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Carlo

Carlo

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Philosophy: Basic Readings
Nigel Warburton
Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge
Paul Karl Feyerabend
Arguably: Selected Essays
Christopher Hitchens
Philosophy of Science (Science & Mathematics) (Philosophy & Intellectual History)
Jeffrey L. Kasser
David Mitchell: Critical Essays
Sarah Dillon
The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions - David Berlinski I was very impressed with this book when it talked about the physical sciences. Much less I would say when it talked about evolution by natural selection. From what limited reading I had done in evolutionary theory, I really think Berlinski doesn't understand the current status of the science. He always insists about considering Darwin and his Origin as the definitive source of evolutionary theory in a time when most biologists believe Darwin made some mistakes on his own on the one hand, and other branches of science were not developed enough at his time to have a fully cohesive theory on the other. Reading the physics parts of the book and seeing how much the guy understands not only the current science but its philosophy too, I'm really surprised how he missed similar developments in biology.

The parts about physics were a joy to read. Honestly. Very good to see that there is actually a debate between scientists and theologians. Many in the scientific community are very anxious to give the impression that when it comes to knowing about the world, science rules supreme. Science may sometimes to be as much faith-based as religion, and though I would personally bet on science, I would say the most important lesson from this book is that of philosophy: there are limits of what we can know, and though these limits one day budge, it is always better to treat them as unchangeable. There are questions that we may never be able to answer in one way or another.

Berlinski's humor is hilarious. Mind that this is coming from a very big admirer of Hitchens who was perhaps the figure who most suffered from the Berlinski's witty remarks.

I was very lucky to read Manny's excellent review and get the book, which BTW reminds me of another albeit corny but important lesson from the book: never judge a book from its title. Here's a textbook example of that adage!
The First and Second Discourses - Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Judith R. Masters, Roger D. Masters 2.5 Stars

I read this as part of the readings required for a course called The Modern And The Postmodern on Coursera given by Weselyan University.

It was a peculiar reading. When I read it first, I had a reaction similar to that of Voltaire when Rousseau sent him a manuscript of one of his later books, The Social Contract:

"I have received your new book against the human race, and thank you for it. Never was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours. But as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel unhappily the impossibility of resuming it."

This was the stronger in case of the first Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, which is really an impassioned attack against Reason and the notion of progress in Western society. Rousseau makes all sorts of claims to reason his way into showing how humans in state of nature are much more in place than in so-called civilization. One of the shocking lines in the first discourse is:

"Romains, hâtez-vous de renverser ces amphithéâtres ; brisez ces marbres, brûlez ces tableaux, chassez ces esclaves qui vous subjuguent , & dont les funestes Arts vous corrompent."

English Translation:
Romans, hurry up and tear down these amphitheatres, break up these marbles, burn these paintings, chase out these slaves who are subjugating you, whose fatal arts are corrupting you.

This really was a precedent from so respected a figure.

The second Discourse which concerns the origins of inequality was more balanced, though sometimes surpassing the first in speculation and guesswork. He claims that humans in the state of nature were much happier and healthier. Language and family were nonexistent and humans acted more like themselves. Civilization introduced social relations between people which though at first enjoyable resulted in such woes as vanity, cruelty and indifference to suffering, with all being perpetuated by inequality resulting from such social life.

After listening to the commentary of the course and understanding the context in which the guy existed, I tend to see him more with sympathy and understand where he is coming from. Much of the problems he is describing were real and are even relevant today (e.g. how material goods are often nice to have but much painful to lose or how for the rich it is often more important to differentiate themselves from others). He may not convince you with his causal explanations, and certainly not with his solutions to these very human problems, but I believe it is fair to say (as Michael Roth did) that he was the conscience of the Enlightenment. He certainly acts as a balancing force against the certainties prevalent at the time about the merits of reason and the dangerous imperative that many felt to achieve "progress".
A Life with Books - Julian Barnes Just read this in the bookstore. Rather good, but wrongly titled. It is more like a love letter by Barnes to Books. The physical as opposed to the "e" variety.

The Self and Its Brain

The Self and Its Brain - Karl R. Popper;John C. Eccles John Searle, in his book [b:Mind: A Brief Introduction|51905|Mind A Brief Introduction|John Rogers Searle|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1348671049s/51905.jpg|50644], says the following:

"...among most of the professionals in the field, substance dualism is not regarded as a serious possibility. A prominent exception is the defense of dualism offered by Karl Popper and J. C. Eccles. They claim that there are two quite distinct worlds, World 1 of physical objects and states and World 2 of states of consciousness. Each is a separate and distinct world that interacts with the other. Actually they go Descartes one better and also postulate World 3, a world of 'culture in all its manifestations.'"

