Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
Copernicus threw us for a loop by putting the sun at the center and us off to the side. Kant (pronounced like “font”) changed the way we perceive the world by putting the mind at the center and the external world off to the side. For us to perceive reality and know about it, reality must conform to our minds—not the other way around.
What? Let’s back up. In the 1700s there were two major schools of thought. One, the so called empiricism of Locke and Hume: that the external, physical world is “out there,” that when we are looking at a tree we are pretty much looking at an “exact copy” of the tree that exists outside our perception of it; in other words, our eyeballs are windows to reality and our senses/mind represent things accurately. On the other hand, the so called idealism of George Berkeley: that the external, physical world is a baseless assumption, that we don’t really need it, that all the things we perceive are actually “in our mind” so to speak, impressions directly implanted by God (cut out the middle man!—matter). Sure it sounds odd, but consider: when we are dreaming it seems like there is an external reality “out there”—but there’s not, it’s all in our head.
The genius of Kant at age 47 was to bring together the two schools of thought; both are right and both are wrong. Yes there is a reality, an external world that exists completely separate from our perception of it (separate from dogs’ perception of it, whales’ perception of it). But the mind recreates reality, filters reality, represents reality in a particular human way (space and time are even filters of the mind!). By the time our minds go to work on it, who knows what’s really out there—we know nothing about what’s out there. That’s how Kant blew everyone’s mind. He suggested that when we refer to “reality,” we are really talking about the world as we perceive it. When we refer to the external world, we are really talking about the unknowable, unperceivable; metaphysical speculation, God, freedom, beauty—stuff like that. The point of his book, as he says, was to “do away with knowledge in order to make room for faith.”
Kant shook my world and I hope he shakes yours. Check out my book display on the 1st floor of the downtown, Central Library—IgeekPhilosophy. (Also, follow my personal blog at jesusmeetskant.blogspot.com which of course is not affiliated with KPL).
Critique of Pure Reason
1. The Tolstoy Connection: After reading The Kingdom of God is Within You, he admired the late Leo Tolstoy who became a radical Christian of non-violence and love. Indeed, Gandhi started a community that was named after Tolstoy. Gandhi also read Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and was very interested in the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr.
2. He was obsessed with making clothes. Not only to be self-reliant, but as a way to free India from the British textile industry.
3. He had a guilt-complex about sex. Imagine the very young Gandhi at his father’s death bed. Lust, he says, pulled him away to his 13-year-old wife. His father dies as he indulges the pleasures of the flesh. He was not there at the most important, most sacred moment of his father’s life. This haunts him his entire life. Of course this doesn’t fully explain why he took an oath of celibacy (apparently his wife was okay with that), or why he would sleep next to young women simply to “test” his faith, or why he abstained from alcohol, drugs, fancy dress, fancy food, fancy everything. It was a religious virtue for him, a tradition he got from the Gita and the Gospels. He loved disciplining his body; fasting made him giddy.
4. He was a Christian. Well, actually he was a Hindu, Christian, Moslem, Jew, etc—a religious pluralist. “The Sermon on the Mount went straight to my heart,” he said. But he was very partial to the teachings of Jesus, so much so that his fellow Hindus would accuse him of being a secret Christian (they were missing the whole point obviously). In the mud hut he lived in, he had one thing on the wall: a picture of Jesus that said “He is our Peace.”
5. At times, he was not a very good husband and father. A lot of this has to do with the fact that he was forced to marry at a very young age. He was controlling, jealous, and cruel. He left his family for long periods of time, both for professional and spiritual pursuits (many religious figures have this issue unfortunately). He was a task-master, raised the bar way too high for his sons, and treated them just like everybody else in terms of affection. His eldest son became a drunk that would slander his father in the papers. Yet he loved them all, just as he loved all Indians, all people. Just as he even loved the person who shot him in the chest three times, as he gasped his last breath: “Oh, God.”
And that’s the whole point of Gandhi; it's not about the flaws and pecedillos, it’s what you already know about Gandhi. Like Jesus, Mother Theresa, and St. Francis of Assisi, he really loved people as much as he possibly could. That's his legacy.
Gandhi the man, his people, and the empire
Although Zealot got attention mostly for the intriguing back story of the author Reza Aslan--a Muslim turned Christian turned Muslim--it should get attention for its excellent, smooth writing style, its clear portrayal of the history of the times of Jesus. What was it like back then? In a word, chaos; complete political turmoil, revolutionary, messiahs popping up left and right and getting killed by Rome left and right. In this regard, I enjoyed the book thoroughly and learned a lot.
But then there's the portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth. This is where the Christ that most people love exits stage left, is drastically different than the Jesus of history that Aslan proposes. According to the book, Jesus wasn't a very nice guy. His most defining act, the act that clarified "his theology," was when he went into the temple and started flipping over tables:
"So revelatory is this single moment in Jesus’s brief life that it alone can be used to clarify his mission, his theology, his politics, his relationship to the Jewish authorities, his relationship to Judaism in general, and his attitude toward the Roman occupation” (p. 73).
What happened to "turning your other cheek" and "love your enemies" Jesus? The author thinks these teachings were embellished and "abstracted;" he probably meant love your fellow Jews (not Romans or the Jewish priestly class, who were enemies). Remember the Garden of Gethsemane scene? Aslan says they were hiding, "armed," and had a "bloody" tussle with the arresting party. When Jesus claims he's the Messiah, it's sedition and worthy of death under Roman law. Remember when Jesus preaches the kingdom of God is "within you" or "at hand" or "like a tree with many branches"? "The Kingdom of God is a call to revolution," says Aslan, "plain and simple” and “God’s rule cannot be established without the destruction of the present order” (p. 119-120). And that's why they killed him.
