The Irrational Atheist (notes in the margin, part 2)

by Luke Muehlhauser on November 12, 2009 in Reviews

irrational atheistThe Irrational Atheist is a response to the New Atheists written by the ever-controversial Vox Day, with whom I’ve been having an exchange of letters these past few weeks.

Instead of writing a review of  the book, here are my “notes in the margin” to Vox as I read through it. (Index of notes.)

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Here is a quote from Chapter 3, “The Case Against Science”:

[One] question that none of the New Atheists dare to ask is whether science, having produced some genuinely positive results as well as some truly nightmarish evils over the course of the last century, has outlived its usefulness to Mankind. Man has survived millennia of religious faith, but if the prophets of over-population and global warming are correct, he may not survive a mere four centuries of science.1

This is an argument I have thought about advancing myself, long before I read The Irrational Atheist. And Vox is right; I cannot imagine one of the New Atheists considering it. Vox also handily dismantles 5 of the usual pro-science responses to this argument. I will give a 6th response below. But first let me elaborate the argument.

The idea goes like this. Perhaps it would have been better if Galileo, Locke, Hume, and Kant had never awakened us from our dogmatic slumbers. Neither science nor religion are inherently destructive – both have their Gandhis and their Muhammeds, their Borlaugs and their Oppenheimers – but at least religion kept mankind ineffective. We could only kill a few thousand people at a time and with great effort, and we certainly couldn’t destroy the atmosphere or oceans of the whole planet.

But since science is knowledge, science is power. Science made mankind effective. Effective for good, yes, but also effective in evil. So now we have the power to eradicate diseases and feed the whole world on relatively little land, but we also have the power – should we choose to use it – to make our planet uninhabitable or simply blow it to smithereens.

And since neither religion nor reason succeeded in making mankind saintly over the past several millennia, chances are good that some mad governments (the U.S. and China) will terraform earth into a fireball, or else some mad men (Jong-Il or Khamenei) will turn her into a nuclear wasteland.

Given these odds, perhaps it would have been better for men to continue indefinitely in darkness and superstition, burning witches and and treating disease with leeches and shamanism than for mankind to enjoy a few centuries of enlightenment and then destroy itself completely.

I think there is a strong case to be made for this view. But there are a few arguments against it.

The biggest, I think, is this: science may be inevitable. Humans are curious. No matter how much dogma is drilled into us, a few of us notice that prayer and leeches don’t work, and we try to figure stuff out. Science could have been delayed, but it could not have been avoided.

So now that a scientific enlightenment has begun to overtake humanity, our only option is to become a highly moral species very quickly so that we use our scientific effectiveness for good and not for evil.

And one aide to becoming a highly moral species very quickly is to leave behind our religions that are explicitly based on Scriptures written by the morally backward humans of several millennia ago. (And if we can’t make unbelievers of everyone, perhaps we can persuade them to switch to a recent superstition like Scientology, whose moral precepts were frozen in Scripture circa the year 1950, not the year 700.)

I am very concerned about the effectiveness science has granted man, especially when I survey the moral character of those in power. But I think science was inevitable. So it is up to us to use science for good and not for evil. And that will be a hard battle. Perhaps the hardest of all, and the most important.

But, Vox replies:

Science is not inevitable… the end of science is a much more practical goal for humanity than the end of faith.2

In his favor, Vox can cite the many times in history when scientific progress has halted. He can also cite the fact that religion has nowhere been eradicated for long. Thus, if we trust Sam Harris’ equation

Science (incl. warfare technology) + Religious Superstition = End of the World

…then it makes more sense for us to eliminate Science from the equation than to eliminate Religious Superstition. Besides, eliminating Science may do more good than eliminating Religion. Again, religion never gave us the opportunity to destroy all humanity. Science did, and rather quickly.

Before replying further, I will allow my readers to soak in the strength of this argument. Is it really religion, or science, that poses the bigger threat? And if Science + Religion = End of the World, wouldn’t it be easier to save the world by ending science, not religion?

