Sunday, July 22, 2018

Mike McCormack - Solar Bones (Canongate, 2016) **


In the span of one hour, engineer Marcus Conway reflects on his life, his work, his family, the joys and the tensions, presented as one long 'monologue intérieur' without punctuation, as one endless sentence. Conway's life is disintegrating, his wife left him, his son lives in Austrialia with an uncertain future, his daughter is close yet he does not understand her, and then he gets hit professionally too.

Reading the story with its good cadence and rhythm quickly turns it into a mesmerising experience, but of course a novel is too long to read in one session, so you have to break it up and get into it again, and unfortunately, the story itself and the main character did not really resonate with me, and as the narrative progresses, I did seem to care less and less about Conway's predicament.




Paolo Cognetti - The Eight Mountains (Harvill Secker, 2018) ***½


Like Henry David Thoreau in "Walden", Italian documentary maker Paolo Cognetti decided to leave his city life and move to the mountains in the north of Italy. The story in "The Eight Mountains" is partly autobiographic, and it describes the friendship of Pietro, a young Milanese boy who goes on holidays every year to the same place in the mountains, with Bruno, the only boy in the remote and half-deserted village. Even if they only meet once a year, their friendship becomes solid, not based on words or common interests, but at some deeper understanding of life. Their worlds could not be more different, including the relationships with their parents, although both boys, as can be expected do not understand the whims and strange character traits of their parents, for Pietro primarily his father, for Bruno his mother.

Efforts for both worlds to meet in a more structural way, and outside of the holidays, fail, as if there is a border that cannot or should not be crossed. Pietro's universe becomes the world, including frequent stays in Nepal, whereas Bruno never actually lives his village. The mutual understanding of both boys and later as young men, is maintained despite the changes in their lives, both personal and professional.

Cognetti writes in a very accessible and balanced way, well integrating memories and reflections in the action, yet he's most convincing when describing nature and the ambiguity of relationships. It's a story about leaving the rat race, and about getting a deeper understanding about the beauty and harshness of nature. It is a little mellow at moments, but somehow that only emphasises the authenticity of the writing.


Hans Rosling - Factfulness (Flatiron, 2018) ****


If you don't know Swedish epidemiologist Hans Rosling, it's high time you find out about him on the internet, via his Gapminder Foundation, or through this book, which was published posthumously. 

Rosling is an incredible educator and big picture thinker, who managed to show the state of the world through very interesting visualisations of the evolution of poverty and wealth, of diseases and of demographic changes. 

"Factfulness" describes in a comprehensive way all his teaching, youtube presentations and TED Talks. 

This book should be mandatory reading in all schools across the world. It will bring both humility and hope for everybody. He demonstrates that most countries in the world are currently having the same living standards as the richest countries somewhere in the middle of last century. He shows how things improve for many people across the world, and how our categorisation of the world in "developed" and "developing" countries is completely outdated. 

One of the best things about his lectures, is that Rosling always submitted his audiences to a quiz before his presentation, only to show how most of us have completely wrong assumptions about the state of the world. And these audiences included politicians, journalists, WHO and IMF collaborators, who in general and with great majority gave the wrong answers. 

And that includes both you and me. So you'd better read this book too!


Steven Pinker - Enlightenment Now (Allen Lane, 2018) ****


We know Pinker, we love Pinker. "Enlightenment Now" is subtitles "The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress", and that's exactly what the book does. The good thing is that Pinker gives a very high level overview of the progress that's been made in the last centuries, thanks to the insights of the enlightenment philosophers, scientists and politicians who radically put evidence and democracy at the heart of society. This led to better science, better understanding, but als better justice and well-being to many.

This book is a kind of sequel to "The Better Angels of our Nature", in which he describes how society has become less violent over the millennia.

He tackles the big picture topics of wealth, equality, happiness, peace, safety, terrorism, democracy, equal rights, the environment, ... and he is right: based on all evidence, things are getting better, despite the growth of the population.

His appeal to reason and democracy are a deep cry from an entire intellectual community who sees populism on the rise across the world, with 'fake news' and 'alternative facts' increasingly dominating our news and social media.

As with so many books, this one will also be preaching to the converted. Its main advantage is that it give the converted a very strong overview of facts to support their arguments. Nothing new here, just very well presented and documented.

