A Note to Our Gracious Readers

The WordPress organization says 97 people follow this blog — although some may have merely been followers in the past, since it isn’t clear that ex-followers disappear from the statistics.

If you’re interested in keeping up with my book summaries, you’ll have to migrate to the other blog I maintain: Whereof One Can Speak. New summaries will only appear there. That blog contains other kinds of posts, however, often on political topics, so proceed at your own risk.

It probably doesn’t matter, but I’ve also moved copies of all the Ingenious Device posts to Whereof One Can Speak.

Thanks for visiting.

The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq

The English translation of Houellebecq’s best-known novel was published 20 years ago. It was widely-discussed, even controversial. I can see why.

It’s the story of two French step-brothers, Michel and Bruno, from their school years into adulthood. Michel is brilliant and becomes an important molecular biologist. But he is extremely emotionally detached. Bruno is bullied in school and very self-conscious. He becomes a writer and is mostly concerned with sex.

I’d say the theme of the novel is the decline of the human race. It includes a lot of science and a lot of explicit sex. Michel and Bruno don’t live happily ever after. Neither does humanity. Yet the story ends on what seems to be a positive development. Houellebecq is suggesting that things can only get better from here.

Submission: A Novel by Michel Houellebecq

Houellebecq is one of France’s leading novelists, maybe their leading novelist. He is known for being controversial. This is the only book of his I’ve read. It made me want to read another.

The story is told from the point of view of a middle-aged professor of literature at the Sorbonne. He is relatively well-known in academic circles, but feels his career is at a dead end. He has frequent affairs with his female students. He is especially attached to one young woman, but otherwise feels lonely.

The novel is set in the near future. What may have made it controversial is that Houellebecq imagines that a new political party is having great success in France. It’s the Muslim Brotherhood. An election is coming and it looks as if they may win. Nobody knows what will happen. The professor isn’t really interested in politics, but he’s nervous about his future in a country that appears to be rapidly changing.

The arabic word islam means “submission” or “submission to the will of God”. I suppose Submission is satire, and it’s funny at times, but it addresses serious themes. I only wish I had understood more of the cultural references. The author refers to lots of French historical and literary figures, as well as current politicians and pundits. If I’d known who he was talking about, I’d have appreciated more of the jokes.

Truth, Politics, Morality: Pragmatism and Deliberation by Cheryl Misak

Cheryl Misak is an expert on America’s pragmatist philosophers (Charles Peirce, William James, John Dewey, et al.) and a practicing pragmatist herself. This book grew out of her doctoral thesis. It argues that the philosophical position known as pragmatism best explains how the idea of truth applies to ethical judgments. This is a “cognitivist” position in ethics, as opposed to the “non-cognitivist” view that ethical statements merely express feelings or preferences and should never be considered true or false (non-cognitivists think that saying something like “Generosity is more ethical than greed” is like saying “I prefer generosity to greed and I want you to feel the same way”).

On the face of it, it isn’t obvious that ethical statements can be true or false. Most of us think of truth as correspondence to reality (this is the “correspondence theory”). “The cat is on the mat” is true if and only the cat really is on the mat. But there doesn’t seem to be anything real for ethical statements to correspond to. How can they be true (or false)?

However, there is more to truth than correspondence. After all, what do true statements of arithmetic correspond to? And how about logical statements like “it is not the case that P and not P”? Pragmatists like Professor Misak don’t accept correspondence as the basis for truth. Instead, they view truth in terms of successful inquiry:

It is not that a true belief is one which will fit the evidence and which will measure up to the standards of inquiry as we now now know them. Rather, a true belief is one which would fit with the evidence and which would measure up to the standards of inquiry were inquiry to be pursued so far that no recalcitrant experience and no revisions in the standards of inquiry would be called for. Only then will pragmatism preserve the kind of objectivity that might suffice to attract those philosophers and inquirers who insist that truth is more than what we happen to think correct [68].

The basic idea here is that people (which people depends on the case) can try to figure out if a statement is true, whatever kind of statement it is, using appropriate methods (direct experience, scientific research, philosophical discussion, etc.) and if it looks like they wouldn’t be able to proceed any further in their inquiry, without it being a complete waste of time, the statement is true.

