Monday, August 25, 2008

Woody's Sad Worldview

Everyone knows someone with whom they feel a kind of intellectual resonance. For me one such person is Woody Allen. Allen is a very successful contemporary filmmaker who's among the seemingly small group of individuals who sees clearly the existential predicament of modern secular man. His films, like those of his hero Ingmar Bergman, consistently drive home the message that, as he has a character say in Hannah and Her Sisters, "The only absolute knowledge attainable by man is that life is meaningless. I don't want to go on living in a Godless universe." Allen is himself an atheist and, unlike most atheists, Allen sees clearly that his atheism offers him no comfort or peace in life. Nor does he try to paper over the awful implications of his worldview.

Newsweek's Jennie Yabroff interviewed Allen recently. Here are some excerpts:

Allen has devoted his career to making films that consistently assert the randomness of life. That they do so in a variety of genres - comedy, drama, suspense, satire, even, once, a musical - only partially obscures the fact that, in Allen's eyes, they're all tragedies, since, as he says, "to live is to suffer." If there were a persistence-of-vision award for life philosophy, Allen would be a shoo-in.

At 72, he says he still lies awake at night, terrified of the void. He cannot reconcile his strident atheism with his superstition[s] ..., but he knows why he makes movies: not because he has any grand statement to offer, but simply to take his mind off the existential horror of being alive. Movies are a great diversion, he says, "because it's much more pleasant to be obsessed over how the hero gets out of his predicament than it is over how I get out of mine."

So why go on? "I can't really come up with a good argument to choose life over death," he says. "Except that I'm too scared." Making films offers no reward beyond distracting him from his plight. He claims the payoff is in the process - "I need to be focused on something so I don't see the big picture"

When it is suggested that others may get a great deal out of his films - that there are fans for whom an afternoon watching "Love and Death" or "Manhattan" provides solace in the way a Marx Brothers film soothes a depressed character in "Hannah and Her Sisters" - he resists the compliment. "This can happen, and this is a nice thing, but when you leave the theater, you're still going back out into a very cruel world."

"Your perception of time changes as you get older, because you see how brief everything is," he says. "You see how meaningless ... I don't want to depress you, but it's a meaningless little flicker."

"You have a meal, or you listen to a piece of music, and it's a pleasurable thing," he says. "But it doesn't accrue to anything."

I said above that I find Allen's view of the world oddly sympathetic. The reason is that I believe that his pessimism is precisely right given his assumption that there is no God. Were I not a Christian, I would feel exactly as he does. Indeed, I feel exactly as he does anyway about a lot of what he says, even though I think he's wrong about life having no meaning. It does have meaning, of course, but only because death is not the end.

It's very sad that Allen seems to have foreclosed the only escape from his despair that's available to him, or anyone -the existence of a God who created us to be happy and fulfilled forever.


Racist America

The only reason Obama would lose the election is white racism. At least that's what Jacob Weisberg at Slate thinks. For such addled minds as Weisberg's a vote for McCain is proof of one's racism. Here are a couple of excerpts:

But let's be honest: If you break the numbers down, the reason Obama isn't ahead right now is that he trails badly among one group, older white voters. He does so for a simple reason: the color of his skin.

Is that the main reason he trails among older whites? Is it even a significant reason? Could it not be that older whites are generally wiser, more educated and more conservative than young people and they just don't like Obama's lack of experience, his arrogance, his ideas, his ability to take all sides of an issue, his affiliations with people like William Ayers, Jeremiah Wright and Tony Rezko, his support for infanticide, his threat to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in Iraq, his wife who believes that this is a "downright mean country", his refusal to drill for oil in the U.S., his promise to raise taxes, and on and on?

Is it not possible that older whites actually vote on issues rather than on a candidate's charisma and rhetoric? Weisberg seems unable to comprehend that people might actually do such a thing:

Many have discoursed on what an Obama victory could mean for America. We would finally be able to see our legacy of slavery, segregation, and racism in the rearview mirror. Our kids would grow up thinking of prejudice as a nonfactor in their lives. The rest of the world would embrace a less fearful and more open post-post-9/11 America.

