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How to Read Hume
How to Read Hume
by Simon Blackburn
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.68

5.0 out of 5 stars Hume's joyful radicalism, 5 Jan. 2015
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This review is from: How to Read Hume (Paperback)
The success of this short guide to the works of the great Enlightenment philosopher David Hume is double edged: so good is Simon Blackburn's approach, so clear and insightful, that someone (like myself) who's only read a fraction of Hume's original works can come away feeling far too au fait with Humean thought than is deserved. And since few will match Blackburn's scholarly sympathy as a reader of Hume, the stated aim of the book may in the end be thwarted, as we lesser mortals are tempted to make do with this "How To" edition instead of getting to grips with those original works. I hope not, but only time will tell.

In any case, we're in good company if we find Hume's philosophy hard going, since "Hume has always been misunderstood." As Blackburn writes in his introduction, it is "when we try to absorb his ideas and to understand his message, in other words when we try to read him properly, that problems arise."

Blackburn examines "ten of the most important moments in Hume's philosophy" to illustrate these problems, which are not because Hume indulges in jargon and technical language. On the contrary, Hume's clarity often means we can't fail to get the message (whether or not we understand it is quite another matter). For example, many humanists and atheists are attracted by Hume's "relentless and unmistakable contempt for religion and the religious spirit" but what are we to make of his scepticism towards the power of reason? For those of us who have dismissed faith from our lives, for whom reason is our guide, it's uncomfortable to learn that reason "undermines itself" and by itself "would paralyse us, leaving us with no convictions or beliefs, and incapable of action." Yikes.

By "no stretch of the imagination can Hume be called an apostle of reason" but he was "a Darwinian before his time, an apostle, if anything, of evolved human nature and human sentiment." Nature - our natural beliefs about ourselves and the world - steps in to take the place of pure reason. Phew.

"Passion" is Hume's general term for emotion, attitude and desire, and his "account of the passions shows Hume at his most joyfully radical, for his view of reason as the slave of the passions inverts the philosophical hierarchy that had held from Plato and Aristotle to his own day" (for more on the importance of the emotions in this context, see, for example, Damasio's Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain and Haidt's The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion). Hume's radicalism was not simply about toppling established ways of thinking, but about promoting respect for evidence and inquiry: "the foundation of it all was the science of human nature" in which empiricism was preeminent.

This approach can be seen in action when Hume upends traditional thinking about miracles: the key question is not whether these are possible, "but whether we can be assured that they have happened" - it's a question of balancing one piece of evidence against another. "The essence of Hume's thought is that since a miraculous event is clean contrary to the normal run of things, the testimony needs to be correspondingly strong on the other side. It needs to have a weight which really puts it into contention against the weight of the opposing experience."

As soon as we begin to examine the testimony for religious miracles, it falls apart, not least because of Hume's "groundbreaking early foray into what has now become the science of cognitive dysfunction, by highlighting the influence of the passions on our propensity to believe things." Taking a step back to observe the wide variety of religions in the world, we notice that "the miracles of each religion in a sense oppose those of the others." As for why anyone would claim "a hotline to the Supreme Being", as "the example of revivalist preachers shows, it brings self-importance, adulation, power, followers, sexual conquests, and wealth."

This much is fairly well understood, and is often cited by modern humanists as the reason why they're not religious. What is still not appreciated, however, is Hume's economy when it comes to what seems to be the only question that matters. Blackburn is especially good at explaining the brilliance of Hume's reconfiguring of the standard debates about religion. Instead of going "bull-headed at the issue of the existence of a deity", Hume shows "that the outcome simply does not matter... What matters are the alleged implications people wish to draw from their deity. But by directing his scepticism at those implications, Hume simply eviscerates the issue."

So Hume is not a "dogmatic" atheist, but he does regard "the metaphysics of theological reality" as a useless addendum to practical ethics, to the business of working out how to live a good life. "By itself, the bare affirmation that God exists, and for that matter the bare denial of it, neither add nor subtract from such ethics."

The key point to grasp is that Hume's approach is metaphysically conservative. To see that existence is overrated, consider the fact that "a great deal of moral education is conducted through fiction, where no actual person is involved at all." And to see that supposedly universal religious truths are actually dependent on a particular time and place, compare the reactions to Darwin's theory of his Christian contemporaries with those of most modern Christians, who have blithely moved a million miles away from the literal reading of Genesis that had for so long been the absolute and undeniable biblical truth.

How to Read Hume is by no means an exhaustive analysis, the virtue of which is that it is by no means exhausting. Blackburn has selected elements of Hume's philosophy that have not only stood the test of time (a period of scientific progress that has rendered many other philosophical arguments redundant) but which remain useful to anyone who wants to live without religion.


Undiluted Hocus-Pocus: The Autobiography of Martin Gardner
Undiluted Hocus-Pocus: The Autobiography of Martin Gardner
by Martin Gardner
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.39

4.0 out of 5 stars Listening to his heart, 4 Dec. 2014
For a man who did not take a single maths course in college, Martin Gardner did pretty well to make a career out of his love of recreational maths, and to end his long life with "an Erdös number of 2" (ask a mathematician how cool that is). He was, to list a few of his achievements, a prolific author (one photograph shows him standing by a bookshelf full of his own books), a renowned sceptic and debunker of "medical crap" such as homeopathy and Christian Science, for more than 25 years the writer of the Mathematical Games column for Scientific American ("one of the greatest joys" of his life), a yeoman in the US Navy during World War II, a mysterian over the nature of consciousness, and, perhaps most oddly for his atheist admirers, a (deist) believer in God and the afterlife. In short, a busy man.

