American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology by D. W. Pasulka

I don’t know what to make of this book. The author is a professor in the Philosophy and Religion Department at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. The book was published by Oxford University Press. It’s received positive reviews in a number of reputable publications.

For the most part, Professor Pasulka treats the subject of UFOs or “unidentified aerial phenomena” from a scholarly perspective. She says the book is “about contemporary religion, using as a case study the phenomenon known as the UFO. It is also about technology” [1], in particular, how technology can affect the development of religion. A well-known example is how the printing press allowed the the mass production of Bibles in languages other than Latin. Widespread use of that powerful new technology contributed greatly to the Protestant Reformation. Based on her research, she believes there is a “widespread and growing religiosity focused on UFOs”, not only because of evidence or testimony regarding UFOs, but because the mass media (especially TV shows and movies) have convinced millions of people that UFOs represent highly-advanced technology, possibly of extraterrestrial origin.

To further her argument, she points out that religious references to supernatural events and entities often sound just like contemporary reports of strange phenomena in the skies and visitations from otherworldly beings. She argues that people who report contact with extraterrestrials are often greatly affected, in the same way that figures from religious history who reported visions (of the Virgin Mary, for example) were said to be affected.

I’m not sure there really is “widespread and growing religiosity focused on UFOs”. Maybe there will be one day. But I don’t think it’s going to happen unless more evidence is provided. One of the problems with American Cosmic is that the scientists and technologists who speak to the author about their beliefs aren’t identified. She says there is a significant group of well-known, extremely successful individuals who are convinced we are being visited by beings from other worlds or other dimensions. Some of them believe these beings are helping us make technological progress, rather like the mysterious black monoliths did in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Unfortunately, these respected researchers apparently insist on remaining anonymous out of fear that their professional reputations will suffer. So when Professor Pasulka tells us how she visited a secret location in the New Mexico desert in the company of one of these world-famous researchers, and that they found an artifact there, which other scientists later determined was “so anomalous as to be incomprehensible”, which “could not have been generated or created on Earth”, which “could not have been made in this universe”, we  are asked to take her word for it [240].

I didn’t find the parts of the book dealing with the relationship between religion and technology, or the detailed biographies of various researchers, very interesting. The descriptions of UFO sightings and bizarre visitations, however, were interesting in the way that good science fiction can be interesting. I didn’t come away convinced that all of the incredible stories are true. On the other hand, when you read stories in the New York Times or see something like this on CNN, who knows? (Note: the CNN story features the dangerous clown who lives in the White House for a few seconds at the end. Just a warning.)

Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties by Tom O’Neill

This book comes with a story. The author got an assignment from an entertainment magazine to write about the effect of the Manson Family murders on Hollywood. It was to be published in 1999, to mark the thirty-year anniversary of the horrible events of August 1969.  The magazine went out of business before he finished the article. In fact, he never finished the article. He finished this book instead. Chaos was published this year, in time to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the murders. He found the subject so complex and so mysterious, he did so much research, he conducted so many interviews, that it took him twenty years to finally publish something (with the help of another writer). The story of how the book got written is part of the book.

I bought Chaos after reading a brief interview with the author in the New York Times. Having grown up in Southern California and being old enough to remember 1969, I was  interested in the topic, not especially in Manson or his followers, but in the setting, the investigation and prosecution, and one of the people involved, Dennis Wilson.

The book’s subtitle refers to the “secret history” of the Sixties. Some of the history the author recounts isn’t that secret. It’s been known for years that police departments, the FBI and the CIA engaged in questionable, even illegal, practices in the Sixties, trying to fight or take advantage of the counterculture.

The real secrets the author uncovers pertain to relationships between Manson and various organs of the state, including the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the Los Angeles Police Department, the office of the L.A. County District Attorney, Manson’s parole officers, scientists on the government payroll and shadowy figures apparently associated with the FBI or CIA. He doesn’t figure out that someone else committed the crimes, but he does cast a lot of doubt on the famous “Helter Skelter” explanation for what happened, i.e. that Manson wanted to start a race war and thought killing innocent people who lived in nice houses would do the trick.

