In one of the most memorable examples in The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris reflects on his own thoughts after his wife told him that another man had openly flirted with her in the gym, even though she had said she was a happily married woman. Sam Harris imagines how men in certain cultures would have reacted to this information. The first thing a man should do if he want to keep his pride is to beat the rivaling male, perhaps kill him too. In some cases it would also have been culturally appropriate to punish the wife for.... well I don’t know... sub consciously tempting the man to approach her? In extreme cases it would have been appropriate to also kill the wife, just to emphasise the way in which your property is not to be meddled with!
Sam Harris admits that he initially did feel hostility towards the other male (something which I think men world wide will sympathise with). He felt that his behavior was wrong. However, having been brought up in a western society he did not follow through on these feelings. He realized that killing the other person would not lead to positive outcomes for anybody, and he realized that it was certainly not his wife’s fault. In addition, he also thinks that his wife is attractive and can understand that another man finds her attractive too.
The main thesis of Sam Harris book is that just like statements about the world can be right or wrong (for example, it is wrong to say earth is flat), moral statements can also be right or wrong. What makes an act/policy/moral guideline right or wrong? Well according to Harris this is determined by the degree to which it increases/decreased the well being of humans. For those who remember their philosophy, this is in essence a utilitarian argument. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill argued that there are no categorical imperatives (as Kant said). Whether something is good or evil depends on the consequences. Thus it can be good to lie if it prevents sadness in a lot of people. To calculate the effect of a certain act on the well being of the rest of the world is of course more or less impossible. For example, frequent lying can ruin relationships leading to divorce, leading to depressions etc etc...
Harris acknowledges that there is large gray area where it is hard to say if a certain action or moral guideline aids general well being or not. This does not mean however, that anything goes. However, some acts, such as killing another man and your wife because of minor flirtation is really unlikely to lead to greater well being. It is comparable to arguing that the earth I'd merely 6000 years old - not entirely impossible but really really unlikely.
Simply put, some moral guidelines or cultural norms are more conducive towards human well being than others.
Still many people (perhaps mainly academics living comfortable lives), would argue that cultural norms are merely cultural and that we should not criticize other cultures for holding certain values, because values are subjective etc. However, even among cultural relativists there are few people who argue this way when discussing terrible acts. Can people who consider themselves to be cultural relativists abstain from judgement and condemnation when they hear about say Josef Fritzl or the genocide in Rwanda. Would they be indifferent to whether their children were raised in Josef Fritzl's basement, or in a Tutsi family experiencing mutilation from Hutu militia. Are these alternatives merely an interesting cultural alternative? What sane parent would not prefer their child to grow up in a western society with individual rights and a police force that protects their citizens?
Can we not say that the genocide in Rwanda was wrong? Can we not deplore the ethical code of the catholic church when they excommunicate a doctor for performing an abortion on a girl raped by her father and pregnant with twins, while not excommunicating a single Nazi? If we can it follows that we can say something about which norms are good and bad.
In Boomerang Michael Lewis tells a number of stories illustrating the folly that was all too common in and around 2008, when the financial crisis hit the world economy. The first scene is Texas, US, where the author meets Kyle Bass, who became famous when he got rich from betting that sub-prime mortgages would go bust, which of course they did in the most spectacular manner. Since then, Bass has moved on to other types of bets, namely bets that nations will go bust. Bas thinks it is an inevitability given the amount of debt nations have accumulated. Indeed, when private businesses such as AIG, and large banks needed bailouts worth hundreds of billions of dollars, nations basically took over the debt. In some countries these bailouts means that the nations, which in the end means the citizens of those nations, have enormous debts. It appears unrealistic that they will ever be able to pay it off, and Kyle Bas bet that they will not.
