Category Archives: reviews

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.