Mountain Trail Photo
home
 
wanderings
(places)
wonders
(perspectives)
wonderings
(thoughts)
wanderer
(about me)
companions
(family & friends)

 wonderings

Recommended Reading


Believe those who are seeking the truth; doubt those who find it. – Andre Gide

The books listed here are some of those that I have found particularly interesting or valuable. Many of them have helped me develop my new perspectives. I would recommend them to anyone who wants more details on the issues I have mentioned. The first books in each section are my favorites.

The author links are to Wikipedia articles; title links are to Amazon.com listings. My notes with page number references aren't necessarily exact quotes; usually they are paraphrases or summaries. My own comments are in square brackets [].

Sections: Philosophy | Worldviews | Critical Thinking | Science | The Universe | Natural Order | Biology | Humanity | Living | Writing | Biography

Philosophy

top of page

Daniel C. Dennett, Freedom Evolves

In this very provocative, (and sometimes difficult) book, Dennett argues that we have free will regardless of whether or not the universe is deterministic. He analyzes the many ways in which we make choices and change our natures. He discusses how cultures have evolved to communicate methods for success in life, including the far-sighted self-interest that is called morality. He covers the psychological phenomenon of decision-making in considerable detail. One particularly intriguing section presents a scientific model of temptation. He concludes by emphasizing how effectively our nature and culture have designed societal arrangements that provide individual freedom.
180 The quest for "true" selflessness is a mission that is guaranteed to fail. It must fail because the defining criteria of true selflessness are systematically elusive. It is better to think of the human capacity to rethink one's summum bonum as the possibility of extending the domain of the self. I can still take my task to be looking out for Number One while including under Number One not just my own living body, but my family, the Chicago Bulls, Oxfam . . . you name it.
214 The trick to gaining the reputation of being good is actually being good. No shortcut methods will work.
276 More important than the supply of developmentally appropriate toys, and even proper nutrition, is the set of ambient attitudes and policies a child observes and eventually participates in.
280 Moral theories need to consider what people actually are and how they got that way. Like everything else evolution has created, we're a somewhat opportunistically contrived bag of tricks, and our morality should be based on that realization.
302 Our ability to consider and choose our values means that our options are boundless. To some people, this is a fearful prospect, opening the gates to nihilism and relativism, letting go of God's commandments and risking a plunge into anarchy.
I think they should have more faith in their fellow human beings, and appreciate how amazingly subtle and adroit they are, how well equipped by nature and culture to formulate and participate in well-designed societal arrangements that maximize freedom for all. Far from being anarchic, such arrangements are—and must be—exquisitely tuned to strike a stable balance between shelter and elbow room.
304 You can't readily uneducate people.
The greatest challenge of this century will be to handle cultural exchange in such a way as to avoid epidemics of memes for which a society is unprepared.
306 Traditional thinking lives on and accretes a pearly coating of spurious invulnerability when it is unchallenged.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, Thinking It Through: An Introduction to Contemporary Philosophy

This would be a good textbook for an introductory philosophy course. I found it generally very clearly written. I was especially interested in the chapters on epistemology, the philosophy of science, and the existence of God.
58 There is nothing at all—save our own minds—whose existence is certain.
75 Epistemology would tell us that we ought to form our beliefs in ways that are reliable, while psychology examines which ways these are.
76 Evolutionary epistemology examines the consequences of the fact that our cognitive capacities are themselves the product of an evolutionary process and also explores how ideas and theories compete with each other and are selected, in a way that is somewhat analogous to the process of the natural selection of biological traits.
78 Seeing mind and knowledge as a causal system in the world is a naturalistic view. It sees human beings with their philosophical problems as part of the wider world of nature, not as privileged observers somehow outside that natural world.
128 Philosophy has a general interest in science because science is an organized search for knowledge—one that has made the greatest contribution to expanding our knowledge of the world.
144 The development of theories is what science is for. If you don't want scientific theories, you don't want science.
157 Failure to keep the meanings of words constant throughout an argument is the fallacy of ambiguity.
310 When somebody says, "God exists," we need to ask what conception of God, what individuating description of God we should rely on in evaluating this claim.
324 The argument from design has two premises: 1) Nature is harmonious. 2) Harmony is always the product of a creative intelligence with a mind. The first isn't clear (there are disharmonies, as well as harmonies), and the second is highly questionable.
337 The name for attempts to resolve the problem of evil while maintaining that God is both omnipotent and good is "theodicy."
Many Christians have said that they experienced a direct encounter with God in prayer, maintaining, in effect, that they are personally acquainted with him. So different people think they have access to very different kinds of data. It is not surprising, in these circumstances, that "Is there a God" and "What is God like?" are not questions on which there is consensus either within or outside philosophy.

Irvin D. Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy

This is a serious, thought-provoking discussion of how life can be approached from an existential viewpoint. It focuses on how we can deal with "the four ultimate concerns with existence:" death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness.
354 The loneliest state of all is not knowing your own feelings or opinions. The most helpful factor in therapy is discovering the self.
431 On this one point most Western theological and atheistic existential systems agree: it is good and right to immerse oneself in the stream of life.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity

This book is a response to the promotion of pluralism as a social value. Appiah's thesis is that freedom to make an identity is more important than maintaining varied cultural forms. His focus is primarily on political implications of these ideas, but he sometimes considers an individual perspective as well. His points are useful and well-supported, but his vocabulary is so extensive that the book was difficult for me to read.
5 (Mill quote) A person who lets the world choose his plan of life gives up much of his value as a human being.
7 Mill suggests that the consolidation of fleeting preferences into steadier purposes is what constitutes maturity.
24 There are many things of value in the world, but there is no way of ranking them, so there is not always, all things considered, a best thing to do.
107 We do make choices, but we don't, individually, determine the options among which we choose.
252-253 A shared biology, a natural human essence, does not give us a shared ethical nature. And once you enter into a genuine dialogue with people who hold views other than your own about these matters, you are going to discover that there is no non-question-begging way of settling on the basic facts, whether moral or nonmoral, from which to begin the discussion. There are no guaranteed foundations.
In real life, judgments about right and wrong are intimately tied up with metaphysical and religious beliefs about the natural order. And these are matters about which agreement may be difficult to achieve. (It's hard to persuade people that there are, on the one hand, no electrons or, on the other, no witches.)
We often fail to agree not just about principle—about what we ought to believe—but about what is to be done. Practically speaking, we need not resolve disagreements of principle about why we should save this child from drowning, if, in fact, we agree that the child must be saved. But what if you believe that the child is meant to die because an ancestor has called her, and I do not?
[C.S. Lewis' natural morality doesn't exist.] 256 We often don't need robust theoretical agreement in order to secure shared practices. It isn't principle that brings the missionary doctor and the distressed mother together at the hospital beside of a child with cholera; it is a shared concern for this particular child.
257 We make sense of our lives through narrative; we see our actions and experiences as part of a story. And the basic human capacity to grasp stories, even strange stories, is also what links us, powerfully, to others, even strange others.
259 The wide diversity of people who call upon [human rights] includes a substantial diversity of opinion on matters metaphysical—on religion in particular—and even if there is a single truth to be had about these matters, it is not one that we shall all come to soon.
260 Even without a metaphysical foundation for the concept of human rights, we can agree on particulars. Certainly, we do not need to agree that we all created in the image of God, or that we have natural rights that flow from our human essence , to agree that we do not want to be tortured by government officials, that we do not want to be subjected to arbitrary arrest, or have our lives, families, and property forfeited.
271 Sometimes it is the differences we bring to the table that make it rewarding to interact at all.

Worldviews

top of page

Kenneth R. Miller, Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution

Miller, a cell biologist and a Roman Catholic, explains why he believes in a God who created the universe in such a way that it produced life and conscious beings by natural processes. Most of the book is devoted to debunking the ideas of creationism and intelligent design. The latter part criticizes the atheistic conclusions of most evolutionary scientists and points out ways in which evolution is compatible with a belief in God.
188 To the critics of evolution, the danger is moral decay and social disintegration.
205 Schrodinger asked why our bodies are so big in relation to atoms. He concluded that we're big to insulate us and our senses from atomic-level [quantum] events.
221 The world has many religions but just one science.
239 Opponents of evolution want to find something for God to do, to show that he is active in the world, not just a watchmaker. Any God worthy of the name has to be capable of miracles.
What can science say about a miracle? Nothing. By definition, the miraculous is beyond explanation, beyond our understanding, beyond science. Miracles, by definition, do not have to make scientific sense.
241 To a believer the existence of every particle, wave, and field is a product of the continuing will of God.
The indeterminate nature of quantum events would allow a clever and subtle God to influence events in ways that are profound, but scientifically undetectable to us.
290 If the persistence of life were beyond the capabilities of matter, if a string of constant miracles were needed for each turn of the cell cycle or each flicker of a cilium, the hand of God would be written directly into every living thing—His presence at the edge of the human sandbox would be unmistakable. Such findings might confirm our faith, but they would also undermine our independence. How could we fairly choose between God and man when the presence and the power of the divine so obviously and so literally controlled our every breath? [This conclusion makes no sense. Why would we want to choose "fairly"? All we would want is to choose freely. If God were visible and audible, we could still choose freely.]

Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence For Belief

Collins is a prominent geneticist and head of the Human Genome Project. He is also a former atheist who became an evangelical Christian. His thesis in this book is that truth discovered by science should be welcomed by believers, and that unbelievers should be open to truth discovered by spiritual inquiry. After an overview of the current debate between scientists and religious fundamentalists, Collins highlights key evidence for the big bang theory and the evolution of life. He points out major problems with young-earth creationism and Intelligent Design, and argues for "theistic evolution." His final chapter promotes this position in an appeal to people who reject science on the basis of their religious beliefs and to those who reject faith because of its apparent conflicts with science.
It was very satisfying to me to find a prominent proponent of a position with regard to science that I consider far more tenable than that of most evangelical Christians. If I had read this book sometime between the early 1980's and 2002, I'd have been cheering for Collins on every page, because it strongly supports the views I held during that time.
Reading it now, I still cheered for him in the sections where he speaks as a scientist. His theology, however, is less strong. Many of his ideas are adopted from C.S. Lewis, another great apologist, and contain a number of fallacies. One example to which Collins returns frequently is the idea of a universal "Moral Law."
93 Faith that places God in the gaps of current understanding about the natural world may be headed for crisis if advances in science subsequently fill those gaps. [The whole concept of a spiritual world is an attempt to fill gaps in our understanding.]
132 The distinction between macroevolution and microevolution is artificial.
134 The detailed study of genomes makes the idea of special creation almost untenable.
187 Intelligent Design fails as a theory because it is a scientific dead end.
188 Intelligent Design proposes no mechanism by which supernatural intervention would give rise to complexity in organisms.
Purported examples of irreducible complexity have turned out not to be irreducible.
228 Science is the only reliable way to investigate the natural world.
229 The spiritual worldview provides another way of finding truth. [What is it?]
If we are using the scientific net to catch our particular version of truth, we should not be surprised that it does not catch the evidence of spirit. [What is the evidence? If we can see it, why can't we study it?]

Bruce E. Hunsberger and Bob Altemeyer, Atheists: A Groundbreaking Study of America's Nonbelievers

This is a sociological study, performed using surveys, of the beliefs and attitudes of atheists, most of whom were members of an atheist club.
42 Most atheists who came from religious backgrounds said they gave up their faith because they could not make themselves believe what they had been taught. Their dedication to the truth apparently came from their religious training. Their upbringing was not repudiated by their apostasy but startlingly fulfilled by it.
57 In most cases, students who came from very nonreligious backgrounds but had become very religious seemed to have done so as a way of solving personal problems. They had not converted for theological reasons, but for emotional ones.
67 The atheists in the study were surprisingly dogmatic about their beliefs, perhaps because most of them had changed their view in the past, because they believed science supported their belief, or because they had made significant sacrifices because of their belief.

Peter Kreeft & Ronald K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics

This book is quite interesting, but slightly disappointing. It isn't nearly as challenging as I had expected. The authors state a need to distinguish objective reason from subjective reason, but make no noticeable attempt to be objective. For example, their introduction preaches the need for a relationship with God. Many if not most of their lines of reasoning are based on highly questionable premises, and many use false dilemma arguments. They admit that many of their arguments aren't convincing, but assert that they serve as "hints" at the truth. It seems to me that they would serve as hints only if they were valid.
The "proofs" of the existence of God are variations on ones I've heard before. The authors advance the moral argument and the argument from conscience as the most convincing so far in the book, but their statements of them are disappointingly weak. Their first premise for the moral argument is that we are obligated to be moral, but the only reason they give for that assumption is that most people feel that way. Similarly, the argument from conscience is based on the assumption that people believe they are absolutely obligated to obey their conscience.

Critical Thinking

top of page

Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn, How to Think About Weird Things

This is an excellent book on critical thinking. It covers ways in which truth can be known, the evaluation of evidence, and scientific approaches to knowledge. It includes case studies on creationism and parapsychology, and identifies a variety of fallacious arguments.
62 Science is a systematic attempt to be objective—to avoid the subjective limitations that distort our experience.
96, 100 Knowledge = truth + proof + conviction. Believing something that's true isn't knowledge unless we have good reasons for our belief.
98, 99 We are justified in believing a proposition when we have no good reason to doubt it—when it provides the best explanation of the evidence and doesn't conflict with other propositions we have good reason to believe.
100, 101 Our belief system is hierarchical, like a tree. Discarding one of our beliefs is like pruning a branch of the tree; whatever beliefs were supported by the discarded belief are also discarded. We shouldn't cut off large branches without very convincing evidence.
101, 132 When there is conflicting evidence for or against a proposition, we should proportion our belief to the credibility of the evidence.
149 The scientific method is self-correcting, and as a result it is our most reliable guide to the truth.
155 The results of scientific inquiry are never final and conclusive but are always provisional and open.

Thomas Gilovich, How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life

This is another excellent book on critical thinking. Gilovich describes how we misinterpret the data we perceive and how our perceptions are affected by our desires and influenced by others. He discusses the persistence of some common beliefs in spite of the lack of reliable evidence for them, and proposes an emphasis on experimental social science in education as a way to promote critical thinking in everyday life.
2 Many questionable and erroneous beliefs can be traced to imperfections in our capacities to process information and draw conclusions. We hold many dubious beliefs not because they satisfy some important psychological need, but because they seem to be the most sensible conclusions consistent with the available evidence.
4 We tend to think others believe what we believe.
6 There are undeniable benefits in perceiving and understanding the world accurately, and terrible costs in tolerating mistakes.
51 There is a distinction between skepticism and closed-mindedness.
We are justified in allowing our beliefs and theories to influence our assessments of new information in direct proportion to how plausible and well-substantiated they are in the first place. Well-supported beliefs and theories have earned a bit of inertia, and should not be easily modified or abandoned because of isolated antagonistic "facts."
Not all bias is a bad thing; indeed, a certain amount is absolutely essential.
52 It has proven extremely difficult to program computers to make even "simple" inferences. As dysfunctional as they may be on occasion, our theories, preconceptions, and "biases" are what make us smart.
80 People rarely think that they hold a particular belief simply because they want to hold it. This sense of objectivity can nevertheless be illusory: Although people consider their beliefs to be closely tied to relevant evidence, they are generally unaware that the same evidence could be looked at differently, or that there is other, equally pertinent evidence to consider.
91 Secondhand accounts often become simpler and "cleaner" stories that are not encumbered by minor inconsistencies or ambiguous details.
189 The more science one learns, the more one becomes aware of what is not known, and the provisional nature of much of what is known.

Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time

Only two chapters of this book actually address the subject implied by its title, so it doesn't go into the depth of the two books listed above. The rest of it discusses the arguments given for some beliefs and explains why those beliefs are highly questionable. Two major sections of the book are devoted to creationism and Holocaust revisionism.
18 Science is a set of methods designed to describe and interpret observed or inferred phenomena, past or present, and aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation.
23 Curiosity is fundamental to science. The most important question in education is: What tools are children given to help them explore, enjoy, and understand the world? Of the various tools taught in school, science and thinking skeptically about all claims should be near the top. 45 "A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence." - David Hume
Hume's maxim: "That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish."
186 Good reasons why we should not hide, suppress or squelch someone else's belief system, no matter how wacky, unfounded or venomous it may seem:
- it may be completely right
- it may be partially right
- it may be wrong, but helpful in discovering the truth
- being tolerant increases the likelihood of being tolerated
275 The most important reason why people believe weird things is that they want to. Religion, in particular, is comforting.
277 Most unscientific beliefs offer simplicity in place of the often highly complex reality.
At present, scientific and secular systems of morality and meaning have proved relatively unsatisfying to most people. Religion and magic offer more simpler, more appealing purposes and guidelines for life.
278 Most of the motivation behind weird beliefs is a hope that there is a simple way to find a better life.

Science

top of page

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

Sagan's theme in this book is that science is a very effective tool in discovering reality, and that it is badly needed to counteract the superstition and faddish beliefs like alien abduction that are common in society. He argues that our political processes need more scientific input in order to make better public policy.
8 "Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they do not understand it. But if they called everything divine which they do not understand, why, there would be no end of divine things." – Hippocrates
22 It's easier to teach the findings of science than its method, but the method is far more important.
29 In its encounter with Nature, science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe. Science is a profound source of spirituality.
30 Science may be hard to understand and challenge cherished beliefs, but it delivers the goods. It is far more effective than witch doctors, prayer, divination, or prophecy.
58 There is a very common desire to believe in aliens or spirits, Someone older, smarter, and wiser who is looking out for us. We're worried—and for good reason—about what it means for the human future if we have only ourselves to rely upon.
77 But the tools of skepticism are generally unavailable to the citizens of our society. They're hardly ever mentioned in the schools, even in the presentation of science, its most ardent practitioner, although skepticism repeatedly sprouts spontaneously out of the disappointments of everyday life. Our politics, economics, advertising, and religions (New Age and Old) are awash in credulity. Those who have something to sell, those who wish to influence public opinion, those in power, a skeptic might suggest, have a vested interest in discouraging skepticism.
171 Following a group therapy approach by psychologist Richard Franklin, suppose I seriously assert that there's a fire-breathing dragon in my garage. When you look for evidence, I explain that it is an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire. What's the difference between that and no dragon at all? If there's no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists?
241 One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we've been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We're no longer interested in finding out the truth. It's simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we've been taken.
279 We are much better off if we know the best available approximation to the truth.
295 It is beyond our powers to tell "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."
317 The zest for science exhibited by young children speaks eloquently: A proclivity for science is embedded deeply within us, in all times, places and cultures. It has been the means of our survival. It is our birthright. When we discourage children from science we are disenfranchising them, taking from them the tools needed to manage their future.
323 Why are adults so afraid to admit a lack of knowledge to a child? Is our self-esteem so fragile?
341 Students complain that school is boring. Spending three or four grades practicing the addition, subtraction, multiplication and division of fractions would bore anyone—and the tragedy is that, say, elementary probability theory is within reach of these students. Likewise for the forms of plants and animals without evolution, history presented as wars, dates, and kings without the role of obedience to authority, greed incompetence, and ignorance; English without new words entering the language and old words disappearing; and chemistry without where the elements come from.
363 Frederick Douglass taught that literacy is the path from slavery to freedom. There are many kinds of slavery and many kinds of freedom. But reading is still the path.
413 If we're absolutely sure that our beliefs are right, and those of others wrong; that we are motivated by good, and others by evil; that the King of the Universe speaks to us, and not to adherents of very different faiths; that it is wicked to challenge conventional doctrines or to ask searching questions; that our main job is to believe and obey—then the witch mania will recur in its infinite variations down to the time of the last man.
416 Skepticism is dangerous because it challenges established institutions. If we teach everybody, including, say, high school students, habits of skeptical thought, they will probably not restrict their skepticism to UFOs, aspirin commercials, and 35,000-year-old channelees. Maybe they'll start asking awkward questions about economic, or social, or political, or religious institutions. Then where would we be?
429 The cure for a fallacious argument is a better argument, not the suppression of ideas.

