Best Part: The account of the centennial anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and great but now largely forgotten champion of free thought Robert Ingersoll's tribute in his hometown of Peoria, Illinois to the wisdom and courage of the framers of the Constitution in omitting any mention of God in the foundational document, thereby creating the world's first secular government. Jacoby highlights the impossibility of such a celebration in today's increasing theocratic political environment. In addition, Jacoby contrasts George W. Bush and his post-9/11 address from Washington's National Cathedral, “indistinguishable from a sermon” and “a gross violation of the respect for separation of church and state” with Franklin D. Roosevelt, who did not use an altar as a “backdrop” for his declaration of war after Pearl Harbor and Abraham Lincoln, a non-church-goer, who delivered the Gettysburg Address on the field of battle.
Believers continue, “and what about the fine-tuning of constants?" This last question refers to the fact that our universe contains about fifty physical quantities or constants fixed at the time of the Big Bang. If any one of these constants were changed even slightly, it is claimed, life would be impossible in this universe. One example is the strength of gravity which, were it changed by only one part in 10 to the 100th power, would forbid life's existence. One way scientists have gotten around this is by positing a multiverse--trillions and trillions of parallel universes, most of which don't contain life. We just happen to be in one that allows our kind of party. While more and more scientists are taking the multiverse idea seriously, opponents and believers are quite right to point out that it's outrageously unparsimonious, violating the principle of Occam's Razor (don't multiply variables unnecessarily). However, Stenger's proposed strategy for his book is this sample's best part:
Main Idea: Stop trying to find God in numbers. It won't work and it's a little pathetic, betraying an insecurity about faith. As Martin Gardner once said, "God is the Great Magician," who is too good at misdirection to leave traces in niggling figures and quantities.
Also: I don't like the multiverse idea even though Family Guy had a great episode with Brian and Stewie hopping around different universes. This universe is already too big, in my opinion, and it was really mean of God to induce hideous existential vertigo in the contemplation of something as simple as the distance to the nearest star.
Who's In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain by Michael S. Gazzaniga. In a previous sample review I was pretty impressed by neuroscientist Sam Harris's Free Will, a short, vigorous argument that we have no such thing, that we are completely determined creatures. Here Gazzaniga, another brain guy perhaps most famous for his work with split-brain patients, agrees with Harris up to a point. But then he claims that the physically determined brain creates the mind, which in the context of social interaction exerts a measure of control over the brain and its creation of behaviors. In other words, the individual is the wrong hierarchical level at which to look for freedom of choice. Such freedom emerges only in the realm of social constraints, just as games emerge in part from components like nets and borderlines. I think that where he's going.
Best Part: Gazzaniga has a warm, reassuring tone, in contrast to some people who write about our alleged lack of free will with a "you've got to be joking, you dolt" tone.
Main Idea: We have free will after all.
Also: It says something really pathetic about me that this week, after my employer lost my paycheck and is claiming I lost it and I really did lose both my cell phone and my wallet, I fervently hope there's no such thing as free will and that these stupid things aren't my fault but were determined billions of years ago; and it's equally pathetic that when things inevitably start going a little better for me, I'll take full credit for my great choices and brilliant insights.