It’s easy to see how this approach can be applied to simple factual statements like “the cat is on the mat”, but also to statements of mathematics and logic, as well as judgments of value, such as deciding which is the most practical course of action in a given case, the ethical thing to do or the best economic policy to adopt. What isn’t easy is to know when all reasonable avenues of inquiry have been exhausted, so that no further inquiry would make a difference.

Misak discusses many issues that her position raises, and many possible objections. I found her explanations and arguments to be quite convincing. I think her hopes for the book are fulfilled:

What I hope to have shown is that there are some good reasons for thinking that we can make assertions or have genuine beliefs about what is right and wrong, just and unjust, cruel and kind; that we can inquire about the correctness of those beliefs; that our moral deliberations aim at the truth. And I hope to have shown that if we are to make sense of this, we must conduct ourselves via democratic principles — ones which encourage tolerance, openness and understanding the experiences of others [155].

If we want to answer questions in the most effective way, and have good  reasons for our answers, we need to look at issues from different perspectives. That is how the pragmatists believe we should search for truth.

I want to mention one other thing. It’s common to think that the best way to find out what is true is to confront reality head on. Is the cat truly on the mat? Look at it. Make sure other people see it. Verify that it’s a cat — not a mouse — and that underneath it is a mat. Does the cat purr? Will it run away if you bother it?

Reading this book, I wondered what kind of reality can be confronted when deciding if a statement of ethics is true. It’s harder to say what the reality would be to make true a statement like “generosity is generally more ethical than greed”. Isn’t that a statement about how the world should be, how people should behave, and not how the world is (or how some mystical, supernatural realm of ethics is)? Misak’s answer is that if we try to figure out whether an ethical statement is true, we eventually get to a point where we can’t think otherwise. We end up being confronted with the brute reality of what our ethical beliefs are in the given situation. We will eventually say to ourselves “that’s simply right, it’s as simple as that” or “that’s just wrong, and there are no two ways about it”. I don’t recall hearing anyone give that answer before. It’s worth thinking about.

Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson

Stanley Kubrick is my favorite director and 2001: A Space Odyssey is my favorite movie. That was reason enough to read this detailed account of its creation. The book was interesting enough to keep reading, but it wasn’t really worthwhile. I already knew Kubrick was creative and intense. There were some interesting facts about ways the movie might have been different and why certain choices were made. The main thing I learned was how important Kubrick’s many collaborators were (it’s apparently true that it’s a “collaborative medium”). But there was also too much about Arthur C. Clarke, his personal life and the process of writing the novel that went with the movie. I also found the technical descriptions of various parts of the production hard to follow. What the book mainly did was make me want to watch 2001 again. Maybe I’ll see it somewhat differently now that I know more about the effort that went into making it. It might be dangerous if I see it too differently.

The Great Reversal: How America Gave Up On Free Markets by Thomas Philippon

Why do Americans pay more than Europeans or Asians for cellphone service that isn’t even as good as theirs? That’s a question Thomas Philippon, a professor of finance at New York University and an adviser to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, asked himself one day. He attempts to answer the question in this book. His answers aren’t encouraging.

Philippon says he will offer three main arguments:

One: Competition has declined in most sectors of the US economy. Measuring competition is easier said than done, for we can find only imperfect proxies. We will look at prices, profit rates, and market shares. None is perfect, but together they can form a convincing picture.

Two: The lack of competition is explained largely by policy choices, influenced by lobbying and campaign fiance contributions. We will look at the dollars spent by every US corporation over the past twenty years to lobby their regulators, their senators, their congressmen, and members of key committees, as well as to finance federal and state elections. We will show how these efforts distort free markets: … corporate lobbying and campaign finance contributions lead to barriers to entry and regulations that protect large incumbents, weaker antitrust enforcement, and weaker growth of small and medium-sized firms.

