Thursday, June 26, 2008

Microreviews born of stinginess

I have to take these books back to the library, so I better say something about them now or hold my peace at least until I can get them out again. Ten cents a day may not sound like much, but ... okay, well, it isn't much, but I'm cheap.

First we have The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life, by Austin Dacey, who (the blurb tells us) has a doctorate in applied ethics and social philosophy. This is a fine entry into the religio-cultural wars, much better than those of either the Four Horsemen (Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris) or what Dawkins calls their "fleas" (A. McGrath, J. Haught, etc.). I have been particularly disappointed by the latter crew. When your opponents lob softballs in your direction, making a point of their ignorance (comparing theology to "fairy-ology" and bemoaning the expenditure of university resources on such inanities), you're supposed to take your time and hit them out of the park. But so far all I've seen is nonsense on the order of "science can't account for love." My word, I think we should be able to do better than that.

Dr. Dacey is a member of the secularist camp (The Secular Conscience is published by Prometheus Books). His main point is that secularists are wrong to demand the removal of religion from public life on the grounds that it is "a private matter." Such a demand not only alienates religious believers, denying them (as they rightly point out) the right to full participation in public life, but also shields religiously motivated claims from the (presumably) reasoned criticism of secular (and other religious) critics. Dacey explains this view in terms of the concept of conscience, which is an essentially public phenomenon: one's conscience is what tells one what to do, what moral stance to take in public matters. As a secularist, he presents this refreshingly anti-dualist argument in explicitly naturalistic terms, which bothers me slightly for reasons we need not go into here (basically, naturalists have a bit of work to do in order to be entitled to such arguments qua naturalistic; a minor point in this context, I suppose). On the other hand, if naturalists start to see a public/private dualism as something to avoid, then I'm all for it, and we can work the kinks out later. The book is very clearly written, and maybe I'll get it out again for a closer look later on.

Our second book is What is Life?: Investigating the Nature of Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology by Ed Regis. Dr. Regis is also a philosopher, and this small volume is a look back at Schrödinger's famous essay of the same name, from the perspective of recent attempts to create "living" cells in the laboratory. What, one might very well ask, are we even talking about here? Regis is also a very clear writer (see, analytic philosophy training is good for something), and the book combines a brief history, a provocative discussion of the central issues, and a peek into the contemporary laboratory.

Some of the history is devoted to giving forgotten innovators proper recognition, allowing the reader to drop the names (should one remember them with cocktail in hand) of Johann Friedrich Miescher (who first isolated what turned out to be DNA in 1869), Marshall Nirenberg (who discovered in 1961 that mRNA coded for proteins), and Santorio Santorio (a pioneer in the study of metabolism, whose 1614 treatise Ars de statica medicina was "arguably the first diet-craze book in history"). This last gentleman is introduced in a most interesting chapter called "ATP and the Meaning of Life," which will make you look at the Krebs cycle in a whole new way (that is, if you have an old one at all).

Metabolism, in fact, turns out, in Regis's view, to be the key factor in any workable definition of life. He rejects the pessimistic attitude which masquerades as a virtuous anti-essentialism, which would have us abandon the attempt to choose among "a wretched excess of competing definitions." In general, I agree that such virtue need not require that we throw up our hands in futility, and Regis makes a good case for metabolism, arguing against the "dormant spore" objection, the "candle flame" objection, and the "automobile" objection (use your imaginations). Yet at the end he admits that "this [definition] might have a rather short half-life" [heh heh].

Our third book returns us to the religio-cultural wars. You may have heard about this one, about which there has been a raging controversy. Antony Flew is yet another philosopher, and the purported author of There is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. The book's cover matches the subtlety of its subtitle: over an inverted photograph of the man in question appear in red block capitals the words THERE IS NO GOD, with the NO scratched out and replaced with a handwritten "A". Then follows the subtitle, with the middle three words in bold. Directly underneath, nestled in Flew's hair, we have Francis S. Collins's blurb: "Towering and courageous.... Flew's colleagues in the church of fundamentalist atheism will be scandalized." Take that, you, you, ... atheists!

