Question of the Week — 6/20/2018

Jun 19, 2018

We know that if you’re looking for a book to base a society upon, the Bible (which is full of violence and death and floods and plagues and whales swallowing people) is not a great choice. Plus, most of it is made up. But what if we had to choose one book of fiction upon which to found a new and prosperous human society? Could we flourish within a moral society if our civilization was founded upon something like Harry Potter, Great Expectations, or The Cat in the Hat?

Our favorite answer will win a copy of Brief Candle in the Dark by Richard Dawkins.


Want to suggest a Question of the Week? E-mail submissions to us at qotw@richarddawkins.net. (Questions only, please. All answers to bimonthly questions are made only in the comments section of the Question of the Week.)

14 comments on “Question of the Week — 6/20/2018

  • American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

    American Psycho would be a significant improvement on the Bible because it’s main protaganist, Patrick Bateman, has a psychopathy synonymous with sociopathy. As a replacement for Moses or Christ Patrick’s out-in-the-open character disorders would be just as obvious as the followers of the former – only the rest of us would be clear that they do, absolutely, have character disorders and not a different ‘worldview’.

    American Psycho’s persistent use of dark humour to highlighht the normality of anti-social behavior, impaired empathy and remorse – and bold, uninhibited, egotistical selfishness would at least be an honest diagnostic of the worst aspects of the human condition.

    The only things missing are the two-faced, self-serving authoritarianism and what Christopher Hitchens described as the (strangely widespread and persistent) “wish to be a serf”.

    Secondary reading, set for initiates into the priesthood: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.

    To quote Christopher Hitchens again: “I don’t think there is any need to have essays advocating selfishness … I don’t know what your impression has been(?), but … some things require no further reinforcement”

    A kind of: The only way from here is up.

  • I’ve changed my mind here a number of times. I can’t compete with the cleverness of proposing Bret Easton Ellis, so I’m going to choose more straight forwardly.

    I had been talking much about Ursula K. Le Guin since her recent death. I thrilled to the new worlds of Earthsea as a teen playing among the Scottish Western Isles while the planet Gethen, The Left Hand of Darkness put me in full charge of my sexuality, wiping away any concerns of being ambidextrous. And both did more to exercise my moral capacities than more onerous and “worthy” books.

    But a place to start a rich and brilliant society is the Lunar Society in Jenny Uglow’s biography of it, “The Lunar Men”. This book and the people it describes represent some kind of Enlightenment peak, when renaissance men were still possible. Where technologists met with scientists, met with poets and artists, entrepreneurs, adventurers, dissidents, Romantics, atheists, and often in the same body, just with different proportions. Childhood was invented and home life made at last delightful (at least in the Erasmus Darwin household) and increasingly child centered. Female writers, chemists, astronomers and poets were quietly championed for the first time.

    This was a great aspirational 30 years mostly overseen by a great king, George III. The Family King modest in his needs, loved by the public and a great financer of science and the arts.

    I would love to see 1770 to 1810 redone when all the best stuff and the myriad ideals really got started and before the grubby, colonial/industrial horrors of the Victorian age puffed up with selfish folk, witless parasites and a regressive religiosity slapped over its rank hypocrisy.

    Why I like this as a book to build upon is because it is about inventing ourselves at every level, nor being prescriptive, using evidence and reason and recognising that art and adventure keeps us human and happy. Classical Greece not oppressive Rome lightened our sky.

  • I would suggest using the book Redwall by Brian Jacques. In this book and throughout the series he develops a healthy world for its inhabitants. He encourages positive social interaction through the peaceful and structured lives of the abbey dwellers and those of the mountain of Salamandastron. He provides examples of young individuals reaching maturity by messing up and learning from life’s trials. The author personifies animals which could serve to guide individuals to view nature as a part of our lives directly and not as a second thought. This book also contains poems, songs, and puzzles which would expose readers to a variety of subjects and trains of thought. Finally this is all done in an easy to read vernacular.

  • We know that if you’re looking for a book to base a society upon,
    the Bible (which is full of violence and death and floods and plagues and whales swallowing people) is not a great choice.
    Plus, most of it is made up.

    If we were looking for a book, which is also made up, but actually explains many aspects of politics, commerce, group-think, cults, lateral thinking, and the gullibility of humans, – with claims to be able to explain the “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything” (42) . . . . . .
    That would be The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

  • I would resist the suggestion that it would be wise, even in a hypothetical or allegorical sense, to base a society on any book (or books) of fiction, or even book(s) of claimed fact. Such an error has been made too many times, and it has never turned out well, the bible being just one example. Other examples include (at least in part) the qua-ran, Hindu vedas, the Communist manifesto, Mein Kampf, etc.

    Fiction should be an echo of the hopes and dreams (along with the dreads and nightmares) of society, but it should not be the other way around. When a society looks to writings of dubious provenance as the basis for its morals, practices and traditions, such writings inevitably degrade into dogma. Dogma never ages well.