Three: The consequences of a lack of competition are lower wages, lower investment, lower productivity, lower growth, and more inequality. We will examine how the decline in competition across industries has effects that reach into the wallets and bank accounts of everyday Americans. We will also demonstrate why lower competition leads to less of the sort of thing that we traditionally associate with growing economies: investment, technological advancement, and rising wages [9].

The author explains that economists look at three main variables “to assess the degree of competition in an industry”:

…the degree of concentration (that is, whether there are lots of small firms or whether the industry is dominated by a few large firms); the profits that these firms are making, and the prices that customers pay….The bad kind [of concentration] occurs when incumbents in an industry are allowed to block the entry of competitors, to collude, or to merge for the primary purpose of increasing their power over market-wide pricing…[25].

In most US industries, market shares have become more concentrated and more persistent. Industry leaders are less likely to be challenged and replaced than they were twenty years ago. At the same tine, their profit margins have increased [60].

The Great Reversal is filled with data and references to journal articles, but the material is presented in digestible form (the more technical explanations are marked off from the main text). One result of all the data and all the related concepts is that the book is a kind of introduction to economics. I came away with a much better understanding of the work economists do when they look for patterns in all the buying and selling a society does.

I also came away convinced that things will only get worse — there will be less competition and more inequality — unless we reform our political culture. I already knew that American political campaigns are incredibly expensive compared to campaigns in Europe. But on average 50 times as expensive? I didn’t realize that the European Union now does a better job insuring competition than we do. As Sen. Elizabeth Warren emphasizes, we need big, structural change if we’re going to increase competition, reduce inequality and deal with the major challenge of global warming.

The book’s title, The Great Reversal, refers to the fact that the US economy used to work better for society as a whole. The data shows that it was mainly in the last twenty years that competition seriously declined. Can the reversal be reversed in the next twenty?

However, after spending “hundreds of hours researching and writing this book”, the author was surprised to realize “how fragile free markets really are”:

We take them for granted, but history demonstrates that they are more the exception than the rule. Free markets are supposed to discipline private companies, but today, many private companies have grown so dominant that the can get away with bad service, high prices, and deficient privacy safeguards. Only two decades ago, the United States was effectively the land of free markets and a leader in … antitrust policy. If America wants to lead once more in this realm, it must remember its own history and relearn the lessons it successfully taught the rest of the world [287-288].

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

This is a remarkable science fiction novel. It’s quite a story, quite a work of imagination.

What happens is that human beings have been screwing up the Earth to the point that it’s becoming uninhabitable. One response has been to try to create Earth-like conditions on planets in distant solar systems. It’s hoped that these planets will eventually become new homes for humanity.

The terraforming work on one such planet is sabotaged at the last moment. This leads to an enormous unintended consequence: some of the planet’s spiders rapidly evolve, becoming bigger, smarter and much more sociable than the spiders back on Earth.

Before the Earth becomes uninhabitable, giant spaceships are launched with thousands of people aboard. Most of the passengers are stored away as “cargo”, hibernating in an unconscious state, waiting to be resuscitated when their ships finally reach inhabitable worlds, many years in the future.

Throughout the book, the author switches back and forth between what’s happening to the spiders on their planet and what’s happening to the people in one of the spaceships. I felt closer to the people, but the author does a wonderful job explaining things from the perspective of the spiders. As you’d expect, the two species eventually meet.

Somebody is supposedly trying to turn Children of Time into a movie. It really deserves a TV series, possibly with multiple seasons. The author has also published a sequel, Children of Ruin. It’s probably remarkable too.

The American Pragmatists by Cheryl Misak

At least the internet doesn’t forget. I finished this book and had a question about the exact title. Right there on the first page of the search results appeared an entry from this very blog. It turns out I read this book in 2018. Who knew?

Let’s see if I agree with myself. (I see I left out a word. Now corrected.)

Well, I was concerned about trying to summarize this book today. I must have felt the same two years ago, since that earlier summary includes a lot of quotation. But I stand by every word (including the one I just added)!

I’ll simply add one thing.

