The Theology of Prosperity in Theory and in Practice: Rhetorical and Theological Implications and Practical Sociocultural Effects [Final Draft, May 11, 2017]

•May 11, 2017 • Leave a Comment

 

  1. Where Does the Prosperity Gospel Come From?

 

According to Duke University Divinity School Professor of the History of Christianity in North America Kate Bowler, it is possible to trace the prosperity gospel to Bethel Bible Institute founder Essek Kenyon [1867-1948]. Bowler writes that the Prosperity gospel sprung from the “New Thought” movement, more specifically the teaching of Unity Church founder Charles Fillmore [1854-1948].[1] Georgia College and State University Associate Professor of Sociology Bradley Koch traces its origins back further, to the “Great Awakening” of 1730.

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary Professor of Christian Ethics David Jones believes it is possible to trace the theological origins of the Prosperity Gospel further back still, to eighteenth century German philosopher and theologian Friederich Schleiermacher [1768-1834].[2]

Koch further traces the specifics of the modern gospel of prosperity to Oral Roberts University founder Granville Roberts [1918-2009] and associates it with Kenneth Hagin [1917-2003], a disciple of Kenyon’s, “Father” of the Word of Faith Movement. Harvard University Divinity School Professor of Divinity Harvey Cox writes that the Prosperity Gospel “owed much” to the “positive thinking” school of American Minister Norman Peale [1898-1993].[3]

Jones writes that Roberts is “regarded by many to be the father of the prosperity gospel movement”. Roberts claims that his ministry began when god miraculously led him to Verse Two of Chapter One of the Third Book of John: “Dear Friend, I pray that you may prosper in every way and be in good health physically just as you are spiritually”; which Roberts interpreted to mean that god wanted believers to “prosper in all things” and therefore as a revelation of the Prosperity Gospel. Professor Jones points out that the word translated as “prosperity” in the verse in question is the Greek word “eujodovw”, meaning “to grant an expedition and expeditious journey” and “be led along a good road” or “to lead by a direct and easy way”.

However, Roberts’ miraculous revelation set the trend for future Prosperity preachers. Koch points out that in the Prosperity theology “a preacher’s “calling” is seen as divine and his charisma as inspired and sufficient”, as a result of which Prosperity gospel preachers do not receive formal training.

 

  1. What Does the Prosperity Gospel Say?

 

Professor Koch summarizes the prosperity gospel thusly: “Adherents to the Prosperity Gospel believe that wealth is a sign of god’s blessing and the poor are poor because of a lack of faith.”[4] American Prosperity Gospel televangelist Robert Tilton described the theology of prosperity thusly:

I believe that it is the will of god for all to prosper because I see it in the word of god, not because it has worked mightily for someone else. I do not put my eyes on men, but on god who gives me the power to get wealth.”[5]

 

Faith;” writes Prosperity Preacher Kenneth Copeland; “Is a spiritual force, a spiritual energy, a spiritual power. It is this force of faith which makes the laws of the spirit world function.” “There are certain laws governing prosperity revealed in god’s word.” He explains. “Faith causes them to function.”[6]True prosperity;” Copeland writes; “Is the ability to use God’s power to meet the needs of mankind in any realm of life.”[7]

If you make up your mind…that you are willing to live in divine prosperity and abundance…divine prosperity will come to pass in your life. You have exercised your faith.”[8]

 

According to Copeland, the theological basis for the Prosperity gospel is the Abrahamic Covenant in Chapters 12-28 of the Book of Genesis, writing “Since god’s covenant has been established and prosperity is a provision of this covenant, you need to realize that prosperity belongs to you now.”[9] The prophecy in question begins in Verse Seven of Chapter 12: “Then the lord appeared to Abram and said “I’m going to give this land to your descendants”.[10] It continues in Verses 14-16 of Chapter Thirteen:

And the lord said unto Abram after Lot separated himself from him, lift up now thine eyes and look from the place where thou art towards the Aquilon [the land of the north wind] and to the Negev [the south desert] and to the east and west; I am giving all this land, as far as you can see, to you and your descendants as a permanent possession. I’ll make your descendants as plentiful as the specks of dust of the Earth, so that if one could count the specks of dust of the Earth, then your descendants could also be counted.”

 

The prophecy gets specific in Verse Eighteen of Chapter 15: “That very day the lord made this covenant with Abram: “I’m giving this land to your descendants, from the River of Egypt to the great Euphrates River”.[11] The prophecy get more or less specific in Verse Eight of Chapter 17: “I will give the whole land of Canaan—the land where you are now residing—to you and your descendants after you as a permanent possession”. The prophecy continues in Verse Seventeen of Chapter 22: “I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be as countless as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the seashore”.[12] This particular part of the prophecy is repeated in Verse Four of Chapter 26: “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and give all these lands to your descendants.”[13] This is repeated again in Verse Fourteen of Chapter 28: “Your descendants will be as numerous as the dust of the Earth”.[14]

Needless to say, this prophecy went unfulfilled, on two levels:

  • Firstly on the prophesized Jewish population being greater than the number of stars and the number of grains of sand, according to Hebrew University of Jerusalem Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry Professor of Population Studies Sergio DellaPergola, the global Jewish population is around 14.2 million, or 1.42×10^7.[15] According to a December 2010 article in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature by Yale University Department of Astronomy Professor Pieter Dokkum and Harvard University Department of Astronomy Associate Professor Charlie Conroy, the number of stars in the observable universe is three septillion, or 3×10^24.[16] According to University of Western Australia International Center for Radio Astronomy Research Professor Simon Driver, the number of grains of sand on Earth’s beaches is seven sextillion, or 7×10^21.[17]
  • Secondly, on the land possessions prophesized in Chapter Fifteen of Genesis stretching from the Nile River to the Euphrates River, a distance of more than two thousand kilometers [1,263 miles], the territory promised to the Jews would encompass not only the modern borders of what is today the nation of Israel, but would contain most if not the entirety of what is now the modern nations of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

Professor Jones writes that the Prosperity gospel is “built upon a faulty understanding of the Abrahamic covenant” and that Prosperity theologians such as Copeland hold an “incorrect view of the inception of the Abrahamic covenant” and an “erroneous view concerning the application of the covenant.” In his 1987 book Our Covenant With God, Copeland summarized the inception of the Abrahamic covenant transactionally: “God offered Abram a proposition and Abram bought it.”[18]

According to Methodist Theological School of Ohio Dewire Professor of Christian Leadership Lisa Withrow:

What makes this gospel particularly dangerous is its propensity to claim innocence of any motive other than fulfilling god’s will for human beings… The only reason some people remain poor is because they do not exert enough effort to promote their own success. They are considered lazy, ineffectual or misdirected and therefore “unblessed”.[19]

 

Bethlehem College and Seminary Chancellor John Piper writes, “Prosperity preachers not only give the impression that they peddle god’s word and make godliness a means of gain but actually develop a bogus theology to justify their extravagant displays of wealth”.[20]

Professor Koch concurs:

Poverty, far from being a blessing, is a sign of god’s disfavor; thus, Christians have a duty to deal only with the apparent lack of faith among the poor and not their poverty itself.”

 

Martin Bucer European Theological Seminary and Research Institute Professor of Apologetics and Modern Theology Ron Kubsch writes that the theology “thus tends to victimize the poor by making them feel that their poverty is their own fault…while failing to address and denounce those whose greed inflicts poverty on others”.[21]The logical extension of the Prosperity Gospel—sometimes explicit, sometimes not, depending on the preacher;” Argues University of London School of Oriental and African Studies Department of Religions and Philosophies Professor Paul Gifford; “Is that the poor are poor because of a lack of faith—that poverty is the fault of the poor themselves.”[22]

On the “Success in Life” program on the Christian-based Trinity Broadcasting Network [TBN], Tilton stated, “being poor is a sin”.[23] Copeland agrees, writing, “Poverty is under the curse of the law.”[24]While emphasizing various alleged spiritual or demonic causes of poverty;” Writes Kubsch; “Prosperity Teaching is not really about helping the poor at all and provides no sustainable answer to the real causes of poverty”.[25]

Koch points out the danger of the Prosperity Gospel in a nation with as great a disparity in wealth as America: “while income has no effect on adherence to the Prosperity Gospel, blacks, the “born again” and “evangelical” and those who are less educated are more likely to seek out Prosperity messages”. Indeed, Koch finds that being “born again” is second only to being African American in terms of the highest chances of being members of the Prosperity movement, and that “increasing levels of education have an indirect [i.e. inverse] relationship” with adherence to the theological tenets of the Prosperity gospel. [26] This trend led University of California—Davis African American and African Studies Associate Professor Milmon Harrison to write that the Prosperity Gospel “Might be seen, at least in part, as a type of poor people’s movement”.[27] Both Professor Gifford and Howard Elinson of the University of California—Los Angeles argue that the Prosperity gospel resonates with those of lower class by offering them a supplementary and supernatural “opiate” and “cathartic” of upward mobility that is otherwise lacking.[28]In the absence of natural opportunity”; Koch concludes; “The Prosperity Gospel offers a supernatural means to material advancement.” “Prosperity Teaching flourishes in contexts of terrible poverty;” Writes Kubsch; “For many people, it represents their only hope, in the face of constant frustration, the failure of politicians and NGOs, for a better future, or even for a more bearable present.”[29]

Conversely, Professor Gifford argues that the Prosperity Gospel offers an apology for wealth and “rationalizes the preexisting wealth of those who have been upwardly mobile” by providing an explanation and “divine justifications for their elevated status” and affluent lifestyles as being “spiritually derived and deserved”.[30]

Those who are highly educated have the human, social and cultural capital to more or less insure their upward mobility;” Koch argues; “While those with little education…must seek out other means to that mobility.”

Alternatively, Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion Associate Professor Robert Woodberry argues that adherence to the Prosperity Gospel “may facilitate movement of poor people into the middle class” by fostering changes in people’s lives, such as working harder and investing more, that result in upward mobility, suggesting that those who are poor and feel that it is a sign of God’s displeasure would work hard “to put themselves in God’s good graces”.[31] However, Koch finds that adherents “are not appreciably changing their financial behaviors”. “The changes induced by adhering to the Prosperity Gospel, such as waiting for god to make them prosperous rather than working toward it themselves” make upward mobility less likely, he explains, arguing that since adherents to the Prosperity Gospel “expect god alone to give them a prosperous life, they are less likely to be motivated to take actions themselves that would increase their likelihood of becoming wealthy.”

Dallas Theological Seminary Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Field Education Ken Sarles agrees, writing that the Prosperity Gospel “appeals to the poor and sick to put more faith in the ultimate fulfillment of their desires”.[32]

 

  • Is the Prosperity Gospel Christian?

 

Any theology that views faith solely as a means to material gain;” Professor Jones says; “Must be judged as faulty and inadequate.” “The Prosperity Gospel;” Jones argues; “Is constructed upon a faulty theology. Consequently, many of its doctrines, including the…Prosperity Gospel teachings regarding acquisition and accumulation of wealth are ethically incorrect.” Jones concludes by saying that the Prosperity gospel is a “wholly inadequate and unbiblical view of the relationship between god and man and the stewardship of wealth.” “The teachings of those who most vigorously promote the Prosperity Gospel are false and gravely distorting of the bible… Their practice is unethical and un-Christ-like;” Writes Kubsch; “It can be soberly described as a false gospel.”[33]

In his July 18, 1886 sermon entitled “The Heart of the Gospels”, English Particular Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon told what was then the largest congregation in Christendom at London’s Metropolitan Tabernacle, the largest non-conformist church of its day, that:

I believe that it is anti-Christian and unholy for any Christian to live with the object of accumulating wealth. You will say, “Are we not to strive all we can to get all the money we can?” You may do so. I cannot doubt but what, in so doing, you may do service to the cause of god. But what I said was that to live with the object of accumulating wealth is anti-Christian.”[34]

 

On Copeland’s “Believer’s Voice of Victory” program on TBN, however, Word of Faith televangelist John Avanzini disagreed, claiming that Jesus “wore designer clothes”, “was handling big money” and “had a nice house, a big house”.[35] The Prosperity Gospel interprets the New Testament as portraying Jesus as a rich figure who used his wealth to finance a costly itinerate ministry. It argues that adherents should model their lives after Jesus by living lavishly. The theological basis for such a belief among Prosperity Preachers is Verse Nine of Chapter Eight of the Second Book of Corinthians: “For ye know the grace of our lord Jesus Christ that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor that ye through his poverty might be enriched”.

