Category Archives: Book Favorites

4 More Memorable Books

A few days ago I wrote about four books that changed my life before I became a professional philosopher. Today I would like to add four more, of the literally thousands that I’ve read, that transformed me after I became a professional philosopher. I reiterate that I’m not saying these are the best or most important books, but they are ones that stand out as profoundly affecting me.

On Human Nature: With a new Preface, Revised Edition

Late in my graduate school career, E.O. Wilson’s On Human Nature was assigned for a graduate seminar in evolutionary ethics. (I’ve written previous posts about Wilson’s thought here and here.) It is the only one of the eight books I’ve selected as most affecting my thought that was assigned for a class. My mind was startled and transformed by its first few pages.

 … if the brain is a machine of ten billion nerve cells and the mind can somehow be explained as the summed activity of a finite number of chemical and electrical reactions, boundaries limit the human prospect—we are biological and our souls cannot fly free. If humankind evolved by Darwinian natural selection, genetic chance and environmental necessity, not God, made the species … However much we embellish that stark conclusion with metaphor and imagery, it remains the philosophical legacy of the last century of scientific research … It is the essential first hypothesis for any serious consideration of the human condition.1

Yes, I knew all this before I read Wilson, but his prose cemented these ideas within me. Evolutionary biology is the key to understanding mind and behavior, and to understanding morality and religion as well. Life and culture are thoroughly and self-evidently biological. Yet most people reject these truths, choosing ignorance and self-deception instead. They mistakenly believe that they are fallen angels, not the modified monkeys they really are. But why can they not accept the truth? Because, as Wilson says, most people “would rather believe than know. They would rather have the void as purpose … than be void of purpose.”2

Still Wilson’s lesson were not depressing. Science can liberate us by giving us self-knowledge, while simultaneously placing within us the hope “that the journey on which we are now embarked will be farther and better than the one just completed.”3 Wilson’s book taught me who we are, the dilemmas we face, and how we must choose our future path. As Wilson says, the evolutionary idea is the greatest and truest one that humans have ever discovered.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

One cannot summarize Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark, in a few brief paragraphs. One has to read it cover to cover to appreciate it. Sagan’s basic message is that unreason and superstition are dangerous, while science and reason light the world. But it’s one thing to state this message, it’s another to communicate it so that anyone can understand it. And that’s what Sagan does. If you read this book closely you will learn to despise ignorance and pseudo-science in all their forms.

In the first chapter Sagan quotes Edmund Way Teale “It is morally as bad not to care whether a thing is true or not, so long as it makes you feel good, as it is not to care about how you got your money as long as you have got it.” Right away you know that Sagan cares about what’s true. Sagan continues ” … it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” You may disagree, believing instead that the masses need Platonic noble lies or the Grand Inquisitor’s deceptions, but it is clear from reading Sagan that he has a passion, a fetish is you will, for the truth. He will not deceive himself.

We can undermine our reason in a thousand ways, but Sagan will have none of it. For if we infuse our understanding with our prejudices and emotions, we will live in darkness. But if we dispassionately reason, we will increasingly illuminate that darkness. This process is painstakingly slow, but illumination comes to those who persist. Let there be light.

   Man’s Search for Meaning

Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is the most emotionally moving text that I have ever read. I have taught out of it on many occasions and have read it cover to cover at least five times. Anyone can read the first part of the book, “Experiences in a Concentration Camp,” or its second part, “Logotherapy in a Nutshell,” in a few hours. But the book is worth returning to over and over again to be reminded of its central lesson—that meaning can be found in our work, our relationships, and our suffering. Yet nothing that I write does justice to the experience of reading this book—its power lies in its narrative.

So let me describe a single scene in the book to give you a sense of the power of Frankl’s prose. Being marched off to work one dark morning, cold and hungry, while being hit with the butt of rifles by the Nazi guards, a fellow prisoner says to Frankl, “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.” This exchange caused Frankl to think about his wife, her face, her smile, her look:

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which a man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of human is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for the brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when a man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.

Afterword – In 1942, Frankl, his wife, and his parents were deported to the Nazi Theresienstadt Ghetto where his father died. In 1944 Frankl and his wife Tilly were transported to the Auschwitz concentration camp, but Tilly was later transferred from Auschwitz to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where she died in the gas chambers. Frankl’s mother Elsa was killed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, where his brother Walter also died. Other than Frankl, the only survivor of the Holocaust among his immediate relatives was his sister Stella. She had escaped from Austria by emigrating to Australia.4

I will respond to the above with a few lines of original poetry:

And so the world goes on,
good gods perpetually sleeping,
good people perpetually weeping,
and waiting, for a new world to dawn.

