Benson, Robert Hugh. Lord of the World. Seattle: CreateSpace, [1907] 2013. ISBN 978-1-4841-2706-3.
In the early years of the 21st century, humanism and secularism are ascendant in Europe. Many churches exist only as monuments to the past, and mainstream religions are hæmorrhaging adherents—only the Roman Catholic church remains moored to its traditions, and its influence is largely confined to Rome and Ireland. A European Parliament is asserting its power over formerly sovereign nations, and people seem resigned to losing their national identity. Old-age pensions and the extension of welfare benefits to those displaced from jobs in occupations which have become obsolete create a voting bloc guaranteed to support those who pay these benefits. The loss of belief in an eternal soul has cheapened human life, and euthanasia has become accepted, both for the gravely ill and injured, but also for those just weary of life.

This novel was published in 1907.

G. K. Chesterton is reputed to have said “When Man ceases to worship God he does not worship nothing but worships everything.” I say “reputed” because there is no evidence whatsoever he actually said this, although he said a number of other things which might be conflated into a similar statement. This dystopian novel illustrates how a society which has “moved on” from God toward a celebration of Humanity as deity is vulnerable to a charismatic figure who bears the eschaton in his hands. It is simply stunning how the author, without any knowledge of the great convulsions which were to ensue in the 20th century, so precisely forecast the humanistic spiritual desert of the 21st.

This is a novel of the coming of the Antichrist and the battle between the remnant of believers and coercive secularism reinforced by an emerging pagan cult satisfying our human thirst for transcendence. What is masterful about it is that while religious themes deeply underly it, if you simply ignore all of them, it is a thriller with deep philosophical roots. We live today in a time when religion is under unprecedented assault by humanism, and the threat to the sanctity of life has gone far beyond the imagination of the author.

This novel was written more than a century ago, but is set in our times and could not be more relevant to our present circumstances. How often has a work of dystopian science fiction been cited by the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church? Contemporary readers may find some of the untranslated citations from the Latin Mass obscure: that's what your search engine exists to illumine.

This work is in the public domain, and a number of print and electronic editions are available. I read this Kindle edition because it was (and is, at this writing) free. The formatting is less than perfect, but it is perfectly readable. A free electronic edition in a variety of formats can be downloaded from Project Gutenberg.

April 2014 Permalink

Buckley, Christopher. The Relic Master. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. ISBN 978-1-5011-2575-1.
The year is 1517. The Holy Roman Empire sprawls across central Europe, from the Mediterranean in the south to the North Sea and Baltic in the north, from the Kingdom of France in the west to the Kingdoms of Poland and Hungary in the east. In reality the structure of the empire is so loose and complicated it defies easy description: independent kings, nobility, and prelates all have their domains of authority, and occasionally go to war against one another. Although the Reformation is about to burst upon the scene, the Roman Catholic Church is supreme, and religion is big business. In particular, the business of relics and indulgences.

Commit a particularly heinous sin? If you're sufficiently well-heeled, you can obtain an indulgence through prayer, good works, or making a pilgrimage to a holy site. Over time, “good works” increasingly meant, for the prosperous, making a contribution to the treasury of the local prince or prelate, a percentage of which was kicked up to higher-ranking clergy, all the way to Rome. Or, an enterprising noble or churchman could collect relics such as the toe bone of a saint, a splinter from the True Cross, or a lock of hair from one of the camels the Magi rode to Bethlehem. Pilgrims would pay a fee to see, touch, have their sins erased, and be healed by these holy trophies. In short, the indulgence and relic business was selling “get out of purgatory for a price”. The very best businesses are those in which the product is delivered only after death—you have no problems with dissatisfied customers.

To flourish in this trade, you'll need a collection of relics, all traceable to trustworthy sources. Relics were in great demand, and demand summons supply into being. All the relics of the True Cross, taken together, would have required the wood from a medium-sized forest, and even the most sacred and unique of relics, the burial shroud of Christ, was on display in several different locations. It's the “trustworthy” part that's difficult, and that's where Dismas comes in. A former Swiss mercenary, his resourcefulness in obtaining relics had led to his appointment as Relic Master to His Grace Albrecht, Archbishop of Brandenburg and Mainz, and also to Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony. These two customers were rivals in the relic business, allowing Dismas to play one against the other to his advantage. After visiting the Basel Relic Fair and obtaining some choice merchandise, he visits his patrons to exchange them for gold. While visiting Frederick, he hears that a monk has nailed ninety-five denunciations of the Church, including the sale of indulgences, to the door of the castle church. This is interesting, but potentially bad for business.

Dismas meets his friend, Albrecht Dürer, who he calls “Nars” due to Dürer's narcissism: among other things including his own visage in most of his paintings. After months in the south hunting relics, he returns to visit Dürer and learns that the Swiss banker with whom he's deposited his fortune has been found to be a 16th century Bernie Madoff and that he has only the money on his person.

Destitute, Dismas and Dürer devise a scheme to get back into the game. This launches them into a romp across central Europe visiting the castles, cities, taverns, dark forbidding forests, dungeons, and courts of nobility. We encounter historical figures including Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (Paracelsus), who lends his scientific insight to the effort. All of this is recounted with the mix of wry and broad humour which Christopher Buckley uses so effectively in all of his novels. There is a tableau of the Last Supper, identity theft, and bombs. An appendix gives background on the historical figures who appear in the novel.

This is a pure delight and illustrates how versatile is the talent of the author. Prepare yourself for a treat; this novel delivers. Here is an interview with the author.

May 2016 Permalink

Caldwell, Brian. We All Fall Down. Haverford, PA: Infinity Publishing.Com, 2001. ISBN 0-7414-0499-0.

August 2002 Permalink

Carlos [Ilich Ramírez Sánchez]. L'Islam révolutionnaire. Textes et propos recueillis, rassemblés et présentés par Jean-Michel Vernochet. Monaco: Éditions du Rocher, 2003. ISBN 2-268-04433-5.
Prior to his capture in Sudan in 1994 and “exfiltration” to a prison in France by the French DST, Carlos (“the Jackal”), nom de guerre of Venezuelan-born Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (a true red diaper baby, his brothers were named “Vladimir” and “Lenin”) was one of the most notorious and elusive terrorists of the latter part of the twentieth century. This is a collection of his writings and interviews from prison, mostly dating from the early months of 2003. I didn't plan it that way, but I found reading Carlos immediately after Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies (above) extremely enlightening, particularly in explaining the rather mysterious emerging informal alliance among Western leftists and intellectuals, the political wing of Islam, the remaining dribs and drabs of Marxism, and third world kleptocratic and theocratic dictators. Unlike some Western news media, Carlos doesn't shrink from the word “terrorism”, although he prefers to be referred to as a “militant revolutionary”, but this is in many ways a deeply conservative book. Carlos decries Western popular culture and its assault on traditional morality and family values in words which wouldn't seem out of place in a Heritage Foundation white paper. A convert to Islam in 1975, he admits he paid little attention to the duties and restrictions of his new religion until much later. He now believes that only Islam provides the framework to resist what he describes as U.S. totalitarian imperialism. Essentially, he's exchanged utopian Marxism for Islam as a comprehensive belief system. Now consider Popper: the essence of what he terms the open society, dating back to the Athens of Pericles, is the absence of any utopian vision, or plan, or theory of historical inevitability, religious or otherwise. Open societies have learned to distinguish physical laws (discovered through the scientific method) from social laws (or conventions), which are made by fallible humans and evolve as societies do. The sense of uncertainty and requirement for personal responsibility which come with an open society, replacing the certainties of tribal life and taboos which humans evolved with, induce what Popper calls the “strain of civilisation”, motivating utopian social engineers from Plato through Marx to attempt to create an ideal society, an endpoint of human social evolution, forever frozen in time. Look at Carlos; he finds the open-ended, make your own rules, everything's open to revision outlook of Western civilisation repellent. Communism having failed, he seizes upon Islam as a replacement. Now consider the motley anti-Western alliance I mentioned earlier. What unifies them is simply that they're anti-Western: Popper's enemies of the open society. All have a vision of a utopian society (albeit very different from one another), and all share a visceral disdain for Western civilisation, which doesn't need no steenkin' utopias but rather proceeds incrementally toward its goals, in a massively parallel trial and error fashion, precisely as the free market drives improvements in products and services.