This engaging profile is far from the kind of linear account we might crudely imagine a mathematically minded person to write. Indeed, it's not until half way through the book that we learn anything about his parents, when he tells us "that the time has come, in this slovenly autobiography, to speak about my mother and father." That raises a smile. He's being too harsh on himself, of course, but we know what he means: the apologetic phrase "I have forgotten" crops up many times (sometimes on the same page) in connection with some event or person he has just mentioned.

Slovenly implies slapdash, which is what Martin Gardner can rarely have been when devising and resolving mathematical puzzles or when writing one of his many books. Still, this final challenge - packing the experience of a life that spanned over 90 years into 200 pages, with the ultimate deadline fast approaching - is probably not his most tightly written work, although the potshot nature of this autobiography does actually capture something important about all our lives: the random nature of so much of what happens. He credits two major parts of his life to chance: his association with Scientific American was the "second luckiest event" in his life, "the first was meeting Charlotte" (his wife). Having a father who loved science was another.

Gardner's geniality and sociability served him well in his early career as a journalist, and he clearly had a knack of getting on with a wide range of people. Many of the names he mentions will be familiar only to avid readers of his books or columns, although some that he drops are both surprising and well-known the world over: he recalls attending two of Thornton Wilder's classes "on the writing of fiction" and the two occasions Salvador Dalí took him to lunch.

His amiability did not extend to purveyors of alternative medicine such as Christian Science or homeopathy (each year "an untold number of people die as a result of putting their trust" in these). He tells a good joke about "a homeopath who forgot one day to take his pills and died of an overdose" but elsewhere his particular brand of humour does not come across so well, and it's not because we had to be there to appreciate the comedy. He describes as "a masterpiece" his favourite practical joke played by a male friend of his on a "lady friend" who had stayed overnight. The upshot of the joke, which is too tedious to relate, is that "they never heard from her again." Gardner's bald retelling of the episode no doubt leaves much out, but he seems unconcerned that the female friend obviously did not find the joke as funny as they did.

Also intriguing, especially given his lifelong interest in philosophical questions, is his expectation that "neuroscientists will unravel" the mystery of consciousness. What is peculiar about this position is the idea that a purely causal explanation of consciousness at the microphysical level will be at all satisfying as an explanation. It's like expecting to understand the laws of arithmetic by studying the operations of a calculator's transistors. (Gardner rather foolishly and uncharitably dismisses Daniel Dennett, one of the few philosophers who writes clearly about consciousness, and who gives cogent reasons for resisting the mysterian's siren call. See Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking.)

The biggest surprise of all to many, however, will be that Gardner was a philosophical theist (a deist). He admits that he has "no good arguments" for his beliefs, that God is "impossible for us to understand" and that perhaps he's "incapable of understanding" God's ways. This smacks of false modesty - he still knows what God wants, even though he doesn't know that God exists!

He justifies his faith in the same expedient way many scientists who happen to be religious do (see, for example, Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist): he agrees with Rudolf Carnap that "religious beliefs and scientific beliefs are like two separate continents, with no land joining them." This is NOMA by another name (see also Religious Experience by Wayne Proudfoot), but no less intellectually bankrupt.

It's unfortunate that his appeal to "the heart, not the head" is wasted on his weak defence of philosophical theism, and that he ends the book by commenting that the dying Keats "was listening to his heart." Intuition may be the first step of the journey taken by anyone who's fallen in love, as well as the key creative act of scientists from Einstein to Hawking. Intuition as the last word on a subject is, however, the hallmark of the crank. Better to remember Martin Gardner as one of those rare and valuable writers who could venture into the worlds of science and mathematics as an intelligent and interested layman, and then entertain the rest of us with his discoveries.


The Art of Thinking Clearly: Better Thinking, Better Decisions
The Art of Thinking Clearly: Better Thinking, Better Decisions
by Rolf Dobelli
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.39

5.0 out of 5 stars Regain your scepticism, 26 Oct. 2014
In one important sense, we are already excellent decision makers. Each of us has a mind chock full of thinking gizmos that can draw upon millions of years of evolution without the conscious bits having to make the slightest effort. Interpreting a shadowy pattern as a person down a dark alley or following our instinct to stick with the crowd might mean that we make it home safely. In our ancestral environment, figuring out the truth about that movement in the bushes might have meant ending up as lunch for the tiger: better to be wrong and alive than right and dead. The intuitions and cognitive biases that have served us well throughout evolutionary history can, however, lead us astray in the modern world. And there are a lot of ways in which we can go wrong, more than enough to fill the 99 chapters in this handy guide (and this is far from an exhaustive list). Ralf Dobelli has distilled a huge amount of psychological research into bite-size entries that entertain as well as instruct, each chapter a nugget of scepticism in action.

Each chapter cross references other related chapters to create various pathways through the book. On a smaller scale, unexpected connections are often made between familiar concepts. For example, it may not be obvious that anecdotes are "a particularly tricky sort" of cherry-picking (which involves "showcasing the most attractive features and hiding the rest"). The links at the end of this chapter to the story bias and the self-serving bias illustrate just how much our brains love to consume mini-stories (a fact exploited by advertisers the world over).

