Staff Picks: Books

Staff-recommended reading from the KPL catalog.

Coded Racism

When you hear the phrase "welfare queen," what do you think of? Although technically speaking the phrase itself - welfare queen - isn't racist, I think we all know it actually is. Indeed, it was meant to be, by the politician who carefully created the myth. This book is about the history of such language. Specifically, it's about how politicians use this language to gain votes by creating fear, by focusing demographically, by dividing smaller groups from bigger ones. As for the three main targets, we are talking about African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims.

Although the author mostly blames Republicans and Fox News for racial politics, he does blame the Democratic Party too (he is not too kind to Clinton, for example, and he criticises Obama's strategy when it comes to race). Turns out the insatiable thirst for votes is bipartisan. But the major theme throughout the book is how the Republican Party specifically and intentionally became the white man's party in the late 1960's, beginning with the so called "Southern Strategy," which was summarized rather brutally by Lee Atwater, a Republican strategist:

"You start out in 1954 by saying, 'Nigger, nigger, nigger.' By 1968 you can't say 'nigger' — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites."

This is a complex book on racism and politics in America.


dog whistle politics

What does spiritual but not religious mean?

According to Pew, there is a growing number of young Americans that are not affiliated with any particular religion, a.k.a. "nones." This book, a sort of spiritual memoir by Roger Housden, is one example of a "none" trying to keep his faith. Or rather redefine it.

A very short book, almost an extended poem, his faith amounts to this: beauty, nature, kindness and love. Read poetry; look at art; walk in the woods; love people. The book is more like a memoir, a Whitman nature poem, a reflection on faith as solitary, personal, open-ended - a life-journey.

Now, I sympathize with his faith and applaud his ideals, but we must admit that this kind of faith is drastically different from the faith of many other people. That's okay. (disclaimer: I didn't read the entire book so I have no room to comment, but yet here I am commenting). Is Housden merely describing his own happy, privileged, care-free life and calling it faith? Going to Starbucks, writing best sellers, enjoying art and peotry, watching the waves through his window. Sounds great to me! But what happens when you reduce faith into a few ideals? Is anything lost? Perhaps not. Where's the pot-lucks? Mr Housden has redefined faith into a solitary pursuit of truth and beauty (nothing wrong with that, he comes from a long tradition), but let’s be honest - he is getting rid of something here. Or, another way to put it: he probably got rid of his faith, kept a few things from it (truth, beauty, love, awe), and started something new and different.

If you are spiritual-but-not-religious, and you like poetry, you will like this book.


Keeping the faith without a religion

Different people. Different values. Can’t we all just get along?

Pro-lifers yell “Right to life!” Pro-choicers yell “women’s right to choose!” End of discussion, right? This book is an attempt to solve that problem. From conservatives to communists, from Jews to Jehovah Witnesses, we need a way to make decisions together — especially about public policy — if we are to get along. We need a “metamorality,” a universal language, a “common currency,” says the philosopher/neuroscientist Joshua Greene; we need an ethical code that transcends each particular one.

And his answer is…drumroll please….utilitarianism! (I can feel your excitement). A moral philosophy invented by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the 1700’s, utilitarianism is amazingly simple: maximize happiness and reduce suffering, as much as possible. Instead of talking about rights, principles, commands or duties, perhaps we can all agree on this one thing: happiness is good; suffering is bad.

Can we agree on that?

Probably not. That’s why the book is 300+ pages. And still, probably not. Nice try though., right?

As for me, I must say, I am convinced. This book has fundamentally changed some of my opinions. This is one of the most important books I have read this year, perhaps in my entire life. It has certainly brought together several intellectual strains that have been floating around in my head for decades now. To explain, I have always admired the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, whom I named my son after. Kant has a strict, rule based, "no exceptions" morality (never life, never cheat, never steal); in other words, your basic religious morality with a rational spin. John Stuart Mill, on the other hand, founder of Utilitarianism, I have admired from a distance. Now, finally they come together in a harmonious embrace. Which, for me, means a lot (check out my personal blog for more). In fact, I emailed the author and told him so. He emailed back right away said “that makes it all worthwhile.” Whether you hate utilitarian thinking or not, this book is amazing on many different levels: brain science, psychology, philosophy, politics, and religion. A bright, interdisciplinary guy and a good writer.


Moral Tribes

Are Geniuses Made or Born?

Was Einstein one-of-a-kind? Was he original, special, unique—so unique that nobody else could have possibly come up with the theory of relativity? There will never be another Einstein. Or, was he made, a product of the time, a small part in a larger collaborative scientific environment—at the right place at the right time? There are many Einstein’s.

Of course the answer is probably in the middle, and we sometimes forget that there are many other geniuses in history and alive today. (Good Will Hunting is a great movie on the subject). Einstein does get a “special” place, “relatively” speaking; we give him more “space” and more “time” than any other genius (puns intended)—perhaps deservingly so. Look up genius in the dictionary, you see Einstein’s silly little wise grin.

