The Demon Haunted World (Carl Sagan)

Such a simple premise, such a challenging task: to teach the scientific method and encourage critical thinking. The cosmologist Carl Sagan, a titan among scientists, left us a book with precisely that aim. The Demon Haunted World covers a number of themes, weaving back and forth between them throughout its chapters, and it all begins with a pet peeve of his: UFOs and alien abductions.

It seems that the idea of a visitor descending from the sky, hailing from a faraway place, and motivated by a disturbing sex-drive, is a very old one. Parallels can be drawn to mystical demons of the olden days such as the incubus who descended upon and impregnated the virgin Mary. The Christian inquisition executed 50.000 women for being possessed by these sorts of demons, and death by burning is still common in fundamentalist Islamic sects. While immolation at the stake is not an every day sight anymore, what we have left are delusional beliefs in magic crystals, psychics, horoscopes, and more. Even countries which are largely secular have their own spiritualist , superstitious, and supernatural beliefs. This is where we as skeptics reach an impasse. The very word supernatural is a giveaway. What does it even mean for something to be super-natural? Dr. Sagan uses an analogy to discuss this idea. Imagine a dragon that breathes heatless fire, is invisible, and cannot be touched. What is the difference between this incorporeal dragon and no dragon at all? What does it mean to say “it exists”? I’ll tell you what it means. The dragon, the invisible friend, and the naughty succubus exist entirely within your mind.

About halfway through the book, we are offered a weapon to fight off the demon horde.  The BDK (Baloney Detection Kit) contains a number of tools for assessing arguments, and provides a solid foundation for skeptical and critical thinking. For example, is a statement falsifiable, even in theory? Are you equating correlation with causation? Post hoc ergo propter hoc? This kit is absolutely fundamental if one wants to understand what the word science truly means.

People want to be associated science because it carries a sense of authority. What is often forgotten though, is that the credibility of science was earned through centuries of hard work and strict adherence to the scientific method. The result of science is technology, but it’s in the method that the power lies, and that is what should be taught in schools. Imagine if a child learns to truly understand what a mathematical integral is meant to measure. One day in the future, when presented with a fixed interest rate and a variable one, that individual will be able to instantly recognize that it is the total surface areas under the lines that should be compared. Understanding the reasoning behind our technology, and understanding the critical thinking process that has lead us to our present day society is a skill that we can not afford to be without. With the potentially cataclysmic power that we possess in the form of nuclear weapons and unsustainable development forces, Dr. Sagan concludes that it is pivotal for us to be educated.

I suspect that the book’s chapters were written quite independently of each other because they really repeated themselves a lot. It was okay though. Even though it could easily have been half its length without omitting anything important at all, I never found it tedious and was left humbled by the epic mind and legacy of Carl Sagan.

Il Principe (Nicolo Machiavelli)

The name Machiavelli evokes many ideas and opinions depending on who you talk to because, as always, the history of ideas is more interesting than history itself. Because of the reputation Niccolo has, I was expecting this book to be a detailed description of aggressive subversive strategies, perhaps similar in style to “the art of war”. This was not the case. Il Principe can be considered one of the first modern political works due to it’s pragmatic humanist roots and a wish to break away from abstract Christian ideals.

The style of this work is known as “mirrors for princes” in which guidance for governance is given alongside examples in history of successful rulers. It’s true that the book contains advice which has a dark side, but it must be placed in context to be correctly understood. On most topics, Niccolo lists multiple contingency plans that a prince should be aware of. They range from how to gain popularity among the populace by crushing the noble class, to destroying conquered cities in the style of Carthage. The instructions are intended to maintain stability and honor in one’s princedom, and are often listed in order of desirability with the most violent option last.