One advantage to this approach is that readers won't be fooled into thinking there's a single, easy fix. Dobelli does, however, occasionally identify a simple and general takeaway message: "whoever hopes to think clearly must understand the difference between risk and uncertainty." Risk means that the probabilities are known. Uncertainty means that the probabilities are unknown. Understanding the difference is the risk literacy advocated by Gerd Girgerenzer in Risk Savvy: How To Make Good Decisions. Working against this is our aversion to ambiguity: we just don't like uncertainty, and prefer meaningless figures to nothing at all.

Another important theme (also explored by Girgerenzer) is the importance of emotions in decision-making. These are a different form of information processing, "more primordial, but not necessarily an inferior variant" to the explicit, rational thoughts generated by System 2 (for more on Systems 1 and 2, see Daniel Kahneman's excellent Thinking, Fast and Slow). Dobelli warns against thinking too much, lest "you cut off your mind from the wisdom of your feelings." He admits this sounds a bit odd coming from someone who strives to rid his thinking of irrationality, but he's backed up by research on the efficacy of heuristics in a world of uncertainty (again see Girgerenzer).

There are plenty of insights into how our minds work that do suggest simple solutions. We've all been guilty of procrastination at some time or other, and perhaps concluded that our lack of self-control is a permanent feature of our personality. So it's reassuring to learn that self-control is not available around the clock (it "needs time to refuel").

Two of Dobelli's personal bugbears will also be among the more controversial he raises. Have you ever wondered why we invaded Iraq or the banks failed? The real reason, not the sales pitch? Dobelli "can't abide questions like that" because they are symptomatic of the most common of all mental errors: the fallacy of the single cause. We are geared up for storytelling and causal reasoning but are less good at taking into account the thousand different factors about which we know absolutely nothing.

While this fallacy is ancient, the second "toxic form of knowledge" was invented only two centuries ago: the news. News is to the mind what sugar is to the body: appetizing, easy to digest, "and highly destructive in the long run." Dobelli wants us to kick the habit, completely, and "read long background articles and books" instead: "nothing beats books for understanding the world." While the short chapters in his own book are both appetizing and easy to digest, they should destroy nothing but cognitive complacency. His book might even turn you into a better decision maker (although remain sceptical of the publisher's hype that herein are the "secrets of perfect decision-making").


Risk Savvy: How To Make Good Decisions
Risk Savvy: How To Make Good Decisions
by Gerd Gigerenzer
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rules of thumb are not rules of dumb, 6 Oct. 2014
There's a view of human nature that we are irrational slaves of our appetites, creatures who need to be nudged into better behaviour and who would benefit from a benign paternalism. In this important and accessible book, Gerd Gigerenzer argues against this view by shifting the focus from "individual stupidity" to "the phenomenon of a risk-illiterate society." Gigerenzer distils a great deal of scholarship to show how we can all become more risk literate and what a difference that might make in the modern world.

Whenever presented with a bald probability, say, a 30 percent chance of rain tomorrow, we should always ask, 30 percent of what? Time? Geographical area? The number of weather forecasters? The absence of a reference class creates a confusion that's not just limited to rain, "but occurs whenever a probability is attached to a single event." One way out of this muddle is to use frequency statements that make the reference class clear ("it will rain on 30 percent of the days for which this announcement is made"). Gigerenzer calls these "mind tools" and he shows how relatively easy they are to learn and apply. (For more thinking tools, see Daniel Dennett's Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking.)

Being confused by a weather forecaster is one thing, but what if your doctor doesn't understand Bayesian inference? In one study, Gigerenzer switched from conditional probabilities to natural frequencies and discovered that how the information was presented was critical to accuracy. If you're a woman whose mammography screening is positive, there's a difference between being told you've got a 9 or a 90 percent chance of having breast cancer. Lack of risk literacy can take a "toxic toll" on healthy women who are encouraged to participate in mammography screening but who haven't been educated to expect a false alarm sooner or later. Gigerenzer's research has led to practical solutions such as icon and fact boxes, which make these risks transparent and which should be available in every doctor's waiting room.

Making informed decisions by both getting and understanding the facts is one of the messages of Margaret McCartney's The Patient Paradox: Why Sexed Up Medicine is Bad for Your Health. She laments how "the cult of awareness" is too often a substitute for the kind of education Gigerenzer advocates. He's more optimistic than many psychologists in thinking that everyone can improve their decision making, and he disagrees with Daniel Kahneman's idea that System 1 is not readily educable (see Thinking, Fast and Slow). Unlike perceptual illusions, cognitive illusions "are not hard-wired." That we find it easier to think in terms of natural frequencies rather than conditional probabilities shows that the defect lies more in the way risks are communicated than in our cognitive abilities.

There is a more fundamental problem with the two-system view. Kahneman and his followers take logic or probability theory as a general, "content-blind" norm of rationality. "In their thinking, heuristics can never be more accurate, only faster. That, however, is true only in a world of known risk. In an uncertain world, simple heuristics often can do better."

The difference between risk and uncertainty is one of the key ideas in this book. In lotteries and games of chance, all the alternatives are known and their probabilities can be calculated precisely. We don't know whether the flip of a coin will result in a head or a tail but we know the probability of each outcome. For all other situations, where the risks remain unknown and, crucially, unknowable, we're dealing with uncertainty. What will the weather be one week from today, or the level of the stock market, or the mood of our new romantic partner?

Statistical methods are required when dealing with known risks, heuristics when dealing with uncertainty. Instead of knocking heuristics, Gigerenzer suggests that "we need to study their ecological rationality" to find out when they work and when they don't.