Professor Cox summarizes Hagin’s Prosperity preaching as saying that “Through the crucifixion of Christ, Christians have inherited all the promises made to Abraham, and these include both spiritual and material well-being,”[36], arguing that the theological basis for this is Verse Fourteen of Chapter Three of the Book of Galatians: “Christ paid the price so that the blessing promised to Abram would come to all the people of the world through Jesus Christ and we would receive the promised spirit through faith”.[37]

Professor Jones, however, writes that in the verse in Second Corinthians, Saint Saul the Apostle of Tarsus was “in no way teaching that Jesus died on the cross for the purposes of increasing anyone’s net worth materially.” Jones argues that the Apostle was teaching the Corinthians that they ought to “empty themselves of their riches in service”, pointing out that five verses later, the Saint urges them to give their wealth to the needy: “Right now you have plenty and can help those who are in need. Later, they will have plenty and can share with you when you need it. In this way, things will be equal.”[38]

The concept of giving in Prosperity theology is substantively different, driven by what Tilton called a “Law of Compensation”.[39] Kenneth Copeland’s wife Gloria describes the “Law of Compensation” this way: “Give ten dollars and receive a thousand dollars; give a thousand dollars and receive a hundred thousand dollars.”[40] This, the theology of Prosperity preaches, leads to a cycle of ever-increasing prosperity. The theological basis for this “Law of Compensation” is Verses 29-30 of Chapter Ten of the Book of Mark:

I assure you that everyone who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, for my sake and for the good news will receive not in return a hundred times as many houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and property”.[41]

 

In other words: Christians give generously because when they do, god gives back more in return. “Members are urged to borrow money, take out loans or open insurance policies;” writes Pan African Anthropological Association President Robert Akoko; “In order to give to the church; they are told that they thus qualify for supernatural monetary blessing”.[42] Another verse commonly cited as a biblical basis for the “Law of Compensation”, Verse Six of Chapter Nine of the Second Book of Corinthians, states that “the person who sows generously will also reap generously”. Professor Gifford writes that Prosperity Preachers such as Copeland “leverage the biblical image of sowing and reaping” to get adherents to bring their offerings of tithes, or as Prosperity preachers proclaim them to be: “instruments of prosperity”.[43]

Professor Jones, however, objects to this by pointing out that in Verse 35 of Chapter Six of the Book of Luke, Jesus tells his disciples to “love your enemies and do good and lend, hoping for nothing in return and your reward shall be great and you shall be the children of the highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful”.[44]

One substantive difference in the concept of giving in the theology of Prosperity is that, as University of New York Assistant Professor of Sociology Stephen Hart writes, that the Prosperity Gospel emphasizes the “self-deterministic and voluntaristic dimension of Christian teaching” and thus adherents give generously to their churches but little to charities.[45] Koch found that 90% of adherents to the tenets of the theology of the Prosperity Gospel gave to their church, while only 74% of them gave to nonreligious charitable causes. “Since the Prosperity Gospel ultimately blames the poor for their own plight, ignoring social constraints;” He explains; “Nonreligious charitable giving is largely discouraged as, at best, wasteful.”[46] Copeland summarizes the Prosperity Theology’s lukewarm attitude toward giving to the poor:

You can feed a thief all day long, but all you will have is a thief full of food. The food won’t change him, but the word of god will transform him on the inside… I never give to the poor without telling them about Jesus. If they are to get my material goods, they will first have to listen to what I have to say about Jesus.”[47]

 

  1. Case Study: Kenneth Copeland: All of the Problems with the Prosperity Gospel in Microcosm

 

In many ways, the real danger of the Word of Faith Movement’s Prosperity gospel stems from the ease with which its predatory preachers solicit money from the poor.

An example is Copeland. His 33-acre Kenneth Copeland Ministries complex in Fort Worth Texas, valued at more the twelve million dollars by the Tarrant County appraisal District, includes not only a lakeside villa for Kenneth and his Wife Gloria, valued at more than six million dollars,[48] but also the private Kenneth Copeland Airport for Copeland’s two private jets, a 47 foot long Cessna S550 Citation S/II/SP and a 72 foot long Cessna 750 Citation X+, each valued at twenty million dollars. The complex also includes Copeland’s daughter Terri Pearsons’ Eagle Mountain International Church, to which are registered five music and book companies, according to the Texas Secretary of State.[49] According to United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley [R-IA], Copeland’s Cessna 550 has been used for domestic travel including hunting trips to the private LaFonda exotic game-hunting ranch in Bracketteville, Texas; where Kenneth Copeland and his son John were photographed posing with a pair of dead Cheetal [Spotted Axis Deer] indigenous to Sri Lanka] and the Steamboat Springs Ski Resort in Routt County, Colorado in December 2006. Copeland’s Cessna 750 is used for international flights, including to Honolulu, Maui and Fiji in October 2006. Kenneth Copeland Ministries responded by claiming that theses were “for preaching”, with Copeland telling a news report of the airplane that “This is a preaching machine… It will never, ever be used as long as it is in our care, for anything other than what is becoming to [Jesus]”. Copeland claimed that the two days in Maui were a “layover” on the way to a seven-day evangelical seminar in Australia, after which the three days in Honolulu were “for eating and rest” and “allowing the pilot to rest”.[50]

Those with a prosperity orientation;” Koch adds in his 2009 paper; “tend to have voted for Bush in the year 2004 and identify as Republican.” He argues that the tenets of the theology of Prosperity, “specifically its teachings about the accumulation of material wealth and the conspicuous consumption of that wealth” encourages adherent to support issues such as lowered taxes, “decreased governmental regulation of the market and government economic intervention overall”. Indeed, in an October 19, 2016 Eagle Mountain Church television program, “Faith for Our Nation”, Copeland stated that Christians would be “guilty of murder” and “guilty of an abomination to god” if they did not vote for Republican Nominee Donald Trump in the November 8, 2016 Presidential election. Trump had named Copeland to his “Evangelical Executive Advisory Board” on June 21, 2016.[51] The use of Kenneth Copeland Ministries’ facilities by the 2008 Presidential campaign of Governor Michael Huckabee [R-AR] prompted Senator Grassley to Chair a three-year-long investigation by the Committee on Finance, on which he was the ranking member,[52] into the tax-exempt status of religious organizations under Title 26 Subtitle A, Chapter 1 Subchapter F, Part 1 Section 501 Subsection C, Paragraph 3 of the Code of Laws of the United States [USC 501C3]. 501C explicitly limits its exemption to any organization:

Organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific…literary or educational purposes” and which “does not participate in or intervene in [including the publishing or distributing of statements] any political campaign on behalf of [or in opposition to] any candidate for public office.”

 

As documented by former Daily Show correspondent John Oliver on HBO’s Last Week Tonight on August 16, 2015, the dangers of predatory Prosperity preaching go beyond wealth and into health. Oliver recounts the story of Bonnie Parker of Winnsboro, Louisiana. According to her daughter, Kristy Beach, after she was diagnosed with cancer Parker, a watcher every Sunday morning of Kenneth Copeland’s “Believers’ Voice of Victory”, donated money to Copeland that Beach says reached in to the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Parker also spent still more money on lottery tickets, with the intention of giving the money to Copeland should she win.

As Oliver explains, this is “not an unreasonable interpretation” of Copeland’s preaching. Copeland, like many Prosperity Preachers, specifically cites Verse One of Chapter Eleven of the Book of Ecclesiastes: “Send your grain across the seas and in time, profits will flow back to you”.[53]

We know what’s wrong with you: You’ve got cancer.” Kenneth Copeland’s wife Gloria says in the Kenneth Copeland ministries series “Healing Faith”. “The bad news is we don’t know what to do about it except give you some poison that will make you sicker.”

Now which do you want to do: Do you want to do that or do you want to sit here on Saturday morning, hear the word of god and let faith come into your heart and be healed?”

 

According to Parker’s diaries found by Beach, the Copeland’s words convinced her to refuse to see a doctor. “If she went to a doctor, it was a sin.” Beach explained to the Associated Press. “You didn’t believe enough if you did. She just wrote “God heal me. God heal me. God heal me.” The cancer advanced rapidly and according to her husband Alvin, Bonnie Parker died in 2004 believing she had not donated enough money to Copeland and always believing that if she continued to donate, her health would improve.

Amy Arden, a former member of Eagle Mountain International Church, echoed Parker’s sentiment. “We were terrified to have any sort of fear. And anything that wasn’t faith in god was fear.” Said Arden, who attended Eagle Mountain Church from 1997 to 2003 and worked for three years for Kenneth Copeland Ministries. “To get a vaccine would have been viewed by me and my friends and my peers as an act of fear; that you doubted god would keep you safe, you doubted god would keep you healthy. We simply didn’t do it.” The vaccine Arden was referring to was for measles. In 2013, 21 members of the Kenneth Copeland Ministries were diagnosed with measles. Of the sixteen from Tarrant County, nine of them were children—including a four-month old child—at a day care center at Eagle Mountain International Church in Newark, Texas. According to the church, all of the school-aged children infected were home-schooled. The measles vaccine is recommended at 12 months of age and again at age four to six, but of those same sixteen people, aged 4 months to 44 years, at least twelve of them—a majority of the 21 infected—were not fully immunized and had not received all of the recommended vaccinations and the rest had no record of being vaccinated or no documentation to verify their vaccination history, which 98 percent of the citizens of the county do, according to Texas State epidemiologist Russell Jones.[54] Arden, who by 2013 lived in New York City, said that her daughter was eleven months old and up to date on her immunization when she joined Eagle Mountain Church in 1997, but did not get any others until after they left the church in 2003.

The pastor of the church is Copeland’s daughter Terri Pearsons, who with her husband George, had preached about the potential of the measles vaccine to cause autism. “This is a sadly misinformed religious leader.” Vanderbilt University School of Medicine Professor William Schaffner told USA Today.[55] On “Believers’ Voice of Victory” in August 2010, Kenneth Copeland himself called the process of immunization “downright criminal”.[56]I got to looking into that and some of it is criminal.” Copeland said of having his first grandchild and being alarmed at the number of vaccinations the child was supposed to be given. “You don’t take the word of the guy that’s trying to give the shot about what’s good and what isn’t…. Because I’m telling you, it’s very dangerous the things that are happening around us all the time.”[57]

 

  1. Why The Theology of Prosperity is Particularly a Problem for Disparity and Sociological Inequality in the United States Today

With the wealthiest one tenth of all Americans holding more than three quarters of all of the wealth in America[58] and the wealthiest 0.1% having the net worth of the lower 90% put together combined,[59] the United States of America has the highest income inequity in the developed world and ranks fourth among nations with the greatest wealth inequality, trailing only Lebanon, Russia and Ukraine. The United States also spends more than ten thousand dollars per capita[60] on healthcare, more than twice the average for developed countries.[61] In spite of this, Americans are less healthy and have a lower life expectancy than in other high-income nations.[62] These things are not, as it turns out, as entirely unrelated as one might like to think, since not only is there convincing evidence that income inequity detrimentally affects human health,[63] but there is also an ever-increasingly persuasive case to be made that America’s economic inequalities are actually being fueled at least in part by its exorbitant healthcare costs.[64]

Given all of these various statistics—that the poor are poorer and the sick are sicker in America than in any other developed country in the world, it is not difficult for one to envision how the observed and documented predatory behavior of Prosperity Gospel preachers such as the Copeland family, by convincing poor people to send them money that they do not have and sick people to refuse medical care for diseases that they do have—or that they acquired through refusal of preventative precautions, could quite easily and understandably exacerbate very nearly each and every aspect of inequalities in America.

 

  1. Conclusion: Prosperity Theology; Faith? Or Fraud?

 

What sets the preachers of the prosperity gospel apart from other gospel preachers as particularly predatory is the immediacy of the consequences thereof.

No one in the known written recorded history of civilization has ever been able to in any way empirically verify the existence of any afterlife of any kind. As such, it has never been and perhaps can never be known with any reasonable degree of surety whether or not the promises of reward or threats of punishment preached by most Christian clergy to their church congregations have ever been or will ever be fulfilled. However, the Prosperity gospel sets itself apart by promising its adherents that their faith, in the form of material monetary “tithing”, will be rewarded within this lifetime. While it may never be knowable whether those who devoted their lives to the church in hopes of receiving eternal salvation in the afterlife were right or whether they were wrong to do so, the immediacy of the promises made by Prosperity Gospel preachers such as the Copeland’s makes the judging of the efficacy of their message an elementary matter of empirical observation.

If, as John Lennon imagined, there is no heaven and no hell, then it could be said that many if not all preachers, not only of Christianity but all Abrahamic faiths, throughout the history of those traditions had potentially, perhaps unknowingly, been defrauding their congregants, and doing so for generation, for hundreds if not thousands of years. But such accusations must remain without proof—in all cases except one: The Prosperity Gospel. To say that predatory Prosperity preachers such as Kenneth Copeland defraud those like Bonnie Parker who donate to them by promising rewards they will never be in any position to deliver on and never have any intention of delivering on takes no supposition whatsoever.

[1] Bowler, Kate. “Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me”, New York Times, February 13, 2016: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/death-the-prosperity-gospel-and-me.html?_r=0

[2] Jones, David. “The Bankruptcy of the Prosperity gospel: An Exercise in Biblical and Theological Ethics”. Faith and Mission, Volume 16, Issue 1. Fall 1998. Pages 79-87: http://www.southnorfolkbaptistchurch.com/images/The_Bankruptcy_of_the_Prosperity_Gospel.pdf

[3] Cox, Harvey. Fire From Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the 21st Century. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company. September 30, 1994. Page 272.

[4] Koch, Bradley. “The Prosperity Gospel and Economic Prosperity: Race, Class, Giving and Voting”. Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis Lilly Family School of Philanthropy Department of Sociology. July 20, 2009: https://philanthropy.iupui.edu/files/file/brad_koch_final_dissertation.pdf

https://scholarworks.iu.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/2022/8654/Koch_indiana_0093A_10282.pdf?sequence=1

[5] Tilton, Robert. God’s Word About Prosperity. Word of Faith Publications. 1983. Page 6.

[6] Copeland, Kenneth. The Laws of Prosperity. Kenneth Copeland Publications. 1974. “Spiritual and Physical Law”. Page 14: http://www.thewellsat7th.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/lawsofprosperity.pdf

[7] Copeland. Laws of Prosperity. 1974. “Prosperity: The World v. God”. Page 21.

[8] Copeland. Laws of Prosperity. 1974. Page 41.

[9] Copeland. Laws of Prosperity. 1974. “Poverty vs. Prosperity”. Page 44.

[10]Genesis 12:7”. God’s Word to the Nations Society Translation. Baker Publishing Group. 1995.

[11]Genesis 15:18”. International Standard Version Foundation. 2011.

[12] New English Translation Bible. Biblical Studies Press. 2005.

[13]Genesis 26:4”. God’s Word to the Nations Society Translation. Baker Publishing Group. 1995.

[14]Genesis 28:14”. New Living Translation. Kenneth N. Tyndale House Foundation. 1996.

