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.


  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 *** 

  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.

Beau Lotto - Deviate - The Science of Seeing Differently (Weidenfield & Nicolson, 2017) ***

Beau Lotto is an American neuroscientist, active in London, and the founder of the Lab of Misfits, a studio that creates unique real-world ‘experiential-experiments’ that places the public at the centre of the process of discovery.

In this book, Lotto starts with a deep dive in how we perceive things, and specifically colour, and how our brain creates these perceptions often more based on how brain functions than how reality really is. It is only when we become aware that we see things that aren't there, and we don't see things that are there, that we can start opening our mind to new possibilities. Humans did not evolve to see reality, but to survive. Yet now, we have to challenge our brain. We have to open it, with the right approaches, to mold it to have more neural connections. We need more contexts, different environments and experiences. We need to be incentivised to imagine things. We need methods to go beyond the narrow confines of our current perspectives. That's why we have to deviate. To be more open, more creative, more innovative, more connected.

If it all sounds a little new-agey, it's maybe because it is. The book is also written in the same style, with the lay-out aiding to challenge the reader (sometimes written upside down, sometimes graphically, sometimes ...).

In fact, there's nothing much new to read here for anybody who's read some works on how the brain works. But for the general audience, it's a good introduction. The only downside is that Lotto seems to have all the answers. Instead of all the right questions.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Yuval Noah Harari - Sapiens - A Brief History of Humankind (Vintage, 2011) **

I should warn you. This is not a history book. It is a pamphlet. A 500-page pamphlet. Its author, Yuval Noah Harari, professor of History at Jerusalem University has a point to make. And he makes it over a lengthy volume. He may have a point. He may be right. Only, he never gives any evidence for it. And that's a pity.

It starts well, with the facts about our origins on this globe. No real new insights are produced, but it's a nice overview of how humans created communities, dispersed, made myths, and procreated. Then, somehow, historical facts start to disappear for the bigger narrative that Harari has in mind. My first question mark appears on page 122 when he starts discussing the lack of equality of all humans, in my opinion making an error of logic by comparing biological differences with social hierarchy. Question marks start filling the margins as of Part Three - The Unification of Humankind. Harari just makes one claim after the other. For instance, he writes "Equality can be ensured only by curtailing the freedoms of those who are better off. Guaranteeing that every individual will be free to do as he wishes inevitably short-changes equality". Says who? What are the facts underlying this claim? It's not mentioned. It's never mentioned.

Or : "We should note that belief in gods persists within many modern ideologies, and that some of them, most notably liberalism, make little sense without this belief". Hu? Why? Where is the evidence? .... but then at the end of the next page he comes with what might be a possible reason : "The liberal belief in the free and sacred nature of each individual is a direct legacy of the tradition Christian belief in free and eternal individual souls". It is hard to find where this claim comes from and what the basis is of thoughts like this one.

I think he's also wrong when he compares the way the rich spend their money now and in the Middle Ages, without understanding that in those times "power" was generated by having vasals in geographic regions that were under submission. Today, "power", is no longer determined by conquering land, but by having influence in political circles. Because the underlying power-generation is different, so does the spending of wealth. And in a very bizarre way, he sees the evolution from absolute power of monarchs as a better alternative than the current capitalist version of investing in projects that offer a return on the capital invested. It's never made clear why that should be worse. In my opinion, it's a form of emancipation from archaic powers. It's not too difficult to turn the argument around in the other direction.

Gradually, it becomes clear where his sentiments are lying. Capitalism, liberalism, social humanism, communism, consumerism ... all 'isms' are being attacked, often with bizarre statements such as "Consumerism sees the consumption of ever more products and services as a good thing". What does that sentence even mean? Is there a "Consumerism manifesto" which makes this statement? Or is it a definition? Unfortunately, the more the book evolves, the more such empty statements are made, and the more the pamphlet nature of the "history of humankind" drives the fact-based history away.

He gives the following example of an advertising text for a snack called Health Treats :
"Health Treats offer lots of grains, fruits and nuts for an experience that combines taste, pleasure and health. For an enjoyable treat in the middle of the day, suitable for a healthy life style. A real treat with the wonderful taste of more" ... and then Harari reacts to it : "Throughout most of history, people were likely to have been repelled rather than attracted by such a text. They would have branded it as selfish, decadent and morally corrupt". Really? My first reaction is to wonder what he gets so excited about, but then you wonder what his evidence is, and why? Why does he need to articulate his personal opinion by forcing "people throughout most of history" to accept it, like any populist politician would do.