December 2003 Permalink

Ciszek, Walter J. with Daniel L. Flaherty. He Leadeth Me. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, [1973] 1995. ISBN 978-0-89870-546-1.
Shortly after joining the Jesuit order in 1928, the author volunteered for the “Russian missions” proclaimed by Pope Pius XI. Consequently, he received most of his training at a newly-established centre in Rome, where in addition to the usual preparation for the Jesuit priesthood, he mastered the Russian language and the sacraments of the Byzantine rite in addition to those of the Latin. At the time of his ordination in 1937, Stalin's policy prohibited the entry of priests of all kinds to the Soviet Union, so Ciszek was assigned to a Jesuit mission in eastern Poland (as the Polish-American son of first-generation immigrants, he was acquainted with the Polish language). When Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1939 at the outbreak of what was to become World War II, he found himself in the Soviet-occupied region and subject to increasingly stringent curbs on religious activities imposed by the Soviet occupation.

The Soviets began to recruit labour brigades in Poland to work in factories and camps in the Urals, and the author and another priest from the mission decided to volunteer for one of these brigades, concealing their identity as priests, so as to continue their ministry to the Polish labourers and the ultimate goal of embarking on their intended mission to Russia. Upon arriving at a lumbering camp, the incognito priests found that the incessant, backbreaking work and intense scrutiny by the camp bosses made it impossible to minister to the other labourers.

When Hitler double crossed Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the Red Army was initially in disarray and Stalin apparently paralysed, but the NKVD (later to become the KGB) did what it has always done best with great efficiency: Ciszek, along with hundreds of other innocents, was rounded up as a “German spy” and thrown in prison. When it was discovered that he was, in fact, a Catholic priest, the charge was changed to “Vatican spy”, and he was sent to the Lubyanka, where he was held throughout the entire war—five years—most of it in solitary confinement, and subjected to the relentless, incessant, and brutal interrogations for which the NKVD never seemed to lack resources even as the Soviet Union was fighting for its survival.

After refusing to be recruited as a spy, he was sentenced to 15 years hard labour in Siberia and shipped in a boxcar filled with hardened criminals to the first of a series of camps where only the strongest in body and spirit could survive. He served the entire 15 years less only three months, and was then released with a restricted internal passport which only permitted him to live in specific areas and required him to register with the police everywhere he went. In 1947, the Jesuit order listed him as dead in a Soviet prison, but he remained on the books of the KGB, and in 1963 was offered as an exchange to the U.S. for two Soviet spies in U.S. custody, and arrived back in the U.S. after twenty-three years in the Soviet Union.

In this book, as in his earlier With God in Russia, he recounts the events of his extraordinary life and provides a first-hand look at the darkest parts of a totalitarian society. Unlike the earlier book, which is more biographical, in the present volume the author uses the events he experienced as the point of departure for a very Jesuit exploration of topics including the body and soul, the priesthood, the apostolate, the kingdom of God on Earth, humility, and faith. He begins the chapter on the fear of death by observing, “Facing a firing squad is a pretty good test, I guess, of your theology of death” (p. 143).

As he notes in the Epilogue, on the innumerable occasions he was asked, after his return to the U.S., “How did you manage to survive?” and replied along the lines explained herein: by consigning his destiny to the will of God and accepting whatever came as God's will for him, many responded that “my beliefs in this matter are too simple, even naïve; they may find that my faith is not only childlike but childish.” To this he replies, “I am sorry if they feel this way, but I have written only what I know and what I have experienced. … My answer has always been—and can only be—that I survived on the basis of the faith others may find too simple and naïve” (p. 199).

Indeed, to this reader, it seemed that Ciszek's ongoing discovery that fulfillment and internal peace lay in complete submission to the will of God as revealed in the events one faces from day to day sometimes verged upon a fatalism I associate more with Islam than Catholicism. But this is the philosophy developed by an initially proud and ambitious man which permitted him not only to survive the almost unimaginable, but to achieve, to some extent, his mission to bring the word of God to those living in the officially atheist Soviet Union.

A more detailed biography with several photographs of Father Ciszek is available. Since 1990, he has been a candidate for beatification and sainthood.

May 2009 Permalink

D'Souza, Dinesh. What's So Great About Christianity. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2007. ISBN 978-1-59698-517-9.
I would almost certainly never have picked up a book with this title had I not happened to listen to a podcast interview with the author last October. In it, he says that his goal in writing the book was to engage the contemporary intellectually militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Victor Stenger on their own turf, mounting a rational argument in favour of faith in general and Christianity in particular, demonstrating that there are no serious incompatibilities between the Bible and scientific theories such as evolution and the big bang, debunking overblown accounts of wrongs perpetrated in the name of religion such as the crusades, the inquisition, the persecution of Galileo, witch hunts, and religious wars in Europe, and arguing that the great mass murders of the twentieth century can be laid at the feet not of religion, but atheist regimes bent on building heaven on Earth. All this is a pretty tall order, especially for a book of just 304 pages of main text, but the author does a remarkably effective job of it. While I doubt the arguments presented here will sway those who have made a belligerent atheism central to their self esteem, many readers may be surprised to discover that the arguments of the atheists are nowhere near as one sided as their propaganda would suggest.

Another main theme of the book is identifying how many of the central components of Western civilisation: limited government, religious toleration, individualism, separation of church and state, respect for individual human rights, and the scientific method, all have their roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and how atheism and materialism can corrode these pillars supporting the culture which (rightly) allows the atheists the freedom to attack it. The author is neither a fundamentalist nor one who believes the Bible is true in a literal sense: he argues that when the scriptures are read, as most Christian scholars have understood them over two millennia, as using a variety of literary techniques to convey their message, there is no conflict between biblical accounts and modern science and, in some cases, the Bible seems to have anticipated recent discoveries. D'Souza believes that Darwinian evolution is not in conflict with the Bible and, while respectful of supporters of intelligent design, sees no need to invoke it. He zeroes in precisely on the key issue: that evolution cannot explain the origin of life since evolution can only operate on already living organisms upon which variation and selection can occur.

A good deal of the book can be read as a defence of religion in general against the arguments of atheism. Only in the last two chapters does he specifically make the case for the exceptionalism of Christianity. While polemicists such as Dawkins and Hitchens come across as angry, this book is written in a calm, self-confident tone and with such a limpid clarity that it is a joy to read. As one who has spent a good deal of time pondering the possibility that we may be living in a simulation created by an intelligent designer (“it isn't a universe; it's a science fair project”), this book surprised me as being 100% compatible with that view and provided several additional insights to expand my work in progress on the topic.