Well, the least I can say is that I am excited to see how Popper's claim passes his falsifiability test, or would he call me a "Popperazzi" too?
The Impact of Science on Society - Bertrand Russell Here Bertrand Russell sets himself the task of analyzing the effects of science on society in addition to trying to extrapolate whatever trends he was seeing or thought was seeing into the future. The book is composed of many lectures that Russell delivered, almost all taking place after World War II.

I believe this it is a very intelligent and thoughtful book by a great mind, not to mention the first rate ironic musing of Russell that gave me many heartfelt laughs. Science, very obviously, is a tool that can be used for different purposes, good or bad in differing degrees. What Russell tries mostly is to give a value-free analysis of the impact of science on society coupled with his vision of a future in which humans would have grasped the effects of science more seriously and tried to harness them for the benefit of the whole world, or else perish. This lead Russell (like many other known scientists of his era) to the idea of world government that will have the power to enforce peace on all nations. For this reason, we have a very interesting discussion about the possible balance between liberties and the rule of law, which I believe adherents of Liberalism would very much enjoy. However, amusingly, enthusiasts of conspiracy theory actually believe that Russell was in on a conspiracy to establish a world oligarchy a la Orwell's "1984". I said amusingly because I can't help to think about the footwork you need to believe such a thing about the man.

Having said all this, I couldn't help to think of Russell as naive in some pages, especially when he tries to speculate about the future, though I am obviously affected by the hindsight bias. All in all, this was a very enjoyable read.
Letters to a Young Contrarian - Christopher Hitchens It is curious to see how Hitchens ended up being with Harris, Dawkins and Dennett in one camp, at least in the public imagination. I think it is crucial to flesh out the difference between the other three figures on one hand and Hitchens on the other. While the three champion (though it is arguable how much they adhere to) empiricism, rationality and the spirit of science in general, Hitchens is in a different camp. He makes bold claims which are based on personal experience, opinion, speculations and sometimes even hearsay. These could be easily called unfounded by anyone who truly understands how science works (let alone claim that it is the only solution to all our troubles) and Hitchens doesn't seem to have anything to say let alone care to reply. He knows it very well himself though I'm not sure most of those who lump him with Dawkins or Harris do.

The reason I enjoy reading Hitchens is not that he demonstrates rationally or empirically how the good life must be lived or what values are justifiable. His is a more passionate and somewhat "biased" reply to every man-made despicable woe in life. This feels more vivid and most importantly more honest, to me.

This is my third read of this book and I really won't be exaggerating when I say that I look forward to many future readings. There's just too much to be taken away from this little gem of a book.
The Passion Of The Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View - Richard Tarnas I really can’t remember how this book ended up on my to-read shelf. As I recently wanted to read a book on the history of thought like that of Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, I picked this up since it is relatively recent and thus it would give an idea of some modern schools of thought like those of Postmodernism and Deconstructionism, something Russell’s book lacked since it is written in 1945.

As a history of western thought, this book is excellent. I would highly recommend it if you are seeking to understand how the modern mind developed from the Greeks all the way to the present era. It is erudite and beautifully written. The author is extremely intelligent and observant (up to a point anyway) that I was aghast at the thought trajectories he cleverly traced and by which he connected thinkers from diverse periods and contexts with one another.

However, as the book drew to its end, I became more and more surprised by the claims Tarnas started making. What these boil down to is that it is inconceivable that the world we live in is materialistic and without meaning. Why it is inconceivable we are unfortunately not told. Also, he believes that our mere understanding of the world implies that there is meaning in it and the subject-object duality (separation between us as observers and the world) is an illusion. That how someone who wrote a history of western thought (including empiricism) that is so eloquent and perceptive is making such insupportable claims is really beyond me. Consider for example the following excerpt:


"Why do these myths ever work? If the human mind has no access to a priori certain truth, and if all observations are always already saturated by uncertified assumptions about the world, how could this mind possibly conceive a genuinely successful theory? Popper answered this question by saying that, in the end, it is “luck”—but this answer has never satisfied. For why should the imagination of a stranger ever be able to conceive merely from within itself a myth that works so splendidly in the empirical world that whole civilizations can be built on it (as with Newton)? How can something come from nothing?

