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.