If I had his skills and knowledge, this is the book I would write.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb - Skin In The Game (Allen Lane, 2018) **


Ha! I couldn't keep thinking throughout the book that mathematician and stock broker Nassim Nicholas Taleb was contractually bound by his publisher to write a book yet had no idea what to write about. "Skin In The Game" is about people making choices that influence other people's lives without having 'skin in the game', and therefore are also not impacted by the choices they make. By itself this seems like a good angle to comment on today's society, but the book never delivers on its promise. Rather, it is a long and repititive tirade about how clever he is, and how dumb the rest of the world, especially the Intelligent Yet Idiots (IYI), which include people such as Stephen Pinker and Noble Prize winners for economy Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. He complains that his papers against the rhetoric of Thomas Pikkety on capitalism never got the attention they deserved.

Taleb's fascination with his own self is so omnipresent in the book that you start wondering which childhood trauma lies at the basis of it. He has to show off, that he speaks and reads in several languages, that he is as comfortable in quoting Aristotle, the bible and quantum physics, that he understands all aspects of religion, history, philosophy, economy, psychology and finance better than anyone else. Taleb is able to judge everybody in every discipline of thought because clearly he is the cleverest of them all.

You find quotes like this on almost every page: "For it looks like you need a lot of intelligence to figure probabilistic things out when you don't have skin in the game. But for an overeducated nonpracticioner, these things are hard to figure out. Unless one is a genius, that is, has the clarity of mind to see through the mud, or has sufficiently profound command of probability theory to cut through the nonsense".

In contrast to "The Black Swan", which I can highly recommend, this book is more a collection of musings and unrelated ideas and accusations with no immediate use in daily life, and yes, his starting point is interesting and true, but not really elaborated upon in a systematic way.

That being said, many of his ideas are thought-provoking and give a different angle to many assumptions that are at least worth considering. Personally, I can agree with many of his ideas, including about Krugman and Stiglitz, but please, do something about your self-obsession.


Jim Crace - The Melody (Picador, 2018) **


The retired singer and widower Alfred Busi is attacked by a further undefined creature in his home. This brings him into contact with his deceased wife's sister and his son, a real estate agent, and the neighbours whose villa will be sold soon. Busi has become a lonely and sad figure, still performing as a singer, but now for smaller crowds of elderly people, and even if was once immediately recognised and famous, he is now reduced to a life on the edge, somewhat outside the bustle of society, outside of where the action is.

Jim Crace's stylistic lyricism is as good as ever, and most sentences are a real pleasure to read, the story itself is somewhat lacking in real tension. The theme is about solitude and of no longer being center-stage, about justice, both personal and political, about greed and compassion. Even if it is sad, it somehow lacks tension, or the captivating and compelling literary and memorable universes he created in "Quarantine" or "Harvest".

If you don't know Crace, I would recommend to start with these two novels.

Richard Flanagan - First Person (Chatto & Windus, 2017) ***


Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan can be highly recommended for his "Gould's Book Of Fish", and "The Narrow Road To The Deep North".

In "First Person" he tells the story of a young writer who sells his soul to a publishing company by willing to act as the ghost writer of a biography by a white collar criminal who is waiting for his trial. He is desparate for money, and accepts the deal to deliver the book in six weeks. Unfortunately, Siegfried Heidl, the book's subject, appears to be a very unpleasant, whimsical, erratic and uncooperative person ... and a liar. He creates quite some fog about his own history, leads the young writer in wrong directions, and with time pressing, the story becomes increasingly elusive.

Heidl is a con man, who fraudulently extracted $700 million from banks, and he keeps explaining to Kif Kehlmann, the ghost writer, how truth is nothing else than a story well told.

The story is extremely irritating. As it is to Kehlmann who does not make any progress. It is enervating, irritating, frustrating, discomforting, disheartening, ... Even if minor changes happen in the narrative, the core events are repetitive: meetings between Heidl and Kif where nothing is actually said, apart from clichés about truth and story-telling. And of course because of a lack of material, both protagonists' lives become to fuse on paper. Kif has no other choice than to fill in the blanks, creating a grey zone full of moral and personal confusion. Whose story is this in the end?

