I did not realize how interesting or nuanced American history was during this period of time. The author tells the history while never boring, but at times the players got more complex than any science book because the categories don't always neatly fit into today's way of thinking about things. There just too many good stories to be told and he tells them. The author gives the political top down story, but never forgetting the bottom up approach and looking at the individuals who make up the whole.
The country was not a monolithic beast able to only hold one thought in its mind at a time. Even when we did wrong (slavery, Native American removal and extermination, women discrimination, wars of expansion, and so on), there were large undercurrents who spoke up against it.
The real dichotomy throughout the book is the value of the individual as weighed against the good of the society as a whole. The characters and the stories being told never ceased to awe the listener. The author also really gave large sections on the history of religion at the time and why it was so important for the development of the country at that time. The Millennialism Movement was widely believed and contributed to the belief of American Exceptionalism and even helps pave the way for Abraham Lincoln. My only regret with the book, is he didn't take me all the way up to 1860.
I would definitely recommend this book. The more we understand where we came from the more we can understand where we are going. There is a reason why some politicians want to end Advanced Placement History from high schools and not let students read books like this one. History does not always tell our story such that we are always exceptional, always in the right, or that we have a manifest destiny. History is much more nuanced (and interesting) than cable news, talk radio or some blogs would have you believe.
This book is a masterpiece. I feel fortunate that I discovered it before most other people. I discovered it by reading an extremely negative review for this book in the Wall Street Journal written by a historian. (In his defense, he just didn't understand that this is not a history book, and he had no idea what Harari is getting at).
This book never stops in challenging my understanding of our place in the universe. What we believe in determines what we want to want. Sapiens are distinguished by our ability to believe in fictions. The cognitive revolutions starts with the first set of hypothetical stories we allow ourselves to believe in whether they are true or not. The real importance is that the family, kin, friends, and community share those beliefs.
Our fictions allow us to cooperate. They gives us the imaginary order that is necessary for societies to act together. Corporations are not people, they do not exist in reality. One can not point to a corporation. It's not the buildings, or the executives or any other physical entities that make the corporation, but it is our belief that makes them real. The author notes that the word for corporation comes from the Latin, corpus, the same as in the body (corpus) of Christ within the transubstantiation.
Religion gives us comfort from the absurd and comforts us to accept death. Science (and its offshoot, technology) does the opposite. It gives us knowledge leading to life extension and makes our time alive more comfortable. The Gilgamesh Project of life extension is a major character is this book.
The myths we create can never be logically consistent without contradictions. Perfect liberty will always conflict with perfect equality. Knowledge about the real world can never be 'universal, necessary, and certain', but we only get glimpses of reality by considering the 'particular, contingent, and probable'. Our myths give us comfort and subjective well being, but they are never without contradictions.
The acceptance of our myths give us our commonality. He'll even say that because of the myths we chose to believe in they determine our progress. When cultures (imaginary orders) collectively know Truth, they have no reason to proceed. Biology enables us, cultures forbid us. The most important words necessary for progress are "I don't know, but I want to find out". He connects Imperialism with Capitalism leading to seeking knowledge (and developing science). Only those who do not believe they know everything need to search.
If I were to have ever written a book (which fortunately for the reading public, I save all my writing only for book reviews!) this is the book I would have written. I believe this will be a classic in the future and am glad I discovered it. The author has written this book to make sure we do everything in our power to understand that the things we belief in will determine who we will be going forward. The myths we chose to believe in will determine what we become.
This book tries to fill in some of the whys in Steven Pinker's book "Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined". The author starts off by defining morality as the "flourishing and surviving of sentient beings". It's not a perfect definition but in general the listener can latch on to it.
The author does go beyond Pinker's book and tries to fill in more of the reasons why violence has declined by looking at the facts from a morality point of view. Shermer knows it is more profitable to realize that man is the measure of all things and that our values are not etched in stone and aren't externally given to people, but are derived by people.
