Category Archives: reading

How to Argue

I’m currently reading a slim book, “A Rulebook for Arguments” by Anthony Weston and have found the advice in it to be fascinating and uniquely suited to this election season.

Some people love to argue, even if they don’t know how. Other people hate to argue, no matter what. Then there’s others who genuinely want to know the truth and engaging in arguments with people is the way to go about it. I’d like to think I’m on of these people, but I know my own prejudices get in my way sometimes. It’s human nature to want to be right and to feel defensive whenever someone approaches you with a different opinion.

But arguments are not necessarily bad and do not have to be painful. One piece of advice from the book is to “consider counterfactuals”. Many of us argue by using examples and generalizations. We think that when we’ve found a few examples that prove our point, we must be right, but we refuse to consider any examples that oppose our conclusions. Your argument will be stronger if you consider all the ways in which your argument may be wrong and can find an alternative explanation for those examples that contradict your own. Or, you may even (gasp!) change your mind!

Human knowledge and reasoning is limited, but you can get closer to truth and be more sure of your beliefs by arguing effectively.

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The Essential Plotinus

Plotinus was a neo-Platonic philosopher during the Roman Empire (born 204/5 CE). His works are extremely important in developing the history of Platonic philosophy. Of course, Plato inspired Plotinus and inspired works by Christianity, and you can see Plato very clearly in Plotinus and Christianity.

For instance, the idea of a perfect unified God looks remarkably like the Plotinus’ concept of the One. A perfect being that is beyond being in some ways, a being greater than that which can be imagined. Sound familiar? The Christian God is usually portrayed as absolutely unified, perfect, transcendent, so far beyond and above any human endeavor that it is impossible to even consider with our mere human brains.

Plotinus’ writings were rather obtuse. I’m not sure if he was being intentionally difficult or if he was trying to really go further than Plato in getting deeper into what these transcendent forms can be. Plato is relatively easy to read (at least most of his dialogues) while Plotinus is not. However, if Plotinus is trying to add something to Plato, I can understand why his writing is difficult to understand because how can you add to what Plato said? It has often been said that all philosophy is a footnote to Plato.

One thing that struck me with Plotinus and connects with Plato and with Stoicism is the idea that the purpose of being human is simply to contemplate, to think, to use your reason. These philosophers believe that what sets us apart from animals is that we have reason and can go beyond our instinct. This is what truly sets us apart and so what makes us a better human being is to live a life of reason and rationality.

While many people may agree with this if it is clarified, I am not sure that people consciously think about it (ironically). It is difficult to imagine a person who simply does not think throughout their day, but how many people do you know who seem to merely go through life by following their urges. I’m hungry, so I’ll eat. I’m thirsty so I’ll drink, etc. After you get home from work, you just want to “veg out” so you simply watch TV or play on social media. How often do we truly exercise our mind and try to expand our horizons?

Perhaps a way to start would be to read some Plotinus.

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On Bullshit

I have been dealing with a lot of bullshit lately, which explains why I have not posted here in quite some time. Both personally and professionally I have been rather pressed for time and while I have continued to read, I have not had the ability to post here as much as I would like to.

However, I am finishing up my Master’s program here in the next few months, and I am trying to commit to writing as much as possible about things I care about, notably books. Additionally, I have recently become a father and so my reading has taken on a slightly different tone. I am trying to read with an eye towards the future education of my child and so I want to ensure that I am as prepared as possible and that I can prepare my child as well as possible for their life.

With this in mind, I recently finished “On Bullshit” a slim work by Harry Frankfurt examining the nature of bullshit and how it differs from outright lying. I don’t want to give the whole work away (seriously a very slim work) but bullshit differs from outright lies in a few important ways and while we may all think ourselves immune to bullshit, we all too easily succumb to bullshit at work, at home, listening to the radio, etc. Philosophy offers a good antidote to bullshit (I think) and so I will endeavor to continue to study philosophy for my own sake and for the sake of my child. I would like her to call me on my bullshit as well.

I am currently reading Seneca’s “Letters from a Stoic” and hope to post about that before too long.

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Why I Am Not A Christian

Bertrand Russell was an eminent philosopher in his day and is still renowned. He was an avowed atheist and ran into his share of trouble with his opinions. I believe that many of my own friends were somewhat taken aback upon finding out I was reading a book that so openly professed to be about why someone would not be a Christian. The thought seemed somewhat unconscionable. Perhaps there was a fear that by reading this book I would suddenly profess atheism, rather like after reading Animal Liberation by Peter Singer, I decided to finally commit to being a vegetarian. Fortunately, I am not so easily swayed. I admit to being fascinated by Russell and have found his other works to be somewhat profound, and altogether brilliant. I also cannot fault him for his beliefs (or lack thereof) and I can sympathize with his arguments against Christianity even if I cannot follow him to the edge.