Following this first encounter which sets the scene, Lewis travels to Iceland, Greece, Ireland, and Germany, before heading back to the state in the US which according to this book is in the most trouble… California. Lewis is a master when it comes to telling stories that are informal and amusing, and yet at the same time illustrates the economic events that lead to the 2008 meltdown of some economies. In Iceland for instance, Lewis meets with a fisherman who, before 2008, realized that he could make more money if they borrowed japanese yen at a 3% interest and used them to buy Icelandic kroner which rose by 16% a year. The resulting wealth of Iceland was insane considering that they only have 300.000 inhabitants. Iceland, via money trickery, became so rich that they were able to buy several of the UKs biggest banks meaning that Iceland had to pay when the bank was in trouble, which of course they could not…
In the last chapter we meet (to my surprise), no other than Mr. Governator i.e., Arnold Schwarzenegger. In describing this encounter, Lewis manages to simultaneously write about Schwarzenegger's maniac style bike rides through intersections with heavy traffic, and California's fiscal policy and potential collapse. After having read this book I see both California and Arnold Schwarzenegger in a new light
While I did learn new things this book did not fundamentally change me or the way I see the world. Still, it is not often you find a book which is as educational and at the same time entertaining, as Boomerang.
This is one of the worst books I have ever read. I bought it hoping that it would provide me with some good reasons for eating meat (which do exist, see for instance the intelligence squared debate called “Don’t eat anything with a face). However, this hope was brutally slayed, something that I realized quite early in the book. The basic argument that the authors try to convey, without any ambition whatsoever to be objective or factual, is that large global, industries in general, and the meat industry in particular, only care about making money and have no interest whatsoever in animal welfare or producing good meat. Small meat industries on the other hand respect their customers, and make sure that their animals live harmonious fulfilling lives meaning among other things that the animals are allowed to have sex before they are slaughtered. Coincidentally the authors are running a “small” old fashioned meat business, and therefore, according to their own logic, are God's gift to us meat consumers. No bias there... (irony). Seriously, it seems that the authors in this book have not progressed from the developmental stage where people are either good or evil.
My hopes were temporarily raised when the authors raised the question why everyone cannot just be vegetarians. Finally, I thought, now they will provide me with the cannon fodder I need to thrash the next vegan that comes along proclaiming meat abstinence (although in the back of my head I knew that this was a very naive hope indeed). I cannot say that I was surprised that their only argument for eating meat is that we have evolved to do so... In other words, it is in our genes to eat meat and therefore it is silly to try and stop people from eating it. This is a silly argument because there are many things we have evolved inclinations towards such as violence, domination over others etc, but who would say that there is no point in trying to stop people from killing each other because we have evolved to do so. The percentage of people who are killed by other people has gone down drastically since humans first evolved and I have no doubt that we could make a society where meat consumption is reduced as well. That is, we do not have to, and often should not, follow our evolutionary instincts. The book says nothing about the nutritional value in meat (which is hard to replace) or maintaining ecological systems or any other rational argument for eating at least some meat. In other words, there are good arguments for eating meat, but you will not find them in this book.
To be completely fair, some of the underlying points the authors are trying to make I think are basically sound. I agree that the meat industry at large have too little respect for animal welfare, and I also think that it is probably good to aim for more quality instead of quantity (though I realize that everyone might not so privileged that they can make this argument). However, the negatives associated with this book by far outweighs the positives. I would not recommend this book to anyone... not even at gunpoint
There are a ton of books out there exploring left/right brain dichotomy. Among them one finds decent science based books, as well as books filled with pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo. With this book I get the sense that the authors have observed that people like to be able to categorize people according to which part of the brain they appear to use the most, and then tried to come up with a novel divide. To their credit the authors do provide arguments for why the top/bottom brain perspective is better than the left/right brain perspective, but I am not convinced. Indeed I was a bit disappointed because when I bought the book I thought that the bottom brain referred to sub-cortical brain regions, such as the limbic system, brain stem, cerebellum etc, but no. One could read this book and not even realize that the brain consists of more than the cerebral cortex (full disclosure: I am a scientist studying the cerebellum).
The story that Stephen Kosslyn is trying to sell is that the dorsal (top) and ventral (bottom) part of the cerebral cortex (the top brain), are to some extent discrete systems performing different tasks, although he is also quick to point out that they constantly work together. There is definitely some truth to the top brain, bottom brain dichotomy. For instance, when we see something we typically use the dorsal stream to analyze movement whereas the ventral stream is used for identification. Still, this book goes way way beyond the evidence.