[15] Taylor, Adam. “Has the Global Jewish Population Finally Rebounded from the Holocaust? Not Exactly.” Washington Post. July 2, 2015: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/07/02/has-the-global-jewish-population-finally-rebounded-from-the-holocaust-not-exactly/?utm_term=.fd32e0432c6a

[16] Conroy, Charlie and Dokkum, Pieter. “A Substantial Population of Low-Mass Stars in Luminous Elliptical Galaxies”. Nature, Volume 468, Issue 7326. December 16, 2010. Pages 940-942: https://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v468/n7326/pdf/nature09578.pdf

[17] Driver, Simon. “Are there More Stars in the Universe Than Grains of Sand on Earth?” Australian Broadcasting Corporation. August 19, 2015: http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2015/08/19/4293562.htm

[18] Copeland, Kenneth. Our Covenant With God. Kenneth Copeland Publications. 1987. Page 11.

[19] Withrow, Lisa. “Success and the Prosperity Gospel: From Commodification to Transformation”. Oxford Institute of Methodist Theological Studies. 2007: https://oimts.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/2007-6-withrow.pdf

[20] Piper, John. “Prosperity Preaching: Deceitful and Deadly”. February 14, 2007: http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/prosperity-preaching-deceitful-and-deadly

[21] Kubsch, Ron, ed. “A Statement on Prosperity Teaching”. Lausanne Theology Working Group. 2010: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/decemberweb-only/gc-prosperitystatement.html

[22] Gifford, Paul. ”Prosperity: A New and Foreign Element in African Christianity”. Religion, Volume 20, Issue 4. October 1990. Pages 373-388.

[23] Hanegraff, Hank. Christianity in Crisis: The 21st Century. Harvest House Publishers. July 1, 1992. Page 186

[24] Copeland. Laws of Prosperity. 1974. “Poverty vs. Prosperity”. Page 43.

[25] Kubsch, ed. “Statement on Prosperity Teaching”. 2010.

[26] Koch. “The Prosperity Gospel and Economic Prosperity“. Purdue University. 2009. Page 41

[27] Harrison, Milmon. Righteous Riches: The word of Faith Movement In Contemporary African American Religion. Oxford University Press. March 3, 2005.

[28] Elinson, Howard. “The Implications of Pentecostal Religion for Intellectualism, Politics and Race Relations”. American Journal of Sociology, Volume 70. January 1965. Pages 403-415: https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2775343.pdf

[29] Kubsch, ed. “Statement on Prosperity Teaching”. 2010.

[30] Gifford, Paul. African Christianity: It’s Public Role. Indiana University Press. 1998.

[31] Woodberry, Robert. “The Economic Consequences of Pentecostal Belief”. Society, Volume 44. November 2006. Page 29-35: http://www.academia.edu/2128668/The_economic_consequences_of_pentecostal_belief

[32] Sarles, Ken. “A Theological Evaluation of the Prosperity Gospel”. Bibliotheca Sacra, Volume 143, Issue 572. October 1986. Pages 329-339.

[33] Kubsch, ed. “Statement on Prosperity Teaching”. 2010.

[34] Jones, David and Woodbridge, Russell. Health, Wealth and Happiness: Has the Prosperity Gospel Overshadowed the Gospel of Christ? Kregel Publications. December 17, 2010. Introduction, Page 14.

[35] Hanegraff. Christianity in Crisis. 1992. Page 381

[36] Cox. Fire From Heaven. 1994. Page 271.

[37]Galatians 3:14”. God’s Word to the Nations Society Translation. Baker Publishing Group. 1995.

[38]2 Corinthians 8:14”. New Living Translation. Kenneth N. Tyndale House Foundation. 1996.

[39]The Law of Compensation is the bedrock of the prosperity movement.” Sarles. “Theological Evaluation of the Prosperity Gospel”. Bibliotheca Sacra. 1986. 329-339.

[40] Copeland, Gloria. God’s Will Is Prosperity. Kenneth Copeland Publications. 1973. Page 54.

[41]Mark 10:29-30”. New Living Translation. Kenneth N. Tyndale House Foundation. 1996.

[42] Akoko, Robert. Ask and You Shall Be Given”: Pentecostalism and the Economic Crisis in Cameroon. African Studies Center. 2007. Page 5: https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/bitstream/handle/1887/12896/ASC-075287668-219-01.pdf?sequence=2

[43] Gifford. Paul. “Expecting Miracles: The Prosperity Gospel in Africa”. Christian Century. July 10, 2007: https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2007-07/expecting-miracles-0

[44]Luke 6:35”. 21st Century King James Version. Deuel Enterprises, South Dakota. 1994.

[45] Hart, Stephen. “What does the Lord Require? How American Christians Think About Economic Justice”. Rutgers University Press. 1992: http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~sahart/pref08c.pdf

[46] Koch. “The Prosperity Gospel and Economic Prosperity“. Purdue University. 2009. Pages 55-59

[47] Copeland. Laws of Prosperity. 1974. “Giving to the Poor”. Pages 75-76.

[48] Reilly, Peter. “About that Kenneth Copeland Mansion You Saw on John Oliver”. Forbes Magazine. August 25, 2015: https://www.forbes.com/sites/peterjreilly/2015/08/25/about-that-kenneth-copeland-mansion-you-saw-on-john-oliver/#cb924f81d691

[49] Burnett, John. “Can a Television Network Be a Church? The IRS Says Yes”, National Public Radio. April 1, 2014: http://www.npr.org/2014/04/01/282496855/can-a-television-network-be-a-church-the-irs-says-yes

[50] Shipp, Brett. “Senate Audit Critical of TV Preacher Kenneth Copeland”. WFAA. August 19, 2015: http://www.wfaa.com/news/local/investigates/senate-audit-critical-of-tv-preacher-kenneth-copeland_20161019012931349/337732249

[51] Wing, Nick. “Donald Trump’s New Evangelical Advisor Was Sure God Had chosen Ted Cruz to Be President”. Huffington Post. June 21, 2016: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/donald-trump-kenneth-copeland_us_5769880de4b065534f47fb24

[52] Strickler, Laura. “Senate Panel Probes 6 Top Televangelists”. CBS News. November 6, 2007: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/senate-panel-probes-6-top-televangelists/

[53] “Ecclesiastes 11:1”. New Living Translation. Kenneth N. Tyndale House Foundation. 1996.

[54] Aleccia, Jonel. “Measles Outbreak Tied to Texas Mega church Sickens 21”. NBC News. August 27, 2013: http://www.nbcnews.com/health/measles-outbreak-tied-texas-megachurch-sickens-21-8C11009315

[55] Szabo, Liz. “Texas Measles Outbreak Linked to Church”. USA Today. August 25, 2013: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/08/23/texas-measles-outbreak/2693945/

[56] Neporent, Liz. “Texas Church Tied to Measles Outbreak Preaching Vaccinations”. ABC News. August 26, 2013: http://abcnews.go.com/Health/texas-church-epicenter-measles-outbreak/story?id=20071644

[57] Stengle, Jamie. “Measles Cases Put Texas Mega church Under Scrutiny”. Associated Press. August 31, 2013.

[58] Sahadi, Jeanne. “The Richest 10% Hold 76% of the Wealth”. CNN. August 18, 2016: http://money.cnn.com/2016/08/18/pf/wealth-inequality/

[59] Monaghan, Angela. “US Wealth Inequality—Top 0.1% Worth As Much As the Bottom 90%”. The Guardian. Thursday November 13, 2014: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/nov/13/us-wealth-inequality-top-01-worth-as-much-as-the-bottom-90

[60] Alonso-Zladivar, Ricardo. “$10,345 Per Person: U.S. Health Care Spending Reaches New Peak”. Associated Press. July 13, 2016: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/new-peak-us-health-care-spending-10345-per-person/

[61] Rugy, Veronique. “US Health Care Spending More Than Twice the Average for Developed Countries”. George Mason University Mercatus Center: https://www.mercatus.org/system/files/healthcare-costs-us-oecd-analysis-pdf.pdf

[62] Fox, Maggie. “We’re Unhealthier Than Everyone Else—And It’s Our Own Fault”. NBC News. January 9, 2013: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/nov/13/us-wealth-inequality-top-01-worth-as-much-as-the-bottom-90

[63] Szalavitz, Maia. “How Economic Inequality is [Literally] Making Us Sick”. TIME Magazine. October 19, 2011: http://healthland.time.com/2011/10/19/how-economic-inequality-is-literally-making-us-sick/

[64] Blumenthal, David and Squires, David. “Do Health Care costs Fuel Economic Inequality in the United States?” The Commonwealth Fund. Tuesday September 9, 2014: http://www.commonwealthfund.org/publications/blog/2014/sep/do-health-costs-fuel-inequality

Book Review: Weinberg, Steven. “To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science”. 2015 [Final Draft, May 9, 2017]

•May 9, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Introduction: Thesis

 

The writing prompt for this paper is a “critical review” evaluating the “ideas presented” in the six pages of the prologue of Nobel-Prize-winning Harvard University Professor of Physics Steven Weinberg’s 2015 book To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science, with an arguable thesis on the subject of “Why Weinberg is a poor historian”. Such an assignment is intellectually disingenuous, and is therefore invalid, for two important reasons.

First and foremost because the ideas presented in Weinberg’s book are not in its six-page-long prologue, but rather instead are to be found in the body of the 432-page-long book. Evaluating the quality of a book’s arguments on the basis of the prologue, the first six pages, is comparably analogous to evaluating the script-writing skills of a screenwriter on the basis of a film’s opening credit sequence.

Secondly, there is the fact that Weinberg begins the prologue to his book by stating clearly and in no uncertain terms “I am a physicist, not a historian” [Weinberg, Prologue, Page IX]. Physicist Amos Dolbear of the Tuft’s University Physics Department succinctly pointed out the flaw in this assignment in the October 12, 1899 Volume 50 of Boston University’s Journal Education[1] in an allegorical fable later famously summarized by Nobel-Prize Winning University of Berlin Professor Albert Einstein as follows: “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”.

However, that having been said, anyone actually having read To Explain the World can easily find that, factually speaking at the very least, for a physicist, Weinberg’s book actually gives an estimable account of his skills as a historian.

 

Part I: Criteria: What Makes a Good Historian?

 

The criteria for assessing the quality of any individual as a historian were perhaps most efficaciously articulated by 18th century French philosopher and historian Francois-Marie Arouet, more commonly known by his pseudonym “Francois Voltaire”. “A historian has many duties.” Voltaire once famously wrote. “Allow me to remind you two of which are important. The first is not to slander; the second is not to bore.” The latter of Voltaire’s criteria can be succinctly summarized by saying history should be well written. In March 2007, University of Georgia Professor of Humanities William McFeely wrote that “well written” is “used for history that is readable rather than turgid”.[2]

Historically speaking, the readability of written histories has hinged in n small part in how seamlessly the historical events being recounted flows from their causes through to their direct effects. This tendency was less a product of the respective historians’ desire to simplify their writings than a byproduct of the evolutionary origins of the human mind. As explained in November 2013 by biochemist Phillip Mason of the Czech Academy of Sciences Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry[3], a clear evolutionary advantage is offered to those whose brains are best at calculating probabilities. The byproduct of these calculations is their tendency to reduce the world to as simple of terms as possible, such as to a sequence of singular causes and the effects thereof.

However, the works of other historians, such as Montana State University Department of History, Philosophy and Religious Studies Professor Brett Walker, has complicated this entirely intuitive simplistic sequence of singular causations and effects. In a 2010 book, Walker coins an analytical model he calls “hybrid causation”,[4] in which events have multiple causes both internal and external. Especially when dealing with events which are unpleasant, there exists an impulse which even academics are by no means immune from, as it is deeply-seeded in the subconscious if not the conscious mind, to try and track down a presumably singular someone or something upon which or whom to place responsibility or blame. Walker warns against this impulse, as in the intricately interconnected system in which we live our lives, events for which it can accurately be said a single person or thing is entirely responsible are extraordinarily few and far between; if indeed any even exist at all.

It is not difficult to imagine how, in such a multiple-cause, multiple –effect model, any historian participating in the traditional tracing of human history from one event to the next, of attributing events to their singular causes could easily, even unknowingly, by such reductionism fall into the trap of perpetrating precisely the sort of “slander” that Voltaire warned historians against in the eighteenth century by fallaciously misattributing events to causational agents who were at the very least not solely or exclusively responsible for them.

Walker’s analytical model raises the practice of writing about history to whole new intellectual levels, as it requires historians to not only be able to themselves conceptualize events having multiple causational correlations, but also be able to express such a concept to their readers: not just their fellow academics and historical scholars, but the broader popular public. Though Walker himself manages marvelously in his own work, his analytical model also raises the practice of studying history to a new intellectual level as well, as even the act of attempting the task of locating and corralling all of the often innumerable agents involved in any given event’s ancestral origins can draw even the most astute academic down a proverbial rabbit hole of the sort envision by English logician Charles Dodgson, better known by his pseudonym “Lewis Carroll”.

Voltaire’s second condition can be paraphrased as being that written history must be actively engaging to the reader, and making such seemingly counterintuitive concepts as effects without singular readily-identifiable causes actively engaging to readers, especially outside of academia is part of what makes much written history very nearly invariably what McFeely articulately identified as “turgid” and even an inspirational Enlightenment luminary in Voltaire would find to be “boring”.

 

Part II: Analysis: Is Steven Weinberg a Good Historian?

 

As has been previously stated, Weinberg begins his book by clarifying “I am a physicist, not a historian.” [Weinberg, Page IX]. It is interesting to note, though, that Weinberg himself harbors a critique of the writing in his own field of physics that closely mirrors Professor McFeely’s critique of the writing in history. “Much of the writing of physicists;” Weinberg writes; “Barely reaches the level of prose.” [Weinberg, Chapter 1, Page 16]

In the prologue to his book, Weinberg writes “As is natural for an academic, when I want to learn about something, I volunteer to teach a course on the subject.” [Weinberg, Prologue, Page IX] This statement is telling about how Weinberg approaches the writing of history. According to Voltaire, the duties of a historian are strikingly similar to those of a teacher. Both a historian, according to Voltaire, and a teacher have a professional responsibility “not to slander”. Like with historians, the positivity of the reception for a teacher hinges upon their aptitude “not to bore”.

