2017 Book Review

Every year I try to give a review of all the books I have read. This time the number is somewhat smaller than in 2016, and many of the following positions are quite short. Nevertheless, there are still a few gems.

Top three books I read this year

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt’s book gave him almost instant recognition and it was #6 on the New York Times bestseller list for non-fiction. I definitely enjoyed it and although it contains a number of statements that could too easily be misinterpreted, its general point is likely to revolutionize your thinking.

The Righteous Mind’s main idea is that as a rule, people form moral and political judgments not rationally, but intuitively, on the basis of six moral foundations similar to character traits. Different weights put on the six foundations lead to differences in political opinions that are difficult to overcome in a rational discourse, for “reason is a slave of the passions” (David Hume). The six moral foundations are: care, fairness (either as equality or as proportionality), authority, loyalty, sanctity and liberty. Left-wingers concentrate on care and fairness, while conservatives exhibit roughly equal weights across the spectrum, so they also value sanctity (as opposed to defilement, e.g. of national symbols or marriage), authority (e.g. parental authority) and loyalty (e.g. to the country).

The strength of the book lies in its powerful argument concluding that most of political discourse occurs on the level of moral emotions and that the irreconcilable differences between us are caused by differences in moral foundations. What makes Haidt’s thesis so convincing is that it has a great explanatory power, rigorous scientific evidence is given for each of the premises, and it fits the conclusions drawn from evolutionary psychology.

This excellence of the main motif of the book stands in contrast to difficulties author has in distinguishing the descriptive from the prescriptive. Although towards the end he acknowledges and stresses this distinction, it is not at all clear in the preceding chapters. Does he, for example, mean, that reason is unfortunately a slave of the passions, or that it should be a slave? When discussing a matter raised by Glaucon in Plato’s Republic, he also gets the reader confused with regard to the descriptive/prescriptive distinction. This kind of fallacy is, I think, often committed by evolutionary psychologists, who must realize they have never studied morality, but only human perspectives on it: just as a biologist can only study how our eyes see the stars, but can never study the stars.

The next book is another important contribution to the characterization of modern politics.

Explaining Postmodernism, Stephen Hicks

If you desire to understand left-wing politics, go and learn what this means: “for a postmodernist, language is a weapon.”

In Explaining Postmodernism, Stephen Hicks gives a history of the movement, nicely observing that its roots may be traced back as far as Immanuel Kant; Kant inspired several generations of thinkers who have defined 19th century German philosophy. The author almost perfectly explains all the developments, although at times he might be reading too much into some of the figures, especially within analytic philosophy and recent philosophy of science (Quine, Kuhn). The content of the book is so important that I decided to describe it in more detail in a separate post here, a post which I highly recommend.

Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism, Paul C. Vitz

In Faith of the Fatherless, the psychologist Paul Vitz gives the seditious claim that the views of major atheist figures in history have been heavily influenced by the relationships with their fathers. The author motivates the argument by giving short biographies of outspoken atheists, including Voltaire, Freud, Nieztsche, Russell, Sartre, Dawkins, Dennett and many others and comparing them to religious people: Pascal, Berkeley, Reid, Paley, Newman, Chesterton, etc.

It is good that the author warns against drawing the conclusions on God’s existence from it. That would be a kind of genetic fallacy. He considers each case carefully and responds to objections, also giving a few examples of people who seem to contradict the pattern. I think the argument has a weakness in that the people chosen seem arbitrary. It would have been better if they had been selected randomly by a disinterested group and then the analysis should be performed on the resulting set. That said, it is hard for me to find an important name that’s missing from either of the two lists.

The reason why relationship with the father is predictive of religious views later in life is quite clear: in the Christian view at least, God is presented as heavenly Father. A person (a man in particular) without positive experiences of their father will find it difficult to establish a positive personal, father-child connection with God. He would, at best, feel distant. Although there are more reasons for the causal connection, this is the main one. If any of the readers is in this unfortunate situation, I assure him/her that faith is still possible, that faith is not founded on emotions, and that, if they find it easier, they can imagine God as a mother, sometimes (although I might have some reservations about this).

The rest

Kubuś Puchatek i Przepis na Sukces (Winnie the Pooh on Success), Roger Allen, Stephen Allen

It has been sitting on my shelf since my childhood, but I have never read this book before. Perhaps the reason for this is that I found it totally unlike any other adventures of Winnie the Pooh: it was weird and difficult to understand. In my judgment, the authors failed to make it either a book for children (as it contains some serious life advice which is useless for a 9-year old) or a book for grown-ups (as it gets quite infantile at times). But, if read as a bedtime story, it could potentially benefit both parties!

