Leibniz: A Very Short Introduction
The great thing about Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introductions series is that they’re, well, very short. These monographs also tend to be quite informative, offering up the kind of broad précis one wants when a Wikipedia article just ain’t enough. And the complex and esoteric work of German (technically Saxon, a factoid I picked up from this little book) philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) is exactly the sort of intimidating subject that benefits from the Very Short Introductions treatment.
Of equal merit to the serious student and the armchair scholar, Maria Rosa Antognazza’s introduction provides a point of entry into the contentious, centuries-long conversation on Leibniz and his quest to find “a new, universal synthesis for the glory of God and the happiness of humankind.” Antognazza starts us out with a nice capsule biography before launching us into the finer points of Leibniz’s characteristica universalis, or universal system of signs, and other heavy topics, which she deftly handles.
While the author may be an authority on Leibniz (having penned several volumes on the man), this book is only a brief preface to further study: “a very short journey through possible worlds and what is ultimately real in the best of them all.”
Oxford University Press
Maria Rosa Antognazza
There is much that is mystifying in Daniel M. Harrison’s Butterflies: The Strange Metamorphosis of Fact and Fiction in Today’s World. Mystifying, but far from edifying. For instance, why is Butterflies classified under “Philosophy?” To characterize the book as such implies that thought-provoking analyses bolstered by the promise of plausibility might be contained within its pages. Not so. With its concatenation of logical fallacies, factual inaccuracies and cheap, drugstore mysticism doubling as ersatz vatic insight, Butterflies is an insult, rather than a contribution to that discipline. Moreover, it is difficult to decide which is more unsettling, that Butterflies has enjoyed commercial success or that this sham of a book was published—and not by a vanity press? Butterflies has been called “ambitious” and “challenging.” Those adjectives apply, but not on account of staggering insight, complexity, or originality—what makes the Harrison’s work challenging is its conceptual aimlessness.
The author often muddles recklessly through concepts and fields he does not fully grasp, from hard sciences to the humanities feigning a knowledge that his claims and blatant absence of legitimately cited research bely. In its prologue, Butterflies promises readers access to “hyper-reality,” defined as a “zone of hard-core truth.” This slighting treatment of a concept supposedly foundational for the narrative is symptomatic of the diseased superficiality that pervades Butterflies. Harrison’s definition of “hyper-reality,” elides the term’s place in intellectual history, overlooking how “hyper-reality” was a contested term of semiotics that surfaced most visibly in French Structuralism of the 1960s, a movement that would influence fields from musicology to history for decades to come. It still does. Harrison’s shameful oversimplification is either an intentional erasure, a sign of unpardonable ignorance, or tacit assumptions about the audience’s ignorance.
Butterflies has its virtues, however. Harrison brings 20th century geopolitics, globalization, and recent economic trends together with skill and in approachable, conversational prose. Also, the structure of Harrison’s work is creative. Each chapter oscillates, forming a braid between chapters on non-fiction and fiction. This interlacing of the two gradually becomes a chiasmus — fact comes to seem as improbable as fiction, while fiction adopts a degree of unrelenting brutality generally reserved for reality. Moreover, this structure harmonizes with a key theme in the book about the notional separation of those two categories.
Still, creative structure cannot forgive the lack of intellectual rigor, coupled with counterfeit certitude that pervades Harrison’s roughly non-fictional chapters. In one non-fiction passage, Harrison challenges the theory of relativity. Sadly, his obvious ignorance of basic physics makes his posturing as a Wunderkind- juggernaut ready to crush basic precepts of the field ridiculous. Elsewhere, Harrison alludes to historical moments and figures with varying degrees of inaccuracy, at one point presenting what is little more than a simplistic, unconvincing inversion of the Platonic Theory of Forms, as if it were a revelation. Is the author indulging in parody at his own expense or is Harrison merely delusional? The fiction chapters, which often glamorize a dissipated elite, high on ephemeral pleasures and hollow successes, are nearly unbearable. The reason for discomfort is not related to explicit sexual content, but because it is written so poorly (and exhibits a peculiar obsession with grounding description of girls [eerily] and women by their breasts, cup size, and all). Perhaps Harrison believes that what is provocative is, a posteriori, compelling. If the author had demonstrated the ability to use, rather than abuse, language (errors are not merely stylistic, but grammatical), these chapters might have been less agonizing to read. Though one might object that Harrison is transcending the conventions of the English language, that defense would only be valid if he had first demonstrated mastery of it. One press release advertised Butterflies as a “manifesto of the millennial age.” If so, Harrison’s work is little more than an inadvertent, likely unearned, condemnation of a generation and an epoch.