Steven Weinberg, Facing Up: Science and Its Cultural Adversaries

This book is a collection of essays and speeches by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist. Not surprisingly, there is a lot of repetition, but he has a lot of good points about the nature of particle physics, science, and their relationship to society.
26-27 The fact that Newton and Michael Faraday and other scientists of the past were deeply religious shows that religious skepticism is not a prejudice that governed science from the beginning, but a lesson that has been learned through centuries of experience in the study of nature.
43 There is not such thing as a clear and universal "scientific method." Still, we can understand that there is meant a commitment to reason and a deference to observation and experiment. Above all, it includes a respect for reality as something outside ourselves, that we explore but do not create.
47 If we search in the discoveries of science for some point to our lives, we will not find it. This does not mean that we can't find things that give point to our lives. If science can't provide us with values, neither can it invalidate them.
120 Science can never tell us what we ought to value.
Whatever definition of life scientists may find convenient, and at whatever point in pregnancy a fetus may start to match that definition, the question of the value we should place on (say) a newly fertilized human egg is one that is entirely open to individual moral judgment.
Science can't even justify science; the decision to explore the world as it is shown to us by reason and experiment is a moral one, not a scientific one.
223 (footnote) The true source of the energy released when a tree burns is the sunlight absorbed during the tree's life, and the true source of the energy that is released when a uranium nucleus fissions is the energy stored in the nucleus when it was formed in a supernova explosion, long before the earth condensed from the interstellar medium.
242 The moral effect of religion is minimal. With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.
I am all in favor of a dialog between science and religion, but not a constructive dialogue. One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious.
248 "In a century or two, or in a millenium, people will live in a new way, a happier way. We won't be there to see it—but it's why we live, why we work. It's why we suffer. We're creating it. That's the purpose of our existence. The only happiness we can know is to work toward that goal." Colonel Vershinin, in Act II of Anton Checkov's Three Sisters.

Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

Wilson, a prominent biologist and writer, asserts that all fields of knowledge can be connected by theory. In particular, he argues that the arts and humanities can and should be studied scientifically. Along the way, he discusses how the mind gathers knowledge, and how genetic and cultural biases influence each other. He concludes by arguing that our most important task on behalf of mankind is to preserve the earth from human destruction.
6 Preferring a search for objective reality over revelation is another way of satisfying religious hunger.
8 Consilience, the corroboration of insights obtained from different fields of study, is evidence for truth.
11 Philosophy attempts to address issues that the sciences are considered incapable of addressing.
12 We have the common goal of turning as much philosophy as possible into science.
13 Education is increasingly fragmented, especially between science and the humanities.
45 Science is neither a philosophy nor a belief system. It is a combination of mental operations that has become increasingly the habit of educated peoples, a culture of illuminations hit upon by a fortunate turn of history that yielded the most effective way of learning about the real world ever conceived.
52 "Theory" is a word hobbled by multiple meanings. Scientific theories are constructed specifically to be blown apart if proved wrong.
53 Science is the organized, systematic enterprise that gathers knowledge about the world and condenses the knowledge into testable laws and principles.
59 In seminar patois [science claims] ascend a scale of credibility from "interesting" to "suggestive" to "persuasive" and finally "compelling." And given enough time thereafter, "obvious."
79 Human beings possess an innate aversion to snakes.
114 Primary emotions are instinctive, and require little conscious activity. Secondary emotions involve the integrative processes of the cerebral cortex.
188-189 The social sciences possess the same general traits as the natural sciences in the early, natural-history or mostly descriptive period of their historical development. . . . But they have not yet crafted a web of causal explanation that successfully cuts down through the levels of organization from society to mind and brain. Failing to probe this far, they lack what can be called a true scientific theory.
245 "No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, which is the good he seeks." – Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
246 A 1996 survey of American scientists revealed that 46 percent are atheists and 14 percent doubters or agnostics. – Edward Larson and Larry Witham, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 11 April 1997, p. A16.
249 Sometimes a concept is baffling not because it is profound but because it is wrong.
251 Ethical codes have arisen by evolution through the interplay of biology and culture.
273 The prospect of "volitional evolution"—a species deciding what to do about its own heredity—will present the most profound intellectual and ethical choices humanity has ever faced.
274 If advances in knowledge continue, humanity will be able to alter not just the anatomy and intelligence of the species but also the emotions and creative drive that compose the very core of human nature.
297 The only way to save the Creation with existing knowledge is to maintain it in natural ecosystems.
It is too early to speak of ultimate goals, such as perfect green-belted cities and robot expeditions to the nearest stars. It is enough to get Homo sapiens settled down and happy before we wreck the planet.
We are entering a new era of existentialism, not the old absurdist existentialism of Kierkegaard and Sartre, giving complete autonomy to the individual, but the concept that only unified learning, universally shared, makes accurate foresight and wise choice possible.

Richard Morris, The Big Questions: Probing the Promise and Limits of Science

This very readable book reviews the current state of knowledge in the areas of quantum mechanics, cosmology, genetics and the cognitive sciences and speculates about what may always remain unknowable.
4 Science grew out of philosophy. Philosophy raised questions that people have tried to answer with science.
45 Free will has always been a problem for philosophers. We don't know why human freedom exists. We can't even be sure that it is not an illusion.
119 Our conception of the universe grew from the earth, sun and planets in ancient Greece, to include other stars with the invention of the telescope, to the galaxy by the 20th century, to the galaxies close enough to us for their light to have reached us since space became transparent to light, to the idea of a multiverse containing many universes.
137 If the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies like the crashing of a bus are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces, some people are going to get hurt, and other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. – Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden
144 Natural selection is not a theory of chance. It preserves favorable adaptations and weeds out unfavorable traits.
147 There is a lot of disagreement among scientists about the existence of God. However, there is one thing on which most agree: Darwin's theory of evolution effectively destroys the arguments made by such proponents of the argument from design as Paley. Nature exhibits no evidence of intelligent design. There may be a God who created the universe. But if there is, it is clear he did not individually design the organisms that make up the biological world.
227 All of the theories that physicists have ever developed are most likely only approximate descriptions of nature. For example, Particle physicists hoped to discover particle interactions that would demonstrate that their best theories were not entirely adequate. If the predictions of a theory were never contradicted, there would be nothing left to do. Science is not a rigidly held body of dogma. The "golden ages" of science are the ones during which scientists are confronted with phenomena they don't quite understand. This compels them to invent ways to compel nature to reveal more of its secrets so that a greater degree of understanding can be achieved.

K. C. Cole, First You Build a Cloud, and Other Reflections on Physics as a Way of Life

As its title implies, this book covers a variety of subjects related to physics and its implications for everyday life, from the multitudinous consequences of the fundamental forces of the universe to the nature of causation. Cole starts with a discussion of the nature of science, emphasizing that our understanding of phenomena at very large and small scales is based on metaphors and abstractions, and that uncertainty and imperfection are the essence of science.
15 The language of science is metaphorical; it describes invisible things in terms of things that we experience.
20 Einstein said common sense is the layer of prejudices that our early training has left in our minds.
35 We may need to rely again on the influence of science to preserve a sane world. It is not the certainty of scientific knowledge that fits it for this role, but its uncertainty. – Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory
37 Very little in science is actually wrong and nothing in science is ever completely right.
39 "Wrong" more nearly means "limited."
The difference between a round earth and a flat one is primarily one of perspective—a broad versus a narrow point of view.
40 Science never proves anything completely right, because there is so much left to be learned.
41 Politicians and journalists and social scientists are not so apt to admire others for admitting their mistakes; on the contrary, the admission that even part of a policy or theory is wrong is frequently touted as proof that it was (and is) completely without merit.
149 Relativity does not mean that everything is relative. It means that appearances are relative—and you already knew that.
153 The abstract "patterns" of the physical universe are more concrete than the things you can feel or touch.
Physicists look at patterns for clues to underlying forces—as do parents, psychologists, economists, and occasional politicians.

Isaac Asimov, The Relativity of Wrong

This is an (out of print) collection of essays on various scientific subjects. The title essay asserts that ideas are best regarded as more or less correct or incorrect, rather than absolutely right or wrong.
11 It was mechanical technology that made human slavery totally uneconomic and abolished it when all the moral preaching of well-meaning individuals accomplished little.
13 There's no way I can single-handedly save the world or, perhaps, even make a perceptible difference—but how ashamed I would be to let a day pass without making one more effort. I have to make my life worthwhile—to my self, if to no one else—and writing these essays is one of the chief ways in which I accomplish the task.
207 The telescopic discovery that many stars were invisible to the naked eye was the very first hint that perhaps the Universe had not been created with human welfare as its primary object.
290 The notion that right and wrong are absolutes may originate in elementary education, where answers are judged as correct or incorrect.

Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder

In response to criticisms that scientific knowledge detracts from awe of nature, Dawkins uses several areas of scientific discovery to point out how wonders multiply as understanding increases. His discussion of the human brain and nervous system makes his point especially well.
In response to criticisms that scientific knowledge detracts from awe of nature, Dawkins uses several areas of scientific discovery to point out how wonders multiply as understanding increases.
6 After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn't it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked—as I am surprisingly often—why I bother to get up in the mornings.
193 Development is change in the form of a single object, as clay deforms under a potter's hands. Evolution, as seen in fossils taken from successive strata, is more like a sequence of frames in a cinema film. One frame doesn't literally change into the next, but we experience an illusion of change if we project the frames in succession. The cosmos develops, but technology and clothing fashions evolve.
282 The reality simulation software built into us can delude us. When it does, we are convinced that our experiences are real because they are produced by our normal mechanisms for perceiving reality.

