Archive for the ‘book reviews’ Category

12 Out of 21

April 23, 2018 Leave a comment

GQ is a magazine that I have never purchased, I’m only familiar with it in passing. By that I mean that I literally pass it at the checkout line in the grocery store. I only really notice it when there’s a pretty woman on the cover which is a rare event. It’s a fashion magazine for men in all the ways that Maxim wasn’t, and it’s a magazine that has little appeal to me personally.

Nothing about the magazine is off putting either, I don’t hate it but I have read some interviews and articles from the magazine then guffawed at the amount of money some people will pay for toiletries. Like any magazine these days they need to put out some articles that will make sales, and this month they posted an iconoclastic article titled: “21 Books You Don’t Have to Read.” The general thesis of the article is that the literary canon is full of boring, dated, sometimes sexist/racist books that were products of a different time but that the intelligentsia class (I know this is me) has said are the “great books.”

Some of them I have read, and some of them I hated. For instance I’ve never understood either the appeal or the controversy of “Catcher in the Rye.” He’s a whiny douchebag from the upper classes who goes slumming one day because he’s bored, gets a prostitute, doesn’t pay, upsets his sister, then reconciles that he belongs in the prison that he spent the entire book condemning. I guess the book was popular in its day because it used language that was representative of actual teenagers who attended boarding school, but the appeal is just lost on me. The controversy is even more of a mystery but I think that it might be due to a generational thing. The language he uses is not vulgar to me, but back then it was. “Huckleberry Finn” is on there, which sure, it’s been a long time since I’ve read it but I think the author of the submission missed the point: Twain isn’t a racist, he portrayed “Nigger Jim” the way he did to make a point about slavery, racism, and the attitudes of the South. However the entry made a point, that if all you know about Twain is Huckleberry Finn, then you really are missing out.

This brings us to #12 on the list: The Bible. The entry says, “The Holy Bible is rated very highly by the people who supposedly live by it but who in actuality haven’t read it. Those who have read it know there are some good parts but overall it is certainly not the finest thing man has ever produced. It is repetitive, self-contradictory, sententious, foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned.”

Basically all of that is true but you should still read it. I know very few people who didn’t go to seminary school who can claim that they’ve read the Bible. I’ve read all of it, skipping the genealogy chapters because who cares, I wanted the stories and the morals. I was told to read it in Catholic school, a task to which I willingly assented due to my religiosity at the time. Whenever I hear some pundit talking about the problem in this country is that too few people read the Bible, I agree. More people ought to read it, it does not belong on this list. They ought to sit down and read it from Genesis 1:1 to the very end of Revelations, skipping only the copyright and font page at the end. Read the footnotes if your book has it, read all of it and then come to me and explain why the GQ author was wrong because there’s little doubt in my mind that you will disagree.

Look, the Bible has some good stories…sort of. However, for every one of the good stories in it, there’s ten that are boring, five that are horrible, and then an entire book filled with either genealogy charts or a whole bunch of laws regarding who can and can’t enter the temple on a certain day. The good stories are derivative. The story of Sampson, is the story that a drunk person who overheard the Greek Myth of Hercules tells when they try and retell it (seriously, what’s the point of the fox thing it doesn’t make sense). Moses is probably the best written character in it and he’s kind of a monster. The Jesus character would be better if we didn’t have four books that contradict each other. He’s also very odd, and I don’t mean in that “savior of man-kind so he’s going to be odd” odd, I mean that this is a guy that curses a tree because it isn’t producing figs (and I wonder what time of year it is, should that tree have had figs?). There’s boring letters and the entire book ends with an insane fever dream full of impossible things (stars can’t fall into the ocean) but to its credit is very vivid. If you don’t cherry pick, the book is unreadable which is why you should try and read it, especially if you are a believer.

However, it is even weird for me to put in a review of the book like that because the reason it’s a “great book” is because we’ve been told for centuries of years that it is the “greatest book” by people who initially opposed its mass publication, and opposed its translation into the common tongue. It’s like watching “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Look, that movie is boring, unnecessarily long, and tedious at points. There’s some good parts and without it we wouldn’t have science fiction films the way we have them today. Yet, we’ve all been told that it’s one of the greatest movies ever so we kind of just accept it. The difference between the two is that 2001 is a marvel at filmmaking (just not in storytelling) while the Bible is just not a well written book. It might have something to do with multiple authors who aren’t compatible, telling a historical story centuries after the fact, or the fact that it is a compilation of things that don’t quite fit in (what the hell is Ecclesiastes doing in there anyway?).

As Mark Twain (allegedly) said about the book, the road to atheism is littered with pages of the Bible. So by all means disagree with the article and read it.


