In “How an 18th-Century Philosopher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis,” Alison Gopnik explores fascinating links among Hume’s “bundle of perceptions” theory of self-identity, the European Enlightenment, Buddha, Tibetan monks, Siamese kings, Jesuit missionaries … and her own midlife crisis.
Stan Persky’s book review of Barry Dainton’s Self: Philosophy in Transit is an extended, entertaining, and instructive grand tour of many ideas about the self, that remarkable ability humans have “to sleepily glance at the bathroom mirror in the morning, and not only recognize ourselves, but also reflectively note, ‘Hmm, I don’t like myself very much these days. I wonder what I can do to change who and/or what I am.’” Thought experiments like the “ultimate simulation simulation machine” and “teleportation” make an appearance along the way.
In “The Disremembered” Charles Leadbeater claims that “[p]hilosophy is not of much practical use with most illnesses but in the case of dementia it provides insights about selfhood and identity that can help us make sense of the condition and our own reactions to it.” There are two broad philosophical explanations of self-identity. There is the mind-based or memory-based explanation of Descartes and Locke. But when mind and memory fade, so does self-identity. But there is another philosophical tradition that can help: “philosophers in this tradition contend that who we are depends not simply on our self-reflective ability to marshal our memories but, crucially, on our relationships with other people and how we are embedded in the world around us.” In other words, beware of being a memory snob.
Does the supreme being deceive? “Until the Scientific Revolution, God’s power included a licence to deceive. How did science make an honest man of Him?” Dallas Dennery explains that “the commitment of the Scientific Revolution to rational causes for all events, even exceptional or seemingly anomalous ones, robbed God of the power to deceive.” Interesting discussion of differences between traditional conceptions of God and the God of the philosophers.
Why can’t the world’s greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness? First-rate review of competing ideas about what makes human beings more than complex robots. “It would be poetic – albeit deeply frustrating – were it ultimately to prove that the one thing the human mind is incapable of comprehending is itself. An answer must be out there somewhere. And finding it matters: indeed, one could argue that nothing else could ever matter more – since anything at all that matters, in life, only does so as a consequence of its impact on conscious brains. Yet there’s no reason to assume that our brains will be adequate vessels for the voyage towards that answer. Nor that, were we to stumble on a solution to the Hard Problem, on some distant shore where neuroscience meets philosophy, we would even recognise that we’d found it.” Highly recommended. Clear, thorough.
Jim Holt’s review of two books that both claim, contrary to a very strong trend in contemporary philosophy and science, that there is a self.
Did Descartes doom Terri Schiavo? “The plea … to prolong Ms. Schiavo’s feeding, against the wishes of her husband or what courts determined to be her own expressed inclinations, echoed the teachings of Aristotle, who considered existence itself to be inviolable. On the other side, the argument that Ms. Schiavo’s life could be judged as not worth living echoed Descartes, the Enlightenment philosopher who defined human life not as biological existence – which might be an inviolable gift from God – but as consciousness, about which people can make judgments.”
Tim Crane explains what metaphysics is about. “It’s abstract and not everyone’s cup of tea but, in many ways, inescapable. Cambridge University philosopher Tim Crane introduces the best books on metaphysics.”
Talk with me. “Western philosophy has its origins in conversation, in face-to-face discussions about reality, our place in the cosmos, and how we should live. It began with a sense of mystery, wonder, and confusion, and the powerful desire to get beyond mere appearances to find truth or, if not that, at least some kind of wisdom or balance. Socrates started the conversation about philosophical conversation. … The point of philosophy is not to have a range of facts at your disposal, though that might be useful … rather, it is to develop the skills and sensitivity to be able to argue about some of the most significant questions we can ask ourselves, questions about reality and appearance, life and death, god and society. As Plato’s Socrates tells us, ‘These are not trivial questions we are discussing here, we are discussing how to live.'”
What it means to lead a good life. A. C. Grayling’s review of James Miller’s Examined Lives. “His conclusion is a negative one: the combination of wisdom, self-understanding, and self-possession that Socrates’s successors took to be the gold standard for the philosophical life proved impossible for most of them to attain, and, in some cases, what they preached and what they practised fell widely apart.” Sarah Bakewell’s review in New York Times.