2014: What I Learned from Books

“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” -Emerson

After a relatively weak reading year, I had to remind myself that life is more than reading books. Every year, I honestly feel guilty about not reading more, a goal I will never reach. But I remind myself that out of 100 books read, just a handful will stay with me, will shape who I am. Many fade; many forgotten.
Still, I have learned some stuff in 2014:
From The Pol Pot Regime I wanted to find out if Pol Pot was in fact an atheist and a hater of religion. He was. An educated man, a killer, a “kindly” man to some, he wanted to “wipe out religion” and wipe out the monks. Everything That is Bad for You is Good For You argued that pop culture, games, and modern TV is making us smarter, not dumber. I agreed. Nature’s God reinforced my belief that our Founding Fathers did in fact love Jesus in their own way – albeit an unorthodox way, but a real way: the same way I love Jesus. The were Deists, not atheists. Reinventing Liberal Christianity challenged me directly. This book is aimed at liberals like me who call themselves ‘Christian,’ but don’t go to church, don’t like rituals, don’t believe in many of the creeds, etc. This book argues that people like me should return to traditional religion while keeping our liberal mindset. I wish I could find such a church. Dog Whistle Politics was a fascinating look at how politicians use coded racial language to perpetuate racism, win elections, and destroy the middle class. In Keeping the Faith Without Religion, I read about a man trying desperately to keep a faith that had faded. Reading poetry, walking in the woods, and loving people are beautiful things: but is that faith? God in Proof told me the story of Anthony Flew, at one time the most famous atheist philosopher, who eventually became convinced that God “probably exists.” Richard Dawkins, in true arrogant fashion, said this about the aging Flew: “He once was a great philosopher…It’s very sad.” Moral Tribes is a book that will stay with me forever, teaching me that both Kant’s morality (Deontology) and Bentham’s morality (Utilitarianism) are correct. We should use Kant’s morality for people we are close to, and Bentham’s morality for people we are not. I’ve been waiting for this book to come along. With Einstein & Oppenheimer, I learned that Einstein learned detachment from Buddhism and took it to heart, and that selflessness is the center of morality. And that history is shaped by great people (which is a theory of history that I got from Emerson). Shores of Knowledge said that “Theology and science had achieved a mutually enhancing balance in Great Britain when Church of England leaders interpreted Newton’s laws of universal gravitation as proof of a God-ordained orderly system.” The Cure in the Code taught me that, in some ways, drug companies are regulated in a way that is out of touch with current science (which was verified by my father-in-law who makes drugs). The Detroit School Busing Case was a very depressing book on race relations and how truly little we have come in terms of integration. I read The Mind of Jeremy Bentham in search of an atheist hero, and by gosh I think I found one. He was a courageous, forward-thinking, great man who wanted morality to be more rational and just. I also read another book on Bentham that showed how deeply political his ideas were; he was looking for big change, not small stuff. The Human Right to Health reinforced my idea that, although we may disagree on the foundation of rights, we pretty much all agree on the values themselves (in this case, the value of health and the importance of healthcare to live). The Life You Can Save taught me that, although biology has given us barriers when it comes to giving to charity, we need to transcend them. A People’s History of Poverty in America made me disgusted with the various ways we have not helped the poor. The Moral Molecule was another book that will stay with me forever, teaching me that oxyticin is the foundation of empathy and therefore morality, a blend of nature and nurture. 
Happy New Year!
matt
2014: What I Learned from Books

How I Learned that Racism is Real

The problem with racism is that it’s not a problem. Correction: for many white people it’s not. For various reasons, we never have to think about it, we are rarely confronted with it. Therefore it doesn’t exist. But the other problem with racism is that it does exist. And it’s still tearing our nation apart. Here’s how I became convinced.

this book was my eureka moment

Growing up in a completely white Upper Peninsula, racism was as foreign as black people. We are as diverse as a hockey team.  Yet oddly, even though none of us actually knew a black person, judging by the way we talked, there was plenty of racism going on. The N-word was used frequently and jokingly – old people and young. In high school, black jokes were on the level of ‘yo mamma’ jokes and a favorite pass time. This is called demonizing the Other; hating what you don’t understand. It’s a dangerous form of ‘passive’ racism. Still, by the time I left for college, I didn’t give it much thought. If someone asked me about racism, I may have said that racism was overcome by Martin Luther King or something textbook like that. Correction: I actually did know one black man in Menominee. I actually had hung out with him on several occasions, but partly because he bought us beer. Still, perhaps having this initial connection started everything for me.

