Saturday, July 28, 2012

A Smidge Too Far?

Evelyn Waugh said (somewhere) that twentieth-century authors had succeeded very well at portraying the depths of human nature, except that, not going far enough, they left out the most important part: the spiritual. I wonder if Susan Howatch doesn’t go too far in remedying that fault. She address and in fact focuses on the spiritual part of her characters, and even includes spiritual forces and gifts: both gifts of the Holy Spirit and demonic possession play a part in the plot of Glamorous Powers. But she also includes psychic abilities, in particular telepathy, telekinesis, and mental manipulation.

I wrote in a recent post that the book’s central character gave me an edgy feeling because of his perpetual quashing of the truth, even with himself. I’m near the end now, and sure enough, his inability to be forthcoming to his ecclesiastical superiors, to his parishioners, to his family, and to himself has created a terrible situation resulting in at least one death, with possibly more tragic consequences to follow. The problem seems to come down to his pride in the abilities he has, both psychic and divinely charismatic. I’m enjoying it immensely. The book slowly plumbs the fascinating psychological depths of his character as events and his first-person narrative bring more revelations, and the plot is anything but formulaic.

But I still wonder why the psychic powers had to be there. Paul’s instruction in the first letter to the Corinthians shows us that irresponsible use of spiritual charisms can cause plenty of trouble; why muddy the psychological and theological water with paranormal mental abilities? Does Howatch expect us to accept the psychic phenomena as part of our world? Is she saying that existence of the Triune God automatically entails the existence of all the other metaphysical ideas that people might believe in?

Perhaps I should take the world of the book as one of fantasy. Had Howatch set the tale in what I take to be the real world (one that includes God but not the possibility of the manipulation of one person’s thoughts by the thoughts and will alone of another person), every instance of supernatural action in the story would have to be attributed to God, as if a human author can or should reduce the real God to a character in a novel and determine his decisions and actions in certain circumstances. Including the other metaphysical powers in her fictional world allows for leaving events such as a miraculous healing open to interpretation. Did that woman’s pain go away because God gave the gift of healing to the vicar, because the vicar used hypnosis, or because the vicar performed a mind meld? As far as the story is concerned, the important thing is that the pain went away, that the news caused trouble, and that the vicar had to deal with the trouble. Sometimes in fiction it’s necessary to go a smidge too far.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Unity and Variety

Joseph T. Glatthaar’s Forged in Battle continues to move, excite, and surprise me with its excellently told account of black soldiers in the Civil War. The depth of research is astonishing; Glatthaar generally places one endnote number only at the end of each paragraph, and each note usually contains three or four references – references to letters, diaries, official army records, newspapers, and other primary and secondary sources. Yet the author consistently organizes the overwhelming mass of information into a coherent, accessible narrative.

Perhaps the most impressive feat in the display is Glatthaar’s success in showing the surprising variety of backgrounds and motivations these soldiers brought to the situation. The number of reasons not to sign up in the Union Army provides the best example. It might seem that every slave given the chance would seize the opportunity to flee his bonds and participate in an organized fight against his tyrant. But the story isn’t that simple. Some feared the fate they would meet should the Union cause fail. Some stayed in servitude to protect their families from reprisal. Some found it too hard to trust any white person, northern or southern. Some heard sadly true stories about corrupt recruiters who kept most of any black man’s signing bounty. Some were actually sold by their southern owners to the northern army and naturally saw the whole process as just one more instance of degradation.

As a result of all this resistance, the United States government supported a program that flipped my head with amazement: a program sending free black recruiters into southern cities to hold public rallies. Imagine what would have happened had Hitler sent a Nazi recruiter to stand on a platform in Times Square calling for volunteers. But it’s easy to forget that the status of the southern states as a separate country remained weirdly ambiguous throughout the war; it was not at all clear that these recruiters were invading foreign soil. And it is also hard to forget that Americans of 150 years ago didn’t automatically think of unarmed civilians as enemies or targets. Sherman’s march would come soon, but Japanese interment camps and My Lai lay a century in the future.

