1/16/2014

reading and e-readers

I've owned a Kindle for several years now, and I love it. But after an initial period where I tried to move all my reading to the kindle, I'm dialing back a bit. Any new technology not only enables us to do new kinds of things, but also changes how we act - our behavior patterns and habits (John Dyer has a great discussion of these things in From the Garden to the City). E-readers make some things much easier than paper books, but they also make some things harder, so that they tend to change how you read in subtle ways. This is not a bad thing, but it is important to be aware of it so that you can make conscious, informed decisions about how you read rather than just falling into the patterns suggested by a particular new way of reading.

Some things that e-readers are not very good at:

  • Reading books you want to have a relationship with. There are certain books that you read over and over again, that you curl up with, that you scribble in the margins, that helped you get through a difficult time, for which re-reading gives you a familiar, comforting sense of place - "I'm home". There are some books you live in and with - a Bible, a prayer book, etc. You can never have this kind of relationship with an ebook because it is disembodied. You can still underline and make notes in an ebook, but the personality is not there - in fact I've stopped making notes at all because I found them difficult to access (on my device anyway; it might be easier on a touch-screen reader), more time-consuming to enter, and not very helpful for those reasons.
  • Studying a book. You lose a sense of place in a book; cross-referencing what you are reading with a previous section might take just a few seconds in a paper book. In an e-book you will not do it because it is too hard to find the section you are thinking of. Ebooks do have full-text search, but even so it is more trouble and there is a nagging worry about whether or not you'll be able to get back to where you were when you're done cross-references, simply because there is no sense of place in the text.
  • Saving you money. It is true that e-books are generally a little cheaper than a new copy of a book; but not by much. And if you are really price-conscious, used copies of books can be had on Amazon for less than the price of an e-book almost all the time. The exception is public-domain texts, which I'll get to in the next section.
  • Owning a book. All ebook stores currently have very similar licensing: you are purchasing a non-transferable, revokable license to read the book; you are not actually purchasing the book itself. Your rights are severely limited compared to paper books: you cannot re-sell it or even give it away; you have limited (legal) choices about how and on what devices to read your books; your right to the book could even be revoked at any time (this is rare, of course, but Amazon has done it).
  • Having a conversation about a book. Because paper books have covers, other people can see what you're reading. This can be a conversation-starter around the house, in a coffee shop, in an airplane, etc. When I'm reading an e-book it could be Plato or a romance novel for all anyone else can tell (which, incidentally, is why romance novels are so popular as ebooks). This could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on what you're looking for.
They are very good, on the other hand, at:
  • Reading novels or any book that you intend to read straight-through, front-to-back. I do find kindle reading very immersive; it is easy to get lost in what you're reading and this fits well with novels which tend to draw you in. Long novels are especially compelling; Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time books are a fantastic argument for a kindle. I find that this covers about half the things I want to read; but my reading tends toward the academic and for most people it would probably cover a significantly higher percentage.
  • Reading older public-domain texts that are hard to obtain, out of print, or only available in expensive editions. There is a lot of really good content that can be obtained for free or very inexpensively. Free versions, though, are generally very poorly formatted. Usually I prefer to spend a few dollars on a version that has better formatting.
I still love my kindle, but I'm putting more thought into trying to use it for the kind of reading it is good at, and not for the kind of reading it isn't.

9/18/2013

Reading Orthodoxy: Authority and the Adventurer

Matt Anderson and Trevin Wax are hosting a discussion of G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy over the next several weeks. Follow along here. The final chapter, 9, is this week.

This last chapter has a lot going for it, and I’m happy to end on a high note after an ambivalent impression of the last few chapters.

I’m still fairly ambivalent about the project of defending Christianity by defending Christian Europe. It seems that Chesterton gives Christianity credit for all the positives, and explains (rather dismissively) all the negatives as a failure to live up to its own ideals. Still, there is plenty that is unique about Europe and I do think that much of it can be credited to Christianity. Even the most secular scientism presupposes Christian values (cf. Nietzsche).