Of course some will argue he is merely selecting those passages of the Gospels that fits his theory (after all, when it comes to the historical Jesus the Gospels are basically all there is). But he will argue that historians can figure out which passages are more historical than others. I'm not a historian, so I won't go there. But I will say there's an awkward disconnect going on between Aslan's portrayal of Jesus (violent) and what he says about Jesus at the end of the book. He laments that we have lost the historical Jesus because he is someone "worth believing in." He also says in interviews that he is a "follower of Jesus." Really? Which teachings? From reading the book you don't get it. But what I think he means is that he follows the Jesus who spoke "truth to power," a force of social justice who cared about the poor and did something about it; who ultimately defied the odds of history by somehow starting one of the greatest world religions ever known.
Ever since Emile Durkheim came on the block, sociologists and historians have taken belief out of religion. Religious belief, they say, is nothing more than, reducible to, a way for people to come together--“social solidarity”. Supernatural beliefs are peripheral, epiphenomenal, don’t matter much, and come later.
Rodney Stark disagrees: to take God out is to completely miss the point of religion, what it means to people, and how it works in history. Or as one review put it: “Religious world views can no longer be reduced to race, class, gender, economics, social location, or one of the other shibboleths of secular academia.” What people actually think about God or Gods or witches or angels really affects how they act in history. And this lengthy book shows how.
Science, for example, comes from a particular conception of a single, intelligent, law-making creator God. Witch-hunting, a second example, came from specifically Christian doctrine and beliefs. Lastly, it was Quakers, he says, not “the Enlightenment” or “economic self-interest” that destroyed slavery. As you can see, one limitation with the book is that it focuses mainly on one form of monotheism, Christianity; and it mostly uses other religions as counterpoints (e.g., Christianity abolished slavery, and here is why Greek polytheism did not).
As I am not a historian, it would be very hard for me to critique or have an opinion on any of these points. I have certainly heard these arguments, but I've also heard arguments against them. Also check out my blogs on John Woolman and Galileo Goes to Jail. As for abolition of slavery, I think most people accept the fact that Christianity had major part to play—but of course everyone knows southern planters also used the Bible to defend slavery.
At any rate, it is a very dense, heavy, ambitious book, a whirlwind of world history, religion, theory and sociology. He comes off as an angry academic, sick and tired of the anti-Catholic and anti-religious biases that are at the bottom of these so-called secular historians (I was interested to find out Rodney Stark is not religious). He calls out scholars left and right, which makes it more entertaining and breaks up the textbook feel but borders on ad hominem attacks. I recommend for history buffs.
For the Glory of God
Oh, the history of science and religion. I’m always learning about misconceptions or false generalizations or historians with this or that agenda. The stakes are high. Einstein is perhaps the best example. Depending on who you ask, he was either a devout Jew or militant atheist. How do you trust the book you are reading? My answer: read other books. Cast your net as far and wide and deep as possible.
Einstein, like Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson, is hard to pin down religiously (hmmm…maybe because people are hard to pin down? And maybe that’s okay?). Anyway, according to one of his biographers “He did believe in nature as some sort of universal spirit, or...'world soul,' or some kind of universal mind, which ruled the universe" (p. 21). "My religiosity consists in a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit," he says, "that reveals itself in the little that we, with our weak and transitory understanding, can comprehend of reality" (40).
He thought religion should consist in the “conduct of life" (morality), that people like Gandhi were “spiritual geniuses,” and that the experience of mystery was at the heart of true science and true religion—the "truly religious attitude” of humility and awe. The fact that science is possible in the first place has always fascinated scientists and still does. "Why is nature mathematical?...that was the basis of Einstein's faith," says his biographer (25).
No matter what you think about Einstein, his religion or his politics, his theory of relativity changed physics forever and he remains one of the greatest of all time (along with Darwin and Newton). These brilliant scientists, like all brilliant theorists, do not come up with these grand theories from scratch. Like Kepler, Newton, and Darwin, usually they cobble together other peoples’ ideas—in just the right way. And maybe that’s okay too.
But this book is not just about Einstein or misconceptions of science and religion. It's a nice conversation between Krista Tippett (NPR "On Being" formerly "Speaking of Faith") and several scientists and historians of our time, giving the reader a very appreciative and nuanced and living view of many of these fascinating issues.
Einstein’s God by Krista Tippett
People work out for different reasons: to look good, lose weight, gain muscle, get abs, feel better. And, like dieting, everyone wants "the secret" to meeting their goals; the easy answer, the short cut, the 10 step, 5-minute, 7 day, what-have-you-plan. So where to start? You could get a personal trainer, read a book like this one (which promotes "cross-fit" style full-body lifts (which is just fine), or just dive right in.
In my opinion there are no secret exercises, machines, or workouts...only these two principles:
- Intensity: this is the one most people miss. In high school I went to the gym for years and didn't get any results at all. None. In college I started lifting with intensity and I got tons of results fast. Get angry, get pumped up, increase the intensity, listen to the Rocky IV soundtrack, be that person who makes noises (not that loud), work up a really good sweat, become exhausted by the end. At first it will be hard, but we get used to it. Now I couldn't have an "easy" workout even if I tried--our brains and bodies are amazing machines of habit, which in this case is a good thing. You need to push your body to allow that habit to form.
- Form: perfect form, every excercise, every rep. This is what keeps you from injuring yourself. Especially combined with extreme intensity, this is crucial. Trust me, I've hurt myself more than once. Before you do any excercise, know what the correct form (technique) is. Don't be the person who can curl tons of weight by arching your back, or who can bench tons of weight only because you bounce it off your chest.
With high intensity and perfect form you will see results (and of course humble librarians are the experts on these matters, right?!). Above all, have fun. And do cardio too, not just lifting (those eliptical machines are really good if you have problems with running).
the new rules of lifting
It might seem odd that the leader of a world religion--the Dalai Lama--is suggesting that we all agree on an ethical system that is divorced from religious concepts, stories, and beliefs entirely. But here is his line of thinking: the holy man looks around and sees people turning away from traditional religion, as the numbers show. These people are spiritual now, beyond a particular religion, global, secular, multi-religious, atheist or agnostic or humanist. The Dalai Lama sees a few different ways of dealing with this situation. First, he could try and convert everyone to his religion. But that's neither realistic nor compassionate. Second, he could do nothing. But he thinks the world desperately needs a universal ethic of compassion. He also thinks that families and schools are having trouble teaching ethics to children, with devastating consequences. So doing nothing won't work. Third, he could offer up a universal ethical system based on compassion and other ethical principles that we could all agree on. And that's what he does here. If you think about it, whether you agree or not, it's a very compassionate move to make.