His ranting against the consumerist-capitalist ideology keeps getting stronger and stronger, and evidence and facts completely disappear. It's no longer termed an ideology even (if that ever was the case in the first place) and it now becomes a religion. "The new ethic promises paradise on condition that the rich remain greedy and spend their time making more money, and that the masses give free rein to their cravings and passions - and buy more and more". If you thought you were reading a "brief history of humankind", you'll be disappointed.

"All of the upheavals (of history) are dwarfed by the most momentous social revolution that ever befell humankind: the collapse of the family and the local community and their replacement by the state and the market". Again, says who? Where is the evidence? Is this happening all over the world? Last time I checked, there are still families, and most people still think their families and friends are the most important things in life, much more than the state (not trusted according to most opinion polls) and the market. What makes him make claims like this?

In short, the title is misleading. It starts with history, and it ends as moralistic personal view on society. In creating his view, Harari works from extremes, as if the value of a democratic society with liberal ideas and state-governed services does not work. His attacks are against ideologies, not against realities. You can agree with some of Harari's viewpoints, as do I. That's not the problem at all. The problem is that his book is as cleverly sold as the Health Treats that he so rejects on grounds of moral corruption. And that is not good. It gives the surface intellectual a quick snack to satisfy the demand for something meaningful, but like the Health Treats, it is quickly digested with little nutritional value.

Don De Lillo - Zero K (Picador, 2016) ***

This is a bad novel and a good novel. It is boring and fascinating. The narrator visits a remote compound in the desert where people go to die. He gets shown around by guides, he meets his father and his wife. She is planning to "die", and to have her body preserved through cryogenesis until new treatments become available. The first part of the book is a description of this utopian/dystopian environment where rich people can get the best possible self-chosen temporary death. It reminds me of the early utopian novels, in which basically nothing happens, apart from a picture of a possible new world, with lots of attention to technology, interactions with humans, and how the consequences are thought through. It is pretty boring stuff, with uninteresting characters, no plot and no sense of purpose or direction.

Part Two of the novel is completely different. Different in tone, different in subject, different in emotional weight, different in writing style. It's the story of the narrator's relationship with Emma, a teacher who adopted a boy who is now fourteen years old and difficult. She is alone to raise the child after her divorce. Suddenly the world has become real, recognisable, human. Like the other characters, the narrator's world is full of questions. Life is difficult. There are no easy answers for the minor and major dilemmas we face every day. Where in the first part of the book, he is guided by an almost cult-like organisation that has all the answers - except survival - the second is more open-ended. My question is : could Part Two stand on its own? Would it be a good read if I recommended that you do not read Part One?

Give it a try.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Manu Larcenet - Le Rapport de Brodeck 1/2 & 2/2 (Dargaud, 2017) ****

 Als fan van stripverhalen, zou ik nog een blog kunnen beginnen, maar dat laten we voorlopig maar achterwege. Vandaar deze ene bespreking van een "stripverhaal" in deze literatuurrubriek.

We hebben "Le Rapport De Brodeck" van Philippe Claudel al enkele jaren geleden besproken en geprezen: een heel donker verhaal over verraad, loyauteit en angst. Het is nu in een grafische roman omgezet door de Franse striptekenaar Manu Larcenet, die we kennen van strips als "De Dagelijkse Worsteling" (echt niet mijn ding) of als mede-illustrator van de Donjon-reeks.

In de twee volumes van Le Rapport De Brodeck overtreft hij zichzelf. Hij brengt de roman tot leven zoals het zelden is gebeurd. Zijn stijl is uiterst fijn en grof tegelijk, met veel zin voor de kleinste details, die sterk contrasteren met de ruwheid en het gebrek van harmonische vormgeving van de gezichten. De waarheidsgetrouwheid waarmee dieren worden afgebeeld wordt omgezet in verwrongen en duistere overdrijving wanneer mensen worden afgebeeld. Het geheel is somber, ijselijk, dreigend. Elke tekening verdient aandacht. Hij slaagt er ook in om bladzijden zonder tekst te hebben, met een bijna cinematografisch beeldvorming van landschappen en het dorp, maar ook van gebeurtenissen in het dorp zelf.