Reading about all this kaleidoscopic variety brings to mind a passage from Kevin Arnold’s narration in the first episode of The Wonder Years:
I think about the events of that day
Again and again
. . . . . . . . .
Whenever some blowhard starts talking about
The anonymity of the suburbs
Or the mindlessness of the TV generation,
Because we know
That inside each one of those identical boxes,
With its Dodge parked out front
And its white bread on the table
And its TV set glowing blue in the falling dusk,
There were people with stories.
But amazingly, many of the stories in Glatthaar’s book, as different as they are at first, end the same way. As he tells it (and he has a lot of material from primary cources to back this up), the men who did leave slavery to enter the Union army showed, if properly led, unusually high levels of pride in the trust given them, of eagerness to learn, of willingness to fight, and of courage under fire. One tale told over and over is that of wounded men who returned to the front to fight on. One soldier after losing a leg to a shell immediately propped himself up on a log and kept firing his musket.

They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But sometimes, let’s face it, what doesn’t kill you makes you crippled. Not in this case, though. These men apparently uniformly took strength from their survival over terrible adversity and convinced many erstwhile naysayers that they were in fact the best soldiers in the United States Army. What made the difference? How can we – OK, how can I turn painful experience into strength and not into weakness? Part of the answer, I believe, lies in reading inspirational examples of people who got it right.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

From Barchester to Starbridge

It seems that I get ahead of my schedule every year at about this time. This summer, I’m taking advantage of the margin I’ve built up by reading the second novel in Susan Howatch’s Starbridge series, Glamorous Powers. I read the first installment, Glittering Images, many years ago, but became interested in the books again when hearing them compared to Trollope’s Barchester series: small southern English towns and lots of clerics. Sure enough, several pages into the book Howatch mentions a church warden living in the town of Allington, references that bring to the mind of the Trollope fan both The Warden and The Small House at Allington, respectively the first and fifth books of the Barsetshire chronicles. So obviously, Howatch knows what books she wants hers to be compared to. And if there’s any doubt, she even has a character say that a certain woman is more insufferable than Trollope’s Mrs. Proudie (from Barchester Towers, the second in the series).

The story of Glamorous Powers centers on an Anglican monk belonging to an order started by a fictitious member of the Oxford Movement. This monk, Jonathan Darrow, experiences a vision that he is certain has come from God as a sign that he should leave the monastery and return to the world. As it turns out, Darrow also possesses psychic powers and in addition has from time to time manifested some of the miraculous, first-Corinthians-type charisms. I’m not sure what Howatch thinks of this triple combination of supernatural elements. Darrow himself feels pretty sure he understands the relationship between the phenomena and how to tell when they come from God, when from the Devil, and when from his own psyche. But then Darrow, likeable and truly devout though he may be, is proud, stubborn, and defensive and doesn’t always know what he’s talking about, even when his subject is himself. In the very interesting first quarter of the book, as Darrow tries to defend his vision to the Abbot-General, I first saw the superior as close-minded and intolerably worldly – just as Darrow in his first-person narrative would have me see him. But by the end of the section, my sympathies had flipped. So I’m ready to find Darrow less than forthcoming about everything he tells me from now on.

The book really does remind me a lot of a Barchester novel. It’s true, I would be surprised to find miraculous healing or visions of the future in a work by Trollope. But the flawed clerics, the struggle between sincere piety and ambition, and the long conversations are all there. Howatch addresses intimate matters more frankly than Trollope, but there’s plenty of lust and sex in Barchester, no matter how Victorian their euphemisms may be.

