Galileo Goes To Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion

Galileo Interesting new book edited by historian Ronald L. Numbers: Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion. From the publisher's page:

NYT on “The Coming Superbrain”

John Markoff writes about AI, Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity, and other such things in a New York Times article. Excerpt:

Today, artificial intelligence, once the preserve of science fiction
writers and eccentric computer prodigies, is back in fashion and
getting serious attention from NASA and from Silicon Valley companies like Google
as well as a new round of start-ups that are designing everything from
next-generation search engines to machines that listen or that are
capable of walking around in the world. A.I.’s new respectability is
turning the spotlight back on the question of where the technologymight be heading and, more ominously, perhaps, whether computer intelligence will surpass our own, and how quickly. […]

Profiled in the documentary “Transcendent Man,”
which had its premier last month at the TriBeCa Film Festival, and with
his own Singularity movie due later this year, Dr. Kurzweil has become
a one-man marketing machine for the concept of post-humanism. He is the
co-founder of Singularity University,
a school supported by Google that will open in June with a grand goal —
to “assemble, educate and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to
understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing
technologies and apply, focus and guide these tools to address
humanity’s grand challenges.”

Not content with the development of
superhuman machines, Dr. Kurzweil envisions “uploading,” or the idea
that the contents of our brain and thought processes can somehow be
translated into a computing environment, making a form of immortality
possible — within his lifetime.

That has led to no shortage of
raised eyebrows among hard-nosed technologists in the engineering
culture here, some of whom describe the Kurzweilian romance with
supermachines as a new form of religion. […]

“Kurzweil
will probably die, along with the rest of us not too long before the
‘great dawn,’ ” said Gary Bradski, a Silicon Valley roboticist. “Life’s
not fair.”

Link: The Coming Superbrain

Revisiting Snow’s Two Cultures

New Scientist asked several prominent people for an update on C.P. Snow's Two Cultures: Science and Art: Still Two Cultures Divided?  I finally got around to reading Two Cultures a few months ago. What I liked best was Stefan Collini's historical introduction (which takes up about half the book and is worth the price).

Collini is the first respondent in New Scientist's article:

C. P. Snow intended to call his lecture "The Rich and
the Poor" – and regretted not doing so. This title points to what
remains valuable about the essay now. Helping the world's impoverished
majority meet their basic needs remains an obligation of richer
societies, and applied science is a vital tool.

In
other ways, though, Snow's lecture is superficial and misleading.
Despite its subsequent reputation, it does not make useful distinctions
between types of enquiry or discipline, making a thin contrast between
"physicists" and "literary intellectuals" (mostly modernist poets and
novelists, not scholars in the humanities). It also identified a rather
outdated element of English cultural attitudes and snobbery, rather
than a true divide between disciplines. It makes better sense to talk
of "two-hundred-and-two cultures" than of "two cultures". […]

The
more damaging influence of Snow's lecture has been to encourage the
prejudice that natural science is the only reliable source of
"objective" knowledge, and to support the misguided belief that science
and technology are undervalued in the UK and so should receive
preferential treatment.

Update: Seed Magazine has a similar feature about Two Cultures, but theirs is video  because Seed is all hip and youthful: Are We Beyond The Two Cultures?

The Complexities of Dying in a High-Tech Era

I thought this recent Fresh Air interview with Robert Martensen was very good: End of Life Care in America, A Doctor's Diagnosis. Martensen discusses the problem of medical intervention in the very final stages of life.

He has written a book called A Life Worth Living: A Doctor's Reflections on Illness in a High-Tech Era.

From the book description:

Critical illness is a fact of
life. Even those of us who enjoy decades of good health are touched by
it eventually, either in our own lives or in those of our loved ones.
And when this happens, we grapple with serious and often confusing
choices about how best to live with our afflictions.
 
A Life Worth Living is
a book for people facing these difficult decisions. Robert Martensen, a
physician, historian, and ethicist, draws on decades of experience with
patients and friends to explore the life cycle of serious illness, from
diagnosis to end of life. He connects personal stories with reflections
upon mortality, human agency, and the value of “cutting-edge”
technology in caring for the critically ill. Timely questions emerge:
To what extent should efforts to extend human life be made? What is the
value of nontraditional medical treatment? How has the American
health-care system affected treatment of the critically ill? And
finally, what are our doctors’ responsibilities to us as patients, and
where do those responsibilities end? Using poignant case studies,
Martensen demonstrates how we and our loved ones can maintain dignity
and resilience in the face of life’s most daunting circumstances.

Novelist Jim Harrison's blurb gets to the heart of the matter:

A Life Worth Living is a deeply engaging book. It can be read
as a self-defense manual. In fact it should be read by, say, anyone
over forty-five because we are all destined to do battle with the
medical industrial complex which seems quite confused about helping us
out of life. Martensen, who is both an M.D. and an historian of
medicine, gracefully illumines the problems we all face.” – Jim
Harrison, author of Returning to Earth

ALifeWorthLiving

In Mortal Hands

InMortalHands This new book sounds very interesting: In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age by Stephanie Cooke. From the book description:

This provocative history of nuclear power is perfectly timed for today,
when Americans are gravely concerned with nuclear terrorism, and a
nuclear renaissance is seen as a possible solution to global warming.
Few have truly come to terms with the complexities of an issue which
may determine the future of the planet. Nuclear weapons, it was once
hoped, would bring wars to an end; instead, they spurred a massive arms
race that has recently expanded to include North Korea and I ran. Once
seen as a source of unlimited electricity, nuclear reactors breed
contamination and have been used as covers for secret weapons programs,
from India and Pakistan to Iraq and Iran. 

The evolving
story of nuclear power, as told by industry insider Stephanie Cooke,
reveals the gradual deepening of our understanding of the pros and cons
of this controversial energy source. Drawing on her unprecedented
access, Cooke shows us how, time and again, the stewards of the nuclear
age—the more-is-better military commanders and civilian nuclear
boosters—have fallen into the traps of their own hubris and wishful
thinking as they tried to manage the unmanageable. Their mistakes are
on the verge of being repeated again, which is why this book deserves
especially close attention now.

The author has a web site for the book at In Mortal Hands.

Chris Hedges on Atheism, Science, and Moral Progress

Chris Hedges's When Atheism Becomes Religion* might be of interest to readers of this blog for its critique of the scientistic thinking underlying recent books about atheism by the likes of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens.

The book is not a defense of religion (and Hedges wrote a previous book criticizing Christian fundamentalism) but a defense of moderation. He sees these new figures as scientific utopians who have an irrational belief in moral progress and are just as dangerous as religious fundamentalists.

A quote from the last chapter:

The contemporary atheists, while many are noted scientists, are deluded products of this image-based and culturally illiterate world. They speak about religion, human progress and meaning in the impoverished language of television slogans. They play to our fears, especially of what we do not understand. Their words are sensational, fragmented and devoid of content. They appeal to our subliminal and irrational desires. They select a few facts and use them to dismiss historical, political and cultural realities. They tell us what we want to believe about ourselves. They assure us that we are good. They proclaim the violence employed in our name a virtue. They champion our ignorance as knowledge. They assure us that there is no reason to investigate other ways of being. Our way of life is the best. They indulge us in our delusional dream of human perfectibility. They tell us we will be saved by science and rationality. They tell us that humanity is moving inexorably forward. None of this is true. It defies human nature and human history. But it is what we want to believe.

*This is the title of the new paperback edition of a book published in hardcover with the too-clever title I Don't Believe in Atheists. He should have retitled his War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning while he was at it.

There's more info about Hedges at Truthdig, where he writes a column.