We categorize this book as Theological Science Fiction. It is a gripping first contact story that raises a number of moral and theological questions. One of these questions concerns how our morality might have been affected if evolution had taken a somewhat different, but entirely credible path — a path which is not without some analogy in our world. As indicated in the prologue, the Society of Jesus is heavily involved in the first contact, which is consistent with its historic place in the vanguard of science and exploration. More reviews of this book can be seen at amazon.com.
In this well-written, dramatic story, Judith, with the help of God, saves her people from the onslaught of the Assyrian cohorts. The means by which she accomplished this may have chilled reviewers, who might have feared that her method would serve as a model for the solution of other perhaps less pressing problems. It was excluded from the final draft of the Old Testament, but appears in the Apocrypha. You can get a copy by clicking here.
First published in 1949, this is a story of some of those who survive after most of the population of the Earth is rapidly killed by an epidemic. It is told of Isherwood Williams, who gathers a few survivors, and with them, constructs a small community, and tries to preserve as much of the culture as possible. Both success and failure appear against a background of plainly visible alternatives in such a way that at each juncture, we see the complexity and fragility of our culture. The book, among other things, illustrates qualities of leadership and principles of morality and polity that are of interest even in the absence of such catastrophe. I (Mike) read this book probably in the mid 1980's, and recently, Rosalie asked me how influential the book is in my life. I thought about it and answered that I think about something from the book at least once per week. This answer surprises even me, but the book does provide a lot to think about. Additional reviews can be seen at amazon.com.
In 1981, the state of Arkansas passed a bill requiring state schools to give "balanced treatment" to both evolution and "scientific creationism." The law covered all educational materials and programs that dealt in any way with the subject of the origin of man, life, energy, the earth, or the universe. After a challenge by the ACLU, the law was overturned in federal court. The decision issued by the judge is a very readable and interesting exposition on the relationships between church and state, and between religion and science, as these are seen from a legal perspective. You can get a copy by clicking here.
The story that people like to tell about Galileo and the church is that when Galileo tried to promulgate the heliocentric theory of Copernicus, he was imprisoned by the church, and his work was repressed. Galileo was the good guy, and the church was bad. As is often the case, there is more to the story. In this essay, Koestler reviews the history of the matter and concludes that neither the church nor Galileo were blameless. Galileo was clearly a giant in intellectual history. However, many of his actions were unnecessary to scientific progress, and apparently resulted in problems in the relationship between religion and science that persist to this day. You can read the essay by clicking here.
Does evil exist? Are there evil people? What does it mean for something to "exist"? We can argue about these things, and I have my opinions about them. However, few will disagree that people certainly do things that seem evil. M. Scott Peck believes that evil exists, that there are evil people. He believes, furthermore, that the human evil must be directly confronted and scientifically studied. In this book, Peck directly confronts the problem of evil, and suggests that it might be studied using the medical model. As Peck says in his introduction, unlike his well-known work The Road Less Traveled, "This is not a nice book." However, its insights are a major contribution to our understanding of the human condition. These insights will be found valuable in academic pursuits, as well as in dealing with problems of daily life. Indeed, they are more applicable to daily life than many would like to believe. More reviews of this book can be seen at amazon.com.
Elsewhere I have written:
I wear the pink triangle on my church nametag. Throughout history, humans have found, and continue to find any excuse they can to do evil to one another. It is likely that this is a consequence of Darwinian evolution — those who successfully repressed their competitors were more likely to survive. I relate this biological concept to the religious concept of original sin. We inherit it — but perhaps we are not constrained by it. One of the functions of religion is to pursue this possibility.
I add that properly functioning government also has responsibility in this regard. Indeed, it might be said that government is the instrument of religion — but this raises some issues that will not be dealt with here. Progress occurs over centuries; the decision reported here is a small, but noteworthy, step. If you are interested in the recent history of attitudes toward sexuality in the U.S, this is very good reading.
I read books of Pär Lagerkvist a long time ago, but they continue to float around in my mind. It is unfortunate that he is not better known in this country. His main focus is on issues of good, evil and religion, expressed in beautifully formulated characterizations and situations presented in various periods in history, but ageless in significance. Books I have read include: "The Dwarf", "The Sybil", "Barabbas", "Herod and Mariamne", "The Eternal Smile". His writing style is clear and smooth, and is a pleasure to read. The Swedish Academy also thought he was pretty good, and biographical and bibliographical information can be found here.
