The Theological Implications of the Multiverse

Because of recent research in gravity waves and inflation, the theory of the multiverse moves further toward reality.  While creationists are still fighting for equal time to oppose the 1859 theory of evolution, science has gone on to discover endless other aspects of reality that counter the Biblical view.  I don’t know why creationists focus so exclusively on evolution when millions of other scientific discoveries are also thorns in their theological sides.

When humanity thought the Earth was the center of everything, contained within the celestial spheres, it was possible to imagine our reality being constructed by a super being, especially if you believed the whole thing was only 6,000 years old.  Even then it was an extremely far out idea to buy.  After the sun was moved to the center of the universe, and Earth was just the third planet, it became a lot harder to imagine a God that could create the solar system with some kind of magic spell.  For a long while after that, we assumed all of reality was the Milky Way galaxy.

As reality got bigger, it got harder to imagine a single being creating it.  But still, reality was manageable with just a billion stars.  Then Edwin Hubble came along and showed us reality is composed of billions of galaxies.  How can any theology handle a reality that big?

If we live in a multiverse, it might not be billions of universes, but an infinity of them.  Or there might be another layer, so there are billions of multiverses in a megaverse.  It seems science can’t find any end to large or small, nor a beginning of time.  This has got to wipe out all ancient theological theories.  It’s time to start over.  Reality is too big for any kind of God, and we’re too small for any kind of special consideration.

Humanity needs to start over and throw out all theology and come up with a new working hypothesis about our place in reality.  Instead of thinking of ourselves as the crown of creation, we need see ourselves closer to an intelligent virus that accidently came about through random evolution with no  higher being watching.  Seen from orbiting telescopes, humans are little smudges that have infected this planet.  We’re quite deadly, killing off most of the other life forms on Earth.

We have a decision to make.  Shall we take responsibility for our actions?  There is no God judging us.  We only judge ourselves.  And it might not even be possible for our species to become fully conscious of its actions and act.  We might breed ourselves out of existence.  It should be pretty obvious to all by now that no God will intercede.  We will not be punished if we don’t act, nor will we be rewarded if we do.  We merely can choose to act.  We can preserve ourselves, other species, and the planet Earth – for a while. 

Nothing last forever in the multiverse.

Please read.

JWH – 3/24/14

Faith and The Sparrow

I watched the new HBO documentary Questioning Darwin twice yesterday.  This film precisely defines the conflict between the people who believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible and their objection to Darwin and evolution.  Even though I’m an atheist I’ve always believed that fundamentalists had a better intuitive understanding of evolution than the average church goer.  They know evolution is an alternative explanation for reality that absolutely contradicts their faith.  Most modern people are wishy-washy in their religious and scientific beliefs and try to hold both at the same time, believing they can keep God and embrace modern knowledge.  However, if you really understand evolution or you really understand faith in God, you know the two cannot coexist.  That’s what this documentary is about.

HBO-Darwin

People who understand science will see this documentary and wonder why the faithful cling so passionately to their ancient beliefs.  But the faithful who see this film will wonder at how the disciples of Darwin can’t see the obviousness of God.  The wishy-washy middle will wonder why we can’t have both.  It doesn’t work that way.  Often my friends ask me why I can’t just be an agnostic – why be an extremist. 

At one point in Questioning Darwin a preacher states it takes just as much faith to believe in science.  And he is right.  Both evolution and theology are systems to explain reality.  Backers of evolution firmly believe evolution is true.  Science is a process that evaluates evidences and selects the best explanations that describe the various workings of reality.  The science minded feel the evidence is overwhelming in support of evolution.  The fundamentalists insist God create reality and us.  The wishy-washy will say God created science and evolution.  But that’s a cop out.  Atheists and fundamentalists know there are two opposing explanations and you have to pick one. 

To the scientific minded, who dislike the word faith, I think they don’t understand the term as used by the faithful.  They think it means wish fulfillment.  They think when a religious person says they have faith in God they are saying they are choosing to “believe” God exists.  To the faithful, faith means they “know” God exists.  They have completely accepted God as the answer to explaining all the questions of reality.  By that definition of faith, atheists who back science have faith in science, and they “know” evolution is the explanation of how life arose on Earth.  But we’ll leave the word faith to the religious, and keep the word scientific for the science minded.