For example, the authors claim that people rely more heavily on one or both of these systems and depending on which parts of the brain someone uses, he or she is categorized as a mover (top+bottom), stimulator (top), perceiver (bottom), or adapter (context dependent use). It is said that movers are good, both at making plans and observing and adapting to the consequences. Stimulators meanwhile make plans and execute them but are insensitive to the consequences of their plans. Perceivers don’t make much happen but are good at observing what happens around them. To be logically consistent I guess that adapters should be terrible at making plans and terrible at observing what happens around them, but instead it is argued that their top and bottom brain activity is contextually dependent, as if that is not true for all people. I do not know of any evidence to support this idea except that people are different which is hardly a revolutionary observation.
I do not know of any evidence to support this idea except that people are different which is hardly a revolutionary observation. Readers of this book will almost certainly read about the different categories and think that they resemble one category more than the others, but this does not mean that the theory is accurate. People are experts when it comes to confirmation bias. Give people a general astrological description (e.g. in general you like being with people but sometimes you feel shy), and a high percentage will think that it is a good description of their personality. People generally do not seek to falsify such statements.
In sum then, I think that there is a possibility that this book has hit upon an interesting brain dichotomy which we may want to explore further. However, the claims made in this book are very far distanced from the scientific foundation. For the reader who wants a good introduction to the brain I recommend going for Incognito instead.
Even though I have been an atheist for as long as I can remember, I always assumed that a guy named Jesus existed around 0-30 AD in Judea. Of course I never believed that he was resurrected three days after his crucifixion or that he could perform miracles that contradicted the laws of nature. These are clearly just stories made up by those who wished to glorify Jesus. Still, I assumed that there was an actual person to begin with.
David Fitzgerald, through this this relatively short book, changed my mind. It covers an awful lot of material showing the reader that none of the arguments that Christians use to convince others that Jesus was a real person holds up to scrutiny. For example, not a single alleged eyewitness testimony of Jesus was written by an actual confirmed eyewitness. The, gospels were written long after Jesus died, perhaps by as much as a 100 years. Moreover, the writings about Jesus contradict each other, not just on minor details such as what day Jesus died or whether there was or was not a rock in front of his tomb after his resurrection, but also what type of character he was. Was he a humble drawn back son of a carpenter who tried to stay out of the limelight or did he walk around proclaiming to all that he was the son of God?
In addition, Fitzgerald gives many examples of things in the new testament that directly contradicts other more reliable and unbiased sources from the same time. For instance there were several trusted historians writing about events in Judea at the time of Jesus but none of them even mentions him even though according to the new testament he caused quite an uproar. Indeed, of the four gospels only Luke actually claims to be writing history. Astronomers also strangely failed to notice the three days of darkness that texts in the new testament claim happened.
For being such a short book, it is very forceful. I doubt that any readers who believe in Jesus will walk away from this book unaffected.
If, before I actually read this book, someone said to me that I was going to read a collection of novels about the afterlife, and that I would like it, I would have laughed. I don’t believe God exists and I don’t believe in an afterlife (at least not the afterlife people usually have in mind). Moreover, I generally don’t read novels. I read books because I want to learn something about the universe, not merely for pleasure.
So why did I read this book? Well, it was short, and more importantly, it was written by David Eagleman, the neuroscientist who wrote Incognito, which, in my opinion is one of the best popular neuroscience books I have read. Because I had read Incognito I also knew that Eagleman does not have a tendency to express strange beliefs. Rather, like myself, Eagleman at least appears to subscribe to philosophical materialism, i.e. he is not a dualist. In addition, Sum, has received rave reviews, so in the end I thought what the heck, I’ll give it a try… and I am very happy that I did.
