Category Archives: book review

Sad news – Victor Stenger has died

Stenger

I was sad to read that Victor Stenger died during the week at the age of 79.

Victor was a prolific author, writing on science, religion and philosophy. He often dealt with difficult issues coming out of the religion-science debates and was always able to explain complex subjects very effectively for the layperson.

In his retirement, after a career in particle physics research, Stenger took to writing popular books in science, religion and philosophy and participating in the public discussion and debate of these issues. Although not as prominent as the people usually called the “New Atheists” he was one of that group. In fact he wrote a book  titled The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason. (See my review of this book at Defending science and reason).

Victor was also well-known for public debates with religious apologists like William Lane Craig and Hugh Ross. I believe his role in these were important because of his ability to explain particle and cosmological physics and thereby show how these apologists had been distorting the science. Readers interested in watching some of these debates will be able to find them on YouTube.

I suppose it is fitting that Victor Stenger was writing till the end. He died with one book waiting to be published – God and the Multiverse: Humanity’s Expanding View of the Cosmos.

Victor will be missed not only by his family and people who knew him, but also by many readers.

I urge interested readers to read one or more of his popular science book. Wikipedia lists the following –  all published by Prometheus Books:

See also:
Victor Stenger, Physicist and Prolific Atheist Author, is Dead at 79
Victor Stenger has died.

The links below are to my own reviews of a few of Victor Stenger’s books:

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The good(?) old days of scientific writing

I recently read the first volume of Richard Dawkins’s memoirs An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist. It brought back a few memories for me.

The political and trade union battles of the early 1970s in the UK, for example. I was working in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1973-1975. That period saw 3 general elections and massive power cuts. I remember the problems of trying to do research, and even writing, when we only had power for 3 days in a week!

Dawkins took advantage of that time to begin writing the book which established him as a popular science writer – The Selfish Gene.

His description of what writing was like in those days  also brought back strong memories. We wrote and rewrote, with copious use of Sellotape and paste. A few, often considered eccentric, scientists had their own portable typewriters but most of us relied on the “typing pool.” That was an interesting social phenomenon – all female, it reminds me now of the way women were employed to do the tedious calculations for astronomers. They were called “calculators.”

I remember one stroppy typist who just could not understand why I kept rewriting manuscripts. She would often complain – but one had to keep on the good side of people like that otherwise your typing would go to the bottom of the pile.

Here’s how Dawkins described the process:

“I now find it quite hard to comprehend how we all used to tolerate the burden of writing in the age before computer word processors. Pretty much every sentence I write is revised, fiddled with, re-ordered, crossed out and reworked. I reread my work obsessively, subjecting the text to a kind of Darwinian sieving which, I hope and believe, improves it with every pass. Even as I type a sentence for the first time, at least half the words are deleted and changed before the sentence ends. I have always worked like this. But while a computer is naturally congenial to this way of working, and the text itself remains clean with every revision, on a typewriter the result was a mess. Scissors and sticky tape were tools of the trade as important as the typewriter itself. The growing typescript of The Selfish Gene was covered with xxxxxxx deletions, handwritten insertions, words ringed and moved with arrows to other places, strips of paper inelegantly taped to the margin or the bottom of the page. One would think it a necessary part of composition that one should be able to read one’s text fluently. This would seem to be impossible when working on paper. Yet, mysteriously, writing style does not seem to have shown any general improvement since the introduction of computer word processors. Why not?”

By the way, his book is a good read if you enjoy scientific biographies.

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‘The particle at the end of the universe’ wins Winton Prize

Congratulations to Sean Carroll – the winner of the 2013 Royal Society Winton Prize for science books.  (see Higgs boson book scoops Royal Society Winton Prize).

His book, The Particle at the End of the Universe, beat 5 other excellent titles. and the Judges were unanimous in their decision.

The book was also recently reviewed by Richard Easther on SciBlogs (see The Higgs, the Universe and Everything).

I was very impressed with his last book, From Eternity to Here, so I am very much looking forward to reading this one.

Here is a short video of Sean reading from his book before the announcement.
‘The particle at the end of the universe’ by Sean Carroll.

Sean Carroll is a great science communicator. He participates in, and organises, some great on-line discussions of science and philosophy. He also manages a  science blog  – have a read of his own comments on the Winton Prize. In these he reminds us not to forget the other excellent books on the shortlist:

I wouldn’t have wanted to be on the prize jury, however. All of the six shortlisted books are fascinating in their own ways, and at some point it’s comparing apples to pears. I wouldn’t have been surprised if any of the other contenders had walked away with the trophy:

These books are also being reviewed on SciBooks. See Birds’ Own Stories Captivate for a review of Tim Birkhead’s book.

