Lessons of the Book Search

In the process of researching a new article-maybe-book, a down-the-rabbit-hole investigatory thread emerged. The origin of the thread begins with the novelist Herman Wouk (The Winds of War), a 20th century author of deserved literary repute. Mr. Wouk was also an Orthodox Jew, proud and practicing his faith so personally that he wrote a non-fiction text “This is My God.” His book is a well-written introduction to a Jewish theistic God concept, which is an accessible recommended read. In his introduction, Mr. Wouk explains  that his book is in response to a derogatory text promoting agnosticism. The hunt began.

The book that invokes Herman Wouk’s ire has almost disappeared from library shelves in the first decades of the 21th century; in contrast, Mr. Wouk’s book is still in print and easily available. Homer W. Smith was a biologist in the first half of the 20th century who wrote three books of some publishing success. The third was “Man and His Gods,” published in 1955 and running at 485 pages before the index. However, what makes the book stand out is that the Forward is written Albert Einstein. The book sold well in its day.

As Dr. Einstein stated, Professor Smith attempts “to portray man’s fear-induced animistic and mythic ideas with all their far-flung transformations and interrelations.” One of the major arguments of the book is that Western religions are a magnet for all destructive fears that have haunted humankind. Further, these religions are also a significant broadcaster of these pernicious narratives that promulgate terrible results such as war and widespread unhappiness. The book is a thoroughgoing condemnation of religion and its application up through the beginning of the 20th century.

One can clearly understand why Herman Wouk despised this text.

There is no doubt that Professor Smith was extraordinarily well-read. Besides the Bible and biblical scholarship, he was intimately familiar with Enlightenment philosophers, the volumes of Gibbon’s “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire,” Darwin along with his milieu of detractors and supporters, Medieval magic and literature on the Devil, literary criticism, Christian theology and metaphysics. He saves some of his highest praise for the eleventh edition of Encylopedia Britannica, published in 1910-1911. (p. 483)

“Man and His Gods” is an archetypal text of its time. The writing is long-winded, and the grammar is complex, which was typical of the academic presentation of the day. Reviewers of that decade would declare that the book was erudite and well-written, whether or not they agreed the provocative argument.

The thesis is that knowledge and rationalism trump religion and superstition. Most of the text is a review of the religions of Western world and the Ancient Near East through history using the lens of 20th century rationalism. Professor Smith hoped to put the final nail in the coffin of superstitious religion with this book. He did not.

A funny thing happened though, which is why there was a hunt. “Man and His Gods” has nigh disappeared. In a dash of irony, I believe that the book would have certainly slipped away totally, despite a forward by Einstein, if Herman Wouk had not mentioned the text by name in his introduction. If Mr. Wouk had simply dropped a few sentences explaining his angry motivation for writing his book, time would have accomplished his goal for him.

I went searching for the text. My university lists a copy of Dr. Smith’s text in its catalogue, having purchased it in 1956. According to their records, the book was never checked out of the library. After I and the university librarian perused the shelf, we both concluded that the book had been stolen, probably decades ago. The Library of Congress (Card no. 52-5512) has a copy, buried in one of their offsite repositories. Having access to an academic national search function, someone located a copy at SUNY-Buffalo. Ten weeks after an initial request, I was holding the book.

The book did not meet my needs though. I was seeking a text that explained and promoted agnosticism in the 20th century. Dr. Smith’s text is the other side of the coin, exclusively attacking theism and orthodox religions. He states that rationalism is the better/best way, yet he offers no arguments for this stance. While the book may have made a splash at the time of publication, this lack of a positive argument may explain why the book disappeared from the great discussions on religion, culture, and individual relevance.

Having read through the book only to find the book only to find disappointment, I am reminded of a quote from the end of Ecclesiastes. “The making of many books is without limit and much study is a wearying of the flesh.” (Eccl. 12:9) Homer W. Smith taught me two lessons: first, erudition easily falls into hubris and second, pre-determined conclusions can produce a myriad of ever-escalating mistakes and misreadings.

Mr. Wouk’s book also taught me a lesson: Anger is a tool and it should never be a reason.

The Last Storm

Thunderstorms rolled through Tuesday afternoon, possibly spawning tornados. Strong winds bent and broke healthy trees, sending them careening through powerlines, houses, and even several cars. People died. Because of two trees down on two different streets, I was trapped in my neighborhood and my wife, stranded in Grand Central Station, had a staggering five-hour journey to our area, but not our home. She did not make it to our house until after sunrise the next morning.

My bona fides: We lived through Superstorm Sandy on the south shore of Long Island in 2012, living in our flooded house without electricity for fifteen days. In our new location north of New York City, we lost power for eight days from the second nor’easter of the year to rip through the area and now, we just had four days without power from a line of powerful thunderstorms.