March 2008 Permalink

D'Souza, Dinesh. Life After Death: The Evidence. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2009 ISBN 978-1-59698-099-0.
Ever since the Enlightenment, and to an increasing extent today, there is a curious disconnect between the intellectual élite and the population at large. The overwhelming majority of human beings who have ever lived believed in their survival, in one form or another, after death, while materialists, reductionists, and atheists argue that this is nothing but wishful thinking; that there is no physical mechanism by which consciousness could survive the dissolution of the neural substrate in which it is instantiated, and point to the lack of any evidence for survival after death. And yet a large majority of people alive today beg to differ. As atheist H. G. Wells put it in a very different context, they sense that “Worlds may freeze and suns may perish, but there stirs something within us now that can never die again.” Who is right?

In this slim (256 page) volume, the author examines the scientific, philosophical, historical, and moral evidence for and implications of survival after death. He explicitly excludes religious revelation (except in the final chapter, where some evidence he cites as historical may be deemed by others to be argument from scriptural authority). Having largely excluded religion from the argument, he explores the near-universality of belief in life after death across religious traditions and notes the common threads uniting them.

But traditions and beliefs do not in any way address the actual question: does our individual consciousness, in some manner, survive the death of our bodies? While materialists discard such a notion as absurd, the author argues that there is nothing in our present-day understanding of physics, evolutionary biology, or neuroscience which excludes this possibility. In fact, the complete failure so far to understand the physical basis of consciousness can be taken as evidence that it may be a phenomenon independent of its physical instantiation: structured information which could conceivably transcend the hardware on which it currently operates.

Computer users think nothing these days of backing up their old computer, loading the backups onto a new machine (which may use a different processor and operating system), and with a little upward compatibility magic, having everything work pretty much as before. Do your applications and documents from the old computer die when you turn it off for the last time? Are they reincarnated when you load them into the replacement machine? Will they live forever as long as you continue to transfer them to successive machines, or on backup tapes? This may seem a silly analogy, but consider that materialists consider your consciousness and self to be nothing other than a pattern of information evolving in a certain way according to the rules of neural computation. Do the thought experiment: suppose nanotechnological robots replaced your meat neurons one by one with mechanical analogues with the same external electrochemical interface. Eventually your brain would be entirely different physically, but would your consciousness change at all? Why? If it's just a bunch of components, then replacing protein components with silicon (or whatever) components which work in the same way should make no difference at all, shouldn't it?

A large part of what living organisms do is sense their external environment and interact with it. Unicellular organisms swim along the gradient of increasing nutrient concentration. Other than autonomic internal functions of which we are aware only when they misbehave, humans largely experience the world through our sensory organs, and through the internal sense of self which is our consciousness. Is it not possible that the latter is much like the former—something external to the meatware of our body which is picked up by a sensory organ, in this case the neural networks of the brain?

If this be the case, in the same sense that the external world does not cease to exist when our eyes, ears, olfactory, and tactile sensations fail at the time of death or due to injury, is it not plausible that dissolution of the brain, which receives and interacts with our external consciousness, need not mean the end of that incorporeal being?

Now, this is pretty out-there stuff, which might cause the author to run from the room in horror should he hear me expound it. Fine: this humble book reviewer spent a substantial amount of time contributing to a project seeking evidence for existence of global, distributed consciousness, and has concluded that such has been demonstrated to exist by the standards accepted by most of the “hard” sciences. But let's get back to the book itself.

One thing you won't find here is evidence based upon hauntings, spiritualism, or other supposed contact with the dead (although I must admit, Chicago election returns are awfully persuasive as to the ability of the dead to intervene in affairs of the living). The author does explore near death experiences, noting their universality across very different cultures and religious traditions, and evidence for reincarnation, which he concludes is unpersuasive (but see the research of Ian Stevenson and decide for yourself). The exploration of a physical basis for the existence of other worlds (for example, Heaven and Hell) cites the “multiverse” paradigm, and invites sceptics of that “theory of anything” to denounce it as “just as plausible as life after death”—works for me.

Excuse me for taking off on a tangent here, but it is, in a formal sense. If you believe in an infinite chaotically inflating universe with random initial conditions, or in Many Worlds in One (October 2006), then Heaven and Hell explicitly exist, not only once in the multiverse, but an infinity of times. For every moment in your life that you may have to ceased to exist, there is a universe somewhere out there, either elsewhere in the multiverse or in some distant region far from our cosmic horizon in this universe, where there's an observable universe identical to our own up to that instant which diverges thence into one which grants you eternal reward or torment for your actions. In an infinite universe with random initial conditions, every possibility occurs an infinite number of times. Think about it, or better yet, don't.

The chapter on morality is particularly challenging and enlightening. Every human society has had a code of morality (different in the details, but very much the same at the core), and most of these societies have based their moral code upon a belief in cosmic justice in an afterlife. It's self-evident that bad guys sometimes win at the expense of good guys in this life, but belief that the score will be settled in the long run has provided a powerful incentive for mortals to conform to the norms which their societies prescribe as good. (I've deliberately written the last sentence in the post-modern idiom; I consider many moral norms absolutely good or bad based on gigayears of evolutionary history, but I needn't introduce that into evidence to prove my case, so I won't.) From an evolutionary standpoint, morality is a survival trait of the family or band: the hunter who shares the kill with his family and tribe will have more descendants than the gluttonous loner. A tribe which produces males who sacrifice themselves to defend their women and children will produce more offspring than the tribe whose males value only their own individual survival.

Morality, then, is, at the group level, a selective trait, and consequently it's no surprise that it's universal among human societies. But if, as serious atheists such as Bertrand Russell (as opposed to the lower-grade atheists we get today) worried, morality has been linked to religion and belief in an afterlife in every single human society to date, then how is morality (a survival characteristic) to be maintained in the absence of these beliefs? And if evolution has selected us to believe in the afterlife for the behavioural advantages that belief confers in the here and now, then how successful will the atheists be in extinguishing a belief which has conferred a behavioural selective advantage upon thousands of generations of our ancestors? And how will societies which jettison such belief fare in competition with those which keep it alive?

I could write much more about this book, but then you'd have to read a review even longer than the book, so I'll spare you. If you're interested in this topic (as you'll probably eventually be as you get closer to the checkered flag), this is an excellent introduction, and the end notes provide a wealth of suggestions for additional reading. I doubt this book will shake the convictions of either the confirmed believers or the stalwart sceptics, but it will provide much for both to think about, and perhaps motivate some folks whose approach is “I'll deal with that when the time comes” (which has been pretty much my own) to consider the consequences of what may come next.

February 2010 Permalink

Drosnin, Michael. The Bible Code 2. New York: Penguin Books, [2002] 2003. ISBN 0-14-200350-6.
What can you say about a book, published by Viking and Penguin as non-fiction, which claims the Hebrew Bible contains coded references to events in the present and future, put there by space aliens whose spacecraft remains buried under a peninsula on the Jordan side of the Dead Sea? Well, actually a number of adjectives come to mind, most of them rather pithy. The astonishing and somewhat disturbing thing, if the author is to believed, is that he has managed to pitch this theory and the apocalyptic near-term prophecies he derives from it to major players on the world stage including Shimon Peres, Yasir Arafat, Clinton's chief of staff John Podesta in a White House meeting in 2000, and in a 2003 briefing at the Pentagon, to the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and other senior figures at the invitation of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. If this is the kind of input that's informing decisions about the Middle East, it's difficult to be optimistic about the future. When predicting an “atomic holocaust” for 2006 in The Bible Code 2, Drosnin neglects to mention that in chapter 6 of his original 1997 The Bible Code, he predicted it for either 2000 or 2006, but I suppose that's standard operating procedure in the prophecy biz.

