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The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has DeclinedThe Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker

My Rating★★★★☆

The Skeptic’s Peace

Pinker warns the reader upfront that the book is huge, and with more than 800 dense pages there is no question about it. It is so wide-ranging that it is fortunate it has such a memorable title – the reader might have easily lost track of where it is all supposed to be heading. Individually, any section of the book is a throughly entertaining masterpiece, but as a whole, in terms of coherence, and on how the thesis and the direction of the arguments hold together, the book is not as much of a delight.

But it is an ambitious book and is in some respects a new sort of history – almost a moral history of the world, and Pinker deserves praise for the attempt. The next such historian to come along has been given much to work with.

Pinker is very convincing about the fact that violence has indeed declined; he is even persuasive on why it was but bound to happen. But when it comes to explaining the phenomenon (which he spends most of the book convincing us is real) based on his strength (psychology and evolutionary biology), he comes up slightly short. Pinker says all the right things and spares no punches and doesn’t flinch from taking on the worst arguments the critics might throw at him but his arguments still seem to lack that knockout blow.

This is not to say that the arguments are weak. Pinker does a remarkable job in his survey of history, of stats and of a multitude of ideas. The scholarship is immaculate, the intentions are noble and the conclusions are plausible but I would still wager that Pinker would fail to convince the majority of his readers.

Why? Because he ignores the contingent nature of history and he forgets that the ‘better angels’ has not only made us a more moral society but has also made us a more skeptical society. I was disappointed that Pinker does not explore the preventive powers of sheer skepticism.

My own thesis, which was evolving as I read Pinker’s, is ultimately that the skeptical mentality is what the ‘civilizing process’ (and the years of bloody wars) has ultimately given us – a conviction that there are no easy answers, no ‘final solutions’. And that is a powerful deterrent to most forms of drastic action, since now it is harder to justify them. This to me is the real cause for optimism (of the measured and skeptical sort, as is our wont now).

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Posted by on September 3, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy

 

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A Companion to Ethics by Peter Singer

A Companion to EthicsA Companion to Ethics by Peter Singer

My Rating★★★★☆

Singer takes a different approach with this book and instead of culling from existing literature, he calls for essays and the result is an eclectic mix of essays that exhibit a wide range of contemporary’s takes on some of the classic and current problems that philosophers wrestle with or theorize about. It consists of some fifty original essays. These essays deal with the origins of ethics, with the great ethical traditions, with theories about how we ought to live, with arguments about specific ethical issues, and with the nature of ethics itself.

As Singer puts it, a quick summary might go like this: in the first part, we see how little we know about the origins of ethics, how ethics in small-scale societies takes forms very different from those it takes in our own, and how the most ancient ethical writings already reflect a variety of views about how life is to be lived. Then the great ethical traditions are put on display; and we find divergence of opinion not only between the different traditions, but within each tradition itself. The history of Western philosophical ethics shows how, from the earliest Greek thinkers to the present day, old philosophical positions have resurfaced at intervals, and old battles have had to be fought out all over again in more modern terms. When, in Part IV, the volume moves from the past to the present, we are presented with many theories of how we ought to live, and about the nature of ethics, all plausible, sometimes disagreeing with other approaches.

The many voices makes this a valuable collection in that the method provides a level of over-all detachment that a single author tackling multiple philosophies might find hard to achieve. Here each of the authors are (presumably) scholars who wanted to make a distinct point and Singer is okay with accepting that the book might not have any coherence beyond being a companion to the many schools; but the reader also develops a sense of convergence of ideas as the book moves from the past to the present and from questions to possible solutions. What is striking at this point is the unexpected extent to which writers who had started from quite different places all seemed to be heading in the same direction.

That is the strength of the book. It lays out the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle but leaves it to the reader to divine if there is an overarching outline connecting them. And a book on philosophy should always endeavor to let that thrill be the reader’s.