Gerald Holton, Science and Anti-Science

This is a collection of essays related to skeptical attitudes toward science. The first four are academic, but the last two are relevant to social controversy about the capabilities and role of science.
147 Less than 17 percent of U.S. adults can be called scientifically literate by the most generous definition, only 13 percent have at least a minimum level of understanding of the process of science, and 40 percent disagree with the statement "astrology is not at all scientific."
150 A desire for certainty in uncertain times can turn people against science.
157 Opinions and actions are to some degree guided by a generally robust, map-like constellation of the individual's underlying beliefs of how the world as a whole operates—a worldview.
159 A basic function of a world picture is that it acts as a cohesive force for the formation and work of a community. Erik Erikson points out that it "integrates a group's imagery" and gives the individual a "sense of centrality of the world and leeway in action."
179 Only three types of interventions make sense to counter anti-science sentiment in our society: education of children, consciousness-raising of the public, and prevention of the inclusion of anti-science in education.
181 The cooperation of professionals and academics with Hitler shows that scientific literacy by itself provides no immunization against acceptance of pseudo-science.

Paul Davies, God and the New Physics

Davies discusses some of the implications that physics has for some theological ideas. He tries to avoid promoting his own theology, but his idea of God is clearly non-personal. He apparently leans toward a "natural" God whose mind is composed of all of the universe.
ix In my opinion science offers a surer path to God than religion.
139 Perhaps freedom means unpredictability. What you will do is determined by elements beyond your control, but you can never know, even in principle, what it is that you will do.
219 Perhaps there is an objective truth that is discoverable, more or less accurately. Perhaps the concept of truth is meaningless, and all we can hope for is more or less useful models of reality.
In science, skepticism is a virtue.
220 As regards a "final", perfect theory that cannot be improved upon, some physicists regard such a thing to be as meaningless as the idea of a perfect picture or a perfect symphony.

The Universe

top of page

Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

This book is a popularized overview of physical science. At a high level, it covers what we know and how we've learned it, with many portraits of unusual people who made various discoveries. The author is not a scientist, but a writer who has compiled facts and narratives, focusing on the most dramatic ones.
141 Atoms are mostly empty space. When one billiard ball strikes another, the negatively charged fields of the two balls repel each other. Otherwise they could, like galaxies, pass right through each other. When you sit in a chair, you are actually levitating above it at a height of one angstrom, your electrons and its electrons implacably opposed to any closer intimacy.
212 The most intense earthquake in recorded history struck—and essentially shook to pieces—Lisbon, Portugal on November 1, 1755.
213 Tokyo is very likely to be hit by a major earthquake, with possible damage estimated as high as $7 trillion.
217 Rocks are viscous in the same way glass is. Remove a pane of really old glass from the window of a European cathedral and it will be noticeably thicker at the bottom than at the top.
336 It's easy to overlook the idea that life just is. As humans we are inclined to feel that life must have a point.
421 Alexander von Humboldt observed that there are three stages in scientific discovery: first people deny that it is true; then they deny that it is important; finally they credit the wrong person.
446 Bipedalism is a demanding and risky strategy. It means refashioning the pelvis into a full load-bearing instrument. To preserve the required strength, the birth canal must be comparatively narrow. This means the baby must be born while its brain is still small—and while it is therefore still helpless. This means long-term infant care, which in turn implies solid male-female bonding.

Timothy Ferris, The Whole Shebang

This is a fascinating, enjoyable book on cosmology, with a "contrarian theological afterward."
108 Atoms, like galaxies, are cathedrals of cavernous space. What feels solid about a tabletop is that the electromagnetic fields set up by atoms in the table repel similar fields in your fist.
227 Andrew Strominger – I don't believe anyone finds out anything about the universe except how beautiful it is, which we know already. It's just very pretty.
301 Ideas are like explosives: The fact that they are dangerous does not mean they ought not to be employed.
302 If there is and ever has been but one universe, it will be the first time that nature proved less clever and less resourceful than we are.
309 George Bernard Shaw – Religion is always right. Religion solves every problem and thereby abolishes problems from the universe...Science is the very opposite. Science is always wrong. It never solves a problem without raising ten more problems.

Donald Brownlee and Peter Ward, The Life and Death of Planet Earth: How the New Science of Astrobiology Charts the Ultimate Fate of Our World

This relatively small book reviews the history of the earth, and predicts its future, from the next ice age to the destruction by the growth of the sun to become a red giant. It also discusses possible earlier destructive events, as well as ways in which humans might conceivably survive beyond the death of the earth.
43 Large scale bioengineering (called "domestication") was under way well before the invention of written language.
45 Background extinction rates are estimated to be one species every 4 or 5 years. Extinction rates are now many per day.
47 The earth, as a habitat for animal life, is in old age and has a fatal illness. Several, in fact. It would be happening whether humans had evolved or not. But our presence is like the effect of an old-age patient who smokes many packs of cigarettes per day—and we humans are the cigarettes.
207 The difficulty of "practical" travel between stars is getting there on the timescale of the human life span. It's easy if you're not in hurry, but if you want to get there quickly and do fancy things like stop, the task is nearly impossible.

Simon Lamb and David Sington, Earth Story: The Shaping of Our World

With clear text and informative illustrations, this book describes how scientists have pieced together the story of how the earth came to be as it is. Its two final chapters emphasize how the earth's geology interacts with the biosphere, and compare it to the other planets in the solar system. It succeeds at assembling a fascinating, coherent picture of the history of the earth.
8 Four billion years ago, the earth was covered by a single ocean dotted with thousands of volcanic islands.
171 Climatic changes are normal, not aberrations.
177 Most species are extinct, but life is more diverse than ever.
Geological activity has strongly affected evolution.
217 Oxygen began to accumulate in significant quantities in the atmosphere about 2 billion years ago.

David Grinspoon, Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life

Grinspoon, a space scientist, covers both the science and the mythology of extraterrestrial life in this book. His style is serious, but irreverent, especially in his footnotes, which are frequently jokes. In covering his subject from all angles, his leaps are sometimes dizzying. For example, his discussion of the spiritual relevance of life in the universe touches on the subject of immortality, which implies a solution to human tendencies to self-destruction.
113 The real "missing link" in evolution is how the elaborate reproductive machinery of life developed from simple self-replicating molecules.
124 The buildup of oxygen in earth's atmosphere was a global environmental crisis.
128 Humans are important, not as the pinnacle of evolution, but as the vanguard of a new, conscious phase of evolution.
149 In order to serve the cause of truth, we must sometimes be able to say "we have no idea" about an important topic.
189 Our persistent belief in life on Mars suggests that it fulfills needs that go beyond scientific evidence.
242 Questions about life in the universe have always been our motivation for space exploration.
265 We have to be careful when stating what is impossible.
Time and again we think we know more than we do.
340 One commonality in various New Age beliefs seems to be a sense of belonging to a chosen population that will, through its own personal breakthroughs in consciousness, collectively help the entire human race to save itself.

Alan Dressler, Voyage to the Great Attractor: Exploring Intergalactic Space

This book tells the story of the astronomical research effort that revealed the movement of our galaxy and many others toward an enormous concentration of galaxies 200 million light-years away. The story itself is fascinating, but Dressler brings it to life by introducing each member of the research team as a person, describing nights at an observatory, recounting the theoretical discussions of the team as they attempted to understand the results of their observations, and discussing the controversy provoked by their discoveries. Two chapters provide a survey of current cosmological theory, and a final philosophical chapter presents the author's view of the place of humanity in the universe. Dressler is especially good at explaining the science with effective analogies.
4 The view of the Milky Way from Las Campanas shows clearly that we stand, pitched at some odd, arbitrary angle, on a small world at the far reaches of a colossal wonder.
20 The bowl of the Big Dipper frames about one million galaxies.
217 Identification of a test that could invalidate the hypothesis is crucial to the scientific method: without a prediction of new phenomena, a hypothesis is just a description of what was already known, and thus a dead end.
241 A good mystery story is what science is all about. Astronomy, in particular, is the kind of activity Hercule Poirot would have appreciated. You examine a set of "facts" in search of a unifying cause, trying to reconstruct and event beyond your reach in space and time. the clues are usually scarce, frequently indistinct, often contradictory. If you are lucky, a number of them point in one direction; this encourages you to develop a hypothesis that might explain most of what you have observed. But any good detective knows that the process does not stop there: explaining any given set of observations after the fact is altogether too easy—the wrong culprit might well be fingered. The key step is to use the theory to guess the nature of as-yet-unobtained information, a process that is unlikely to succeed unless there is some truth to the hypothesis. Then one is back on the case, looking for additional evidence that will support one explanation to the exclusion of all others.
283 Like all other thought, scientific theories are hierarchies of analogies.

Carl Sagan, Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium

This collection of essays deal with what has been discovered about our place in the universe, the need to care for our planet, and the philosophical issues that make cooperative action difficult. The last one is about his experience facing death, and the epilogue by his wife talks about their relationship and his death.
40 We have evolved eyes that are sensitive to certain wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation because our atmosphere is transparent to those wavelengths.
71 Public understanding of science is essential to making wise political decisions about the uses of technology.

Gabriel GohauAlbert V. Carozzi and Marguerite Carozzi, A History of Geology

This book is a translation from French, edited for an American audience, but it retains a concentration on French scientists. The most interesting aspect of the book to me is that it traces the history of western ideas about the earth, from ancient Greek philosophers to modern science. In doing so, it serves as a vivid illustration of how western thought has moved from speculation based on everyday experience to understanding based on empirical research.
21 In light of a poll by two French sociologists revealed that one third of the French people in the 1980s still believed that the sun revolves around the earth, we can only be baffled about the inconceivably slow diffusion of scientific knowledge.
38 Martin Luther referred to Copernicus as "this fool who wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy because Sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth."
48 At the beginning of the sixteenth century people began trying to trace their origins and determine the age of the earth.
206 The value of a scientific theory lies as much in its retroactive explanation of facts that had remained enigmas as in its prediction of new facts. 215 The most fascinating aspect of science is that each answer raises new questions.