O’Neill lists some of his accomplishments:

I’d discovered [what] no one else had, what I knew I had to share with the world. Like: Stephen Kay [a Manson prosecutor] telling me that my findings were important enough to overturn the verdicts. Lewis Watnick, the retired DA, saying that Manson had to be an informant. [Researcher] Jolly West writing to his CIA handlers to announce that he’d implanted a false memory in someone….The DA’s office conspiring with a judge to replace a defense attorney. Charlie Guenther fighting back tears to tell me about the wiretap he’d heard [which suggested the murders were committed to help jailed Family member Bobby Beausoleil look innocent]. [425-426]

But way too many mysteries remained:

The evidence I’d amassed against the official version of the Manson murders was so voluminous, from so many angles, that it was overdetermined. I could poke a thousand holes in the story, but I couldn’t say what really happened. In fact, the major arms of my research were often in contradiction with one another. It couldn’t be the case that the truth involved a drug burn gone wrong [revenge for being sold poor quality drugs], orgies with Hollywood elite, a counter-insurgency trained CIA infiltrator in the Family, a series of unusually lax sheriff’s deputies and district attorneys and judges and parole officers, an FBI plot to smear leftists and Black Panthers, an effort to see if research on drugged mice applied to hippies, and LSD mind-control experiments tested in the field … could it? There was no way. [394-395]

The two tantalizing theories I came away with were (1) that Manson was a government informant, which explains why he was able to get away with so much obvious criminal behavior without being tossed back in prison for violating his parole, and (2) that an uneducated ex-con like him was able to convince a group of hippies to commit terrible crimes because somebody who had researched the question taught him how to use acid and speed to screw with impressionable people’s minds. Whether either of those theories have any truth to them, you’ll come away from Chaos convinced that there is more to the story than what was reported over and over fifty years ago and has been repeated ever since.

Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason by Justin E. H. Smith

Smith teaches philosophy at the University of Paris. This book is more of a survey than a history. He has chapters on irrationality as it relates to logic, nature, dreams, art, myth, pseudoscience, humor, the internet and death. He occasionally discusses the fact that the American president is a dangerous buffoon. (Or, as a New York Times columnist put it so well: “The most powerful country in the world is being run by a sundowning demagogue whose oceanic ignorance is matched only by his gargantuan ego”. Or, as a Washington Post columnist concluded: “If he can’t argue that he has delivered prosperity, all that remains is the single most repugnant human being to ever sit in the Oval Office, befouling everything he touches”. But back to the book.)

Smith argues that the difference between rationality and irrationality often depends on one’s perspective. For example, is it rational or irrational to concern ourselves so much with the future when we’re all going to die anyway? It depends on what our goals are. His principal thesis is that “irrationality is as potentially harmful as it is humanly ineradicable, and that efforts to eradicate it are themselves supremely irrational” [287].

It’s an interesting book, but I’d say the first part of that last sentence didn’t need to be proved (irrationality is harmful, both actually and potentially, and will never be eliminated) — and that Smith fails to prove the second part (that efforts to eliminate irrationality are supremely irrational).

This is from his chapter on death and one of the best passages in the book:

… what lifted the soldier out of his foxhole was not his faculty of reason, but rather something deeper, something we share with the animals, which the Greeks called “thumos” and which is sometimes translated as “spiritedness”. It is a faculty that moves the body without any need for deliberation. It is like something that propels us when we are driven by desire, when we dive into a mosh pit or into bed with someone we don’t quite trust. It is something to which we are more prone when we are drunk, or enraged, or enlivened by the solidarity and community of a chanting crowd.