Part of the author’s purpose was to counter the popular understanding among philosophers that pragmatism as a philosophical movement faded away in the 20th century under intense criticism, especially after the death of John Dewey in 1952. Misak shows it’s more accurate to say pragmatism was absorbed rather than replaced. Many of the leading philosophers in the last half of the 20th century (including former members of the Vienna Circle, as well as W. V. Quine, Wilfrid Sellars, Nelson Goodman, Hilary Putnam and Donald Davidson) argued for positions quite compatible with the early pragmatists, especially the views of Charles Sanders Pierce, even though these later philosophers rarely called themselves “pragmatists”. The same holds true for philosophers in this century. It’s the label that has mostly disappeared.

The American Pragmatists is worth reading, but repetitious at times. There are only so many points you can make about a concept like “truth”. But I want to learn more about two philosophers Misak thinks highly of: Clarence Irving Lewis and Hilary Putnam. I’ve got some of their books. I should open them — that’s what a pragmatist would do.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, Translated by Ken Liu

When I was a teenager, I read lots and lots of science fiction. I joined the Science Fiction Book Club early on and bought the magazines (Galaxy, Analog and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) as often as I could. But the only science fiction I can remember reading in the past forty years is William Gibson’s Neuromancer. So I’m surprised that I started reading The Three-Body Problem. The back cover’s extremely complimentary blurbs from The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and even Barack Obama helped get me started. The story was interesting enough and suspenseful enough to keep me going through 400 pages.

It all begins with China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Scientists and other intellectuals are being persecuted, even murdered. A young woman watches three Red Guards beat her father, a professor of physics, to death. The young woman, a physicist herself,  eventually joins a secret government project that’s looking into the possibility of extraterrestrial life. This project way out in China’s middle of nowhere leads to humanity’s first contact with aliens (unfortunately, it’s the aliens’ first contact with aliens too).

I kind of regret finishing the book. There are interesting parts, mostly the ones that delve into fundamental physics. A chapter involving the relationship between subatomic particles and multiple dimensions is terrific. There is a bizarre assault on a ship passing through the Panama Canal. It’s intriguing how the characters, both human and alien, react to the possibility of first contact. There are plenty of other parts that are tedious, however. Some of the characters are tiresome. Their motivations are hard to believe. Lengthy excursions into a complex computer game made me start skimming.

It was the suspense that kept me going. What will happen when first contact finally occurs? I thought I’d find out in the book’s concluding 25 pages. I didn’t realize the last 25 pages of this paperback edition are devoted to postscripts about writing and translating the book and a preview of the author’s forthcoming novel. The abrupt ending was disappointing.

Aristotle said you cannot properly judge a work of art by considering its parts in isolation. You have to judge it as a whole. If it’s a story, you have to finish it. On that basis, I don’t think The Three-Body Problem, although intriguing, lived up to its blurbs.

Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future by Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by R. J. Hollingdale

After reading Sue Prideaux’s biography of Nietzsche, I Am Dynamite!, I wanted to read something from the philosopher himself. I hadn’t read anything of his since On the Genealogy of Morality — or Moralsseven years ago. I wanted to understand better what was bothering the poor man. And how he thought people should live.

Beyond Good and Evil has nine parts. Each part is composed of aphorisms or sections, sometimes a page or two, sometimes a single paragraph. Overall, it was rough going. I often had no idea what he was complaining about (he mostly complains). There were also passages like this, the meaning of which seems clear at first:

Today, … when the herd animal alone obtains and bestows honours in Europe, when “equality of rights” could all too easily change into equality of wrongdoing: I mean into a general war on everything rare, strange, privileged, the higher man, the higher soul, the higher duty, the higher responsibility, creative fullness of power and mastery — today, being noble, wanting to be by oneself, the ability to be different, independence and the need for self-responsibility pertains to the concept “greatness”; and the philosopher will betray something of his ideal when he asserts: “He shall be the greatest who can be the most solitary, the most concealed, the most divergent, the man beyond good and evil, the master of his virtues, the superabundant of will; this shall be called greatness…. [sec. 212].

