Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Homeless Teacher's Amazon Kindle Sample Review Corner #5

The Homeless Teacher's Amazon Kindle Sample Review Corner #5

Mission statement: “I read and review Amazon's stingy free samples of books, saving you the need to read either one, and in some cases will do a better job in a couple of paragraphs conveying ideas than the author in 300 pages. I also freely admit to laziness and irresponsibility in not reading the entire book, but I've personally met “book reviewers” for prominent papers and journals who only read book jackets and press packets before writing their reviews. Besides, you don't have the time and should be thanking me."

As a responsible blogger, it behooves (I've always wanted to use that word) me to take a look back at this blog's most frequently occurring and regular “feature,” taking stock of review choices and what they might say about my attempt to direct readers' thinking and my own predilections. A quick glance reveals an obsessive concern with religious encroachment on the secular republic of America, a keen interest in evolution and the assault upon it by creationists, and the blessedly nascent field of neuroscience. I say “blessedly” because it's one branch of science its practitioners insist is yet in its infancy, perhaps even the embryonic stage, as ingenious brain-scanning technology improves and the vistas of possibilities for understanding the universe inside peoples' skulls grows ever larger and more exciting. Decide for yourself as I examine these samples' Best Part (s), Main Ideas (s), and present provocative and haunting post-reading Also ruminations if these themes are intimately related and urgent (I think they are) or just show an obsessive eccentric doodling around (Or both)

Freethinkers by Susan Jacoby. This sample is a fairly meaty one as free samples go (the amount Amazon decides to give you seems completely arbitrary; and let me tell you that the free samples of audio books are a real rip-off because you often just get a minute or so of the introduction, read by somebody who doesn't even read the rest of the book). The weightiness also might have to do with Jacoby's excellent style and firm grasp of her theme, the efforts of “the apostles of religious correctness to infuse every public issue, from the quality of education to capital punishment, with their theological values.” 

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.

Main Idea: Being a Freethinker, an agnostic, atheist, doubter, skeptic, or just curmudgeonly questioner used to be an honorable thing in America, but now such troublemakers and “hepcats” and bongo banging “beatniks” are relegated to a tightening “kook's corner”--Jacoby's phrase—by the Religious Right.

Also, keeping religion out of the public sphere is the best way to protect religion. Inside lovely old hilltop chapels and dentist's offices converted to Blinding Glow Ministries, religious believers can do and say anything they want without fear of stomping boots and fast-moving metal contrivances splintering the sanctuary doors and walls. In the public sphere, in politics, schools, medicine, and law, the inevitable divisiveness and chaos hurts and weakens religion. Too bad that too few can grasp this urgent truth.

The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe is not Designed for Us by Victor J. Stenger.  Recently physicist Stenger (it's always a good sign when a scientist doesn't put the Ph.D. after his name on the cover) has released a seeming fusillade of books with daring titles like God: The Failed Hypothesis, and makes bold claims that we can now state with confidence that Gods like the one of the Judeo-Christian tradition simply don't exist. Facts in science are really statements that have a probability so close to “one” that we carry them about in our daily quotidian puttering as provisional truths. They may change, but why waste time trying to walk, chew gum, and juggle chainsaws at the same time?

There's just nothing for that kind of God to do anymore, unless you want to believe he's fiddling about with things on the quantum level to get you to the yard sale before the Tasmanian Devil Pez dispenser you need for your collection is sold.     In recent years believers, having accepted an ancient earth, evolution through natural selection, and witnessed mind-boggling feats like the possible discovery of the science-predicted Higgs-Boson particle, have been forced to retreat to a question that goes something like this: “Okay then. It happened naturally according to natural laws but who made those laws in the first place, huh?”(This question, it's never acknowledged, makes Christians into Deists, almost by definition) 

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: 

Best Part:  Stenger claims he doesn't even have to resort to the multiverse move and claims he will show in the rest of the book that life could indeed develop with lots of constant fiddling and that nothing about this universe is particularly designed for us.  But the sample doesn't go that far. 

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.


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