Is it recommended? Yes, if you have sufficient peace of mind for a narrative that keeps circling back to square one, if you are willing to go with the author and experience the narrative rather than just read it. No, if you are of the nervous type who want things to move forward, if you dislike being the victim of the author's cheap tricks to be played on you.





Dan Barker - God, The Most Unpleasant Character In All Fiction (Sterling, 2016)


I once made the effort to summarise all the atrocities of the Bible, both Old and New Testament, because if one thing is obvious, it's the high level of selectivity with which clergy cite from the bible, giving the impression of a benevolent and moral god. My manuscript - in Dutch - was rejected because deemed blasphemous, despite only offering passages from the bible.

Anybody who has actually read the bible will confess that god is nothing less than a monster by today's standards, and I think Dan Barker's title is even a soft description of what the bible actually tells us.

In this book, Barker - a former evangelical preacher - enumerates all the atrocities in the bible, ordering the chapters by theme : the jealous and proud god, the unjust god, the unforgiving god, the misogynistic god, the ethnic cleanser, the genocidal, infanticidal, the vindictive, the bloodthirsty, the megalomaniac, ...

Most of us have no idea about this side of the bible, because it remains hidden in sermons and speeches. It also shows the hypocrisy of people who use the bible for reference to take moral positions against for instance gay people, but then not applying the good rules of the same bible to stone a girl to death because she was raped.

This book is not one to read, because it actually only lists passages from the bible according to the characterisations I described above.

It is 300 pages long. It is 300 pages of absolute horror. Not one person in his right mind would follow the moral guidance of its lead character. Unfortunately, too many do, which says a lot about their ignorance, irrationality and lack of intellectual curiosity.

I'm just afraid that only atheists will dare buy this book.


Alice Roberts - The Incredible Unlikeliness Of Being (Heron Books, 2015) ***


A interesting book, one that creates a wonderful parallel between biological evolution and the growth of a child after conception. The idea is of course obvious and simple. Somehow, we all go back to the same ancestors so many millions of years ago, and this ancestry is still clear in the splitting of cells, in the growth of the foetus and the embryo. Roberts show what parts of our bodies we have in common with all other living things and how the function of some of these changed over time.

Alice Roberts is a professor of anatomy and television documentary maker. She is specialised in paleopathology, the study of disease in ancient human remains, receiving the degree in 2008. She worked as Senior Teaching Fellow at the University of Bristol Centre for Comparative and Clinical Anatomy, where her main roles were teaching clinical anatomy, embryology, and physical anthropology, as well as researching osteoarchaeology and paleopathology.

 In a very methodical way, she takes the reader through all the organs of the body, explaining the common origins with other species, the comparative and different use these body parts evolved into over time: heads and brains, skulls and senses, speech and gills, spines and segments, ribs, lungs and heart, guts and yolk sacks, gonads, genitals and gestation, limbs, legs, shoulders and thumbs.

The earliest creatures, interestingly, evolved from simple cells to take in nutrients, process them and discard them: a mouth and an arse is all it needed to get us started. And the result is absolutely fascinating: well told, easy to understand for lay people and with many drawings to illustrate her points.

Colson Whitehead - The Underground Railroad (Fleet, 2017) ***


In "The Underground Railroad", American author Colson Whitehead describes the escape from slavery by Cora through the famous 'underground railroad', the escape route for slaves which linked various houses of volunteers as so many stations on a virtual track to freedom.

The 15-year old Cora escapes the plantation where she lives in Georgia, trying to follow her mother Mabel, who escaped before, deserting her child. This fact is what keeps tormenting the main character, wondering why she did this.

Whitehead is a great story-teller, with vivid scenes and strong characters. Especially the first chapters describing life in the plantation is strong, then gradually the narrative becomes thinner, possibly written faster than the first chapters, and expanding the narrative too much instead of keeping intense and concentrated density. Why the virtual 'underground railroad' becomes a real train underground in the novel remains a mystery to me, especially because it deflates the importance of the real efforts to move above ground from one shelter to the next. It somehow turns the gravity of the real events into something more fantasy-rich and hence lighthearted.

Be that as it may, the story is captivating, and any story that can describe the horrors of what people lived through in times of slavery is worth telling,







Jon McGregor - Reservoir 13 (4th Estate, 2017) **


As much as I enjoyed "If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things", "Reservoir 13" left me totally uninterested.

