Archive for the ‘reading’ Category

Book review: Letter to a Christian Nation

Sunday, May 28th, 2006

I called Sam Harris’ “The End of Faith” a “critically insightful” book. Now Sam has come up with a slight volume titled Letter to a Christian Nation.

The book has a bit of an identity crisis, however. The title would indicate he’s addressing Christians, but actually, as Sam himself says, it’s meant to “arm secularists”. As a result, the book has a preaching-to-the-choir flavor. But it’s interesting to consider: what is the long-term process by which the world can be brought to stop believing in magic? In particular, is it through arguments? I doubt it. The people on either side of this divide are talking different languages.

First, we need to separate the biological and cultural tendencies towards religion. It’s widely accepted—and the premise of this blog—that religion has a heavy biological component. To the extent it does, only evolution can address that problem. But it is not biology that compels people to believe that Mary was a virgin or that poverty-stricken Africans should be taught abstinence. We can accept that we will continue to have biological tendencies that leave us in awe of the unknown, or govern the neural processes associated with personal development, while still attempting to address the culturally-dependent aspects of religion which are causing people to kill each other, among other things.

So let us draw a roadmap for achieving a society where people no longer believe in counter-productive, harmful, and obviously stupid things. Given the arc of human civilization, I suggest this roadmap needs to extend over a century or more. Such a roadmap will alert us to what needs to be done now to promote the process.

A key element is the teaching of religion to children. This was highlighted by Dawkins in The God Delusion as well as by Sam in his new book. Although there is a natural attrition away from religion even among children of religious parents (rather extreme in my family’s case, where by my count only two of eight children maintain their parents’ beliefs), it probably averages less than 25%. Those that have discarded magical beliefs, however, are unlikely to have even one child who reverts to them. The issue, then, becomes the ratio at which religious belief decays. If it is 25% per generation, over a century the number of believers would be reduced by only 60%. If, however, the attrition ratio could be raised to 50% per generation, the number of believers a hundred years later would be reduced to a manageable 10%. But how can we bring one out of two people per generation into the ranks of the “brights”?

Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris appear to believe that the right approach is to talk real loud and take no prisoners. However, as mentioned above, that is unlikely to work.

We need a more sophisticated approach. We need to manage the conversation in a way which resonates with those we are addressing. We need to control the terms of the discussion. We need to establish simple, compelling themes which will resonate. A large part of this is semiological in nature—what are the words and messages which we want to create and disseminate?

For instance, consider the message “God does not exist.” We can embellish this message with all kinds of details, as Dawkins does, rebutting each and every argument that He might in fact exist. But the believers will simply tune this out. We need a message which, jujitsu-like, take advantage of the gullibility and proclivity to believe on the part of those we are trying to address.

I like messages of the form “God is X.” Such messages start off by accepting the premise that God does in fact exist. helping to guarantee their acceptance.

For instance, take “God is mean”. This leverages the nagging feeling shared by everyone that there is something a little bit wrong about a God that lets Katrina happen, that lets babies die, that watches over planes smashing into skyskrapers, and basically fucks all of us over more than we care to admit. It can’t be sugar-coated. Let’s spread this meme, gently.

Another example is “God is too busy”. Let’s face it—worrying about six billion souls is just too much work for One Guy. And that’s even before you think about the 10^23 other stars in the universe he has to worry about, a point made brilliantly by Carl Sagan in “Varieties of Scientific Experience”, which I’ll review in the near future. He’s so busy, he’s probably not really taking care of me like He should be, or listening really closely to my prayers.

Then we could go with “God is not that smart.” I mean, look at all the mistakes He’s made. We know he created Adam from dust and Eve from Adam’s rib, but let’s face it, in the physiological design department we can’t exactly give Him an “A”. Just ask my knee doctor, who says one of these days I’m going to need a replacement.

Let’s spread these memes, focusing on them with laser intensity and refusing to dilute our message. As they spread and gain credence through society, people will not suddenly switch sides and start disbelieving—they will just stop caring about a God who is mean, too busy, and not that smart. That can get us to the 50% attrition per generation level and reduce believers to 10% of the current level over the next hundred years, at which point they will be nothing more than a minor nuisance.