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Posted by on August 16, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy

 

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An Introduction to Indian Philosophy by Christopher Bartley

An Introduction to Indian PhilosophyAn Introduction to Indian Philosophy by Christopher Bartley

My Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

This very engaging introduction to Indian Philosophy can be thought of as a series of essays on some of the most prominent schools of thought of ancient Indian philosophy, with each essay being followed up by detailed ‘further readings’ that can be used to explore particular ideas further. While this presentation of the book facilitates an easy introduction to each of the schools of thought, it can have the effect of obscuring the subtle interconnections and derivations within and between them.

Also, the fact that Bartley chose to use Buddhist arguments as the point of departure for defining all the other schools of thought has the unfortunate effect of making them seem overly derivative. In spite of these defects, the books is worth a read, particularly the sections on Sankhya and Nyaya are a discursive delight to read.

The section on Buddhism is a bit stretched out, as it had to be given the nature of the presentation. The section on Mimamsa school is given a slightly simplistic explanation and the earlier and later schools are not delineated enough to give full play to the power of this school of thought, nor are the connections with Sankhya, particularly with Gita, fully explored. The Vedanta school is given a lot of detail and space but without looping back and connecting fully with Sankhya through the upanishadic arguments.

Given the scope of an introductory book, it is perhaps asking too much to address all the nuances but some of the space dedicated to quoting Sankara’s and others’ arguments could have been given over to tracing the differences and similarities between the schools and in showcasing the organic nature of the growth of the entire philosophic edifice.

P.S. Forgive the omission of diacritical marks. Please do google to pick out exact pronunciations.

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Posted by on August 7, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy

 

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India Since Independence by Bipin Chandra

India Since IndependenceIndia Since Independence by Bipin Chandra

My Rating★★★★☆

The book is supposed to be one of the most authoritative histories of the period, presented by a set of celebrated authors who were instrumental in authoring most of the text books of the academic curriculum (India). It is disappointing then to see that ideology colors even such a work. If you can stay away from the strong biases that run through most of the interpretative chapters, this is actually quite a good book read.

It provides a good contrast (counterpoint?) to Guha‘s history. It is quite stunning how history changes so radically from one book to the next. The two books tell of the same period but with such marked divergence. As a reader one can accept this transition with surprising ease since the story is not in the telling but in the leaving out, in the focusing of the searchlight on select incidents and in leaving the rest in the darkness. This strengthens my growing obsession with historiography and its many wonders. Has any fully illumined history of any period yet been written? I am yet to find one.

The next book in my romance with historiography might have some answers – History at the Limit of World-History. I am thoroughly excited to have stumbled on this one and am hoping to continue this review over there.

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Posted by on July 22, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki


My Rating★★★★★

 

 

 

If and when you meet The Buddha,
Kill him.
Then come back
And sit.
Sit
In Zazen.
Be.
Enlightenment is there,
Before it arrives.

 

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Posted by on February 24, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Creative, Philosophy, Poetry, Thoughts

 

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Minds and Gods: The Cognitive Foundations of Religion

Minds and Gods: The Cognitive Foundations of ReligionMinds and Gods: The Cognitive Foundations of Religion by Todd Tremlin

My Rating★★★★☆

Non-scholarly musings on a Scholarly work

So it is then established that Gods, Religious concepts and Rituals are natural effervescences of the kind of mind that we posses, parasitic on our cognitive processes. It (our minds) is uniquely suited to imbibe them.

Mark though: We cannot (yet) make a claim that our minds WILL produce Gods and Religions and Rituals if left to themselves (though historical evidence might indicate that this could well be the case) but only that our minds cannot avoid the God Meme once exposed to it. Our society is very efficient at ensuring that.

An Atheist or an Agnostic is in this way, in this fundamental cognitive aspect of the nature of our cognitive construction, indistinguishable from a Theist – once exposed to a God concept they cannot but let their mind’s velcro stick to those burs forever.

The Theist adheres to a theological notion, the Agnostic to a scientific/skeptic’s credo and an Atheist to his own brand of faith in a new-found Religion of Science (reminding one of the Buddhists who tried to go nuclear (agnostic) and ended up as theistic in daily life).

