The Books I Read in 2013

Just as I did in 2012, I set myself a goal in 2013 of reading 30 books over the course of the year. And just like in 2012, I did not meet my goal. I did, however, come damn close: I read 29. I actually would have met my goal if, last week, instead of choosing to start a 500+ page book, I opted for something in the 200-300 page range. But alas, my readerly muse felt the call towards Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, and so I fell one book short this year.

Oh well. There’s always next year.

Here’s the list of books I read in 2013, plus a little blurb of what I thought of each of them. Enjoy.

  • Debt: The First 5,000 Years
    My wife and I started this as an audiobook a couple of years ago during a drive from Chicago back to Vermont, but it’s a long-ass book, so even though the drive took 14 hours, we didn’t get to the end of it. I should have just bought the book as soon as we got back, but I convinced myself that I’d finish the audiobook sometime, plus I didn’t want to pay for the book twice. A couple of years went by, and I didn’t make any progress with it, but so much of the book stuck with me that finally, I said, “Fuck it,” bought the book, and started from the beginning.The gist of Debt is that it’s an anthropologist’s look at the history of money, and because it’s an anthropologist as opposed to an economist, this story of money actually uses such a crazy thing as evidence from actual history to support its theories. I highly recommend this book. It’s filled with fascinating concepts and anecdotes, and it explores everything from how arguments about debt arrange the hierarchies in society to the way it molds our very ideas of right and wrong. Definitely check it out.
  • Habibi
    A beautifully rendered graphic novel that covers the heartbreaking life and love of a girl and her adopted charge in a mythic (and heavily orientalist in the Edward Said sense) Arab country. The artist, Craig Thompson, uses the design of Arabic writing as a visual theme as he weaves his epic plot through the Qur’an and other Arabic texts. It’s also incredibly and visually sexual (the main character becomes a renowned prostitute), so I don’t recommend it for younger readers.
  • The Shores of Tripoli
    This Kindle Single is the product of first-hand reporting by Marc Herman, who covered the Libyan revolution for The Atlantic. It’s an in-depth look at three individuals who joined the revolution and what they went through. I read it because I paid little-to-no attention to the revolution as it was happening, and this seemed like the best way to learn about it.
  • Gilgamesh: A New English Version
    I’d read Gilgamesh before as part of my graduate work, comparing John Gardner’s translation to this one by Stephen Mitchell, so when one of my high school students said she wanted to read an ancient epic — any ancient epic — I suggested Mitchell’s version of Gilgamesh, which tells the story in a colorful (and compared to Gardner’s, complete) way. As before, I thoroughly enjoyed the tale.
  • Darwin Among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence
    An intellectual history of computers, Darwin Among the Machines was an interesting book that doesn’t quite live up to its title. There wasn’t a whole lot in it that I hadn’t read before, but if you’re new to the concept of artificial intelligence, it’s a good place to go for the big picture view of that art form’s development.
  • Blankets
    Another graphic novel, also created by Craig Thompson, that, frankly, did not come close to matching the expectations set by Habibi. To be fair, Thompson put together Blankets long before Habibi, so it probably doesn’t make sense for me to expect it to be as good as the later work, but even so, Blankets was pretty emo, and that kind of stuff never resonates with me. I just don’t go in for stories about the inner turmoil of teenage drama.
  • Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism
    This was another book that wasn’t quite as good as I’d hoped it’d be, though I did learn a lot about individuals and movements that are basically kept out of our history books. This isn’t a book about how atheist’s shaped America; instead, it’s about how freethinkers ensured that the promise of America would be available to everyone, regardless of their religion or lack thereof.
  • Keys to the Council: Unlocking the Teaching of Vatican II
    The Second Vatican Council is a watershed moment in modern Catholicism — it’s actually the very definition of modern Catholicism — and yet, despite having grown up in a Catholic world shaped by that definition, I realized I knew very little about the actual council itself. Keys to the Council provides a nice blend of journalistic reporting, original documentation, and theological exposition, giving readers an easy pathway into the documents and decisions created by Pope John XXII’s historic council.
  • The Earthsea Cycle
    Comprised of five books, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea, and The Other Wind, the Earthsea Cycle is Ursula K. LeGuin’s entry in the list of the best all-time fantasy cycles (which would have to include Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Dune, and others). The cycle can actually be broken up into two different trilogies (kind of). The first three books follow Ged, a legendary wizard, as he becomes legendary, earns his legend, and leaves it behind. The second three books, written over a decade after the others, are quieter books where the day to day operations of Earthsea take on more focus (while, of course, not leaving behind the need for adventure and plot). Between this cycle and the next group of books on the list, my reading this summer remained light and fun.
  • The Patternmaster Series
    After knocking out LeGuin’s Earthsea, I went looking for another series I could tackle. I’d read Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed many moons ago, and I remembered that it was just one book in a bigger series, so I decided to give the whole series a shot. The four books are now published with numbers attached (i.e., Wild Seed: Patternmaster #1), where the numbers correspond to the chronology of the world, but I decided to read them in the order they were published, which I definitely recommend. The four books I read were (in the order I read them) Patternmaster, Mind of My Mind, Wild Seed (again), and Clay’s Ark. Apparently, there’s a fifth book in the series too, but Butler renounced it later and refused to let it be republished. Since she didn’t dig on it, I decided not to go looking for it.The books themselves tell the story of the next stage of human evolution (which is just one way to put it). The first book (in the order I read them) takes place way in the future when telepaths have conquered the world, but when they are also all subservient to the Patternmaster, who is kind of the king of the telepaths. The second book takes us back to the near-future (from now) when the telepaths are all collected (and bred) by a strange and dangerous immortal; it’s basically the creation story of the first Patternmaster. The third book goes back to colonial times to weave a semi-origin story of the immortal; and the fourth book, Clay’s Ark, which takes place after the second book but before the first book, fills in the remaining gap in Butler’s vision of the future, explaining the origin of the strange race of humanoids who terrorize the telepathic race in the Patternmaster. All in all, it’s a weird but fun series.
