Reasoning about religion

I’ve just finished reading Dan Dennett’s new book, Breaking the Spell : Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Overall, it’s an excellent book, and I highly recommend it. As for a full review, I couldn’t do better than the one in The Economist. (I’ve also seen some awful reviews and interviews which completely miss the point of the book. Dan anticipated this, and on p.412 he notes that he has “made a list of the passages in this book most likely to be ripped out of context and used deliberately to misrepresent my position… I am keeping my list… sealed and ready to release.” I can guess what may be included.)
The book’s divided into three sections. The first three chapters (together with two appendices) set forth the justification for a rational (naturalistic, scientific) study of religion. I suspect that atheists like me will find this rather too obvious and long-winded, but perhaps Dan’s careful approach is warranted for those who subscribe to those faiths which discourage introspection. Please don’t skip over the second appendix (“Some More Questions About Science”); it includes some powerful points and elegant metaphors.
The middle section of five chapters (plus two appendices) presents a collections of theories (or at least hypotheses and questions for further study) on how religion might have evolved. It’s interesting to see how prescient William James was, and Dennett repeatedly returns to “The Varieties…” and other Jamesian material. Indeed much of this section is a synthesis of the work of many others, and although Dan contributes many original insights, he rarely draws attention to them. I enjoyed this section a lot; I found myself re-reading various passages just for the pleasure of re-living the “aha!” moments. A modest version of memetics is proposed, but the main thread – language, intentional world-models, death, shamans and hypnosis, guilds, and the rise of institutional religion – doesn’t hang on one’s attitude to memes. The simple question underlying all adaptation and selection – cui bono?, who benefits – is what drives the development of Dennett’s thesis.
The last three chapters on “Religion Today” are… well, frustrating. The overarching question is “so what should we all DO about all of this?”, and while I agreed with almost every point that Dan makes, I can’t see how we make progress. Yes, we should brush aside traditional “Philosophy of Religion” approaches. Yes, we should all talk, respectfully and openly – but how do you include those whose faith is systematically invulnerable? Yes, it’s deeply frustrating that religious moderates seem unwilling or unable to challenge the extremists in their own tradition. Yes, you can demonstrate the logical inconsistency of those who demand the respect that they are unwilling to grant to others – but so what? Perhaps for those of us that live in countries with liberal democratic traditions some of Dan’s ideas may be useful in working to defend those traditions, but when it comes to Islam reforming itself, or the challenge of disaffected youth in China, I suspect larger forces will be involved.
But perhaps contemporary events have left me too pessimistic. And if there’s one quality that permeates this book, it’s Dan’s optimism. We can understand these matters, if we can just shed the taboos that inhibit our natural curiosity. And we should, because knowledge is better than fear and ignorance. Cui bono? Everybody….

"They Thought They Were Free"

From a comment on Doug’s Rant, a link to an excerpt from “They Thought They Were Free”, Milton Mayer’s history of Germany from 1933 to 1945. Key paragraph:

What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could not understand it, it could not be released because of national security. And their sense of identification with Hitler, their trust in him, made it easier to widen this gap and reassured those who would otherwise have worried about it.

Sobering stuff.

The Daily Show channels Cheney

If you didn’t catch last night’s Daily Show piece on Cheney’s hunting incident, check it out when it comes up on the streaming video page. Salon’s transcript doesn’t do it justice:

Jon, in a post-9-11 world, the American people expect their leaders to be decisive. To not have shot his friend in the face would have sent a message to the quail that America is weak.

UPDATE: Comedy Central seems to be swamped – as an alternative, CrooksAndLiars has a postage-stamp sized video available.

AppleCare comes through

One nice thing about AppleCare is that you can track the the whole process on the web. My PowerBook with the broken latch was shipped to Texas (why Texas?) on Thursday night, repaired late Friday evening, and shipped back to Chestnut Hill, MA on Saturday. As soon as DHL reported that it had been delivered, I headed over to the Apple store to pick it up. “Did we call you?” the “Genius” asked? “No, DHL IM’d me,” I replied, confusing him mightily.
From the paperwork, it seems that Apple replaced the latch, the bottom casing, and the speakers. And from running last I could see that the technician booted it up at around 11pm on Friday night, logged in to the test account that I’d created, and logged out 3 minutes later.