  1. The Irrational Atheist, page 44. []
  2. Ibid, pages 53-54. []

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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Scott Scheule November 12, 2009 at 6:24 am

“The biggest, I think, is this: science may be inevitable. Humans are curious. No matter how much dogma is drilled into us, a few of us notice that prayer and leeches don’t work, and we try to figure stuff out. Science could have been delayed, but it could not have been avoided.”

A bit of a disconnect in the weight of the first sentence and the last here: “may be” is a much more hedged bet than “could not have been avoided.” Unless, which is probably what you intended, you mean that the objection, which “may be” right, is, when voiced by its proponents, an absolute.

At any rate, the argument applies equally to religion: people naturally want meaning in their lives, some semblance of being special, some kind of force, seen or unseen, to mete out justice and kindness when it’s wanting — which it always is. Ergo, religion. Any chiseling at this — well, maybe people can do without that, and maybe we can teach them better, etc. – probably hits equally deep the “inevitable science” response.

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WritingShadows November 12, 2009 at 8:07 am

Where the argument would collapse is when determining who used science for the evil ends that you’ve stated above. The people in power, that have been in power for nearly the entire time, is the religious. The superstitious believers. Not to say the blame isn’t on science for creating certain things, or scientists for that matter, but science (and scientists) seem to be blind to how it can used for those evil ends. Or it’s a willful blindness, used to maintain their ultimate curiosity for the world and what we can accomplish.

So, are we saying that science should be eliminated because we can’t trust those in power, those who are religious, with scientific power?

Those in power are those who can use science for great evils. Science and reason has not yet had power.

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Chuck November 12, 2009 at 8:09 am

I don’t know, Luke. I think I value Truth too much to choose the “utilitarian” option. Besides, there are more atheists now than ever before, a state of affairs science made possible. Who is to say the trend will not continue?

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Scott Scheule November 12, 2009 at 8:21 am

“Science and reason has not yet had power.”

Fine. And no true Christian has yet had power either — because no true Christian would pursue evil.

Anyway — what are you talking about? Scientists blind to evil? Weapons are created all the time. It strains credibility to think, say, the Tsar Bomba was built just out of curiosity.

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Lee A. P. November 12, 2009 at 8:44 am

Remaining stupid can help the survival chances of the planet. There is truth in that. We are all better hurling our shit at each other than rocks. Or spears. Or grenades. In this view any tool that can possibly do harm is better off not having been invented.

In the religious world view, God created tools and materials that man could use to kill one another from the begining. So God was the first “scientist” so to speak, who gave man the ability to cause harm and suffering and maiming. God, just like science, perhaps did not force man do this but he did make it possible.

In both the scientific and religious worldview the world as we know it will end.

In the Christian worldview the method of the end is all but assured. Armageddon. Shit will go down. The anti-Christ will come. Jesus will fly down on a white horse and lead an army of Christian ass kickers.

Certainly mans scientific proficiencies will have something to do with ushering in the end times. Why Vox wants to stop that is anyones guess. Why do end-times believing Christians simultaneously believe that we are in the end days yet still bitch about the state of the world?

In Christianity all WILL be judged. Non-believers WILL be tormented forever.

The Christian worldview contains an INFINITE amount more pain and suffering than the scientific worldview.

What is even more confusing about this view is that Vox is a geek boy with a hard on for video games and technology brought about by science. I doubt he really means what he says.

As the net geeks say. FAIL. INFINITE FAIL.

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Eneasz November 12, 2009 at 10:41 am

While science does give us the tools to kill ourselves, it also gives us the tools to save ourselves. No amount of religion will ever divert an earth-bound asteroid, or move us off the planet as our sun expands. If we abandon science we may prevent the risk of near-term destruction, but we guarantee extinction in (at most) 2 billion years and possibly much sooner.

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toryninja November 12, 2009 at 10:46 am

For some reason this post blew my mind. I’m going to have to wrestle with it for the next little while.

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piero November 12, 2009 at 11:53 am

The discussion only makes sense if the survival of the human species is assumed to be a worthwile goal, no matter what conditions those human beings are forced to live in. Would you rather live to 100 in prison, or to 30 in freedom?

