Thursday, July 05, 2007

Encountering Naturalism: A Worldview and Its Uses

Recently I came across the website of the Institute for the Future of the Book
, which declares:

The printed page is giving way to the networked screen. The Institute for the Future of the Book seeks to chronicle this shift, and impact its development in a positive direction.... For the past five hundred years, humans have used print — the book and its various page-based cousins — to move ideas across time and space. Radio, cinema and television emerged in the last century and now, with the advent of computers, we are combining media to forge new forms of expression. For now, we use the word "book" broadly, even metaphorically,... More profound, however, is the book's reinvention in a networked environment. Unlike the printed book, the networked book is not bound by time or space. It is an evolving entity within an ecology of readers, authors and texts. Unlike the printed book, the networked book is never finished: it is always a work in progress....

I would describe the situation somewhat differently. The print media have “embodied evolving entit[ies] within an ecology of readers, authors and texts" for quite some time. These systems have expanded to include movies and television -- the printed book has not been replaced. One such ecosystem centers on Jane Austen's novels, and includes various editions with prefaces by different commentators; contemporary book reviews; Cliff Notes for two of her novels; abridgements and curriculum guides; movies based on her novels; DVDs and reviews of the movies based on her novels (some of those reviews have appeared in print media and others on the Internet); and -- possibly the most interesting twist -- a novel entitled The Jane Austen Book Club . This novel is inexplicable if you don't read at least the summaries at the end of the book that describe the novels embedded in the story, and it's a lot more fun to read if you have actually read an Austen novel.

(Admittedly, the results of these ecological processes aren't uniformly good: I've seen some really awful movie re-makes, and often, if the earlier movie was based on a novel, the original story is barely recognizable in the remake. On the other hand, many books gain a wider readership because people who see movies based on them get curious.)
Besides, there are still advantages to reading material in print form; that's why people so often print out what they see on that networked screen. You don't need a power source to read a book, either. I think new technologies have simply expanded the information ecosystem that was already there. Maybe some day print books will disappear, but at least during a long transitional period, they will continue to occupy an important niche. And -- to continue the metaphor -- we will see hybrids. For example, Common Birds and Their Songs is a book that is packaged with a CD recording of the songs of the birds it describes.

Another hybrid is the book I'm reviewing here, Encountering Naturalism: A Worldview and Its Uses, by Thomas W. Clark. Clark is Director of the Center for Naturalism ,a 501(c) 3 non-profit educational organization devoted to increasing public awareness of naturalism and its implications for social and personal well-being.... [And] to foster the understanding that human beings and their behavior are fully caused, entirely natural phenomena, and that human flourishing is best achieved in the light of such understanding.” The Center's Advisory Board includes such notables as Susan Blackmore and Daniel C. Dennett.

Because it's designed to work with other articles posted on the web, Encountering Naturalism (from now on, I'll just call it "EN") is short -- 101 pages -- and affordable at just $9.95. But, it's dense and thoughtfully written: even if you never use any of the links embedded in the text, the book stands alone as a good introduction to some important aspects of a naturalistic worldview.

The way the book is arranged, you can choose for yourself which topics you will read about in more detail, whether by reading suggested articles on the World Wide Web (to Clark's credit, not all those articles are on the Center for Naturalism's site), or by taking advantage of a thoughtful, carefully chosen bibliography.

"But what does the book say?" you're asking. Good! Now I get to tell you what I like best about EN. It doesn’t cover arguments against the existence of God! I’m not saying there shouldn’t be such books; but there are so many good ones that it’s refreshing to see a readable introduction to other important aspects of a naturalistic (or, if you prefer, humanistic) way of looking at the world. Clark explains in some detail why it is that, if you rule out supernatural explanations, you have to give up two other common beliefs: 1) the idea of a “soul” or a mind that it is somehow separate from your body, and 2) the idea of “free will” – meaning, Clark explains, actions and decisions that are not naturally caused (for example – by genetic predisposition, influence of drugs, or social conditioning).

EN spends little space explaining why these beliefs are false, offering a good list of references {some of them on-line) for interested readers. Instead, Clark explains how naturalism helps us understand ourselves and our personal relationships, and could lead to better-informed, more effective social policies.