  • The Vision Revolution: How the Latest Research Overturns Everything We Thought We Knew About Human Vision
    This was another book that left me slightly disappointed. The book is broken into four chapters that try to cover the latest research in vision. The first chapter, “Color Telepathy,” argues that our ability to see in color evolved because of our skin (“understanding the color powers of skin is crucial to understanding that color vision is meant to see skin…, and in particular is meant for sensing moods, emotions, and other physiological states”). The second chapter, “X-Ray Vision,” explains why most creatures have two (or more) eyes and examines the difference between having eyes on the side of your head versus on the front of your head. The third chapter, “Future Seeing,” uses optical illusions to explain that perception is based on prediction (i.e., what we see is not reality, but what we think reality is about to become). And the final chapter, “Spirit Reading,” argues that “the special trick behind [written language] is that human visual signs have evolved to look like nature. Why? Because nature is what we have evolved over millions of years to be good at seeing.” The book is written well (and can even be funny at times), but after an incredible first chapter and strong second chapter, each of which changed my understanding of one aspect of our vision, the book went off into areas that didn’t really capture my interest. The “Future Seeing” chapter, while somewhat intriguing in the abstract, felt a bit plodding, as if the author was trying to make a point against people who were already arguing against him rather than trying to explain the idea to a new audience; and the final chapter, which should have been right up my alley, just didn’t feel very convincing.
  • Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety
    I read an excerpt of this somewhere on the web, and it totally hooked me, so I decided to read the whole book. Generally speaking, Command and Control, which was written by the same guy who wrote Fast Food Nation, provided a complete history of nuclear weapons in the U.S., and it is as scary as all fuck. After you read this book, you’ll realize how absolutely mind blowing it is that we haven’t had a major accident with a nuclear weapon — like, incredibly absolutely mind blowing. You’ll also learn how ridiculously close we’ve come to blowing up major cities in the continental U.S., how crazy-scary bureaucracy can be, and read about, in heavy detail, one major accident that could have been catastrophic but, for reasons that have nothing to do with how smart we are as a species, simply wasn’t. A heck of a book.
  • Watchmen
    After reading both The Vision Revolution and Command and Control, I wanted something a little bit “lighter,” something I could knock out in just a few days and that would have a story that totally hooked me. I decided to read Watchmen, the classic graphic novel, because a) I enjoyed the movie; b) I’d heard that the book was a ton better; and c) I was in the mood for another graphic novel and Watchmen is generally considered the best of the best in the field. It did not disappoint.
  • Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story
    I wrote a blog post about this one, so I’ll just say that I originally picked up the book because of a conversation with one of my high-school students about the origin of the universe, and that Holt’s book takes a look at various answers conceived by some of the greater thinkers in the West.
  • You
    I wrote a blog post about this one too, so I’ll just say that it’s a book about a video-game designer who is attempting to design the ultimate game, and it was, generally speaking, a fun read.
  • Foundation
    After reading Earthsea and the Patternmaster series, I figured I’d attempt another great series, Isaac Asimov’s classic sci-fi series, Foundation. I started, as you do, with book #1, which is aptly titled, Foundation. The book chronicles the origin and development of a civilization whose mission is to save the future of humanity based on the prophecies of a “psychohistorian,” and while I enjoyed the book, I wasn’t spurred on to continue the whole series. I may come back it in the future, but for now, I felt content to let it lie.
  • Siddhartha
    I read this as part of a book club with my high-school and middle-school students, all of whom were also in the middle of a four-week seminar on the world’s religions. Hesse’s novel imagines the life of a Buddha-like character who goes through many changes on his way to enlightenment, and because it wrestles with many of the same questions that my students were wrestling with in their seminar, I thought it’d be a good fit.
  • The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions
    I used Huston Smith’s survey of the world’s religions as the basis for my lectures during the seminar I mentioned above. Smith comes at each of the religions as a Christian, but he provides a sympathetic reading of each religion, and that was my ultimate goal for the seminar: to arouse a sense of empathy in my students so that they could enter the world with a tolerant and peaceful understanding of the world’s various belief structures.
  • Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years
    This book easily wins the “best subtitle of the year” award. It covers a period in early Christian history (the fourth and fifth centuries) when disputes about the inner nature of Jesus (was he all man, all divine, or half and half) led to deaths, exile, and social upheavals throughout the Roman empire.
  • The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India
    A fantastic book that chronicles an historic meeting between the Dalai Lama and a group of American Jews, written by a Jewish poet who was present at the meeting. Using Buddhism as a contrast, the book examines what it means to be Jewish after the Holocaust and after the creation of Israel. It also reveals the commonalities (and differences) between Jewish mysticism and Buddhist thought. If you’re Jewish in America (or simply have an interest in comparative religion, as I do), then this book is a must read. Not only is it an honest take written by an individual who (prior to the meeting) considered himself a secular Jew, but it’s also a poet’s presentation of deep and mystical concepts as well as human connections. It’s just a wonderful book.

