Book Plunge: Enlightenment Now—Part Two

Do I have further thoughts on Steven Pinker’s book? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

When I say part two, I don’t mean part two of the book but of the review. Part two really doesn’t have much that is objectionable, although there are a few things. He’s mainly talking about improvements in various areas over the centuries and there’s no reason to object. Some are questionable, such as equality since he throws in the redefinition of marriage and interestingly, leaves out the idea of if a baby in the womb counts as an equal human being.

Also, I question knowledge. No doubt, our knowledge as a whole has increased, but I question many times if people today are more knowledgeable. Keep in mind we’ve recently seen young people today eating tide pods and snorting condoms. Wikipedia is a favorite cite to use for informing oneself as well despite not knowing who wrote it and being able to Google is a substitute for research.

Now if there are problems in part two, I mainly leave that to others who have looked at those areas a lot more. I do not have the information nor do I wish to take all the serious investment in it when there are other things. I do wish to point out that there is no necessary connection established yet to the Enlightenment since Pinker presents ideas like science and reason as coming from them while ignoring that these were going on actively in the Middle Ages as well.

So let’s move on to the final part and objectionable material I’ve found since then.

Pinker talks often about how we can be blinded to one side and mocks conspiracy theories, which is good, but I think he buys into his own. He has a large anti-Trump rant where pretty much anything that is said is included, even making a point about being investigated for Russian collusion. One wonders what he thinks of this section now considering things like tax cuts and peace talks with North Korea.

On page 359, he talks about how we maintain ideas to maintain standing with a group. The example he gives is one must think like this to say that God is three persons and yet one person. One would hope that someone who wants to do great research over history would bother to have done a smidgen on religion and what a Trinitarian means when he says God is a Trinity. Apparently, Pinker did not.

That having been said, there is some truth to the idea about ideas having social standing and this is a mistake I think atheists have made with evolution. It has been made the case that to accept science you must accept evolution and to accept evolution, you must disavow God. It’s not that people are anti-science. It’s just that if told to choose God or evolution, they will choose God. In their minds, they often have more reason to believe in God and less to believe in evolution. As long as atheists (and Christians as well) frame the debate this way, it will always be science vs. religion, which is a shame.

On p. 364, he talks about moral progress saying that before the Enlightenment there was starvation, plagues, superstition, maternal and infant mortality, marauding knight-warlords, sadistic torture executions, slavery, which hunts, genocidal crusades, conquests, and wars of religion. He leaves out there were also hospitals being built, literacy being spread, ancient texts being copied, science being done, etc.

Pinker also doesn’t say much about gas chambers for the holocaust or the slaughter of millions by their own rulers in atheistic regimes. If we are to define the Middle Ages by events that are questionable, why not do the same with post-Enlightenment times? if the Enlightenment is only to be defined by the good that has happened, why not the Middle Ages?

Also, many physical problems were being worked on and the science that has dealt with them is a continuation of the Middle Ages science. It would be like saying cancer is around today because we don’t care about science. We do care, but we just don’t have a universal cure yet.

In talking about science on 393, he says that the traditional causes of belief were faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, hermeneutic parsing of texts, and the glow of subjective certainty. Sadly, there is no citation of people from the Middle Ages showing any of this. It is also true that no doubt these sources get things wrong at times, but so does science. If we claim a belief such as “Murder is wrong” is revelation, does Pinker question that?

There’s also a great irony that this takes place just after talking about the causes of World War I and that it should not be explained in scientific terms. Could it be you might have to go and parse those texts that we have about the war to see what happened? Could it be some questions just aren’t scientific?

Also, in this chapter, Pinker is pointing out science as the greatest accomplishment of man. Is it? It’s a great one, but science is a means towards an end. Do we want to know how the world works just ot know how it works? Or, do we want to us those to bring about human flourishing, something Pinker talks about often. If we do that, why? Do we want our species to flourish because we really like our species? What is special about humanity? These are questions that aren’t answered by science, but in finding the true greatest good, the sunnum bonum, of humanity.

He says on 394 that a scientifically informed person cannot have religious conceptions of meaning and value. His basis for this is that we know more about our origins than religious people did back then based on their writings. There is no attempt to really wrestle with Genesis. There are multiple ways to interpret the text, but the only one Pinker sees is one that denies an Earth that is 4.5 billion years old. Pinker makes no attempt to wrestle with the meaning of the texts.

On p. 397, Pinker tells us that scientists have been responsible for misdeeds throughout history. He proceeds to tell us how that should not be used as a weapon against science. But wait a second, if that’s the case with science, should it not be that way for religion? We judge religion based on what it does wrong, but we judge science based on what it does right? What a wonderful system!

