Monthly Archives: February 2018

Good Books on Science and Religion

These are some books on science and religion that I recommend. For more information click on one of the links below.

• Scott Atran ~ In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion
• John H. Brooke ~ Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Canto Classics)
• John  Brooke & Geoffrey Cantor ~ Reconstructing Nature: The Engagement of Science…
• Paul Davies ~ The Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World
• Willem Drees ~ Beyond the Big Bang: Quantum Cosmologies and God
• Stephen J. Gould ~ Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life
• Sam Harris ~ Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion
• Kenneth Miller ~ Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground
• Corey Powell ~ God in the Equation: How Einstein Transformed Religion
• Michael Shermer ~ How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God
• Michael Ruse ~ The Evolution-Creation Struggle
• Michael Ruse ~ Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science
• Phil Torres ~ The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us about the Apocalypse

Communing with Nature: Is That How We Find Life’s Meaning?


Chris Crawford at Cologne Game Lab in 2011

My recent post elicited this thoughtful response from the game designer Chris Crawford. His thinking reminds me of Thoreau and the Taoists.

… The very question “What is the meaning of life?” raises my hackles, because the question has no intellectual substance. One might as well ask “What is the meaning of hamburgers?” My physicist-mind demands that I boil it down to something concrete, something — well, not tangible, but certainly something that I can nail down.

But when I attempt to translate the question into some form with a clear answer, I fail. Can we phrase it as, “What is the purpose of life?” That doesn’t help. “What is the significance of life?” No, that’s no good, either.

So I step back even further and ask “What would motivate a person to ask such a question in the first place?” Here I get my first solid answer: a person asking that question has no sense of purpose in life; they feel that they are wasting their life on petty, useless nonsense. They have no goal to aspire to, and the lack of that goal makes them feel that their life is an exercise in futility.

That’s something I can wrap my mind around. It immediately leads me to the realization that we have long had institutions designed to provide us with that answer: religion. A big guy named “God” has declared a purpose for us: we must seek to go to heaven, and we can accomplish this by obeying God’s dictates. My first problem with this idea is that it begs the question; once you get to heaven, what do you do next? What is the purpose of your existence once you have already attained the purpose laid down for you by God? Why continue existing without purpose? If the lack of purpose makes your life seem a waste, then why wouldn’t the lack of purpose in heaven make your afterlife seem a waste?

One answer to this is that we shall have all of our wants satisfied in heaven. Great movies, the latest smartphones, sexual partners galore, and we can eat all we want without getting fat. Sounds pretty good. And it makes sense when you’re a starving peasant living in a filthy hovel. But it would seem that we moderns are pricing Heaven out of the market: we already have a great deal of that stuff already. Well, yes, I must admit that I still don’t have all those nubile nymphs fawning over me, nor can I eat all the chocolate ice cream I desire, but nevertheless I’m in pretty good shape.

Still, the deal is nicely packaged, loaded with all sorts of impressive rituals, ancient (and presumably correct) books, wise people offering their support, lots of friends, and plenty of patting on the back. For somebody who is too busy worrying about paying the mortgage and getting the latest video games for the kids, it’s a quick, simple solution that doesn’t require much intellectual effort.

If that works for somebody else, more power to them. But I’m not so desperate to grab the fast-food solution. If there really were a big shot named God, and he came to me and told me to shut up and do what he tells me to do, I might well knuckle under. But I’ve never seen this guy. All I have to go on is what some people say about what other people said about what other people said about what some people wrote about what they claim to have witnessed. If I were on a jury, I certainly wouldn’t convict anybody on hearsay evidence that far removed from the source. No, I don’t get off that easily.

My solution comes to me from a walk in the forest. I am fundamentally no different from the living creatures there. I am of the same fabric as the smallest germ or the biggest tree. I am akin to the little spider and Mr. Bear and the ducks in their enclosure. Sure, I’m different in many ways, but from a cosmic point of view, those differences are of little significance. Like them, I am born, live, strive, and die.

Here we collide with human vanity. “How dare you call me a spider!” the indignant human sputters. “I’m different! I have an immortal soul!” A less religious person might not claim a soul — he’ll merely claim “consciousness”. That’s really just the modern euphemism for “soul”. I’ll not be distracted by such a silly exercise in vanity. I’ll not swaddle myself in the comforting robes of self-importance.

I see no problem identifying myself with other living creatures. That realization doesn’t diminish me; it exalts me by making me part of a gigantic system. I am one with all the other DNA-creatures. I share their deepest makeup. I pursue goals very similar to the goals they pursue. Just like them, I’ll die someday. So what? It’s part of the unity I share with them. I find it more satisfying to realize that I am one with nature, and death is just one part of that unity. To reject death is to distance me from the majesty of earth’s biosphere. Why in the world would I want to do that?