Starting your PhD, Helen Kara

This short book is organized in the form of series of questions that are likely to arise at the beginning of a PhD, with answers provided for each of them. I must admit that I don’t remember a lot from reading it, and I think it would be best to go back to it as soon as I need to do so.

Next Gen PhD, Melanie V. Sinche

This book has a lot more structure to it, and is designed for students who are a few years into their PhD. It might be helpful in terms of career advice (M. Sinche is a career advisor herself) and it is mostly about strategies to take towards the end of a PhD and after it ends. Thus maybe it was not the best choice at the present moment; I have only read the most relevant chapters.

The Old Man of the Moon, Shen Fu

This short novel is absolutely unlike anything I would expect myself to read, but it cost me only a pound at Heffer’s, so why not?

It’s a Chinese biographical story, set in the 19th century, and most of it is about a lovely couple who went through some hardships. The wife dies. The husband gets sad.

Nonetheless, it was nice to relax upon this fairly poetic text and gain a tiny bit of insight into a foreign culture. The most appalling fragment was when the wife suggests that her husband should get a concubine… pretty bizarre standards of fidelity, that’s for sure.

Causation: A Very Short Introduction, Rani Lill Anjum and Stephen Mumford

Most of us probably have an intuitive understanding of causation, namely that it is about events following from one another in a logical, predictable manner. But what does it actually mean to say so and what does it involve? This very short introduction guides the reader through the conceptual analysis of causation: it tries to explain what does it mean to say that one event is caused by another. It can serve as a comprehensive guide for scientists who wish to confront the foundations of their enterprise. The book describes the following theories:

Russell’s redundancy/reductionist theory: causation does not exist, as the laws of physics are symmetric in time; causation is an illusion. This is quickly dismissed by the author as self-defeating for science: science must presuppose the reality of causation, which I think is a very good point.

Hume’s regularism: causation is not a category by itself, and since we never perceive causation directly, what we mean by causation is in fact a mere regularity. It is a highly influential view. But why is there any regularity at all, as if without an apparent reason? And why would this regularity continue to exist? Kant didn’t accept Hume’s idea, but that’s a different story!

According to the necessitarian view, causes necessitate their effects. But once something is added to the system, causation might disappear, and this is a problem for the theory!

The counterfactual causation is a theory according to which A is a cause of B if in a world where A does not occur, B also does not occur. But again, a counterexample can be given: I can cause myself to remain in my room, but it turns out that even if I wanted to leave, I can’t, because the door is locked. Moreover, causation might be more fundamental than counterfactuality. Finally, causation cannot depend on what is not the case.

The book compares and discusses two opposing views on the physical world, namely reductionism and emergentism. While reductionism says that events at one level are always caused by the events on the level below, the ultimate level being fundamental particles, emergentism says that causation occurs on the level of the whole, and events at an upper level are not explicable in terms of lower level. I suspect that this entire controversy is void, being discussed only by people who are in confusion with regard to how physics works; also, reductionism may be misrepresented by the emergentists.

There are two further theories about causation: primitivism, which says causation is so fundamental that it cannot be analyzed, and inference theory, according to which a cause is, by definition, something that can be used to make valid inferences and predictions. But this latter view again fails to make causation prior to other concepts.

Faced with the problem of a choice between different theories of causation, we may be satisfied with the claim that conjunction or disjunction of many accounts of causation is needed. In other words, it may be that causation as a concept is not described by a single definition, but that these definitions should be considered together, supplementing each other.

Distinctives, Vaughan Roberts

This short Christian devotional book emphasizes the importance of not conforming to (being distinct from) the secular society. It has a very good chapter on sexual ethics, warning against the view “if it is safe and consensual, then it is ok.” It also has a good fragment on service in the church.

How Christianity Changed the World, Alvin J Schmidt

This historical overview of moral development of the European civilization makes it clear that its ethics has mostly been a result of the Christian influence. Although a nonbeliever might be occasionally irritated by the author’s quick dismissal of every argument to the contrary as stemming from a mere distortion of biblical Christianity, and also by his patronizing tone, in general the book makes a convincing read. Topics covered include infanticide, abortion, patria potestas, women’s rights, charity, hospitals, capitalism and many others.

New Testament: A Very Short Introduction, Luke T. Johnson

Having read a couple of books on the New Testament that were oriented towards defending the truth of resurrection, this time I decided to look at something more neutral in character. This Very Short Introduction approaches the New Testament as literature, leaving aside the question of its truth. To my surprise, the book virtually lacks references or other kind of justification for the author’s claims, making it difficult to decide whether or not he is making things up.

The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ, Gary R. Habermas

The same thing cannot be said about Habermas’ The Historical Jesus. Habermas has established himself in my consciousness as a first class scholar and I always associate him with the famous debate he had with Anthony Flew.