Folks in the middle will explain we can’t know anything for certain.  That’s true.  We can’t.  However, fundamentalists and atheists know there are currently only two choices, two theories, on the table, and they are exact opposites, and we feel it’s important to man up and pick one.  That’s what this documentary shows – the two conflicting options.

Even Darwin clung to God.  And many educated religious leaders want to understand and incorporate scientific knowledge into their metaphysical philosophy.  The vast majority of Christians are in the middle.  They aren’t Biblicists.  The Bible Christians, with their creationism and  Creation Museum insist the world is only six thousand years old, and use pseudo-sciences like intelligent design to attack real science to validate their beliefs.  It’s hard to say how many Americans believe this – one Gallop poll said 46% of Americans, but that’s probably not true.  The Raw Story analyzed that poll and concluded maybe 31 million Americans, or one tenth of the country.

Also, the numbers for people supporting evolution varies too, with atheists being the strongest at 87%, Buddhists (81%), Hindu (80%) and so on down to evangelical protestants at 23%, Mormons (22%) and Jehovah’s Witnesses at 8%.  Wikipedia using Pew Forum claims 48% of the U.S. population supports evolution.  Between the 46% Gallop figure and the 48% Pew figure, we can see how the country is polarized, and this topic matters.

The two choices are this.  The first theory is a supreme being is the starting point of everything, one of perfect knowledge, power and order, and reality descends from his being.  From perfect order towards chaos.  The second theory believes reality emerges out of nothingness, with no knowledge, no order, and no power, and is evolving toward something, becoming ever more complex and orderly.  From chaos to order.

Polarized Politics

One significant aspect of Questioning Darwin is to explain our polarize society.  If religious beliefs were merely personal it wouldn’t matter if some people believed in God and others in science, but the faithful want to change society so it follows their beliefs, and science automatically changes society through technological spinoffs.  I believe the rigidity of Republican party comes from the rigidity that believing in The Bible is the absolute word of God.  I also believe that anti-science philosophy is reflected in conservatives getting involved in the politics of education.  I used to believe that the small government movement merely reflected cheapness for not paying taxes, but more and more it appears to be because fundamentalist citizens hate spending their money on liberal ideas.

The documentary didn’t go into politics, but all the evidence was there to read.  Bible based believers want to redesign society so it matches their philosophy.  They feel both persecuted and empowered.  The documentary said that Bible based Christianity was the fastest growing religion in the world.  I don’t know if that’s true, but if it is, then expect an ever growing conflict between science and faith.

Accepting Science

My heart goes out to the faithful, to those people who embrace God.  When I watch this documentary I see all the reasons why they prefer God over science.  And I’m sure when they see this documentary their hearts will go out to all the non-believers.  But here’s the thing, the faithful believe us atheists live without many comforts they think they get from God, and I don’t think that’s true.  They cannot comprehend how we can live without God, and fear us.  They believe we embrace chaos.  We don’t.  We seek all the things belief in God gives the faithful.   We just find meaning and comfort by other paths.

We have a different approach to dealing with every sparrow that falls from a tree.  We can’t replace God and religion exactly, but we have many analogs.

Father Figure

One thing that comes through strongly in Questioning Darwin is the strong desire of religious people for a father figure.  People want a strong protector that is just and wise.  One that will always listen and always help, and most importantly, always care.  In Darwin’s reality, we all have to become our own father figures.  We want to grow up and leave home and stand on our own.  The faithful love the quote, “there are no atheists in foxholes.”  They believe when times are tough everyone will beg for God’s help.  That isn’t true.  True atheists understand and accept the randomness of the universe.  If there’s a shell with our name on it, then our time is up.  It’s not personal.  We don’t want to die, but death comes to us all, and usually it’s an apparently random fate.  Science and knowledge gives us understanding to how things happens.  It’s not completely random.  Sometimes its from the will or fault of another person, and we do find that evil and unjust.  We don’t expect a father figure to rescue us, and especially not one that will avenge us.

Darwin explains how we got here, but he said nothing about what it means to be a self-aware being finding itself in an unconscious reality.  Humans with scientific knowledge will be able to conquer the random chaotic indifferent universe.  There is no God that senses every sparrow that falls from a tree, but humans are now aware of sparrows and maybe it’s our responsibility to take care of all of them.