Nietzsche’s fundamental idea is that the most important fact about human beings is their will to power — their desire to control and create. He was convinced that Christian morality, the morality of “the herd”, with its ideas like “turning the other cheek” and “the meek shall inherit the Earth”, interferes with humanity’s will to power. In particular, it interferes with the will to power of those blessed with genius, the greatest among us. He was well aware of Goethe, Beethoven, Napoleon and Wagner, all towering figures in his opinion, but he apparently believed there would be more such tremendously accomplished figures if only everyday morality didn’t hold them back. In order to achieve greatness, a person must go beyond the standard ideas of good and evil. If one is to achieve greatness, the transvaluation (or reconsideration) of all values is necessary.

But what values should a genius live by? Is it necessary to ignore the Golden Rule? Sacrifice everything else to one’s art or projects? Ignore common courtesy? Trample other people however and whenever it feels right? After reading Nietzsche’s biography, two of his books and several summaries of his ideas, I still don’t know. I also don’t understand why he was so bothered by everyday morality. He seems to have taken the existence of common beliefs about good and evil as a personal affront.

He offers a clue when discussing what “a born, unavoidable psychologist and reader of souls” is confronted by:

The corruption, the ruination of higher human beings, of more strangely constituted souls is the rule: it is dreadful to always have such a rule before one’s eyes [sec. 269].

If anyone has ever been one, Nietzsche was a born psychologist. Perhaps he was speaking for himself in this passage. He must have viewed himself as “strangely constituted”. After he lost his mind, he suffered from extraordinary delusions of grandeur, describing his frequent contacts with the leading statesmen of Europe and sometimes referring to himself as God.

Scholars have determined that Nietzsche was not a German nationalist or an anti-semite. Some say the notion of the Übermensch was not central to his philosophy. So it was surprising to read some of his strongly-worded views. For example:

… that what is right for one cannot … by any means be right for another, that the demand for one morality for all is detrimental to precisely the higher men, in short that there exists an order of rank between man and man, consequently also between morality and morality [sec. 228].

Every elevation of the type man has hitherto been the work of an aristocratic society — and so it will always be: a society which believes in … orders of rank and differences of worth between man and man and needs slavery in some sense or other [257].

The noble caste was always in the beginning the barbarian caste: … they were more complete human beings (which, on every level, also means … “more complete beasts”) [257].

The essential thing in a good and healthy aristocracy is [that it] accepts with a good conscience the sacrifice of innumerable men who for its sake have to be suppressed and reduced to imperfect men, to slaves and instruments. Its fundamental faith must be that society should not exist for the sake of society but only as a foundation and scaffolding upon which a select species of being is able to raise itself .. to a higher existence [258].

One has to … resist all sentimental weakness: life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of the strange and weaker, suppression, severity, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and, at the least and mildest, exploitation… Exploitation … pertains to the essence of the living thing … it is a consequence of the intrinsic will to power [259].

There is master morality and slave morality … The noble type of man feels himself to be the determiner of values, he does not need to be approved of, he judges “what harms me is harmful in itself”, he knows himself to be that which … accords honour to things, he creates values [260].

A morality of the rulers [says] that one has duties only toward one’s equals; that towards beings of a lower rank, towards everything alien, one may act as one wishes or “as the heart dictates” and in any case “beyond good and evil” [260].

The grander, more manifold, more comprehensive life lives beyond the old morality; the “individual” stands there, reduced to his own law-giving, to his own arts and stratagems for self-preservation, self-enhancement, self-redemption [262].

Egoism pertains to the essence of the noble soul, I mean the immovable faith that to a being such as “we are” other beings have to be subordinate by their nature, and sacrifice themselves to us … “it is justice itself” [265].

Nietzsche’s ethical theory might be called “aristocratic egoism” — self-centered behavior for the natural aristocrats among us (not the aristocrats with hereditary titles); a reasonable amount of respect for other aristocrats; and everybody else knowing their place. Who knows how many impressionable readers have taken these ideas seriously enough to have acted on them? The man wasn’t joking when he wrote: “I am dynamite!”

In conclusion, the best thing I can say about Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil is that I no longer feel the need to understand its author.