The recent Science Weekly podcast has a great discussion of all the books shortlisted for the Winton prize. In it two of the judges speak really enthusiasticly about all these books – and some that didn’t make the shortlist. Really makes we want to get all the books on the list and get stuck into reading them straight away.

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The origins of ethics and violence

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What’s really true?

I am spending some time dealing with family business so I am reposting some of my past book reviews over the next few days. These could be useful with Christmas coming up.

Here’s an ideal Christmas present for the aspiring young scientist in your family – or someone you would like to encourage in that direction. 


Book Review: The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True by Richard Dawkins. Illustrated by Dave McKean

Price: US$16.49; NZ$37.50;
iPad app US$13.99, NZ17.99.
Audio vers. US$ 19.79.

Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Free Press (October 4, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1439192812
ISBN-13: 978-1439192818

I have posted on this book before (see A reminder of reality’s magic). It’s now available in New Zealand so a review is in order. Fortunately I have had an audio version of the book for a week, have listened to it all and am happy to recommend it. I can especially confirm my earlier recommendation as a sciency book for young people – perhaps a Christmas present.

Richard Dawkins himself says he aimed the book at young people from 12 years old to 100 years old. Younger children may also enjoy it, especially with parental help.

Each of the book’s twelve  chapters are built around a question – the sort of questions young and other inquisitive people ask. “Who was the first person?”, “What is a rainbow?”, “What is the sun?”, “What is reality? What is magic?”, “When and how did everything begin?”, “Why do bad things happen?” “What is a miracle?” and so on.

Most chapters start with the traditional or mythological answers. Some of those will not be new, coming from our own tradition or religion. New Zealanders will recognise a number of Maori or Christian myths. Others will be new, refreshing, intriguing, or even plain silly from our point of view. But, of course, there is no reason to suppose any mythological tradition is any more correct, or of any more value, than another. This helps develop a rational perspective.

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Science and faith

I am spending some time dealing with family business so I am reposting some of my past book reviews over the next few days. These could be useful with Christmas coming up. Victor Stenger has a very useful series of books on the relationship between science and religion. He is a very clear writer, combining a knowledge of the philosophy and history of science with stories from his own research experience in particle physics. This is, I think, his second to last book – I have yet to put up my review of his latest – God and the Atom.


Book Review: God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion by Victor Stenger. Price: US13.46; NZ$22.60 Paperback: 408 pages Publisher: Prometheus Books; Original edition (April 24, 2012) Language: English ISBN-10: 1616145994 ISBN-13: 978-1616145996 Victor Stenger wrote recently: “A majority of scientists at all levels do not believe in any god. Yet most are unwilling to challenge the religious beliefs of others.” That’s also my impression. The situation reminds me of our Prime Minister John Key’s reactions to many apparently important questions – “I’m relaxed about that”; “I’m comfortable with the situation” – even when we all know he should be taking problems more seriously.

Apathy of scientists

There really does seem to be a bit of confabulation going on here. Stenger describes what he calls The party line among scientists- believers and non-believers alike -:”

“science and religion are what Stephen Jay Gould called “non-overlapping magisteria”. In 1998 the US National Academy of Sciences issued a statement asserting “Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral.”Yet according to a survey the same year, 93 per cent of the members of the academy do not believe in a personal god.”

As if this apathy were not bad enough it is accompanied by religious interest in co-opting science.  Dan Barker, in his Forward to this book, describes the situation as “theistic mosquitoes buzzing around pretending to understand the science (and only managing to misrepresent it).” A personal experience recently bought this home to me. I did an internet search attempting to locate a specific quote of Galileo’s referring to the importance of deriving scientific ideas from the real world. Almost all the links returned were from theological writings, websites or blogs. I also notice that many theologians and philosophers of religion actively write and comment of scientific philosophy and history. Of course it’s good the theologically inclined take an interest in important fields outside their own. Even comment on them. But the inevitable ideological bias in such writings produces  many anti-science ideas and ideologically motivated interpretations of history and philosophy. The apathy of scientists towards these issues means such ideas are not often challenged and sometimes squirm their way into academic writings on science method, philosophy and history. Stenger’s “God and the Folly of Faith” directly challenges many of those ideas. As Barker says Stenger “swats away the theistic mosquitoes”.  His “unflinching and uncompromising attitude” and his scientific and philosophical background makes him ideal for the job. And, as the many readers of a long series of books* on science and pseudo science know, Victor Stenger’s writing style means the issues are communicated clearly and understandably.