Hij heeft ook de structuur van de roman van Claudel gerespecteerd, door de huidige tijd te doorweven met flashbacks uit verschillende tijdsmomenten.

Het geheel is verbluffend. Een klein meesterwerk van de "graphic novel". Niet te missen.

Richard Dawkins - Silence In The Soul (Bantam Press, 2017) **

"Science In The Soul" is a compilation of speeches that biologist and atheism advocate Richard Dawkins has given over the years, and at very diverse occasions and on a variety of topics.

Needless to say, they are all about biology, Darwin, science and religion, including his usual attacks on intelligent design and other non-scientific aberrations.

Interesting to read, but it gives the impression that the publisher needed some more revenue from a best-selling author. Most of the texts do not add anything to Dawkins's other books.

Darren Oldridge - The Devil, A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2012) ***

There is no mythical figure more interesting in the history of mankind than the devil himself, the dark one, the evil one. Understanding the creation of the figure and his transformation over the ages is the subject of this little book, just over one hundred pages (without bibliography, notes and index).

The complexity and the ambiguity of the devil was already clear to me as an 8-year old, who was punished in my catholic school for claiming that the devil was actually God's servant instead of enemy, with the argument that if he was God's enemy, he would not punish the wicked ones in hell, but rather set them free again, just to counter God's plans. If what the religion teacher said was right, and the devil would help to keep sinners burn in hell for ever, he was nothing less than God's accomplice.

And that's partly how the figure evolved, as the fallen angels in the jewish texts of the 3rd and 2nd Century BC, and later introduced as God's opponent and evil enemy in the New Testament. Apart from some possible references in the books of the Old Testament, the devil hardly appears at all. He reached the status we currently attribute to him only with the Book of Revelation, written in the second century CE. Some early views even claim the concept of Jesus giving his life for our sins, is part of a deal with the devil. He offers himself to the devil, so as to liberate the rest of humanity.

The visual figure of the devil was further refined based on more eastern mythology of demons and other descriptions. But even then, deep into the middle ages, there was still a concensus among theologists that the devil needed a proxy body to interact with humans. There was less concensus about whether the devil could create offspring with humans. The concept of human evil was definitely placed outside of a person's will, and were, according to Saint Thomas Aquinas nothing less than the devil interfering with the body fluids of a person, in this way creating the wrong mental images and urges, "sometimes in those asleep, sometimes in those awake".

If nothing else, Oldridge's book is exactly what it says it is: a short introduction to the idea of the devil, and for a general and interested audience, it serves its purpose.

Jonathan Haidt - The Righteous Mind (Penguin, 2012) ***½

American cultural and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt's "The Righteous Mind" has become a standard in moral and political psychology. Haidt describes how - in the context of politcal thought and morality - judgments are made intuitively, with reason serving as the rationale to describe our judgment 'a posteriori', and not the other way round. We only appear to be rational beings when judging, in reality our judgment is made on the basis of a number of personal, emotional and group influences.

He gives a lot of examples of psychological tests in which the participants gave justifications for their behaviour afterwards, not based on reason. He explains that our social world is "Glauconian", named after the brother of Plato, who argued that people behave morally or just, only because they are kept in check by the social group to which they belong, by appearances and reputation.

Haidt guides us through the implications of cultural bias to assess morality, and he explains how we need to expand our typically liberal view of morality with the broader moral base that many cultures across the world have.

He breaks them down into five categories
  1. the Care/Harm foundation
  2. the Faith/Cheating foundation
  3. the Loyalty/Betrayal foundation
  4. the Authority/Subversion foundation
  5. the Sanctity/Degradation foundation

... in which the first two are typically the strongest among liberal voters and the latter three more dominant among conservative voters. If you want to know where you are positioned, you can do the test yourself on his website.

Here are my test results, high scores on care and fairness, low scores on loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity.

But of course that's not the point of the book, even if every participant adds new data to his survey. Haidt's insights and approach shed some light on how our world functions today. Indeed, the question of moral choices is one of everyday politics and debates. Understanding why choices are made, and understanding the dynamics behind them are critical. What he does not do in the book is to dig a level deeper, namely to assess the psychology of the people who make these moral choices. Are there any common traits among these five foundations (insecurity, fear, dominance, control, ...).

