The documentary ‘The Unbelievers’ and why overvaluing scientists is never a good idea

If you need a demonstration of why overvaluing science in our culture is a problem and why elevating the status of scientists out of all proportion is a mistake, look no further than the recent documentary The Unbelievers. The inevitable promotional website for the film describes it like this:

“The Unbelievers’ follows renowned scientists Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss across the globe as they speak publicly about the importance of science and reason in the modern world – encouraging others to cast off antiquated religious and politically motivated approaches toward important current issues.”

Ten minutes into watching this orgy of vanity and self-regard and you get the feeling that it is less to do with promoting “science and reason” as it is about fulfilling the ambition of two middle-aged nerds to be treated like rock stars.

There is a barely constrained sense of gloating that oozes from Dawkins and Krauss throughout the film – and I couldn’t help but fill in a backstory of two creepy little crusty-nosed school boys, shunned by their peers and resentful… who grow up and manage to cultivate for themselves the status of minor celebrities amongst the conformist-academic set.

“That’ll show all those jocks who picked on us in school! I bet those girls who called us losers wish they had been nicer to us now!”

The neediness for ego validation is almost palpable.

Of the two, only Dawkins can really claim to be ‘renowned’ for anything. Anyone who has paid attention to the dreary and redundant ‘New Atheist’ phenomenon over the last few years will be familiar with his genre defining book The God Delusion. They will also be aware that Dawkins has made it his life’s quest to make sure there isn’t one single sentient being left on earth who isn’t aware of just how much Richard Dawkins dislikes religion. All he asks in return for his dedication to this noble cause is that the rest of humanity acknowledge how much smarter he is than them.

Krauss is something of a Larry-come-lately to the pantheon of celebrity uber-atheists – deftly inserting himself into the vacuum left by the untimely death of the one true rock-star of movement, the late great Christopher Hitchens (at one point in the film, Krauss holds up a copy of Hitchens’s book ‘God Is Not Great’ and proclaims it to be his “Bible”).

Krauss’ day job is professor and theoretical physicist, although he looks like every villain from the old Scooby Doo cartoon who gets unmasked at the end of each episode. I keep wanting to hear him say, “And I would have got away with it too if it wasn’t for those meddling theists!”

At any rate, Krauss is clearly thrilled with himself now that he’s palling around with the big boys. And in the world of narrow focused, redundant, self-congratulatory atheist spewmeisters – there’s none bigger than Dawkins. In fact, you get the sense that Dawkins – almost a caricature of the classic haughty Englishman – is doing his best in the film to appear tolerant of the younger, uncouth American in running shoes lapping at his heels. Krauss is very much Ralph Malph to Dawkins’ Fonzie.

Krauss’ lesser status is emphasized by the close-up shots in the film of the promotional poster for their speaking engagement at the Sydney Opera House. The poster features a large portrait of Dawkins and bold oversized text announcing “An Evening With Richard Dawkins”….below which in much smaller text is printed “in conversation with Lawrence Krauss”.

Anyone who has a reasonably strong interest in the subjects of atheism, religion, science and materialism will have seen these guys in action for years now – whether on television panel shows, debates on YouTube, BBC/CBC/ABC/PBS science programs and every form of print media. Individually they are both insufferable in their own way. Watching them together in a fawning 90 minute movie makes a documentary on the Nuremburg trials seem like a particularly endurable episode of Friends.

We even get the treat of seeing real celebrities (although mostly of the – oh…isn’t that whatshername? – variety) expound on why they think science is like, totally the best way to be smart. Apparently the producers of the documentary figured the credibility of the two scientists needed bolstering by former movie stars, comedians and some dude in a backward baseball cap who presumably plays in a rock band. And since everybody knows that all the really popular celebrities are dumb, these people must have seemed ideal for the gig.

Actually, the filmmakers were probably just desperate to splice in anything that could compensate for a movie featuring two dumpy, odd looking and not particularly likeable middle-aged men who together struggle to muster a single personality between them. And lest the glow from even the considerably dimmer stars of the celebrity firmament make our two brainy protagonists appear wan and bleached-out by comparison, the celebs are shot in dour black and white while scenes with Krauss and Dawkins are presented in full colour Nerd-O-Vision.

