Complexity: A Guided Tour
God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World
Stephen R. Prothero
These two books are oddly complementary. I read them one after the other by chance, they just happened to be in that order on my reading pile. First was the guided tour of complexity, by Melanie Mitchel. A well written and accessible book that only lost my interest in the chapter on Mitchel’s own work. Her erudition and grasp of the topic is outstanding, but her own research is simply not on a par with that by, say, Szilard, Shannon, Hofstadter, Feigenbaum et all. She is particularly good at describing the development of our understanding of complexity starting with the work of Aristotle.
Mitchel knows how to write a compelling story, that keeps you turning pages, and at the same time invites often to pause and reflect. And she does this trough a dazzling landscape going from evolution to artificial intelligence, with the same ease. A guided tour indeed! Highly recommendable reading.
Next I read God is not one. Prothero is also in the business of guided tours, and is also a one of those guides that are fun and knowledgeable at the same time. The difference is that he takes a firm position and writes the book not so much to explain but to make a point. His point being that it is naive to think that when a, say, a muslim, christian and yoruba use the word God in their conversation, they are all talking about more or less the same thing. He argues convincingly that understanding the differences is the only way to reach a constructive dialogue between faiths.
He also introduces a handy framework to think about religions. A religion articulates a problem; a solution, a technique and presents exemplars. To quote his example, for Buddhism the problem is suffering, the solution is nirvana, the technique is the Noble Eightfold Path. And this description is what triggered the following thought:
Clearly religion could be described as “emergent” behavior – in the words used by Mitchel. And emergent behavior may not arise purposefully, but it does – on hindsight – usually serve a purpose. And if this is so, then one the greatest world religion that Prothero could have started his book with seems to be nationalism, followed by Islam. Look at almost any constitution and you will see that they have articulated a problem: national cohesion and sovereignty, they have a solution through government and citizenship, and they have a technique described in laws and lived through moral consensus. Go to any main square and you will see the portrayals of the nations exemplars.
And this is not the only thought that both books trigger. I experienced them both as a valuable read that added to my understanding in a broad sense. And I feel “updated” by them.