The book didn’t feel as timeless or general purpose as I’d imagined, but did discuss a number of historical curiosities. Philosophically it was a departure from prevalent ideas of the time. It recommended giving as much freedom to ones subjects as possible in order to garner their support. It regarded the factionalism of the church as a violent secular competitor. Il Principe is a short, interesting, and important part of Renaissance history.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Robert Pirsig)

I purchased this book because it was said to be in league with some of my absolute favorite philosophy books, and described as a sophisticated treatise that only intellectuals could appreciate. At the time I was unaware of what a cult-like following the book had and how tremendously successful it had been back in the 70′s. Did the book live up to its high expectations? For me, no.

The material is presented in a nice way. From a first person perspective, the author narrates a motorcycle ride he made across the US together with his son and details the deep thoughts he had during that trip. It begins with comparisons between his friends and himself. They ride their motorcycle to get away from all of “it”. He is riding and wishes to be a part of all of it. This is reflected in how they approach motorcycle maintenance. His friends bought the most reliable BMW motorcycle they could find so it could carry them off without a worry. The author rode an older and more hands-on motorcycle which received regular maintenance every morning. In his opinion the reason for their different views stems from a dualism that has pervaded society for a long time, specifically that romantics have a purposeful holistic view on life, and classicists have a functional reductionist view. With this distinction, he explained that, not being able to reconcile the two is what made his friends stressed about society and afraid of “it”, the soulless scientific monolith eating away at the husk of humanity. So motorcycle maintenance can either be mindless drudgery or a relaxing craft, depending on your mindset. Okay, so far so good.

Mr. Pirsig explains that neither world view by itself is sufficient to understand the big picture or the true nature of things, because it seems as if truth is not always equally applicable to each individual. So we have to resort to a system prior to truth, a meta-truth, or more commonly metaphysics. He goes on to give examples of world views, where separated, have failed to completely grasp reality. For me, this is where the streak of cleverness ends.

Metaphysics is a tricky matter, mastered by only a handful throughout history, because it attempts to define all of reality solely in terms of abstract concepts. This might sound presumptuous and even solipsistic, but then again, perhaps not so strange if we remember that mathematics as practiced by humans is also “an abstraction”. Regardless, this book does not so much attempt to describe reality as how to interpret what it presents, or rather, “how to approach life”. So it’s not really a metaphysics treatise after all, and there are some giveaways early on in the book. One of the defining times in the author’s life was during his first years of university when he found there to be a dilemma in that the scientific method allows for an infinite number of hypotheses to be made, which makes it impossible to invalidate them all. He found this impasse to be very profound and after much rumination decided that science itself was at fault. He gives the example of the “discovery” of Newtonian gravity and the shift from Euclidean geometry to more complex geometries, and used these to show that truth changes with time and with the individual. I can’t help but roll my eyes.

Firstly, the hypothesis of the scientific method is not an a priori conclusion that needs to be validated. It’s one step, an informed guess, meant to probe in the search toward an a posteriori answer. That clarification would have saved a lot of trouble. More importantly though, the reification of words like “truth” and “deduction” prevents you from subsequently using them as operators to prove ideas. All that is left is logomachy and word games. The rest of the book is similar in form, ultimately culminating in the conclusion that an undefinable Quality event is the actual cause of objects and subjects [undefinable by necessity since it can't be an object itself if it is the cause of objects].

The book was entertaining, and gave me insight into very popular new-age ideas, but I think it just goes to show that people generally regard philosophy as equivalent to abstract rhetoric.

The Lone Samurai (William Wilson)

After finishing The Book of Five Rings I immediately ordered this biography to find out more about Miyamoto Musashi who had come across as the most bad-ass dude of all time. With regards to the book itself, I was a little disappointed. It was written more like a history book than a personal biography. What I mean by that is; the book chronologically detailed his battles, then his political sallies, then his artistry and Zen practices, and his encounters with other famous contemporaries. Names of (undoubtedly well-known but to me unfamiliar) Japanese overlords were tossed around with no introduction making events even more difficult to follow. In summary, the book felt very impersonal.