Natural Order

top of page

Per Bak, How Nature Works: The Science of Self-Organized Criticality

Bak describes studies that have been made of the highly varied phenomena exhibiting self-organized criticality. He explains how small changes in SOC systems like the earth's crust, the brain, genetics, traffic patterns, and economies can cause large and even catastrophic effects because of their constant delicate balance.
6 We believe that all the complex phenomena, including biological life, do indeed obey physical laws. There has never been any proof of a metaphysical process not following the laws of physics that would distinguish living matter from any other.
"Emergent" phenomena arise from physical mechanisms in ways we have been unable to trace.
9 Life is just one very unlikely outcome among myriad other equally unlikely possibilities. But it is likely that some unlikely events will happen because there are so many unlikely events that could happen.
10 A theory of life is likely to be a theory of a process, not a detailed account of utterly accidental details of that process, such as the emergence of humans. The theory must be statistical. Anecdotal evidence carries weight only if enough of it can be gathered to form a statistical statement.
62 There is not much an individual can do to protect himself from disaster. Major catastrophes can start far away and sweep away the protections erected against smaller, more frequent, damaging events. [Insurance policies generally don't protect against "acts of God."]
120 Nothing prevents further progress more than the belief that everything is already understood, a belief that has repeatedly been expressed in science for hundreds of years.
174 Earthquakes are not periodic. The power law indicates that the longer you have waited since a large earthquake at a given location, the longer you can expect still to have to wait. The same goes for evolution. The longer a species has been in existence, the longer we can expect it to be around in the future. Cockroaches are likely to outlast humans.

John H. Holland, Emergence: From Chaos to Order

In this book, Holland discusses his work toward developing a theory of emergence, the development of higher orders of mechanisms from simple ones. He uses a fair amount of mathematics, but the discussion is not difficult to follow without studying the details.
3 A small number of rules can generate systems of surprising complexity.
7 The human body turns over all of its constituent atoms in less than two years. [We are like standing waves.]
14 Analysis by reduction is possible only when the interactions of mechanisms are simple; when they are not, new levels of interaction emerge.
190 Turning reductionism on its head, we can add new levels of laws that satisfy the constraints imposed by lower levels of laws.
200 A change in three orders of magnitude usually takes us to a new level, requiring a new science.
213 Feeling for a discipline comes with immersion in it. Familiarity with "nearby disciplines" stimulates transfer of ideas.
218 A lapse-frame animation of the evolution of some family of organisms would almost certainly show the tentative probes, withdrawals, redirections, and cumulative construction we associate with creative activity.

Biology

top of page

Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life

This easy-to-read book discusses several effects of evolution, stressing that it is digital, that it's purpose is genetic replication, and that it's naturally exponential. The book addresses so many issues with theism that I thought of it as reactionary.
2 All organisms tend to possess successful genes because successful genes are those that reproduce.
6 Speciation occurs because of geographical separation.
17 Vitalism, the idea that some kind of life force provides life to organisms, was made obsolete by the discovery of DNA.
33 Science shares with religion the claim that it answers deep questions about origins, the nature of life, and the cosmos. But there the resemblance ends. Scientific beliefs are supported by evidence, and they get results. Myths and faiths are not and do not.
83 Several different types of eyes have evolved. The evolution of eyes like ours could have happened in less than half a million years. Miracle is simply a synonym for the total absence of an explanation.
96 We humans have purpose on the brain. We feel that everything needs a purpose.
124 Selection favors uniform quality of body parts because (on average) the organism's life span is determined by the part that is weakest.
129 Body deterioration is programmed by the fact that there is no reproductive advantage to longevity beyond childbearing years.
132 Levels of suffering maintain an equilibrium. If there were less of it, the population would increase until current levels of suffering returned. There is no "problem of suffering" unless you believe in a loving, all-powerful God. We should expect meaningless tragedies as well a meaningless good fortune.

Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life

Dennett's thesis is that the idea of evolution is not merely the theory of how the various forms of life originated, but a powerful explanation of all the complexity we find in the universe. He repeatedly uses the metaphor of cranes and skyhooks to contrast two fundamental ideas of the development of complex phenomena: slow, gradual, bottom-up development vs. sudden, miraculous leaps. A significant portion of the book takes issue with scientists who attempt to explain various aspects of evolution using "skyhooks" of various types and sizes.
I found many of Dennett's explanations and arguments to be difficult to follow. A welcome feature of the book is that each chapter ends with a brief summary of that chapter followed by an introductory summary of the next one.
21 If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I'd give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law.
42 Darwin's great idea was not the idea of evolution, but the idea of evolution by natural selection.
82 The most common fear about Darwin's idea is that it will not just explain but explain away the Minds and Purposes and Meaning that we all hold dear. This cannot be a sound fear; a proper reductionistic explanation of these phenomena would leave them still standing but just demystified, unified, placed on more secure foundations. How could increased understanding of them diminish their value in our eyes?
128 In addition to having an autonomous metabolism, any organism must also have a more or less definite boundary, distinguishing itself from everything else. As soon as something gets into the business of self-preservation, boundaries become important, for if you are setting out to preserve yourself, you don't want to squander effort trying to preserve the whole world: you draw the line.
153 Design takes intelligence, but that intelligence can be broken into bits so tiny and stupid that they don't count as intelligence at all, and then distributed through space and time in a gigantic, connected network of algorithmic process.
154 Faith has a worthy function as a way for people to comfort themselves and each other, but I don't see a reasoned ground for taking faith seriously as a way of getting to the truth.
165 The weak Anthropic Principle merely states that the universe meets the conditions required for life. The strong Anthropic Principle is an attempt to justify the idea that the universe is necessarily so.
174 There is no line to be drawn between merely ordered things and designed things.
Computer simulations are probably the most important epistemological advance in scientific method since the invention of accurate timekeeping devices.
308 Convergent evolution is overwhelmingly good evidence of the power of processes of natural selection.
310 Evolutionists who see no conflict between evolution and their religious beliefs have been careful not to look as closely as we have been looking, or else hold a religious view that gives God what we might call a merely ceremonial role to play.
338 People ache to believe that we human beings are vastly different from all other species—and they are right! We are different. We are the only species that has an extra medium of design preservation and design communication: culture.
442 Whenever we say we solved some problem "by intuition," all that really means is we don't know how we solved it.
489 We are susceptible to illusions because our brains use short-cuts that lack generality but solve the most pressing problems of perception very well. This is to be expected from an evolutionary development process.

John Alcock, The Triumph of Sociobiology

16 The historical differences in the genetic success of individuals with different attributes determined which genes managed to survive to the present. These genes promote the development of particular kinds of neural networks in today's organisms, which provide them with the machinery of behavior. The machinery of reproductive success promote its long-term persistence; in contrast, internal mechanisms that predispose individuals to fail at reproduction wind up in the junk heap of history.
49 Because artificial selection almost always works, we can conclude that hereditary variation in behavioral attributes is the rule, not the exception. If we humans can artificially induce behavioral changes in modern populations today, unadulterated natural selection almost certainly did the same thing in the past.
83 Scientists are on to something. Scientific procedures, especially the insistence on testing hypotheses, really do increase our chances of understanding what causes something to happen.
84-85 Farmers, herders and hunters use observation of patterns to make better decisions, even without understanding the mechanisms that make their predictions accurate.
90 Scientists do not typically treat the ideas of their colleagues with reverence but employ the logic of scientific analysis to test and retest each other's hypotheses, often taking considerable pleasure in demonstrating flaws in another person' work, perhaps because to do so is to gain social status within the scientific community.
181 Altruism results from a desire to do good (a proximate cause), which is at least partially hereditary due to its reproductive benefits for individuals who behave altruistically (an ultimate cause).
218 Much apparent altruism in humans can be seen as indirect reciprocity with helpful, cooperative acts delivered in ways that boost the reputation of the helper, who eventually may derive useful assistance from others who know of his or her good reputation. [But an inclination to altruism may be beneficial even without the aspect of reputation (cf. pg. 181).]

Richard Fortey, Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth

This book gives a good, broad overview of the development of the amazing variety of living organisms that live and have lived on the earth. It isn't exciting reading, but it is enlivened by a number of amusing anecdotes collected like fossils by a well-known paleontologist. I was especially impressed by the information on stromatolites, the Ediacara fauna, and other early forms of life.
14 Discovery is one of the most uncomplicated and simple joys. It is not just the feeling that accompanies curiosity satisfied-it is too sharp for that; it arises from the deep unconscious. It must lie hidden and unacknowledged beneath the dispassionate prose of a thousand scientific papers, which are, by convention, filleted of emotion.
64 In paleontology, patience is more than a virtue: it is a necessity. Sometimes the line that divides an untiring search from a wild goose chase is a subtle one. Disappointed hunches never make the news. But even a failed search tells the next searcher to look elsewhere.

Paul Davies, The Fifth Miracle: The Search for the Origin and Meaning of Life

Davies discusses what is currently known about the origin of life. He emphasizes the complexity of life, questioning theories that life originated from simple chemical processes. He suggests that the ancestral forms of life on earth were sulfur-eating hypothermophiles. He discusses possible sources for such creatures, but ventures no guesses as to how they originated. One chapter also discusses the possibility of life on Mars, concluding that life has probably been there at some time in the past, and may still exist there. The final chapter considers some philosophical implications of theories of the origin of life.
36 No simple defining quality distinguishes the living from the nonliving. Life seems to involve two crucial factors: metabolism and reproduction.
147 Simple statistics reveal that your body contains about one atom of carbon from every milligram of dead organic material more than a thousand years old. You are, for example, host to a billion or so atoms that once belonged to Jesus Christ, or Julius Caesar, or the Buddha, or the tree that the Buddha once sat beneath.

