Posts Tagged ‘Revues from the Rev’


Sunday, November 20th, 2011

Originally broadcast in 2010 on PBS, this series is now available on-line.  Hosted by Alan Alda, it documents a quest for a clear understanding of just what it is that makes us humans uniquely, well, human.

This is an entertaining and deeply interesting series in three parts.  What I found very interesting was the two schools of thought that were given equal representation: the one being that we are very similar to our primate cousins, and the other that we are profoundly different from them.  Of course, both are true in a sense, but it is really intriguing to see just what a difference the two philosophical starting points can make when interpreting data.

Alda is a good host, as he is clearly and genuinely curious about the subject himself.  I found it very worth watching, and I would watch it again given the chance.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

REVUES FROM THE REV: “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution” by Richard Dawkins

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

dawkinsFrom the Preface:  “The evidence for  evolution grows by the day, and has never been stronger.  At the same time, paradoxically, ill-informed opposition is also stronger than I can remember.  This book is my personal summary of the evidence that the “theory” of evolution is actually a fact — as incontrovertible a fact as any in science.”

Reading Dawkins is fun.  For one thing he is actually a very adept popularizer of science.  For another, he makes no attempt to conceal his own enthusiasm about his subject when he is fast upon it, and neither is he able to disguise his bewilderment at the persistence of what he calls the “history deniers”.  It is in the latter mode that he imagines a teacher of Latin confronted by a vociferous protest from a student who insists that the Romans never existed, and that all the evidence for this culture is a fabrication.  This, Dawkins explains, is the challenge current teachers of science face from religious students (Christian and Islamic) who insist that the Biblical account of Creation be treated as a valid competing “scientific theory”.

But what, exactly, is a theory?  The definition that applies here is that quoted by Dawkins from the Oxford English Dictionary (emphasis mine):  “A scheme or system of ideas or statements held as an explanation or account of a group of facts or phenomena; a hypothesis that has been confirmed or established by observation or experiment, and is propounded or accepted as accounting for the known facts; a statement of what are held to be the general laws, principles, or causes of something known or observed.”

In short, it is only ignorance and “history denial” that allow anyone to consider “young earth creationism” to be anything approaching a scientific theory.

I’ve personally come to rather cherish the ubiquitous barbs that Dawkin’s critics inevitably throw at him, which boil down to either “Why is he so angry” or a description of his tone as “arrogant”.  From the standpoint of the imagined Latin professor enduring repeated interruptions of “But there’s no real proof the Romans ever existed!”, isn’t a bit of frustration — even exasperation — not understandable?

This book is as Dawkins describes it in his introduction:  it is his own deeply personal (and deeply factual) defense of the scientific theory of evolution.

This book is rich with detail and truly enlightening descriptions of all of the major underpinnings of evolution.  And it is a brand new book and, hence, about as current as a book can be in a realm of constant discovery (I’m now reading a book from about 7 years ago on a very similar subject in which I occasionally run into a passage that has already been rendered out-of-date by subsequent discoveries).

Dawkins does sometimes feel like he’s rhetorically reaching for a certainty more than scientific,  but I can forgive that.  For Dawkins is foremost a scientist and then a storyteller, and the storyteller in him will always follow the scientist.

I’ll close with a couple of extended quotes where Dawkins addresses the twin notions of the “futility” of life, and the claim that Darwin’s theory somehow diminishes the value of human life:

“Futility?  What nonsense.  Sentimental, human nonsense.  Natural selection is all futile.  It is all about the survival of self-replicating instructions for self-replication.  If a variant of DNA survives through an anaconda swallowing me whole, or a variant of RNA survives by making me sneeze, then that is all we need by way of explanation.  Viruses and tigers are both built by coded instructions whose ultimate message is, like a computer virus, ‘Duplicate me.’  In the case of a cold virus, the instruction is executed rather directly.  A tiger’s DNA is also a ‘duplicate me’ program, but it contains as almost fantastically large digression as an essential part of the efficient execution of its fundamental message.  That digression is a tiger, complete with fangs, claws, running muscles, stalking and pouncing instincts.  The tiger’s DNA says, ‘Duplicate me by the round-about route of building a tiger first’.  At the same time, antelope DNA says, ‘Duplicate me by the round-about route of building an antelope first, complete with long legs and fast muscles, complete with timorous instincts and finely honed sense organs tuned to the danger from tigers.'”