We’ll continue looking further at Pinker’s book next time. I do plan to finish it today.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: Enlightenment Now Part 1

What do I think of Steven Pinker’s book published by Viking? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Someone recommended I get this book saying it could be the next version of The God Delusion. It’s over 400 pages worth. I picked it up at the library yesterday and went to work immediately. It didn’t take long to realize how bad this book will be.

Well, if he’s wanting to extol the Enlightenment and show how bad the so-called Dark Ages were, I’m curious what he has to say about some of the great thinkers of the time. Let’s start with my favorite, Thomas Aquinas. I’ll just check the index.

Hmmmm. Must be an oversight. He’s not mentioned.

How about Augustine?

Anselm?

Maimonides?

Avicenna?

Averroes?

Boethius?

That’s odd. None of the great thinkers are mentioned. Of course, Donald Trump and Al Gore and others get mentioned, but you would think if you were going to say something about the “Dark Ages” you might interact with people from the “Dark Ages.”

Heck. We could go back further. Paul isn’t mentioned. Not even Jesus is mentioned. Okay. In fairness, Muhammad isn’t mentioned either, but still….

So yeah. This is another book where apparently Pinker wasn’t interested in doing any primary research to see what people before him actually thought about things. It’s best to just read what people today think about what people back then thought. One wonders if Pinker will begin swallowing pre-chewed food before too long.

I’m only going to be looking at part 1 for now because first off, I have not finished with the book. Second, there is so much wrong in part 1 that I want to make sure I have room. If this is the new God Delusion, we can expect atheists to be setting themselves back intellectually even more.

The very first page talks about the Enlightenment and how mankind saw it as his coming to maturity. Let us remember also that the age where when people first come to maturity is when they’re teenagers. At that point, they think they know everything and don’t need to listen to anyone else because they are the best. We can be sure Pinker and his ilk are the teenagers. They just have not come to full maturity yet.

According to Pinker, the battle cry was “Dare to understand!” After all, no one before had really ever bothered to try to understand anything. Nope. Everything was just believed blindly and there were no arguments and debates of any kind.

Pinker goes on to talk about the recent bloodshed from wars about religion. Absent of course is any mention of the French Revolution or anything of that sort. He speaks of the scientific revolution, ignorant that that really started in the “Dark Ages” when science began. We can safely conclude that Pinker has never really done any study of this period of the science done in it.

Pinker talks about the importance of reason and how applying reason showed that miracle reports were dubious and that writers of holy books were all too human and that people believed in incompatible deities. I do find this utterly amazing. I find it amazing that Pinker didn’t know that people in the past were just as skeptical. There have always been people like Lucian wanting to disprove miracles. Of course, the writers of holy books were human. Does Pinker think we think they were Reptilians? And finally, people believed in incompatible deities? Was this supposed to be news? As for miracles, Pinker never tells us how reason disproves them. Is it some assumption that if you’re a thinking person, you obviously don’t believe? Does Pinker mean to say that only people who are stupid and don’t use reason believe in miracles?

Pinker goes on to talk about how science delivered us from fears of the natural world. He quotes some writers talking about what the people believed back then, but as expected, he never quotes from that time period itself. He never gives any instances where these things are believed. If this is what people believed, surely Pinker could easily have gone and found some references? Not a one is found.

Pinker goes on to humanism which he says is based on a universal human nature, but how can this be? A universal human nature is not scientific. It is not material and you cannot take universal human nature and put it in a jar and study it. This is actually looking at essences and natures which is a metaphysical idea that started back in Greece and really got going in the, wait for it, DARK AGES!

Pinker tells us about how this understanding led to us answering the moral call with sympathy. Thus an end was brought to such forces as slavery. Apparently no one knew about this sympathy thing until the Enlightenment came along. No mention is made of William Wilberforce and no, he’s not in the index either. No mention is made of Christians who in the first few centuries A.D. bought slaves just to set them free. No mention is made of how Clovis II and Bathilda both worked together and ended slavery in their time. Nope. Forget what people in the past did.

The final idea is progress and while most of us support progress, we all define it in different ways. I would consider America returning to Christian values and a deeper understanding of Jesus Christ to be progress. Pinker would consider it just the opposite. Muslims could consider going to Sharia Law to be progress. Who is to determine who is right on this?

The next chapter deals with much of science. Speaking of science as science, I have no wish to touch it. I have no desire to challenge evolution. I have a desire to challenge a false implication of it, but not the science itself. That is for the scientists.

