Wednesday, April 18, 2018

What I'm Reading: Jam Today!

1. Quote from The Odd Woman and the City (2015) by Vivian Gornick; the author has helped an elderly man cross an icy patch.
"Thank you," he says. "Thank you very much."
A thrill runs through me.
"You're welcome," I say, in a tone that I hope is as plain as his.
It was his voice that had done it. ....
There was in it not a hint of that beseeching tone one hears so often ... when small courtesies are shown
This man realized that I had not been inordinately helpful; and he need not be inordinately thankful. He was recalling for both of us the ordinary recognition that every person in trouble has a right to expect, and every witness an obligation to extend.
In the midst of American dysfunction, global brutality, and personal defensiveness, we had, each of us, simply come into full view, one of the other.
 2. I am greatly enjoying the inspiring Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018).
Author Steven Pinker lays out the case that the application of rational thinking has improved the world greatly--and who can argue with that. 
Not me!
I just spoke on a panel about THE BEST THING EVER:
the invention, installation, and ongoing maintenance of sewers!

Yay, Public Health!!!

Pinker, however, is a bit too Spock-like for me. It shows up in his seeming lack of emotional comprehension of irrational things, specifically of religion. Some (including me) might wish he'd co-authored this with a Dr. McCoy–type who not only groks but loves some of the irrational expressions of humanity--and can translate too:
 [Funny side-note: 
Pinker comments in an interview that he and William Shatner both grew up in Jewish families in Montreal. He seems pleased by this.
(Alas, the interviewer, Stephen Fry, is toad-like in his worshipfulness toward Pinker, which made this interview a bit hard to take.)]

Still, I cheer for and generally include myself on Pinker's team, the Enlightenment Wonks.

To me, the most cheering thing in the book is the way Pinker applies the law of entropy (things fall apart; you can't unscramble an egg)–– the second law of thermodynamics––to individual life.
There's an obscure consolation to the fact that, as Captain Picard put it:

This law is the answer to my lament, WHY must I keep brushing my teeth every day for the rest of my life?!?!
 If everything seems like so much bloody work, it's not that you're doing it wrong. It is so much bloody work.

It also speaks to the question, Why am I so lucky as to have most of my teeth at fifty-seven years old, and indeed so lucky as to be fifty-seven?

Well, I knew that one: 
because I am lucky enough to have born in a generation that was preceded by generations of humans who worked on fending off entropy and building up these Goods: 
dentistry, and longevity (See, sewers).

Pinker writes:
"Why the awe for the Second Law? I believe that it defines the ultimate purpose of life, mind and striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.

Not only does the universe not care about our desires, but in the natural course of events it will appear to thwart them, because there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than to go right.
Matter doesn’t spontaneously arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things don’t jump onto our plates to become our food. What needs to be explained is not poverty but wealth."
Alas, Pinker's [entirely understandable] disdain for the dangerous illogic of religion means he misses some delightful connections, some opportunities to play with the past---
for instance, Jesus also pointed out that poverty (entropy) is the law, not wealth, "The poor you will always have with you," and nonetheless that it's our ultimate [earthly] purpose to feed the hungry.

True, Christians may fail to live up to that, but neither does the United States live up to our ideal that all people are created equal--it's still something to point to, and it annoys me that Pinker doesn't.
For instance, he quotes Spinoza approvingly:
"Those who are governed by reason desire nothing for themselves which they do not also desire for the rest of humankind."
But, hey, Spinoza was a Jew. I don't know, but might he have heard this somewhere? From Rabbi Hillel, maybe?
"That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn it."    — Talmud, Shabbat 31a
Ah well, this is just a small weakness in Enlightenment Now, it no way undercuts Pinkers wonderful central argument:
Things fall apart. Let's work together, rationally, to see if we can't shore them up, for the sake of us all.

And, best of all, his many examples (with charts!) of how we've done that successfully in the past couple hundred years.
Like this CDC chart, from "Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999: Control of Infectious Diseases":

I do love religion (well, some of it), but if I had to choose (and I, we, don't--they are not necessarily in opposition--current social mood notwithstanding), I'd take public health first.

As the guy who owned the airbnb in Dallas said to me when I gave him a copy of my toilet-history book, 

"If we don't have sanitation, we don't have civilization."

Reservations aside, I highly recommend Enlightenment Now.
Pointing out that we should all be as happy as kings may not make us as happy as kings––

we humans seem always to be focused on jam tomorrow and jam yesterday––
but Pinker does provide a lot of cheering information: 
There's jam today!!! Because we made it!

*Ah--here, child psychologist Alison Gopnik says something similar to what I say about Pinker's Spockish tune-deafness to religion in her new review in the Atlantic "When Truth and Reason Are No Longer Enough"--except she points to "small town values" instead of religion:
"At a moment when [Enlightenment] values [science and reason] are under attack, from the right and the left, this is a very important contribution.
In his new book, Steven Pinker is curiously blind to the power and benefits of small-town values.

If things are so much better, why do they feel, for so many people, so much worse? Why don’t people experience the progress that Pinker describes?
Pinker doesn’t spend much time focusing on this question, and he gets a little tetchy when he does. 

There’s a deeper reason that ordinary, well-meaning people may feel that something has gone wrong, despite so much evidence to the contrary. Pinker’s graphs, and the utilitarian moral views that accompany and underlie them, are explicitly about the welfare of humanity as a whole. But values are rooted in emotion and experience as well as reason, in the local as well as the universal."
Again, we don't have to choose, but as Gopnik says,
the problem for enlightenment now is how to establish a background of trust and commitment that allows conflict without contempt."

And the problem for religion is, I would say, the same.

At any rate, let's keep brushing our teeth and cleaning the sewers!


The Crow said...

Whooaaa! Spock laughs! His face busts a broad grin! Who could've imagined such a thing?

Fresca said...

It's great, eh? I guess sometimes he enjoys jam!

bink said...

Thumbs up on this post...but I don't have anything interesting to add.

Fresca said...

Thanks, bink.