Of course, he's not against religion at all, or any of the moral systems of that come with them. He also doesn't think that nonreligous people are unethical. He just wants us all to be on the same page I suppose.
But is he successful? Does he abstract ethics so much as to take the very heart out of them? Or does he get the to core of ethics, the simple truths? Read the book and find out.
I’ve had two hallucinations in my life (reading this book actually made me remember them!). The first was actually a delusion. I remember being very young, with a high fever, lying down on the couch with a cold towel on my forehead. Suddenly, it felt as if a speeding train was approaching my brain, faster and faster towards my head, receding, approaching; or, a beam of light violently approaching me so fast that I thought I would go insane; the feeling was slightly comparable to when you get the bed spins after too much drinking. I barely remember anything from my early childhood, except this. With high fevers, delusions are common, as the book talks about.
Second, I was lying down in my college dorm room bed, in between waking and sleep. Suddenly I felt a very strong presence entering the room, and then a spiritual, ecstatic joy. I kept my eyes closed; I was afraid the feeling was going to end. Eventually it faded, but the feeling of joy stayed with me all day. When we think of hallucinations, we usually think about visual hallucinations and seeing pink elephants, but kinesthetic hallucinations, as I had—feeling a presence—are quite common too. In fact, the book portrays an astonishing variety of all the things people see, hear, smell, and feel—that are not really there.
In fact, the whole point of the book is that hallucinations are much more common, natural, and “normal” than most people think. They have been part of history, of religion, and art. Part of the problem is stigma. Hallucinating does not necessarily mean you are “crazy” or even that the cause is psychological in nature (as is schizophrenia, for example). Most people have had some sort of hallucination once in their life. It is common in people that go blind, for example, to have visual hallucinations. Many people enjoy them and think of it as a “gift” directly from their brain (which is perhaps compensating for the loss of vision by providing another visual world).
And of course the most entertaining chapter is where Oliver Sacks talks about all his self-inflicted LSD hallucinations and the many other drugs he tried in the 60’s and 70’s that caused beautiful and horrible trips—only for medical reasons, of course. Yes of course.
Still, I didn’t enjoy the book as much as I wanted to. It’s too descriptive and encyclopedic, and not explanatory, theoretical, speculative. Yes, I want the hallucinations; but even more I want to know why they occur, why we have them, how they evolved, etc. Besides occasionally making a speculations that “this hallucination explains this religious phenomenon," it fell short on that account.
This book is a summary of all the scientific studies that have been done on the placebo effect, neurofeedback (thinking about your disease can help cure it), hypnosis, ESP, near-death experiences and much more. The author is a neuroscientist and the book reads like an exciting textbook on abnormal psychology. Here’s just a taste of the amazingly bizarre studies:
- people walked into the hospital with canes, were given a fake surgery, and played basketball afterwards.
- Tragically, a person was accidentally told they had a tumor and they died several days later. Turns out they did not have a tumor at all and should not have died.
- In a major depression meta-analyses, 75% of all positive results were because of placebo effect.
- A study of London taxi drivers found "compelling evidence that the brains of adults can, indeed, be physically changed by knowledge" (68). The dahlia lama once said “in a real sense the brain we develop reflects the life we lead” and Francis Bacon said “knowledge is power.” So go to your local library and expand your brain with knowledge. :)
- Indian researchers tested a Yogi’s claim that he can stop his heart and survive. They sealed him in an underground pit for 8 days. He stopped his heart for the middle five days and came out alive. The same Yogi, in a study at the Menninger Foundation in Kansas, stuck a long, unwashed sail-maker’s needle through his bicep with no pain, bleeding, or infection.
- In a study of women with breast cancer “the best single predictor of recurrence of cancer or death was the mental attitude of each woman” (100).
- “at age fifteen, John could barely move without causing painful fissures in his ‘black armour plating’”. He had a horrible skin condition known as “fish skin disease,” which made him an outcast. After trying everything, he tried hypnosis. It worked. “The improvement was startling: it ranged from 50 percent on his legs and feet to 95 percent on the right arm…One year after…John had become a normal, happy young man” (110).
- In one Harvard study, psilocybin (the ingredient in magic mushrooms) was shown to occasion mystical experiences. In a later study “two-thirds of the participants who received psilocybin rated it as either the best experience of their lives or within the top five…[they described] larger state of consciousness…unity of all things…two months after the study, 79 percent of them reported moderately or greatly enhanced well-being or satisfaction” (203).
But there’s more. The author is not only a neuroscientist, but a spiritualist, perhaps an experimental drug user like Timothy Leary, an eastern religion meditation-type, a “cosmic consciousness”-quantum-reality-new-age-type. He has come to believe that we have a mind that is separate from the body, that the fundamental nature of the universe is mind-or-consciousness, and that our brains act as a filter on reality, a “reduction” that gets in the way of experiencing the “unity of all things.” Not that any of this is bad. I think any metaphysical interpretation of reality is valid so long as it doesn’t promote hatred or violence. After all, nobody really knows what’s beyond our perception of the world.
My only problem with this book is the author’s word “prove.” That’s a strong word, perhaps too strong for an immaterial, metaphysical entity such as Mind. And he doesn’t do the best job doing it. He says: look at all the cool stuff the mind can do! The skeptic replies: look at all the cool things the brain can do! That’s it; the argument stops there. Two different interpretations of the same studies, the same reality. With metaphysics that's just the way it is.