The incalculability of uncertainty is bad enough; that we are also often in denial can be catastrophic. With all their sophisticated mathematical models, financial institutions treated "the highly unpredictable financial market as if its risks were predictable" and were surprised when it all blew up in their face (not a single bank foresaw the crash). We have a strong psychological need for certainty, and are susceptible to the high priests of finance or big pharma who may be selling us anything from pensions to pills (to say nothing of actual priests who promise all sorts of heavenly rewards with a remarkable degree of certainty given the paucity of evidence to back up their claims).

The world of uncertainty is vast compared to the world of risk, and it's the world we live in. According to Gigerenzer, while probability theory is all we need in a world of known risks, heuristics are indispensable in a world of uncertainty. Luckily for us, and odd as it may sound, simple rules can outperform more complex strategies. More information and more time and more sophisticated models do not necessarily lead to better decisions.

Gigerenzer challenges the ingrained idea that people are irredeemable and irrational slaves to their appetites. Amos Tversky, one of the pioneers of research into cognitive biases, liked to say, "My colleagues, they study artificial intelligence. Me? I study natural stupidity." It's a good line, but Gigerenzer has a different story. "People aren't stupid. The problem is that our educational system has an amazing blind spot concerning risk literacy." Being risk savvy is more than being well informed. It takes courage "to face an uncertain future as well as to stand up to authority and ask critical questions."


Would You Kill the Fat Man?: The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us about Right and Wrong
Would You Kill the Fat Man?: The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us about Right and Wrong
by David Edmonds
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.76

4.0 out of 5 stars No trolleyology without deontology, 22 Sept. 2014
The non-philosopher need not fear being derailed by big words such as "deontology" or "consequentialism": David Edmonds is the kind of philosopher who uses technical terms only when necessary and with sufficient gloss to make sure the general reader doesn't get lost. Unlike some of his professional colleagues, he's neither afraid of clear thinking nor of writing readable prose, and the title of this book sums up the simple moral question at the heart of trolleyology: is it ever acceptable to take one life to save five?

Imagine a train running out of control, heading towards a length of track to which five people are tied. They will be killed unless the train can be diverted (for the sake of argument, there's no way of stopping it). Imagine also that you're standing by the track next to a lever that could switch the points and send the train down a spur, thus saving the five people. Unfortunately, to this second track is tied a sixth person, who will be killed if you pull the lever. What do you do?

Most people would pull the lever, but what if, instead of pulling a lever, you have to push a fat man off a footbridge to prevent the train from killing five people? Setting aside the practical difficulties (this is a thought experiment, after all), what should we do? This time, most people would prefer not to push the fat man.

This is the trolley problem, which "involves conjuring up various trolleyesque scenarios and taking note of the (preferably) strong moral intuitions that they elicit." Trolleyology is thus a good example of an intuition pump with many settings (see my review of Daniel Dennett's Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking): by turning all the knobs of the fat man we can test our intuitions to see how they stand up to inspection. As well as Spur and Fat Man, Edmonds considers Lazy Susan, Loop and even variations called Tractor Man and the Tumble Case, each of which serves to highlight a particular twist on the original ethical question.

The first surprise, from a consequentialist point of view, is the big difference in moral intuitions between the two simple and apparently similar cases described so far. Both involve an action that causes the death of another person and the saving of five lives. The obvious psychological explanation - most of us are averse to pushing people off bridges - is compelling until we turn another of the settings and introduce a lever-operated trapdoor that allows us to avoid an unpleasant tussle. The difference in our intuitions remains, which shows that there's more going on than mere squeamishness.

It seems that our emotions are calling the shots and our reason is struggling to make itself heard, an example of "moral dumbfounding" - a term coined by Jonathan Haidt (see The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion). Haidt is one of many psychologists and neuroscientists who have contributed to the old philosophical question of the balance between reason and emotion. While there's still much work to be done, one thing is clear: the "forces of evolution have shaped our moral instincts" and provided us with heuristics about how we should behave.

Complicating the basic utilitarian calculation (kill one, save five) is a familiar idea with a fancy name: "there are certain things, like torture, that you just shouldn't do." This is deontology, which holds that we don't take the entirely impersonal perspective on morality required by utilitarianism (hence there can be "no trolleyology without deontology").

Returning to Spur and Fat Man, although these are identical in their consequences, a distinction to do with intention can be drawn between the two acts. In Spur, although we can foresee the death of the one person tied to the track, we do not intend this person's death (we'd be very happy if they did a Houdini and escaped). In contrast, we do intend the Fat Man's death, since if he survives the five would not be saved. This is an example of the not uncontroversial "Doctrine of Double Effect" (which is, in the jargon, non-consequentialist). For Edmonds, this doctrine is the key to explaining the difference between the various trolley problems, and to thinking morally about the real-world situations of abortion, assisted dying and the bombing of military targets embedded in areas populated by civilians.

Philosophy can sometimes seem as otherworldly as theology but at least the fatalities that flow from its thought experiments are fictional. The main attraction of trolleyology to a philosopher is that all the messy details of real situations are airbrushed out to leave the problem in pristine isolation. For the regular human being, however, this is also likely to be its main drawback, since it's precisely those details that are of interest. Edmonds skilfully navigates between these two extremes, providing plenty of historical and biographical vignettes to balance the sometimes bizarre and arid landscape of the thought experiments. And while, unsurprisingly, philosophers still can't agree on whether or not you should push the fat man, Edmonds himself does answer the question at the end of the book.


Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking
Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking
by Daniel C Dennett
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Going meta, 10 Sept. 2014
Thinking tools are "handy prosthetic imagination-extenders and focus-holders" that enable us to think reliably and even gracefully about really hard questions. This collection of Daniel Dennett's favourite thinking tools is both intellectually stimulating and a delight to read. In 77 short chapters, spread over 11 parts, Dennett shows us just how useful such a toolkit can be when thinking about topics as diverse as evolution and computation, consciousness and free will, and even the meaning of meaning itself. We can "go meta" in a way no other life form can do, reflecting upon who and what we are and how we got here.

The epigraph to the introductory chapter is a quote from Bo Dahlbom: "You can't do much thinking with your bare brain." Carpenters won't get very far without their tools, and neither will thinkers. But which ones to choose? Dennett acknowledges the importance of mathematical tools such as probability theory, Bayes's theorem and calculus, but concentrates instead on the simpler "hand tools of the mind": labels, examples, analogies and metaphors, staging and, one of the most useful gadgets, the intuition pump.

An intuition pump is a thought experiment designed to provoke a heartfelt intuition about whatever thesis is being defended. Since there are many ways in which our intuition deceives us (see, for example, The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuition Deceives Us by Chabris, Christopher, Simons, Daniel (2011)), pumping it may seem an odd thing to do. However, Dennett is not advocating that we become the mental equivalent of body builders. Rather, a well-made intuition pump either demonstrates that "the intuitions it pumps are reliable and convincing" or it helps "focus attention on what is wrong with its own presuppositions."

Intuition pumps are useful because they have lots of settings we can turn to see whether the same intuitions still get pumped. (Trolleyology is an example of a whole philosophical discipline devoted to twiddling the knobs of the fat man problem: see Would You Kill the Fat Man?: The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us about Right and Wrong by David Edmonds.)

Dennett also considers anti-thinking tools, or boom crutches. These seem to aid in understanding but "actually spread darkness and confusion instead of light." An example is Occam's Broom, a delicious play on Occam's Razor recently invented by the molecular biologist Sidney Brenner. This new term describes "the process in which inconvenient facts are whisked under the rug by intellectually dishonest champions of one theory or another." Creationists are well versed at leaving out embarrassing evidence that their "theories" can't handle, and conspiracy theorists are similarly adept at using Occam's Broom. Even serious scientists sometimes cannot resist overlooking data that seriously undermine their pet theory (and, on a bigger scale, it's not unknown for the pharmaceutical industry to file unflattering trials in a dark drawer). "God works in mysterious ways" is another anti-thinking tool, which hints "that the questioner is arrogant and overreaching" and quenches curiosity in an instant.

Thinking tools become especially important when considering the so-called big questions, such as free will and the nature of consciousness. Whether a single tool is chosen, however, will depend on the attitude of the enquirer. There are, for example, mystery mongers who claim that consciousness is bedevilled by a "hard" problem and "terminally mysterious." This attitude will either put you off completely or else guarantee lifelong employment as you grapple with the insoluble. Dennett is most definitely not of this persuasion, and he appeals to both the history of ideas and the latest technology to gird our intellectual loins.

Once upon a time, the mystery mongers insisted there was "some big, mysterious extra ingredient in all living things" - élan vital - but this turned out to have been a failure of the imagination. And while some still hanker after non-physical "wonder tissue" inside human beings, most would agree that there's "no room for mysteries in what computers do." Since "nothing physically inexplicable plays a role in any computer program" computers "thus play an important role as demystifiers" - indeed, computers are "without a doubt the most potent thinking tools we have."

Their potency is not just because they can perform complex calculations quickly but because they illustrate an important evolutionary principle. "Before there can be comprehension, there has to be competence without comprehension. This is nature's way." Darwin inverts the usual reasoning that comprehension is key to human competence. For life, "Absolute Ignorance is the artificer." The process of natural selection is breathtakingly competent but utterly mindless.

This line of thinking leads to what Dennett himself regards as one of his most important contributions: "free-floating rationales" - the reasons tracked by evolution, an instance of competence without comprehension. There's a reason why trees grow tall and spread their branches, but trees don't have these reasons because having reasons requires a mind. There "were reasons before there were reason-representers." Our tendency to interpret behaviour "as more mindful and rational than it really is" (to adopt the intentional stance, another of Dennett's major contributions) masks just how many free-floating rationales there are out there, untethered to a mind. And, of course, once we get used to the idea of competence without comprehension, of minds coming later rather than coming first, once we understand that creation can be achieved without a creator, then theism loses much of its traditional force.

Dennett's philosophical analysis is always informed by scientific knowledge about how the world actually works, an intellectual partnership illustrated by a tool that he thinks should be in everyone's kit: the ability to switch between the manifest and the scientific image. Our manifest image of, say, a table is how it seems to us in everyday life: it's a solid object, with a colour and surface texture and so on. We now also have a scientific image of the table as ultimately made of atoms of mainly empty space. Failure to get "these two remarkably different perspectives on the world" into registration leads to some otherwise very clever people getting into a terrible muddle. For example, because they don't detect free will in neurons some scientists falsely conclude that free will as experienced by a billion neurons must be an illusion.

