Archive for category philosophy

What do I need to add to my list of ‘books to read’? (list below)

Books I Want To Read


1984 – Orwell
A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
Alas, Babylon – Pat Frank
Animal Farm – George Orwell
At the Mountains of Madness – Lovecraft
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
The Brothers Karamazov – Dostoyevsky
Contact – Carl Sagan
The Crucible – Arthur Miller
The Death of Ivan Ilyich – Tolstoy
Dhalgren –  Samuel Delany
The Divine Comedy – Dante
Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes
Dune – Frank Herbert
The Engines of God – Jack McDevitt
Faust – Goethe
Fear and Trembling – Kierkegaard
Frankenstein – Mary Shelly
Galapagos – Kurt Vonnegut
Gateway – Frederik Pohl
A Good Man Is Hard to Find – Flannery O’Connor
Great Expectations – Dickens
Hamlet – Shakespeare
Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace
King Lear – Shakespeare
Leaves of Grass – Walt Whitman
Light in August – Faulkner
Lolita – Nabakov
The Luzhin Defense – Nabakov
The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick
The Master and Margarita – Bulgakov
Les Miserables – Victor Hugo
Moby Dick – Melville
The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco
Nausea – Sartre
The Odyssey – Homer
The Old Man and the Sea – Hemingway
One Day in the LIfe of Ivan Denisovich – Solzhenitsyn
Pale Fire – Nabakov
Paradise Lost – Milton
The Pillars of the Earth – Ken Follett
The Plague – Camus
The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
Rainbow’s End – Vernor Vinge
Ubik – Philip K. Dick
The Rama Series – Arthur C. Clarke
The Road – McCarthy
The Sirens of Titan – Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse-Five – Vonnegut
Song of Kali – Dan SImmons
The Sorrows of Young Werther – Goethe
The Sparrow – Mary Doria Russell
Thus Spoke Zarathustra – Nietzsche
The Stranger – Camus
Stranger In A Strange Land – Heinlein
A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
The Trial – Kafka
The Turn of the Screw – Henry James
Watership Down – Richard Adams
Wizard – John Varley

[“(VSI)” indicates that the book is part of Oxford Press’ “Very Short Introduction” series.]

After Religion – Vattimo
After Theory – Terry Eagleton
Authentic Happiness – Seligman
Beyond Good and Evil – Nietzsche
Beyond the Pleasure Principle – Freud
The Birth of Tragedy – Nietzsche
Blink – Malcolm Gladwell
The Brain (VSI)
A Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking
A Brief History of Western Philosophy – Robert Solomon
Christ – Jack Miles
Christian Spirituality – Alilster McGrath
Civilization and its Discontents – Freud
Confessions – St. Augustine
Consciousness Explained – Dennett
Critique of Religion and Philosophy – Walter Kaufmann
De Anima – Aristotle
The Death of God and the Meaning of Life – Julian Young
Desire – William B. Irvine
The Ego and the Id – Freud
Either/Or – Kierkegaard
The Elements of Style – Strunk and White
Enchiridion – Epictetus
Existentialism, from Dostoyevsky to Sartre – Kaufmann
Existentialism is a Humanism – Sartre
Finite and Infinite Games – James P. Carse
Flow – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Freedom Evolves – Dennett
Freud and Beyond, a history of psychoanalysis – Mitchell and Black
God – Etienne Gilson
God, a biography – Jack Miles
The God We Never Knew – Marcus Borg
Godel Escher Bach – Hofstader
The Good Life – William B. Irvine
Greek Mythology – Edith Hamilton
Hegel – (Solomon or Kaufmann or Singer)
A History of Christian Thought – Paul Tillich
A History of Christianity – Paul Johnson
A History of Western Philosophy – Bertrand Russell
I Am A Strange Loop – Douglas Hofstader
I and Thou – Martin Buber
Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis – Freud
Jesus, a biography – Paul Johnson
Jesus Through Middle-Eastern Eyes – Bailey
The Koran
Man and His Symbols – Carl Jung
Man’s Search for Meaning – Victor Frankl
The Many Faces of Realism – Putnam
Mathematics (VSI)
Meditations – Marcus Aurelius
Metaphysics and the Idea of God – Pannenberg
Modern Philosophy – Roger Scruton
Modernism – Christopher Butler
Naming and Necessity – Kripke
A New History of Western Philosophy – Anthony Kenny
New Seeds of Contemplation – Thomas Merton
On Belief – Zizek
On Writing – Stephen King
Paul – N.T. Wright
A People’s History of the World
Philosophical Investigations – Wittgenstein
Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature – Rorty
The Philosophy of Science (VSI)
Postmodern Theory – Best and Kellner
Pragmatism – William James
The Pragmatism Reader – Talisse and Aikin
Principles of Mathematical Philosophy – Russell
Psychology (VSI)
Quantum Physics (VSI)
Rapt – Gallagher
Reading the Bible Again for the First Time – Marcus Borg
The Resurrection of the Son of God – N.T. Wright
The Right to Write − Cameron
The Secular Age – Charles Taylor
The Singularity Is Near – Ray Kurzweil
Sources of Self – Taylor
Spirituality for Skeptics – Robert Solomon
The Story of Christian Theology – Roger E. Olson
The Story of Thought – Bryan Magee
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – Thomas Kuhn
Stumbling on Happiness – Daniel Goldman
The Symbolism of Evil – Paul Ricoeur
Tao Te Ching – Lao Tsu
Truth and Method – Gadamer
The Unity of Knowledge – E. O. Wilson
Varieties of Religious Experience – William James
The View from Nowhere – Nagel
Walden – Thoreau
The World as Will and Representation – Schopenhauer
Your Memory – Kenneth Higbee