It's the story of a village in England where a girl went missing. She was never found, and life continues. People do what people do. Some leave, some stay. The original story remains in a kind of undercurrent flow in the lives of all the characters presented here. The problem is: none of them is interesting, and neither are their lives. You expect the story about the missing Rebecca to be resolved, and you can admire McGregor's twist to move away from the cliché thriller or police novel, but at the same time it takes away the sense of anticipation and tension.

McGregor uses a quite distant, almost reporting style to describe what's happening in the village, using a lot of passive sentences to put the reader in a kind of voyeur position, almost intruding in the intimacy of other people's lives. It's clearly not their story. They are observed, analysed, described. But despite all the good writing, and the interesting approach, there is no interest in what's happening at all. At least not for me. I was never drawn into the story, which is a quite essential thing for a novel.

Nice try. Next time better.

Roy Jacobsen - The Unseen (MacLehose, 2016) ***½


The literary trick to use an isolated place to represent the word, as a microcosm symbolising the larger place we live in, is of course not new, but here, Norwegian author Roy Jacobsen brings it to a new level. A small family lives on an island - actually not more than a rock a few miles long - carrying their name. The novel tells the story from the perspective of Ingrid, the girl in the family, who eventually tries to keep this little universe intact, to keep its family together despite all the hardships of a brutal life in a pittiless nature. The island is called Barrøy like the family's name, and giving up the island seems like a betrayal to the entire family's ancestry, a betrayal of the hardships they endured to bring the island to its current state.

Jacobsen makes the allegory a story about the hunger for freedom and emancipation, the ties and loyalty to family tradition, and the sacrifice of personal ambitions and the need of siblings. His prose is simple, and his narrative pragmatic. The story is not about the big words in the previous sentences, but about the daily struggle of a small family that rather defies the relentless violence of nature than submits to the changing rules of a new society that advances to their stronghold. They work the land, they row to the mainland, they fish, they work with their animals, they build extensions to their house, and the boat house ... and despite all the efforts, there is no progress, quite to the contrary.

Jacobsen depicts simple life, with everyday challenges of a family with all strong or special characters. Despite their differences, they care for each other, because that's the only glue that keeps them together. The family he creates is beautiful, and you cannot but feel sympathy for their daily struggles. Jacobsen's writing style is equally strong, lyrical and economic at the same time, pragmatic and meditative.

A highly enjoyable read.



Colm Tóibín - House Of Names (Viking, 2017) ****½


Irish author Colm Tóibín lives in a class of his own. With "Brooklyn", "Nora Webster" and "The Testament of Mary", he tells stories from a strong female perspective, in a velvety style and compassionate tone. His characters are subtle, nuanced, and real in the depth of their emotions and their relationship to other people. In those novels, there is no real evil, no real malevolence, yet he manages to create tension in his narrative, leaving the reader no choice but to keep reading.

In "House of Names", he brings us back to ancient times, to the legend of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. After Agamemnon has his daugher Iphigenia killed as a sacrifice to the gods in order to obtain military victory, their house is doomed. Clytemnestra seeks revenge, and allies herself with Agamemnon's enemy.

Tóibín does not tell us the story as we know it from the ancient Greek authors Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles and Homer, but he uses it as a springboard to tell his own story about love, loneliness and betrayal. As in his other novels, the main characters are only minor figures in a much broader context, that remains vague and uncertain. The ongoing wars are never truly explained, and neither are their causes clear. The characters move around each other, with different perspectives on good and bad, each caught in a web they never created, yet which they made more complex by their actions. And then at an even deeper level, the characters are prisoners of their own feelings, their own uncertainties and unspoken fears.

Tóibín's style is as usually exquisite. It is rhythmic, well-paced and lyrical.

One example to illustrate:

"An image came to him then of his mother and Aegisthus. He was not sure when it was, but it must have been the morning, a morning when he had come to the room earlier than usual, and his nurse at the doorway had pulled him back but not before he had caught a glimpse of his mother and Aegisthus, and saw them naked and making sounds like animals. The image stayed with him now, became as solid in his mind as the image of his father's face as it brightened when he returned, and the memory of his father's voice and the cheering all around, and the smell of horses and men's sweat and the sense of happiness he felt that his father was home".

... and appreciate how the entire tragedy is captured in young Orestes' mind: the conflicting feelings of betrayal and happiness, the reference to animals and horses in the shifting memories and feelings.