The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence

No book that can be profound in the way that Frankl’s book is, but a book can change you for other reasons. Before I read Kurzweil, I thought about prospects for improving humanity in terms of genetic engineering. But Kurzweil made me see another way to transform the species—through artificial intelligence and robotics—and with it a new vision of the future appeared to me. Yes, some of Kurzweil’s specific prediction may not come true, but the broad outlines of his vision are already coming true.

With the caveat that many things can derail technological evolution—asteroids, viruses, climate change, nuclear war, a new dark ages, etc.—if scientific advance continues, the future will be unlike the past. Let me embellish that. The future is going to be really different than the past. Perhaps everyone knows that, but Kurzweil convinced me of it. He also showed me how universal death is avoidable. Nobody had ever done that before.

So will the Universe end in a big crunch, or in an infinite expansion of dead stars, or in some other manner? In my view, the primary issue is not the mass of the Universe, or the possible existence of antigravity, or of Einstein’s so-called cosmological constant. Rather, the fate of the Universe is a decision yet to be made, one which we will intelligently consider when the time is right.5

I have written a book, The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Transhumanist, and Scientific Perspectives, one of whose central themes is that life can only have full meaning if it persists indefinitely. Kurzweil was the first to suggest to me how this was scientifically possible.

I will never forget reading this book on a screened-in front porch in Mayfield Heights, Ohio. It bent my mind in a new direction. 

___________________________________________________________________________

1. Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979) 1-2.
2. Wilson, On Human Nature, 170-171.
3. Wilson, On Human Nature, 209.
4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viktor_Frankl
5. Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (New York: Viking Press, 1999) 260. 

4 Books That Changed My Life

I am a reader of non-fiction. (A post about the most influential work of fiction that I ever read can be found here.) Reading the statistics on the back of baseball cards and the facts and figures in The World Almanac were virtual obsessions when I was a kid. Even then my affinity for data was greater than to imaginative fiction.

Since a list of all the non-fiction books I’ve read would be quite long—literally thousands— I would like to briefly mention four books that changed my life before I was a professional philosopher. (In tomorrow’s post I will discuss four books that changed my life after I became a professional philosopher.) This doesn’t mean these are the best or most important books, or that other books might have had a greater influence on me if I had read them. But these are the ones that most affected me when I was young, they are particularly memorable, and their message resonates within me still.

As a college freshman in 1973, the most memorable book I read was not one assigned for my classes, but one I stumbled upon in the college library—Will Durant’s The Mansions of Philosophy: A Survey of Human Life and Destiny. (An updated version of the book was retitled: Pleasures of Philosophy.) The book did bear the imprint of a 1920s American male view of women, much to my dismay, but the rest of the book has stood the test of time. Its prose is glorious and its philosophical insights still fresh today. I have reprinted parts of its beautiful introduction as well as its conclusion in previous posts. What most drew me to the book was that it was so unlike the foreboding philosophy I was reading in my classes. It seemed Professor Durant was speaking directly to me in plain, clear language about important topics that I had not previously encountered, and yet his ideas were substantive. On the first page he says of his book: “I send it forth … on the seas of ink to find here and there a kindred soul in the Country of the Mind.” I thank him for sending it to my kindred soul.

Shortly thereafter I happened upon Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects. I have noted my affinity for the depth and breadth of Russell’s philosophy in a number of my essays, as well as my belief that he was the greatest philosopher of the twentieth-century. While professional philosophers will not rank this popular book with his classics in the philosophy of mathematics and logic—W.V.O Quine famously said that Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica was “one of the great intellectual monuments of all time”—this was the Russell book that affected me most. I can still remember exactly where I was sitting in a small public library in south St. Louis county in 1973 when I read it.

