Do we have free will or are we merely complex stimulus response devices. Can we know? Does it matter?
I believe that I have some control over the outcome of my life. I make choices and those choices have consequences. My choices are strongly influenced by my heredity, the conditions under which my brain developed, and the accumulated experiences of my life. Nonetheless, I believe that I exercise some measure of free will in my conscious decision making.
Sam Harris asserts that this is an illusion. His argument rests on the assumption of a material universe wholly governed by natural laws dictating the interactions of the matter in that universe. That assumption is unaltered by the existence of energy as an alternative form of matter or by the possibility of multiverses. He tells us that we live in a clock-work universe where future states arise from present states. The randomness of quantum mechanics may create some uncertainty about those future states, but it does not provide freedom of choice to the collection of atoms of which we consist. It is an interesting argument, but it is irrelevant.
Free will is not a thing; it is a construct. We generally think of free will as the ability to act without certain constraints. By treating free will as the ability to act without any constraints, Harris easily defines it away.
The problem with using science to make a philosophical argument is that there is much that science cannot yet tell us. Indeed, there may be much that science will never be able to tell us. What makes science useful is that it identifies the “laws” that predict the behavior of matter and energy. Those predictions help us to harness matter an energy to do useful things. We need to remember that those laws are not in and of themselves an objective reality; they are simply models that help us navigate the universe in which we live. In the same sense, free will is a behavioral model that helps us understand the extent to which we can reasonably hold another creature.
The important question is not whether or not we have free will, but rather how free our will really is. Read in that light, Harris makes some very important points. We sometimes forget how much of our lives are determined by factors out of our control. By extension, we forget how much of other people’s lives are determined by factors out of their control. Both nature and nurture conspire to mold us into what we are. Perhaps we could take a little less credit for how well things have turned out for us and assign a little less blame to those who have not managed as well.
Perhaps the inflammatory argument that our cherished free will is an illusion should be read an argument for compassion.
Our heroes are not always heroic. This may not be news, but seems to be the theme of this particular history. Purportedly a tale of three Americans who lived in London during the Battle of Britain and through the war, Citizens of London is really a larger story of how Britain came to find herself overshadowed by the ally she had so ardently courted. Few of the participants are treated kindly. Among the three primary figures, one came from poverty and the others from money.
Averell Harriman was the wealthiest. The son of railroad baron E. H. Harriman, he is characterized as having spent his early years growing his fortune and the war years using it to gain access to powerful people. It is difficult to believe that someone as shallow as the Harriman depicted here could grow into the statesman who later served with such distinction.
Born into a prosperous family, John G. Winant spent his entire life in public service. Harriman spent WW I building ships; Winant served as a fighter pilot. The consummate progressive, Winant left the Republican party to serve Roosevelt in 1935. While serving as Ambassador to England from 1941 to 1946, he eschewed the perquisites of his position and shared the hardships of the English people during the Battle of Britain. The author bestows no unkind word on Mr. Winant.
Edward R. Murrow fares almost as well, though his journalistic objectivity is often impugned and his affair with Pamela Churchill receives inordinate attention.
Churchill and Roosevelt are characterized as egotists more interested in dominating the conversation than in communicating. Churchill comes off a bit more positively, if only because he swallowed his pride to court Roosevelt - the leader of the only country capable of saving England from the Nazis. United States reluctance to enter the war is examined from the British perspective of desperately needing support, rather than from the American perspective of not wishing to enter yet another conflict arising from historical rivalries of which it was not a party. Roosevelt seems to be criticized both for wanting to meddle in European affairs (as in discussions of Belgian ethnic divisions) and not wanting to meddle (as in delaying discussions about Germany’s post-war future). Eisenhower is presented as a hayseed whose only positive virtue is his insistence on a unified command structure within the Allied Forces. Although the author eventually acknowledges the development of warm feelings between the British and the Americans who were staged there prior to Normandy, much more time is spent describing their efforts to keep apart from the local population and their relatively higher standard of living. Americans back home are also criticized for enjoying a higher standard of living than the populations of war-torn Europe.