The controversy I mentioned concerns, as you might expect, the question of whether or to what extent Professor Flew is the author of this book at all. It's credited (in big letters) to Flew "with" (in smaller type) one Roy Abraham Varghese, about whom I know little, but he's apparently either an evangelist himself or closely associated with same. Not that that disqualifies him from co-writing this book, of course, given its purported content, but you can see how it might be troublesome if there's any question about Flew's competence. For that is indeed what critics assert: that unscrupulous fundies have exploited the man's supposedly diminished faculties for their own propagandistic ends, putting into his mouth all sorts of things he has never believed (see, e.g., here, and here, and here).

I'm not going to worry about all that, as I have no interest in Flew's reputation. (I do find it interesting that someone I have barely heard of is hailed by enthusiastic blurbers (i.e., the usual suspects) as "one of the leading analytical philosophers of the twentieth century", a "major thinker," and "a stellar philosophical mind" – now, at least, that he has come over to their way of thinking. But let's let that pass.) Surely Flew suffers from at least some deficit; what philosopher allows a work which purports to signal a major shift in doctrine – or anything else for that matter – to be written by someone else? Whether or not the views expressed here are actually his, it would beg the question to appeal to Flew's apparently diminished cognitive powers as showing that the arguments presented in this text are lame. For that we need to take a look at the text itself.

As it happens, that's all we need to do. Whoever its author, There is no a God is embarrassingly awful, even by the woeful standards of analytic philosophy of religion. Only two thirds of it (158 large-fonted pages) is Flew's text; there are two appendices, one a bilious attack on the "New Atheism" by Varghese, the other an earnest apology (billed as a "dialogue" with theologian N. T. Wright, but Wright does virtually all of the talking) for the divinity of Jesus, based on the compelling evidence of ... the empty tomb. The first half of Flew's contribution is biographical (then I had a debate with so-and-so, in which I argued in such-and-such a manner), followed by brief and bizarrely quotation-ridden outlines of the usual familiar theistic talking points, complete with chatty, pointlessly long-winded apologetic parables ("Imagine entering a hotel room on your next vacation. [...] You glance into the bathroom, where personal care and grooming products are lined up on the counter, each one as if it was chosen specifically for you [etc., etc.]"), and innumerable self-righteous affirmations that he, unlike some people, is committed to following the evidence wherever it may lead.

Not all of this material is jaw-droppingly stupid, but there's certainly nothing new here. I won't go over it all (use your imagination), but I did want to share one bit that quite literally left me agape (no pun intended). In 2004, Flew tells us, he announced at the beginning of what was to have been a debate on the matter, that he "now accepted the existence of a God," agreeing with another symposiast that "recent work on the origin of life pointed to the activity of a creative Intelligence." (No, that's not the stupid part. Hold on, it's coming.)
I was particularly impressed with Gerry Schroeder's point-by-point refutation of what I call the "monkey theorem." This idea, which has been presented in a number of forms and variations, defends the possibility of life arising by chance using the analogy of a multitude of monkeys banging away on computer keyboards and eventually ending up writing a Shakespearean sonnet.

Schroeder first referred to an experiment conducted by the British National Council of Arts. A computer was placed in a cage with six monkeys.
I can't even write all this out; it's too gruesome. Many entirely pointless mathematical-sounding calculations later:
After hearing Schroeder's presentation, I told him that he had very satisfactorily and decisively established that the "monkey theorem" was a load of rubbish, and that is was particularly good to do it with just a sonnet [...]. If the theorem won't work for a single sonnet, then of course it's simply absurd to suggest that the more elaborate feat of the origin of life could have been achieved by chance.
Yikes. I think that's the worst of it, but if you do choose to read this book: you have been warned.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Alaaf to you too

Travel to The Ends of Thought and behold the marvels of the Philosophers' Karneval!

Monday, June 02, 2008

Threescore and ten

-th Philosophers' Carnival, that is. Check out the photo of Kripke and Fodor (plus two other guys)!