Why Strict Atheism Is Unscientific
By Ross Pomeroy
Do you believe in God?
If a cadre of outspoken, strong atheists wrote a litmus test for scientists, that might very well be question #1.
Ross Pomeroy RealClearScience
“Scientists, if you’re not an atheist, you’re not doing science right,” PZ Myers — a well-known blogger, biology professor and atheist — regularly preaches.
But if this is true, then as many as half of scientists are doing science wrong. A 2009 study from the Pew Research Center polled members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Fifty-one percent of respondents reported a belief in a higher power. Does this mean that it’s too late for science? Has religion already pillaged the minds of researchers worldwide? No, of course it hasn’t.
“It seems to me that we as a society have lately been caught in this false dichotomy where it’s either God as the guy with the beard on the cloud or nothing at all,” neuroscientist David Eagleman told Discovery News.
Staunch atheists often falsely characterize followers of religion as being “all-in” with their beliefs, opining that they ascribe to the whole creationist, woo-y shebang. “Where’s your evidence?” atheists mockingly question. “You can’t prove that God exists!” they accuse (correctly). Yet, hypocritically, strict atheists are guilty of the exact same crime: belief without evidence.
“We know too little to commit to a position of strict atheism. [But] we know way too much to commit to any particular religious story,” Eagleman said.
Just as it’s a leap of faith for a religious person to assert that God incontrovertibly exists, it’s an equally large leap for a strict atheist to declare, without question, that God does not exist. As Carl Sagan eloquently explained:
“An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed”.
Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. As this statement applies to science, so does it apply to religion. History is replete with signs that an all-powerful deity may not exist, but such substantiation is nowhere near tantamount to proof — especially, as Albert Einstein said, in a universe as incomprehensibly vast as our own:
“The human mind, no matter how highly trained, cannot grasp the universe. We are in the position of a little child, entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written those books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the human mind, even the greatest and most cultured, toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged, obeying certain laws, but we understand the laws only dimly.”
Ultimately, the key is not to be swayed to one extreme or the other — fundamentalist religion or strict atheism — but to walk a reasoned middle path. Eagleman believes that path is “possibilianism,” the concept of holding multiple beliefs or hypotheses whilst exploring new ideas.
“The goal is to avoid committing to any particular story,” Eagleman told Discovery News, “whether that’s religious fundamentalism or strict atheism. The goal of possibilianism is to retain the wonder that drives us all into science in the first place and to avoid acting as though we know the answers to things we can’t possibly know at the moment.”
Strict atheists do the world an incredible service by promoting the scientific method, skepticism, and critical thinking. But they do a disservice by campaigning against religion or touting — as pure truth — the non-existence of God, for those actions (especially the latter) are just as unscientific as a blind belief in all aspects of religion.
In 1966 Time magazine ran a cover story asking: Is God Dead? Many have accepted the cultural narrative that he’s obsolete—that as science progresses, there is less need for a “God” to explain the universe. Yet it turns out that the rumors of God’s death were premature. More amazing is that the relatively recent case for his existence comes from a surprising place—science itself.
Here’s the story: The same year Time featured the now-famous headline, the astronomer Carl Sagan announced that there were two important criteria for a planet to support life: The right kind of star, and a planet the right distance from that star. Given the roughly octillion—1 followed by 24 zeros—planets in the universe, there should have been about septillion—1 followed by 21 zeros—planets capable of supporting life.
With such spectacular odds, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, a large, expensive collection of private and publicly funded projects launched in the 1960s, was sure to turn up something soon. Scientists listened with a vast radio telescopic network for signals that resembled coded intelligence and were not merely random. But as years passed, the silence from the rest of the universe was deafening. Congress defunded SETI in 1993, but the search continues with private funds. As of 2014, researches have discovered precisely bubkis—0 followed by nothing.
What happened? As our knowledge of the universe increased, it became clear that there were far more factors necessary for life than Sagan supposed. His two parameters grew to 10 and then 20 and then 50, and so the number of potentially life-supporting planets decreased accordingly. The number dropped to a few thousand planets and kept on plummeting.
Even SETI proponents acknowledged the problem. Peter Schenkel wrote in a 2006 piece for Skeptical Inquirer magazine: “In light of new findings and insights, it seems appropriate to put excessive euphoria to rest . . . . We should quietly admit that the early estimates . . . may no longer be tenable.”