An appendix titled “Concerns and Reassurances” briefly answers, critiques of naturalism –e.g. that it’s reductionistic, that offers a rationalization for irresponsibility, that naturalistic determinism means we cannot make meaningful choices. The discussion about choice was hard to follow – it may be that I need to re-read it, but seems more likely that it was not possible to do the topic justice in the space available. I look forward to reading more on this topic.
A second appendix includes that the quotes from a variety of sources including Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, and Bertrand Russell. I guarantee you will enjoy them.

What would I quibble about?

• Clark describes naturalism as “science-based”, then goes on to say (correctly) that naturalism “goes beyond” science. This could be confusing. Clark does explain that, while science uses empiricism as a tool, naturalism advocates say that as the basis for worldview. However, he doesn’t go into enough detail to fully clarify the issues for readers who are unfamiliar with this distinction.
• I’m surprised that, given the emphasis on understanding the brain and how it works as an explanation of “mind”, the work of Anthony D’ Amasio is not included in the bibliography. I hope to see this changed in a future edition, and trust that readers will find this work if they pay attention to the citations in other books in the bibliography.

• When I followed links to discussions of science on the Center for Naturalism web site, I found that they were primarily devoted to explaining why evolutionary science is indeed scientific, while creationism is not. This is an important issue, and perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised to find in emphasized on a website whose main purpose is to advocate of well-grounded social policy. But, I would have liked to see a discussion of the tricky question of how far we can go to a base policy on scientific findings that may become obsolete. For example, recommendations for breast cancer prevention, and for proper nutrition, undergo periodic revision as a result of ongoing scientific study.

Of course, it’s a good thing that science is self-correcting. But as we go about our daily lives, we hunger for certainty, and this problem deserves some attention

• This last point might be more aesthetic than anything else, but I was struck by a very sober – almost somber –tone in the discussion of the advantages of a naturalistic viewpoint. Yes, it is significant that, by understanding that our actions are dependent on causes out side ourselves, we are freed of inappropriate guilt for our own actions, and exaggerated resentment towards those who do us harm.

But where’s the joy? I think that understanding ourselves as part of nature implies that we are free to enjoy a sensory experience, rather than condemning such pleasures as low or even “sinful”. And, while Clark carefully points out that most of us behave morally because we know we are accountable to other people, he doesn’t say anything about the pleasure to be found in making other is happy. Love and friendship are as fully natural as fear of punishment. I do acknowledge the space limitations, but a well-chosen paragraph or two could add a lot to the substance of the book, without adding too much to its length.

The one reference to joy is on page seventeen. I dare you to find it –because I do recommend this book, and I look forward to learning from the supplementary materials on the Center for Naturalism web site, and in some of the recommended readings. If you’re going to buy a book for the bibliography, this just might be the one to buy.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Nothing: Something to Believe In, by Nica Lalli

Sometimes when I review a book, what I want to do -- whether I love it or hate it -- is to shout out my opinion to the world. At other times, I'm more concerned about something a reviewer should always be thinking about: How will other people like the book? Which readers will enjoy it, and who will want to be steered away from it?

Nothing is the second kind of book, because it's a very personal story. So, while I was thinking about what to say about it, I decided to find out a little bit about what other people were saying. I was startled by one press release that said, "Reflective Memoir Puts Female Face on Nonbelief ... The public face of atheism has recently been that of bestselling authors Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Victor Stenger, and Daniel Dennett, academic males and vocal critics of religion...." I thought, "What about Lori Lipman Brown, the lobbyist for the Secular Coalition for America? She's been getting a lot of press! What about 'celebrity' atheists like Julia Sweeney?" The list could go on, but you get the idea.

The point is, what matters about this book is not that it's written by a woman, but that it's written by an ordinary person -- a member of her local community board and the PTA, someone who could be your next-door neighbor. So many atheists and humanists are silent about their viewpoint that any time someone goes public, it's a revelation.

What will you find in this book? Don't look for a heroic tale of a woman enduring threatening phone calls, and bricks thrown through the living room window, because she had the "nerve" to challenge prayer in her child's school. Neither will you find a story about a journey from faith to Freethought, or a call to activism. Lalli, who was brought up by nonreligious parents, tells a quiet story, offering intimate descriptions of (among other things) how it feels to be different from churchgoing classmates, and what it's like having in-laws who are smugly certain of their moral superiority. Most of her anecdotes reflect the everyday reality of millions of Americans -- usually not very dramatic, but just as important as the stories that make headlines.

