This is a really beautiful book in many ways. It's inspiring in the way so much of Sagan's writing is, that measured optimism that comes through so of...moreThis is a really beautiful book in many ways. It's inspiring in the way so much of Sagan's writing is, that measured optimism that comes through so often in Cosmos. The chapters near the beginning, regarding what he refers to as the "Great Demotions," are my favorites. The final, speculative chapters--and their illustrations--often raised a few tingles. He's especially good at triggering that sense of cosmic awe that I felt as a boy staring up into the night sky.
The middle portions are more prosaic and regard the history of the space program and of current (relatively...the book was written in the 1990s) knowledge in planetary science. These certainly have their moments, but they tend not to capture the imagination the way the others do.(less)
Pinker is slightly short of an intellectual god to me, and has been since I read The Language Instinct in 1997. I can't recommend a better book on the...morePinker is slightly short of an intellectual god to me, and has been since I read The Language Instinct in 1997. I can't recommend a better book on the big shifting current in psychology and philosophy of mind. Pinker does a magnificent job of explaining why these issues are anything but esoteric.(less)
A great bio that has an advantage over previous Einstein bios in that it was written after the release of his private letters in the late 90s. Also th...moreA great bio that has an advantage over previous Einstein bios in that it was written after the release of his private letters in the late 90s. Also the clearest explanations of special and general relativity I've ever read. I actually think I understand it now! (Though, of course, I probably don't.)(less)
I opened up this book fully expecting to find some well-formed criticism of the less intelligent aspects of the new atheist "movement." I too had felt...moreI opened up this book fully expecting to find some well-formed criticism of the less intelligent aspects of the new atheist "movement." I too had felt that Hitchens and Harris especially paint Islam with too broad a brush. But instead of a the insight I've come to expect from Hedges in the past, what I found was a deeply dishonest work that paints not with a broad brush but with paint balloons. Hedges represents the ideas of "these atheists" so falsely, with so much ad hominem rudeness and removal of context, that "straw man" doesn't even begin to describe it. A few points:
1. He cites the authors he's supposedly critiquing a whopping total of 29 times in the whole book. That 29 includes 2 for E.O. Wilson (?) and another 16 for Hitchens alone. This should be a red flag.
2. He makes blanket accusations about what they (as if they were all the same person) believe that are flatly untrue. At the center of his argument is a bizarre and ultimately cynical claim that they believe humanity can reach moral perfection if we could only just weed out those who don't think like them. Unsurprisingly, although he makes this claim over and over and over (...and over...), he never directly cites even one of them claiming it. The reason is simple: They never do. Every time Hedges says their problem is that they don't believe in human corruptibility, I wonder if he understands anything at all about evolutionary psychology. The basic point here is that he's utterly incorrect about a fundamental part of his argument. And I don't mean he's incorrect in some moral or philosophical sense. Rather, the claims he makes are flat out demonstrably untrue.
3. He argues that scientific secularism lacks a sense of sacred beauty. This, too, is hogwash. Where is Carl Sagan when you need him? How about Neil DeGrasse Tyson? How about Dawkins even (Unweaving the Rainbow). What a bull-headed claim this is.
4. His attacks are really malignant. At one point, he references a debate he had with Harris. When Harris stated that a number of studies and polls contradict Hedges' own personal experience from living in the Muslim world, Hedges calls it "non-thought." Well, I hate to break it to him, but Harris is right. One person's view, no matter how sophisticated and long-term, is never going to be as meaningful as multiple, well-crafted social surveys. He reminds me of an old man who smokes a pack of day, lives to be a hundred, and then snipes that anyone who things cigarettes are dangerous is an idiot and he's the proof. (Two more telling notes on this point: a) I hope it's obvious that Hedges is practically carrying a sign saying he doesn't understand the scientific method or statistics. b) Very cynically, when a transcription from the debate is included in the book, he includes all of Harris' fillers and pauses and leaves his own out. I watched the debate online, and what comes off in the book as Harris sounding like an stuttering buffoon is exactly the opposite in actuality.)
There are many more problems I had with the book (in addition to the non-sensical title, of course), but it's getting late, and I've probably lost you by now anyway, so I'll just leave it. What a shameful little screed this is.(less)
Rubenstein's book explores the impact that the rediscovery of Aristotle had on Western/Christian thought in the 13th and 14th centuries, and by extens...moreRubenstein's book explores the impact that the rediscovery of Aristotle had on Western/Christian thought in the 13th and 14th centuries, and by extension to the present day. Though occasionally a bit dry in style, I found it to be an excellent survey of medieval scholasticism and its interrelationship with the Catholic Church. Inasmuch as I'd long been interested in learning more about the leading figures of this time such as William of Occam, Aquinas, Bonaventure, and Bacon--but had little taste for reading the original sources--I appreciated the book very much. Its great strength is to weave a considerable amount of Church and social history into the narrative to demonstrate the very real impact this philosophical & theological revolution had at the time. This is no irrelevant ivory tower struggle.
My one complaint, however, is that, from my limited experience with the subject, I feel he's crafted a straw man as the foil for his narrative. His main thesis, represented in the subtitle, is that the adoption of Aristotelian reason in the West, and thus the growth of secular science, came not from outside the Church but from religious thinkers within. Figures such as those listed above, and many others as well, are enlisted as support of this claim. What I find odd is not that the claim is incorrect but that I've never really heard anyone argue any different. Rubenstein claims that the dominant narrative of the development of Western science was that of a struggle between secularists and the religious. While that may be what it has become since the Enlightenment, I don't know of anyone who would say that was true in the late medieval period. Given that one was practically required to join holy orders in order to enter the growing European university system, it seems hard to see how it could be otherwise. And it's no big shock to find the Aristotelian revolution furthered by leading thinkers in the Church, since it was they who viewed Aristotle's methods as a way to progress theological thinking.
What we really have here is the story of how theology gave way to natural philosophy and, eventually, science. Again, it isn't as though he's wrong, but he seems to be arguing against a putatively dominant viewpoint that I at least am completely unaware of.
Still, the book is fair, doesn't soapbox either for religion or nonbelief, treats its source materials responsibly, and (for the lay reader) synthesizes the hugely important trends of the era in a way that is relevant and accessible.(less)
I'd been wanting to read something on population genetics and human evolution for a while, and I'd seen Spencer Wells a few times Nova, TED, etc. So,...moreI'd been wanting to read something on population genetics and human evolution for a while, and I'd seen Spencer Wells a few times Nova, TED, etc. So, at a breezy 196 pages, this seemed like a good idea. But, unfortunately, Wells is not a gifted writer. The information in the book was very interesting, and I'm ultimately glad I read it. But the writing was anything but inspiring. It was a downright slog to get through it because I kept falling asleep while reading.(less)