These manifestations of irrationality, it should be clear, are, as he saying goes, beyond good and evil. Life would be unlivable if they were suppressed entirely. But to what precise extent should they be tolerated or, perhaps, encouraged? It will do no good to say flatly that they should be tolerated “in a reasonable balance” or “in moderation”. For the ideal of moderation is one that is derived from reason, and it is manifestly unfair to allow reason to determine what share it should itself have in human life in a competition between it and unreason. So if we can neither eliminate unreason, nor decide on a precise amount of it that will be ideal for human thriving, we will probably just have to accept that this will always remain a matter of contention, that human beings will always be failing or declining to act on the basis of rational calculation of expected outcomes, and that onlookers, critics and gossipers will always disagree as to whether their actions are worthy of blame or praise.

The speeder and the duelist and the others seem guilty of no failure to correctly infer from what they already know, in order to make decisions that maximize their own interests. Rather, in these cases, there is a rejection of the conception of life that it must be a maximization of one’s own long-term interests in order to be a life worth living [263-264].

The Book of General Ignorance by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson

Someone gave me this book, but I don’t remember when. It’s been sitting in the smallest room in the house for quite a while, because it’s the kind of book that’s best to dip into. It consists of more than 200 questions that you might think you know the answer to, but probably don’t.

So the first question is: “What’s the name of the tallest mountain in the world?” Mount Everest, you say? Well, actually, according to the current convention, the “tallest” mountain in the world is Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. It boasts the greatest distance between its top and bottom (33,465 feet). It just so happens that its bottom is in the ocean. Mount Everest, on the other hand, is the “highest” mountain, measured from sea level up to its summit (at 29,029 feet).

It’s that kind of book.

One more:

“What shape did medieval people think the earth was?” The authors don’t actually say. What they do say is that hardly anyone thought it was flat. The idea that Columbus was trying to prove the earth was round most likely originated in a book by Washington Irving written in 1828. Ten years later, an Englishman seriously tried to prove it was round. The subtitle of his book was “A Description of Several Experiments Which Prove That the Surface of the Sea is a Perfect Plane and That the Earth Is Not a Globe”. Columbus thought it was pear-shaped and about a quarter of its actual size. (Back around 200 B.C., a very smart man named Eratosthenes of Cyrene got within 10% of the actual circumference.)

Ok, just one more: “What is the loudest thing in the ocean?” This one I found hard to believe. The blue whale produces the loudest noise of any individual animal in the ocean or on land, but the loudest natural noise of all is made by shrimp. So-called “snapping shrimp” live in tropical and subtropical waters. Trillions of them will get together and snap their single over-sized claw all at once. The sound they make has been measured at 246 decibels (the equivalent of 160 decibels in the air, or louder than a jet plane taking off). The sound of this “shrimp layer” can damage a submarine’s sonar and make dents in a ship’s propeller. Really?

Yes, it’s that kind of book.

 

Picture by Lillian Ross

Lillian Ross was a writer for the New Yorker magazine for many years. In 1950, John Huston, the director of The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, invited her to come to California and see how a movie was made. The movie in question was The Red Badge of Courage, based on Stephen Crane’s classic Civil War novel of the same name. It’s the story of a young soldier who runs away from a battle but overcomes his fear.

When Ross arrived in California, Huston and the movie’s producer, Gottfried Reinhardt, were still working on the script. Ross closely observed the whole movie-making process, up until the film’s release in late 1951, spending hours with everyone invovled. She even lived in Huston’s guest house. The process may have changed since then, but I have a feeling the personalities and the power plays haven’t.

On one side, there was John Huston, the acclaimed director with a big personality, and the less flamboyant Reinhardt, an Austrian émigré from a theatrical family. They wanted to make an excellent movie that would also make money. On the other side were Louis B. Mayer, the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and the management of Loew’s Theaters, the New York corporation that owned MGM. Mayer thought it was a mistake to make the movie, arguing that it had no stars and no story and wouldn’t sell tickets. Loew’s management was even less interested in the movie’s quality. They saw it as a pure business proposition.