By a Preponderance…

February 5, 2018 Leave a comment

It’s been awhile since I’ve hit up this book and believe me I was looking for an excuse today, but since it is only my birthday and not an actual holiday (so far) I decided to crack open this book. We left off at the end of chapter III, so I pushed passed the fictional testimonial into chapter IV titled “the Challenge of Science.” First off I can already guess his argument, not because he’s a theist, but because he’s already thrown it out there back in chapter one and given my experience with this book already I’m going to assume that there’s nothing new in here. In either case, we must push forward and hope that it starts with something new…

…and no, it begins with a screed against naturalism and a case of completely not understanding what “science” is, “If science is the discovery of physical truth…” ok, good start depending on what we are supposed to understand the phrase “physical truth” to mean but that’s me being a bit pedantic so I won’t spend anymore pixels on it. “…it must be intimately connected with the realm of morality and religion.”

So that sentence took a hard left didn’t it? Let’s just say this, no it doesn’t. That’s not the realm of science. Whether or not gravitons exist has no reflection in the realm of morality or religion unless a particular religion does not believe in the existence of such particles (or it does). The same applies to the function of the pineal gland, or the resultant affect on an individual with regard to chemical substances. It is not the job of science to determine religious doctrine or morality, and any attempt to do so should be met with extreme skepticism. The author basically admits that this is the current view of “science” but then claims this is wrong without giving any basis for why. In a different book I’d not make this a criticism expecting it to be followed up in later pages, but he’s dropped claims before and I have no reason to think that this will be any different.

“A lord of only the subjective is necessarily the god of only the irrelevant.”–I agree.

We then get a very superficial but not inaccurate summary of the idea of naturalism. The author describes it as the view that only natural causes exist, we are all the product of accidental forces, and that life has no meaning other than what we give it. Ok, I’ll leave some of my problems with that aside since their heavy philosophical issues with this idea of “meaning” but this is not something I would mark wrong on a student’s paper.

We are treated to a light expansion of this idea with a quote by genetics professor Richard Lewontin about getting “them” (it’s unclear from context who “them” is) to reject supernatural causes. I have to guess about the context but this makes, at the very least, practical sense which is why scientists since Newton have been trying to excise unnatural causes from explanations. Why? Because you can’t measure the non-material causes. You can’t offer a predictive progressive research programme that offers a theory which is either verifiable or falsifiable based on spiritual entities. The reason the domains of religious and scientific knowledge do not overlap is because they have utterly different goals. Show me a non-naturalistic explanation that actually makes a prediction and I’ll push those circles a little bit together but until then I’ll take the material explanation since it makes my cell phone work and gives me medicine. Aligning the harvesting of crops with the moon didn’t change agriculture, knowledge of soil consistency, botany, chemistry, and biology did. Disease cures don’t emanate from “pray on it” they are directly caused by the scientific method which has rejected, since the writings of Hippocrates the idea of unnatural causes.

He also thinks that anyone who accepts the naturalistic view has to ignore the “increasing weight of scientific evidence coming to light in so many areas of inquiry; evidence that points patterns of intelligent design in the universe and its component parts.”

First off, he offers none of this evidence. Secondly, he can’t because it doesn’t exist. Proponents of ID will point to what are patterns in various cherry picked natural phenomenon. The shape of a galaxy, the shape of a hurricane, and the growth of a conch shell roughly (very roughly) correspond to the golden ration (or theta) and they point this out saying “look there’s a clear design here.” If we assume that they are right then this being of omniscient intelligence needs to get back to the crafting table because the execution of the design isn’t that well done. Further we can also comment that the design of parasites while seemingly based on a pattern is evidence of malicious design serving no purpose other than to propagate species whose sole existence is to thrive off the pain and suffering of other life forms. Finally, there are explanations for why these patterns exist and usually that explanation is gravity. Accretion discs of nebula, galactic star fields, and even galactic clusters–it’s all gravity. However, one could and without contradiction point out that these laws were set in place by the omnipotent creator (as the view of the Vatican is currently). Fine, but that still doesn’t remove us from naturalistic explanations of the world, it just sets up a prime mover argument.

The problem with this argument is that it is a) self-contradictory because we then have to assume a self-created thing and b) doesn’t get us to Christianity it only gets us to some divine power which could be anything. Of what value would assumptions of a natural cause be to the human genome? Zero.

What he’s driving it is a lamentation that there isn’t enough Jesus in the classroom. He remarks that Christian thinkers are dismissed from academics. This is just false. What is dismissed are religious explanations for the natural world. I teach philosophy, my department does not lack in religious individuals or even in religious philosophy (well the one that I am enrolled as a PhD student does not, my current department does not have a religious philosophy person). I would have a nice long talk with my department chair and then human resources if I dismissed or failed students based on the Christian beliefs. Our author’s main problem is that he fails to understand that religious explanations are not used in science anymore merely because of their religiosity but because they aren’t useful at explaining things. You have to already accept the premise and the conclusion then shoehorn all the physical evidence into it. The challenge of science isn’t that it claims god is dead (because it doesn’t) it’s that it’s been proven to be more useful than relying on a 2000 year old book for the natural world.