In other words, the conclusion of the book—“that our thoughts, beliefs, and emotions can greatly influence what is happening in our brains and bodies” stands on solid ground. Even a materialist scientist would agree, provided that by “thoughts” we simply mean another part of the brain (one part of the brain, thought x, influences another part of the brain, hormone y). But this book wants to go further and say: therefore, there is a Mind separate from the brain. Sure, there might be. It’s all a matter of interpretation, as Life of Piteaches.
How do you interpret these studies?
Given the chance, would you pick the gender, eye color, height, athletic ability, intelligence of your baby? No you say? What if everybody else was? Perhaps a better question would be: given the chance, would you genetically prevent things like schizophrenia, alcoholism, autism, antisocial personality disorder, MS? None of these questions are rhetorical. They're inevitable. The technology is here and it's coming.
Michael Sandell, a moral philospher at Harvard, makes an interesting and well thought out argument against perfection. Genetic enhancement of children says more about the hubris, controlling nature, and hyperparenting of the parent more than anything else. Parenting involves two kinds of love: the love that accepts children for who they are and how they turned out, no matter what (unconditional love). And the love that helps them their goals, find themselves, perfect their abilities. This is the love that can get out of control with genetic engineering.
eugenic parenting [that's what he calls it] is objectionable because it expresses and entrenches a certain stance toward the world—a stance of mastery and dominion that fails to appreciate the gifted character of human powers and achievements, and misses the part of freedom that consists in a persisting negotiation with the given (p. 83).
It's about "willfulness over giftedness, of dominion over reverance, of molding over beholding." Life should be a balance.
My opinion, after reading this book and thinking about it, is this: when it comes to preventing certain genetic diseases, every parent should be able to use genetic engeneering. No more babies born blind, or deaf, or with horrible predispositions that are not their fault. Think about it. Hitler and Stalin and Ted Bundy probabally had the inability to emotionally feel empathy. That's a genetic defect and it's a huge problem. I'm not saying this would cure war and murder (or Hitler or Stalin), but it would probably help a lot. It should be government run and free to all, paid for by taxes. It has to be. Leaving the market to decide would create a permanent underclass of poor, sick people like we've never seen before, discrimination based on genes. "You're resume? No thanks, we'll scan your genes...thanks for applying."
When it comes to enhancing intellegence, athletic ability, etc. I'm still undecided on how we should handle it. Yeah, sure, I would love to have a better memory. But the consequences writ large could be scary. It would change everything. And it's coming.
What do you think?
The Case Against Perfection
Hitler (see my latest blog) is a perfect example. Can science explain Hitler's evil? Imagine we look into the child-brain of Hitler and see a complete lack of empathy and a 70% probably of antisocial personality disorder, depending on environmenal triggers. Could we prevent it from happing? That's one thing: science can help predict and prevent. But here's another thing: Does "lack of empathy" really explain what Hitler did? Does that encapsulate his evil? Can psychology explain him by describing the relationship he had with his father? And what about historical explanatoins of Hitler and the Holocaust? Doesn't that count? Not to mention religious accounts of evil, or philosophical ones like Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil"?
Simon Baron-Cohen says enough is enough. We need to understand evil in scientific terms in order to prevent it. Evil is "zero-degrees of empathy," which can be measured in the "empathy circuits" of the brain. Simple as that.
Well, not so simple. There is an emotional side to empathy ("I feel your pain") and a more intellectual, "cognitive" side ("I make it a rule to treat people nice"). Some people have one, some have both, some (Hitler, Ted Bundy) have neither. Emotional is more genetic, cognitive is more learnable. People with autism, for example, have trouble with emotional empathy but not with cognitive empathy. Furthermore, "zero-degrees of empathy" isn't always necessarily bad; people with Aspergers, for example, have a brain that makes them genuis's and musical prodigies (and they can live perfectly moral lives).
Wait a minute. Not so simple, still! There is an attitude of scientific arrogance here, a "step aside centuries of theologians, philosophers, social theorists, Goethe, Stephen King...you had you're fun, now let the men in white lab coats explain everything for you." Yes, science can explain empathy. Yes, it can help to prevent and promote it (doesn't religion do that too?). Science cannot explain the whole concept of empathy or evil anymore than it can explain the whole concept of life, or pain, or death, or joy, or love.
Is that your reaction?
Either way I loved the book and highly recommend it; very readable.
The Science of Evil
This book is not a biography of Hitler; it’s a biography of the biographers of Hitler, it’s a story about the Hitler scholars, an all-you-can-eat buffet of the full gamut of explanations for the murder of 6 to 17 million people (depending on how you count). And by “explanation” we usually mean “whose fault”? Who’s to blame? Germany? Hitler’s one testicle? Judaism? Christianity? God? The Jewish doctor who treated Hitler’s mother with cancer? Nobody? Everybody? The Nazi Party? Abstract Historical Forces? Hitler’s incestuous past, secret Jewish blood, failed artistic striving, political ideology, psychosis? Or do we simply blame Hitler himself?
Take a deep breath. I had to. There is a level of absurdity to all of this. Why do some of these explanations sound ridiculous, narrow and short sighted? We have to remember historians are people too; they can be inaccurate, biased, and nasty. That’s the beauty of this book. It’s gossipy. We see the arrogant scholar, we see scholars tag-teaming and ridiculing each other, personal attacks, fame, red-faced, passionate, proud. Perhaps the competitive atmosphere of academic publishing is really to blame, where everything begins with disagreement instead of compatibility. Chapter 1: everybody is wrong. Chapter 2: I’m right and here’s why. Or, perhaps the historian was right that said there is no explanation for the Holocaust and never will be.
- Where do we draw the line between explanation (“he was crazy”) and culpability (“he was responsible”)?
- Did the Holocaust answer the question: is human nature more bad than good? Can there be “no more poetry” after the Holocaust?
- Is the hatred of Hitler a potentiality in us?
- What does this say about belief in God? Do we find God absent and uncaring or do we find God in the acts of heroism (the other half of the story)?
- Is history driven by abstract historical/socio-political forces, or by individual people?
