Five Fully-Conscious (I Promise) Book Recommendations

July 24, 2014

I’ve actually read most of four books in the space of about 12 days. No, I’m not on vacation and I’m not a speed-reader. It’s insomnia.

Without getting into TMI, been experiencing some sleeplessness lately, so I’ve decided to make good use of my time by doing some reading I might not otherwise have time for. (3:00 a.m. infomercials are sorta funny, but only for a while.)

However, before turning to the four I’ve just read—my four nighttime companions—I want to note one book that I read prior to the onset of my insomnia, namely Rebecca Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away (Pantheon).

I’m doing a full review of the book in the next issue of Free Inquiry. For now, I’ll just say the book is a gem. A rare find. Something that one can scarcely believe one has had the good fortune to encounter. This may sound like inordinately high praise, but it’s not—especially given the task Goldstein set herself. The book combines an engaging, accessible analysis of Plato’s thought, including its historical background, with a series of imaginative scenarios in which a reanimated Plato engages in conversation with contemporary talk-show hosts, techie engineers, a neuroscientist, and so forth. This is an ambitious book that could have gone so terribly wrong. But it works. Of course, it probably doesn’t hurt that Goldstein is a novelist as well as a philosopher. Anyway, more in the forthcoming FI review.

Here are the shorter takes: First up, Matthew Stewart’s Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic (Norton).  The book is, in part, a powerful refutation of “the United States is a Christian nation” myth, but it’s much more than that. Well-researched and closely argued, Stewart shows how many of the Founders, including some obscure ones, such as Thomas Young, a key instigator behind the Boston Tea Party, were influenced by secular philosophers; their references to “Nature’s God” can effectively be interpreted as references to natural laws. One interesting aspect of the book is how Stewart traces the influence of Spinoza, via Locke, on the Founders. Spinoza is not a name typically associated with the American Revolution, but Stewart makes a fairly persuasive case regarding his significance. (No, I’m not entirely convinced about this particular point of intellectual history, but one mark of a good book is if it challenges one’s settled views). Stewart is definitely on solid ground when he shows the connection between the Founders’ deism and their creation of a secular republic—if there is no interventionist, personal deity who directs us by divine commandments, then religious doctrines and revelations have no role to play in the shaping of public policy.

I would probably confine my recommendation of the next book, Divine Evil: The Moral Character of the God of Abraham, eds. Michael Bergmann, Michael J. Murray, and Michael Rea (Oxford), to academics or others keenly interested in the philosophy of religion but for the fact that it offers a compelling insight into the mindset of some prominent contemporary religious philosophers, as well as into human psychology in general.  Most everyone (at least among readers of this blog) is familiar with arguments for and against God’s existence.  Most of these arguments address “the problem of evil” at a fairly abstract level.  The difference with this anthology is that several religious philosophers try to reconcile an omnibenevolent God with the specific, horrific instructions he has given to us in the Bible, especially to the Jews in the Hebrew Bible as they go about slaughtering other tribes.  Typically, “liberal” religionists ignore these passages or maintain they must be interpreted symbolically—you know, some creative twaddle about how Joshua annihilating whole cities is just an emphatic way of saying God supports those who put their trust in him. But no such easy out for these philosophers. Through tortuous, sophistical maneuvers that make their arguments look like a Cirque du Soleil of the mind, they actually try to justify these horrors. They don’t succeed, and ultimately some fall back on the time-worn, discredited proposition that we can’t say God acted wrongly because we don’t know what his objectives were, a/k/a the old “God works in mysterious ways” excuse.

Mind you, these are highly intelligent people, doctoral level academics, and leading religious philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga and Eleonore Stump are among the scholars represented. Their dogged attempts to justify what can’t be justified vividly illustrate how a prior, unshakeable commitment to a religious faith (or an ideology) results in motivated reasoning and can distort one’s moral compass.

Unfortunately, their rationalizations are not merely issues for the seminar room. Right now, religious extremists are busy carrying out mass killings in many countries. They claim to be following the commands of Allah or some other deity. How can those whose justify the slaughters set forth in the Hebrew Bible condemn these contemporary massacres? After all, we can’t possibly know what God’s objectives are.

After the obfuscating contentions set forth in Divine Evil, it was real pleasure to turn to a book whose arguments are unfailingly perspicuous, namely Russell Blackford’s Humanity Enhanced: Genetic Choice and the Challenge for Liberal Democracies (MIT Press). Blackford tackles an important topic, namely what regulations/restrictions should be placed on genetic enhancement technologies, assuming we want these regulations and restrictions to be consistent with the accepted norms of liberal democracies. Blackford does a good job of analyzing and refuting the many objections that have been made to enhancement technologies on the grounds that they are intrinsically wrong, “unnatural,” or in some inexplicable way will inevitably deprive humans of autonomy. But he doesn’t just issue a blank check to enhancement technologies. Instead, he carefully assesses what their effects might be under different situations and outlines what regulations might be advisable. If I have one quibble with the book, it’s that it’s limited mostly to genetic enhancements, which are more of a mid-term issue, as we do not have the technology available now to make genetic enhancements reliably and safely, whereas chemical enhancements (e.g., drugs that improve memory) are available now or are on our immediate horizon. But this is basically a lament that we don’t yet have the benefit of Blackford’s insights on these issues.

Then there’s the Qur’an, trans. M.A.S. Abdel Haleem (Oxford). Why the Qur’an? Well, it is a book of some importance, given the billion or so people who adhere to its teachings in some form or another. Plus, like many of you, I’ve heard how consistently belligerent the Qur’an is, chock full of condemnations and damnations, only to be told by Muslims that that’s a skewed reading of the Qur’an, and that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance. Well, I’m nothing if not an empiricist, so I decided to read the book for myself. (And, if you have time, so should you; you don’t have to read the whole thing—it is maddeningly repetitious at times—but it would be a good thing if more freethinkers became at least as familiar with the Qur’an as they are with the Bible).

So what is the proper way to characterize the tone/content of the Qur’an? The answer is:

Well, the answer deserves a blog post of its own, which will be forthcoming. For now, I’ll just say that, interestingly, Allah’s pronouncements in the Qur’an (and the Qur’an is a record of God speaking, not simply divinely inspired wisdom) seem to reflect the concerns, views, and prejudices of a man or men who lived in tribal Arabia in the early seventh century CE, who started a new religion and were trying to hold their adherents together in the face of harassment, ridicule, and persecution. Surprising coincidence, no?