A thoughtful, accessible, and enlightening book.

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CONSCIENCE

THE ORIGINS OF MORAL INTUITION

The “founder of neurophilosophy” considers the complex, abstract idea of conscience.

MacArthur fellow Churchland (Emerita, Philosophy/Univ. of California, San Diego; Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain, 2013, etc.) draws on neuroscience, genetics, psychology, religion, and philosophy to offer a clear, informative examination of the meaning of conscience. How, she asks, do individuals develop a sense of right and wrong? To what extent is conscience shaped by the social world? What accounts for similarities of cooperation and sharing in human behavior? What accounts for psychopathology and for the disdain for honesty, kindness, and decency displayed by some celebrities and politicians? No discipline provides a complete answer to these formidable questions, but Churchland gleans insights from all. Neurobiology identifies the hormone oxytocin as having a large role in facilitating attachment between mothers and infants and between mates. In “strongly bonded marmosets,” for example, “fluctuations in oxytocin levels are synchronized.” The author notes, however, that no single hormone or genetic inheritance accounts for moral behavior. “Empathizing,” she underscores, “is not a single operation, in contrast to, say, an eye-blink response to a puff of air.” She was surprised to learn that some complicated personality traits are inheritable: Studies of identical and fraternal twins reveal a genetic link for traits such as extroversion, openness, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and emotional stability. But, Churchland cautions, these traits involve hundreds of genes and can be strongly influenced by one’s environment. Individuals learn caring behavior by internalizing social norms through a reward system: “the pleasure of social approval and the pain of social disapproval.” Psychopaths—narcissistic, pathological liars who show no guilt or remorse for their anti-social behavior—are puzzling outliers: Psychopaths have generated biochemical and psychological theories but no firm explanation for their lack of a moral compass. In addition to biology, Churchland looks to Judeo-Christian and Asian religions and to a range of philosophers who have grappled with ethical issues. She concludes, after all, that conscience “is a brain construct rooted in our neural circuity, not a theological entity thoughtfully parked in us by a divine being.”

A thoughtful, accessible, and enlightening book.

Pub Date: June 4, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-324-00089-1

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2019

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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

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A timely, vividly realized reminder to slow down and harness the restorative wonders of serenity.

STILLNESS IS THE KEY

An exploration of the importance of clarity through calmness in an increasingly fast-paced world.

Austin-based speaker and strategist Holiday (Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue, 2018, etc.) believes in downshifting one’s life and activities in order to fully grasp the wonder of stillness. He bolsters this theory with a wide array of perspectives—some based on ancient wisdom (one of the author’s specialties), others more modern—all with the intent to direct readers toward the essential importance of stillness and its “attainable path to enlightenment and excellence, greatness and happiness, performance as well as presence.” Readers will be encouraged by Holiday’s insistence that his methods are within anyone’s grasp. He acknowledges that this rare and coveted calm is already inside each of us, but it’s been worn down by the hustle of busy lives and distractions. Recognizing that this goal requires immense personal discipline, the author draws on the representational histories of John F. Kennedy, Buddha, Tiger Woods, Fred Rogers, Leonardo da Vinci, and many other creative thinkers and scholarly, scientific texts. These examples demonstrate how others have evolved past the noise of modern life and into the solitude of productive thought and cleansing tranquility. Holiday splits his accessible, empowering, and sporadically meandering narrative into a three-part “timeless trinity of mind, body, soul—the head, the heart, the human body.” He juxtaposes Stoic philosopher Seneca’s internal reflection and wisdom against Donald Trump’s egocentric existence, with much of his time spent “in his bathrobe, ranting about the news.” Holiday stresses that while contemporary life is filled with a dizzying variety of “competing priorities and beliefs,” the frenzy can be quelled and serenity maintained through a deliberative calming of the mind and body. The author shows how “stillness is what aims the arrow,” fostering focus, internal harmony, and the kind of holistic self-examination necessary for optimal contentment and mind-body centeredness. Throughout the narrative, he promotes that concept mindfully and convincingly.

A timely, vividly realized reminder to slow down and harness the restorative wonders of serenity.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-53858-5

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Portfolio

Review Posted Online: July 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2019

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