Breaking Dennett's spell

Monday, January 23rd, 2006

Numenware readers are busy people. So here’s a handy, one-paragraph summary of Daniel C. Dennett’s new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, to save you the hours required to plow through its 400 pages and the $25.95 you’d have to spend to buy it:

I’m Daniel Dennett, and I think religion is stupid, and everybody should stop believing in it right now, because I’m real smart and I say so. Besides, it’s just an evolutionary and cultural thing according to some books I read. Don’t get me wrong, though: some of my best friends are religious, and a lot of them are real nice people!

Dennett spends the first chapter talking about an alleged vast conspiracy striving to prevent people like him from looking at religion objectively . That’s odd, given the centuries of research on the topic.

Dennett argues vociferously for a scientific analysis of religion. Which is doubly odd, since he’s obviously made up his mind already. And the only scientific “evidence” he himself quotes is cribbed from people who actually did work on the topic, such as Boyer (earlier post) and Atran (earlier post). He gives a sloppy summary of their work.

Triply odd is what Dennett leaves out of his “daring and important” new book, which is anything about what people experience in religion. He fails to mention, much less categorize or analyze, any transcendental experiences beyond those of the beautiful sunset variety.

Dennett gives short shrift to the biological seat of religious experience—the brain. His treatment of the topic is limited to the mention of one paragraph in Atran’s book. He dismisses D’Aquili and his “AUB” (Absolute Unitary Being) concept with its neural correlates in a single sentence.

The book is desperately in need of a fact checker, an editor, or, preferably, a ghost writer. Dennett is unable to maintain one train of thought for one section, much less an entire chapter. The book is cluttered with distracting soliloquies and asides. He doesn’t understand the concept of a scientific theory, imagining that it becomes a “fact” after it’s “proven”. He calls Jared Diamond a “pioneer who did scientific work on religion.” He refers to “Shinto temples of surreal intricacy and precision” (Shinto has shrines, not temples, and they’re austere in the extreme). He conflates the evolutionary and cultural aspects of the development of religion by treating genes and memes, of which he is much enamored (to the point of including in the book a disconnected appendix in their defense), as equivalent selective mechanisms.

Dennett thinks that a historical account developed is equivalent to understanding what it means—an odd stance for America’s putative leading philosopher.

Dennett waves off criticsm with gratuitous displays of feigned modesty, weak calls for “further inquiry”, and, in the ultimate irony, pre-emptive attacks on those who might disagree—proclaiming some of them infidels unworthy of even casting their eyes on his holy writ.

It’s really too bad. Someone with Dennett’s intellect and clout could have written a book on this timely topic that would really have changed the terms of the discussion . Myopic, slovenly, repetitive, disorganized, and biased, this book disastrously fails to fulfill that promise .

Religion and societal collapse

Saturday, January 14th, 2006

Jared Diamond (picture, Wikipedia entry) has written Collapse, a book about how societies fail, following on the heels of his previous Guns, Germs and Steel, which addressed the other side of the same question—why some societies succeeded. (That book, by the way, has a great section on the Incan empire and its defeat by the conquistadors.)

My interest is in how religion relates to a society’s success or failure. Unfortunately in “Collapse” Diamond deals with this question only tangentially. The examples he gives, however, do not speak well for religion. For instance, he attributes much of the blame for the collapse of the Norse society which existed in Greenland during the first half of the last millennium to the overinvestment in Christian infrastructure: the building of large churches, the undertaking of dangerous expeditions to acquire walrus tusk to trade for religious ornamentation. Similarly, the death of the civilization on Easter Island can also be attributed to religious factors, at least to the extent the motivation for building the huge stone statues was religious in nature. Building the statues consumed huge amounts of manpower and natural resources. In contrast, the societies he presents as relatively successful—including Tokugawa-era Japan, which he praises for its forestry policies—had weak religious infrastructures.

At the same time, it’s worthy of note that none of the societies Diamond identifies as political and environmental disasters are Buddhist.