My heightened sense of fear of life without electrics paid off. My house has a built-in generator with its own emergency electrical panel and is powered by a huge propane tank. In the aftermath of Sandy, I had to walk a mile and a half to the closest powered gas station (courtesy of the National Guard) and stand in a long line to get my two gallons of gas for the generator.

My propane generator powers a few things such as the water well, the refrigerator, two outlets, and lights in the kitchen. My stovetop uses the same propane tank, leaving me the ability to cook meals. I can function, even though my cell phone and tablet are poor substitutes for a dedicated desktop connected to the internet.

Still, the loss of electrics throws us into a crisis and overlays our days with an ever-creeping sense of helplessness. Our neighbors are good people at heart and just as helpless. We shared a shot of bourbon as we commiserated over the fallen tree, our cars trapped on both sides. We shook hands with Tony, the contractor working on the house next door, who brought over his chain saws and set his crew to cutting up the tree and moving it out of the road.

The area in which I live is used to trees falling on powerlines. Most of us own generators, which are highly inefficient machines that generate small amounts of electricity while spewing toxic emissions and producing an ear-splitting amount of racket. Our wells require power to bring water into the house. We have temporary measures to ease us through the outages.

My immediate history is not bad luck; it is climate change. Following the science closely because of my job, the models predicted these vicious bouts of weather. Weather events, such as hurricanes hitting Long Island are expected, but the violence of these events is ratcheting up, such as the rain bomb of the Houston hurricane and the wind shears over Puerto Rico and St. Thomas. One hundred and five hundred-year storms are hitting some areas every eighteen months. The most extreme models of climate change are proving to be the most accurate. These events are not my or anyone else’s bad luck; these destructive storms are the outcome of years of spewing carbon into the atmosphere.

I ran into a representative from my local electric utility at a state convention last week, two weeks after the storm. With a brief description, she was able to pinpoint where I lived without me surrendering even a partial address. I asserted, and she confirmed that the present infrastructure was not designed for and had poor resiliency to cope with the climate patterns of the past several years. My experience and the utility’s experience are confirmations that these early effects of climate change are already profound, requiring billions of dollars in infrastructure investment and sweeping changes in human behavior.

I cannot escape these changes. Funny thing about climate: no matter where you are reading this essay, you are experiencing climate change and sometimes, its devasting effects. Like me, you depend upon electricity as an uninterrupted service. When one cell tower goes down, connectivity plummets, bringing work to a stuttering halt. Daily functioning stumbles and work-arounds prove themselves to be fantasies.

This is your life as well; I have a generator at least.

I am Rabbi Glenn Jacob and I am executive director of New York Interfaith Power & Light. Our mission is to inspire and engage people of faith and religious communities to actively steward and sustain our natural environment. In one unified voice of the world’s religions, we lead the battle to bring clean renewable energy to our communities, lobby for energy legislation, and teach others how to bring the many varied voices of our country together to save the planet. Please join us.

Philosophy of Learning 3 (common sense)

  1. לְהַשְׂכִּיל –(to discern) common sense

The old tired cliché is common sense is neither common nor sense. Some go so far as to argue the entire idea of common sense is a fallacy. Definitions of common sense are as varied as the ideas of what common sense might encompass, which is the source of the confusion. One might easily argue that the rubric is a phenomenon that everyone can perceive but no one can comfortably define for everyone else to agree. As Justice Potter Stewart wrote in a Supreme Court decision, it is hard to define pornography, “but I know it when I see it.” (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964) We know common sense when we hear it, which is not only too ambiguous to be useful but also counter-productive. We are left without a definition; nonetheless, the rubric exists.

Common sense can be found in all sorts of human endeavors but no matter where common sense is identified or claimed, two elements must be present. First, there must be a convincing argument. The argument does not have to convince everyone but the argument must have accepted assumptions, a logical progression from point to point, and reasonableness. The first element must be well-structured argument whose conclusion cannot be challenged because one of the assumptions is false.

The second element is all other competing arguments must be disproved. For a common sense point to be valid, the presenter cannot just have the best argument. The presenter has to demonstrate conclusively that the other arguments fail to prove the point they are attempting to make, or unmake as the case may be. This second element is a much higher bar of proof than most other human endeavors.

If one of the two elements is not present, then one holds an opinion rather than a proof. Even if a presenter offers a persuasive argument with gifted tongue and keen insight to sway the most skeptical, unless the presenter meets the higher bar of disproving the other arguments, then all of the bombast is for naught. A good argument is not enough.

From the other side, if all that one can do is prove that the other arguments are inadequate but can offer nothing in their place, the presentation is also a failure. Disproving everyone else is an accomplishment but by itself, this type of argumentation fails. The absence of competition does not convey success because common sense is neither a race nor a battle of wits.

Common sense is rare because both elements together are difficult to create. Common sense is a type of truth, a rarity of human truth that is also universal. Most human truth is flawed because anything mortal is imperfect. Common sense is a high goal but as we can attest, this truth can be achieved.