Readers seeking a more humane, more direct orientation would do well to dust off Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (1974),...

THE MEANING OF SCIENCE

AN INTRODUCTION TO THE PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE

What is science? In this sporadically interesting primer, Lewens (Philosophy of Science/Cambridge Univ.; Cultural Evolution: Conceptual Challenges, 2015, etc.) mostly answers by saying what science isn’t.

“What is the meaning of science? This is not a question that science will answer on its own.” Look closely at the formulation as Wittgenstein might, and you have a justification for why philosophers of science should draw a paycheck—after all, the scientists can’t tell you what it all means, and someone has to. That’s all to the good, but some of what Lewens explores isn’t really the province of science. The ancient question of whether humans possess free will is not one that science as such bothers with, though it has some bearing on cognitive research. The author’s answer is characteristically hedged. “Neuroscience,” he writes, “has not yet shown freedom to be an illusion.” Not yet, but come the singularity, watch out. The issue of what constitutes an appropriate problem for science is material, for, as Lewens notes toward the end of the book, there is much debate among philosophers of science—less among scientists, of course—whether “the facts revealed by chemistry, biology, and psychology are all, in some fundamental sense, facts of physics.” To his credit, on the matter of domains of inquiry, the author notes that science can generally do without theories of “human nature,” which again fall to the social sciences and, yes, philosophy. At its best, the book raises provocative questions, but all too often, those questions are—well, in the form of questions, too many piled atop one another: “What do we mean when we say that a theory is simple? Do we mean it is easy to work with? Do we mean it asserts the existence of very few new theoretical entities?” The constant grilling is an annoying professorial tic, and one wishes for less of it.

Readers seeking a more humane, more direct orientation would do well to dust off Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (1974), dated but still valuable.

Pub Date: Jan. 26, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-465-09748-7

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2015

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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

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An erudite and artful, though frustratingly restrained, look at Old Testament stories.

THE BOOK OF GENESIS ILLUSTRATED

The Book of Genesis as imagined by a veteran voice of underground comics.

R. Crumb’s pass at the opening chapters of the Bible isn’t nearly the act of heresy the comic artist’s reputation might suggest. In fact, the creator of Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural is fastidiously respectful. Crumb took pains to preserve every word of Genesis—drawing from numerous source texts, but mainly Robert Alter’s translation, The Five Books of Moses (2004)—and he clearly did his homework on the clothing, shelter and landscapes that surrounded Noah, Abraham and Isaac. This dedication to faithful representation makes the book, as Crumb writes in his introduction, a “straight illustration job, with no intention to ridicule or make visual jokes.” But his efforts are in their own way irreverent, and Crumb feels no particular need to deify even the most divine characters. God Himself is not much taller than Adam and Eve, and instead of omnisciently imparting orders and judgment He stands beside them in Eden, speaking to them directly. Jacob wrestles not with an angel, as is so often depicted in paintings, but with a man who looks not much different from himself. The women are uniformly Crumbian, voluptuous Earth goddesses who are both sexualized and strong-willed. (The endnotes offer a close study of the kinds of power women wielded in Genesis.) The downside of fitting all the text in is that many pages are packed tight with small panels, and too rarely—as with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah—does Crumb expand his lens and treat signature events dramatically. Even the Flood is fairly restrained, though the exodus of the animals from the Ark is beautifully detailed. The author’s respect for Genesis is admirable, but it may leave readers wishing he had taken a few more chances with his interpretation, as when he draws the serpent in the Garden of Eden as a provocative half-man/half-lizard. On the whole, though, the book is largely a tribute to Crumb’s immense talents as a draftsman and stubborn adherence to the script.

An erudite and artful, though frustratingly restrained, look at Old Testament stories.

Pub Date: Oct. 19, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-393-06102-4

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2009

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