An evolutionary explanation for why women are wimps

My girlfriend was running the other day. And daydreaming. So she fell and scraped up her elbow and hands. She bragged to me that she didn’t cry, but, to a twenty-five year old male, that doesn’t strike me as too impressive. As I’ve heard over the past few days how painful her scrapes are, I’ve reflected on just why women seem to be such wimps about physical pain. Here’s my probably false, but fairly plausible evolutionary explanation.

There is a biological basis for women’s wimpery. The part of their brains that process emotions are more intimately connected to the parts of their brains that process physical pain. This keeps them from being able to psychologically “distance” themselves from their pain – from putting it out of their minds in the way men commonly do. The reason for this neurological fact about women provides them with an evolutionary advantage: empathy. One’s ability to empathize with the needs and feelings of others is often fostered by reflecting on one’s own feelings. The more pain you feel then, the more likely you are to reflect on it, and the more you reflect on it, the more you understand what it’s like when you see others in similar discomforts, and so the more likely you are to care when you see their pain. This might at first seem like an evolutionary disadvantage, but it’s not. While empathizing may lead you to put yourself in a hazardous situation – say, to help save the life of another – it is also quite helpful in the evolutionary game of pass-on-the-genes. Here’s why. Imagine a cro-magnon mother who has no empathy for others. She would certainly be self-sufficient, and wouldn’t find herself in those hazardous situations that empathy might lead into. But she won’t be very good at passing on her genes. This is because, in order for your genes to make their way successfully into future generations, you have to mate, and your children have to live. A lack of empathy would hinder both – especially the second. If you can’t empathize, you won’t be very caring, as I said. If you’re not very caring though, you’ll probably make a poor mother, especially if you live in a hostile environment where infant mortality is high. The unsympathetic cro-magnon mother has a much higher chance of losing her child to malnutrition, mishandling, or general neglect because she just doesn’t care enough. If her child dies, so do her genes. In this way, females with more empathic brain structures are selected for by evolution. Which leaves us, after thousands of generations, with the empathic brain structures that make girls such wimps.

But I’m sure that’s all bs.


Love…or something

During the last two semesters I’ve been occasionally involved in conversations about people falling in love with, marrying, and/or having sex with strange things. From these conversations about the real lives of real people, an interesting picture of the possibilities for human experience – the possibilities for living a subjectively satisfying life – emerges. As it turns out, those possibilities are much wider and more bizarre than we’re accustomed to think. Here’s proof:

Guys and Dolls, a great documentary on men whose significant others are expensive, anatomically correct, female dolls (a la, “Lars and the Real Girl”).

A couple who divorce after the husband is caught having sex with a prostitute…via his avatar in the game, Second Life. Not too surprising, given that they met, dated, and married in the game.

A woman who has loved many an inanimate object takes it all the way, by marrying the Eiffel Tower: part 1part 2.

A man who has been arrested for having sex with a horse. Twice. Same horse.  (I feel a bit bad for posting this, considering what he says at the end, but it’s of course up to each individual to be compassionate).

Another man arrested for (repeatedly) making some love to a picnic table.

A forum full of surprisingly decent sounding people who just happen to be in (sometimes quite committed) loving, physical relationships with their pets.

I’ve found more bizarre examples, but the voice of prudence suggests I quit a few posts ago.

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What’s so good about beautiful stuff?

Here’s a question that might help:

Imagine that a new planet has been discovered in a remote corner of the galaxy. Not only is it very far away, it is also surrounded by a massive, but nearly invisible, radioactive cloud emanating from the planet’s core. There is, then, no hope that we will ever be able to visit this planet. No one will, and no life exists there.

