Articles about philosophy

36 Arguments for the Existence of God — Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

I love reading philosophy, and I love reading novels. So this philosophical novel is right in my sweet spot. I have read some of Goldstein’s non-fiction, but after reading this fun and thoughtful book I want to search out her other work.

It’s a story about Cass Seltzer, an academic whose life changes when he publishes a book about the psychology of religion. The catalyst is the book’s appendix, which contains the titular 36 arguments along with commentary and rebuttals. That appendix makes him into a superstar — he gains fame, notoriety even, and an academic superstar girlfriend. The novel covers his career from the beginning, through his fame, and more.

Unsurprisingly, given that Goldstein is a professional philosopher as well as a novelist, there is a a lot of philosophy in this book. Some philosophical ideas are explicitly introduced and mentioned as such, with Goldstein talking through her characters to explain the concepts. This is a different approach to that of Jean-Paul Sartre (the other philosopher-novelist I have read): his novels are deeply infused with existentialist ideas, but they don’t really talk about philosophy and philosophers as such.

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How to Be an Existentialist — Gary Cox

Some people think being an existentialist means spending your time brooding in cafés. Most people have no idea at all what it means. This book will explain what existentialism is, where it came from, and how to do it. You could call it “Existentialism for Fun and Profit”, except neither fun nor profit are really part of the existentialist programme.

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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. Continue reading
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How Proust Can Change Your Life — Alain de Botton

How Proust Can Change Your LifeThis wry and trenchant book shows how Proust’s book is full of lessons we can apply to our own lives. It could be titled “All I Need to Know About Life I Learned from In Search Of Lost Time.” There are other books claiming that you can learn all you need from kindergarten, or from Little Golden Books, or even your cat. But de Botton’s claim actually seems plausible given the depths of detail Proust put in his book.

I remember a character in Gilbert Adair’s rollicking The Key of the Tower who always carried a volume of Proust, and often whipped it out and read some apposite quotation. This is how people used to use their bibles, as de Botton points out in his recent book Religion for Atheists. I would like to know a book this well. I have never read Proust, but after reading de Botton I really am quite keen to have a go. I give myself 5-10 years.

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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

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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. Continue reading
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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.

I enjoyed reading God is not Great, but I think it does miss the point a bit. In the conflict between Reason and Faith, Reason wins easily; but that’s because Faith isn’t playing the game. Some say that if people believe religious dogmas even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, then this simply confirms how marvellously strong their faith is. You just can’t use logic against this kind of position, but that what Hitchens tries to do. This approach only seems to work here because he is preaching to the converted. Or perhaps I should say unconverted.

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