Overall, “Collapse” is a worthy successor to “Guns, Germs and Steel”, although it tends to bog down in places. The focus is overwhelmingly on ecological/environmental issues, which account for three of the five causes Diamond identifies for societies collapsing:

  1. environmental damage
  2. climate change
  3. hostile neighbors
  4. friendly trade partners
  5. society’s response to environmental problems

Fine, but in his conclusions—basically, that the world faces an environmental crisis that threatens its collapse, albeit one that he bravely claims we can deal with—he entirely ignores his third factor, hostile neighbors, which would seem to be of prime importance given the current wave of global terrorism. He mentions terrorism of course, but only in the context that environmental depradations and the ensuing poverty can give rise to it. But the Saudis who flew airplanes into buildings suffered from neither.

Concerning his fifth point, society’s response to environmental problems, Diamond does mention political and organizational factors in the form of e.g. NGOs working to conserve natural resources, but, oddly, fails to address how a country’s political system affects its response (other than mentioning how poorly the USSR did environmentally). He does praise the conservation policies of noted autocrat Balaguer in the Dominican Republic, but fails to ask the obvious question: to what extent is democracy the best political system for dealing with environmental issues? Presented with a potential choice between some political prisoners rotting in jails and environmental devastation destroying a society, which would you choose? And of course Diamond talks at length about the impact of overpopulation on the environment, but fails to address how either it, or technology which allows information to be transmitted instantaneously and virtual groups to be formed overnight, affect the political and decision-making dynamic.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the impact of race. “Guns, Germs and Steel” went to great lengths, to the extent it can almost be read as an anti-racism manifesto. to make the point that Europe did not succeed because the Caucasians there were smarter than, say, native Americans, but rather because of factors such as flora, fauna, and geography. In “Collapse”, we are similarly told that Haiti is a failed country not due to any lack of giftedness on the part of its citizens but rather as a result of colonial history, climate, and the like.

But as the world becomes flat, in Thomas Friedman’s term, and globalization continues its inexorable progress, with people, information, products, resources, and money flowing like water across borders, making historical and geographical factors less important than ever before, what are the remaining factors that will dictate a country’s success ?

Book review: Synaptic Self

Wednesday, June 8th, 2005

All students of the brain will want to read Joseph LeDoux’ Synaptic Self, a highly competent, very readable tour of the state of current knowledge about neurological functioning.

The book gets dense occasionally, and in the interest of presenting all relevant scientific findings the book can read like an annotated bibliography in places, but overall the coverage is good, the perspective objective.

To take just one example, I was particularly intrigued by the precise explanation of how Hebbian plasticity functions at the level of AMPA receptors and NMDA receptors (sometimes called “Hebbosomes”), and enzymes called protein kinases.

Given LeDoux’ work on emotion, it’s not surprising that his thinking in this area is especially lucid. The distinction between “feeling” and “emotion”, which he uses to refer to “the process by which the brain determines or computes the value of a stimulus”, seems highly useful.

Initially I was put off by the name of this book, and I have to say that the author’s ambitious attempt to show how the synapses add up to the “self” does fall flat, as we can see from the weak conclusion:

You are your synapses. They are who you are.

But the book remains one of the best introductions to the brain for the knowledgeable amateur that I’ve seen, although it hardly mentions religion, other than in the context of some early musings about religion’s view of the self. and thus will not provide much grist for the neurotheological mill.

(Numenware was down for almost two days due to a server crash. My apologies for the inconvenience.)

Walking on Water

Monday, May 23rd, 2005

Walking on Water is a cute little refreshing book that “walks” you through the process of opening up and challenging yourself, based on the story of Simon/Paul, the disciple Jesus invited out for a stroll on the Sea of Galilee.

The book is not overly Christian in focus, notwithstanding the central metaphor. Claire Summerhill, the author, has a lucid, highly readable writing style, but more importantly has an important, if simple, message for us. Oh, she’s also my sister. Congratulations on your new book, Claire.

Self-efficacy: believing in yourself

Saturday, February 26th, 2005

“Believe in yourself.” “You can do anything you put your mind to.” “Your possibilities are unlimited.”

Sounds like a load of pop-psychology crap.

Stanford psychology professor Albert Bandura has given this concept a scientific basis (as well as a new name, self-efficacy). According to the review of his book Self Efficacy: The Exercise of Control:

This book is based on Bandura’s theory that those with high self-efficacy expectancies – the belief that one can achieve what one sets out to do – are healthier, more effective, and generally more successful….[there are] provocative applications of this work to issues in education, health, psychopathology, athletics, business, and international affairs.