The only reason MGM agreed to make the movie was the man in the middle, Dore Schary. He was Head of Production at MGM. He was enthusiastic about the project and convinced Mayer and Loew’s to fund it for $1.5 million, a substantial sum in 1950. Mayer probably agreed to make it so he could tell Schary “I told you so”. The head of Loew’s, who everyone called Mr. Schenk, probably allowed it so Dore Schary would learn a valuable lesson about art vs. commerce.

Ross describes how closely Huston and Reinhardt worked together, trying to keep the budget under control but still making something they’d be proud of. The suspense builds as the film is shot, mostly on location; as batches of film are reviewed at the studio; as the final product is scored and edited, with changes being made all along for both financial and artistic reasons. We see Huston, Reinhardt and Schary constantly reassuring each other that it would be a great picture and also sell tickets.

Finally, The Red Badge of Courage is presented to a “sneak preview” audience. The preview doesn’t go well. That leads to even more changes and more previews. Dore Schary eventually takes control and institutes bigger changes over Reinhardt’s objections, while John Huston sails away to make The African Queen.

The main things I took away from Picture are that a movie’s producer probably has a much bigger role than I realized; that most directors aren’t in total control of their movies, unlike what’s sometimes suggested; that people in Hollywood circa 1950 talked a lot, but rarely listened to anyone they didn’t think was important; and that nobody called it a “movie”, a “film” or a “motion picture” — it was always simply a “picture”, as in “It’s going to be a great picture, isn’t it, sweetie? It sure is, kid!”

Having spent so much time with The Red Badge of Courage, and having closely followed the addition of this scene and the elimination of that one, I want to read the novel again (it didn’t impress me in high school) and then see the picture again (I think I saw it once and it didn’t impress me either). As they say, that’s Hollywood!

Adam Smith: Father of Economics by Jesse Norman

I’m very glad I read this. I mainly knew of Smith that he wrote The Wealth of Nations and a rarely read book called The Theory of Moral Sentiments; that he explained how productive a division of labor can be; that he was a very good friend of David Hume; and that he is viewed as a champion of “the free market”, especially by libertarians and so-called “conservatives” (who sometimes wear Adam Smith ties around their right-wing necks). The most important thing I learned about Smith was that he wasn’t a libertarian at all. He understood that a market economy cannot work properly without government regulation. He also knew that economic decisions cannot be divorced from politics or morality.

I’ll quote from the book’s last chapter, “Why It Matters”:

How can the benefits of markets be safeguarded and extended, and their ill-effects contained?… We need a new master-narrative for our times. We need better frameworks of public understanding, better explanations … through which we can come to terms with these issues. But to create them, we must return to the dawn of our economic modernity and to Adam Smith himself. Not to Smith the caricature one-note libertarian alternately celebrated by his partisans and denounced by his detractors, but to what Smith actually thought, across all his writings, from ethics to jurisprudence to political economy…

The real Smith was not an intellectual turncoat who switched from altruism in The Theory of Moral Sentiments to egoism in The Wealth of Nations. He was not a market fundamentalist, an economic libertarian, or in that strong sense a laissez-faire economist. He was not an advocate of selfishness, … the creator of homo economicus or the founder of predatory capitalism… He is rightly called the father of economics, conceptually because he was the first to put markets squarely at the center of economic thought, and practically because there are few if any economists … who do not stand in his intellectual debt….But his political economy ranges far wider that economics alone, and he could with equal justice be considered one of the founding father of sociology….

For many people, Smith’s political economy will always hold center stage; both as a model of economic analysis and for his specific insights into human behavior, markets, trade, specialization and the division of labor, taxation and the negative effect of subsidies, bounties and protection. Others will admire his moral egalitarianism, his feeling for the underdog, his belief in the importance of dignity and respectability to people’s status and sense of self, the way he minimizes inequality within his “natural system of liberty”, his devastating attack on crony capitalism, his … theory of human development, his historical analysis of the supersession of feudalism by commerce and his extremely subtle exploration and defense of commercial society… Still others will recognize the foundational importance of his theory of moral and social norms….

