Reality Conditions

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Recent Reading

Some notes on books I have read in the past two or three months

-Philip Roth, The Plot Against America. First book I read by him, this an alternative history in which famous aviator and anti-Semite Charles Linbergh was elected president of the United states instead of Roosvelt in 1940. Told from the point of view of an American Jewish child growing up in a climate of increasing fear and persecution, the story is remarkably well-written and the political setting chillingly believable. The largest problem is a deus-ex-machina ending which solves rather too simply all the problems created in the story

-Denis Guedj, The Parrot's Theorem. A popularization history of mathematics thinly disguised as a thriller, in the line of what Jostein Gaarder did for philosophy in Sophie's World, but less successful. The mystery plot is too contrived and implausible too keep the attention of the reader, and the mathematics is very dumbed down (there are almost no equations). If you are a layman wishing to learn some mathematics, stick to nonfiction, like Simon Singh. Fiction can be excellent if it embodies mathematical ideas, as in some Borges stories for example, but it is a poor medium for explaining mathematics in a pedagogical way.

-Laurie M. Brown (ed.), Renormalization: from Lorentz to Landau (and beyond). Collection of essays on the historical progression of ideas on renormalization in quantum field theory, including an excellent essay by Tian Yu Cao on the "new philosophy" of effective field theory. Recommended.

-Kate Fox, Watching the English. An amusing anthropological study on the cultural customs of that strange tribe, the English. With all the rules to understand pub discussions, ironic humour, awkward introductions, obsessive queuing, subtle linguistic class distinctions, and much more. A must read if you live here or are planning a visit.

-Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed. First I read by her, a story in classic SF style about two contrasting alien societies, one anarchistic and one capitalistic, with the protagonist being raised in the former and then moving to the latter. Some insightful social philosophy compensates for a somewhat slow plot. Overall I liked it and I'm likely to try more by her.

-Terry Pratchett, Darwin's Watch. Once more, this is the first book I've read by him. (Seriously!) Our universe, Roundworld, is kept in a one-foot long glass globe in the meta-universe of Discworld, where the wizards of the Unseen University have to find a way to interfere with human history to ensure that a certain Charles Darwin writes the "right" book instead of the one he has written in the present timeline, a vindication of Paley's design argument by the title of The Theology of Species. (In this alternative timeline, the true theory of evolution was not discovered until a hundred years later by one "Rev. Richard Dawkins" -Rev. because only theologians could be biologists after the success of Darwin's book. I loved that detail!) The book mixes comic fantasy with scientific popularization chapters written by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. Pratchett's style of humour reminds me of Douglas Adams', a particular kind of British humour which is engaging at first and becomes tiring after longer exposure. I have not become tired of Pratchett's yet, though, so I am likely to read some more by him. I know there is a huge literature on Discworld: any particular recommendations?

-Karen Armstrong, The Great Transformation. A serious book on history of religion, to compensate for the one that follows on this list. Armstrong traces the development of religious and philosophical views in China, India, Israel and Greece in the so-called Axial Age, ranging from 900 to 200 BC, the time of Buddha, Confucius, Laozi, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Pythagoras, Socrates, and many other key figures that created ways of thinking about the universe, mankind and our ethical duties that are still living with us. Fascinating reading about a period that has interested me since I read Gore Vidal's novelistic account in Creation. The only thing that put me a bit off was Armstrong patronizingly saying that the Greeks only entered halfways in the deep spirit of the Axial Age; to my mind inventing scientific rationalism, tragedy and democracy is a much more impressive achievement than inventing ethical philosophies which, no matter how sublime and insightful, few people ever followed to a full extent. But we are all entitled to our biases, aren't we?

-Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. Yes, I after all that fuss and reading reviews and reviews of reviews and commenting on them, I finally read the book. It was less substantial than it seemed by skimming through it at the bookshop, and more or less what the reviews would have lead me to expect: a sort of Atheism 101 textbook. The level is the same as your average Pharyngula comment thread: some insightful, learned or witty commentary mixed together with a lot of trite arguments, simplifications, and even childish jabs. I love the Flying Spaghetti Monster, for example, but we must admit that to use it in a (anti)theological argument is equivalent to losing all pretensions of academic seriousness. That is not to say that I decry the writing of this book: there are probably a lot of people who have been indoctrinated with dogmatic faiths for whom reading it could have a liberating effect, and the outreach of this kind of book is far larger than that which a scholarly refutation of the latest argument by Plantinga could have. I would much prefer to read the latter, but then, I became an atheist long ago already, and partly by reading, reflecting on and re-elaborating by myself arguments that were at first no better than the ones Dawkins champions. If Dawkins was only intending to write a simplified "atheistic primer for the masses" I would be less annoyed than I am when I see that he thinks his arguments can challenge the views of serious theologians. The main point at which this happens is at his famous "Ultimate 747 Argument"; I will probably dedicate a post soon to analyze it and show, contra Dawkins, that is doesn't prove that "there is almost certainly no God" -but that an argument related to it can be used to argue that there is "probably" no God, though this "probably" is much more qualified and uncertain than Dawkins'.