As factors continued to be discovered, the number of possible planets hit zero, and kept going. In other words, the odds turned against any planet in the universe supporting life, including this one. Probability said that even we shouldn’t be here.
Today there are more than 200 known parameters necessary for a planet to support life—every single one of which must be perfectly met, or the whole thing falls apart. Without a massive planet like Jupiter nearby, whose gravity will draw away asteroids, a thousand times as many would hit Earth’s surface. The odds against life in the universe are simply astonishing.
Yet here we are, not only existing, but talking about existing. What can account for it? Can every one of those many parameters have been perfect by accident? At what point is it fair to admit that science suggests that we cannot be the result of random forces? Doesn’t assuming that an intelligence created these perfect conditions require far less faith than believing that a life-sustaining Earth just happened to beat the inconceivable odds to come into being?
There’s more. The fine-tuning necessary for life to exist on a planet is nothing compared with the fine-tuning required for the universe to exist at all. For example, astrophysicists now know that the values of the four fundamental forces—gravity, the electromagnetic force, and the “strong” and “weak” nuclear forces—were determined less than one millionth of a second after the big bang. Alter any one value and the universe could not exist. For instance, if the ratio between the nuclear strong force and the electromagnetic force had been off by the tiniest fraction of the tiniest fraction—by even one part in 100,000,000,000,000,000—then no stars could have ever formed at all. Feel free to gulp.
Multiply that single parameter by all the other necessary conditions, and the odds against the universe existing are so heart-stoppingly astronomical that the notion that it all “just happened” defies common sense. It would be like tossing a coin and having it come up heads 10 quintillion times in a row. Really?
Fred Hoyle, the astronomer who coined the term “big bang,” said that his atheism was “greatly shaken” at these developments. He later wrote that “a common-sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with the physics, as well as with chemistry and biology . . . . The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”
Theoretical physicist Paul Davies has said that “the appearance of design is overwhelming” and Oxford professor Dr. John Lennox has said “the more we get to know about our universe, the more the hypothesis that there is a Creator . . . gains in credibility as the best explanation of why we are here.”
The greatest miracle of all time, without any close seconds, is the universe. It is the miracle of all miracles, one that ineluctably points with the combined brightness of every star to something—or Someone—beyond itself.
Mr. Metaxas is the author, most recently, of “Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life” ( Dutton Adult, 2014).
Beaumont, TX (CNN) – Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, questions whether global warming is real, arguing that the “data are not supporting what the advocates are arguing.”
“The last 15 years, there has been no recorded warming. Contrary to all the theories that – that they are expounding, there should have been warming over the last 15 years. It hasn’t happened,” said Cruz.
Cruz spoke to CNN in an exclusive interview following an event here to promote his new energy plan, which he says he will formally introduce in the Senate next week.
When pressed about the fact that the arctic is melting, and whether that helps prove climate change is real, Cruz dismissed it.
“Other parts are going up. It is not – you know, you always have to be worried about something that is considered a so-called scientific theory that fits every scenario. Climate change, as they have defined it, can never be disproved, because whether it gets hotter or whether it gets colder, whatever happens, they’ll say, well, it’s changing, so it proves our theory,” argued Cruz.
“I am always troubled by a theory that fits every perfect situation. You know, back in the ’70s – I remember the ’70s, we were told there was global cooling. And everyone was told global cooling was a really big problem. And then that faded. And then we were told by Al Gore and others there was global warming and that was going to be a big problem. And then it morphed. It wasn’t global warming anymore, it became climate change. And the problem with climate change is there’s never been a day in the history of the world in which the climate is not changing,” said Cruz.
Secretary of State John Kerry recently made waves by declaring climate change is “perhaps – perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.”
Not surprisingly, Cruz disagreed.
“Well, you know, it is ironic that Secretary Kerry would say that, uh, given that he is, right now, in the process of negotiating with the nation of Iran in – in what Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has called an historically bad deal,” said Cruz.
“It is ironic that he sees a greater threat from your SUV in your driveway than he does from the nation of Iran, with their radical Islamic jihad and – and their stated desire to obliterate, to annihilate Israel. He sees a greater threat from your SUV than he does to Iranian nuclear weapons,” Cruz said of Kerry.