Anyway, the book is of course excellent, and Habermas covers all the essential things we can know about Jesus and addresses most of the skeptical theories. He quotes original sources, including extrabiblical ones, cites scholarly opinions and uses logical reasoning to convince the reader about the most likely to the question regarding the New Testament material: does it describe genuine history or are the crucial bits essentially made up? Would recommend, but maybe not as a first reading in the topic.

The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation, Michael Reeves

I decided to read a book on Reformation as my preparation for its (so-called) 500th anniversary. It was good, although too detailed, I think, when it comes to the matter of England and all the monarchs who succeeded Henry VIII. Anyway, the best part was that on Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, and the comprehensive treatment of their biographies allowed me to fill in the blanks of my knowledge about the latter two.

On the Freedom of a Christian, Martin Luther

I was almost moved by the introduction – a letter addressed to Pope Leo. In it, Luther sympathizes with the pope, for he is like Daniel in lions’ cave, surrounded by impious people interested only in personal benefit. He assures the pope that he did not wish to attack him, and urges him to resist the bad influences in Vatican.

Luther has a quite inspirational style of writing by the standards of his era, and his arrogance seems not to have developed yet. He writes that a Christian is lord over all the spiritual things (having been saved, by grace, from their control) but a Christian is also subject to everyone as a servant. This contrast is, I think, a very beautiful observation.

Grit: How to Keep Going When You Want to Give Up, Martin Meadows

Would recommend. Among other things, it contains useful advice on reinterpreting events that could be otherwise perceived negatively.

Abraham Lincoln: A Biography, Benjamin P. Thomas

This fairly old (written in 1952) biography of the American president is, thankfully, not a romanticized depiction of his life, and it successfully avoids all the legends and anecdotes. Instead, it seems to represent a high-quality scholarship, giving an expert treatment of the historical context in which the honest Abe lived. For the most part, I actually enjoyed reading it, often choosing to go through a few more pages at the cost of delaying my bedtime. I have drawn several important lessons.

First, I learned that there is nothing very extraordinary about Lincoln; that he wasn’t nearly as amazing or emotionally stable as I previously imagined him to be. In his late twenties and thirties, he was clearly afflicted with depression. When he was about 30 years old, he regularly offended political opponents in the press, lacked good manners (especially with women), dressed badly and was considered odd. At some point he withdrew from politics and only by luck was he put forward as the Republican nominee. I guess the conclusion from all of this is fairly positive. For the existence of a romanticized hero who never lost his spirit and always had a clear goal gives less motivation than the knowledge that even a future US president made the same mistakes and struggled with the same things as we do.

Second of all, the historical context made me reflect on the importance of compromise in politics. I won’t give a detailed explanation of my conclusion due to lack of space; let me just say that by looking at what was going on in the years before the Civil War, one is convinced that, even though the abolitionists were totally on the right, an unrelenting opposition to slavery was not the best choice. Therefore, even if a particular side of a hot moral debate is clearly wrong, I think a compromise should usually be sought.

Finally, by noting how the abolitionists were persecuted, I found it easier to overcome the fear I felt due to some free speech-related events that had happened over the previous months.

Jak przestać się martwić i zacząć żyć (How to Stop Worrying and Start Living), Dale Carnegie

Well, it didn’t help.

Bóg i nauka: Moje dwie drogi do jednego celu (God and Science: My Two Paths to One Goal), Michał Heller

Michał Heller is a Polish theoretical physicist and a Catholic priest. Quite notably, he used to collaborate with Roger Penrose and he received the prestigious Templeton Prize in 2008. This book, an interview, was recommended to me as one that nicely summarizes his views. I think it is a fairly standard introduction to the relationship of science and religion.

As for new observations I found interesting, he notes that Catholic seminars should stop concentrating on the Aristotelian and Thomist philosophies that have been prominent in Church history but have become largely outdated by science. This focus leads to poor preparation of priests when it comes to matters of science. He then criticizes some simplistic refutations of the materialist worldview: the fideist ones, as well as those inspired by Thomas Aquinas or Immanuel Kant (“we do not have empirical access to the nature of things, only to appearances”).

The major point of disagreement I have with Heller (apart from the authority of the Roman Church, but he doesn’t speak about that) is the relationship of God to logic. Heller takes the view I call mysterism: that God is so mysterious that logic does not apply to Him. For example: “God is an infinite being, and in an infinite being, contradictory aspects overlap and interconnect.” I will perhaps address this view on my blog one day, if time allows.

Reading in progress…

Faith and Reason, Richard Swinburne

Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman

Konsekwencje wyjaśnień darwinowskich w metaetyce (The consequences of Darwinian Explanations in Metaethics), Adrian Kuźniar

The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins

String Theory and the Scientific Method, Richard Dawid

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