The one reassuring thing I can take away from The Unbelievers is that despite the fact the film came out around the middle of last year, as far as I can tell, almost no one is aware of its existence. That I am yet to hear a single human being utter the sentence – “I saw The Unbelievers last night” – strikes me as a good indication of how much of an appetite there actually is for embracing the dreary worldview of people who are essentially glorified technicians. The only reason I know about the film is because Krauss happened to be a recent guest on Alex Tsakiris’ excellent Skeptiko podcast.

I suppose the film might find an audience with the kind of people who actually forked out good money to fill the Sydney Opera House for the thrill of watching two dishevelled guys sit in the middle of an otherwise empty stage and congratulate each other for being superior to ordinary, stupid folks.

These are the sort of people who don’t bother to think critically for themselves about any of these topics, but assume that expressing enthusiastic agreement with the likes of Dawkins and Krauss makes them intellectually sophisticated by association. It explains why the mostly upper middle class audience at the Opera House all guffawed in a shared sense of knowing superiority and communal smugness when Krauss opened the proceedings by ridiculing the intelligence of the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, who appeared with Dawkins on the Australian television show Q&A the previous night:

“I was amazed. Cardinal Pell… manifestly didn’t understand evolution. Actually, he manifestly didn’t understand anything.”

Oh! Har, har! Chortle, chortle! What sophisticated wit! Smug grins all around. Of course, the very same condescendingly adolescent put down by a smarmy git like Krauss at a dinner party would engender only embarrassment and a general agreement among the guests that the guy was nothing but an obnoxious dick.

Clearly I’m not going to recommend this film to anyone. If you are already one of the true believers and hang off of every word that cascades from the mouths of this pair, then this is the movie for you.

For everyone else I have a simple plea: Can we PLEASE stop treating scientists like they belong to an enlightened caste of unquestionable truth-givers? It’s just a frikin’ job, people! These guys are not experts on anything other than the extremely narrow band of generally arcane study in which they specialize. Just because they are clever at math or biology does not mean they are particularly insightful about anything else! If anything, they’re probably less insightful than the rest of us who didn’t spend our entire lives cloistered in universities.

Look, we wouldn’t line up for hours and pay big bucks to sit in the Opera House to listen to a couple of economists on a stage lecturing us about the meaning of life or ultimate truth – no matter how accomplished they were at their jobs. But we have taken this one human pursuit, this one group of professionals, and because they’re interested in complicated things that none of the rest of us care that much about and because we’re so impressed with the gadgets they come up with, we have elevated them to an exalted status in our culture.

The result is that we have these two guys on a pilgrimage around the world to bestow upon the masses the benefit of their higher understanding. And the multitudes who flock to hear them speak treat them like enlightened beings who alone are privy to ultimate truth.

Is the irony not blinding?

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Rebutting Stefan Molyneux’s Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence YouTube Comments – Rebutted!

I have a lot of time for Stefan Molyneux. He has a ferocious intellect and is clearly fearless in expressing decidedly contrarian views on some very touchy, up-to-the-minute topics. He is also someone who is focused not only on opinions but on how people construct a view of the world that generates those opinions. For me, that is ultimately even more important than the opinions themselves, so I have a lot of regard for anyone like Molyneux who stresses that process.

And sure, he sometimes comes across as a little up himself. But that pretty much goes with the territory if you’re putting yourself out there on YouTube as a guy whose opinion not only matters, but is the embodiment of clarity and fine-tuned critical thinking.

Having said all of that, I can’t buy into his arguments for atheism. Or rather, it’s his definitiveness about there being no justification for any kind of position other than atheism that seems too decidedly materialistic and dualistic. And just too definitive for that matter.

Below are some comments in response to a recent video he produced for his Freedomain Radio YouTube Channel . In the video he takes on a critic of his argument that a God who created the universe can’t exist because consciousness cannot exist without matter. He also resorts to the old trope about “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” which I deal with as well. I would recommend anyone with any interest in the whole God/atheist/consciousness/materialism debate check out Stefan’s video – Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence YouTube Comments – Rebutted! . And if anyone wishes to contribute their own thoughts on the subject please leave a reply on this page.


