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

FREEDOM EVOLVES

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 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2002

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

Did you like this book?

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

THE ART OF SOLITUDE

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. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

Did you like this book?

more