I've read a bunch of Richard Dawkins' books before this and Wilson's book is just icing on the cake. Wilson writes better than a poet and really has a lot to say that's interesting in the field.
How special are we? We no longer consider ourselves the center of the universe, but we are in a fortuitous place and time for understanding our place in the universe, and complex life can exist at the nexus of order and chaos at least we have one data point.
Most of the current thought about our place in the universe rest on false premises and incorrect conclusions. This book gently takes the listener through the step by step process necessary in order to think about the problem in the most correct way. We generally make two kinds of a error in thinking about the problem 'a priori' and 'a posteriori' errors, before the fact and after the fact. (Did you know that most biographies on Thomas Bayes start off with the statement "he was probably born in 1701", funny stuff and this book will tell you why that kind of thinking is needed to understand our place in the universe).
There our subtle faults in most fine tuning arguments and purely probabilistic arguments for calculating life such as the Drake's Equation (though, I don't think the author used the eponymous equation by name). The author looks at both the telescopic and microscopic data we have, and for example delves into the Prokaryotic (simple single cell) merging into a Eukarotic (complicated single cell, the building block of complex life) and how unusual such an event really is.
This book is full of cool ways of thinking about the problem. I did not realize how unstable our solar system is and how our current epoch or order within our solar system will almost for sure not last for more than 10 million years or so. The planets orbits aren't stable and the three body problem's solution is always robust (sensitive to initial conditions). The architecture we have to observe leads to how we understand, and the better our tools the better are data becomes.
The author is just a good science writer. His books should be read by a larger audience, because he really does explain science that well. The author doesn't answer the question whether or not we are the only complex life in the universe, but he teaches the listener how to think about the problem so as not to make the common errors in thought while thinking about the problem.
There's a revolution going on around big data and this book explains it better than any other that I've read so far. The author explains how data is cataclysmic (like a flood), how it is changing the way we can study the world, and what are some of the kinds of conclusions we can draw about people by analyzing the data correctly.
Today is a social scientist's dream world. We can learn things about how individuals (or segmented groups) behave unlike any other time before in history and our abilities to understand our networks, desires and motivations are just waiting for some behavioral scientist (or even more nefariously an evil corporation or a corrupt government) to fully analyze the data trail we leave behind. Instead of guessing about human nature we are in a position to know about our behavior (at least for people up to the age of 50!, post 50 year olds aren't always fully represented in the datasets).
There is one warning about this book for audible listeners. Of all the books I have listened to this one handled tables and graphs the least effectively. Note to author: take a minute or two and re-write the graphs and tables with the audio version in mind. Sometimes the narrative got lost in reading a table out loud. I could follow the conversation, but it got deadly boring at times.
This book reminds me of a Gladwell book or Freakenomics, but is much better because it never strays from the data and never lets the model under discussion stray to far from what the data (reality) is really saying. The real strength of this book is not so much the specific examples he gives in the book, but it acts as a guide to how a smart person can change the data from just a bunch of messy information, to organized data, then to knowledge and then finally wisdom.
Very good fiction can be better than non-fiction at explaining your place in the universe and this book does just that by considering the life and times of just one character, William Stoner. There's not much to his story but for those of us who have had a fairly mediocre life (and who embrace that mediocrity) Stoner's story helps us understand ourselves just a little bit better. It's good to see that university politics never change over time. The stakes are so small making the professors ever more vicious.
As for the narrator, he made the events come alive and at times I felt as if I were alive in the early part of the last century while being transfixed by the story and the storyteller.
The hard question is "what is consciousness". In the past we had Leibniz's monads and Descarte's homunculus unsatisfactorily explaining consciousness. 'Cogito ergo sum' gave western thought the mistaken impression that there is a single self inside the brain. The author suggests another path for understanding the hard question namely gaining self awareness (of our non-existence) through meditation from which one can discover the illusion of the self which leads the individual to 'enlightenment' and the realization that the 'self' does not exist.
The author puts his spiritualism without mysticism in to context by reasonably looking at how we think about thinking and gives the listener just enough names of the brain parts without overwhelming the listener, and all the time supporting his path to self understanding by learning to first deny the self.
In the end the author thinks that the denial of self leads to a greater understandings about who we are and that a guru or some selective use of drugs will help the listener achieve enlightenment and lead to a more ethical person with greater appreciation for life. As for me, I think I'll continue learning about the universe by looking outside of myself and use reason, coupled with empirical data (induction) and properly constructed models and seek enlightenment that way and not get a guru or use drugs and spend too much time thinking about denying myself through meditation and self reflection.