January 2004 Permalink

Ferro, Marc. Le choc de l'Islam. Paris: Odile Jacob, 2002. ISBN 2-7381-1146-7.

October 2002 Permalink

Haisch, Bernard. The God Theory. San Francisco: Weiser, 2006. ISBN 1-57863-374-5.
This is one curious book. Based on acquaintance with the author and knowledge of his work, including the landmark paper “Inertia as a zero-point-field Lorentz force” (B. Haisch, A. Rueda & H.E. Puthoff, Physical Review A, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 678–694 [1994]), I expected this to be a book about the zero-point field and its potential to provide a limitless source of energy and Doc Smith style inertialess propulsion. The title seemed odd, but there's plenty of evidence that when it comes to popular physics books, “God sells”.

But in this case the title could not be more accurate—this book really is a God Theory—that our universe was created, in the sense of its laws of physics being defined and instantiated, then allowed to run their course, by a being with infinite potential who did so in order to experience, in the sum of the consciousness of its inhabitants, the consequences of the creation. (Defining the laws isn't the same as experiencing their playing out, just as writing down the rules of chess isn't equivalent to playing all possible games.) The reason the constants of nature appear to be fine-tuned for the existence of consciousness is that there's no point in creating a universe in which there will be no observers through which to experience it, and the reason the universe is comprehensible to us is that our consciousness is, in part, one with the being who defined them. While any suggestion of this kind is enough to get what Haisch calls adherents of “fundamentalist scientism” sputtering if not foaming at the mouth, he quite reasonably observes that these self-same dogmatic reductionists seem perfectly willing to admit an infinite number of forever unobservable parallel universes created purely at random, and to inhabit a universe which splits into undetectable multiple histories with every quantum event, rather than contemplate that the universe might have a purpose or that consciousness may play a rôle in physical phenomena.

The argument presented here is reminiscent in content, albeit entirely different in style, to that of Scott Adams's God's Debris (February 2002), a book which is often taken insufficiently seriously because its author is the creator of Dilbert. Of course, there is another possibility about which I have written again, again, again, and again, which is that our universe was not created ex nihilo by an omnipotent being outside of space and time, but is rather a simulation created by somebody with a computer whose power we can already envision, run not to experience the reality within, but just to see what happens. Or, in other words, “it isn't a universe, it's a science fair project!” In The God Theory, your consciousness is immortal because at death your experience rejoins the One which created you. In the simulation view, you live on forever on a backup tape. What's the difference?

Seriously, this is a challenging and thought-provoking argument by a distinguished scientist who has thought deeply on these matters and is willing to take the professional risk of talking about them to the general public. There is much to think about here, and integrating it with other outlooks on these deep questions will take far more time than it takes to read this book.

May 2007 Permalink

Haisch, Bernard. The Purpose-Guided Universe. Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-60163-122-0.
The author, an astrophysicist who was an editor of the Astrophysical Journal for a decade, subtitles this book “Believing In Einstein, Darwin, and God”. He argues that the militant atheists who have recently argued that science is incompatible with belief in a Creator are mistaken and that, to the contrary, recent scientific results are not only compatible with, but evidence for, the intelligent design of the laws of physics and the initial conditions of the universe.

Central to his argument are the variety of “fine tunings” of the physical constants of nature. He lists ten of these in the book's summary, but these are chosen from a longer list. These are quantities, such as the relative masses of the neutron and proton, the ratio of the strength of the electromagnetic and gravitational forces, and the curvature of spacetime immediately after the Big Bang which, if they differed only slightly from their actual values, would have resulted in a universe in which the complexity required to evolve any imaginable form of life would not exist. But, self evidently, we're here, so we have a mystery to explain. There are really only three possibilities:

  1. The values of the fine-tuned parameters are those we measure because they can't be anything else. One day we'll discover a master equation which allows us to predict their values from first principles, and we'll discover that any change to that equation produces inconsistent results. The universe is fine tuned because that's the only way it could be.
  2. The various parameters were deliberately fine tuned by an intelligent, conscious designer bent on creating a universe in which sufficient complexity could evolve so as to populate it with autonomous, conscious beings. The universe is fine tuned by a creator because that's necessary to achieve the goal of its creation.
  3. The parameters are random, and vary from universe to universe among an ensemble in a “multiverse” encompassing a huge, and possibly infinite number of universes with no causal connection to one another. We necessarily find the parameters of the universe we inhabit to be fine tuned to permit ourselves to exist because if they weren't, we wouldn't be here to make the observations and puzzle over the results. The universe is fine tuned because it's just one of a multitude with different settings, and we can only observe one which happens to be tuned for us.

For most of the history of science, it was assumed that possibility (1)—inevitability by physical necessity—was what we'd ultimately discover once we'd teased out the fundamental laws at the deepest level of nature. Unfortunately, despite vast investment in physics, both experimental and theoretical, astronomy, and cosmology, which has matured in the last two decades from wooly speculation to a precision science, we have made essentially zero progress toward this goal. String theory, which many believed in the heady days of the mid-1980s to be the path to that set of equations you could wear on a T-shirt and which would crank out all the dial settings of our universe, now seems to indicate to some (but not all) of those pursuing it, that possibility (3): a vast “landscape” of universes, all unobservable even in principle, one of which with wildly improbable properties we find ourselves in because we couldn't exist in most of the others is the best explanation.

Maybe, the author argues, we should take another look at possibility (2). Orthodox secular scientists are aghast at the idea, arguing that to do so is to “abandon science” and reject rational inference from experimental results in favour of revelation based only on faith. Well, let's compare alternatives (2) and (3) in that respect. Number three asks us to believe in a vast or infinite number of universes, all existing in their own disconnected bubbles of spacetime and unable to communicate with one another, which cannot be detected by any imaginable experiment, without any evidence for the method by which they were created nor idea how it all got started. And all of this to explain the laws and initial conditions of the single universe we inhabit. How's that for taking things on faith?

The author's concept of God in this volume is not that of the personal God of the Abrahamic religions, but rather something akin to the universal God of some Eastern religions, as summed up in Aldous Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy. This God is a consciousness encompassing the entire universe which causes the creation of its contents, deliberately setting things up to maximise the creation of complexity, with the eventual goal of creating more and more consciousness through which the Creator can experience the universe. This is actually not unlike the scenario sketched in Scott Adams's God's Debris, which people might take with the seriousness it deserves had it been written by somebody other than the creator of Dilbert.

If you're a regular reader of this chronicle, you'll know that my own personal view is in almost 100% agreement with Dr. Haisch on the big picture, but entirely different on the nature of the Creator. I'll spare you the detailed exposition, as you can read it in my comments on Sean Carroll's From Eternity to Here (February 2010). In short, I think it's more probable than not we're living in a simulation, perhaps created by a thirteen year old post-singularity superkid as a science fair project. Unlike an all-pervading but imperceptible Brahman or an infinitude of unobservable universes in an inaccessible multiverse, the simulation hypothesis makes predictions which render it falsifiable, and hence a scientific theory. Eventually, precision measurements will discover, then quantify, discrepancies due to round-off errors in the simulation (for example, an integration step which is too large), and—what do you know—we already have in hand a collection of nagging little discrepancies which look doggone suspicious to me.