In "House Of Names", Colm Tóibín brings humanity in a Greek tragedy, not only by giving his characters a voice with today's sensitivities and psychological complexity, but also by making humans no longer the puppets of the gods, but the victims of their own doings.

Don't miss it!


Bart Ehrman - The Triumph Of Christianity (Oneworld, 2018) ***


One of the most mysterious things to me is why people believe in the existense of a supernatural being, call it god, who has created and who governs all things. As such, I have been an avid reader of all the books by Bart Ehrman, a former believer and theologian, who has written some of the most insightful books on early christianity.

In "The Triumph Of Christianity", he takes a few centuries further in history, covering the expansion of the early views of a jewish eschatological sect. He explains how the sect grew under the guidance of (saint) Paul, the man who was responsible for expanding the sect among non-jews until the time of Theodiosius in the fourth century, when christianity became the state religion.

The history of christianity is a bloody one, full of intolerance against the christians in the early days, with torture and martyrdom being inherent in the way people looked at other groups. The Romans were usually tolerant towards other religions of conquered nations, as long as they showed respect for their own Roman gods, which was of course inacceptable to the christians. Once christianity became the state religion in the 4th century, they became as intolerant against other religions as what they had experienced themselves. Theodosius at first issued legislative measures that proscribed pagan sacrifices, worship in temples and such other religious rituals, then later also in the privacy of the home.

Even if christianity was still the religion of the minority of the population in the regions ruled by the Romans, the number of christians quickly increased significantly across the entire region, not because  people believed it, but because they had no choice.

Even if not his best book, Ehrman writes well, with the many historical facts not disrupting the narrative. He gives a good insight in the religious and political thinking in those times, also demonstrating that things could have been completely different today if some individuals had not made the choices they made then.

Robert Sapolsky - Behave (Bodley Head, 2017) *****


Truly amazing. In "Behave", Robert Sapolsky, professor in biology and neurology at Stanford University, gives a big picture overview of all the processes that make us do what we do. He uses the simple act of pulling the trigger of a gun, but he could have used any other action. He then analyses all the biological (hormonal, genetic, ...), psyschological, cognitive, genetic and cultural elements that drive that specific simple activity, by moving back in time, starting with the first seconds preceding the act, step by step back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. In fact, Sapolsky tries to go beyond the traditional academic distinction between the sciences of behaviour.

As is often the case by such sweeping overviews of current scientific insights, academics will criticise the lack of true in-depth and up-to-date knowledge of each of the disciplines presented, and especially in their own field of interest, but that is unavoidable in books with the ambition to popularise and create such a broad canvas. The big advantage is that it brings together the incredibly complex processes behind our everyday actions. It shows were our limits are, allowing to become more conscious of why we do what we do, and therefore also to become smarter, and as Sapolsky advocates, also wiser.

Sapolsky's ways of presenting human behaviour in all its complex processes, should be mandatory for all schools in the world. If everybody understood some of the essential drivers of our current behaviour, the way our hormones work, the way our brain functions, the way adolescents brains differ from adult brains, understanding how us-versus-them thinking drives moral choices, how apperent personal moral decisions may have deep emotional roots that can only be overcome by becoming conscious of them ... the world would definitely be a better place.

And that is the great value of a popular science book such as this one. It's insightful, humane, wise and compassionate.

One of the best books of the year.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Best Books of the Year 2017


Some heavy lifting this year, with more non-fiction than fiction, 44 books in total. Trying to understand the big picture of the world : our universe, the evolution of life on earth, its various destructions, our cognition, our psychology, our morals. Sean Carrolls' "The Big Picture" wins the race. The most enlightening book was surely Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber's "The Enigma of Reason", with the caveats mentioned.

I read less novels than last year, but they were better. Michael Cunningham's "A Wild Swan" is an absolute delight of story-telling. And Julian Barnes' "The Noise of Time" is both profound, psychologically horrifying and stylistically brilliant. For once I also added a graphic novel. Check it out.

The year's more overrated books, or at least my greatest disappointments were Yuval Noah Harari's "Sapiens", as well as John Banville, Dave Eggers, Christian Kracht and Boualem Sansal, maybe because I expected too much from them after some great books in the recent past.


