On Philosophy

July 10, 2006

Review: Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey

Filed under: Reviews — Peter @ 12:22 am

Modern Philosophy, by Robert Scruton, is a book that attempts to cover almost every subject investigated by modern philosophers. You may think I kid, but chapters cover topics such as truth, god, science, the even the soul. Of course with so many topics no one subject can be discussed in great depth. Instead the author attempts to present a brief overview of modern thought on the subject, as well as his own take on it. This makes each section an entertaining read, since he presents many arguments while at the same time making an original point of his own. In my opinion too many books focus either exclusively on the writings of other authors, making them simply summaries of ideas, or they focus exclusively on developing their own argument, which leaves the question open as to how their argument addresses issues raised by other philosophers.

From this presentation you may get the idea that the book is an excellent choice for those new to philosophy. Although it is true that anyone can read this book an understand it, which is definitely a good thing, it takes someone who has had previous experience with philosophical argument to get the most value out of it. This is because to able to evaluate the arguments put forward by the author one needs to be able to critically analyze them, which requires, among other things, a familiarity with philosophical argument in general, the ability to raise and refute ones own objections, and knowledge of common thought experiments. I worry that someone without such a background will simply think that the author’s own arguments are the last word on the subject, and thus be somewhat confused as to why philosophers continue to debate them.

This book also demonstrates how it is possible to both be religious and a good philosopher. Although the author is religious he does not let his beliefs get in the way of his arguments, and never once did he argue for or against a particular conclusion by appeal to his beliefs. This is an admirable trait, and one many other religious philosophers are not able to emulate. (Just in case you are curious: most modern philosophers, myself included, are not religious. Neither are most modern scientists.)

Of course no book is perfect, and I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t inform you of its flaws as well. In terms of content the book has two gaping omissions. One is that it ignores the AI debate, at least for the most part. Since the AI question has become central to much of the modern debate about consciousness I expected it to have at least a chapter of its own. The other glaring omission is the topic of ethics. Ethics is generally considered to be one of the three main branches of philosophy (the others being metaphysics and epistemology). However ethics only merits one chapter, entitled “Morality”, out of the 31 total chapters. Finally, I would criticize the last two chapters. What for the most part is a series of clean arguments contrasts sharply with the poorly constructed and vague arguments contained in the last two chapters (at least in my opinion). Perhaps I simply don’t understand the assumptions being made, or the way in which the author is using certain terms.

Other Uses:

Weighing in at 610 pages the book makes quite a handy paperweight if you need one. It also contains a rather extensive list of references in the back (roughly 100 pages), which serve as a good guide for further reading. Finally, if you wanted to make your own philosophy blog you could do one post per chapter and have a couple of months worth of material. (In fact several of my posts have been in response to the material contained in one or more chapters.)

Overall Score:

Philosophical value: 8/10
Style: 7/10

See it on Amazon ($12)

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June 6, 2006

Review: Breaking the Spell

Filed under: Reviews — Peter @ 3:09 pm

Breaking the Spell is Dennett’s latest book, in which he examines the origins and benefits of religion from a naturalistic standpoint.

Unlike many books on religion Dennett never makes a claim as to whether or not god actually exists as part of his arguments. In fact he attempts to make sure that his arguments will be valid in either case. As Dennett mentions even if you believe that your religion was divinely inspired, you still have to explain where all the other religions on the planet came from. In fact Dennett spends one third of his book defending the idea that the phenomena of religion (not the content of religious beliefs) can and should be investigated scientifically.

Carefully tiptoeing to avoid offending religious readers, Dennett proceeds to construct an account of the origins of religion, from the extremely primitive up to modern times. Although we don’t have the evidence needed to be absolutely sure of this story, as Dennett admits, his reasoning is sound. This is probably the most extensively researched section of the book, and I expect that it will be the most quoted, but it is also the least philosophically interesting.

Finally Dennett proposes to address the question “should we be religious?”, in terms of the benefits of religion, not its accuracy. Dennett does show that morality is not dependant on religion, but since the book isn’t on ethics he doesn’t propose an alternate theory of morality. Unfortunately Dennett’s conclusions concerning religion are fairly weak; he does not take a definite stance on whether religion, as a whole, is harmful or not. It is true that we don’t have enough data to support, in full, either position yet, but I think it would have been interesting to hear Dennett’s opinion on the issue, even if his opinion wasn’t guaranteed to be true. The one thing that Dennett does condemn is teaching children that they are not allowed to question certain ideas, which could be considered a criticism of a part of most religions, but then again it is not only religious beliefs children are raised not to question.

For some the most interesting part of the books may be its appendices. In them Dennett defends more thoroughly the position that scientific investigation will reveal objective truths (which is important since his book is a scientific investigation into the truths about religion). The appendices also defend the idea the memes can be considered to evolve. Much of Dennett’s conclusions rest on the idea that memes really do exist and can evolve; however not everyone is convinced that this is true, hence the appendix.

As a philosopher I find the origins of religion to be somewhat interesting, as are religions’ practical benefits, but that the more important question is whether the contents of religious belief are right or not. Even if religion did emerge in a total natural fashion that does not show that it can’t be right; mathematics also came about naturally and few philosophers doubt its validity. Dennett does not tackle this question, since it is only peripherally related to his investigation, but I wish he had.

Other Uses:
Dennett’s work may be useful to you if you are studying other social phenomena besides religion. Sports, courtship rituals, economic systems, all of these have changed over time to reach their present forms. Using the tools Dennett presents could help guide an investigation into why and how they became what they are now.

Alternatively you could use this book to help become a better cult leader. Dennett describes why religious practices emerge, and what makes them successful, so it shouldn’t be too hard to capitalize on this information to make a better cult. Should you have complex rituals or simple ones? Should you make potential members pay costs to enter the cult or should it be free? Dennett’s books can help you answer these questions.

Overall Score

Intellectual value: 9/10
Philosophical value: 3/10
Style: 8/10

See it on Amazon ($16)

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