  1. Reality exists as an objective absolute--facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.
  2. Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.
  3. Man--every man--is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.
  4. The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.
Ayn Rand, although a prolific writer, never wrote one, synthesised, comprehensive description of her entire philosophical system. And that is where Leonard Peikoff’s book, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, comes in. Peikoff’s account of objectivism is the only "authorised" comprehensive statement of Rand’s philosophical system. It basically summarises a lecture series given by Ayn Rand and conversations the author had with her. Objectivism is quite easy to read - Peikoff has written it with the educated layperson in mind. Peikoff writes well and carefully builds up Rand’s philosophical thinking step-by-step. Despite the irritating signs of arrogance and disdain for certain groups of people, including philosophers who hold to other points of view to his own, the book usefully lays out the essential elements of the philosophy of objectivism. Objectivism is interesting when considered from a Christian point of view. If you reflect back on the four position statements above, it is interesting to consider how the ideas relate to Christian understandings. The notion of an objective reality is certainly consistent with most Christian theology which frequently objects to idealistic understandings of ontology. But from there on, there are potential conflicts or moderate disagreements. For example, rationality as the source of all legitimate human knowledge may, for some Christians, appear to minimise, marginalise, or discard altogether, supernatural revelation as a source of understanding and knowledge. It most certainly did for Ayn Rand who believed reason led to the conclusion that God did not exist. The ethics of self-interest would also appear contrary to the self-sacrificial approach to relationships promoted by the gospels and other New Testament writings. For example, Rand has written:
The moral purpose of a man’s life is the achievement of his own happiness. This does not mean that he is indifferent to all men, that human life is of no value to him and there is no reason to help others in an emergency. But it does mean that he does not subordinate his life to the welfare of others, that he does not sacrifice himself to their needs, that the relief of their suffering is not his primary concern, that any help he gives is an exception, not the rule, an act of generosity, not of moral duty, that it is marginal and incidental--as disasters are marginal and incidental in the course of human existence--and that values, not disasters, are the goal, the first concern and the motive power of life. (The Ethics of Emergencies, emphasis in original.)
Rand’s ideas of self-interest are complex and one shouldn’t be too quick to judge them before making sure they are understood. But it does raise interesting and important questions about the Christian’s understanding of sacrifice and atonement in relation to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection and the sacrificial nature of love promoted in Christian relationships. Ayn Rand’s ideas are important ones and some of them are original and startling. Peikoff’s book is a good introduction to her ideas and provide an excellent opportunity to seriously reflect on one’s own understandings of the nature of reality, what it means to be human, what it means to live ethically, and how society should function. Related Links References Rand, A 1962, The Philosophy of Objectivism: A Brief Summary, Times-Mirror Co., viewed 5 April 2007,

Movie Review: Freedom Writers

Freedom Writers (Widescreen Edition)It has been a while since a movie has moved me to tears. Freedom Writers now holds this honour. Based on a true story, Freedom Writers takes us to Woodland Ridge High School where voluntary integration has been adopted. This has led to groups of students from different backgrounds (Asians, Blacks, Latinos, and a few whites) forming themselves into isolated cliques and warring factions. Morale is extremely low and teachers have basically given up on their students who will eventually either be kicked out or choose to drop out. The gang warfare that takes place in the streets frequently moves into the school. It’s a dangerous, demoralising environment where there is little, if any, hope or respect.

Into this very challenging school comes Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank), a pretty, naive, enthusiastic new teacher who is ready and willing to teach the Freshmen English class. The yawning gap between Erin and her students is immediately obvious. She just doesn’t fit in to the culture of the school. She is clearly uncomfortable, vulnerable, and ignorant of the realities of her students’ lives and the conditions under which they live.

Erin decides, however, that these given-up-as-hopeless kids are worth persisting with and she spends her own time and money on them believing that she can make a difference and turn their lives around. This all comes at a cost - other teaching staff disagree with her methods and her ideals; her relationship with her husband begins to deteriorate. Using journaling to encourage her students to share and reflect on their lives, she gradually facilitates a transformation in her students.

There have been a number of movies about teachers entering into disadvantaged situations and managing to change their lives around. So the overall narrative is not new. But Freedom Writers approaches the story with enough fresh elements that, despite some cliches, gives it an emotional depth that makes it truly engaging.

This movie is uneven. At times, the story seems to drag a bit and the performances are adequate with a few standing out from the rest. Hilary Swank does an excellent job and April Hernandez as Eva shines in her role. Freedom Writers is an enjoyable, at times moving experience that reminds us how important tolerance, cross-cultural communication, and the inherent value of every human being is.

My Rating: ***1/2 (out of 5)

Positive Review
’It all sounds like a recipe for the most noxious liberal jerk-off movie since "Crash," but in the hands of writer-director Richard LaGravenese, Freedom Writers turns out to be a superb piece of mainstream entertainment -- not an agonized debate over the principles of modern education à la "The History Boys," but a simple, straightforward and surprisingly affecting story of one woman who managed to make a difference. - Scott Foundas/LA Weekly

Negative Review
’Despite solid work from the engaging cast, there’s nothing new here to distinguish Freedom Writers.’ - Liz Beardsworth/Empire

Content Advice
Violent content, some thematic material and language

USA: PG-13

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Becoming a Critic of Your Thinking

Read Linda Elder and Richard Paul’s article Becoming a Critic of Your Thinking for a simple, brief introduction to the art of critical thinking. You can read it here.

Opinion Trounces Fact

Gary Olson has written a piece in The Australian (Higher Education) about the current social tendency of elevating opinion above critical thinking. You can read this important article here.