But it’s a long way from Barchester to Starbridge. For me, the biggest difference lies in the narrative. Darrow’s dissimulating presentation of himself is interesting and entertaining, but it’s miles from Trollope’s unusual man-behind-the-curtain narration that openly portrays the characters, places, and events as figments of his own imagination. The more recent book’s Freudian dodges naturally leave me feeling wary of evil in spite of the glorious, transcendent realm it constantly refers to, while Trollope’s frank but loving tales of his imagined world leave me feeling that all is well in spite of the deep and numerous evils of our own, tangible reality. And yet we need both messages.

Friday, July 20, 2012

More Charisma than a Canteen

In a post from last year looking ahead to this year’s reading, I expressed some doubts about the level of writing I would find in Joseph T. Glatthaar’s Forged in Battle. Civil War enthusiasts can sometimes lack presentational skills. I have a set of DVDs from what appears to be a local-access cable show about the American Civil War, and its hosts, while full of interesting of information and in possession of fascinating artifacts, have less charisma than the battered canteen they showed in the last episode I watched. But after a couple of days with the book, I’m happy to report that my concerns about Forged in Battle were groundless.

Glatthaar’s history of the United States Colored Troops has many virtues to recommend it. The author examined manuscripts in several archives and consulted hundreds of primary and secondary sources. Then he organized all that material without falling into the mediocre historian’s trap of trying to list all the interesting facts and ideas he uncovered, but instead arranging them into paragraphs with clear topic sentences. The best expository prose should make sense even with a kind of speed reading that takes in only the first sentence of each paragraph (please don’t try it on my blog!), and Glatthaar’s prose offers an excellent model.

But the best-written prose can have no more interest than its subject matter, and in this regard again Glatthaar succeeds. The topic itself of black regiments in the Civil War is gripping enough. But Forged in Battle covers the topic with enough nuance to make it even more interesting. The first paragraph, in saying that southern use of black soldiers near the very end of the war showed that Confederate whites had become slaves to war demands, indicates the author’s nose for the irony that pervaded the war. In just the first two chapters, he addresses the expressed motivations of free blacks who fought, slaves who escaped to fight, slaves who stayed home and didn’t fight, and slaves who actually fought for the Confederacy; the mixed feelings of northern whites toward blacks and several reasons for their slow but sure change toward acceptance of a war for abolition; and the surprising acceptance by the black soldiers themselves of the policy to use white officers to lead them. Less surprising is the eagerness with which the white officers volunteered for this duty. While many northern civilians had contradictory reasons for opposing the induction of black soldiers – either, they thought, they were like wild beasts who couldn’t control themselves once on the rampage, or else they were like lazy children – the officers found them in general more disciplined, tidy, and eager than their white counterparts.

My step-brother-in-law (who is also my step-uncle-in-law, as it happens, without any of the funny marriages that usually explain such riddles) gave me this book many years ago. I put it on my reading plan when I made the schedule in 2006 because it had already sat on the shelf unopened for too long even at that time. I wish now I hadn’t waited so long, but then that’s true of many of the books on The Plan and one of the reasons for drawing it up in the first place.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Alvin Plantinga and the Disappointing Argument

After a promising beginning, I feel let down by the end of Alvin Plantinga’s God and Other Minds. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the preface. Plantinga says clearly there that his conclusion is only tentative. But I didn’t know when I read the preface that he would reach that tentative conclusion only in the last two sentences of the book and that it would seem so unsupported when I read it.

Plantinga’s tentative conclusion is that our belief in the personhood (or mindedness) of other human beings rests on the same foundation as our belief in God, so that if one is rational so is the other. And, since it is rational to believe in other minds, belief in God also is rational. The main problem is that, as it seems to me, he spends all his time in part III of the book not supporting the rationality of belief in other minds but dismantling what he calls the “analogical position.” I should say that if he defended the rationality of belief in other minds, I didn’t see it. Plantinga and I both have terms in the equation, so either one of us could be at fault. Since I followed less and less of the book as I read along, and since the book’s cover quotes presumably reputable philosophical journals calling the book one of the most important offerings on the subject in a hundred years, I’m more than inclined to think that I’m the one to blame. But in any case, since I got to the last two sentences not having seen any surviving justification for belief in other minds, I didn’t see any justification for belief in God, which is what I came for.