This is an interesting book which reminds us that the people who lead us are, like the rest of us, neither whole heroic nor wholly ignoble. It also reminds us that important decisions are often made with incomplete information by people who are under considerable stress. For those who enjoy biography, Citizens of London is an interesting read. For those seeking a deeper understanding of history, I would recommend skepticism.
Who we are and how are is largely shaped by where we focus, where we invest our attention. Although our minds are naturally (and often strongly) drawn to the dangerous and the novel, we have the ability to influence our focus. With or without intentional choice, attending to one aspect of our physical and mental environment causes us to ignore others.
Rather than making a coherent case for where we should place our attention under what circumstances and providing techniques for controlling that attention, the author provides a journalist’s survey of the scientific work being done in the area. A sprinkling of nineteenth century philosophy provides some context, but we are left with little more than the general idea that attending to the right things will make us happier.
Paramahansa Yogananda’s book is an excellent and very approachable introduction to Hindu mysticism. Having both read the kindle edition and listened to the audio version, I highly recommend Ben Kingsley’s reading of this classic story.
That said, this autobiography is not a literary or historical work; it is a scriptural work. As such, it’s mission is to persuade the reader regarding the nature of ultimate reality and how the reader might best approach that reality. However well written, it must be subjected to the same scrutiny as any persuasive writing.
The narrative structure resembles that of the gospels, charting the life of an exceptional holy man from childhood. Along the way, he encounters supernatural beings and both observes and performs miracles. With the greatest respect for Yogananda’s work as a community organizer bringing the religious perspective of India to the west, I have four specific objections to his assertions:
1. Like other yogis, Yogananda presents his religious views as “science,” which they are not. There may be some scientific evidence that meditation contributes to a positive outlook (this has certainly been my experience), but there is none to substantiate the existence of the subtle body or the astral plane of existence.
2. The effort to present Christianity as a subset of the Hindu religion is strained. Are we really to demote Jesus to the status of a prophet and accept Yogananda equivalent?
3. The accounts of of siddhas (saints) and their siddhis (paranormal powers) would have us believe that there were saints in every neighborhood of Calcutta (and by extension in India). These are not ancient reports, and if such saints and powers were as frequent as the story implies, we ought certainly to have had numerous and continuing reports from other sources.
4. The detailed description of the astral planet to which Sri Yukteswar ascended is not consistent with historical yogic writings.
The book is certainly worth hearing and the philosophical musings about universal brotherhood and non-violence should be taken seriously, but this reader requires a bit more evidence before embracing Yogananda’s view of reality.
A life-long devout Jew, Herman Wouk seeks to reconcile the unreconcilable. His narrative is anchored by three meetings with Richard Feynman wherein the physicist becomes increasingly interested in Wouk’s point of view. Wouk’s Feynman is not a consistent with the descriptions of others who knew him and seems to accept Wouk’s assertions without the questions one would expect a scientist to ask. As for his own faith, Wouk seems more to embrace the traditions of his upbringing and heritage than to articulate a certainty in the existence of the God engaged in the lives of his creations.
Savoring his major works and the resulting adulation, Wouk too often drifts to topics unrelated to either science or religion. He is a good writer and his ramblings provide a pleasant, though somewhat incoherent, diversion.
A fun listen that requires a greater suspension of disbelief than most "science fiction." Definitely a good road trip choice.
Robert K. Massie more than delivers on the promising title of this sweeping book. Massie presents an intense man with the vision, the autocratic means, and the personal perseverance to pull his nation into the modern world. Fascinating detours include descriptions of the histories of the powers with which Peter the Great interacts, summaries of the international issues that concerned them, and descriptions of the social and economic conditions of the day. Presented from the perspective of Eastern Europe, the early eighteenth century becomes something more than British and French concern over the Spanish succession. The end of this lengthy exposition left me longing for more.
The excellence of Massie???s prose was unfortunately undermined by Frederick Davidson???s pompous reading. I would have expected a professional narrator to moderate his non-standard pronunciation of words like clerk (not clark) and issue (not issssssue). More egregiously, Davidson seems wholly incapable of providing character voices for quotations: even Peter the Great is rendered in a child-like, even effeminate, falsetto.
Darwin changed the way we think about the world. Written in the dense, lightly-punctuated style of the nineteenth century, his book is difficult to read. Fortunately, David Case provides the vocal punctuation needed to make this impressive work accessible.