Conflict – myths and reality

I have often commented that the “warfare model” of science and religion is a myth. That science and religion are not always and everywhere inevitably in conflict. This is the model that some of the theologically inclined attribute to anyone who sees any conflict between science and region. Such an extreme claim is obviously mythical – after all there are many scientists who are also religious. However, scientific and religious epistemology, “ways of knowing” are completely different. This leads to inevitable conflicts when the areas of interest of science and religion overlap. And they do – consider the debates over evolution, consciousness, life after death, and morality. The warfare model is often blamed on two books written in the 19th century: John William Draper’s History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science and Andrew Dickson White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.  Stenger puts Whites book into context:

“His book was largely in reaction to attacks from the religious community for his refusal to impose religious tests on students and faculty” at Cornell University. “nevertheless, White’s efforts at Cornell helped lead to the conversion of the great private universities in America and Europe from the church-centered institutions they were originally to the secular ones they are today.”

 “Modern historical scholars, some with ideological motives of their own” have been sharply critical of Draper’s and White’s books – but in the process have ignored, even covered up, the real ongoing conflict between science and religion. Stenger is quite clear – this epistemological conflict does sometime lead to real conflict and difficulties in acceptance of science. For example:

“many religious people will say they believe in evolution, but evolution guided by God. Darwinian evolution by natural selection, as the overwhelming majority of biologists now view it, is unguided.”

To introduce divine guidance into evolutionary science is to throw away a central part of that science.

Faithful reason

This epistemological difference also shines through in the different approaches to reasoning. Stenger is adamant that:

“the conflict between science and religion should not be regarded as a conflict between reason and unreason” – as some people present it. “The distinction between theology and science is in the objects on which to apply reason. Nothing can be learned from reason alone. A logical argument contains no information not already embedded in its premises.Reason and logic must be supplement by additional hypotheses about the nature of reality and the sources of our knowledge about that reality. In the case of science. that source is solely observation. In the case of theology, that source is primarily faith, with some observation thrown in as long as it does not conflict with faith. Theology is faith-plus-reason, with some observation allowed. Science is observation-plus-reason, with no faith allowed.”

Faith-plus-reason quickly deteriorates to rationalisation supporting preconceived beliefs. There is no mechanism to keep one honest.

Chauvinistic history

Some of the theistically inclined have a habit of claiming their religion (or their god) is responsible for so may things. From the “big bang” to human ethics. From human reason to social laws. And – something that gets up my nose – for modern science. Inevitably this creates conflict. An example are the snearing predictions of the content of “God and the Folly of Faith” made by critics at  The Quodlibeta Forum. These included the forum’s administrator James Hannam – Catholic apologist and author of God’s Philosophers and The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution).  Their predictions were wrong – because they relied on their own mythology about science, the history of science and atheism. Their active promotion of the myth of the conflict myth. By this I mean the habit of some students of history to vilify anyone who disagrees with their ideology-based histories as promoters of the “conflict thesis” – the idea that science and religion are always and inevitably in conflict. Of course the real world is not like that. Religion and science may be epistemologically exclusive but they are not always and inevitably in conflict. Nor is an author who writes about the history of science and religion guilty of promoting the “conflict thesis” because they are a scientist (rather than historian) or not a card-carrying religious apologist. Stenger is actually relatively balanced in his treatment of the relationship between science and religion throughout history.Where Stenger and Hannan deal with similar issues their factual history is basically the same. Mind you,  interpretations of facts can differ – and ideology plays a role here. Hannam, for example, interprets the 1277 condemnations (a list of “errors,”  issued by Bishop Tempier of Paris, which would lead to excommunication for anyone teaching or listening to them) as a good thing: 

“placing limits around as subject is not the same as being against it.” The condemnations “protected natural philosophers from those who wanted to see their activities further curtailed . . philosophy was safe to develop in peace and without fear.” (from “God’s Philosophers”).

In contrast Stenger mentions that interpretation (a speculation of Pierre Duheim) but points out that in contrast  the historian David Lindberg described the condemnations as “a ringing declaration of the subordination of philosophy to theology.” (28 – p 75) In fact , I think Stenger is so balanced that he has conceded too much in at least one case –  his treatment of the history of the Galileo affair. He says that “Galileo brought much of his trouble on himself:”

“Galileo used a foolish character, foolishly named Simplicio, to express some arguments that had been advanced by Pope Urban VIII, a long-time friend and supporter of Galileo. The pope must have said, “We are not pleased.”” “Although the Inquisition had worked out what we today call a “plea agreement” that would have left Galileo with little more than a slap on the wrist, the Pope intervened in his case, and in 1633 Galileo was tried by the Inquisition, found guilty, and sentenced to house arrest.

