Captaining your soul, David Hill

The Ant and the Ferrari
Kerry Spackman
HarperCollins, $40.00,
ISBN 9781869509590

Fate and Philosophy
Jim Flynn
Awa Press, $33.00,
ISBN 9781877551321

Half a century ago, C P Snow famously fulminated in The Two Cultures against arty-farty types condescending to physicists or mathematicians who hadn’t read the literary canon, while they themselves remained ignorant and even dismissive of such central scientific tenets as the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

I suspect many Gentle Readers nowadays could tell you a bit about how closed systems move towards greater entropy, and about equally iconic concepts like DNA, spacetime, quantum uncertainty. This is partly due to our schools working very hard to make science pertinent and palatable; partly to the narrative dramas of lunar missions, particle accelerators and human genome projects; partly to the sexing-up of individuals like Einstein, Hawking, Dawkins, even our own late, luminous Paul Callaghan. And partly it’s due to the last couple of decades in particular having produced a lab-full of accessible science writing. Cue these two titles.

Kerry Spackman must be a publicist’s dream. The neuroscientist and life-coach (sic) has worked with All Blacks and been raided by the Japanese Secret Police. He rides motorbikes; knows about MythBusters and Gordon Ramsay; draws – wrenches, sometimes – his examples and comparisons from a wide, wide range of popular culture.

The Ant and the Ferrari aims to present the Truth (Spackman’s capital). A modest enough goal, covering the origin of the universe, life after death, capitalism, free will versus destiny, the Bible et al en route. In particular, it sets out to examine the Truth or lack of it in religion: the implausibilities and contradictions of Genesis, the evasions and misrepresentations used by anti-evolutionists – those whom Richard Dawkins calls the History Deniers.

So it explores whether the Old Testament begins with literal truth, parable or “made-up story”. It plugs evolution in the languages of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Gaussian distribution, car-breeding and genetic algorithms. It shows how medication, injury and messages suspended above operating tables challenge belief in post-death existence. It offers a neat linguistic disembowelment of the argument that God is essential to morality and purpose.

It can jolt you with examples. False beliefs about AIDs result in 20,000 African girls being raped every year; 53 per cent of Americans are scientifically ignorant; private cars are dragging us towards economic disintegration; religious fanaticism causes shocking harm to innumerable individuals. Spackman himself gets pretty fanatical about this last one.

The Ant is a visual carnival of different fonts, colours, sidebars, bullet points, white space, pretty pictures that in several cases need captioning. Plus cutesy headings which may set your teeth on edge as well as your mind on fire.

Actually, the broken-up text isn’t too inappropriate. Most of us read fiction in a (fairly) steady progress from start to finish, (Finnegans Wake excepted). Non-fiction tends to demand more back-reading and re-reading, more pauses to assimilate. If The Ant takes this several degrees towards looking like a school textbook, that may not be a bad marketing move.

Spackman writes ably, even if he and/or his editors do adopt a famine-or-feast approach to punctuation, some of his metaphors are bleeding obvious, he confuses “differently from” with “differently to”, and he needs to consider joining Analogists Anonymous. His style is energetic, engaging, intermittently evangelical. You sometimes wish he’d get to the issue faster. You more often wish he’d cut back on the glib images, which can diminish or distract from his focus. You may want to rip the “Pointer of Certainty” clean off the “Compass of Truth”.

He can be slapdash. Outlining Penzias’s and Wilson’s epochal discovery of cosmic microwave radiation without even naming them deserves a detention. Frequent resort to exclamation marks is a form of intellectual indolence. Nuclear reactions in the Sun depend on quantum tunnelling as much as on “huge gravity”. The woolly word “things” is used far too often. All these in the first 35 pages.

I commend his ability to synthesise. Some sections work concisely and elegantly – his analysis of “Theory/Theorem”; his little paean to maths; his Graeco-Roman perspectives. He’s eager, confident, sometimes dismissive or triumphant. The Ant will give you some useful ordnance for arguments. You’ll agree with most of its direction even if you may baulk occasionally at its delivery. You’re invited to express your agreement or disagreement on the author’s website. How 21st century.

I’ll now succumb to analogy addiction myself. If The Ant occasionally tastes like McDonald’s, Fate and Philosophy is more of a wholemeal loaf. It’s to be chewed and digested; it’s nourishing and substantial; it’s … oh, all right, it’s food for thought. Awa Press have published some of our best popular science works in recent years, and these eloquent essays from Otago University’s Emeritus Professor of Politics represent another cockade in their cap.

They’re science? Well, Jim Flynn has sections on the reliability of instruments and whether astronomy and physics have taught us what exists. He writes about genes, Boyle’s Law, the Hubble space telescope, Newton’s laws of gravity, quantum indeterminacy. He summarises and suggests experiments, quotes statistics, reiterates the importance of examination and analysis. There are comments such as “ever since Galileo, the task of philosophy has been to come to terms with science”. Case rested.

Flynn moves from the search for moral authorities to an assurance that a good life and a good society can exist without such strictures. There’s an endorsement of realism, as in his belief that “things existed prior to and beyond human experience, even though they register their existence to us only through human experience”. There’s an emphatic non-endorsement of God, who gets a Fail in Employee Relations.

Fate and Philosophy is aimed especially at those who have already studied philosophy, so I knew I’d be re-reading and re-etc-reading, even though the energy – the aerobics, sometimes – of style and structure keep things springing along. Is the universe itself contingent? Can you object to worshipping someone who wants followers to match his weight in oatmeal? When the will-in-itself makes choices, are such events instantaneous or do they have duration? I’ll get back to you.

It’s a much more considered treatment than Spackman’s, acknowledging and examining complexities in far greater depth. Flynn may be an atheist (though not “a mad dog atheist”), but he treats issues such as the tranfiguring nature of faith and mystical experiences with respect – and appropriate severity. He concedes that science does rest on faith, but only on the faith that it’s possible to make sense of the universe.

The mood is generous and generally positive. Again like Spackman, he’s concerned with purpose, moral values, the examined life. We can indeed be the captain of our soul. Free will may be debatable – and is extensively debated here – but the fact that we’re composed of elementary particles doesn’t mean they control our lives or choices, whether this involves law, the markets, our partner’s fallibility. The Good Society in an ethical or economic sense can be approached via a welfare state, democracy, free speech and artistic freedom. Basic stuff, but elegantly expressed.

Flynn’s parallel enthusiasm for the arts would earn approving nods from Snow. James Joyce, Aldous Huxley and Christopher Wren get mentioned. So do Goebbels, Marx and Rosa Parks. Derrida and the postmodernists get rubbished. Like any responsible scientist, he defines his terms with care. Make sure you distinguish between God and good, competence and virtue, objective status and subjective status, subjective certainty and faith. His cogent introductions to other philosophers mean you end up with a handy reading list (to which he appends his own). Meet G E Moore, Richard J Herrnstein, Bas van Fraassen, Daniel C Dennett, many more.

Conservative Christians and ACT Party supporters won’t enjoy this book, especially its brisk dismissals of tautologies and illogical assertions. Neither will students of aesthetics: “You can get through life without this.” Or proponents of intelligent design: “If you believe it adds to God’s dignity to make the rear end of a caterpillar look like a snake, that is up to you.” Readers who like a mind and writing style which fly and fizz will applaud.

A quibble to conclude. Both these titles are promoted as ones that “may change the way you live”. Hell, I expect that from any book with any merit, at least while I’m reading it. It’s a silly expression that should be on the index of publishers’ prohibited puffs.

 

David Hill’s new YA novel, My Brother’s War, is published by Puffin.

 

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Posted in Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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