Complex phenomena have complex explanations, but what really matters is the lessons that history gives us. The old adage “history repeats itself” is the whole point of doing history, in my opinion. Once we learn the patterns of hatred, we can predict them and stop them. How do you get people to hate? You separate them, call them “others,” you use the word “war,” as if to make them “enemies.” You call them “germs” or “cockroaches” or subhuman. You censor. You get rid of the media. Hitler pillaged the Munich Post. You dehumanize them and de-individualize them. Hitler passed a law that made all boy Jews have one name and all girls have another. You use esoteric, secretive, ambiguous language that hides your hatred as something “intellectual.” People eat it up. Hitler did that. So did Heidegger and Nietzsche in a way. You retell history in a way that fits with your hate story against the Jews. Hitler and the Nazis actually staged a fake battle to accomplish this.
If you want to dive into the life of Hitler, try a different biography. If you want to dive into the sea of Hitler scholarship, I recommend this book.
What makes an Andrew Carnegie? What turns a Scottish immigrant boy, son of a poor weaver, into the most successful man of the 1800’s? He would name five people. His father, the “sweetest nature” he had ever known. And his mother, who respected all religions and lived by the Confucian maxim to “perform the duties in this life well, troubling not about another.” And his wife, “peace and good-will attend her footsteps.” And a librarian named Colonel James Anderson, “bless his name as I write,” who opened a library for working boys:
and to him I owe a taste for literature which I would not exchange for all the millions that were ever amassed by man. Life would be quite intolerable without it…the light of knowledge streamed in. Every day’s toil and even the long hours of night service were lightened by the book which I carried about with me and read in the intervals that could be snatched from duty. (Autobiography, 46).
It is no wonder, then, that Carnegie would give $41 million (today that’s several billions) to establish 1,689 libraries:
It was from my own early experience that I decided there was no use to which money could be applied so productive of good to boys and girls who have good within them and ability and ambition to develop it, as the founding of a public library in a community which is willing to support it as a municipal institution…For if one boy in each library district…is half as much benefited as I was by having access to Colonel Anderson’s four hundred well-worn volumes, I shall consider they have not been established in vain (47).
The Philosopher Philanthropist
Andrew took a trip around the world and learned that the “Great Power” had smiled on all cultures and peoples:
In China I read Confucius; in India, Buddha and the sacred books of the Hindoos; among the Parsees, in Bombay, I studied Zoroaster…I had a philosophy at last. The words of Christ ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is within you,’ had a new meaning for me. Not in the past or in the future, but now and here is Heaven within us. All our duties lie in this world and in the present, and trying impatiently to peer into that which lies beyond is as vain as fruitless (206).
When wealthy men become wise they give their wealth to worthy causes: "I resolved to stop accumulating and begin the infinitely more serious and difficult task of wise distribution…Shakespeare had placed his talismanic touch upon the thought… ‘So distribution should undo excess, And each man have enough’" (255). And “of all my work of a philanthropic character, my pension fund gives me the highest and noblest return” (279).
Clearly he believed in education, as his money talks: all the libraries, a fund for university professors, for the Tuskegee Institute: “and to know Booker Washington is a rare privilege…No truer, more self-sacrificing hero every lived: a man compounded of all the virtues.”
I recommend reading this biography and his autobiography at the same time.
I roasted it! It’s 10x easier than you think. (1) get a hot air popcorn popper. Yep, that’s right: popcorn popper (got mine from Target); (2) get green beans (got mine from local roastery, also check out sweetmarias.com they seem really good); (3) put 1/3 cup in the popcorn popper, wait 5-8 minutes (listen for the “second crack”); (4) cool beans, grind, and enjoy. Done. (Obviously it’s a bit more complicated…visit sweetmarias.com or youtube for how-to videos). The longer you roast coffee (“dark roast”), the less caffeine.
It’s amazing that every single coffee bean that you see was probably individually picked by someone’s hand (machines aren’t smart enough for them yet). Coffee is born on coffee trees by the equator. The beans are actually found inside little red fruit cherry balls. Coffee beans are the seeds inside the fruit, small green hard beans that smell like spicy bread. It’s hard to imagine why someone roasted them in the first place, but very old civilizations certainly had coffee (there are various theories about how they stumbled on it).
Oh yeah, the biggest question of all: taste. My first batch tasted great and had a distinct smell. Not as good as a fresh cup of Starbucks or Waterstreet, but extremely close. I imagine they will get better. If you are looking to satisfy your do-it-yourself impulse, save some money (about 15-25%), and have the freshest coffee you’ve ever had, I recommend giving it a try. If you don’t like it, perhaps because of the smoke it fills your kitchen with, you’ve only wasted 25 bucks.
Home Coffee Roasting
Imagine the young George Washington, early in the political career, placing a keg of beer or rum next to the polling place. Now imagine him winning. Now imagine this happening all the time. Who needs to buy an election when you have beer, right? And we wonder why people don’t vote anymore. Just kidding.
Yes, this was real, this happened. In fact, James Madison stuck his nose up at the practice. He was going to win his election without booze, darn it. Well, James Madison lost. The fact of the matter was that alcohol had a much more prominent place in early American life, not just politics. The entire day, as this book details from cock-a-doodle-do to shut-eye, was filled with excuses to drink. There were official, city-wide dedicated breaks for guzzling, reminiscent of Muslim daily prayer rituals. Alcohol was God’s blessing. It was giving to babies and kids and sick people for a variety of ailments. Water wasn’t trusted, or known about, or sanitary half the time. Times were hard.
But “spirits” were hard too. Soon rum was demon rum, causing broken homes, useless husbands who beat their wives and children. Alcohol was causing too much harm. Soon the people who championed moderate drinking, like Benjamin Franklin, were fighting with more extreme people—temperance and prohibitionists. Get rid of the temptation was their motto. My favorite image of the prohibition movement, largely started by women who were sick and tired of not only a drunk husband, but no freedom to do anything about it—my favorite moment is when they decided they would kneel in front of saloons and pray and sing away the demon rum. And as I’m reading I think to myself: “No! Don’t do it; bad idea; this won’t work!” Well, guess what? It did work. For a short while at least.