And while sophisticated defenders of religion may quibble with Russell’s arguments—as they do with any arguments that challenge their preconceived beliefs—the fact is that religion stands on the wrong side of history and will be, as I have argued often on this website, ultimately relegated to the dustbin of history. For as Russell knew, rational persons could never believe its fantastic claims unless they were indoctrinated, immature, irrational, fearful, feeble-minded or misled. Of course more sophisticated believers don’t accept the supernatural elements of their religions literally, but hide their nonsense behind esoteric language and obscurantism. To this day I find it astonishing that any marginally intelligent person can take religion seriously, but then perhaps I just don’t get it. I thank Russell for awakening me from my dogmatic slumber more than forty years ago.

Shortly after finishing my undergraduate degree, a friend gave me a copy Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving, whose very first lines I’ll never forget.

Is love an art? Then it requires knowledge and effort. Or is love a pleasant sensation, which to experience is a matter of chance, something one “falls into” if one is lucky? This little book is based on the former premise … “

I have written previously about this small but powerful book and its effect on me. I have not successfully put its message into practice, but I have never forgotten this book or its fundamental lesson—that love is something you have to work at. Its insights have always remained in my subconscious, no matter how many times I may have unable to summon them to affect my behavior. There are very few books that say something new and profound about  a topic that everybody talks about, but this book did that.

While sitting in the dealer’s room in Las Vegas as I prepared to enter graduate school I read Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers. Already familiar with Durant, I was determined to read this classic, one of the best-selling philosophy books of all time. From the book I learned that the history of philosophy was a long, continual dialogue, and I was excited to think that in graduate school I might learn enough to be part of that dialogue. It wasn’t so much the philosophers in the book that inspired me, but Durant’s love of them. Why does one love thinkers? I would soon find out. Today this book is the single most prized possession in my library, for I have a copy of it signed by Will Durant himself on December 12, 1933. (Thanks to my son-in-law for the gift.) The book contains the most beautiful dedication I’ve ever read. It is from Will to his beloved wife Ariel. Thirteen years his junior, he expected her to outlive him:

TO MY WIFE

“Grow strong, my comrade … that you may stand
Unshaken when I fall; that I may know
The shattered fragments of my song will come
At last to finer melody in you;
That I may tell my heart that you begin
Where passing I leave off, and fathom more.”

Will and Ariel Durant were married almost 70 years and died a few days apart. You can read about their intellectual development, world travels and wondrous love story in Will & Ariel Durant: A Dual Autobiography.

I thank Durant, Russell and Fromm for leaving a part of themselves in their books, where I found them and was enriched by the encounter.

George Orwell’s 1984

Books of My Youth

The first books I remember reading as a child were baseball biographies. Stories of baseball legends like Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Stan Musial. I also have a fond memory of reading a book about the favorite baseball player of my youth titled: Ken Boyer: Guardian of the Hot Corner. (Why do such trivial things makes such impressions?) The first novel I remember reading was Across the Five Aprils by Irene Hunt. It was a short novel about the American civil war that I read when I was about ten years old. Amazingly, it is still on my bookshelf! In high school I read Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry FinnErnest Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and many others.

In college I remember reading Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, and I was particularly moved by Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha.
No doubt the memory of reading many other books has long since evaporated from my mind, and there are thousands of wonderful books that I’ve never read.

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. … Power is not a means; it is an end … The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. ~ George Orwell 1984

But the novel that influenced me the most was George Orwell’s masterpiece, 1984. ( It was the Boston Public Library’s choice as the most influential book of the twentieth-century.) It is the most personally transformative novel that I’ve ever read. No one who reads and understands the book remains the same. Orwell removes a curtain that hides reality behind it—a reality so different from its portrayal by the voices and images that proceed daily in front of us, voices which mislead and control rather than inform, thereby making a mockery of truth. In Orwell’s world The Ministry of Truth lies; The Ministry of Peace wages war; The Ministry of Love tortures. In our own society, politicians lie with impunity; the Department of Defense wages war, and the CIA and penal system torture. We live in an authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government—a fascist state.

It is as if Orwell allows us peer past Kant’s phenomenal world to the neumonal world—to the way things really are. To a social and political reality so bleak and barren that even love cannot thrive. In the end Winston and Julia betray each other because, contrary to what I’ve written in previous posts, love is not stronger than death, at least it is very hard for it to be in this world. (Just as it is hard to love in a society which pits each person against others.) Here is Winston and Julia’s conversation after both have been emptied of their most noble inclination—the inclination to love another.

