Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Some musings & book recommendations: Religion, science, and history

Happy New Years! It's been a while again since my last entry and thought I should squeeze one in as I end my extended holiday vacation. And well, perhaps right now you’re looking for some new books to put on your reading list. If so, some out of box suggestions / musings:

As far as religions go, I’m an agnostic. Given my utmost respect for what I understand of [the history of] the scientific method and physics, I find Buddhism to be the most open-minded, interesting and compatible of the bunch. Speaking as an ex-practitioner, Christianity is to me at best a set of haphazard myths and inconsistent tales that have long outlived its usefulness as humankind’s shining light on the future, unless one now considers the end of days to be the future to look forward to shortly. Surely then, the vast majority of the world will be damned to hell except a small fraction of [mostly American] people who qualify to be saved. And the absolute clash of logic irreconcilable between that of an unquestioned being’s omnipotence that wills glorification & worship by mere mortals, who in return goes on to afford countless children and other subjects a dismal right to live and suffer in abject poverty, squalor, destitution. Any logical person should at the very least seriously ask [a Christian apologist], “Is that the best an omnipotent being can do?”

With that said wrt Buddhism, I was compelled to pick up and read the Dalai Lama’s The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality. It is one of most elegantly written religious perspectives that succinctly delineates spirituality and science with all its fine lines and wrinkles intact. It clearly puts together a rich and engaging storyboard distilling complex ideas and concepts that cleanly synthesizes both concrete-physics and meta-physics, using everyday language. Something similar I read some time ago in high school was an early edition of The Tao of Physics. That felt forced and was a bit confusing as it tried to force a 1:1 mapping between the parallels of physicists’ attempts at a “grand unified theory” to the foundations of eastern mysticism. It is more comprehensive, though somewhat repetitive.

So it is hard for me to pick up a religious tome unless it’s grounded on a scientific foundation with its knack for consistency and rigor. I recently read The End of Faith, somewhat an exception to the rule since it also relies quite a bit on a set of tougher to follow metaphysical arguments. It presents a strong case against today's rather fervent religious movements (radical veins of Islam and Christianity in particular) that since time immemorial have resulted in some of mankind's most awful atrocities, acted out by followers of its various factions, always bearing a similar set of exclusionary and unwavering beliefs from which comes the notion, "it's my way to heaven or hell’s on your way", thus arising the Inquisition, the Crusades, Islamic jihad, religious genocides like Rwanda and Bosnia, and so forth. They seem to eventually trap its “true” believers in an un-repudiatable straitjacket of [blind, unprovable tautology that is] religious faith, when mixed with growing extremism, death merely becomes a doorstop to heaven provided enough earthly blood is shed to get someone a one-way ticket there.

I also got to spend some treasured vacation time reading a bit of early American history. A particularly compelling narrative - a bit stylized but provides for a unique portrait of a great man - was put together by a Pulitzer Prize writer whose earlier LBJ biography accorded the award. Now, her Team of Rivals tells a rich and layered story of Lincoln’s life, perseverance, and leadership during the Civil War as he guides a very fractured yet indispensable cabinet that's constantly in turmoil throughout the entire war. Also began David McCullough’s 1776.

Managed to revisit string theory a bit as well, prompted by an excellent primer by one of the top physicists of our time. Ed Whitten of Princeton obtained a PhD @ 25 after a brief stint with history and happens to hold a professorship founded by former Microsoftie Charles Simonyi. And if you’re interested in the very latest that advanced physics and vibrating strings have in store, physicist-extraordinaire Greene’s magnificent and fun to read best-seller, The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory would be highly recommended. It is accessible to anyone who knows some introductory-level college physics sans the math. String theory is even more fantastic and mysterious than standard [atomic] theory and quantum mechanics, particularly for those who are instinctively curious about the worlds around them.