Whilst fulfilling Voltaire’s requirement “not to bore”, however, Weinberg’s narrative frequently treads dangerously near the realm of violation of Voltaire’s second requirement “not to slander”.

For example; In discussing Italian astronomer, mathematician and physicist Galileo Galilei’s summer 1610 move from Padua to Florence, leaving behind his appointment to the Chair of Mathematics at the University of Padua under the patronage of Cosimo De Medici, to whom Galileo dedicated his March 13, 1610 treatise Siderus Nuncius [Sidereal Message] and placing him at the mercy of Pope Paul V and the Inquisition under Catholic Counter-Reformation Confessor Cardinal Robert Bellarmine[5]; Weinberg opines that “A modern University Dean might feel that this danger was a just punishment for Galileo’s evasion of teaching duties.” [Weinberg, Chapter 11, Page 97].

To his credit, Weinberg readily admits to this particular danger of slander, making his agenda crystal clear: “In telling this story, I will be coming close to the dangerous ground that is most carefully avoided by contemporary historians, of judging the past by the standards of the present.” Weinberg warns the reader. “Some historians of science make a shibboleth of not referring to present scientific knowledge in studying the science of the past. I will instead make a point of using present knowledge to clarify past science.” [Weinberg, Prologue, Pages XII-XIII]

The peril Weinberg refers to here Cambridge University Professor of History Sir Herbert Butterfield coined “Whig History” in his 1931 book The Whig Interpretation of History.[6] Both Butterfield and later John Schuster of the University Wollongong in his 1995 book The Scientific Revolution[7] criticized this “Whig history”. Weinberg here once more gets credit for presenting both sides of the “Whig history” debate with equal accuracy and clarity. In summarizing the case against the Whig interpretation of history, Weinberg quotes University of Wisconsin—Madison Professor of History of Science David Lindberg from his 1992 book The Beginnings of Western Science, expressing the sentiment that:

The proper measure of a philosophical system or scientific theory is not the degree to which it anticipated modern thought, but its degree of success in treating the philosophical and scientific problems of its own day.”[8]

To this, Weinberg expresses his own response with equal articulateness, writing, succinctly, “What is important in science [I leave philosophy to others] is not the solution of some popular scientific problems of one’s own day, but understanding the world.” He says. “In the course of this work, one finds out what sort of explanations are possible and what sort of problems can lead to those explanations.”

The progress of science has been largely a matter of discovering what questions should be asked.” Weinberg adds. “This sort of judgment is indispensable if one wants to understand how science has progressed from its past to its present”. [Weinberg, Chapter 3, Page 24]. Indeed, in his 1931 book Professor Butterfield writes that:

History is not the study of origins; rather it is the analysis of all the mediations by which past has turned to present”.

Alas, ultimately, it is in this respect that Weinberg comes to the defense of “Whiggish” history. “Science is now international, perhaps the most international aspect of our civilization, but the discovery of modern science happened in what we may loosely call the West.” Weinberg writes. “The West borrowed much scientific knowledge from elsewhere—geometry from Egypt, astronomic data from Babylon, the techniques of arithmetic from Babylon and India, the magnetic compass from China, and so on—but as far as I know, it did not import the methods of modern science.” [Weinberg, Prologue Page XII].

Again to his credit, Weinberg goes to great lengths to give credit where credit is due, especially when it comes to arithmetic and mathematics. “The Babylonians had achieved great competence in arithmetic, using a number system based on 60 rather than 10.“ Weinberg appraises. “They had also developed some simple techniques of algebra, such as rules [though these were not expressed in symbols] for solving various quadratic equations.” [Weinberg, Chapter 2: Music and Mathematics, Page 17]. In discussing Plato’s student, Fourth Century BCE Greek astronomer and mathematician Eudoxus of Cnidus, Weinberg writes that “he is credited with solving a great number of difficult mathematical problems, such as showing that the volume of a cone is one-third the volume of the cylinder with the same base and height [I have no idea how Eudoxus could have done this without Calculus]. But his greatest contribution to mathematics was the introduction of a rigorous style, in which theorems are deduced from clearly stated axioms.”

He goes on to identify this as being by no means small praise by effusively singing the praises of arithmetic and mathematics. “Mathematics is the means by which we deduce the consequences of physical principles.” Weinberg states. “More than that, it is the indispensable language in which the principles of physical science are expressed.” “The distinction between mathematics and Science is pretty well settled.” Weinberg concludes. “It remains mysterious to us why mathematics that is invented for reasons having nothing to do with nature often turns out to be useful in physical theories.” Weinberg quotes the May 11, 1959 lecture by University of Munster Professor of Mathematics Richard Courant at New York University, published by Weinberg’s fellow Nobel Prize-Winning physicist Eugene Wigner of Princeton University in the February 1960 New York University Courant Institute of Mathematical Science’s peer-reviewed scientific journal Communications on Pure and Applied Mathematics[9]: “In a famous article, the physicist Eugene Wigner has written of The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics.” [Weinberg, Chapter 2: Music and Mathematics, Page 19].

This he contrasts against science, writing, “Scientific theories cannot be deduced by purely mathematical reasoning. Science and technology benefit each other, but at it’s most fundamental level science is not undertaken for any practical reason.” [Weinberg, Prologue, Page XIII]. What may be Weinberg’s most telling statement in terms of his outlook on science is when he writes that “Nothing about the practice of modern science is obvious to someone who has never seen it done.” [Weinberg, Chapter 3, Page 25]. “I want to show how difficult was the discovery of modern science, how far from obvious are its practices and standards.” Weinberg explains. “This also serves as a warning, that science may not yet be in its final form.” [Weinberg, Prologue, Page XII]

Weinberg justifies his choice of the title for his book as follows: “I chose “Discovery” instead of “invention” to suggest that science is the way it is not so much because of various adventitious acts of invention, but because of the way nature is.” Weinberg explains; “With all its imperfections, modern science is a technique that is sufficiently well tuned to nature so that it works—it is a practice that allows us to learn reliable things about the world. In that sense, it is a technique that was waiting for people to discover it.“ [Weinberg, Prologue, Page XI]

Furthermore, in Weinberg’s defense, he largely steers well clear of ascribing any arbitrary value judgments upon the past as opposed to the present, going out of his way to emphasize the differences between the two. “Again and again in preparing the lectures for my courses I have been impressed with how different the work of science in past centuries was from the science of my own times.” Weinberg writes, quoting British novelist Leslie Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go Between, writing that: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”[10]

This sentiment was echoed even more strongly by astrophysicist and cosmologist Neil Degrasse Tyson in his Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey in which Tyson says that:

The past is another planet—so is the future… Actually, many… But most of us don’t really know this one.”[11]

Weinberg makes clear repeatedly that he does not regard the people of the past as being inferior, but merely fundamentally and substantially different in how they approached the world. “My focus in this book;” Weinberg writes; “Is how we came to learn how to learn about the world.” And in Weinberg’s eyes, that is exactly what Ancient and Classical philosophers did: they “learned how to learn”.

Weinberg begins with the Ancient Greek philosophers, from the pre-Socratic seventh-century BCE astronomer and mathematician Thales of Miletus through Classical Greek philosopher Plato. Here he draws what is his clearest differentiation between past philosophy and the science of the present. “There is an important feature of modern science that is almost completely missing in all the thinkers I have mentioned, from Thales to Plato: none of them attempted to verify or even (aside from perhaps [Fifth Century BCE Pre-Socratic Philosopher Zeno of Velia]) seriously to justify their speculations.” [Weinberg, Chapter 3, Page 15] Weinberg summarizes, opining, “The Early Greeks had very little in common with today’s physicists. Their theories had no bite…It seems to me that to understand these early Greeks, it is better to think of them not as physicists or scientists or even philosophers, but as poets…I have in mind here poetry in a broader sense: language chosen for aesthetic effect, rather than in an attempt to say clearly what one actually believes to be true.” [Weinberg, Chapter 1: Matter and Poetry, Page 16].

To be perfectly fair, Weinberg makes his critique of this philosophical “poetry” as being “science” quite clear, even going so far as to include a certain measure of what could be interpreted as sardonic self-deprecation. “We simply do not find anything in the laws of nature that in any way corresponds to ideas of goodness, justice, love or strife.” [Weinberg, Chapter 5, Page 32] Weinberg gripes: “Whatever the final laws of nature may be, there is no reason to suppose that they are designed to make physicists happy.” [Weinberg, Chapter 11, Page 90]

It is this conversational tone, which Weinberg himself describes as “irreverent”, that makes Weinberg’s book not only “readable”, as McFeely may say, but actively engaging.

 

Conclusion:

 

The writing prompt for this paper required “evidence from the history of astronomy”, in the form of an “accurate summation” of the “basic knowledge content of modern astronomy and cosmology” demonstrating “Why presentism is such a problematic interpretive framework” for the history of science, as well as, as has been stated previously “Why Weinberg is a poor historian”.

On the question of whether or not Weinberg altogether avoids violating Voltaire’s prohibition “not to slander”, Weinberg makes what is perhaps the most earnest effort such a Whiggish historian conceivably could towards avoiding denigrating the thinkers of antiquity altogether undeservedly or unnecessarily. However, what is readily evident throughout Weinberg’s work is his steadfast dedication to adhering to the responsibility proscribed to him and to historians by Voltaire “not to bore”. And at this his iconoclastic, self-described “irreverent” narrative perseveres and ultimately succeeds in spades.

It is not unreasonable, therefore, to conclude that the hostility and vitriol shown toward Weinberg’s “Whiggishness”, such as in Weinberg’s colleague, Harvard University Professor of the History of Science Steven Shapin’s review entitled “Why Scientists Shouldn’t Write History[12] is not entirely deserved. Schuster’s critiques of “Whiggish” history in his book are not devoid of merit. Neither, however, is Weinberg’s compelling and engaging full-throated defense of it. Weinberg does himself credit by preempting unqualified outside critiques of his Whiggish work in its Preface, forewarning in the very first page’s first paragraph “I am a physicist, not a historian.” [Weinberg, Prologue, Page IX].

The conclusion to this review would be that, for a physicist, Weinberg’s iconoclastically, irreverently and unabashedly Whiggish history of modern science performs at least one of its Voltairian duties very well indeed, if occasionally not so much the other. Nevertheless, the spirit of historical events having not one causational correlation but many is deftly disguised in Weinberg’s nuanced view of past philosophical “poetry” as being “clarified” by modern science, rather than the philosophers themselves being unjustly judged upon contemporary knowledge; such as when he writes of English astronomer, mathematician and physicist Sir Isaac Newton that “Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians.” Calling to mind d’Overbroeck’s College—Oxford Chemistry Professor Michael White’s 1999 biographical book Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer.[13]

[1] Dolbear, Amos. “An Educational Allegory”. Journal of Education, Volume 50. October 12, 1899. Page 235.

[2] McFeely, William. “On Aaron Sachs’s The Humboldt Current: Ninettenth Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism”. BookForum. February/March 2007.

[3] Mason, Phillip. “Why Do People Laugh At Creationists? (Part 40)”. YouTube. November 29, 2013: https://youtu.be/sdwOgc-lR_w?t=122

[4] Walker, Brett. Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan. University of Washington. 2010. Preface, Page XIII

[5] Mcmullin, Ernan. “The Galileo Affair: Two Decisions”. Journal for the History of Astronomy, Volume 40, Issue 2. May 1, 2009. Pages 191-212.

[6] Butterfield, Herbert. The Whig Interpretation of History. September 17, 1965. 144 Pages.

[7] Schuster, John. Chapter 3: “The Problem of “Whig History” in the History of Science”. In Schuster, John. The Scientific Revolution: An Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Science. University of Wollongong Department of Science and Technology Studies. 1995. Pages 14-18.

[8] Lindberg, David. The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious and Institutional Content, 600 B.C.E to 1450 C.E. University of Chicago. 1992. Chapter 3: “Aristotle’s Philosophy of Nature”. Page 65.

[9] Wigner, Eugene. “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences: Richard Courant Lecture in Mathematical Sciences Delivered at New York University, May 11, 1959”. Communications on Pure and Applied Mathematics, Volume 13, Issue 1. February 1960. Pages 1-14.

[10] Hartley, Leslie. The Go-Between. 1953. Page 1.

[11] Druyan, Ann and Soter, Steven. “The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth”. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. Episode 9. May 4, 2014.

[12] Shapin, Steven. “Why Scientists Shouldn’t Write History”. Wall Street Journal. February 13, 2015.

[13] White, Michael. Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer. April 6, 1999. 416 Pages.

Reading Annotation: Bennett, Craig. “Inequality is Not Just Bad Economics—It’s Bad for the Planet, Too”. The Guardian. Monday November 2, 2015

•April 12, 2017 • Leave a Comment

 

In a November 2015 article written for the London-based newspaper The Guardian, written on behalf of the international environmental organization network “Friends of the Earth”, University of Manchester Business School Professor of Sustainability and Innovation Craig Bennet [B.Sc., Human and Physical Geography, University of Reading; M.Sc., Conservation, University of London] argues that, while it is doubtful that there us enough natural resources for everyone on an “increasingly crowded, resources-stressed” planet to aspire to the conspicuous consumption levels of the wealthiest nations, the key to giving everyone a chance at decent lives on a thriving and abundant planet is to share much more effectively than at the present time. He cites University of Nottingham Professor of Social Epidemiology and University of London Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health Richard Wilkinson and his co-author, University of York Department of Health Sciences Professor of Epidemiology Kate Pickett, in their November 2010 book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. They argue that economic growth among rich countries is no longer increasing life expectancy, and, agreeing with Bennett, that the only way to do so is to share existing wealth better.

More unequal societies find it harder to deliver strong environmental policies, Pickett and Wilkinson argue in a Sunday March 9, 2014 article also written for The Guardian, because inequality of income and opportunity lead to inequality of ability to participate, with the least wealthy becoming the least able to effectively demand change. “People that are better off are simply more able to speak up;” Bennett explains; “Or perhaps more accurately, be heard—on the things that affect them.”

