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