At any rate, there was plenty in this chapter for me to latch on to. Tellingly, I greatly enjoyed the “apologetics” digression, though to Chesterton it seemed like no more than a necessary bore. But Chesterton is right about materialism dismissing miracles based on dogma. There are only a handful of miracles a Christian must believe based on dogma; practically all reports he may evaluate carefully and weigh the evidence. The explanations available to a Christian are not in conflict with the explanations available to a materialist, they are a superset of them. Christianity is not harmed by showing that a miracle was a fraud (save perhaps the resurrection); materialism really is harmed, and fatally, by showing a miracle is not a fraud. And so they adopt an epistemology that guarantees a miracle can never be proved not to be a fraud. I once had an atheist admit to me, almost in these words, that if a miracle were unrepeatable that was grounds for denying that it was real; but if it were repeatable then it would not be a miracle either, simply a lawlike property of nature (here Chesterton might interject that all laws are miracles!).

I’ve often thought you could take Hume’s argument against miracles, with the immense weight it places on humanity’s experience of the world, at face value and still come up with a good argument for miracles (though, strangely, you might not be able to rationally believe in any particular one). That dead men stay dead is enormously well attested. But as Chesterton points out, across all times and places the existence of the supernatural is also enormously well-attested. You can’t accept one body of evidence and not the other without presupposing your conclusion.

But the most powerful idea in this chapter was of Christianity as a living teacher to the soul, and that resonates deeply with me – though to me it is less important if Christianity explains Europe; it certainly explains me. The living teaching I find in the Bible and the church explain, tutor, and nurture my soul in new ways all the time.

9/11/2013

Reading Orthodoxy: The Eternal Revolution and The Romance of Orthodoxy

Matt Anderson and Trevin Wax are hosting a discussion of G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy over the next several weeks. Follow along here. Chapters 7 and 8 are this week.

I’m in the strange position of tracking less and less with Chesterton’s argument as he starts discussing Christianity more directly.

This is definitely an argument for Christendom primarily, and the doctrines of Christianity itself only indirectly, insofar as they produced Christendom. In chapter 1 Chesterton claims to be defending Christianity as defined in the Apostle’s Creed, but the focus is definitely on Christian societies and the benefits of Christianity to society.

In chapters 7 and 8, Chesterton makes the case that the ideals of Christianity are actually a better foundation for the goals of secularism, than secularism itself is. Christianity provides the best basis for the reforming of society, for liberty, for love, for democracy. The flow of the argument is wild and creative, as you can expect from Chesterton. But.

In the first place, presenting orthodoxy as nearly synonymous with Christendom, and with Christianity’s capacity for social change, seems to be a small version of Christianity. It is great that Original Sin grounds democracy and equality; and that the Trinity grounds our love for others. But are these the most important things that can be said about Original Sin and the Trinity? Strangely, in a book so focused on narrative and story, he is not telling the story of fall and redemption.

Second is the question of Christianity’s record at some of these social issues. Chesterton says “It does not matter how often humanity fails to imitate its ideal; for then all its old failures are fruitful.” But I think it matters a great deal, especially in an argument such as this, when Christianity fails to imitate its ideal. If Christendom bears little resemblance to the invincible force for social good that Chesterton describes (particularly from the vantage point of a secularist), the obvious conclusion is that Chesterton has mischaracterized Christianity, not that it has just failed to live up to its ideal.

I find the argument much more compelling as a call to Christians for social involvement, and a reminder of the resources we have to draw from to that end, than as a defense of Christianity against competing philosophies.

9/04/2013

Reading Orthodoxy: The Paradoxes of Christianity

Matt Anderson and Trevin Wax are hosting a discussion of G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy over the next several weeks. Follow along here. Chapter 6 is this week.

I had a hard time knowing how to approach this chapter, for at least two reasons.

First, the flow of the argument is subtle and hard to follow. He begins by describing the many contradictory ways in which Christianity is criticized, and expresses some skepticism that Christianity, even if it was wrong, could really be that wrong. “It looked not so much as if Christianity was bad enough to include any vices, but rather as if any stick was good enough to beat Christianity with”. He goes on to explain these paradoxical criticisms as being rooted in strange contradictions of the critic, and of modern life, rather than in Christianity. After expressing surprise that Christianity could really be that wrong, he essentially turns to the criticism on its head, painting modernism as really that wrong.