In their book, Pickett and Wilkinson find that mental illness, obesity, cardiovascular disease, unwillingness to engage in education, misuse of illegal and prescription drugs, teenage pregnancy, lack of social mobility and neglect of child welfare increase with greater inequality and that violence, from bullying of children at school to murder, follows the trend. Psychological studies show men have incentive to achieve as high status as they can because their sexual competitiveness depends on it and use violence when their status is threatened. Paradoxically, this tendency only increases the less status they have to defend. “The evolutionary importance of shame and humiliation”, Pickett and Wilkinson write; “Provides a plausible explanation of why more unequal societies suffer more violence.” These triggers of violence; Wilkinson tells Yes Magazine’s Brooke Jarvis; intensify along with status completion in more unequal societies, where people are more sensitive about social judgments. For those with no economic or educational route to achieving high status and earnings, experiencing the bottom of such a steep social hierarchy can be “enraging”. This, the authors argue, is the cause of why out of all crime; those crimes involving violence are most closely linked with high levels of inequality. In addition to violence and its resulting imprisonment, however, inequality also increases rates of teenage pregnancy, obesity and addiction. “As well as health and violence, almost all the problems that are more common at the bottom of the social ladder are more common in more unequal societies—including mental illness, drug addiction, obesity, loss of community life, imprisonment, unequal opportunities and poorer wellbeing for children.” Pickett and Wilkinson write. “That inequality damages family life is shown by higher rates of child abuse and increased status competition is likely to explain the higher rates of bullying confirmed in schools in more unequal countries.”

The authors use the United States specifically as an example, one of the world’s wealthiest with its high level of violence and murder in particular, to show that these problems have nothing to do with per capita income. For each of eleven different health and social problems: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies and child well-being; Pickett and Wilkinson find; outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal countries, whether rich or poor.

As prosperity increases; they say; “Further rises in income count for less and less”. Once countries reach a certain level of wealth, what affects its citizens is not Gross domestic Product Growth but inequality level. At that point, there no longer exists any correlation between national per capita income and health, happiness and wellbeing outcomes. “Economic growth and increases in average incomes;” The authors begin their book; “Have not contributed much to well-being in rich countries”.

Whether the test is life expectancy, infant mortality, obesity levels, crime rates, literacy scores, or even the amount of recycling, the more equal the society the better the performance. There is more teenage pregnancy, mental illness, higher prison populations, more murders, higher obesity and less numeracy and literacy in more unequal societies. More equal societies; Wilkinson argues in a 2010 article in the Prospect Magazine; enjoy better physical and mental health, lower homicide rates, fewer drug problems, fewer teenage births, higher math and literacy scores, higher standards of child wellbeing, lower obesity rates and fewer people in prison. Nor are these things unrelated to one another either: math and literacy scores are lower in more unequal countries, they argue, because of both health, anxiety and depression issues and their consequent alcohol and drug abuse and addiction, and also by the affects on education of the way parents treat children, which in turn is affected by their relative poverty.

As such, Pickett and Wilkinson describe unequal societies as “dysfunctional”, and more unequal societies are socially dysfunctional across the board; with consumerism, isolation, alienation, social estrangement and anxiety all following from inequality. “We find ourselves anxiety-ridden, prone to depression, worried about how others see us, unsure of our friendships, driven to consume and with little or no community life.” They write in the opening pages of their book.

According to the authors, inequality also “drives status competition”, “intensifies consumerism” and “adds to personal debt”. Greater inequality amplifies the impression that some people are worth so much more than others, they find, and psychological experiments show how “extraordinarily sensitive people are to being looked down on and regarded as inferior.” Man is a social primate; Wilkinson states in a 2010 article in The Guardian by author, political commentator and critic Nick Cohen; and people who worry about their status feel too keenly the humiliations their superiors inflict on them. This, in turn, leads some to try to “enhance self-presentation” and how they appear to others, which the authors argue explains why data shows narcissism increasing with inequality: The rich see no point in earning the esteem of the less well-off.

The similarity of human hierarchies to the dominance hierarchies of among monkeys, based on power and coercion and privileged access to resources; Wilkinson tells Jarvis; is why powerlessness, hunger and poverty “go together at the bottom”. In the social hierarchies of monkeys; writes Michael Sargent of the National Institute of Medical Research in an article on the subject for the April 30, 2009 Volume 458 of the pee-reviewed scientific journal Nature; neuroendocrinological stress provoked by the perception of others enjoying higher status than oneself and undermining self-esteem triggers the release of cortisol, which in turn raises blood pressure and sugar levels, as a result of which low-status monkeys become predisposed to atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease and accumulate abdominal fat under the influence of the part of the brain associated with addiction. Lower status monkeys are inclined to self-medicate—with cocaine if given the opportunity—providing a clue to how the stress response may lead to illicit drug use. Cortisol-induced stress, Sargent argues, not only predisposes individuals to mental illness and violent behavior, but also hastens puberty, prompting premature sexual adventures and providing a plausible explanation for teenage pregnancy’s prevalence in unequal societies. Cortisol can then be transmitted to fetuses with lasting developmental and emotional effects.

Economically, greater inequality leads to shorter “spells” of economic expansion and more frequent and severe “boom and bust” cycles, making economies more vulnerable to crises. Tackling inequality is, Bennet concludes, essential for a sustainable economy.

Bennett argues that the first and foremost step to the problems Pickett and Wilkinson cite is employers paying a decent living wage, since costs of living have “soared” relative to wages since 2005. “It is hard to think of a more powerful way of telling people at the bottom that they are almost worthless;” Pickett and Wilkinson conclude; “than to pay them one third of one percent of what the CEO in the same company gets.”

Book Review: Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat’s Cradle, Henry Holt, 1963

•April 11, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Introduction:

Overview of the Book’s Themes and Purpose

University of New York Professor Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle recounts, from the first-person perspective of a journalist named John [but who calls himself “Jonah”] of the end of the world and of life, as we know it by means of a substance he calls “Ice 9”. The story begins with John writing a biography of fictional physicist Felix Hoenikker, whom the book calls its fictitious “Father of the Atomic Bomb”, who invents the “Ice 9” which ultimately destroys the world in the end. The novel ends with John as the President of the fictional Caribbean Republic of San Lorenzo with the death of its Military Dictator called “Papa” Monzano, which in turn results in the release of the “Ice 9”, left by Felix Hoenikker upon his death to his three children, including his eldest son Franklin Hoenikker, the Major General of San Lorenzo.

It should be noted that the concept of Ice 9, arguably the primary antagonist of the story, is not first introduced until the twentieth Chapter, on page 46, when it is first mentioned to John by Felix Hoenniker’s Supervisor at Vonnegut’s fictitious General Forge and Foundry Company in Vonnegut’s fictional town of Ilium, New York, a man named Asa Breed.

 

Summary:

Key Points of the Chapters

Much of the book is spent as an exploration through experience of Vonnegut’s fictional religion of “Bokononism”. Most if not all of the characters and situations in Vonnegut’s book are labeled using terms from the Books of Bokonon. The Ice 9, as the novel’s antagonist, is labeled as John’s “Wampeter”, or “pivot” defined in the novels’ 24th chapter on page 52 as an object around which revolve the lives of otherwise unrelated people. Such a group of thereby related people Vonnegut identifies as a “karass”, or “team” linked in a cosmically significant manner. As such, very nearly all of the characters in Vonnegut’s novel form John’s “karass”: Breed, Felix Hoenikker and his three children, Monzano and his daughter Mona, as well as Bokonon himself, a man born by the name of Lionel Johnson who co-founded the Republic of San Lorenzo and invented both the religion of Bokononism and its terminology. The sacred scriptures of Bokononism consist of, according to the book’s 110th Chapter, no fewer than fourteen Books of Bokonon [Page 245]. The “wisdom” of Bokonon is communicated in the form of poems called “Calypsos”, of which according to the novel’s 102nd Chapter, there are no fewer than 119 [Page 227]. Bokononists practice their religion through a ritual Vonnegut calls “Boko-Maru”, defined in Chapter 73 as being “the mingling of awareness” [Page 158], and constituted by contact between the soles of the feet. Much of what the reader learns of Bokononism comes from John’s reading of a book on the subject of San Lorenzo written by the character of Phillip Castle, son of the multi-millionaire owner of Castle Sugar Corporation

In spite of John investigation into Felix Hoenikker, the “Father of the Atomic Bomb” constituting the first 35 chapters and 77 pages of Vonnegut’s novel, and the fact that the title of the biography John is writing about Hoenniker, The Day the World Ended, could very well just as easily be the title of Vonnegut’s novel itself, the August 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima itself actually plays a relatively background role; What Vonnegut’s Bokonon calls John’s “kan-kan”, or “instrument”, defined on page two as that which brings a person into those who form their “karass”. It should also be noted, in stating that Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle is a novel about the end of the world, that the destruction in question, at the hands of Ice 9, does not occur until the novel’s 116th chapter on page 261, and that the novel itself only continues onward thereafter for another 11 chapters and 26 pages.

The death of San Lorenzo’s dictator “Papa” Monzano, which will in turn lead to the unleashing of the lethal life-and-world-destroying “Ice 9”, takes place in the novel’s 105th Chapter on page 235. In the 110th Chapter On Page 244, Vonnegut, through the voice of John, identifies this event as the beginning of what he calls a “pool-pah”, or “Shit Storm”. “What hope can there be for mankind when there are such men as Felix Hoenikker to give such playthings as “Ice-Nine” to such short-sighted children as almost all men and women are?” Vonnegut writes. “What can a thoughtful man hope for mankind on Earth, given the experience of the past million years?” The character of John then quotes the answer to this question given in the Fourteenth Book of Bokonon: “Nothing”.

 

Conclusion:

Evaluate the Book’s Overall Argument and Its Writing

For all of its demonization of science, scientism and scientists, whether in the form of the atomic bomb or Ice 9, Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle is equally unforgiving of anti-intellectualism: “She hated people who thought too much.” Vonnegut writes in of a woman John meets at General Forge and Foundry. “At that moment she struck me as an appropriate representation for almost all of mankind.” [Chapter 15, Page 33].

Two hundred pages later, Vonnegut offers an equally profound insight in his discussion of John’s forced and rushed romantic relationship and marriage with “Papa” Monzano’s daughter Mona, when he quotes one of the “Calypso” poems from the Books of Bokonon:

A lover’s a liar.

To himself he lies.

The truthful are loveless

Like oysters their eyes.” [Page 233]

Indeed, the theme of liars, lies and lying is a ubiquitous one throughout the book, which begins with the precautionary proclamation by Vonnegut that “Nothing in this book is true” [Epigraph, Page VII] and that “All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.” [Chapter 4, Page 5].

Vonnegut, however, embraces what he calls “foma”, “harmless untruths” intended to comfort simple souls, which Bokonon claims make a person “brave and kind and healthy and happy”. [Epigraph, Page VII]. The character of Lionel Johnson, too, like his creator Vonnegut, sees nothing wrong with such dishonesty, inventing his imaginary made-up religion in his Books of Bokonon on the thin justification that “Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book either.” To which he replies laconically: “So be it.” [Chapter 4, Pages 5-6]. Johnson makes no secret of the fact that his religion is invented, even going so far as to refer to Bokononist cosmogony as being “foma” [Page 191].

It is from Johnson’s invention of his own religion wherefrom the novel gets its title. The character of Felix Hoenikker’s youngest son Newton points out the problem with the titular simple string trick to John thusly:

For maybe thousands of years, grownups have been waving tangles of string in their children’s faces…No wonder kid’s grow up crazy. A cat’s cradle is nothing but a bunch of x’s between somebody’s hands…No damn cat and no damn cradle.” [Chapter 74, Pages 165-166]

Later, Newton describes religion in a strikingly similar manner; holding his hands up and asking Castle “See the cat? See the Cradle?” [Chapter 81, Page 183]

Since he describes “karasses” as ignoring “national, institutional, occupational, familial and class boundaries” [Chapter 2, Page 2], Vonnegut reserves some of his harshest hatred for what he calls “granfalloons”, or false karasses: proud associations of human beings that are “meaningless in terms of the ways god gets things done”. Under this overarching umbrella, Vonnegut encompasses “any nation, anytime, anywhere”.

John, like his creator Vonnegut, is from Indiana, and in Chapter 42 meets other characters from Indiana; namely Hazel Crosby, the wife of a bicycle repair shop owner from Evanston Illinois, who has an unhealthy obsession with locating fellow “Hoosiers”, through which the concept of a “granfalloon” is introduced. Vonnegut describes the meaningless of such associations through the voice of Bokonon, writing that:

If you wish to study a granfalloon;

Just remove the skin of a toy balloon.” [Chapter 42, Page 92]

That is to say: saying someone is a “Hoosier” is as empty as the inside of a balloon.

The thing that puts the twist on Vonnegut’s, and in turn John’s distaste for state and national identification is their embrace of the “karass”, the members of which find their lives tangled “for no very logical reasons”, and which Vonnegut says “do god’s will without ever discovering what they are doing”. [Page 2]

Like lies, however, Vonnegut, in the voice of John, equally embraces this ignorance as well. “My god—Life!” John says to Castle. “Who can understand even one little minute of it of it?”

Don’t try.” Castle answers. “Just pretend you understand.” [Chapter 81, Page 182].

Prosperity Gospel and Wealth Inequality [Draft 1, April 4, 2017]

•April 4, 2017 • Leave a Comment

 

Introduction:

The Prosperity Gospel: Who, What, Where, When and How?

 

Georgia College and State University Associate Professor of Sociology Bradley Koch summarizes the prosperity gospel thusly: “Adherents to the Prosperity Gospel believe that wealth is a sign of god’s blessing and the poor are poor because of a lack of faith.”[1]

According to Duke University Divinity School Professor of the History of Christianity in North America Kate Bowler, it is possible to trace the prosperity gospel to gospel to Bethel Bible Institute founder Essek Kenyon [1867-1948]. Bowler writes that the Prosperity gospel sprung from the “New Thought” movement, more specifically the teaching of Unity Church founder Charles Fillmore [1854-1948].[2] Professor Koch traces its origins back further, to the “Great Awakening” of 1730. He further traces the specific of the modern gospel of prosperity to Oral Roberts University founder Granville Roberts [1918-2009] and associates it with Kenneth Hagin, a disciple of Kenyon’s, “Father” of the Word of Faith Movement.