One aspect of Haidt's approach is that it predicted the chances of Trump to win the presidential election. For the simple reason that all democrats always have a discourse that is focused on care and fairness, yet it totally ignores the three other foundational elements. The Republican party has invested more in topics such as loyalty to "our country", to "our religion", to "our sexual ethics", etc.

Food for thought ...

Julian Baggini - A Short History Of Truth (Quercus, 2017) ***

Julian Baggini is the founding editor of The Philosophers' Magazine. He has a PhD on the philosophy of personal identity and is the author, co-author or editor of over twenty books.

In "A Short History Of Truth", he touches in a very light and welcoming style the different types of truth that exist out there, including the truths that are claimed to be eternal, authoritative, esoteric, reasoned, empirical, creative, relative, powerful, moral or holistic. He explains all of them with their inherent challenges and paradoxes, the way they have been used and abused. All this in about 100 pages of easy to read philosophy. 

Getting to know the truth is a question of attitude. "Establishing the truth requires epistemic virtues like modesty, scepticism, openness to other perspectives, a spirit of collective enquiry, a readiness to confront power, a desire to create better truths, a willingness to let our morals be guided by the facts". 

It sounds so simple, this question of attitude. If it is so simple, why is it so difficult?

David Wootton - The Invention Of Science (Penguin, 2015) ****

David Wootton's "The Invention of Science", has a very appropriate subtitle: "A New History of The Scientific Revolution".

Wootton is a professor of history at the University of York, who has done a lot of actual research by reading the old manuscripts first-hand, which allows him to come with very detailed accounts of how scientists since the renaissance thought about their world they gradually started discovering, but at the same time he has this broad sweeping vision of discoveries and evolutions in a variety of disciplines to give the big picture as well.

He starts by explaining how until 1492, the year of Columbus's "discovery" of the Americas, every intellectual was of the opinion that everything there was to know, was actually already captured in the scriptures and in the texts of the ancient Greeks, with Aristotle as their number one source. Intellectual work was often limited to understanding these texts better, or interpreting them differently. Columbus's discovery came as a shock, because it was evidence that the world was a different place than actually thought, and that not everything was already written. It even changed the concept of time and the concept of progress, since many medieval people, did not consider the Romans or the ancient Greeks as more technologically backward. They were just people living at another time, just as they were living in another place. The idea that new technology could improve things, was not very high on the agenda.

And actually, many of the new discoveries came from the mundane and military. Telescopes evolved from monoculars to watch ships, physics partly evolved from calculating the ballistic trajectory of cannon balls, how double bookkeeping changed the way to represent data, etc. Brahe, Galileo, Copernicus, Bruno, Newton, ... of course all come into the picture, in a way that is both known and new, because Wootton expertly describes what these great scientists thought and felt about their own discoveries, how they struggled, also internally, with the shifting reference frameworks to look at reality.

He expands quite a lot on the simple aspect of using "fact" as evidence, a concept which was totally alien to the world before the early 'modern age'. He describes how experiments were made to test the validity of theoretical assumptions, again something that shattered the words in the books of for instance Galenus. Observation and testing suddenly got valued, and the first experiments with the vaccuum paved the way to create the barometer.

Obviously all this is further increased through the creation of scientific communities, who no longer only needed to write letters to each other, but who, thanks to the invention of the printing press, could share their insights more broadly, generating interest and inviting in comments from many more people to collectively move a better understanding forward. Despite this, the time frame within which new discoveries were accepted as scientific evidence could take and did take much more time than it does today. For instance, Newton's 'Principia' on his discovery of gravity, was first published in 1687, but resistance against his findings continued until the 1740s by other eminent intellectuals such as Huygens and Leibniz.

It's a long book, 570 pages with another 200 of notes, bibliography and index, but amazingly interesting and well written. Wootton knows so many little details about the tests, the personal opinions of the scientists to make it read like a novel. He is also a master in explaining the other side of rational thinking, that was equally part of the world in which science evolved: astrology, alchemy and witchcraft, and other bizarre theories about how our body and our world function.

It is only through this lens that Wootton offers us that we can really understand what progress actually means, and how our current world view has struggled to emancipate itself from the obscure, bizarre, dangerous and sometimes funny worldviews of the past.

A book to read when you have lots of time.