  • I’d suggest Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael. Here I’ll include just his “law of limited competition:” “You may compete to the full extent of your capabilities, but you may not hunt down your competitors or destroy their food or deny them access to food. In other words, you may compete but you may not wage war.”

  • I agree with William #5.
    And Vickie’s #6 quote.

    Yes. Who are we to decide today
    what the society of tomorrow should look like ?

    Obviously, 50 years ago, nobody
    could imagine the 21st century.

    I would just like to add three points :

    First, thank you
    for mentioning “Great Expectations” !

    This novel was
    the first one I read in English.
    And the first one by
    Master Dickens.
    I just love his work.
    Thankfully, I still have
    more to discover.

    My first novel was
    Treasure Island (French Translation).
    And Harry Potter made me love Novels.
    So, for the Littérature, Thank you, United Kingdom!
    Also for Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, et Al.

    From what I have learned, even such characters
    as Miss Havisham & Mr. Scrooge can be redeemed !

    Second : For the 21st Century Art,
    I see no better Œuvre than “One Piece”
    by Eiichiro Oda Senseī. For dealing with
    the subject of local Equilibrium in a
    Chaotic World. That is.

    Last but not least :
    Think what you will of the Qur’ān,
    just don’t forget, it inspired
    the invention of Algebra.
    Thus the Arabic name.

    Say what do you think of this,
    as an answer to the two latest
    Questions of the weeks ?
    (No subtitles necessary)—

    In the Name
    of Charity & Good Will.
    https://youtu.be/rzNzHYfPG1g

    Prophet Muhammad was not only a great
    military strategist & martial Artist.
    Plus a very skilled diplomat.

    He was also a visionary of Science
    and up to now, the greatest Philosopher of all times.
    Not the evangelists. Neither the crusaders.
    That goes for all kinds of denominations.

    Jumuâa Mubāraka.
    we Šabbat Šalom.

    Peace & Tick Tock ★

  • Zaraϑuštra #7
    Jun 29, 2018 at 2:43 pm

    Think what you will of the Qur’ān,
    just don’t forget, it inspired
    the invention of Algebra.
    Thus the Arabic name.

    In its prime, Muslim culture preserved and developed some of the knowledge of the ancients, when the Christian dark-ages were promoting ignorance and superstition in Europe, but the claims to have invented scientific and mathematical knowledge is far-fetched!

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algebra#History

    The roots of algebra can be traced to the ancient Babylonians,[8] who developed an advanced arithmetical system with which they were able to do calculations in an algorithmic fashion. The Babylonians developed formulas to calculate solutions for problems typically solved today by using linear equations, quadratic equations, and indeterminate linear equations. By contrast, most Egyptians of this era, as well as Greek and Chinese mathematics in the 1st millennium BC, usually solved such equations by geometric methods, such as those described in the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, Euclid’s Elements, and The Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art.
    The geometric work of the Greeks, typified in the Elements, provided the framework for generalizing formulae beyond the solution of particular problems into more general systems of stating and solving equations, although this would not be realized until mathematics developed in medieval Islam.

  • Zaraϑuštra #7
    Jun 29, 2018 at 2:43 pm

    You were doing fine until you got to the part about the Koran.

    You overestimate the literary value of your book. What good is beautiful poetry about hellfire, pain and suffering? The lifestyle promoted in the Koran is a nightmare existence to most people in this world. You know very well it reduces women to a life of domestic and reproductive slavery – a real hell on earth. For a man of means it’s a recipe to build a tribal dominance scheme. For everybody else it’s all about submission. That’s no way to live.

    We can do better than that and we ARE doing better than that.

    Our question of the week says:

    But what if we had to choose one book of fiction upon which to found a new and prosperous human society?

    Societies today that are based on the writings of the Koran are among the most impoverished, brutal hell holes on the face of this earth. They have a monopoly on misery. They are locked in a barbaric two thousand year old Middle Eastern nightmare and resistant to all of the progress that brought the West into a much better life, measurable on many aspects.

    Zara, you have shown some interest in reading some novels in English. The novels of Dickens reveal to us the suffering of the poor and the powerless of the Victorian era, many years ago. We have made improvement in our morality and our understanding of human rights since then. Aren’t you curious how we did that? You can be sure that it wasn’t by turning the Bible into a model of twenty-first century reality.

    Please read novels that give instruction on how to move OUT of the dark ages and not straight back into them.

    The only thing that I can grant you is that at least it’s true that the Koran is, like the question of the week requires here, a work of fiction.

  • Alan #8
    Thank you for the remark.
    I do agree with your point.

    And I actually meant
    Algebra as a scientific discipline.
    True the knowledge existed, dispersed,
    but it was unified and consolidated.
    By the same descendants
    of those ancients.