The ambition of this book is not to provide an accurate scientific account of the likely scenarios that will take place when we eventually die, rather it is a collection of entirely hypothetical stories about what could happen in the afterlife. Some of them appear more likely than others, but almost all of them are in some way entertaining and above all, they are very thought provoking. Indeed I might even go as far as to say that it has made me consider the thought of an afterlife. Again I don’t mean the kind of afterlife where the soul escapes the body and travels to a bright peaceful heaven (and I guess that I would more likely end up in hell anyway), but some other form of afterlife. For example, in one novel in this book, you live on in the sense that a computer terminal continues to produce letters from you, answer emails, send happy birthday wishes, to your kin and to others, long after you actually died. This type of afterlife is entirely possible and even with my limited skills I could probably make my own computer act as if I was alive when I am dead (whether one would want this is a different question).
Another novel that is perhaps less plausible, but not as implausible as the biblical option, is that we actually live twice. The life that everyone live now is the first life which occurs when the universe is expanding. The second life comes when (or if), the universe contracts, causing time to go in the opposite direction. In your second life you are born out of the ground like an old man or woman and everyone will be crying and speaking about everything you are going to do in your life. The relationships in which you engage will often start with a fight and then gradually become more emotional and intense until it ends in an ecstatic sexual encounter, after which you will simply forget your partner and move on… I kind of doubt whether this will happen although according to some models of the universe a contraction phase is a possibility and since time is just a dimension of space it is not inconceivable that time will move in the opposite direction. In any case, just picturing your life in reverse is an interesting thought experiment.
These are just two examples out of a total of 40 short novels describing different scenarios that play out when we die. Because they were short and thought provoking I rarely lost interest. One of my favorite novels, in this collection, describes a future where you will be able to upload an exact replica of your brain onto a computer. This computer can then run any simulation you choose. Want to live like James Bond, with fast cars, and beautiful women, and frequent near death experiences? Not a problem. You will be able to live in this matrix for as long as the computer will run. Although in this particular scenario, the scientists were wrong about the soul (they just assumed that it would tag along, but it didn’t).
In short, this is a collection of fantastic, imaginative novels, that will make you giggle and make you think.
I can't remember how but when I was 16 I came across this book and it changed my life. The title of Dawkins biography is "An appetite for wonder", and this appetite is no where more apparent than in this book (I have read most of his books). It is a wonderful introduction to the theory of evolution by natural (and sexual) selection, behavioral ecology, and the wonders of nature. At the same time it serves as a terrific example of first rate scientific reasoning. The writing is clear and fluid and extremely elegant. In his autobiography Dawkins admits that every sentence has been rewritten multiple times. Those that have survived this selection process really deliver. Every sentence seem to fill a purpose and yet, rarely does one feel that information is in some way lacking. This book, when it came out in the late seventies, influenced the general public and academics alike. It changed how academics thought about genes and evolution, and it introduced the meme, which has subsequently entered our dictionaries.
As I have said elsewhere, this book really is a literary masterpiece. The fact that it also teaches science to the reader is an added benefit that makes this book one of the best and most important ever written.
The book has a very good structure. At no point does it feel as if new concepts are introduced inappropriately. Dawkins begins by slowly and carefully introducing the replicator concept. In the widest sense a replicator is, as the name implies, something that replicates itself. This can be a mineral shape, a computer virus or a molecule such as RNA or DNA. It is inevitable that a replicator that produce more copies or copies that are more durable will become more prominent in the population. And so it is with our genes. The genes that exist in humans that are alive today are descendents of a very long series of genes that outperformed other genes. To achieve this success the genes have used many different tricks. Primary among these is cooperation with other genes to construct vehicles such as a plant or an animal that can both protect the genes and pass them on. Humans are thus "merely" vehicles created by genes for the benefit of genes (though in another sense we are of course much more than that).