“On his (Darwin’s) world-view, everything about the human mind, all our emotions and spiritual pretensions, all arts and mathematics, philosophy and music, all feats of intellect and of spirit, are themselves productions of the same process that delivered the higher animals.  It is not just that without evolved brains spirituality and music would be impossible.  More pointedly, brains were naturally selected to increase in capacity and power for utilitarian reasons, until those higher faculties of intellect and spirit emerged as a by-product, and blossomed in the cultural environment provided by group living and language.  The Darwinian world-view does not denigrate the higher human faculties, does not ‘reduce’ them to a plane of indignity.  It doesn’t even claim to explain them at the sort of level that will seem particularly satisfying, in the way that, say, the Darwinian explanation of a snake-mimicking caterpillar is satisfying.  It does, however, claim to have wiped out the impenetrable — not even worth trying to penetrate — mystery that must have dogged all pre-Darwinian efforts to understand life.”

t.n.s.r. bob

REVUES FROM THE REV: “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason” by Sam Harris

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

This is among what I call the four essential books in the current discussion of reason in a world seemingly nuts for fundamentalist religious faith.  I’d read Harris “Letter to a Christian Nation” and found it heartfelt, masterfully written and worthy of a read by every American.  Having read Hitchens, Dawkins and Dennett I thought I knew what to expect from Harris, but I was immediately surprised.  What begins as a clear and reasoned (and convincing) case that the complete abolition of religious faith would do us humans a world of good, then becomes a treatise on human ethics.  I wasn’t expecting that, but kept on reading, as I have a keen interest in human morality and ethics and how and why we came upon them.  For as Harris briefly states: the one thing that evolutionary psychology has done is show that our ethics are completely our own (meaning NOT from God).  Harris then takes another turn about a third of the way from the end, and launches into a discussion of meditation and the possibility that what we call the human sense of “self” (or “soul”) might transcend our physical death.  I found this odd, and not just for his sales pitch for meditation that is best learned (it seems) from experienced teachers.  I also found it strange that after 2/3rds of a book that boldly reveals the very real and present danger to our species that irrational faith presents Harris is hanging on to the idea that our consciousness can survive the death of the body and brain.  Of course, we don’t know what happens after we die, but I have a difficult time imagining where my soul would possibly go.

That being said, the first (and major) part of the book lives up perfectly to its title.  It is a daunting challenge when one is presented by the sheer scope and force of human “faith”, and the un-imaginable human resources that are tied up in its continuance.  What many of these authors are getting at (and what Harris comes right out and says) is that the so-called “moderates” of any belief system are, in essence, not truly representative of the religions they espouse.  It is the Fundamentalist who is determined to not pick and choose between the uplifting and horrific verses in their chosen holy text.  He also states the (often ignored) obvious:  it is the most fundamental truth about the three major religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) that they fundamentally cannot co-exist or make accommodations for each other.  They all three make exclusive and comprehensives claims to being THE truth.  This made my heart sink, because it is absolutely true.  The only reason us Americans do not live in a Christian Theocracy (under an “American Taliban”) is because our fundamentalist fellow citizens are diluted by a marginally secular culture.  And I say “marginally” advisedly, for Harris also points out the degree to which even American institutions and laws are still guided by Biblical tenants.  It’s disheartening to read this and find no fact to blunt its impact.  It’s then simply frightening to realize that — as backwards as we Americans are in terms of Faith — there is an entire region of the world stuck in the 14th century (in terms of Faith) that is in possession of 21st century technology and weapons.  There is really going to be no living with them, as the true followers of Islam cannot rest until every living human either believes as they do, or is forced to live under their religious laws.

It’s been a long time since someone was hanged for heresy in the west, but in Islam, it is still a simple law that to leave the faith is to suffer physical death.  How do we combat that level of irrational belief?

Harris touches on an interesting idea that I’ve not read before, and it refers to the kinds of spiritual practices that developed in “the East”.  In the midst of his pitch for the superiority of Eastern practices such as meditation, he makes the valid point that even meditation techniques are evidence-based (one “observes” one’s own feeling/thinking state), and supply a set of tools that can be employed by anyone and require no belief in an over-arching deity.  But the more interesting point is that these philosophies and practices were able to develop in a part of the world that was not dominated by the three major monotheistic religions!  I’d never thought of that — the East was not held back in their exploration by the rigid troika of Islam, Judaism and Christianity.  Lucky them!

So there you have it.  I’ve told you my criticisms, but the first big chunk of this book is an important read.  Plus, I’ve never read a book that had so many precisely distilled and quotable statements about us humans and our religions (his succinct summation of ethics as being what comes into play when we hold the power to do another good or harm, for example).  It’s a bold and necessary book for us and our survival.  The only remaining problem we are left with is: what can we do with the knowledge this book gives us?

the not-so-reverend bob