An reader points out the life-cycle aspects of the theory:

Self-regulation and perceived self-efficacy help people to adjust to realities of each life’s stage, from early childhood till aging and preparation to death.

In general I’m leery of starting lots of new books, no matter how interesting they sound, especially since I already know so much. But this one sounds like it could be well worth the time.

Leaving the Saints

Thursday, February 24th, 2005

Martha Beck has written a book Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith, about her father, the celebrated Mormon scholar Hugh Nibley, abusing her as a child.

It’s like a bad TV show: she accuses her father of raping her ritualistically while making incantations about Abraham and Isaac.

In general, I believe we have to treat recalled-memory situations with the utmost care. But without passing judgment, in this case one must admit a ring-of-truth aspect.

Web site

Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution

Saturday, February 12th, 2005

Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution is Ray Jackendoff’s new book which tries to build a bridge between traditional linguistics, neuroscience, and evolution.

But after slogging through more than 400 pages, I was dismayed to find in his Concluding Remarks that all he himself claims have accomplished in the book was to “sharpen some questions.” I read the book to get answers to the questions—about, for example, how syntactic categories are instantiated in the nervous system—not to get them “sharpened.”

One particular annoying thing about the book is Jackendoff’s use of the prefix “f-”, as in f-knowledge or f-mind, to refer to some magic stratum between body and the regular non-f-mind. He integrates the body and mind, in other words, by inventing an imaginary layer where they are integrated.

There are gems of insight in this book. The overall insistence that language is not purely syntax-driven is extremely welcome; Jackendoff calls this the “parallel architecture”, where the parallel components in question are phonology, syntax, and semantics. This makes a great deal of sense. There are also some tantalizing hints of coming closer to how evolution could have built up our language facility—but unfortunately, they remain mere hints.

Other problems with this book include that it spends too much time on the academic politics of linguistics. Sorry, if you have real insights you don’t need to spend all your time talking about fights you and other people had. He fails the self-citation criterion, referring to his own works (including future ones) hundreds of times. His prose desperately needed an editor. And he can’t escape the linguists’ disease of trotting out example after example, without ever really figuring out what they mean.

The question of how evolution could have resulted in brain structures that support our linguistic ability is an absolutely critical one. It’s just too bad that this book doesn’t answer it.

Book Review: How to Know God, by Deepak Chopra

Sunday, January 30th, 2005

Dr. Deepak Chopra’s (picture) (Wikipedia) 26th book is How to Know God. With no knowledge of Chopra (I thought he was a diet guru), I approached this book with anticipation, it having been highly recommended. And it comes with six full pages of recommendations at the beginning—from luminaries including the Dalai Lama (“a wonderful book”) and Ken Wilber.

My conclusion: Chopra is one crafty guy, with a careful strategy for raising mankind’s spiritual level, albeit one not everyone would agree with. At first glance, much of what is in his book appears to be simply off the deep end. For instance, he presents, as definitive proof that all humankind is connected by a shared mind, the fact that sometimes you meet someone with the same birthday as yours. A man in Canada won the lottery two years in a row. The author once found himself sitting next to a tea wholesaler on a plane right after he had had another discussion about tea. Sometimes you feel like someone is watching you behind your back and it turns out they actually are! A woman came home and found that her boyfriend had cleaned out the closet, just like she had imagined! Twins often think alike!

Nor are these mere coincidences, he says: such phenomena take us beyond our present knowledge of the brain into the regions of the “mind field” that area closest to God. The brain is a receiver of mind, like a radio and quantum reality—the zone of miracles—is a place very nearby. At work here is an invisible organizing principle, a field of awareness, the quantum level, a universal shared mind, a cosmic intelligence.

As if this were not enough to put me off, in one of the very same kinds of synchronous occurrences that Chopra discusses in this book, after my friend had sent it to me but before it arrived I happened to run into Chopra’s ruminations about Intelligent Design (actually I was alerted to this post by Carl Zimmer’s excellent Loom site), where he (Chopra, not Zimmer) makes a series of outlandish claims about evolution which even I could immediate detect were hogwash. Examples: Why doesn’t the fossil record show any adaptive failures? (Answer: they were failures, so they died.) How could the same organism take multiple evolutionary paths? And my favorite: If design doesn’t imply intelligence, why are we so intelligent? Also: Why do forms (such as spirals) replicate themselves without apparent need? Or how about this: What invisible change causes oxygen to acquire intelligence the instant it contacts life? In what way is a bee stinging a survival mechanism, given that the bee doesn’t survive at all?