Although "much of our manifest image has been shaped by natural selection over eons," the resulting intuitions that form part of what Daniel Kahneman calls System 1 thinking are rapid-fire, and often dominate the slower, more effortful System 2 (see Thinking, Fast and Slow by Kahneman, Daniel (2012)). Intuition pumps are a kind of bridge between these two systems, with the pump part encouraging a "self-conscious wariness" that checks for pitfalls. In other words, intuition pumps encourage a sceptical mindset.

Thinking about thinking - or "going meta" - is the philosophers' favourite tactic (and, arguably, an important difference in kind, not just degree, between us and our primate cousins and all other species). This whole book is an example of going meta: exploring how to think carefully about methods of thinking carefully. Of course, before we can go meta, we have to be prepared to think in the first place. Dennett naturally presupposes a desire to think on the part of his readers and a willingness to make the effort. If you've read this far, you probably have what it takes, and the reward will be engaging with a brilliant philosopher who favours clarity above sounding clever.


The Roaring Girl (RSC Roaring Girls Season) (Rsc Prompt Book)
The Roaring Girl (RSC Roaring Girls Season) (Rsc Prompt Book)
by Thomas Dekker
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.78

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars One gender is not enough, 8 Sept. 2014
The character of Moll Cutpurse is so capacious that one gender is not enough to contain her spirit, and a big stage is the natural venue for a life story that seems one long fabulous performance. Moll is based on Mary Frith, born in the London of the 1580s and, by the time this play by Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton appeared in 1611, she already had a notorious reputation as a woman who spoke her mind, smoked and drank in taverns, and wore both a sword and men's clothing. The play is much more than a one-woman show, however, and it remains a powerful social comedy. This edition is the prompt book for the 2014 RSC production (with the excellent Lisa Dillon in the title role), which cuts some of the characters from the original text and simplifies the language in places (changes that did not detract from the performance I saw).

Moll speaks the prologue, telling us that tragic passion is "out of fashion" and that she's not one of those roaring girls "who beats the watch" or "sells her soul to the lust of fools and slaves" - the subject of this tale "flies with wings more lofty." Although she's the star of the show, and despite the cuts, there's still a wide range of well-drawn characters, including the magistrate Sir Alexander Wengrave at the top of the social tree, the Tiltyards and the Gallipots in the middle, and Trapdoor and the servants at the bottom.

The romantic story is familiar enough: boy loves girl, girl loves boy, a parent doesn't approve, and someone has to come to the rescue. First, Sebastian deceives his father into believing he wants to marry Moll (he really wants to marry Mary), and so he sets about proposing to Moll once he knows his father, Sir Alexander, is in earshot. Moll, however, has "no humour to marry" even in jest. She's "too headstrong to obey" and declares that "marriage is but a chopping and a changing, where a maiden loses one head and has a worse one in its place."

Those women in the play who have already married are also more than a little subversive of what is expected of them by men. Mistress Gallipot disdains "these apron husbands" and is disappointed "to see how like a calf" her own husband comes bleating after her. He tries his best, but is rebuffed: "Your love? Your love is all words; give me deeds". It isn't just Moll who wears the trousers in this world.

The all-male environment of Sir Alexander's house, however, is a safe space for some men to voice their unsavoury attitudes towards women. To Sir Davy, a woman is a "flesh-fly, that can vex any man." He obviously hasn't met the likes of Moll Cutpurse, who, despite being half his size, would have his guts for garters. Moll is not afraid of anyone.

In the end, even Sir Alexander changes his opinion of her and apologizes for his prejudice. He resolves to "cast the world's eye" from him and never more condemn "by common voice". As a magistrate, we might expect him not to judge according to prevailing opinion and to see with his own eyes, but at least he's recognized the cognitive bias (social proof or the herd instinct) that was skewing his thinking, which is more than many of us can claim.

Culture itself has its own slant on everything, of course, especially on the role of women in society. Mary Frith died in 1659, centuries before the legal and social status of women even began to approach equality with that of men. By putting the character of Moll Cutpurse on stage Dekker and Middleton showed that it was possible for a woman to behave like a man without the sky falling in. Perhaps as important was showing how even a magistrate could "see through the smokescreen of cultural and personal feeling rules" (as the psychologist Timothy D. Wilson puts it in Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious). It's not enough for women to act in the world, men must also change their minds.


The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith
The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith
by Arthur Wing Pinero
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.95

4.0 out of 5 stars The admirable Agnes Ebbsmith, 3 Jun. 2014
In 1895, the year in which this fascinating play is set, Agnes Ebbsmith would certainly have attracted notoriety for both her opinions (which are "regrettable" according to Amos, the gruff Yorkshire clergyman) and her behaviour (hanging out with a man who isn't her husband). As the strong central character, she certainly deserves the eponymous title, if not the opprobrium. The title itself points up how much more easily the badge of notoriety sticks to women than to men. Mr Lucas Cleeve is the man Agnes has been nursing back to health in Italy, the man she is now living with in Venice, and the man who has abandoned his wife - and yet, even if Agnes were not centre stage, "The Notorious Mr Cleeve" would be a less remarkable subject. (In focusing on the woman's rather than the man's marital status in cases of, for example, adultery, late Victorian society is not actually untypical among the hundreds of societies studied by anthropologists.)