By A Preponderance…

December 4, 2017 Leave a comment

We left off with the idea that we need some sort of deity in order to be moral. A ridiculous claim that even my religious students do not stand by. We’re still searching for the evidence that the book promised…

Continuing on with his decrying of the morality of the non-believer he begins citing the bible. Sigh, the problem here should be obvious. If he’s going to be claiming proof, undeniable proof, then he can’t cite evidence that requires you already believe. That’s a perfect example of question begging. This line from 2 Thessalonians 1:9 “These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and the glory of His power,” begins our conversation about hell. The “These” in that line are those that do not obey the gospel of Jesus. Which, is a little weird, since there is very little to obey in those books.

Now, now, I’m not retreading the mythicist line about that not being a real person. I’m talking about the four books themselves. There’s very little to obey. Most of the books are stories about Jesus, but as far as obeying there’s very little. What is there is sometimes contradictory, i.e. Matthew’s Jesus says that we must obey the laws of the prophets (Old Testament laws) while Luke’s Jesus says (16:16) that they don’t matter anymore since John the Baptist. Just sticking with Matthew we are told to let all those see our good words (5:16) but then to not do that and instead do our good works privately and not bring attention to them (6:1, 23:3-5). So who goes to Hell? Those that do good and slap their names on the side of buildings or those that do works and never talk about them? In both cases we have individuals that are both following and not following the gospels. In both cases these are “red letter” passages, meaning they come from the mouth of Jesus and not some epistle writer.

God, according to our author, respects our free will in much the same way that a person with a gun against your head demanding your money respects it as well. You’re free to not give it, but the consequences are there. Which, fine, a religious person has to believe this. However, I’ve written time and time again that if the only thing keeping a person moral is the threat of hell, it’s not morality it’s compulsion. A moral act ought to be done without the consequence in mind. If I tell the truth I should do so not because of the threat of hell but because I have an intrinsic respect for the truth (whether that be Kantian, Utilitarian, or some notion of Justice).

Palaszewski then wraps up this chapter with speaking of the most important event in the history of time–the sacrifice of Jesus. Which, again, is only something if you already believe it. There’s no evidence for the non-believer to accept here. He’s merely assuming the conclusion and then using that to justify the premise. Here’s where he’s going to get himself into trouble. Let’s assume that the story happened and that Palaszewski’s earlier remarks are also true. Good? Having a problem? You should be because it’s contradictory.

If God respects our free will and allows our choices to dictate whether we go to hell or not then how has he been punishing people prior to the sacrifice of Jesus? According to Catholic doctrine (and most Christian doctrines) heaven is opened by Jesus’ death. This means that prior to this, it doesn’t matter what kind of choices you made you were still going to Hell because you couldn’t have known about Jesus or this gospel. Some Catholic thought tries to work around this by offering the Purgatory solution. That all of the prior dead, still under the sin of Adam, were not in Hell but Purgatory and when Jesus was dead for those two days (it’s not three, not by any measurement of time) he lifted them up. This is provided you had only committed venial sins and not mortal sins the latter of which is automatic hell. Again though, that is required that you knew the difference between them. Nevertheless it is the fallacy of special pleading, we have to accept the existence of this purgatory which is not mentioned in the Bible in order to justify this contradiction.

I have two kids: one was baptized and the other was not (long story). Does this mean that the one with at least the exposure to church goes to heaven and the other doesn’t simply by virtue of that exposure? According to our author, yes. Yet, it’s not exactly their choice at this point. The same goes for someone born in China, while they may be aware of Christianity, they are more than likely not believers so according to the author they are going to Hell because they aren’t fulfilling their life’s sole purpose in worshipping god. That’s not the respect of free will because those kids in China did not have the opportunity.

Thus far, nearly half way through this book, we’ve seen no evidence, no argument, no proof of the truth of Christianity or Jesus. Instead, I must ask: what am I reading? Given what we’ve gone through so far, I’m reading a book that is designed to give arguments to people that already believe so that they can throw them at non-believers. It also serves the point of making believers think that they have some kind of intellectual foundation for their preconceived notions. The biggest problem though is that these aren’t good arguments. They might confound a new atheist, but a mere introduction into informal fallacies will quickly nullify anything this book is saying. It’s pure counter knowledge.