And that’s it. Those are the books I read in 2013. I hope you found something new you might enjoy. As for me, I still have about 100 pages left in The Satanic Verses, so I better get to work.

On Austin Grossman’s “You”

Austin Grossman’s bildungsroman, You, traces the development of a group of friends who promised each other in high school that they would create the ultimate video game. The story starts in 1997, when everyone in the group is in their late twenties. The group’s genius, Simon, has recently died under somewhat mysterious circumstances, and the narrator, Russell, who long since abandoned his friends for a more respectable life as a law student, finally decides that, at heart, he really does just want to make video games, and so takes a job that will reunite him with his friends in their successful game studio, Black Arts.

I won’t get into a complete plot summary here, but the gist is that there’s a deadly “bug” running throughout all of Black Arts’ games, and while trying to track it down, Russell has to go back and play through every game created by his friends, a process that is accompanied by several trips down memory lane, where we learn both the story of these four friends and the story of video games in general.

In other words, it’s not just a bildungsroman for the narrator, but also for video games as an art form. Which is one of the reasons why I liked it.

To be sure, the book does have its flaws; most glaring is Grossman’s attempt to externalize the conflict beyond the confines of Black Arts’ survival to the safety and security of the world’s economy. Through a strange contrivance, it seems Black Arts once sold software to an investment company that used it to automate the buying and selling of stock, and the bug that threatens the studio’s video games now threatens to take down the entire market; there’s even intimations that the bug was the cause of Black Monday, the stock market crash of October 1987.

I don’t know if Grossman was attempting to raise the stakes of the novel through this plot contrivance or using it to show how Simon’s computer-programming brilliance went beyond “mere” video games, but it felt a bit unnecessary. Thankfully, it’s just a small side of the story and not the driver of the main plot.

I do know that I enjoyed the way Grossman used video-game design as a method for characterization. Black Arts develops a fantasy-based role-playing series in the vain of The Elder Scrolls, a first-person shooter series in the vain of 3D Wolfenstein and Doom, and a strategy series similar to Civilization (though set in space). Each of the three series is designed by each of the narrator’s three friends, with their unique personalities coming through not in the dialogues or decisions they make in their real life, but in the way they design their games.

Grossman’s missed opportunity is failing to show us how the game the narrator is hired to design actually ends up being played; in other words, failing to show us the narrator’s “ultimate game.” Now, I say this despite knowing that the book is, to a large extent, supposed to stand in for that game (the book even opens with the line, “So what’s your ultimate game?,” to which the narrator responds, “Right. How would you define that?”), and despite Russell explaining his ideal game to the reader (one where the player  is completely free to do whatever he or she wants and the computer engine would still find a way to generate a story). I say it because, when Russell finally does demo the game he designed, we get sidetracked into the bug-hunting aspect of the plot. There’s never a “clean” version of his game being played.

I guess what I’m saying is that I shared Russell’s vision for an ultimate game and I wanted to see exactly how he would have pulled it off. Instead, the ultimate game gets left behind, and instead we get a traditional video-game plot where a group of four characters have to travel (literally [in the virtual sense]) to the end of the universe (which is also the beginning of the universe) in order to retrieve a magic sword from a big, bad boss.

While it’s not a perfect book by any stretch of the imagination, I enjoyed reading it and can easily recommend it to anyone who enjoys playing, imagining, and reading about the history of video games.

 

On Jim Holt’s ‘Why Does the World Exist?’

There’s a lot to be disliked in Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story, but I’m giving it four stars because it at least spread the conversation around from scientists to philosophers to novelists to theologians (though it would have been nice to hear from more thinkers from the East).