In college I took an African American Literature class, perhaps by accident. I read Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and Zora Neale Hurston. The scales began to fall off my eyes. I began to experience the world as a black person in history. I became interested in Martin Luther King Jr. I fell in love with his teachings, his writings, his speeches, his life and martyrdom. I listened to the “Mountaintop” speech completely enthralled, emotional, heart pounding. But still, I was studying the past. I was only half way there. I had the historical context, but now I needed to start interpreting current events in the light of past events.

Then, I found myself watching the inauguration of Barack Obama in tears. It takes a lot for me to cry, but the historical, symbolic and real significance of the situation was overwhelming.

What really brought me to the precipice – my eureka moment, the tipping point – was reading the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. This book is heavily based on facts and statistics, from an author who was skeptical to begin with. The statistics regarding black men and prisons blew my mind. It brought everything together. Other books followed. Racism is institutional, widespread, and debilitating for millions and millions of Americans every single day. It’s no person’s fault and it’s every persons’ fault. The truth had set me free and it didn’t look good.

Now I witness events like Ferguson and Eric Garner and I understand. Racism is a complex thing, but once you understand it, you see it in the big places and in the small places. It’s a disease that has many symptoms. The choking of Eric Garner without consequences is a symptom of a much larger problem. There is no doubt that we have made meaningful progress, but there is more to be done. I’m not going to talk about solutions here, but I will say this: white people and black people (and Muslim people and minorities) need to connect on a massive scale. We need to live together, work together, worship together, share power together. We never integrated.

How I Learned that Racism is Real

Testosterone Sucks. Why are Men Needed?

Women are better than men. I hate to say it, but it’s true. Look around dude. Historically, men have dominated women since the beginning, which still continues today. That’s bad enough. But women outmatch men on just about every moral indicator: crime rates, rape, domestic violence, murder, (“murders by women are so rare that they don’t even show up meaningfully in the crime statistics” p.78), ability to trust, giving, sharing, and empathy. Men are psychopaths, sociopaths, and serial killers. These are generalizations of course but they are true as such.

The explanation, according this this wonderful book by Paul Zak, is testosterone. It turns men into assholes, risk takers, sex fanatics, and punishers. To anyone who has entered a college bar, this should be no surprise. How many women hunters do you know? Predictable, as men get older they lose testosterone and get better.

Why Women are Better

Women not only have very low levels of testosterone, but they have an extra special hormone that promotes good behavior: Oxytocin. A multitasker, this hormone is released during sex, pregnancy, breast feeding, and whenever a person shows trust or goodwill. Oxytocin has been linked to many pro-social behaviors in many experiments (detailed in the book), mostly empathy and trust. Women are more empathetic, and empathy is the basis of all moral systems.

Why Men are Needed

The obvious answer is that men are needed to make babies (although with the advent of science that’s probably not true anymore). But more interestingly, testosterone has a nice side-effect: justice. Ironically, testosterone-filled men are needed to keep society in check, to judge and to punish wrongdoers. Natural selection allowed testosterone to hang on for this very reason. We are the enforcers and punishers of a functioning society (and the risk takers). Women, pumped with oxytocin, are too damn nice to punish people. It’s important to know that men do have oxyticin in smaller amounts, but the problem with that: testosterone actually cancels out oxyticin. So when testosterone levels are high, we actually enjoy punishing people for their transgressions, rather than cringing. Who shall throw the first stone?, said Jesus. Crack her fucking skull! shouted some dick.

The good news, of course, is that we can and do transcend these biological limitations. Too much testosterone must be kept in check, and the same goes with oxytocin (too much can lead to too much trust). It’s about balance. With knowledge, critical self-reflection, and love we can become better. Love can be learned, and it comes naturally for most of us.

Testosterone Sucks. Why are Men Needed?

Meerkats, Interpretation, and God

Life of Pi is a popular book about a boy in a canoe with a tiger in the ocean. To my surprise, I loved it. This book is nothing less than a sophisticated, fair, and modern justification for faith in God.