Jesus By a Preponderance of the Evidence I

July 3, 2017 Leave a comment

This post is the first in a monthly series wherein I’ll go through the claims made by Robert Palaszewski in his book “Jesus By a Preponderance of the Evidence.” The subtitle of the book is “The Objective, Rational, Historical and Scientific Evidence for the Truth of Christianity.” The book is supposed to be an argument that not only was Jesus a historical figure, but also that the religion of Christianity is true. This implies that we’re going to prove the Jesus as Son of God idea as well.

I’ve read the first chapter and the first thing I need to lay out is that I’m skipping the “Journeys” sections. The reason is that they anecdotal, and I suspect made up, stories about people coming to Jesus. They are not proof of anything, if true, they only serve to prove one person’s journey, so there’s little to look at or do with. Personal accounts are not objective, they go against the grain of what the book describes itself as, and I’m not sure what they are doing here.

There is nothing but DNA. We are but a cosmic accident, products of nothing but chance. Therefore, we owe no allegiance outside of ourselves. God is chance. he is accident. He is the great Nothing. God is dead. The very notion of God is dead. We are free to remake ourselves in any image we want. We are free. We are masters of our own souls…”

This, the author claims is the mission statement of the current age [It’s also, itself italicized, but I’ll italicize any block quotes from the book]. And, oh boy, is there a lot to unpack in there. It’s claimed that this kind of statement (there’s more to it as well) is what the high priests of our time, the scientists, tell us. It however is not. I could probably write for the next month on just these three paragraphs but I’ll just have to pick one part. The notion of an “accident” is a popular one among the apologists. It offends the personal identification that we are somehow special amongst all of the other creatures in the Cosmos, but there’s little evidence that this is so–other than wanting it to be the case. It’s pure anthropomorphic justification for our place in the universe and is reminiscent of the more modern cosmological arguments that talk about universal constants and the odds against life that drive whatever authority this argument mysteriously still possesses. The real problem is, that “accident” is a matter of perspective; if you are a believer you can still buy the physics explanation for why we are here. Just ask the Catholic Church, they endorse it but then say that God is the Prime Mover in all of it.

The “God is Dead” thing drives me nuts. Yes, it comes from Nietzsche. Yes, he had syphilis and eventually went crazy (the book it comes from, Thus Spoke Zarathustra is from his middle period when he was about stage 2 of Syphilis). What needs to be kept in mind, is when and who says it. Nietzsche, puts the line into a fool character walking a tight rope. And cherry picking the quote is just stupid, the full line is “God is dead, and these are his tombs.” It’s a comment about how people mourn their religion inside dark places instead of celebrating it like the ancient Greeks/Romans did. Also, for an Atheist, god isn’t dead–he was never alive to begin with.

From that long screed we move on to Pontius Pilate. For some reason I’ve been seeing this a lot lately from the apologist crowd. In John 18:38 Pontius, while interrogating Jesus, asked “What is truth?” and this is somehow meant to be the rallying cry of those denying Jesus. However, and I can’t believe the biblical “scholars” ignore this, is the context of the quote. Never mind that it would be odd for an Atheist to be deriving authority from a line in the bible, but John 18:37 has Jesus telling Pilate that he is speaking the truth and his followers are those of the truth. When Pilate asks, “What is truth?” he’s not using it in the general sense, but referring to the thing that Jesus just said sense. Even if, and I would dispute this, Pilate were using it in a general sense the context of the conversation still revolves around him interrogating someone suspected of a crime. Pilate, and by extension non-Christians (as Pilate was likely not an atheist), are not advocating for epistemic relativism.

Yet that’s the tone filling out the rest of this section, what follows is a long screed about what people like me believe. I always find these entertaining, because apologists could just, I don’t know, ask. The takeaway here is that atheists are cultural and moral relativists. What’s good, is what I determine as good and I have no right to inflict that kind of judgment on anyone else because morality doesn’t derive from a divine source.

This leads into a discussion of all the ways that society is crumbling around us because we no longer Jesus hard enough. Violence and sex in pop-culture, violence in the streets, sexual liberation, etc. The usual accusations thrown at the next generation by the previous despite the facts that the world has actually been getting better. We even go so far as to cite a study which, in his words, “The Journal of the American Psychological Association can argue that pedophilia is not so bad.”

I found this rather shocking so I found the footnote (I hate endnotes) and checked the study. It says no such thing. What the study actually determined was that the stereotype of the damaged victim of sexual abuse was just that, a stereotype. While there was long term damage the general assumption that the victims were “lost causes” was not borne out by the evidence. What seems to have a moderating effect on the outcomes of the victims is the level of support that the victim receives afterward. There is nothing in this paper that claims pedophilia “is not so bad.” Maybe the author should have read the paper instead of repeating what someone told him about the study as it really affirms the need for victim support post abuse.