I enjoyed reading it, but I wouldn’t begrudge someone who was annoyed by Holt’s personal anecdotes and sloppy metaphysical interludes — which he probably included to make the book feel more like a real journey; his interviews, however, are mind-opening and fun to read. The subjects of the interviews, which range from Richard Swinburne to Roger Penrose to John Updike, all have interesting takes on the ultimate question, requiring the reader to think about it from a variety of well-argued perspectives.

Personally, the thinker I agree with most doesn’t appear until the epilogue, a nameless Buddhist monk who appears on a French television show that Holt catches while he’s in Paris.

As a Buddhist, he says, he believes that the universe had no beginning…Nothingness could never give way to being, he says, because it is defined in opposition to that which exists. A billion causes could not make a universe come into existence out of what does not exist. That is why, the monk says, the Buddhist doctrine of a beginning-less universe makes the most physical sense.
The Buddhist genially protests that he is not evading the question of origins. Rather, he is using it to explore the nature of reality. What is the universe after all?…It is not nothingness. Yet it is something very close: an emptiness…Things don’t have the solidity we attribute to them. The world is like a dream, an illusion. But in our thinking, we transform its fluidity into something fixed and solid seeming. This engenders [desire, pride, jealousy]. Buddhism, by correcting our metaphysical error, thus has a therapeutic purpose. It offers…a path to enlightenment. And it also resolves the mystery of being. When Leibniz asked, [Why something rather than nothing?], his question presupposed that something really and truly exists. And that’s an illusion.

But regardless of what I think, if you would like to contemplate why there is something rather than nothing without having to slog through dense original texts from the likes of Leibniz, Heidegger, and Sartre (not to mention the theologies of Aquinas and the mathematics of Stephen Hawking), Holt’s book is a harmless enough survey of the various answers conceived by some of the greater thinkers in the West.

The Books I Read in 2012

In 2012, I set myself the goal of reading 30 books. But then, in June, I started a 1,700 page book, and that was pretty much the end of that. Instead of 30, I ended up with 26 books. That’s still one more book than last year, which is a good thing, but it’s still six books less than 2010, which is not a good thing. I’d like to say I’ll read 30 books in 2013, but with a new baby in the house, I suspect that’ll be difficult. Even so, I’m setting that as my goal: 30 books in 2013.

Here’s the list of books I read in 2012, plus a little blurb of what I thought of it. Enjoy.

  • Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah
    One of my favorite books from my teenage years, Illusions is semi-new-age philosophy wrapped in a short story about a messiah who is running away from his calling. I read the book with my high-school students as part of our book club, and they loved it just as much as I did when I was their age.
  • The Digital Divide: Arguments for and Against Facebook, Google, Texting, and the Age of Social Networking
    I assigned this collection of essays to one of my college classes. All the students were freshmen, and most of them are outdoorsy/environmentalist, so the essays didn’t exactly speak to them. I had hoped the students would wrestle with their generational reality, but instead, they just argued and reargued and reargued about the ills of technology. I won’t be assigning this one again.
  • The Ethics of Emerging Media: Information, Social Norms, and New Media Technology
    I assigned this collection of essays to another one of my college classes for a course on ethics in media. This was for a class full of upperclassmen, so they were more willing than my freshman to listen to the arguments before reacting to them. Not every essay in this collection was strong, but they all did a good job of sparking conversation in the classroom.
  • The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory
    At the beginning of last year, I had the privilege to engage in a series of deep conversations about religion and atheism with a former professor of mine. During one of our discussions, he recommended this book to me and I quickly sought it out. Unfortunately, I can’t say I enjoyed it. First, it’s a very difficult book, but I’m a decent reader, so I don’t think that was it. Instead, I think it was that I just couldn’t buy any of the author’s original premises, so as the book went on, he just got further and further from anything I could agree with. On the plus side, it gave me plenty to think about and it steered me to the next book on this list, which I loved.
  • The Wake of Imagination
    This book traced the concept of the imagination throughout history. It’s also a kind of history of art and philosophy. It’s long and sprawling and written well. I highly recommend it to anyone who’s interested in philosophy, art, and history.
  • The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media
    I read this one as part of a book club I belong to. It’s a graphic “novel” – but of course, it’s not a novel; instead, it’s an historical look at how the modern media works, how it came to be, and what we need to watch out for as educated consumers of media. I definitely recommend this to anyone with even a cursory interest in the history and theory of modern media.
  • Ghost Pain: Poems
    I read this collection of poems with my high-school students. The poet is the poet laureate of Vermont. I wanted to read poetry that would be less abstract for my students, and I figured a poet from their neck of the woods might write something they could relate to. Luckily, I was right. The students did have difficulty with the poems, but after our classroom discussions, they all seemed to agree that the poems were brilliant.
  • The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure
    Another book I read with my book club. While I’ve seen the movie dozens of times, this was my first reading of the book, and I gotta say, it was even better than the movie — and I love the movie. There’s just so much more depth to the book, plus there’s a whole mythology of where the text came from in the first place. Just a delightful read.
  • Gilead
    This one was strongly recommended to me by one of my friends, and it completely lived up to his recommendation. It’s a quiet book, about a quiet town and a quiet preacher at the end of his quiet life, but there’s just so much heart in it, and so much…reality. A very good book.
  • Waiting for Godot
    I’ve read Beckett’s play a couple times now, but I read it again with my high-school students this year. I had the students read it aloud in the classroom, and that didn’t seem to be doing much for them…so we also watched the classic film version of it, and that’s when they finally realized how funny and yet, how sad it is.
  • Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: A Reference Guide
    I read this short little guide in preparation for teaching the play for the first time. Some decent historical stuff in there, but nothing Wikipedia can’t tell you.
  • Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power
    This is Rachel Maddow’s book about how the United States military-industrial complex came to power and how our politicians have elected to use it. A quick read, but insightful. Basically, it’s like reading a long, well-written magazine article.
  • The Power of Myth
    I read this one with my high-school students as well. I wanted to read Cambell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, but I thought it would be a bit too deep for my students. The Power of Myth is a nice introduction to Campbell’s thought, structured as it is around an interview with Bill Moyers. The kids loved it.
  • Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea
    I picked this one up because the author, Carl Zimmer, is a regular on Radiolab and I heard an interview he did about the book. I’ve read a lot of books on evolution, but I liked the dude and wanted to see how he is as a writer. Well, he’s a good one. If you have any interest in evolution, this book is a great place to start.
  • A Dance with Dragons (A Song of Ice & Fire #5)
    The fifth book in the series better known as “Game of Thrones” (thanks to HBO), A Dance with Dragons picks up where the fourth book left off. I should probably include the Wikipedia pages for the first four books on this list, because before I started Book #5, I spent about two weeks reminding myself of who the characters were, what they want, and where they are now. I loved the first four books, and this one didn’t disappoint. Now he just better not make me wait another five years before the sixth book comes out.
  • Catching Fire (The Hunger Games #2) and Mockingjay (The Hunger Games #3)
    I didn’t read the first book in this series, but I did see the movie, and my wife said it was faithful enough to the book that I didn’t have to read it. The Hunger Games series were the most popular books of the past couple of years, so it was only a matter of time before I picked them up, and I gotta say, I was glad I finally did. What the author does in the second and third books was nothing short of brilliant. While I was slightly disappointed in the second book, when the main character is forced back into the Hunger Games, it ended up being a necessary step in the longer story. What I thought would be a long story about how a woman can be just as warrior-like as a man became, instead, a long story about how every warrior comes out of battle with mental and spiritual injuries that take decades to heal (if they ever do). Essentially, the books give the reader the story of someone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and the fact that every one and their mother is reading these books just makes the author’s accomplishment that much greater.
  • And Then There Were None
    Another book I read with my high-school students. I wanted to end our school year with something a little more “fun” than Beckett and Cambell, so I went with Agatha Christie’s classic. It was just as fun this time around as it had been 20 years ago when I first read it.
  • The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Structure of DNA
    I think I came across a reference to this one in Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, something about it being the first science book written for a popular audience, so I decided to give it a read. It’s a decent book, and after reading some of the criticism it received, it’s definitely a momentous one (again, being one of the first science book written for nonscientists), but I can’t say it’s a killer read. Popular science writing has greatly improved over the last 50-odd years.
  • It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the Politics of Extremism
    The authors of this book were on The Daily Show; one of them is a Democrat and the other is a Republican, and this is their book about how the Constitution can’t handle the partisanship of today. Basically, another book-length magazine article. Good enough for an airplane ride, which is where I read it.
  • Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam
    I’m a rather devout atheist, but this guy’s reading of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam seemed a tad shallow. There’s not much argument in the book; just a lot of assertions. On the other hand, the author provides a decent bibliography of atheist works, and it led me to the next book on this list.
  • Ecce Homo; or A Critical Enquiry into the History of Jesus Christ; Being a Rational Analysis of the Gospels
    Written in 1770, this book by Baron d’Holbach is an historical curiosity at best, being one of the earlier outright atheistic books published (anonymously, of course) in Christianized Europe. While the arguments were, I’m sure, radical for their time, too much work has been done on the historicity of the Bible for d’Holbach’s positions to carry weight. But still, a relatively fun read.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
    I didn’t “read” this one as much as listen to it during a drive from Vermont to Chicago. But it held my interest the entire way (my wife, on the other hand, tuned it out rather quickly), and it was much, much better than the movie. Of course, at the end of the day, it’s not much more than an entertaining yarn. I think The Hunger Games has more of a theme than this one.
  • Walden
    I read this one in the Fall with my high-school students (while also building a life-size replica of Thoreau’s cabin; yeah, my high-school class rocks). I’d read selections of it before, but this was my first time reading it all the way through. While there are definitely some boring parts, I do suggest reading it all the way through. The experience Thoreau had is much deeper — and much more realistic — than what the more popular selections imply.
  • James the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls
    This is the 1,700 page behemoth I started in June and finished in November. It’s drier than my parents’ house in December, and it could have used an editor who would have forced the author to remove the 800 pages worth of repetitive material plus the 200 pages worth of less-than-insightful tangents, and then asked him to rewrite the whole thing in chronological order so that the reader wouldn’t have to reorient himself in space and time every fifth paragraph. But besides that, it’s pretty good. It’ll change your entire understanding of the world that Jesus and the first “Christians” lived in, and what early Christianity actually said about the way we should live our lives. Basically, if you’re not a fundamentalist Jew, then you’re not following the religious views of Jesus; instead, you’ve been suckered into following the Greek-influenced ideas of Paul, whom the earliest Christians (i.e., the apostles) considered the enemy. Good luck with that.
  • October Light
    A beautiful book about an elderly brother and sister in Vermont in the late 60s/early 70s, the former of whom is Vermont to the bone and the latter of whom has “liberal” ideas. As with other books by John Gardner, it plays around with structure and philosophy, but its heart is in the struggle of its characters. A beautiful book.