You could replace Obama's name in the above paragraph with that of Clarence Thomas or Condi Rice and much of what Weisberg says would still be true, but I'd bet my house that Weisberg wouldn't vote for either of them. Does that make him a racist?

He then embarrasses himself with this bit of witless treacle:

But does it not follow that an Obama defeat would signify the opposite? If Obama loses, our children will grow up thinking of equal opportunity as a myth. His defeat would say that when handed a perfect opportunity to put the worst part of our history behind us, we chose not to. In this event, the world's judgment will be severe and inescapable: The United States had its day but, in the end, couldn't put its own self-interest ahead of its crazy irrationality over race.

Notwithstanding Weisberg's lachrymose hand-wringing what an Obama defeat would signify is that the Democrat party can not win the presidency by running a far-left elitist as a candidate. Every time they've tried since 1950 (McGovern, Gore, Kerry) they've lost. Every Democrat president elected in the last fifty years has run as a moderate.

Weisberg thinks we should vote for Obama no matter how bad we may think his policies so that we can make some sort of feel-good social statement. That's very liberal of him and very shallow. Weisberg has things exactly backward: If Obama loses it would be because the American voter decided to put our national interest ahead of our crazy irrationality over race.


The Breakenridge Gambit

Rob Breakenridge, a Canadian talk radio host, submits a rather puerile column to The Calgary Herald in which he voices his dismay that so many Albertans are skeptical of Darwinian explanations of the origin of man. As is so often the case among Darwinian critics of those who are skeptical of their Darwinism, he gives little reason why they should think otherwise beyond some standard name-calling and other insults directed at creationists and intelligent design proponents.

Denyse O'Leary responds to Breakenridge in a column which she wrote for the Herald and which she also posts at Uncommon Descent. The heart of her reply is this:

Breakenridge hopes that we can enlighten backward Albertans by teaching more "evolution" in Alberta schools. But that won't help. Textbook examples of evolution often evaporate when researchers actually study them (instead of just assuming they are true).

For example, the peacock's tail did not evolve to please hen birds; hens don't notice them much. The allegedly yummy Viceroy butterfly did not evolve to look like the bad-tasting Monarch (both insects taste bad). The eye spots on butterflies' wings did not evolve to scare birds by resembling the eyes of their predators. Birds avoid brightly patterned insects, period. They don't care whether the patterns resemble eyes. Similarly, the famous "peppered moth" of textbook fame has devolved into a peppered myth, featuring book-length charges and countercharges.

And remember that row of vertebrate embryos in your textbook years ago? It was dubbed in the journal Science one of the "most famous fakes" in biology-because the embryos don't really look very similar. And Darwin's majestic Tree of Life? It's now a tangleweed, or maybe several of them.

We seldom see evolution happening. Michael Behe's Edge of Evolution (2007) notes that for decades scientists have observed many thousands of generations of bacteria in the lab. And how did they evolve?

Well, they didn't. Worse, when evolution is occasionally observed (and widely trumpeted), it often heads the wrong way. For example, bacteria evolve antibiotic resistance by junking intricate machinery, not by creating it. Cave fish lose their eyes. But we don't need a theory for how intricate machinery gets wrecked. We need a theory for how it originates and how it develops quite suddenly. Evolution, as we understand it today, apparently isn't that theory.

This last point is worth dwelling upon. So much of the evidence that is adduced to support the belief that man has emerged out of the primordial soup is really not an example of evolution at all. Rather it's an example of devolution. Christopher Hitchens was all aquiver at having hit upon the cave salamander example of this phenomenon a few weeks back, but the cave salamander is nothing that a Darwinian can take solace from. The problem for the Darwinian is not why the blind salamander lost the eyes it had but trying to come up with a plausible explanation of how eyes evolved by random chance in the first place.

Breakenridge, of course, doesn't even try. He's content to simply insult people who are skeptical of the Darwinian just-so stories, but he hasn't the intellectual wherewithal to explain why they're wrong. Name-calling is just so much easier.