We hear a story about a boy on a fantastic journey of survival, a story that is almost unbelievable – at one point they reach a living island full of meerkats. At the end of the story, the boy (now an old man) tells his story to another man (or two men…I can’t remember the details). Anyway, he doesn’t believe the story. So he tells the man a more realistic story: he leaves out the tiger and the meerkats. The skeptical man says: “which one is the true one?” The narrator replies: the choice is up to you which story you want to believe. I gave you my story. Then I gave you an alternate story. Both could be true. You cannot verify either. The choice is up to you.
Forget about the details of the plot; this is all a metaphor for life, for how we perceive the world, for how we interpret events. If you’re wondering whether a boy really could survive with a tiger, or whether a meerkat island could actually exist, you’re probably missing the point. If you think that religion is a bunch of silly made up stories just to make people feel good, you are also missing the point of the book. Everything that happens in your life, everything that happens in the world, is perceived and interpreted in so many ways.That’s what the book is about. There is meaning behind events, and we provide that meaning. Unless you are a Nihilist, everyone gives meaning to life in some way. The meaning becomes reality, a part of the event. The fantastical story is clearly a reference to a theistic interpretation of life, while the alternate story is a reference to a non-theist interpretation of life. The philosophical point is this: we really don’t know which one is correct, thus we choose. Given that, the author is suggesting that a religious interpretation is preferable.
I agree.
Billions and billions of years ago, our universe came into existence. That’s a fact. But why? Why does anything exist at all? And what does the Big Bang mean, if anything? That’s up for interpretation. Now apply this to all events, big and small. That’s life; that’s the human condition – we are meaning seeking animals, and that’s okay. I choose to believe God is behind all events.
Meerkats, Interpretation, and God

Book Review: Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them

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 ethical code.

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. That’s it. Instead of talking about rights, principles, commands or duties, perhaps we can all agree on this one thing: happiness is good; suffering is bad. Act accordingly.

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…in theory at least. 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; specifically, Kant and John Stuart Mill. Kant I named my son after. Kant’s morality is a strict, rule based, “no exceptions” kind of system (never lie, never kill, never cheat, never steal). You can think of it as a religious ethics with a rational foundation. Kant also didn’t think that happiness was the most important thing (Mill did). John Stuart Mill, on the other hand, founder of Utilitarianism, I have admired from a distance. His system, as I mentioned, is very simple: morality has one rule: in all your actions, reduce suffering the most and maximize happiness the most impartially (counting yourself as only one person). It’s hard to disagree with that. Finally they come together in a harmonious embrace. This book says that Kant is right and Mill is right, depending on which context you find yourself in. Within groups, Kantian morally works the best. Which means that when dealing with your family, friends, and church, you should be a strict Kantian. Never cheat on your wife. But when it comes to dealing with “others,” with global issues, public policy — then you should put on your utilitarian hat and start calculating, weighting, crunching the numbers. Sometimes you have to break an egg for the greater good.

I was so blown away by this conclusion, 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.

But…

The end of the book, which is supposed to apply the theory to actual cases (conflicts between groups), is very deflating and depressing. He only talks about abortion in detail, and that discussion was painfully abstract and intellectual (after making a strong case for pro-life and pro-choice, he falls on pro-choice). You can tell he is trying to make everyone happy. Does he really expect normal people to be able to philosophize in this way? The tree is good, but not its fruit. It almost feels like he built up all my expectations, and then, at the end when it really counts, he quits. Utilitarianism, which on the face is very simple and powerful,  ends up being very complex, abstract, and subtle – a puff of smoke. Worse, his version of utilitarianism ends up being very close to what everyone already believes: punishment is good, inequality is okay (some), buying presents for your kid is good, capitalism is just fine. All things that, on the face of it, are not utilitarian. The message, at the end of the day: just be a little less selfish, a little more altruistic, okay? He even calls himself a hypocrite at one point for not being a “true” utilitarian. C’mon Greene, where’s your balls? That’s why I have such respect for guys like Jesus or Gandhi. They set the bar extremely high and put their life into it, they make no excuses and make no accommodations for the morally weak. They say: love your enemies. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it goes against human nature and how our brains are wired. Do it anyway. And they did. And you can too.

Book Review: Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them