This book is mostly about the movement to ban alcohol, which I didn’t expect at first. But it’s still good, interesting, and well written. For a similar book see Drink: a Cultural History of Alcohol
The Spirits of America
Actually, if you look around, pessimism does seem to be the cool thing to do. The media only reports bad news (oh, yeah, I forgot the occasional story about a police officer trying to get a cat out of a tree. And because I have a cat I'm pretty sure it’s thinking: "I'll come down when I want thank you very much.") Most TV shows promote a very disturbing image (Maury). It wasn't until the 1960's that we thought maybe we should start figuring out what makes people happy and good—"Positive psychology" was born. Evolutionary biology has been banging its head against the wall for decades trying to explain how, just how could a thing like altruism exists! When people say "I'm a realist," they really mean "I'm a pessimist." Why is that?
Cicero said it best: “If we are forced, at every hour, to watch or listen to horrible events, this constant stream of ghastly impressions will deprive even the most delicate among us of all respect for humanity."
In the end there are a lot of reasons for us to be pessimists, the most obvious reason being this: we are bad. But that’s only half the truth. And only half the truth can lead to complacency, setting the bar way too low, not respecting yourself or others, clouding your judgment, being more likely to not help. Course it goes both ways: naive optimists who don’t accept evil have their own problems (read Voltaire's Candidefor a famous lashing of Optimism).
What about War?
Of course war is the cruelest and most horrendous thing in the history of human beings, and it happens too much. But what is amazing about war is the amount of effort the government has to go through to actually convince us to do it. Think about it. First, they have to convince the public that it’s a “just war.” This isn’t very easy. Second, they might have to force people to go (draft). Third, they have to turn a person into a soldier, by systematically breaking them down and building them back up. Sound “natural” to you? Rousseau pointed out that war is not between people anyway. Soldiers are pawns in a political chess game. And lastly, if you manage to put a young man on the front lines, gun in hand, picture of family in pocket, taught to kill, good luck getting him to actually kill someone. In World War II, for instance, a study found that only 15% of all soldier in combat used their guns at all. That means that not only 75% refused to kill, but refused to even use their weapons in combat!
Sadly, the book doesn’t make a good case for the other side of the story—all the amazing and good things that happen daily, yearly, throughout history. I'm still looking for that book, although I recommend Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature.
I go outside. I pass a person on the street. They make eye contact. They nod. An amazing show of respect by complete strangers. So much in a nod! An ambulance goes by, perhaps saving a life at that very second. People are laughing in the park. A cookout? Ministry with Community feeds people every single day. The entire day will pass and I will not see one person harming another person; that will be a normal day. A church offers free breakfast. United Way clothes the poor. My mom calls just to say hi. A person watches a movie and cries. 40 million more people get health insurance. A person devotes their life to cure cancer. Okay, I’ll stop. As the character in American Beautyonce said, yes it might be hard to take all the suffering in the world—but it’s equally hard to take in all the goodness, all the beauty. Press on, you Optimists! You are creating the future!
The Brighter Side of Human Nature
Dr. Lobosky, who probably dictated this book to an intern, a red faced old school doc from the 70’s, raging mad about all the problems with health care, talking about the good ol’ days when doctors actually saw their patients... Anyway, he was hopeful when President Obama talked about a single-payer system, a public option, universal access, and letting Medicare negotiate for lower drug prices. But alas money and politics! The special interests (insurance, drug companies, trial lawyers) gobbled up Obamacare and spit it out. It’s mutilated, complains Lobosky, to the point that it may not solve the larger problems it began to solve in the first place. Like affordable access and care for all.
Now I must admit I really liked listening to this doctor rant and rave about everything, but eventually he does offer some solutions:
- Everyone has insurance and pays through the same system (single-payer system)
- Everyone gets the same coverage (universal access)
- Force insurance companies and hospitals to be not-for-profit: if a company must choose between profit and patient care, they will choose profit. After all, they have stock-holders to make happy. He sees this as a glaring conflict of interest.
- Protect doctors from getting sued so much
- Force drug companies to make new drugs, not just “copy-cats”: and increase their patents so it will be worth their while.
- Use evidence-based medicine: don’t waste resources by doing procedures that are unnecessary or don’t work
- Death Panels! This is called “rationing” in the health care debate. It boils down to the fact that we have a finite number of resources in our health care system. So if a person insists on getting a procedure that probably won’t work and probably won’t help their quality of life, then, the argument goes, they should have to pay for it instead of the government. Or perhaps a charity would.
This book will propel you into the health care debate. It’s written by a politically moderate doctor who has a unique view in the trenches. At times he sounds arrogant, and he knows it. I found myself laughing. But this issue is no laughing matter. I highly recommend.
We have many other books on health care reform.
It's Enough to Make You Sick
The good news: we are wired to be decent, empathetic people. The bad news: it takes a little work and envirornmental factors to foster that empathy.
The authors think we are failing in many ways. 80% of Americans are only really close to a family member, 25% say they trust no one with their secrets. Only 32% of Americans agree that “most people can be trusted” compared to 58% back in 1960. “The amount of time spent playing freely fell by nearly one-third between 1981 and 2003…the number of hours that children spend playing outside…was cut in half…only 57 percent of elementary school districts currently require recess” (295). “Two-thrds of children under six live in a household where the TV is on more than half of the day—even if no one is watching” (in 1/3 the TV is always on) (296). “On nearly all measures of social life…Americans tend to have fewer and lower-quality interactions with one another than our parents and grandparents did” (229).
The book stressed the enormous important on a primary caregiver, a individual that is always there for them. Babies die without them. A study compared babies raised in orphanages compared to babies raised in prison with their mothers. 37% in the orphanage died by 2 years old (none in prison died). A rich family hired several nannies to take care of their baby. When the child would get "too attached," the mother would fire the nanny and hire a new one. The child learned to never become attached to people. That boy ended up raping a disabled girl in high school, possibly a sociopath.