This reviewer fervently hopes that Harrison has not captured a new Zeitgeist–one where charlatans are sages and ‘wisdom’ is spouted by the ignorant or, worse, by those who prefer to pander to ignorance, rather than erase it. Perhaps he is merely constructing a vast cautionary tale. At least the Lost Generation, poised at the start of the 20th century, produced some writing that one hopes is as lasting as Butterflies is ephemeral.
Spectrum of Mind: An Inquiry into the Principles of the Mind and the Meaning of Life
Spectrum of Mind: An Inquiry into the Principles of the Mind and Meaning of Life is a book that explores the timeless quest for the true meaning of life, a quandary that has inspired philosophers, religious leaders, and scientists. Part philosophy, part scientific exploration, Spectrum argues “the understanding of ourselves is crucial to our lives” and strives to provide the reader not with answers, but, instead, with key concepts and methods used to search for the meaning of life. As the author explains, it is not his job to tell the reader what to think, but, rather, to provide them with what to think about, acting as a guide on a journey as a fellow mind.
A relatively short book, Yang packs a lot into these pages. He discusses not only quantum mechanics, the human mind, the role culture and religion play, but also where philosophy fits in, not leaving out the consideration of why seek meaning in the first place. Overall, the journey in seeking the meaning of life is, according to Yang, highly personal, and it is in the journey and not the destination where readers will find answers. This book is only a step in that direction along the journey.
While this is probably not a book for the casual reader, one who would rather be entertained than challenged or reflective, it is a book suited to a reader seeking to reconcile various—even conflicting—pieces of knowledge and values. Spectrum of Mind is a heavy book, but by no means impenetrable in terms of reading or concepts. Its goal is to expose the reader to various ways of thinking from the religious, scientific, and philosophic spectrum, in order to push the limits of knowledge and reason. This is a book for a reader with an interest in expanding their knowledge base and the intersection of science and philosophy, and also, of course, the reader seeking meaning on their journey of life.
Rational Polemics: Tackling the Ethical Dilemmas of Life
The format herein is a series of essays or musings. No attempt is expended to make weighty universal pronouncements, and, in fact, no attempt is made to use “proper” language, though the vocabulary is adult and educated. Editing is of a high level, and continuity within subjects is good. Those subjects are wide ranging and not picked for political correctness. In fact, the one word I would use to describe this ramble is “refreshing.”
Most of the ideas offered, and the explorations developed, will have some familiarity to long-term libertarians and even to many people who have simply engaged in brainstorming as sophomores. That does not diminish the book’s utility. As a direct result of Devens’ fearless approaches to intimidating topics, we are presented with an invaluable stretching tool for young minds, with a stimulus to resume thinking widely for older readers.
The writer quotes some weighty sources, but frequently just skips across a subject with the alacrity of an immortal negotiating a mine field. The fact that esoterica, like the morality of cannibalism under survival necessity and the courtesies of telephone courtship, are touched upon is an indicator of the freewheeling nature of this compendium.
I don’t want to trivialize Rational Polemics in the least. Devens has grounded his musings firmly in the rationality of freedom and free inquiry. He espouses self-ownership, the necessity of self-determination, and the sanctity of individuality.