But why wasn’t I able to follow part III? I’ll pin part of the blame here on Plantinga. On p. 187, the first page of part III, Plantinga starts to mention the analogical position, but he doesn’t define the analogical position until p. 233. I tell graduate students all the time that academic prose isn’t a mystery novel: don’t make your point a mystery and reveal it only near the end of the book. I expect my students to clarify context and thesis up front and only then to proceed to explain and defend; naturally I expect Plantinga to do the same. OK, maybe professional philosophers know what the analogical position is. I didn’t. Considering the title of the book and the outline offered in the preface, I thought the analogy in question connected belief in God and belief in other human minds. As it turns out, the analogy actually lies between belief in one’s own mind and belief that the human-shaped phenomena we experience around us have thoughts and feelings akin to ours.

As disappointed as I felt, though, the exercise didn’t cost me much: I only spent a few minutes each of nine mornings. And I certainly can’t say I got nothing out of the experience. I strengthened my skills in logic, I reviewed some traditional proofs of the existence of God, and I learned several things about the history of the question. So I’ll end by calling my encounter with Alvin Plantinga an investment in the future; surely I’ll be better equipped the next time I read a modern philosophical work.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

It's Calvin Time

It’s that time of year again. The time when Oklahoma skies and Oklahoma grass dry up. The time when the Wendy’s on campus is almost empty on weekdays. But that’s OK, because I’m not sure I want everyone to see my most frequent lunch date these days. Yes, it’s Calvin time.

In 2007, I set myself the task of reading ten percent of Jean Calvin’s Institutes each year for ten years. And then a few years later, I set myself the task of reporting my reading experiences on this blog. Last year, those two determined freight trains met for the first time, but the collision was not nearly so horrific as I had imagined. In fact, an old Calvinist friend called me up last year to apologize for something that had happened between us years ago, and I think my Calvin post may have given him the urge to contact me after all that time. When something that good comes out of it, I guess I should think of this yearly combination as less of a collision of two trains and more a confluence of two rivers.

This year I got to the what most people think of when they think of Calvin’s theology: the predestination of the elect. Although he calls anyone who disagrees with him childish and pernicious and says that they have “forgotten to be men,” he lays out the biblical argument for the doctrine fairly neatly. But unfortunately he doesn’t fully clarify his supposedly peculiar view of it. If Calvin has a systematic thread that ties the huge tome together, its his polemical defensiveness. I wish (as always) that he had skipped the raillery and spent the time referring to other parts of the work regularly in order to clarify how different doctrines fit together. In the first or second year, I read that God holds sovereign sway over his creatures to the point that no evil plan enters a devil’s head without coming directly from God. So apparently rational creatures have no free will at all – except for Adam. A year or so after that, I read that Adam could have “lifted himself up” to meet God if he had so desired. I was hoping this year’s section would help reconcile the two passages, but if the reconciliation was there, I didn’t see it.

As I said in last year’s Calvin post, I decided to read Calvin partly because I wanted to confirm my suspicion that he didn’t really say what some Calvinists think he said. I was very happy this year to see Calvin say that God doesn’t hate the reprobate; I had had at least two Calvinists tell me that God loved only the elect. Calvin doesn’t use the word “love” in this context, but he does say that God doesn’t hate them and that He shows kindness to them. He also says, contrary to what a Calvinist troll (of the internet variety) once told me, that God does in fact offer salvation to all who wish to accept it, with the understanding that only the elect will wish to take it. Although I read in this year’s pages about four of the petals of Calvin’s TULIP, I didn’t see anything about the third, limited atonement, so I don’t know if he explained it differently from the way some of his twenty-first century disciples do, but I hope so.