Reflections – This is a beautiful and profound statement of the meaning we can find by realizing our oneness with nature and, ultimately, the cosmos itself. As for me though, I don’t think of death as majestic and I doubt many people will believe that when death is no longer viewed as inevitable. And, given a number of caveats, I believe that science will defeat individual death and that our posthuman descendants may also defeat universal death too. In short, I believe that death should be optional.

Why is Capital Hill Gun Free?

If Congress really believes more guns will make us safer then I propose that all our representatives be armed on the House and Senate floor and that they remove all the metal detectors in those buildings. Of course, they would reject this idea because this would make them less safe. Thus revealing their hypocrisy.

(Yes, some people have real security problems whose solution may involve guns. For example, four Presidents of the United States, about 1 in 10, have been assassinated, others have been the target of assassinations, and all receive numerous threats. US Presidents and congressional representatives have special security risks. But most of us aren’t the kinds of people for whom being shot is likely.)

For more see:

Best Books on the Meaning of Life

This is a list of the books on the meaning of life that I recommend. For more information click one of the links below. (Books that particularly influenced me.** )

• Julian Baggani ~ What’s It All About?: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life
• Julian Barnes ~ Nothing to Be Frightened Of
• Raymond Belliotti ~ What Is The Meaning Of Human Life?
• Christopher Belshaw ~10 Good Questions About Life And Death
• David Benatar, ed. ~ Life, Death, and Meaning: Key Philosophical Readings on the Big …
• Simon Critchley ~ Very Little … Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy and Literature
• Simon Critchley ~ The Book of Dead Philosophers
• The Dalai Lama ~ The Meaning of Life
• Hubert Dreyfus & Sean Kelly ~ All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find …
• Will Durant ~ Fallen Leaves: Last Words on Life, Love, War, and God
• Will Durant ~ On the Meaning of Life
• Terrence Eagleton ~ The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction
• Joseph Ellin ~ 
Morality and the Meaning of Life: An Introduction to Ethical Theory
• Owen Flanagan ~ Self Expressions: Mind, Morals, and the Meaning of Life
• Victor Frankl ~ Man’s Search for Meaning **
Aaron James ~ Surfing with Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry into a Life of Meaning
• E. D. Klemke ~ The Meaning of Life: A Reader **
• Anthony Kronman ~ Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given …
John Messerly ~ The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Transhumanist …  **
Thaddeus Metz ~ Meaning in Life
• Thomas Morris ~ Making Sense of It All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life
• Massimo Pigliucci ~ Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to
• Joshua Seachris, ed. ~ Exploring the Meaning of Life: An Anthology and Guide
• Paul Thagard ~ The Brain and the Meaning of Life
•  Clement Vidal ~ The Beginning and the End: The Meaning of Life in a Cosmological … 
• Julian Young ~ The Death of God and the Meaning of Life

Review of Roy Scranton’s, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization

Roy Scranton served as a private in the US army from 2002 to 2006, including a term in Iraq. In his new book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization, he reflects on one of the greatest threat to humanity—climate change. Scranton argues that, as we destroy the climate that sustains us, we destroy ourselves. We are our own worst enemy.

Humans have thrived in a climate that has been stable for more than a half million years, but the burning of fossil fuels will end that interval. Our fate follows from our shortcomings. “The problem with our response to climate change isn’t a problem with passing the right laws or finding the right price for carbon or changing people’s minds or raising awareness … The problem … is us.”

And our capitalist system exacerbates the problem, as profits drive the exploitation of the earth’s resources. Our biological nature and our social, economic and political systems have brought us to the precipice. Scranton holds out little hope that things might change. The story of human civilization, in the end, will likely be one of tragedy.

What then should we do? Scranton tells us that we should probably accept the end of civilization and learn how to die. If practicing philosophy is learning how to die, as so many philosophers have said, then we live in the quintessential philosophical age.  We should come to terms with the end of civilization.

But this is hard to do. We rebel at the idea that we are doomed, and like many previous civilizations, we continue to march headlong toward disaster. We dismiss the idea that the end is just around the corner, telling ourselves we’ll be fine. We destroy the seas and atmosphere that support us, we kill off other species and pump greenhouse gases into the air. Surely riding bikes and being vegetarians is too high a price to pay to save civilization!

Yes, we should try to preserve the best of human civilization. But the thoughtful, living in the Anthropocene, accept that we will all probably die. While this may be a depressing thought, only honest reflection on it gives us any chance of saving ourselves.

As for me, I believe we will all die unless we use future technologies to enhance our moral and intellectual faculties.