This book is more frightening than any book you'll ever read. The author makes a great case for what the future holds for us humans. I believe the concepts in "The Singularity is Near" by Ray Kurzweil are mostly spot on, but the one area Kurzweil dismisses prematurely is how the SI (superintelligent advanced artificial intelligence) entity will react to its circumstances.
The book doesn't really dwell much on how the SI will be created. The author mostly assumes a computer algorithm of some kind with perhaps human brain enhancements. If you reject such an SI entity prima facie this book is not for you, since the book mostly deals with assuming such a recursive self aware and self improving entity will be in humanities future.
The author makes some incredibly good points. He mostly hypothesizes that the SI entity will be a singleton and not allow others of its kind to be created independently and will happen on a much faster timeline after certain milestones are fulfilled.
The book points out how hard it is to put safeguards into a procedure to guard against unintended consequences. For example, making 'the greater good for the greatest many' the final goal can lead to unintended consequence such as allowing a Nazi ruled world (he doesn't give that example directly in the book, and I borrow it from Karl Popper who gave it as a refutation for John Stuart Mill's utilitarian philosophy). If the goal is to make us all smile, the SI entity might make brain probes that force us to smile. There is no easy end goal specifiable without unintended consequences.
This kind of thinking within the book is another reason I can recommend the book. As I was listening, I realized that all the ways we try to motivate or control an SI entity to be moral can also be applied to us humans in order to make us moral to. Morality is hard both for us humans and for future SI entities.
There's a movie from the early 70s called "Colossus: The Forbin Project", it really is a template for this book, and I would recommend watching the movie before reading this book.
I just recently listened to the book, "Our Final Invention" by James Barrat. That book covers the same material that is presented in this book. This book is much better even though they overlap very much. The reason why is this author, Nick Bostrom, is a philosopher and knows how to lay out his premises in such a way that the story he is telling is consistent, coherent, and gives a narrative to tie the pieces together (even if the narrative will scare the daylights out of the listener).
This author has really thought about the problems inherent in an SI entity, and this book will be a template for almost all future books on this subject.
Books like this one are easy to enjoy. They are topical, informative and tell their story fairly fast. The digital age with its exponential growth and co-relational development is leading us to an inflection point.
The authors steps the listener through the changes happening and demonstrates how the old metrics aren't always meaningful. Some of the digital changes such as Wikipedia (who buys encyclepedias today?) or Craig's List (who uses classifieds?) add immense value but they really don't show up in GDP, but yet add immense value to society. Predicting sunspot activities or automobile accidents can be determined better by individuals who aren't experts in the field as stated in this book. The second machine age is affecting change and the book presents many good examples.
They take their premise to the point where the machines (androids) will start to replace most of what we do now. The authors delve into the economics and what the ramifications will be. The authors give a bunch of prescriptions to solving some of the problems they perceive coming down the pike. This is where the book is weakest.
I thought Piketty's book "Capital in the Twenty-First Century" covered the economic ramifications of capitalism and Tim Wu's book "The Master Switch" covered changes that the digital explosion have brought better than this book did.
Maybe everything they are suggesting (mostly government intervention of some kind) is correct and should be done, but the authors make a mistake of getting ahead of the conversation. It's good to be right, but one doesn't want to be right to far ahead of everybody else because nobody will hear what you have to say, and that's a problem with the authors prescriptions, and that was the real reason they wrote this book.
The author does a definitive survey of political development through out the world while avoiding the ODTAA ("one dang thing after another") trap survey books of this kind can often fall into. This kind of information often pops up in many of the books I read, but is never covered as a primary topic nor as definitively as this author covers this topic. Usually, it's hard to get a good description of the political history of Islam, India and China, and most authors force the story into their comic book characterization narrative of those societies so that it will fit into their narrative so that they can show the supposed superiority of the West. This book doesn't do that whatsoever and gives each region it's full due respect.
The author not only looks at each major civilization and parts thereof as an end in itself but will contrast it with the familiar when needed.
Political systems need three things in order to prosper fully: accountability, transparency, and "rule of law". All three aren't necessary, but each sure do help. The earliest systems start with a "kin and friend" system and develops from there. The author steps the reader through the process and how it differs depending on the civilization.
The author shows that Rousseau (man is perfect until government corrupts him) is wrong about everything, Hobbes (government is only to protect against violent acts) only gives a barely adequate government, and Locke (live, liberty and pursuit of property) gives the most responsive government, and the author shows how these stages can develop or never existed in this first place as in the worldview of Rousseau for the different societies studied in this book.
The author speaks with authority on the topic and this book filled in a lot of holes on the topic that I got from reading other books which never fully developed the topic.
The author starts his story with the return of the POWs from Vietnam and ends it with the nomination of Gerald Ford at the Republican Convention. As we're living life and experiencing it as it's happening we don't have the time to put the events into proper context and give it a narrative to tie the pieces together. This is were the author excels. He gives the listener the context and a narrative to tie the story together in a coherent way and enables the listener to understand what was really going on in a big picture kind of way.