I believe there is only one plausible answer to this riddle, and it is an answer suggested by the participatory epistemological framework outlined above: namely, that the bold conjectures and myths that the human mind produces in its quest for knowledge ultimately come from something far deeper than a purely human source.
"


This is certainly amazing, especially if you read what he had to say about Galileo, Kepler and Newton in his rendering of some of their mistakes resulting from their flawed assumptions and worldviews, let alone Popper's notion that whenever a theory is non-falsifiable it is outside the purview of science. This certainly is the most peculiar author I came across. I read in incredulity the extraordinary claim he made that the modern materialist scientific worldview (which supposes that humanity may very well be an accident that is very likely not to occur if we rewind and replay the tape) is, wait for it, anthropomorphic since it presupposes that the human mind can understand the Cosmos in a mechanistic framework, whereas the participatory epistemological framework (outlined in the excerpt agove) is not anthropomorphic at all (!!!). I really, really kid you not.
Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe - Lee Smolin An interesting talk by Smolin, apparently of the ideas outlined in this book, can be found in this link, with an equally interesting comment by Sean M. Carroll:

http://www.edge.org/conversation/think-about-nature
36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction - Rebecca Newberger Goldstein Hearing about this book being praised for having a unique ability to explore the religious belief "from the inside", and realizing that it was actually the explicit aim of its author, I really can't help but giving it a low rating. I believe it fails as regards its central premise, and apart from that it had a boring story that didn't at all provide me with an enjoyable experience while reading the book.

Apart from the fiction part of the book, there is an appendix that actually examines 36 serious arguments for the existence of God and refutes them beautifully one by one. The most ironic thing about this book is that one of the characters foreshadows that the appendix is much more interesting that the book itself. I would have easily rated the book 4 stars if there was nothing but the appendix. It was honest and showed the limitations of reason and the (low) probability of the existence of some deistic entity though not at all a God who gave us the Bible or its likes.

Also, the conclusion of the story is damnable and very passive. Apart from the fact that it lacks focus, it was as if the author is encouraging us to fully accept the reality of religions and religious beliefs without the least compromise. I believe that is a luxury we can no longer afford given the realities of the world.

No doubt Goldstein is a very intelligent person and one I would be delighted to discuss many questions with. She explores some very interesting questions sideways, like immortality, suffering, mathematics, but the whole is so lacking and trite that I didn't find anything new that hasn't been discussed many times over in much more engaging books by notable authors who Goldstein (though not criticizing them) seems to not be satisfied with. There is an actual debate in this book a la Hitch vs. Dinesh D'Souza that surprised me with its cliched arguments for the existence of God, where the main character demolishes the religious side. I was really surprised at one point to see the religious actually defending the Judeo-Christian morality. I believe there are lots of arguments for the existence of a deity made by people who are near-Deists which though I don't agree with are certainly more engaging and fun to think about and grapple with.
Embassytown - China Miéville This book started fine and got somewhat better till the letdown in the last 50 pages. I really liked the premise. The ideas about language, though I doubt the extent to which they are true, were engaging and interesting. However, the writing was boring and in my humble opinion, bad and pretentious. I couldn't but feel disappointed with the book after the cheap ending. I couldn't possibly believe how easy the author thinks it was to train the hosts to use language the way we do. Good questions came to my mind while reading this book (such as what really is language?) but the same could have been achieved by a 3 page speculations of a language buff, without the goddamn floaking, biorigging, immer, and who-knows-fuckin-what.
The Book Thief - Markus Zusak How good people could be driven to be cruel and callous is the thing I would most probably take away from this book. It just sticks to my mind and doesn't go away. No matter how you live, you are going to be forced to lie to, be insensitive towards, and even disappoint those you love unless of course you are planning to cease to be human, that is.
Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life - Stephen Jay Gould Goodreads must really consider adopting ratings with 0.5 increments. I would really rate this book 2.5 stars or even 3 on a good day (which after a second thought is what today seems to be, hence the change from 2 to 3 stars). It was an interesting read especially when you consider the low expectations I had when I started reading it. In atheistic circles, this book is nearly seen as a betrayal of everything good and beautiful about science and I assure you it is nothing as such, at least not how it is often described to be. I would however, really criticize Gould for not being so consistent throughout his analysis. Like for example, he seriously thinks that Thomas shouldn't have questioned about Jesus being resurrected. I mean, really? Is there a real scientist (let alone someone like Gould who is clearly passionate and caring about science) who cannot applaud Thomas for his disinterest? Anyway, one gets the feeling that Gould has changed his mind a little between the beginning and end of writing the book, especially when he finishes by showing his derision of those who really think the Big Bang is consistent with Genesis or the notorious Templeton foundation that year after year violates his much beloved NOMA by awarding bigger-than-the-nobel-prize sums to scientists who show that science and religion are actually two things of explaining the same thing, whatever that is supposed to mean.

To come to NOMA, it is really not as bad as it is pictured to be. It is, in fact, a much more limiting factor for religion than science. Like the idea that if Science finds a fact about nature which contradicts religion, then religion must be wrong and science right. How can you disagree with such a thing? It is also an important limitation on science, which guarantees that scientific discoveries will conform more to the basic principles of science.