This is not one of those mushy “science and religion can coexist” books. It is an exploration, by a serious scientist who has thought deeply about these matters, of why evidence derived entirely from science is pointing those with minds sufficiently open to entertain the idea, that the possibility of our universe having been deliberately created by a conscious intelligence who endowed it with the properties that permit it to produce its own expanding consciousness is no more absurd that the hypotheses favoured by those who reject that explanation, and is entirely compatible with recent experimental results, which are difficult in the extreme to explain in any other manner. Once the universe is created (or, as I'd put it, the simulation is started), there's no reason for the Creator to intervene: if all the dials and knobs are set correctly, the laws discovered by Einstein, Darwin, Maxwell, and others will take care of the rest. Hence there's no conflict between science and evidence-based belief in a God which is the first cause for all which has happened since.

October 2010 Permalink

Hitchens, Christopher. The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. London: Verso, 1995. ISBN 1-85984-054-X.

March 2003 Permalink

Krakauer, Jon. Under the Banner of Heaven. New York: Anchor Books, [2003] 2004. ISBN 1-4000-3280-6.
This book uses the true-crime narrative of a brutal 1984 double murder committed by two Mormon fundamentalist brothers as the point of departure to explore the origin and sometimes violent early history of the Mormon faith, the evolution of Mormonism into a major mainstream religion, and the culture of present-day fundamentalist schismatic sects which continue to practice polygamy within a strictly hierarchical male-dominated society, and believe in personal revelation from God. (It should be noted that these sects, although referring to themselves as Mormon, have nothing whatsoever to do with the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which excommunicates leaders of such sects and their followers, and has officially renounced the practice of polygamy since the Woodruff Manifesto of 1890. The “Mormon fundamentalist” sects believe themselves to be the true exemplars of the religion founded by Joseph Smith and reject the legitimacy of the mainstream church.)

Mormonism is almost unique among present-day large (more than 11 million members, about half in the United States) religions in having been established recently (1830) in a modern, broadly literate society, so its history is, for better or for worse, among the best historically documented of all religions. This can, of course, pose problems to any religion which claims absolute truth for its revealed messages, as the history of factionalism and schisms in Mormonism vividly demonstrates. The historical parallels between Islam and Mormonism are discussed briefly, and are well worth pondering: both were founded by new revelations building upon the Bible, both incorporated male domination and plural marriage at the outset, both were persecuted by the existing political and religious establishment, fled to a new haven in the desert, and developed in an environment of existential threats and violent responses. One shouldn't get carried away with such analogies—in particular Mormons never indulged in territorial conquest nor conversion at swordpoint. Further, the Mormon doctrine of continued revelation allows the religion to adapt as society evolves: discarding polygamy and, more recently, admitting black men to the priesthood (which, in the Mormon church, is comprised of virtually all adult male members).

Obviously, intertwining the story of the premeditated murder of a young mother and her infant committed by people who believed they were carrying out a divine revelation, with the history of a religion whose present-day believers often perceive themselves as moral exemplars in a decadent secular society is bound to be incendiary, and the reaction of the official Mormon church to the publication of the book was predictably negative. This paperback edition includes an appendix which reprints a review of a pre-publication draft of the original hardcover edition by senior church official Richard E. Turley, Jr., along with the author's response which acknowledges some factual errors noted by Turley (and corrected in this edition) while disputing his claim that the book “presents a decidedly one-sided and negative view of Mormon history” (p. 346). While the book is enlightening on each of the topics it treats, it does seem to me that it may try to do too much in too few pages. The history of the Mormon church, exploration of the present-day fundamentalist polygamous colonies in the western U.S., Canada, and Mexico, and the story of how the Lafferty brothers went from zealotry to murder and their apprehension and trials are all topics deserving of book-length treatment; combining them in a single volume invites claims that the violent acts of a few aberrant (and arguably insane) individuals are being used to slander a church of which they were not even members at the time of their crime.

All of the Mormon scriptures cited in the book are available on-line. Thanks to the reader who recommended this book; I'd never have otherwise discovered it.

December 2005 Permalink

Kuhns, Elizabeth. The Habit. New York: Doubleday, 2003. ISBN 0-385-50588-4.
For decades I've been interested in and worried about how well-intentioned “modernisations” might interrupt the chain of transmission of information and experience between generations and damage, potentially mortally, the very institutions modernisers were attempting to adapt to changing circumstances. Perhaps my concern with this somewhat gloomy topic stems from having endured both “new math” in high school and “new chemistry” in college, in both cases having to later re-learn the subject matter in the traditional way which enables one to, you know, actually solve problems.

Now that the radicals left over from the boomer generation are teachers and professors, we're into the second or third generation of a feedback cycle in which students either never learn the history of their own cultures or are taught contempt and hatred for it. The dearth of young people in the United States and U.K. who know how to think and have the factual framework from which to reason (or are aware what they don't know and how to find it out) is such that I worry about a runaway collapse of Western civilisation there. The very fact that it's impolitic to even raise such an issue in most of academia today only highlights how dire the situation is. (In continental Europe the cultural and educational situation is nowhere near as bad, but given that the population is aging and dying out it hardly matters. I read a prediction a couple of weeks ago that, absent immigration or change in fertility, the population of Switzerland, now more than seven million, could fall to about one million before the end of this century, and much the same situation obtains elsewhere in Europe. There is no precedent in human history for this kind of population collapse unprovoked by disaster, disease, or war.)

When pondering “macro, macro” issues like this, it's often useful to identify a micro-model to serve as a canary in the mineshaft for large-scale problems ahead. In 1965, the Second Vatican Council promulgated a top to bottom modernisation of the Roman Catholic Church. In that same year, there were around 180,000 Catholic nuns in the U.S.—an all time historical high—whose lifestyle, strongly steeped in tradition, began to immediately change in many ways far beyond the clothes they wore. Increasingly, orders opted for increasing invisibility—blending into the secular community. The result: an almost immediate collapse in their numbers, which has continued to the present day (graph). Today, there are only about 70,000 left, and with a mean age of 69, their numbers are sure to erode further in the future. Now, it's impossible to separate the consequences of modernisation of tradition from those of social changes in society at large, but it gives one pause to see an institution which, as this book vividly describes, has tenaciously survived two millennia of rising and falling empires, war, plague, persecution, inquisition, famine, migration, reformation and counter-reformation, disappearing like a puff of smoke within the space of one human lifetime. It makes you wonder about how resilient other, far more recent, components of our culture may be in the face of changes which discard the experience and wisdom of the past.

A paperback edition is scheduled for publication in April 2005.

February 2005 Permalink

LaHaye, Tim and Jerry B. Jenkins. Left Behind. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1995. ISBN 0-8423-2912-9.

July 2002 Permalink

LaHaye, Tim and Jerry B. Jenkins. Tribulation Force. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1996. ISBN 0-8423-2921-8.

July 2002 Permalink

LaHaye, Tim and Jerry B. Jenkins. Nicolae. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1997. ISBN 0-8423-2924-2.