Cruz chose the Spindle Top Boomtown Museum here, where oil discovery sparked the Texas oil boom more than a century ago, to push his ideas to support what he calls a “great American energy renaissance.”
His proposal includes many traditional GOP ideas – more oil drilling and expanding energy exploration and repealing many EPA regulations he calls harmful.
Missing from his official plan are other forms of energy, what Republicans call “all of the above,” but he told CNN he does support alternative energy, as long as it comes from the private sector, not the federal government.
“We ought to be allowing the private sector to pursue every form of energy because the energy of the future, it’s not going to come from the government picking winners and losers,” Cruz told CNN.
“We ought to open up energy innovation across the board and – and remove the barriers to every form of energy.”
According to the Times, Carson also suggested in the email that he was a victim of political correctness.“Someday in the future, it is my hope and prayer that the emphasis on political correctness will decrease and we will start emphasizing rational discussion of differences so we can actually resolve problems and chart a course that is inclusive of everyone,” he wrote.The doctor had become a favorite among conservatives and Republicans after he made a speech at February’s annual prayer breakfast criticizing President Barack Obama’s healthcare plan and his call for higher taxes on the wealthy — all while the president sat two seats away on the dais.After his appearance on Hannity, students in the Hopkins graduating class reportedly petitioned the school to have him removed as a speaker. Carson, who has been associated with Hopkins for 36 years, responded to the protest with an apology for any embarrassment he may have caused the school.“What really saddens me is that my poorly chosen words caused pain for some members of our community and for that I offer a most sincere and heartfelt apology,” he said at the time. “Hurting others is diametrically opposed to who I am and what I believe.”
Mario’s Note: Face it. A conservative black man cannot make a single verbal mistake. If they do the onslaught from the left is intolerant and unending.
Liberal voices on the other hand can say the most obscene and insane things, utter a tepid apology and the liberal spin machine sanitizes it immediately. All of the liberal pundits who called for Bush to be murdered are back at their posts. All of the news hosts who called Sarah Palin a C_ _ _ are back behind microphones. Joe Biden can gargle with gun powder, shoot his mouth off and the press will wipe off the power burns.
Then there are the misbehaving liberal politicians: Anthony D. Weiner is the poster child for what I am talking about. He did things that should banish him from the scene forever yet the rehab machine is already at work to make him Mayor of New York. How can we forget Mayor Marion Barry from Washington D.C. caught with prostitutes and cocaine on film and reelected anyway. What does a liberal politician have to do to be permanently exiled? I do not think that we know.
But a conservative black man can be exiled for a single miscue. Our most brilliant surgeon, a paragon of integrity and an inspiration to all minorities who misspoke and then apologized will have liberals calling for his head from now on. They will never let up on him because he is a threat to their agenda.
If you are a liberal with even a single-cell conscience you should outraged. You are a hopeless fool if you think that this has anything to do with journalism, facts or even sanity. Today liberals have zero credibility. And hold steady, in my next blog I will show you the most disgusting abuse yet by the liberal press.
Dr. Benjamin Carson, the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital who garnered national headlines for his pointed remarks at last month’s National Prayer Breakfast, says that President Obama and his political allies are trying to “destroy the country.”
“Let’s say somebody were [in the White House] and they wanted to destroy this nation,” Carson postulated in remarks at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “I would create division among the people, encourage a culture of ridicule for basic morality and the principles that made and sustained the country, undermine the financial stability of the nation, and weaken and destroy the military. It appears coincidentally that those are the very things that are happening right now.”
Carson, who is 62, said that the blame for the nation’s current state of affairs does not lie with “any one particular person.” His barbs, though, were clearly aimed at President Obama.
Drawing a link between his medical practice and his political beliefs, Carson argued that righting the nation’s course requires governance “of and by the people.” “That’s why we have these complex brains,” he explained, and went on to joke, “the number of interconnections you have [between neurons] rivals the national debt.”
At the National Prayer Breakfast in February, Carson — with President Obama as a captive audience — lodged a full-frontal assault on the president’s agenda, from progressive taxation to Obamacare. Carson’s remarks led to calls, most notably from the Wall Street Journal editorial board, for him to launch a presidential bid come 2016. He will retire from medicine in three months and, though he declined to discuss his particular plans, he indicated that he hopes to become further involved in educational initiatives; Carson founded a scholarship fund in 1996.
