Time Travel: A History by James Gleick

There are two principal topics in this book: time travel and time. Since time travel is fiction, the history of time travel presented in the book is the history of ideas about time travel, mostly ideas expressed in novels like H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, short stories like Robert Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps” and movies like The Terminator. Time travel can be fun to think about, and ideas about time travel are suggestive of what people have thought about time, but I quickly lost interest in the topic. So I ended up skimming those sections of the book.

On the other hand, Gleick’s discussion of time itself was worth reading. He covers both physics and philosophy, and does an excellent job explaining complex, competing ideas about time. For example:

You can say Einstein discovered that the universe is a four-dimensional space-time continuum. But it’s better to say, more modestly, Einstein discovered that we can describe the universe as a four-dimensional space-time continuum and that such a model enables physicists to calculate almost everything, with astounding exactitude, in certain limited domains. Call it space-time for the convenience of reasoning….

You can say the equations of physics make no distinction between past and future, between forward and backward in time. But if you do, you are averting your gaze from the phenomena dearest to our hearts. You leave for another day or another department the puzzles of evolution, memory, consciousness, life itself. Elementary processes may be reversible; complex processes are not. In the world of things, time’s arrow is always flying.

It’s an interesting question whether the calculations of the physicists are so accurate because the universe really is a four-dimensional space-time continuum. And is the passage of time some kind of illusion, like many physicists believe? Gleick leans toward time being quite real and physicists taking their models a bit too seriously. I think this would have been a better book if he spent more time on the physics and philosophy and less time on the fiction.

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Hegel: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Singer

Peter Singer is a famous philosopher (as famous as philosophers can be these days) known for his very strong utilitarian views:

He is known especially for his work on the ethics of our treatment of animals, for his controversial critique of the sanctity of life doctrine in bioethics, and for his writings on the obligations of the affluent to aid those living in extreme poverty.  

But he has also written on German philosophy. In 1983, he published Hegel, a brief introduction to the highly influential 19th century philosopher. Hegel is now part of Oxford University Press’s colorful series of “Very Short Introductions”.

Hegel (the philosopher, not the book) wrote a lot and is notoriously hard to understand. That’s one reason so many academics have written about him. Singer does an excellent job. He devotes chapters to four of Hegel’s works (Lectures on the Philosophy of History; Philosophy of Right; The Phenomenology of Mind; and Science of Logic), the principal topics of which are history, freedom, mind and rationality. But since Hegel is what is known as a “systematic” thinker, none of the topics stand alone.

I came away from Hegel with what feels like a better understanding of his thought, although not good enough to explain it to anyone. All I’ll say is that Hegel seems to have viewed Geist (translated as either “mind” or “spirit”) as a real but abstract entity that has progressed through history, advancing toward more and more freedom, culminating in total rationality (the “Absolute”). Singer concludes that Hegel may have been a panentheist:

The term comes from Greek words meaning “all in God”; it describes the view that everything in the universe is part of God, but – and here it differs from pantheism – God is more than the universe, because he is the whole, and the whole is greater than the sum of all its parts. Just as a person is more than all the cells that make up his or her body – although the person is nothing separate from the body – so on this view God is more than all the parts of the universe, but not separate from it. Equally, just as no single cells amount to a person, so no individual parts of the universe amount to God. 

[This] interpretation is plausible, not only because it is consistent with what Hegel says specifically about God, but also because it makes sense of the dominant theme of his philosophy. If God is the absolute idea, the ultimate reality of the universe, the whole of its parts, we can understand why the absolute idea must manifest itself in the world, and there progress to self-comprehension. God needs the universe in the same way a person needs a body.

… Hegel sees God not as eternal and immutable, but as an essence that needs to manifest itself in the world, and, having made itself manifest, to perfect the world in order to be perfect itself…. It is a vision that places immense weight on the necessity of progress: for the onward movement of history is the path God must take to achieve perfection. Therein may lie the secret of the immense influence that Hegel, for all his outward conservatism, has had on radical and revolutionary thinkers [note: Karl Marx being the most obvious instance].

Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism by Paul Boghossian

Boghossian is a professor of philosophy at New York University. This is a short, well-argued book, although its title is misleading. Its subject is doubt about knowledge or the dismissal of knowledge. The idea that anyone is afraid of knowledge is only mentioned once on the next to last page.

Boghossian’s main target is constructivism: the idea that “knowledge is constructed by societies in ways that reflect their contingent social needs and interests”. He points out that constructivism comes in different varieties. The benign version simply notes that we gather knowledge about topics we’re interested in or need to investigate. He is concerned with versions that lead people, often academics, to say that no group’s or culture’s beliefs are more valid or accurate than anyone else’s. From the epilogue:

There look to be severe objections to each and every version of constructivism about knowledge that we have examined. A constructivism about truth is incoherent. A constructivism about justification is scarcely any better. And there seem to be decisive objections to the idea that we cannot explain belief through epistemic reasons alone.

