Monday, 16 January 2017

There's This Book...

Reading made Don Quixote a gentleman. Believing what he read made him mad. - George Bernard Shaw




I love books. They're probably the single greatest love of my life. I've talked before about having several books on the go at any given time, and how I flit between them like a monarch butterfly in a field of thistles. It is, for me, the greatest form of escapism. Those who are familiar with my output may find this odd, not least because I've previously said that I haven't read any fiction (apart from Terry Pratchett) for well over twenty years.

It isn't really odd, though. There's something - dare I say it - spiritual about contemplating the deepest workings of the universe. As the Hitch once put it:
One page, one paragraph, of Hawking is more awe-inspiring, to say nothing of being more instructive, than the whole of Genesis and the whole of Ezekiel.
Hitchens was very fond of pointing out that, contrary to the views of those who thought that they had all the windows on beauty and the numinous in their possession, atheists were not immune to such feelings. Look away from the breathtakingly spectacular images from Hubble, if you feel you can, he enjoined, and say you're still impressed by a burning bush. 

Richard Feynman expressed a similar sentiment in discussion with an artist friend of his, who insisted that he could appreciate the beauty of a flower with his artistic sensibility far more deeply than Feynman could, with his reductionist view. Feynman, of course, retorted that, with his deep understanding of the inner workings of the flower, being able to appreciate the beauty of the cell and its mechanisms, that he couldn't help having a deeper appreciation, that understanding something can only add to the beauty, not detract from it.

Anyhoo, I digress. 

Books are fantastic. They're a wonderful way of communicating ideas and, better still, of stimulating discourse. With books, we can delve into the minds of the long-dead, giving them voice and allowing them to speak to the present and the future. They're a tangible link to the past, reminding us of where we've come from, and often illuminating where we're going.

That's not to say, of course, that books aren't without their pitfalls, and this is the real purpose of today's musing.

Some books can be problematic not because they're read, but because they aren't. An obvious example of this is the book that first introduced me to evolutionary biology, Dawkins' seminal work, The Selfish Gene. This book, now a mainstay of evolutionary thought, has had many critics, and it's far from perfect, but the vast majority of criticisms I've come across seem to be by people whose criticism is based entirely on having read only the title. Many have been rooted in the idea that the book is saying that selfishness is a winning evolutionary trait when, in fact, it tells us quite the opposite, advocating what Dawkins terms 'reciprocal altruism'. Indeed, the tenth chapter of the book carries the chapter title You Scratch My Back, I'll Ride On Yours, which should be enough to dispel this view on its own. 

The view the book actually presents is quite simple, namely that the thing that's doing all the surviving in 'survival of the fittest'* is, rather than the organism carrying the genes, the genes themselves.

In The Map Is Not The Terrain, we looked at another example from this book, the concept of a meme. A meme, in sensu Dawkins, is essentially a 'living' idea. He coined it as an illustrative to talk about how genes survive by comparing them to ideas that have a life of their own, by having some characteristic that makes them attractive to people, by which mechanism they gain popular traction. In that earlier post, I talked about how the meme 'meme' has quite literally taken on a life of its own, now popularly used to mean an image conveying some message. I recall seeing a recent interview in which Dawkins was chatting to somebody and the concept of a meme was raised in this context. Dawkins clearly didn't grasp this definition, and thought the term was being used in the sense of his original coinage.

These examples should serve to illustrate a deep point regarding some of the issues with cursory appraisals and how misunderstandings can arise, and this is while the author is still alive and in the public eye!

And this isn't the only problem, of course. Those of us who've spent any considerable time in counter-apologetics have encountered a problem known as 'quote-mining'. This is a phenomenon in which a quote, often by a famous scientist or other academic, is taken so horribly out of context as to make it appear that the author is saying exactly the opposite of what was intended.

Possibly the most commonly erected example of this is from Darwin's most famous work, On the Origin of Species. In Irreducible Complexity and Evolution, we touched briefly on the following passage.
To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.
It really does look an awful lot like Darwin was saying that this was something his theory couldn't account for. This is probably the most regularly quoted passage from all of Darwin's voluminous output, yet what follows it probably only accounts for half the number, if that. In what follows, of course, Darwin knocks this down fairly comprehensively, yet it rarely gets quoted except to rebut the erection of the former passage. Here it is:
Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certain the case; if further, the eye ever varies and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case; and if such variations should be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, should not be considered as subversive of the theory.
Here the lie is exposed for what it is, and it is undoubtedly a lie. As previously discussed, the reason for Darwin's erecting the former passage was that he wanted to ensure that he'd addressed every objection to his theory that he could think of, in a process described in detail in Onus Probandi, Assertionism and Peer-Review.

