Jacob Bronowski

Bronowski at Auschwitz

I’ve just finished reading Jacob Bronowski’s exhilarating Ascent of Man (1973). It had been on my mental bookshelf for a while, and I’m glad I finally got around to reading it. In his introduction, Richard Dawkins states that there is a memorable passage on nearly every page of the book, and he’s right. I haven’t underlined (virtually – I read it on my Kindle) a book so much in ages. Apart from a few quibbles I had with his repeated use of “the birth of Christ” as a time-marker (it seems out of place in a book celebrating the ascent of reason and science), I was taken on a kind of magic carpet ride of the human intellect. Bronowski was a master of communicating exceedingly difficult ideas to the uninitiated, a tradition whose most brilliant star was arguably Carl Sagan.

Here is a beautiful passage about the education of the young:

“Of course there were great civilisations. Who am I to belittle the civilisations of Egypt, of China, of India, even of Europe in the Middle Ages? And yet by one test they all fail: they all limit the freedom of the imagination of the young. They are static, and they are minority cultures. Static, because the son does what the father did, and the father what the grandfather did. And minority, because only a tiny fraction of all that talent that mankind produces is actually used; learns to read, learns to write, learns another language, and climbs the terribly slow ladder of promotion.”

This passage is followed by another a few pages later, which I think sums up Bronowski’s views rather well:

“Knowledge is not a loose-leaf notebook of facts. Above all, it is a responsibility for the integrity of what we are, primarily of what we are as ethical creatures. You cannot possibly maintain that informed integrity if you let other people run the world for you while you yourself continue to live out of a ragbag of morals that come from past beliefs. That is really crucial today. You can see it is pointless to advise people to learn differential equations, or to do a course in electronics or in computer programming. And yet, fifty years from now, if an understanding of man’s origins, his evolution, his history, his progress is not the commonplace of the schoolbooks, we shall not exist. The commonplace of the schoolbooks of tomorrow is the adventure of today, and that is what we are engaged in.”

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Target: reason

Wow, this theocratic call-to-arms by Baroness Warsi slipped right by me! She’s actually proud to be leading “the largest ministerial delegation from the United Kingdom to the Vatican” ever (that is, to a “country” which despises everything modern liberal democratic states hold dear in favor of totalitarian theocracy.) Her tactic is to pretend that religions are all friends with one another and that the big bad wolf is militant secularism. Sound familiar? Those pesky secularists, always poking fun at wholesome religious craziness!

Go ahead and read the piece. It’s funny if you don’t dwell on the fact that she’s a representative of the UK government who wants to mainline religion back into politics – just like the good ol’ days. And Warsi gets a bit nasty, too, when she asserts:

“[Secularism] demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes – denying people the right to a religious identity because they were frightened of the concept of multiple identities.”

I wonder if Warsi has reflected on the fact that the Vatican – which she is so proud to visit – signed concordats with both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, and supported every fascist regime in Europe throughout World War II (when they pragmatically thought the future of Europe would be fascist). No, I bet she hasn’t thought much about that one.

Warsi loopholes her way out of this, however. She reassures us secularists, “I am not calling for some kind of 21st century theocracy.” She’s just calling for more respect for religion. That’s reassuring. But why should religion get our respect without earning it?  That’s not clear from her article. She’s too caught up in her ridiculous revivalism.

via WEIT

Too much of nothing

Well, I finished A Universe From Nothing, and the “nothing” business was cleared up in the end.

***SPOILER ALERT***

Apparently “nothing is unstable” is a fundamental principle which gives rise to the inevitability that out of nothing something will eventually arise. Nothing can’t stay nothing for long, it seems. For me this is still a bit like poetry; I’m not having much luck envisioning total emptiness, bereft even of space. I keep thinking, “How do I begin to think about that?” Krauss himself admits that talking about “why is there something rather than nothing?” can seem a bit like counting the angels on the head of a pin (a favorite pastime of medieval theologians). The difference is, of course, that “physicists can count their angels and can get it right to the nearest angel in a total of 10 billion.” That last phrase is from Richard Dawkins’ afterword.

I’m now listening to Krauss on the Point of Inquiry podcast, hoping he can shed some further light on nothingness for me.

Nothing much

I’m reading Lawrence Krauss’s new book, A Universe From Nothing (every so often I enjoy punishing myself by trying to figure out what cosmologists are learning about the cosmos). About the first half of the book is setting up the main premise, which is that things – particles, bagels, universes – can indeed spring forth from, well, nothing. At first I was confused, because Krauss uses “nothing” to mean both “empty space” and “nothing, not even empty space.” Not being a cosmologist or theologian, I can get my head around empty space, but I have trouble picturing the concept of absolutely nothing. I mean, if even space-time is absent, then what are we to do?

My impression is that this works mathematically and theoretically (which is good), but how can a human being even conceive of this kind of nothingness? It’s not a blank slate; there simply is no slate. Then, through something called “quantum fluctuations”, a slate appears. Then, after about 13.5 billion years, Shakespeare. It’s mind-boggling.