According to Methodist Theological School of Ohio Dewire Professor of Christian Leadership Lisa Withrow:

What makes this gospel particularly dangerous is its propensity to claim innocence of any motive other than fulfilling god’s will for human beings… The only reason some people remain poor is because they do not exert enough effort to promote their own success. They are considered lazy, ineffectual or misdirected and therefore “unblessed”.[3]

Professor Koch concurs:

The logical extension of the Prosperity Gospel—sometimes explicit, sometimes not, depending on the preacher—is that the poor are poor because of a lack of faith—that poverty is the fault of the poor themselves…Poverty, far from being a blessing, is a sign of god’s disfavor; thus, Christians have a duty to deal only with the apparent lack of faith among the poor and no their poverty itself.

Koch points out the danger of the Prosperity Gospel in a nation with as great a disparity in wealth as America: “while income has no effect on adherence to the Prosperity Gospel, blacks, the “born again” and “evangelical” and those who are less educated are more likely to seek out Prosperity messages”.

 

 

Case Study:

Kenneth Copeland: All of the Problems with the Prosperity Gospel in Microcosm

 

In many ways, the real danger of the Word of Faith Movement’s Prosperity gospel stems from the ease with which its predatory preachers solicit money from the poor.

An example is Kenneth Copeland. His 33-acre Kenneth Copeland Ministries complex in Fort Worth Texas, valued at more the twelve million dollars by the Tarrant County appraisal District, includes not only a lakeside villa for Kenneth and his Wife Gloria, valued at more than six million dollars,[4] but also the private Kenneth Copeland Airport for Copeland’s two private jets, a 47 foot long Cessna S550 Citation S/II/SP and a 72 fool long Cessna 750 Citation X+, each valued at twenty million dollars. The complex also includes Copeland’s daughter Terri Pearsons’ Eagle Mountain International Church, to which are registered five music and book companies, according to the Texas Secretary of State.[5] According to United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley [R-IA], Copeland’s Cessna 550 has been used for domestic travel including hunting trips to a private LaFonda exotic game-hunting ranch in Bracketteville, Texas, the Steamboat Springs Ski Resort in Routt County, Colorado; where Kenneth Copeland and his son John were photographed posing with a pair of dead Cheetal [Spotted Axis Deer] indigenous to Sri Lanka] in December 2006. Copeland’s Cessna 750 is used for international flights, including to Honolulu, Maui and Fiji in October 2006. Kenneth Copeland Ministries responded by claiming that theses were “for preaching”, with Copeland telling a news report of the airplane that “This is a preaching machine…It will never, ever be used as long as it is in our care, for anything other than what is becoming to [Jesus]”. Copeland claimed that the two days in Maui were a “layover” on the way to a seven-day evangelical seminar in Australia, after which the three days in Honolulu were “for eating and rest” and “allowing the pilot to rest”.[6]

Those with a prosperity orientation;” Koch adds in his 2009 paper; “tend to have voted for Bush in the year 2004 and identify as Republican.” Indeed, in an October 19, 2016 Eagle Mountain Church television program, “Faith for Our Nation”, Copeland stated that Christians would be “guilty of murder” and “guilty of an abomination to god” if they did not vote for Republican Nominee Donald Trump in the November 8, 2016 Presidential election. Trump had named Copeland to his “Evangelical Executive Advisory Board” on June 21, 2016.[7] The use of Kenneth Copeland Ministries’ facilities by the 2008 Presidential campaign of Governor Michael Huckabee [R-AR] prompted Senator Grassley to Chair a three-year-long investigation by the Committee on Finance, on which he was the ranking member[8], into the tax-exempt status of religious organizations under Title 26 Subtitle A, Chapter 1 Subchapter F, Part 1 Section 501 Subsection C, Paragraph 3 of the Code of Laws of the United States [USC 501C3]. 501C explicitly limits its exemption to any organization:

Organized an operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific…literary or educational purposes” and which “does not participate in or intervene in [including the publishing or distributing of statements] any political campaign on behalf of [or in opposition to] any candidate for public office.”

As documented by former “Daily Show” correspondent John Oliver on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” on August 16, 2015, the dangers of predatory Prosperity preaching go beyond wealth and into health. Oliver recounts the story of Bonnie Parker of Winnsboro, Louisiana. According to her daughter, Kristy Beach, after she was diagnosed with Cancer Parker, a watcher every Sunday morning of Kenneth Copeland’s “Believers’ Voice of Victory, donated money to Copeland that Beach says reached in to the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Parker also spent still more money on lottery tickets, with the intention of giving the money to Copeland should she win.

As Oliver explains, this is “not an unreasonable interpretation” of Copeland’s preaching. “We know what’s wrong with you: You’ve got cancer.” Kenneth Copeland’s wife Gloria says in the Kenneth Copeland ministries series “Healing Faith”. “The bad news is we don’t know what to do about it except give you some poison that will make you sicker.”

Now which do you want to do: Do you want to do that or do you want to sit here on Saturday morning, hear the word of god and let faith come into your heart and be healed?”

According to Parker’s diaries found by Beach, the Copeland’s words convinced her to refuse to see a doctor. “If she went to a doctor, it was a sin.” Beach explained to the Associated Press. “You didn’t believe enough if you did. She just wrote “God heal me. God heal me. God heal me.” The cancer advanced rapidly and according to her husband Alvin, Bonnie Parker died in 2004 believing she had not donated enough money to Copeland and always believing that if she continued to donate, her health would improve.

Amy Arden, a former member of Eagle Mountain International Church, echoed parker’s sentiment. “We were terrified to have any sort of fear. And anything that wasn’t faith in god was fear.” Said Arden, who attended Eagle Mountain Church from 1997 to 2003 and worked for three years for Kenneth Copeland Ministries. “To get a vaccine would have been viewed by me and my friends and my peers as an act of fear; that you doubted god would keep you safe, you doubted god would keep you healthy. We simply didn’t do it.” The vaccine Arden was referring to was for measles. In 2013, 21 members of the Kenneth Copeland Ministries were diagnosed with measles. The sixteen from Tarrant County, nine of them were children—including a four-month old child—at a day care center at Eagle Mountain International Church in Newark, Texas. According to the church, all of the school-aged children infected were home-schooled. The measles vaccine is recommended at 12 months of age and again at age four to six, but of those same sixteen people, aged 4 months to 44 years, at least twelve of them—a majority of the 21 infected—were not fully immunized and had not received all of the recommended vaccinations and the rest had no record of being vaccinated or no documentation to verify their vaccination history, which 98 percent of the citizens of the county do, according to Texas State epidemiologist Russell Jones.[9] Arden, who by 2013 lived in New York City, said that her daughter was eleven months old and up to date on her immunization when she joined Eagle Mountain Church in 1997, but did not get any others until after they left the church in 2003.

The pastor of the church is Copeland’s daughter Terri Pearsons, who with her husband George, had preached about the potential of the measles vaccine to cause autism. “This is a sadly misinformed religious leader.” Vanderbilt University School of Medicine Professor William Schaffner told USA Today.[10] On “Believers’ Voice of Victory in August 2010, Kenneth Copeland himself called the process of immunization “downright criminal”.[11]I got to looking into that and some of it is criminal.” Copeland said of having his first grandchild and being alarmed at the number of vaccinations the child was supposed to be given. “You don’t take the word of the guy that’s trying to give the shot about what’s good and what isn’t…. Because I’m telling you, it’s very dangerous the things that are happening around us all the time.”[12]

 

III. Problem

 

With the wealthiest one tenth of all Americans holding more than three quarters of all of the wealth in America[13] and the wealthiest 0.1% having the net worth of the lower 90% put together combined,[14] the United States of America has the highest income inequity in the developed world and ranks fourth among nations with the greatest wealth inequality, trailing only Lebanon, Russia and Ukraine. The United States also spends more than ten thousand dollars per capita[15] on healthcare, more than twice the average for developed countries.[16] In spite of this, Americans are less healthy and have a lower life expectancy than in other high-income nations.[17] These things are not, as it turns out, as entirely unrelated as on might like to think, since not only is there convincing evidence that income inequity detrimentally affects human health,[18] but there is also an ever-increasingly persuasive case to be made that America’s economic inequalities are actually being fueld at least in part by its exorbitant healthcare costs.[19]

Given all of these various statistics—that the poor are poorer and the sick are sicker in America than in any other developed country in the world, it is not difficult for one to envision how the observed and documented predatory behavior of Prosperity Gospel preachers such as the Copeland family, by convincing poor people to send them money that they do not have and sick people to refuse medical care for diseases that they do have—or that they acquired through refusal of preventative precautions, could quite easily and understandably exacerbate very nearly each and every aspect of inequalities in America.

 

  1. Conclusion

 

What sets the preachers of the prosperity gospel apart from other gospel preachers as particularly predatory is the immediacy of the consequences thereof.

No one in the known written recorded history of civilization has ever been able to in any way empirically verify the existence of any afterlife of any kind. As such, it has never been and perhaps can never be known with any reasonable degree of surety whether or not the promises of reward or threats of punishment preached by most Christian clergy to their church congregations have ever been or will ever be fulfilled. However, the Prosperity gospel sets itself apart by promising its adherents that their faith, in the form of material monetary “tithing”, will be rewarded within this lifetime. While it may never be knowable whether those who devoted their lives to the church in hopes of receiving eternal salvation in the afterlife were right or whether they were wrong to do so, the immediacy of the promises made by Prosperity Gospel preachers such as the Copeland’s makes the judging of the efficacy of their message an elementary matter of empirical observation.

If, as John Lennon imagined, there is no heaven and no hell, then it could be said that many if not all preachers, not only of Christianity but all Abrahamic faiths, throughout the history of those traditions had potentially, perhaps unknowingly, been defrauding their congregants, and doing so for generation, for hundreds if not thousands of years. But such accusations must remain without proof—in all cases except one: The Prosperity Gospel. To say that predatory Prosperity preachers such as Kenneth Copeland defraud those like Bonnie Parker who donate to them by promising rewards they will never be in any position to deliver on and never have any intention of delivering on takes no supposition whatsoever.

[1] Koch, Bradley. “The Prosperity Gospel and Economic Prosperity: Race, Class, Giving and Voting”. Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis Lilly Family School of Philanthropy Department of Sociology. July 20, 2009: https://philanthropy.iupui.edu/files/file/brad_koch_final_dissertation.pdf

[2] Bowler, Kate. “Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me”, New York Times, February 13, 2016: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/death-the-prosperity-gospel-and-me.html?_r=0

[3] Withrow, Lisa. “Success and the Prosperity Gospel: From Commodification to Transformation”. Oxford Institute of Methodist Theological Studies. 2007: https://oimts.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/2007-6-withrow.pdf

[4] Reilly, Peter. “About that Kenneth Copeland Mansion You Saw on John Oliver”. Forbes Magazine. August 25, 2015: https://www.forbes.com/sites/peterjreilly/2015/08/25/about-that-kenneth-copeland-mansion-you-saw-on-john-oliver/#cb924f81d691

[5] Burnett, John. “Can a Television Network Be a Church? The IRS Says Yes”, National Public Radio. April 1, 2014: http://www.npr.org/2014/04/01/282496855/can-a-television-network-be-a-church-the-irs-says-yes

[6] Shipp, Brett. “Senate Audit Critical of TV Preacher Kenneth Copeland”. WFAA. August 19, 2015: http://www.wfaa.com/news/local/investigates/senate-audit-critical-of-tv-preacher-kenneth-copeland_20161019012931349/337732249

[7] Wing, Nick. “Donald Trump’s New Evangelical Advisor Was Sure God Had chosen Ted Cruz to Be President”. Huffington Post. June 21, 2016: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/donald-trump-kenneth-copeland_us_5769880de4b065534f47fb24

[8] Strickler, Laura. “Senate Panel Probes 6 Top Televangelists”. CBS News. November 6, 2007: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/senate-panel-probes-6-top-televangelists/

[9] Aleccia, Jonel. “Measles Outbreak Tied to Texas Megachurch Sickens 21”. NBC News. August 27, 2013: http://www.nbcnews.com/health/measles-outbreak-tied-texas-megachurch-sickens-21-8C11009315

[10] Szabo, Liz. “Texas Measles Outbreak Linked to Church”. USA Today. August 25, 2013: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/08/23/texas-measles-outbreak/2693945/

[11] Neporent, Liz. “Texas Church Tied to Measles Outbreak Preaching Vaccinations”. ABC News. August 26, 2013: http://abcnews.go.com/Health/texas-church-epicenter-measles-outbreak/story?id=20071644

[12] Stengle, Jamie. “Measles Cases Put Texas Megachurch Under Scrutiny”. Associated Press. August 31, 2013: https://www.yahoo.com/news/measles-cases-put-texas-megachurch-under-scrutiny-165150724.html

[13] Sahadi, Jeanne. “The Richest 10% Hold 76% of the Wealth”. CNN. August 18,2016: http://money.cnn.com/2016/08/18/pf/wealth-inequality/

[14] Monaghan, Angela. “US Wealth Inequality—Top 0.1% Worth As Much As the Bottom 90%”. The Guardian. Thursday November 13, 2014: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/nov/13/us-wealth-inequality-top-01-worth-as-much-as-the-bottom-90

[15] Alonso-Zladivar, Ricardo. “$10,345 Per Person: U.S. Health Care Spending Reaches New Peak”. Associated Press. July 13, 2016: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/new-peak-us-health-care-spending-10345-per-person/

[16] Rugy, Veronique. “US Health Care Spending More Than Twice the Average for Developed Countries”. George Mason University Mercatus Center: https://www.mercatus.org/system/files/healthcare-costs-us-oecd-analysis-pdf.pdf