This however would go against his desire to make sure that everyone reading is offended. I am, but that’s because he didn’t read the study or if he did, he didn’t understand it–whether purposefully or accidentally.

Then we have a long argument against moral relativism. A section I agree with, if not for the shoddy examples and poor construction of the argument. One of his arguments that we atheists apparently make, is that “there is nothing to sin against” so therefore everything is permitted. Yes and no, there is no sin, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t immoral actions. Shooting children in a daycare is wrong and immoral, but not a “sin.” His tactic here is to parse out the words in an extremely pedantic manner. For him all immoral actions are “sins” so if you don’t believe in “sin” you can’t judge something to be immoral. That, however is not a working tautology because I don’t use the one word. In general I’m against moral relativism, and to be fair he gives an interesting analogy with various religions, they can’t all be right.

Religion is a zero sum game. Of the many competing religions only one, if you believe in them, could be considered true. Allah and Jesus both can’t hold their self-proclaimed monopoly on the truth, at least one of them have to be wrong. It’s a good point, but he can’t dwell on it because it leads down a road of doubt. What if his interpretation of Jesus is wrong? Or what if Jesus is the wrong religion? Since he’s offered no evidence of anything yet, making this claim is spurious at this point. No worries, because he jingles the keys of cultural relativism once again and the lack of an authority by which we derive our morality. We’re 16 pages in, and there’s yet to be one objective rational or historical piece of evidence offered. Perhaps the rest of chapter one will begin presenting it.

The Moon Voyage

July 8, 2011 Leave a comment

Like “The Mysterious Island” I picked up “The Moon Voyage” out of a sense of curiosity. Jules Verne’s writings are known for a certain prophetic aspect, his Nautilus semi-predicted submarines. I say “semi-predicted” as they had been used with moderate success in warfare at the time of his writings and his foresight is actually based on their merging with other technologies still at their infancy during his time. Where “The Moon Voyage” exceeds this writing is notably in his setting the moon launch in Florida by a team of Americans. All of this is pretty extraordinary but perhaps even more so when he gives his justification for that location.

The story itself surrounds an American gun club based in Baltimore led by President Barbicane (president of the Gun Club not the United States). The club itself is in a state of decline with the end of the US Civil War the membership of the club is comprised of men who designed and used artillery during the war. Without that war they feel themselves to be useless relegated to waiting for another war, or perhaps as one of them proposes to actually lobby for the beginning of another war. Barbicane has other designs, he proposes that instead of building more and deadlier weapons he proposes that the club apply itself to building a gun that could propel a projectile to the moon.

Instead of skepticism the club, and the country, embraces the idea in what Verne calls the spirit of American ingenuity. The dimensions of the weapon, the projectile, and the amount of propellent needed are well calculated. The time of launch is determined with help from the British, and the location itself as well. Here’s where we get to his prescience. Florida is chosen but it’s not random and this is also where Verne’s strength as a writer excels. Other writers might have just picked a place randomly or perhaps based their location on proximity to a major city or industrial center for obvious reasons. Verne chooses Florida for purely scientific reasons. According to the British the Moon is closest to the Earth between certain Latitudes and only two places in the US are within that constriction: areas of Florida and Texas.

Florida won because the location they picked is remote and with few cities in Florida at the time, there would be no jealousy among them as there would have been in Texas. There would also be no confusion or controversy over appropriating land for the project as their might be in the more densely populated Texas. The initial project’s purpose is to see if it can be done, that’s it. It was nothing more than an exercise of the industry of a uniquely industrious and ingenious people. Then it is proposed that the projectile be occupied and thus the project is undertaken to change the shell to a capsule.

There is no decision made in this book that is not accompanied by a reason for that decision and then a detailed explanation of how that goal was carried through. Everything seems to be based on the science of the time, which although somewhat inaccurate has the reading of a logical proof and the absolute faith of the characters in that science. What gets forgotten amid the correctness of the Florida location are three other predictions that eventually would come true.

The first is the fact that the three travelers in the capsule once launched would experience no weight. While scientists of the time new that gravity was based on mass (a fact keenly and repeatedly stressed during the book) what wasn’t accepted as a scientific theory at the time was that in space that gravity would diminish and that passing a certain point would mean that the travelers would be weightless. When the travelers do hit weightlessness they are completely “stupefied” finding “weight wanting in their bodies.” Given Verne’s scientific researches into everything else that went into the book, including some rather lengthy discourses on the geography of the Moon, it stands to reason that he stumbled across some monograph on the subject but again, this was not an accepted theory at the time merely a hypothesis.

Secondly he also predicts that other objects in space also have gravity. Now the moon having gravity is one thing, that was something accepted such an object’s mass would have attraction. What Verne predicts though is that a passing comet not only has gravity but also enough gravity that it pulls the capsule off course. Not by much of course, but enough so that the journey is put into peril when the travelers realize that they have no landed on the moon when they should have.