It’s true that much of Galileo’s behaviour must have been provocative, but any balanced consideration should also include the pressure on Pope Urban to make an example of Galileo – hence his intervention. These included personal opposition within the Vatican as well as the reformation and the religious wars. As for the Simplico issue – this does not appear to have been an issue until after the trial. Historian Maurice Finnachiro (who specialises in the Galileo affair and the subsequent history of its reporting) writes in Retrying Galileo, 1633-1992:

” this accusation is not mentioned in any documents prior to December 1635; . . . Thus, it seems more accurate to regard the Simplicio-as-Urban allegation as a new slander against Galileo”

An eternal battle?

Reading the history of science one becomes aware of an ongoing battle between ideas driven by evidence and reason, and those driven by faith, even when reason is used. And if we look around today at the debates over consciousness, evolution, climate change, etc., we see that the battle continues. It didn’t stop with Galileo and the blossoming of the modern scientific revolution. The science-religion conflict is not just a matter of history. On his final page Stenger concludes:

“Religious faith would not be such a negative force in society if it were just about religion. However, the magical thinking that becomes deeply ingrained whenever faith rules over facts warps all areas of life. It produces a frame of mind in which concepts are formulated with deep passion but without the slightest attention paid to the evidence that bears on the concept. Nowhere is this more evident than in America today, where the large majority of the public hold onto a whole set of beliefs despite a total lack of evidence to support these beliefs and, indeed, strong evidence that denies them.”

But what about the future? As he points out:

“Science is not going to change its commitment to the truth. We can only hope religion will change its commitment to nonsense.”

And Stenger makes an appeal to “scientists and all thinking people:”

“The eradication of foolish faith from the face of this planet.”

He doesn’t think this will be achieved “in the lifetime of the youngest amongst us.” But it is required for the survival of humanity. Somewhat pessimistic! Personally I think that a certain amount of wishful thinking, faith and irrationalism is probably inherent to being human. It is certainly expected from human diversity. Perhaps this issue is not the final eradication of “foolish faith” but its minimisation and/or neutralisation with its accommodation by the rest of humanity.

Conclusions

If these subjects interest you this book is a “must read.” This is just the last of a series of Stenger’s books on science and its relationship with religion and pseudoscience.* For those interested in a scientific viewpoint on these subjects these books are a valuable resource. They deal with issues such as quantum theory and it misuse and cosmological issues like fine-tuning arguments, the “big bang” and the origin of the universe, the eternal universe and the multiverse. To some extent he briefly repeats some of the content of his earlier books here – useful for those not wishing to read further. And  arguably this current book is his best yet. But, for more detail I also recommend his other books.


* Victor Stenger’s books on science, religion and pseudo-science

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The universe – it is bigger than you think

I am spending some time dealing with family business so I am reposting some of my past book reviews over the next few days. These could be useful with Christmas coming up.

I enjoyed Marcia Bartusiak’s book for two reasons. It is a very useful history of the development of modern ideas about the universe, especially during the early 20th century. The pen portraits of the personalities involved are especially interesting. But this history also makes the reader realise he or she should not be limited by current ideas. The universe really is bigger than we think, or can possibly think. Sort of put ideas about the multiverse into perspective for me.


Book review: The Day We Found the Universe by Marcia Bartusiak

Price: US$11.53; NZ$20.82

Hardcover: 368 page
Publisher: Pantheon (April 7, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0375424296
ASIN: B005IUVQGY

This is a great book – just the sort of history of science I enjoy. One that smashes a few illusions, introduces new personalities, describes the significant research and debates of the time. And also describes the key scientists in a human way, with all their foibles, prejudices and illusions as well as their scientific contributions.

The title is apt. The book describes the work and people which produced our modern day understanding of the universe. Less than a century ago we used to think that our galaxy, the milky way, comprised the whole universe. And that it was static.  Now we see it a infinitely bigger, with billions of galaxies similar to ours. We also understand that it is expanding and that we can trace this expansion back almost 14 billion years to the “big bang.”

The big illusion the book shatters is the received story of how this happened through the work of Edwin Hubble. Of course he played a key role – but we normally never hear the background stories, the other personalities involved or details of the disputes and resolutions. It’s normally all about Edwin Hubble.

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Our Far South – time we learned about it

I am spending some time dealing with family business so I am reposting some of my past book reviews over the next few days. These could be useful with Christmas coming up.

