Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Steven Pinker's "Enlightenment Now": Book Review

Think of Aristotle's "flourishing" as our human fulfillment. That aligns well with Steven Pinker's argument addressing "people who care about arguments." Impatient with both the claims of traditional religious systems and of New Age "magical thinking," he elaborates on the critique made last year by Kurt Anderson in "Fantasyland" about the decline in rational thinking across the political spectrum in America. Defending "mainstream intellectual culture," this Harvard professor of psychology expands on his "The Better Angels of Our Nature" to prove--by about 85 charts over hundreds of pages--that progress and the goals of the Enlightenment matter most for our recognition of human progress and critical thinking.

He begins by noting the Axial Age as spun into motion by the "energy capture" of more calories from agriculture to 20,000 a day in various forms. This growth in sophisticated thinking and social organization was enhanced by language, "the original memory app." Countering entropy, information and evolution allow people to overcome a naturally "illiterate and innumerate" existence, while battling the specters of "blind justice" and sky-gods.

Part 2 looks at progress. He translates data into drama, as when after a chart of declining infant mortality 1751-2013 he eloquently reminds us of the tragedy and hope behind such dry measurements, within so many families past and present. He turns to the nuclear threat and finds it exaggerated; the Doomsday Clock's a "propaganda stunt." Pinker assures us that most terrorists are "bumbling schlemieles." and that "nuclear scare tactics" blind us to the success post-1945 of treaties and commonsense. As for the 45th President, Pinker eschews over-estimating any apocalyptic outbreak and he puts such a leader in place as spawned by a current blip in "authoritarian populism." He emphasizes the advances overall in our stability and success due to "systematic forces" over centuries, and cautions us against "dystopian rhetoric" about passing politicians amidst media hype. He notes that the "alt-right" comprises 50,000 in the U.S., 0.02 of the population.

The warning about media frenzy continues through the lengthy part 3, where reason, science, and humanism through a variety of fields and short chapters scan considerable ground across not only the sciences but some of the humanities. Pinker may have, for all his erudition, stretched himself here beyond his expertise but this is a popular book, meant to "defy any simple narrative" and to encourage reflective analyses. He's encouraged by curricula promoting critical skills to thwart an endemic polarization in beliefs expressing "identity-protective cognition." That is, when humans can't let go of opinions long held for the outmoded likes of tribal glory and one's personally elevated status within the in-crowd. This leftover default reaction we all inherit has weakened our ability to engage in rational public discourse. He suggests that the media depoliticize issues, distinguish facts from claims, and detach news coverage from an imitation of extreme sports coverage by pundits when it comes to observing and promoting the political scene through journalism. Quixotic as this may be, it's encouraging to hear this sensible proposal.

He draws on work by his partner, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, to bolster his refutation of theist proofs. He avers our ancestors were not always trustworthy, and that "dunce-cap history" dumbs down the plain fact that religion is not a source of morality, and that scientists and philosophers might be, after all the myth and the mystical, right about the fundamental questions of existence. He shrugs away any notion that this universe is fine-tuned by a Creator, and reckons we're lucky to have won the equivalent of the cosmic jackpot, in our good fortune to live as and where we do.

I did find, for all my amateur status as a lay reader, some places where the assertions flew by without necessary verification. For instance, early on Pinker asserts that IQ scores prove that we're smarter than our ancestors by "two standard deviation points." But in a paragraph where other information has documentation in end-notes, this particular point does not. I wanted to know who determined this finding, and over how long had it been determined. If we're "smarter by 30 points than our ancestors," has this been due to schooling and literacy, or to other factors? This kind of reasoning exhibits the foundations upon which Pinker's broad thesis rests, so one expects that each iota of detail supports his general assessment.

"Enlightenment Now" displays a bit of welcome wit and a sharp intellect at work. As Pinker reiterates, romantic reactions and reactionary ideologies will not assist our survival. Our health increases, our longevity lengthens, our liberty broadens, and our happiness rises. Pinker's no Pangloss or Pollyanna, but he hammers home the evidence amassed and displayed that any problems with our predicament remain inevitable on the upward trajectory, if "defying any simple narrative." 450 closely printed pages of text elucidating this and 75 pages of documentation display how no catch phrases or naive platitudes can capture the considerable and ever-increasing complexity of how humans continue to move forward.

(This was distributed to me in an advance reading copy by the publisher, and that does not effect my review in any way. Thanks for reading it.) Posted with slight changes to Amazon US 2/13/18.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Thomas Laqueur's "The Work of the Dead": Book Review

  • Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, October 2015. 736 pages. $39.95. Hardcover. ISBN 9780691157788.
 For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

This tome counters the wish of Diogenes the Cynic, who wanted his corpse to be tossed over a wall to be devoured by beasts. Berkeley historian Thomas W. Laqueur, whose earlier books compiled cultural surveys of the body and gender from the Greeks to Freud, and of masturbation, turns to another intimate subject: “What death leaves behind through the dead body” (xiv) takes the reader chronologically through four in-depth phases of “why the dead body matters” (1).