Dawkins carefully builds from this starting point and reaches startling conclusions about many different aspects of nature and evolution. Why did sex evolve and why do the different sexes differ to a greater or a lesser extent in different species? Why are males in general more aggressive? Why do we cooperate? Does altruism exist? How did sterile ants evolve? Whatever he is discussing, Dawkins always provides illustrative examples from nature and when he use metaphors he is (unlike many others) always careful to translate those metaphors back into the language of replicators. The Selfish Gene also derives some of its fame from the fact that it introduced the meme concept. A meme, Dawkins suggested is like a gene in that it can replicate itself, typically via language or imitation. Successful memes (think viral youtube clips) will spread throughout population of less successful memes in the same way that successful genes spread, however, for memes the sexual reproduction of its host matters little. Rather, the success of a meme is determined by its ability to make its host share the idea with others. The meme concept is now in most dictionaries.
Throughout the book Dawkins is careful to point out that even though we are products of evolution and as a result have many instincts that are not always very noble, that does not mean that it is in anyway good or moral to follow ones evolutionary inclinations. Indeed if we understand human instincts we may be better able to construct societies that combat our caveman instincts.
Letter to a Christian nation, as the title suggests, is written as a letter to a Christian nation i.e. the United States. The reader should not expect to find any original critique. What makes this book special is Sam Harris ability to deliver arguments in an extremely forceful and clear way.
He begins the book with some important premises which many religious people simply do not think about or have repressed. For instance, either God exists or he doesn't. If the Christian God exists (as he is described in the bible) then the Muslims are wrong and the other way around. Indeed if the Christians and the bible is correct then all Muslims (and Hindu, Buddhists, pagans etc) will go to hell.
If you believe that the bible is the word of God then you must believe the above and you must also advocate the stoning of people who work on Sundays etc. Ok, you say, but we shouldn't take it literally, fine, but then how do we interpret it, and how do we know which interpretation is the right one? Also if a divine being wrote the Bible is it too much to expect him to reveal a few secrets about the universe, like how to cure cancer or how electricity work or whatever. It seems that whoever wrote the bible did not know more than the average person at the time the bible was written. It would also have been nice if God or Jesus had said that slavery was wrong instead of letting us reach that interpretation two millennia (and many many slaves) later.
This was just one example out of a dozen or so arguments that Harris brings up suggesting that God does not exist or that if he does he is not a very nice creature. Because it is short, clear and very accessible this ranks among the best books I have read in this category. Highly recommended.
I was, I must admit, relieved when I came to the end of this rather long book. Hillary Clinton is a powerful politician and she is in many ways a role model, given her accomplishments and given that she is a woman in a world where female politicians are rarely taken seriously. Still, it was noticeable that this book was written by a diplomat, a diplomat who is still an active politician and who may try to become president in the next election (she said she did not know whether she would run).
A central tenet she tries to bring forth is that nations should be able to cooperate on some issues even if they disagree on other issues. Of course to suggest otherwise would be radical. Image that the US cut all ties with China because they do not like their handling of human rights issues. Still, as a reader you want something a bit more juicy (or is it just me). I don’t want to hear that they are slightly about Russia and that they wish communication will improve in the future. I also could not tell you what Hillary really thinks about the conflict in Gaza, even though she spends many pages on this conflict. She certainly thinks it is a bad idea that Israel launches military offensives into Gaza, but at the same time she thinks that every nation have a right to defend themselves when attacked… What would Hillary do about this conflict if she became president? This book will not provide you with an answer (except that she wants a two-state solution).
What I want from an ex-secretary of state is details about “personal” communications with foreign leaders, and stronger stances on issues. Indeed there is such content in this book, just not enough considering that the book is more than 600 pages long. Still, what did I expect from an active politician who will not want to burn any bridges in case she becomes president?
This book is about pleasure, but equally it is about essentialism. I would even argue that this book is more about essentialism than pleasure (guess the title would not have been as catchy). Essentialism refers to our tendency to look beyond appearances and try and see the essence of things. Is that really the cigar that Freud smoked or is it just an “ordinary” cigar? (It really makes a big difference to us). The central tenet of this book is that we derive pleasure from our beliefs about the essence of things. While this is no doubt true I think it confines the book that pleasure is discussed only within this framework. For instance, I cannot see how essentialism can explain why we feel pleasure when taking cocaine (I think).