    Persians, Hindustanis,
    Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Lybians,
    Anatolians, Moors, Israëlites, etc.

    Only this time,
    they had several tongues
    and at least one language in common.
    Teamwork makes the dream work.

    Thus the Golden Age
    of the Arabic Civilisation.

    & the Renaissance in Europe.
    Because Art & Science belongs
    to the whole of mankind. —

    Now, however,
    why not help one another
    on the way ? Makes it much easier.
    As spoke the prophet Bob Marley.

    For the Qur’ān,
    the narratives were known,
    what was original is the Narration.
    Non linear montage. Gives you
    a whole new perspective.

    Because 2000 years of history
    could not be wiped so easily.

    Prejudice for regularity and simplicity is a source of error that has only too often infected philosophy. — Roger Joseph Bošcovich.

    The name philosopher, which meant originally ‘lover of wisdom,’ has come in some strange way to mean a man who thinks it is his business to explain everything in a certain number of large books. — William Kingdon Clifford.

    Whoever thinks algebra is a trick in obtaining unknowns has thought it in vain. No attention should be paid to the fact that algebra and geometry are different in appearance. — Omar Khayyām.

    Geometry enlightens the intellect and sets one’s mind right. All its proofs are very clear and orderly. It is hardly possible for errors to enter into geometrical reasoning, because it is well arranged and orderly. Thus, the mind that constantly applies itself to geometry is not likely to fall into error. In this convenient way, the person who knows geometry acquires intelligence. — Ibn Khaldūn.

    Your point : Algebraic Topology
    existed long before it was invented.

    My point :
    We had to name it
    at some point.

    No contradiction.

    But then again.
    Why choose Arabic ?
    You can figure that out 🙂

    Peace & God Bless ★

  • LaurieB #9
    You’re doing fine.
    Except when you’re speaking
    of that which you do not
    really know.

    Did you know
    the oldest University
    in the world, still operational,
    was founded by a woman ?

    Her name was Fatima Al-Fihria,
    and she lived in the city of Fès,
    Morocco. Twelve centuries ago.

    Aren’t you curious
    how she did that ?

    Back in the day,
    We were the safe haven for
    war refugees & persecuted minorities.
    Remember Spanish Inquisition ?
    Times change. Pœples evolve.

    Who knows,
    maybe after 1400 years,
    into the History, we’ll see
    another worldwide
    Renaissance.

    The Qur’ān says,
    in the first révélation : « Read. »
    If only his hosts would
    consider this…

    When the Qur’ān says “The Book”
    it doesn’t necessarily mean scriptures.
    It also means the Symphony of Creation.

    In the same sense as Paul Erdős, Plato,
    & Richard Dawkins meant by “The Book”.
    I hope we do understand each other.

    We should not be ashamed to acknowledge truth from whatever source it comes to us, even if it is brought to us by former generations and foreign peoples. For him who seeks the truth there is nothing of higher value than truth itself. — Al-Kindi.

    Peace & Unity ★

  • Zaraϑuštra #11
    Jun 29, 2018 at 4:54 pm

    Except when you’re speaking
    of that which you do not
    really know.

    You don’t know what I know and what I don’t know.

    Aren’t you curious
    how she did that ?

    Yes, but it’s off topic.

    Back in the day,

    Many people who visit this website are aware of the history of the Middle East, North Africa and Andalusia. It’s very interesting, of course. I’ve never seen any denial of the role that Arabic culture played in that time. Many important contributions. This is not to say that life at that time was a heaven on earth. Brutal savagery existed along side of the intellectual contributions that you mention above.

    But why is it, Zara, that every time we embark on a discussion of Islam and the Koran, the stream of conversation drifts right back to the glories of Andalusia and the good ole days of the Islamic Golden Age? The question of the week says:

    But what if we had to choose one book of fiction upon which to found a new and prosperous human society?

    So Zara, forget about the Golden Age. We want to hear about a book that would lead us to a better society NOW. Are you going to say it’s the Koran that could lead us there? If so, there are a few verses that I would like to discuss with you. 🙁

    The “good ole days” were NOT as good as you might believe them to be. Be careful what you wish for.

    Who knows,
    maybe after 1400 years,
    into the History, we’ll see
    another worldwide
    Renaissance.

    Have you ever heard of the Enlightenment? As much as I am fascinated by the Renaissance, love the art, architecture and the crazy social drama of that time, there was something that came after it that resulted in the social revolutions that make the West a better place to live than places that DID NOT take on the revolutionary concepts and ideas that were promoted by the master philosophers and scientists of that era. In the European Enlightenment, the power of the church was punched down so that secular ideas could see the light of day.