This play was Arthur Wing Pinero's follow-up to the great success he had recently enjoyed with The Second Mrs Tanqueray. According to Sos Eltis in her introductory essay, he was "tapping into contemporary concerns with women's emancipation, individual liberty versus social convention, sexual morality and the institution of marriage." Prevailing norms are exposed in the opening scenes as we see Agnes first addressed as "Mrs Cleeve" and then discovered to be "Mrs Ebbsmith" and finally, in her own words, she becomes the daughter of "John Thorold, the demagogue" - at each stage her dependence on a man for her identity is made clear. (In the same year in which this play is set the French Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot died. Though a great artist in her own right, on her grave she was described as the widow of Eugene Manet.)

Agnes hated her violent mother and admired her radical father: "Strange ideas! Ha! Many of 'em luckily don't sound quite so irrational today." We don't have long to wait to see her own intellect at work as she raises one of the central themes of the play: the "curse of unhappy marriage." She recalls vowing never to marry, and then: "When I was nineteen I was gazing like a pet sheep into a man's eyes" - and she was married, in church, despite her "father's unbelief". It was downhill from there: her husband treated her "like a woman in a harem" for the first year and then "like a beast of burden." While her view of marriage as a "choked-up, seething pit" may now, thanks to the women's rights movement, be somewhat dated in the Western world, where marriage is no longer the trap it once was for women, Mrs Ebbsmith's feminist protest against the injustices to women enshrined in that institution sadly remains relevant in many parts of the world today.

The implicit claim that women are rational beings would of course have been one of those "strange ideas" to many of Mrs Ebbsmith's contemporaries. Ever since Aristotle, women's capacity for rational thought had been assumed inferior to men's (for a lucid argument as to "why feminists must be logical" - and proof if proof were needed that women are more than a match for men in that department - see The Sceptical Feminist: A Philosophical Enquiry by Janet Radcliffe Richards). While society has moved on from Dr Maudsley's view that educating women could leave them incapacitated as mothers (even the University of Cambridge now awards degrees to its female students), there is one dramatic detail that remains all too familiar. Lucas Cleeve's uncle, the duke of St Olpherts, is out to rescue him from Agnes (the "dowdy demagogue"), and he knows exactly where to land the knockout punch: "By the bye, she doesn't appear to spend much time in dressing her hair."

Lucas is not immune to such comments. When Agnes reacts with horror to the fine evening gown from Florence he has bought her, he compliments her on her prettiness. She replies: "Oh, as a girl I may have been pretty." The stage direction is to end this line "Disdainfully". In the recent excellent Primavera production at the Jermyn Street Theatre, Rhiannon Sommers delivered a perfectly scornful emphasis to the single word by which women are still too often judged above all else. (That there is a good evolutionary explanation for the male preference for youth and beauty is of course no excuse for modern societies to indulge that preference.) Lucas only digs himself deeper into trouble when he pleads that all he wants to do is cure her of her "perpetual slovenliness" - as if it were pathological to spend less than three hours in wardrobe and makeup.

Agnes Ebbsmith is the kind of woman who would no doubt make her mark today. Pinero has created a character we can recognize and root for, a character who dramatizes the feminist struggle to expand the opportunities open to women. He also created a female character who didn't want to be judged on her appearance, as well as male characters who were doing the judging. When the duke of St Olpherts praises Sybil Cleeve - "Even your own wife is one of the smartest women in London." - he's referring not to Sybil's intelligence but to her dress sense. Plus ça change.


Martine
Martine
by Jean-Jacques Bernard
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.59

4.0 out of 5 stars The road to nowhere, 28 May 2014
This review is from: Martine (Paperback)
On the surface, this play has the appearance of a simple and not particularly tragic love story, lacking in psychological depth and perhaps only of minor historical interest. The plot may be basic - girl meets boy beneath the shade of an apple tree, they fall in love, they both end up marrying someone else - but that crude summary belies the considerable emotional complexity and nuance that can be brought out in performance, as in the recent excellent Primavera production at the Finborough Theatre.

By 1920, when this play is set, the gods had long since taken a back seat in tragedy. Indeed, at this point in history, humankind seemed perfectly self-sufficient in that particular resource. Since Julien is a young man returning from fighting in Syria, it's therefore something of a surprise that his love for Martine is not blighted by his wartime experience. Neither is social convention responsible for sullying their true love. In resisting the prevailing melodramatic theatre, Jean-Jacques Bernard has written a far more subtle and convincing story, one which retains its power to shock to this day. What thwarts the love between Julien and Martine is neither the horror of war nor the prejudice of society but precisely that which is held up as the salvation of civilization: it is actually Julien's education and his love of poetry that separates him from Martine.

The opening scene establishes the palpable mutual physical attraction between Julien and Martine. In performance, the touching of their fingertips is dramatic dynamite, the kind of wordless moment that has the audience holding its breath. It doesn't take long, however, for him to realize that she would soon bore him to death. She's never heard of André Chénier (a "great poet"), and doesn't even recognize the word cornucopia. When Jeanne, whom he hasn't seen in three years, arrives (in a "motor-car") she is the height of of sophistication and intelligence in comparison with Martine's rural simplicity. She not only knows who Chénier is, she can complete the lines of poetry. Julien seeks reassurance from Jeanne: "We do have like minds, don't we?" By implication, he and Martine don't: their mental landscapes share little common ground.

There's no melodrama as Julien lets Martine go. In fact, he's rather upbeat: "There's no closer bond than shared memory." While he genuinely believes he is saying something wonderful, this is ominous for her: it's not memories she wants, but his physical presence. The tragedy here is that, despite his education and all his culture, he simply doesn't have a clue how much he's twisting the knife.