“The Universal Farce” is his first chapter, with an exploration of the fallacies, con jobs, and irrationalities of religion, wherein the first mover/creator formula is debunked without any shyness. Devens credits the genesis of his book to long-standing disillusionment with religion. He does an admirable job gutting the fraud. In other segments, common courtesy, drug legalization, treatment of criminals, and the death penalty are addressed. Sometimes delving takes a good chapter, as on racism; elsewhere, as in drug legalization, a page and a half suffice.
If you have any interest in freedom of the mind, in personal freedoms, in thinking outside the box, this would be a good candidate for your bookshelf or for your high school or college student’s next gift.
Adequate Wisdom: Essays on the Nature of Existence
Adequate Wisdom: Essays on the Nature of Existence is an exhaustive collection of philosophical viewpoints presented for a layman. Smolin presents the general reader with an overview of essays that discuss existence, our cosmos, and the many different viewpoints held by people. The simplistic wording by Smolin makes these essays easy to comprehend and gives the general reader a framework to build a better understanding of “the nature of existence.”
The essays are short but concise. Covering a wide range of diverse subject matter, the essays can be read alone or as a whole. There is a great deal of information covered by Smolin, and he does an exceptional job organizing, arranging, and presenting the vast research that is clearly evident as you read through this book. Smolin goes into great depth exploring the nature of forms and processes, which provides the background necessary to discuss the myriad of subject matter contained in this book. The book is comprised of eight parts: Essentials, Questions and Ideas, Physical Existence, Biological & Human Existence, Trends & Other Matters, God & Religion, Humanity and Final Thoughts. “We can begin to piece together the varied components of existence, creating a clearer understanding of how the world works and then proposing guidelines to help us make wise decisions and lead meaningful lives.”
Smolin additionally includes some ideas based upon new research, for which further scrutiny and examination is warranted. “The obvious motif of this work is to embrace all components of the world and to suggest that everything is contingent upon everything else, while paradoxically allowing forms and processes to express themselves individually.” Most of the discussions cover scientific information and philosophical ideas, whereas, some of the discussions get a little more personal speaking about sexuality, self-control, religion, and state. While I may not agree with all of the contentions of the author, Smolin presents his work in a well-organized and classy form that leaves the reader open to explore his ideas.
Smolin’s essays cover diverse fields of life, philosophy, cosmology, sociology and psychology. “A key idea of adequate wisdom is the apparent duality between synergy and individualism, whereby virtually every form has its own function and structure while at the same time becoming part of another, greater structure.” It is well written and easy to understand. A worthwhile read for those have interest in this subject matter.
Just a Bunch of Crazy Ideas
There has never been a more accurately or honestly titled book than that of Just a Bunch of Crazy Ideas. From kitty litter and calories to space exploration and the stock market, Ponnapalli ponders whatever crosses his mind in search of a solution, and those solutions run the gamut from surprisingly simple to mindbogglingly unfeasible.
I must admit, there is a proactiveness and ingenuity to Ponnapalli that is really engaging. I appreciate anyone who sees a problem and, instead of simply accepting it or bemoaning the unfairness of it all, tackles it head-on with gusto. His enthusiasm for each topic is obvious, and his willingness to appear silly or to be criticized is well-tempered by his overwhelming positivity. If you can imagine a melange of straightforward outside-the-box thinking, you’ve got an idea of Mr. Ponnapalli’s style.
He pulls from his personal experiences — including an ongoing struggle with weight management and a harrowing accident while hiking — as well as his physics and IT background in order to examine problems both trivial and crucial.
Yes, some of these ideas are pretty crazy. We certainly differ in our opinions on where the new Star Trek film should head, for example. And I don’t know about the feasibility of his building-cum-stepping-stones approach to the space elevator — for instance, where could we build it that could offer both the necessary land and the population to make it a viable workspace? — but I did experiment with both of his proposed revisions to chess with great results. The book is a bit of a mixed bag.
As a handbook of solutions to major and minor problems, it falters a bit, but as a conversation sparker, Just a Bunch of Crazy Ideas is a success.