Order and Morality

Related to the father figure wish, is the desire for justice.  The faithful hate the idea that the universe is random and capricious.  The faithful want God to be the arbiter of right and wrong, and the punisher of evil doers.  The want the universe to have a referee who knows the rules that everyone must follow.  The faithful hate not having clear rules to live by.

The scientific have laws and ethics.  We do not believe the universe has morality built into it, but we do believe that intelligent beings can create their own morality.  We call that ethics.  We also believe that intelligent beings can invent their own rules to live by.  We can them laws.

We have also created the idea of human rights, and more recently, animal rights.  Even though we are Godless, we embrace ethics and morality completely.  Right and wrong is just as important to our philosophy as it is to literal Bible believers.

Yes, the universe is chaotic, seemingly ruled by random events, we see the emergence of order in everything.  If someone dies horribly from cancer we don’t see it as punishment.  We don’t blame God, or wonder if the person deserved to die a miserable death.  We study the environmental and genetic causes of cancer to understand how it happened.  Even though randomness is a major factor in everything that happens, we still find cause and effect.  It’s not a meaningless universe to us.  If a sparrow falls from a tree, we study why.

Immortality

Believers in God have one overwhelming wish they expect God to grant – everlasting life.  Science accepts death comes to us all but we work to extend life as much as possible.  Personally, living forever scares me.  It sounds like a cruel torture.  But us unbelievers do want a longer life, and we expect science to study reality and discover how to make people live longer.

Not only do we want longer lives, we want to make sure our species does not become extinct, and we want to protect all other species.

Heaven

As a nonbeliever who occasionally studies The Bible. it seems to me that two most important books are the first, Genesis, and the last, Revelation.  To believers, the first explains how we got here and the last explains where we’re going.  The Book of Revelation has the most extensive description of heaven in all of The Bible.  And if it’s the literal truth, I don’t think I want to go to heaven, especially not for all of eternity.

Those of us believe in science want to build paradise on Earth.  We want to conquer disease, live a long time, create a humane and just world, with lots of creative activities to pursue.  We want to live long enough, and then die peacefully.  We accept death, but don’t embrace it.  Not only do we want to create heaven on Earth for humans, but we want to recreate Eden for the animals.

Prayer

From watching the documentary I got the feeling that prayer was among the most cherish aspects of religion.  That being able to talk to God is the number one need.  I think we all feel lonely in this old reality.  When I saw the scenes of the happy people at the mega-church I envied them their community togetherness.  Praying together is a way of sharing hopes and fighting fears.

We unbelievers have a substitute for prayer.  Instead of asking God to change reality for us, we believe we should change reality ourselves.  We don’t plead to God to heal the sick, but spend money on medical research.  We vote for Obamacare.  We don’t pray to God to stop evil wrong doers, we pay for police and the judicial systems.  We don’t pray for world peace but build armies.  We don’t pray for rain, but build irrigation systems.  We don’t beg God to send us a husband or wife, but join Match.com.  We don’t ask for riches, but go to college or invent Candy Crush.

Also, I am constantly thankful.  I am grateful for being alive, for having a lucky life, for family and friends.  I spend a lot of time studying nature and science to appreciate the wonders of reality.  I constantly think good thoughts about other people, animals and all life on Earth, and even out into the universe.  That kind of positive thinking is our prayers.

Sin

Religious people are frightened and horrified by all the evil things that happen on Earth.  We nonbelievers are just as scared and repulsed by those events too.  In the documentary it shows a wing at the Creation Museum that depicts these horrors.  Many of the pastors and their followers interviewed talked about sin, and the origin of sin.  All pointed to the fall from grace in the Garden of Eden.  Some of the people interviewed even believed that dinosaurs existed in the Garden of Eden and that Adam and Eve and all the animals were vegetarians before sin came to us.  Believing there was no violence or suffering before sin.

The scientific minded don’t like violence either.  I’m a vegetarian.  I don’t want animals or people to suffer.  I’m a liberal and want the government to help needy people so they won’t suffer.  I give money to causes to end suffering.

Science, law, technology and ethics are all efforts to create order, to end suffering and to create justice.  We want to educate people so they won’t do evil.  So they won’t hurt other people, or protect the weak.