April 2003 Permalink

LaHaye, Tim and Jerry B. Jenkins. Soul Harvest. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1998. ISBN 0-8423-2925-0.
This is what happens when trilogies go bad. Paraphrasing the eternal programming language COBOL, “04 FILLER SIZE IS 90%”. According to the lumpen eschatology in which the Left Behind series (of which this is volume four) is grounded, the world will come to an end in a seven-year series of cataclysms and miracles loosely based on the book of Revelation in the New Testament of the Christian Bible. Okay, as a fictional premise, that works for me. The problem here is that while Saint John the Divine managed to recount this story in fewer than 1600 words, these authors have to date filled twelve volumes, with Tetragrammaton knows how many more yet to come, stringing readers of the series along for more years than the entire apocalypse is supposed to take to go down. It is an accomplishment of sorts to start with the very archetypal account of fire and brimstone, wormwood and rivers running with blood, and make it boring. Precisely one paragraph—half a page in this 425 page tome—is devoted to describing the impact of of a “thousand mile square” asteroid in the the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, while dozens, nay hundreds, of pages are filled with dialogue which, given the apparent attention span of the characters (or perhaps the authors, the target audience, or all of the above), recaps the current situation and recent events every five pages or so. I decided to read the first volume of the series, Left Behind (July 2002), after reading a magazine article about the social and political impact of the large number of people (more than fifty million copies of these books have been sold to date) who consider this stuff something more than fantasy. I opted for a “bargain box” of the first four volumes instead of just volume one and so, their having already got my money, decided to slog through all four. This was illogical—I should have reasoned, “I've already wasted my money; I'm not going to waste my time as well”—but I doubt many Vulcans buy these books in the first place. Time and again, whilst wading through endless snowdrifts of dialogue, I kept thinking, “This is like a comic book.” In this, as in size of their audience, the authors were way ahead of me.

November 2003 Permalink

[Audiobook] Lewis, C. S. The Screwtape Letters. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Ashland, OR: Blackstone Audiobooks, [1942, 1959, 1961] 2006. ISBN 978-0-7861-7279-5.
If you're looking for devilishly ironic satire, why not go right to the source? C. S. Lewis's classic is in the form of a series of letters from Screwtape, a senior demon in the “lowerarchy” of Hell, to his nephew Wormwood, a novice tempter on his first assignment on Earth: charged with securing the soul of an ordinary Englishman in the early days of World War II. Not only are the letters wryly funny, there is a great deal of wisdom and insight into the human condition and how the little irritations of life can present a greater temptation to flawed humans than extravagant sins. Also included in this audiobook is the 1959 essay “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”, which is quite different in nature: Lewis directly attacks egalitarianism, dumbing-down of education, and destruction of the middle class by the welfare state as making the tempter's task much easier (the original letters were almost entirely apolitical), plus the preface Lewis wrote for a new edition of Screwtape in 1961, in which he says the book almost wrote itself, but that he found the process of getting into Screwtape's head very unpleasant indeed.

The book is read by Ralph Cosham, who adopts a dry, largely uninflected tone which is appropriate for the ironic nature of the text. This audiobook is distributed in two parts, totalling 3 hours and 36 minutes. Audio CD and print editions are also available.

January 2008 Permalink

Metzger, Th. Undercover Mormon. New York: Roadswell Editions, 2013.
The author, whose spiritual journey had earlier led him to dabble with becoming a Mennonite, goes weekly to an acupuncturist named Rudy Kilowatt who believes in the power of crystals, attends neo-pagan fertility rituals in a friend's suburban back yard, had been oddly fascinated by Mormonism ever since, as a teenager, he attended the spectacular annual Mormon pageant at Hill Cumorah, near his home in upstate New York.

He returned again and again for the spectacle of the pageant, and based upon his limited knowledge of Mormon doctrine, found himself admiring how the religion seemed to have it all: “All religion is either sword and sorcery or science fiction. The reason Mormonism is growing so fast is that you guys have both, and don't apologize for either.” He decides to pursue this Mormon thing further, armouring himself in white shirt, conservative tie, and black pants, and heading off to the nearest congregation for the Sunday service.

Approached by missionaries who spot him as a newcomer, he masters his anxiety (bolstered by the knowledge he has a couple of Xanax pills in his pocket), gives a false name, and indicates he's interested in learning more about the faith. Before long he's attending Sunday school, reading tracts, and spinning into the Mormon orbit, with increasing suggestions that he might convert.

All of this is described in a detached, ironic manner, in which the reader (and perhaps the author) can't decide how seriously to take it all. Metzger carries magic talismans to protect himself against the fearful “Mormo”, describes his anxiety to his psychoanalyst, who prescribes the pharmaceutical version of magic bones. He struggles with paranoia about his deception being found out and agonises over the consequences. He consults a friend who, “For a while he was an old-order Quaker, then a Sufi, then a retro-neo-pagan. Now he's a Unitarian-Universalist professor of history.”

The narrative is written in the tediously quaint “new journalism” style where it's as much about the author as the subject. This works poorly here because the author isn't very interesting. He comes across as so neurotic and self-absorbed as to make Woody Allen seem like Clint Eastwood. His “discoveries” about the content of LDS scripture could have been made just as easily by reading the original documents on the LDS Web site, and his exploration of the history of Joseph Smith and the early days of Mormonism in New York could have been accomplished by consulting Wikipedia. His antics, such as burying chicken bones around the obelisk of Moroni on Hill Cumorah and digging up earth from the grave of Luman Walter to spread it in the sacred grove, push irony past the point of parody—does anybody believe the author took such things seriously (and if he did, why should anybody care what he thinks about anything)?

The book does not mock Mormonism, and treats the individuals he encounters on his journey more or less respectfully (with just that little [and utterly unjustified] “I'm better than you” that the hip intellectual has for earnest, clean-cut, industrious people who are “as white as angel food cake, and almost as spongy.”) But you'll learn nothing about the history and doctrine of the religion here that you won't find elsewhere without all the baggage of the author's tiresome “adventures”.

November 2014 Permalink

Moorcock, Michael. Behold the Man. London: Gollancz, [1969] 1999. ISBN 1-857-98848-5.
The link above is to the 1999 U.K. reprint, the only in-print edition as of this writing. I actually read a 1980 mass market paperback found at, where numerous inexpensive copies are offered.

September 2003 Permalink

Pickover, Clifford A. The Loom of God. New York: Perseus Books, 1997. ISBN 0-306-45411-4.
Clifford Pickover has more than enough imagination for a hundred regular people. An enormously prolific author, his work includes technical books on computing and scientific visualisation, science fiction, and popular works on mathematics and a wide variety of scientific topics. This book explores the boundary between mathematics and religion, including Pythagorean cults, Stonehenge, cave paintings from 20,000 years ago which may be the first numbers, the Kabala, the quipu of the Incas, numerology, eschatology, and real-world doomsday scenarios, along with a wide variety of puzzles in number theory, geometry, and other mathematical topics. One of the many fascinating unsolved problems he discusses is the “integer brick”, which seems to be more often referred to as the “perfect cuboid”: can you find a three-dimensional rectangular parallelopiped in which all the edges and face and space diagonals are integers? Computer searches have shown than no cuboid with a smallest edge less than 1,281,000,000 satisfies this requirement but, who knows, you may find it in just a few more compute cycles! (I'll pass on this one, after spending three years of computer time pursuing another unicorn of recreational mathematics.) As with Pickover's other popular books, this one includes source code for programs to explore topics raised in the text, explanation of the science and history behind the science fiction narrative, and extensive literature citations for those interested in digging deeper.

