Books I’d Like to Read Someday

The Mystery of Existence: Why Is There Anything At All?John Leslie & Robert Lawrence Kuhn, eds. (Wiley-Blackwell, April 2013)

This compelling study of the origins of all that exists, including explanations of the entire material world, traces the responses of philosophers and scientists to the most elemental and haunting question of all: why is anything here—or anything anywhere? Why is there something rather than nothing? Why not nothing? It includes the thoughts of dozens of luminaries from Plato and Aristotle to Aquinas and Leibniz to modern thinkers such as physicists Stephen Hawking and Steven Weinberg, philosophers Robert Nozick and Derek Parfit, philosophers of religion Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne, and the Dalai Lama.

  • The first accessible volume to cover a wide range of possible reasons for the existence of all reality, from over 50 renowned thinkers, including Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, Hume, Bertrand Russell, Stephen Hawking, Steven Weinberg, Robert Nozick, Derek Parfit, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, John Polkinghorne, Paul Davies, and the Dalai Lama
  • Features insights by scientists, philosophers, and theologians
  • Includes informative and helpful editorial introductions to each section
  • Provides a wealth of suggestions for further reading and research
  • Presents material that is both comprehensive and comprehensible

Mind, Brain, and Free WillRichard Swinburne (Oxford University Press, May 2013)

Mind, Brain, and Free Will presents a powerful new case for substance dualism (the idea that humans consist of two parts–body and soul) and for libertarian free will (that humans have some freedom to choose between alternatives, independently of the causes which influence them). Richard Swinburne argues that answers to questions about mind, body, and free will depend crucially on the answers to more general philosophical questions. He begins by analyzing the criteria for one event being the same as another, one substance being the same as another, and a state of affairs being metaphysically possible; and then goes on to analyze the criteria for a belief about these issues being justified. Pure mental events (including conscious events) are distinct from physical events and interact with them. Swinburne claims that no result from neuroscience or any other science could show that interaction does not take place; and illustrates this claim by showing that recent scientific work (such as Libet’s experiments) has no tendency whatever to show that our intentions do not cause brain events. He goes on to argue for agent causation, and claims that–to speak precisely–it is we, and not our intentions, that cause our brain events. It is metaphysically possible that each of us could acquire a new brain or continue to exist without a brain; and so we are essentially souls. Brain events and conscious events are so different from each other that it would not be possible to establish a scientific theory which would predict what each of us would do in situations of moral conflict. Hence given a crucial epistemological principle (the Principle of Credulity) we should believe that things are as they seem to be: that we make choices independently of the causes which influence us. According to Swinburne’s lucid and ambitious account, it follows that we are morally responsible for our actions.

Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design – Stephen Meyer (HarperOne, 2013)

When Charles Darwin finished The Origin of Species, he thought that he had explained every clue, but one. Though his theory could explain many facts, Darwin knew that there was a significant event in the history of life that his theory did not explain. During this event, the “Cambrian explosion,” many animals suddenly appeared in the fossil record without apparent ancestors in earlier layers of rock. 

In Darwin’s Doubt, Stephen C. Meyer tells the story of the mystery surrounding this explosion of animal life—a mystery that has intensified, not only because the expected ancestors of these animals have not been found, but because scientists have learned more about what it takes to construct an animal. During the last half century, biologists have come to appreciate the central importance of biological information—stored in DNA and elsewhere in cells—to building animal forms.

Expanding on the compelling case he presented in his last book, Signature in the Cell, Meyer argues that the origin of this information, as well as other mysterious features of the Cambrian event, are best explained by intelligent design, rather than purely undirected evolutionary processes.

God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing a God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered CultureRon Highfield (IVP Academic, February 2013) *

Does God’s all-encompassing will restrict our freedom? Does God’s ownership and mastery over us diminish our dignity? The fear that God is a threat to our freedom and dignity goes far back in Western thought. Such suspicion remains with us today in our so-called secular society. In such a context any talk of God tends to provoke responses that range from defiance to subservience to indifference. How did Western culture come to this place? What impact does this social and intellectual environment have on those who claim to believe in God or more specifically in the Christian God of the Bible? Professor of religion Ron Highfield traces out the development of Western thought that has led us our current frame of mind from Plato, Augustine and Descartes through Locke, Kant, Blake Bentham, Hegel, Nietzsche–all the way down to Charles Taylor’s landmark work Sources of the Self. At the heart of the issue is the modern notion of the autonomous self and the inevitable crisis it provokes for a view of human identity, freedom and dignity found in God. Can the modern self really secure its own freedom, dignity and happiness? What alternative do we have? Highfield makes pertinent use of trinitarian theology to show how genuine Christian faith responds to this challenge by directing us to a God who is not in competition with his human creations, but rather who provides us with what we seek but could never give ourselves. God, Freedom and Human Dignity is essential reading for Christian students who are interested in the debates around secularism, modernity and identity formation.

Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem – Heath A. Thomas, Jeremy Evan, & Paul Copan, eds. (IVP Academic, April 2013).

The challenge of a seemingly genocidal God who commands ruthless warfare has bewildered Bible readers for generations. The theme of divine war is not limited to the Old Testament historical books, however. It is also prevalent in the prophets and wisdom literature as well. Still it doesn’t stop. The New Testament book of Revelation, too, is full of such imagery. Our questions multiply.