The continuous contextual approach (inductive) is almost always better than a binary, absolute approach (deductive). Using reason, science and observation can make us understand and appreciate the flourishing and surviving of others who aren't necessarily in our tribal group, be it kin, friend, community, or other self selected but always exclusionary group which divides 'us' from 'them' in some manner and leads to the widening of our moral sphere.
He looks at how our moral sphere is constantly becoming more inclusive. Slavery is the ultimate us against them. The realization of the wrongness of slavery and its abolition was a slow continuous process. For those who derive their values from external sources, the revealed religion sources just get it wrong on slavery. He considers in detail the widening of the moral sphere for less misogynistic attitudes towards women, the slow process of no longer making gays the other and even considers some of the issues in speciesism (the author is a specieist, as I am too, but I understand the issues).
It's hard for me not to fully embrace a book were I admire an author as much as I admire Michael Shermer, I read his articles frequently, I love his debates on the internet, he quotes accurately from Gene Rodenberry and Star Trek, he seems to love the same episodes of Twilight Zone that I do, and he quotes Michio Kaku extensively and other such things that I love too.
But, he doesn't stick to the narrative and falls off the track. For example, I am not sure why he uses Piketty and his "Capital in the 21st Century" to try to refute Piketty's own thesis. Inequalities are real in the world (and within America) and have been getting worse. He seems to think corporations aren't a threat to moral development and represent moral good. For me, corporations are not people, and can be a force of bad. He had a lot of things like that in this book which only gets in the way of his own thesis.
It's a minor thing, but I can't help myself. The author says "Alan Turing is agruably the most important man for the Allied's victory in WW II". Alan Turing is a hero of mine, but I don't think that statement is defensible. Betchley Park was a cooperative, and the Polish Mathematicians (God Bless the Poles!), cracked the enigma code first. For a marvelous audible book on the subject read, "Seizing the Enigma". Also, he states "most people agree that for WW I both sides are to blame". I would strongly recommend Max Hasting's recent book, "Catastrophe 1914" for a refutation of that statement.
I would say, Pinker's book, "Better Angels of our Nature" is my favorite book. It opened my eyes to how the world has improved since the dawn of time and how our moral sphere keeps getting wider (less of us against them and more of us). Most of what is good in Shermer's book is in Pinker's book. I realize Pinker's book is very technical. This book is not. Even though the author does ramble (much like this book review!), this book is a fine substitute for Pinker's book for those who don't love sets of tables, long historical reviews, an author who keeps on his narrative and summaries of scientific papers.
One can either listen to a long boring Great Course Lecture series on Buddhism and Eastern Thought or one can listen to this fairly entertaining book and come away with the same depth of understanding on how the introspective path can lead towards enlightenment.
The author clearly wants to share a reasonable interruption of Eastern Thought, and does it quite cleverly by looking at the life of one fictional person, Sidhartha, and how he learns enlightenment through his many phases of his life.
In the end (for me) there is no Eastern Solution for enlightenment but I find the doubt from introspection to be much more worthwhile than the certainty that comes from the revealed religions of the West. I keep meaning to finish that Great Course Lecture I have, but just have never found the time. Perhaps this book will urge me towards that.
When one has certainty, there is no more room for further knowledge or understanding. Science and Reason never prove, at the most they can just show things to be less false than other things. There is a long history of people who haven't been certain and their story makes for a much more interesting revealing of human history than the ones who pretend to have no doubt.
There are two recurring characters in this marvelous book about doubters throughout history, the Stoic, Cicero and his "On the Nature of the Gods", and the Epicurean, Lucretius, and his "On the Nature of Things". Both get major play in this book, firstly when they are introduced and secondly they keep popping up through the rest of the story because their influence with latter sages has been immense.
Survey of philosophy books with their chronological presentation can often be dull since they lack a narrative to tie the story together. This book gives that necessary narrative and gives the listener a thread to understand the connections while telling a good story that includes snippets of world history, religion and summaries of what great doubters thought throughout the ages.