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Mark H. November 12, 2009 at 12:09 pm

I seem to remember C.S. Lewis commenting on something like this in Mere Christianity. He said that with greater potential for good comes greater potential for evil. A hand can be used to build simple structures or cause moderate amounts of injury. When augmented with a hammer, greater structures can be built and lethal force can be inflicted. The ultimate goodness of angels is matched by their ultimate evil when they fall.

That I agree with. The choice isn’t between good and evil, both will come with whatever we choose. The choice is between doing great good and great evil versus petty good and petty evil.

I think our survival depends upon seeking greatness. Threats against humanity (human or otherwise) will not stop if we lay down our science and curiosity. We live in reality, we might as well face it and resist our destruction the best we can.

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Bill Maher November 12, 2009 at 12:34 pm

Anyone who has studied philosophy of technology (Dusek, Postman, Ellul, Winners) knows how irrelevant and naive his objections to science are. I understand why it bothers him. This is because it sterilizes religion to the point of something like “putting on a coat”.

Since the industrial revolution, science is different and it simply can not be stopped or even halted. This is because of the rational-efficient mindset we have. We literally can not go back to non-technical means and this mind-frame is the progression of the western project since Plato. Their was no “not awaking us from our dogmatic slumber”. Once the steam engine was invented, it was over right there. It is monolithic and does not care about good or bad and if you try to resist, you will simply be minimalized as a granola eater.

I am sorry, I am taking philosophy of technology right now and alot of naive people like Vox just do not grasp the larger picture. Science is a technique that is reinforced with other techniques. When this is looked at from a larger scale, it becomes obvious that Technique (also known as the Technical Society) is irreversible. These are people that genetically engineered the tomato to have thicker skin rather than rebuilding their machine to pick it.

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Derrida November 12, 2009 at 1:01 pm

Does Theodore suggest how we could possibly end science? Sure, scientific progress isn’t uniform, but how can we stop it now that we have the internet, now that there are laboratories all over the world with state of the art equipment, now that the wealthiest countries have nuclear weapons? I find it a little hilarious that we’re arguing about this via computers. It seems to me that we’ve reached the point of no return technologically.

I also think that “a few centuries of enlightenment” followed by destruction is still preferable to living in a world where most people live lives of oppression, superstition, and violence and die at thirty.

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Beelzebub November 12, 2009 at 1:20 pm

I’ve always agreed that this argument is moot and therefore irrelevant. It might be interesting as a theoretical, but any society that put their science/technology on pause would immediately fall behind its neighbors and then, in all likelihood, soon be conquered and re-industrialized by its new overlords. This is in fact precisely what has happened throughout history, so it’s not like we should need to be convinced. It’s particularly ironic that Vox doesn’t appreciate this since it’s essentially an evolutionary phenomenon. Those societies less fit, either in absolute technological might or symbiotic allegiance or treaty with mighty powers, are selected out of the environment. In essence, what Vox is claiming is that the evolutionary clock can be run backward.

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lukeprog November 12, 2009 at 2:15 pm

Bill Maher,

I certainly have not read anything on philosophy of technology. Can you recommend any specific works that address Vox’s argument?

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Bill Maher November 12, 2009 at 2:36 pm

lukeprog: Bill Maher,I certainly have not read anything on philosophy of technology. Can you recommend any specific works that address Vox’s argument?  

Of course. Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society is the grandfather work of the discipline. BUT as far as readability goes, I would recommend Dusek’s Philosophy of Technology and most importantly Neil Postman’s Technopoly. Once you have read these, read Langdon Winner’s The Whale and the Reactor. These books are all fun, easy to read, and the school of thought is cutting edge. It is quickly turning into THE discipline of philosophy. Their is a ton of people who write on technology’s effect on Christianity also, such as Albert Borgmann’s Power Failure or Jacques Ellul’s The Subversion of Christianity. ALSO historian Lynn White Jr.’s work on medieval clocks and technology is very relevant to the unstoppable subversion of Vox’s faith.

