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.