The author gives enough of the major points and sometimes long quotations from the primary sources to make the book or person under consideration come alive and make the listener feel as if he understands the person who wrote it. For example, I now realize why I enjoy the book of Ecclesiastics so much more than any of the other books in the Bible (it's mostly a Epicurean type polemic on the meaning of life). Her considered amount of time she spends quoting Marcus Aurelius is well worth it for the listener. I've never found anyone who I tend to agree more with and would strongly recommend his "Meditations" which is available at audible, but it might not be necessary to read it if you listen to this book instead.
The other thing to like about this book: she does not ignore the East at all. She gives them equal weight to the West throughout the text. Eastern Religions are fully explored since there is a much richer tradition of not being certain, "the more you doubt, the more you understand" would be a typical Eastern religion answer to the refutation of the certainty found in revealed religions.
Overall, this book gives a great survey of doubt throughout the ages, with many synopsizes of great thinkers, and all within an overriding narrative tying all the pieces together. I would recommend this book for anyone who does not like to "pretend to know things that they do not know", and wants to understand the firm foundation that entails.
The last ten years of China is told by mostly telling the stories through second person accounts of people the author has interviewed. He tells the story with three different perspectives at play, China's phenomena growth, the corruption and intimidation the government uses, and the third perspective of what the author refers to as faith, by that he means a belief in tradition and a distrust in the system working fairly for the individual.
At first, I thought the author was giving too many second person accounts, but then I started to realize he really did have a central overriding narrative tying all the stories together in a cohesive whole. The concept of freethinking never seems to enter in his stories. Respect for authority and tradition usually seems to permeate all the stories.
The book does seem very up to date and it seems that China (as represented by its Politburo) is trying to transition from an autocracy to an aristocracy. They are doing everything in their power to shut down free speech on the internet (e.g. banning the search on the word "The Truth"), sometimes their corrupt official defense is "they were sisters not twins", and a young child can grow up saying "I want to become a corrupt official".
The second volume of "Political Order and Political Decay" made me realize how different China is from the rest of the world and how little I knew about what was going on today in China. I would recommend reading Fukuyama's book before reading this one.
The book does a lot in bringing me up to speed on where China is today. I'm anxious to see what steps China takes in the future and because of this book I'll be able to put future articles in to their proper context.
This is the perfect reference guide for the transcendental non-material Artificial Intelligent machines of the future who want an apple pie since as Carl Sagan said "If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe". All the steps necessary for making an apple pie are included in this lecture.
This lecture is a really profitable way of looking at history. He uses certain themes to tie all of history together. Most of our way of thinking about our place in the universe has started with thinking that the way things are today is the way things have always been. Even Einstein accepted the static universe at one time. the originator of the continental drift was laughed at up till the 1960s, evolution today is denied by a large significant number of people, and so on.
All of history can be tied together by many themes, there's a Recursive nature to processes, once an algorithm has been developed it can act on itself and give complexity and create things such as stars, solar systems and mufti-cellular life. From complexity we can get Emergent properties, characteristics that are part of the whole but could not be predicted from the parts. Think of the neurons in our brain. They give us consciousness. So, one can say the sum of the parts is greater than the whole since consciousness transcends individual neurons. The other theme is Entropy, useful energy only arises when there are differences within a system. When everything is the same, no exploitation is possible. This is true in the universe as the whole and true in the development of civilization or in capitalism. The Networking of complex systems make for better galaxies and better civilization. Our true strength as the most complex entities in the universe is our ability to Network and our advancements are based on developing ever better ways of communicating from the invention of symbolic communication (talking), through farming, living in cities and the development of the internet for sharing pictures of our cats.
The lecture does a marvelous job at tying all the pieces of making an apple pie (or more properly, developing a great service like Audible) into a coherent whole. The lecture listens more like a book than a series of independent lectures since the lecturer never forgets his central narratives.