However, there are signs of the usual cowardice when he tries to define what religion actually is. He seems (like many of those who like to be nice to religious folks) to see all religions as more or less the same phenomenon which is something I really disagree with. We really need to acknowledged that some religions are more harmful than the others. Also, he views religion as something as broad as to include the whole of morality in it. So basically when a scientist tries to talk about morality, he is actually violating NOMA which is something I am not so sure about.

Anyway, much more interesting were the bits about how those opposed to religion have their own myths when it comes to the Dark Ages or Galileo and the like. The stories which are often told about the clergy believing that the earth was flat or of Galileo being more or less a martyr in the "holy" war between science and religion, are questioned and sometimes exposed to be frauds, just like many religious traditions are filled with them. So one can't help but feel the irony here, of all the places.

One last idea to end my rambling with, which is about agnosticism. Agnostics really think that they are more honest intellectually and not as "fundamentalist" as atheists or religious people are, but I'm afraid their case cannot be sustained. When Gould (who is an agnostic) talks about how Darwin's idea of Evolution by Natural Selection cannot refute God's existence, I cannot avoid disagreeing with that. For one thing, God's existence (at least before the near relativism of the 20th century religions) was a response to the fascination of humans with nature (including stars, planets, fear, dreams...etc. etc.), so when science explains it, it is really cowardly to say that it doesn't mean anything about God's existence. It makes it, at least, less likely for a God to exist and which is why I consider agnosticism a lame and not more than a politically correct idea and skeptical atheism a much more sustainable position.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - Mark Haddon This was a good little book and its central character was very interesting. Though it once was marketed as a book about Autism, Mark Haddon says that it is really a book about being different and on that level, it succeeds immensely. It was interesting to see things from the perspective of someone who is very rational about everything including family relationships. The other side of this coin is showing us that we are not as rational as we like to think ourselves.
Notes from Underground - Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ronald Wilks A seminal text of Existentialism, Notes from Underground is one of the finest works of Dostoyevsky, and one that captures the special quality that is most distinguishable in him. His characters are irrational, passionate, full of zeal and enthusiasm, who find themselves in circumstances that capture their essence in a way that makes the reader spellbound by Dostoyevsky's genius and deep insights about the human psyche. They most beautifully show what really means to be human, especially one who cannot help but think and feel about her place in the cosmos.

In this book, he shows exactly how some of the most important scientific discoveries, when led to their logical conclusions, can generate a sense of bewilderment and despair that is a class of its own and cannot be sketched as nihilistic or depressive. The reaction to the scientific discoveries of 19th century, which are not quite different in their implications than those of today, is best demonstrated when the author of the notes (the anti-hero of the book) contemplates about what is the essence of anger, love, free-will, and even the entire human life. How when confronted with the somewhat uncaring reality that these are mere formulas, which in principal can be explained through jottings of several lines on a sheet of paper, we sink into angst which is beyond repair and consolation and just to escape it we try to occupy ourselves by not living a "real-life". However, we may think that we have succeeded in avoiding the beast, it stays in a dark corner of our mind sharpening its claws and waiting for the right opportunity to attack and throw us again into despair.

I believe the character of this book is much more real than most of us want to believe. It demonstrate an outlook that we are bound to have if we are only to try to understand the origin of the universe and our insignificant place in it.
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ - Philip Pullman This was terrible. Though small portions of it were somewhat clever (below average really), other parts were so dumb and/or insulting to his readers, that I couldn't imagine giving it more than a star.
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion - Jonathan Haidt This was an interesting read and though I disagree with Haidt in many crucial points, such as the role of reason in our lives, he presents in this book challenging ideas which cannot be taken lightly.

However, I believe Haidt deliberately ignored the role of education, and though he acknowledged the good role discussions play in removing personal biases when people pursue their goals and agendas, he ignored it in his theory of the Moral Foundations. Discourse and education can play a huge role in developing both a set of ideologies and a personal narrative with which we examine our own beliefs and values. His "demonstration" about the shortcomings of reason, with the usual story of a consensual incest between a brother and sister, is not as strong a demonstration as the conclusion he tries to reach, namely that intuition always plays a much stronger role in our lives than reasoning.

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Came across two pieces in the NYT (one by by Gary Gutting and and the other by Michael P. Lynch) about this book along with Haidt's reply, and I can say that I stand by my rating of 3-stars. Here are the links for the three articles respectively.

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/04/jonathan-haidts-plato-problem/

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/30/hope-for-reason/

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/07/reasons-matter-when-intuitions-dont-object/