[17] Fox, Maggie. “We’re Unhealthier Than Everyone Else—And It’s Our Own Fault”. NBC News. January 9, 2013: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/nov/13/us-wealth-inequality-top-01-worth-as-much-as-the-bottom-90

[18] Szalavitz, Maia. “How Economic Inequality is [Literally] Making Us Sick”. TIME Magazine. October 19, 2011: http://healthland.time.com/2011/10/19/how-economic-inequality-is-literally-making-us-sick/

[19] Blumenthal, David and Squires, David. “Do Health Care costs Fuel Economic Inequality in the United States?” The Commonwealth Fund. Tuesday September 9, 2014: http://www.commonwealthfund.org/publications/blog/2014/sep/do-health-costs-fuel-inequality

Book Review: Walker, Brett. Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan, University of Washington, 2010. 352 Pages. Part II: Preface-Chapter 2, Pages X-16

•March 25, 2017 • Leave a Comment

 

Evaluate the Book’s Overall Argument and Its Writing

In his 2010 book Toxic Archipelago, Montana State University Department of History, Philosophy and Religious Studies Professor Brett Walker [Ph.D., Japanese History, University of Oregon] explores hybrid spaces and causations through which human health and industrial pollution are intertwined. He describes his principal argument as being that “at a certain level, the Earth has become a gargantuan hybrid environment in which we are deeply embedded, one interlaced with complex, historically constructed ecological pathways” [Page 16] and that, as Walker writes “at certain moments in history, historical and natural drivers come together…to form what I label in this book as “hybrid causations.” [Preface, Page XIII]. His simple overriding assertion is that physical pain associated with industrial pollution emerges from intertwined ecological and technological systems. “Physical pain caused by industrial pollution is the product of toxins that navigate naturally occurring ecosystems;” Walker asserts; “And technological systems that are seamlessly intertwined and indicative of highly engineered environments.” [Page 16]

He contrasts this physical pain against its polar opposite, opining “Pleasure, while rooted in the body, often eludes out consciousness of its bodily origins and finds a comfortable spot in ordinary social practices such as eating and talking.” [Page 6]

Embracing analysis of complex causal webs offers a far more compelling explanation than an overly simplified history does.” [Preface, Page XIV] Walker writes. “They are, in effect, the product of complex hybrid causations and obey no single reductionist trajectory of reasoning or disciplinary methodology.” [Page 16]

Walker makes a compelling case for environmental toxicity as a condition of history. University of Wisconsin—Madison Professor of History, Geography and Environmental Studies William Cronon’s Foreword summarizes Walker’s book’s argument simply: “toxicity was an inevitable outcome of cultural innovations that viewed nature as a resource waiting to be exploited toward useful human ends.” [Foreword, Page X] Cronon writes that “what seemed like a new age of toxicity exploded into public view with the atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, followed in turn by countless nuclear tests and the radioactive fallout they generated” but cautions that “Environmental toxicity was hardly limited to radiation” [Foreword, Page IX] and that “to really understand the rise of environmental toxicity one has to go much further back in time, to the dawn of the industrial era.” [Foreword, Page X]

Walker convincingly argues that humans know the nation state in a visceral way through pain. “Pain has long been part of Japan’s national experience;” Walker writes, qualifying that a “careful distinction must be made between premodern and modern…notions of sacrifice.” “Loyalty both to lords and to extended families held together Japan’s premodern state structure.” He explains. “Loyalty to the medial and early modern states was measured by the endurance of individual pain”. [Page 9] Walker enumerates that the Kyoiku ni Kansuru Chokugo [Imperial Rescript on Education] signed by 122nd Emperor of Japan Mutsuhito, or “Meji-taitei” [“Meji the Great”] on October 30, 1890 ordered subjects of the Yamato Dynasty Imperial Family of Japan to:

Offer themselves courageously to the State.”

Walker explains that in 1890 “mass sacrifices to the state would be measured in collective pain.” [Page 10] “All modern nations, including the Japanese one, require pain and acceptance of that pain from their subjects and citizenry, particularly at key historical moments. The act of interpreting and contextualizing such pain as dignified national sacrifice is critical to state legitimacy”; Walker argues; “But Pain caused by industrial pollution is less easily interpreted and contextualized as dignified and so can prove…dangerously subversive to the nation”. [Page 9] “The interpretation of pain;” Walker explains; “occurs only after it has been inflicted and so the imagined community, insofar as pain is concerned, is an attempt to make sense of the suffering that occurs in national contexts.” [Page 10]

Pain is an important part of participation in national communities, including the Japanese one.” Walker writes, arguing that it “ranks even higher than national myths and a shared language in creating Japan’s national community” because “Japanese do not have to learn in school to feel pain, as they learn shared myths and language, but they do have to learn how to interpret its meaning as a form of dignified…sacrifice on behalf of their nation.” [Page 9] “Nations are not entirely culturally determined, invented entities;” Walker argues; “The effects of ecological transformation and pollution demonstrate that people really do physiologically experience nations’ policies and priorities.” [Page 11]

Walker argues for recognition that the complex intertwined natural system. “Humans tend to recognize pain in the weapon itself that than in or on the victim’s body.” [Page 14] Walker argues. “To destroy factories or nations, or even to recognize them as weapons, as opposed to icons of modern progress, is to defy Japan’s entire modern experience…In Japan and elsewhere, therefore, the price of this recognition is simply too high and so the pain of the victims of industrial disease is transformed into a form of less-than-dignified and certainly not always empathetically shared sacrifice for the nation.” [Page 15]

 

Overview of the Book’s Themes and Purpose

According to Professor Cronon’s Foreword, Walker’s Toxic Archipelago is a story about hybrid spaces, environments simplified by engineering. “The ability of engineers to redesign productive processes so at to maximize desired outputs almost always involved simplifying those processes;” Cronon offers; “And turning a blind eye toward the biological contexts within which they took place.” [Foreword, Page XI].

Walker then contextualizes this within the history of Japan, convincingly arguing how engineered hybrid environments are inextricably woven into state-led industrialization and masterfully intertwining empathetic narratives of human pain and sacrifice at the altar of state-led industrial development. “Toxins sicken bodies because industrialization, with the id of the modern state, simplifies and…this simplification requires engineering the environment… Once environments have been simplified, toxins move through them more easily and, in effect, directly into human bodies.” The author adds. “By contrast, toxins move less easily in less simplified environments, such as naturally occurring ones.”[Page 6]

Walker states that his themes are the “ultimate causes of the colossal toxic pollution that saturates our modern landscapes and the manner in which pain caused by pollution insults our always-porous bodies” and the “relationship between pain and the nation”. [Page 5] “Pain;” Walker concludes; “Creates the cultural milieu we inhabit.” [Page 14]

Walker states that his books purpose is to assemble the web of cause and effect involving toxic agents, engineered landscapes, human and nonhuman beings, opining that “the critical moment in Japan’s environmental history is the nineteenth century, when the manner in which Japanese interacted with themselves, nonhuman organisms and the environment was transformed. With the nineteenth century came the advent of Homo Sapiens industrialis on the Japanese islands;” Walker explains. “A new breed of human utterly penetrated, engulfed and transformed…by the engineering, industrializing and poisoning of the environment in and around it.” [Page 6] “Industrial toxins that flow through engineered Earth and its technological systems;” He articulates; “Render useless academic ruminations on the differences between wilderness areas and cities, organic and inorganic, nonhuman and human, biology and technology or even nature and artifice. Industrial toxins, when finding their way into human bodies, reject such boundaries” [Page 16].

According to Walker, Humans and nonhuman species seek to thrive in hybrid environments increasingly saturated with poisonous toxins, which transcend the boundaries of human bodies. “Toxins cause pain in bodies;” Walker reiterates; “And certain kinds of pain serve as internal “biological indicators” of a poisoned landscape.” [Page 6]

Walker focuses on the complex causations of environmental crises, opining “Parsing the differences between natural and artificial agency in the creation of environmental pollution is a fool’s errand because the circumstances that produce, transform, transport and concentrate deadly toxins are usually the result of a complex mixture of agencies.” “Some agencies are naturally occurring and others are anthropogenic;” Walker continues. “Both remain relevant to understanding how industrial toxins function, sicken bodies and cause pain.” [Page 16]

Again according to Cronon’s Foreword, the lesson is that “modernity’s promise to liberate humanity from the constraints of nature was a lie, plain and simple.” Indeed, Walker himself goes onto proclaim precisely that, first quoting University of Tokyo Professor Emeritus Masao Maryuama’s 1974 book Studies in the Intellectual History of Tokugawa Japan:

True modernity provides individuals with autonomy by liberating them completely from nature.” [Page 7]

Walker then goes on to disagree with Muyama, writing “modernity and its technologies and engineered landscapes have not distanced us from nature, as Muyama and other theorists imagined they would.” [Page 8] “Modernity, for all its lofty promise;” Walker concludes; “is a cruel fantasy.” [Page 7]

 

Brief Summary of Key Points of the Chapters

In Chapter One: The Agency of Insects, Walker looks at how age-old Japanese predilections for keeping insects, historically and culturally mediated human relationships with an invasive beetle pest and the fly that preys upon it [“Buddhist attitudes towards insects…informed how Japanese viewed insect emergences in paddies;” Walker says; “Historically, Buddhist cosmologies constructed the notion of agrarian entomology as much as the biological sciences or applied chemistry did”], the rise of sericulture as a cash crop and the concomitant displacement of traditional grain production in areas once used to produce grain for Tokyo via the rise of monocrop mulberry plantations to feed hungry silkworms [“Here the hybrid causation in question takes the form of biotechnologies, such as certain insects;” Walker argues; “Insects such as silkworms better fit the taxonomies and categories of technology than biology”], crop failure and finally rampaging wild boars outcompeting humans for the crops that survived triggered a cascade of unintended consequences that led to a devastating famine caused by industrial agriculture in 1749. About this “wild boar famine”, Walker paraphrases University of Chicago Associate Professor of History and East Asian Languages Susan Burns’ January 1, 2003 book Before the Nation: Kokugaku and the Imagining of Community in Early Modern Japan in reiterating his assertion that:

Pain that occurred because of nationwide ecological shifts that caused large-scale starvation…witnessed during the wild boar famine provided a far more physical reminder to Japanese…of their membership in a new form of national community.” [Introduction, Page 11]

According to Professor Cronon’s Foreword, in Chapter Two: The Agency of Chemicals, Walker describes the evolution of insect pest-control technologies from the rather innocent applications of whale oil, curses and prayers to the horrific introduction of compounds based on toxic elements such as lead and arsenic during the western-oriented Mejii period and finally the massive use of synthetic pesticides such as the chemical parathion during the latter half of the twentieth century. “Before DDT was used to control insects;” Cronon explains; “It had precursors, like copper sulphate and lead arsenate, whose biological effects and long-term accumulation in the environment were hardly benign.” [Foreword, Page X]. Walker also considers the effects of insecticides, quoting Yale University Professor of Sociology Charles Perrow’s 1984 book Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies:

You could stare under a microscope at a sample of the biocide parathion for weeks and never fully understand how it kills people or facilitates insect evolution…When sprayed, insecticides become part of insect bodies and alter their evolution by inducing resistance. Even more germane, these toxins become part of the paddy ecosystems that insects inhabit, leading to systemic…accidents”.

Book Review: Weinberg, Steven. “To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science”. 2015 [Draft 1, March 24, 2017]

•March 24, 2017 • Leave a Comment

A historian has many duties. Allow me to remind you two of which are important. The first is not to slander; the second is not to bore. I can excuse you for neglect of the first for few will read your work. I cannot, however, forgive you for neglecting the second, for I was forced to read you.”

-Francois-Marie Arouet [Francois Voltaire], French deist historian and philosopher [1694-1778]

 

Introduction: What Makes a “Good” Historian?

 

Voltaire accurately portrays the common conceptualization, in the popular press as well as within the academic and scholarly literature, of what makes history “good”. Written history must be factually accurate in very nearly every detail, but at the same time actively engaging to the reader. In the magazine Bookforum in March 2007, University of Georgia Professor of Humanities William McFeely appears to agree with Voltaire, writing that “well written” is a “cliché used for history that is readable rather than turgid”.

However, in the first decades of the 21st century, scholars such as the subject of McFeely’s review, Cornell University History Professor Aaron Sachs, and Montana State University Department of History, Philosophy and Religious Studies Professor Brett Walker have complicated Voltaire’s simplistic instruction to historian “not to bore” by introducing concepts such as Walker’s analytical model of “hybrid causation” and Sachs’s “unification ecology” in the spirit of the subject of the 2006 book of Sachs’ that McFeely was reviewing, Prussian geographer Alexander Von Humboldt. These new conceptual models force historians in the second decade of the 21st century to largely discard the common conceptualization of history as a simplistic sequence of chronological cause and effect. With Walker’s analytical model of “hybrid causation” especially, in which even environmental events, conventionally considered natural, have multiple causes both internal and external, anthropogenic and otherwise, any historian following the twentieth-century tradition of attributing effects [events] to their singular cause could, by such reductionism, quite easily fall into the trap of perpetrating precisely the sort of “slander” that Voltaire warned historians against in the Eighteenth century.

Though both Sachs and Walker mange marvelously in their respective works, it is not difficult to imagine how such a multiple-cause, multiple-effect model might make much more complicated the task of fulfilling Francois Voltaire’s assignment “not to bore”.

This is, it should be noted here, not entirely, if indeed at all, the fault of the historians themselves, but rather instead is easily attributable to inextricable elements of human nature: Namely, the nature of the human mind and its evolutionary origins. As Doctor Phillip Mason, also of Cornell University, explained in November 2013, at its simplest, the human brain is little more than a probability calculator. For example, if one were to step off the edge of a cliff, the probability of one’s survival is extraordinarily low. The human brain, in effect a supercomputer, calculates this probability, and thus instructs its fellow muscles to keep the body well away from cliff edges. While this provides a clear evolutionary advantage in terms of survivability to those whose brains are best at calculating such probabilities, the inevitable downside of such calculations is of course their tendency to reduce the world that surrounds us to as simple of terms as possible: in this case, to a sequence of causes and their direct effects. This is, in turn, what makes adapting the brain to such radical conceptual complications as Walkers “hybrid causation” so extremely challenging.