Fiction 

  1. Michael Cunningham - A Wild Swan *****
  2. Julian Barnes - The Noise Of Time *****
  3. Haruki Murakami - Men Without Women ****
  4. Manu Larcenet - Le Rapport de Brodeck 1/2 & 2/2 ****
  5. Carlos Castán - Bad Light ****
  6. Maylis de Kerangal - Réparer Les Vivants ****
  7. Michael Chabon - Moonglow ****
  8. Juan Gabriel Vásquez - Reputations ****
  9. Colm Tóibin - The Blackwater Lightship ***
  10. Karl Ove Knausgaard - Dancing In The Dark - My Struggle 4 *** 



Non-fiction
  1. Sean Carroll - The Big Picture ****
  2. Barbara Tuchman - The March Of Folly ****
  3. David Wootton - The Invention Of Science  ****
  4. Lawrence Krauss - A Universe From Nothing ****
  5. Giles Milton - Nathaniel's Nutmeg ****
  6. Paul B. Wignall - The Worst Of Times ****
  7. Hugo Mercier & Dan Sperber - The Enigma of Reason * & ****
  8. Carlo Rovelli - Reality Is Not What It Seems ****
  9. Lawrence Krauss - The Greatest Story Told ... So Far ****
  10. Steven Sloman & Philip Fernbach - The Knowledge Illusion ****

Paul Bloom - Against Empathy (The Blodley Head, 2017) **


I like the title. It's controversial and it invites you start reading. Why on earth would a psychologist be against empathy? Furthermore, the subtitle speaks about "the case for rational compassion". That sounds like a programme.

But now in truth, what is Bloom's point?

First, that empathy is important in human relationships and in everyday life. He keeps insisting on this, and he keeps repeating this, obviously fearing that people will think he is against empathy in all its forms. He is very much against the whole list of books that are currently being published about the importance of empathy as if that were the solution to all our problems. Clearly, it is not.

Second, that empathy is a poor guide for moral decision-making, because the emotional aspect of empathy should not override the rational decision that will benefit society and people in a better way.

That's basically it. Luckily he writes well and many of his arguments are well-documented and substantiated. Bloom helps to refine the definition of empathy and make the distinction between emotional empathy and cognitive empathy.

On the negative side, the book is very repetitive, with a very loose structure, indications that was written hastily. I also wonder why the subtitle appears on the cover. The "case for rational compassion" is not really made, and definitely not substantiated with facts or figures. A major lack is the exploration of how empathy, indignation and a sense of injustice move people to act to improve things for others. It is easy to claim that cognitive empathy and rational compassion are to be preferred. The unanswered question is whether these are sufficiently energising to get people out of their chairs. My gut feeling is that emotional drive is still to be preferred over cognitive choices. But I may be wrong.




Hugo Mercier & Dan Sperber - The Enigma of Reason - A New Theory of Human Understanding (Allen Lane, 2017) * & ****


It is possible to write a brilliant book with one, major and fundamental flaw? Yes, it's possible. That is what Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have done.

Those of you who have read Daniel Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast & Slow", will remember that he identified System 1 and System 2 in our thinking, with "1" being the more immediate intuitive response to thinking, and "2" the more rational side of our thinking.

Mercier and Sperber dismiss this approach, and prefer to present another way in which the brain works, primarily due to intuitive inferences of what we perceive or anticipate what other people will do or say. The evidence they present to make their case is excellent and very convincing. The use of abstract logic is indeed a rare thing. They explain how our mind has modules, little folders of knowledge, memory, expertise, that can be connected or not when confronted to a situation. And all that makes sense. They give the example of somebody walking into a doctor's waiting room, and the number of inferences made to appraise the situation in a flash moment is really spectacular.

They then explain how reasoning happens as a follow-up to inuitions, to justify our actions or to build  arguments with other people. Again, what they say makes sense.

The big issue that I have with this approach is that it totally diminishes the role of the reasoning capabilities of the individual outside of social contexts. Truly, I reason the whole time. When I drive to the hospital, I will think about which route best to take depending on the time of day. That is not just an intuition. Surely, when they wrote their book, they reasoned alone. What about the car mechanic who has to solve the engine's troubles? He does not go about this inuitively. Just like the plumber who was called in to find the leak. Or the electrician to find a problem with the electricity.