The author is expert at not missing any detail or major pop cultural event and weaving it into his framework. "Happy Days", "The Exorcist", "Nashville" the movie, as well as "Convey" the song are all tied into his story and almost any other event those of us who lived through this time period might remember. Often, as we were living the events during the time period, only part of the story was fully told (e.g. "The Mayaguez" ship, Richard Welch, CIA agent killed, Patty Hearst, and so on) and the author gives us "the rest of the story" as Paul Harvey would say and does in the book. The author doesn't miss a story that shaped who we are and how they lead to the rise of Reagan.
Reagan's worldview and how the world was changing is at the heart of the book. The author is always aware of his narrative that Reagan is always optimistic, believes if America has done it, by definition it can't be wrong, and "God put America here because we are exceptional", seeing the world in two parts: good and evil, and so on. This is why the book works so well. Every event is seen through the central narrative on how Reagan sees the world.
I loved relearning these events and putting them into their proper historical context after all of these years and with the perspective of history and hindsight.
A linear detailed presentation of a bunch of Roman Emperors and wannabe emperors after the reign of Marcus Aurelius for which you most likely have never heard of. There's no doubt Gibbon writes better than almost anyone ("all the German men were brave, and their women were chaste, and notwithstanding the latter of these virtues is acquired and preserved with much more difficulty than the former"), but there is a reason why the emperors after 150 AD to 300 AD are so little known today and are best just a footnote instead of the main story of a history.
Read at your own risk. Beautifully written, but comprehensive to the point of tedium. Beautifully read by narrator, but doesn't change the fact that the story leaves little impression with the listener.
There is no refutation for the standard proofs of supernatural or magical thinking mumbo jumbo that this book doesn't address. Usually, if you watch a debate on youtube for the proof of God and the person's specific religion all the arguments follow the same six forms: design and teleological, first cause, morality, ontological, purpose of life, and proof of the resurrection. This book leaves no stone unturned and provides a scientific basis and explanation for all supernatural phenomena and the standard proofs of magical thinking. We never appeal to the supernatural anywhere else is life, why make an exception for the unknown?
The author is actually very gentle as he dismantles each argument. The book is really encyclopedic in its presentation, but he lets his arguments flow into the next such that the listener thinks he's listening to one thematically tied together story with an easy to understand narrative and not realizing the encyclopedic nature of the story. He's not really an expert on most of the topics he's discussing but he does a great job in explaining everything, but sometimes he lacks depth.
Science is hard. Religion is easy. Science must always deal with doubt and probabilities. Religion has no doubts. (Scientific) Truth is only a probability. The best we can do is have a 'corresponding theory of truth" and if our theories correspond to reality we use them, when they don't we modify or get better ones. He correctly points out the facts of evolution existed before Darwin and the Theory of Evolution is the model that goes about explaining the data better than any other model before it. Even if the model gets rejected there are still the facts of Evolution. They will always exist.
He does give the listener many interesting ways of thinking about science and religion and can convince any serious listener that the world can be explained with naturalistic means. He makes many insightful points and almost every reader will profit from reading (or listening) to this book. He defines a "hard atheist" as someone who doesn't believe in any of the currently known God(s). Thus not necessarily rejecting all supernatural explanations. I think that's a good way of framing the problem. It's easy to reject all the currently known God(s), but perhaps a good supernatural explanation will come along (something coherent, consistent, and non-contradictory), and moreover will have an iota of data or theory to support it. The theory of atoms came before ever seeing one, but the coiner of the word "quanta" and real developer of the second law of thermodynamics, Ludwig Boltzman, was driven to suicide because his correct ideas were rejected by the establishment. I'm not willing to reject any reasonable theory about a God or a supernatural entity. I just haven't come across a reasonable theory as of yet.
I liked the book and I can recommend it. It's a good book for a religious person who is starting to question non-naturalistic explanations. The only real problem is the author covers everything but he doesn't ever get to cover anything in depth and gives it the nuance that the topic requires. For example, he does talk about the Historicity of the Resurrection and does a good job, but, Bart Ehrman's latest book covers it in much more detail and gives the nuances that's required to understand the real issues. Matter of fact, if I were to recommend one book to help someone deconvert from Christainity it would be to read Bart Ehrman's book, "How Jesus Became God", it can open ones eyes to what it means when someone says "the bible says". Or if someone's faith was tied up in the truth of The Theory of Evolution, I would recommend Dennett's "Darwin's Dangerous Idea", it gives a complete story on why Evolution Theory is correct and how to think about science.
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