This work is more properly an anthology, a collection of essays about religion and other related topics, as the subtitle will tell you. His main essay, “Why I Am Not A Christian” is certainly eye-grabbing and an important work, but his other essays were also important and meaningful. He focused especially on the subjects of ethics, specifically sexual ethics, and on the meaning and value of a scientific outlook on life. I do not believe that Russell was out to destroy religion. He mentioned that he could respect people who could argue wholeheartedly for their religion and had reasonable beliefs. What he could not stand was dogmatism and fanaticism. In such a polarized world as we live in today, with religious fanaticism growing across the world and ranging from Buddhists to Christians to Muslims, it is hard to disagree with Russell that dogma and a rigid adherence to orthodoxy is a pernicious influence on our world.

I find his obsession (perhaps too strong a word) with sexual ethics to be somewhat less agreeable, but more likely this is a result of my own bias. I have issues with some people’s ethics, but sexual ethics is not a version that I have strong feelings about. Perhaps I have been conditioned, as Russell would say, to think that anything related to sex is “dirty” or “sinful” and so I subconsciously repress any thought I have on sexual morality, but I feel that there are more basic fields of ethics we should be concerned with.

I do not want to give away too much of the book, although I skipped the appendix on why Russell was not allowed to teach at the College of the City of New York, mostly because I am uninterested in biography, but I will say that this is a worthwhile read and should have a place on most people’s bookshelves.

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A World Lit Only By Fire

William Manchester’s work on the late medieval period and early Renaissance is a colorful and lively description of the roughly 400 years that he covers. I disagreed with some of the interpretations that Manchester makes, but most of his facts are quite right in my opinion. I was actually quite pleased with Manchester’s descriptions of some of the characters. Particularly with his interpretation of Machiavelli.

Manchester realized that his critics have smeared Machiavelli to a large degree over the past few centuries. His work, “The Prince”, has been mischaracterized and used as a reason for people to justify terrible atrocities by states. Manchester, fortunately, has read more than just “Il Principe” by Machiavelli and understands that his other works show him as a fierce republican who lamented the downfall of the Florentine Republic. Manchester goes on to describe the escapades of the various Borgia and Medici popes with some glee, in my opinion.

While the sexual debauchery of the Renaissance popes makes for good reading, it is not the most important facet of the time period or of the papacy in general. The Catholic Church has and will continue to do shameful things. We also need to remember the good. The beautiful artwork, intellectual achievements, and charitable works done by the Church, in my opinion, far outweigh the terrible things that have been done. Let us also remember, and Manchester does mention this, that Protestants are guilty of their own set of crimes. No man, or institution, is completely blameless. Manchester eventually leaves this unpleasantness behind and begins a long discussion, practically a small biography, of Ferdinand Magellan.

At first I was slightly confused. This seemed an odd way to end the work and Manchester spent an inordinate amount of time and space on Magellan. However, as Manchester wrote in his introduction, the project started as a book solely on Magellan and morphed into the larger work. Furthermore, Manchester implies that the ‘world lit only by fire’ only passes after Magellan proves the world is a sphere, rather than being flat. Also, I did not know much about Magellan and his travels before, so I was pleased to learn more about his travels even as I found the subject strange within the context of the larger work.

Manchester has written a decent book that is eminently readable and is perfect for the layman. Scholars or specialists looking for more detail will be disappointed, but this should not stop us from lauding the triumph that Manchester achieves.

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Cat’s Cradle

Science fiction and modern literature owes a huge debt to Kurt Vonnegut. I have written about one of his works earlier, “so The Sirens of Titan”. “Cat’s Cradle” was actually his master’s thesis at the University of Chicago. If anyone would be interested in finding out more about the legacy of the strangeness of the students at that school, read this work and keep in mind that Vonnegut earned his master’s in anthropology, not creative writing.

For this work, I actually sat down in a bookstore with a dozen or so Vonnegut books that I had not read before. One of the reasons I was attracted to this book was that it was his master’s thesis. Having gone through the process of writing a thesis, I felt somewhat compelled to see what Vonnegut had made of the process. Obviously, Vonnegut’s work was rather more brilliant than my own feeble attempt to write a thesis. Nevertheless, Vonnegut’s work is a wickedly satirical work that will leave you thoughtful. The novel is basically about the inventor of the atomic bomb, the fictional inventor anyway.

The protagonist is trying to write a fictional biography of the brilliant Felix Hoenikker, a rather strange man who was obsessed with working on whatever was in front of him at the time. He neglected his family, his friends, his work associates, all for the sake of research. Newt, Felix’s son, related the story that once Felix stopped working on the atomic bomb to study turtles. He wanted to know what their spines did when they withdrew their head into their shell. Clearly, this man is brilliant and curious, but lacks any ability to prioritize. The daughter, Angela, takes care of the family and does everything to keep the house running because Felix’s wife died while giving birth to Newt. We do not know if Felix even really noticed the death of his wife.