But then he pivots. Maybe the critics are on to something: “There was really an element in [Christianity] of emphasis and even frenzy which had justified the secularists in their superficial criticism”. And he’s off, explaining the thrilling adventure of orthodoxy. “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious”.

That is a complicated argument. But my second problem is that, now that I know what it is, I am not really sure how to evaluate it. It relies heavily on extrapolation to general principles from specific examples. Chesterton is always making throwaway comments about how many examples he has, and how he only has space for a few. But several more examples would have greatly increased my confidence that the examples he cites are getting at something fundamental about Christianity and the objections to it, rather than being specially picked to prove the point.

I suppose that it is an invitation to go digging more than anything else. Chesterton claims to have found these things to be the case wherever he turned. Having got this idea into your head, do you find it everywhere you turn?

9/02/2013

Looking at the World

Reading Orthodoxy has me thinking anew about the best way to present Christianity to modern society. To me Christianity is a way of looking at ourselves and the world. C.S. Lewis captured this nicely when he said “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

Christianity makes specific claims about the world, about who we are, and about history. But arguments about those specific claims seem to miss the point of how people come to believe things. At the end of Doug Tennapel’s Creature Tech, the main character (a scientist) has converted to Christianity. He says “As I look at the world, nothing has changed. The evidence is the same. But I have changed”.

I think that is spot-on. Converting to Christianity is about changing, not about accepting the conclusion of a set of arguments. And as such, I think that narrative is an important way of explaining Christianity and showing how Christianity explains why the world is the way it is.

In Orthodoxy Chesterton is telling a story that he finds compelling, and inviting others to find it compelling as well. Now, compelling is not the same as true. But the evidence that the world gives us is subject to multiple interpretations; there is no way around asking “what way of looking at the world makes the most sense of it to me?” Maybe the world has blind, unguided processes at the bottom. Maybe it has a Mind and a Purpose. But no deductive argument will get you there, you just have to weigh the evidences as you find them and reach a conclusion that makes most sense to you.

There are lots of ways to go about showing how Christianity makes sense of the world. I have made previous attempts here and here. Another example: Spiders strike me as are a strange combination of beautiful and grotesque - beauty in a web glistening with the morning dew; and in the incredible act of spinning a web in the first place. Grotesque in the fangs, the eyes, the bloodsucking. Spiders can be both Charlotte and Shelob. Sharks are similar: elegance and grace in service of a perfect killing machine. To me these are hints that something is wrong; the world is not the way it is supposed to be.

Of course this is all terribly vulnerable to confirmation bias. Perhaps I am just picking out the examples that support what I already want to believe, and ignoring any data that doesn’t fit?

That is certainly a possibility. But, honestly, it can’t be completely avoided. Confirmation bias could also lead one to conclude that “life is nasty, brutish, and short”, or “the universe is all there was, is, and ever will be”. The most important questions about human life can’t be rigorously tested in a way that would definitely rule out confirmation bias. A serious commitment to intellectual honesty and self-examination help. But in the end we just make sense of the world in the best way we can.

8/30/2013

Fundamental randomness as a design marker

Reflecting on biology and quantum mechanics in my last post made me notice that they are based on a common principle: regularity and reliability arising out of fundamental randomness at bottom.

According to quantum mechanics, subatomic particles behave in unpredictable ways (even in ways that seem downright illogical); and the regularity we observe in the world arises because when you have a very large number of particles, the individual random behaviors cancel each other out and result in a very stable, predictable system.

Biology (here I am thinking mostly of biochemistry) operates on the same principle. It all works in terms of concentrations and averages; it’s never about deterministically making sure one particular protein does a particular job, but of adjusting concentrations so that on average “enough” of a particular reaction will occur. And at a larger scale, the way living organisms utilize random change in their genomes to adapt to an environment is absolutely incredible.

This is not enough to establish that there is one Mind behind both the laws of physics and biological life, but to me it’s a hint that there is.