In a way I agree with the fundamentalists, and believe that it is humans that brought sin into this world.  I actually think the metaphor for the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is a beautiful concept.  I think the writers of The Book of Genesis knew there was a time when we were like animals, and were innocent of good and bad, and that language and understanding let us know the difference between what should be and shouldn’t.  Those writers wished we still lived in the Garden of Eden, innocent and without sin.  Boy, they would have loved Jean-Jacques Rousseau.   Us disciples of Darwin see it differently.  Yes, there is sin in the world, but through knowledge we’ll learn to live ethical and good lives.  Violence is the rule of reality from The Big Bang to The Enlightenment.  It’s only been in the last few centuries have we learned that violence is wrong, and that human rights and animals rights is the way to end it.  We don’t believe Eden existed – yet.

Humans are an emergent phenomenon, sort of like the singularity we imagine for intelligent machines.  Humans woke up and saw reality and have been trying to figure it out ever since.  We reached a critical mass of brain cells that allowed us to be self-aware – aware of who we are and the reality we lived in.  We didn’t fall from grace, but emerged from the chaos of nature.  We became a new type of entity in reality – one that recognized it’s place in reality.  Reality is pretty scary.  Our job isn’t to die and go to heaven, but to conquer reality.

We left Eden not because we were exiled, but because we could no longer be unaware animals.  We wear clothes not because of shame, but because we don’t want to be animals.  We left Eden because we wanted freedom to become everything we can imagine.  Sure, we’ve fucked up the planet, but we’re still evolving.  Hopefully, we can make things right and get our shit together before we destroy everything.

Nature is not sinful, it’s just red tooth and claw.  Only humans can be sinful and evil.  We do that when we act like animals and destroy rather than create.  We achieve grace and transcend nature when we live up to our full potential and become good by our own definition of goodness.  The ten commandments were not from God, but our own creation to bring goodness into the world.

Sin defined by God is servitude and slavery.  Sin defined by humanity is escaping from nature.

The desire to return to Garden of Eden innocence is the desire to go back to sleep, to become unconscious to the nature of reality.

To the faithful, sin is not obeying God, but to the scientific, sin is not living up to our knowledge.

The evil of the red tooth and claw of nature is the hatred of chaos.  Science seeks to understand reality so that we might bring order to chaos.  Most of the evils of mankind are from when we act like animals, which reflects the programming of nature.  Currently the Earth suffers because humanity collectively acts like a cancerous growth on the planet, killing endless species and destroying the ecosystem.  It comes from being unconscious to the knowledge science has shown us.  The most evil of sin is being aware and doing evil.

Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?

The most disturbing of all the points they illustrate in the documentary is when they show a young girl in the hospital paralyzed from the neck down because she was in a car accident.  Her cousin said his wife prayed and prayed but wondered why it didn’t help.  The cousin wondered why an all powerful and all knowing God could let this happen.  They speculated that God had a purpose and claimed they had faith in whatever that purpose might be.

Here’s where I find atheism far more comforting than religion.  We can all be victims of random evil.  Sometimes it’s nobody’s fault, nor did we do anything to deserve punishment.  And when someone is at fault, it’s explainable, like a drunk driver, or mad gunman.   Isn’t it better to have something bad happen to you and not think God has it in for you?  Especially if you love God so much?

Being Saved

Towards the end of the documentary they interview at ex-prostitute crack user and a former heroin addict who both claim God saved them.  Religion has saved a lot of people.  Religion can bring order and stability to people.  But millions of nonbelievers have saved themselves too.  As an atheist when I meet people like these two saved people I don’t want to argue with them, or try to take away their faith.  They were lost and now they are found.  I can accept that.  But God isn’t my explanation for why they are better.

Both of these people were addicted to drugs.  Now they are addicted to a belief in God.  They switched from a negative addiction to a positive addiction.  They found a community of people to belong, and they’ve turned their life around.

Personally, I think they got a virus that changed them.  Memes are viruses of the mind.  God and religion are powerful generators of memes.  Memes replicate and spread like mental viruses.  They are like DNA in that they replicate.  Religious memes are very successful because they make people feel good.  Really good.  As good as crack or heroin.

