Finding Purpose in a Godless World: Why We Care Even If the Universe Doesn’t, by Ralph Lewis, MD (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2018, ISBN 978-1-63388-385-7). 352 pp., Hardcover, $26.00.
At Least Know This: Essential Science to Enhance Your Life, by Guy P. Harrison (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2018, ISBN 978-1-63388-405-2). 384 pp., Softcover, $19.00.
As these two books complement each other rather nicely, it makes sense to review them together.
Dr. Ralph Lewis, a practicing psychiatrist in Toronto, makes the point, quoting Michael Shermer, that we humans “have a strong tendency to overidentify patterns and causation, and often erroneously locate meaningful patterns in meaningless ‘noise’” and “overattribute agency (conscious intentional action) to inanimate objects and to random natural events.” Thus, far too many see purpose and conscious design in the purposeless universe and the process of evolution. Lewis cites the relevant science to back this up, adding that “the mind is entirely a product of the physical brain and is utterly dependent on intact neural circuitry.”
Lewis includes a useful, critical chapter on “religion and spirituality” that contains this conclusion:
The various religious positions on morality and ethics have long been weakened by their cultural-historical relativism, and they have been replaced in modern secular societies by more democratically accepted laws and ethics (which are remarkably uniform across most secular countries). Still, all progressive forms of religion generally share the golden rule of reciprocal altruism: treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.
Lewis winds up this sensitive, remarkable book on a very humanist note: “All we have is each other, huddled together on this lifeboat of a little planet in this vast, indifferent universe. Let’s look out for each other and show compassion and caring for each other’s predicaments. We have far less control than we think, and our resilience is not necessarily a matter of pure choice or attitude.” And, finally, in view of the latest dire warnings from the international science community (International Panel on Climate Change [IPCC]) that we have less than twenty years left to get serious about climate change and all its concomitants/components, the author concludes: “Perhaps we are almost ready to assume responsibility and become custodians or stewards of our fragile biosphere—for our own sakes, for other creatures, and for our descendants.” We damned well need to get cracking!
Experienced journalist Guy P. Harrison’s excellent book is aimed at the vast numbers of people who have never known very much about science, who have forgotten much of what they did learn, or who have been unable to keep up with the fast-growing developments across the wide range of science. When my generation was in college, for example, the idea of plate tectonics was unknown. Then, too, we have the scientifically illiterate buffoon in the White House and his ardent followers who seem to be proud of their ignorance of science.
Harrison manages to cover the evolution of the universe from the big bang through the evolution of life on our planet, from basic biology to anthropology to brain science and medicine.
A good example of Harrison’s sharp insight is this paragraph:
Archaeological evidence shows that inequality of wealth and power was very low in typical hunter-gatherer societies but rose dramatically once farming and pastoralism gained momentum. Social/political/economic inequality is significant because it impacts many aspects of people’s lives in a society. It has also led to terrible episodes of violence throughout the past. Tim Kohler, a professor of archeology and evolutionary anthropology at Washington State University, was lead researcher of a 2017 study on inequality that looked at more than sixty prehistoric sites. “People need to be aware that inequality can have deleterious effects on health outcomes, on mobility, on degrees of trust, on social solidarity—all these things.” … We’re not helping ourselves by being so unequal.
Hmmm. A good political lesson for today.
Harrison emphasizes this important conclusion:
Homo sapiens is unique for how fast and how thoroughly we are altering and razing the natural systems we depend on for food, water, and air. This planet has never seen one life-form do so much harm so quickly. We are wrecking the only world we have, in numerous ways, applying constant and building pressure on nature. The worst stressors today include: climate change, human population growth (more people means more resource depletion and more waste), deforestation, ocean acidification, air and water pollution, and biodiversity loss. Humankind is literally fouling its global nest while simultaneously obliterating and poisoning its food and water sources.
Both books are abundantly documented. Lewis’s book has 422 endnotes (thirty-three pages) and Harrison’s has 631 (forty-six pages).
In today’s world of rampant ignorant, vacuous, dangerous Trumpism, these two wonderful five-star books merit the widest possible circulation.