Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The New Atheists on Morality

If you were to destroy the belief in immortality in mankind, not only love but every living force on which the continuation of all life in the world depended, would dry up at once. Moreover, there would be nothing immoral then, everything would be permitted. 
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 1880, p. I, 2, 6 (p. 69 in the 1990 translation).

Should this statement give the “New Atheists” pause? Do they have a good philosophical answer to Dostoevsky’s challenge? Sam Harris believes that he can navigate through these stormy seas by pointing to increases in happiness and decreases in suffering. He states that “questions of right and wrong are really questions about the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures.”[1] Thus, for Harris, the foundation of morality comes down to caring for the well-being of all sentient creatures. This has led Harris, and other atheists similar to him, to a Vegan-like diet because they believe that it is wrong to cause pain and death to animals. Harris calls the source of this basic moral knowledge “moral intuition.” He also suggests that being moral tends to contribute to one’s happiness.

One must concede that there is a degree of logic to the Harris argument, even as it seems to argue in circles. The degree to which a creature is sentient is difficult to determine. Is a lobster more or less sentient than a chicken, sheep, or steer? What about studies that suggest plants have feelings? Does a tree “know” that it is being felled in the forest? Does it care? As the “Arrogant Worms” sing in one of their comedic songs, is carrot juice murder?

Comedic references aside, what about sentience and consciousness in general? The same atheists who argue that we should care about conscious animals, will also argue that consciousness is nothing more than chemical processes in a brain, consisting of atoms that came together through many processes, stemming from the Big Bang of the universe’s beginning. In the philosophy of the New Atheists, are the chemical processes in the brain-stem of a sheep more important than the chemical processes in the circulation system of a turnip, or an ancient White Oak tree, or a human child who is not even aware she is alive?

Does Harris ever question his own happiness? Why should he feel happy at not eating a lobster; or happy at giving money to a street survivor in New York; or unhappy with himself for not giving money to a person on a New York street? How is his happiness affected by whether I walk past or contribute to that same street person in New York?

Dostoevsky makes the stronger case and ultimately speaks the greater truth. It is easier to see Dostoevsky’s words coming to fruition than the hopeful, but ultimately, groundless words of Sam Harris. I can appreciate that Sam Harris is an intelligent person and is trying hard to create a plausible system, but the system falls shorts and ends in the circle within which it began. Without a foundation in a moral Creator, morality based on our emotions will never triumph and the best laid plans of Harris and others will most often go very far astray.

Works Cited

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1990.
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. "The New Atheists." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 07 27, 2016. (accessed 07 27, 2016).

[1] Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "The New Atheists.", viewed 2016-07-27.

Saturday, July 23, 2016


Somewhere in a dark research lab in Oak Brook, Illinois, Ronald McDonald is working on further developments in retinal scans, finger-prints, and facial recognition. The latest technology in use at my local McDonald's is just one step away from using this technology.

Recently, I walked into a McDonald's in Calgary, Alberta and was confused about how I should order. There was still one person at a till at the counter, but there were six shiny, new, touch screens where I could place my order as well. I could sort through categories and touch pictures of my favourite burger, drink, and fries, place my order and pay for my meal. It was a surprisingly fast and efficient process. I was given an order number and the factory in the back of the restaurant (still an assembly line of people – for now) put together my order. When it was ready, my order number showed up on a screen above the counter and a smiling host handed me a tray carrying my meal.

I thought about how they could take this process to the next level. A number of mechanisms could be used to identify a person when they walked into the restaurant (thus, the research in Illinois); something as simple as giving each person a unique number and pin with which they could log in to a terminal could work. Then, the device could ask you if you wanted your usual order or something different (most of us are creatures of habit when it comes to fast-food) and streamline the process further. The terminal could be linked to your usual method of payment and instantly your order would be placed. Now that would be “fast-food!”

Of course we might ask some questions about this process. What about the number of employees at the counter? Where will they work if not at McDonald's? Perhaps they will work at the factories producing facial recognition cameras. What about the personal, human, element? How personal is the usual exchange at any till? “Hello, can I take your order? Big Mac, fries, and coke. That will be $X.YY. Thank you. Have a nice day.”

We have asked these types of questions since before Henry Ford started building cars on an assembly line. Those who lamented the loss of personal craftsmanship and the human touch have been labelled “Luddites” for about the same length of time. Yet, those questions are still worth asking. There may be a place for automated systems as well as a place for old-fashioned craftsmanship, customer service, and the personal touch. Perhaps we should think about the industries where each type of service is appropriate: restaurant chains, the health industry, manufacturing, book sales, … Might we slow down long enough to make some informed decisions rather than let technology take the driver’s seat? What kind of society do we truly desire? We need to ask these questions before they are answered for us. For now, I will go back to quietly eating my Big Mac, ignoring everyone around me while I check Facebook on my phone.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The James Webb Space Telescope

A team of over 1000 people from 17 countries is currently working on the James Webb Space Telescope. Three space agencies are collaborating on this major undertaking, including NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the United States), CSA (Canadian Space Agency), and ESA (European Space Agency). Many believe this will be the next great space telescope of our time and they have high hopes that the James Webb will further elucidate the conditions of the early universe because of its ability to detect ancient radiation released from events in the distant past.