  • Why does God apparently tell Joshua to wipe out whole cities, tribes or nations?
  • Is this yet another example of dogmatic religious conviction breeding violence?
  • Did these texts help inspire or justify the Crusades?
  • What impact do they have on Christian morality and just war theories today?
  • How does divine warfare fit with Christ’s call to “turn the other cheek”?
  • Why does Paul employ warfare imagery in his letters?
  • Do these texts warrant questioning the overall trustworthiness of the Bible?

These controversial yet theologically vital issues call for thorough interpretation, especially given a long history of misinterpretation and misappropriaton of these texts. This book does more, however. A range of expert contributors engage in a multidisciplinary approach that considers the issue from a variety of perspectives: biblical, ethical, philosophical and theological. While the writers recognize that such a difficult and delicate topic cannot be resolved in a simplistic manner, the different threads of this book weave together a satisfying tapestry. Ultimately we find in the overarching biblical narrative a picture of divine redemption that shows the place of divine war in the salvific movement of God.

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • Keith Parsons

    Why is there something instead of nothing? Here is the most cogent, philosophically compelling answer: Why not?

    Adolf Grunbaum notes that the question “Why is there anything?” presupposes what he calls “the spontaneity of nothingness.” The poser of that question assumes that the natural, expected, spontaneous condition is for there to be nothing at all. Why make this assumption? It appears completely gratuitous. Why is it a priori more likely to have nothing than something? What reason could be given against the opposite assumption, i.e. the spontaneity of something rather than nothing?

    On the other hand, if we assume, as do defenders of the fine-tuning argument, that there can be objective, a priori probabilities for the actualization of possible worlds, maybe we can talk meaningfully about this. Defenders of the FTA argue that the sheer number of possible life-hostile possible universes is so vastly greater than the number of life-friendly ones, that it is overwhelmingly likely that, apart from divine input, that the actual universe would be life-hostile. But if sheer numbers of possible worlds creates a probability, consider this: There is only one possible world containing nothing. Let’s call it Null World. Its contents are represented by the empty set. On the other hand, there are infinitely many worlds containing something. There is the world with one proton, two protons, three protons, four protons….and so on. Therefore, with only one Null World and infinitely many worlds with something, then, using the same reasoning as defenders of the FTA, there would seem to be odds of infinity to one in favor of a universe with something.

  • David Evans

    I would not hold out much hope for any book that maintains the Cambrian explosion is a problem for evolution. Firstly, it lasted tens of millions of years – plenty of time for major evolutionary change. Secondly, the fossil record of the beginning of that period is understandably patchy because most animals were soft-bodied. In fact the “explosion” more or less coincides with the appearance of hard shells and skeletons. Thirdly, we now have many more fossils of the period than were available to Darwin.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Jeffery, thanks for the list.

    I have always wondered about the meaning of the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”. It does look like it makes sense, but does it really? I mean one cannot go outside the human condition. And in the human condition knowledge is about making sense of our experience of life – which is given. Now within this context it does make sense to ask, for example, why is there a moon rather than no moon – in the sense of trying to find out the place (if any) the moon holds within the great order of things. The same goes for questions such as, why is there evil rather than no evil. In all such cases one imagines a different kind of experience, and tries to discover how come, in the deepest most overarching order of things, these properties of our experience are there.

    One of the orders we find in our experience of life is the regularity of the physical world, and most profoundly in its fundamental constants and laws. To ask why these constants and laws should be as they are and not otherwise makes some sense, because our experience of life is not limited to physical phenomena and one may try to find an even deeper order which would explain them.

    But to ask why is there something rather than nothing is to make a jump outside outside our condition and thus outside the normal process of learning. There is no such thing as conceiving of nothing – it’s self-defeating. It’s like asking for knowledge in a context in which knowledge does not exist. Reason is grounded and starts by what is there already. Roughly: Here’s my experience of life – what sense does it make?

    Richard Swinburne’s book looks very interesting. I have never understood the relevance of the Libet kind of experiments in the context of the free will debate, and it seems to me that those who see any significance whatsoever in them commit the fallacy of affirming the consequent. I also think modern science dissolves the classical objections to dualism. I am curious how Swinburne deals with these issues.

    The book about Darwin’s doubt strikes me as a waste of time. Both on scientific and on theological grounds I don’t think there is a reasonable doubt about the basic correctness of evolutionary theory. The remaining hard and interesting problem is how life begun. And of course the place of consciousness within the naturalistic picture of reality – a in my view unsolvable problem unless the naturalist rejects materialism and embraces some kind of dualistic/axiarchic albeit mechanistic view of reality. Which, as far as I can see, must be a highly exotic metaphysics reminiscent of a sleeping God. Either that, or the slippery path down to nihilism. Or perhaps to escapism and make-believe.

    The book about God, freedom and human dignity strikes me as trying to answer an easy question. Human freedom is an expression of God’s omnipotence, and is there precisely to realize human dignity.

    As for the holy wars in the Bible, what a boring theme. The Old Testament is clearly not just a religious text, but also a nationalistic text.

    A book I would like in turn to suggest is David Mermin’s “Boojuns All The Way Through”. It includes not one but two lucid expositions of the rare occasion where the physical sciences tell us something concrete about metaphysics, namely that the reality which produces physical phenomena cannot be local. Contrary to literally everybody’s naturalistic instincts. The idea that really boggles the mind though is presented in the short chapter “Can you help your team tonight by watching it on TV?” which I think goes far deeper and touches on the fundamental philosophical concepts of possibility and counterfactuals. A great read if one is interested in science or in philosophy, and a must if one is interested in both.