This raises the practice of studying and writing about history to a whole new intellectual level, as it requires historians to not only be able to themselves conceptualize events as having multiple causational correlations, but also be able to express such a seemingly counterintuitive concept as this in an easily understandable way as well to their readers, and not only just their fellow academics and historical scholars but also to the broader popular public.

All too often, especially when dealing with effects and events which are unpleasant or even abhorrent, there exists an impulse, deeply-seeded in the subconscious if not the conscious mind, which even academics are by no means entirely immune from, to try to track down a presumably singular someone or something upon which or whom to place responsibility and blame. Walker warns against this impulse, however, as in an intricately interconnected ecological ecosystem such as the one in which we live our lives, the effects or events for whom it can accurately be said a single person or thing is entirely responsible, if indeed any do even exist at all, are extraordinarily few and far between. This is how historians participating in the traditional tracing of human history from one event to the next, from cause to direct effect, easily, even unknowingly, violate Voltaire’s first prohibition “not to slander” by fallaciously misattributing events, especially if anthropological or environmental atrocities are involved, to causational agents who were, at the very least, not solely or exclusively responsible for them.

As Walker shows, however, even the act of attempting the task of locating and corralling all of the often innumerable agents involved in any event’s ancestral origins can quite easily effectively draw even the most astute academic down a proverbial rabbit hole [of the sort envisioned by English logician Lewis Carroll in 1865’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland] of its own, and this in turn can lead to difficulties in avoiding violating Voltaire’s second prohibition “not to bore”. Making counterintuitive concepts such as effects without singular readily-identifiable causes actively engaging to readers, especially outside of academia is part of what lead Professor McFeely to note in his review the “readability” of Sachs’ magnum opus on Humboldt, as it all too often makes much written history what McFeely would most articulately identify as “turgid”, and even such an inspirational Enlightenment luminary as Voltaire would very nearly invariably find to be “boring”.

 

Thesis: Is Steven Weinberg a “good” Historian?

In his 2015 book To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science, Nobel-Prize-winning Harvard University Higgins Professor of Physics Steven Weinberg writes “As is natural for an academic, when I want to learn about something, I volunteer to teach a course on the subject” [Page IX]. This statement is telling about how Weinberg approaches the writing of history. From Voltaire’s twin prohibitions, we can extrapolate that the duties of a historian and a teacher are strikingly similar. Both have the professional responsibility “not to slander” and the positivity of the reception of both depends upon their aptitude “not to bore”. Weinberg’s critique of the writing in his own field closely mirrors Professor McFeely’s criticism of “turgid” history. “Much of the writing of physicists;” Weinberg writes; “Barely reaches the level of prose.” [Chapter 1, Page 16] It is this conversational tone, which Weinberg himself describes as “irreverent”, that makes Weinberg’s book not only “readable”, as McFeely may say, but actively engaging.

Furthermore, Weinberg justifies his choice of the title for his book in a distinctly Humboldtian manner that is reminiscent of Sachs’ “unification ecology”: “I chose “Discovery” instead of “invention” to suggest that science is the way it is not so much because of various adventitious acts of invention, but because of the way nature is.” Weinberg explains; “With all its imperfections, modern science is a technique that is sufficiently well tuned to nature so that it works—it is a practice that allows us to learn reliable things about the world. In that sense, it is a technique that was waiting for people to discover it.“ [Page XI]

However, whilst fulfilling Voltaire’s requirement “not to bore”, Weinberg’s narrative frequently treads dangerously near the realm of violation of Voltaire’s second requirement “not to slander”. For example; In discussing Italian astronomer, mathematician and physicist Galileo Galilei’s summer 1610 move from Padua to Florence, leaving behind his appointment to the Chair of Mathematics at the University of Padua under the patronage of Cosimo De Medici, to whom Galileo dedicated his March 13, 1610 treatise Siderus Nuncius [Sidereal Message] and placing him at the mercy of Pope Paul V and the Inquisition under Catholic Counter-Reformation Confessor Cardinal Robert Bellarmine; Weinberg opines that “A modern University Dean might feel that this danger was a just punishment for Galileo’s evasion of teaching duties.” [Chapter 11, Page 97]. To his credit, Weinberg readily admits to this particular danger of slander, making his agenda crystal clear: “In telling this story, I will be coming close to the dangerous ground that is most carefully avoided by contemporary historians, of judging the past by the standards of the present.” Weinberg warns the reader. “Some historians of science make a shibboleth of not referring to present scientific knowledge in studying the science of the past. I will instead make a point of using present knowledge to clarify past science.” [Pages XII-XIII]

The peril Weinberg refers to here Cambridge University Regius Professor of History Sir Herbert Butterfield coined “Whig History” in his 1931 book The Whig Interpretation of History. This “Whig history” was criticized both by Butterfield and later by John Schuster of the University Wollongong in Chapter 3: The Problem of “Whig History” in the History of Science of his 1995 book The Scientific Revolution: An Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Science. Weinberg here once more gets credit for presenting both sides of the “Whig history” debate with equal accuracy and clarity. In summarizing the case against the Whig interpretation of history, Weinberg quotes University of Wisconsin—Madison Hillsdale Professor Emeritus of History of Science David Lindberg from his 1992 book The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious and Institutional Context, 600 B.C.E to A.D. 1450, expressing the sentiment that:

The proper measure of a philosophical system or scientific theory is not the degree to which it anticipated modern thought, but its degree of success in treating the philosophical and scientific problems of its own day.”

To this, Weinberg expresses his own response with equal articulateness, writing, succinctly, “I don’t buy it”. And again, Weinberg’s reasoning echoes Sachs’ Humboldtian “unification ecology”: “What is important in science [I leave philosophy to others] is not the solution of some popular scientific problems of one’s own day, but understanding the world.” He says. “In the course of this work, one finds out what sort of explanations are possible and what sort of problems can lead to those explanations.”

The progress of science has been largely a matter of discovering what questions should be asked.” Weinberg adds. “This sort of judgment is indispensable if one wants to understand how science has progressed from its past to its present”. [Chapter 3, Page 24]. Indeed, in his 1931 Whig Interpretation of History Professor Butterfield writes that:

History is not the study of origins; rather it is the analysis of all the mediations by which past has turned to present”.

Alas, ultimately, it is in this respect that Weinberg comes to the defense of “Whiggish” history. “Science is now international, perhaps the most international aspect of our civilization, but the discovery of modern science happened in what we may loosely call the West.” Weinberg writes. “The West borrowed much scientific knowledge from elsewhere—geometry from Egypt, astronomic data from Babylon, the techniques of arithmetic from Babylon and India, the magnetic compass from China, and so on—but as far as I know, it did not import the methods of modern science.” [Page XII].

Again to his credit, Weinberg goes to great lengths to give credit where credit is due, especially when it comes to arithmetic and mathematics. “The Babylonians had achieved great competence in arithmetic, using a number system based on 60 rather than 10.“ Weinberg appraises. “They had also developed some simple techniques of algebra, such as rules [though these were not expressed in symbols] for solving various quadratic equations.” [Chapter 2: Music and Mathematics, Page 17]. In discussing Plato’s student, Fourth Century BCE Greek astronomer and mathematician Eudoxus of Cnidus, Weinberg writes that “he is credited with solving a great number of difficult mathematical problems, such as showing that the volume of a cone is one-third the volume of the cylinder with the same base and height [I have no idea how Eudoxus could have done this without Calculus]. But his greatest contribution to mathematics was the introduction of a rigorous style, in which theorems are deduced from clearly stated axioms.”

He goes on to identify this as being by no means small praise by effusively singing the praises of arithmetic and mathematics. “Mathematics is the means by which we deduce the consequences of physical principles.” Weinberg states. “More than that, it is the indispensable language in which the principles of physical science are expressed.” “The distinction between mathematics and Science is pretty well settled.” Weinberg concludes. “It remains mysterious to us why mathematics that is invented for reasons having nothing to do with nature often turns out to be useful in physical theories.” Weinberg quotes the May 11, 1959 lecture by University of Munster Professor of Mathematics Richard Courant at New York University, published by Weinberg’s fellow Nobel Prize-Winning physicist Eugene Wigner of Princeton University in the February 1960 Volume 13, Issue 1 of the New York University Courant Institute of Mathematical Science’s peer-reviewed scientific journal Communications on Pure and Applied Mathematics: “In a famous article, the physicist Eugene Wigner has written of The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics.” [Chapter 2: Music and Mathematics, Page 19].

This he contrasts against science, writing, “Scientific theories cannot be deduced by purely mathematical reasoning. Science and technology benefit each other, but at it’s most fundamental level science is not undertaken for any practical reason.” [Page XIII]. What may be Weinberg’s most telling statement in terms of his outlook on science is when he writes that “Nothing about the practice of modern science is obvious to someone who has never seen it done.” [Chapter 3, Page 25]. “I want to show how difficult was the discovery of modern science, how far from obvious are its practices and standards.” Weinberg explains. “This also serves as a warning, that science may not yet be in its final form.” [Page XII]

Furthermore, in Weinberg’s defense, he largely steers well clear of ascribing any arbitrary value judgments upon the past as opposed to the present, going out of his way to emphasize the differences between the two. “Again and again in preparing the lectures for my courses I have been impressed with how different the work of science in past centuries was from the science of my own times.” Weinberg writes, quoting British novelist Leslie Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go Between, writing that:

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

[This sentiment was echoed even more strongly by astrophysicist and cosmologist Neil Degrasse Tyson in the May 4, 2014 Episode 9: The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth of his Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey in which Tyson says that “The past is another planet—so is the future… Actually, many… But most of us don’t really know this one.”]

Weinberg makes clear repeatedly that he does not regard the people of the past as being inferior, but merely fundamentally and substantially different in how they approached the world. “My focus in this book;” Weinberg writes; “Is how we came to learn how to learn about the world.” And in Weinberg’s eyes, that is exactly what Ancient and Classical philosophers did: they “learned how to learn”.

Weinberg begins with the Ancient Greek philosophers, from the pre-Socratic seventh-century BCE astronomer and mathematician Thales of Miletus through Classical Greek philosopher Plato. Here he draws what is his clearest differentiation between past philosophy and the science of the present. “There is an important feature of modern science that is almost completely missing in all the thinkers I have mentioned, from Thales to Plato: none of them attempted to verify or even (aside from perhaps [Fifth Century BCE Pre-Socratic Philosopher Zeno of Velia]) seriously to justify their speculations.” [Chapter 3, Page 15] Weinberg summarizes, opining, “The Early Greeks had very little in common with today’s physicists. Their theories had no bite…It seems to me that to understand these early Greeks, it is better to think of them not as physicists or scientists or even philosophers, but as poets…I have in mind here poetry in a broader sense: language chosen for aesthetic effect, rather than in an attempt to say clearly what one actually believes to be true.” [Chapter 1: Matter and Poetry, Page 16].

To be perfectly fair, Weinberg makes his critique of this philosophical “poetry” as being “science” quite clear, even going so far as to include a certain measure of what could be interpreted as sardonic self-deprecation. “We simply do not find anything in the laws of nature that in any way corresponds to ideas of goodness, justice, love or strife.” [Chapter 5, Page 32] Weinberg gripes: “Whatever the final laws of nature may be, there is no reason to suppose that they are designed to make physicists happy.” [Chapter 11, Page 90]

So on the question of whether or not Weinberg altogether avoids violating Voltaire’s prohibition “not to slander”, Weinberg makes what is perhaps the most earnest effort such a Whiggish historian conceivably could towards avoiding denigrating the thinkers of antiquity altogether undeservedly or unnecessarily.

However, what is readily evident throughout Weinberg’s work is his steadfast dedication to adhering to the responsibility proscribed to him and to historians by Voltaire “not to bore”. And at this his iconoclastic, self-described “irreverent” narrative perseveres and ultimately succeeds in spades.

 

Conclusion:

So is Steven Weinberg a “good” historian?

Whether Weinberg, before writing To Explain the World in 2015 had read Walker’s 2010 book Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan, in which Walker coins his analytical model of “hybrid causation”, or not is unknown.

Nevertheless, the spirit of historical events having not one causational correlation but many is deftly disguised in Weinberg’s nuanced view of past philosophical “poetry” as being “clarified” by modern science, rather than the philosophers themselves being unjustly judged upon contemporary knowledge; such as when he writes of English astronomer, mathematician and physicist Sir Isaac Newton that “Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians.” [Calling to mind d’Overbroeck’s College—Oxford chemistry professor Michael White’s 1999 biographical book Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer].

It is not unreasonable, therefore, to conclude that the hostility and vitriol shown toward Weinberg’s “Whiggishness”, such as in Weinberg’s colleague, Harvard University Franklin Ford Research Professor of the History of Science Steven Shapin’s February 13, 2015 Wall Street Journal review entitled Why Scientists Shouldn’t Write History is not entirely deserved. Schuster’s critiques of “Whiggish” history in his book on The Scientific Revolution are not devoid of merit. Neither, however, is Weinberg’s compelling and engaging full-throated defense of it. Weinberg does himself credit by preempting unqualified outside critiques of his Whiggish work in its Preface, forewarning in the very first page’s first paragraph “I am a physicist, not a historian.” [Page IX].

So the conclusion to this review would be that, for a physicist, Weinberg’s iconoclastically, irreverently and unabashedly Whiggish history of modern science performs at least one of its Voltairian duties very well indeed, if occasionally not so much the other. The answer to the question of whether Weinberg is himself a “good” historian is obvious, as it is given by Weinberg himself in his own words right from the get-go: He is, admittedly, not a historian at all.

 
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