This is Gareth Morgan’s second to last book. It is very relevant to new Zealanders – and timely – because it deals with part of the world, our Far South, which is very important but often ignored. Well written and informative.


Book review: Ice, Mice and Men: The Issues Facing Our Far South by Geoff Simmons & Gareth Morgan

Price: NZ$35; Epub/Mobi NZ$15.
ISBN: 9780987666628
Barcode: 9780987666628
Published: 12 July 2012 by Public Interest Publishing Ltd

Antarctica brings to mind nature documentaries and penguins. Beautiful snowscapes and adventure. Maybe even of science and scientists working in harsh conditions.

But what about its ecological and political importance? Well, some climate change deniers/contrarians/sceptics/cranks have lately turned their attention to Antarctica in an attempt to “balance” the record breaking summer ice loss in the Arctic. I guess that’s a start – but what role do the Antarctic and the Southern Ocean really play in climate change. What about its natural resources and unique species? What are the governance issues – so many countries are interested in the area and many have a presence? And what does this all mean for New Zealand?

The first figure in this book (see below) shows our political and economic territorial interests in this area and suggest why we should perhaps pay more attention. Especially as the rest of the world is.

Territory of our Far South (All figures from book)

But there is also climate change – which interests all of us. Geoff Simmons & Gareth Morgandescribe the Southern ocean as:

“the engine room of the global ocean, and of the world’s climate. That is what many of us don’t realise and in our ignorance we’re complacent about the changes it is undergoing.”

So it’s about time the world, and New Zealand in particular, learned more about this region because the political, economic and ecological changes will eventually effect all of us. That makes this book very timely.

The book proves to be successful in its aim. It provides a very readable overview of the important issues: the history of the region; its resources and the battle to exploit them; international governance – the nature of the treaties covering the region and their problems; the ecology of the region – the threats to rare species, management of fisheries and problems with introduced species; climate change – the key role of the Southern Ocean and the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC) in circulating nutrients around the world’s oceans and as an important sink for heat and carbon dioxide (CO2).

Climate change

The book describes the formation of the ACC this way:

“Some 34 million years ago, Australia and Zealandia separated from Antarctica, and along with a mobile South America created a passage of deep water all the way around the Southern Hemisphere. The opening of this last gap, between the tip of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula (known as the Drake Passage) allowed the westerly winds and currents an unimpeded romp around the globe. This accident of geography created the world’s greatest current system – the ACC. And it was the inauguration of the ACC that directly contributed to a massive shift in the Earth’s climate from hot to cold, . . “

The Antarctic Circumpolar Current -
The ACC area is shaded orange (All figures from book)

This current, together with churning of the sea by wind, resulted in removal of carbon dioxide and heat from the atmosphere as well as transport of nutrients from the sea bed. The result, a cooling of the global climate, appearance of ice sheets in Antarctica, and a key role for the ACC in nutrient supply to the world oceans. As the authors say: without the ACC “we would have a much warmer planet, which means higher sea levels, and less land – and frankly, it’s quite likely we wouldn’t exist.”

The key role of the ACC in global climate, the world’s weather systems and insulation of the Antarctica continues today. The churning of sea by the wind and the low temperature of the water enables the current to carry heat and CO2 to middle depths and transport them around the world. The result: “40% of the carbon stored in the ocean is taken in between 30 degrees south and 50 degrees south.”

The ACC needs to be monitored closely – it’s important and climate change seems to be changing the workings of the ACC itself. There have been changes of wind and current speed and of location of the ACC which could have global consequences

Simmons and  Morgan summarise it this way:

Our Far South “is a place of incalculable importance to New Zealand and to the entire world. The ecosystem, climate and the actions of humankind are irrevocably intertwined – maybe here more than anywhere else on the planet. . . having a continent on our southern pole, surrounded by ocean and carrying an immense quantity of ice is part of what makes our planet’s current climate so hospitable”

Even from the perspective of climate change alone we need to be more aware of what is happening in our Southern Oceans.

Ecology

Although the sea floor of the Ross Sea and similar places are exceptions, most of Our Far south is not very diverse biologically. This makes it sensitive to losses of even a few species. Differences between the Southern Ocean and Northern Hemisphere add to this sensitivity. For example the lack of land mean there are no terrestrial sources of iron, no dust blowing of deserts. Algae require iron and even trace amounts make a huge difference to biological production. Circulation of nutrients to the global ocean by the ACC means conservation and study of the Southern Ocean and Antarctica is important. Unfortunately scientific research is under pressure to support commercial exploitation of the resources, rather than conservation.