Because I swallowed a double dose the first year, I’ve read seventy percent of the Institutes now; only thirty percent to go. Now I’m fairly certain I’m the first person ever to utter this sentence: I’m so glad I only have three more years of reading Calvin! Between his name-calling, the confusing organization, and the questions about the difference between what Calvin said and what Calvinists say, the experience is more confusing and frustrating than edifying or informative. The book has offered me some occasional insight and inspiration, and this year’s ten percent was certainly the most interesting so far. It’s just that if I want to read about the predestination of the elect, a doctrine I have no qualms about, I prefer Aquinas’s explanation.

By the way, if you’re thinking about responding to this post, please read last year’s post first.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Alvin Plantinga and the Ontological Argument

In the eleventh century, Anselm of Canterbury wrote the most influential version of the Ontological Argument for the existence of God. Basically, it goes this way. Imagine the greatest being that can be conceived. Anyone can. Even the person that says, “God doesn’t exist,” can conceive such a being: she’s just uttered a sentence about that being. But the greatest being that can be conceived can’t exist in the mind alone; if it did, we could conceive of that same being having real existence, which would be even greater than the being that exists only in our minds. That would mean a being exists that is even greater than the greatest being that can be conceived. Greater than the greatest? Nonsense. Since we have reached a contradiction, we must reject our supposition, namely our supposition that God only exists in the mind. Ergo, He exists in reality.

Alvin Plantinga believes that God exists but doesn’t think that this argument proves it. But he doesn’t like any of the published refutations, either, including the famous refutation by Kant. His long, detailed analysis in chapters 2 and 3 of God and Other Minds involves a lot of experiments with multiple variations of particular lines in order to try to make either the argument or one of the refutations work, and I definitely didn’t follow it all. But his own refutation seems to hinge on a problem with the supposition that this greatest possible being (oh, by the way, one of his alternatives talks about the greatest possible being instead of the greatest conceivable being, a distinction that cuts away a lot of underbrush by removing the implied minds that have to conceive all these beings) can be conceived of in two varieties – one existing in the imagination only and one existing in reality – and that the two varieties can be compared. The existing one can’t be exactly the same as the imaginary except with the added property of existence: we defined the original being as the greatest possible being, so they would each have to be the greatest possible being, which is impossible from the outset.

In my previous post, I mentioned an experience that keeps occurring as I read this book: I’ll start to think of a problem, something it seems that Plantinga is missing, and then a few pages later find him mentioning it himself. In this section of the book, the prime example involves intensional objects. Plantinga explores the sentence “Dragons don’t exist” for quite a while without mentioning intensional objects. If dragons don’t exist, he says, then what are we talking about? What exactly is the subject of the sentence? The sentence isn’t nonsense, so we aren’t talking about nothing. Hey, I say to the book, I know the answer: dragons are intensional objects. And sure enough, after the turn of a leaf or two, Plantinga finally brings the topic up.

An intensional object is an object that resides in our conception. We know what a dragon is and would know one when we saw one. In fact we do see them – in movies – and recognize them as dragons. So something exists, and yet what exists isn’t exactly a dragon. It’s not just an idea of a dragon either, though. Several years ago I read a book by Nicholas Wolterstorff that helped me straighten this problem out. In it, he explored the ontology (the mode of existence) of a fictional character. Let’s use Ebenezer Scrooge for our example. Does he or did he exist in real life? No. But we can talk about him: we know what job he has (money lender), what kinds of things he says (“Bah! Humbug!”), where he lives (top floor), who he knows (Bob Cratchit), and what he eats (gruel). We even know things about him that Dickens doesn’t tell us. We know for instance that he has two legs, even though Dickens never counts them for us. But what is the nature of the being that has these two legs? He isn’t a real man. But he can’t exactly be a thought either, because thoughts don’t have legs. So he is an object with existence in our thoughts: an intensional object.