Previously, the Hubble Space Telescope has been (and still is) the main work-horse of planetary discovery and space imaging. Launched over 26 years ago in 1990, Hubble has served well despite initial problems with its mirror (which were later corrected by astronauts who worked on Hubble while in orbit). The new James Webb telescope will benefit from the hard-learned lessons of Hubble and will incorporate current technology which surpasses that installed on Hubble. The ground glass mirror on Hubble is 2.4 metres in diameter, while the compound 6.5 metre diameter mirror of the James Webb is a gold-coated beryllium reflector. The collecting area of the Hubble is 4.5 m2 while the James Webb will have a collecting area of 25 m2. Hubble has four main instruments on board, while James Webb will have five high-tech devices for viewing a wide spectra of radiation including UV, Infra-Red, and visible light.

Of further note is the difference in orbit of the two telescopes. While Hubble travels in a low-earth, geocentric orbit, the James Webb Space Telescope will be situated near Lagrange 2 relative to the Sun and Earth. This means that it will be in a reasonably stable orbit with an equal gravitational tug from both Earth and the Sun. This will put the James Webb much further from the Earth and other radiometric influences and will allow it to peer deep into space away from the Sun and Earth.

The launch is scheduled for October 2018 and researchers anticipate five to ten years of functionality. The launch mass is sizable (6,500 kg) and the 18 facets of the mirror must be folded for launch and deployed in space. There is much that could go wrong in such a complex system and so we pray for a safe and efficient launch of the James Webb Space Telescope.

James Webb – 25 m2 collecting area; five main instruments: NIRCam - Near IR Camera, NIRSpec - Near-Infrared Spectrograph, MIRI - Mid IR Instrument, NIRISS - Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph, FGS - Fine Guidance Sensor; 6.5-meter-diameter gold-coated beryllium reflector with a collecting area of 25 m2

Hubble: 2.4 metre mirror; 4.5 m2 collecting area; four main instruments observe in the near ultraviolet, visible, and near infrared spectra; When finally launched in 1990, Hubble's main mirror was found to have been ground incorrectly, compromising the telescope's capabilities. The optics were corrected to their intended quality by a servicing mission in 1993.

Sources Cited:, NASA Website, “James Webb Space Telescope,”, viewed 2016-07-22.
Wikipedia, “James Webb Space Telescope,”, viewed 2016-07-22.
Wikipedia, “Lagrangian Point,”, viewed 2016-07-22.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Avian Rodeo

The wonders of God’s creation will never cease to amaze me. On three different occasions in two geographically distinct areas I have witnessed Red-winged Blackbirds riding on the backs of hawks. You have likely seen the phenomenon where smaller blackbirds are seen harassing larger hawks. Red-winged Blackbirds can be quite territorial and will work to protect their nests. Hawks, being carnivorous, are not opposed to eating smaller birds and particularly, young ones in the nest. The blackbirds will chase hawks away from their nesting area by flying at the large bird from above, thus avoiding the lethal talons and beak. They will peck at the hawk and generally cause enough disturbance to chase away the large predator.

A few of the little blackbirds get quite bold. They will actually land on the back of the large hawk and peck at his neck while riding at a position just in front of the hawk’s wings. It is the equivalent of an avian rodeo. The hawk will begin to fly more erratically in hopes of shaking the tiny bird off of her back but the blackbird can hang on for quite a while. It is also slightly reminiscent of scenes in the movie Avatar, where the residents of Pandora manage to ride on the backs of large winged beasts.

How did this behaviour develop? Did one little bird do this by accident and then realize he could impress his friends? “Watch this fellas! I'm gonna ride a killer!” Did the behaviour get passed around blackbird circles when they all went to their wintering grounds in California?
Watch for this behaviour the next time you are out in a marshy area with lots of blackbirds and hawks. You might just be rewarded by a glimpse of this comical looking performance.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016


At a time when racism, violence, and suffering seem to be greater than ever, these words of Fyodor Dostoyevsky are very appropriate.

“I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world's finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, for all the blood that they've shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Power of a Family

I witnessed a powerful act of family on the weekend. Most families are made up of a diverse collection of genetic and non-genetic relationships and our Westwood/Smith family reunion on the weekend was a great example of this. The glue that holds this family together is the patriarch Albert Edward Westwood who was my grandmother’s father. My grandmother, Bertha Smith (nee Westwood) had a brother, William, who had five children: Ralph, Eva, Marvin, Gordon, and Barry. My grandmother died in 2010 and her children and grandchildren carry on the tradition of getting together with the Westwood clan for a sometimes annual reunion. My cousin, Dan Smith, and his wife Linda, are truly gifted in hospitality and bless many people by opening their home to family and friends. They shared their acreage near Three Hills with the more than 50 people who gathered, ranging in age from 2 months to 79 years.