Frank Ryan, Darwin's Blind Spot: Evolution Beyond Natural Selection

1 Our universe is a sorry little affair unless it has in it something for every age to investigate . . . Nature does not reveal her mysteries once and for all. - Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Naturales Questiones, Book 7
17 The behavioral patterns of [animals] have been hardwired into the genes . . . by evolutionary forces over long periods of time.
121 The study of evolution is vast enough to include the cosmos and its stars as well as life, including human life, and our bodies and our technologies. Evolution is simply all of history. – Lynn Margulis, The Symbiotic Planet
240 The ideal of the ethical man is to limit his freedom of action to a sphere in which he does not interfere with the freedom of others; he seeks the common weal as much as his own; and, indeed, as an essential part of his own welfare. - T.H. Huxley

Humanity

top of page

Paul R. Ehrlich, Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect

This highly thought-provoking book sketches the genetic and cultural history of human beings within the general context of life on earth. The main thesis is that our cultural evolution has much more influence on our behavior than our genetic evolution. Ehrlich's analysis of religion and ethics is particularly interesting. The book concludes with thoughts on possibilities and obstacles related to changing the behavior of our species. The book contains 331 pages of text, 99 pages of notes, 75 pages of bibliographical references, and a 28 page index.
x Our culture is changing through an evolutionary process that is generally thought of as history.
63 Cultural evolution is far faster than genetic evolution. Ideas are the DNA of culture.
64 A social trap is a situation in which a society gets itself headed in a direction that later may prove unpleasant or lethal but that its members see no way to avoid or back out of.
74 A theory is the highest level of certainty for comprehensive ideas in science. We usually refer to theories as facts. Evolution is a well-supported and very useful theory, not merely a conjecture.
111 Human beings are the only animals that seem fully aware of the consciousness of other individuals and thus have been able to develop empathy, the capacity to identify emotionally with others.
121 A particularly important role of emotions is to coordinate and assign priorities to the many brain programs.
125 It is only in a probabilistic sense that every move we make could be predetermined, but those ultimate "causes" of apparently free choices can never be traced, and we can never be aware of them. Although in the abstract there may be no free will, in practice the brains of human beings evolved so that intentional individuals can make real choices and can make them within a context of ethical alternatives.
166 Humans are adapted to a hunting/gathering way of life. There hasn't been enough time to evolve significant adaptations to the agricultural revolution.
214 People who find a belief system that orients them to life tend to enjoy not only better mental health but also better physical health.
214 Encounters with certain people, thoughts, ceremonies, works of art or music, and the like can produce a surge of emotions that are often described by the word thrilling.
215 The pleasure of such thrills may be an important factor in religion's persistence, in addition to the solace many find in religion.
216 One role of religion is explanatory and manipulative, designating which forces are driving mysterious-seeming events in the world and trying to influence them. The other is integrative and controlling—organizing groups to deal with those forces and justifying the power gained by some individuals over others within those groups.
256 Religion helped to connect useful codes of conduct to the supernatural and legitimized differences between classes of people.
260 It is surprisingly difficult to get most human beings to kill even during wars.
261 Genocide involves defining other groups as being outside the realm of humanitarian obligation.
268 Improved communication brought about by printing has proven historically to be a great force for the removal of inequity through the diffusion of ideas such as liberty and equality. It remains so today.
276 [The role of government] is to create a strong system of laws to provide a level (and relatively monopoly-free) playing field on which competition can be acted out and a system of controls to protect the public health, provide personal security, preserve ecosystem resources, and maintain an adequate social safely net.
279 We have barely begun to solve the problem with which cultural evolution has presented us: how to live in large groups, perpetually intensifying our activities, creating technologies few can understand and even fewer can control, without sowing the seeds of our own destruction.
324 American neoconservatives promote creationism because they apparently fear an educated population and see the theory of evolution as a threat to the religious beliefs they deem essential to keeping society from disintegrating. Evolution should be taught at all levels in schools and the teaching of creationism as a "scientific" alternative should end. The prices we pay in racism, antibiotic resistance, and pesticide resistance alone are too high to pay for a population ignorant of its evolutionary history and the processes that created humanity and all other organisms.
429 There is no science in either the procedures or the conclusions of creationism. There is no debate in the scientific community over whether or not evolution occurred and there is no evidence that evolution has not occurred.
430 One possible explanation for the creationist silliness on the part of the educated is that they believe it is necessary to promote religion in order to maintain social order and evolutionary theory undermines religion. The decline in the teaching of evolution in the schools of the United States cuts most people off from knowledge about their origins and the origins of the ecosystems in which they operate, and it generally encourages a feeling of human power and exceptionalism that makes it difficult to deal with environmental problems.

Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

Pinker, a professor of psychology at MIT, points out that many ideas about human behavior are based on the assumptions that the mind of a child has no innate tendencies and/or that there is a non-physical mind or "soul" which controls a person's decisions. He presents scientific evidence to show that a large part of behavior is inherited, and that even more is adopted from peers. He argues that our intuitions are effective tools for survival in the world of our ancestors, but that we need education to understand the knowledge and use the abilities we have gained in the last few thousand years. The book focuses on allaying the fears that promote the concept of a "blank slate" mind.
145-148 All humans can be assumed to have certain traits in common. No one likes being enslaved, humiliated, or treated unfairly. This is the proper basis for opposing discrimination, not the idea that there are no natural differences between people.
165 A realism about the imperfect emotions we actually have may bring more happiness than an illusion about the ideal emotions we wish we had.
167 People have steadily expanded the mental dotted line that embraces the entities considered worthy of moral consideration.
190 Nothing invests life with more meaning than the realization that every moment of sentience is a precious gift.
198 Most scientists regard their work as an extension of our everyday ability to figure out what is out there and how things work.
221 Our minds are very suitable for the lifestyle of small groups of illiterate, stateless people who live off the land, survive by their wits, and depend on what they can carry. We have no faculties suited the stunning new understanding of the world wrought by science and technology. We have no intuitive understanding of modern physics, cosmology, genetics, evolution, neuroscience, embryology, economics, and mathematics.
222 Education is a technology that tries to make up for what the human mind is innately bad at.
223 Much of the content of education is not cognitively natural, so mastering it is not always easy and pleasant.
235 The obvious cure for the tragic shortcomings of human intuition in a high-tech world is education. And this offers priorities for educational policy: to provide students with the cognitive tools that are most important for grasping the modern world and that are most unlike the cognitive tools they are born with—for example economics, evolutionary biology, and probability and statistics.
244 Nothing prevents the amoral process of natural selection from evolving a brain with genuine big-hearted emotions.
373 The three laws of behavioral genetics are:
1) All human behavioral traits are heritable.
2) The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of the genes.
3) A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioral traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families.

Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

I feel that this is one of the most important books I've ever read.
Diamond succeeds very well in his effort to give a balanced perspective, considering both environmental problems and business realities. As an advocate for environmental protection, he often points his finger at human causes of problems, and applauds groups who have developed successful solutions to problems, but his primary focus is to explain why and how problems occur and what approaches can be used to resolve them. He supports his analysis with 24 pages of references.
17 Science is the acquisition of reliable knowledge about the world.
348 We subconsciously expect people to be homogeneously "good" or "bad," as if there were a single quality of virtue that should shine through every aspect of a person's behavior.
379 Difficulties due to Australia's environmental fragility are mitigated by its advantages of a well educated populace, a high standard of living, and relatively honest political and economic institutions.
433 It is painfully difficult to decide whether to abandon some of one's core values when they seem to be becoming incompatible with survival. Perhaps a crux of success or failure as a society is to know which core values to hold on to, and which ones to discard and replace with new values, when times change.
434 Partly irrational failures to try to solve perceived problems often arise from clashes between short-term and long-term motives of the same individual.
435 Some speculative reasons for irrational refusal to address a problem are crowd psychology, "groupthink," and psychological denial.
441 Mutual accusations by businesses and environmentalists are often true.
483 It is easy and cheap for the rest of us to blame a business for helping itself by hurting other people. But that blaming alone is unlikely to produce change. It ignores the fact that businesses are not non-profit charities but profit-making companies, and that publicly owned companies with shareholders are under obligation to those shareholders to maximize profits, provided that they do so by legal means. Our laws make a company's directors legally liable for something termed "breach of fiduciary responsibility" if they knowingly manage a company in a way that reduces profits.
485 The public has the ultimate responsibility for the behavior of even the biggest businesses. Businesses change their behavior in response to public attitudes.
496 No one at the U.N. or in First World governments is willing to acknowledge the unsustainability of a world in which the Third World's large population were to reach and maintain current First World living standards.
It is untenable politically for First World leaders to propose to their own citizens that they lower their living standards, as measured by lower resource consumption and waste production rates. What will happen when it finally dawns on all those people in the Third World that current First World standards are unreachable for them, and that the First World refuses to abandon those standards for itself?
498 The world's environmental problems will get resolved, in one way or another, within the lifetimes of the children and young adults alive today. The only question is whether they will become resolved in pleasant ways of our own choice, or in unpleasant ways not of our choice, such as warfare, genocide, starvation, disease epidemics, and collapses of societies.
524 A lower-impact society is the most impossible scenario for our future—except for all other conceivable scenarios.

Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

This book is very repetitive, but very enlightening. It gives a broad picture of social development over the last 13,000 years.
202 Epidemic diseases occur in waves. The greatest single epidemic in human history was the one of influenza that killed 21 million people at the end of the First World War.
205 European city populations weren't self-sustaining until the 20th century. Before then, constant immigration of healthy peasants from the countryside was necessary to make up for the constant deaths of city dwellers from crowd diseases.
207-208 Animal diseases evolve into human diseases in four stages: direct transfer from animals, transmission between humans as epidemics that eventually die out, epidemics that haven't died out, and long-established human epidemic diseases.
236 The earliest forms of writing (e.g., Sumerian, before 3000 B.C.) were accounting records, not text. Only with the development of the Greek alphabet in the 8th century B.C. did writing become a general-purpose form of communication.
245 Technology develops cumulatively, rather than in isolated heroic acts, and it finds most of its uses after it has been invented, rather than being invented to meet a foreseen need.
260 Humans used simple stone tools 2.5 mya. Physical changes supporting speech and advanced brain function occurred between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago. This led to bone tools, single-purpose stone tools, and compound tools. Over the last 13,000 years, there has been a move away from hunting and gathering toward food production, which required us to remain sedentary, close to our crops, orchards, and stored food surpluses. These surpluses allowed for the development of technology because it enabled people to accumulate non-portable possessions.
281 Patriotic fanaticism is a weapon of states; it is unthinkable in bands and tribes, who fight in ways that minimize risk.
335 Modern tensions have roots going back thousands of years.
398 A wild animal, to be domesticated, must be sufficiently docile, submissive to humans, cheap to feed, and immune to diseases and must grow rapidly and breed well in captivity.
421-423 Most historians do not think of themselves as scientists and receive little training in acknowledged sciences and their methodologies. Historical sciences (astronomy, climatology, ecology, evolutionary biology, geology and paleontology) differ from others in several important ways. They can't do experiments, so they rely on observation, comparison, and natural experiments. They involve tracing extensive chains of causation. Their subjects are intractably complex, exhibiting emergent behavior. Their predictions (other than future discoveries about the past) are limited to statistical trends.
426 My main conclusion was that societies developed differently on different continents because of differences in continental environments, not in human biology. Advanced technology, centralized political organization, and other features of complex societies could emerge only in dense sedentary populations capable of accumulating food surpluses.