On p. 24, Pinker speaks of the idea that if bad things happen, some agent wanted them to happen. That is the only reason they would. This is a common idea, but one repudiated in even the oldest book of the Bible, the book of Job. This book dealt with the idea that was believed that if you’re good, good things will happen, and if you’re bad, bad things will happen. Job’s purpose is not to deal with the problem of evil. It’s to answer the question, “Will a man remain faithful to God even when there seem to be no benefits to it?”

On p. 26 he speaks about how pre-scientific people thought words and thoughts could impact the world in thoughts and prayers. Not exactly. If anything, we are the unscientific ones today when we tell someone we are sending them “good thoughts.” Sending a thought alone cannot affect reality. What the people in the past did was pray to God who they believed could affect reality. Sure, they could be wrong in that, but there is nothing illogical or unreasonable in thinking that if God as existed in either Islam, Christianity, or Judaism was asked something that He had the power to do something.

On p. 27, Pinker said communities came up with rules of debate. You can point out flaws of beliefs of others and you’re not allowed to force others to shut up if they disagree with you. You can even show if your beliefs are true or false and we call that science.

Again, Pinker has never read any from the past. They regularly interacted with one another and showed they thought the other was wrong and did so peaceably. As for saying that this is what science is, this is what any branch of knowledge does. It’s not exclusive to science. It’s as if Pinker wants to claim that any thinking done is science.

On the next page, he talks about free speech, nonviolence, cooperartion, cosmopolitanism, human rights, and acknowledging human fallibility, as well as science, education, media, democratic government, international organizations, and markets. All of these were brainchilds of the Enlightenment.

Well, no. They weren’t. It was the Christians who were building the first universities and establishing criteria of education. (Oh yeah, they also made that darn printing press which is a mystery since obviously Christians didn’t like to read or learn anything). Democracy goes all the way back to ancient Greece. Capitalism and the market really gained a rise in the Middle Ages and we speak today of the Protestant Ethic. Our Constitution finds much in the Magna Carta which was, wait for it, in the Middle Ages.

On p. 30, Pinker writes about the problem of faith as an opponent of Christianity. Of course, there’s no attempt to really interact with NT scholarship to see what faith is. Pinker says to take something on faith is to take it without good reason. It would be nice if some of these guys would provide good reason to think that’s what it really means. Apparently, all they do is look at what they think is modern popular usage and decide that it must have been that way for all time.

Pinker tells us that this clashes with humanism when we put some good above the good of humans such as accepting a divine savior or proselytizing. Absent is any notion that if these things are true, then these are indeed the best goods for humanity. If Christianity is true, the best thing a human can do is submit his life to Jesus Christ.

Pinker tells us that incompatibilities with science are the stuff of legend like Galileo, the Scopes Trial, stem cell research, and climate change. Yes. Many legends also have no basis in reality. Galileo was a firm believer in Christianity and the dispute was more about science than it was about religion. Galileo did not have enough scientific backing to establish his theories. Pinker would do well to read many of the works of Ronald Numbers on myths about science. (Big shock. Numbers isn’t referenced either.)

On p. 31, he tells us many of his colleagues were eager to see his book done for talking points against the right. If so, then we on the right are greatly blessed because Pinker’s “reasonable” friends will simply believe what Pinker says without evidence and further embarrass themselves. Apparently, Pinker’s colleagues just can’t be bothered with going and reading the primary sources, which sadly, Pinker couldn’t be bothered to do either.

He talks about scientism on p. 34 saying it is the intrusion of science into the territories of the humanities. Well, no. Not really. Scientism is instead the idea that science is the only way that any truth can be known.

Pinker says he wants to bring us out of the Dark Ages, but if anything he is leading us to a Dark Age. This would be an age where mankind is ignorant of the past which means not only their successes but also their failures. This is an age where man is trapped in his own culture and generation and doesn’t know how we got here which will impede us from knowing where we are going.

I will have more to say in future installments and even still I have not come anywhere close to covering everything. Pinker is writing about things that he does not know about. The sad thing is many of his followers will join him in his ignorance.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: Science Education in the Early Roman Empire

What do I think of Richard Carrier’s latest book published by Pitchstone Publishing? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

When I saw Carrier had a new book coming, I decided I had to order it immediately. Carrier is one of the biggest names in atheism today for some reason and I want to be on top of what is being said as a Christian, so I placed my request and waited. The book actually came before the release date, which was a surprise, but I’m not complaining.

To start, some people will be surprised that this book is short. Had it not been for the presidential debates and then getting ready to spend Anime Weekend Atlanta with my wife, I can conceive of someone going through this in a day. The content pages aren’t large in number, they have footnotes, and the font seems larger than normal. This isn’t a complaint by the way, but just a statement of fact.