In an event billed as “President Obama’s (National Prayer) Breakfast Club,” Carson shared the stage with Eric Metaxas, the author of a biography of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who used his time on stage at 2012’s breakfast to argue that progressives have distorted Christianity in the service of political ideology.
The Department of Justice drives a 26 year old freedom fighter to suicide: Now the Parents respond.
Web Activist’s Family Blames MIT, Prosecutors in His Death.
The family of Aaron Swartz, a computer programmer, entrepreneur and activist who died last week, blamed his suicide on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the U.S. prosecutors who accused him of crimes including wire and computer fraud.
Swartz, 26, died from suicide by hanging, according to the New York Medical Examiner’s Office.
As a teenager, Swartz helped create a technology called Really Simple Syndication, or RSS, which lets Web users gain access to online information. He was indicted in July 2011 for allegedly gaining access to and downloading more than 4 million articles and documents from a subscription-onlyservice.
“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy,” his family wrote in a statement. “It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.”
Swartz was indicted on federal charges of gaining illegal access to JSTOR, a subscription-only service for distributing scientific and literary journals, and downloading most of the library.
“The U.S. Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims,” Swartz’s family wrote. “Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.”
Representatives from the U.S. Attorney in Massachusetts declined to comment, citing respect for the family’s privacy.
Leo Rafael Reif, president of MIT, expressed his condolences in a letter e-mailed to the university community and said that he asked professor Hal Abelson to make a “thorough analysis” of the institute’s involvement with Swartz’s use of its computer network.
“Even for those of us who did not know Aaron, the trail of his brief life shines with his brilliant creativity and idealism,” Reif wrote.
JSTOR, in a statement, said it had settled its own claims against Swartz in June 2011 and that he had returned the data.
“We join those who are mourning this tragic loss,” JSTOR said in the statement, calling Swartz a “truly gifted person who made important contributions to the development of the Internet and the web from which we all benefit.”
JSTOR said that while it regretted being brought into the federal case, it had a responsibility to protect the owners and creators of its content.
He was mourned widely by academics, executives and fellow activists. The Internet was inundated with tributes to Swartz.
“His stunts were breathtaking,” wrote Canadian author Cory Doctorow, who knew Swartz.
Swartz struggled with depression and wrote about it publicly, Doctorow wrote. He may also have taken his life because he feared imprisonment, according to Doctorow.
“Swartz was a strong and effective advocate of the untrammeled flow of information and knowledge in all directions, and vigilance against control or de-facto censorship efforts by corporate or governmental interests,” author James Fallows wrote in a statement published by Swartz’s family.
Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor and Internet activist wrote in a blog post that the criminal case against Swartz was misguided. Swartz “consulted me as a friend and lawyer” in the MIT case, and he didn’t seek to profit from downloading academic papers, Lessig wrote.
“From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way,” Lessig said. “The outrageousness in this story is not just Aaron. It is also the absurdity of the prosecutor’s behavior.”
Other academics took to the micro-blogging service Twitter to honor Swartz by posting free versions of their publications online, using the identifying hashtag #pdftribute.
Marissa Mayer, chief executive officer at Yahoo! Inc., said on Twitter that she’d met Swartz 11 years ago when she was an executive at Google Inc. “We had found his blog and were blown away by his age (16) and insights,” she said.
Swartz was charged in 2011 with multiple counts of wire fraud and violations of the U.S. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Upon conviction, wire fraud carries a maximum penalty of 30 years and a top fine of $1 million. Swartz’s alleged violations of the computer law carried a maximum penalty of 5 to 10 years, depending on the conduct, and may have also warranted a fine. Actual sentences typically run less than the maximums, and judges often set sentences to run concurrently rather than consecutively.
He co-founded the news and information site Reddit, as well as Demand Progress, a group that advocated against Internet piracy bills, according to his website. He also contributed to Internet projects including Watchdog.net, Open Library, and Jottit, and helped launch Creative Commons — an online publishing and copyright project that Lessig was also involved with — according to his biography on the Demand Progress website.
