Thursday, October 18, 2012

New Review of In the Absence of God

Byron Borger is the proprietor of what may well be the best known independent bookstore in the Middle Atlantic states. I say that not because he's a personal friend but because it's true. His establishment is named Hearts and Minds Bookstore, and it would be hard to come up with a more apt or more succinct description of his shop. I doubt that there are many bookshop owners who know the books and music they carry on their shelves as thoroughly as Byron does nor are there many, I bet, who work harder to please their customers.

Because Byron is so well-known among book lovers in the area and because he's so knowledgeable about books, I was thrilled when he wrote a review of my own book In the Absence of God for his store's website. I urge anyone thinking about purchasing Absence to read his evaluation.

Here are a couple of paragraphs from his review to whet your interest:
So, no, this isn't a quick bit of mindless entertainment, but - happily -- it is quite entertaining. There are colorful characters, true-to-life plot lines, drama, romance, sports (Cleary was a football coach, too, so the athletic scenes of locker-rooms and game films and bus-rides to away games and inter-racial comraderie and tensions on the teams are realistic and believable.) And there is violence. Did I mention this is a tensely wrought, suspenseful crime story? I don't think Dick was being intentionally commercial (he just isn't that kind of a schemer and has too much stubborn integrity to allow anything to alter his vision) but as a bookseller, I can say that, as popular novels go, this truly has something for everyone.

The plot of In the Absence of God is fairly simple to tell, but the long conversations and the numerous sub-plots are many, so I don't want to summarize it too briefly. In a nutshell, the plot revolves around several college professors and their generally friendly intellectual debates and a handful of students that are struggling to determine which basic philosophical starting points are true.

Cleary's thesis, comes up posed as a question over and over: Can we truly say anything is actually wrong/immoral if there is no God? At a garden party near the end of the book, some free thinkers take exception to what they've heard of Dr. Peterson's view, and attack him rudely for daring to believe that atheists cannot be moral. Of course, Peterson has never said this---even in a novel, that would be outrageously dumb. Peterson's position is not that atheists cannot be good, since they obviously can be, but that there is no intellectual basis for saying something is good, no coherent foundation for ethics or morals, no way to really say that something is right or wrong. That is, there cannot be, if there is no universal right or wrong that transcends personal taste or social convention, which there cannot be if there is no God.

In the Absence of God contains episodes that are quite believable for anyone who has worked in higher education: the Christian prof, a biologist that is generally liked in his department, comes to blows with his department chair. There is a debate sponsored by the political science department about U.S. foreign policy and the left-wing perspective gets much more voice in an imbalanced panel - what a show that was, and what a good conversation some of them had afterwards. There is a sub-plot about interracial dating, a sub-plot about middle-aged professors caring for their aging parents (which I found very, very moving.) And there are some exciting football games, described without too much detail, but offering enough sports coverage to qualify as a bit of a novel for sports fans.
You can order the book directly from Hearts and Minds by clicking on this link. I have to say that Absence would make a fine Christmas gift for any thoughtful reader, but especially for a young man, who might be wrestling with questions about God.

What Is Time?

The nature of time has been described as perhaps the universe's most baffling mystery. Immanuel Kant thought that time was a part of our mental structure that enabled us to experience an external world that would be incomprehensibly incoherent without that structure.

Many modern thinkers, on the other hand, think of time as an objective reality that exists statically and through which we somehow pass.

Somewhat between these two views is the theory that what we call time is a collection of states of affairs that we experience, but that time itself is an illusion.

Derek sends along a link to an article in Popular Science by astrophysicist Adam Frank who seems to adopt this latter view. Frank presents us with an excerpt from his book About Time in which he advances the interesting theory that time has no real existence and describes the thinking of physicist Julian Barbour in support of his theory:
Julian Barbour’s solution to the problem of time in physics and cosmology is as simply stated as it is radical: there is no such thing as time.

“If you try to get your hands on time, it’s always slipping through your fingers,” says Barbour. “People are sure time is there, but they can’t get hold of it. My feeling is that they can’t get hold of it because it isn’t there at all.”

Isaac Newton thought of time as a river flowing at the same rate everywhere. Einstein changed this picture by unifying space and time into a single 4-Dimensional entity. But even Einstein failed to challenge the concept of time as a measure of change. In Barbour’s view, the question must be turned on its head. It is change that provides the illusion of time. Channeling the ghost of Parmenides, Barbour sees each individual moment as a whole, complete and existing in its own right. He calls these moments “Nows.”

“As we live, we seem to move through a succession of Nows,” says Barbour, “and the question is, what are they?” For Barbour each Now is an arrangement of everything in the universe. “We have the strong impression that things have definite positions relative to each other. I aim to abstract away everything we cannot see (directly or indirectly) and simply keep this idea of many different things coexisting at once. There are simply the Nows, nothing more, nothing less.”

Barbour’s Nows can be imagined as pages of a novel ripped from the book’s spine and tossed randomly onto the floor. Each page is a separate entity existing without time, existing outside of time. Arranging the pages in some special order and moving through them in a step-by-step fashion makes a story unfold. Still, no matter how we arrange the sheets, each page is complete and independent.

As Barbour says, “The cat that jumps is not the same cat that lands.” The physics of reality for Barbour is the physics of these Nows taken together as a whole. There is no past moment that flows into a future moment. Instead all the different possible configurations of the universe, every possible location of every atom throughout all of creation, exist simultaneously. Barbour’s Nows all exist at once in a vast Platonic realm that stands completely and absolutely without time.

“What really intrigues me,” says Barbour, “is that the totality of all possible Nows has a very special structure. You can think of it as a landscape or country. Each point in this country is a Now and I call the country Platonia, because it is timeless and created by perfect mathematical rules.” The question of “before” the Big Bang never arises for Barbour because his cosmology has no time. All that exists is a landscape of configurations, the landscape of Nows.

“Platonia is the true arena of the universe,” he says, “and its structure has a deep influence on whatever physics, classical or quantum, is played out in it.” For Barbour, the Big Bang is not an explosion in the distant past. It’s just a special place in Platonia, his terrain of independent Nows.
There's more on this at the link. Take the time to read it, or perhaps I should say, enter the Now of reading the article.

No Warming in Sixteen Years

A report released quietly to the internet with no real publicity attached to it bears some surprising and controversial news. It seems that since 1997 global temperatures have not risen at all. Despite all the talk of global warming and the Greenhouse Effect, despite the fears provoked by Al Gore's books and movies, there has been no planetary warming in almost 16 years.

The following chart illustrates the data:

Indeed, since 1887 the mean global temperature has risen only .75 degrees Celsius. hardly enough to produce significant changes in ice cover or biogeography. These changes do appear to be happening, however, but perhaps we should be looking elsewhere than rising temperatures, man-caused or otherwise, for the cause.