And that was it for the year. Hopefully next year, this list will include at least four more books.

On “The Language of God” (Part I)

In The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Francis Collins, the leader of the international Human Genome Project, recounts his journey from being an agnostic to an atheist to a Christian (thanks to the writings of C.S. Lewis), and then argues in favor of (on the one hand) belief in God and (on the other hand) trust in science.

In this post, I’d like to explore Collins’ evidence for belief, and then, in a later post, respond to his caricature of atheism.

The Moral Law

His evidence rests on what he calls, after Lewis, the Moral Law, which stands for “a concept of right and wrong [that] appears to be universal among all members of the human species (though its application may result in wildly different outcomes).” The Moral Law does not signify a list of rules similar to the Ten Commandments; rather, it signifies the phenomenon of morality, the internal awareness of there being, in fact, a right and wrong way to proceed (regardless of our ability to explicitly discern the two).

The Moral Law is the standard, the higher authority, by which we judge our behaviors, “and its existence,” writes Collins, “seems unquestioned.” Even when we disagree as to whether one action or another better corresponds to that standard, we rarely deny the existence of the standard. The Moral Law is what gives us universal concepts of fairness, kindness, honesty, impartiality, etc. Again, we may disagree as to what actions or behaviors are fair or kind or honest, but we all agree that such concepts are real.

In an attempt to pre-empt the “postmodern” criticism that all ethics are relative and that there is no absolute right or wrong, Collins throws postmodernism back in its face: “If there is no absolute truth, can postmodernism itself be true? Indeed, if there is no right or wrong, then there is no reason to argue for the discipline of ethics in the first place.”

A Postmodern Interruption

Let me interrupt my explication of his argument to say that Collins’ understanding of postmodernism seems, at best, juvenile. Since he already admitted to finding “the actual sacred texts” of the world’s religions to be “too difficult” (requiring him to explore the various religions via “the CliffsNotes versions”), I don’t think it’s unfair to assume that he has also not read/understood the “sacred texts” of postmodernist philosophy (which, by all admission, are often more opaque than the sacred texts of the various religions).

If Collins had read them, he might have learned that the recursive argument against postmodernism (if there’s no truth, then how is postmodernism true?) begins with a false premise. Postmodern philosophy does not argue the fact that there is no such thing as truth. What it argues is that your truth differs from my truth and that both of them must differ, by virtue of our subjectivity, from the absolute truth; and thanks to the way our language is constructed (including mathematics), we’ll never be able to access the absolute truth.

Postmodernism is a critique of the unstated assumptions that arose during the Enlightenment; it is not a constructive philosophy in its own right. It does not construct a logic that reveals the absolute truth; instead, it deconstructs your logic to reveal your unstated assumptions that will always already remain in play. It does not argue for its truth; it argues against your truth.

What Collins fails to grasp is the difference between destruction and deconstruction. He believes that postmodernism seeks to destroy the concept of the truth, but the reality is that postmodernism seeks to deconstruct the concept, not destroy it.

The process of deconstruction allows a postmodern critic to reveal the hidden assumptions that you’ve used to construct your argument, and more often than not, those assumptions originate in a subjective (and unargued) standpoint founded on a set of historic personal and/or cultural biases.

In other words, deconstruction (if done well) reveals the unsupported ground that your rational argument is based on, and it often (when done well) leads its listeners and readers into a feeling of intellectual vertigo.

Using the process of deconstruction, postmodernism doesn’t assert that there is no ground truth to our universe; it only demonstrates that your argument, despite your claims, does not rest on it.

With that being said, how might a postmodernist (this postmodernist) critique the concept of the Moral Law (as explained by Collins)?

