Monday, February 04, 2008

A Response to Vox Day, Part 1

In the section of his book "The Irrational Atheist" titled "The Ontological Argument For Science-Inspired Art", Vox Day observes that Richard Dawkins wrote in "Unweaving the Rainbow" that:
By more general implication, science is poetry’s killjoy, dry and cold, cheerless, overbearing and lacking in everything that a young Romantic might desire. To proclaim the opposite is one purpose of this book, and I shall here limit myself to the untestable speculation that Keats, like Yeats, might have been an even better poet if he had gone to science for some of his inspiration.
Even the most cursory of internet searches reveals that John Keats himself would almost certainly not have believed any such thing. Normally, one would have supposed that the statement could be dismissed as pure whimsy, or dismissed as the kind of playful rhetorical slap that has launched a thousand Microsoft Powerpoint presentations. In "The Irrational Atheist", Vox Day perceives mendacity as the motivation behind this statement, and so devotes some few pages of his book to attacking Dawkins on this point.

The purpose of this response is to rescue Dawkins from the Vox's attacks, if possible, or to dispose of as much of the attack as can be demonstrated to be erroneous. The attacks within the section "The Ontological Argument For Science-Inspired Art" are presented as a series of progressively more elaborate statements. To begin, let me address these one-by-one starting with the most expansive.

Vox's attack #1: Secular humanist art is dead

Vox Day makes an appeal to the authority Camille Paglia when he writes:
The inadequacy of science and other secular replacements for religion has not escaped the notice of one of the more enthusiastic champions of the arts, Camille Paglia, who despite her atheism insists that religion is an artistic necessity.
Here Vox defends Keats with the rhetorical equivalent of dropping an atom bomb on Dawkins. The attack here is very simple: if secular humanism in toto is artistically dead, then presumably the scientific subset of secular humanism is artistically dead as well.

First, let's observe that secular art is by no means incompatible with or exclusive of religious art. For the sake of enjoying art as art, the secularist may permit himself temporarily to suspend judgement upon its moral, physical, or other truth claims. So even the atheist connoisseur of art may nevertheless appreciate religion as a component of art, although he may believe that it is not a necessary component of art.

Secular humanism has also traditionally idolized youth and athleticism while insisting that great human drama can be found in athletic competition. I think it goes without saying that the great contemporary athletic competitions of the Superbowl and the secular Olympics, to give only two examples, are still wildly popular despite not being grounded in religion.

Secular humanism also strongly admires science, and again I think it goes without saying that we are living in an era of renaissance of secular science fiction. Just making a conservative listing of franchise science fiction since 1963, we have seen the merged "Alien" and "Predator" franchises (8 films), the "Star Trek" franchise (10 films with 1 in production; 726 television episodes), the "Stargate" franchise (1 film; 289 television episodes at present), the "Dr. Who" franchise (762 televised episodes at present), as well as "The Matrix" trilogy and "Battlestar Galactica". And, of course, there are the six "Star Wars" films -- even Camille Paglia likes "Star Wars" -- which do have a partial degree of religious inspiration in the form of "the Force".

Regardless of what one believes about the greatness of secular humanist art, it should be clear from this abbreviated assessment alone that secular humanist art is far from being dead.

Vox's attack #2: Science is artistically dead.

Vox Day makes this charge when he writes:
Still, Dawkins’s belief in the artistic possibilities of science is rather sweet. It is, as I believe I have read somewhere before, the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
First, it is the opinion of many that some scientific results, in and of themselves, are great art. Charles Murray writes in "Human Accomplishment" (pp. 418-419) that:
Beauty can be an integral part of the satisfaction that scientists take in their discoveries. Mathematicians are often attracted to mathematics because of the qualities they consciously see as beautiful. Scientists in every field have been known to fall in love with their work because of the aspects of order and harmony that fall within the realm of the beautiful. Physicists have been known to doubt their results because they were not elegant.
Murray goes on to cite the physical law "S = k log W" as an example of scientific beauty.

There are also long standing genres of historical and pure fiction directly inspired by real-life science and technology. The novel and film "The Right Stuff" and the science-inspired "CSI" franchise stand out as contemporary examples, and, of course, practically every schoolboy knows Sherlock Holmes. Vox also ignores the greatest artistic achievement of science (and arguably of mankind as well): "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind."

So, having shown that secular humanism in general and science in particular are actually vibrantly alive in terms of artistic potential, what is left of Vox's position that is germaine to Dawkins' original quote above?

Vox's attack #3: Dawkins believes that science can inspire poetry without any evidence.

Vox writes:
It is also worth noting that Dawkins’s insistence that science not only leaves room for poetry but is more capable than religion of inspiring it, flies directly in the face of his claim to suspect any form of argument that reaches a significant conclusion “without feeding in a single piece of [data] from the real world.”
Whether Dawkins believes that science is more capable of inspiring poetry in general is a question that I will refrain from addressing here. The fact that we are living in an era of abundant science-inspired popular art of all kinds is more than enough evidence to conclude, via inductive reasoning, that there is science-inspired poetry being produced out there.

Vox's attack #4: Dawkins doesn't actually cite a poem about science and written by a scientist that is any good.

Ok, Vox, until I can dig up a poem written by a scientist about science that is up to your standards of greatness, you've earned one cookie.


Anonymous Mrs. Pilgrim said...


1. "Battlestar Galactica" (the original version, at any rate) was influenced heavily by Mormonism. I can't speak to the current one, but you have to admit that even if it IS atheistic, it's still related to its Mormon predecessor, and to it owes its roots.

2. The "Star Trek" franchise was not intended as art (and most of it certainly is not artistic). It was and is a money-making endeavor. Oh, and Gene Roddenberry was a New-Ager, not an atheist per se.

3. Don't you think it's a stretch to consider the lunar landing as artistic? In fact, after reading this post, I must ask you whether you consider "art" to exclude ANYTHING?

4. Your willingness to conclude that science-inspired poetry MUST be in existence due to science-inspired "popular art" is based on faith, not fact.

5 (and most importantly). Nobody said science-based art doesn't exist; it's just that it's drastically inferior, as a whole. Since you know something about "Star Trek," I refer you to Data's famous "Ode to Spot."

I rate your response as "insufficient."

11:41 PM  
Blogger Joseph said...

1. I think it's clear that the original "Battlestar Galactica" has Mormon influences, but also strong influences from the "Chariots of the Gods"-type literature. That's probably the reason why characters in the show are named "Apollo" and "Athena".

The book "The Cult of Alien Gods: H. P. Lovecraft and Extraterestrial Pop Culture" by Jason Colavito has some extensive discussion on this point.

2. There's no reason why money-making and art-making can't be one and the same. It's pretty clear to me that "Star Trek" is art.

3. I see the lunar landing as supremely artistic. Yes, I do have an expansive idea of what art is.

4. The question of faith versus fact doesn't apply to the case at hand. The question was whether there is evidence or not. I think that's clear in this case.

5. Was this before or after Data had his emotion chip installed?

7:01 PM  

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