Laqueur applies the longue durée approach of the French Annales school to prehistoric and ancient times. Respect for the corpse, acknowledgement of its occupation at the borders of nature and culture, placement of the death of one within the social order, and how the dead “help make” our modern world comprise part 1. However, the bulk of Laqueur’s evidence derives from 1680-2000, within the purview of his expertise in English, Western European, and North American settings. This imbalance qualifies the breadth of his subtitle, but it enables a very detailed account of the post-Enlightenment gradual transition from churchyard and ecclesiastical supervision to cemetery and secular commemoration. Laqueur plumbs archives.

Documenting this shift from a space where the dead count within a weakened clerical presence, in slow pivot to a twentieth-century emphasis upon names and who the dead were, structures parts 2 and 3. Laqueur ends with what the dead consist of, when the radical revival of cremation represents a rejection of the bodily resurrection of the hallowed cadaver.

This arc spans vast accumulations of material, physical and spiritual, intellectual and religious. The enchantment and re-enchantment of the living towards the dead offers “the greatest possible history of the imagination” (17). Having despaired of extracting the testimonies of those dying, Laqueur asks instead what the living “did with and through real dead bodies,” by analyzing “what their acts meant and mean to them” (18). Relics, idolatry, aura, fakery, and necromancy display early human attempts to deal with this mortal predicament. Revenants, souls, and spirits share varieties of “persistence of being” as a “shared community” within a “complex of meanings” in his second chapter. Here, the power the dead exert over our own minds encompasses erudite reactions from Epicurus and Calvinists through Milan Kundera and Slavoj Žižek.

This collective effort of caring for what is left of the departed dwells within a “gap between what they are and what we take them to be” (81). Religion, art, politics, and poetry, in this scholar’s estimation, would not exist otherwise. This grand statement may give pause, as it may elude verification. It attests to Laqueur’s ambitious attempt to add the particular to the cosmic.

In such sweeping claims, this book leaves its most powerful impact. The granular accumulation of proof will assist academics, for it gathers arcane studies and diligent interpretations into a valuable volume. Yet as hundreds of pages demonstrate, these particulars pile up as densely as did effluvia and bones in dank churchyards that archeologists have unearthed and gravediggers had lamented. The “regime of the dead” presses down indelibly. Laqueur calculates the ratio (miniscule) between the remnants left by bones and fluids in comparison to the amount (considerable) excreted by the living within an industrialized city. Victorian reformers demanded hygiene. Their false claims of the danger of the rank corpse accelerated the trend away from crammed churchyards to planned meadows. There, increasing ranks of the dead did not wait for Judgment Day in elegiac and venerable plots where families had long relegated their village departed. In cemeteries, picnickers and strollers could enjoy their visits, where the “new regime” created “a novel and luxuriantly protean space” (212). 

Romantic-era notions of pastoral slumber presaged communal creation of the funeral industry and the bureaucratic register. Dramatizing memory, venerating preservation, admitting finitude, and defying salvation, modern habits of paying respect to the departed superseded ecclesiastical rites.

Burial plots and fancy funerals appealed as the poor imitated their betters. Exhumations exemplified the rationales for artistic, legal, criminal, medical, and clerical examinations. Again, Laqueur totes up intricate processes, which counted on the assurance that all the dead, in peace or especially in war, were accounted for, regulated, and tallied up neatly.

Naming the disembodied embeds them as a “reinscription of loss, one of its poor avatars, a substitute, a placeholder, a trace of a trace” (366). Laqueur may move his readers in such pauses from his scrutiny. He displays the “unprecedented scale” of technical, political, and emotional means by which recent mourners, brokers, claimants, and heirs collude to ensure post-mortem precision. Less than a third of twenty-six billion people born between 1500 and 2010 are known to us. Mormon genealogists labor to baptize all dead. Obituaries proclaimed public notice as newspapers expanded literacy and popularized devotions. These ceremonial practices generate a “commemorative culture” from the Civil War on, one which left thousands of memorials, modest or monumental, to the “absent but present dead,” among which were many vanished or irretrievable casualties of the Great War.

The author rarely admits the personal, but an aside merits mention. His father’s 1929 alma mater, a Hamburg gymnasium, lists those who died “fighting for Germany” together with those “as victims of the Holocaust” (423). Technological and emotional imperatives combine in massive records of both world wars, which made “knowing both possible and necessary” (466).

Cremation demoted death “to its physiological basis,” says Laqueur (509). Protestants interpreted the restoration of the body at the Last Judgment as metaphorical. The need to rest a body in sacred ground dwindled. Body, memory, and locale nevertheless persist today as obligations. Continuity in The Work of the Dead, Laqueur concludes, endures even as medical progress prevents acceptance of mortality among desperate families who seek, inevitably, miracles.

Date of Review: 
December 29, 2017

About the Author
Thomas W. Laqueur is the Helen Fawcett Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. His books include Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud and Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation. He is a regular contributor to the London Review of Books.