It's always important to remember that our genes do not seal or fate. The majority of children of addicts do not become addicts (they are simply at a higher risk than non-addict parents). Our upbringing and the environment decide what genes are "expressed" in us. Nature and nurture. And the book has amazing stories of people who, against the odds of nature and nurture, led good lives.
Well, I could go on and on about the interesting stories and studies that this book goes over. From why Scandanavians are so happy and healthy, to why women get a rush of heroin-like oxytocin when they look at their baby, to why TV is bad for children (yes, even baby Einstien!). If you want to read about empathy development in children, parenting, psychology and brain science, this is the book for you.
Born for Love
Most of these God-debate books either bash fundamental Evangelicals or New Atheism. This one bashes both, while saying some good things too. Author Frank Schaeffer comes from a unique perspective. He was raised by a fundamentalist evangelical preacher family and became a prominent one himself. Although he has a lot of good to say about his mother and father as people, he eventually rejects their religion on many grounds. He learned that it was almost impossible to love God if God is making you millions of dollars. He also thought that they worshiped the Bible more than God, as if God was the Bible. Also, they are never interested in what people have to say. Instead, every conversation is a chance to convert people. He reminisces the old days, when his mother and father would accept gay people into their community without thinking twice. Now days they target these people as a political tactic to strengthen the faith. An important point of the book not to overlook is this: you can bash a religion or atheism all you want, but this doesn't necessarily make the people bad. His mother and father were good decent people, he says, and that's because they didn't follow the nastier parts of their dogma.
He comes from the perspective of Soren Kierkegaard, the Christian mystic Existentialist philosopher (who I'm reading now): We have no clue what God is, so let's just be humble about it. We can try to figure out what God isn't (negative theology), but experience and openness is the best we got. In fact, this encapsulates his critique of the New Atheists: like fundamentalist Evangelicals, they think they know everything. They have no humility. It's a different form of the same thing. It's a frame of mind. This reminded me of a Jewish philosopher I read and blogged about recently, who blamed the Greeks for turning faith into a knowledge pursuit. This was a wrong step. Faith is not knowledge, and knowledge does not destroy faith.
The author talks about his new faith in the Greek Orthodox liturgical tradition. But mostly he talks about his family, and how much he loves them; and how much he thanks God for them and for all the good and bad in his life. He does not give an answer for why his God would allow children to suffer; he doesn't think there is an answer. His passion for life really comes through at the end.
Patience with God
This is the most honest book on faith I've read in a while. Whether you are a person of faith or not, you will appreciate this book. The author openly, candidly and honestly tells the story of how he began reporting on inspiring stories, on people of faith who gave up everything to help the poor. As the author was becoming a Catholic, the priest sex scandal hit, which he reported on. This became a "body blow" to his faith, leading to a steady decline until he realized he wasn't going to church, wasn't praying, wasn't reading the Bible anymore--in short, he woke up one day and realized he could never go back.
The way he explains his loss of faith is what I found interesting and original. He argues that it wasn't a choice, but an organic, slow, and steady series of natural events that led to where he is now:
"Spiritual suicide infers that people make a conscious decision to abandon their faith. Yet it isn't simply a matter of will. Many people want desperately to believe, but just can't. They may feel tortured that their faith has evaporated, but they can't will it back into existence. If an autopsy could be done...it would be natural causes--the organic death of a belief system that collapsed under the weight of experience and reason" (141).
I especially like the beginning and end of the book, but almost the entire middle is filled with the detials of the Catholic molestation sex scandal that he exposed and reported on--which I thought was too long and didn't fit well with the memoir aspect of the book.
Losing My Religion
Utopias--perfect places of peaceful bliss--have been dreamed up from the beginning. They were planned, hoped for, written about, satired on, remembered, started and broken. Many civilizations looked backwords to find it: the Garden of Eden, the "good ol' days"; Rousseau imagined the "noble savages," uncivilized people not currupted by civilization. Many look to the future and wait for it: heaven, Nirvana; an age where technology and science solves all human problems. Many look to the present and find it here or coming soon: "the kingdom of Heaven is at hand." Stephen Pinker argues that now is the most peaceful time in human history. Whitmans says "to me every hour of light and dark are miracles."
The problem with utopias, as history shows, is that they rarely work and sometimes kill people. In other words, it's a slippery slope into dystopia (a chaotic, violent state). That's because if you have a perfect goal in mind, everything else seems expendable to acheive that goal--see the problem? It's the whole "you have to break an egg to make an omlette" thinking, only on a grander scale.
What amazed me most about this book is the sheer number and scale of utopian communities that have been developed over the years. America had a lot of them (I talked to a man at the library that was part of a utopian community based on B.F. Skinner's Walden Two!). They definitely hit a peak in the 17 and 1800's, and a few religious-based ones in American are still going today (Amish, Mormon communities). I noticed that almost all utopian dreams involve the sharing of wealth and property, or, at the very least, equality of rights among all people. What I didn't like about the book was that it didn't go in any detail about particular communities, making it read more like an enyclopidia or coffee table book.
Searching for Utopia
A Stronger Kinship is a story about a small town that decided to be fully integrated 100 years before most of the country was integrated. Fully integrated--think about that. At the same time when our nation was fighting a war over race-based human bondage, African Americans in Covert owned property, were elected to powerful political positions, send their children to the same schools as the white kids, conducted business together, were friends, went to the same churches, read the same books from the same library. Covert started on the right foot and never looked back.
Covert was a diamond in the rough, a city on a hill, a promised land for people of color. But this only makes sense if we have historical perspective. Living in the northern states as an African American (or Native American) was no picnic. The author quotes an editorial from the Illinois State Journal, 1862, which captures the feeling of many African Americans after Emancipation:
"The truth is, the nigger [sic] is an unpopular institution in the free states. Even those who are unwilling to rob them of all the rights of humanity, and are willing to let them have a spot on earth on whcih to live and to labor and to enjoy the fruits of their toil, do not care to be brought into close contact with them" (quoted on pg. 45).