The best feature of Nothing is that Lalli does such a good job of describing her emotions at any given time: When she tells the story of something that happened to her at, say, age 5, she includes the kind of details a five-year-old would notice. In that way, she offers some good food for thought to freethinking parents. Her experiences show why it's a good idea for parents to help their children figure out how to deal with peers from religious families, and to tell them more about their own worldviews than Lalli's parents did.

At the close of her introduction, Nica Lalli writes, "I do not pretend to be the voice for all the 'others' [she means other nonreligious Americans], I can only speak for myself. And yet I do hope that my story can add to a productive dialogue ...." She makes a good point here. I don't know how typical her story is of people who have been brought up in nonreligious families, but I do know it's quite different from my own. Some readers will have the pleasure of recognizing experiences very similar to their own, like the reader-reviewer who commented, "So many of Nica's experiences seemed like my own, and I even cried at parts." Others may enjoy reading about a life that's very different from their own. In a manner that reminds me of the old feminist slogan, "The personal is political," Nica Lalli has added a voice to a conversation that needs to include many more.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Philip Appleman: "Darwin" and Poems

A couple of weeks ago, one of my kids e-mailed me, asking me to advise a friend of hers who had to write a paper on what Charles Darwin would have thought of abortion. One of my first thoughts was to wonder what he would have thought of feminism, and the feminist belief that women should have control of their own bodies. So, I reached for my trusty Norton Critical Edition Darwin and found just what I needed: excerpts from Evelleen Richards' 1983 article, "Darwin and the Descent of Woman". The article not only describes Darwin's views, but also places them in historical context, partly by telling what contemporary feminist writing he had read.

Published in 2001, this is the third edition of Darwin edited by Philip Appleman, who is not only a scholar deeply familiar with the work of Darwin and his contemporaries, but a poet who has made evolution a theme of such works as Darwin’s Ark. Darwin is a labor of love, still vibrant with Appleman's first, youthful discovery of Darwin's work (described in pages 15-17 of the introduction), and informed by thorough scholarship. In this greatly expanded edition, Appleman presents generous selections from Darwin's original works, as well as a wide selection of essays and excerpts of other writers' works. We learn about the biographical and scientific background of Darwin's pivotal discovery, as well as its "enduring relevance" not only for science, but for social thought, philosophy and ethics, religious life, and literature.
Appleman understands Darwin's works are valuable not only for what they teach us about the way the history of life unfolded -- as if that weren't enough! -- but also for their vital contribution to the development of science as a method for understanding the natural world. The process is an exciting, unfinished story, as Appleman tells first through the writing of thinkers like Lyell and Malthus --whose work Darwin incorporated in his theory-- and then through the writing of his contemporary detractors and defenders.
Appleman brings readers up to date (and leaves us ready for tomorrow's headlines) with selections of later scientists' work on genetics,statistics, systematics, human evolution, and natural selection. Other sections of Darwin include offerings as diverse as an excerpt of The Woman's Bible, by pioneering feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton; discussions of evolutionary medicine and evolutionary ethics; and essays on how the advent of evolutionary thought has changed the meaning of tragedy.
Darwin could be used as a course reader; for the rest of us, it likely won't be a book we read straight through, but one to dip into at different times. One reader will seek a solid introduction to a particular topic, another will look for provocative insights. You might want to learn more about punctuated equilibrium, or how one poet "put[s] a contemporary gloss on Darwin's theory of sexual selection". Activists will appreciate Part VIII, a wide ranging discussion of the problems posed by creationism.

Now that I'm writing about Appleman, I can't resist recommending his poetry -- often passionate, sometimes witty, always accessible. In fact, my first introduction to Appleman was by a friend who had discovered his work his poetry. I was giving him a ride to a meeting, and he read aloud "Gertrude”, a wonderfully touching expression of the rage and grief Appleman felt at his mother's death. You can read an excerpt here (scroll down or search on the word "Gertrude").