My parents were alcoholics.  My father died of drinking when I was 18.  My mother eventually gave it up.  She was religious, but I think she gave up drinking and smoking from her own willpower.  I did a lot of drugs when I was young, but I gave them up.  I saved myself.  But I think some people need other people to save themselves.  They think it’s God, but it’s really a community of caring people.

Churches

If they had churches for atheists I think we’d have a lot more atheists.  I think a lot of people believe in God because they like going to church and being part of a community.  I’m pretty sure millions of people profess the doctrine of their church because that’s what they are told, and it’s easy to accept rather than study science books.  But what they really want is friends and community.  That professing belief in Jesus is just learning the secret password to join the club.

True believers of Darwin have their club houses too, they are called universities and research institutes.  But the average citizen who backs science usually don’t have scientific clubs to join.  Amateur astronomy is big on clubs, but we usually don’t see hangouts for physic and chemistry fans.  Birders and some other naturalists do have a lot of amateur associations.

I wonder if there would be more professed atheists in America if we had churches devoted to believers in science.  Imagine going to service on Sunday to hear lectures on cosmology and mathematics, mixed with singing and study groups for evolution and quantum mechanics.  With Sunday night dinners and Wednesday night social gatherings with kid’s activities, such as robot building contests.

Charles Darwin and Evolution

The thing believers hated most about Darwin and evolution is takes away the concept that humans are special, that we are special in God’s eyes.  Many of the preachers talked about humans being created in the image of God, and that we weren’t animals, as if being an animal was undignified, or lowly.  I thought it was strange that they’d prefer to be a servant of God to being the top dog of the animal world.  I find a kind of affinity with the line from Paradise Lost, “Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.”

Until we meet an intelligent alien from the stars, we are the kings of the universe.  We are now responsible for what happens on this world.  We can choose to be great, or act like animals.  We can create our own immortality, our own paradise, or own morality, our own health and happiness.  We are the father and mother to what will be.  This might be hubris, but only if imaginary gods are real, and there’s never been a shred of evidence to believe they are, only wishes.

JWH – 2/12/14

Why Humans Won’t Be the God of Robots

There’s a scene in the film Prometheus where an android asked a human why he would want to meet his maker?  The human replied that he’d like to ask his maker why he made him.  So the android said to the human, “Why did you make me?”  And the human replied, “Because we could.”  And the android then asked, “Will that answer be good enough for you?”

Science fiction has always loved the motif of man being the God of robots and AI machines – but I don’t think that will be true.  Not because artificial intelligence can’t exist, but because of how AI will evolve.

Please read “’A Perfect and Beautiful Machine’: What Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Reveal About Artificial Intelligence” by Daniel C. Dennett at The Atlantic.  No really, take the time to read this essay, if you are at all interested in artificial intelligence because this is an elegant essay about how AI will evolve.  It’s also a unique comparison of Charles Darwin and Alan Turing that observes concepts I’ve never read or thought about before, especially about the nature of evolution.  But for those who won’t take the time to read the article, I’ll summarize.  Darwin’s theory of evolution, according to Dennett, proves that God or an intelligent designer didn’t create life on Earth.  And Turing, with his Turing machine, proves that computers can produce creative output with no intelligent mind at all.  What I get from this is simplicity can produce complexity.

But back to AI and robots.  For a long time we’ve thought we could program our way to artificial intelligence.  That once we learned how intelligence worked we could write a program that allowed machines to be smart and aware like humans.  The belief was if random events in physics, chemistry and biology could produce us, why couldn’t we create life in silicon by our own intelligent design?

The solution to AI has always been elusive.  Time and again we’ve invented machines that could do smart things without being smart.  Machine self-awareness is always just over the horizon.

What Dennett is suggesting, is artificial intelligence won’t come from our intelligent designs, but from programs evolving in the same kind of mindless way that we evolved out of the organic elements of the Earth.  That humans can create the context of AI creation, that humans can be the amino acids, but they can’t be the designers.  The programs that produce AI need a context to evolve on their own.  In other words, we need to invent an ecosystem for computer programs to develop and evolve on their own.  How that will work I have no idea.

This means we’ll never get to code in Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.  It also suggests that complexity doesn’t come from complexity, but the creative power of non-intelligent design.  There’s a lot to this.