Can a machine be built that is conscious? How would we know? Perhaps we should build one and ask it. Could we believe the answer? Then, is anyone other than me conscious? Perhaps I should ask someone. But for now, let us assume that humans are conscious. To deal with the question of machine consciousness, we might then consider a comparison with humans. First, build the machine. Then, have seperate but comparable conversations with the machine and a human. Do this blindly, so that we do not know with which we are conversing. After doing this, see if we could tell which was which. Maybe one conversation is not enough, and I should live with a subject for the better part of a lifetime and toward the end, try to determine if it is human or machine (think Isaac Asimov). Those familiar with such things, of course, will recognize the work of Alan Turing. In "Galatea 2.2", given to me by a friend who is a philosophy professor, there are three main characters: the Humanist, the Engineer, and the Machine they built. The version of the Turing Test they use is to have the Machine and a human each take an examination for a Ph.D. in English, and see whether the examiner could determine which is which. Clearly, this would require that the machine "read" a large number of books, which might have seemed daunting at the time that this book was written. However, in view of recent news, this is no longer a problem. This is a very interesting book; all three characters are quite complex. For additional reviews see amazon.com
If you would like to obtain an understanding of the Old Testament, and its relationship to the historical setting in which it was written, this is the book for you. Whatever his personal religious views might be, the author takes a scholarly approach, describing the social, political and literary forces that affected the composition of one of the most influential documents in western civilization. The book is clearly written, very well organized, and contains numerous charts, maps, and illustrations. According to the back cover of the edition I have: "Barry Bandstra earned his Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures at Yale University. He did advanced research in Biblical Hebrew syntax at Harvard University as a Mellon Fellow, and has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East. For the past twenty years he has taught Old Testament and Biblical Hebrew at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, where he is chair of the Department of Religion." The book is supported by a web site.
I quote the back cover: "John Polkinghorne, a former Professor of Mathematics and Physics and now President of Queen's College, Cambridge, is an Anglican priest and a Fellow of the Royal Society." If anyone is qualified to deal with the relationship between science and religion it is this author. He makes, in my view, the currently most credible possible argument for the conceptual coherence of a universe which was created by God, who is conscious and who interacts with humanity. Notwithstanding his arguments, I retain my atheism, but I consider this book important reading for anyone seriously interested in these issues. He writes on this complex subject with unmatched lucidity.
Polkinghorne refers to the "God of the Gaps". These gaps are gaps in knowledge and change with time, and those things that are not understood at any particular time are attributed to the works of God. But there are two kinds of gaps: epistemological (related to our lack of knowledge); and ontological (related to the nature of reality). The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle provides the best known example of this distinction. In its early days, it was believed that under certain conditions, we could not know the location of a particle, but more recently, it is believed that under those conditions, the particle does not have a location. There are comparable cosmological gaps of both kinds. Historically, God has filled both kinds of gaps, but Polkinghorne believes that there is room for God only in the ontological gaps. My view is "perhaps", but William of Occam might have something to say about this: "Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate.", human experiences of the divine notwithstanding. I also note that near the end of the book, the gaps seem to be filled to the overflowing.
By the way, I first heard of this author on the radio program "Speaking of Faith" with Krista Tippett, which I also strongly recommend. Additionally, MP3 files of past programs can be easily downloaded, including the interview with John Polkinghorne.
I finished the book (in about 2007-2008). I was wondering how long it took, but I couldn't remember when I started. Then it occurred to me that amazon.com might have a history, and sure enough, I ordered it in late 1999. This book has some difficult parts. It is fitting that the author refers to the problem he confronts as the Hard Problem: "Wherefrom does the Conscious Mind arise?" This is not to be confused with the Easy Problem: "How does the brain work?". There is excellent reason to believe that in due time, the latter will be answered in any degree of detail we like. It is not so clear for the former.
David John Chalmers is Professor of Philosophy, and Director of the Centre for Consciousness, at the Australian National University. In this book he discusses in detail the various theories of consciousness, and the arguments for and against them. Some of these theories and augments are exceedingly interesting, and in some cases, lead to surprising directions.
Chalmers is not an unbiased observer. He has definite opinions regarding aspects of a correct theory of consciousness, and he does not hide this. However, he presents the opposing viewpoints, and the numerous references provided in the book and on his web site provide ample additional information on various views. Here is a simplified summary of views on some major theories of the Conscious Mind:
|Everett's Interpretation||Probably not, the best now.||Can't decide.|
Additional formulation of the categories of theories of consciousness can be found in:
Chalmers, D.J., 2003, "Consciousness and its Place in Nature";and an interesting critique of some important arguments (not all of which I agree with) appear in:
Vierkant, T., 2002, "Zombie-Mary and the Blue Banana".
There is an extensive bibliography on Chalmers' web site.
Let me be clear. In my system of beliefs, there is no significant distinction between the Conscious Mind and the Soul. Certainly, it will not be possible to understand one without understanding the other. If you would like to do some serious work in this direction, this book is an excellent resource. Other reviews appear on amazon.com.