I was hooked! It's best to let poems speak for themselves, so here are links to "Memo To The 21st Century" and "This Year's Valentine". Let me know if you’re hooked too!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Sagan's latest

Carl Sagan's The Varieties of Scientific Experience, published last November, is an edited version of his 1985 Gifford Lectures . Subtitled A Personal View of the Search for God, one topic it discusses is what evidence we should find if the universe had been created by a divine being. On the way, we get a lot of information on astrology and cosmology. It's not the first or last time Sagan talks about these issues from the perspective of someone who considers science to be a kind of "informed worship", but it's different to see what he has to say in a lecture format, especially in a series founded to "promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term". For over a hundred years, some of the world's foremost thinkers have been invited to give the Gifford lectures. Speakers have included physicist Niels Bohr, novelist Iris Murdoch, and one of the founders of psychology,William James. In fact, Sagan's title playfully recalls William James' famous work, The Varieties of Religious Experience. And the book is illustrated with the slides Sagan used during his lectures (yup, slides -- this was 1985, remember).

I'm especially looking forward to reading the questions and answers at the end. But I couldn't wait to to say that the fun of reading this book starts with the very first slide. It's an illustration of the solar system, but what we know about the solar system has already changed: the slide shows 9 planets, and in 2003, just 7 years after Sagan's death, a 10th planet was discovered. Just thinking about that difference is exciting. What we "know" changes so fast! Sagan was always pushing for that change -- you have to wonder what he would say if he were giving those lectures now.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The God Delusion

In his introduction to The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins tells a story about his wife: When she was a child, her parents sent her to a school she disliked. If they had known she disliked the school, they would have found a different school for her -- but they didn't know because she didn't tell them. Dawkins says to those readers who might be uncomfortable with religion, but don't realize that there are alternatives available, "This book is for you".

I never was such a person; I grew up nonreligious. So, I can't say how good the book would seem to that part of Dawkins' audience. But I do have something to say about some of the good points in the book, and answers to some of its critics.

Let's begin with a critic.

In his review in the New York Review of Books, H. Allen Orr complains, "...Dawkins has written a book that's distinctly, even defiantly, middlebrow.... Dawkins spends much time on what can only be described as intellectual banalities...." He complains, too, that Dawkins doesn't answer what he (Orr ) considers the more subtle and sophisticated arguments for religion/belief in god (of course they're not the same thing).

So what? In daily life, and the world most of us live in, complex 500-page treatises using words like "deontological" are not what matters. What matters is that fundamentalists -- the people that Orr doesn't want Dawkins to waste his time on -- are electing school board members who prevent kids from getting a decent science education. They're electing legislators who pass laws against women's right to choose. Those are the people the unbelievers-in-the-street need to answer, and for them, Dawkins provides a useful, "Cliff's Notes" survey of the issues.

As he goes along, Dawkins mentions lots of articles and books that people can read if they want to learn more about any topic. Frankly it was a relief not to have to keep switching back and forth between what I was reading, and footnotes at the back of the book. Many people who would prefer an unpretentious (maybe I should all-cap that -- UNPRETENTIOUS) non-academic book about the problems with religion are going to like this one.

Does Dawkins dis religion? I think that sometimes that depends who's looking. He says upfront that he will not be any gentler with religious points of view, then secular positions that he disagrees with. When you read the "ARGUMENT FROM SHEER WILL" that he quotes from the Hundreds of Proofs of God's Existence at the website of the Silicon Valley Atheists, you might think he's oversimplifying -- OR you might think that he's just pointing out that the emperor has no clothes. The argument is: "(1) I DO believe in God! I DO believe in God! I do I do I do I DO believe in God! (2) Therefore, God exists." (Is that middlebrow? Well, what joke isn't?")

There is a difference, though, between criticizing religious ideas and organizations, and picking on people who are religious. And Dawkins clearly recognizes that difference. How else could he have worked with a friend who is a bishop to get several religious leaders to sign a petition urging the government not to allow creationism to be taught in government-funded schools?

Actually, I think Dawkins is harder on scientists with whom he disagrees. Probably he's too quick, at times, to doubt the sincerity of people with whom he disagrees. Still, since he names names quite a bit, readers are free to find out for themselves what these people have to say.

The last chapter on how science enriches our lives is beautifully written and I enjoyed it. I don't think it's a full answer to how humanists manage to lead happy & moral lives, but that's not a criticism. A writer can only do so much in one book. Maybe people who think Dawkins should have written some other book(s), will go ahead and write them!

Choosing the right dog (originally posted December, 2006)

I always enjoy conversations with owners and staff of independent bookstores -- people who engage in such a labor of love are probably even more infatuated with books than I am! This weekend I discovered Neighbors, a very fine independent book and music store in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. Neighbors is as fine a store as you might expect to find it a much more urban setting (yes, that's a recommendation).