One area New Zealand scientists has had success is in eradication of introduced pests from islands to our south. And this work is continuing. One of the authors, Gareth Morgan, supports this work through a charitable trust. So it’s fitting that he gives an invitation to readers at the end of the book:

“If you would like to help make a difference to Our Far South you can contribute to the Million Dollar Mouse project at www.milliondollarmouse.org”

The rush to exploit resources

Antarctica and the Southern Oceans have probably fared better than the Arctic region in the race for territory and resources. Nevertheless, there has been a rush here and New Zealand has contributed to this, as well as benefited from it:

“Thanks to our rapacious sealing, whaling and farming in the subantarctic islands (a legacy from which they are still recovering), New Zealand was able to secure sovereignty over those rocky isles. This in turn gained us one of the largest areas of EEZ (Extended Economic Zone) in the world.

I am old enough to remember the scientific activity and the cooperative spirit behind it during the International Geophysical Year in 1957. This enthusiasm provided political support for an international agreement on management of Antarctica and a Treaty was signed in 1959.

The Antarctic Treaty temporarily resolved territorial disputes on that continent by agreeing to disagree over sovereignty. This Treaty has proved incredibly successful at ensuring the continent is dedicated to peace and science. This is in our interest: we are just too small to get into a turf war. It left New Zealand with the Ross dependency. That, together with our EEZ, one of the largest in the world, and our extended continental shelf (see first figure) makes us an important player in the region, politically and economically. But the Treaty simply froze the status quo from the 1950s and the balance of world power is changing.

Of course this means New Zealand also has huge responsibilities in the political future of the region and exploitation of its natural resources. We really should be paying more attention here.

Whaling, and the threat of extinction to some species, has reached the attention of the New Zealand public which has an awareness of its relevance to our region and the Southern Ocean. While international negotiation and political protest action concentrate on whaling itself, and those nations which still kill whales, there is also a threat to whales in the region from climate change. The subtle change in nutrient flows influence the populations of species which whales feed on.

Many of us are also vaguely conscious of an ongoing struggle between conversation and exploitation of fish in Our Far South.* This is hugely controversial because science is used to manage fisheries, but also to exploit the same fisheries. It’s often hard to know who is winning – but most of us suspect commercial and not conservation interests prevail. On the other hand it is true that sensible conservation must often allow for controlled exploitation.

Toothfish in the Southern oceans has been very much in the news lately. Some scientists are very critical of it’s commercial exploitation because so little is known about the species. However, others believe it to be one of New Zealand’s  success stories. The authors discuss the controversy and their sympathies lie with the fisheries. They say

“Our fishing industry is by no means perfect, but the toothfish fishery really is an example of them at their best”

Despite the success of the Antarctic Treaty it does present problems because of the presence of so many countries and interests in the region and unresolved differences over sovereignty. The book discusses these current problems as well as the future problems we must grapple with as treaties and agreements are renegotiated.

Conclusions

This book provides an excellent resource for information on the Southern Oceans, our subarctic islands and Antarctica. It will provide students and layperson New Zealanders with an access to wide-ranging material on the history, politics, economics, ecology and natural and mineral resources of the region. References provide avenues for deeper study.

But it’s also very readable. There is an absolute minimum of technical language – and what there is often gets treated with humour. Mind you, it’s Kiwi humour so some overseas readers may miss the occasional digs against the Aussies.

Some advice for the reader, though. I read this book on an eReader and learned again that such devices are currently not always suitable for technical books, even those written in a popular style like this one. In this case only because many of the figures are colour coded. I can see a real need for colour eInk screens in eReaders – which can’t be far off anyway. And tablets such as the iPad are ideal for this book.

In summary, this book is important because it’s about an important region of the world which influences the globe. It’s especially important for New Zealanders because it’s our backyard – we have territorial rights to large parts of it. And finally it’s important because most of us, including most New Zealanders, are ignorant of the important role it plays.  It’s the most important place you didn’t know about.

Fortunately this readable and informative book will help overcome that problem.

*See also:
Prime TV: The Last Ocean  Next Tuesday 8:30 pm
“The Ross Sea, Antarctica, is the most pristine stretch of ocean on Earth. But the fishing industry is targeting the lucrative Antarctic toothfish, and unless stopped, will destroy its ecosystem.”

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Christian ethics and Peter Singer

I am spending some time dealing with family business so I am reposting some of my past book reviews over the next few days. These could be useful with Christmas coming up.

This book is a good read for anyone interested in ethical debates – particularly those between ethical philosopher Peter Sinclair and Christian spokespersons. Singer is usually heavily criticised for his secular ethics –  but this author provides a much more in-depth consideration of the differences – which are not as great as many Christians believe.