Now I don’t know what Plantinga would say about this next idea; maybe I’ll run across it in the next few pages. But I wonder if the subject of any statement with the verb “exists” is actually an intensional object. Maybe if “Dragons don’t exist” is really about an intensional object, so is “God exists.” Maybe that sentence really means, “The idea I have of God in my mind corresponds to an entity that has real existence.” But then we get into the area of adequate conceptions: how detailed does my idea have to be in order to correspond meaningfully to a real-world entity? Plantinga mentions the topic of adequate conception but doesn’t go into it very far, and I’m not skilled enough to say much about it. But I know that I can think true, valid things about real-world objects without knowing a lot about those objects. I didn’t know anywhere near as much about Rutherford B. Hayes before I read his biography as I do now. And yet I’m sure that I read a book about the person I wanted to read about; my conception was adequate enough to have read about the right person. But what if my thought had been “ I want to read about that bearded president who did interesting things” and then I had found a biography of Benjamin Harrison? Or what if I did found a biography of Hayes with that hazy conception? Wouldn’t it have been only an accident, since I didn’t have a clear enough idea of the person I was looking for? How much information is needed in a conception to adequately point to a given real-world object? I don’t know. My conception of adequate conception is inadequate.

As long as we’re on weird logic, I’ll mention one more subargument explored by Plantinga: a medieval argument indicating a problem with contradictions. The Law of Noncontradiction, a fundamental principle of logic, says that both A and not-A (written as ~A) cannot both be true (at the same time and in the same way). Suppose, the argument goes, that both are true. To any true proposition P, you can join any proposition you’d like (OK, I know Plantinga could point out some technical exceptions) with the conjunction “or” and still have a true sentence. “My computer is on at this moment” is true. So is “Either my computer is on or I was born on Mars.” But now let’s suppose both P and ~P, the contradiction. So since “My computer is on” (P) is true, “Either my computer is on or I was born on Mars” is true. But then by our supposition “My computer is not on” (~P) is also true. Now if one of these two possibilities is true – either my computer is on or I was born on Mars – and my computer is not in fact on, then I must have been born on Mars. Accepting a contradiction implies that any crazy proposition you can dream of is true! An infinite number of monkeys are typing Hamlet right now! Green is actually the color red in disguise! My high school education was the greatest possible education! Casually crossing the streams is a good idea! Pluto is not a planet! Positing a contradiction opens up a Pandora’s box of madness.

Dragons do not exist. Komodo dragons do exist. Oh, no. What have I done?

Friday, July 6, 2012

Alvin Plantinga and the Cosmological Argument

I was afraid that Alvin Plantinga’s God and Other Minds would fly way above my head. But a couple of days with it have given me a lot of encouragement. The book is indeed pretty tough going for me. I don’t understand everything, but I understand most things, and I even understand some parts well enough to analyze them and respond to them, although most of my thoughts beginning with “Hey, wait a minute, how about . . . ?” find echoes within just a couple of pages. I was disappointed the first couple of times this happened. But can I really expect to come up with something that a professional philosopher hasn’t thought of? I finally realized it was actually much more encouraging to come up with something that a professional philosopher has thought of. After all, the most likely reason for him not to have shared my thought is that my thought wasn’t worth thinking in the first place.

Plantinga’s book first pokes holes in traditional proofs of God’s existence and then pokes holes in the most common proofs of God’s nonexistence. He ends with an analogical argument that he claims does not give proof or even knowledge of God’s existence, but merely rational grounding for believing God to exist. By comparison, I don’t know that ancient Troy existed, but my belief that it existed has more rational grounding than my belief that aliens are coming to abduct me in the next twelve minutes.

Chapter 1 covers the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God. I won’t try to reproduce the argument for at least three good reasons. But in short, the CA says that one necessary being (a being that couldn’t possibly not exist) must exist, since if all things were contingent (i.e., were things that might possibly be and might possibly not be), there would have been a time at which nothing existed. And, boy, then where would we be? His analysis seems to boil down to the contradiction in a subargument showing that if we suppose that contingent beings have lasted for eternity, there would be some time at which they all didn’t exist, which would mean that they haven’t lasted for eternity.