We have a president who ignores moral and social norms, whose greed is without limit and who fully embraces crony capitalism. But he’s a Republican, so most people would say he’s following in Adam Smith’s footsteps. That does Smith a disservice. The truth is that a progressive Democrat like Senator Elizabeth Warren is much closer to Smith. She believes in capitalism but understands that the government has a crucial role in making sure markets work for the benefit of society as a whole. That is pure Adam Smith.

Knowledge: A Very Short Introduction by Jennifer Nagel

This entry in the Oxford University Press series of “very short introductions” was recommended on a popular philosophy blog, so I gave it a try. It deals with questions like these:

What is knowledge? What is the difference between just thinking that something is true and actually knowing that it is? How are we able to know anything at all?

This isn’t a general introduction to epistemology, but since that branch of philosophy is also known as “the theory of knowledge”, it comes pretty close. The author doesn’t provide her own answers to the questions above. Instead, she explains the answers given by various philosophers from ancient times to the present. There are chapters on skepticism and the debate between rationalists and empiricists, but the more interesting discussion begins with what’s known as the “Gettier problem”.

Most philosophers have accepted the idea that a belief counts as knowledge if it is both true and justified. Truth isn’t enough. I might believe there are precisely 11 coins in your pocket, and you might actually have 11 coins in your pocket, but unless I have a good reason for believing there are 11, and not some other amount, I don’t really know you have 11. I’m just making a lucky guess. For me to know you have 11 coins, I need a reason for thinking that’s how many there are, e.g. I saw you empty your pocket and then put exactly 11 coins back in.

A philosopher named Edmund Gettier wrote a short paper in 1963 that challenged the standard idea that knowledge is the same as true, justified belief. He argued that a belief can be very well-justified and also quite true, but not count as knowledge. For example, I might believe you own a Chevrolet, since you bought my Chevrolet a while back. Then, this morning, I noticed that you drove that same Chevrolet to work. So it’s reasonable for me to believe you own a Chevrolet. Most people would say I know you own one.

But what if you secretly sold your Chevrolet to someone else yesterday, and the buyer said you could borrow it for the day. Furthermore, what if you used the money you got from selling your old Chevrolet yesterday to buy a new one last night? You do, in fact, own a Chevrolet, and I have very good reasons to believe you do, but the Chevrolet you own isn’t the one I saw you drive into the parking lot. Do I actually know you still own a Chevrolet or am I merely making a well-founded but lucky guess? My belief that you own a Chevrolet is true, and justified, but, according to Gettier (and many other philosophers), I don’t actually know you own one. For all I know, you could have sold your Chevrolet and bought a Ford last night, and I’d still be convinced you owned a Chevrolet. It just so happens you bought another Chevrolet, which makes my belief that you own one true, but I’m ignorant of the true situation. I don’t know you still own a Chevrolet. I merely assume you do. And my very reasonable assumption just happens to be true.

Philosophers have been analyzing Gettier’s article and offering ways around it for years, but there is still no general agreement as to what knowledge is. Nor is there general agreement about the other questions Prof. Nagel asks. Personally, I think it’s almost impossible to find simple answers to traditional philosophical questions. That’s why the questions have lingered so long. One reason is that philosophers too often try to find “the answer”, arguing that something like knowledge amounts to X or Y, when the best answer is that X, Y and Z, as well as A, B and C, all capture aspects of the problem they’re working on.

So, I recommend Knowledge: A Very Short Introduction, especially if you find topics like the Gettier problem interesting. It’s a good summary of some key issues in the theory of knowledge, although you’ll probably be left with more questions than answers.