On the positive side, we failed to find any good arguments for constructivist views…. At its best, … social constructivist thought exposes the contingency of those of our social practices which we had wrongly come to regard as naturally mandated. It does so by relying on the standard canons of good scientific reasoning. It goes astray when it aspires to become a general theory of truth or knowledge. The difficulty lies in understanding why such generalized applications of social construction have come to tempt so many.

He believes that the appeal of constructivism is mainly political, although misguided:

Constructivist views of knowledge are closely linked to such progressive movements as post-colonialism and multiculturalism because they supply the philosophical resources with which to protect oppressed cultures from charges of holding false or unjustified views. [But] if the powerful can’t criticize the oppressed, because the central epistemological categories are inexorably tied to particular perspectives, it also follows that the oppressed can’t criticize the powerful.

Apparently, Boghossian doesn’t recognize the appeal of oppressed groups being on an equal footing with the powerful (“your views are merely a matter of perspective and no more valid than ours”). He concludes:

The intuitive view is that there is a way things are that is independent of human opinion, and that we are capable of arriving at belief about how things are that is objectively reasonable, binding on anyone capable of appreciating the relevant evidence regardless of their social or cultural perspective. Difficult as these notions may be, it is a mistake to think that recent philosophy has uncovered powerful reasons for rejecting them.

Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America by Richard Rorty

This short book from 1998 by the philosopher Richard Rorty gained attention recently because of this passage:

… members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. …

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. … All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet [89-90].

Given our recent election, that sounds right in some respects. I’d make a few points, however. Democratic politicians have tried to increase wages for the working class and keep more jobs at home but have run into strong Republican opposition; it’s unlikely that 40 years of gains for various minorities (and for women) are unlikely to be wiped out any time soon; and the “strong man” we currently have isn’t actually strong, was rejected by most voters and is already highly unpopular. 

But the real focus of Rorty’s book is leftist thought in the 20th century. He draws a distinction between the “reformist” left and the “cultural” left. America’s left wing was dedicated to reform from the 19th century up until the 1960s.  Left-wing politicians, labor leaders, activists and intellectuals saw the United States as a land of promise. Rorty cites Walt Whitman and John Dewey as two proponents of this basically pro-American point of view. They were aware of many problems but believed those problems could be addressed through incremental reforms, eventually resulting in a country that lived up to its ideals. In Rorty’s words, they were dedicated to “achieving our country”. 

Rorty argues that the left lost its faith in America’s promise in reaction to the Vietnam War. Incremental reform was no longer enough. It was wasted effort, because America was too far gone. American culture needed to be remade. “The people” needed to take control in revolutionary fashion. Rorty says left-wing intellectuals began to focus on “the system” instead of fighting for specific reforms. In addition, too much emphasis was put on what’s now called “identity” politics:

To take pride in being black or gay is an entirely reasonable response to the sadistic humiliation to which one has been subjected. But insofar as this pride prevents someone from also taking pride in being an American citizen, from thinking of his or her country as capable of reform, or from being able to join with straights or whites in reformist initiatives, it is a political disaster. 

Rorty concludes that we should admit America’s faults but see ourselves as agents rather than spectators:

Our national character is still in the making. Few in 1897 would have predicted the Progressive Movement, the forty-hour work week, Women’s Suffrage, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement…. Nobody in 1997 can know that America will not, in the course of the next century, witness even greater moral progress.

Whitman and Dewey … wanted to put shared utopian dreams – dreams of an ideally decent and civilized society – in the place of knowledge of God’s Will, Moral Law, the Laws of History, or the Facts of Science. Their party, the party of hope, made twentieth-century America more than just an economic and military giant. Without the American Left, we might still be strong and brave, but nobody would have suggested that we were good. As long as we have a functioning political left, we still have a chance to achieve our country, to make it the country of Whitman’s and Dewey’s dreams.

I think that Rorty, spending his days in academia, over-emphasized the intellectual left-wing at the expense of the politicians and activists who continued to fight for reform in the late 20th century and continue fighting today. But the book was still worth reading for its analysis of Whitman’s and Dewey’s political ideals and the distinction Rorty draws between the reformist and the cultural left.

The Subject’s Point of View by Katalin Farkas

In a nutshell, Professor Farkas argues that meaning is in the head after all. That’s the “internalist” position that most academic philosophers have rejected in favor of a newer position called “externalism”. That’s the idea that, in Hilary Putnam’s well-known phrase, “meaning ain’t in the head”.