It is the consensus of the discipline that tech after the industrial revolution can not be slowed down or stopped. It acts autonomously and if we “stop” scientists from using the LHC in the USA, they will do it in Switzerland.

Sorry to talk your ear off. I am an idea historian and this is one of the most cutting edge disciplines in history and philosophy.

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oarobin November 12, 2009 at 3:00 pm

How much science do you want to give up to prevent mankind from “destroying itself completely”?

what historical time period would be o.k. to return to?
would it be better to have no mankind on the earth rather than have religious or scientific man?

if one is an atheist what is the point of living a life full of pain, struggle and ignorance?

if one cannot improve oneself and others around them then isn’t no existence better than one filled
with “indefinite darkness and superstition”?

why is that the threats to mankind survival are improved by knowing less about the environment in which he/she
lives?

with an estimated 99.9% historical extinction rate of species we should consider it a very strong
possibility that we will not survive the long term on this planet with or without religion or science.

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lukeprog November 12, 2009 at 4:37 pm

Thanks for the recommendations, Bill! I’m totally ignorant of all that.

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Bill Maher November 12, 2009 at 5:14 pm

lukeprog: Thanks for the recommendations, Bill! I’m totally ignorant of all that.  

You are more than welcome. The discipline is one of the few ways that philosophy can say something powerful about the world and it is the equivalent of taking the “red pill”. it completely changed my view of the world. even more profoundly than when I became an atheist. I have some essays on the subjects in Pdf that I am using in my course if you want to see them.

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Edward Brock November 12, 2009 at 5:27 pm

People have committed genocide & murder for their religion since the beginning of history, so suggesting that the world would be better off if we had remained superstitious would not disrupt that trend. If we disregard the good that science has provided, the only change it has made in regards to religion is that it allows for a faster & wider means of killing/persecuting/condemning others. Now instead of taking months/years to wipe-out the “devil people”, we can do it in days or weeks.

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lukeprog November 12, 2009 at 6:24 pm

Bill,

Why yes, yes I do.

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eric November 12, 2009 at 6:47 pm

i could play vox day’s advocate here, and argue that desirism must find those desires which make science an inevitability to be evil, and give us reason to suppress them in our society.
i’m somewhat in agreement with Lee A.P. on this one. the basis of Vox’s suggestion for abandoning science is the hypothetical scenario of humanity’s destruction by either global warming or nuclear annihilation (at least i seem to remember him mentioning nuclear annihilation in the book). hopefully neither of these scenarios will come to pass, and they are certainly not the end goal for any sane scientist. but for christianity at least the goal includes an inevitable apocalypse (this is my knowledge of it at least, let me know if christianity includes no such apocalypse). the only way for christianity to be preferable over science is for it to be wrong about the violent end of the world. otherwise a humanity-destroying cataclysm is a possibility under science and a guaranteed event under christianity.

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lukeprog November 12, 2009 at 7:15 pm

Bill,

I’m reading Dusek’s book and right at the start I came across the best one-page summary of Hume’s Problem I’ve ever read:

In the early eighteenth century the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–76) raised what is called the problem of induction. It is really the problem of the justification of induction. Hume granted that we use induction, though he thought that it turns out to be a matter of custom and habit. A later philosopher, George Santayana (1863–1952), called it “animal faith.” We expect the future to be like the past. Hume raised the question of the justification or rational reason for our belief in induction. The usual answer one gives is that “induction works.” Hume doesn’t deny that it works. However, Hume notes that what we really mean is that induction (or science in general) “has worked in the past and therefore we expect it to work in the future.” Hume pointed out that this reasoning from past success to future success is itself an inductive inference and it depends on the principle of induction! Thus appeal to success or “it works” is circular. It implicitly applies the principle of induction to induction itself. It attempts to use the principle of induction to justify the principle of induction. Hume showed how other attempted justifications (such as an appeal to probability rather than certainty) also fail or beg the question. Most of Hume’s contemporaries didn’t see the problem and dismissed Hume’s claims. However, one philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), recognized the importance of Hume’s problem and called it “the scandal of philosophy” (he could have called it the scandal of science, given its implications, though most working scientists were unaware of it). Kant’s solution was that principles built into the human mind, such as causality and necessity, allow us to organize our experience in ways that allow regularity and induction. The cost of Kant’s solution is that the regularity of nature is no longer known in things in themselves, separate and outside of us, but is the way we structure our experience and knowledge of nature. That is, we can’t know that “things in themselves” follow lawful regularities, but only that our mind is structured to seek such regularities and structure our experience in terms of such laws. Karl Popper (1902–94) accepted the insolubility of Hume’s problem. However, Popper’s solution involves giving up the claim that science uses induction. Thus the proposed solutions to Hume’s problem lead to views of science far from the usually accepted ones. Either we structure our experience in terms of induction, but cannot know if nature really follows laws, or we do not really ever use induction, but deceive ourselves into thinking that we do.

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Hermes November 12, 2009 at 7:26 pm

The sciences are not required as a serious philosophical issue for anti-theists focusing on Christian claims. That’s why the anti-theists don’t focus on the sciences, yet apologists get so wound up over them. Why? The Christian Bible is self-refuting, and that can be shown without requiring any of the sciences. What more would an anti-theist or even a theist that is interested in a subtle and honest search for the truth of these issues need?

Yet, the apologists keep bringing science up as if they don’t rely on it, don’t see that they are valid, and somehow that the only criticisms come from arguments based on science or ‘scientism’. Science, while a serious threat to apologists, is only yet another part of reality.

As I see it, comments on well established issues like the validity of science are a distraction from the main issue, and only show how tenuous the position of the apologists happens to be. They are brought up because the sciences are like a billion watt spotlight on the tissue thin truths and myths the apologists want to convey. By clinging to this needless hostility, they are discarding the parts of their religious traditions that probably should be retained.

The problem with that is that to admit that some of it is not real, they would have to admit also that they don’t have the ultimate truth. To them, I say, welcome. Reality is difficult and it is tricky. To paraphrase Twain; Stop insisting on what you know ain’t so.

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Bill Maher November 12, 2009 at 7:42 pm

lukeprog: Bill,Why yes, yes I do.  

Check your mail and enjoy :-)

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Bill Maher November 12, 2009 at 9:08 pm

Luke, you will find many brilliant summarizations in that book. It is a wonderful guide to philosophy.

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faithlessgod November 12, 2009 at 11:16 pm

Bill

Surely could one call Buckminster Fuller an early philosopher of technology (or a forefather?)? Not that he got everything right, he did not – but he did contribute at least some key insights. In particular, his argument over the material consequences on the well-being of everyone between removing all leaders, political and religious, versus removing all technology springs to mind.

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Bill Maher November 13, 2009 at 12:09 am

faithless, here is an overly simplified view of philosophy of technology, which is anti-futurist and anti-technology. In my opinion, you could argue that philosophy of technology has been present since Plato’s Republic.

Marx’s primitive technology theories –> Heidegger’s Essays –> Jacques Ellul’s Technological Society –> Neil Postman’s Technopoly –> Jean Baudrillard’s hyper-reality –> Langdon Winner’s Reverse Adaptation and luddism.

Their are tons and tons of great historians, sociologists, and philosophers that have dedicated much to this field and all of them have come to the same conclusion: we are unavoidably f*cked and their is no going back.

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faithlessgod November 13, 2009 at 2:13 am

Bill

I have to disagree that all of them have come to this conclusion. I have been interested in the philosophy of technology for 30 years and you have just presented a sub-set of those who discuss this topic – whether they call it philosophy of technology or not. Marx, Heidegger, Baudrillard I am familiar with and these are all either forefathers of post-modernism or post-modernists, I am guessing the same applies to your other authors.

You need a more rounded view of this field, certainly Buckminster Fuller is one indicative antidote to those other views. There are others but I have little time to enter into a new debate at present and my books are just unpacked and not sorted so I cannot just read off my bookshelf the 20 odd books I have that would disagree with your assertions. I also have and have read the relevant essays of the authors I have noted I am familiar with.