Who knows? I may actually find the opportunity to use this material some day. But in the mean time, I get encouragement from seeing a Christian thinker work at this level, I get a review of logic and of some of the history of Christian philosophy, and I keep my brain exercised.

My twelve minutes are up, and I see now that I was mistaken.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Boy, You’ve Got to Carry That Weight

Over the last few days, I’ve been juggling my schedule to deal with the consequences of my recent travels. For one thing, I ended up with several unfinished books. I had a long book for plane flights, a very long off-Plan book I was trying to slip in, and two books that were interrupted by the most recent trip. But another problem has to do with deciding which books I can walk with and which I can’t.

Among the unfinished books, Hoogenboom’s biography of Hayes ended the most satisfactorily. Hayes ended his life surrounded by loved ones and happy with what he had achieved, and Hoogenboom added an afterword that summarized his subject’s ideals and accomplishments: prison reform, a booming economic recovery, increased power of the Presidency, public support of rights and citizenship for Native Americans, and education for people of all races. Hoogenboom blames this progressive President for only one major mistake: had he chosen to serve a second term, the biographer claims, he may well have found a way to protect voting rights for southern blacks eighty years before the Civil Rights Act. Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars ended the way it ended: the chapter on Domitian closed like all the others. Perhaps Suetonius left the book without a summary because he hoped to go on to write about Nerva and Trajan. By contrast, I was just glad to be done with Ken Follett’s World Without End. I liked the first book pretty well, but by 70% of the way through the sequel, I was thinking about Mark Twain’s Literary Rule no. 10.

Another morning walker I met on the path yesterday told me that I would have to teach him how to walk and read at the same time. I told him it was a gift and that I wouldn’t know what to teach. But I could actually give a few lessons, and lesson no. 1 is to read a book you can carry. I took as many Kindle books as a I could to Italy, so I have a lot of large paper books left for the year. Yesterday I looked ahead in my schedule and noticed some potential problems, times where I would be reading two large, heavy books simultaneously. But I’m about three weeks ahead on column 1 (you can see the columns on the 2012 Calendar tab) and two weeks ahead on cloumn 2, so I’m going to move some things around a bit. And I’m sure I’ll find a couple more off-Plan paperbacks to carry around some days.

But there’s still one more problem. Today I start both Alvin Plantinga’s God and Other Minds, which I’m sure will provide a hefty intellectual challenge, and my yearly assignment of Calvin, which always offers at least an emotional challenge. Books can be heavy in more ways than one!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Good and Bad Science Instruction

My sixth-grade teacher – we’ll call her Mrs. Brandenburg – decided that my class needed some creative instruction in the grade-school curriculum’s stepchild: science. To pursue her lofty goal, she gave us three science lessons over the course of 180 days of instruction. That’s one whole lesson every three months. Or to put this impressive record in another perspective, we got three more lessons than Einstein got in the year after he dropped out of school.

The first lesson covered the noble science of geology. Mrs. Brandenburg bought one set of rocks for the class to examine. She labeled them and then asked us to fill out a chart in which we reported the sensible characteristics of each rock. In the most useful part of the lesson, we learned that one rock is harder than another if it can scratch the other. In the most memorable part of the lesson, though, we learned how the rocks tasted. One by one, each of the thirty students walked up to the table and licked each of the ten rocks. I remember my experience clearly: “Licking rock no. 1 now. Hmmm. Tastes like a rock. No. 2? Tastes like a rock. No. 3? Yep, like a rock. No. 4? Rock again. No. 5? Oh! Tastes like salt. No. 6? Oh well, back to rock taste.” And it was rocks from then on. The saliva and germs of the other students had no discernible taste.