To introduce the concept of essentialism, and in extension, pleasure, Paul Bloom sets out with one of the most hilarious anecdotes I’ve heard. Hermann Göring, the commander of Nazi Germany’s air force was not a particularly kind man. One of his better known quotes was “My measures will not be crippled by any bureaucracy. Here I don't have to worry about Justice; my mission is only to destroy and to exterminate; nothing more”. However, apart from destroying and exterminating things Göring was also a passionate arts collector and at one point he bought an expensive Vermeer painting from a dutch painter called Van Megren. After the war Van Megren was accused of selling art to Nazis, but to everyone’s surprise Van Megren showed that the painting was a fake (by drawing another copy). How did Göring react to these news? According to one contemporary account "[Göring] looked as if for the first time he had discovered there was evil in the world.
What is the point of this story? The point is that though it really should not matter to anyone whether a painting is fake if one cannot tell that it is fake, it does. It matter to us a great deal. How we experience something depends on our beliefs. This holds true not only of art but also of music, water, food, wine, t-shirts etc. fMRI scans show that the brain activity of people when they are eating a certain item, differs depending on what they believe they are eating. This suggest that our beliefs about something really do influence our experience at a basic perceptual level. Our brains can process the same sensory input in different ways depending on beliefs. Indeed when tested in a blind test people are unable to distinguish pate from dog food and white wine from red wine.
Paul Bloom goes through many different areas in life from where we drive pleasure. These subjects include but are not limited to sex, alcohol, cannibalism, imagination, watching TV, reading etc. Bloom is a master when it comes to finding illustrative and entertaining examples and anecdotes to drive home his point which consistently seem to be that we get pleasure from what we believe is the essence of things.
As I have already mentioned I would have liked a broader discussion of pleasure. I would also have liked a longer discussion about the concept of pleasure and how it is different from say happiness. This should have been no problem for Bloom because he gives excellent lectures on the topic of happiness at Yale. As I have already hinted at I would also have liked a deeper discussion about the more philosophical aspects surrounding pleasure. Too often Bloom gets lost in admittedly entertaining anecdotes and then forgets to sum up the lessons that can be learned from these anecdotes.
However, overall “How pleasure works” is a good book that is almost certain to give the reader food for thought as well as a good laugh. Bloom is an entertaining writer and speaker (I do recommend his lectures which can be found on Yale’s homepage), and even though I have a BSc in Psychology I learned many things and I got a thorough introduction to essentialism.
This book begins with a collection of 100 reasons why religion, generally speaking, stinks. Almost all reasons given fall into one of the three following categories: 1) Religious people behaving badly (ex systematic child molesting) 2) Religious people receiving special treatment (ex people excused because they've dice something for religious reasons and 3) non religious people being discriminated against (ex can't get elected president). These 100 reasons are presented in a rather haphazard unstructured way. Moreover, because 100 reasons are presented in a short amount of space, don’t expect any depth of analysis. Most reasons are just 1-4 sentences. To take a few examples:
Atheists are angry because…
- 53 percent of Americans don’t want an atheist president
- Because the catholic church protected child rapists from being prosecuted
- 40% of Utah homeless people are outcast gays
- That polite atheists are deemed intolerant
- Writing about your atheist opinion can [in some countries] result in death
To be fair to G.Christina, she does acknowledge that her list is unstructured and that there is a lot more to all of the arguments. The list I suppose could be seen more as a starting point for further discussions. It also provides many reminders for atheist readers such as myself about all the things that are wrong with religion.
Beyond the list, the book provides answers to some frequently asked questions that are typically directed at atheists, such as “isn’t atheism just another religion?”, or “why do you not make a clear distinction between moderate religious practitioners and fundamentalists?”. As such this book can provide interested readers with a somewhat shallow overview explaining why atheists don't like religion. However, compared to The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (which is probably trumped by other books), this is an inferior book in almost every respect. The God Delusion does everything that this book does, only better, and it is also more well written. The one advantage that this book have is that it is shorter. So, if you have a tight schedule this book might be an alternative. However, even in the short introduction to atheism category, a better alternative is Sam Harris book, letter to a christian nation which drives home the same points in a more powerful and coherent way.
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