The obvious answer might start with Collins’ assertion that the Moral Law is universal, but its supporting evidence (examining the diversity of moral codes across time and cultures) would take us in the wrong direction, since the argument in favor of the Moral Law is not about a prescription for behavior X over behavior Y, but rather, humanity’s universal sense of morality, the intuition that there is, irrespective of its cultural formulation, a right and wrong way to behave.

The postmodernist, then, should start the critique not with the cultural relativity of morality, but with the bodily relativity of it; that is, by demonstrating the Moral Law as the product of evolutionary pressures on the development of the human species.

If the Moral Law depends upon these evolutionary pressures, then morality would become (nothing more and nothing less) than a useful tool for genetic reproduction in the various environments that have been present during a small planet’s orbit of a minor star in a particular galaxy somewhere in the far reaches of the universe, a fact that would hardly support the Moral Law’s claim to universality.

The Inability for Morality to Evolve

But after discounting the postmodern critique using a (false) argument of recursion, Collins also attempts to cut off the evolutionary tack. He realizes that, “If this argument could be shown to hold up, the interpretation of many of the requirements of the Moral Law as a signpost to God would potentially be in trouble.”

He rests his argument on the existence of altruism, “the voice of conscience calling us to help others even if nothing is received in return…the truly selfless giving of oneself to others with absolutely no secondary motives.” The love that altruism demonstrates is called by Christians, “agape,” which differs from the love of affection, friendship, and romance.

Agape, Collins writes, “presents a major challenge to the evolutionist,” — and remember, Collins is the dude who led the Human Genome Project, so he is a firm believer in evolution. He continues, “It cannot be accounted for by the drive of individual selfish genes to perpetuate themselves. Quite the contrary: it may lead humans to make sacrifices that lead to great personal suffering, injury, or death, without evidence of benefit.”

He then takes on a few of the evolutionary responses to agape, such as the notion that it is recognized as a positive attribute in a potential mate, i.e., we want mates who are nicer, rather than meaner, so if we act nicer, we have a better chance of finding a mate with whom we can reproduce. Collins puts up against this argument the range of cruel behaviors that non-human primates use to reproduce, “such as the practice of infanticide by a newly dominant male monkey, in order to clear way for his own future off-spring” (there can hardly be more of a turn-off than murdering your potential mate’s previous children).

He then argues against the idea that agape leads to advantages over time (i.e., if you act nice now, without any clear benefit, chances are that you will be rewarded in the future — we can call this the “karmic” argument), but to this, Collins asks how it explains those “small acts of conscience that no one else knows about.”

Finally, he argues against the idea that altruistic practices by an individual benefit the group, and thus, aid in the continued evolution of the group’s related genes, if not the exact genes residing in the individual. The example here is the sterile worker-ants who “toil incessantly to create an environment where their mothers can have more children.” Collins responds to this argument by saying, first, “evolutionists now agree almost universally that selection operates on the individual, not the population,” and second, that “group-aided altruism” cannot account for those instances when we practice altruism outside of our group: “Shockingly,” Collins writes, “the Moral Law will ask me to save the drowning man even if he is an enemy.”

How does the unbelieving evolutionist respond to these arguments, which, again, are made by an individual who we have to assume by virtue of his role in Human Genome Project is among the world’s leading thinkers when it comes to evolution?

The Metaphorical Basis of Morality

One response might find its path through the cognitive-science-based philosophy of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, which holds that, “the mind is inherently embodied; thought is mostly unconscious; [and] abstract thoughts are largely metaphorical.”

The basic argument of their book is that “we understand our experience via conceptual metaphors, we reason according to their metaphorical logic, and we make judgements on the basis of the metaphors.” The metaphors arise from the ways our physical bodies exist in the world, and thus they are dependent not upon any absolute truths, but upon the historical development of humanity.

Lakoff and Johnson see their philosophy as bridging a middle path between rationalism and postmodernism. Our understanding of the world cannot be absolute (as extreme rationalists might like it), but nor is it arbitrary and unconstrained (as the extreme postmodernists’ might assert). Lakoff and Johnson argue for a philosophy that is grounded and situated in who we are and where we come from.

In one chapter of their book, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Westen Thought, Lakoff and Johnson argue that the metaphors that govern our morality “are typically based on what people over history and across cultures have seen as contributing to their well-being.”

For example, it is better to be healthy rather than sick. It is better if the food you eat, the water you drink, and the air you breath are pure rather contaminated. It is better to be strong rather than weak. It is better to be in control rather out of control or dominated by others. People seek freedom rather than slavery…People would rather be socially connected, protected, cared about, and nurtured than be isolated, vulnerable, ignored, or neglected. [etc.]

Lakoff and Johnson then go on to show how these notions of our physical well-being become metaphors for our moral well-being:

Morality is fundamentally seen as the enhancing of well-being, especially of others. For this reason, these basic folk theories of what constitutes fundamental well-being form the grounding for systems of moral metaphors around the world. For example…, since it is better to be healthy than to be sick, it is not surprising to find immorality conceptualized as a disease. Immoral behavior is often seen as a contagion that can spread out of control.