The second lesson revealed to us the wonders of the Doppler Effect. Mrs. Brandenburg first had us draw graphs of the sounds of cars. I don’t know what kind of graphs others turned in. I know my chart showed three dramatic rises separated by sudden drops, the sound the sixth-grade boy expects to hear every time he gets behind a wheel when eventually given the chance. Mrs. Brandenburg, curiously dissatisfied with our pictures (well, all but mine), told us she needed to try something different. So she took us out to the hall and held up two pieces of construction paper: one light green and one dark green. “Which one is lighter?” she asked. “The one in your right hand,” one student answered with a confused giggle. Then she walked down to the other end of the hall, held up the two sheets of paper, and asked with a knowing nod and a clever lift of one eyebrow, “NOW, which one is lighter?” “The one in your right hand,” I responded tentatively. Mrs. Brandenburg immediately looked puzzled, took a quick look at each piece, and walked back toward us with disappointment on her face. The speed of her return walk was no closer to the speed of light than her departure had been.

For the third lesson, Mrs. Brandenburg began by telling us she hated grasshoppers. “As a result,” she announced logically, “I want you to count the grasshoppers in the schoolyard.” Our method began one Friday afternoon with the stretching of twine across the playground, east-to-west and north-to-south, to lay out a grid of one-yard squares. She assigned each of us to one square and told us to count the grasshoppers there. Now a lesser teacher might have thought to extrapolate from the count of those first thirty square yards and estimate the count in the whole area by multiplying by the ratio of student squares to the entire square yardage. But that method would have yielded only an approximation, and Mrs. Brandenburg, scientific thinker that she was, wanted an exact result. So, announcing that we would finish the project on Monday, she gathered up all the string and handed me the wad, giving me the weekend assignment of untangling it. Sometime around Saturday afternoon, my parents’ objections to my obsessive (but unproductive) work with the string grew so strong that they ordered me to stop doing my homework. On Monday morning I quietly dropped the ball of string on Mrs. Brandenburg’s desk, and she just as quietly dropped the grasshopper census.

Thinking of Mrs. Brandenburg naturally leads me to thinking about Mortimer Adler, the moving force behind the Britannica Great Books set. In his helpful guide called “How to Read a Book,” Adler explains that the books by the seminal thinkers are generally within the grasp of the average reader: these books usually aren’t written for experts since, in the case of a book that reports a new idea or science, no experts other than the author exist. Way back in the fist year of my first ten-year plan, I found Antoine Lavoisier’s Elements of Chemistry the perfect example of Adler’s pattern. Lavoisier didn’t write to other chemists; since he discovered and named the first element of the modern table, there were no other chemists to write to.

Lavoisier carefully explains all his experiments in simple terms, showing how he divided common substances into parts and combined the parts again. Measuring the mass of the total and of the parts, he showed that one truly came from the other. This astonishing genius started from scratch. He didn’t order his two-necked beakers from the science-supply store; he had to design them himself and ask a glassblower to create them. His wife then drew illustrations of all the equipment so readers could see the fantastic vessels for themselves. He didn’t start out trying to prove that water was made of hydrogen and oxygen; his predecessors said that water was an indivisible, elemental substance. But he found that the “one” element was actually made up of two. Lavoisier also divided the previously indivisible air into two constituents: one breathable and one unbreathable. Since he discovered these two elements, he earned the right to name them. He decided on oxygen (“acid-former”) for the first of the two fundamental gases, since it also makes acids when it comes into contact with certain metals. The other he called azotic gas (“contrary to life”), considering the name nitrogen, but eventually rejecting it as not accurate enough. Well, he got his way half the time.

The story of Mrs. Brandenburg is completely true, by the way. I’ve only changed it in the one way that Jack Webb would approve of. I thought of her one day soon after sixth grade while I was waiting at a railroad crossing and heard the engine’s horn as it raced past. I also thought of her many years later when I read the story of Alexander the Great and the Gordian knot.