Darwin's central thesis is that "As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be NATURALLY SELECTED. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form."
Charles Darwin argues against the commonly held notion that species were ???individually created??? by pointing to the effectiveness of ???methodical selection??? in modifying plants and animals under domestication. Although nineteenth century scientists knew little about the mechanism of inheritance, they knew one existed and how to use it to select for desirable attributes. Darwin asserts that,
1. In the ???economy of nature,??? all creatures compete for the scarce resources that enable them to survive and procreate.
2. Reproduction introduces small, but random, changes to the traits of individuals.
3. If those random changes are favorable, the individual is more likely to survive and procreate (thereby preserving the change in future generations).
4. Thus, complex changes are due to ???the slow and gradual accumulation of slight, but profitable, variations??? over a very long interval of time.
Although Darwin refers to his book as an ???abstract,??? he provides extensive detailed examples based on his own work and numerous authorities known to him. His refutes numerous arguments against evolution by pointing to the paucity of the geological record and demonstrating the importance of traits that do not appear to be related to survival or procreation.
Although I cannot claim to have followed every strand of his complex reasoning, I am impressed with his comprehensive approach to identifying and addressing potential objections to his theory. I am also impressed with his scrupulous citation of sources from which his data comes.
Ayn Rand???s mid-fifties parable about the loss of individual rights resonates through the decades. It is a big book with big characters who have big ideas. The line between good (individualism) and evil (collectivism) is clearly drawn. The good guys are clear-eyed and attractive; they spartan in both body and speech. The bad guys are slack-jawed, have soft bodies, and tend to babble. Scott Brick???s narration reflects the tone of the story, making it an enjoyable listen.
The purpose of the story is to illustrate a philosophy that is summarized in Galt???s three-hour speech, which is the least enjoyable, the least realistic, and most important part of the book. Since it appears at the end of Part 7, you can skip through it easily. Whether you listen to the speech or not, it is the portion of the book that begs to be read and analyzed. I encourage you to download it from the web and parse it into assumptions, assertions, and conclusions.
Ayn Rand???s philosophy rests on the notion that individuals must decide matters for themselves and that disagreements are due to differences in the premises on which their conclusions are based. If you accept her conclusion that laissez-faire capitalism is the ideal economic system, make sure that you understand the premises on which that conclusion is based. Would you fare better if the bankers who brought you the housing crisis were wholly unfettered? How effectively would Rand???s industrialists function without a public educational system (which is not within the scope of her limited government)? Who would build the roads or inspect the food supply?
Atlas Shrugged is an important book that should be read (or listened to) by anyone concerned about the role of government in the lives of its citizens. However, the listener does Rand a disservice by accepting her views rather than making a conscious and personal judgement about the philosophy she presents.
This is a book that needs an open-minded reading (or hearing) from every Christian who claims that those who disagree with their views have simply failed to open their heart and mind to the Holy Spirit.
Although certain of books of the Bible claim to report divine revelations, the Bible makes no overall claim of its own inerrancy. Most people agree that the Bible was written by many authors at many different times. Decisions about which writings qualify as scripture was made long after the lifetimes of the authors. This is true of the Old Testament as well as the New; though this book focuses on the later.
Bart Erhman presents a clear and compelling case for the proposition that traditional understanding of who wrote the books of the New Testament is incorrect and that many of them include false authorship claims (which makes them forgeries). Use of this highly pejorative (though entirely accurate) descriptor serves to pull the reader out of the complacency with which the uncertain authorship of the text is often approached. Acknowledging that we do not have original texts of any of these writings, Ehrman points to the oldest of the surviving copies to conclude that they were well educated in Greek, not the Aramaic-speaking disciples with first-hand knowledge of Jesus that they claimed to be. Additionally, they address theological issues that arose decades, if not centuries, after the death of their purported authors.
Ehrman does not limit his analysis to those books included in the New Testament canon; he also reviews writings that were rejected expressly because they were thought to be forgeries. His conclusion is unavoidable: applying the same standards of veracity to biblical texts as we would to any other work, we cannot accept the teachings of much (but not all) of the New Testament.
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