Antonio Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness

Damasio presents his model of the physiology of consciousness. A welcome feature of the book is that Damasio indicates his level of confidence in the material he's presenting, often indicating that a certain idea is his hypothesis, but even in those cases he provides his basis for proposing that hypothesis.
Damasio points out that emotions produced by bodily sensations are part of homeostasic regulation, and argues that they are necessary for making effective decisions and thus are very helpful for survival.
51 Emotions are complicated collections of chemical and neural responses; they are about the organism's body, and they assist in maintaining life.
83 Subjective phenomena can be studied scientifically. Whether one likes it or not, all the contents in our minds are subjective and the power of science comes from its ability to verify objectively the consistency of many individual subjectivities.
304 Consciousness is the latest and most sophisticated means of generating adequate responses to environment and thus achieving homeostasis. It does so by creating novel responses to environments for which the organism was not designed.
Consciousness is first and foremost about the individual organism. This guarantees that proper attention is paid to the matters of individual life by creating a concern. Perhaps the secret behind the efficacy of consciousness is selfness. Consciousness is valuable because it centers knowledge on the life of an individual organism.

Matt Ridley, The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation

I saw a number of questionable statements in this book, but overall it's an enlightening discussion of the function of society. Ridley emphasizes that cooperation is based on individual self-interest.
39 Specialization is what makes society greater than the sum of its parts.
63 The tit-for-tat strategy requires an ongoing relationship.
70 The number of people in a group tends toward 150. [e.g., a church]
137 A cooperative person looks toward long-term interest.
156 There's nothing unique about being unique.
185 There is value to following fashion; it supports cohesiveness in the group.
186 It's usually better to accept tradition than to start from scratch.
188 People go along with the group only when it suits them. We exploit the group for ourselves.
199 Division of labor is the source of prosperity. Trade is ancient, far preceding government.
231 Everybody's property is nobody's property. This is called the "tragedy of the commons."

Steve Olson, Mapping Human History: Discovering the Past Through Our Genes

This fascinating book traces the migrations of prehistoric and modern people using genetic evidence corroborated by that from archeology, history, and linguistics. It debunks the idea of a biological basis for racial distinctions, showing that humans are genetically diverse as individuals, but without clear-cut group distinctions. Finally, it suggests ways to obtain consent to allow more large-scale genetic studies.
2 Most armed conflicts are ethnic.
46 - 47 The exponential growth in the number of our ancestors going back in time connects us tightly to the past. If a historical figure who lived more than 1,600 years ago had children who themselves had children, that person is almost certainly among our ancestors. Being descended from someone doesn't necessarily mean that you have any DNA from that person.

Ian Tattersall, The Fossil Trail: How We Know What We Think We Know About Human Evolution

This is a clear summary of the story of how fossils of early humans and their precursors were discovered and interpreted.
93 The adaptive landscape metaphor was difficult for paleontologists because it blurred the definition of species in time.
165 I asked a distinguished scholar "How does one study fossils? How does one understand what they tell us about the history of life?" The answer? "You look at them long enough, and they speak to you."
211 A specific configuration of larynx and pharynx is needed to produce the sounds used in articulate speech. Analysis of skull shapes indicates that australopithecenes and Neanderthals lacked the required configuration. [Could they have had languages like existing click languages?]

Ian Tattersall, Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness

This book discusses the origins of the characteristics that are unique or uniquely developed in humans. Tattersall covers the evolution of Homo sapiens, focusing on the evidence for early use of tools, articulate language, art, agriculture, and social structures.
100 Speciation occurs when populations of a species are isolated from each other long enough for reproductive incompatibility to evolve.
194 Insight into the motives of others—impossible without some degree of insight into one's own—is an essential ingredient of human social behavior.
197 The history of mankind is littered with the carcasses of golden geese.
198 - 199 We are both individual and social creatures; and on the social level, the most basic component of our condition—and what principally necessitates systems of morality—is that we have to live with each other, complex and unpredictable beings all.
214 Although we are readily able to learn technological skills by absorbing the results of others' experience, in matters of human interaction, we are more or less incapable of learning in this way. No matter how much wisdom in the conduct of human affairs has been passed down through the ages, each generation has made the same mistakes over and over again.
217 The concept of crop production implies the modification of ecosystems. Once this was done, humans viewed their place in nature differently; for in a very real sense their place was now apart from nature.

Ian Tattersall, The Monkey in the Mirror: Essays on the Science of What Makes Us Human

This is a small book on a very large subject: human evolution. It emphasizes the complexity of the subject and the scarcity of data, often questioning simplistic theories.
6 The core of the scientific endeavor amounts to no more than the corporate effort to describe nature and its workings as accurately as possible.
10 For a notion to be accepted as fully scientific, it has to be one that, if wrong, can be shown to be wrong by more than simple assertion. Scientists try to come up with descriptions that resist disproof.
184 The most significant human behavioral characteristic may be a simple intolerance of boredom.
189 It is unlikely that humans will continue to evolve significantly because we are blending genetically more than ever—not being divided into isolated groups.
199 Road rage is a symptom of overcrowding and is only a foretaste of worse to come.

Robert Wright, The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology

Wright introduces evolutionary psychology with the intention of showing that it doesn't support conservative racial prejudices, and that in fact it supports some components of a liberal agenda. He uses biographical sketches from Charles Darwin's life to illustrate his points.
190 An individual who maximizes his friendships and minimizes his antagonisms will have an evolutionary advantage, and selection should favor those characters that promote the optimization of personal relationships.
"Friendship, dislike, moralistic aggression, gratitude, sympathy, trust, suspicion, trustworthiness, aspects of guilt, and some forms of dishonesty and hypocrisy can be explained as important adaptations to regulate the altruistic system." -Robert Trivers
208 "Morality is the device of an animal of exceptional cognitive complexity, pursuing it's interests in an exceptionally complex social universe." -Martin Daley & Margo Wilson
264 Self-deception may serve as a way to avoid detection of deception.

Living

top of page

Nathaniel Branden, Taking Responsibility: Self-Reliance and the Accountable Life

This challenging book discusses the issue of responsibility that triggered the biggest philosophical changes of my life. It covers cooperation and respect and empathy for others, as well as individuation, authority, self-regulation, initiative and conscience. Branden powerfully states a number of ideas that turned my thinking around.
15 Self-responsibility is the key to personal effectiveness in virtually every sphere of life.
39 Self-responsibility involves my willingness to generate the causes of the effects I want. It also means that if I need the cooperation of others in the pursuit of my goals, I must provide them with reasons meaningful in terms of their own interests and needs.
40 Self-responsibility implies my willingness to be accountable for the ideas and values by which I conduct my life. This entails intellectual independence: the willingness to think for myself and act by the judgment of my own mind. I learn from others, to be sure, but I do not grant to others authority over my consciousness or follow blindly where I do not understand or agree. I do not live secondhand.
If I accept the principle of self-responsibility I recognize that the achievement of my happiness is no one's task but my own. No one owes me happiness.
I am responsible for my life, well-being, and actions in all those areas and issues open to my choice.
I am responsible for my choices and actions, but for no one else's. I can influence but I cannot control another mind. I cannot determine what someone else will think or feel or do.
42 Free will does not mean omnipotence. All of us are affected by forces that we clearly do not choose. We have options about how we will respond to those forces but not about their existence or the fact that they have some impact.
62 There are no experts to whom one can safely surrender one's intellect.
64 Some parents are so eager to control the thinking and feeling of a child that they begin pounding in their messages at an early age. The parents' eagerness to implant what is "true" and "right' becomes a barrier to the child's firsthand understanding.
Some parents implicitly or explicitly convey to their children that "What you think and feel is unimportant. What is important is what others think and feel."
83 Most genocides are carried out by people obeying authorities and acting in contradiction to their own consciences.
89 One of the worst crimes of our educational system is that principles of critical thinking are not part of every school curriculum.
90 When we choose to live mindfully and honor our own perceptions, we create a self who is at home in the universe. When we retreat from this responsibility and transfer to others the task of thinking and judging, we create a painful inner void we then look to others to fill. We live in alienation from ourselves and from reality. The reward of self-responsibility is that we become a person.
109-110 One of the most common causes of frustration and unhappiness is people's fantasy of a rescuer who will someday materialize to solve their problems and fulfill their wishes. This is why I stress in my work that no one is coming. No one is coming to save me; no one is coming to make life right for me; no one is coming to solve my problems. If I don't do something, nothing is going to get better. The great advantage of fully accepting that no one is coming is that it puts power back into our own hands. We are through with waiting and free to act.
122 If we embrace self-responsibility not merely as a personal preference but as a philosophical principle, logically we commit ourselves to respect one another's right to self-interest. A consistent application of this principle would lead us to the rule: Never demand that a person act against his or her self-interest as he or she understands it. This means that if we wish people to take an action or provide value, we are obliged to offer reasons that are meaningful and persuasive in terms of their own interests and goals.
205 Human rights are rights to act in self-interest, not rights to the actions of others.

Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

Gilbert is humorously clever (cf. pg. 130), but his message is serious and is based on much research. His primary thesis is that it is very difficult to predict what will make us happy in the future. Along the way, he discusses the psychological barriers to awareness of our own feelings and desires, honest evaluations of alternatives, and accurate predictions of the future.
xiii Don't live every minute as though it were your last. The things we do when we expect our lives to continue are naturally and properly different than the things we might do if we expected them to end abruptly. We live in the charitable service of the people we will soon become.
17 Anticipation is half the fun (or much more). Forestalling pleasure is an inventive technique for getting double the juice from half the fruit.
20 Being effective—changing things, influencing things, making things happen—is one of the fundamental needs with which human brains seem to be naturally endowed.
22 Our desire for control is so powerful, and the feeling of being in control so rewarding, that people often act as though they can control the uncontrollable. Why should we want to control our futures? Because it feels good to do so—period.
71 Feelings don't just matter—they are what mattering means. Moral philosophers have tried for centuries to find some other way to define good and bad, but none has ever convinced the rest. We consider things good if they are good for making us happy.
103 It is difficult to escape the focus of our own attention—difficult to consider what it is we may not be considering—and this is one of the reasons why we so often mispredict our emotional responses to future events.
130 Wonderful things are especially wonderful the first time they happen, but their wonderfulness wanes with repetition. Psychologists call this habituation, economists call it declining marginal utility, and the rest of us call it marriage.
171 Distorted views of reality are made possible by the fact that experiences are ambiguous. To ensure that our views are credible, our brain accepts what our eye sees. So ensure that our views are positive, our eye looks for what our brain wants.
173 Research suggests that people are typically unaware of the reasons why they are doing what they are doing, but when asked for a reason, they readily supply one.
179 In the long run, people seem to regret not having done things much more than they regret things they did., because the psychological immune system has a more difficult time manufacturing positive and credible views of inactions than of actions.
188 Rare events have greater emotional impact than common ones. Unexplained events also have a disproportionate emotional impact because we are especially likely to keep thinking about them.
189 Mysteries refuse to stay in the back of our minds. Explanation robs events of their emotional impact because it makes them seem likely and allows us to stop thinking about them.
197 Memory is not a dutiful scribe that keeps a complete transcript of our experiences, but a sophisticated editor that clips and saves key elements of an experience and then uses these elements to rewrite the story each time we ask to reread it.
217 Inaccurate beliefs can prevail in the belief-transmission game if they somehow facilitate their own "means of transmission." Any belief that increases communication has a good chance of being transmitted over and over again. False beliefs that happen to promote stable societies tend to propagate because people who hold these beliefs tend to live in stable societies, which promote the means by which false beliefs propagate.

Roberta Jean Bryant, Stop Improving Yourself and Start Living

True recovery from addiction involves creative living. It is a positive choice of how you want to live, not just an avoidance of old habits.
xi Religion assured me that if I could be good enough and improve myself enough, then everything would be okay.
7 External controls encourage irresponsibility and produce resentment.
13 Perfection isn't attainable.
14 Self improvement is based on an assumption of inferiority.
22 True listening is hearing someone make a mistake and not correcting them.
Love is supporting other people while they learn from their mistakes.
I figured that everyone else knew more about who I should be, what I should be doing and how I should be doing it than I did.
42 Negative or duty-based recovery fails.
Freedom is accepting responsibility without resentment.
50 Dependence on approval is risky. Our sense of who we are is in the control of other people.
81 Don't resist the inevitable. When the rain is going to soak you, just enjoy it.
104 Resentment is remembered anger.
105 Anxiety is remembered fear.
114 Creativity thrives on fantasy, reflection, humor and playfulness.
121 If creative artists do not have a sense of risk or fear of exposure as they work, chances are they are not digging deep enough within themselves to make what they're doing worthwhile.
123 Artists and addicts need to overcome that curse of niceness that discourages truth and authenticity. Telling the truth and being authentic are necessary to encourage creative energy.
137 Stress diminishes when you begin to let go of the demands you place on yourself, your environment and others to be different than they or you are at any moment.

Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

7 There are three conversations involved in most difficult conversations: what happened, feelings, and identity.
10 Difficult conversations aren't about truth, but about interpretations and evaluations of what is important.
17 A learning conversation invites the other person into the conversation to help us figure things out.
30 To get anywhere in a disagreement, we need to understand the other person's story well enough to see how their conclusions make sense within it.
40 When people have honest disagreements, the most useful question is not "Who's right?" but "Now that we really understand each other, what's a good way to manage this problem?"
87 Feelings are often the real issue.
94 Recognize that your feelings are just as important as anyone else's in making decisions.
100 Feelings are based on perceptions, which can change. Learning the other person's story almost always changes the way we feel.
104 Talking successfully about feelings requires you to be scrupulous about taking the judgements, attributions, and statements of blame out of what you are saying, and putting the statement of feelings in.
132 There is no "right choice" in deciding whether or not to raise an issue for discussion [or in any other decision]. There is no way to know in advance how things will really turn out.
138 We can influence people, but we can't make them change. They are more likely to change if they think we understand them and if they feel heard and respected. They are more likely to change if they feel free not to.
142 It's not my responsibility to make things better; it's my responsibility to do my best.
166 Listening helps the other person listen. They're more willing to listen when they feel heard.
170 To motivate questions that contribute to understanding, ask yourself, "What else do I need to know for that to make more sense?" or "I wonder how I can understand the world in such a way that that would make sense?"
184 Struggling to understand communicates the most positive message of all [the importance of the other person].

Marlene Winell, Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion

Winell, a psychologist, encourages people who have left their religion to learn to make their own decisions, to heal from the emotional damage caused by controlling religions, and to take responsibility for directing their own lives.

Gregg Levoy, Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life

This is the carefully considered personal philosophy of a writer, described in an interesting manner. It focuses on identifying what you most want to do with your life and dealing with obstacles to that life.
204 Calling was put into perspective by realization that entire culture would eventually be a thin layer of sediment on the side of a mesa. "Yet precisely because it makes a flyspeck of difference whether I write my essays or not, somehow this frees me up to write, to follow the calling, to do whatever I want, because there is no failure."
217 Frederick Buechner: The atheisms within us "are not so much denials of whatever is godly in the world, but denials of people telling us what to believe, what to do, what to think."

John M. Gottman, The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships

83 There are usually three approaches to a conflict: (1) attack and defend (2) avoid or deny (3) self-disclose (emotions) and connect.
207 - 213 Find shared meaning by sharing individual meanings (fundamental needs attached to desires). Ask why you want what you want – what does it mean to you?

Edward M. Hallowell, Connect: 12 Vital Ties That Open Your Heart, Lengthen Your Life, and Deepen Your Soul

xix There is a life-threatening lack of connectedness in our culture.
Although everyone is selfish, people do act in the interests of other people. "Maybe the trick is to find out how to make those two dovetail: self-interest and other-interest. This can be done, because as much as self-interest rules us, the desire to connect and to help others also runs deep within most people."
103 - 104 "It helps in holding on to good friends to get rid of your bad friends...people who do not treat you right...staying in such relationships is bad for you.... It makes you sick, and it corrupts your heart. As the saying goes, life is too short."
138 "The pain of change is something you agree to only when the pain of staying where you are gets worse than the pain of change."
213 The person who has a strong connection inside...does not have to please in order to feel OK. He may choose to please—but the opinion of others is not his guiding compass.

Writing

top of page

Louise DeSalvo, Writing As a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives

16 Write what you need or want to write, or write what you don't want to write. Write what troubles or delights you. Link these feelings to events in your life.
216 Writing testimony means that we no longer allow ourselves to be silenced or allow others to speak for our experience. Writing our testimony helps to right a wrong, which is necessary to heal our culture. It is the most important emotional, psychological, artistic, and political project of our time.

Christina Baldwin, One To One: Self-Understanding Through Journal Writing

50 "I write to the future, hoping that long after I'm dead, women will read this and that the journals of this century will be valued. It's a new thing for me to even believe in such a long future. I used to think we were going to blow ourselves up. Now I feel like a responsible citizen in the continuum of time."
120 No one has an objective view of reality; everything we perceive and think is filtered through our belief system and through the rules which tell us how to apply this belief system in the world. This filter is called a frame of reference [or world view].

Alexandra Johnson, Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal

16 Some of the most powerful stories are those diarists thought twice about before committing to pages: homelessness, neglect, abuse.
18 The world's most famous diaries are often ones sparked by extremity or terrible urgency. Anne Frank in hiding; Katherine Mansfield in illness.

Biography

top of page

Richard Feynman, What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character

This collection of stories, letters, drawings and essays is a sequel to Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman! It includes the moving story of his romance with his first wife, and her death. About half the book tells about his work on the presidential commission to investigate the Space Shuttle Challenger accident. Much of the book is serious, some of it is funny, but Feynman's gift for story-telling makes all of it interesting.
26 When I found out that Santa Claus wasn't real, I wasn't upset; rather, I was relieved that there was a much simpler phenomenon to explain how so many children all over the world got presents on the same night!
200 I'm not as sure about a lot of things as everybody else.
245 We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize our ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty—some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain.
[If this is true of scientific knowledge, it must be even more true of other knowledge.]

Mark Twain, The Autobiography of Mark Twain

Twain's autobiography is not at all systematic and is often disjointed, but it does give a picture of who he was.
4 The North thinks it knows how to make corn bread but this is gross superstition. Perhaps no bread in the world is quite so good as Southern corn bread and perhaps no bread in the world is quite so bad as the Northern imitation of it.
6 When he complained to his mother about the incessant singing of the slave boy, Sandy, "the tears came to her eyes and her lip trembled and she said something like this: 'Poor thing, when he sings it shows that he is not remembering and that comforts me; but when he is still I am afraid he is thinking and I cannot bear it. He will never see his mother again; if he can sing I must not hinder it, but be thankful for it.'"
135-136 A severely warped bowling alley provided much more enjoyment than a good one would.
356 I, like all the other human beings, expose to the world only my trimmed and perfumed and carefully barbered public opinions and conceal carefully, cautiously, wisely, my private ones.
369 In religion and politics people's belief and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.

- - -

Wonderings - my thoughts on life and the story of how I went free of religion
    God in a Box – my fundamentalist Christian youth
    Out of the Box – my charismatic, ecumenical experience
    On the Edge – my own version of Christianity
    Going Free – my acceptance of responsibility
    On the Outside – my personal, non-Christian relationship with God
    In the Real World – my naturalistic world view
    New Perspectives – implications of some new ideas
    Recommended Reading – books that have helped me develop my new perspectives
I welcome serious questions or comments about these pages.


Copyright © 2004, 2007 by Joel Justiss. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise noted, text and photos on this site are property of the author and may not used, reproduced or distributed without prior permission.