Putnam argued for his position by describing a thought experiment in which two guys named Oscar are exactly the same in every way and live on two Earth’s that seem to be the same in every way too. They both call the clear, tasteless liquid around them “water”, but it’s years before anyone on either planet has figured out what water is made of. The thing is that, without anyone knowing it yet, the water on Earth is H2O (as we now know) but on Twin Earth it’s XYZ (i.e. not H2O). The question is: “What do Oscar and his twin mean by the word “water”?” Putnam and the other externalists think that they mean different things when they each use that word. (You can read more about the thought experiment here.)

Farkas, on the other hand, thinks that the great 17th century philosopher René Descartes was basically right. Meaning is a psychological phenomenon. If Oscar and his twin on that other Earth have the exact same conscious thoughts about what they both call “water”, the word has the same meaning for both of them, regardless of what water’s (unknown) molecular composition happens to be. 

Here’s the last paragraph of the book:

I have defended a certain conception of the mental, one I regard as developing Descartes’s fundamental insight about the mind: that the mind is essentially revealed from the subject’s point of view. I have shown that this conception lies at the heart of contemporary internalist theories. I have considered an objection against the notion of internally individuated content [or meaning] and found it wanting. Hopefully, we can now give back the subject and her point of view the proper place they deserve.

I also accept the internalist position, which is probably the main reason I enjoyed the book. The author’s discussion of sense and reference was especially helpful, but it’s not a book for anyone unfamiliar with the topic.

At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell

The book’s full title is At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others. Strike the “apricot cocktails” and that pretty well sums it up.

Sarah Bakewell found some fame and fortune with her previous book How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. I read and enjoyed that one. As usually happens, it made me want to read some of the subject’s writings: the 16th century essays of Michel de Montaigne. 

At the Existentialist Café made me curious about the writings of some of its subjects, but less optimistic about enjoying or even making sense of what they had to say. Reading Bakewell’s descriptions, explanations and quotations of works by Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger and Sartre left me relatively clueless about what reading hundreds of pages of phenomenology or existentialism would be like.

In addition, except for Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir, I didn’t find the life stories or idiosyncrasies of these thinkers especially interesting, certainly not as interesting as Bakewell does.

The Metaphysics and Ethics of Relativism by Carol Rovane

I would have to read this book at least one more time in order to feel confident about summarizing the conclusions the author reaches. However, here’s my impression after reading it once. As I understand her aims, Carol Rovane wants to clearly explain what relativism is with respect to science and ethics, and then determine whether we should endorse relativism with respect to either of those domains.

She begins by criticizing what she calls “the prevailing, consensus view” of relativism, which she says relies on the idea of disagreement. This is the idea that relativism arises “with a certain kind of disagreement that is said to be, first of all, ‘irresoluble’ [i.e. unsolvable], but also, second, ‘irresoluble’ for the specific reason that both parties are right” [15-16]. Rovane prefers defining relativism in terms of alternatives, which may or may not involve disagreement, and which are themselves explainable in terms of “normative insularity”.

According to Rovane, relativists believe that some alternative views in science or ethics are cut off from other scientific or ethical views. Logic neither “mandates, licenses or prohibits” inferences between them, so two people can hold alternative views about science or ethics and logic has nothing to say about the alternatives [94]. It’s as if, metaphorically speaking, people can occupy different scientific or ethical worlds. Non-relativists, on the other hand, believe that all truth bearers are logically related, either directly or indirectly. My scientific views aren’t insulated from your scientific views, and your ethical views aren’t insulated from mine. We all occupy the same scientific world and the same ethical world.

Rovane goes so far as to label the non-relativist and relativist positions in terms of how many “worlds” they mandate. What she calls “unimundialism” is the non-relativistic view that there is only one world (in which there is no “normative insularity” between propositions in science or ethics). “Multimundialism” is the relativistic view that there are many worlds (in which there is “normative insularity” between some scientific or ethical propositions). 

I think the conclusion she reaches is that scientific theories apply to a single world, so it’s best not to think of science in unimundial or non-relativistic terms. Reality is one, so alternative scientific theories can’t be equally correct. But unlike scientists, who all study the same world, people grow up and live their daily lives in various social conditions. These social conditions help determine which behavior is morally correct for them. Rovane thinks it’s fair to say, therefore, metaphorically speaking, that people inhabit different ethical worlds depending on their particular social conditions. Hence, multimundialism or relativism is an acceptable view with respect to ethics.

To help justify her relativistic conclusion regarding ethics, Rovane asks us to imagine two women. One woman was brought up in Europe or America and accepts the ethical importance of autonomy, i.e. every individual’s right to make their way in the world according to their own needs and desires while respecting the needs and desires of other people. The other woman was brought up in a village in India and sincerely believes she has an ethical obligation to obey her parents, even if it means giving up her right to pursue her own needs and desires.  Rovane argues that these two women live in very different ethical worlds. Their societies are so different when it comes to ethical issues that each woman is acting ethically, even though they are following very different paths and choosing to obey very different ethical principles.