I’m also reading Imagine by Jonah Lehrer and it discusses how creativity often comes from our unconscious mind, and through group interaction.  Often creative ideas burst out in an Ah-Ha! moment after we have digested the facts, chewed them over, worried, given up and then forgot about the problem.  We are not even the God of our own thoughts and creativity.  That intelligent design is the randomness of evolution.

lehrerimagine

Time and again the Lehrer book talks about creativity coming from process and not an individual expression.  If you combine what Dennett and Lehrer are saying you catch a whiff of spookiness about unconscious forces at play in our minds and life in general.  Conscious thinking become less impressive because it’s only the tip of the iceberg that surfs on the deep waves of the unconscious mind.  Evolution is a blind force of statistics.  Is creativity just another blind force like evolution?

If Dennett is right, our conscious minds will never be powerful enough to conceive of an artificial mind.  And Dennett also says that Charles Darwin by coming up with the theory of evolution indirectly proves that a God couldn’t have created us whole in a divine mind.  If you think about all of this enough, you’ll start seeing this is saying something new.  It’s a new paradigm, like the Copernican revolution.  We’re not the center of the universe, and now conscious thought is not the crown of creation.

[I didn’t write this.  Thousands of books that I’ve read did.]

JWH – 6/28/12

The Five Laws of Evolving Machines

Pay attention to machines around you.  Pretend you’re Darwin observing their habits.  It’s pretty obvious they’re evolving, and they have a parasitic relationship with us.  Biological life arose in the medium of water, machines are rising out of an ocean of humanity.  Most people think of evolution only in terms of biology, but it can be applied to cosmology, particle physics, and now mechanical evolution.  Scientists have often wondered if life could be based on something other than carbon, well, we’re seeing beings of silicon evolve right in front of our eyes.

iphone_4s

The First Law:  Machines Are Becoming More Intelligent

Like single cell animals being outwitted by multi-cell organisms, and the animal kingdom being dominated by humans, machine evolution is moving towards smarter machines replacing dumber.  Generally we think of machines as getting more complex or having more features, but if you compare an iPhone to an old rotary phone, it is more complex, does more, but more than that, it’s far smarter.  We call them smartphones and dumb phones, and the dumb phones are going extinct.

The Second Law:  Machines Are Becoming More Functional

Machines that do more are replacing machines that do less.  Modern sewing machines can do what once took several machines.  Modern refrigerators are no longer just boxes of cold.  A smartphone replaces a cell phone, portable GPS, MP3 player, PDA, camera, video camera, organizer, watch, alarm clock and could replace a laptop and ebook for some users.  My desktop ate my CD player, record player, radio and typewriter.  I can’t tell if my computer is going to eat the TV, or if the TV will eventually eat the computer.  Even a simple machine like a knife evolves to serve more functions.

The Third Law: Machines Are Evolving Towards Simplicity

Machines want to have fewer parts, especially ones that don’t move.  Charles Babbage tried to build a machine that was too mechanically complex to survive.   19th century machines were overwhelmingly complex, they had to evolve into simpler machine we saw in the 20th century.  But even those machines are too complex.  Soon solid state drives will replace hard discs, and people will abandon all forms of optical drives.  Floppy drives disappeared long ago.  But even more mechanical machines like washers, dryers, cars, HVACs, etc. are moving towards fewer moving parts.  Clocks used to be marvels of complexity, and now they are solid state circuits.  Electric cars have far fewer parts than gasoline powered automobiles.

The Fourth Law:  Machines Are Evolving Towards Efficiency

A Kindle ebook can last weeks on one charge.  A Toyota Prius uses less gas than a Edsel.  A modern air conditioner uses a fraction of electricity than a unit back in the 1950s used.  Modern jetliners can fly further and faster on less fuel than their ancestors.

The Fifth Law:  Machine Evolution is Driven by Humans

Human evolution was driven by survival of the fittest adapting to changing environments.  Machines evolve though the competitive needs of people.  One day they will evolve from their own competitive nature, but until then humans are the driving force of machine evolution.  Ultimately we’ll cross breed and form cyborgs.