We can tell, though, from the refractions of the atmosphere that this planet is even more beautiful than it is inaccessible. We can tell (though we can’t see the planet ourselves) from the light bouncing off its atmosphere, that, because of its odd location, the landscape must be marked by waterfalls, canyons, planes of ice, and diamond, and mountains that make any of earths features pale by comparison. We can tell, with certainty, that this world is one of the most beautiful places imaginable. But, we will never see it. We can only imagine it from the energy it radiates. And no one else will ever see it either.

As it happens though, because of its odd physical makeup, if we were to fire a high-energy lazer into its atmosphere, it would heat the atmosphere along with the odd elements in the planets core to the point that it would explode into a gigantic glowing nebula. This nebula would be so volatile and energetic that it would appear to us as a constant, evolving cloud of brilliant colors in the nights sky for thousands of years, like a huge, silent undulating show of fireworks. Since this planet is in such a remote, lifeless area of the galaxy, no one would ever be harmed by it, and because the light in our sky would be softer than the full moon, it would have no effect on our planet other than providing us with new, exquisite beauty. But this, at the cost of destroying a planet that is even more beautiful, but which will never be seen.

You alone have been given the choice to destroy the planet, and thus provide the world with great (though lesser) beauty, or to not fire, and allow a place of perfect, but invisible, beauty to persist.

What would you choose?

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The Secret Side of Fear

I am currently pretty distressed about something specific happening in the next few weeks. This thing will almost certainly not happen. But I am worried nonetheless. Why? Because this utterly remote possibility, if it were to happen, would completely change my life. But it won’t happen. In all likelihood, it won’t happen.

Why worry then? In my rationalizations, I say to myself just what I said above. I worry not because this event is likely, but because it would be completely life-altering. This, I think, is a lie. There are all sorts of potentially life-altering events that are possible, but unlikely, but it makes no sense to walk around worrying over whether a terrorist attack will hit your city, or lightning will strike you, or you will contract some terrible disease. Yet, I am not alone in my pathological worrying.

My pathology with my own unnamed worry makes me think of a psychological study that was done on youngish (20’s-40’s) people just after the Cold War. During the Cold War there was a constant, pervasive worry that the earth would soon be wiped clean of the whole of humanity by a nuclear war. Fallout shelters were built, families stocked up on non-perishables, and children were taught to seek shelter from the impending holocaust under classroom desks. It was a unique time it seems.

But about the study. The study was on the psychological after-effects of the Cold War mentality. While this “war” officially ended after the collapse of the Soviet Union in ’91, this pervasive doom-and-gloom idea that the world was about to be destroyed had faded out well before that time. The study then looked at the psychological states of people, who had recently believed the apocalypse was immanent, after it became clear that the future was quite a bit brighter. Oddly, what the study found was that, across the board, people were, subjectively, much happier when they thought the end was near than they were after they realized life could go on as ‘normal’. In fact, levels of depression shot up quite noticeably after the “war” ended, and it seems to have had no connection to anything else (like economics). The conclusion? People are actually happier when they think that some drastic shift in the foundations of their existence is about to happen, even if that shift is clearly for the worse, than they are when they perceive life to be rolling on as usual.

Why is this? I don’t have much of an answer other than maybe an obvious one: life-as-usual for most people means boring, and boring sucks. It seems like an overstatement to say that people would rather think the whole earth is about to be consumed in flames than think that they’ll still be going to their jobs come monday, but maybe it isn’t. I have to admit, life in a post-apocalyptic world was one of my favorite childhood fantasies (and I’m still pretty childish in that respect).

To bring it to my case though. It’s interesting to note that these people really did worry their faces off about the world ending. They lost sleep. They cried at night with their spouses after tucking their soon-to-be-ashes children into bed. But that life was, on the whole, more existentially satisfying than a life characterized by regularity and banality. So, I lied, I do have an answer for why that’s the case: A life lived within the tension of the possibility of drastic change is more satisfying because it provides a sense of drama. I don’t mean drama in the negative, you’re-such-a-drama-queen sense, but drama in the sense of Grand Drama – the drama that makes life worth doing. Drama, in this grand sense, provides a venue in which our values matter. We value our children, our lovers, our sense of nobility, our ability to withstand the terrible, and a thousand other things. Your nine-to-five job might pay your bills, but it doesn’t provide any avenue to express, or, more importantly, to experience those values deeply. But an impending holocaust does. You can plan and build your bomb shelter, worrying over how to save the ones you love. You can tuck your children into bed with a newfound desire to cherish every simple moment. Even shopping gains dramatic significance. Which items will last the longest? Feed the most? Take up less valuable space?

This, I think, is why we worry. Not because we’re sorry, masochistic sinners, but because worry is a type of care, and when the world grows so monotonous that we have little to care deeply about, we take every chance we can to write our own stories, in our heads, about a world where there’s something to care about. Even if those stories don’t jive with the statistics.