But, we do have two brains inside us (yes, that is quite a ‘new’ finding too)) as Daniel Kahneman elaborates in his new book (Thinking, Fast and Slow) and only our rational brain system (read pathway) can entertain these abstract concepts. Our emotional/instinctive (read pathway) brain will still repeatedly resort to the God Concept we are familial (thus familiar) with in most of our our “on-line” thinking – that is in our daily (non-abstract-thinking) life.

“Deal with it”, the message is: We are all the same – Theists, Agnostics, Atheists or whatever we call ourselves, we are all in the same boat believing in the same agencies “on-line” and professing different versions of our pet abstractions “off-line”.

Not even managing to fool ourselves.

Disclaimer:

The above review is not a summation of the book but more a running with the ball tossed by it. The book is a study and an overview of the new Science of the Cognitive Study of Religion and deals with Religion in a new way – as a cognitive by-product of our psychology and our evolution. It is thoroughly fascinating and can lead to all sorts of ideas just as any new science should.

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Posted by on February 23, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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The Brothers Karamazov: On Romancing The Devil

The Brothers KaramazovThe Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

My Rating★★★★★

On Romancing The Devil

Warning: This review might contain spoilers even outside the hidden ‘spoiler alert’ regions. I honestly am not capable of discriminating.

The book is not about the murder or about who did it, those things were very apparent before half the book was completed, the narrator taking special pains to spoil all suspense for his readers at the very beginning (harkening back to the days of greek drama and Euripides – according to whom, the effect of a story, even a whodunnit, was not in epic suspense about what was going to happen next, but in those great scenes of lyrical rhetorics in which the passion and dialectic of the protagonists reached heights of eloquence. Everything was to portend pathos, not action, which was always there only as a container for the pathos, to give it form). This was probably done so that the typical clue-seeking aspects of a mystery does not detract his reader from addressing the real, the painful questions littered all across his treatise, almost with indecent abandon. *spoiler* After all, we were shown by Dostoevsky varying degrees of foreshadowings of every event that eventually became turning points in the plot – starting with the numerous leading comments of the narrator including the one in the opening paragraph, Zosima’s prediction of suffering for and apology to Dimitri and Smerdyakov’s not so subtle clues to Ivan among many others. And do not forget that Dostoyevsky even gave us the alternate route that Mitya could have taken in the Zosima narrative – the parallels in that story are too numerous to list out here. *spoiler ends*[After all, we were shown by Dostoevsky varying degrees of foreshadowings of every event that eventually became turning points in the plot – starting with the numerous leading comments of the narrator including the one in the opening paragraph, Zosima’s prediction of suffering for and apology to Dimitri and Smerdyakov’s not so subtle clues to Ivan among many others. And do not forget that Dostoyevsky even gave us the alternate route that Mitya could have taken in the Zossima narrative – the parallels i that story are too numerous to list out here. (hide spoiler)]

No, this story is not about the murder or about the murderer or about his motivations or about the suspense for his final fate. The story is about the reaction – it was all about the jury. Many theories abound about how the Karamazov family represents Russia/humanity/all characters but the reality is that they represent individualities; while it is that terrible faceless jury, always adressed to and never addressed by, that represents humanity. The job of the country, the society, of the whole human race is to judge, to determine the fate of individuals based on the stories that they construct, literally out of thin air, out of the small pieces of a life that they can only ever observe. The best character sketches, fictional or otherwise can only ever be the minutest portion of a real character – but from that tiniest of slivers we build this ambiguous thing called ‘character’, as if such a thing can possibly exist for a creature as fickle-minded and forgetful of himself as man. Character of a man is the greatest myth, propagated best by novelists, as no story can proceed without a ‘constant’ man who behave with some level of predictability or with predictable unpredictability, but real life is the result of adding a minimum of three more ‘unpredictable’ as adjectives to that earlier description, to come close to describing even the simplest and most boring idiot alive. But yet we construct stories, to understand, to predict, to know how to behave, we even make up stories about ourselves so that we may have an illusion of control over who we are – so that we do not melt into the amorphous protean mass that is the rest of humanity – my story separates me from all of them. I construct, therefore I am.