In particular I disagree with the first of your two conclusions “we are unavoidably f*cked”. It is not unavoidable. Now how can you present any form of definitive argument with evidence that this is unavoidable, I fail to see how this is possible.

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Ajay November 13, 2009 at 2:23 am

Let us think through eliminating science. Where do we start? Do we uninvent of the wheel? Uninvent fire? Or do we just start from the last 100 or so years by uninventing the car, aeroplane, computer? Where do you think we can start?

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lukeprog November 13, 2009 at 5:32 am

Unfortunately, Vox does not make it clear what he is suggesting!

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piero November 13, 2009 at 6:03 am

Without science, the human species is doomed anyway: if a meteorite doesn’t wipe us out first, the sun’s demise will. Hence, if the survival of the human species matters, the only hope is science. Is there a risk that we will become extint through misuse of science? Sure. But the alternative to possible extinction is certain extinction.

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Bill Maher November 13, 2009 at 6:26 am

faithlessgod: BillI have to disagree that all of them have come to this conclusion. I have been interested in the philosophy of technology for 30 years and you have just presented a sub-set of those who discuss this topic – whether they call it philosophy of technology or not. Marx, Heidegger, Baudrillard I am familiar with and these are all either forefathers of post-modernism or post-modernists, I am guessing the same applies to your other authors.
You need a more rounded view of this field, certainly Buckminster Fuller is one indicative antidote to those other views. There are others but I have little time to enter into a new debate at present and my books are just unpacked and not sorted so I cannot just read off my bookshelf the 20 odd books I have that would disagree with your assertions. I also have and have read the relevant essays of the authors I have noted I am familiar with.In particular I disagree with the first of your two conclusions “we are unavoidably f*cked”. It is not unavoidable. Now how can you present any form of definitive argument with evidence that this is unavoidable, I fail to see how this is possible.  

in the way that I mean f*cked is probably a very different way than you think I mean it. And I have a well rounded approach, I get the other pro-technology side everyday of my existence! You really have to read Ellul’s Technological Society and all the rest of the other guys, because they are opinion changing books.

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Derrida November 13, 2009 at 6:43 am

lukeprog: Unfortunately, Vox does not make it clear what he is suggesting!  

Of course he doesn’t. Theo’s just making a rhetorical point, because he’d rather lash out at the big bad atheists than say something coherent.

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Thomas Reid November 13, 2009 at 9:04 am

faithlessgod: BillIn particular I disagree with the first of your two conclusions “we are unavoidably f*cked”. It is not unavoidable. Now how can you present any form of definitive argument with evidence that this is unavoidable, I fail to see how this is possible.  (Quote)

Thermodynamics predicts heat death, right? Of course it’s a long way off, but if left to its own devices, the universe will “wind down”.

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John Quincy Public November 13, 2009 at 5:28 pm

Luke: The first issue is that you materially misunderstand, or are misrepresenting, the argument in question. Harris’ and other routinely use the extinction equation to argue for the inherent evil or danger presented by religion. The entire chapter is devoted to accepting Harris’ premise for the sake of argument and then chasing the logic where it leads.

This is subtly different than making a positive argument against science. And it all hinges on whether you accept the validity of the extinction equation in the first place. If you do not then the chapter has nothing to say.

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MountainKing November 15, 2009 at 2:35 am

VD seems to imply that science started about 4 centuries ago which is already a pretty strange assumption. Sharpening sticks to kill another human being in a tribal war is already applied science. As is starting to grow crops and taming and breeding animals for transportation and food production. Eliminating science doesn’t mean we get rid of the a-bomb while we continue to surf the net eating pizza, it means we run around in small groups of humans looking for berries and small animals to eat (and maybe not even that).

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Dominic S January 1, 2010 at 8:14 pm

“It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring”

I would agree with Sagan and be willing to take our chances with reason and science over dogmatic religion anyday.

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