Anyway, our narrator, John or Jonah, represents humanity and goes on a quest to find out what happened on the day the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

First, this search leads him to New York, where Jonah interviews some of the locals who knew Felix and Felix’s coworkers. In New York, Jonah is told a story that Felix is working on a compound known as ice-9, which would turn any liquid to ice, instantly. The problem is that it will keep on freezing liquids forever. So, one crystal of ice-9 dropped in the ocean will freeze all water on earth. Jonah is told this as a hypothetical to demonstrate the brilliance of Felix. Unbeknownst to Felix’s old supervisor, Felix did create ice-9 and distribute it to his children before he died.

Jonah then ends up in San Lorenzo, a fictional Caribbean island that is absolutely worthless. He travels there to interview Frank, another of Felix’s sons, who has become an adviser to the President of San Lorenzo. After some misadventures in the Republic of San Lorenzo, Jonah becomes acquaintances with the President of San Lorenzo, who is holding a terrible secret, a vial of ice-9. Of course, ice-9 is so horrifying because it has the capability of freezing all water on Earth. Further, ice-9 is deadly by itself. One small crystal on your lips and all the water in your body will freeze. Obviously, this compound must not be released.

But, this being a Vonnegut novel, through a seemingly random series of events the ice-9 is released. I leave the aftermath for the curious reader. Vonnegut is fascinating for his use of satire, wicked humor, and his exposition of human nature. Sometimes I feel that Vonnegut knows us better than we know ourselves. He is dangerous to read. We could very easily begin to doubt ourselves and our wisdom, Vonnegut sees right through all of our supposed intellect and safeguards and cuts right through to the heart of the matter. This is one of the reasons to read Vonnegut. We are his characters or at least we know some of his characters in our life. You will be pleased after reading Vonnegut. The reasons for your pleasure may be entirely different than someone else though. Enjoy it. These types of books are rare.

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History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Volume 1

Edward Gibbon’s masterpiece is a classic in the field of history. I have managed to come across and eight volume unabridged set of this work, and will treat each volume as its own work, worthy of some of my time and energy. I must admit that I find myself rather ignorant of Roman history, having never taken a proper class on the subject and never finding the time period all that interesting anyway. Gibbon, however, has piqued my interest.

Initially I decided to read Gibbon because I enjoy history and like to be familiar with classic works coupled with a desire to learn more about the birth of western civilization. Indeed, I always felt woefully unprepared to answer even basic questions about Rome, its people, culture, history, influence, or language. While Gibbon is of course, not detailing the rise, but the fall of Rome, it is my hope and belief that I will come to appreciate the scale and importance of Roman history on the modern world. Furthermore, rather than find Gibbon turgid and dull, I have discovered his prose to be altogether enjoyable and fluid. I do love language so and very easily become bored with poor writing. (Woe to me if I were to discover that my own writing is as poor as I sometimes think!) I am very nearly convinced that the most fascinating subject can quickly lose my interest with constipated writing. In a similar fashion, a subject matter I was sure to disdain continues to hold my interest when the author writes freely and with clever ability. This is why I often find myself very quickly tired of reading popular fiction. Tom Clancy does not have the same appeal he once had for me, I’m afraid. Once you have experience stellar writing, it is very difficult to go back to poor or even mediocre writing.  And so, with cheerful abandon, I have begun to lose myself in Gibbon.

Volume 1 of his work deals with the Roman Empire at its height around 100 CE and continues until just before the reign of Constantine. Gibbon is quite remarkable for a number of reasons. He is fully engaged with the ancient literature and with all of the contemporary writings on Rome. He analyzes all of these works in the light of reason and is perfectly willing to disagree with an author if he feels that the evidence does not substantiate their claim. This is an admirable trait in anyone, but it seemed to be more rare in Gibbon’s age.

Unfortunately, I feel that even Gibbon’s skepticism may be giving way to laziness and a lack of intellectual rigor on the part of the public. I know too many people who blindly accept what they read or hear without much critical thought. In our current age, where more information is more easily accessed than at any other time in history, there should be no reason why a person’s claims cannot be validated. Of course, part of the problem is that there is so much information available that we can become enervated by the sheer amount of data. Anymore, people need to be able to sift through the vast amounts of data and decipher what has meaning and what needs to be discarded. Technology has made research easier and more difficult at the same time. In addition, the ease of online research has made the hard work of looking through physical texts much less attractive. There was a scientific study done a few years ago that found that with the widespread use of the Internet for research, the breadth of sources cited in new works had actually decreased! Our lives and our research is more beholden to search algorithms than we may care to admit.

Perhaps we all need to be more like Gibbon, reading with both breadth and depth of the literature we can find available on any given subject before coming to a rational decision. Too often we find ourselves reading or hearing a snippet of information and making rash assumptions about whatever topic the information was concerning. Too often we allow our emotions get the better of us and we quickly jump to opinions not grounded in facts or reason. Then, we stubbornly cling to those beliefs as though our very being depended on us being right! What folly! We could all learn from Gibbon.

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