I haven’t finished the book yet, and I’ve just gotten to the meat of the matter, so perhaps this deep, disturbing nothingness is adequately explained further in the book. But right now I’m depleting my store of imagination trying to figure out where quantums are fluctuating if there is no longer any where for them to fluctuate in.

An eviction notice

Is god evil?

Every time I go to the supermarket there’s an African man selling socks in the parking lot. It’s not always the same man, but he always has the same approach: “Hello, my friend…” after which he goes on to coax handouts through a combination of smiles, hand gestures and appeals to the goodness of god.

Sometimes I give him spare change. Once I gave him a banana, for which he seemed genuinely grateful. I’m sorry for his predicament (he’s likely a refugee from a war-torn land), but I try not to let myself become an easy target for people begging for money, either. Maybe this is a holdover from my New York days.

Recently we had a brief conversation. It went like this:

“Hello, my friend!”

“Hey.”

“Ah, god is good, is he not?”

“No, he’s not. Maybe you should thank people who have helped you out, not god.”

“But doesn’t god help you, my friend?”

“He’s never done anything for me.”

“Why don’t you believe in god?” he asked, puzzled.

“Because he doesn’t exist!” I said gleefully. I made sure to smile, too, so he could be sure that he was speaking to a happy atheist. Then we got in the car and drove off.

Later, I asked my wife if I’d been too hard on the man. She replied that he came from Africa and had seen who knows what horrors before embarking for Europe. He may have lost his family and possessions along the way. He’d probably come from a country where life was hell, and seen things that would make us shudder. My little quip wasn’t going to cause a breakdown in him.

Fair enough. I wasn’t going for that, anyway. I was just expressing mild outrage at the idea of a person who depends upon the kindness of strangers but can’t thank them directly. Instead, he thanks “god” — the same all-powerful god, no doubt, who surveys his perpetually war-trashed African homeland with such an approving grin.

One of the things that most galls me about religious faith is its willingness to attribute the good stuff to an omnipotent, benevolent god while completely ignoring the bad stuff. If a godhead is omnipotent, then it’s responsible for everything — good, bad and ugly — that occurs under its auspices. But benevolence doesn’t account for evil, or even for splinters. So what’s up?

To quote Dan Barker, author of Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists, “We may as well say that god is sshhffhgtyrh.” That is, senseless.

Now back to reality. Yesterday we had lunch at a restaurant in central Assisi. After a stunning finale of cannolo filled with chocolate mousse and candied kiwi fruit, we sauntered outside to find the car. The street was packed with people surrounded by their dogs, police and a group of priests. One man was dressed as a Templar.

“What’s happening?” I asked my wife. “Oh, they’re getting their dogs blessed.” “Their dogs?!” I snapped. “This is just too much.”

As we navigated the crowd to get to our car, I picked up on a few lines of the blessing. They were thanking god for all his great works, etc. I mumbled something incendiary. My wife elbowed me. I grunted. She sighed. We walked.

My wife and I had both had many dogs as pets while growing up. With one exception, not a single specimen of those docile animals died a natural death. Cars and poison wiped them all off the face of the Earth. I remember vividly the evening our dog Sasha was run over in the middle of a busy street about a mile from our house. It was in 1987, and I was twelve. She died of internal bleeding during the night. We never got another dog; losing them is too painful.

So excuse me if I can’t see the benevolence of a divine plan in all of this. (The same holds true, of course, for humans. A hundred may die in a plane crash, but the believer will thank god for a single survivor. It’s a twisted kind of logic.) I ask myself, “How can intelligent people let themselves think like this? Don’t they realize it either makes no sense, or else leads to a highly questionable moral stance?” I guess they train themselves not to think about it. They compartmentalize. This here, that there.

Reality is painful. Bad things happen to good people, and good things to bad people. Beloved pets die horribly beneath the weight of oncoming vehicles. Family members disappear from life before you get to say goodbye. Others wither away under pitiless diseases. Neither believer nor unbeliever is spared. In a sense, the only thing we know for sure is that we die.

Italian novelist Primo Levi, standing in the death-line at Auschwitz, felt it was petty to ask god to spare him if it meant sending another person to die in the ovens in his place. Such a request would be at the very least incoherent. Each time I reflect on that scene — one of near-absolute hopelessness and human evil — I smile at the courage of an honest intellect. A person may be degraded, stripped of property, livelihood and family, starved, turned into slave and then sent off to die in an oven. But still, that person will not cede to the intellectual crime of incoherence. He will not petition a personal god who would allow such a place as Auschwitz to exist.

God — the traditional, loving, bi-polar monstrosity of biblical imagination — can no longer afford the rent in our little world. I think it’s time we evicted him for good.

Warning: this will hurt your eyes

This is an optical illusion – via Michael Shermer. Don’t stare at it for too long or you might begin to feel dizzy.

This radial sunburst illusion is known as the Asahi figure, and the researchers analyzed people’s eyes while they stared at it, and a number of other similar optical illusions. And just as if they were staring at an actual light source, their pupils contracted.