The vast majority of people who commit suicide have depression, or another type of mental health disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. It was the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2007, accounting for 34,598 fatalities. Almost four times as many men as women die of suicide.
A funeral will be held Jan 15. at a synagogue in Highland Park, Illinois, near Chicago, according to the Swartz family statement. He is survived by his parents, Robert and Susan Swartz, younger brothers Noah and Ben, and his partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, the statement said. Memorial services may happen in other cities in the coming weeks.
Elliot Peters of San Francisco-based Keker & Van Nest, reported by The Tech to be Swartz’s attorney, didn’t respond to a voicemail and e-mail sent by Bloomberg News seeking comment.
The case against Swartz was U.S. v. Swartz, 11 CR 10260, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts (Boston)
Saturday 12 January 2013
Aaron Swartz, the computer programmer and internet freedom activist, committed suicide on Friday in New York at the age of 26. As the incredibly moving remembrances from his friends such as Cory Doctorow and Larry Lessig attest, he was unquestionably brilliant but also – like most everyone – a complex human being plagued by demons and flaws. For many reasons, I don’t believe in whitewashing someone’s life or beatifying them upon death. But, to me, much of Swartz’s tragically short life was filled with acts that are genuinely and, in the most literal and noble sense, heroic. I think that’s really worth thinking about today.
At the age of 14, Swartz played a key role in developing the RSS software that is still widely used to enable people to manage what they read on the internet. As a teenager, he also played a vital role in the creation of Reddit, the wildly popular social networking news site. When Conde Nast purchased Reddit, Swartz received a substantial sum of money at a very young age. He became something of a legend in the internet and programming world before he was 18. His path to internet mogul status and the great riches it entails was clear, easy and virtually guaranteed: a path which so many other young internet entrepreneurs have found irresistible, monomaniacally devoting themselves to making more and more money long after they have more than they could ever hope to spend.
But rather obviously, Swartz had little interest in devoting his life to his own material enrichment, despite how easy it would have been for him. As Lessig wrote: “Aaron had literally done nothing in his life ‘to make money’ . . . Aaron was always and only working for (at least his conception of) the public good.”
Specifically, he committed himself to the causes in which he so passionately believed: internet freedom, civil liberties, making information and knowledge as available as possible. Here he is in his May, 2012 keynote address at the Freedom To Connect conference discussing the role he played in stopping SOPA, the movie-industry-demanded legislation that would have vested the government with dangerous censorship powers over the internet.
Critically, Swartz didn’t commit himself to these causes merely by talking about them or advocating for them. He repeatedly sacrificed his own interests, even his liberty, in order to defend these values and challenge and subvert the most powerful factions that were their enemies. That’s what makes him, in my view, so consummately heroic.
In 2008, Swartz targeted Pacer, the online service that provides access to court documents for a per-page fee. What offended Swartz and others was that people were forced to pay for access to public court documents that were created at public expense. Along with a friend, Swartz created a program to download millions of those documents and then, as Doctorow wrote, “spent a small fortune fetching a titanic amount of data and putting it into the public domain.” For that act of civil disobedience, he was investigated and harassed by the FBI, but never charged.
But in July 2011, Swartz was arrested for allegedly targeting JSTOR, the online publishing company that digitizes and distributes scholarly articles written by academics and then sells them, often at a high price, to subscribers. As Maria Bustillos detailed, none of the money goes to the actual writers (usually professors) who wrote the scholarly articles – they are usually not paid for writing them – but instead goes to the publishers.
This system offended Swartz (and many other free-data activists) for two reasons: it charged large fees for access to these articles but did not compensate the authors, and worse, it ensured that huge numbers of people are denied access to the scholarship produced by America’s colleges and universities. The indictment filed against Swartz alleged that he used his access as a Harvard fellow to the JSTOR system to download millions of articles with the intent to distribute them online for free; when he was detected and his access was cut off, the indictment claims he then trespassed into an MIT computer-wiring closet in order to physically download the data directly onto his laptop.
Swartz never distributed any of these downloaded articles. He never intended to profit even a single penny from anything he did, and never did profit in any way. He had every right to download the articles as an authorized JSTOR user; at worst, he intended to violate the company’s “terms of service” by making the articles available to the public. Once arrested, he returned all copies of everything he downloaded and vowed not to use them. JSTOR told federal prosecutors that it had no intent to see him prosecuted, though MIT remained ambiguous about its wishes.