Book review: Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization by Charles C. Camosy

Price: US$25.75; Kindle US$16.80
Paperback: 286 pages
Publisher: Cambridge University Press (May 28, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0521149339
ISBN-13: 978-0521149334

We all “do” morality – its part of being human. We will debate ethical questions till the cows come home. And we will take sides on moral issues, often reacting emotionally, even violently, to those who disagree with us.

But here’s a strange thing. Very few of us could name an ethical philosopher. Perhaps because moral questions are of such practical and personal importance ethical discussions at the philosophical level seem to not interest us.

But, those who can produce a name might, in most cases, come up with Peter Singer. This probably supports Charles Carmosy’s suggestion that “Singer is probably the world’s most influential living philosopher.”

Singer won recognition for his work on animal rights – a topical issue  today. He has written and lectured extensively on secular morality. But his reputation must also come from the publicity he gets from his philosophical opponents. Particularly philosophers of religion who have demonised some of Singers ideas, and the man himself. It’s no accident that in debates with theists Singer’s ethical ideas are the most often quoted, by theists, as negative and inhuman examples of secular ethics.

Even bad-mouthing creates recognition so these religious critics may be responsible for making Singer’s name so recognisable. That negative propaganda may not stick when people make their own efforts to read Singer.

There’s no shortage of mudslinging across the ideological divides of religion. So it’s not surprising that there is plenty of hostility and misrepresentation in even the more academic religious critiques of Singer’s ideas (See for a local example Peter Singer on Human Dignity and Infanticide: Part One and Peter Singer on Human Dignity and Infanticide: Part Two).

But “truth will out” and Charles Camosy, a Catholic ethicist who is Assistant Professor of Theology at Fordham University, New York, sees “small cracks . . . starting to form in the intellectual wall separating Peter Singer and Christianity.” Camosy’s book, Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization is a significant contribution to widening these cracks.

That’s not just my judgement. Peter Singer himself recommends the book. He says:

“Philosophy makes progress through criticism that is based on a sound grasp of the position under scrutiny, acknowledging its strengths as well as seeking to expose its weaknesses. Charles Camosy does exactly that, which is why, despite the deep disagreements between us, I regard Peter Singer and Christian Ethics as a valuable contribution to philosophy in general, and to applied ethics in particular.”

Overlapping ethical positions

The book provides a detailed consideration of the ethical positions of the Catholic Church and of Peter Singer in 5 main areas (devoting a chapter to each):

  1. Abortion,
  2. Euthanasia and the end of life,
  3. Non-human animals,
  4. Duties to the poor, and
  5. Ethical theory.

Each chapter concludes with an assessment of how close, or how different, the two positions are. For example:

  1.  “the disagreement between the two approaches with regard to abortion is actually quite narrow.”
  2. “The overlap between Singer and the Church with regard to euthanasia and decision making at the end of life is considerable. . . . it does seem as if proponents of Singer’s position and those who support the Church could come together and support certain important public policies.”
  3. “there is significant and wide-ranging overlap between Singer and the Church on non-human animals. Such common ground opens the door for productive exchanges which can challenge both approaches in various ways.”
  4. “Both approaches react strongly against the violence and injustice that our consumerist and hyper-autonomous culture inflicts on the vulnerable poor. The enormity of what is common might also suggest yet another duty: taking advantage of the resources and loyalties proper to each approach and unleashing their combined power toward the mutual goal of ending absolute poverty and restoring broad social participation for the poor.”
  5. On ethical theory – “we have seen a dramatic overlap between Singer and the Church. Both approaches, for instance, value consequence-based reasoning while at the same time having an important place for moral rules. Both also believe that many of these rules can be overruled for a sufficiently serious reason.”

Camosy has  found large areas of agreement (by the way, he does not neglect the difference between the two positions). But I really like that he goes further and suggests this agreement provides ground for cooperation, discussion and common public platforms.

Readers might be surprised at the amount of agreement Camosy finds between Singers ethical ideas and those of the Catholic Church. However, the common ethical positions found by Camosy does not surprise me. Despite claims of revelation and infallibility the Catholic Church has had to deal with real world issues for a long time. It’s natural that much of the ethical positions they arrive at will basically be secular anyway –  even if presented with religious phrases and terms.

I think Camosy’s concept of ethical objectivity residing in human flourishing and happiness reinforces this. (Although, interesting he does take that further to the flourishing of the universe as a whole). I found refreshing Camosy’s references to objective morality without the annoying evangelical habit of seeing that as “divine,” without dragging in his god.