“I betrayed you,” she said baldly.
“I betrayed you,” he said.
She gave him another quick look of dislike.
“Sometimes,” she said, “they threaten you with something—something you can’t stand up to, can’t even think about. And then you say, ‘Don’t do it to me, do it to somebody else, do it to so-and-so.’ And perhaps you might pretend, afterwards, that it was only a trick and that you just said it to make them stop and didn’t really mean it. But that isn’t true. At the time when it happens you do mean it. You think there’s no other way of saving yourself and you’re quite ready to save yourself that way. You want it to happen to the other person. You don’t give a damn what they suffer. All you care about is yourself.”
“All you care about is yourself,” he echoed.
“And after that, you don’t feel the same toward the other person any longer.”
“No,” he said, “you don’t feel the same.”

If Orwell is right, life is bleaker than we usually let ourselves imagine. If Orwell is right, life may be even bleaker than we can imagine. Power and the lust for it largely remove the color, beauty and love from the world. Orwell taught me how the world really is. Let’s hope that is not how it has to be.

Book Dedications

For the first time since beginning to blog, I did not write an entry on consecutive days. The weather was beautiful here in the northwest and the mountains were calling. I appreciate the hundreds of readers who visited the site during the lull in my productivity.

Today I was thinking about book dedications. I have always tried to write meaningful ones and I enjoy reading the other book dedications. The first dedication I wrote was for my master’s thesis in graduate school.

“To my father, who approved of my being inquisitive.”

This honored the memory of a dinner table conversation when I was young. My father told me I was inquisitive, and I asked what the word meant. After he told me, I asked if it was good to be inquisitive. He said yes.  My next one was for my doctoral dissertation.

To my mother and father
whose love nurtured me,
And to Jane,
whose love sustains me …

I suppose this represented the transition from a focus on parental love to the love of my spouse. The next was for a college ethics textbook:

 For Jane
“a lily among the thistles …” (Song of Solomon 2:2)

Anyone who knows me will find it ironic that I quote the Bible, which is for the most part a terrible book. But I had recently run across the quote and was trying to capture the sense in which Jane is incorruptible. I dedicated my next book, Piaget’s Conception of Evolution
to my graduate school mentor whom I discussed in my very last post.

To Richard J. Blackwell
an exemplar of moral and intellectual virtue.

Professor Blackwell was the inspiration for that book so it seemed appropriate. Talking with him years later he told me that I was the only one to have ever dedicated a book to him. He seemed pleased. My recent book The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Transhumanist, and Scientific Perspectives bore this inscription:

For my children—John Benjamin, Katie Jane, Anne Marie, and Joshua Harrison—that you may live forever in a good, beautiful, and meaningful world;

And for Jane … that together we may somehow join them.

And I dedicated my last book, Who Are We?: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific and Transhumanist Theories Of Human Nature, as follows:

To Jane, who has a beautiful nature.

Finally here are my two favorite dedications, both from two of my intellectual heroes. The first is Will Durant’s dedication to his wife Ariel in his 1926 book, The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers one of the best-selling philosophy books ever published. At the time Durant was in his early forties and his wife was in her late twenties, so clearly he wrote it with the expectation that she would outlive him. As it turned out, they died a few days apart after almost seventy years of marriage. It conveys the notion that others will pick up where we leave off. 

Grow strong, my comrade … that you may stand
Unshaken when I fall; that I may know
The shattered fragments of my song will come
At last to finer melody in you;
That I may tell my heart that you begin
Where passing I leave off, and fathom more.
― Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy

Finally there is this hand-written dedication by Bertrand Russell to his last wife Edith. It was written when Russell was almost 80 years old, after many attempts at finding love. It is wistful reminder through struggle and toil … love and peace can be found.

 

. BR_EDITH.GIF (14404 bytes)

(And for those who don’t read cursive anymore here is the text.)

To Edith
Through the long years
I sought peace,
I found ecstasy, I found anguish,
I found madness,
I found loneliness,
I found the solitary pain
that gnaws the heart,
But peace I did not find.
Now, old & near my end,
I have known you,
And, knowing you,
I have found both ecstasy & peace,
I know rest,
After so many lonely years.
I know what life & love may be.
Now, if I sleep,
I shall sleep fulfilled.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Books To Read

I have finished reading The Age of Atheists and Religion for Atheists and will have comments/reviews forthcoming. The large list of books to read may force skimming in some cases, but I will be honest with my readers about which books I read in their entirety and which I merely skim. I will try to make it through all of the following in the next few months.