But federal prosecutors ignored the wishes of the alleged “victims”. Led by a federal prosecutor in Boston notorious for her overzealous prosecutions, the DOJ threw the book at him, charging Swartz with multiple felonies which carried a total sentence of several decades in prison and $1 million in fines.
Swartz’s trial on these criminal charges was scheduled to begin in two months. He adamantly refused to plead guilty to a felony because he did not want to spend the rest of his life as a convicted felon with all the stigma and rights-denials that entails. The criminal proceedings, as Lessig put it, already put him in a predicament where “his wealth [was] bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge.”
To say that the DOJ’s treatment of Swartz was excessive and vindictive is an extreme understatement. When I wrote about Swartz’s plight last August, I wrote that he was “being prosecuted by the DOJ with obscene over-zealousness”. Timothy Lee wrote the definitive article in 2011 explaining why, even if all the allegations in the indictment are true, the only real crime committed by Swartz was basic trespassing, for which people are punished, at most, with 30 days in jail and a $100 fine, about which Lee wrote: “That seems about right: if he’s going to serve prison time, it should be measured in days rather than years.”
Nobody knows for sure why federal prosecutors decided to pursue Swartz so vindictively, as though he had committed some sort of major crime that deserved many years in prison and financial ruin. Some theorized that the DOJ hated him for his serial activism and civil disobedience. Others speculated that, as Doctorow put it, “the feds were chasing down all the Cambridge hackers who had any connection to Bradley Manning in the hopes of turning one of them.”
I believe it has more to do with what I told the New York Times’ Noam Cohen for an article he wrote on Swartz’s case. Swartz’s activism, I argued, was waged as part of one of the most vigorously contested battles – namely, the war over how the internet is used and who controls the information that flows on it – and that was his real crime in the eyes of the US government: challenging its authority and those of corporate factions to maintain a stranglehold on that information. In that above-referenced speech on SOPA, Swartz discussed the grave dangers to internet freedom and free expression and assembly posed by the government’s efforts to control the internet with expansive interpretations of copyright law and other weapons to limit access to information.
That’s a major part of why I consider him heroic. He wasn’t merely sacrificing himself for a cause. It was a cause of supreme importance to people and movements around the world – internet freedom – and he did it by knowingly confronting the most powerful state and corporate factions because he concluded that was the only way to achieve these ends.
Suicide is an incredibly complicated phenomenon. I didn’t know Swartz nearly well enough even to form an opinion about what drove him to do this; I had a handful of exchanges with him online in which we said nice things about each other’s work and I truly admired him. I’m sure even his closest friends and family are struggling to understand exactly what caused him to defy his will to live by taking his own life.
But, despite his public and very sad writings about battling depression, it only stands to reason that a looming criminal trial that could send him to prison for decades played some role in this; even if it didn’t, this persecution by the DOJ is an outrage and an offense against all things decent, for the reasons Lessig wrote today:
“Here is where we need a better sense of justice, and shame. For the outrageousness in this story is not just Aaron. It is also the absurdity of the prosecutor’s behavior. From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. The ‘property’ Aaron had ‘stolen’, we were told, was worth ‘millions of dollars’ — with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.
“A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think? That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.
“For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House — and where even those brought to ‘justice’ never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled ‘felons’.”
Whatever else is true, Swartz was destroyed by a “justice” system that fully protects the most egregious criminals as long as they are members of or useful to the nation’s most powerful factions, but punishes with incomparable mercilessness and harshness those who lack power and, most of all, those who challenge power.
Swartz knew all of this. But he forged ahead anyway. He could have easily opted for a life of great personal wealth, status, prestige and comfort. He chose instead to fight – selflessly, with conviction and purpose, and at great risk to himself – for noble causes to which he was passionately devoted. That, to me, isn’t an example of heroism; it’s the embodiment of it, its purest expression. It’s the attribute our country has been most lacking.
I always found it genuinely inspiring to watch Swartz exude this courage and commitment at such a young age. His death had better prompt some serious examination of the DOJ’s behavior – both in his case and its warped administration of justice generally. But his death will also hopefully strengthen the inspirational effects of thinking about and understanding the extraordinary acts he undertook in his short life.