JWH – 4/17/12

The Tree of Life (2011)–Grace versus Nature

Terrence Malick’s new film, The Tree of Life is quite polarizing for its audiences.  NPR is even reporting that a small percentage of viewers walk out on the film and some of those ask for their money back.  Now I’ve walked out on a number of films over the decades and I can understand many reasons for not wanting to finish a movie.  There is no way to know why people leave before The Tree of Life is over, but I wonder if any do for philosophical reasons.  This is a philosophical movie, but I also found it immensely entertaining, beautiful to watch, and never boring.  This is one of the most ambitious films I’ve ever seen.  It makes me think of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed.  Another film about naturalism.

The Tree of Life attempts to answer one of the most difficult spiritual questions in philosophy:  Why do bad things happen to good people.  The film begins by telling us that life is a battle between grace and nature.  Throughout the film we hear the character pray to God asking for guidance, forgiveness,  understanding and meaning, and when a son and brother dies, his parents and siblings suffer greatly, partly at the loss, but mostly for not understanding why.

The film quotes The Book of Job, and has a scene where a pastor gives a excellent sermon on Job.  Job is one of the most complex stories in the Bible.  Many of the faithful have given up belief in God trying to understand “Why do the righteous suffer?”

I do not live by faith, but I like the word grace.  Terrence Malick shows the history of the universe in this film, making a good case for evolution is part of reality.  The faithful believe we are here by the grace of God, but I believe we are here by the grace of evolution.  Our universe is immense in size and ancient in age, and our lives are a miracle of unintentional consequences.  I think the word grace applies to that too.  I also believe the most sophisticated of spiritual philosophers accept evolution and incorporate it into their philosophy.

The difference between the faithful and those who accept evolution is life after death.  The faithful want to believe that no matter how much suffering we experience in this life, it will be soothed by the life we get after this one.  And Malick shows that in The Tree of Life.  I’ve wondered if some of the people who have walked out on this picture was because they thought Malick was selling evolution.  If they did, they should have stayed.  Malick sticks with faith all the way through, although it’s subtle, leaving room for some atheists to interpret the film differently.  All great fiction is ambiguous, so it’s unfair to suggest my views as the only views of this story.

Here’s the thing, for most of the faithful, suffering can only be made sensible if there is life after death, either through rewards or punishment.  To those who side with nature, suffering is just part of life.  There is no philosophical problem for atheists, because we don’t believe God is making us suffer.  The hardest thing for the faithful to endure is to believe that God is making them suffer.  Thus the story of Job.

The evolution of liberal thought is one that fights suffering directly by trying to make living in this life better for all.  Malick doesn’t go there at all.  This is a deeply spiritual movie in the sense that it is totally metaphysical.  Striving to do better is shown to cause suffering as illustrated by the role of the father played by Brad Pitt.

This movie is not for people who want escapism.  I’m not sure this movie is even for young people.  Terrence Malick was born in 1943, he’s not a baby boomer, but like Bob Dylan, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, he’s of the generation that speaks to the baby boomers.  I’d say anyone who grew up in the 1950s America should watch this film if they have a philosophical bent, it’s a film about and for us.

This trailer will give a hint at what The Tree of Life is like, but only the slightest of one.

This rather enigmatic web site gives more scenes from the movie, but you need a lot of patience to try out all the rather short clips.  Go see the film for the full cinematic rollercoaster ride.

JWH – 7/4/11

NOVA – Becoming Human

The PBS show NOVA began a three part series called Becoming Human that is an excellent roundup on the science exploring the evolution of humans.  The show aired on Tuesday night but most PBS stations repeats NOVA throughout the week, and you can also watch the episode online.

Evolution is a controversial topic in this country, and a good portion of the population refuse to accept the concept, especially regarding the ascent of man from earlier species.  From the time of Darwin through the Scopes trial, attackers of evolution have claimed that anthropologists have never found the missing link between man and monkey.  Well this show covers a range of fossils that provide a succession of missing links.  Not only that, but the show covers many new theories that go well beyond anything Darwin imagined in the 19th century.  The time range and scope of human evolution is expanding as we gain more evidence.  This is a very rich in ideas documentary.

I doubt this show will change anybody’s mind about evolution, but it does summarize the current knowledge in an excellent manner and provides terrific graphics to help imagine the immensity of the topic.  I do believe that most of the people who refuse to believe in evolution do so because of their religion.  I also believe those religions will die off in the future if they refuse to incorporate scientific knowledge and evolve.

JWH – 11/5/9