Short Book Review: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

SBR: I once jokingly summarized Sapiens by saying that we fu**ed up wherever we went and we take ourselves too seriously. Or perhaps I wasn’t joking at all. That’s what it says. But the beauty of the book is that it is accessible and easy to read. The author has not tried to attempt writing in a way that will pass scholarly muster. And that may make you uncomfortable where he is talking about things you may have in-depth knowledge of (for example it wasn’t satisfying for patriarchy to be declared universal without even a mention of matriarchal societies we do know of and any attempt to understand why they were different). But one book can’t be everything to everybody. And what this book is, makes it worth a read. But beware. If you are devoted to the idea of a meaningful life, this book may annoy you, or in the worst case even depress you. Human life has no meaning, the book declares blithely (and I agree). The author still seems to find some solace in Buddhism (which I don’t!).
To read or not to read: Yes.

Article of the Week: Be careful, your love of science looks a lot like religion by Jamie Holmes

As one of the articles we have discussed earlier on this blog reveals, ignorance is mostly (confidence-inducing) misinformation and hence misinformation can be safely labelled as dangerous. Misinformation, as wise people declare with a knowing nod, is worse than no information. In a similar vein, a misinformed defender can be worse than an uninformed bystander or even a critic. Science and scientific methods seem to have quite a few such dangerous defenders. The article we have selected for this week should warn you against the beliefs that you may mistakenly think to be pro-scientific, but are really just the opposite, especially when science is fielded against religion and its dogmas.

The article quotes the results of some studies:

When people felt anxious, they esteemed science more highly than calmer subjects did, just as previous experiments have shown to be the case with religious ideals.

and

Another study led by University of Amsterdam’s Bastiaan Rutjens in 2010 found that uncertain subjects expressed an increased faith in God o​r i​n evolution, provided that evolution was presented as a structured and predictable process.

It seems that we tend to accept science for the same (misguided?) reasons as religion. To feel “a reassuring sense of order”. One way in which this need for predictability and order reflects is by resorting to extremism, where the world is divided into good and evil, black and white, saints and sinners. Some use religion as a vehicle for expressing this extremism, and others can do the same with science too ( “Anything not statistically significant is truly worthless.”). The article reminds us that “psychology, not theology, is at the root of extremism.”

In case you think that while extremism with religion is dangerous, extremism with “science” is harmless or even desirable, take a step back; science is not about absolute beliefs.

If the moral authority of science is rooted anywhere it is in the opposing stance, in its acceptance of fallibility and its welcoming treatment of ambiguity and unknowns. That is where science finds its contrast with scientism and many religious perspectives.

Why does it matter to the general public? Because when our understanding of science and scientific methods does not accommodate uncertainties and fallibility, it bestows a legitimacy on dogma. And dogma is not science’s strong point!

If the public were more comfortable with degrees of scientific uncertainty, for one, then climate change “skeptics”—those merchants of doubt, as Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway dubbed them—wouldn’t be able to conflate so easily minor uncertainties with substantive disagreement.

Read the complete article at Quartz.

Article of the Week: What Scares the New Atheists

Please ignore the title of the article, while you are reading this post. I will explain the reason at the end.

The article I have chosen for this week is one which critically examines atheism, or at least the version of it that gets practised by the most aggressive, vocal proponents of the idea. It doesn’t get into the usual debate of religion vs. atheism, or what religion/atheists can or cannot explain about our world. Rather it tries to see atheism for what it is – well intentioned, like most religions in their idea forms would be, but with its own set of flaws, inaccuracies and irrational reverence for its current ideologies.

The author starts by reminding us of the early 20th century atheists who denounced religion for all its irrationality, but upheld the racist ideas of their time, not merely in passing, but by elevating them to the exalted status of being scientific.

It is a warning to the “missionary” atheists of today “aiming to convert humankind to a particular version of unbelief.” The particular version of unbelief treats liberal values in the same scientific vein as its predecessor treated the theory of racial superiority.

The attack is not on the liberal values, but the author contends that there is no reliable connection between atheism, science and liberal values. Atheists’ ideologies have often been used by despotic regimes, claimed to be based in science. Can there be a “science of good and evil” as these atheists would like to believe? Can science validate  values such as human equality and personal autonomy? As it happens, these quintessential liberal values have their origin in religion.

Although the focus of the article is on explaining how the fear of religious resurgence is driving atheists to a panicky, extreme response, for me that is not the most important takeaway from it. I don’t, in fact, know if I agree or disagree with this. That’s why I asked you to ignore the title of the article for the time being. What is fascinating for me is putting atheism in its proper historical and current context, which can propel atheists to think about their “obvious” truths and motivations more critically. While they may be good, they aren’t necessarily “scientifically” obvious.

Read the complete article on The Guardian here.