Thirdly is the burying of the Moon Gun. This is based on common sense given the enormity of the cannon and the amount of fuel being used but it has been tried twice in history. Hitler’s V3 project, an attempt to build artillery cannons that could be fired from France and hit London with no warning compared to the the V1 and V2 missiles were also proposed to have been buried in the ground…although this probably had more to do with being hidden from British and American bombers as well. Then there was Saddam Hussein’s attempt at building an atmosphere capable artillery gun that had much the same construction. Although that project was “cancelled” by Mossad agents (allegedly) when the lead engineer was found dead in an Iraqi hotel from two gun shots to the head.

The Moon Voyage is an interesting read if only to learn of the fascination with the moon and the science thereof in the late 19th century. Verne’s strength is also causes his writing to drag as the various aspects of the moon are presented in great detail as well as a history of astronomy and selenography which slow the story down. However overall the story is about a scientific project and the execution of which by learned and ambitious men who are willing to risk everything just for the accomplishment of it. This, Verne says, is a uniquely American state of mind.

Oh yeah, the first capsule to actually land on the moon was called “Columbia,” but Verne labels his “Columbiad”–I guess you can’t be right all of the time.

Categories: book reviews, reviews

“Among the Truthers”–Jonathan Kay

June 21, 2011 Leave a comment

To be interested in Conspiracy as a flight of fancy is one thing, but to truly believe in a conspiracy theory is more akin to really believing in the various stories surrounding religion. While this may be deemed offensive to some (on either side of that comparison) the parallels are pretty numerous. First and foremost is the belief that world events are not random, they are controlled or at least guided in much the same way that believers in God will explain the path of a tornado that rips through a town and kills very few people. This belief though is opposite in tone than the religious, whereas the faithful will ascribe events that spare human life as the result of God’s hand, Conspirators believe that events which claim human lives are the result of a master plan. There is also the notion of belief in something despite the lack of evidence, i.e. that of faith.

Jonathan Kay’s book, “Among the Truthers” is an examination not of conspiracy beliefs but of the people that believe in conspiracies. Focusing on the most prevalent of modern conspiracies, that of the theory that the September 11th attacks on NYC and the Pentagon were an inside job (most theories either ignore the Pennsylvania plane or have a different theory to cover it: that it was shot down by US Planes is the most common). This choice of focus is obvious as it allows the author to immerse himself in a world that is still living and still growing. Despite the fact that most people believe that the single shooter of JFK is a dubious idea, the theory is pretty stagnant relegated to once a year repeated specials on the History Channel.

It should be noted that the author does not believe in the theory, accepting the events according to the 9/11 commission’s report, and the numerous scientific studies that have proven the collapse happened the way it did from the cause of the plane’s collision. Kay, also ignores the temptation to include a chapter or two on why the alternative theories presented are wrong. He claims that this was advised by his editor who said that there would be no market for such a book. Believers in the theory would claim that he was a puppet while people accepting the official explanation would have no need to read it. There are numerous web pages on the internet devoted to both.

Which is one explanation that he offers for the spread of this theory. The development of the internet not only allowed people formerly regarded as crackpots to disseminate their beliefs but it did something else, something much more important than just giving them an outlet: it gave them encouragement. Where once they might have wrote about their theory and then forgotten about it. The internet could now give them instant feedback and compel them to continue. The theories became compartmentalized much like modern political discourse into an echo chamber where theorists only hear support for their beliefs and are thus more and more convinced of the “truth” of it. Is not this the exact opposite of the dream of Web in the mid-1990s? What once was supposed to be access to the world of divergent opinions and information instead has became a collection of cliques that only speak to each other.

The causes of conspiracism are varied. It’s propagation is not only based on the web but also in the atmosphere as well. The book goes to great strains to explain that while people on the right or left would like to blame the other side for these ideas, the genera of conspiracy is actually the fault of both. While the right wing has had more prevalence lately in the dissemination of conspiracy theories, the left wing has had its time before. Whenever one group is in power it is the other group that will have among itself a fringe element that sees conspiracy. The difference we see now is that conspiracy theory was given public air by Glenn Beck, whom Kay categorizes in the book as a conspiracy theorist for which I have to agree (his threading of Soros as a liberal puppet master should suffice as evidence). On the left though there have been Noam Chomsky and Jacques Derrida. What has to be decided is which is worse: a political pundit on the number one cable news channel or two well respected PhDs? These enablers lend legitimacy to the odd theories and give them main stream acceptance.