Some critics, perhaps because they cannot conceive that a love of poetry could be the death of love, prefer to blame that vague villain, social convention, for wrecking this love affair and creating the unhappiness that follows. My reading of Julien's character is that if he'd wanted to marry Martine, he would have done so, and he would simply have shrugged aside the social pressures and his grandmother's objection to his marrying "beneath" himself. The real tragedy, brilliantly worked out by the playwright, is to be reminded that romantic love is not enough, and is certainly never the only key to happiness in a long-term relationship.

There are echoes of the triangle between Silvius, Phoebe and Rosalind (disguised as Ganymede). Poor Phoebe adores Rosalind, whom she can never have, and despises Silvius, who is forever down on one knee. The equivalent of Silvius in this play is Alfred, a no-nonsense peasant whom everyone thinks is "right" for Martine. Trouble is, she simply doesn't fancy him, but in the end must marry him. Bernard has more space than Shakespeare to untangle this love knot, and to work out what it feels like for her to be told that she is "not for all markets".


The Future of Money: From Financial Crisis to Public Resource
The Future of Money: From Financial Crisis to Public Resource
by Mary Mellor
Edition: Paperback
Price: £17.99

5.0 out of 5 stars The financial system is never a private matter, 3 April 2014
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Money could hardly be a more familiar part of our daily lives, or more mysterious to most of us. It's in our pockets and our bank accounts; nations as well as individuals have more or less of it; and global trade depends on its exchange. It seems so simple - you hand it over and get stuff in return - and yet few of us know how it really works or where it comes from. Whatever we think of money, we're likely to find Mary Mellor's claim that it's been privatized rather shocking, if not absurd. That she presents a strong and persuasive argument to back up this assertion is what makes this an important book. As a non-economist, I could still follow the case she makes, which is helped by a readable style unencumbered by too much technical jargon. As a citizen, my eyes have been opened to an issue that should not be left to economists and bankers to arrange between themselves.

The first step into this future "must be to reclaim money creation for the Commons, for the people as a whole": despite "the fact that the money system depends on social trust and public authority, the most important power of money, the ability to create it, has been given away to the private sector." This takes some digesting. The image that comes to mind when we think of creating money is a heavily fortified Royal Mint, its printing presses churning out sheet after sheet of banknotes. As for privatizations, surely that was something that happened to the utilities, the railways and telecoms in the distant past? No one mentioned the privatization of money.

The first fact to grasp is that cash represents only a fraction of the money in circulation (at its height, the derivatives market alone was worth more than ten times world production). The second is that the "main way of issuing new money in contemporary society is through taking on debt." And who makes loans? Private banks, not public bodies. Money used to be "a mixture of state-issued fiat money (as coins and notes) and bank-issued money as debt" but over the past half century the balance has shifted dramatically towards the latter. Debt-based money, which is effectively "fresh air money", now accounts for nearly all the money in circulation.

This is financial capitalism, and anyone with a pension, stock market investments or a mortgage is a direct participant, whether or not they realize they are part of a money system driven by profit rather than for the benefit of society. A major criticism of a system based on debt "is that it demands continual expansion" - until it implodes and begins to unravel, as it did so spectacularly in 2007, a crisis "generated by the financial system itself" according to George Soros.

Like Michael Lewis in The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (see my review: A surface complexity that masks a deeper idiocy), Mellor criticizes the almost religious "blind faith" in capitalist markets, and she joins others who are not ideologically anti-capitalist, such as Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky (How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life) and Michael Sandel (What Money Can't Buy), in raising concerns over how the system is failing many people, both in the Western world and beyond. She acknowledges that the "capitalist market has globally brought goods and services to the billion or so better off," but she argues that it "cannot provision the world's people on a socially just or ecologically sustainable basis." Under the illusion that money is a neutral representation of wealth of the market, capitalism roams across the world seeking out the most lucrative base for low-wage production, speculating on currencies and borrowing from low-interest countries to invest in countries offering higher interest.

But financialized capitalism "ultimately relies on the financial capacity of the state": far from being a natural and neutral adjunct to the market, "money has proved to be a profoundly social and political institution." Money's value "is socially constructed" but while the benefits of the money system have been privatized, the risks have been socialized.

The core argument of this tremendous book "is that the money system needs to be reclaimed from the profit-driven market economy and socially administered for the benefit of society as a whole as a public resource." Mellor recognizes that to "remove its capacity to create money would be to destroy the basis of the modern banking system." She also recognizes that to completely eliminate "fresh air" lending and directly tie savers to borrowers would dramatically slow down the economy. But if securing people's savings is not compatible with profit-driven business, it's the profit-driven business that needs to change. The essential question is the money creation power of banks, not what to do about the profiteers who have amassed huge incomes from manipulating money.

Mellor suggests that public banking should be run on a not-for-profit basis through organizations such as the post office. That the post office has itself been privatized is one sign that the book has dated since publication, but also that it is becoming more relevant not less: there are still plenty of true believers in a free market economy. In Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life, Austin Dacey argues against the privatization of conscience. Similarly, Mary Mellor reminds us that the "public and private sectors are intertwined" and argues against the privatization of money. The financial system, like ethics, is never a private matter. The future of money ought not to be a repeat of its recent past. The scary thing is how simple such radical change could be: national governments could reclaim the issue of money from the privatized banking system very easily "by simply declaring all electronic sight accounts as legal tender". Whether there are any politicians out there with the vision to take on this issue is another question altogether.


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