The author of this book thinks that, on the whole, genius is a product of a particular culture and that major scientific advances could have been made by many different people at any given time. Nobody is that special. Science is collaborative. Einstein disagrees: “Einstein believed that ‘great men’ shaped history and that advances in the arts, in the humanities, and in science were due to the contributions of outstanding individuals who labored in the solitude of the creative process” (27). Isaac Newton particularly comes to mind here. Oppenheimer, on the other hand, a contemporary of Einstein, stressed the collective nature of science a little more.

To become an Einstein, I believe many stars must align. First, geniuses really do exist, they are different; they have an Intel Quad-Core processor, we have an abacus. My mom said life’s not fair and she’s right. Second, education and upbringing. If the flower isn’t watered, if the fire isn’t kindled, if the…you get it. Einstein was well read and widely read. “I am really more of a philosopher than a physicists,” he once said. The fact that he read Kant’s ideas on space and time has a lot to do with how he developed his own ideas. Third, a thriving culture of learning is required, especially for science types. Also, it’s very important to remember that you don’t have to be a “genius” be do great things (indeed, Einstein considered ‘moral geniuses’ like Jesus and Gandhi).

What do you think?


Einstein and oppenheimer

Would You Kill One to Save Five? please comment

Scenario One: A trolley is about to run over five people tied to the tracks. You happen to be watching the horrible scene unfold. But, you also happen to be next to a lever. If you pull the level, the trolley switches tracks and kills one person (also tied to the tracks). If you do nothing, five people die. Those are your only options.

Do you pull the lever?

Scenario Two: Again, a trolley is about to run over five people tied to the tracks. But now there is a platform overlooking the tracks with a very large man standing on it (I apologize for the offensive nature of this thought experiment in advance). You are standing behind him on the platform. You have two options. You can do nothing and the five people die. Or you can push the large man in front of the trolley, which will stop it; but he will die. Those are the only options you have.

Do you push the large man?

Most people, it turns out, would pull the lever but would not push the large man, usually because the latter is more intentional. Interestingly, men are more willing to push the large man in front of the trolley. Military workers are more likely to push (vs hospital workers), liberals push (as opposed to conservatives), non-religious people push (vs religious) and — wait for it — psychopaths push! But there is no correlation regarding income or education and pushing.

The point, of course, has nothing to do with trolleys or large men. The point is that both outcomes are the same. One person dies and five people are saved. Yet why do we not push the large man? What else is going on here?

It has everything to do with your moral philosophy, which roughly come in two flavors: Utilitarian or Deontologist, John Stuart Mill or Immanuel Kant. Do you calculate numbers or do you follow strict rules? Does the outcome matter (save five) or does the principle matter more (do not kill)? Does the consequences of your actions matter, or just the actions themselves? Most people (me included) fall into the principle, rule-based camp (Deontology). Other people think that the means justify the end, that morality is about maximizing the best possible outcome for the greatest number of people, that sometimes by golly you have to crack an egg to make an omelet (Utilitarianism).

As for me, I would not pull the lever or push the man. What about you? Please comment below.


Would you kill the fat man

Kant was like Copernicus but way cooler

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 which of course is not affiliated with KPL).


Critique of Pure Reason

Five things you didn't know about Gandhi

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

The Gospel According to Reza

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.

I recommend.



Beliefs matter in history! yells Rodney Stark

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

Einstein’s God (no, “universal spirit”)

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

The Ultimate Secret to Weight Lifting

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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

Ethics without Religion, says the religous man

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.


Beyond Religion

I'll share mine if you share yours

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.



How placebo, mescaline, and being buried alive prove that you have a Mind

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:

  1. people walked into the hospital with canes, were given a fake surgery, and played basketball afterwards.
  2. 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.
  3. In a major depression meta-analyses, 75% of all positive results were because of placebo effect.
  4. 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. :)
  5. 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.
  6. 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).
  7. “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).
  8. 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?


Brain Wars

Poll: Would You Genetically Enhance Your Baby?

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

Can Science Explain Evil?

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 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

Hitler: product of Germany, Evil, or Really Really Bad?

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.  

  1. Where do we draw the line between explanation (“he was crazy”) and culpability (“he was responsible”)? 
  2. Did the Holocaust answer the question: is human nature more bad than good? Can there be “no more poetry” after the Holocaust?  
  3. Is the hatred of Hitler a potentiality in us?  
  4. 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)?  
  5. 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


Explaining Hitler

Andrew Carnegie: I geek Libraries ($41 million worth)

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.


Andrew Carnegie

Why my Coffee was extra special this morning...

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 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 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

Washington Wins the Election!--with Beer.

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

It's no longer cool to be a pessimist, says Alfie Kohn, so get over it

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

So I finally know what people are talking about when they talk about Obamacare Death Panels...

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:

  1. Everyone has insurance and pays through the same system (single-payer system)
  2. Everyone gets the same coverage (universal access)
  3. 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.
  4. Protect doctors from getting sued so much
  5. Force drug companies to make new drugs, not just “copy-cats”: and increase their patents so it will be worth their while.
  6. Use evidence-based medicine: don’t waste resources by doing procedures that are unnecessary or don’t work
  7. 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

Wired for Empathy

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
Share RSS