I truly believe that humans can think logically in very concrete, pragmatic contexts. If I have five keys on my key ring, I will proceed with trial and error. If one key does not work, I will move to the next, remembering that the first key is not the right one. There is some logic in that. If the lamp next to my desk stops shining, I will check whether a new light bulb will solve the issue. If not, I will not keep changing light bulbs until I find one that works. No, I will check the wire, the socket, and so forth, until I have identified the problem. Mercier and Sperber are right that in more abstract and moral contexts, our sense of logic often fails, because of confirmation bias. But this confirmation bias is not active in pragmatic concrete contexts.

When there is immediate feedback, and in a pragmatic context, the reasoning will be flawless. When somebody wants to go shopping and the baker, the butcher, the grocer and the shoe shop are geographically located on one street, the person will automatically look for efficiency and go to these shops in the right sequence. He will not move erratically from the butcher to the baker then to the shoe shop and back to the grocer. No, his plan will be rational, pre-meditated, solitary and conscious.

Even worse, the authors attack people who might question their approach: "Actually, the usual defences of the intellectualist approach to reason are themselves good examples of biased and lazy reasoning. It is an undisputed fact that individual reasoning is rarely if ever objective and impartial as it should be if the intellectualist approach were right".

Mercier and Sperber tell only half the story, namely reasoning in social contexts, and intuitive responses to moral choices, based on the theory of Jonathan Haidt. But Haidt was aware that his theory was only relevant for moral choices, not for all kinds of reasoning and intuitions. Somehow, Mercier and Sperber have missed this.

The whole success of humanity, is not only the social skill of being able to work together. Individuals have improved their hunting tactics by better reasoning (analysis of animal behavior, downwind approach, ...) as by their skills at perfecting weapons. The cleverest ones survived. The advantage of smart tools were as obvious in prehistory as they are now. Many of those are the results of clear logic, and inferences, without too much confirmation bias. There is no blow to self-esteem when one bow is not better than another bow. The hunter can identify why one type of wood is better for the bow, and why cat gut for strings are better than dog gut. There is no need for him to stick to cat gut because that happens to be his belief, just as I will not keep changing light bulbs without wondering whether the cause of the problem might not lie elsewhere.

In short, if Mercier and Sperber had written a book about social reasoning, or reasoning on a moral and abstract level, their book is fantastic. What they write is absolutely true, and much better than Kahnemann in my opinion. But their book ignores that reasoning can take place outside of social contexts, in the concrete and pragmatic environment of everyday life.

It's high time for both authors to get out of their ivory tower and do some handywork.



Sean Carroll - The Big Picture - On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself (One World, 2017) *****


Sean Carroll is a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, the author of several popular science books and an award-winning scientist.

"The Big Picture" does exactly what its hugely ambitious title promises, and in the space of 433 pages. Quite a feat. He starts with with the deepest level of reality, with the Big Bang, the cosmos and the smallest particles in our universe and our daily lives. He demonstrates how everything is matter or energy. He expands on how scientists from the ancient Greeks tried to come to grasps with this elusive reality, how delving deeper provided answers yet created even more questions.

He expands on what we can know and how. He writes about the nature of science, of doubt and observation. How extremely difficult it is to understand and explain reality. How different levels of description fail to convey the exact nature of reality. How we have to accept uncertainty. And probability instead of accuracy.

In part three he goes into the "essence" of reality. Why does the universe exist at all? What are the smallest particles, how do they come into existence, and how do they interact? Carroll is confident that the big picture that we have today, the "Core Theory", is the correct one. This quantum field theory unites the standard model of physics and the general relativity. Our present understanding of quantum gravity includes everything we experience in our daily lives. it's the quantum field theory of the quarks, electrons, neutrinos, all the families of fermions, electromagnetism, gravity and nuclear forces, and the Higgs. "A thousand years from now we will have learned a lot more about the fundamental nature of physics, but we will still use the Core Theory to talk about this particular layer of reality (...) the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely known". He concedes that "it's not the most elegant concoction that has ever been dreamed up in the mind of a physicist, but it's been spectacularly successful at accounting for every experiment ever performed in a laboratory here on earth".