The point is made though, that we cannot ascribe to one side of the political debate responsibility for conspiracy, only specific theories that often have origins in some surprising source. For instance, it was the KGB that first implanted the idea that AIDS was genetically engineered. Or, although not mentioned in the book, “Birtherism” first appeared not in the GOP or its followers but in supporters of Hillary Clinton’s nomination bid.

The most damning indictment though, and deservedly, goes toward left-wing academics. The era of political correctness has basically necessitated that America is the evil empire in the world and academics adhering to a false model of Marxism have portrayed the United States as hegemonic in its goals. Belief that “the great engine of evil in the world is American hegemony–and so every epic tragedy the world suffers must somehow be laid at Washington’s doorstep.” This era of PC has also given the general population the reluctance to criticize people for holding certain opinions. Forcing relativism on people who would otherwise know better. Medical conspiracies including the vaccination conspiracies rest on theories that just “feel right” to people like Jenny McCarthy despite the united opposition of Pediatricians in both the US and for most of the world.

Another important facet that Kay concentrates on is to make a differentiation between people who are conspirators and the genuine insane. Most conspirators are not insane, he mentions, but some are. Despite the fact that someone with mental problems might be a conspiracy believer is the exception. The line is whether or not the person believes themselves to be involved in the conspiracy, usually this involvement is in hiding from the guiding hand of the world events. Most “truthers” don’t think someone is out to silence them.

The religious analogy also applies to the various sects of conspiracism. Within each there are hierarchies, schisms, and outcasts. Getting the “story” straight is often difficult for them, and people who do not ascribe to the “official” story proposed by the conspiracists are often shunned or labelled crackpots. The irony of this is that they themselves deride the mainstream press and government officials for doing just the same.

Ultimately though the conspiracist movement is full of ironies and contradictions. Professional Academic journals have thus far not accepted the movement’s ideas as having any truth (although there are Academics who are truthers) and thus are called “ignorant” or “puppets” by members of the movement. Yet, those very same people seem to crave such acceptance to the point where they have set up their own academic sounding journal “Journal of 9/11 Truth.” The same with the media, while You Tube videos abound with truther confrontations these amount to no more than pranks. The media is “in on it” but then upon meeting journalists those that don’t specifically dismiss them often seek to get their ideas mentioned in it. This lends itself to the idea that substratum for a good deal of conspiracism activists is stardom in one fashion or the other. They deride the mainstream academics and media as being worthless then brag about how their theories and intelligence make them outliers but in the next breath they are seeking the approval of the mainstream.

Ultimately the contradiction inherent in the 9/11 truth is that the truth for them is unfulfillable. If we assume them to be correct, and that a group of people (or aliens) were able to manipulate the entire world into believing what happened on 9/11 was the real thing, then what kind of independent investigation could escape their grasp? The invisible hand is suddenly unable to direct a second investigation? It would seem that what the most vocal people espousing these theories really want is to lead the investigation.

Kay’s book is gripping, especially for people who may not be familiar with this world. His only fault is in his writing style, which is journalistic in origin. That’s not a problem so much as his constant need to cite earlier and later passages in the book, as if we were reading a series of articles in a newspaper. It gets quite distracting to the point where i was noticing that he couldn’t go three pages without making a reference to the past or the future. Much like the flow chart of a conspiracy theorist explaining how the Bildergergers were really the puppet of the Tri-Lateral commission or something.

Categories: book reviews, reviews

The Mysterious Island

June 9, 2011 Leave a comment

You can download it here.

I was first made aware of this book when viewing Tron: Legacy over the winter. It popped up as a rather obvious reference, especially when they openly displayed the book and had one character explain that it was her favorite. I was intrigued, but not enthusiastic since I didn’t completely enjoy the movie to begin with. Yet Jules Verne, is one of those science fiction writers who is so prescient that it wouldn’t surprise me if we find a vault in France one day with one of his books that describes a picture phone. This is the guy who predicted that people would be weightless in space long before anyone was able to actually confirm it. I could go on about Verne and his predictions, especially his view of the modern submarine and the existence of the giant Kraken.

I assumed that since Tron:Legacy was a huge science fiction movie and Jules Verne was a science fiction writer there would be something in common betwixt them in “The Mysterious Island.” The story centers on four men and a dog who escape the confines of the Confederate Richmond in a hot air balloon in 1862 only to be blown away by a Hurricane where three of them land on a small islet in the Pacific. A search of the surrounding area reveals the Islet to be connected to a larger Island made of Basalt and Granite with lush vegetation as they search for their fourth comrade. These four are Gideon Spillett, Pencroft, Neb, and Brown. Spillett is a journalist, Neb is a freed slave, Pencroft a sailor, and Brown is Pencroft’s young protege adopted by Pencroft.