At least, most of the time. Towards the end of the book Camosy does seem to sneak his god into the discussion, as a grounding for objective ethics. But only in the last chapter.

The “rich tradition” of Christian ethics

While Camosy’s ability to find the large extent of ethical agreement he did is heartening to me, some problems do bring me down to earth. Camosy says, and I agree, that the Catholic Church has a very rich tradition of writings and pronouncements on ethical issues.  This must have been an immense help to Camosy as he searched for some commonality. However, sometimes I felt this very richness presents a problem. Which piece of contradictory evidence does one rely on? Which particular pronouncement is considered more “official” than the others. The richness itself provides difficulties of choice, and can make a certain amount of “cherry picking” inevitable.

So I sometimes found myself contrasting Camosy’s claims with the modern public positions commonly attributed to the Catholic Church, or at least Catholic spokespersons. For example – meat-eating, vegetarianism, abortion and euthenasia. Some Catholics might not agree with Camosy’s conclusion about the extent of commonality because they don’t completely recognise the Catholic ethics Camosy describes.

Perhaps that’s the common problem of differences between church office holders and lay parishioners. But I suggest that in some cases there a more basic disagreements at the level of the office holder or “official.”

On the other hand, as an individual with an easily accessible and definitive set of writings, it is much easer to establish Singer’s “official” ethical positions.  There is less scope for “cherry picking” and one can usually find suitable quotes to show Singer’s position on various ethical questions.

A problem with philosophical labels

In their criticisms of Singer religious apologists have a common habit  of inferring an ethical position (and not find a specific quote) from their own biased understanding of ethical labels.  Perhaps I have a thing about ideological and political labels, and I am sure Singer objects to their use less than I do. He does, after all, sometimes use descriptive ethical labels in his writings. However, I think some of the more extreme interpretations of Singer’s positions does not come from specific quotes or writings of Singer. Instead they come from the description of him as a proponent of “preference utilitarianism,” for example, and then inferring a specific ethical position – often relying on the commentators own hostile or simplistic understanding of the label’s meaning.

Fortunately Camosy  relies on quotes from Singer’s writing to describe his ethical positions. Well, at least most of the time. He does slip into use of the “preference utilitarianism” label to ground an inference a few times. And they stood out to me – especially as Camosy himself is arguing towards the end of the book that Singer’s ideas are shifting. That “Singer is in the process of fundamentally rethinking his preference utilitarianism.” Even more reason to avoid labels.

Conclusion

I believe this book will be very useful to anyone interested in Singer’s ethical philosophy, especially comparing it with that of the Church. Camosy relies mostly on direct quotations from Singer’s writings so the book provides a useful summary of his ideas, particularly in the 5 areas mentioned. In fact, there may be more disagreements among Catholics on Camosy’s description of Catholic ethical positions. A curse of the “rich tradition” perhaps.

It should help correct some of the misunderstandings that Christians have about Singer’s ideas – if only they are open-minded enough to read books like this. I hope their approach top a book by a Catholic ethicist is more sympathetic that their approach to the original writings of Singer.

Considering the ideological differences between singer and the Catholic Church I think Camosy has done his job well. I can excuse him the few lapses that my sensitivities have identified.

And I think Camosy’s identification of the possibilities of common action between supporters of Singer and the Catholic Church is very useful. Dare I hope that the church can be open to these possibilities in the future?

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Helping kids to wonder

This looks like a lovely present for your little ones – ideal for that special child’s christmas present. I Wonder by Annaka Harris.

I mentioned this book when it was little more than a gleam in the author’s eye (see I don’t know!) Now you can pre-order it with a publication date mid-October.

According to the blurb the story is about a little girl Eva, who takes a walk with her mother and encounters a range of mysteries: from gravity, to life cycles, to the vastness of the universe. She learns that it’s okay to say “I don’t know,” and she discovers that there are some things even adults don’t know—mysteries for everyone to wonder about together! What do you wonder about?

Looks like it would be an ideal book to encourage the your scientist in your family. As the blurb says:

I Wonder is a book that celebrates the feelings of awe and curiosity in children, as the foundation for all learning.”

The author Annaka Harris is a freelance editor of nonfiction books and is especially passionate about furthering the public understanding of science. She is also a cofounder of Project Reason and a volunteer for InnerKids

The illustrator John Rowe resides in Montrose, CA, where he maintains an art studio, creating original art and oil paintings for both illustration and fine art clients. His illustration clients include the United Nations, Disney, Random House, Simon and Schuster, and Buena Vista Pictures. His projects have encompassed movie posters, book covers, advertisements, murals and fine art paintings for clients and collectors.

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