They continue:

When we began to analyze the metaphoric structure of these ethical concepts, again and again the source domains were based on this simple list of elementary aspects of human well-being — health, wealth, strength, balance, protection, nurturance, and so on.

So what does this all mean for how agape might have evolved? How does our discovery that the world’s moral systems are fundamentally based on the well-being of our physical bodies discount the notion of a divinely inspired Moral Law?

It has to do with Lakoff and Johnson’s finding that “we all conceptualize well-being as wealth.”

We understand an increase in well-being as a gain and a decrease in well-being as a loss or cost. [This] is the basis for a massive metaphor system by which we understand our moral actions, obligations, and responsibilities….in terms of financial transaction….Increasing others’ well-being gives you a moral credit; doing them harm creates a moral debt to them; that is, you owe them an increase in their well-being-as-wealth.”

In this system, altruism is explained as an action that “builds up moral credit.” Any good action one person takes on behalf of another puts the other person in moral debt to the do-gooder; in altruism, the do-gooder cancels the debt, but they “nonetheless build up moral credit.”

Altruism, then, is how one grows wealthier at the expense of no one and nothing, and since our minds understand “wealth” as contributing to our own well-being, increasing our moral wealth increases our sense of well-being.

According to this argument, the evolutionary pressure that gives rise to altruism is the same evolutionary pressure that gives rise to our universal desire to increase our wealth: the understanding that an increase in wealth equals an increase in our well-being.

How does this explain, Collins might argue, an example of a man sacrificing himself (and his genes) in order to save a drowning enemy, since such an action does irreparable harm to one’s well-being?

Lakoff and Johnson argue that all of morality is ultimately based on some conception of the family and of family morality, and that this in turn is based on another metaphor “in which we understand all of humanity as part of one huge family…This metaphor entails a moral obligation, binding on all people, to treat each other as we ought to treat our family members.” If Lakoff and Johnson are right, then our embodied mind sees the enemy drowning in the river as our brother.

By revealing that morality is ultimately based on the metaphor of “The Family of Man,” Lakoff and Johnson account for instances of altruism that go beyond our group. The reality is that, to our embodied mind, all of humanity belongs to our group.

Of course, we still haven’t explained why we’d leap into the river in the first place: if altruism is understood as an increase in moral wealth that does not necessitate an increase in another’s moral debt, how would we evolve the notion of sacrificing our lives — and thus the totality of our wealth — for another person?

The answer lies in cognitive science’s discovery that “thought is largely unconscious.” The “selfish gene” conception of evolution argues that genes act in their own self-interest. Under the selfish gene model, altruism seems untenable because, obviously, altruism is defined as acting without (and sometimes despite) one’s self-interest.

But Lakoff and Johnson argue that, since most of our reasoning is unconscious, “we can now see that the moral problem of the apparent conflict between selfishness and altruism is ill-defined, because…we are not rational self-interest maximizers in the traditional sense.”

As human animals with the kinds of minds we have, we do not always act in our own self-interest, and we rarely have rationally consistent explanations for doing the things that we do. So when we jump into the river to save our enemy (or anyone else), it might be enough to realize that our embodied mind believes that we’re jumping into the river to save our brother.

Conclusion

In The Evolution of God, Robert Wright argues that moral evolution happens because “a people’s culture adapts to salient shifts in game-theoretical dynamics by changing its evaluation of the moral status of the people it is playing the games with.” In other words, the culture expands its understanding of who is in the group to those who previously stood outside of it. We can see this in the evolution of monotheism from the tribal exclusivity of Judaism’s worship of YHWH to the Pauline inclusion of the Gentile as also being worthy of God’s grace.

To argue that the Moral Law evolved here on Earth rather than being given to us by a divine and absolute God is not to assert that religion has never played a role in the development of morality or that humanity has not benefited from the roles religion has played. But it is to argue that the Moral Law does not serve as convincing evidence of God’s existence.

I believe the phenomenological existence of morality can be better explained through a conceptual model that connects the evolutionary pressure on the gene (to help a family member) with the evolutionary development of our embodied (and metaphorically reasoning) mind (which sees all of humanity as members of our family).

I also believe that we act morally because we unconsciously conceive of moral actions as increasing our wealth, and hence, our well-being, which metaphorically serves the self-interest of our genes.

I also believe, with Lakoff and Johnson, that the universality of the Moral Law originates in the common physical attributes of the human animal, which in turn gives rise to the metaphors that govern our embodied minds.

I don’t know if this argument would convince Collins to give up the divine origin of his Moral Law, but I do think it opens the door to an answer that is more satisfying that his recourse to the absolute.

In my next post, I’ll look at Collins’ unfair caricature of atheism and see if we can’t find a better way to imagine it.