Difficult but nonetheless stimulating look into the roots of freedom and responsibility.

National Book Award–winner Dennett (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, 1995, etc.) seeks to account for free will in a world determined by inflexible scientific laws. His answer lies in evolution.

The author embraces a materialist position. The advance of science has made obsolete the notion of an immaterial soul, he notes, but if the physical universe is all, why do we believe ourselves to be free agents with independent wills? The answer, for Dennett (Center for Cognitive Studies/Tufts Univ.), lies in the gradual development from simpler to more complex life forms. A primordial cell has little to do beyond absorbing nourishment and avoiding being absorbed in turn by its larger neighbors. Yet such completely determined phenomena as the computer game Life, in which two-dimensional shapes follow rigid rules, can give rise to startling complexity, even the illusion of conscious action. Complex living creatures, such as the proverbial free bird, have more options. But moral choice remains the crux of the matter. Dennett takes as a test case Martin Luther's dictum “Here I stand; I can do no other.” In what sense was Luther incapable of acting differently? Certainly not in the same way as a primitive organism with only one response to a given stimulus; if that were so, it would display neither virtue nor courage to take such a stand. The “Prisoner's Dilemma” of game theory seems to prove that betrayal is the most rational choice: how, then, has cooperation arisen in the real world? Much of the answer lies in social evolution. Language allows communities to perpetuate their beliefs and customs, enabling the like-minded to protect themselves against predatory outsiders. Dennett spends much of the text debating his professional rivals, but he is always ready to offer real-world examples of his points and rarely ducks tough questions.

Difficult but nonetheless stimulating look into the roots of freedom and responsibility.

Pub Date: Feb. 10, 2003

ISBN: 0-670-03186-0

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2002



This a book of earlier, philosophical essays concerned with the essential "absurdity" of life and the concept that- to overcome the strong tendency to suicide in every thoughtful man-one must accept life on its own terms with its values of revolt, liberty and passion. A dreary thesis- derived from and distorting the beliefs of the founders of existentialism, Jaspers, Heldegger and Kierkegaard, etc., the point of view seems peculiarly outmoded. It is based on the experience of war and the resistance, liberally laced with Andre Gide's excessive intellectualism. The younger existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, with their gift for the terse novel or intense drama, seem to have omitted from their philosophy all the deep religiosity which permeates the work of the great existentialist thinkers. This contributes to a basic lack of vitality in themselves, in these essays, and ten years after the war Camus seems unaware that the life force has healed old wounds... Largely for avant garde aesthetes and his special coterie.

Pub Date: Sept. 26, 1955

ISBN: 0679733736

Page Count: 228

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1955


A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

A teacher and scholar of Buddhism offers a formally varied account of the available rewards of solitude.

“As Mother Ayahuasca takes me in her arms, I realize that last night I vomited up my attachment to Buddhism. In passing out, I died. In coming to, I was, so to speak, reborn. I no longer have to fight these battles, I repeat to myself. I am no longer a combatant in the dharma wars. It feels as if the course of my life has shifted onto another vector, like a train shunted off its familiar track onto a new trajectory.” Readers of Batchelor’s previous books (Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, 2017, etc.) will recognize in this passage the culmination of his decadeslong shift away from the religious commitments of Buddhism toward an ecumenical and homegrown philosophy of life. Writing in a variety of modes—memoir, history, collage, essay, biography, and meditation instruction—the author doesn’t argue for his approach to solitude as much as offer it for contemplation. Essentially, Batchelor implies that if you read what Buddha said here and what Montaigne said there, and if you consider something the author has noticed, and if you reflect on your own experience, you have the possibility to improve the quality of your life. For introspective readers, it’s easy to hear in this approach a direct response to Pascal’s claim that “all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Batchelor wants to relieve us of this inability by offering his example of how to do just that. “Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it,” he writes. “When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.” Whatever a soul is, the author goes a long way toward soothing it.

A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-25093-0

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Nov. 24, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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