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 I’ve ever read, but they are ones that stand out as profoundly affecting me.
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’t they 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 lessons weren’t depressing. Science liberates 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.
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 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 truth. He 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 won’t deceive himself; he had a passion for the truth.
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 live in darkness. But if we dispassionately reason, we will increasingly bring light to that darkness. This process is painstakingly slow, but illumination comes to those who persist. Let there be light.
Victor Frankl’s Man’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 it 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 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 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. Moreover, 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. Perhaps most importantly, he also showed me how universal death is avoidable.
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.
5. Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (New York: Viking Press, 1999) 260.