But, I still hope that my worry doesn’t come true.


Reflection and evil

“What attracts men to evil acts is not the evil in them, but the good that is there, seen under a false aspect and with a distorted perspective. The good seen from that angle is only the bait in a trap. When you reach out to take it, the trap is sprung and you are left with disgust, boredom – and hatred. Sinners are people who hate everything, because their world is necessarily full of betrayal, full of illusion, full of deception. And the greatest sinners are the most boring people in the world, because they are also the most bored, and the ones who find life most tedious. When they try to cover the tedium of life with noise, excitement, and violence – the inevitable fruits of a life devoted to the love of values that do not exist – they become something more than boring, they are the scourges of the world…” – Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

Merton’s right. He’s really just echoing Augustine, who first noticed (to my knowledge) what I remember concluding one day in my dad’s dented, smoke-stained red truck as we headed toward another night of tense quiet – that badness is just the absence of goodness. It sounds much more profound, much more like a discovery, when Augustine said it (which shows that poetic skill is often all that separates children from great philosophers).

The revelation does mean something though. It’s worth some consideration, for we all, from time to time, more often than we like to think, and more often than we realize, find ourselves clenching our teeth after the trap snaps shut on us, leaving us empty-handed, or with hands full of filth after some ill attempt at getting a bit of happiness through wickedness, or meanness, or selfishness. And this sick feeling of disappointment and disgust with ourselves is just that contrast between the good we sough and the filth we procured in the seeking. It’s the realization of this contrast that gives rise to our own self-revulsion, our guilt, and it leaves us with just a few options to go on with: we can put our clothes back on, resolved not to compromise again, not to fudge the boundaries and do the bad thing, holding to our conviction that this was not the right way, or we can choose to continue as we have, numbing our sense of shame and nausea little by little with each repeated infraction. If we are heady enough, we might even call this enlightenment – emancipation from the puritanical values thrust upon us from some dark age, which still inflict us with the pins and needles of some long-amputated appendage still trying to wake.

This second path is possible. We’ve taken it already in a thousand ways, numbing our horror with joking, with art, with tightened jowls, and we can continue, continue on forever until we are as hollow and pleasantly numb as we long to be when we are committing evil, because this is just the desire of the person in the act – that their soul would quell its disgust, or at least quiet its cries of revulsion so that we may continue toward pleasure – a real good – via some dark and destructive route. This amounts to nothing more than a ceasing of reflection. This numbing, this deadening, is not the deadening of the soul that apprehends the moral character of our acts, but is rather the deadening of the mind that sees, quietly, without thesis or elaboration at times, the destruction ahead.

Let’s not go that way. – What then? Merton does not admit here that the wicked could ever escape their boredom, but in the way mentioned above they can. He is simply to hopeful that people either won’t or can’t stop reflecting. But we have. And this is the road to evil. Without our own evaluation of our acts, with the possibility in mind that we might ruin ourselves or others, we will be totally unchained, completely animal.

This is why it’s worth reading, learning, philosophizing. Not because you might win Jeopardy, or score well on whatever ill-conceived standardized test you’ll have to take to do something even more tedious and itself devoid of value. We learn so that we might have categories, instances, examples, and estimates with which to reflect on our own lives. If we don’t have this, we will live as stupidly and ungladly as tyrants.

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Feel naked without your cell phone? Well…

The pain you’re about to watch this kid go through is different only in degree; not in kind. The setup is this: kid’s mother takes away his gaming privileges, kid’s brother quickly plants video camera in brother’s room, and we get to watch him flip over no longer being able to play World of Warcraft. Watch before reading on.

So, what I want to point out here is this: once we get past the hilarity of someone absolutely losing it over a video game and take a real look at what’s going on, we’ll see that this kid is experiencing a loss so deep and intense that it’s maddening. The way he behaves is hilarious at first because of how inappropriately extreme it is, but when you consider that very fact, you have to see that the dude has really built a lot on this game, a lot of himself. So, when he loses it, he reacts with the sort of insane grief people experience when they lose a child. Parents react this way to the death of children because their children are the most important thing to them, and this is how we react when our most important thing is snatched suddenly. This kid is going through that and at first it’s hilarious, but it’s hilarity is telling. Not only does it tell us how extreme we think it is (and that extremity turns out to be disturbing), but it tells us that we understand it, that it sort of makes sense to us. Otherwise it couldn’t be hilarious; it could only be confusing. So, this kids extreme-yet-comprehendible behavior is evidence of the shift we’re making: a transplanting of values as we step into a new world.

Note: The video Josh posted below, as should probably be expected, contains some naughty words. So turn your speakers down if you need to.

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