Carlo Rovelli - Reality Is Not What It Seems (Penguin, 2017) ****

In this great book, physicist Carlo Rovelli explains what we know about reality, and how it can be interpreted. It's a wonderful journey into the nature of science itself, about what we know and don't know, and about what we can know. In our universe there are one billion galaxies with each around 1 billion stars, and our world is just one planet of those stars. In the middle of our galaxy, there is a black hole that is one million times the size of our sun, and that swallows up entire "solar systems" like a whale eats little fish (I checked this, and they do eat small fish, and not only plankton, which I thought).

He gives an overview of a number of theories that are currently used to describe the facts and findings of modern physics. What comes out loud and clear is that our universe is finite.

Rovelli gives a historic overview of theories about our world, and how they involved over time. He does this in a very readable and accessible way, often using anecdotes and discussions from the life of the physicists who shaped our current thinking.

Rovelli ends the book with some musings on the nature of science. He says that the only thing that's infinite is our ignorance. And that's maybe a good thing too. "Science is not reliable because it provides certainty. It's reliable because it provides us with the best answers we have at present. Science is the most we know so far about the problems confronting us. It is precisely this openness, the fact that it constantly calls current knowledge into question, which guarantees that the answers it offers are the best so far available."

There is a lot we don't know yet. And that's a message which still offers mystery and humility.

Lawrence Krauss - A Universe From Nothing (Simon & Schuster, 2012) ****

Why is there something rather than nothing? The major question that has been driving philosophical thought and theology for thousands of years.

Lawrence Krauss tries to give a glimpse of what might look like an answer. And if anybody can know, it's him. With degrees of physics of MIT and Harvard, he is now professor of cosmology at the University of Arizona.

He gives many examples of things that come to existence from nothing, which is really common at the level of the smallest components of our quantum world. And because the big universe out there is only an assembly of these small particles, there is no need for a cause to exist. That is just the way it is. "Ultimately, this question may not be more significant or profound than asking why some flowers are red and some are blue".

Obviously, before getting there, Krauss takes us on an interesting - and often personal - journey, creating a big picture of insights from quantum physics to the consequences of this weird world for a better understanding of our universe. He explains it in a layman's language, without any need for prior understanding of mathematics or physics. Nevertheless, it remains quite a feat to grasp the latest theories, for the simple reason that it's impossible for us to picture them with our macro-world perspective. How can you understand what a "multiverse" might look like. Or how can you understand a closed universe, one in which if you could see far enough, you would be looking at the back of your own head? How can you understand anti-matter?

One thing is certain for him. Even if we do not understand all aspects of our world and universe, there is no need for a "god" to have created it. There is not only no need for it, it would make the whole even more complex and more unlikely.

Interesting reading if you're interested in the most profound question of our existence.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Robert Hazen - The Story Of Earth (Penguin, 2012) ****

This is nothing less than amazing. Mineralogist Robert Hazen explains the painstaking effort of collecting rocks and minerals, and then painstakingly analysing them all under a mass spectrometer and then cataloguing them and organising them and thinking about what it all might mean. Thousands and thousands of pieces of rock from all over the world. What you can do with it sounds simple, to reconstruct the history of the earth, the full 4.5 billion years it exists. You get a wonderful chronological journey from day one till now and with some wise words for the future to conclude.

Everything that ever happened on our planet of any significance is captured in the minerals around us: the chemical properties of basic elements, the level of oxygen in the air, the eruptions, the collisions, the moving of the continents, the arrival of life, the state of the atmosphere, the change in the magnetic field of the earth, the brutal differences in temperature, etc, etc.

It is nothing but spectacular, and sure the object itself is incredible, but how Hazen writes with passion about his field of study is equallly amazing, with the right level of explanation to make it understable for non-geologists but I guess that specialists will also find it rewarding to read about their subject in layman's language.


... and then you wonder about the morons who think the earth is 6,000 years old. How is it possible that major scientific work never reaches the masses?

Juan Gabriel Vásquez - Reputations (Bloomsbury, 2016) ****

Javier Mallarino is a celebrated political cartoonist who survived his criticism of corrupt politicians and the pressure from dictatorship and of the publications he worked for. He meets a young woman, Samanta Leal, who used to be his daughters friend when they were kids. She forces him to think back about an even that happened twenty-five years earlier, during a party at the cartoonist's home.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez weaves the remembering and the present into a fine, subtle and sensitive texture of questioning of his own achievements, the power of the media, the abuse of power, the fragility of life, and the shifting perspectives between being prey or predator.