    This is why, Zara, the Koran, the Bible, the Jewish holy books, and the other spiritual references that you mentioned above, could NOT serve as a roadmap to a better society. They are woefully empty of the modern day ethics that would be required to construct, as our question requires, a new and prosperous human society. In societies of the world where the Koran is the go-to source for right and wrong, good and bad, valuable and not valuable, we see morality and values that are frozen in time from a dark age of human life. People who follow these barbaric books have no real moral compass and make life a misery on earth for themselves and everyone around them.

  • Zaraϑuštra #11
    Jun 29, 2018 at 4:54 pm

    Did you know
    the oldest University
    in the world, still operational,
    was founded by a woman ?

    There are lessons to be learned from the European “Enlightenment” when secular science, mathematics, and engineering, once again started to flourish, as the theocratic Dominance of the Roman Church and its dogmas were broken down, and creative thinkers were no longer severely repressed. (eg. Galileo)

    We can see in America and other countries, that when universities become bible colleges or madrassas, their graduates are profoundly ignorant of science, scientific methodology, and logical reasoning, but can quote masses of mythology, historical pseudo-science, and doctrine, from memory!

    Unfortunately, if we look at modern Islam dominated countries, we see the same theological repression which historically characterised Christianity’s Dark-Ages, when much ancient knowledge was lost or purged as heresy – along with the same religious inter-sect and interdenominational fights persecutions, crusades, and wars.

    The Ancient Greeks had mechanical computers to precisely calculate the orbits of the planets and the calendar, – mechanisms which were later acquired from them by Romans!

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antikythera_mechanism#Mechanism

    Such knowledge was lost for centuries, once the theocracies came to dominate and substitute their “religious knowledge of mythology”, for scientific learning.

    For information to enable modern living and historical understanding Wikipedia is quite a good basic “book”!

  • Hi Zaraϑuštra [#7],

    You ask:

    Who are we to decide today what the society of tomorrow should look like ?

    Will the house of tommorow be built with no plan? It has been true through all history that those who live today are the architects of tommorow.

    Obviously, 50 years ago, nobody could imagine the 21st century.

    How is that obvious to you?

    I have been alive for more than 50 years. Some things I could have predicted with ease – and did. Some changes I could not predict, but were predicted by others.

    Some things that have changed in the last 50 years were not predicted, but that does not mean we can throw away all of the predictions of the past – many still stand as acurate foresight.

    From what I have learned, even such characters as Miss Havisham & Mr. Scrooge can be redeemed !

    Yes, one of the great advantages of reading fiction is that we can all learn more about each other.

    Second : For the 21st Century Art,I see no better Œuvre than “One Piece” by Eiichiro Oda Senseī. For dealing with the subject of local Equilibrium in a Chaotic World. That is.

    I am not familiar with Manga. Although my Daughter is a big fan it didn’t prevent her from graduating in English, so I guess it’s not too bad. Unfortunately she’s in Canada right now, so unavailable to answer questions on whether Manga is a good basis for an ethical and moral society. From what little I’ve seen of One Piece it’s a great adventure story and lightweight as far as philosophy is concerned. Asking Manga to support a larger social agenda than simply being entertaining seems to me to be a big ask – but, as I say, I’m no expert.

    Think what you will of the Qur’ān …

    Oh I will.

    Thank you for listing the Koran as fiction by the way, that avoids one boring argument.

    I will avoid saying anything about algebra, as you have discussed this above.

    Your post to a YouTube video of Koranic chanting is a mystery to me. What point were you trying to make? There were some lovely images of the beautiful World we live in, and which only prompted me to think about how fast we’re destroying it all – not helped by the chanting being in Arabic which for me is synonymous with fossil fuels. The chanting, in a language I do not understand, got a bit tedious after a while so I started to get depressed and switched it off.

    Prophet Muhammad was not only a military strategist & martial Artist. Plus a very skilled diplomat. He was also a visionary of Science and up to now, the greatest Philosopher of all times.

    That’s a long series of very big claims – all presented without evidence.

    When I study Mohammed I find a very different story, for example: Mohammed was a false prohet, Mohammed posed as an apostle of a god yet lived a life full of bloodshed and lust. Mohammed was a warlord (he led at least 27 military campaigns – mostly raids on innocent villages and caravans – and he demanded 20% of all the booty), and a tyrant to those he ruled over demanding nothing less than submission. The Koran is, demonstrably even today, largely plagiarised from pagan, jewish and christian writings – since re-worked mostly in order that the words sound poetic in Arabic, and the Koran was written in order to promote him over previous holy men either by saying that he is a greater prophet, or to simply demote them, by fiat.

    I know of no philosophy from Mohammed (PBUH) that is taught in secular (religiosly neutral) philosophy classes.

    I know of no science from Mohammed (PBUH) that is taught in secular (religiosly neutral) science classes.

    As a book of fiction to replace the Bible, therefore, the Koran has some merit I’ll grant you. But it also seems to suffer many of the same problems.

    Peace.

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