These are the romances that Dostoevsky wields his best work against and the trial is a trial of reason, of reality pitted against the overwhelming circumstantial evidence in favor of romance, of the myth of character, of individuality, of cause and effect, of there being anything predictable when such a wild variable as a human mind is part of the equation, how can such an equation be anything but ‘indeterminate’ (to borrow Dostoevsky’s own expression)?

That was the grand trial, the inquisition of reason. But how can the defense stand up in favor of reality without explaining to the jury (to humanity) why they see things not as they are, that they have made up a story that is perfect but is never real as no story can ever be – as no cause can really cause a definite effect when human beings are involved? You have to tell a story to convince the jury. You have to tell a story to defend the fact that stories do not exist. A story now, about stories. Or multiple stories to show how all stories are false if only one can be allowed to be true. The only other option is that all are true, simultaneously. By proving which you include your own story in that ‘self-consuming’ super-set and doom your own argument. There is the irresolvable conflict of the trial, of the story, of the novel, of life. You cannot discredit the myth of the story without the help of a story as the jury that judges cannot understand, cannot comprehend any reality outside of a story, human beings cannot think outside their romances. They will continue to exist as prisoners to their own stories. That is why it is a comedy and not a tragedy, as no one died and no one killed and it remains akin to a sphinx setting us a riddle which he cannot solve himself. But, judgment had to be passed as the story was told. One story among many.

——–

An expanded review might follow and will try to address some of the big themes of the book, enumerated below:

1) On Fatherhood – The second big theme of the book. Possibly the real theme, the above only being my own story…

2) On Crime & the Efficacy of Punishment – On how men will always rise to be worthy of their punishment/mercy; On suffering and salvation and on how no judgement can be stronger, more effective or more damning/redemptive than moral self-judgement; On how would Ivan’s ecclesiastical courts eventually would have behaved – would they have behaved as predicted by him in his prose poem and let christ go, unlike the real court? So, in the end his alternate vision of Satan’s court is what really shown by the current judicial apparitions? But in the fable who was it that really forgave the inquisitor or the inquisitee? And in the overall story too, who forgives whom in the end? Christ or Humanity, Satan or Church, Dimitri or Russia?

3) On Collateral Damage – inflicted by the main story on side stories, on how the small side stories are over shadowed, no murdered by the main one and without any risk of conviction.

4) On the Institution of Religion– On morality and the question of the necessity of religion; On the basis for faith; On the implications of faith/lack of faith to the story one tells about oneself; On how Philip Pullman took the easy way out by expanding Dostoevsky’s story for his widely acclaimed novel; On the enormous burden of free will; On the dependence of men on the security of miracles that is the source of all hell and of all action.

5) On the Characters – On how Dostoevsky took the cream of his best-conceived characters from the universe of his creation, from across all his best works to populate his magnum opus, his story about stories, to trace out their path with the ultimate illusion of realism, with the ultimate ambition and to show/realize how it should always, always fall apart; On how he reflected the whole universe in a small lake and created a novel about all novels, disproving and affirming them simultaneously, murdering its own parents in its own fulfillment; On how they might have their Hamlets, but we have our Karamazov’s.

6) On Hope & Redemption – On how ultimately Zosima’s world view trumps the cynical aspects that dominated the book; On how Zosima predicted it all at the very beginning and apologized to Dimitri on behalf of all mankind – ‘taking everyone’s sin upon himself”, thus creating an inverted reflection of the christ figure, its image playing on both Dimitri and on Zosima for that split second and then passing on to Alyosha until finally projected back to Dimitri, in the ultimate paradox, where he becomes at last a christ figure and a buddha figure, exemplifying self-knowledge and enlightenment through true suffering; On how even the Karamazov name can be inspiring and be cause for cheers even though it represents the worst (best?) of humanity; On The Sermon at the Stone.

7) On Nihilism – On the absurdity of life and trying to explain it. But oh wait, this is what I talked of in paragraph length already.

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Ps. By the way, when you read this, keep your ears tuned towards the end – for somewhere in the distance you might hear the laugh of the Grand Inquisitor echoing faintly.

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Posted by on July 28, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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