Shakespeare is a source of almost limitless inspiration for many, while inspiring only yawns in others. Among the most famous passages in Shakespeare is Hamlet's soliloquy, quite possibly the most famous dramatic passage in literary history. Often taken as being a pondering on death, and as Hamlet's contemplation not just of mortality but also of the prospect of dealing with his problems by simply removing himself from the picture. The text, read at face value, seems to be his internal struggle with whether he should fight the usurpation of his father's crown by his uncle, of which he learned from his father's ghost, or whether he should take a permanent vacation, as it were. However, there are some who read into it a subtext, one in which 'not to be' means 'pretend to be'. In other words, to be or merely to pretend. This is a fairly common theme in Shakespeare, and we can see this manifest in many works in one of Shakespeare's favoured plot devices, the play within a play, an instance of which appears in this very play.

These interpretational issues are very difficult to do anything about. All writers will encounter this sort of problem at some point. Indeed, I encountered just such a problem in a discussion with one of my excellent friends only a few hours before beginning this disquisition, somebody I've been communicating with for over a decade, and with whom I've had very few - and invariably trivial - disagreements. I'd written something about rights with which he disagreed. In this instance, it turned out to be purely a semantic issue which, once elucidated, evaporated. That this can happen between writers who know each other and each other's intentions fairly intimately based on millions of words of discourse shows just how easy it can be for misunderstanding to arise. 

Academics of all stripe, including philosophers, mathematicians and scientists, are keenly aware of this issue. I've written a fair bit in the past about semantics and how important it can be, most notably in the aforementioned The Map is Not the Terrain and Are Babies Atheist? Philosophers especially devote a huge amount of their writings to defining terms. Mathematicians and scientists rely on well-defined conventions precisely to circumvent such problems. This can, as we've already seen, lead to many misunderstandings, especially where those terms carefully defined for rigour have less careful, broader treatments in the vernacular.

At least the titular issues can be circumvented. It's very difficult to run away with a misleading impression if the title has no information in it, isn't it? So, we can solve that problem by keeping the title really simple. Let's call it The Teaching, or maybe The Recitation. Better yet, let's go for the simplest title possible, and just call it The Book.

Unfortunately, these titles have been tried, although when we cast them in their original languages, which we'll do in a moment, we'll see that even worse problems can manifest.

What all of the above should be leading to is that, although books are brilliant, and can be incredibly useful for conveying information, they can still pose problems, especially when we have to try to glean some meaning without being able to quiz the author on what he meant.

So, suppose I'm the ruler of the universe, and I want to convey to my creation - specifically to my chosen species, the most important aspect of the entire enterprise, and for which the universe was created - my message, telling them all of the important things they need to know - how I want them to behave, what it's all about, where they can put their penises and what position I wish them to adopt while engaging in this practice, how they're to treat each other - the rules of the game. What, given all of the above, and given that I'm supposed to have perfect, infallible knowledge of the entirety of the universe including all of space and time and the thoughts of every entity within it, is the best plan I can come up with?

I know, I'll use a book, ambiguous, open to interpretation, riddled with vague metaphor and straight up factual errors that are demonstrably not in accord with experience. Let my infallible knowledge result in a failure to correctly count the legs on an insect, or assert that the genomes of organisms can be changed wholesale by having their parents bump uglies alongside coloured sticks. Let's give it a nice, simple title, like The Holy Teaching (Torah) or The Holy Recitation (Qu'ran) or maybe simply The Holy Book (Bible).

Let's overlook all of the issues arising in the foregoing discussion, knowing about all of them. Let's ignore the fact that some people will use these books as weapons to beat, figuratively and literally, others who don't accept it. Let's make it so that no group of believers can agree with any other group about what I was trying to say. Let's ignore the fact that people will literally kill and die over the nonsensical contents of this book, that it will be the cause of millions upon millions of deaths and depredations, denial of basic rights, justification for slavery and subjugation, and treating followers of other iterations of the same book as second-class, or subhuman, all allegedly representing what I, author and inspiration for all of these books, and architect of the universe, purportedly want to see.

Nope, I can't think of a better plan than that. What do you think?

It's interesting to me that, when I ask for evidence that the purportedly omnipotent, omniscience creator of the universe has any basis in reality, I often get a response along the lines of 'well, the Bible says...'

This is the thing: The Bible, the Torah, the Qu'ran, these aren't evidence. If you want to present these as evidence for your deity, what you're actually presenting is evidence that the deity you believe in is an incompetent moron. These books are the claim, not the evidence. On what basis should I be tempted to accept the claim of these books at face value, when I know at least some of them to be flat-out wrong? 

Not to be believed by a thinking person.

*This phrase is horribly misunderstood, largely because, like 'theory', the term 'fitness' has a very specific meaning in evolutionary biology. In the jargon, fitness is a measure of performance against a specific measure, namely 'expected number of offspring'. It doesn't mean that the fastest, biggest, strongest, etc., will survive, only that the organism with the greater fitness will be better represented in future generations with a statistical weighting. See Has Evolution Been Proven? for more on this. A vernacular phrasing that more accurately conveys the proper treatment would be 'survival of the sufficiently fit, on average'.