The Cult of the Leader

Glenn Greenwald nails the state of conservatism in the United States today:

What it takes to make someone a “conservative” in Bozell’s eyes is the same as what is required in the eyes of all Bush followers — a willingness to support Bush’s actions because they are the actions of George Bush…. That’s because “conservatism” is now a term used to describe personal loyalty to the leader (just as “liberal” is used to describe disloyalty to that leader), and no longer refers to a set of beliefs about government.

Welcome to North Korea (or is it 1984?).
[Hat-tip to Sully.]
UPDATE: Glenn has posted an interesting followup which demonstrates beautifully how most of the vituperative criticism of his original piece simply reinforces his thesis.

17 inches

The National Weather Service is reporting snow totals of 17.5 inches for Boston Logan and 17.0 inches for Needham. The only number they have for Brookline is 13.5 inches, but that was at 3PM, several hours before the storm ended. Since we’re half-way between Boston and Needham, 17 inches is a safe guess.
Of course this is nothing compared with NYC and Hartford, CT, but it’s still a sizeable snowfall.

Catching up

So I zoom all over the world, blogging like crazy, and then I get home and go quiet. Why? No special reason; I’ve just found myself running around, dealing with lots of small matters since I returned.

  • As I was packing up on Wednesday morning, I found that the latch on my 15 inch PowerBook wouldn’t catch. This used to be a perennial problem with PowerBooks and iBooks, but I thought Apple had solved it. I guess not…. On Thursday afternoon I took the machine to the Genius Bar at the Apple store near my home. The “genius” looked at it, and said, “Oh yes, routine fix, it’s under AppleCare, good, but it’s an offsite job, have you backed it up, and is there a test account the technicians can use?” (Because, apparently, if they can’t log in as part of fixing things, they are liable to wipe the disk.) I raced home, backed up 32GB onto a handy FireWire drive, added a suitable account, and made it back to the store at 4:55 PM, just in time for the 5:00 PM pickup. Right now the system has been fixed and is on its way back from Texas(?!) to Massachusetts. Weather permitting (see below), I should get it on Monday.
  • I had a lot of fun photographing all sorts of stuff on my recent trip, but although quite a few shots came out quite well, I was also very frustrated. Take my attempts to photograph birds in Bangalore. The Nikon Coolpix 5600 that I was using is a perfectly good point-and-shoot camera, but with only 3x optical zoom I was never going to get really decent pictures of those herons and kites. So today, after studying the various online reviews of digital cameras, and stalking the aisles of Best Buy and Circuit City to check out how the various controls felt on different cameras, I bought myself a Kodak P850. Like my Nikon, it’s 5.1 megapixels; unlike the Nikon, it has a 12x optical zoom with image stabilization. If all goes well, you should expect to see the results in my Gallery in the near future.
  • And in fact, the first pictures that I upload will probably be reminiscent of those I posted this time last year. We have another blizzard heading our way, and Sunday is likely to be meteorologically interesting…

Airport photography

As you may have noticed, I like to take photos of airliners, airports, and stuff like that. Fortunately I haven’t personally encountered the “cheap prose of patriotic convenience” that Patrick Smith writes about in Salon today – but it feels as if it’s only a matter of time. After Smith had twice been harrassed by clueless security staff for taking pictures at airports, he…

… presented the issue to Phil Orlandella, the media relations director for Boston’s Logan International Airport. As the departure point for both of the 767s that hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, Logan’s security procedures came under intense scrutiny in the weeks that followed. Orlandella’s office sits off a corridor between Terminals B and C, and he’s been intimate with all all things Logan for more than a quarter century.
“Who controls security, TSA or the local police?” he says. “They both do, it’s that simple. And no, it’s not against any rules to take pictures, inside or outside, period. If anyone tells you otherwise, that’s a bunch of baloney.”

I think I’ll carry a copy of this piece with me when I travel… just in case some officious goon tries to tell me that I can’t take photographs because “we live in a different world now”.

The last leg of the journey

This morning I woke up at 4:30 AM here in the Embassy Suites hotel on Arcadia. (“Arcadia”! Sounds blissful, no?) I think this means I’m ready to head home. So I’m just finishing my packing; in a few minutes I’ll head down to get breakfast, and then I’ll check out and drive down to LAX for the final leg of my journey. Tonight, if all goes well, I’ll actually sleep in my own bed.
I was going to add a few notes about what I’d learned from this 23K mile odyssey, but perhaps I should wait until it’s complete!