March 2005 Permalink

Rolfe, Fr. Hadrian the Seventh. New York: New York Review Books, [1904] 2001. ISBN 0-940322-62-5.
This is a masterpiece of eccentricity. The author, whose full name is Frederick William Serafino Austin Lewis Mary Rolfe, deliberately abbreviated his name to “Fr.” not just in the interest of concision, but so it might be mistaken for “Father” and the book deemed the work of a Catholic priest. (Rolfe also used the name “Baron Corvo” and affected a coat of arms with a raven.) Having twice himself failed in aspirations to the priesthood, in this novel the protagonist, transparently based upon the author, finds himself, through a sequence of events straining even the omnipotence of the Holy Spirit, vaulted from the humble estate of debt-ridden English hack writer directly to the papacy, taking the name Hadrian the Seventh in honour of Hadrian IV, the first, last, and only English pope to date.

Installed on the throne of Saint Peter, Hadrian quickly moves to remedy the discrepancies his erstwhile humble life has caused to him to perceive between the mission of the Church and the policies of its hierarchy. Dodging intrigue from all sides, and wielding his intellect, wit, and cunning along with papal authority, he quickly becomes what now would be called a “media pope” and a major influence on the world political stage, which he remakes along lines which, however alien and ironic they may seem today, might have been better than what actually happened a decade after this novel was published in 1904.

Rolfe, like Hadrian, is an “artificer in verbal expression”, and his neologisms and eccentric spelling (“saxificous head of the Medoysa”) and Greek and Latin phrases—rarely translated—sprinkle the text. Rolfe/Hadrian doesn't think too highly of the Irish, the French, Socialists, the press, and churchmen who believe their mission is building cathedrals and accumulating treasure rather than saving souls, and he skewers these and other targets on every occasion—if such barbs irritate you, you will find plenty here at which to take offence. The prose is simply beautiful, and thought provoking as well as funny. The international politics of a century ago figures in the story, and if you're not familiar with that now rather obscure era, you may wish to refresh your memory as to principal players and stakes in the Great Game of that epoch.

June 2005 Permalink

Rose, Michael S. Goodbye, Good Men. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2002. ISBN 0-89526-144-8.

February 2003 Permalink

Spencer, Robert. Islam Unveiled. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002. ISBN 1-893554-58-9.

February 2003 Permalink

Thavis, John. The Vatican Diaries. New York: Viking, 2013. ISBN 978-0-670-02671-5.
Jerry Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that:

…in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representatives who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.

Imagine a bureaucracy in which the Iron Law has been working inexorably since the Roman Empire.

The author has covered the Vatican for the Catholic News Service for the last thirty years. He has travelled with popes and other Vatican officials to more than sixty countries and, developing his own sources within a Vatican which is simultaneously opaque to an almost medieval level in its public face, yet leaks like a sieve as factions try to enlist journalists in advancing their agendas. In this book he uses his access to provide a candid look inside the Vatican, at a time when the church is in transition and crisis.

He begins with a peek inside the mechanics of the conclave which chose Pope Benedict XVI: from how the black or white smoke is made to how the message indicating the selection of a new pontiff is communicated (or not) to the person responsible for ringing the bell to announce the event to the crowds thronging St Peter's Square.

There is a great deal of description, bordering on gonzo, of the reality of covering papal visits to various countries: in summary, much of what you read from reporters accredited to the Vatican comes from their watching events on television, just as you can do yourself.

The author does not shy from controversy. He digs deeply into the sexual abuse scandals and cover-up which rocked the church, the revelations about the founder of the Legion of Christ, the struggle between then traditionalists of the Society of St Pius X and supporters of the Vatican II reforms in Rome, and the battle over the beatification of Pope Pius XII. On the lighter side, we encounter the custodians of Latin, including the Vatican Bank ATM which displays its instructions in Latin: “Inserito scidulam quaeso ut faciundum cognoscas rationem”.

This is an enlightening look inside one of the most influential, yet least understood, institutions in what remains of Western civilisation. On the event of the announcement of the selection of Pope Francis, James Lileks wrote:

…if you'd turned the sound down on the set and shown the picture to Julius Cæsar, he would have smiled broadly. For the wrong reasons, of course—his order did not survive in its specific shape, but in another sense it did. The architecture, the crowds, the unveiling would have been unmistakable to someone from Cæsar's time. They would have known exactly what was going on.

Indeed—the Vatican gets ceremony. What is clear from this book is that it doesn't get public relations in an age where the dissemination of information cannot be controlled, and that words, once spoken, cannot be taken back, even if a “revised and updated” transcript of them is issued subsequently by the bureaucracy.

In the Kindle edition the index cites page numbers in the hardcover print edition which are completely useless since the Kindle edition does not contain real page numbers.

March 2013 Permalink

Thomas, Dominique. Le Londonistan. Paris: Éditions Michalon, 2003. ISBN 2-84186-195-3.

July 2003 Permalink

Tipler, Frank J. The Physics of Christianity. New York: Doubleday, 2007. ISBN 0-385-51424-7.
Oh. My. Goodness. Are you yearning for answers to the Big Questions which philosophers and theologians have puzzled over for centuries? Here you are, using direct quotes from this book in the form of a catechism of this beyond-the-fringe science cataclysm.

What is the purpose of life in the universe?
It is not enough to annihilate some baryons. If the laws of physics are to be consistent over all time, a substantial percentage of all the baryons in the universe must be annihilated, and over a rather short time span. Only if this is done will the acceleration of the universe be halted. This means, in particular, that intelligent life from the terrestrial biosphere must move out into interstellar and intergalactic space, annihilating baryons as they go. (p. 67)
What is the nature of God?
God is the Cosmological Singularity. A singularity is an entity that is outside of time and space—transcendent to space and time—and it is the only thing that exists that is not subject to the laws of physics. (p. 269)
How can the three persons of the Trinity be one God?
The Cosmological Singularity consists of three Hypostases: the Final Singularity, the All-Presents Singularity, and the Initial Singularity. These can be distinguished by using Cauchy sequences of different sorts of person, so in the Cauchy completion, they become three distinct Persons. But still, the three Hypostases of the Singularity are just one Singularity. The Trinity, in other words, consists of three Persons but only one God. (pp. 269–270.)
How did Jesus walk on water?
For example, walking on water could be accomplished by directing a neutrino beam created just below Jesus' feet downward. If we ourselves knew how to do this, we would have the perfect rocket! (p. 200)
What is Original Sin?
If Original Sin actually exists, then it must in some way be coded in our genetic material, that is, in our DNA. … By the time of the Cambrian Explosion, if not earlier, carnivores had appeared on Earth. Evil had appeared in the world. Genes now coded for behavior that guided the use of biological weapons of the carnivores. The desire to do evil was now hereditary. (pp. 188, 190)
How can long-dead saints intercede in the lives of people who pray to them?
According to the Universal Resurrection theory, everyone, in particular the long-dead saints, will be brought back into existence as computer emulations in the far future, near the Final Singularity, also called God the Father. … Future-to-past causation is usual with the Cosmological Singularity. A prayer made today can be transferred by the Singularity to a resurrected saint—the Virgin Mary, say—after the Universal Resurrection. The saint can then reflect on the prayer and, by means of the Son Singularity acting through the multiverse, reply. The reply, via future-to-past causation, is heard before it is made. It is heard billions of years before it is made. (p. 235)
When will the End of Days come?
In summary, by the year 2050 at the latest, we will see:
  1. Intelligent machines more intelligent than humans.
  2. Human downloads, effectively invulnerable and far more capable than normal humans.
  3. Most of humanity Christian.
  4. Effectively unlimited energy
  5. A rocket capable of interstellar travel.
  6. Bombs that are to atomic bombs as atomic bombs are to spitballs, and these weapons will be possessed by practically anybody who wants one.
(p. 253)