On the cause of the universe or the question "why is there something instead of nothing?", he turns the situation around to account for the real findings in physics: "there is not a moment in time when there is no universe, and another moment in time when ther is; all moments in time are necessarily associated with an existing universe. The question is whether there can be a first such moment, an instant of time prior to which there were no other instants. That's a question our intuitions aren't up to addressing. 
Said another way: even if the universe has a first moment in time, it's wrong to say that it "comes from nothing". That formulation places into our mind the idea that there was a state of being called "nothing", which then transformed into the universe. That's not right; there is no such thing as "transforming". What there is, simply, is a moment of time before which there were no other moments."

Not surprisingly, in this universe, there is no need for a god who created all this. The implications of the Core Theory are also clear for the existence of a soul : it just cannot possibly exist, and as a consequence, there is no possibility for something such as life after death to exist. We are all matter.

Then he takes us a step further, into the realm of life. How it began. Sure, Carroll is not a biologist, but he looks at biology with the mind of a physicist. He looks at how complexity can arise, and how the laws of entropy are completely compatible with it.

Then he looks at consciousness and the latest findings of neuroscience and cognitive sciences. Again, many questions remain about how the brain works, about how consciousness is created out of the electrical signals that are transmitted between the neurons in our brain.

In the final chapters he talks about the world, about morality. And here too, Carroll's words are wise, and well-substantiated.

It is by all means an amazing book, not only by the scope of the author's knowledge, the depth of his insights, the fluency with which he describes it, but also because of his scientific open-mindedness and care for humanity. Some could argue that it's a little too much, that a physicist should stick to his territory and not go beyond his field of knowledge. But why not? Physics has given us answers to questions that philosophers and theologians had been struggling with since forever. Few philosophers will understand quantum physics, but philosophy can be understood by physicists, just like morality. I think it's wonderful that someone dares make the connection between all the sciences. As long as its critical and well-informed, they should all be doing that.

Essential reading in any school in the world, regardless of the subjects chosen.


Haruki Murakami - Men Without Women (Harvill Secker, 2017) ****


Is there anything like Murakami? No, there is nothing like Murakami. Whether in novels or in seven short stories, as is the case here, he keeps amazing us. As much by his writing skills and style - well-paced, easy to read - as for his humanity and the sympathy he shows for his characters, and his very special twist of mind to present things in a slightly different way than you would expect. Even after all these years, that's what keeps surprising, that's what keeps his novels interesting, and his stories a pleasure to read.

In this book, Murakami offers us seven short stories, all conceptually linked because the main character is each time a lonely man. They live normal lives. Then something happens. In the interaction with other people, something goes wrong. They try to redress the situation, by taking unusual actions, or revenge, or only by wondering what to do about it.

As with most Murakami novels, the whole world is one of small wonders. The wonders of the ordinary. In their dialogues, the characters often ask very open questions to each other. They are curious, but in a friendly way, really willing to understand what's happening. Interestingly enough, often the answers remain vague and mysterious.

Just one example: in one story, a young man, Kino, owns a bar, where jazz music is played (something Murakami himself did for a while). One of his most loyal customers, the quiet man Kamita comes up to him.

"Mr Kino", Kamita said rather formally, after he'd paid his bill. "I find it regrettable that it's come to this". 
"Come to this?" Kino repeated. 
"That you will have to close the bar. Even if only temporarily". 
Kino stared at Kamita, not knowing how to respond. 
Close the bar? 
Kamita glanced around the deserted bar, then turned back to Kino. "You haven't quite grasped what I'm saying, have you?"
"I don't think I have"
"I really liked this bar a lot", Kamita said, as if confiding in him. "It was quiet, so I could read, and I enjoyed the music. I was very happy when you opened the bar here. Unfortunately though, there are some things missing". 
"Missing?" Kino said. He had no idea what this could mean. All he could picture was a teacup with a tiny chip in its rim. 
"That gray cat won't be coming back", Kamita said. 
"For the time being, at least". 
"Because this place is missing something?"
Kamita didn't reply. 
Kino followed Kamita's gaze, and looked carefully around the bar, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. He did, though, get a sense that the place felt emptier than ever, lacking vitality and color. Something beyond the usual, just-closed-for-the-night feeling. 

Roles are turned around, questions are asked, normalcy turns to strangeness.

A little gem. As so often with Murakami. I've read everything by him, yet he keeps surprising. Just by being himself.