His style is an interesting mixture of Milan Kundera (the questions, the distant observation of his characters, ...) and Javier Marias (the long sentences, the shifting interior musings, ...) and both trying to come to grips with a reality that is hard to understand and fathom, while at the same time very recognisable and intimate.

A really strong novel, written with a wonderful sense of composition, sensitive characters and wit.

Michael Chabon - Moonglow (4th Estate, 2016) ****

Every new Michael Chabon novel is one to look out for, as was this one. He is without a doubt one of the best stylists in American literature, with a wonderful sense of humour, greatly influenced by comic book and other adventures in novels such as "The Yiddish Policemen's Union", "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay", and the incredible "Gentlemen Of The Road".

With Moonglow, he moves into new territory for him, namely the life of his grandparents, as told by his grandfather on his deathbed, and at the same time the story of the weight of being jewish.

His grandfather was a rocket engineer and one of the first people to have entered Nordhausen at the end of the Second World War, the place where the V-2 rockets were being produced. Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" comes to mind, and is even mentioned several times in the novel, but apart from the historical context, there is no other comparison. Chabon's prose is direct, precise, unusually without any demonstration of stylistic prowess, almost as the chronicler of events, even if once in a while you can read wonderful sentences such as "got his grandfather so drunk that he was able to directly experience, if not communicate, some of the unlikelier effects on time and space called for by Einstein's Special and General Theories of Relativity"

Yet he goes further, much further, actually reconstructing the lives of his grandparents - and parents - by adding a strong dose of fiction of their daily lives, the conversations, the details of clothing, behaviour and thoughts that no person could ever remember, let alone fully recount during the last days of one's lives. This creates an almost obscene intimacy, by putting yourself in the position of these people you probably knew so well, including the sexual longing and sexual acts.

The book is as much about the grandfather's fight and moral concerns about German rocket scientist Werner von Braun and his gang, who participated in the US space programmes, and even more about his grandmother, a French jewish refugee, an actress with a great joie-de-vivre, and independent thoughts and action, who increasingly becomes the victim of schizophrenia. It is about his grandfather's attempt to build a new relationship after his grandmother has died.

Both grandparents are damaged goods, yet they try to live together as almost totally opposing forces: he is the principled engineer with a strong sense of ethics, who even spends a year in prison for an impulsive physical attack on his employer, she is the artist, the beautiful woman who lives in a world of fantasy and fear, using tarot cards with her grandson. Despite the differences between them, there is love and deep respect, even if they are fully aware of each other's shortcomings.

The whole novel is pieced together in a very non-chronological form, with memories, pictures and additional detail provided by his mother as elements to reconstruct something that will always be a little less than what it was, yet paradoxically, it's the novelists fictitious additions that make the people come to live, and maybe even make it bigger and more moving than it actually was.

Peter Stanford - The Devil - A Biography (Arrow, 2003) ***

A fascinating history of the Evil One, the demon, and it is surprising that Satan only appears in the Old Testament in the Book of Job as a real person - in contrast to the other mentions of 'stn' or the fallen angel or demon in a limited number of passages elsewhere in the Old Testament.

There was not much place for the Evil One in the Old Testament, since God himself was portrayed as booth good and evil, merciful and vengeful. It is only in the New Testament that he becomes a real character, albeit still a vague presence.

Gradually, over the centuries, he started collecting physical characteristics, to become the horned figure we see in horror movies, with influences from other religions and popular folk tales. No depiction of him even exists before the sixth century. And in popular beliefs, strongly influenced by the church, he became a real presence in people's everyday life over the centuries, and now gradually being reduced back to the fantasy figure he always was to the realm of fiction and movies.

It is fascinating to read how he has been used over the centuries, how he instilled fears in uneducated populations. In sermons some hundred years ago, he was still often mentioned in Europe. I think he has even completely disappeared from all sermons these days in Europe, with the exception maybe of some maverick extremists.

Everything he every embodied, has now been reduced to our human psyche (the internal evil) and to chance happenings (earthquakes, floods). There seems to be no need anymore to blame a distinct person to create and organise all that's unwelcome in society.