Reading Religion (1/4/18)

Saturday, February 3, 2018

John Lennox's "God's Undertaker": Book Review

Front Cover
I read this right after David Bentley Hart's The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. That formidable study in an endnote directed me to the somewhat (until the math and biology kicked in halfway) more accessible God's Undertaker investigating if religious inquiries trump materialist dogma as to if an intelligence (steady there--as agency or impetus rather than design per se?) might be discerned. John Lennox, as a professor of mathematics and fellow in the philosophy of science at Oxford, handles data confidently, adroitly, and commendably with modesty tempered from both and all sides. I did enjoy his witty analogies summing up the various ways science itself calculates the immense odds against our being here at all. And it's not merely the Anthropic Principle all over again.

He nods often to a bete noire of the New Agnostics, Michael Behe. I admit this straightaway, as this will already cause many to write off Lennox. He credits Behe's 'edge of evolution' imagery supporting an originator outside time and space generating evolution as "less random that is often supposed." He denies, however, this is the God of the Gaps yet again. You can read far more context than I can sum up at exactly the halfway point of the book (I refer to my Kindle page 320/638).

A bit later on (61% 391/638), Lennox repeats a helpful analogy that "the message is not derivable" on a printed page "from the physics and chemistry of paper and ink." These are deep waters, but he's discussing that the DNA code sequence's "order is not due to the forces of potential energy. It must be as physically indeterminate as the sequence of words is on a printed page." The vexing predicament of how to solve "biogenesis" by "a simple-minded appear to Darwinian-like processes" comes down to how the mutating replicator modelled by Dawkins could "even get going in the absence of life" and set in motion natural selection. At 56% 358/638, Lennox quotes Stephen Meyer: 'What needs to be explained is not the origin of order... but the origin of information." This sets up his main focus.

It got a bit easier, and more memorable for me, after his curated array of those witty analogies. The typing monkey argument dating back to Huxley vs. Wilberforce in 1860 Oxford asked whether random apes would eventually peck out one of Shakespeare's poems--or even an entire tome. Lennox avers this is unlikely the provenance as not until 1874 did typewriters hit the market--typical of the author's attentive eye! Regardless, a simulator since 2003's generating a monkey every second hitting a key, with 100 original chimps doubling every few days adds up (in the book's 2009 revision) to the then-current record of "24 consecutive letters from Shakespeare's Henry IV produced in 10^40 monkey years (the age of the universe is estimated at less than 10^11 years)." (68% 438/638)

Other memorable comparisons: the odds of us being here as is=a coin being hit by a shot from across the 20 billion light years "halo"; if coins stacked up across the American continent (or is the nation?) as high as the moon, and this was repeated on a billion more continents, what if a red-marked coin was placed by you at random? And if your friend found it first go when you challenged her, that'd be the odds of what some (if not in this book, curiously) call our own "Goldilocks" just-right universe.

Three-quarters of the way (484/638), Lennox wonders why scientists are able to accept, say, alien presence if SETI received a sequence of signalled prime numbers, yet they deny intelligent agency when it comes to similar deductions gathered in this book from a wide variety of academic experts. "We instinctively infer 'upwards' to an ultimately intelligent causation rather than 'downwards' to chance and necessity." He mentions that in the film Expelled, even Richard Dawkins appears to "have moved his ground towards admitting that design is something that, in principle, could be recognized by science." I looked this up and apparently he and fellow atheists claimed they were duped into appearing in this 2007 documentary. I'd add that Lennox relying on the supposed conversion of Anthony Flew very late in his long life has similarly been criticized for believers taking advantage.

[I am between a 4 and 5 star {on Amazon} but given the Flew incident already happened prior to the revision, this influences my rating down; I am unsure if this revision came before or after the post-Expelled disclaimer by Dawkins and other scientists, so Lennox gets the benefit of the doubt there.]

This is a diligently and incredibly complex summation of the debate about whether "science has buried God." John Lennox stays honest, recognizing his and his colleagues' limitations alongside their expansion of what reason and care have discovered, by the wonder of mathematics and physics. He concludes that "far from science having buried God, not only do the results of science point towards his existence, but the scientific enterprise itself is validated by his existence." (87% 560/638)

I approached this with no preconceptions. I've studied the big names from the opposition of late, and I've (as with Hart and Francis Collins) balanced religious adherents who've accounted for themselves in these debates. The analogies for me sparked my imagination most, but those with more ability in the maths and sciences will want to turn to the data Lennox sifts and scrutinizes. He keeps an approachable tone through dense discussion, he quotes liberally and helpfully for the greater public, and he evaluates evidence and methods from all comers. Worth your attention. (Amazon US 1/23/18)

P.S.This first pdf is a simple outline of the book. This second pdf sums up the documentation, quotation, and summarization page by page. This third pdf is the entire 2009 revised edition.
P.P.S. In Steven Pinker's forthcoming Enlightenment Now, he offers an unanswerable riposte to fine-tuning, which has occurred to me often. What if we're the Powerball lottery winner, and that's enough? We should count our luck instead of our blessings, that we beat the odds against us.