Reading this also, one in many ways seems to encounter a Carrier that they haven’t seen before. I thought his book on the historicity of Jesus just went for stretch after stretch after stretch and his book on sense and goodness without God had no real referencing to speak of. The style in this is quite different and I would not have known it was a Carrier book unless I had read it on the front because that was so incredibly different, but I understand that this is based on his dissertation so that’s probably what explains it.

I actually think the book is quite informative as well. It’s important to note that science wasn’t taught as much not because it was looked down on per se, but because attitudes like virtue and rhetoric were seen as more important. This is understandable. As Lewis wrote that many people can put up one kind of moral behavior and posit that for morality and think they are more moral than people of the past because of where they excel, ignoring where they are weak, so can it be done with knowledge. For the ancients, it was rhetoric and persuasive ability that mattered. For the medievals, it was the knowledge of God that was on top. For moderns, it’s science. Of course, it’s my persuasion that we can learn from all three.

Carrier does want to compare the time to the Middle Ages, but here you see that he has not really looked at it as much. I look forward to seeing what Hannam and O’Neill will say in response. Let’s look at some such passages in Carrier to see what I mean.

“How many youths studied the enkykios (A basic curriculum consisting of scientific knowledge) and its basic science content in the Middle Ages?  I suspect it is not likely even to be comparable, much less greater. But I must leave that for others to determine.” (p. 85)

“But I suspect very much the same could be said for the Middle Ages.” (p. 89)

“It seems unlikely that these standards for the education of scientists and philosophers continued in the Middle Ages, which oversaw a broad decline of scientific knowledge, and the gradual elimination of even the idea of a philosophy school.” (p. 119)

“Medieval state and public support for education is not likely to compare as well, until the rise of the universities, yet even those were small and few in number for quite some time and thus, at least until the Renaissance, might not have surpassed what had already been available in the Roman Empire.” (p. 136)

Statements like this do show that we need to wait for that information to come out. As I said, I look forward to what Hannam and O’Neill have to say, particularly about Christianity not being responsible for the rise of science. Still, this book is actually an interesting and enjoyable read and I think contains information that is worth further study. We’ll have to see what others have to say about it.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: Inventing The Flat Earth

What do I think of Jeffrey Russell’s book? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

inventingtheflatearth

Recently, I had a conversation at a store with a salesman who was telling me that people in the past believed the Earth was flat, which I raised disagreement with. Online, one can hear this as a common objection. Often it is treated as an axiom and with the idea that the church was teaching otherwise. Consider this quote from Ingersoll in his essay Individuality

 

It is a blessed thing that in every age some one has had individuality enough and courage enough to stand by his own convictions,—some one who had the grandeur to say his say. I believe it was Magellan who said, “The church says the earth is flat; but I have seen its shadow on the moon, and I have more confidence even in a shadow than in the church.” On the prow of his ship were disobedience, defiance, scorn, and success.

 

A flat-earther is used to refer to someone today who is a fool and is going against the progress of science. It’s certainly easy to write off people as believing this. I know in Elementary school and beyond I was taught that Columbus sailed around to demonstrate that the Earth was round and not flat. (Which even if that had been the case, considering he didn’t circumnavigate the globe, he did not prove that anyway. 

If only I had know about Russell’s book back then.

Russell’s book is incredibly short. You can easily read it in a couple of hours like I did. In doing so, you will have invested those hours well. Russell points out that after the time of Christ, there were only two people who really brought out the idea that the Earth was flat. How many followers did they get on that count? None. They were certainly the minority. Alas, these two are thought to be representative of the time as a whole, ignoring all the other evidence that indicates people knew it was round.

Now of course, it could be that this did not extend to the masses, but frankly, we have no real way of knowing that. I would wager that for most people who were working hard to put food on the table and care for their families, they did not really think about the shape of the Earth. In fact, if they had, well you just go and ask the local priest and the local priest will tell you what the fathers of the church have said and you’ll hear that it’s round.

Russell also shows how this fed into a false idea of a warfare between science and religion, started mainly by people like John Draper and Andrew Dickson White. In many cases, this because a round of a group of people quoting each other as their own authorities and thereby seeking to establish their case as if it was heavily documented. (Read new atheist literature today and not much has changed.)

While Russell’s thesis is certainly correct and he goes into great detail to show a meeting Columbus had with officials never brought up the shape of the Earth and while his work is filled with scholarly notes, I would like to see future editions contain quotes within the text itself. What would most complete this book is to have a series of quotations from people in this time period on how the Earth was indeed spherical, such as Thomas Aquinas’s in his Summa Theologica in the very first question.

Still, this is a valuable book to read on the controversy. I wish I’d had it in the past instead of just buying into what my teachers taught me.

In Christ,

Nick Peters