It really does say something about the store that in the course of conversation, the under told me that she had in stock a copy of Why We Love the Dogs We Do, by Stanley Coren.

Now is a good time to mention that book, because during the holiday season, many people think of giving pets as gifts. I don't think that's a good idea -- a new pet deserves special attention that it is unlikely to receive in the whirl of holiday excitement, especially if it has been given to a young child. This opinion is only strengthened by a sad memory from when I was in Athens at the time of the Greek Orthodox Easter many years ago. The trash cans in a public park were full of discarded baby chicks that had been given to little children along with Easter eggs.

A better gift for adults (including parents) who are thinking about getting a dog would be Coren's book. Why We Love the Dogs We Do is written with the express purpose of making sure that people will get dogs that will be a good match for their families; every year, thousands of new pets for turned out not to be a good match are placed in animal shelters, and Coren believes this is a preventable tragedy.

A professor at a University of British Columbia, who specializes in psychological testing, Coren worked with dog breeders and trainers to classify numerous breeds according to personality type. Then he used interviews and an abbreviated standard personality test to determine the best matches between dog breeds in people with specific personalities.

The book is a delightful read, filled with entertaining descriptions of canine personalities, and interesting anecdotes about people and their dogs. At the end, you can take a test which will help you decide which kind of dog is best for you. Within each canine personality type (such as "clever", and "affectionate",) are several breeds, and Coren gives useful advice on how to choose within the group best suited to you. His advice is also useful for gift giving: for example, if you answer the test according to what you think another person might answer, you would then choose a breed that , say, an apartment dweller would be able to take care of.

It also has a chapter comparing dog lovers and cat lovers. I just wish there were a chapter on how to choose a mutt.
Paul Levinson is chair of the Department of Communication & Media Studies at Fordham University, as well as being an award-winning science fiction author. So his time-travel novel, The Plot to Save Socrates, is both fun to read and educational!

The twists and turns of the time-travel plot keep the reader delightfully off-balance, right up to the singularly touching ending. Short notes at the end clear up any questions you have about which characters from Socrates' time (and, sometimes, later) actually existed.

Socrates was in a way the granddaddy of us all. He was eventually condemned to death for "corrupting the youth of Athens" by encouraging them to think skeptically, including questions about the gods, and the existing structure of authority. Who was Alcibiades? Why did Socrates refuse a chance to escape? Levinson offers interesting insights on these questions, and makes you want to read more.

The novel even mentions Hypatia, one of the women in my growing photo gallery of women in free thought. If you've ever heard of Lake Hypatia, where the Freedom From Religion Foundation organizes an annual gathering, now you know how the lake got its name.

Sweeney's's satire bests Sam's"scholarship"

Just by sheer luck, I got to read Sam Harris' End of Faith the same week I listened to Julio Sweeney's "Letting Go of God". My oldest friend lent me both of them.

In about the same way honey catches more flies than vinegar, Sweeney is so much more effective than Harris. It isn't just that she's funny, she really does a brilliant job of covering all kinds of reasons a person would decide to let go of religion. People can identify with everything from her reaction to actually reading the Bible, to how she deals with her family's shock. It's amazing how much she gets across with just a simple change in her tone of voice.

What a contrast to the overhyped End of Faith. I don't get what people see in it -- a lot of it is arguments for atheism I've seen a zillion times, only with more footnotes. What does it tell you that one of the places where Harris does seem to spend more of an effort on being original is when he presents an argument in favor of torture?

Besides, when somebody gets wrong the details I do know or notice, I have to wonder what else thet're getting wrong. I actually read footnotes (if you want to pause and shed a tear for me, all sympathy is welcome), and in one place, Harris says that in ethics intentions are everything, then in a footnote says they're only part of the story. And, when he's giving examples of religiously inspired suicides other than the terrorist bombings that we're all so familiar with, he blames World War II kamikaze attacks on Buddhism. Wrong! That was Shintoism, and a perversion of Shintoism at that. [UPDATE: a friend of mine has sent me a source that may show that official Buddhism allowed itself to be preempted by Japanese militarism; if I'm wrong I'll post an update]

There! I'm done ranting and I feel so much better now. I'll end by doing you a favor and urging you to run out and get Sweeney's CD, or even go to a live performance. I'll bet she even gives some of the money to a good cause