  • Re Discworld, I read the first few and then indeed they got very repetitive and tiring. But I would recommend reading the first few, especially Mort.

    I agree with you about Dawkins arguments (I've criticised his view of God here), but indeed it's a great book (his facts were amazingly interesting, esp. H G Wells being a Nazi), especially for most fundamentalists to read (while it's heartening for a theist like me to see how weak his arguments are). It's a shame that they won't.

    By Blogger Enigman, at 11:15 AM, June 05, 2007  

  • Hi, thanks for the Discworld recomendations. I've left a comment on your Dawkins post.

    I don't think it's fair to say that Wells was a Nazi. In his late years in the 1930s and 40s he was very outspoken against Nazism. The damming quote that Dawkins cites was from around 1910 if I remember correctly, and those views were very common among many otherwise decent people at that time (which is Dawkins' whole point about the changing Zeitgeist). I doubt Wells would have written the same thing thirty years later.

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 2:33 PM, June 05, 2007  

  • Thanks for your comment on my post (which I disagreed with), and for correcting me about Wells. I'm glad to hear that Wells was not a Nazi, as I like his fiction but know nothing about him (except what Dawkins said, and the above). Still, I'm not sure that such views being common is any excuse. Cf. how it was recently (and may still be, for all I know) common to think of the lives of apes as worth much less than a human life (except when they were valuable property).

    By Blogger Enigman, at 3:02 PM, June 06, 2007  

  • Sorry, bad analogy. My point was that while eating dogs or pigs or cows (or even other people) might be a matter of what others around you are doing (although some would disagree), for an original thinker like Wells to advocate the humane and scientific extermination of the Jews (just a few years before Hitler, a great admirer of the British, conceived his plans) was inexcusable. He could hardly have claimed to be speaking instinctively, as a result of the language-use around him (and I wonder how much of his anti-Nazism was due to the Nazis not being British), but as I say, I know next to nothing about him. Anyway, my obscure analogy with apes was precisely because many people nowadays find them ethically confusing, which seems to be a good reason for not just repeating what others are saying...

    By Blogger Enigman, at 5:20 PM, June 06, 2007  

  • When I wrote the previous comment I didn't have Dawkins' book at hand. Now I've checked the Wells quote again and I agree with you that it is inexcusable. (I remembered it as saying that some races were inferior and that they would eventually be destroyed in the competition with the superior ones, but I didn't remember that it actually advocates a Nazi-like program of systematic killing.)

    I did a bit of web-searching to support my assertion that Wells opposed actual Nazism when it came, and found this essay by George Orwell; it is very interesting. According to it, Wells was an old-fashioned rationalist who equated peace and progress with science, and war and hatred with anti-scientific, emotional nationalism. In opposing Nazism as an instance of the second complex, he did not perceive how dangerously close it was it some respects to his own scientific utopias.

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 8:21 PM, June 06, 2007  

  • Thanks for that link (I've always preferred Orwell to Wells, and my previous comment was too uninformed), and incidentally for your review of Armstrong's book, which I consequently plan to read (the more I see of philosophy the more interesting that period seems to me).

    By Blogger Enigman, at 9:49 AM, June 07, 2007  

  • "Fiction can be excellent if it embodies mathematical ideas, as in some Borges stories for example". I trust you've read his 'Library of Babel'?

    As for Dawkins, the first and only book I've read by him was "The ancestor's tale" - a great book!


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:01 PM, June 07, 2007  

  • Hi changcho, that was the first Borges story I ever read! :) And I have his complete works here with me -some of the few books that I brought with me from Argentina to UK.

    You made an excellent start with Dawkins -"The ancestor's tale" is probably the best I've read by him. "The selfish gene" is very good too, and made me feel for the first time that I really groked evolution, but I think many biologists see its philosophy now as outdated. "The extended phenotype" is a bit more technical -it can be read and understood by non-biologists, but it is a less easy read because in it Dawkins argues with his collegues as much as he tries to educate the lay reader, or more. And I am still to read "The blind watchmaker".

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 11:38 PM, June 07, 2007  

  • I completely agree with your assessment of "The plot against America". "Deus ex-machina" doesn't quite make justice to the ginormous rabbit Roth pulls out of the proverbial hat. Beautifully written, though.

    The God Delusion... I found it informative, as a person who's only recently admitted to herself she's an atheist. But the "747" argument seems quite childish.

    By Blogger MariaE, at 11:39 AM, June 10, 2007  

  • Hi MariaE, thanks for stopping by. I remember that once in high school (3rd year, IIRC) I made a "Dawkinsian" (i.e. confidently scientistic and a bit childish) argument against religion and you countered it, making me think that in the future I should think a bit more before opening my mouth... Funny how things turn out. I will try to write and post my assessment of the 747 argument today, so stay tuned.

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 12:00 PM, June 10, 2007  

  • Armstrong's book's very good, I'm finding, and incidentally it reminds me that Pratchett's "Small Gods" is another good one.

    By Blogger Enigman, at 5:24 PM, June 19, 2007  

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