Notwithstanding the medium, I learned a great deal about the undefeatable Bushido master. In 1597 when the young Miyamoto Bennosuke was only thirteen years old, one of his pranks went overboard and he was commanded by a cocky wandering samurai to beg for forgiveness or face dire consequences. Instead of bowing, the boy rushed furiously toward the ronin who drew out his short-sword. Bennosuke pushed the man to the ground and with a wooden staff struck the swordsman square between the eyes, killing him on the spot. That was the first of his sixty recorded battles to the death. He was once challenged by all 60 members of the Yoshioka clan who were out to revenge the defeat of their master. Seeing a weakness in the novices, he ran into the thick of the crowd and with his dual blades started slicing their faces in half. With blood spraying everywhere the few remaining members scattered and ran for their lives. While his demon-like battle skills are the foundation of what made him legendary, two things made Musashi stand out from other warriors of the time.

First was his focus on freedom. He never built a family, and always insisted on being regarded as a traveling guest as opposed to a distinguished vassal when hosted by various lords. To the dismay of his disciples, Musashi refused to institutionalize his martial art and maintained that only a free mind could truly grasp his Way. Everywhere he wandered, and he really walked a lot, he learned the ways of the locals and often slept on the grass under the stars. Being an autodidact was something he was very proud of and often held as his greatest strength. This leads me to his second quality which makes his spirit endure: he was a tremendous intellectual.Kobokumeigekizu

Most other warriors, generals, and great leaders of the time were illiterate and had their ideas transcribed by dictating to monks. Musashi, on the other hand, had taught himself through his travels to both read and write. In fact, he was an outstanding calligrapher, which was the hallmark of grandmaster swordsmen because the strokes of the brush were said to equal those of the blade. His talent with ink generated numerous paintings and I remember when I first saw his “Shrike Pearched a Dead Tree” I was very impressed and could easily imagine having it in my home. The polymath-like Musashi was also very gifted in poetry, carving, mettalurgy, pottery, the tea ceremony, gardening, and Zen philosophy. Now I understand why Japan remembers him so fondly.

Don Quixote (Miguel de Cervantes)

It took me longer than usual to finish this book because my son was born right when I started reading it and after that I only read a few pages at a time over the course of many months. It’s hard for me to tell if it was because of that, or because the first volume of the story truly was drawn out (Cervantes actually comments on this in the preface of his second volume). Still, I was surprised at how much I liked Don Quixote despite my slow progress. The unabridged edition I read included a great translation, both volumes which Cervantes wrote ten years apart, and annotations describing things like historical context and inside jokes.

The story revolves around a retired, gray haired, and scrawny yet energetic man named Alonso Quijano whose passion was reading books about the great adventures of gallant knights in armor. One day he decides that the world needs more chivalrous men, to defend the weak, profess true love, and right injustices wherever they might befall. Destiny beckoned, and dubbing himself Don Quijote de la Mancha, he answered the call. Together with his witty squire Sancho, Don Quixote traveled the land in search of adventure.

When most people hear his name, they immediately think of the adventure of the windmills, where the protagonist in a frenzied fury attacks rotating windmills proclaiming them to be ferocious giants. I suppose this and other moments in the book were funny in a slapstick sort of way, but they usually ended in catastrophe with the protagonist being bloodied and badly beaten. And because Don Quixote never let his façade slip, not even in the face of death like when braving the lions, people within the story, and many readers undoubtedly, judged him to simply be a comical, crazy, and delusional romantic. For short moments though, like when Sancho was lamenting over the pain and suffering that they constantly had to go through on account of his master’s whims, the knight let his servant know, “I know who I am, and who I may be, if I choose.” These brief and lucid moments changed the meaning of the whole book, making it a darker and more serious.

Don Quixote was a very likeable character who did everything from  fearless battle proclamations that in my ears were totally epic, to funny things like, showing off the power of his armor by slashing at the helmet (wash basin) and shattering it by mistake. What made the ending happy and not tragic is knowing that he finally, in the end, became the most famous knight in all of Spain.

“The wounds received in battle bestow honor, they do not take it away…” ~ Don Quixote