Hey, I said answers, not correct answers! This is only a tiny sampler of the side-splitting “explanations” of Christian mysteries and miracles in this book. Others include the virgin birth, the problem of evil, free will, the resurrection of Jesus, the shroud of Turin and the holy grail, the star of Bethlehem, transubstantiation, quantum gravity, the second coming, and more, more, more. Quoting them all would mean quoting almost the whole book—if you wish to be awed by or guffaw at them all, you're going to have to read the whole thing. And that's not all, since it seems like every other page or so there's a citation of Tipler's 1994 opus, The Physics of Immortality (read my review), so some sections are likely to be baffling unless you suspend disbelief and slog your way through that tome as well.

Basically, Tipler sees your retro-causality and raises to retro-teleology. In order for the laws of physics, in particular the unitarity of quantum mechanics, to be valid, then the universe must evolve to a final singularity with no event horizons—the Omega Point. But for this to happen, as it must, since the laws of physics are never violated, then intelligent life must halt the accelerating expansion of the universe and turn it around into contraction. Because this must happen, the all-knowing Final Singularity, which Tipler identifies with God the Father, acts as a boundary condition which causes fantastically improbable events such as the simultaneous tunnelling disintegration of every atom of the body of Jesus into neutrinos to become certainties, because otherwise the Final Singularity Omega Point will not be formed. Got that?

I could go on and on, but by now I think you'll have gotten the point, even if it isn't an Omega Point. The funny thing is, I'm actually sympathetic to much of what Tipler says here: his discussion of free will in the multiverse and the power of prayer or affirmation is not that unlike what I suggest in my eternally under construction “General Theory of Paranormal Phenomena”, and I share Tipler's optimism about the human destiny and the prospects, in a universe of which 95% of the mass is made of stuff we know absolutely nothing about, of finding sources of energy as boundless and unimagined as nuclear fission and fusion were a century ago. But folks, this is just silly. One of the most irritating things is Tipler's interpreting scripture to imply a deep knowledge of recently-discovered laws of physics and then turning around, a few pages later, when the argument requires it, to claim that another passage was influenced by contemporary beliefs of the author which have since been disproved. Well, which is it?

If you want to get a taste of this material, see “The Omega Point and Christianity”, which contains much of the physics content of the book in preliminary form. The entire first chapter of the published book can be downloaded in icky Microsoft Word format from the author's Web site, where additional technical and popular articles are available.

For those unacquainted with the author, Frank J. Tipler is a full professor of mathematical physics at Tulane University in New Orleans, pioneer in global methods in general relativity, discoverer of the massive rotating cylinder time machine, one of the first to argue that the resolution of the Fermi Paradox is, as his paper was titled, “Extraterrestrial Intelligent Beings Do Not Exist”, and, with John Barrow, author of The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, the definitive work on that topic. Say what you like, but Tipler is a serious and dedicated scientist with world-class credentials who believes that the experimentally-tested laws of physics as we understand them are not only consistent with, but require, many of the credal tenets which traditional Christians have taken on faith. The research program he proposes (p. 271), “… would make Christianity a branch of physics.” Still, as I wrote almost twelve years ago, were I he, I'd be worried about getting on the wrong side of the Old One.

Finally, and this really bothers me, I can't close these remarks without mentioning that notwithstanding there being an entire chapter titled “Anti-Semitism Is Anti-Christian” (pp. 243–256), which purports to explain it on the last page, this book is dedicated, “To God's Chosen People, the Jews, who for the first time in 2,000 years are advancing Christianity.” I've read the book; I've read the explanation; and this remark still seems both puzzling and disturbing to me.

June 2007 Permalink

Warraq, Ibn [pseud.]. Why I Am Not a Muslim. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995. ISBN 0-87975-984-4.

February 2002 Permalink

Warraq, Ibn [pseud.] ed. What the Koran Really Says. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2002. ISBN 1-57392-945-X.
This is a survey and reader of Western Koranic studies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A wide variety of mutually conflicting interpretations are presented and no conclusions are drawn. The degree of detail may be more than some readers have bargained for: thirty-five pages (pp. 436–464, 472–479) discuss a single word. For a scholarly text there are a surprising number of typographical errors, many of which would have been found by a spelling checker.

April 2003 Permalink

Warraq, Ibn [pseud.] ed. Leaving Islam. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003. ISBN 1-59102-068-9.
Multiculturalists and ardent secularists may contend “all organised religions are the same”, but among all major world religions only Islam prescribes the death penalty for apostasy, which makes these accounts by former Muslims of the reasons for and experience of their abandoning Islam more than just stories of religious doubt. (There is some dispute as to whether the Koran requires death for apostates, or only threatens punishment in the afterlife. Some prominent Islamic authorities, however, interpret surat II:217 and IX:11,12 as requiring death for apostates. Numerous aḥadīth are unambiguous on the point, for example Bukhārī book 84, number 57 quotes Mohammed saying, “Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him”, which doesn't leave a lot of room for interpretation, nor do authoritative manuals of Islamic law such as Reliance of the Traveller, which prescribes (o8.1) “When a person who has reached puberty and is sane voluntarily apostasizes from Islam, he deserves to be killed”. The first hundred pages of Leaving Islam explore the theory and practice of Islamic apostasy in both ancient and modern times.)

The balance of the book are personal accounts by apostates, both those born into Islam and converts who came to regret their embrace of what Salman Rushdie has called “that least huggable of faiths”. These testaments range from the tragic (chapter 15), to the philosophical (chapter 29), and ironically humorous (chapter 37). One common thread which runs through the stories of many apostates is that while they were taught as children to “read” the Koran, what this actually meant was learning enough Arabic script and pronunciation to be able to recite the Arabic text but without having any idea what it meant. (Very few of the contributors to this book speak Arabic as their mother tongue, and it is claimed [p. 400] that even native Arabic speakers can barely understand the classical Arabic of the Koran, but I don't know the extent to which this is true. But in any case, only about 15% of Muslims are Arabic mother tongue speakers.) In many of the narratives, disaffection with Islam either began, or was strongly reinforced, when they read the Koran in translation and discovered that the “real Islam” they had imagined as idealistic and benign was, on the evidence of what is regarded as the word of God, nothing of the sort. It is interesting that, unlike the Roman Catholic church before the Reformation, which attempted to prevent non-clergy from reading the Bible for themselves, Islam encourages believers to study the Koran and Ḥadīth, both in the original Arabic and translation (see for example this official Saudi site). It is ironic that just such study of scripture seems to encourage apostasy, but perhaps this is the case only for those already so predisposed.

Eighty pages of appendices include quotations from the Koran and Ḥadīth illustrating the darker side of Islam and a bibliography of books and list of Web sites critical of Islam. The editor is author of Why I Am Not a Muslim (February 2002), editor of What the Koran Really Says (April 2003), and founder of the Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society.

February 2006 Permalink