If you learned in school that slavery and discrimination were "southern" problems that the "north" fixed in the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation (as I did), then you might wonder why Covert is so special. Sadly, that history is as glossy as when people say the war was about "states rights." The truth is that slavery existed in the northern states too. A book from our reference collection says:
"a British census taken in 1782 counted 179 slaves among the 2,191 people living along both shores of the Detroit River. In 1796, 31 adult black slaves and 16 black children, presumably the children of slaves, lived in the Township of Detroit among a 'free white' population of 238. The actual number of slaves was probably higher becasue many families in Michigan owned Indians as slaves..." (The History of Michigan Law, p. 20).
Even when the Northwest Ordinance banned slavery in 1787, it still existed in practice. Also, I think the ban was repealed in 1807 for ten years (because the Indiana Territories wanted white slave holders to move into their territory for economic reasons). And this is to say nothing about other forms of discrimination that existed in myriad forms at various times. As depressing as it is, slaves were freed only to find out they were not free.
So what was the secret of Covert? Why did Covert happen? Here is the beauty and the thesis of the book. There is no secret. The author, who is coming to KPL to speak by the way, says it best:
"Why did Covert happen? Although it may be the first question that comes to mind, it may not be the most powerful one. The question Covert should raise is, why not? Our puzzlement over Covert reveals a hidden assumption that racism is the norm, that unfairness and injustice are the natural patterns that the nation falls into if given half a chance. That assumption is not surprising, given the horrific and sorrow-filled history of race relations in this country, but Covert reminds us that that terrible history was a choice. That choice may have been made by millions of whites over many decades, but it was a choice, not a given" (208).
It's the story of ordinary people making ordinary decisions. Perhaps they seem extraordinary because "we have such an impoverished sense of the capabilities of ordinary people" (Charles Payne, quoted on pg. 201). It's easy to wallow in the depression of history and throw your arms up. What's your view of human nature? What do you think of yourself? And as you think about these questions, people are doing acts of kindness. We cannot take anything away from the amazing men and women in this book--they were giants.
A Stronger Kinship
It's actually as simple as this: (1) soak barley in hot water (2) boil with hops (3) put into bucket with yeast. No way. That's it? Well, yeah, of course it's a bit more complicated, but I must say it's a very fun challenge and learning experience to make your favorite IPA (my favorite is Two Hearted Ale, what's yours?).
But how much does it cost? That's what I wanted to know before I started. For me (I was very minimalist with everything), it all averages out to $5.88/six pack (compare Two Hearted @ almost $10/six pack). This includes all the equipment I ever bought, so it actually goes down with every batch I make.
If you're interested, we have some good books. Also check out the K.L.O.B. organization in Kalamazoo. Also, youtube "extract brewing," then "partial mash brewing" then "all grain brewing" to get an idea of the different ways to make beer (it depends on what sort of equipment you have or want to buy).
Needing direction, he randomly opens the Bible three times: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” What! Second, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics.” Wow. Ok, so maybe the third won't be so extreme? Nope: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his Cross and follow me.” This sums up Francis and the Order he started.
You know him as the Saint who talked to birds and flowers, but the real Francis was much more gritty, suffering, alone, real. He would live on a mountain for a month and come down with Stigmata wounds, and die soon after, and die in pain, and be glad for it. He was a rich kid who went to war, became depressed, gave up everything, and, as he says, "left the world" for a grueling life of serving God and the people who needed it most. The one thing that disgusted him--people with leprousy--became his passion.
What I like most about this "new" biography is that it has two separate parts. The first is the story of Francis' life, the best that the author can tell from the evidence. The second part is all about the scholarly debate, which I did not read and therefore was thankful for the separation.
Frank Sinatra said "I did it my way." Francis said "No one showed me what I should do, but the Most High himself revealed it to me, that I ought to live according to the form of the Holy Gospel." What's interesting is that the Medieval Church patterned their life according to the Acts of the Apostles, and denied that the wandering lifestyle of Jesus of the Gospels was appropriate anymore. It all worked out in the end, as Francis was whole-heartedly accepted by the Church.
And he liked animals too.
Francis of Assisi a new biography
1. Be not angry. Which means "judge not," "condemn not," don't ever think you are better or separate than other people. Tolstoy looked back on his life and realized that most of his anger came from separating his class of people (wealthy intelligent writers) with the vulgar, ignorant masses. He would eventually love these people and despise his old life of wealth and pride. He says "I understand now that he alone is above others who humbles himself before others and makes himself the servant of all."
2. Commit not adultery. He thought marriage made two people one, which made separation very painful.
3. Take no oaths. Even though it does come from one of Jesus' teachings, you might wonder why people think this is a big deal. First, it waters down your normal honesty. "I swear on my mother's grave!"--does that mean you normally lie? Second, think Abraham Lincoln. Whenever he talked about what he really believed, he said slavery was wrong. Whenever he said slavery was ok as long as it kept the Union together, he would talk about his "oath" of office and his "oath" to uphold the constitution. In other words, his oaths were forcing him to do things he normally wouldn't do. Last, think of Nazi's simply doing their duty or serving their superiors. That's what Tolstoy means.
4. Do not defend yourself by violence. Tolstoy interpreted Jesus command "resist not evil" and "turn the other cheek" in a very straightforward way--never resort to violence. So did Martin Luther King Jr., and Gandhi, etc. He thought this was the key to saving humanity and the only way to end violence.
5. Make not war. Follows from 4. Tolstoy was especially disturbed that the Church would support war, but he understood that it was because they were so intertwined with the State.
The story of Tolstoy's life and conversion, as told in his "My Confession" is an incredible story, partly because he's such a great writer (War and Peace, Anna Karenina, which he actually dismissed as sophistry later in life).
This blog is based on My Confession; My Religion; The Gospel in Brief, by Leo Tolstoy. If you like Tolstoy, non violence, Confession-type narratives (think Augustine and Rousseau), or theology, you might like this book.
Tolstoy a Russion Life