My commentary:

Reflecting on Stefan’s argument that some kind of transcendent consciousness cannot possibly exist because consciousness cannot possibly exist without matter. It is a very clever argument – although I’m not sure to what degree the cleverness and logical congruence actually reflects objective reality.

It reminds me of Wilfrid Sellars’ notion of the “Myth of the Given” – essentially that you can’t assert the reality of pre-existing entities or structures outside of human awareness.

As philosopher Ken Wilber put it: “Metaphysics is thinking that falls prey to the myth of the given.”

Having said that, it strikes me that Stefan’s position presupposes a strictly dualistic conception of matter and consciousness. In a non-dualistic conception in which reality is seen as ‘one continuous thing’ so to speak – what Whitehead calls the ‘seamless coat of the universe – the question of consciousness existing without matter wouldn’t even make sense. And even if you are going to argue that consciousness has never been observed without matter as proof that consciousness CAN’T exist without matter….are you not then stuck with also acknowledging that matter has never been observed without consciousness?

L. L. Whyte said, “Thus, the immature mind (his word not mine!), unable to escape its own prejudice … is condemned to struggle in the straitjacket of its dualisms: subject/object, time/space, spirit/matter, freedom/necessity, free will/law. The truth, which must be single, is ridden with contradiction. Man cannot think where he is, for he has created two worlds from one.”

The physicist Erwin Schroedinger concurred, putting it this way: “consciousness is a singular of which the plural is unknown; there is only one thing and that what seems to be a plurality is merely a series of different aspects of this one thing, produced by a deception”.

I think this notion that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is kind of a crock.
It was a catchy phrase that Carl Sagan popularized that has become a meme in the culture which everyone now takes as a truism. I find it is used to dismiss anything that conflicts with the orthodoxy in a similar way that applying a label like ‘climate change denier’ is used to shut down debate about the so called ‘consensus’ orthodoxy of the climate change establishment.

Why should one kind of truth claim be held to a different standard of evidence than another? Surely the rigour and standards we already apply are more than sufficient! Why would we trust them otherwise?
Why is it logical to codify a bias in favour of one explanation and against another? How is it desirable to privilege the established orthodoxy against outlier modes of thinking?

The disadvantages to taking this hoary old adage seriously seem much more apparent than any alleged advantage. The most obvious problem is that you have one category for the orthodoxy with very firm goalposts – and another category where the goalposts recede forever beyond the horizon. In other words, regardless of the quality of the evidence, someone invested in the orthodoxy can always say it’s not ‘extraordinary’ enough

Review of ‘Debate: Atheists vs Christians (Krauss + Shermer vs D’Souza + Hutchinson)’

Lawrence Krauss and Michael Shermer are at it again in this tag-team effort pitting the super-atheists against the stubbornly religious Dinesh D’Souza and Ian Hutchinson.

Thanks to my sometimes Youtube debating partner Francesco Galle for sending me the link to the debate.

Krauss and Shermer stumble embarrassingly when trying to argue that science can account for ‘right and wrong’, morality and values.

At 56:39, Krauss says “I think science does tell us what is right and wrong in a real way” . He then lists a couple facts that he claims science introduced to the world, attaches them to moral judgements about animal welfare and human rights – without ever describing the mechanism that explains how evaluations of morality arise from these brute facts.

When he is caught out by Hutchinson on his atrocious reasoning, Krauss and Shermer deflect from having to substantiate their own metaphysical claim by using the oldest rhetorical debating trick in the book – they throw the question back at the other side by asking “Well where do you get them(morals)from then?”

It is fascinating how the very basis for the atheist/materialist condemnation of religious thinking is the believer’s willingness to believe things without empirical evidence – yet for some reason, the very same behavior doesn’t qualify as an equal indictment of atheist/materialist credibility when they do it themselves.

Here is the link to the debate: ‘Debate: Atheists vs Christians (Krauss + Shermer vs D’Souza + Hutchinson)’

Let me know what you think.