These four are in danger because they have not the tools to survive. In fact one of them even remarks that unlike Robinson Crusoe, they were shipwrecked with nothing and would have to fend for themselves. They search awhile for their fifth member, an engineer named Harding and it is in the engineer that they place their salvation believing that this man of science could construct for them everything that they would need for survival and deliverance from the island. While initially they feared that he had drown in the sea he turns up inland on a beach and is nursed back to health along with some assistance from his dog Top.

From this point the five castaways begin constructing their lives on the island fearing that there may be some time before they are rescued. The faith in the engineer is validated by his seeming omniscience in the fields of chemistry, physics, and mechanical engineering. His first feat is to construct fire using a water lens. Which he built out of two watch faces and filled them with water. Then things a get a bit deus ex machina as he is able to forge iron tools, derive glass, and create pyroxite and nitroglycerin for use as explosives. I suppose all of this is possible but where Crusoe had to make do without certain things these castaways are lacking nothing as long as the base materials exist. How one derives nitroglycerin without a labratory and not blow themselves up is quite astonishing given how unstable the chemical is.

The Island is abundant in life, all kinds of animals live there from Jaguars to seals to kangaroos and all sorts of birds. This leaves them not wanting for food, although for some reason they do begin to lack clothing. Why the engineer can construct chemical explosives but not a rudimentary tannery seems to be his only limitation, even though all of the materials are there. You may object telling me that, “the internet says that you would need battery acid or something equivalent for the tanning of hides, lol rofl.” That may be the case but not only is nitric acid a principle part of the making of nitroglycerin (the word “nitro” is right in there) but also the engineer makes batteries and a telegraph machine. That’s a minor quibble. After excavating an underground cave of Granite with explosives the survivors move into “Granite House” which is quite impregnable from the outside and after rescuing a man named Aryton from an island about a hundred miles away (in a sloop which they constructed for the purposes of sailing around the island…although a Viking Longboat would have been a better idea), they live in relative harmony.

The title of the book refers to a series of actual deus ex machina instances which can be explained by no one in the book. The first is the rescue of Harding. He was the last in the balloon that disappeared into the sea yet he was found hundreds of yards up the beach with no recollection of how he got there. The second is that the dog Top is saved from a dugong whose throat was mysterious cut. A crate of supplies mysteriously appears in the water furnishing the five with guns and new clothes, the message indicating the sixth person on the nearby island and finally the sudden explosion of an invading pirate ship which Harding explains came from an underwater explosive device, a torpedo (which at the time of the civil war was a term used for any underwater explosive device).

They search the island to and fro seeking out their elusive benefactor, all the while Pencroft commenting that he will never be found unless he wishes it so. Finally the man behind the curtain contacts them and sends them to an underwater cavern in which he lives. It turns out to be.[spoiler warning but you’ve had like a hundred years to read this book]…Captain Nemo and the Nautilus! It was he that rescued everyone, somehow, left the supplies [more probable], blew up the pirates [extremely probable], and then killed the surviving pirates [with his ray gun–which fits in with 20,000 leagues under the sea]. Nemo is dying and in the bottom of the cave the Nautilus is his final tomb.

The book doesn’t end there but I will end the synopsis. The book is driven by the suspense of the mysterious force of the island and the ingenuity of the survivors. It’s not that character driven at all, in fact several times while reading, even toward the end, I had to remind myself who was who. Only Neb, the freed slave, and Harding, the engineer come off as being remarkable if only for the fact that the former becomes the cook and the latter is utterly so important. The rest occupy a middle ground of obscurity. Also lacking is the despair of Crusoe that they would never see home again. Crusoe was driven by internal struggle which he resolved by appealing to god. Perhaps this was because of the isoloation on his island but where these five have companions that resolution is unnecessary.

The real problem for the book is that Harding is too ingenious. The book settles into a groove we know they are going to survive, but the only question is how. And the how is often answered with the most unlikely answer. “How can we communicate with the corral?” Answer: “I’ll build a telegraphy machine with iron wires (five miles of iron wire).” It gets unlikely to the point of ridiculousness. As a reader I became like the character Sawyer on Lost, just accepting whatever was happening because thinking anything to be improbable at any point was not to believe that it couldn’t happen.

Which brings me to the final point: I have no idea what the writers of Tron were thinking when they used this book in their movie. There is nothing in common between the two. For the two plots to even have the slightest resemblance the movie would have to have spent 75% of its time before revealing Jeff Bridges outside the grid. This book has more in common with the first season of Lost, a group of survivors struggling on an island with some strange occurrences. In this respect it works, and works very well. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone told me that one of the books Sawyer read on the beach was this one.

It’s not as strong as Robinson Crusoe, but it is entertaining. If you are a huge 20,000 Leagues fan I would recommend the book if only to learn the final fate of Nemo. 

Categories: book reviews, reviews