Beyond the glue of genetic relationships, there are bonds of marriage, friendship, adoption, spiritual resemblance, spiritual difference, love, care, concern, debate, music, and comradery. As we all took time out of our busy schedules and got reacquainted, there was a sense of awe as we considered how this family came together through many circumstances. We spoke of the randomness with which our ancestors came to reside in Central Alberta. My father’s father came to Canada from Ireland at 14 years of age because some relatives of his had relocated to the prairies. My mother’s father arrived from England at 17 and added "Maclaren" as a middle name, playing up his Scottish heritage, so that he could get work in the West where there was a prejudice against privileged English boys. He too had followed relatives to Canada after considering moving to New Zealand. We considered the coincidences of people meeting and marrying, adopting because of care for another portion of the family, or adopting from outside of the family for medical reasons. We realized how fortunate or blessed we were to know this diverse crowd of people and call them family.

Then, as will happen with the seeming randomness of weather, a heavy rainstorm broke over the party and threw us all into close quarters in a building called the “Feasting Hall.” We shared a potluck meal together and then one of my cousins pulled out his guitar, another his mandolin and drums, and we all tuned our voices. My cousins and I sang some songs as we invited others to join us. Several sang solos or joined with the crowd. I taught the group a children’s song I had written with a friend, and people graciously sang along. Then, little miracles began to occur: a young boy who wanted to sing, but could barely find the courage to do so, sang “Take Me Out to The Ball Game;” self-conscious young adults sang songs of faith that they knew from their childhood; and three seniors (brothers and cousins) got up on the stage and struggled their way through “Ghost Riders in the Sky” - to the delight of everyone! My mother’s brother who is in stage four (of five) of dementia, sang and valiantly tried to read lyrics, though he had not done so for several months. His face beamed as people applauded his voice. His sister and daughter sat with goose-bumps on their arms and tears in their eyes and he sang with all his might.

Coaxed by his aunt and his distant cousin, young Liam, lived up to his Celtic name, and quieted the crowd as he sang Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” He sang a capella as he read the lyrics from another distant cousin’s smart-phone and brought down the house. Liam was later seen playing along on the caj√≥n, keeping rhythm while others sang.

I thought about the generosity of several of those moments. Everyone in the room wanted others to succeed and many made space for the gifts of others to be expressed. Liam’s moment to shine came from a variety of sources: Ukrainian dance instructors who gave him rhythm, musical theatre that taught him to sing, a loving family that supported his abilities, ancestors who shared their genes, close family that spurred him on, and distant relatives that coaxed him to remain calm and do what his voice and musical ear was so readily able to do.  For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, it was a spiritual moment in the development of one unique family.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Difficulty of Explaining Spiritual Experiences

“. . . spiritual matters are very hard to explain. . . . I am convinced that those who refuse to believe that God can do far more than this, and that He is pleased now, as in the past, to communicate Himself to His creatures, shut fast their hearts against receiving such favours themselves. Do not imitate them, sisters: be convinced that it is possible for God to perform still greater wonders. Do not concern yourselves as to whether those who receive these graces are good or wicked; as I said, He knows best and it is no business of yours: you should serve Him with a single heart and with humility, and should praise Him for His works and wonders.
-       Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle
The Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila is a classic of spiritual literature. Teresa is a humble and devout follower of Jesus who experienced a great many spiritual manifestations. She saw miracles, experienced communication from God, and had physical experiences that both comforted her and caused her to repent of sin. Yet, she always found it difficult to explain her spiritual experiences to others and often repeated the sentiment that “spiritual matters are very hard to explain.” I would concur with this idea. The way that God communicates with each of us can be very unique and difficult to explain to someone else who may be wired quite differently from ourselves. Some of my own most intimate moments with God have left me overwhelmed and encouraged by His presence but when I try to explain them to even my closest friend (my wife), I am left speechless. When I share my journal writings with her she must sometimes wonder if I am having a schizophrenic break.

Yet, Teresa of Avila continues to encourage us to trust that God can do far more than one typically sees in the world and to never “shut fast our hearts against receiving such favours” ourselves. She says, “be convinced that it is possible for God to perform still greater wonders.” What wonders might we be missing because we have shut the door to miracles and manifestations of our God? How might He communicate with us if we truly opened ourselves to His presence?

Yet Teresa is also quick to direct us away from putting too much emphasis on the miracles of God. She reminds us that we are not to focus upon miracles nor only seek the spectacular in our relationship with Jesus. She says that we should simply, “serve Him with a single heart and with humility, and . . . praise Him for His works and wonders.” This too is good advice and I highly recommend reading The Interior Castle for a greater explanation of these matters.