Most of the audible books and Great Courses I listen to have covered the same topics as this lecture but did so in much more depth. So, therefore, most of this lecture seemed to be a review for me. I didn't mind that, because I need to hear the same thing presented in three different ways before I can fully understand it, and with that warning that this course could be mostly review for most people I can still highly recommend this course since he has such a good way of tying all the pieces together.
The mystery is given to the listener in the first few minutes of the story. A crazy sounding old man approaches the barkeep and tells him he killed his mother and his father is falsely imprisoned. The charm for the story lies elsewhere. The barkeep uses one book as his guide book, "The Tibetan Book of the Dead" and embraces the Tao of that book giving him a Zen like detachment from the rest of the world. The barkeep also keeps the code of the bartender and knows how to separate himself from patrons of the bar.
There's a lot to like with this story: the dialog between characters was full of witty repartee, the code that any barkeep (or for that matter, any person) needs to keep ones distance from others, the process of discovery one learns about oneself while focusing outside of oneself , finding the actual murderer of the barkeeps mother, and the problem with detachment all add to a very fun story to listen to in spite of the serious nature of the crimes under investigation.
I enjoyed the narrator. He gave voices to most of the characters, exaggerated voices and emotions, and really let the theater of my mind go to town. The author and the narrator made for a good diversion and helped me detach further from the world much in the same way that the barkeep was in the beginning of the story.
This book is mostly a series of anecdotes based on first person accounts from persons who consider themselves secular and why they embrace that world view. There's nothing inherently wrong with using anecdotes for telling a consistent story and this book does a good job while doing it. I found all the characters profiled interesting and worth learning from.
There are two ways I try to understand my place in the world and the world view that I have. One is by looking at fact based non-fiction books and the other is by reading fiction. To me, the anecdotal ultimately reads like fiction because the plural of anecdote is not data, and it can only provide understanding through empathy but not knowledge.
The characters talked about in this book all seem to refute the generalizations theist often assert such as "I've never met a non angry atheist" (Rick Warren actual quote), "without god anything is possible" (Bill O'Reilly and Dostoevsky), "you must be angry at god", or "it's impossible to be an atheist" and so on.
For those who learn best by way of fiction or anecdotes this book will be a good and entertaining listen, as for me, give me data, which leads to information, that becomes knowledge and ultimately leads to understanding and wisdom.
p.s. I really think the author is wrong in equating secular beliefs with no belief in an after life. He did it in multiple places but I belief that one doesn't necessarily follow from the other.
There is a certain beauty to this book. The author completely convinces the listener that there is no more important field of study to understand the world and how we got where we are then Political Science. The author is that good at laying the foundations for his points. Moreover, the author is telling an incredible complicated story with many different moving parts but he excels at telling you what he's going to tell you, tells you, and then tells you what he just told you, and then just in case you didn't understand his points he'll explain them once again by comparing and contrasting with some diametrically opposed counter examples.
This volume can be read independently from the first volume. The listener should just pick the area he is most interested in. This volume looks at the more direct relationships to how our current political entities evolved to their current configurations.
He explained China to me in such a way that I have to reconsider how I perceive them. For the last 30 years, their form of authoritarian rule might have been much better than a democracy since they have such a small middle class relative to the other classes. The concerns expressed at Tiananmen Square have fallen on the wayside in today's China. Overall, he gave a fascinating discussion concerning China.
I know that Political Science isn't the most important way to understand who we are, but it definitely helps in our understanding by thinking about our institutions, rule of law, and state structures. The one thing that the author did that really irritated me was in parts of the book he would make the false equivalence claim such as "both the Tea Party and progressive Democrats are to blame for ...", any sentence that starts that way is flawed. He argues there is a mushy middle between the two extreme positions and neither one is correct. I'll let the listener decide for himself, as for me I disagree. He also made a statement that our current congress wanted to shut down the government rather than pay for past debts owed by the federal government and putting us into a fiscal catastrophe. I just don't see it that way. It was only one political party that wanted to renege on past government debt.
Overall, the book is very likeable, makes one appreciate the role for Political Scientist and gives one valid way for describing how we got where we are today.
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