It would seem that young Deepak skipped tenth grade biology class.

He then followed up this post, unbowed by howls of protest in the comments to his blog entry, with one even more ludicrous. Beginning by attacking his detractors as “emotional”, and literally comparing himself to Einstein and other geniuses unrecognized in their own time, he then proceeds to demonstrate that he played hooky from high school physics as well as biology. A flavor: Until physics can explain apparent design and why entropy developed evolution as its enemy when there was no need to, biology is helpless to explain life, since there is no such thing as Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ among atoms. He then posits that consciousness may exist in photons, which seem to be the carrier of all information in the universe, and that using these as working principles we might make tremendous progress in explaining the missing gaps in evolutionary theory. Not all the gaps, one notes, just the missing ones.

To people acquainted with the issues, nothing could be more muddled.

So where, then, is Chopra going with all this? I think he has set himself an audacious goal—to raise the spiritual level of mankind—and paired it with a well-thought out strategy for getting there. With the overwhelming majority of humans on our earth stuck in lives of quiet desperation and mired in simplistic, sterile concepts of the spiritual, Chopra realizes that he must take one step at a time, bringing his target audience along with him gently and gradually. An excellent way to do that is to appeal to people’s beloved “folk religion”, which involves weird things and mysterious realms. He is like a 19th century missionary in Africa who raises the appeal of his teachings by syncretistically and opportunistically incorporating native beliefs in ghosts into Christianity. His statements in favor of Intelligent Design can be seen as another element of this strategy—to establish his credentials among the “heathen” and gain their trust.

Reading Wilber’s recommendation of the book more carefully, we can see that Ken realizes this as well: “Deepak Chopra has introduced literally millions of people to the spiritual path, and for this we should all be profoundly grateful. In How to Know God, Deepak continues his pioneering outreach.”

Chopra begins to coax his readers out of their fundamentalist rut by presenting an unthreatening hierarchy of levels of development, seven in his model, ranging from the visceral, to the reactive, the restful, the intuitive, the creative, the visionary, and the sacred. He walks through these stages in a friendly way, throwing in cute (if sometimes irrelevant) stories along the way, together with vaguely uplifiting assertions along the lines of God exists in a quantum zone on the other side of a transition zone which lies between our material world and Him, the zone where energy turns into matter. Before you know it, he has the Bible-thumping red-staters thinking that total immersion in the One sounds real cool, since after all, Deepak says, that’s what Jesus our Lord and Savior taught anyway. And also buying his herbal teas.

Chopra carefully avoids any discussions of specific practices or efforts which might be necessary to move ourselves along the path he outlines—that’s not what his audience wants to hear right now. And he lays important groundwork for a more biological appoach to spirituality—something we should welcome as students of neurotheology—with constant references to the the brain as a biological mechanism: Your brain is hard-wired to find God. Every image of God was designed in tissue that appears to be a mass of congested nerves. God’s most cherished secrets are hidden within the human skull . Only the brain can deliver this vast range of deities .

All in all, then, this is not a book that would be of any interest to the advanced seeker, other than in the sense of appreciating Chopra’s crafty strategy for advancing the spiritual welfare of the masses. He presents spirituality as something akin to getting a good backrub, or having a nice glass of wine. Anyone can enjoy that. reviews "Bobby and the A-Bomb Factory"

Saturday, January 29th, 2005 was kind enough to publish a review of Bobby. This is a site focused on the history of the development of the A-bomb. Here’s the review:

For those looking for a scholarly analysis of family life of those who worked at one of the nuclear weapon facilities, this book is not that. Instead, we are given a light and enjoyable tale of a little boy whose father is a Ph. D. physicist at Hanford nuclear facility. Bob Myers presents Bobby and the A-Bomb Factory: Growing up on the Banks of the Columbia. This book is a personal account of how Myers’ father attempted to balance his duties as father, husband, scientist and church member. The book also interconnects his accounts with the surrounding Indian culture and the simple point of view of a child. Overall the book was a light and enjoyable read.