Articles about philosophy

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance — Robert Pirsig

zenA man is on a motorcycle road trip with his son and a couple of friends. As they travel through roads and towns across the USA, he pontificates about life, philosophy, and yes, motorcycle maintenance. He doesn’t say a lot about Zen, actually, but what he does say fits in well with the rest of his ideas. He’s trying to develop a train of thought that he thinks might be able to solve the malaise affecting the affluent West in these decadent times.

As the narrator talks more about his own history, it becomes clearer where his ideas came from and how bound up they are to his personal life. You can tell that there are some troubles below the surface and these build tension throughout the story leading to… well, the end of the story, which was reasonably satisfying.

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The Ego Trick — Julian Baggini

The Ego Trick by Julian BagginiThis is a pretty good exposition of the “bundle theory” of consciousness. The idea is that “consciousness” does not exist: all there are are discrete conscious experiences, which combine to form the illusion of an integrated cohesive mind. This is the “ego trick” that we all play on ourselves.

These days I feel that this is something like the truth, but I will need to do a lot more thinking and read a lot more books like this one before I am fully comfortable with the idea.

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The Meaning of Things — A. C. Grayling

This book of thoughtful mini-essays on life’s big topics is a pleasure to read. But maybe I only think that because I agree with a lot of what Grayling has to say. But maybe I only agree with him because he’s right. You’ll have to read it and decide for yourself.

Most of the essays are only a page or two, so this is a good book to delve into at random. (In fact that’s what Grayling recommends. I always ignore recommendations like that though — I’m a “begin-at-the-beginning” kind of guy.) They are grouped into three categories: Virtues and Attributes (such as Fear, Death, and Blame); Foes and Fallacies (Racism, Christianity, Capitalism); and Amenities and Goods (Education, Reading, Age). The essays originally appeared as newspaper columns, so there is some repetition and a few rough edges — the book could do with a bit of editing.

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The War for Children’s Minds — Stephen Law

This useful book is a careful and spirited defence of the idea that children should be taught to think for themselves rather than uncritically accept the views of some authority, be it parental, religious or governmental. You’d think that this view would be completely uncontroversial. But surprisingly many people mistakenly think that this leads to anarchy, moral relativism, a rejection of traditional values, or all of these things.

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My Brain Made Me Do It

Are we truly in control of our own actions, or are they are really determined by our genes and environment? Are our brains really just machines operating according to the laws of physics? Is our free will nothing more than an illusion? And if it is, how can we be morally responsible for anything?

These questions are just about the biggest and most difficult questions we can think about. I know what the answers are, but if you don’t, it would be worth your while to read the first half of “My Brain Made Me Do It” by Eliezer Sternberg. Sternberg raises the questions, discusses some of the evidence and research and identifies some current approaches. It’s a good exploration of the topic and it does get you thinking.

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The Art of Always Being Right — Arthur Schopenhauer

This book is not really about being right. It’s about winning arguments, even when you’re wrong. The 38 tactics include such classics as “Use your opponent’s views”, “Beg the question” and the ultimate: “Become personal, insulting, rude”. You’ll recognise these from many annoying and unsatisfying arguments you’ve had. This book helps you avoid them, and if necessary, use them yourself. Very useful, and all based on “the natural baseness of human nature”. Perhaps it’s best not to dwell on that.

Thanks to Wikisource and the wonders of copyright law, you can read The Art of Always Being Right online for free.

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God is Not Great — Christopher Hitchens

Organised religion is a pernicious anachronism that should be abolished, according to Christopher Hitchens. His book is subtitled “How religion poisons everything” in case there was any doubt about his position. Organised religions are pretty much indefensible anyway, but his arguments are still worth reading — I learned a few interesting bits of history. And it’s bracing to see so many dogmas held up in such a cold and unflattering light.

God is not Great takes iconoclasm to new heights. Hitchens heaps scorn on the usual zealots, from Osama bin Laden to various Popes (including the current one). But his targets cover the full spectrum of celebrity, from the sublime (Mother Theresa, M. K. Gandhi, the Dalai Lama) to the ridiculous (Mel Gibson is memorably described as an “Australian fascist and ham actor”). The only famous exception is Martin Luther King, Jr, who manages to come out looking like a decent (if flawed) human being.

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